I rule a city in crisis. The next ice age is coming, and people will die as the blizzard worsens. With supplies diminishing and hope fading, discontent sets in and people are talking about my ouster. Backed into a corner, I name myself the supreme ruler, a semi-religious deity whose word is bond. Those who rebel must publicly repent. I feel dirty about this decision, but I’m convinced that if we silence dissent, most of us will do what’s necessary to get through this. But what if it doesn’t work? Maybe they would have been better off banishing me to the frigid nothingness surrounding our base.
Horrible decisions like this are a regular occurrence in Frostpunk, the callous, intriguing, and addictive simulation from the studio behind This War of Mine. In this thematic follow-up, players assume command of one of the last human caravans in an alternate history nineteenth century. With civilization all but dead, your small group of stranded survivors huddles around a solitary generator on a barren ice sheet. You must will this solitary outpost forward in the face of unrelenting cold weather, dwindling natural resources, and an unsettled populace looking for hope wherever they can find it. The job isn’t easy, but it’s also unforgettable.
You may walk into this situation with firmly held ideals about human rights, but the avalanche of dire circumstances that occur during your reign tests those beliefs. When faced with injuries that threaten to halt your resource gathering,...
In gruff moments of fatherly instruction, Kratos repeats the phrase “be better” to his son, Atreus. This happens in different contexts, but the lesson remains consistent: Your decisions are not bound by precedent, and the choices of others are not examples to follow – they only set standards you can strive to exceed. In developing the latest God of War, Sony’s Santa Monica studio apparently took this message to heart. While previous games in this series established a successful formula of stylish action and epic setpieces, the team used this opportunity to be better; with surprising changes on every front, God of War forges a new identity and surpasses even its most acclaimed predecessors.
As a longtime fan of the series, this entry captivated me for completely different reasons. The narrative is one of them, despite its simple premise: Kratos and Atreus need to reach the top of the highest mountain in the Norse domain. They encounter detours and surprises along the way, but the precise story beats are less important than how they are conveyed. God of War brilliantly presents a desolate journey in a gorgeous world, all through the lens of the relationship between a distant father and his eager son.
The interactions of Kratos and Atreus range from adversarial to compassionate, and these exchanges have ample room to breathe and draw players in. Atreus wonders what he might say to his departed mother if given the chance – an exercise...
Building a sense of urgency and putting pressure on the player to complete a task quickly is something video games have achieved across many genres and decades. Minit, a charming top-down adventure reminiscent of classic Zelda titles, takes this concept to an extreme by creatively confining your adventuring to 60-second intervals.
Your main objective is to explore the fascinating monochromatic world as you fight enemies, solve puzzles, and complete quests. However, a timer begins once you pick up a cursed sword. From then on, you're stuck in an infinite loop of death every minute. Though this can seem anxiety-inducing and punishing (especially at first), it becomes addictive as you establish a rhythm to make the most of your short lives.
Because of its focus on steady progression, Minit is rarely frustrating. Various obstacles initially limit your options, but as you steadily collect items to overcome them, you can venture further out. For example, a watering can extinguishes flames, and flippers let you swim. You never lose items when you die, which makes each new acquisition feel like a satisfying checkpoint.
Items are found by completing quests like helping lost hotel guests out of precarious situations, defeating enemies like a group of foes disguised as plants, or by scouring the world. Objects help you enter places that were previously inaccessible, including a desert landscape rife with secrets and a haunted mansion. I enjoy how this formula consistently pushes players into new areas, keeping the journey focused on moving forward.
The first season of Telltale’s Batman did an admirable job creating a version of Gotham unlike any other, with Bruce Wayne carefully managing his relationships with confidantes and would-be friends when he wasn’t punching out thugs in alleyways. Though there have been a thousand stories about the origin of Batman, Telltale’s emphasis on how choices dictate allies and enemies made this version particularly compelling. Having established this anything-goes version of Batman’s world, the second season focuses on his greatest nemesis: the Joker.
This second outing starts off rough, with the Riddler showing up in Gotham city to wreak havoc in a killing spree. He’s soon joined by fan favorites Amanda Waller, Harley Quinn, and a host of rogues from Batman’s universe. Telltale puts too many moving pieces on the board, and tedious puzzles and ludicrous plot twists (like one involving an undisguised Bruce Wayne having to infiltrate a group of supervillains) made me question whether the set-up would ever pay off.
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About midway through the season, something special happens: The majority of puzzles and superfluous plot threads disappear, and the relationship between the Joker (a.k.a. John Doe) and Batman takes center stage. Doe is close to Harley and provides a way to gain her trust. However, he’s also mentally unstable, childlike, and desperately wants to to earn your affection and respect. The way my interactions unfolded with the clown prince made it feel like this relationship was...
The boo-birds come out when perennial all-stars are ice cold in the opening months of the season. Fans believe these players didn’t take care of themselves in the offseason, and treated spring training like a vacation. In reality, April’s frigid weather and windy conditions impact player abilities and limit the flight of the ball. As the weather heats up, so do these players.
MLB The Show 18 is the video game equivalent of the slow starter. Online performance issues have become an unwanted annualized feature – so much so that Sony made online infrastructure a central focus of development this year. In previous years, Sony has patched up or stabilized the online experience as the season progressed. This year, the development team didn’t want the online experience to start out cold, but achieving this goal meant difficult cuts.
In prioritizing new technology, Sony was forced to remove online franchise from this year’s game. Offline season mode is also oddly absent. These are two huge avenues of play that delivered different experiences for people – whether it’s shortening up a season for a breezier path to the playoffs or spending significant time battling friends for the pennant. Both are gone.
Did the cuts pay off? As of this writing, MLB The Show 18’s online performance has not improved over previous years. It may even be worse. Along with intermittent latency issues on the field, which can...
Pikachu was never intended to be the face of Pokémon, but thanks to the popular show, the adorable little electric mouse became the default mascot for the franchise. This critter also wiggled his way into my heart; despite the hundreds of unique pocket monsters Game Freak has created over the years, Pikachu remains one of my favorite travel companions. But none of our adventures have ever looked like this. This version of Pikachu wears an adorable deerstalker hat, talks in a gruff voice, and has the attitude of a noir detective. Somehow, this odd combination makes Pikachu more endearing than ever. The coffee-obsessed sourpuss is a welcome companion during an otherwise-average adventure.
You take on the role of Tim Goodman, the son of an acclaimed detective who was investigating a rash of violent Pokémon outbursts across Ryme City. After Tim’s father goes missing, Tim partners up with Pikachu and the new gumshoes hunt for clues that lead them to the bottom of the disappearance. The larger mystery is surprisingly serious, but I was rarely invested in the overall narrative – and you can see the main twist coming a mile away.
Fortunately, the shenanigans I got into with Pikachu along the way were far more memorable than the overarching story. I liked watching Tim and Pikachu bond over their love for black coffee, and laughed when Tim mistook Detective Pikachu for a “normal,” non-talking Pikachu. The title character also has a lot of lovable personality quirks...
Telltale’s second season of Batman has a had a lot of moving pieces. The Riddler. Catwoman’s return to Gotham. Amanda Waller and Jim Gordon’s fight for control. Harley Quinn’s supergroup of villains and their mysterious intentions. At the center of it all, the crux of this story has been Batman and the Joker. If the first season was an origin story for Bruce Wayne and his alter ego, then the second is an origin story for his greatest nemesis. Telltale goes all-in on the relationship in the most spectacular fashion, culminating in a fantastic episode that carries the heavy weight of tragedy and made me feel like my choices mattered.
Same Stitch is effectively two episodes in one – an unprecedented move in Telltale’s adventure catalogue. Depending on your choices throughout the series, John Doe (a.k.a. the Joker) either becomes a vigilante to fight alongside of you, or he adopts the classic villain persona. These two paths create different stories for episode 5. And when I say “different,” I don’t mean minor changes; they are radically separate experiences with unique plots and themes. Somehow, they are equally satisfying.
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The vigilante path finds you and Joker squaring off against Amanda Waller as she pursues the clown prince of..uh…do-goodness after the explosive events of the previous episode. Layering plot twist within plot twist, this episode also takes chances with Telltale’s version of Gotham. Bruce and the Joker make...
After targeting tin-pot dictators and megalomaniacs across the globe, Far Cry 5 sets its sights closer to home. This entry moves the open-world mayhem to Hope County, Montana – a beautiful base of operations for outdoorspeople, rugged individualists, and a murderous death cult. It’s also a playground for the explosive antics that we’ve come to expect from the series, where you and a friend can seamlessly go from taking down an armed convoy to bow hunting to fly fishing – or flying a plane – depending on what sounds fun. Once the luster of the new setting and co-op companionship wears thin, however, you’re left with an experience that’s familiar to a fault.
Hope County has been overrun by Joseph Seed, leader of an apocalyptic cult called Project at Eden’s Gate. A disastrous raid on Joseph’s compound leaves your created character, a rookie sheriff’s deputy, alone and outnumbered in a hostile environment. The setup is interesting, but soon settles into a standard routine. Your job is to clear out the Peggies (the local slur for the cultists) by any means necessary – most of which boils down to reclaiming outposts and taking on missions for the locals. Joseph has a lot of land to cover, and he’s a master at delegating. His church heralds include the charismatic John Seed; hunter of man Jacob Seed; and psy-ops hippie Faith Seed. These three walking archetypes have little consistency between them apart from their last names.
Far Cry 5...
Sea of Thieves is like the kiddy-pool at the waterpark. They’re both pirate-themed, they both feature fun activities improved by having friends with you, and they’re both shallow in the interest of keeping things entertaining without being dangerous. The stories Sea of Thieves gifts you and your crew are jubilant and silly, but many elements of the experience left me wanting, even when it delivered on the pirate life.
From the beginning, developer Rare has pitched Sea of Thieves as a pirate simulator, and its execution on the core idea is impressive. It lets you manage and sail a ship on the ocean, find hidden treasure, pillage, and drink grog until you stumble and puke all over the bar. Participating in these scenarios with friends is where the game shines. Working together to steer the ship, land on an island, and dig up treasure is incredibly satisfying and almost always leads to laughs, regardless of whether you’re successful/
Nearly every play session results in a story, whether you are suddenly ambushed by a kraken while trying to deliver a treasure chest, or your friend who always screws everything up crashes the boat into the dock and sinks your ship. These moments are joyful, and show Rare has succeeded in manufacturing a digital playground that is fun to explore.
Digging deeper in Sea of Thieves’ assorted tasks, however, reveals the long-term game doesn’t offer much incentive to keep playing. You level up your reputation by completing assignments for...
A Way Out must be played with a partner in crime, creating cooperation, antagonism, and communication between the game's two characters, Leo and Vincent. Fugitives on the run, the pair confront a wide gamut of experiences, bringing them together both in the shared purpose of revenge and even in understanding. That the game creates a connection between the characters, and to a lesser extent the players as well, is a measure of success, but that doesn't mean the title always hits its intended mark.
In their attempt to break out of jail and track down the man who has done them both wrong, Leo and Vincent are bonded in spirit and in gameplay. A Way Out often divides into splitscreen (vertical and horizontal) to show both players what their characters are doing, letting each person move around and act freely simultaneously. Apart from some occasionally hard-to-hear audio mixing when there are two different conversations occurring at the same time, the screen system works well. It's not distracting to watch both screens at once if necessary, and the switch to a single screen is also effective.
The ultimate expression of this co-op vision is the game's hospital scene, which unfolds in a cinematic single cut that follows both men as they simultaneously evade the police in different parts of the building. The action is not boring visually or physically, and you're focused even when the game camera wipes over to the trouble your comrade is...
While Sam Barlow’s previous game, Her Story, channels the appeal of older technology to tell an enriching mystery, his latest effort stokes more current anxieties. #WarGames touches on the modern surveillance state, our vulnerability to being exposed online, and the veracity of news media. But while its premise and approach to cinematic storytelling are intriguing, its storytelling lacks the punch necessary to build on its novelty.
#WarGames does a good job of making you feel like a voyeuristic hacker. The story plays out through an interface of shifting video feeds of characters’ webcams and phones, as well as security feeds, Twitter pages, and more. You can highlight a specific feed to enlarge it, letting you pick up on a few minor character moments you might otherwise miss. You can also alter the story depending on which feeds you focus on, but shifting to a specific character’s video didn’t make me feel like an active participant in the story. Instead, I felt like a moviegoer who had to do a little extra work to get the full picture.
The multi-screen approach to storytelling puts a large emphasis on characters, which #WarGames falters on as often as it succeeds. The story follows Kelly “L1ghtman” Grant, one part of the hobbyist hacker crew “#WarGames,” who enjoys screwing with celebrities and uploading viral videos exposing them. When Kelly sees a misleading report on the news accusing her now-deceased veteran mother of treason, however, she and the #WarGames crew start tackling more personal targets.
Actor Jess Nurse does a great job of bringing Kelly to...
Vermintide 2 shamelessly wears its influences on its sleeve. A love letter to both Left 4 Dead and Diablo, the game casts you as a party of characters fending off an invading army of rat-men (called Skaven), orcs, and all sorts of nasty beasts that want to tear the world to shreds. While that pitch might sound generic, strong multiplayer systems and enjoyable combat make Vermintide 2 a blast as long as you’re playing with other people.
After a short prologue, you pick your hero. Each one is essentially a class, and all of them fall squarely within fantasy tropes; the dwarf swings a big axe, and the elf snipes foes from afar with her bow. However, all the characters have well-defined personalities, and the exchanges between them as you roam the levels of Vermintide 2 are amusing as they bicker, comfort, and even compliment one another.
Each hero’s skills are unique and make the different classes feel distinct, even if you are mostly just chopping your way through hordes of monsters. My personal favorite is Kerillian, the dual-blade wielding elf who also regenerates health and fires homing arrows that can do massive damage. I also like jumping between the Battle Wizard, capable of showering foes in disintegrating flames, and the pistol-wielding Witch Hunter Captain.
Each character also has two subclasses, giving you ample opportunity to develop your style of play further. My Kerillian flirted with being a close-quarters, stealthy character capable of stalking...
No government is perfect. While many idealistic concepts give birth to new nations, the implementation of those ideas usually strays from the intent – and yet, governments can succeed and thrive despite their imperfection. Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is the same. It chronicles the monarchy of King Evan with an ambitious framework that includes elements of traditional role-playing, city-building, and real-time strategy – which all sounds amazing in theory. In reality, these concepts fall short in their execution and leave the game’s full potential conspicuously unrealized, but those missed opportunities don’t prevent it from being charming or entertaining.
Ni no Kuni II is a brand new story, and doesn’t require any familiarity with the first game. It follows Evan, a young ruler forced to leave his homeland and start a new kingdom from scratch. I can’t exactly say that the narrative is bad, but the straightforward fairy tale doesn’t go anywhere interesting. Evan wants to create a world without war, so he sets off to unite the other kingdoms one by one. You collect a handful of archetypical party members along the way, but after their initial introductions, they fade into the background and stop playing any notable role in events. Because of this, most characters never grow; you know everything you’re going to learn about the smart and confident sky-pirate princess as soon as she joins your party early on. This means advancing a lot of dull text-box conversations that don’t...
The Yakuza series is stronger than ever, with the recent wave of PlayStation 4 remasters and a new prequel game bringing Kazuma Kiryu to appreciative new audiences. Just as those fledgling fans are figuring out what loyal Yakuza players have known for more than a decade, Yakuza 6 comes along and upends it all. The latest entry in the series may mark the end of Kiryu’s tale, but don’t worry; Sega gives The Dragon of Dojima the sendoff he deserves.
Without getting too deep in the weeds, Yakuza 6’s story centers on Kiryu’s adopted daughter Haruka Sawamura, who is struck by a hit-and-run driver early on. She was holding a child at the time of the event, and that child’s identity is paramount to the overall arc. The long story is told through an abundance of cutscenes, but I was engaged throughout. Players who are concerned about jumping into the finale without having played through all the other games shouldn’t worry, either. While the story is complicated, it’s largely self-contained. The game cleverly provides context for the important players in the world, and in rare instances when a cameo or reference didn’t click for me, I never felt lost.
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The story provides broad motivations, but much of the Yakuza 6 experience is about making your own way through the world. Between Kamurocho’s familiar neon playground and the comparatively calmer Onomichi in Hiroshima prefecture, Yakuza 6 gives you plenty to...
For better or worse, Kirby is Nintendo’s most consistent franchise. New entries come often, and they don’t stray too far from the “pretty good” mark in either direction. On that scale of inoffensiveness, Star Allies rests a bit on the low end, offering a bland Kirby experience with few new mechanics.
The premise this time around is evil things are invading Dream Land and Kirby must expel them by grabbing some friends and beating up bad guys. The twist for Star Allies is Kirby can throw hearts at select enemies to add them to his team. It can be played cooperatively with up to three others, but if you play alone, A.I. controls the partners. The game delivers standard-but-unsurprising Kirby action, but the final boss does stand out as a large and interesting finale – though I won’t spoil it here.
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The option to play with friends is nice, and the Switch’s Joy-Con setup makes jumping in and out of cooperative play easy, but the overall design suffers tremendously from the multiplayer options. Having four players makes combat a cakewalk. Kirby and pals steamroll their way through every encounter, and every boss is a breeze. As a series, Kirby titles are generally designed to be friendly to younger players, but when gingerly tapping the attack button without any regard for position or stolen ability is enough to complete any objective, it gets boring. Having A.I. partners makes things...
Let it never be said that indie developer The Behemoth hasn’t carved out its own unique identity thanks to the studios blend of stylish art and offbeat humor. Following on the heels of Castle Crashers and BattleBlock Theater, Pit People channels the exaggerated art style of its predecessors while embracing a more strategic mode of gameplay. The result is a romp of a game that rewards you with hilarious jokes for dominating foes on the battlefield
Pit People embraces absurdity out of the gate, opening on a blueberry farmer named Horatio fending off cannibals who want to eat his son, Hansel, while the world is showered in green good and a cosmic narrator mocks the farmer. Things only get wackier from there, with Horatio going on a quest to rescue his son after the bear kidnaps him, recruiting a gallery of characters to help out. Though Horatio doesn’t have much personality, the crew surrounding him is hilarious and memorable, like Sofia, an explorer who passionately claims every new area you come across in the world “in the name of Spain.” You also have a literal cupcake named Gluten to serve as your healer, and the mischievous-yet-loyal cyclops Yosef.
Your quest takes you through an overworld filled with every biome imaginable: deserts, snowy plains, forests, candy mountains, and cities made of circuit boards. Pit People’s world doesn’t have a unique identity, since more than anything it exists as a series of disparate environments stitched together. But...
The first Life is Strange made its mark for showcasing the hardships of life and the parts about us we often hide from the world. The developers’ courage to pursue topics like grief and depression authentically is what made the series so special. Before the Storm continues to be brave and bold, presenting difficult situations similar to those we saw in the original. This prequel gives new insight into Chloe, showing her gaining confidence while she struggles with the loss of her father. With Rachel, a character we only heard about in the first game, we now know what was so unique about their connection and have plenty of their moments to cherish. Before the Storm’s greatest asset is how it builds a genuine relationship between its two leads, making you root for them and understand what they mean to each other as both their lives fall apart.
The tale takes place two years after the death of Chloe's father (and three years before she reconnects with Max). Chloe is testing her boundaries, sneaking out to concerts, and ditching school. It may be a cry for help, but it’s also the best way she can deal with her grief. Enter Rachel, a girl who seems like she has everything: She’s popular, gets good grades, and has an ever-present aura of confidence. Rachel is tired of it all, though; even if you seem to have it all, that doesn’t mean your life is perfect. The girls...
The concept of H1Z1 is simple: Hit the ground running, grab a backpack and whatever weapon is handy, and head to the safe zone while blowing away 149 opponents. Anything can happen during a match, including stealthy shootouts from behind crates, getting shot in the back while trying to cross an open field, and snagging a risky airdrop for some potent weapons and armor. Variety is the spice of life, and it’s also the cornerstone of H1Z1 that keeps you coming back for more.
The core mode can be played solo, with a friend, or with a team of five, so you can enjoy the bloody melee without having to worry how many friends you have around. Making it down to the final circle of play while dodging airstrikes, bullets, and poison gas is often a thrilling experience, and you can go from hero to zero with the single crack of a shotgun. Whatever your skill level, making it to the last moments of a match is fun and frantic, and snack-sized stories often happen along the way. A player who gives away their location with proximity voice chat by accident when his mom calls him downstairs for chicken tenders, the player who just does donuts in a cop car around a warehouse waiting for someone to come pick a fight, or the jaded sniper waiting for you on top of the final hill. These are all memorable moments that make a match interesting and engaging.
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The one-life, last-person...
My biggest problem with side-scrolling brawlers has always been their mindlessness. Even when a few upgrade trees or RPG systems are thrown in to make them more intricate, I can’t escape the feeling I’m just mashing the punch button until everyone’s dead. Way of the Passive Fist addresses this issue with more mindful combat that wants you to pay close attention in every fight. But while its combat is novel and fun at first, it doesn’t lift the experience above some glaring issues.
Rather than punching your way through legions of street thugs, Way of the Passive Fist has you hanging back and watching the movements of the many bandits, robots, and monsters you face as you make your way through a thin, post-apocalyptic plot that serves more as context than a real pull. Your main weapon against your enemies are well-timed parries and dodges, which drain your foes’ stamina until they keel over from exhaustion.
Every enemy has their own multi-hit attack strings to memorize, giving combat a rhythmic feel. Once I had learned most of the enemy patterns, I was parrying punches, dodging throws, and returning throwing knives to their senders in a matter of seconds, which made me feel like the center of a well-choreographed action movie fight scene. As you parry attacks you build up a combo meter, giving you access to powered-up moves like charged-up punches and grabs. Saving up these attacks for clusters of enemies or hulking brutes adds a fun...