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2018-01-21T16:21:24.879Z
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Developer Castle Pixel's affection for The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past is immediately and persistently evident in Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King. With sprawling dungeons, enjoyable puzzles, and intense boss battles that deliver new twists, it's a worthwhile adventure despite relying on the tried-and-true formula of Nintendo's classic series.

Blossom Tales puts you in control of Lily, a new knight serving the Kingdom of Blossom. Shortly after she's knighted, the king is put in a slumber by his brother, the evil wizard Crocus. As the new recruit, you venture to distinct regions of the world to find three key ingredients that can awaken the king.

While lacking in the design sophistication of Nintendo's enduring masterpiece, many of the trappings of A Link to the Past are used heavily throughout the adventure. You set out with just a sword, but later find items like a bow, a boomerang, and bombs. But just because the mechanics are familiar doesn't mean they aren't fun. Each of the four dungeons is long and diverse, giving ample enemy encounters, puzzles, and boss battles. Though all the dungeons are great, I love the fire-themed one the best. Battling through legions of flame monsters and a bullet-hell miniboss is a rush that is finely balanced with methodical, thought-provoking puzzles where you must track a path to activate all the tiles without stepping on any you already activated.

The action sequences only intensify as you work through this 10-to-15-hour adventure. My adrenaline began pumping as I ran along a narrow, falling walkway, avoiding projectiles from turrets on the wall and slashing at enemies in...

Smash Bros. is weird. Nintendo’s fighting mashup drew the masses in with the promise of seeing what would happen if Yoshi were to get really upset with Kirby. Hardcore fans developed a splinter scene, where ultra-competitive players stripped the game to its essence – no items, Final Destination only, thank you very much – squeezing every last drop of strategic gameplay from the cutesy title. The series has yet to come to the Nintendo Switch, and in that absence, Angry Mob Games has brought its platform fighter Brawlout over from Steam Early Access. It caters to the serious Smash fans, but without the charm, variety, or recognizable characters.

If you’ve played Smash, you have a solid idea of what to expect. After picking your character, you beat the snot out of your friends or A.I. opponents until they fly or fall outside the boundaries of the stage. The more damage you do, the farther they get knocked back by your attacks. You can choose between timed matches or play until you deplete a stock number of lives. That’s about it; aside from a single-player challenge tower where you fight your way through a variety of regular matches, you don’t have other options to explore. 

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Brawlout suffers from an overall lack of content, starting with its roster. When you start the game, you can choose between eight characters, including guests from Guacamelee and Hyper Light Drifter. They’re not outright clones,...

Sky Force Reloaded is a bit unusual in design. Grinding for levels has more to do with your progress than the skill of weaving through a sea of bullets. This may sound like a dreadful approach to a vertical-scrolling shooter, but Sky Force Reloaded succeeds in making almost every second matter – whether it’s victory over a challenging boss or defeat to a basic enemy. Your ship is continually evolving, gaining better weapons, shields, and even the addition of A.I.-controlled assistants. The degree to which the ship improves is significant – almost comically so – giving players the firepower to flawlessly complete levels they may have deemed impossible hours before. Developers Infinite Dreams and Crunching Koala created a power trip of leveling that just happens to occur within excellently designed shooter.

The gameplay sticks to the basic script of classics like Raiden and 1942, requiring players to do little more than hold down the fire button while weaving through fighters and bullets. It doesn’t offer a hardcore “bullet hell” experience, but varied enemies and nicely designed waves of action elevate this basic formula to deliver enthralling stages that conclude with wild boss battles. The controls are smooth, the visuals are clean, and flow of play changes to increase the intensity or give the player a needed breather. One level strips away your weapons entirely, almost making the action feel like a stealth game in which you veer away from threats rather than engage...

Crawl is a multiplayer experience that feels entirely new thanks to its ambiguous genre designation. It plays like a brawler, but rewards like a fighting game, and constantly forces you to change your playstyle. The arcade multiplayer experience borrows its style from old-school arcade games (it even flashes ‘insert coin’ instead of ‘press start’), but the actual mechanics are difficult to quickly sell to interested participants. It doesn’t take long to start beating up monsters with a sword, but to understand why (and who) you’re beating up takes more time. The learning curve is a detriment to the experience when you’re trying to invite others to join on your adventure, but if you and your group have the patience, Crawl offers an innovative multiplayer experience.

You and up to three friends (or A.I. characters) make your way through a dungeon as you simultaneously compete for the role of living hero. Whoever kills the hero gets to be the new hero, and that hand-off repeats as you crawl deeper and deeper into the dungeon. If you’re dead, you control the dungeon’s monsters. If you’re alive you try to keep it that way long enough to take on the dungeon’s final boss. You level up and get new equipment along the way, constantly moving between the world of the living and the dead. The setup is novel and forces you to constantly re-examine your role in the combat. It is equal parts rewarding, like when you have...

Tiny Metal’s simplified strategy and delightful tone scratch an itch that has been festering since Nintendo’s Advance Wars series reached a ceasefire in 2008.  Battalions of adorable tanks and warplanes engage in a series of turn-based encounters that seem like the opening salvos of an epic tactical war. Unfortunately, Tiny Metal’s action fails to evolve past the basics; its shallow strategy offers some cheap thrills, but its lack of depth is boring for battle-hardened tacticians.

Tiny Metal’s action starts off slow as you are introduced to your various units and the classic rock-paper-scissors gameplay that gives some classes an advantage over others. For example, tanks are strong against basic infantry while rocket launcher-wielding lancers will rip through those armored vehicles. Each unit’s strength is tied to its health, which creates a nice balance to the flow of battle. It also means if you can’t destroy an enemy in a single turn, you might, at least, be able to neuter its next attack. Fortunately, even weak units can still be useful in combat, because you can have them team up with other troops to attack a single foe. I found this especially helpful when taking down many of the heartier tanks and warplanes.

Tiny Metal’s tactics are easy to learn, and I never felt forced to adopt a specific strategy to progress. At the same time, I never felt like my back was up against a wall. Tiny Metal’s campaign is a breeze, largely because the enemy...

In the rhythm genre, how developers interact with the soundtrack can vary almost as much as the music itself. Floor Kids enables players to improvise dance moves alongside catchy DJ tracks to connect with the songs in unique ways. Players chart their own approaches to each song, performing routines on the fly like real breakdancers. Unfortunately, with each song consisting of the same basic formula, the experience becomes rote long before you reach the final venue - hardly the experience you want from a game about this exciting form of artistic expression.

Dancing through a song is as simple as tapping a face button to the beat of the track. Each button performs a different move depending your dancer's stance, while holding and rotating the joystick triggers freezes and spins respectively. The intuitive controls let you easily put together a combo of standing moves, perform a flip, then seamlessly hit the ground for some bottom-rock moves before doing a power spin and ending on a freeze pose. Chaining together combos is immediately enjoyable as your character fluidly transitions from one move into the next, and the improvisation aspect gives an experience unlike most traditional rhythm games.

You're graded on how on-rhythm your taps are, the originality of your moves, the fluidity of your combos, and more. This scoring system encourages you to chain together long combos of unique moves, but you eventually learn how to game the score system and develop a blueprint to get a high score. This means the improvisation that should feel fluid is mechanical as you work to get the score boosts for spins,...

The first season of Minecraft: Story Mode introduced an immediate and daunting conflict between main character Jesse and the Wither Storm – a massive beast that consumes all in its path. Unfortunately, that arc concluded halfway through the first season, and Telltale struggled to deliver a compelling antagonist throughout the following four episodes. With season two, Telltale finds a new intimidating villain in the all-powerful Admin. The Admin carries season two throughout its five-episode run, but those episodes still have uninteresting narrative detours, arbitrary choices, and stale gameplay.

Picking up shortly after the first season, the new story begins with Jesse running the happy village of Beacontown. The utopian feel doesn't last long; the Admin attacks the town, and after fending off the assault, Jesse and friends go on a mission to find the Admin's weakness and stop him once and for all. I love that the story finds an adversary for Jesse who is seemingly more unstoppable than the Wither Storm, while also adding a layer of personality the first-season beast lacked.

The core gameplay has you control Jesse by engaging in conversations between action sequences, cutscenes, and puzzles. Though this season does a good job of providing variety in its gameplay, I feel like I was simply being shepherded to the next conversation or quick-time event.

The second season also contains tedious moments like the first season where the game dumps you into a small open area and has you talk to people and look at points of interest until you trigger the correct element to progress the story. Thankfully, these are less frequent and more...

From grief to mental illness, Life is Strange has always made hardship the core of its experience. The finale of this prequel stays true to that notion, but it also brings a sense of satisfaction and a somber reminder of the original's impact. Deck Nine has done a wonderful job at calling back to the first game while also making you feel like you have agency over how Chloe evolves as her relationship with Rachel grows. The result is a roller coaster of a finale that's both touching and tragic, raising questions about what it means to be a good friend. The answers will be different for everyone, which is what makes this story matter  not only for what it adds to the Life is Strange canon, but also for what it reveals about its players.

Hell is Empty picks up where the last episode left off, showing the aftermath of the drama-filled Amber family dinner. Rachel gets some long-awaited answers about her father's past, while Chloe tries to be supportive. This episode is full of intensity, but the best parts are the tender moments between Chloe and Rachel, where you see how much this fast friendship has changed both of their lives. This finale makes you believe in their bond and root for their success as individuals and as a pair. In the original, we didn't know much about Rachel except for the few instances where Chloe spoke of her. Now I feel like I...

This is it, the final circle. Five players are left alive. Swinging around a corner into a tiny abandoned house, I stumble upon a prone assailant. He tags me a few times, putting my health in the red zone, but I am ready for a close-range skirmish and make short work of him, grabbing a wealth of healing items and ammo from his corpse. Outside, the sound of a sniper rifle cracking leaves another dead. The play area is miniscule now, forcing the remaining players into a confined space – the house I’m in and the area directly outside on the walls. Is the final player tucked away in the closed bathroom? I shoot the door down but there’s no one inside. No movement from the windows. Where could the last mark be? While I scan intently for any signs of movement, I hear the all-too-familiar metallic tink of a grenade landing at my feet. Boom. A number two placement for me, and Winner Winner, Chicken Dinner for the final foe that peeked around the door to fling in the fatal finisher.

 

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds is full of magical moments and stories like this, ranging from teeth-clenching suspense to hilarious mishaps. Creating those tales from game to game keeps you coming back for more. While there are only two maps, this isn’t like other shooters where you may find yourself getting tired of the scenery. These maps are huge and full of things to discover hundreds of hours in. Since games play out in a dynamic fashion each time,...

Gamers have no shortage of indie games that tap into our love for the 8 and 16-bit eras, but developers rarely seek to emulate the first PlayStation generation, with its grainy textures and polygon-shaped heroes. Humble Hearts has embraced this outdated look with a stealth-based action game that pays homage to Metal Gear Solid. While you could probably count the number of polygons used to construct Never Stop Sneakin’s characters, it’s gameplay is what really needs more detail.

Much like Metal Gear Solid on the original PlayStation, Never Stop Sneakin’ asks players to sneak through a series of secret military bases and avoid the vision cones and laser sights of patrolling enemies. Sadly, the gameplay doesn’t evolve past that. You have a limited supply of bullets and EMP grenades that save you if you get spotted, but these are all automatically used when you walk into an enemy’s line of sight. Because your only form of input is moving the character around with the analog stick, the action isn’t engaging.

Never Stop Sneakin’ encourages you to move quickly through each level, sneak up behind enemies, and take them all out in an efficient manner so that you can build a combo. The higher your combo, the more resources you will collect from hacking the computer terminals (another automated process) scattered across each level. Because of this system, Never Stop Sneakin’ feels more like an arcade game than a true stealth-action adventure.

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Bungie faces the unenviable task of balancing established plans for content roll-out and simultaneously responding on the fly to an anxious and vocal community, many of whom have valid and frustrated feelings about this sequel’s problems in the endgame. Curse of Osiris is colored by that debate. This first expansion is a flawed and in-progress attempt to serve the game’s multiple masters – both casual and hardcore enthusiasts. Viewed on its own merits, I found a lot to enjoy, even if the core story, missions, and new setting elements don’t live up to their potential. At the same time, the release coincides with a few important updates that encourage deeper commitment. 

Long hinted at in the series’ fiction, the curtain is finally pulled back on the mighty warlock Osiris. Framed as the fantasy fable of the grand wizard lost in the mystical woods, the narrative framework has a lot of potential, especially with the addition of the reality and time-experimenting Vex enemies at center stage. Unfortunately, despite a few attractive cinematic moments, the story fails to reach full stride. I never got invested in the conflict or its MacGuffin villain. 

Mercury is a breathtaking new artistic backdrop, dominated by imposing architecture and the dazzling bloom of sunlight. The gates that lead into simulations of different timelines make for the sort of rich sci-fi concepting Destiny 2 should embrace. Yet again, the idea doesn’t live up to what it could be. The patrol space is too compact...

When I think of Doom, two things come to mind: its colorful, over-the-top violence and its ridiculous speed. If you take either of those things out of the equation, what you have isn’t id Software’s infamous shooter but something lesser. This creates an interesting problem since virtual reality isn’t made for fast speed due to its ability to make people nauseated. Doom VFR tries to circumvent VR’s locomotion issue by giving you a teleporter function, but at the end of the day, this mini-campaign feels like a hobbled stroll through an amusement park instead of the frenzied, fantastic fight-or-die dance that makes Doom so special.

A series of combat arenas spread over four hours, VFR puts you in the shoes of a mostly-dead scientist who talks way too much as he tries to shut down a portal to hell with a combat suit he’s piloting from beyond the grave. Your left controller functions as your movement control, letting you slow down time to hop from place to place, while the right controller handles both your weapon wheel and combat functions. The control scheme is straightforward but takes getting used to, especially when it comes to secondary weapon functions. Even once you understand the controls, technical niggles still disrupt the experience. For example, sometimes you won’t jump to a spot you’ve marked due to the finicky controls, so you have to go through the same process again and hope you actually teleport this time. The...

The Winter Olympics and Steep don't have a lot in common other than they take place on snowy mountains, which is the crux of this expansion's problems. Steep's base game and its DLC up to this point are open-ended experiences predicated on letting players explore different extreme sports forms in free spaces. The addition of nine Olympic events and a Become a Legend mode in Road to the Olympics restrict what is best about Steep with little to show for it in return. Even if you're solely interested in the Olympic content, this expansion provides little substance.

The Become a Legend mode is accessible in the main game's Aravis location (showing up as an optional event alongside the others), taking you on a training regimen that culminates in qualifying for and competing in three freestyle events in South Korea – Big Air, Halfpipe, and Slopestyle. This isn't a story mode or a deep career mode with a progression system for upgrading your rider. Instead, it's a series of tutorials and the occasional event. These competitions are routine for those who've already played Steep, and laborious for the uninitiated.

The mode half-heartedly attempts the staging of its own Olympic drama. This includes a narrator chronicling your journey leading up to the Winter Games and video clips of real-life Olympic athletes such as Lindsey Vonn, Sage Kotsenburg, and Kevin Rolland talking about their professional experiences, but it fails to convey much of the Olympic experience itself. It lacks TV-style presentation, an Olympic Village, a sense of occasion through the opening ceremonies, and even medal presentations on a podium.

My favorite events...

A common refrain you might hear from someone who’s finished one of today’s massive open-world games is that they would have liked any excuse to explore more of that world. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild’s second (and likely final) DLC, The Champion’s Ballad, is exactly that; it sprinkles Hyrule with several new shrines, outfits, tools, and a dungeon, giving players new objectives to work through while giving them reasons to explore old areas they might have ignored the first time around.

Your first quest upon starting up The Champion’s Ballad emphasizes challenging combat and puzzle encounters – something the previous DLC did with mixed results – but which works much better here. Instead of throwing you into a series of self-contained fights, you explore the area where Link first wakes up to find four new shrines, which are unlocked by defeating groups of bad guys. During this first segment Link gets a new weapon that will defeat anything in one hit, but he only has a quarter of a heart, which makes defeating these enemies and working through the shrines much more challenging. This is a welcome departure from some of the later encounters in the base game, which the slew of weapons, shields, and powers I’d amassed had made a breeze.

From there the DLC opens up, offering the kind of DIY exploration that made Breath of the Wild shine. Though you’re given four marks on the map to approach, they lead to...

Hello Neighbor makes a strong first impression. With its Dr. Seuss-like artistic vision of an idyllic neighborhood hiding a terrible secret, the opening cinematic, featuring our curious protagonist spying on his neighbor, drew me in immediately. Too bad the illusion came crashing down shortly after that.

Hello Neighbor casts you as a child sneaking into his neighbor’s house to find out what kicking, screaming secret this man is hiding in his basement. An experiment gone wrong? A prisoner? Murder victims? My mind constantly poked at all the possibilities during the opening hour, but my interest was quickly murdered by dull and broken sneaking mechanics. Hello Neighbor’s campaign is composed of three acts, with the neighbor’s house serving as a series of puzzles you have to overcome to complete whatever your objective is. These puzzles err on the side of loony, recalling the days of point and click adventures, with gears and levers you often have to find and click to activate some other part of the house so that you can delve deeper. This is fine enough on paper, but the layout of the house means you’ll be constantly backtracking and searching for clues, opening drawers and looking beneath beds for that one key or object you need to get to the next segment. Those annoyances become a fatal flaw once the titular neighbor gets involved.

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The Neighbor functions like monsters in Amnesia or the Alien in Alien...

This year marked the end of the rebooted Planet of the Apes film trilogy, but fans don’t have to say goodbye quite yet. Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier offers an all-new story set between the second and third films, which shows another example of the personal toll that the Simian Flu has taken on both its human and ape survivors. Rather than take direct control over the characters, viewers cast their votes on how to proceed in A or B reactions. It’s an appealing proposition, but repeated viewings hammer home just how little impact your choices have on this out-of-control world and its unlucky inhabitants.

Planet of the Apes: Last Frontier splits its focus between the human and ape perspectives of an impending crisis. A community of Simian Flu survivors is huddled in the Rocky Mountains in a small community called Millerton. Unbeknownst to them, the approaching winter is agitating a nearby colony of apes. Both factions are running low on food, and are embroiled in their own internal power struggles. After the apes raid a human outpost, a pair of drifters appears in Millerton, and their presence threatens to bring the simmering hostilities to an all-out war. It’s a dramatic setup, which has the potential of offering up a variety of satisfying twists and turns. Does it deliver? Mostly, or it does at least once.

I was dubious of the game’s stripped-to-the-metal approach to gameplay, but I enjoyed it once I settled into its...

I appreciate short games built to execute specific, modest concepts. The world of indie games is filled with these kinds of focused experiences, and Gorogoa can certainly be described in this way. However, I simply did not connect with its vision; the narrative is too ambiguous to be engaging, and the simple puzzle mechanics stirred up no emotional response within me.

Gorogoa’s puzzles are based on a series of hand-drawn images placed on a four-by-four grid. In these images, you see a young boy as he rounds up a collection of different colored fruits in a bowl. You can take the pictures apart, rearrange them, and even connect them to make larger images. You can connect two alike pictures to make the boy travel between them, for example, or place an image of a train track above another picture to make it act as a ladder.

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These hand-drawn images from artist Jason Roberts are beautiful, and stand out as the highlight. They remind me of my favorite children’s books, and do so without singling out a specific style or artist. Unfortunately, moving the images around never amounts to a satisfying puzzle solution. All of my careful puzzle arranging rarely led to eureka moments. Instead, when I got stuck, I would just zoom in and out of an image until I found an interactive element of the picture I had simply missed before. It made it feel like I was...

A Hat in Time represents the best kind of Kickstarter project. Developer Gears for Breakfast doesn’t have any notable celebrity developers on its team and was instead able to reach its monetary goals based purely on the potential of the game and its appreciation for the genre it was trying to emulate. The result is a game that lacks polish, but A Hat in Time is full of surprises, and, more importantly, is a blast to play.

A Hat in Time begins with a mysterious girl in a tall hat flying through space in a ship fueled by magical hourglasses. She is sidetracked, however, when a bad guy from Mafia Town (a planet inhabited exclusively by Mafioso) invades her ship and her hourglasses are flung into space, making their way to the neighboring planets. What follows is a bizarre platforming adventure through a number of distinct worlds with an assortment of fun abilities.

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Arguably Hat in Time’s best and most notable element is its platforming gameplay. Moving the unnamed girl through the world is fast and accurate. I rarely, if ever, missed a jump I wasn’t aiming for, and moved at a pace that would impress even Mario. Navigating the environments is simply fun, and when you get into the rhythm of sprinting, double-jumping, lunging, and jumping again, you end up with a fantastic sense of control over your movement that makes even the smallest platform easily...

Monarchs get all the glory in the history books. They lived lavish lives of luxury, and their daily whims could reshape nations. Like its predecessor, Reigns: Her Majesty examines the lives of medieval rulers, and explores how their impulses allow nations to flourish or bring them to their knees. However, navigating the chaotic social structure of a medieval kingdom is no easy task, and the day-to-day life of a queen is not as glorious as it first appears.

Her Majesty was built with a mobile interface in mind. Players are presented with a series of decisions, such as sending huntsmen on quests to find exotic animal pelts, bailing local dignitaries out of financial jams, and make the final ruling on legal matters. All of your advisors are presented as playing cards that pose simple "yes" or "no" type questions, and you make your decisions by flipping those cards left or right. This simple interface and bite-sized narrative sequences offer a relaxed experience, but the longer I played, the shallower it felt.

Each decision has different effects on your standing in one of four categories: church, populous, military, and finance. If you make a decision that benefits your army, for example, you might end up emptying the coffers or losing face among your loyal followers. You don't want any of these categories to rise too high or low; a strong army can initiate a revolution, and a neglected church can burn you at the stake. When one queen's reign ends, you jump into the role of her successor with no penalty. All of...

Hugging dangerous curves and gunning it to grab first place as I cross the finish line is enough to sustain me in most racing games, but that's not the strong point of Gear Club Unlimited. This title is neither a simulation nor pure arcade game; while you can feel different cars' upgrades and degrees of under- or oversteer, controlling them lacks subtlety, leading to some wild steering. In the absence of compelling racing, however, the overall structure provides an oddly compelling lure.

The lynchpin of the experience is the performance shop, which serves as your master garage and HQ where you upgrade your cars. More than a series of menus, I got hooked on physically arranging where the various upgrade bays go (for your engine, tires, etc.), along with cosmetic touches like a coffee machine and couches. This isn't something I would have thought would draw me in, but it's amusing nonetheless. The performance shop reveals how well Gear Club Unlimited handles progression; even though you have to level up the facilities a fair amount to then upgrade your cars' parts, the stars and money you earn through the races come at a steady clip.

Although you don't have to grind through the plethora of races around the world map to keep your operation humming (Gear Club is not an open-world title), the mundanity of the races themselves introduce their own kind of impediment. Perhaps as a concession to...