Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Hollow Knight Review - Adorably Deadly

Score : 9.0 / 10 
Hollow Knight
PC - Xbox One - PS4 - Switch
Developer: Team Cherry
Publisher: Team Cherry
Release Date: February 24th, 2017

  • Visually unique, with wonderfuly hand drawn animation and environments
  • Gameplay is simple to get the hang of, but timing makes it an art
  • Loads of hidden content tucked away
  • Difficulty that is challenging but fair
  • Updates still pouring out with quality of life changes
  • No ability to change charms on the fly makes experimentation a bit of a hassle
  • Tram locations feel inconvenient (better with update providing teleports)

You begin Hollow Knight by dropping into a dark abyss, void of any real contact aside from the creeping bugs out for your soul. There are no real characters save the last remnant of a local village, and even he seems hopeless. You dive deeper into the darkness and eventually come across a particularly happy map keeper, the first real glimpse of pleasantness as his melodic hum draws you toward his pile of papers as he scribbles away. He offers you a map for a few geo (the game's currency) before you dive back into the unknown and push forward, conquering a towering armored boss before finding yourself in the lush forest of the Greenpath.

 You guys need more lamps

That is the tone of Hollow Knight; A dim, broken world with a sealed room that you are destined to open without a real reason, but amidst the dreary setting you find little glimmers of life and hope that urge you to press on and see what else lies ahead. A breadcrumb trail of information litters each world; a cast of characters that you bump into as you dive deeper into the unknown, prophecies written upon stones in each stage, and backdrops that allude to some horrifying occurrence. Each piece fits together to shape the general puzzle of who you are and what awaits you, but even with a lot of the information there is a so much more to the story that is entirely brought about by player speculation. The world is a massive variation from the secluded and tucked away bee army to the honor bound mantis village, you begin to piece together tribes and entities that make up the crazy world you inhabit.

Despite the darker overtone, the style and unique look to Hollow Knight is standout. The second world you visit makes a stark contrast as you emerge from a dark dreary like cave to this lush, vibrantly green forest with cheerier background music. Luminous crystal caves, desolate pitch black  undergrounds, rain soaked skyscrapers; there is a continual sense of wonder when entering a new area as new enemy types and daunting back drops hint at the sheer scope of events that shaped this world. Each hand crafted frame gives life to the slew of foes you contend with, and gives combat the finesse it requires in timing jumps and dodges. The soundtrack is nothing short of wonderful, intensifying boss fights and bringing a melodramatic feeling to certain scenes.

 The clearly telegraphed wind up

It took me a while to get into, but as the gameplay continued I began the appreciate the little things Hollow Knight does to keep the game simple but challenging. The game starts you off with the basics, you can attack with a short range swipe and attack while in the air, but each hit has a slight bit of recoil. You then are introduced to Soul, the magic bar, which can either be used to launch an offensive ranged attack or charged to restore one sliver of health; a tradeoff of sorts. But as you continue on you unlock a wide array of moves that can be used in conjunction with this; dashes, wall jumps, double jumps, charged attacks, and even the ability to pogo over spikes and enemies. The game slowly reveals the limits and uses that your kit can provide, and by the game's end I felt like a seasoned expert in platforming and dodging enemy attacks that always managed to hit me before.

The Metroidvania feeling really takes hold around an hour into the game. You hit barriers, and must find an item or ability to get past that area so you can see what the blank spot on your map holds. Usually this means overcoming one of the plentiful bosses in each area, some optional, some necessary; but each providing its own challenge. Because of the hand drawn animation moves are typically telegraphed well so each hit can only be blamed on your own bad timing, and some of the dream realm bosses took quite a bit of observation and multiple attempts to overcome. You may get the feeling of  "okay now where am I suppose to go" especially in trying to achieve the true ending, but for every roadblock I hit I was able to find a new area or item that opened up other possibilities.

 Don't just stand there, aim for the jelly parts!

Working with your basic moves, you will also gain a slew of charms and items to give you the upper hand. Expected upgrades are all here; ore to strengthen your main weapon, collecting items to extend health and soul, even map upgrades to help clarify where everything is located. Your main customization comes in the form of charms. These items provide a special ability of some sort, from increasing damage to increasing health or even allowing you to fire more projectiles. Each charm takes up a certain amount of slots so you are limited in what you can choose, but it allows you to strengthen areas for certain fights if something is not working or create a custom loadout for traversing the map quickly. The only issue is you cannot equip these on the fly and must be at a save point bench in order to swap them, which makes experimentation a bit of a hassle.

I played two runs through Hollow Knight, the second taking multiple tries for the game's Steel Soul difficulty with permadeath, and on that second run I was still finding areas and characters I had breezed by on my initial playthrough. The few gripes I had with the game were actively being addressed and patched with the Lifeblood update; fast travel spots spaced a little too far? Here's a warp gate that you can use. Find something on your map you wish you could remember for later, here are some map markers. Team Cherry is still fine tuning an already fantastic game with another DLC on the way, and for only fifteen bucks its hard to argue not putting this at the top of your must play lists for the year. Hollow Knight is a beautifully dreary tale, and one that encourages the player that peeks around every corner.  

Friday, March 23, 2018

Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus - Did Nazi Dat Coming

Score: 8.0 / 10
Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus
PC - Xbox One - Playstation 4 - Nintendo Switch
Developer: MachineGames
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Release Date: October 27th, 2017

  • A story that is both unpredictable and incredibly deep, even for those unfamiliar to first installment
  • Skill points allocate automatically based on your combat approach
  • Branching paths in story and maps beg replays or different tactics
  • Original Wolfenstein 3D available to play from start to finish
  • Stealth, although encouraged, is difficult to really pull off
  • Swapping weapons on the fly proves difficult on console
  • Side missions and hit contracts fail to provide much in terms of variety
Wolfenstein is a textbook example of how atmosphere and absurdity can make a basic shooter worth a play. No, it does not have the tightest controls to it, nor the best stealth mechanics, and the side missions left a lot to be desired; But for every frustrating death, it gave something in return; An over the top cutscene, a satisfying explosion of metal and sound, or a new weapon that wrecked an entire crew of Nazi soldiers.

The more you play New Colossus, the more you see the cracks, but the overall facade is still just blindingly fun chaos.

A drink off with a crazed preacher whilst under sniper fire

I never played the first installment, so I had no idea what to expect going in and this game picks up where its predecessor left off. A small highlight reel plays covering events of the last game before it asks you to make a choice between two people that I literally just met, but each one leads to a different timeline, two branching paths, which turns out to mainly be each one nets you a different heavy weapon. Regardless, you then begin as any game should...hiding from your abusive dad in the closet with your dog. This transitions to a ship under siege from Nazis, but you are recovering from the last game so you spend the entire first stage in a wheelchair and you are unable to climb stairs.

That is what makes this game so great. By the time you have an idea of where the story is going, especially with a mid-game scene where I was sure it was done, the game throws a left curve out of nowhere. It balances absurdity with heavy tones of racism, morality, and companionship. Coupled with that is a soundtrack akin to Doom of heavy rifts for intense shootouts and stellar voice work, New Colossus delivers an intensely satisfying look at a post-Nazi ruled world, one of anger and desperation.

While acting as your standard cover shooter, the game adapts to how you play automatically. No skill points, no levels, just naturally landing head shots boosts your shooting ability, sneaking and stealth kills lower your noise levels and increases speed while crouched. You do not even have to limit yourself to a gunslinger or a sneaky guy, you can be as chaotic or stealthy as you want and the game will shower you with encouragement to do so. By the endgame, I found myself focusing areas I did not level well to just further increase my overall kit.

You will die eventually...I just know it

There are a few staged shootouts and segments you have little control over, but the majority of the encounters have you enter a room only to get a ping of where a commander lies. These leaders can call reinforcements if alerted, and shower the room with baddies flanking you on all sides. Maps branch out with multiple paths, allowing you to choose vantage points to shoot from or stealthy pathways to take the commander out quietly. Halfway through the game you gain new abilities that allow you to reach high platforms, compress your body to fit in crawlspaces, or even smash through barriers, further opening up potential pathways.

The stealth, while a great way to play, is pretty difficult. There is no real radar, idea of line of sight, nothing beyond peaking around corners and a general map of the area. It takes some getting used to, but once you gain silenced weaponry you can usually predict guard pathways and move slow and steady to the finish. You will get caught a lot...sometimes for no reason at all...but on the higher difficulties I could usually find a way to get around and the checkpoint system is lenient enough to allow you to get right back into it if you are discovered.

You made this personal once you sounded the alarm

Combat is purely cover shooter based. Dual wielding offers a destructive means of mowing down enemies, but the AI is pretty predictable, mostly charging in head first to your location. Most of the strategy involved putting your back to the wall and picking them off as they come. I even found the commander would stop calling reinforcements after a few waves, which means I can play the waiting game and pick everyone off one by one. Heavy armored troops, fast moving robot dogs, and flying drones throw a few wrenches in the mix, but ultimately you can solve your problem by shoving a dual wielded shotgun in its face.

When you are not on a mission, you are back on your main ship which acts as a hub world where you can review collectibles scattered in each stage, talk to crewmates for small side missions, and even play the original Wolfenstein 3D in its entirety in the cafe. As you kill commanders you also gain codes that you can decrypt, unveiling small hit missions where you are tasked to locate and eliminate a target. These are usually very straightforward and once dead you just hit "Return to Ship" and no matter whats going on around you it's boop, back to the load screen. These missions eventually unlock a secret area only accessible by finishing all commanders but it proves to be hardly worth the effort.

Wolfenstein is a game that will appeal to your humanity one minute and dive into the absurd the next. It is not revolutionary by any means, and the difficulty with stealth or frustrating weapon swap wheel can damper things, but when you mow down a group of a Nazis with a laser or audition for Hitler...yeah that happens; it is easy to overlook the issues.  There is something for everyone here; a ton of collectibles tucked away in each stage, an insane difficulty level for die hards, and the retro Wolfenstein 3D was a nice touch to an altogether fun game. There are cracks in the facade but the big picture here is New Colossus is an explosive ride with a surprisingly deep narrative that is just fun to experience.

Monday, March 5, 2018

The Witcher 3: Hearts of Stone - Review

The main game for Witcher 3 takes roughly fifty hours to complete, with more than 100 hours if you take your time and explore. After completing the main game, I had two DLC notifications sitting in my quest log that I could not bring myself to delve into just yet. I felt burnt out from the main game, and was ready to take a break. Recently, I brought myself back to explore the first of the two expansions, and was completely surprised by how well it all came together.

Hearts of Stone does a number of things that not only mixed up the expected combat, but provided a refreshing take on the series as a whole. New characters, new items, new areas; it all paved the way for a wonderfully written, intriguing approach that hooked me back in to Geralt's tale.

You will both hate and love this guy

The primary characters of Olgierd and the Master Mirror are way more interesting than anything the wild hunt had to offer. Olgierd has much more personality to him, an intriguing backstory of failed love, vengeful enemies, and the curse immortality has taken on his soul. On the other hand you have the Master Mirror, an all powerful mysterious entity, capable of bending the world to his will like a cunning genie, wording wishes and contracts to his terms. Geralt's interaction with them felt like it was ripped from the books, a fun tangle with blades and words as Geralt vents frustrations of being tied to Master Mirror's demands by an imprint and his sympathy to Olgierd's overall plight.

Despite the huge open world of Witcher 3 taking you to a slew of crypts, mountainsides, and large cities; Hearts of Stone still opens up to some interesting locales. Fighting a band of Ofieri on the sandy beach, tackling shadows in a painted realm, even chugging back drinks at a colorful wedding; each felt rich and unique in their own way. You do not have a stand alone area and will have to revisit a few cities for some quests, but the new locales keep it fresh.

Bob Ross was not the final boss, sadly

Quests are similar to Witcher 3 in base approach, offering a main objective with some branching paths in your choices. Standouts include using your body to let a ghost have fun at a wedding, assembling a team for a heist on an auction house, and investigating an abandoned mansions' occurrences. A few new enemies make their appearance, including arachnomorphs which prove to be much faster spiders that keep their distance and require the Yrden sign to trap.

Gameplay remains similar but boss encounters are much more satisfying. A giant frog boss leaping over your head, an undead caretaker that heals with every strike he lands against you, and a demonic specter that possesses multiple bodies are just a few of the challenges you must face. Encounters felt more thought out and involved beyond simply casting a Quen shield and hacking away. The difficulty was also ramped up considerably from the last time, as Death March became difficult again. This made for more interesting encounters that required more planning and effort to overcome.

Inventory used to boil down to getting a set of witcher gear and upgrading it, but the game does well in providing alternatives that were stronger than the sets I was currently running. Enchanting items also threw a new ability to unlock sockets for weapons and armor, making them on par with the powerful mastercrafted gear. Additionally, runes sitting in your inventory can be reworked to provide stat bonuses to your current gear, providing opportunities for new builds all around.

Monsters are way easier to deal with than hostage negotiations

For what it was, Hearts of Stone is more Witcher 3, but I say that loosely. It had a more interesting narrative, better boss encounters, and more involved missions than the base game. Compared to the size of the next installment Blood and Wine  (currently playing through) it pales in comparison in terms of scope, as you can knock this out in less than ten hours. But the antics of Geralt and new experiences kept me hooked to its satisfying conclusion.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Dropmix - DJ Color by Number

Harmonix is no stranger to the game scene, Rock Band flooded plastic toys into our homes in 2007. Recently they have taken the board game route, sticking with what they know best; music.

Their latest game, Dropmix, is a competitive card game in which four players split into two teams, drawing cards from their own deck of fifteen cards to overtake the other team on the mix board. Drop a card on the board, that's +1 point, and the first to 21 wins. While imposing at first, you soon realize this is a simple game of colors, numbers, and a hint of luck; all the while mixing famous tracks together as you battle it out.

The empty board looks like this; five spots in total with color bands around the edges. Only the corresponding color card occupies that spot; yellow are vocals, blues are typically drums, red is guitar, and green your bass line. There are also two white special effects cards and a single rainbow card in each deck that can be placed anywhere on the board.

Each card has a "power" or amplitude ranging from weakest (1) to strongest (3). Placing your card in the spot requires you to check if the color matches and if the amplitude is equal or greater than the card that occupies that spot. Single power cards are typically played at the start on blank spots but as you progress you soon find yourself needing higher ranked cards to overtake spaces you require, replacing their track music line with your track music. If your opponent drops a level two red card, you would have to play a level two or three to overtake that part of the mix. Overtake the entire mix, and you get an additional point.

Turns consist of two actions, one for you and one for your partner if you are playing head to head with a teammate. Placing a card is one action, but white special effect cards can allow the placement of multiple cards, even using combos with your teammate's deck to up the score as much as possible.

The other action you can do is hit the Dropmix button. This spins a wheel and selects an amplitude of one, two, three, all of the above (rare), or none. If it lands on three, for instance, any level three cards will be wiped from the board and subtract points from the enemy team for each card taken. This becomes a gamble, but if your opponent is gaining the lead you can wipe their entire board in a single strike and clear the way for your weaker cards.

While all of this is happening, the game is mixing the guitar, drums, bass, and vocals of cards you put down. Thus, the appeal of the game; the more you play, the more mixes you come across. Some work surprisingly well together, and any you prefer can be saved for listening later. The game automatically works the bpm and settings for you as you drop cards, so everything seamlessly melds together.

The base game comes with the tabletop and four decks to start with but if you play it for a couple of weeks, they tend to get old fast. There are subsequent decks that you can order for $15 to expand the playlist and provide new special cards into the mix. These range from country music decks, to pop decks, to rock and roll decks.

Mixing different cards from decks together can be difficult, as you have to have a "legal" deck for versus mode so you are not stacking high level amplitudes. In this respect it can be tough to mix multiple cards between multiple decks, but mixing two decks together for one versus one is as easy as shuffling them together.

There is also a party mode game where everyone races to put cards down as fast a possible for a high score, as well as a freestyle mode where you can just plop cards on the table as you desire. These hold your interest, but are less interesting than the base head to head mode.

At its core, the game is easy to get the hang of, and the shear number of mixes you can make with the sixty base deck of cards is astounding. Add in the additional decks and you start to see the longevity the game can hold as you figure out what each deck's uniqueness can do and how to counter their white card effects. While the base game can wear after a while, the expansions breathe new life into the game if you have the ability fork out a little more cash.

As it stands, Harmonix is working on new game modes, features, and ways to play. It has life to it yet, and the time we played with friends hooked in new players and board game veterans alike. It's simple, enjoyable, and the feeling of dropping a rainbow card to overtake a mix is eternally satisfying.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Middle Earth: Shadow of War Review - A Shadow of its Former Self

Score: 7.5 / 10
Middle Earth: Shadow of War
PC - Xbox One - PS4
Developer: Monolith Productions
Publisher:Warner Brothers Interactive
Release Date: 10/10/2017

  • Nemesis system improvements are a big boost and stays as randomized as ever
  • Attacking a warchief with your army is a satisfying chaos
  • Varying skill abilities and legendary sets allow for customization on playstyle
  • A ton of possibilities in your journey to overtake a fortress

  • Overwhelming amount of information at the start leaves new players confused
  • Main mission structure pales to base fortress gameplay
  • Act IV is a true grind for a three minute cutscene
  • Actions in the midst of chaos are hard to execute and control

When I was a kid, I used to like to setup dominoes to fall down together but it always had downsides; The setup process was tedious, sometimes things fell down when you do not want them to, sometimes the domino was not spaced properly to trigger the other one to fall down correctly. Ultimately you finally have it happen. It was quick, but satisfying to watch it all play out, and after the last domino fell and I was left looking at the results I asked myself...was this really worth my time?

That is the same feeling I get when playing Middle Earth: Shadow of War. You spend hours training and recruiting new captains to help you capture a fortress, sometimes those captains betray you, sometimes those captains die in the fight, sometimes those captains get in the way of your fight and you accidentally kill them because targeting friendlies in the chaos of battle is a real thing; But ultimately, the fortress raids that are the prime focus of Shadow of War are when the game is at its best. As the dust clears, and the captains you took over and spent time gathering and farming materials to upgrade suddenly become obsolete, or you move to a new area to start the process anew, you look over your checklist of items to finish and just ask if it is all worth it.

Talking spiders, talking trees...everything talks

Talion went through a lot with Celembrimbor in the last game; revenge against the generals of Sauron that slaughtered his family, establishing his name as the Gravewalker as he slaughtered captain after captain, and ended with an ultimate quest to target the bad boy himself; Sauron. So they decide to do the dumbest thing possible...craft a new ring. This leads you to Shelob who is not just a spider but a sexy lady spider. Also Gollum shows up...for two missions cause....cause reasons. The banter between Talion and Celembrimbor over the morality of overtaking life and their ultimate goal is the only thing that really kept me interested in the story itself. Eltariel is the only new edition that truly sparks interest as she hunts Ring Wraiths for a living, and a cameo character from the previous game is a welcome reappearance. Beyond that, if you are a die hard of the lore prepare to tear your hair out.

The game is split into four acts, and as such, my impressions with this game shifted:

Act 1 is the introductory to the game, and it throws too much too fast. A quick look at the mini map icons that litter your view when you first open the menu you have a slew of options at your disposal with little to no explanation on what each one does. "This is the main mission, this is a side mission, I guess, a captain killed me, he leveled up I guess that happens, lot of inventory, gems too?" With such a broad menu and scope without even touching on domination aspect of the game, I felt like anyone who did not play Shadow of Mordor would be in a total state of confusion as to the pacing of this game. Main quest missions train you in the basics of combat vs stealth, the latter of which is more useful as starting out you are locked out of a lot of moves to vary up your style. The mission structure for the story strips a lot of surroundings and closes off a section of the main world for most encounters, but are pretty straightforward.

Combat is very akin to the Arkham style of play from the previous game. You can hit, eventually counter, strong attack with a glaive; the works. This branches out more as the game progresses, opening up area of effect attacks and elemental attacks. Enemies range from grunts to shield orcs that block your attacks head on to larger troll like orcs that require more finesse to extinguish. Timings and strategy are there so long as you are not completely surrounded, but the stripped moveset early on will become apparent as you vault over orc after orc.

Hope you like to counter, you will be doing it a lot

Act 2 is where you will spend most of your time and where the real game starts to break through as you gain the ability to dominate orcs and captains, setting up ambushes and organizing full on battles to overtake a fortress. Sidequests open up, including a ring wraith hunting mission, as well as new areas to explore from lush jungles to barren winter hilltops. Combat becomes sleeker and easier as you gain more varied executions and assistance with the combo meter, everything just starts to click.

The nemesis system upgrades are standout, and as you put hours and hours into this game, you will still not come across the same orc personality twice. Some are in your face brutal, some are poets, and some are just hilarious moaning entities. Each captain has a weakness and strength, some will block your attempts to vault them, some get enraged if you set them on fire, some get enraged by...everything. It is the randomization and openness in taking a fortress that keeps the game fresh. You can tackle a warchief head on, setup all his generals against him, or have a few captains betray their commanders and infiltrate their keep as a spy.

This part never gets old

This is where the game really picks up, the fortress assaults. You gather your army and charge the warchief's stronghold, boosting attackers with caragors or berserker squads that run headfirst at the enemy gates. A small exchange of dialogue leads to a charge of all of your forces and never loses appeal. Captains overtake enemy captains, archers rain fire arrows, siege beasts attack with poison cannons; it turns into a wonderful chaos. At the end of it all you face the warchief himself. Taking a fortress allows you to assign your own warchief protector and defenses, but those do not come into play until act four. Online missions allow you to raid another player's fortress but it only acts a simulation so no captains really die and need to be replaced.

Act 3 is the essential "final mission" as you charge against Sauron himself in one of the most lackluster mid-game "endings" you could have after all that work. It is not like Mass Effect 2 where building up your army you can unleash all hell on a final fortress, no, it is a single hallway mission...You fight on a bridge with a handful of captains, after which you do a mini fortress invade mission on the original city that was taken, have two uninspired boss fights and fade to the most drawn out part of the game.

Act 4. You must complete ten stages, each with a fortress defense a piece, and multiple defenses on the latter few stages. Defend the fortress from Sauron's army, lose it, and you have to take it all over again. Not to mention there is nothing special about these is quite literally just one high level captain and five lesser. No Wraiths, no hitches...nothing special beyond repetition. Oh you have level 30s in that fortress because you did not have the time to upkeep all the fortresses as you progressed through the game, yeah they are useless now. Maybe explore our lootbox system to up your level? I see what you did there Monolith.

Regardless of the hype, the lootbox dread is minimal here. You can earn all currencies for them in-game, even the coveted gold currency can be earned from daily quests that take maybe 5 minutes to do. It does walk a line of you don’t “have to” buy them, but they help in leveling and restocking your fortress should captains fall. The careful player can balance it so it is never really an issue.

The good news is if you liked Shadow of Mordor you will like this. I was just hoping for more from Shadow of War. More refinement and focus on the missions structure and content, but it feels far too spread out. The nemesis system is engaging, and the fortress attack and defense missions can be fun, but the disappointment of Act 3 and repetition of Act 4 in re-leveling, replacing, and upping lost captains over and over again became agonizing and drawn out. I drilled hours into getting a 2 minute cutscene. When the game is at its best, it truly is enjoyable, but the journey to get to the good stuff feels like an inconvenience. It will leave you staring at dead captains, checklists of sidequests, and as your fortress falls to an orc who friendly fired you, you will step back and say is this really worth my time?