Category Archives: Review

Review – The First 10 Hours of Octopath Travelor

Octopath Traveler is an awkward game.  From its structure to character abilities to overworld actions, nothing seems to work as well as it should.  Still, that shouldn’t stop you from picking up this charming game that rises above its weirdness to be a solid JRPG entry for the Switch…at least at the opening.

The story of the game follows 8 separate characters as they travel the world trying to resolve their particular storylines.  Players may choose the order in which they play the 8 characters, though the game seems to encourage playing through each character’s chapter before moving on to the next.  I started as Cyrus, a noted scholar who discovers a taste for solving crimes and decides to head out into the world in search of a lost tome.  I continued on to Ophelia, a priestess on a quest for her church, and H’aanit, a huntress in search for her former master.  The order in which you select characters doesn’t appear to matter as they don’t interact and really just serve to fill out the battle party for whomever is the lead at that moment.  For what I’ve read elsewhere, this continues throughout the story.  The end result is that 8 characters will go on their life changing quests together while not acknowledging each other.  Like I said earlier, the structure is awkward, but knowing that going in meant that it really didn’t bother me.

As for the actual stories themselves, their variety is currently their biggest strength.  None of the characters is particularly compelling, but their narratives are unique enough and their stories are brief enough that none have worn out their welcome.  Thus far Octopath Traveler has also avoided repeating the standard anime clichés which plague the genre and that alone gets this game major points.  The dialogue and voice work are hit or miss with some voice actors clearly struggling with bad material (pro tip: if you don’t know Old English, don’t try to make it up).  Overall, the characters are compelling enough to provide a reason to continue on, but aren’t super strong.

The clunkiness of the dialogue is ultimately overcome by the charm of the interactions with the world.  Each character has a “path action” which lets them interact with NPCs in unique ways.  My favorite path action by far is Cyrus’ Scrutinize which gives him insight into an NPC.  This provides hidden stories, interesting side quests, town discounts, and free items all which make entering a new town feel special and fun.  The path actions are also suitably awkward, such as beating up a village elder with Provoke for…uh…reasons, but they add depth and flavor to the game.

Once the story stops and it’s time for fighting, Octopath Traveler displays a delightfully robust battle system based on weaknesses and Bravely Default’s battles.  Characters perform turn based actions which accrue them a single point each turn.  These points are exchanged for an additional action allowing players to store points and unless a massive barrage of attacks.  Meanwhile, enemies have weakness which are used to winnow down their defenses.  Once their defenses are down, the player can do serious damage.  These two systems create a tension whereby the player wants to break all of the enemies’ defenses in the same turn so they can unleash additional actions with their points.  Add in the unique fighting styles of each character and this game has a ton of playstyle variety.

On top of the excellent combat is a unique and inviting visual style.  Octopath Traveler combines 2D sprites with 3D maps reminiscent of old PSX games that were trying to make the graphics transition.  The end result is a vibrant world that beautifully conveys its many environments.  Even the standard forests and plains pop with detail and charm.  The soundtrack isn’t quite as strong, but never hampers the mood.

I’m only 10 hours in to Octopath Traveler, but I’m excited for what comes next.  This game has considerable potential and I look forward to exploring both its world and mechanics.  At 10 hours, I can’t quite say that I know enough to recommend a buy, but I can say that it’s heading in that direction.

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Review – The First 20 Hours of Battle Chasers: Nightwar

Battle Chasers: Nightwar is a JRPG attempt at reviving an old comic book franchise that was popular early in the century.  While it probably won’t scratch the itch of Battle Chasers fans who want more content, it does competently put together a solid battle system and intriguing dungeons.  There’s fun to be had here.  For more, continue on.

The story begins with five intrepid adventurers searching for an island full of mana when their airship is attacked by bandits.  The party is divided and must explore the new land to reunite with their comrades and discover a mysterious plot hatching in this unknown land.  This could be generic launching point for a greater story, but Battle Chasers: Nightwar doesn’t seem interested in its narrative.  When it bothers to spend any time on story or characters (cutscenes are sparse), it’s largely to point the player towards the next quest.  No character, plot, or location gets much attention and the narrative feels less like a licensed property and more like a fig leaf to give the barest excuse to move on.  While I don’t know much about the Battle Chasers world, I have to imagine there is more to it than what this game shows.  Fans of the property probably won’t find their fix here.

Fortunately, the rest of the game is well constructed.  The turn-based battle system harkens back to golden age JRPGs with some interesting, though hardly mind bending, changes.  In addition to the standard special attacks and leveling up, Nightwar adds overcharge and perks.  Overcharge adds a temporary mana bar that is accrued by using basic attacks and only lasts for the duration of the battle.  Combined with the game’s tight item management and expensive spells, overcharge creates a welcome tension wherein the player must decide if waiting for overcharge is worth the time it takes to accrue.  In addition to overcharge, Nightwar includes perks.  Perks are swappable benefits which the player can use to customize characters for specific play styles.  Combined, the two systems provide enough variation to the standard JRPG format.

The real star of the battle system is how fine-tuned it is.  All but the lowest level battles require smart planning and attention to detail.  The long dungeons and restricted healing options reward smart resource management in a way that feels well balanced rather than punitive.  The only real chink in the battle system’s armor is Nightwar’s stingy economy.  The player can either find weapons or buy gear, but both take a miserly approach that can mean that a character won’t have needed equipment.  Loot drops can contain powerful items, but are too sparse to ensure that every character has what they need.  Rather than allow the player to buy missing equipment easily, Nightwar’s expensive economy ensures that the player will only have funds for an item or two rather than kitting out their party.  With a bad run of loot drops, characters won’t have the equipment they need and can be underpowered for fights.

There’s a little more to be said about Nightwar (it’s got a nice art style, for one), but the overarching message is that this is a competently executed game for gamers who like good battle systems and don’t care much about plot.  It’s possible that my abbreviated time with the game meant that I missed some amazing plot development later on, but the general tone and direction of the narrative suggests that’s not the case.  Some will view this as a worthwhile purchase at full price, but I’d say wait for a sale.

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The First Few Hours – Warhammer 40k: Inquisitor – Martyr

Warhammer 40k: Inquisitor – Martyr acts a bit like an action RPG fun house mirror.  The game is an obvious reflection of the standard Diablo formula, but does everything just a little bit differently.  The end result is a decent game in its own right, but one that will irritate an unsuspecting portion of the audience that it courts.

The game begins with the player controlled Inquisitor, a galactic enforcer of loyalty and religion, embarking a mission aboard the Martyr, a derelict Space Marine ship that went rogue and disappeared for centuries.  A quick investigation of the ship reveals that it formerly housed a long dead Space Marine leader of undetermined allegiance and is now the focus of a secret investigation by another Inquisitor who also has undetermined allegiance.  In the opening hours of the game, the player attempts to hunt down this other Inquisitor and figure out what the Martyr really is.

As far as stories go, this one is functional.  Its true virtue is to serve as a vehicle for the world of Warhammer 40k.  The player collects crew from across W40k’s Imperium of Man factions, fights its traditional Chaos foe, explores the dark realms of its cities and abandoned space stations, and generally revels in one of the better representations of this universe.  Fans of the W40k world will find much to like here and even newcomers will find Inquisitor – Martyr a relatively accessible entry point into the W40k world.  On the other hand, people who dislike the grim dark future of the 40th millennia will find nothing new or interesting.  Inquisitor – Martyr seeks to channel Warhammer 40k, not improve upon it.

The same cannot be said for the action RPG formula which the game seeks to model.  Thought clearly inspired by Diablo and its host of clones, Inquisitor – Martyr makes enough evolutionary tweaks to almost turn itself into a revolution.  The standard leveling, looting, and fighting mechanics are all there, but the emphasis is less on the former two….and arguably less on the third as well.  Leveling and looting are noticeably slower than the standard model with the player rarely experiencing substantial jumps in kill power.  Fighting is also notably slowed with the introduction of a cover mechanic which allows the player and enemies to hide in order to reap defensive bonuses.  The end result is that progress feels slow on and off the battlefield.

Perhaps the biggest gameplay innovation is the pacing.  Missions are discreet fights across small maps with specific, and occasionally varying, objectives.  Leveling, equipment swapping, and all other forms of maintenance are relegated to the pause between missions.  This creates a nice balance between character improvement and combat with each operating in its own spheres without the other spoiling its flow.  There is no standing in the middle of a blood drenched battlefield comparing shiny new swords or trying to tweak a character build.  On the flip side, the pauses between fights serve as an exhale from the game’s combat and gives the story an opportunity to breath.  While hardly used to its fullest in Inquisitor – Martyr, this model could give future ARPG’s a chance to focus on story.

Overall, the game has a solid collection of mechanics which made the first seven hours a lot of fun.  Dark clouds do loom on the horizon.  Without a compelling story and thanks to limited numbers of enemies and settings, the charms of the Warhammer 40k universe are fading against the repetitive grind of constant battles.  The slow progression ensures that the battle system won’t take up the slack.  It’s becoming harder and harder to see how Inquisitor – Martyr will earn its full price tag.  Even if you’re a big W40k fan, I’d wait for a sale.

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Review – Far Cry 5 – PC

Short version:  Far Cry 5 is a good game.  It won’t change your life…or even your view on Far Cry games, but it’s polished, fun, and generally does what it set out to do.  Got it?  Good.  Let’s start reviewing this thing.

The game begins with the player running from the Eden’s Gate cult in Montana after failing to capture its leader, The Father.  The player joins up with up three sets of resistance groups trying to overthrow the three “heralds” of The Father, collectively known as the Seed family.  This is a solid enough set up for the game, but really relies on the personalities of the Seed family to carry the story beyond a basic “kill these dudes” premise.  Fortunately, the Seeds are a well-acted bunch of zealots who both convey the necessary charisma to sell their role as cult leaders and the arrogance to incentivize their downfall.  The desire to take down the cult and their leaders is enough to carry the player through the game, but the rest of the story can’t quite keep up.

For all the quality of the cast, the basic plotline is all over the map.  Developer Ubisoft clearly had larger ambitions for Far Cry 5’s story that it couldn’t quite reach.  The story has major plot elements that are haphazardly introduced and unexplained even as they take on an increasingly large role.  This all culminates in an ending that doesn’t have the support its needs resulting in it landing flat (I’ll cover this, spoilers and all, a little later).  The saving grace of it all is that the game rarely dwells on the story.  Far Cry 5 benefits from not looking or thinking too hard about it.

The gameplay is a more polished version of the standard Ubisoft fare.  All the usual staples are here including an open world map, taking over forts, doing side quests for locals, and hunting down collectibles.  Where the game shines is how it parcels these all out in interesting chunks the mean that no element ever feels overwhelming.  Even at the start, the map feels full, not cluttered.  Furthermore, the high ratio of character driven quest to mindless side mission means that I never felt obligated to do boring tasks.  I always felt I could engage with the game on the level I felt interested in at the time.

Another strong element of the gameplay was how it feeds into the look and feel of the world.  Success in missions translates to success for the resistance movements in the countryside.  Sectors that start off as overrun with cultists as civilians flee for their lives transform into battlefields and finally transition into resistance controlled space.  It’s a nice touch that makes each mission feel like a battle in a broader war and lends impact to the player’s actions.  I wish more games did this.

Even without the dynamic change in the environment, Far Cry 5 impresses with its high mountains, gentle farmlands, and lived-in buildings.  Perhaps it’s my familiarity with the setting, but I found this iteration of the series to have the most compelling, realistic world.  Seeing a place that I knew could be real and that was so well drawn pulled me in to the struggle of its residents.  This felt like a living world and an accurate reflection of the setting it wanted to portray.

In the end, Far Cry 5 isn’t a revolutionary game.  If you didn’t like its predecessors, this one won’t change your mind.  On the other hand, if you like this type of game, or were on the fence about the genre, give Far Cry 5 a shot.  It’s a polished example of the form and worth the $60.

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Review – Nintendo Switch

 

I recently bought a Switch and it’s a hoot.  It’s the fulfillment of the dream of every young kid who ever wanted to play their favorite games away from home or adults who find themselves always on the go. This should be an automatic “yes”.  While I want to give the console an unqualified recommendation, I can’t.  The Switch has some serious “fit” issues.  Read through and see if it’s the console for you.

 

Pros

Feel – From the nice heft to the clear screen, the Switch feels like a solid piece of equipment that you’d want to use.  Buttons are responsive and everything is in a logical place.  The dock can feel a little flimsy at times, but this is a solid piece of tech overall.

Portability – The Switch captures the dream of having a legitimate console that is also portable.  The dock is small, lightweight, and fits into any luggage.  The required cables are common, easily acquired, and may already be the hotel room or home of a traveler.  Transitioning from docked to portable is as simple as lifting up the console while the current game being played switches from the TV to console screen.  Everything about the portability is straightforward and user friendly.

Quality of games – Nintendo pumped out some high quality titles for the Switch.  Super Mario Odyssey (played and loved) and Breath of the Wild (Did not play but heard good things) are winners.  The indie scene ported over some of its highlights.  Odds are you can find at least one quality entry into your genre of choice.

 

Cons

eShop – It mystifies me that consoles can’t seem to figure out the basics of online stores.  Even by the low standards of the console market, the Nintendo eShop is pathetic.  The search function is barely capable of taking the player to games they know about, much less ones they don’t.  The store lacks a meaningful rating function which would help differentiate the numerous small titles.  Be prepared to find new games elsewhere.

Controllers – Each unit comes with two controllers and a controller dock.  When the controllers rest on the side of the console, they do a fine job.  When they’re free floating, each one is small, but workable in short bursts.  When they’re in the controller dock, the positioning forces the players’ hands into a carpal tunnel inducing position that gets painful, quickly.  Just buy the pro controller.

Shallow library – Nintendo wisely invited in the indie development community, but that strategy hasn’t yet born major fruit.  The console is home to the same high quality indie games that show up on every system.  As for the AAA developers, new games are slowly rolling off the assembly line with a few older highlights already available.  Finally, the virtual console is both gone and sorely missed.  Older games would absolutely kill on the Switch so it’s a shame they aren’t here.  At this point, the library isn’t developed enough to satisfy a regular gamer.

Multimedia – While every other piece of hardware has a variety of streaming services, the Switch has Hulu and that’s it.  Lining up all the major streaming players seems like an obvious choice for a system designed for portability, but Nintendo remains skittish about including it.  Don’t expect the Switch to act as a media hub.

 

The Nintendo Switch is a piece of hardware that I want to play with.  I actively look for games on the system so I can enjoy its ease of use, solid weight, and delightful portability.  Unfortunately, it’s saddled with major flaws.  The games library is limited and the eShop is complete garbage.  Still, the coming line up looks solid and the potential is enormous.  The Switch isn’t a great choice as the sole console for hardcore gamers who need variety, but everyone else should have a blast.

 

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Review – Cosmic Star Heroine – PC

…they’re getting there.

Zeboyd Games is a development studio that’s hard not to root for.  It’s one of the few studios bringing professional talent to bare on reviving the look and feel of the golden age of SNES era JRPGs while updating them to reflect modern sensibilities.  In an era of independent studios exploring new ideas and mindlessly copying old ones in equal measure, Zeboyd tries to take the best of both approaches.  Sadly, for all the good intentions behind Cosmic Star Heroine, it reflects the very real limitations of the development studio that made it.

The game begins with titular star Alyssa La Salle, infiltrating a robotics factory on behalf of a secretive government agency to stop a terrorist attack.  Le Salle ultimately discovers sordid motivations of her employer and must defend the galaxy from a new evil with the help of a large cast of characters.  The setup is standard for most JRPGs, but Zeboyd’s additions are sadly to the game’s detriment.  Most notably is the rushed approach the developer takes to the plot points.  CSH feels like the Cliff’s Notes version of a larger game with smaller narratives almost absent and major developments lacking connective tissue to link them together.  The broad story beats manage to stay (mostly) consistent, but the lightening speed robs the characters of time to develop.  Each of the game’s substantial cast gets a mini mission, but none move past their initial archetype into anything interesting.  Nor is the dialogue well written as Zeboyd falls back on the humor of their previous games rather than invest in earnest character development needed for a space opera.  The fundamental problem of Cosmic Star Heroine’s narrative is scope where the developer clearly wanted a larger story and cast than they could support.  The end result is a narrative and cast that can’t move beyond the basics.

Unlike the story, the gameplay’s ambition largely pays off, but is in sore need of polish before declaring it a success.  Fights are patterned off Chrono Trigger without the active time battle system.  Instead, characters attack based on their speed relative to their team and then the opposing team takes a turn.  The attacks reflect the usual array of elemental weaknesses and status effects, but with the interesting twist of including style points and bursts.  Most attacks boost the characters’ style which increases the potency of successive attacks.  The style fills up a burst meter which unlocks super powerful moves that deplete style and burst.  This creates a tension between increasing style and executing powerful burst attacks.  It’s an interesting system, but lacks feedback.  Despite having played the game for over 12 hours, I’m still unsure of the exact effect style has and how it changes the damage rolls.  Add in a wide variety of attacks and the combat feels deep without helping the player understand that depth.  More devoted players will certainly create powerful combos, but less invested gamers will fumble through while periodically wondering why an attack failed.

While much of Cosmic Star Heroine needs more time, the graphics and sound truly shine.  The retrofuturistic environments feel gritty and neon in a way that remains true to the 1980s’ vision.  The songs create mood while still including a few hummable tunes.  It’s hard not to ascribe some of the success of the aesthetic to the scoping that Zeboyd failed to apply to the rest of the game.  Environmental assets were clearly designed to be reused so that they could be repeated rather than needing whole new iterations.  Songs don’t last very long, but the short dungeons and constant scene shifts ensure that no track wears out its welcome.  Smart creation and deployment of the visual and sound design result in these being the stand out elements of the game.

Cosmic Star Heroine isn’t a bad game.  For gamers interested in an SNES era JRPG nostalgia trip, CSH will scratch that itch.  Unfortunately, the story blemishes and gameplay clumsiness won’t bring new players into the fold.  On the broader scale, I hope that Zeboyd Games learns from their first outing into serious JRPG land.  They’ve nailed the feel of the era, but need to work on the quality of the story telling if they really want to establish new classics of their own.

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Review – Owlboy – PC

What the hell happened?

Owlboy had me going.  For the sweet first half of the game, I appreciated its steady learning curve, interesting puzzles, fantastic visuals, great sounds…I could go on.  This was going to be an unmitigated recommendation…and then something happened.  Owlboy made a slow steady descent into bad design choices that don’t ruin the game, but do make me wary to give it an unreserved recommendation.  Make no mistake; this is a good game.

It could have been a great one.

The interesting bit starts right from the beginning.  The player is introduced to Otus, an owl boy under the tutelage of his owl mentor Asio.  Asio is hyper critical of Otus and his strong, almost cruel, berating of the boy sets up the first of the game’s interesting characters.  Pirates attack Otus’ hometown while Otus is away forcing him to join with Geddy, a human solder, in an attempt to stop the pirates’ dastardly deeds.  The story starts incredibly strong with impactful moments that seem to have an important effect on the characters.  Otus, Geddy, and others who join later seem genuinely changed by the events.  Even side characters undergo trauma, exhibit bravery, and hint at greater development to come.  It’s all very compelling except that it never really pays off.  Most events happen as you would expect or just don’t happen at all.  At one point Geddy leaves the party due to a conflict with one of the new party members.  The other characters comment that he’ll come around and, well, he does.  The player doesn’t see his character develop which is shocking given the delicate handling of the emotional scenes in the first half of the game.  Nothing is particularly wrong with the story and characters during the second half, but they devolve into industry standard heroes rather than the complex elements they started as.

Sadly, the level design does the same.  Owlboy’s Metroidvania style action platforming stands out in the beginning as a fun, puzzle-focused romp through lush lands.  Otus can fly and use his compatriots for their abilities by picking them up.  The flight controls bleed over to the walking controls causing periodic frustration when Otus doesn’t do what the player intends, but the controls are tight enough and the levels are permissive enough that it doesn’t matter.  Owlboy also has reasonable check points, cut scene skipping, and a way to skip death animations showing considerable respect for the player’s time.  This all slowly degrades as developer D-Pad Studio sought to increase the difficulty of the game.  D-Pad introduces ever more frustrating mechanics that make the game harder, but less fun.  The mechanics devolve until the final level wherein Otus can only glide, not fly.  The confused control design between flying and platforming results in the player accidently engaging gliding when they need to get the most from their jump.  Other mechanics degrade as well such as unfortunately placed checkpoints and unskippable cutscenes in the middle of boss fights.  None of these ruin the game (after all, they are staple problems of the genre), but they seem completely unnecessary in a game that looked like it fixed them as problems.  It’s this decline in level design and mechanics that undermines the game most of all.

If anything makes up for the slow decline in quality, it would be the sound and visual design.  The songs are gorgeous and match the mood of each level.  They periodically combine with the detailed hi-bit visual design to craft a truly magical moment.  Environments get repetitive at times, but it’s always a pleasure to see the leaves rustle through the forests, watch a waterfall, or enjoy a well-positioned scene.  Unlike the other aspects of this game, the quality of the aesthetic design never fades.

It’s hard to not miss the great game that Owlboy could have been instead of the good game that it is.  The decline is noticeable and frustrating, but never wrecks the experience.  Fans of Metroidvania games should get their money’s worth and even those who general enjoy the genre should have a good time.  Owlboy doesn’t transcend the genre the way it could have, but you’ll still have a fun time playing it.

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Review – Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV

Please don’t suck.  Please don’t suck.  Please don’t suck.

Square Enix and its previous incarnations don’t have a great track record with movies.  Final Fantasy: Spirits Within and Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children are extremely pretty bundles of complete nonsense.  While Square Enix displays some of the finest visual effects in both movies and games, it can’t seem to create a coherent, grounded story.  The developer consistently falls into the trap of deus ex machinas, not explaining key concepts, writing flat characters, and assuming the audience will go along with whatever craziness they put on screen.  Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV is the next movie in this failed series, except it shoulders greater responsibility than just being a good movie.  Charged as the opening act for the upcoming Final Fantasy XV game, we must not only ask is the movie any good, but also what it says about the next iteration of this venerable series.

The story begins with a rushed introduction of the war between the Kingdom of Lucius and the Empire of Niflheim.  The evil, technological Niflheim is threatening to overwhelm Lucius and its magic wielding king.  The movie follows Nyx Ulric, a member of the titular Kingsglaive as they repulse Niflheim’s attempts at domination.  Being something of an Achilles heel for the series, I am delighted to say that the story for this movie is fine.  Nyx leads a cast of understandable characters (an achievement, considering the pedigree) whose grounded motivations help overcome Square Enix’s desire to do too much with too little time.  Approaching Kingsglaive as the introduction to the game, the developer crammed in too many concepts without giving them time to develop.  Character motivations and the broader narrative arch jam in new concepts right until the final scene with a desire to brief the future players overcoming the need for a contained movie experience.  It’s frustrating when the setup obscures the movie narrative, but the story beats and characters are strong enough that viewers can follow the broader plot and enjoy the action.

Speaking of action, Kingsglaive excels at it.  One of the opening scenes includes a battle that stands out as one of the greatest CGI fights ever made.  The sense of scale and delightful light show reinforce Square Enix’s reputation as one of the finest purveyors of visuals anywhere.  Square Enix uses the Kingsglaive’s method of transportation, throwing a dagger and teleporting to it, to setup fantastic aerial stunts.  Even without giant war engines and wild spells, the developer manages to imbue its world with a sense of wonder.  The Lucian capital city of Insomnia blends modern technology with a magical twist that turns the mundane into the wonderful.  Kingsglaive is a feast for the eyes and can almost be watched on that basis alone.

Taken as a movie, Kingsglaive is an enjoyable experience.  Better movies certainly exist, but this one is worth the five bucks for an Amazon rental (get the HD).  Taken as an introduction to its video game counterpart, Kingsglaive achieves what it sets out to accomplish.  In showcasing an inviting world of magic and technology, the movie provides a clear hook for players to explore that world through the game.  The background information, largely superfluous for the movie, provides a workable primer for the players.  Even the story’s penchant for doing too much seems less like a flaw given that the considerably longer run time in the video game will give Square Enix time to flesh out the concepts it crammed in to this movie.  The fact that Square Enix didn’t completely bungle the narrative gives me hope that the game will avoid the major narrative pitfalls for which the developer is known.  All told, Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV is a decent movie and an excellent lead in to what will hopefully be another success for the video game franchise.

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Review – First Impressions of Civilization VI

Baby steps.

I’ve played Civilization VI for 10 hours and largely enjoyed it.  Here are my first impressions.

Unpacking cities is pretty neat

The biggest innovation of Civ VI is expanding cities beyond their single tiles.  Whereas previous games confined the city to a single spot on the map, Civ VI requires that the player place districts on nearby tiles to then build associated buildings on them.  World wonders now require specific tile combinations in addition to their technological and labor costs.  Unpacking cities succeeds in two ways.  The first is to turn district placement into a minigame where districts derive benefits from nearby districts and territory enhancements.  Skilled players can arrange a city to max out these benefits to specialize the city’s production.  The second way is how it interacts with combat.  Unpacked cities force players to defend larger swaths of territory and allow attackers to destroy meaningful aspects of a town without overrunning it.  Cities effect the landscape of combat in a way that territory improvements simply didn’t.  This makes terrain matter more too as now the player is incentivized to keep enemies outside of their territory in order to defend districts.  On the whole, unpacking cities adds new levels of welcome complexity and shakes up the formula.

Eureka moments are pretty neat too

In addition to the unpacking of cities, developer Firaxis added puzzle elements to research.  Each technological and cultural advance now has an associated quest (called a “eureka moment”) that reduces the cost of that advance.  Killing three barbarians halves the cost of Bronze Working, for example.  Players are now rewarded for pursuing a path as these quests are often tied to the playstyle that wants that particular technology.  Once again, this innovation integrates many aspects of the game by turning them into meaningful boosts for advances.  While casual players will probably never fully take advantage of the system, more devoted players will quickly develop strategies to glide through the tech paths.

Barbarians are the opposite of neat.  One might even call them not neat.

Like Civ V, Civ VI’s barbarians randomly pop up in the uncolonized places of the world and send a stream of angry relatives to go forth and murder.  Unlike Civ V, Civ VI’s barbarians took a remedial planning course and now attack in larger numbers with coordinated strikes and weaponry beyond what they player might have.  Uncolonized areas aren’t just dangerous, they are now the home of hellspawn who penalize the player for daring to live without a coastline or mountain range.  In one game, I fought barbarians in my home territory for over 30 straight turns because of three encampments placed equidistant from my capital.  Boo.  If ever there were a feature in need of a slider, barbarian spawn rates is it.  On the upside, if you can get past the angry bastards…

Expansion isn’t penalized.  Huzzah!

Civ III had corruption which turned every city after the first few into tax absorbing vampires.  Civ IV made everyone cranky once the player established too many towns.  Civ V cut off the cultural aspect of the game for daring to have an empire.  Civ VI lets you build however many cities you want.  There’s no penalty!  It’s the first time since Civ II where the player can expand without their empire collapsing.  Finally.

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Review – Ratchet and Clank – PS4

What was old, is new again.

Do you remember when the consoles were flooded with friendly cartoon characters who ran, jumped, and flew through a wide array of environments?  Do you long for collectible hunting before it became synonymous with open world, GTA style gameplay?  Insomniac has got you covered.  With the HD rerelease of Ratchet and Clank for the PS4, the glory days of mascot platforming are on display for all to see.  It’s a happy return.

The story begins with Clank, a defunct Blarg warbot who discovers plans to attack planet Novalis.  Clank escapes the Blarg only to crash land near Ratchet, a furry cat like creature with mechanical talent and dreams of saving the galaxy.  Together, they team up to defeat the Blarg and save the day.  The story is about as straightforward as I’ve presented it with only the occasional stabs of humor to set it apart from your average kid’s cartoon show.  There isn’t much here to draw in adults and the plot largely serves as a vehicle to move the player from one planet to the next.  While a game like this doesn’t need a strong story, there are moments where Ratchet and Clank’s narrative feels like a missed opportunity.  A number of characters almost use pessimistic humor before they pull away from truly amusing territory.  It happens enough times that it feels like the writers wanted to go one step further before someone stopped them.  That’s a shame, because humor would have greatly livened up the proceedings.  As it stands, the story is functional.

The gameplay is where Ratchet and Clank shines.  The game has the platformer’s usual array of jumping puzzles, but the addition of clever weaponry helps it stand out.  Ratchet has a wide array of guns which can level up through use and benefit from upgrades purchase with a special material called raretanium.  While the leveling scheme encourages the player to constantly swap weapons, the usefulness of each weapon makes the experience a delight.  Each gun has its own value, but no gun is powerful enough to work in all situations throughout the game.  The powerful sheepinator turns enemies into sheep without requiring ammo, but is ineffective against bosses.  The groovatron turns the battlefield into a dance floor, but doesn’t hurt larger enemies much.  Taking full advantage of Ratchet’s arsenal is one of the true delights of the game.  Sadly, the Clank sections are less so.  Clank relies on puzzles based on minibots whose many forms help him overcome obstacles.  The puzzles are challenging enough to keep the player interested and they break up the gameplay, but they never really satisfy like Ratchet’s shooting sections.  They are also sometimes accompanied by Clank’s hints which repeat incessantly annoying players who are enacting the solution and those who already heard the clue and wish he would just stop.

One of the joys of the Ratchet and Clank series is the vibrant, cartoony environments.  The HD remake only enhances their quality and brings the fuller vision into view.  The dynamism of the original level designs stand out with many of them taking place on an active battlefield or bustling cityscape with the attending side fights or zooming cars creating the atmosphere.  None of the environments are technical or stylistic stand outs, yet they’re so well-crafted that they’re incredibly fun to explore.  Beyond the environment, character models are sharper, colors pop, and the tiny details from the original game stand out more.  My only grip is the tiny letters, though that is likely a function of my smaller TV.  The game is a lot of fun to watch.

The rerelease adds a few features, but it’s the original game that truly draws in the player.  Developer Insomniac understood that this is a game that doesn’t need fixing and only made minor tweaks.  If you own a PS4, I highly recommend dropping some cash on Ratchet and Clank.  You’ll enjoy it.

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