Total Reviews: 815
Average Overall Score Given: 7.31301 / 10
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Grotto: A cave, artificial or natural, used by humans from prehistoric to modern times. The game titles also shares where your experience will take place in this narrative adventure.

Have you ever been asked for advice? I’d like to say I’ve got a sound mind for some helpful advice when asked, but what if the advice you gave made the person do something unintended, or they took your words a completely different way than expected? What if the only advice you could offer was between two very poor choices? Do you ever find that you overthink your words when replying to someone? Grotto is about interpretation, so if you’re someone that over-analyzes or over-thinks their responses, you’re going to have your work cut out for you.

A game where you’re playing as a prophet of sorts, a Soothsayer, using the stars and constellations to find hidden meanings and messages. Grotto at its core is somewhat like a visual novel, as there’s not much in terms of ‘gameplay’ aside from choosing a constellation and having dialogue with those seeking your advice and guidance. Your advice has a lot of weight, as your words are like gospel to those that seek meaning and advice, so beware, as there may be unexpected consequences in what others interpret your words as.

You play as the unnamed Soothsayer, residing in a grotto where those seeking answers come to for guidance. Those that come are from primitive tribes, and your ability to read the stars will give them purpose and answers, though what you say versus what they understand may be drastically different things. Your options of responses are based on which constellations you ‘see’ and how you interpret their meaning. Your guidance will not only affect the person your conversing with, but possibly the tribe as a whole.

While you never see yourself, the world is populated with anthropomorphic creatures that can walk upright and speak. This primitive tribe seeking answers has you turning to the stars for answers as they come to your grotto each evening. As you awake from your slumber each night, you don’t have many possessions, only a special stone to stand on to gaze the stars and a small bonfire where locals will come for your advice. How you interpret the stars could vastly differ from how they understand its meaning as well, not always lining up or playing out exactly as you expected. Do you look at each constellation and overthink what each could possibly mean or symbolize, or let your mind freely flow and go with your feelings instead? There’s no right or wrong per se, but different meanings can have drastically different outcomes, from prosperity to possibly even death.

Grotto is the epitome of a slow burn. Events unfold over the 5 hours or so campaign, seeing the outcomes of the advice you’ve given. Each night you’ll have a visitor, you’ll talk to them, then choose which star constellation will act as an answer to their question. You never actually leave your grotto, which is an odd feeling when you start to understand their hardships and plights, even more so when an outcome sounds horrible, only able to imagine what’s happening outside from their tales. While you think you’re helping, sometimes the next day or later the person you gave advice to returns only to tell you something tragic happened, due to how they interpreted your words.

Actually, the majority of the time, the outcomes were nothing that I expected, usually resulting in one of two awful results. A perfect example of choosing a lesser evil is when a parent comes for advice of what to do with their child, either being ritually killed or sold into slavery. Heavy stuff when you legitimately think you’re helping by rationalizing your own reasoning. Be prepared, as there’s some heavy content that should probably have a trigger warning, with themes of abuse, death, torture, and other dark topics. That’s not to say that it’s not done tastefully, but it was certainly unexpected.

As for the gameplay elements, Grotto is set in a 3D world, your small grotto where you can move around and explore, but it’s really just a small room. The characters you interact with nightly are 2D cutouts, and it’s generally always so dark that there’s not really much to see aside from the dimly lit campfire making the cave lightly glow. The character design is well done, and even if you’re not a fan of the anthropomorphic character choices, seeing the different races did make it appear to be set much further in the past.

When someone arrives in your grotto for advice, you’ll listen to their question or plight, then making way to your standing stone where you can gaze upon a small hole in the cave ceiling to see the distant stars. This is where the majority of Grotto’s ‘gameplay’ comes in, connecting stars in the sky to figure out different constellations. This will allow you to ‘read’ the stars and use it as an answer to your visitor(s). How you’re supposed to know what stars need connecting to create and unlock each of the constellations is beyond me. There’s nothing that explains this, so I just started to randomly connect different dots/stars, eventually unlocking a handful of constellations I could then use as answers. Without a guide I’m unsure how you’re supposed to figure out which star connections make each.

Once you’ve unlocked your constellations, great! Well, now the issue is that you can’t simply give the same answer to everyone each time, as after a few uses, it’s no longer a valid option. This meant that sometimes I’d be giving an answer I didn’t necessarily think was the best, but was one of my only options. Turns out you can again connect the stars in the sky, but this wasn’t explained at all either. Thankfully the constellations on your large wall in the grotto show what stars need connecting to ‘get’ it again once unlocked. There are a few moments later where you’ll do something slightly different, like reading bones or going to another plane after smoking something to meet spirits. The vast majority of your time though is waking up, talking to a visitor, choosing which constellation is the answer/advice you want to give them, sleep, then repeat as you see the outcome.

Going through my second playthrough, I expected that given how many different answers you could give to each visitor, the storyline would branch wildly different each time. While I did get some slightly different results, it does seem as though the narrative eventually funnels towards the same direction near its end regardless of your decisions. There is more than one ending, but given how grim most of the results are, it feels almost futile at times to try and ‘save’ everyone, as what I thought was good intentions at times resulting in a drastically different outcome than expected.

While simplistic, I did enjoy the aesthetics for the anthropomorphic characters, they all had their own personalities and designs, yet looked as though they did belong to the same primitive tribe. I’ve always been a fan of the 2D in a 3D world since Paper Mario and Parappa The Rapper, and while a very dark and gloomy design normally wouldn’t appeal to me, it makes sense when the entirety takes place within your grotto during the dead of night. At the same time, there’s really not all that much to look at being confined to a single room. The soundtrack is fitting for its atmosphere, catchy at times even, though could have benefitted from a few more tracks. While there is a little bit of spoken dialogue, it too creates an uneasy atmosphere and tone.

Gameplay is simplistic and rarely changes, and while it is repetitive, it’s more akin to a visual novel. I did make the mistake of playing quite late one night, falling asleep with my controller in hand due to the mellow soundtrack, having the character waiting for my answer for about an hour. That’s not to say Grotto is boring, as it has an interesting premise, but you’re going to need to be in the mood for a narrative heavy adventure with a side order of stargazing and ambiguity.

I’ll be honest, when the credits first rolled I put down the controller and my initial reaction was quite apathetic. I didn’t hate Grotto, but I didn’t really enjoy it either, as I don’t normally gravitate towards visual novel-like games. That said, as I let my thoughts simmer for a day, and especially while writing this review, it just somewhat ‘clicked’ with me, and the more I reflected, the more I realized Grotto was actually quite memorable and how I appreciated what it was going for. I kept thinking of the questions I was asked and how my interpretation of my answer vastly differed from the person seeking the advice. It made me wonder if something similar has happened in real life with advice I’ve given, as there’s usually not always a ‘right’ answer to many questions. While some won’t enjoy the lack of ‘gameplay’, Grotto is a unique experience that makes you think of how you interpret situations and what you would do in times of desperation.

**Grotto was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Horizon Chase 2

Horizon Chase Turbo was a great racer that released back in 2018 that was quite enjoyable. It’s been a number of years, but now its long awaited sequel gets a release on Xbox for returning fans. Horizon Chase 2 brings what you’d want in sequel; improved visuals, a slick soundtrack, and fast paced drifting racing we’ve come to expect. If you were ever a fan of classic OutRun or Top Gear, you’ll know exactly what to expect from its gameplay. Feeling like a game coming out of the 90’s, Horizon Chase 2 is an arcade racer that has you racing at high speed on tracks from across the globe. You can play a campaign, tournaments, or even local or online multiplayer, including cross platform play. You’re aiming to come in first in each race, and while the first few races will be simple, they'll eventually become more challenging and fun as you upgrade your garage of unlocked vehicles.

World Tour is the campaign mode where you’ll spend the majority of your time. Completing the career mode will only take a handful of hours, but there’s just enough replayability that you’ll probably have to go back to a few of the races or time trials if you’re striving for 100% completion. You’ll be racing across the world, from the USA, Brazil, Italy, Morocco, Thailand and Japan with over 60 tracks.

Each country is made of three different segments, each consisting of a half dozen races or so. The earlier tracks begin out simple with wide roads and not as many turns, later becoming much more narrow and winding. They are a stereotypical version of what you’d expect from each, and while the color pallets and backgrounds may change, you’ll be so focused on any upcoming corners that it’ll be challenging to appreciate as you speed to the finish in races that last a mere few minutes.

Races will have different times of day and varied weather. While the tracks themselves don’t change - the majority being circuit laps (usually three or four) there’s also the odd point A to B race which changed things up just a little bit. There will also usually be a Time Trial in each segment where you’ll have to put your racing skills to the real test, collecting every nitro and hitting every boost if you’re to make the par time.

While there are a number of cars to unlock as you progress, you’ll begin with a choice of just a few. Each vehicle has a different style (racer, muscle, SUV, hatchback, etc) and their own stats. Given that the majority of Horizon Chase 2’s racing is about high speeds and drifting corners, I opted for the vehicle that had the best handling to start out with, the Hatchback that resembles a Yaris or something similar. Sadly the vehicles aren't licensed at all, but it's pretty obvious which real world car brought the inspiration.

Placing in the top few spots will allow you to progress, and on each race there’s a number of blue coins you can collect. Given that the overall content can be a bit light, focusing on trying to 100% each race is where the value comes in. Your reflexes are going to have to be up to par, as those corners come fast and furious. Wide roads that are about four or five lanes wide make for an easy drift and cornering, becoming much more challenging when only two lanes wide and trying to pass an opponent. Get knocked off the track and you’ll lose all your speed and crash for a moment, just like classic OutRun.

Make sure you don’t lose focus, as one mistake can cost you pole position. You’ll have a few Nitro’s you can use that will push your car beyond its normal max speed, great for passing opponents at a straightaway. I found though that the first or second place CPU would boost just as you start to catch up to them, so it's generally best to let them get ahead for a bit, then boost to overtake on a straight stretch. The majority of the time you’ll simply be holding the throttle down the whole time, though if you’re close to crashing out or missing a turn, you can let go of the gas for a moment. I don’t think I actually used the brake at all now that I'm reflecting. Simply go fast as you can all the time.

As you win races you’ll earn XP, level up, and get to choose an upgrade to permanently boost your vehicle. Each upgrade will have you racing faster, adding another boost, increasing acceleration or handling. At level 10 your car will be fully increased, though each car will have slightly different maximum stats. While the upgrades of your cars are good and all, the customization is what I enjoyed more. You can unlock new body kits, paint colors and rims. You’ll have to spend coins earned to unlock these, which gives you more to work towards, and each car has their own unlocks. There’s only about three body kits per car, a few colors to choose, and rims unlock by completing challenges and Time Trials. It takes quite a grind to earn enough coins to unlock everything, even for one car, so if you want to earn everything for every vehicle, it’s going to take quite some time. I do wish there were more options, as it's a bit light on content.

With online and local multiplayer, you’ll be able to play against your friends, or anyone, regardless of where they are or which platform. Other than career mode, you also have Tournament and Playground mode. Tournament mode is just that, four back to back races of varying difficulty, some of which are actually quite challenging.

Playground is basically what they call their online mode. Here you can race other players online, regardless of platform they play on, as well as some really difficult challenges, like only crashing a certain amount of times, not collecting the blue coins, and other ways to slightly change how you’d normally race. With rotating challenges, there will be new events to look forward to long term.

Horizon Chase 2 is quite colorful, more so than the original game. It has an almost cel-shaded look to it and each country is quite bright and unique. The speed is quite fast and I never had any issues with it all trying to keep up on a Series X. Barry Leitch returns for another great upbeat soundtrack and the sound effects of tires screeching never gets old as you drift at full speed.

While the World Tour may not take long to reach the finish line, there’s enough challenge to try and get 100% completion if you want to collect everything. While I could see myself going back now and then for the online challenges, it may not have the most longevity and replayability, but Horizon Chase 2 was still a fun and stylish sprint to the finish line.

**Horizon Chase 2 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.3 / 10 Arcadian Atlas

Beginning as a kickstarter campaign, Arcadian Atlas met its modest $90k goal, and now the console version of the release is here. Inspired by classic Tactical RPG’s (TRPG), Arcadian Atlas has some interesting mechanics, great sprite work, decent background melodies, and a story that was interesting enough to keep me playing one more battle to see what happens next. While it may not come close to the genre’s best, Final Fantasy Tactics, it’s certainly impressive for being created by such a small team. What you can expect is some light strategic gameplay across a 2D isometric map with a handful of classes.

Set in the land of Arcadia, a civil war is unfolding, causing much turmoil, death, and political sides being taken. With a Queen that is forcibly taking over the throne from her husband, her war now turns into the kingdoms. Two lovers and fighters, Desmond and Vashti, are brought together during this conflict, but as events unfold, their views vastly differ from one another when a princess aims to take back her rightful throne from the Queen who will do anything to keep her power.

Part love story, there’s also another plot about something dark and ancient awakening when a mysterious mage meets a young girl. The power they access has the potential to destroy everything in Arcadia once these magical cards are unveiled and used. What starts out as a nation tearing itself apart and dividing, turns into something much more serious and larger in the latter half. The main characters are interesting enough, and there’s just enough story that kept me interested until the end, wanting to see what happens next after each battle.

As is normal with the TRPG genre, victory will require a lot of turn based strategy and planning. Most battles will involve your team of 5 (though there are some missions that allow you to use more or less) against soldiers, animals, and monsters. You’ll need to level up your characters, outfit them with upgraded gear, take on side quests, recruit more units, and of course, strategize what’s the best way to success.

Between battles you’ll be able to move across and overworld map to set points. In towns and cities you’ll be able to enter a tavern to check out the latest gossip, recruit new units to your team, and buy/sell gear for upgrades if you have the money for it (which won’t ever really be a problem). Every time you enter these areas or a battle, you’re greeted with a “LOADING SCREEN” for a few moments. Yes, it’s literally called that as you see your character sprites animate and the bar quickly load. Even on an Xbox Series X these were quite often, though not terribly lengthy.

Before delving into the meat of Arcadian Atlas and its combat, something worth mentioning is the controls and battlefield. Menu controls are fine, even if some options and such are somewhat hidden and not intuitive (I keep forgetting where I need to spend my special medals earned for bonuses). Moving your cursor on the battlefield still tripped me up after a handful of hours. Moving the cursor in the exact tile and direction you want can be challenging, not just because of the isometric view, but you’re unable to rotate the battlefield at all, even though it appears to be 3D.

Not being able to rotate the map wasn’t too much of an issue most of the time, but when there’s a tree or object in the way, it’s sometimes hard to tell where a unit is behind it, or what tiles are currently being affected by damaging fire or other buffs/debuffs. If there was some way to even only show certain ‘heights’, it would have been a welcome addition. The result is sometimes you are simply guessing your move since your view is obstructed and there’s nothing you can do about it, which isn’t very strategic.

With twelve different classes, there’s plenty of variety to choose to suit your playstyle. Well, kind of. There are four base classes: Cavalier, Warmancer, Ranger, and Apothecary. Cavaliers are your knights, wielding a large two-handed sword, or one handed and a shield. While you’d assume they are tanks and can take a beating compared to the lighter armored classes, I never really found that to be the case. Wamancers are your mages, able to conjure fire, ice, or lighting attacks. Rangers are bow and arrow wielders that can shoot from afar. Lastly are the Apothecaries, able to attack enemies or heal allies with tossed potions.

The best part of Arcadian Atlas that I enjoyed was its leveling system. For each character that takes part in battle, they’ll earn a level when you succeed. No need to fill an experience bar, simply use the units you enjoy and they’ll level up each battle. The flip side to this means that the units you don’t use will stay low level, but this isn’t much of an issue either. Whenever you recruit a new unit, they’ll be equal to your highest character, and since you’ll generally use the same units most of the time, you can freely try new builds and classes for a nominal cost of hiring the unit.

Each of the four base classes can be promoted into one of two master classes once a certain amount of skill points are spent. Cavaliers can be upgraded to Inquisitors that are good at battling undead and use holy attacks, or Ronins that use trances and gain bonuses from losing control. Warmancers can be promoted to Sorcerers, able to cast powerful nuke spells, or Druids, using nature and traps to their advantage. Rangers can choose to be either a Hunter, a ranged class still but with an animal companion and traps, or a Reaver that stabs enemies then disappears, like a ninja. Lastly, Apothecaries can become Monks that can punch or use their energy to heal or harm, or choose a Shaman that can sacrifice friends to damage enemies.

When you promote a character to a new class, they still retain all of their abilities from the base class, so there are some interesting builds you could experiment with if you wanted to find what works best for you. That said, melee classes are basically worthless. Any ranged class is able to 2-3 shot an enemy, whereas it’ll take that many moves just to get close enough to attack with a melee class. This was disappointing given the two main characters start out as knights, though there is a way to change their classes later if you wish. Since you’re not forced to use the main characters in battle, you can simply choose to ignore them if you wish as well, which I found odd. There’s nothing special combat-wise about the main characters, as they get no extra or cool abilities, nor any special stats or gear. They simply look different than your cookie cutter recruitable units.

For being a game that’s all about tactics and strategy, Arcadian Atlas fails this at the start of every battle. You’re told how many units you can place on a pre-set number of tiles on section of the map, the problem being is that you can’t see where the enemy units are going to be until you start the battle. This means you have to simply guess where enemies may spawn and place your units accordingly. There’s no undoing this either, so it’s either an unfortunate oversight or poor design flaw. Again, guesswork in a strategy based game.

As mentioned above, not being able to rotate the map really can hinder you at times, especially when an object is blocking view or you have a few units all together in the same area. The reasoning for this is that apparently the map is actually 2D, but it appears 3D because of the isometric view; still a shame nonetheless.

In many tactics style games, turn order is an important factor to think about. Usually you can opt to not move as far, or defend, to gain a bonus and move a little further ahead on the turn rotation. Not here though. Defending because you can’t reach an enemy to attack won’t have your next turn come sooner at all, nor will if you opt to stay still for your turn. The turn order is set and there’s little you can do to change it aside from a few special abilities from certain classes.

Thankfully friendly units can’t get in the way and block attacks, but you can absolutely buff an enemy if they are on a tile your spell will hit, as well as hurt your own units if you do the same with a damaging spell. If your unit does end up losing all their health, they’ll have 3 turns before they are completely dead. Thankfully a few classes can heal or even revive units.

Height also means nothing on the battlefield. You can have a unit at the top of a steep cliff and they can simply jump down or move from it. Verticality doesn’t change the hit chances or block line of sight at all, which looks silly if you’re using a melee attack to hit an enemy on the roof from the ground. Simply choose all ranged classes, focus on one unit at a time, and every battle will be over quickly.

There’s an elemental system in place where one status effect makes a unit weak to another, but I didn’t really rely on this much aside from accidentally doing so. There’s seemingly no real flanking system in place either. Apparently there’s a bonus but I never found it to be substantial enough to be noticeable since almost every hit always lands anyways. All of the above make combat feel dull a majority of the time, even the few boss battles weren’t challenging.

Because you earn so much money from missions and sidequests, you’re able to constantly buy the best equipment for all your units. You can purchase a main weapon, secondary (if equipable, like a shield), helm, chest, and accessory. Every few missions the store will get new items, but you have to check after each battle as it doesn’t tell you. Each better upgrade simply increases the stats a slight amount. I was hoping there would be some unique gear or something specific for certain classes, but nothing that intricate unfortunately.

While not game breaking, I did have a bug that occurred more than a few times. For whatever reason sometimes a specific menu would get stuck, like checking my units’ stats. This overlay stayed on top of the other menus, so I was unable to use other menus beneath. This caused a complete close of the game and a restart. Normally a small bug like this wouldn’t bother me, especially from such a small team, but it happened at least a half dozen times, enough to warrant a mention.

For all the issues I take with the combat mechanics, I will say, the pixel artwork of Arcadian Atlas is done quite well and beautiful. Animations are varied, you can see small details and expressions from characters, and the world is bright and colorful. Each of the maps are varied and showcase different biomes as well. While the music is decent, the jazz-like soundtrack does feel a tad out of place at times, not always matching what you’d expect from a battle against a pack of enemies or a boss.

It's clear that Arcadian Atlas is a love letter to other greats in the TRPG genre, it has just as many things that I liked that I didn’t as well. Loved the leveling system, but combat overall was repetitive and tedious, lacking much of a challenge. Aesthetics are wonderful and animated quite well, yet the soundtrack is completely forgettable and doesn’t always match the tone of what’s on screen. I enjoyed Arcadian Atlas overall for what it is, an indie tactics style RPG, though probably more than I normally would as it’s been years since I’ve played a great one, but it’s got a ways to go to be considered alongside the greats of the genre.

**Arcadian Atlas was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Tomb Raider I-III Remastered

I grew up in a small town that didn’t have many places you could buy video games at the time, only rent them. So when my family would do a mainland trip to see some family every few months, I knew this was my chance to try pleading and begging for a new game for my collection. While I wasn’t able to get one every trip, one game in particular I remember asking for a few times was the original Tomb Raider on PS1. Then the inevitable happened; I was allowed to get it. Waiting what seemed like an eternity to finally play what I read in gaming magazines, I could finally enjoy my time with Lara Croft and her adventures. No, I didn’t just want the game for her polygon ‘assets’.

Lara Croft is a gaming icon. She is right up there with the likes of Mario, Master Chief, Pac-Man, Sonic, and others, and for good reason, as her first three games were absolutely fantastic for the time. There really wasn’t much else quite like a Tomb Raider game in the era. You had a female lead that was badass with dual pistols, exploring ruins and tombs by climbing, jumping and flipping, while also finding treasure and uncovering secrets along the way. Now older generations of gamers like myself can revisit the classic Tomb Raider I – III entries, and newer gamers can also experience what gaming was like in the mid to late 90’s, albeit with a pretty decent glow up in the visual department.

Tomb Raider I – III Remastered has developer Aspyr behind it, the ones responsible for the first handful of Tomb Raider entries being ported to Mac, so it’s not their first outing with Lara. Even better, it’s a full experience, as now the bonus expansions and bonus levels are all now included as well, a first for console if my memory serves right. Having never played the expansions for the first three games, I was quite excited to try out some ‘new’ content with Lara’s adventures. Given that the games have been out for nearly three decades, this review will more focus on what’s unique with the Remastered content. Fret not though, the core gameplay is virtually unchanged, with Lara searching for artifacts and uncovering secrets among ruins and tombs, all while in third person.

So by the title alone, you can probably discern that the first three Tomb Raider games are included, though with the expansions mentioned above as well. You can freely choose from Tomb Raider (1996) + Unfinished Business, Tomb Raider II (1997) + Golden Mask, and Tomb Raider III (1998) + The Lost Artifact. If you’re an old school Tomb Raider vet like myself, you’ll be happy to know you can also start directly on the expansion content for each title should you wish. Given that I’ve completed the original Tomb Raider games numerous times back on PS1, I really wanted to see the content I never got to experience.

What’s going to garner the most attention from this Remaster is no doubt it’s visual improvements. Nostalgia is funny, as you can remember things much better than they actually were. Case in point, being able to instantly swap between new and classic graphics was quite an eye opener. What I remembered in my head was drastically better than what it actually was. Funny enough, I swear I remember the game looking as great as it does now with the improved visuals, not the actual original version. If you yearn for classic Tomb Raider, you can swap to the original graphics whenever you like, and back again to the updated, much like how Halo: The Master Chief Collection did, though practically instantaneously.

Remember how cool the FMV cutscenes were, but the gameplay looked drastically different? Well now the games look much more in line with the FMV quality of aesthetic. Not only is Lara’s model improved (gone is her pyramid chest), the textures, animations and lighting have also been completely redone as well. The odd thing you’ll notice almost right away though is how the environment textures look vastly improved, but the actual sharp edged geometry is still in place, regardless if using new or classic graphics. You stop noticing it after a while, but the improved framerate is quite a difference, as swapping back to half the frame rate with old graphics is a bit jarring at first.

Until swapping back and forth between visual modes, I forgot just how dark the original versions were. I get it, you’re in caves, tombs and ruins, but it was quite a challenge to see where to go at times. Thankfully the lighting has also been completely reworked and changed when in Remastered mode as well. While overall the lighting was much more natural and brighter, there were a few spots where I had to swap to the old graphics to see where I was going, using the toggle somewhat like a flashlight. This wasn’t often, but enough that it’s worth mentioning, and I’m unsure why in one mode it would be pitch black, but fine in the other.

The second biggest change is with its controls. For its time, tank controls weren’t all that uncommon, most notably the style used in Resident Evil, though I’ve never been much of a fan. It worked though with Tomb Raider since you had to take your time to line up jumps just perfectly, and these classic controls are also an option if you want the true classic experience. Just like the visuals though, you can opt to play with a Modern control setting. This is much like any common game these days where you move Lara with the Left Stick and the camera with the Right. I of course opted for this as I wanted to see how it would improve or change the game. Surprisingly, while functional for the most part, it wasn’t nearly as better as I expected for a variety of reasons.

A big part of the original games was lining up Lara to ledges and having the perfect amount of running space before making a leap. This is much more difficult and convoluted to do, though not impossible, with the newer control scheme oddly enough. This meant a lot of missed jumps, falling off edges, and trying to remember which button combinations did what. For the platforming portions, classic tank controls felt much better overall. But I’m stubborn, so I opted to generally stay with the modern controls, as this is a new experience. I’m a glutton for punishment, what can I say? Modern controls for combat wasn’t much better either, as whipping out your pistols also automatically locks onto enemies. When you need to fight multiple enemies at once, it becomes a chaotic mess nearly every time as the camera flips or you lose tracking of your target.

One of the better improvements though is the ability to Save and Load at anytime you wish. About to make a leap you aren’t sure you’re going to land? You better save so you can reload where you just were. While the menu system is clunky and convoluted, it didn’t seem as though there was any autosave system in place, as I forgot to save in about a half hour or more, only to mis-jump a gap and have Lara die. Yup, it put me back at my last save a long time ago. Lesson learned, mostly. Some sort of rewind function would have been quite handy for moments like these.

A few other smaller but notable additions is that bosses now have health bars above their heads so you can see exactly how much of a bullet sponge they are. The photo mode is handy for some scenic pictures, but I’ve also used it to move the camera around an area and see if I could notice any hidden collectables in spots I maybe missed going to. And lastly, there are well over 200 achievements. I completely expected most of them to simply be your typical “Beat Level X” unlocks, but there’s actually some interesting ones that may have you trying something different. And yes, you can still lock your butler in the freezer should you wish. It’s ok, we’ve all done it.

Classic Lara platforming returns, and even though the modern controls seem a bit confusing when compared to classic, our hero can still leap, climb, backflip, side flip, roll, swim, dive, push and pull blocks, and more. The smooth and updated graphics does look great, though the very sharp and rigid environments make for a stark contrast at times. It’ll take some getting used to how ‘slippery’ controlling Lara can be with the Modern controls, as will remembering to save as often as you can to avoid any unnecessary replayed sections.

The old vs new graphics are quite impressive, especially when you can instantaneously swap on the fly at any point. While textures are more slick and modern, the lighting can be hit or miss, sometimes requiring a swap to the other mode to see where you are or going at times. It’s a little odd to have the classic level geometry but everything else has been improved, but I can only assume it’s because of the core platforming gameplay that it needed to stay as is. This is a remaster and not a full remake after all. From what I could tell, the audio went unedited, which is fine since it sounded great in the first place, but it would have been cool to have this updated as well.

Remastering beloved games is a balancing act of remaining faithful to the original games, yet improving just enough for new fans to enjoy as well. While it doesn’t stick the landing in every aspect, and as a Remaster it does feel a tad bareboned without much extras, it’s fascinating to see how far the series has come and how nostalgia distorted my actual memories. Not all things about the original trilogy has aged very well, but the glow up is quite a welcome addition and Lara looks great as ever.

**Tomb Raider I-III Remastered was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II

Ninja Theory is an intriguing developer, and their resume of games is an interesting one. Makers of Kung Fu Chaos, one of the best Mario Party-like games on the original Xbox, Heavenly Sword, Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (one of my personal favorites), the Devil May Cry reboot with DmC, and even Disney Infinity 3.0, shows how varied they were before dropping Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice back in 2017, a game that really took me by surprise and made me take notice of their abilities.

Reviewing gives me an opportunity to play games I would normally never look at or take notice of, and the original Hellblade was one of those occurrences where I wasn’t really paying it much attention before launch, but happened to fall into my lap come release. It ended up being my personal Game of the Year that year for its unique narrative driven experience, and even all these years later, I still think of the game now and then.

Here we are seven years later, and with Ninja Theory now owned by Microsoft Studios, the long awaited sequel has finally arrived. There’s been a few promos and trailers, but there really hasn’t been much marketing or content shown for Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II outside a few spots. While this didn’t make me nervous, as Ninja Theory more than proved themselves in Senua’s first outing, there’s always that question mark, if lighting can strike twice.

All of the love and care that went into crafting the first game has clearly been not only retained, but vastly improved. Still a narrative driven action game that revolves around mental health, the sequel looks to amp things up even further, and they've more than succeeded in every aspect. Senua’s journey is once again going to be a brutal affair as she battles dark forces in reality and in her own mind. Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II aimed to create the new standard for exclusives on Xbox Series X, and they’ve done more than just that, raising the bar across nearly all facets of visuals, audio and gameplay.

While it’s recommended you play the first Hellblade to really understand protagonist Senua’s character and growth since Hellblade II takes place following the original’s ending, some backstory will give more context into her condition and suffering. That said, there is an included re-cap video crafted to explain the events of the first game so you’re not completely lost if new to the series.

Senua’s original journey had her battling to the gates of Hellheim to try and save her dead lover’s soul. What makes Senua such an interesting character is that she suffers from psychosis, a form of mental illness. This makes her internal battle just as difficult as the external one in reality. A Celtic warrior from the 10th century, Senua’s journey is now leading her to Iceland so she can stop the Vikings who raided her village at its source.

While I don’t suffer from psychosis, both Hellblade games have now given me a basic understanding of what Senua must be dealing with on a constant basis. Hearing voices in your head constantly, seeing things as almost an alternative reality, and even simply understanding situations differently than most is common. Ninja Theory has taken extra care to recreate what these experiences must be like from someone who suffers with it, and like the first game, they’ve worked closely with doctors, scholars and even actual people who live with this mental condition. This realistic depiction is done with the utmost care, and with the latest technology, taken to whole new levels in this sequel.

This next chapter of Senua’s story is even more cinematic than before, raising the bar for visuals and audio to a level I’ve never experienced elsewhere before. With Senua finally making peace with her past and her condition, her perceptions and voices she hears aren't any less apparent, the difference now being that she’s learned how to not let them fully consume her, not let them fill her rage or depression at all times. She doesn’t fear the visions and voices any longer, which is impressive given the visions she sees and the constant whispering in her ears, acting like a narration of what’s happening. Facing a new type of enemy, the Draugr, Senua will also find new allies along the way, each of which I thoroughly enjoyed their story arcs and personalities.

I’m only going to mildly touch on story aspects given how narrative heavy her journey is, as its best left as a surprise if at all possible, but you can expect to take roughly 8-10 hours to see the credits roll depending on how long you search for collectables, take in the scenery and play with the photo mode for some amazing screenshots. Senua’s Sacrifice: Hellblade II doesn’t overstay its welcome at all, nor does it feel padded to artificially lengthen its gameplay. It’s a closed and linear story, but that’s also why it’s the amazing experience that it is, because of that focus. While there’s no New Game+ mode after completion, there is something interesting you unlock that I will surely play again through to experience, but am leaving that a surprise for you to find out.

Before you begin Senua’s journey, check out the options, as there’s plenty to set based on your preferences or accessibility needs. There are difficulty options for combat, but it goes a step further, allowing you to have Full control, Simple that will automatically use the best attacks and proper defenses, or if needed, full on automatic play. Combat was somewhat a challenge in the first game, so it’s great to see that if that was a barrier before, you won’t have to essentially worry about combat and still be able to progress.

There are three different Color Blind options (Deueranope, Protanope, and Tritanope), subtitle options, text sizes, button preferences (tap versus hold versus auto). With audio being a massive focus, you can change the mix from voices, sound effects and more. If you suffer from motion sickness, you can also change the motion blur and camera bobbing. There’s an impressive amount of accessibility options, so anyone should be able to enjoy the game regardless of any potential accessibility requirements. One option I highly suggest toggling is the walk/run to ‘toggle’ instead of the default ‘hold’, or else you’ll need to hold a Bumper button the whole time you want Senua to run (more like a brisk walk compared to a leisurely stroll).

Gameplay is similar to the first game, and while it may be linear, that by no mean diminishes its experience, fitting the narrative focus. With no HUD and no markers showing you where to go, you’re completely engrossed in Senua’s world. There are some subtle ways the game leads you in the right direction, like seeing some white paint or scuffs on ledges you can interact with, or following the light in a near pitch black cave. The narrative flows so smoothly that you don’t even know what chapter you’re currently on, as it’s all done cinematically. There’s no cutaways or text on the screen announcing chapters, again, fully immersing you in its own reality. Even the change from cutscene to gameplay is indistinguishable until you learn its subtle camera tricks indicating when you have control back of Senua.

While designed linearly, there are odd small paths you can explore, possibly finding pillars that have runes on them. These light up when found, indicating how many you’ve found along your journey. These give you some background lore and a small story told to you, fleshing out Senua’s world even further. While optional, there’s something you can unlock after completion if you’ve found every hidden collectable.

For those virtual photographers, you’re going to be very excited for the control you’re given with Hellblade II’s photo mode. You’re given a huge amount of tools, not just from moving the camera, but adding lighting sources, hiding characters, enabling or disabled background animations like weather, filters and more. What I didn’t expect was being able to enable photo mode during cutscenes, which made for some really interesting peeks behind the curtains so to speak. I fully expect to see some incredible screenshots, and the dozens I took were simply of the gorgeous backgrounds and Senua in the environment.

Puzzles return, much like Senua’s first outing, though not quite as heavily as before. There’s two different types of puzzles, what I call the ‘sign’ puzzles from the first game, and ‘orb’ puzzles. Every so often you’ll come across a door or pathway that becomes blocked as you approach. It will have a specific symbol on it, and the ‘key’ is to find the same parts of the symbol in the world. For example, maybe you need to find a symbol shaped like an “F”. Well, standing in a specific area and looking in a direction might have some debris or tree branches line up to form that symbol, unlocking part of the doorway. Finding the right spot and angle is key here, and you’ll know you’re in the right area when you start to see glowing symbols floating all around you. If you played the first Hellblade, it’s virtually identical.

The orb puzzles have you shifting reality to pass specific blockades or areas. In reality you might see a simple wall, but part of it has a strange glow to it. Find the nearby floating orb and this will distort reality, almost like a secondary plane, making that part of the wall disappear. Find another orb to swap back realities and the wall reappears. The later puzzles will have a few you need to trigger in a specific order to go from area to area, but none really stumped me for too long.

Senua’s journey isn’t an easy one, and along the way she’s going to have to fight in some brutal combat. There are light and heavy attacks, along with a block and dodge, but he biggest change from the first game is that Senua will face foes one at a time, almost like a gauntlet of enemies. Some may see this is a step back, but I remember becoming frustrated in the first game’s combat due to being constantly surrounded by enemies. This drastic change allows for a much more cinematic feel, being slower paced but no less brutal. Senua isn’t a superhero, she fights to survive and doesn’t hold back, and nearly every battle can feel like her last, especially when you’re fighting the tenth enemy in a row. Combat tells a story, not just showcasing her brutality and combat skills, but her desire to survive even when fearful.

One big change from the first game is the bosses. While they exist here, they are quite different than what you might remember from the first game. I’m not going to spoil anything of what to expect, but they aren’t your typical ‘boss fights’ that the first game had. That said, these were some of the most memorable sequences in the whole game, something I know I’ll be thinking of and remembering for some time. It’s different, but it fits Senua’s journey and is pulled off very well.

Unreal Engine 5 is showcased fully in Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II. The first game seven years ago impressed, and somehow Ninja Theory has taken it to a completely higher level. "Photorealism" sometimes gets thrown around a little loosely, but the facial animations of every character, especially Senua, embodies the photorealism terminology. Those with ultrawide screens will be happy to know that there’s support, and on a standard 16:9 TV or monitor you can expect an anamorphic camera with 2.39:1 aspect ratio. This means there’s a black header and footer, giving a cinematic feel.

With no UI or HUD, you’re engrossed in Senua’s world, not simply following a marker or icon to your next objective. This helps make it feel like a cinematic experience, more than just a ‘game’, it’s a playable cutscene. The original game was motion captured in two days, but combat alone in Hellblade II took 69 days; this alone should tell you how much effort has gone into improving every aspect, down the smallest details. The smallest details from Senua’s movements are realistic, and watching behind the scenes videos, you can see why. Even her outfit in game was created in real life so the actress could wear it and have it be as realistic as possible. I’d argue that the smaller details are even more important than the general visual improvements. I never saw any instances of clipping, as Senua’s hair and even clothing reacts realistically based on her environment and movements. Everything is just so fluid and natural, from facial movements where you can actually see emotion from a small squint in the eyes, to the natural movements in combat when Senua gets knocked down and must get back up before it’s too late.

The environments are equally as beautiful and hostile. Even in the darker scenes, there’s beauty to be had, then when you’re outside and the sun is shining, it’s hard to not snap a few vistas for its beauty. The real world is gorgeous, and the visions that Senua sees and experiences are just as mesmerizing. Lighting in each environment also feels natural. Fighting in the darkness with just a few torches in the background gives an uneasiness, where seeing a mysterious light shine through a cave entrance provokes wonder and beauty.

Ninja Theory is pushing the boundaries of realism, and the motion capture work from all the actors involved needs to be specifically pointed out for how real and raw their performances where, especially from heroine Senua. So many small details makes for a realistic performance, and I could tell how Senua was feeling simply from the smallest facial movements. Even the camerawork feels like a Hollywood level of immersion and professionalism, again feeling incredibly cinematic at all times, not just in cutscenes.

For how impressive the visuals are, the audio experience is even more so. The voices in Senua’s head that are a constant are called furies. They are always there, and while the audio in the first game was incredible, again, Ninja Theory has upped the bar in every way. First and foremost, if at all possible, play this with a pair of headphones on, any pair, but the higher quality, the better. Binaural audio makes the voices in Senua’s head sound so incredibly real, it’s as if they are voices in your own head. While Binaural audio isn’t a new technology, it seems they’ve perfected it, hearing voices distinctly in one ear or the other, appearing as if they are all around you at times. This is produced from a dual microphone setup, and in some behind the scenes videos, you can see performers Abbi Greenland and Helen Goalan circling the microphones as they deliver their lines which gives a 3D sensory experience. This constant narration was something that haunted Senua previously, but she’s clearly learned to deal with their presence.

In the first game only these voices were binaural, but now it’s everything audio related, even the music and background. I swear I thought it started raining heavily outside during one sequence that I took my headset off only to realize it was in game. For how realistic the visuals appear, the audio is on the same level of realism. Even smaller details are highlighted and noticeable, from Senua’s footsteps, a crackling fire, and even waves crashing in the background. Audio Director David Garcia performed something incredibly special in all of Hellblade II’s audio aspects. There’s even a streamer mode you can enable if you’re worried about DMCA strikes if you plan to broadcast to others.

Then there’s the performances from all of the talented actors. The voice acting across the board is nothing less than flawless. Melina Juergens reprises her role as Senua, and does an absolutely unbelievable performance as expected. Every line delivered, to her combat shouts and grunts, Senua’s motion captured and acting comes together in a completely believable performance that made me feel for Senua even more than before. Performances from everyone else are just as amazing, from the voice of Senua’s father belittling her abilities and trying to make her question her own motives, to your new enemies and allies, simply flawless. A special mention to folk band Heilung, crafting a very unique soundtrack that fits the setting and mood at every turn with their chants, drums and piano.

Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is an absolutely beautiful game, not just in its visuals, but also the audio and Senua’s actual journey from the original game to what she’s become in this sequel. There’s a famous quote stating video games can’t be art; I’d argue that Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II proves this inaccurate. Artistry across different senses and technology come together to craft an amazing and meaningful tale worth experiencing. Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II is a linear narrative driven action game that is unique, intense and incredibly immersive. With a focus on mental health and illness, there’s nothing quite like Hellblade II, a visual and audio experience unlike anything we’ve experience before, raising the bar of what ‘next-gen’ should mean. Once again, a Hellblade game is going to be in my GOTY contention.

**Senua’s Saga: Hellblade II was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 10.0 / 10 Metro Simulator 2

There’s no shortage of simulation games where you can perform any job you could possibly think of. The latest in the genre is Metro Simulator 2, placing you in the role of a conductor of a popular metro train. Of course there’s a niche for everything, though this is quite focused on a very specific audience. Uniquely, Metro Simulator 2 has you navigating the tunnels for Moscow, allowing you to ride two separate trains while forcefully following speed limits and picking up passengers.

While there’s no typical Campaign, there is a Scenario and Freeplay Mode depending on how you want to play. Scenario is where you’ll learn how to play, acting as a tutorial of sorts, and another scenario where it lets you basically freeplay, visiting each of the stations. While there’s not a lot of scenarios, they do tell you how long each is going to take from the onset, though you’ll need to commit a good amount of time as they can be well over an hour long each.

The scenarios are difficult to complete though for a number of reasons; frustration, understanding, boredom, and/or game breaking bugs are generally the top offenders. Running a metro train isn’t simple though, and even getting it moving can be a challenge in memorization given the dozens if buttons, levers, knobs, and switches. Then you need to watch your speed, up ahead for track signs, stopping properly at each station, and picking up passengers.

The tutorial scenario will teach you the basics of being a metro conductor, but even early on I started to notice a few issues. There’s a lot you need to do before you can even get the train moving, and while I did appreciate that there were arrows pointing at exactly what button to press or lever to pull, if you don’t have a picture perfect memory, there’s no way to go back and read the tutorial steps over once again. The only way to remember it all would be to replay the tutorial over again if you come back to the game after a long break.

It’s all very difficult to control, as you need to move your cursor around slowly, all while the dashboard is beeping loudly at you for speeding over the track limits and the e-brakes kick in. With two trains to operate, one is quite dated and old school, where the other is a more modern train. With lengthy scenarios asking for a lot of your time upfront, the problem is that there’s no saving option outside of the Resume feature on Xbox. If you exit a scenario an hour in because you ran out of time, you’re going to have to start all over again next time as there’s no autosaves or progress points. Having a checkpoint at each station would have been a help to stop some of this frustration.

I could have overlooked some of the smaller issues which are commonplace is simulators like these, but what really started putting a sour taste in my mouth is having a game breaking bug at the end of the tutorial scenario. At the end of the tutorial you reach the end of the train line, having to swap around the direction of the train and go back the other way. For whatever reason, the emergency brakes engaged, which is normally a simple toggle, but it wouldn’t disengage. This meant my train was unable to move, so I couldn’t complete the scenario, losing all the time I’ve invested in the scenario given the lack of saves and checkpoints described above.

Given that I had to review the title, I of course started again, only for it to happen the next time as well. You can guess my level of frustration at this point. Of course I’m a glutton for punishment and go through the whole scenario once again. Somehow things finally worked as they were supposed to and I was able to complete the tutorial and get my achievement. Next scenario had me travelling to each of the stations, which is no big deal now that I’m a master at maneuvering the metro, except each time I tried, the alarm wouldn’t stop as if I was speeding, even though I wasn’t. This meant I had to continually hold ‘A’, and even a single km/h over the limit and the emergency brakes would kick in. Annoying to say the least.

There are two different trains you can navigate, the Nomernoy and the Oka. Nomernoy is the much older train with plenty of classic buttons and levers. This train takes much more effort to get going and stopped, as it’s much older technology. The Oka is much more modern and quick. Getting the train going is very fast, and stopping is substantially better than the older version. Even though I should like the modern train more for its ease, something about the manual controlling of the Nomernoy was more rewarding, having to use multiple levels of braking to stop when required, when it worked of course.

Being a simulator, you’ll need to look at each button and lever to use it, so it can be difficult to see what your current speed is when having to constantly adjust via levers. There’s actually very little notifications to help you, as you can’t tell when a station is coming up until it’s almost too late. More than once I almost blew by the stop as I fumbled around with the controls, and having to zoom in on the dashboard while unable to look out the windshield can cause you to miss things or over speed, which causes the emergency brakes and an annoying alarm to constantly berate your ear.

I can be forgiving when a game has bugs here or there if they aren’t game breaking, but when the game forces you to quit out literally in the tutorial, numerous times, it just sets itself up for failure. I only kept with it because I had to review, but the lack of care and quality assurance is astounding. The text for what it tells you to do is a literal port from the PC version, yet no one bothered to check and change it saying “Use Left Click” to whatever button needed on the controller. Oddly, there’s also certain punctuation missing like apostrophes, so words like “don’t” actually show as “don t”. Small things like this normally wouldn’t bother me much, but it just showed the negligence.

Graphically, don’t expect anything that will impress. Sure there’s generally not much to look at when you’re going through dark and barely lit tunnels, but even the stations are as lifeless as the NPC’s that board the metro. Every NPC looks dead inside and the stations have absolutely no character to them, everything is just bland. While I've never been on the metro in Moscow, I can only assume that its' quite authentic.

The audio is no different, with pre-recorded sounds that don’t match what’s happening at all. For example, the train speeding up should sound as if it’s going slow at the beginning until the engine whirls louder the faster you go. Going less than 10 km/h sounds as if you’re going full speed, and slowing down, going into neutral or a light brake, just stops the audio even though you’re still moving. The station announcements are done well, though I don’t speak Russian, so I’m unable to make sense of some of it until the English version comes over the speakers.

I’m all for odd, quirky, and niche simulators, as I generally find them relaxing, but when you’re frustrated more often than having any enjoyment, it’s hard to recommend. I’m sure if you’re a metro fanatic there will be some enjoyment, but the lack of care and quality on the console version of Metro Simulator 2 is almost at an embarrassing level unfortunately.

**Metro Simulator 2 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 3.6 / 10 Talos Principle II, The

Croteam, best known for their iconic Serious Sam games, released a very well received puzzle game back in 2014 (and later for console players) titled The Talos Principle. A little shy of a decade later and we now have a much anticipated sequel, also launching for console players. While I never played the original, The Talos Principle II doesn’t require knowledge of the first, though it does take place in the same universe, so those with knowledge of the previous game will certainly get a little more out of it and have an idea of what to possibly expect.

With glowing reviews of the first game, I was excited to see what I was in store for with this sequel, and while I was simply expecting a typical puzzle game, I got something much more in-depth and meaningful, with a healthy amount of brain bending puzzles for good measure. Those that thoroughly enjoyed the original’s philosophical overtone and stunning environments will be glad to know that they not only return, but are much more vast this time. I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting such a story driven puzzle game that made me think as much as the puzzles did, so it surprised me.

With philosophy being a large portion of The Talos Principle II’s narrative, writers from the first game have returned for the sequel. If you quite enjoyed the original’s theme, it's very similar. Taking place long after the first game, The Talos Principle II's timeline is long after humans as we know it have gone extinct due to global warming causing a deadly virus to be unearthed in some permafrost. Knowing that mankind was doomed, a group of scientists rushed to create advanced artificial intelligence as a way to preserve humankind of sorts. Those that were able to solve puzzles in a virtual reality were then uploaded to android bodies, so while they may not be human on the inside and out, their essence lives on. The first of these androids was Athena, who then created a handful of others so that they could build New Jerusalem, a haven and a reminder of how their kind can do things right this time, learning from the past’s mistakes.

You awaken. You are 1k, the 1000th android to be created, fulfilling “The Goal” from Athena of having one thousand androids, the ideal amount of population for New Jerusalem. Even though Athena has disappeared long ago, she’s viewed as the main creator, almost like a religious figurehead. Now that “The Goal” has been completed, it’s time for celebration, though this ends abruptly when a holographic Prometheus appears heeding a dire warning. With a massive energy spike detected in the far distance, it’s going to be up to 1k and a few others to go investigate what it was and the origin of that holographic figure.

Your team makes their way towards a megastructure that resembles that of a pyramid, but of massive scale. You’re unsure what the origin of this structure is, and you’re unable to gain access for the time being. This is where the puzzle solving comes into place for 1k, unlocking pieces to create a bridge. As you make progress and explore each vast area, solving their puzzles along the way, you get a sense of scale of this world that was once inhabited by humans. Even though this society of androids call themselves human, they are fascinated with the history of their origin and the people before. With many philosophical questions to be had, it made me question my thoughts and beliefs. With AI becoming more prevalent and advancing every day in the real world, even though this scenario may be thousands of years away, it does seem plausible and not all that far-fetched.

At its core, The Talos Principle 2 is a first person (though you can choose to play in third if you wish) puzzle game. Each one is designed to be completed in a minute or two, but that’s assuming you know the solution. Of course this isn’t the case in the beginning as you’re learning the mechanics and puzzle styles, and being stumped on a puzzle for a half hour wasn’t an anomaly. Each puzzle is segregated from the others, and your goal is to unlock some barrier to allow you to press a button, acting as a part of a larger unlock sequence, usually eight puzzles long per section.

Once awoken and active, 1k can explore New Jerusalem, a peaceful and calm city continuing to be developed and built before setting off to the mysterious lands that seem to have been left unexplored as of yet. Tracking down the energy surge leads you to a new land, separated by massive sections and different biomes. If you need a break from puzzle solving to relax your brain, you’re free to explore the land you’re in. It’s much larger than I expected and can feel like an open world game at times given its vastness. While the puzzles are your main objective, there are plenty of things to not only see off the beaten path, but secrets to find and even extra puzzles for those wanting even more.

What I didn’t really expect for a puzzle game was just how large the world is that you can explore. While the main areas are sectioned off into different places that you’ll take a high-speed tram to, each of the areas are quite vast, and it’s not just empty nothingness either, as there are secrets to find, extra puzzles, and even a few interesting Easter Eggs, like Serious Sam standups hidden behind a sectioned off area. There’s no map for you to reference, but there’s a compass at the top of your HUD that will point you in the right direction for the main puzzles and undiscovered places. You may even cross paths with the other androids on your excursion, allowing you to interact with them and choosing dialogue options. If you have a very keen eye you might even find a ‘spark’, allowing you to complete a puzzle without actually finishing it if you truly become stuck and refuse to check online for solutions.

Then there’s the puzzles, probably the reason you’re interested in this title. If you know the solutions to each puzzle, they would probably only take a minute or two, as they are all separated into their own area and not grand in scale, but there were more times than I could count that I spent easily a half hour on a puzzle, completely stumped before I either had the eureka moment or shamefully had to look up a hint online. In each main area you go to, you’ll need to complete the eight main puzzles to progress, rewarding you with a cutscene and story progress. When all eight puzzles are complete you’ll head to the main gate and need to build a bridge by connecting tetromino pieces together in a specific order. If you manage to become distracted and explore a bit, you could use the overhead compass to find your next puzzle, but you’ll also see signs in various areas that act as a clever way to guide you to the next puzzle, blinking and easy to understand what path to take.

There’s quite a few puzzles to get through, starting out simple enough, ramping up in difficulty as you go, adding new mechanics at each new area you access as well. Your main goal in each puzzle is usually lowering a barrier somehow so that you can press the button and complete said puzzle, but doing so isn’t always as simple as you think. Most puzzles are going to involve a colored laser on a wall and a matching colored receiver elsewhere to lower or power certain gates. Things start simple with matching red or blue lasers to their corresponding receiver, but you’ll soon have to deal with walls, jammers, movable crates, pressure plates, fans, RGB converters, drillers, and more. Each new mechanic is introduced one at a time, but you’ll need to catch on quick, as puzzle difficulty ramps up afterwards once the game determines you should know how to properly use each object. Those are have color blindness, there are different options for you, as well as a few accessibility toggles for those that get motion sickness as well.

Some gates will block you from entering, generally the one blocking the button to press at the end of each puzzle, and others will allow you to pass through, but not carried objects, and some won’t let lasers through either. This is where jammers, connectors and converters come into play. You can pick them up and place them where needed to manipulate the laser to go where needed. I hope you know your primary colors too, as the RGB converters will be used quite heavily to change colored lasers when combined, or inverters that swap from red to blue and vice versa. You can probably start to get an idea how much pre-planning or brute force some of these puzzles are going to take. When holding one of the items, you can use a specific trigger to link them, and once placed, the will either work as intended, or not, depending on your placement and line of sight.

Then there’s certain walls that can have a hole created through it temporarily with the drillers, allowing lasers to pass through, or objects placed on either side. Jammers come in handy, allowing you to disable a gate from afar to whichever it’s pointed at. The later half adds some more puzzle elements that I’ll leave as a surprise, but suffice to say, it only amps up the complexity and challenge when you have to think of gravity swaps and verticality. Certain puzzles I found quite difficult, seemingly like it was impossible, but of course once you solve it you feel like an idiot at how you didn’t realize the solution for the last twenty minutes of trying everything you could think of. Many of the puzzles seemed to be step based, as you couldn’t just do one or two things to reach the end, instead having to do manage multiple lasers, moving objects, then adjusting almost like another phase of the solution.

The Talos Principle II has some absolutely stunning vistas. More than a few times I stopped to simply take in the scenery and atmosphere for some screenshots. Without humans the planet is beautiful, and even though there’s only 1000 androids inhabiting New Jerusalem, they do have a thing for cats it seems. The scale of the environments is massive and each biome feels unique from one another, daring you to explore it and maybe find some secret in the distance. The soundtrack is just as beautiful, opening for a melodic background that suits the puzzle gameplay, and the voice acting from across the cast was wonderfully done, being believable ‘human’ androids, each with their own quirks.

Obviously the difficulty of the puzzles are going to vary person to person, given your skill level and problem solving abilities, though I do wish there was some sort of included hint system so I didn’t have to resort to checking externally online when I became frustrated after being stuck for a half hour on a single puzzle. That said, even with how often I was stumped, I kept wanting to try for just ‘one more puzzle’, as that would get me to the next area that I wanted to explore, which is an odd thing to say for a puzzle game. Priced at $38.99 CAD normally, there’s immense value for what you get, lasting you at least a dozen or two hours, and is a more than fair price for the quality and overall experience.

While I could see that some may not enjoy the optional exploration component as much as I did, especially for a puzzle game, the world was so unique and beautiful it couldn’t help but be memorable. I wish I found the original game sooner, as The Talos Principle II should absolutely be in the same conversations as Fez and Portal as one of the best puzzle games there are. There’s an impressive amount of detail, from the environments, puzzle design, character development, and plot, The Talos Principle II is a must play if you’re a fan of puzzles and narrative that comes together in a meaningful way.

**The Talos Principle II was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 SpellForce: Conquest of Eo

The SpellForce series has been around since 2003 when it first released. Playing somewhat like a Diablo and Sacred game with RTS elements, the series may not have reached the same heights, but it certainly has its following and even got the remaster treatment from THQ for its third game back in 2021. What I don’t think many were expecting as the latest entry, SpellForce: Conquest of Eo, to be drastically different, instead a turn based RPG with some 4X elements, resembling more of an Age of Wonders game instead.

Set in SpellForce’s world somewhere in its timeline, you’re in control of your master’s wizard tower, but they have passed and the tower is in shambles, so now it’s up to you to figure out what happened and uncover secrets, all while defending yourself and your tower from others. The Circle of Mages are the most powerful Magi in Eo, and you are clearly nowhere near as powerful as them as a lowly apprentice. You actually are kind of pathetic when you compare your powers, so it’s going to take a lot of time and effort to succeed in the dozens hours long campaign that is procedurally generated. You’ll have many decisions to make along your journey, though it’s all done through text, so don’t expect any exciting cutscenes.

You begin by choosing one of three classes, each of which play quite drastically different from one another. One creates glyphs to improve your units, another crafts items and bombs to support you in battle, and lastly, the one I started with, was the Necromancer, that can raise the undead into a controllable army hoard.

Playing an evil Necromancer was quite fun, raising the undead and controlling a near unlimited army to overwhelm your opponents. Next I tried playing the Artificer, creating glyphs and items to boost my armies after mining a bunch of ore. These units weren’t nearly as many but seemed powerful. Lastly was the Alchemist creating potions and bombs to use in combat, though I enjoyed this class the least. If you don’t want to play either of these classes, you can create your own mixture and your own class, but you’re going to want to have some playtime under your belt so you know what best to focus on. If you choose to spend some more money, there’s also a Demon Scourge DLC that allows you to play as a Demonologist, though this was not included in our review edition, so I’m unable to comment on how it plays comparatively to the others.

As you grow in power from a simple apprentice to a masterful mage, your journey won’t be easy, as the world is full of others that are trying to expand in the land of Eo as well. You’ll quickly begin with a simple minion or two, eventually amassing an army that can all be controlled individually or in squads should you wish. Building up your tower not only makes you stronger, but your home base can also eventually be moved across the map, and will be needed to, to take on eventual challenges and campaign progress.

While your overall goal may be to find the ultimate source of magical powers, the Allfire, you’re going to make friends or enemies along the way, harvest resources, explore a large map, fill your grimoire with new spells and abilities, expand your territory and try to make your previous master proud. Unlike most 4X type of games, you command your tower, acting like your city, but you can move it when needed once you’ve learned the proper spells and will need to be careful, as you need to defend it and prevent it from being destroyed.

Your grimoire is your trusty spell book. You only have a few pages to begin and not many spells to use. You’ll need to spend research to learn new abilities and spells, and completing certain quests will unlock new spells pages which will unlock even more powerful spells. There’s a lot of upgrades to get, and the better and more powerful spells take more resources to research and cast.

Along the way you’ll have the opportunity to recruit special units, acting as a hero or apprentice, able to lead your troops in battle. You can group different units and troops together however you wish, crafting your armies. I do wish I was able to make larger armies as a bigger unit, but learning how to create groups of troops will play into your strategy. Do you surround a tough foe by a number of groups and battle back to back, or separate, divide and conquer? You’re able to cast spells before battles, buffing yourself or inhibiting your enemy, this of course takes some resources to do so though.

When you’re not exploring the overworld map, you’ll be placed in combat. While you can choose to auto resolve most battles aside from the powerful enemies, doing so might have consequences you don’t want, like dead units since you’re not directly in control. Should you decide to actually take part in battle, you’ll be placed in a small hexagonal gridded map and occur in turned based combat. You can see on the map where you can move and decide which enemies to attack if in range. If you’ve been taking place in battles beforehand and leveling up, you’ll have unlocked special abilities and stat increases for your units along the way.

Depending on which class you decided to play, your combat strategies will differ greatly. As a Necromancer I simply overwhelmed my enemies with a huge army, though I found Alchemist a lot more work having to remember to use potions and bombs to win in battle. Other than a few instances, there really seems no alternative to combat much of the time as there’s no diplomacy mechanics. There are times where you’ll anger characters or get them on your side, but eventually you’re going to travel and expand into others territory, and it’s up to you how you’ll react to them defending their area.

While the overworld map is static and doesn’t change from game to game, events and how things play out will each time, so I opted to play a bit differently every game as I tried each class. The world is colorful and the units are varied based on which class you’re playing, but unless you’re actually controlling each battle, there’s not too much detail to see, though I do enjoy the high fantasy aesthetic. The audio however was quite lacking. There’s a light soundtrack that plays as background but there’s no voice acting, which is surprising giving how much dialogue and text there is along the way.

While not quite as in depth as a true 4X title, there’s still quite a lot to take in and learn, and honestly, the game doesn’t do a great job at teaching you every nuance. Controls can be quite confusing, and it wasn’t until my second play as the Artificer where I really started to understand strategic gameplay and planning my moves ahead.

While I found my first playthrough a confusing and frustrating mess, it made much more sense trying the other classes. They all play differently enough to warrant other playthroughs and require different strategies. Once I got the hang of the gameplay and how to best progress, I went from being frustrated to wanting to play ‘just one more turn'.

**Spellforce: Conquest of Eo was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Jagged Alliance 3

While sequels are never a guaranteed thing, it’s certainly not common to get one over two decades later. Jagged Alliance finally makes its long awaited return with a third main installment. With Jagged Alliance 2 having released in 1999, franchise fans patience have finally paid off, and better yet, console fans are now included as well.

Taking place in the fictional country of Grand Chien, its president has gone missing after being kidnapped by a paramilitary force known as “The Legion”. Led by "The Major”, The Legion now rules the countryside and is hostile to practically everyone as they take over. The President’s family won’t let this stand, and his daughter works together with the Adonis corporation to hire a group of mercenaries to not only save the President, but also return order back to the country. The story is by no means its strong point, but it’s serviceable enough to give you an overall objective to work towards stopping The Legion.

This is where you come in, a part of a mercenary group hired to track down The Major, defeat Legion, and rescue the President. Even though you have good intentions, sometimes your actions won’t always be perceived that way by locals. During your excursions, you’ll actually have a lot of decisions to make, and there will be consequences for your choices, regardless of intent. These outcomes were not always what I expected, as I thought I was helping at times, only to have a result that was quite different.

A turn based strategy game at its core, Jagged Alliance 3 pits your mercenary team in a number of different situations where you’re going to have to learn to adapt on the fly, with each play being different based on certain outcomes and what team of mercenaries you have with you. Before you begin your rescue mission though, you’ll need to decide how difficult you want your game to be. There’s actually quite a lot of toggles to change, not just the overall difficulty, but other options as well like permanent death for mercenaries and a bunch of others to make things easier or harder. I will say, even with all of the easiest settings enabled, some battles were quite challenging.

I’ll admit, the first few hours going from mission to mission, I wasn’t enjoying myself very much. I was dying, losing mercenaries, running out of money and simply struggling with the controls. I decided to start over once again from the start, seeing if I would have a better run the next time with a few hours under my belt. While there’s tooltips that somewhat help you early on, it doesn’t do nearly enough to actually teach you best how to play or how to handle the poor controls. Starting out with weak guns and low level mercenaries doesn’t help, but soon as you start killing some Legion, you’ll loot bodies and find some better items along the way.

With a steep learning curve, it’s not helped by the terrible console controls. Clearly designed for a PC experience with mouse and keyboard in mind, while it technically works on a controller, it’s a frustrating mess with having to hold either Left or Right Trigger as modifiers for a bunch of commands, or the bumpers to swap targets, none of which are really taught to you. Even hours in I was still making mistakes on the controls or having to try and squint to read what buttons did what, as it never feels natural even dozens of missions in.

As you make your way across the country, you’ll clear sections on the overworld map. There’s two portions to the gameplay; exploration and combat. Before you’re spotted or start a fight, you’re in exploration mode where you can freely wander, talk to locals, scavenge for loot and more. Completing missions will earn you more cash which will allow you to do more and hire better tiered mercenaries as well, as no one works for free.

Your mercenaries are the core of your teams. The game firsts asks you to hire four to start your team off, so I did, not knowing that I could actually hire more and even create my own. This is all done through a UI that’s meant to emulate early internet era, and it’s not always clear what you can or can’t do, even in the menus. It wasn’t until my second game restart that I figured out I could actually create my own mercenary for cheaper.

You can choose to do a ten question quiz that’s quite humorous, which will form a merc a certain way for its class and stats based on your answers, though you can skip this and simply move the stat sliders to whatever you like, as well as choosing two perks. I opted to make a sniper focused character, though you don’t get to choose their starting weapon, so my sniper simply had a pistol to begin with.

There’s about 40 mercenaries to choose from when you’re hiring, ranging from rookie to legendary, with the better mercs costing much more, as you need to pay their salaries for employing their services for days at a time. They all have their own look, style and personalities, some of which are parodies or stereotypes, which I found quite hilarious. There’s also some times where the merc you want to hire refuses to join because they aren’t a fan of one of the people on your team already, so sometimes you need to settle or spend more on someone else. If you’re a fan of the previous titles, you might even see some familiar faces, and as they level up you’ll be able to improve your mercenaries and choose new perks.

The turn based combat can be quite tactical once you figure out its intricacies and wrap your head around the terrible controls. Like other games that are similar to X-COM, you have a set amount of Action Points which can be used for movement or attacks. This AP will vary mercenary to mercenary based on their stats, so you can spend more to move further, or take more accurate shots. Instead of firing a number of times, you can spend more AP to narrow in on your enemy for what I assume is a better percentage to hit. Part of the problem is that it seems the enemies aren’t restricted by AP though, as they can run half way across the battlefield then take a shot at you with ease, as they seem to almost have 100% accuracy regardless of where they shoot from.

I say assume because Jagged Alliance 3 never tells you the chance to hit or miss enemies. This becomes apparent when you land a long range sniper shot, but then miss a point blank shotgun blast. This randomness is by design but makes it near impossible to decide what the best course of action is. If I knew that certain shots were a very low percentage to hit, I’d figure out something else, but missing three times in a row for what seems like an easy attack becomes frustrating every time it happens, which is quite often.

Once in combat and trying to take a shot, you can zone in on specific body parts to aim for, which is sometimes necessary as a portion of them might be behind cover. Obviously a lot of your damage is factored by your position, critical hits, type of weapon, distance and more, but some enemy soldiers seem to be bullet sponges. I’ve head-shotted an enemy more than once and it still didn’t kill them. You also can’t see how much health they have remaining in a numerical value, only text that says “wounded” or otherwise. Again, this makes it hard to strategize when you don’t really know how much health they have left.

Overwatch is a system that can be used, setting up your mercenaries to watch specific areas, shooting if an enemy passes through, but there’s a few issues here. From what I can figure out, again because the game doesn’t teach you much and the controls are horrendous, you can’t freely aim where you want to place your overwatch cover. You can choose to aim at a specific enemy, but this isn’t what I always wanted. Even on my third game starting over, I tried everything and couldn’t figure out a way to freely aim my overwatch direction to anywhere I wanted like you can do on PC. Maybe I’m missing something, but it made it almost useless at times unless you just happen to be in the right area and facing a specific direction.

While I appreciate there is online multiplayer co-op so you can play alongside friends, I was unable to find a single match, nor had anyone join when I was hosting each time I attempted, so I’m unfortunately unable to comment on how that plays or differs from single player.

While the game looks fine overall, but it also won’t impress. Each the maps are detailed enough that it does feel like you’re exploring and fighting in a jungle or desert, but unless you zoom in quite close, you’re going to miss a lot of the smaller details. It’s all passable, including the animations, but there’s nothing that really stood out visually. There’s a good amount of voice overs from all the mercenaries, and while some of the performances were over the top, I believe many of them were meant to be, especially the Arnold-like muscle guy with plenty of one-liners.

While I don’t think as many would have the patience I did to start over three times (the third due to a game breaking bug), even hours in I was still becoming frustrated with the horrendous controls. Clearly designed for mouse and keyboard, while yes it’s been ported to console controllers, it’s not intuitive and was a constant frustration trying to read the tiny text to determine what trigger I needed to hold to do specific actions so I don't accidentally end my turn again.

Waiting more than two decades for a sequel, I’m sure true Jagged Alliance fans will overlook many of its shortcomings and frustrations, as it does capture the same feeling, it seriously needs some work on its control scheme to be more much fluid and less confusing. For every moment I was enjoying, I was equally frustrated when I missed point blank shots or accidently ended my turn prematurely due to a wrong button combination.

**Jagged Alliance 3 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.3 / 10 Cookie Cutter

Judging by its name alone, you’d assume that Cookie Cutter is something completely different from what it actually is. It does not involve any sugary treats you might expect, but instead revolves around a futuristic dystopia that is filled to the brim with blood, gore and violence, but looks great doing so. A love and revenge story wrapped in Metroidvania gameplay, Cookie Cutter is a flashy 2D platformer that feels different than others in the genre, as well as being quite challenging, but for non-designed reasons.

INFONET promised a utopia that would be built upon the backs of androids, known as Denzels. Like most stories with this setup, this was all fine and dandy for a short while, but then the proverbial crap hits the fan. Shinji Fallon is a brilliant engineer who creates Denzels, creating a special one named Cherry. Unexpectedly, they fall in love with one another, so you’d expect they have a wonderful life together. Well, this doesn’t last long of course. INFONET’s leader, who appears like a clone of Marilyn Manson, decides that they need Shinji to work for them, so they take her by force. Of course Cherry tries to stop this from happening, but in the process, she’s brutally destroyed right in front of Shinji. Even broken into pieces, you try to chase after your love, but are executed in gruesome fashion. I told you the game title alone doesn’t prepare you.

You suddenly awaken one day, unsure where you are. Turns out a mechanic, Raz, found you and repaired you. Now that you’ve been rebuilt and repaired, Cherry has revenge on her mind, to save her creator and love of her life, and if she needs to take down all of INFONET to do so, she will, as violently as possible.

While Cherry is a badass android that can fight, she can’t do it alone, so you’ll have a sidekick that gives you advice along the way, though I guarantee you won’t see this coming. Regina and Cherry will have plenty of conversations, and it might take you a moment to put two and two together, but Regina is your... robotic vagina. That’s right, your sidekick is your talking vulva down in your nether regions. Again, something the title alone couldn’t have prepared you for.

A Metroidvania at its core, you’ll be exploring this sidescroller and destroying any other robots and enemies along the way. Rooms and areas begins simple enough, slowly adding more traps and dangers. The best part is that you can use these buzz saw or electricity traps against your enemies, as knocking them into said pits will cause them to take damage as well.

In true Metroidvania fashion, you’re going to come across areas you can’t access the first time you get there, but eventually you’ll get upgrades that allow you to gain admittance to new areas, allowing for more upgrades and getting closer to extracting your revenge on INFONET. Now and then you’ll come across some warp points, though I do wish there were more for when you need to backtrack or go another way.

Combat begins simple enough, using ‘X’ to punch and kick to attack your enemies, also able to combine with 'Up' to launch enemies in the air for some combos. Your regular attacks can do the job, but will take a lot of spamming to actually defeat the harder enemies. When an enemy is low on health, you can use ‘Y’ to execute them with a finisher, also refilling some of your energy which can be used for heavy attacks. Learning your combos and juggling enemies is going to be imperative when things become much harder the closer to INFONET you get.

While you can use your stored energy to use some heavy attacks and quickly down some enemies, I opted to not do so, as it’s the same resource needed to heal yourself if needed. While this makes you vulnerable as you channel your stored energy into health, it’s a necessity when things don’t go to plan. This becomes apparent early on once you reach some rooms that trap you inside until all enemies are defeated. Seems like no big deal with one or two enemies at first, but eventually these rooms will have an overwhelming amount of enemies that will cause some deaths and restarts at the last checkpoint you reached.

This is where combat becomes very chaotic and you start to feel some of the holes in the fighting mechanics. The biggest flaw without a doubt is the parry system. In theory, you can press a single button, parry an enemy attack, and defeat them. In practice though, you’ll be lucky if you’re able to make it work even close to half the time. For the life of me, I simply couldn’t get the parry to work, even on the basic enemies. They do give a slight indication of their attack that’s about to happen, but the reaction window to react seems so small that it feels broken. I could parry an enemy here and there, then mistime the next ten and end up dying. And that’s just one on one versus a single enemy. As soon as you have two or more, there’s virtually no point trying, as when you don’t hit the parry in time, you’re open for attack. You can’t parry projectiles either, so you’ll also need to rely on your dodge much of the time instead. Facing a boss where you need to parry their attacks, and you can see where a bunch of my frustration started to set in.

This is exactly why I opted to always save my energy to use for self-heals, as every time I didn’t parry properly, I took a massive amount of damage. I honestly just thought that maybe I misunderstood the parry mechanic or was doing something wrong, so I checked online, only to find out that it seems to be a common ‘problem’ with many others trying to enjoy Cookie Cutter to its fullest as well. If I was able to perform parries whenever I wanted, one shotting enemies and refilling my health for doing so, I’d breeze through Cherry’s quest, instead dying quite often and becoming frustrated cause it just feels off. I actually simply just stopped trying to parry, relying on dodges and normal attacks instead, which made every fight slog on.

As you explore each new area, you’ll gain new abilities and fight new enemy types along the way. While you can expect the usual types of abilities and upgrades like dashes and double jumps, in an interesting twist, your new combat abilities are also how you’ll gain access and reach new areas. As you combat new enemy types, certain abilities will be best suited for certain types, but I found myself falling back on what simply seemed easiest, as it can become chaotic at times.

While the combat frustrated me at every turn, the visual aesthetic was easily its highlight. Everything appears to be hand drawn and animated, and done amazingly well. While there’s a hefty amount of blood and gore, it’s all a spectacle to take in. Even the designs of enemies and Cherry herself feels unique and not what you’d normally expect. Finishers are over the top and gory, and the animation is quite slick overall. The metal soundtrack that kicks in during boss fights and certain moments amps up the experience as a whole. I do wish there was some voice acting aside from the opening moments, as I’d be curious what hearing Cherry and Regina banter would be like back and forth.

While all the pieces are there for a great Metroidvania, complete with unique setting and characters, Cookie Cutter frustrated me more often than not due to the broken parry system that rarely works as advertised. I wasn’t expecting to play a love-revenge story as a lesbian android that talks to her robotic vagina, filled with violence and gore, but it certainly was a memorable adventure.

**Cookie Cutter was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.3 / 10 Ufouria: The Saga 2

Back in the NES era, if you rented a game that had the SUNSOFT logo, you knew you were generally in for a good time. While I may be aging myself there a bit, SUNSOFT has been around since 1978, bringing a handful of memorable classic titles that I remember fondly from my childhood. One of their most unique titles though, Ufouria: The Saga, released in 1991, was one that I never got to play, though that was because it was only ever released in JP and EU, skipping North America.

That said, I found it odd that such an obscure title in their library finally gets a sequel more than three decades later with Ufouria: The Saga 2. It’s said that the characters from these games were once going to be SUNSOFT’s mascots of sorts, though never really worked out that way even though they did get a few cameo’s here and there. Gaming has changed dramatically in the last three decades, and the classic NES title now looks vastly improved with its unique and disgusting adorable art style.

You begin as Hebe, a penguin-like creature with an adorable blue toque for a hat. You awake in your bedroom, which happens to be atop a tree, consisting of your bed and a toilet, also acting as the game’s main hub. You’re interrupted by a strange alien in a UFO who throws bumyons, a purple goo-like substance that sticks to anything it touches. Thankfully Hebe has popoons, the inverse to this sticky goo, a furry Tribble-like creature that absorbs and destroys the goop. So you start out on your quest to stop this alien and clean up your home with your trusty popoons.

While the main plot is for you to stop this alien and get rid of the annoying bumyons, it’s really about making friends and exploring the world for coins and secrets. The first few bosses you defeat allow you to have companions that will accompany you on your journey, each with their own ability that will allow you to progress further. Some will only join once you buy them something they desire from the local vending machine at your home, so save those coins, as you’re going to need all the help you can get.

If you’ve played the original obscure game, the characters will all seem familiar, as they make a return. While the original NES game wasn’t visually pretty by any means, Ufouria 2 is absolutely charming and stunning with its design, appearing as if the world is created by fabric and felt for its backdrops and perler beads that border the text boxes and make up firework animations when a boss is defeated.

A sidescrolling platformer at its core, there’s also some Metroidvania elements thrown in as you’ll be revisiting areas numerous times as you gain new friends with their abilities. The clever way this is done is by giving each companion a different ability, rather than your single character magically getting new skills to jump higher or swim, etc. Like any good Metroidvania, you’ll reach areas you can’t access yet until you have a specific ability and friend alongside.

The world’s layout for zones is static, but what’s interesting is that each time you enter a zone, it’s slightly different each time, randomized for its layout. This prevents the game from becoming stale, as you’ll sometimes need to pass through zones a handful of times, so at least each time is different slightly. Levels will also give you an objective to complete if able, giving a bonus that's usually coins. These optional objectives vary from not getting hit, killing a certain amount of enemies or racing to complete it under a certain time for example, and while not overly challenging, at least gives you a focus if you want the bonus coins or cans.

While not a terribly long or challenging game, the first portion will have you going to new areas, defeating a boss, then gaining that companion after you buy them the item they desire. The second half is using all your new companions abilities to their fullest so you can get to new areas to collect more coins and precious tin cans needed for the vending machine upgrades and unlocks.

Swapping characters once they’ve decide to join you is done with a simple press of either Bumper. This has them give a high fine to one another and swap out the current character for the next. Each character is unique from one another, not just in their ability, but how they look and even walk. While you won’t have a traditional gridded map to remind you of the world’s layout, it’s just remembering where that large gap you couldn’t jump across was before, or the pool of water you couldn’t swim through.

Combat is simplistic in nature, having you either throwing your popoons to destroy the purple goop, or to stun enemies, though there's a little delay as it refreshes to be used again. You can also butt stomp enemies as well for extra coins. The only complaint I have about the butt stomping is that you need to be perfectly in line of the enemy, as if you don’t exactly stomp in the middle of the enemy’s hitbox, it’ll count as a hit against you and you’ll lose a heart. Honestly, the only times I ever really got hit was when I wasn’t perfectly lined up for my butt stomps. A quick popoon hit will stun them in place for a few moments, making it easier to line up your butt attack though.

Even the stage bosses don’t pose much of a threat, as you simply need to butt stomp them three times after removing their bumyon with a timed popoon attack first. Only the final boss is slightly different, though Ufouria 2 isn’t a challenging game by any means. After a boss you’ll come to a room with a chubby bird that offers to fly you home for free if you wish, netting all the coins and cans you’ve found along the way.

Back at home you’ll have a vending machine which is where you can purchase new items and upgrades when you have enough coins and cans. The amount of cans you’ve collected determines what items you’ll have access to and to purchase, you’ll need enough coins to actually purchase them though. Thankfully there wasn’t much need to grind levels for coins, as I generally always had enough for what I needed without having to do another run of collections.

There’s a shocking amount of items and upgrades to buy, and while a majority is optional, it’s always nice to have more hearts, adding challenge rooms, portals to get around the world quicker and more. You can even purchase optional abilities for characters, which is how you’ll find all of Ufouria’s secrets. I kept wanting to find more of the tin cans to see what the next upgrade was so that I could then purchase it and see how it changes the world.

Ufouria 2 is one of the most visually charming and disgustingly cute games I’ve played in recent memory. The world aesthetic of being crafted from layered felt reminded me a lot of Yoshi's Woolly World and how it too had bright colors and simply made you smile gazing upon it. The perler beads also add a nice touch and Ufouria 2’s arts and crafts visual flair just make it a joy to appreciate. The soundtrack is whimsical, and while there’s no voice over, the sound effects are just as cute as you’d expect along the journey.

While it may be a tad on the expensive side ($31.99 CAD), I quite enjoyed my time with it alongside Hebe and friends exploring their world, certainly memorable for its unique design and colorfulness. Ufouria: The Saga 2 is a sequel that I don’t think anyone asked for, or saw coming, but I’m all for it given how adorable is all is. It’s a small and quirky game that’s certainly on the easy and casual side, but sometimes a game like that is a welcome change.

**Ufouria: The Saga 2 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 Wizard with a Gun

Wizards are cool and all, but give a wizard a gun and they become that little bit more bad ass. While I don’t normally gravitate towards roguelikes often, when they are done well, they can be incredibly addicting, wanting to always play ‘one more’ round. Each ‘run’ you get slightly more powerful as you gather more materials and learn how the world works. You’ll play as a Gunmancer, a wizard who can imbue their bullets with a variety of different elements in this interesting twin-stick shooter. You’ll be gathering materials, turning back time, shooting endless foes and trying to srop the world from collapsing.

You are tasked with trying to prevent the Collapse, a world ending event that’s going to happen in five minutes. Luckily for you, your home base is inside a magical tower outside of regular time and space, where you’re not confined to the regular time limits while outside. Thankfully for you, you’re able to head back to your tower through special portals, rewinding time back five minutes once again as you try and make another run at preventing the apocalypse.

Every time you set out into the world with your five minute timer, you’re searching for a special gear, one that can be slotted into your time machine back at the tower, slowly accumulating so you can reset the world to what is was once before, before Chaos caused destruction everywhere. To be successful though you’re going to have to not only survive, but craft upgrades, enhancements, and crafting unique types of bullets for your weaponry.

While five minutes surely isn’t a lot of time, every time you enter the world it is randomly generated and filled with plenty of enemies and resources. Long as you make it back to the tower before dying, you’ll keep all that you’ve collected. If not, you’ll lose the resources you didn’t deposit back at your base. Certain Chaos enemies can randomly appear, and if destroyed, will add some time to your clock that’s constantly running out. This is why I found it stressful in the beginning, always having to worry about racing against the clock and making it back in time before it was too late, as the world doesn’t end exactly after the five minutes, but becomes a much more deadly and destructive place until you return and reset the clock once more.

Wizard with a Gun is exploration and crafting heavy, constantly needing mass amounts of resources so that you can survive just a little longer each run, maybe finding another gear or boss to make some overall progress. Create bullets, design modifications, outfit yourself in different garments with enhancements, and even furnish your tower.

While you don’t have traditional spells as a wizards, where your talents come into play is crafting specific types of bullets, once learned. This is how you’ll fight back in each loop once you turn back the clock and head back into the world. With each time to enter the world being randomly generated, you’ll have to explore and search, constantly weighing risk versus reward. Do you opt to stay a little longer before heading back to the tower and risk dying and losing everything you’ve gathered this run, or be cautious and quick to try and keep more resources and progress further even though it may not be as much?

I’ll admit, I was quite overwhelmed and frustrated for the first couple hours, as you’re taught the basics, but there are so many more mechanics and nuances to learn as you go that doesn’t really get explained all that well. You’re unsure what materials to keep, how to make new materials and what you even need to keep or not. While everything has a use in some ways, it’s not always clear or in what step you’ll need each type of item, as the crafting system becomes quite vast and convoluted.

As a twin-stick shooter, you’ll use the Left Stick to move your character and the Right to aim. Triggers are your bullets and you dodge with ‘B’. The core gameplay revolves around your guns, swapping them out and using the different elements against enemies. While there are different types of weapons from rifles, SMG’s, Carbines, Blunderbuss, and other types, the real interesting part is crafting the different bullet element types and choosing which upgrades as you mix and match to figure out what works best for you.

While the varied enemy types aren’t all that challenging, as they simply fire or rush at you, you’ll start to do well in combat once you learn how to use the elements in conjunction with one another and how they affect the world. Using regular bullets to destroy a tree will give you wood, but using fire or poison to do so will give you a different material, such as charcoal or poisoned wood. This again is something not explained very well, so you’ll need to do a lot of experimenting to figure these basics out, then having to memorize.

Upgrades are done in a number of ways. The most obvious is crafting the different ammunition types with resources you gather. Fire, ice, poison, lightning, force, and even bullets that can charm enemies and have them fight alongside you for that run. How you combine these elements will alter how they affect enemies. You’ll eventually be able to unlock and alter specific traits as well, like being a more powerful shot, leaving elemental trails behind and other ways to customize your guns.

While you get to choose a handful of different wizard robes and garments, these seem cosmetic at first, but you’ll eventually be able to upgrade specific components to each piece of gear, adding health bonuses, movement speed, carry capacity and more. The more you can craft, the more you’ll realize how much grinding you’ll need to do for specific materials you need. Certain upgrades may require a specific amount of mushrooms for example, so on your next run you set out with that specifically in mind. You’ll of course become distracted, looking for other materials, finding gears, harvesting Arcana from enemies, all while keeping an eye on the five minute timer.

There’s also been a large 'Bounty of Guns' update recently, adding much more gameplay to the predictable gameplay loop. This added new exciting bounties, where you’re hunting massive minibosses who will have some unique attacks you’ll need to learn the patterns of. More than 50 new guns also await to be crafted, though to find the blueprints you’ll need to scan specific NPC’s and enemies, which is easier said than done when trying to avoid getting hit.

There is an option for two player online co-op, though I was unable to find any games being hosted, nor did anyone join mine in the dozen or so hours I had a lobby open, so unfortunately I’m unable to comment on how co-op changes the gameplay, if at all.

The visual aesthetic is quite colorful and has a very distinct style. Enemy designs are quite varied, and while there is a lot of repetition for creatures, they are designed quite well, as are the animations for movements and attacks, telegraphed with large red markers. The soundtrack fits the mood of each biome and backdrop with light instruments, though largely forgettable for the most part. You’ll mostly hear a lot of your footsteps and weapons firing more than anything else though.

While the tutorials for a lot of the mechanics are lacking or not explained well, with enough time, I went from not really enjoying myself to having to do just ‘one more run’ for a specific upgrade. Once you’ve wrapped your head around all of what’s possible and how to craft, it goes from being a confusing and frustrating grind to being a fun yet repetitive shooter. While it does become tedious at times, Wizard with a Gun starts to really shine once you learn of its elemental intricacies.

**Wizard with a Gun was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Taxi Life: A City Driving Simulator

I’m a sucker for simulation games, and these days there seems to be one for nearly any type of job you can think of. The latest in the genre is Taxi Life: A City Driving Simulator, and if it’s got simulator in the name, it’s got to be a pretty faithful recreation of the job right? Well, yes and no. Developed by Simteract and published by Nacon, Taxi life puts you in the shoes of a taxi driver, picking up passengers all over a faithfully recreated city of Barcelona. While I’ve never been personally, I’d certainly love to go now to see how accurate their recreation of the city actually is, I just hope that the drivers in real life and better than the ones in game.

There’s no real narrative per-se, you’ll simply be taking a quick road test to introduce you to the gameplay basics of navigating your car controls before you’re set free in the the city of Barcelona to drive passengers from one corner to the other. Earn money and experience for doing so, purchase new cars, upgrade them and eventually even start a fleet of drivers all working for you.

You’ll first begin by choosing your driver, but don’t expect any sort of character creator here, you simply choose one of a couple drivers without any option to customize. You then choose a company name for your save file, a logo from a handful of premade ones, and then you’re off to play however you like. There are a few options you can choose in the difficulty, even how the car itself will handle from simple arcade controls all the way to simulation where you’ll need to use the clutch and shifter.

Gas and Brake are mapped to the Triggers as you’d expect, though it took some getting used to not being able to reverse by simply hitting brake again once stopped. Instead you need to place the gear into reverse, then hit gas, which makes sense in a real car, just not as common for other car games. The D-Pad is for your turn signals, which you’ll want to use if you want to be a courteous driver and earn the most tips from your customers. You can of course use your horn for when people walk in front of you or cut you off, but it doesn’t actually do anything as no pedestrians or drivers react to you road raging with your horn.

Picking up passengers is simple enough, choosing which you want to get from your map and following the GPS to the spot. Park in the designated area and they’ll get into your cab, setting your GPS automatically to their destination. Make sure you follow the rules of the road though, as each customer will tip you based on how accurately and safely you drive. Would you tip a driver who drives down the wrong side of the road or breaks the speed limit? Probably not. It’s the same here.

The simple gameplay loop of picking up customers and taking them to their destination is an addictive one, as you earn money and XP for each successful ride. The city is bustling during the day with traffic and notably quieter during the middle of night. Barcelona is recreated on a 1:1 scale and gives you 286 miles (460 km) of roads to explore, from highways to narrow one-way alleys. There’s just enough detail in the city that it almost feels live, filled with garbage cans, road work, broken lights, car accidents, trees and parked cars, but the pedestrians walking about on very linear and rigid paths quickly take you out of the immersion.

Following the rules of the road may seem easy on paper, but watching where you’re going, remembering to use your signals, stopping at red lights, watching your speed, keeping an eye out for red light runners, and simply remembering what side of the road to be on is a lot to think of all at once. Road rules are slightly different in Barcelona than here, so I had to get used to looking for traffic lights at the sides of the road, not hanging in the middle above. There’s also a lot of roundabouts, multilane ones as well, something we don’t see a lot here on the west coast.

Every so often your customers might strike up a conversation with you. You’re not obliged to engage and speak to them, but you’re given a few choices you can respond with the D-Pad, and after a little back and forth you earn a little XP based on how well they enjoyed the discussion. This happened quite rarely though, maybe once every dozen or so customers. Others may simply ask to have a window rolled down or to wipe the bugs off your windshield.

There’s no shortage of customers, and I did like the fact that once you drop off one rider, it’ll ask if you want to pick up the closest person nearby waiting for a ride. You can see all the people wanting a taxi on the map, able to choose and make a waypoint to them at any time. There are even a handful of special challenges to complete where the customer asks you to get them to their destination as fast as possible where you don’t want to worry about the road rules or speed limits.

Your vehicle is your livelihood, so you need to maintain it as well. You’ll need to make sure you have enough gas, repair any damages and of course keeping it clean, as customers won’t be happy with a dirty ride. When you eventually purchase and unlock an electric car, you’ll also have to monitor its battery level. If you want to take a break from driving customers, there’s also plenty of landmarks to find, each netting you some decent XP for your troubles. I do wish there was some sort of history lesson unlocked for the landmarks though, as I would have been interested to learn more about them.

As you earn XP and level up, you’ll be able to spend points in the skill tree. There’s a decent amount of options to choose from, like earning more money or XP, reduced ticket prices, or increases to how much your staff will earn. It’s not a large skill tree by any means, but enough that it gives you something to work towards for a while at least.

Money is arguably more important, as this is how you’ll be able to purchase new taxis, upgrade your car stat wise and aesthetically, as well as pay your employees and fines. You can upgrade your cars handling, speed and braking, even adding new paint, rims, spoilers, interior, and even undercarriage neon lights if you really want to stand out. There’s not a lot of options, car or upgrade wise, but just enough that I wanted to customize each.

Every new car you buy, you can also hire a worker to join your company. You get to choose from a list of which person to hire, each with their own positive and negative aspects. The menu system for this is a bit convoluted and confusing, but you’re also able to choose their work times and district to cover. Every new car means more potential earnings, though I constantly had issues with them not working when they were supposed to or not bringing in really any money, and I’m not really sure why.

For all the things I did enjoy about Taxi Life, there were at least two more that frustrated or disappointed. First and foremost, the AI in this is basically nonexistent. Pedestrians will walk through crosswalks whenever they please, regardless if it’s a green or red light. Worse yet, they might get halfway across the walkway only to turn around and go back, then change their mind again, basically stopping you from driving until they decide where they want to do.

Then there’s the bug where you pick up your single passenger, but when you bring them to their destination, two or three get out of taxi instead. Or where the quick cutscene plays of them getting into your taxi, but your car continues to roll forwards or backwards without you able to stop the car, which then results in a minor accident and needing a repair later on.

AI drivers are not much better. More than a handful of times I’d be sitting at a red light only to get rear ended at full speed. Drivers also don’t know where they’re going or follow the rules of the road, as they’ll change lanes last minute, or simply stop in an intersection or roundabout for no reason at all. I mean, I guess there are actual terrible drivers like this in real life, but I don’t believe this was specifically programmed to recreate this. Seeing a cop blow through a red light is also something not uncommon given their lights weren't on.

The majority of the time there was no performance issues, but every so often, seemingly in certain crowded areas, the framerate goes from being smooth, down to almost single digits. This of course usually results in a crash as you’re trying to compensate when the stuttering moments. Visually the city can look beautiful as you drive by certain areas and observe landmarks, and while there’s a few radio stations, they are all quite bland and the voice acting from you and the customers during dialogue is terrible at best.

Once you have the majority of the skills have been earned and have a handful of cabbies working for you, there’s really not much else to work towards. That said, there’s still some enjoyment to be had to picking up a few customers and bringing them to their destination within a gorgeous city. Clearly rough around the edges, Taxi Life: A City Driving Simulator frustrates in certain ways, yet is relaxing in others.

**Taxi Life: A City Driving Simulator was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 4.7 / 10 Airhead

One of the perks I love about reviewing is that sometimes games that I would have never taken a look at happen to fall in my lap to play. This is the case with Airhead, something I probably would have glossed over in the Xbox store and not really given a second thought. I’ve managed to play a handful of memorable indie games that, like Airhead, just happen to fall come across my desk. While not without its flaws, Airhead is certainly a unique platformer that has you exploring an odd world as an even odder character, yourself.

You play as Body, a literal body without a head. You fall from quite some height to the bottom of a cave, and this is where your adventure starts. Where did you come from? Why are you headless? What are you? These are questions that you’ll soon forget once you start to explore this mysterious world. Shortly after your harsh arrival to the cave you start to look for a way out, pushing and pulling some rocks to be able to leap up to new heights.

This is where you’ll find a head. Once you place this on your shoulders you somewhat become one entity, though you’re still holding it with your hands and can place it down when needed. Head needs air to live though, and you’ll notice that you’ve already passed a handful if air tanks along the way. Take a moment to fill Head with air and you’re off to explore new pathways that open up. When you move though Head’s air slowly depletes, thus starts your journey of finding a constant stream of air tanks so you can survive as you try and find a way out now as one entity, Airhead.

Body and Head may be two separate entities, but now their fates are intertwined. Body can’t survive long without Head, and Head needs to be carried everywhere, constantly resupplying the air gauge. Slowly leaking air, you’ll need to find a way to not only survive, but a way out, trying to find the machine that stole Head’s air source. While there’s no text, dialogue or cutscenes, there’s a story that plays out in a way for you to interpret on your own.

A 2.5D platformer at its core, you’ll be running, jumping, and dashing as you gain new abilities, allowing you to reach new areas in this Metroidvania as you complete puzzles. Where you once couldn’t reach, you’ll eventually be able to pass or find another way through when you earn these new abilities.

You’re able to place down Head at any time, but doing so also depletes its air gauge slowly, so you can’t be apart for too long. Sometimes this will be needed though, as when Body is holding Head, you’re unable to use your arms to climb ledges since your hands are occupied. This is where some of the puzzle elements come into play, as you may need to place Head down and find a different way around to pass through a smaller area, or to push a rock to make a ledge reachable while holding Head afterwards.

Head can only last a short amount of time before needing a resupply of air. Thankfully there are plenty of air tanks strewn around the world conveniently, refiling your oxygen for a short period. Every time you use an air tank, this counts as a checkpoint as well, and since you’re constantly going from one tank to the next with only about 30 seconds or so in between, you’re never too far back if you manage to die from suffocation.

This is also where some of my frustrations come into play with Airhead as well though. Because you’re basically always suffocating, you’re constantly running and searching for the next air tank to refill your oxygen. This puts a constant pressure on you, especially since you also have to deal with puzzles along the way as well that can be quite challenging. I was so preoccupied with simply trying to reach the next air tank that I found it hard to enjoy myself or take the world in as I was constantly stressed trying to reach the next checkpoint, even if it was only 30 seconds away.

Puzzles start out simple enough, pushing a rock here or there to reach new heights, but eventually become more complex, having to place Head down, let the wind take it, or use different types of air tanks that have you float or sink. As you get new abilities, the puzzles become slightly more complex as you go. I’ll freely admit, a few puzzles certainly had me stumped and I needed to search online more than once for a solution.

Airhead’s visual style is gorgeous, starting out with dark and bleak caves and water, eventually opening up to outside cliff sides, almost as if each area is hand crafted or painted. The background soundtrack is subtle but adds a calm ambience, even when I was constantly stressed trying to each the next air tank to survive. While I had no major issues, I would get hung up on random objects now and then, or missing a jump from not being just perfectly timed, usually resulting in a quick death from loss of air. There's also the odd time where you need to go 'up' or 'down' onto another ledge or path given its 2.5D nature, but this wasn't always clear when or the exact spot to do so.

Even without any dialogue or traditional narrative, Airhead manages to tell a story, though it may differ from one to another depending on your interpretation. It’s clear that Airhead was built with a lot of heart and passion but I found it hard to truly enjoy from being constantly stressed about finding a constant air supply. Challenging puzzles and classic Metroidvania gameplay is to be had for fans, and while it may not be a long adventure, it was certainly memorable for as long as you can hold your breath.

**Airhead was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 King Arthur: Knight's Tale

Having after launched on PC in 2020 after a successful Kickstarter, King Arthur: Knight's Tale garnered a fanbase with its tactical RPG gameplay and journey into dark Arthurian legend. A few short years later and now console players also have the opportunity to dive into this dark and grim story set in Camelot, developed by NeocoreGames. If you’re a fan of XCOM-like strategic gameplay elements but enjoy a dark narrative and a medieval setting, you’re not going to be disappointed.

While we all may know the legendary tale of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, NeocoreGames has taken the classic tale and given it quite a unique spin, one that is dark, morbid and treacherous. You are Sir Mordred, the black knight from previous tales and nemesis of King Arthur. Using a dark power to invade the lands, you and King Arthur finally have a showdown to the death. You kill King Arthur, but in his last breath, he ends up killing you as well. You both died, yet you both somehow live.

You have both risen from the afterlife. You’re awoken by The Lady of the Lake, resurrecting you and telling you that you need to finish your journey to destroy King Arthur, as he’s now too resurrected but corrupt with evil. It won’t be easy though, as you’re going to have to fight through an army of corrupted denizens in the lands of Avalon. Almost as if the good versus evil roles have reversed, you take on this adventure to find a slay Arthur.

Obviously a drastic shift in the traditional Arthurian legend we know, this storyline had me hooked from the opening moments and constantly wanting to find out more. You won’t be able to fight the hordes of undead armies and monsters alone though, finding other Knights of the Round Table along the way, having them join your side in trying to repel the evil darkness besetting Camelot.

Characters are introduced along the journey and in a natural way. How you interact with them will determine a number of outcomes later on as there’s also a morality chart that you need to be cognizant of, as some knights may approve certain choices, but frown upon others. They all have an interesting background and reason for joining, playing into the larger overall narrative naturally without feeling forced. Do you choose to help someone’s quest for redemption, or ignore another’s brutality all to keep their allegiance? And just because you manage to complete the campaign doesn’t mean the game ends, as an endgame unlocks that offers new extremely challenging quests and boss fights.

If you’ve previously played on PC and wondering what’s been changed or improved for the console version, the list may not be terribly long, but it’s been done well. First, you’re given two graphical options to choose from; Quality that gives 4K resolution or Performance which instead gives a smoother framerate. There is a local PVP option if you want to challenge a friend head on, of course Xbox achievements to unlock, and controller support, obviously. I’ll admit, many games that get console ports from PC don’t always have a great controller layout or scheme, so I was unsure what to expect here. Thankfully, NeocoreGames have put in the work to make the controller feel natural for the most part, aside from a few finicky menus.

The core gameplay for King Arthur: Knight’s Tale is a tactical turn based RPG, so if you’re a fan of games like XCOM, Gears Tactics and countless others, you’ll have an idea of what to expect for the most part. Careful planning and strategies will be needed if you want to survive each battle, as death can be permanent for your knights if you’re not wary. You’ll also have aspects of hero management and the rebuilding of Camelot. There’s a number of different difficulty options, from Easy to Hard, and in the later chapters I found the default Normal to be quite a challenge if you don’t have an ideal party setup or a sound plan going into battle.

Camelot will play as your central hub after your opening mission. This is also where you’ll need to do some building management, deciding what to upgrade and when. You not only want to find and defeat Arthur, but restore Camelot to its former glory as well. This takes resources, which you’ll gather from completing missions, exploring the maps and finding treasure chests. Unlocking and upgrading facilities will allow you to purchase new gear, heal knights, set titles for bonuses and more. It’s actually quite more involved than I expected, as I was always trying to figure out the next best upgrade. Do I want an extra slot in the hospice to heal my knights when they become injured, or add another slot where my unused knights can earn XP as well? Early on you’ll struggle to figure out what best to upgrade, though you’ll steadily unlock more as you progress through the campaign.

On the overworld map is where you’ll choose which mission you want to test yourself with, able to see its objectives or potentially required knights to proceed. Side missions will earn you extra rewards, but also carry risks, as your knights can become critically injured, or even permanently die on certain difficulties, so there’s always a risk versus reward component in play when even choosing to do a side quest or not.

When gathering your knights for a mission and battles, you can take four into battle. Even choosing which knights is a strategic choice, as there are different classes you need to take into account as well. With six different classes, you’re generally going to want a balanced team, but how you choose to do so is up to you. Each character levels up individually, has skills to unlock, and can wear upgraded gear, but the downside is that they can also get critically injured or even permanently die depending on your difficulty option, so rotating new party members in while others rest and recover is generally wise. Loyalty also plays a large factor, as decisions you make will move a marker on the morality chart, and knights that don’t align with your views may decide to not agree or follow, or worse, stand against you. The main opposite views are Righteousness versus Tyranny, but there’s also Old Faith versus Christianity choices as well.

Combat is quite strategic, playing out on a grid and turn based. Here you’ll get to decide where to move each of your knights, what skills to use and develop your plan of attack. You’ll need to use AP (action points) to move and use abilities, and in the beginning you can generally move and attack once, but it becomes more strategic as you unlock more characters and learn more intricacies. There’s traps to keep an eye out for, and if you decide to use your AP for Overwatch protection instead, that’s a perfectly viable option as well which I found worked quite well.

Archers will eventually unlock skills to be more effective, shoot fire or poison arrows, magic users can hurl fireballs across a huge distance, and your knights can generally take a good beating with their heavy armor. How you blend these classes together and proper placement will make a huge difference in your success or failure. Gear can be upgraded with sigils, ranging in quality and stats. You’re able to sort it to only show what each character can use, and can upgrade your armor, weapons, ring and amulet. While the armor upgrades don’t change how you physically appear, each decent upgrade can make a substantial difference in your success. Upgrading buildings in Camelot can even offer new gear to purchase once you start to come across more gold. Explore each map thoroughly though, as campfires are ever important to restore your health or armor, but you'll need to choose wisely.

The dark, bleakness and constant death is a constant. Avalon’s backgrounds are quite detailed and ruins you come by will be crumbled. The color pallet is dark and it gives an uneasy feeling around every corner. Character designs are done quite well also, with your knights appearing as walking tanks in their medieval armor. The grim visuals are accompanied by a similar soundtrack that is haunting at times though unmemorable, and the voice actors all did quite a good job with believable performances.

King Arthur: Knight's Tale does a fantastic job at taking turn based tactical gameplay from titles we love and adding its own twists and dark setting. Strategic combat, moral choices, and a compelling narrative makes it difficult to put down. While it can be brutally challenging at times, even on the easier difficulties, turn based tactical combat is front and center but can feel a bit repetitive after a few dozen missions. A fresh take on Arthurian legend, King Arthur: Knight's Tale offers a memorable journey across Avalon as you try to rebuild Camelot and seek vengeance.

**King Arthur: Knight's Tale was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Bish Bash Bots

It’s been some time since I’ve played a solid Tower Defense game, but whenever I find one I enjoy, the hours seem to just fade away as I play level to level. The latest in the once overdone genre is Bish Bash Bots, an interesting take on the tower defense genre that combines not only strategic placements of your turrets, but bashing robots with your wrench alongside three other friends. If you’re a fan of the Bloons and Overcooked games, Bish Bash Bots melds the two together in an entertaining way that is sure to give some laughs alongside some friends.

In the not so distant future, robots have taken over every single mundane job humans don’t want to do. For some reason though, all of the robots are now malfunctioning and have now turned against humanity. It’s up to a group of four comrades to save the world from the robot onslaught and save the world. This will be done with their tools, building skills, gadgets, and turrets.

At its core, Bish Bash Bots is a tower defense game played on a single screen with a top down view. Your goal is to protect the EMP at the ‘end’ of the stage from becoming destroyed by the onslaught of robots. Where it becomes tricky is that the majority of the levels aren’t a singular path that the robots will follow, and you are also only able to place your turrets in specific spots, so strategy will play a larger part than your typical tower defense title.

With 32 different worlds to play in, there’s plenty of different stages to challenge you, and they surely will. Not just simple backdrop changes, levels can greatly affect how you play that stage across the eight different biomes. Levels start out basic enough, though they eventually add other obstacles and environmental challenges such as multiple paths the bots can take, a gap in the middle of the stage you need to jump across, areas you can’t build on until you smash the giant mushrooms away, poison clouds that block your vision, quicksand pits, goop that blocks your turrets from firing until you clear it, and some boss fights that add even more to deal with. New stages never become stale, as you always have something new to contend with aside from turret placement and robot bashing.

The biproduct of this is that you’re continuously busy. There’s never, if rarely, a moment to rest, as you’re always having to do something, be it chasing after a rogue bot rushing to the EMP, upgrading a turret, collecting cogs or dealing with some environment mechanic. As you destroy bots, they’ll drop cogs, which is your currency to build new turrets, and they may even drop upgrade cubes that can be given to a turret to give it a slight boost in its upgrade meter.

I will say, playing solo, I wasn’t enjoying myself at all. It’s very challenging to do everything yourself, clearly designed for 2-4 player multiplayer. When I was able to convince my daughter to play with me for a few rounds, it was a night and day difference. Trying to juggle everything on your own seems near impossible. It’s not quite, but I had to restart levels quite a few times when trying to conquer it by myself. This is where I found that upgrading one turret multiple times was more powerful than having numerous level one turrets.

The four characters are more than simple color swaps as well, as they each have their own abilities and special power that can be used once fully charged. Some are clearly better in a group setting than others, like the one I chose that upgrades turrets faster, but activating these abilities benefits the whole group for a short time. When playing co-op this isn’t as much of an issue, but solo, some characters are immensely better than others because of their special ability.

While the strategy of proper turret placement and types is the priority, being able to bash the bots is where your brawling abilities can help or hinder. Swinging your hammer knocks the bots in that direction, so if you’re not careful, you might bash them past your turrets, or even into the EMP accidentally. If you wildly start swinging at the bots, they are going to get knocked in all directions, so you need to be a little more precise at the angle you attack from. While your attacks don’t do a lot of damage, it’s usually enough to finish off a few bots that are out of range of your turrets, but there’s nothing worse than seeing the bots get launched into the wrong direction or right into your EMP.

Enemies vary as you progress, become more challenging or having more health to deal with. They start simple enough, but then you have to deal with ones that shield all the robots around them until you give them a whack. Then there’s the annoying flying robots which are the worst because only the anti-air turret can hit them, so you almost always need one and hoped that you placed it along the right pathway.

As you progress in the campaign you’ll unlock new turret types such as a tesla that can temporarily stun enemies, as well as a few new gadgets for your wrench that can be equipped, giving such bonuses and stunning robots that are bashed with it. Clearly the best upgrades though are the cosmetic hats you can unlock, adding flair to your character and simply added for fun.

Again, Bish Bash Bots can certainly be played in single player, but it’s truly meant to be a multiplayer game for four players. Able to be played locally or online, four players makes for a much better experience overall. While having online multiplayer is an awesome addition, it’s done by room codes, so unfortunately there’s no random matchmaking to find players to fill out your games on a whim.

Bish Bash Bots is quite colorful with its varied biomes, and each robot enemy is clearly distinct in design from one another. This makes it easy to tell what robots are coming and which turrets you’re going to need for the oncoming wave. Music is what you’d expect, being light hearted and whimsical to match the cartoon visuals, though nothing really memorable.

Bish Bash Bots is a tower defense game at its core, but with all of its other mechanics in play, it’s quite a unique and challenging one, especially solo. Clearly designed to be played alongside friends, it’s a blast with some co-op buddies, but a constant frustration when solo.

**Bish Bash Bots was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.7 / 10 INVECTOR: RHYTHM GALAXY

Having reviewed and quite enjoyed AVICII Invector back in 2019, I honestly didn’t expect a sequel to release. While Invector: Rhythm Galaxy may not be given the Avicii treatment this time around, it took the gameplay blueprint, made some tweaks, and added a slew of new classic and modern songs and genres this time around. Like all rhythm based games, you’re tasked with pressing the button prompts to the beat of the music, here though you do it in a spaceship along a winding track with spectacular neon space environments.

Before delving into the gameplay, let’s talk about the track list, as a music based game is only as good as its soundtrack. While music preferences are going to vary person to person, if you’re not a fan of the tracklist below, then it’s going to be a hard sell regardless of how good the gameplay may be. Vice versa, if you’re a fan of the included music then you’re likely to look past its smaller frustrations. AVICII Invector had 25 songs in its playlist, which felt like a decent amount, this time though in Invector: Rhythm Galaxy we have 40 songs total, upping the playlist by a fair amount.


Adam Lambert – “Holding Out for a Hero”
Alec Benjamin – “Let Me Down Slowly”
Anne-Marie – “Ciao Adios”
Bausa & Zuna – “Biturbo”
Beka – “x – “Legion”
Burns – “Talamanca”
Charli XCX – “Boom Clap”
Charlie Puth – “Attention”
Dan + Shay – “Glad You Exist”
Disturbed – “Down with the Sickness”
Dropgun – “Earthquake”
Duran Duran – ty Fifty – “Cupid”
Garmiani – “Ava”
Greeicy Rendón & Mike Bahia – “Esta Noche”
Griff – “Black Hole”
Gucci Mane – “Classical”
Kojey Radical feat. Knucks – “Payback”
KSI feat. Tom Grennan – “Not Over Yet”
Liam Gallagher – “Wall of Glass”
Linkin Park – “Lost”
Lumix & Gabry Ponte – “Monster”
Maná – “Oye mi amor”
Merk & Kremont – “41 Days”
Mike Shinoda & Kailee Morgue – “In My Head”
Nathan Dawe feat. KSI – Nutini – “Shine a Light”
Paramore – “Ain't It Fun”
PinkPantheress – “Boy's a Liar”
Priya Ragu – “Adalam Va!”
Quarantino – “Broken Love”
Royal Blood – “Come On Over”
Sam Gellaitry – “New Wave”
Sam Ryder – “Space Man”
The Spinners – “I'll Be Around”
Tiësto feat. Charli XCX – “Hot In It”
Tina Turner – “The Best”
Wiz Khalifa feat. Berner – “Bluffin'”

It should be noted that 8 of the songs aren’t playable in Single Player mode until you unlock them in the Campaign by completing them, so it’s probably a good idea to start there first. While I initially thought that having a quite varied tracklist would be a positive, there doesn’t seem to be an overall genre or theme across the game, unlike what Avicii had. This meant that I really only liked half the songs at best, so my want to replay songs over again lessened because of how many I didn’t enjoy.

This becomes quite apparent in Campaign mode where you need to make linear progression through songs, and doing a couple back to back can be a drag if you’re not a fan of the genre, artist or song. Of course being a modern day rhythm game, there are DLC offerings of songs for purchase if you want to up the track list. Currently there are two extra packs available, one Latin music themed and the other EDM, but we only reviewed the base game with the included 40 songs.

What I didn’t expect was Invector: Rhythm Galaxy’s attempt at having a story. The campaign is how you’ll go from song to song, but every now and then you’ll get some chatter between characters Ebula and her friends going on an intergalactic road trip together after Ebula’s grandmother’s passing. After every few songs you get some dialogue snippets, and while I commend the effort to having put some semblance of a narrative, it’s completely forgettable and felt more like a disruption between songs.

Campaign is mandatory to get through though if you want to unlock all the songs, ship skins and world backgrounds. While you can play Single Player any time, doing so after the campaign makes the most sense. These unlocked songs are a little more challenging, as your shields won’t regenerate, so you’re only able to have a certain amount of missed notes to complete it.

Songs in Campaign start out easy enough (depending on your difficulty of course), and you simply need to get a specific percentage of the notes to pass. This percentage needed goes up the further in the campaign you get, making for an arbitrary difficulty increase, as the songs themselves don’t generally get progressively harder themselves. Sure there were a few songs that required a few restarts to get the hang of certain note sections, but it seemed sporadic and random, as sometimes the notes were on the bass, melody or vocals depending on the genre and song.

Gameplay is virtually identical from Avicii, and since I enjoyed the original game so much, I had a feeling it would be the same here. For the most part, I was right. One change I noticed right away though is that in the previous game you had to press the button as your ship was over the note itself, now in Rhythm Galaxy though, you have an oval reticule in front of your ship, needing to press it then just before it reaches your ship. I’m not sure why the change but it was causing me issues in the beginning, making me question if my audio/video wasn’t synced properly on my TV. Sure I accommodated to the slight change eventually, I’m just unsure why the change was made in the first place.

You spaceship flies above a set and winding path littered with notes based on the song selection. There are two different highway playfields, the first is a flat ‘road’ where you can be in the middle, left, or right lane where you attempt to press the corresponding button at the right time to the beat. Then there are the triangle highways, where instead of being a flat playfield, you can move to any of the three sides as it rotates, all while winding up, down, and to the sides.

Starting out on the Casual difficulty to get myself warmed up the gameplay, I eventually challenged myself to Normal, Hard and then Ultra. The harder the difficulty, the more notes generally on the screen. On Casual you only have to use the Left Stick, Bumper and ‘A’ button to match with the note prompts. Going to Normal adds more notes as well as the ‘X’ button, Hard adds ‘B’, and Ultra adds ‘Y’ and even more notes. While it’s color coded and obvious what button is meant to be pressed, sometimes it becomes a blur with how much is on the screen at once.

I’m generally quite skilled at music based games, but Hard mode was quite challenging on a number of songs due to different genres playing oddly from one another. With a pop track you generally hit the button to the beat and instruments, but on some of the other songs, you had to go along with the vocals or melody, so it felt a little inconsistent at times. You also always need to be looking ahead of the notes coming down the lanes so that you can prepare for which button to press correctly. This isn’t normally an issue, but at times when you’re going ‘uphill’ on the highway, you can’t see the notes coming until the last second, almost always making for a missed note unless you’ve memorized the song.

If you have friends or family over, four players can play together, each taking a corner of the splitscreen. I didn’t get to test this out, though I do wish there was an online multiplayer offering, though the online leaderboards will have to suffice for now. Even though there are more songs this time around, me not enjoying half of the tracklist made it feel about the same length of replayability as Avicii was.

Visually, Invector: Rhythm Galaxy is a wonder to look at if you’re able to take your eyes off the playfield for a few moments. As you fly through futuristic landscapes, complete with neon highlights, it’s a lot to take in visually, especially if you’re watching it for the first time. While it’s quite chaotic with all the bright lights and fast movement, you do eventually get into the ‘zone’, able to focus and block out all the extra visual noise as you tap your foot to the songs you enjoy.

If you enjoyed Avicii Invector’s gameplay, you’re sure to enjoy Rhythm Galaxy as well, though I’d suggest checking out a few of the songs and see if they are what you’d enjoy, as a music game is only as good as its soundtrack. I do feel as though Invector: Rhythm Galaxy is missing an overall theme or tone with its varied soundtrack selection, but it’s challenging gameplay and gorgeous aesthetic make it hard to not recommend.

**Invector: Rhythm Galaxy was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 Make Way

Way Way, coming through! That’s probably something I thought more than a few times as I raced to the finish in Make Way. A top down racer that feels like a mix of classic MicroMachines and TrackMania, Make Way is a cute and chaotic racer where 4 players, human or bots, race to the end on a course designed by the players at each leg. Developed by Ice BEAM and published by Secret Mode, Make Way is a simple idea where fun is the most important aspect, making for a fantastic party game when guests are over and always feeling like I wanted to go for just one more race.

While there’s no traditional Career mode, that doesn’t mean you don’t make progress. You begin with just one mode unlocked: Race. This is the simplest mode where you just need to reach the end at each leg of the race. What makes Make Way unique is that there’s no pre-designed levels, instead offering all players a tile to place down, creating a leg of a race. You race that segment, then add more tiles and the track becomes longer each time until there’s a points winner.

As you play you earn XP and level up, unlocking two more modes along the way. At certain levels you’ll then unlock Classic and Chaos mode. Classic is also your standard racing, but now adds weapons to the mix, Mario Kart style where you have to drive over one of the blocks to get the power-up. These range from different types of fun weapons meant to stop your opponents as you make it to the next checkpoint. This mode also adds some blockades and ramps, making the actual racing a bit trickier.

Then there’s Chaos mode, perfectly named. This is like Classic Mode, but more weapons and obstacles, also without any of the walls on the edges of the tracks, meaning you’re going to fall off and be knocked out until the next leg of the race quite often. Chaos mode was quite challenging and I had to purposely drive much slower to avoid driving off the track and not gaining any points. There’s also a Custom mode you can unlock where you can set all the rules exactly how you want.

I wasn’t sure what to make of the scoring system at first, but once I understood it I actually quite enjoyed it. A race is comprised of multiple rounds until one player reaches the maximum points. At the start of a race each player chooses a track tile to place, then you race on that layout. Once that segment is raced and completed, you add another four tiles to the track, lengthening it and racing from the beginning once more. You keep repeating this until someone wins by reaching the maximum of 3000 points, which are given out for segment wins. If you manage to get knocked out or fall off the track you won’t score any points for that segment, but will reappear at the next section. Points are given for each segment you survive, with higher places gaining more points.

The building segments in between rounds takes a really simple idea and makes it into a fun gameplay mechanic. Tiles are laid out randomly and you choose which you like and want to race on, but be quick, as it’s first come first serve. Then it’s a race to place it where you want on the track, so if I place my tile down before you, that’s how the race layout is going to be. Races may only be a few segments if you’re winning each portion getting the maximum points, but if it’s competitive, it may be a dozen segments long.

Not only can you place track pieces, you’ll eventually get to unlock obstacles too, making races more chaotic. Bumpers, ramps, boosts and more can be placed, and while you’ll only have a handful of tile options at the beginning, you unlock more as you level up. Eventually you’ll have really cool pieces like loops, seesaws, twirling ramps and more. Every race is going to be different because the tiles offered are randomized, and players will race to get different pieces and place them in different orders each time.

This takes designing your own tracks to a new levels, because you then race it directly after being placed, and knowing an opponent hates the tiles with no barriers or a gap may be a benefit to you if you’re able to remember the layout and avoid the obstacle. While I may have fallen off the track the first few times, I certainly started to remember afterwards, strategizing how to go about the race. With endless configurations, you more rely on skill and reflexes rather than memorizing a track layout. Thankfully each vehicle handles exactly the same, so it's simply an aesthetic preference as well.

My main issue is with the camera. Given that it’s a top down racer, the camera essentially is locked to the player who’s furthest ahead in first place, meaning if you fall too far behind, you’ll be knocked out for that leg of the race. Even though the camera is locked to you in first place, it’s not zoomed out far enough to see what’s coming, especially if you’re racing at full speed, so you have to hopefully memorize the track layout from the tile placement or be somewhat cautious since you can’t see very far what’s ahead of you until it’s too late.

The weapons can help you knock or stall your opponents, allowing you for a segment win. While there’s not that many different weapon variations, they are light hearted, like a mallet on the top of your car to smash anyone in front of you, or a goo launcher to slow them down. You’ll gain XP for doing so as well, so always a good idea to try and do so regardless.

Completing races will earn you XP in a variety of ways, unlocking new vehicles, track tiles and obstacles. The more you play the more you’ll unlock, so there’s always something new to play with it seems. I do wish there was a way you could see more than just the next unlock, but once you start getting some of the more unique tiles, races become quite fun with a few loops and such thrown in.

Play up to four players online or locally, and if you’re by yourself, you can race three other bots no problem. Even able to choose their difficulty when playing solo I was still having a great time, though I could see playing locally with some friends and a few adult beverages being even more of a blast. While online multiplayer is supported, I was unable to find a single match every time I tried, which was a bit of a dissapointment.

I'll admit, I expected Make Way to simply be another MicroMachines knockoff that I’d forget after a day of playing. Instead, I’m leaving it installed just in case I have someone over, as it’s simple enough to pick up and play and would absolutely be a blast with some friends. When not only the gameplay is fun, but creating the tracks as well, races never became stale due to being completely unique every single time, and the constant slow drop of tile unlocks kept me wanting to play one more race.

**Make Way was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Anthology of Fear

Anthology of Fear is the latest horror game on console, but it’s not quite what I expected. In most horror games you’re given tools or skills to fight against or avoid your enemy, here though, you simply walk from point A to B for the most part, unraveling a twisted story along the way. A horror walking sim with light puzzle elements, Anthology of Fear may not have been what I was expecting, as I certainly didn’t pay much attention to the minor and brief trigger warning message at the start of the game, though I probably should have.

If you have automatonophobia (fear of mannequins) or find it hard to deal with suicide topics, this may be difficult for you to play. The later section even deals with child harm, which as a parent is hard to stomach, especially when it’s a cutscene you can’t intervene in. With some heavy topics being dealt with here, you can also expect some messed up themes, blood, supernatural events and more. The atmosphere is set in place quite quickly and had an uneasy tone throughout until the credits rolled.

Your brother has gone missing, and after months of no leads or findings, you decide to go search for yourself. Naturally in a horror game, this leads you to a dark and creepy alleyway with someone on the other end of a radio guiding you. You of course then up in some sort of abandoned hospital, because where else would it lead you right? Of course this is when the radio stops working also. With a quite short runtime of around two hours, I can’t delve much more into the story without spoiling the main plot points or twists.

Search from room to room and you’ll eventually come across some VHS tapes that are somehow linked, acting like a new chapter or different perspective. I did find it a little hard to follow along at times, but what starts as a missing person mystery, a much darker tale starts to emerge. While the tropes may be overused, I was intrigued to see if my assumptions were correct once I think I had the plot figured out, but rest assured, there’s a few twists and turns I even I didn’t see coming, especially in the last few sections that takes quite a dark turn.

Before you begin your journey though I’d highly suggest checking out the options, as I had to turn off the head bobble and film grain. Yeah, the film grain can make it look grittier and like that of a found footage film, but the environments are so dark already, and the head bob was way too emphasized that I’m sure it may make some people nauseous. Thankfully these can be toggled to your preferences.

Each chapter, or section, has a distinct theme or objective. Some will have you searching the abandoned halls of a hospital looking for certain patient records or finding the breakers to turn on the power so you can use the elevator. Maybe you’re reliving a memory, though things may not be quite as you remember. Sometimes you reach the end of a hallway only to turn around and it’s completely rearranged from the way you just came. Doors will slam shut or lock on you once entered, making for a tense atmosphere.

Then there’s the mannequins. These start out innocent enough, but can be quite creepy once they start to move as you walk by or rearrange themselves. Later on there are paranormal events that occur as well. Is this real? Is this just something you’re imaging in your head? Can you survive the horror? The tale comes together from multiple viewpoints that’s a little difficult to piece together, as it’s not always blatantly expressed who or where you are until later.

A good horror game has multiple layers to try and scare the player. You have mood, music, atmosphere, enemies and of course jumps scares. While jump scares are present in Anthology of Fear, it does become a little overused, as there’s not much else here to scare you aside from your automatonophobia. That said, while it’s not outright scary once you realize this is mostly a walking simulator with a horror theme, you won’t really have much in the way of combat aside from a single section and maybe three enemies. You eventually get this odd looking ‘weapon’ that helps you in a single section, only to drop it and never use it again.

Aside from being able to interact with almost anything, the only other actions you can do is slightly walk faster by holding Left Trigger and the odd QTE event where you’ll need to mash the ‘A’ button to open a door with a crowbar for example. There’s one section near the end that involves some self dental work, but I had no UI to tell me what or how to do so, eventually fumbling my way through it.

Visuals are a mixed bag. The atmosphere and lighting are absolutely on point. Hallways looked creepy and the lights really set a realistic tone and uneasiness. It’s a shame that everything else had incredibly low resolution textures, completely breaking the immersion at times. Even the keyboard on an old school computer you need to interact with had blurry textures. It also doesn’t help that important objects you need, like keys and other things, don’t glow or anything to indicate they are to be picked up unless you happen to have your cursor exactly over the item.

Hallways not only appear visually creepy, but sound the part as well. You’ll hear creaks on the wooden floors, though not always aligned with your footsteps, and things from afar or on the other side of a doorway you hope that you don’t find out what it actually is. The audio sets a tone that makes you tense as you peak around each corner, but again, once you realize there’s no actual danger per-se, you lose some of the horror aspect. The voice acting is passable at best, making it difficult to empathize with what they are thinking or going through.

While Anthology of Fear might not outright scare you, it’s supposed to make you feel uneasy and tense, which is does in certain sections. With some very heavy themes and shocking scenes, I was hoping for more of a build up to these climax, but instead the ending felt as though it came abruptly out of nowhere and not all that satisfying tying up loose ends. If you’re a fan of the P.T. demo, this may be worth a look, just expect a short runtime with a story that will be forgotten aside from a scene or two.

**Anthology of Fear was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.3 / 10 Forgive Me Father

Forgive Me Father, for I have not heard of this game before it fell into my lap for review. A retro FPS that harkens back to the days of classic DOOM and Wolfenstein, though with some modern mechanics as well. With a heavy Lovecraftian setting and a comic book visual style, Forgive Me Father is a stylish take on the classic genre, one I enjoyed more than I initially expected.

Choosing to play as a Priest or Journalist, you’re called to a remote town via letter that appears to be abandoned when you arrive. Of course it doesn’t take long to realize all of the citizens have turn into monsters and zombies, all trying to kill you on sight. So begins your journey to figure out what’s happened and if you can stop it. There’s more story here, but it’s told in just a few cutscenes and lore pieces you can find and investigate along the way, so it was a bit hard to follow. If you don’t pay attention or find all the notes, quite a bit of background lore can be missed. Let’s be honest though, if I’m playing an old school retro FPS, I’m probably playing it more for the combat and gunplay rather than its story.

As you progress deeper and deeper in this horrifying town, you’ll find more evil at every turn. You’ll start out with a simple pistol, eventually equipping a handful of different weapons. Depending on which character you choose, Priest or Journalist, they also have a handful of different abilities which suit different playstyles, though it would have been nice to know the differences from the start.

I found the Priest much more powerful with his abilities as he can get moments of invulnerability, a few seconds of infinite ammo, a heal and more. The Journalist has an AoE attack, a heal when attacking, an AoE stun and a few others, but I still found the Priest’s abilities much more useful overall. The priest also fits the dark Lovecraft setting as you blast your way through hordes of enemies. There’s some slight differences in the story based on which character you play, though I don’t believe enough to warrant a second playthrough unless you want to play with the other abilities and skill tree loadout.

Given that Forgive Me Father is a retro FPS, it also appears just like they originally did, 2D characters in a 3D world. You’ll find classic health, armor and ammo pickups, as well as needing to find colored keys to match their corresponding doors to make progress. Most levels are fairly linear, and while there’s the odd few branching paths here and there, they usually house some sort of secret like extra armor and ammo. No need to worry about reloading either, as you’ll keep firing away as long as you have the ammunition for it.

There’s a decent range of enemies you’ll face throughout your journey, and yes, you’ll see many of them constantly reused, but it’s no less fun to blast them all away as they rush you. Even though they appear as 2D cardboard cutouts, they are animated decently and sound as you’d expect evil monsters to with their groans. The early enemies will be simple cannon fodder, eventually having more abilities and even annoying flying enemies in the latter half. While not a huge variety of weapons, the skill tree and mutating the weapons is where you get variety. You have your typical pistols, rifles and launchers, each of which is generally best suited for a specific enemy type or situation.

Level design is generally quite basic. The first few chapters are very small cramped and indoor hallways, whereas the latter stages are a bit more open and less confined. There’s no real getting lost, even without a map. As the genre dictates, you’ll need to find specific colored keys for the matching doors to make progress, which almost always ends up with a few waves of enemies spawning right after you pick up said key. There’s even some platforming you’ll need to do early on, with a little more focus on it later, which is part of its weaker sections.

With the Lovecraft backdrop, you can also expect to manage your madness levels. The more ‘mad’ you become, this will make you more powerful, even changing the visuals and audio to a focused black and white experience. It’s apparently tied to a combo meter or sorts, but not explained all that well from the beginning. And if you want to save your progress you’ll need to find the fixed save points. There are usually a couple per level so it’s not a big deal if you die and have to restart, but there a few sections that aren’t fun to redo due to an untimely death.

Luckily the journey is where it’s fun. Shooting your weapons feels and sounds solid, and the huge boss fights were the most memorable highlights of the whole adventure. With each gun being able to be upgraded a different way, even a typical boring shotgun can be something different. There’s a large skill tree, and each weapon can branch into two different options. Typically one will allow for better range, damage or reload speed as per usual, whereas the other option is where it gets more interesting possibly completely changing your gun in other ways. While I could have chosen to have more damage on my pistols, I instead opted for the other upgrade path that allowed me to have two pistols instead. Same goes for one of the other regular guns, eventually morphing it into a grenade launcher that looks like it was designed my Cthulhu himself as it looks as though its covered in moving tentacles.

You’ll also be able to choose how you want to upgrade your skills as well, health and ammunition upgrades, even earn more XP per kill if you want. Make sure you have an upgrade plan early on though, as the experience needed to earn a new skill point in the later sections felt incredibly long. The first few hours I was upgrading quite often, but it certainly slowed down near the end. Enemies near the end also turned into annoying damage sponges and flying creatures that make you waste a lot of ammo, so maybe that was part of it as well.

The comic book style works quite well and suits the 2D characters. Don’t let that fool you though, as Forgive Me Father is absolutely bloody at every turn. Blasting holes in monsters leaves a ton of blood splatter everywhere, a great contrast to the dark and brooding environments. Where the game really shines though is with its kick ass metal soundtrack. When it’s time to fight you’ll certainly know, because the music kicks into high gear and gets you pumped. While the voice acting is decent at best, there’s not much of it, and the soundtrack elevates the audio as a whole.

While not the most unique retro FPS I’ve ever played, I enjoyed my time with Forgive Me Father due to the unique skill tree and weapon alterations you can choose, along with a badass metal soundtrack that I wasn’t expecting. If you’ve ever wanted classic DOOM but with the Lovecraftian setting, Forgive Me Father is absolutely what you’ve been waiting for, flaws and all.

Suggestions: **Forgive Me Father was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Crackpet Show: Happy Tree Friends Edition, The

I remember watching The Simpsons growing up, and one of my favorite segments was the bits with Itchy and Scratchy, the ultraviolent cat and mouse that BArt and Lisa used to watch in their world. Then it basically happened outside of The Simpsons with Happy Tree Friends, an ultraviolent cartoon that was more meant for adults, but was quite hilarious if you had a certain sense of humor. While I didn’t watch it religiously, I’ve seen a handful of episodes here and there, as it became quite popular after its debut in 1999.

While there may have been a lull for quite some time with the Happy Tree Friends crew nowhere to be found, they have now returned in videogame form. Originally released back in December 2022, The Crackpet Show may not have had the Happy Tree Friends branding or name, but it certainly took inspiration from the cult cartoon, as it was hyper violent, but in a cute way. Well, it’s finally happened. The crossover event is finally here with The Crackpet Show: Happy Tree Friend Edition. That’s right, your favorites have returned and I can’t think of a more fitting game that suits their style, branding and violence better. Play as your favorites from Happy Tree Friends as you shoot and kill dozens of enemies, all for TV ratings!

Who wouldn’t watch a TV show where the characters are all trying to kill one another? That of course gets ratings, and that’s your goal on The Crackpet Show, to get likes, become famous, and survive. I guess that last part is the most important though. Welcome back a handful of the classic Happy Tree Friends ensemble, such as Giggles, Cuddles, Handy, Petunia, Toothy, Nutty, Flaky, Sniffles, Splendid, even Flippy, and my personal favorite, Lumpy as the announcer.

A rogue-like shoot-em-up at its core, you’ll be placed in arenas until all your enemies are dead before being allowed to progress to the next room. Every kill is over the top bloody, as expected with a Happy Tree Friends setting, though if for some reason you don’t care about the latest update that added this crossover, you can toggle it off and play the base game with the core Crackpet Show characters instead. With this latest crossover edition, not only did we get the slew of Happy Tree Friends characters to play as, but certain death animations for characters were added, which fans of the show will certainly recognize, as well as updated visuals and audio overall.

With up to 4 players locally, it’s up to you to use your guns and weapons to kill all the enemies, as that’s what the audience wants and how you’ll get your thumbs up likes, and if a few audience members gets caught in the crossfire, c’est la vie, they new the risk being an audience member. The bulk of your gameplay will probably takes place in the Campaign Mode, though there is an Endless Mode that unlocks once you complete Season One.

A season consists of six episodes, and each episode is broken into a handful of smaller levels, or arenas. Kill all the enemies in a level and you’ll get to choose the next stage you want to take on, some giving a weapon, perk, item or other bonuses, all randomized. Complete all the levels and make your way to the final arena and you’ll have to challenge yourself versus a difficult boss. Defeat said boss and the episode is complete and you can move onto the next which becomes a little tougher and longer, eventually adding harder versions of arenas and even mini bosses halfway through the episodes.

Before you begin each violent episode though, you won’t last long without a weapon, so you choose one of the four base classes to start out. Assault starts you out with a pretty standard Pew Gun and Anvil Drop item, whereas my favorite, Engineer begins with the Zap Gun and Turret. There’s also a Medic that uses a Lob-o-Gun and Bandages or the Tank that get a Shotgun. These are only the starting weapons, and each suits a different play style, so experiment with each, as you’re bound to find plenty more along your way through each episode.

The more likes you earn by killing enemies after each run, successful or not, you can then upgrade weapons, perks and items randomly chosen between two different ones. This is where the rogue-like elements come into play, as each run is randomly generated, though you will make slow and steady overall progress as each weapon, perk and item gets upgraded over time with your choices.

While most levels won’t give you much hassle until the later episodes, you’ll certainly die at the boss stages a few times. These large bosses have a hefty health pool, so you better hope you’ve been getting some awesome upgrades along the way in that run, as it all resets for each run. These bosses can practically fill the screen with bullets, so you’ll need to your use dodge quite often to avoid getting hit and losing your hearts. Lose all your hearts and it’s Game Over and you’ll need to start the episode from the beginning.

Certain stages will rewards you with a random weapon, item or perk along the way. The perks accumulate and stack, making for a pretty good safe choice, though if you’re not enjoying your weapon or item as much as expected, you’re sure to find something new along the way. The weapons are quite diverse, and since no two runs are the same, it doesn’t become stale. Of course this is where the randomness will either favor or play against you, as I’ve had some terrible runs due to weapons I didn’t enjoy, then next run I beat the episode in a single go because I got an awesome gun and some powerful perks.

After a few episodes you’ll also gain the ability to save your loadout for the next run should you choose. This means placing your current weapon in the fridge, so that when you die, or live, your next run has your upgraded weapon waiting for you from the beginning, giving a huge head start. Unfortunately this weapon holding only lasts for one run, and if you don’t choose to use it on the next run, it disappears until you save your loadout again at a specific level.

While I was disappointed there was no online co-op, there is at least 4 player local support. This of course ups the chaos in the levels, but surely to be more fun alongside friends and family. Even playing solo, I was having a good time, slowly making overall progress even when I died on the same boss a few times. Since my weapons slowly got upgraded, each run was slightly easier each time and I hoped I'd get lucky to find my favorites along the way to the Episode's boss.

An unexpected but completely fitting crossover, The Crackpet Show: Happy Tree Friends Edition looks, sounds and plays just as you’d expect something from the iconic violent cartoon. While it won’t be for everyone, I enjoyed my time each run trying to take out the difficult boss and complete the Episodes and Seasons. It’s been quite some time since I’ve thought about Happy Tree Friends, but it certainly put a smile on my face to see them once more as I blasted hundreds of enemies for some likes.

**The Crackpet Show: Happy Tree Friends Edition was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 KarmaZoo

I believe in karma, that I’ll get what I put into the world, so I always try to do and be good. I’ll donate to causes now and then and be helpful to others where possible, trying to keep my karma up. KarmaZoo takes this philosophy and makes it a game, where you do what you can to help other people cooperatively, rather than competitively. The best part? You play with random people online, yet aren’t able to communicate in the traditional way, so you instinctively try to help one another for the same goal; Karma.

Don’t expect some large sweeping narrative in KarmaZoo. Actually, don’t expect any story really, as it’s simply an online cooperative game without any story as to who, what, or why. You share kindness with others by helping one another, and developers Pastagames has somehow managed to make a game where playing with random people online is actually fun rather than frustrating.

A group of up to ten random players online will be placed into a lobby together, then whisked off to a series of levels where you work cooperatively to not only reach the end, but collect as much fruit as possible. Simply getting to the end in this 2D platformer is only part of the goal. Again, your aim is to help one another reach that goal, and no two runs, called loops, will be identical since levels and characters change with each lobby. A loop consists of a couple levels back to back, with a vote taking place between each where the players get to choose a special bonus.

Even if you wanted to rush ahead and try to reach the end goal on your own, you wouldn’t make it far for a few reasons. Usually certain pathways are blocked so you need one player(s) to hold down a button to raise a wall so others can pass, then the players who have passed can hold the door for the original button holder. Also, you have a ‘halo’ around you that keeps you safe. If you have no one nearby it will slowly shrink until you die and respawn, though if you’re in range of another player, your halo’s somewhat meld together, keeping each other safe and becoming larger. This means you can only be on your own for a short time, always needing to be in range of at least one other player.

All good deeds give you and your team Karma. Held open a wall for others to get through? Karma for you! Used your character’s special power to help progress? More karma! All the karma you unlock is essentially a currency that you’ll then use to unlock new characters and more for future loops. The game even tallies all the karma all players earn and put it towards a KarmaPass, unlocking new rewards for all players that helped contribute, which even the bottom of their website showcases the cooperative essence of the game.

You start out as a simple blob with no powers or abilities other than being able to sing. After a brief tutorial teaching you the basics you’re then free to hop online and find others to play alongside. Yes, it’s a multiplayer only experience, which I found odd given the tutorial has you alongside a bot. With cross-platform support between PC and console, I never had an issue finding others to play with, as lobbies generally filled quite quickly.

Stages will somewhat cater towards the characters being used, and since there’s so many and they have a wide range of abilities, it’s pretty rare to replay the same level over again. Even if you do, the players you’re with will likely change, so it’ll be a different experience each time. You’re able to freely change to any unlocked character you own in your sanctuary, your home, but once you join an online loop, you’re committed to that character until the match is finished.

With quite a lot of characters to unlock, they all have a special ability that is used to help others. There is the odd few that overlap in special powers, but for the most part they’re generally unique. Some are cute, like the mouse, clock, lantern and more, where others I enjoy like the turtle, elephant and umbrella for their special abilities. The majority of levels can be completed without special powers, but choosing certain characters with abilities will give the levels a greater chance of needing that power to find all of the hidden fruit.

Each run will take around 20 or so minutes to complete. I seemed to earn on average roughly 2000 karma per loop, but once you start doing the math and realizing how much karma you’ll need for all of the unlocks, it’s can become quite a daunting grind. Character unlocks can range from a few hundred to thousands, there are locks that cost Karma to unlock, books to collect and more. It’s a massive grind if you’re a completionist, though I quite enjoy simply playing it casually and unlocking a new character after every few loops. I do wish the earned Karma per loop was higher, but if it was too high you’d then have everything and nothing to work towards long term, so I understand its design.

If you happen to have friends and/or family over that want to play, there’s also a local multiplayer mode, but it’s more competitive in nature. This mode is called Totem, pitting you against the other players in the room. There’s a handful of minigames that you can vote on by dragging trophies to the mode, then challenge one another to the game. Some are races, collecting fruit and others, though I wasn’t able to test this mode out much. I do wish this mode was online as well.

What I do like about the main Loop mode is that there’s actually no voice chat, forcing you to communicate with jumps and a wheel of limited emoji’s. Sure at times this could be frustrating when you’re trying to somehow tell another player that they need to let you pass a wall, or to step on a button. The majority of the time it manages to work itself out and it was quite rare that a round wasn’t completed within the time limit due to a lack of cooperation. Making a sacrifice to jump on a spike so the other players can pass by feels rewarding in itself, which is impressive, as we’re conditioned to feel like dying is bad. Even though you reappear within moments to get right back into it, you know you were part of the solution.

KarmaZoo surprised me, as I wasn’t sure what to quite expect, but came away addicted to a fun and quirky cooperative game where I actively wanted to help other players that I couldn’t even talk to. While it is quite a grind if you’re going to want to unlock everything possible, it’s quite fun for a few rounds here and there in between other games and downtime.

**KarmaZoo was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.3 / 10 Invincible, The

While I’ve not read a lot of classic sci-fi novels, it appears I missed quite an interesting one; The Invincible by Stanislaw Lem, from 1964. While I had not heard of the iconic novel before, I read up on it and Lem’s other works. Known for his futuristic science fiction works, the classic novel has now been turned into a game with the same name, developed by Starward Industries and published by 11 Bit Studios. While it may be a walking simulator at its core, it also manages to tell a compelling tale that had me hooked until the credits rolled.

If you happen to know the iconic novel, this game is actually a prequel that sets up the nearly six decade old story. You play as Yasna, an astrobiologist who wakes up on the planet Regis III, but unsure how she actually got there. While she tries to piece together what has happened, her journey eventually turns into a rescue mission when she realizes she doesn’t know where her fellow lost crewmates are. Regis III isn’t like Earth though, as it seems desolate and untouched by mankind, and there seems to be more than what’s visible on the surface.

Your team are a group of scientists that work for a group called The Commonwealth. As you explore the world, danger becomes more and more apparent, but not in the way you might expect. Being a walking simulator, don’t expect to shoot any weapons, use a jetpack, or explore the stars. This is a very isolated story, a journey that will have you finding some deadly secrets of this planet and what happened to your crew.

A planet untouched by humans creates some amazing landscapes, barren yet breathtaking. How can a barren planet be dangerous? What possible perils could there be if it’s not humankind that’s a threat? Explore and find out, as evolution can be brilliant but dangerous.

A narrative that lasts somewhere 8-10 hours, it’s paced perfectly, constantly drip feeding you just enough information to stay interesting and keep you wanting to know what happens next. Even with the excruciating slow walking speed, the narrative continues at a constant pace. At certain times you’ll have dialogue choices to make, should you wish, which will dictate certain scenes and outcomes. While the first half is a very slow paced crawl, the second half is where it really picks up once some revelations are made. With a 60’s sci-fi aesthetic, The Invincible was certainly memorable long after the credits rolled.

The Invincible is a walking simulator, let’s get that out of the way first thing. I know that might dissuade people right away, but this is a tale worth telling, and it just happens to take place at a walking speed a majority of the time. As you try and piece together how you ended up on Regis III you’ll be in constant communication with your Astrogator, kind of like your commander, back up in your ship in orbit. Your constant banter back and forth make a lot of the experience more bearable as you explore this mysterious planet in isolation.

The atompunk setting fits perfectly with the whole experience. Your tools look as if they were plucked out of a 60’s sci-fi show, even your helmet and microphone have that cool retro look and feel to it. Your telemeter is especially retro, indicating with small analog LED lights which direction a living lifeform is when nearby. You also have an x-ray handheld that can detect and visualize metal in the world, which will be quite handy during your journey. You’ll also get to drive a land rover in the latter half, making quicker work of the lengthier distances on Regis III.

Given that the whole gameplay of The Invincible is basically walking and movement, I was hoping it would feel better than it did. Unfortunately, it was quite clunky and at times, excruciatingly slow. While you don’t ever have to worry about jumping or crouching, Yasna will automatically leap over or down spots if it’s the specific designated area, down to the pixel and nowhere else. Even though you should be able to step over that rock or object on the ground, you can’t, you can only move and traverse at very specific points and nowhere else at all. You are able to run with Yasna’s limited stamina, but it’s barely even any faster and runs out as quickly as you started to jaunt.

With how mysterious Regis III is, I was fully expecting that there was going to be some light puzzles to be had, but they never came or happened. There’s also no secrets to uncover aside from the narrative, or anything other than really heading to your latest waypoint. Oddly enough there’s also no manual saving of any kind. You have to rely on the autosave system and hope that if you want to quit and play later that it saved recently. While I never had this to be an issue, that’s also because I completed the game in two sittings, unable to put it down until its conclusion.

While simply walking a barren planet will no doubt bore some, there are a few other things you get to do in between story segments. You do have a few gadgets to use, as described above, though these are really only used at specific points. Sometimes you’ll need to scan the landscape with your space age binoculars to spot an object, camp or climbing spot. There a few spots where you’ll control a drone, though it’s very minimal and for narrative reasons. The rover sections change up the pace a bit, but you don’t get all that much freedom even in the larger more ‘open’ sections.

For how barren Regis III is, it’s oddly beautiful with its landscapes. The retro–futuristic atompunk aesthetic has a great feel and in the later portions once some revelations are revealed, there is some very spectacular scenery to take in for some wonderful screenshots. Given how slowly you walk, it makes it easier to take notice of the planet.

The musical score composed by Brunon Lubas is hauntingly beautiful at times. The music alone can make you feel weary or curious depending on the melodies. Sometimes there’s a lull in the music and that alone makes you feel more isolated on this planet, as dead air can be deafening. The voice actors from the main two characters, Yasna and Novik, is also done spectacularly and made me believe every word they said.

The Invincible is a slow paced first person walking simulator but with a heavy emphasis on its storytelling. It may not have the excitement you’d expect, though I can’t delve into much more of the story for fear of spoilers. Having never read the novel I wasn’t sure what to expect, and the fact that the game is a prequel to the novel is exciting, and now I have plans to read the source material. If you enjoy a slow burn sci-fi story, The Invincible tells quite an interesting and compelling tale, one footstep at a time.

**The Invincible was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Lies of P

I’ll admit, I was initially a bit apprehensive to review Lies of P, not because of a disinterest for the game, but because I generally don’t gravitate towards Souls-like games due to their difficulty. I know, I know, the whole “git gud” mentality that comes with these games, and even though I’m generally not very skilled at them, I do enjoy their worlds and uniqueness. Even though I’d never play a Souls-like on my own if it wasn’t for a review, there have been a few that stood out amongst the sea of clones that did capture my attention, such as Steelrising or Remnant.

While some might automatically assume that Lies of P is a Soul-like, it actually more resembles Bloodborne and Sekiro mix rather than an actual Dark Souls. What makes Lies of P unique is its backdrop, as it’s a dark reimagining of the classic Pinocchio tale, hinted at in the title. As Geppetto’s creation, you’ll need to survive this harsh world as you try to find meaning. While I heard many enjoyed Lies of P, I didn’t expect that I would much given its genre, but it certainly surprised me.

You are Pinocchio, awakening in an abandoned train in the city of Krat. This is no normal city though, as the majority of its human population has been slaughtered by puppets from the same creator as you, Geppetto. Being half human, half puppet, you’re the only one that has a chance at defeating a city full of murderous robot puppets. You're awoken by a mysterious voice telling him to head to Hotel Krat, which Pinnochio does, but it won’t be easy. After a number of deadly enemies and your first major boss, you find yourself in Hotel Krat, the last safe refuge in this now deadly city roaming with murderous puppets. Here you meet a mysterious woman named Sophia who is there to help you in any way she can. She gives you a lead on finding your creator, Geppetto, as he needs rescuing and the only person that would know how to stop this puppet uprising.

Now using Hotel Krat as your home base, this is where you’ll come to level up from Sophia, upgrade your weapons and simply take a breather when needed. Here you’re also given a cricket in a lantern, acting as your light, aptly named Gemini. Small details like this makes Lies of P’s connection with Pinocchio's dark retelling so special. Developers have done a great job at creating a world with plenty of lore and telling a narrative that’s interesting yet mysterious at the same time.

The city of Krat is styled after the Belle Epoque era in France (1870-1914), very elegant in nature, but now has streets filled with blood from these puppets killing anything alive they see. While the city isn’t as completely open as past Souls games, being much more linear in design, that’s not saying there’s no side areas, shortcuts and paths to find, but it’s much more linear at its core design.

Having heavy inspiration from Dark Souls and Bloodborne, you’re going to see numerous parallels in its game design. Stargazer’s are your bonfires, which will be used as teleport points, refills your health and healing items to full, but as we all know, also resets the world and all non-boss enemies. Bosses are generally housed behind massive doors which will have you strain to even open before attempting them. Your currency is Ergo instead of souls, used to level up essentially the same way as the games before it. Die before spending it and you’ll leave it at your last corpse, able to be retrieved as long as you don’t die again.

Combat is also very similar, needing to balance light and heavy attacks as well as managing your stamina, blocking and dodging. Just like in similar titles, you’ll die, a lot, learn from your mistakes and progress ahead. This is why fans of the genre enjoy it as much as they do, overcoming that difficult enemy or boss, finally progressing. What is unique is its take on the ‘humanity’ system, but here it’s about telling the truth or a lie at certain points, effecting your path forward and ending as well.

This is where the combat comes in, something FromSoftware has basically perfected, and what I generally struggle with in the genre. Souls games generally have you play more defensively, usually opting to dodge attacks and waiting for your opening for attack. Bloodborne on the other hand was much more aggressive in its design, and this is where you can clearly see Lies of P drew its inspiration from. You still need quick reactions, but Lies of P wants you to play much more aggressively, relying on counters and parries rather than dodging and rolling.

Performing a perfect guard is absolutely required to master, as that’s really your only chance the further you make your way into the city. Doing so is more than to just be flashy though. It’ll will give the enemy some stagger damage, where if you do this enough, will open them up to a heavy or execution attack, as they’ll be vulnerable for a few seconds. These perfect parries also will cause the enemies weapon to become damaged, maybe even breaking, which in turn reduces the damage output they can do. The best part? These also applies to bosses as well, so if you can perfectly parry a number of attacks in a row, you can get a huge advantage against them.

Even for someone like that that finds Souls combat difficult, once I learned the enemy patterns and was able to perfectly guard against them, I was able to play much more aggressive, barely dodging at all. There’s something so satisfying about negating a rapid attack from a boss, only to counter and take off a huge chunk of their health. Boss fights were easily the highlight, each being designed uniquely, having their own movesets, and later on, a good amount will have two phases that you’ll have to contend with.

The later bosses are quite difficult, some taking me at least a dozen tries, but is incredibly satisfying when you finally defeat them and make it to the next Stargazer. Certain spots will allow you to summon NPC’s to help you in these boss fights as well if you have the appropriate item, so it’s a good idea to search off the main path when you can, just in case you want some help at a certain challenging boss.

Instead of Estus Flasks you have health pots, which are used in the same way. In most Souls-like games, once you’re out of healing options, you essentially had to return to a Bonfire to refill them, but that also reset all the enemies of course. Here though, once you’re all out of your healing pots, you can actually refill at least one. Again, perfect parries will slowly refill these for you, again, forcing you to play a bit more aggressively, which is a great balance and reward for doing so. More than once I had no healing supplies left but was able to refill one simply from performing well in combat. A great touch that other Souls games need to copy.

One of the most unique mechanics to Lies of P though comes from its weapon crafting system. Throughout your journey you’ll find new weapons, as expected, but blades and handles can be separated, then combined to your own creations. These aren’t just for visual flare either, as the blade determines how much and what type of damage (blunt versus slashing), but the handle is for certain movesets. This allows you to create some truly unique weapon combinations based on your playstyle. Myself for example, I hate the large and slow weapons. I prefer the smaller and faster weapons, even if they do less damage, as I can get a few hits in before having to parry. Some prefer those large slow weapons that can take off big chunks of health at a time, but that requires knowing your weapon timing very well. Now I can take the blade from a dagger and the handle from a massive wrench, and combine them for something quite unique. Or maybe you do it the opposite way, keep the wrench end and attach the dagger handle for the special move that allows multiple ‘stabs’.

Once you get a handful of weapons it’s worth experimenting with, as every combination is really unique. Once you find a combination that suits you, it can make a massive difference in you being successful, especially versus bosses. The other unique mechanic is that you’ll need to sharpen your weapon when it becomes dull. Over time your weapon dulls, luckily Pinocchio has a portable sharpener on his mechanical arm. Holding the button for a few seconds is all it takes to get the blade back to optimum damage, as not sharpening it will mean you deal little to no damage. This usually isn’t much of a hassle, which is until you’re mid boss fight and trying to find the few extra moments to sharpen your blade. You’ll even get special sharpeners that allow you to coat your blade in fire as well.

Speaking of his mechanical arm, this can be swapped for different types. These each act as almost like a special move and is called your Legion Arm. Each prosthetic arm not only has their own unique ability, but can be upgraded later on to be even more powerful. Your starter Legion Arm starts out like a really strong punch, others will allow you to pull enemies in with a grapple cord, another act like a shield if you want to play a bit more defensively, and one gives you the ability to blast out a bolt of lightning, arguably the best of the bunch. There’s a few more to find throughout your journey, and I’m sure people will have varying opinions on which is best for them.

After a couple bosses and saving Geppetto you’ll also unlock the skill tree, called “P-Organs”. This is where you can unlock active and passive abilities for Pinocchio to suit your playstyle. These require Quartz, a special upgrade material you’ll need to be on the lookout for if you want to customize. This is how you’ll also create your own unique build on top of the weapon crafting. There are four nodes per section, needing to spend a certain amount before unlocking the next cluster. You can choose to heavily invest into one node and unlock special bonuses, or spread your quartz upgrades across the tree if you wish. Once you choose an upgrade, you can also then augment it with special abilities to increase your attack, abilities, survivability or item useage.

Lies of P is absolutely gorgeous to look at. Even though the city of Krat is in shambles, full of death and destruction, the design and aesthetics is wonderful to just take in if you get a few moments to do so. The robotic-like enemies at the beginning are interesting to look at, and later on as they become more monstrosities, they feel more unique. That said, you’ll see many enemies repeated over and over again, but for being puppets, that makes sense at least. The boss designs are fantastic, as the monstrosities are all uniquely designed. The backdrop of Krat is elevated with a soundtrack that fits the dark tone with melodies. By the music alone, you know when things are about to get serious or when you’re safe in the Hotel. The voice acting overall is done wonderfully, and I had no complaints there.

Even though I was initially apprehensive to play Lies of P simply due to its genre, they’ve managed to stand apart from the sea of poor Dark Souls and Bloodborne clones out there. Even though there’s very few in the genre I enjoy, Lies of P is up there on the list, as it was still quite challenging but was balanced just enough that I was able to enjoy it and make progress as well. Bloodborne fans are not going to want to skip this one, as Lies of P is clearly a huge love letter to the game in many ways, and if I was lying you'd see my nose growing.

**Lies of P was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.7 / 10 Ad Infinitum

While initial screenshots may have you assume Ad Infinitum is a WWI shooter or maybe a type of survival horror game, you’d be wrong on both accounts. Ad Infinitum is more akin to a walking simulator than anything else, though with some light puzzle and stealth elements thrown in for good measure. Other than being set in the WWI era, I really had no idea what to expect when I started playing, as I did no research beforehand nor heard about it. While I normally don’t mind walking simulators, or linear games, it was hard to get motivation to want to continue forward after each chapter was the same design loop as the previous.

It’s not often games let you play as a German soldier, so it was an interesting perspective seeing a soldier from the ‘other’ side coming to terms with the atrocities he witnessed during the war. The War is over, but that doesn’t mean that your suffering is. Can you find peace even though you survived? How has the Great War affected your family? Your mind clearly isn’t the same since returning home, haunted by feelings, emotions and guilt.

You play as Paul von Schmidt, a German vet who returns back home after the Great War has ended. You have a brother, Johannes, father Karl, and mother Madeleine. Your family has been torn apart from the War, something that doesn’t generally get a lot of focus in media. While your family had issues before the War, it certainly went to another level afterwards. Thing is, much of the game takes place in Paul’s mind, or at least some distorted version of it, as he tries to come to terms with his experiences in the trenches.

You’ll explore your home, seemingly altered from what you remember, focusing on memories and then being thrust back into the trenches, but not exactly as you remember though. Exploring your home, you’ll need to solve puzzles to progress, maybe finding a key but not know where the lock is, or a horn that seemingly belongs somewhere specific. After solving certain puzzles, he sometimes gets triggered and falls back into the trenches, but fighting against a different kind of enemy, more of a monster type rather than soldiers.

You’ll eventually come across a blinded Officer, clearly in bad shape, writhing in pain and begging for some medicine. This sets you on a journey across the front lines to find some Morphine for him, as you think you can save him. As you eventually find this Morphine, a massive deranged and twisted female monster, named Despair, attacks and chases you. You don’t have a weapon though, so you can’t fight back in the traditional sense. Instead, you’ll reach an area where you’ll need to play some music, either something she loved, or otherwise, and what you decide to do will directly affect the outcome as the credits roll.

There’s clearly a lot of symbolism in the locations, enemies and even names, which I took as Paul dealing with his trauma in his own way. I was impressed with how the focus wasn’t on Paul in direct combat, or what you’d expect for a World War I setting, but instead how the War can tear apart a family in different ways.

Played in first person, once you start interacting in the mansion sections, having to open doors and cabinets, it felt very much like a Layers of Fear style of game, though without any of the horror elements. Sure there was some minor creepy things that occur and you will hear noises off in the distance, but thankfully not as many cheap jump scares. The house sections are basically a puzzle you need to solve to trigger the next memory sequence, bringing you back to some distorted memory of his time back in the War.

The puzzle elements are quite light, generally needing a key or item to progress to the next step, though I did waste quite a bit of time simply wandering aimlessly trying to figure out what I needed to do next. Pausing will give you a hint on one of the menus, but there’s no markers or waypoints. As you progress through the Chapters and come back to the mansion each time, new areas and doorways will unlock, unveiling more family secrets and notes with lore to find.

Then there are times where you’re transported back to the trenches. I took this as being triggered by some event or item, forcing your mind back to the front lines, possibly representing his mental health. But terrifying creatures are about, you need to be stealthy as you can’t fight back, making sure to avoid the tin cans on strings all about. Later chapters take a different turn, plucking you out of the trenches and placing you in some dark and grimy factory setting. This is merely a setup for the eventual boss fight, though these boss battles aren’t really fights, they are simply puzzles you need to complete with a 'big-bad' chasing you in some way.

It’s odd for a game with a WWI setting to not have combat. In fact, you only use a gun for the first few opening moments, and even then, you don’t even really use it. Because the bulk of the gameplay is more like a walking simulator, even the bosses are simply running to hit a switch or use an object, run to the next, and repeat. The boss designs themselves though, absolutely top notch and even as a horror fan, they had me surprised at how creepy and unsettling they were.

Visuals are decent given the linearity and being inside the mansion at least half of the time. There’s enough detail that it all seems well done, though the animations are quite stiff at times, as are the low poly models of certain objects. The music is quite fitting for the most part, sounding of era and fitting the horror tonality of the setting. The voice acting overall was also done well with no real complains there, especially for a smaller game like this.

A narrative driven walking simulator with a ton of symbolism and horror backdrop makes for a decent playthrough at least once. There’s multiple endings based on certain actions and choices made, but given how slow you walk and the simpleness of the puzzles, once felt more than enough to uncover a war torn family's closet of skeletons.

**Ad Infinitum was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.7 / 10 Motorcycle Mechanic Simulator 2021

I’m a sucker for simulator titles, even with their generally terrible track record of being poorly optimized pc or mobile ports much of the time. Even still, I keep coming back for more, regardless of what odd, quirky or unique job it’s trying to simulate. Developed by Play2Chill and published by Ultimate Games, we now have Motorcycle Mechanic Simulator 2021. Yes, you read that title right. It’s on the verge of 2024, and this is the title we’re now getting. If that doesn’t tell you the amount of effort and care that went into this port, oh boy, you’re going to want to keep on reading this review.

From its title, you can safely assume what Motorcycle Mechanic Simulator 2021 is all about. It’s you as a motorcycle mechanic trying to start your business by completing jobs for customers for payment. Continue to do well and you’ll keep earning more money. Maybe someone has a junker bike they want restored, or some will come in with requests for specific new parts or attributes like faster speed.

Motorcycle Mechanic Simulator 2021 falls in a weird spot because it is a simulator in many aspects, taking apart and building bikes back together piece by piece, but there also seems to be some inaccuracies as well. Now I’ll admit, I know nothing about motorcycles other than they usually ride the shoulder to bypass traffic at a standstill, so the beginnings were a little frustrating when I was tasked with replacing a certain part, unsure what that part is or where it’s actually located.

This is due to the lack of a worthwhile tutorial. Your first job shows you the basics, but leaves out a ton of other useful information that would have been quite handy to know. The game will teach you how to dismantle a bike, buy a few parts, and then put it all back together before leaving you on your own to play however you wish. Don’t expect any narrative here though, as you simply use your tablet to choose jobs from an ongoing rotating list, complete the job and move onto another. Finish the jobs and you’ll earn experience and money.

Now and then you’ll get a main mission which seems to unlock at certain progression points and levels. These are usually a little more involved and give you a dozen objectives for the job or so to complete. Side missions can vary from very quick headlight or handlebar changes that don’t have much of a reward, to a customer wanting a handful of completely new upgraded parts or fixes. Side missions seem to come and go quite quickly, constantly offering you a new job, but only lasting for a short time before it’s replaced with a new mission offering. This is fine, but you’re getting these new mission notifications quite often, even when currently working on a bike for a customer.

As a mentioned above, I’m not a gearhead by any means. I know the basics of automobiles like how to change a tire and refill the oil, but that’s about it. Tell me to point where a specific part is or what it does, and I’ll give you that blank stare. Motorcycle Mechanic Simulator 2021 isn’t here you teach you what each part does, where it’s located, or how it all works together. It simply expects you to know what every individual part is, where it’s located, and how to get to it to replace. This of course had me wasting quite a bit of time simply dismantling nearly the whole bike to find a certain part I need to replace, but unsure where exactly.

There are some tools to help you find broken and damaged parts, but you’re going to have to constantly wrestle against the terrible menus and controls to do so. In a certain view you can easily see these damaged parts being highlighted in red, though that’s only if you can see it from your viewpoint. What if it’s a gasket or something inside the motor and you don’t know what or where that piece is? You’ll have to do like me and randomly start dismantling the bike in hopes to find it. Highlighting over every piece and component will show it’s ‘health’ and some information of it the part which you can then decide to purchase a replacement, upgrade it, or repair it if you’ve progressed far enough.

The more you play the more XP you’ll earn, eventually unlocking perks and bonuses that will help you perform your job easier and quicker. For example, taking apart a bike completely fully earned me enough XP that I had my screwdriver skills level up and now that takes a shorter amount of time to do. There’s a whole skill tree system in place too that I’ve forgotten about numerous times, allowing you to unlock new perks and such as well, but this too was buried in menus and every now and then I would remember to check it to see what I could upgrade, like faster diagnostics or new equipment for the shop.

Career mode is where you’ll likely spend the majority of your time, but there is a sandbox mode where you don’t have to worry about money limits, simply building and fixing whatever you want. Run out of cash in the campaign though and you may need to take out a loan through your tablet. With a handful of non-licensed bikes and over 400 parts to customize with, there’s certainly a lot to delve into that might seem overwhelming at first, but in the shop you’ll have to choose which type of bike parts you’re looking for, then the category, then the individual part, so it’s not as daunting as you first realize. Don’t come into this looking for your favorite Harley, Suzuki, Yamaha, Ducati or Honda bikes, though it’s clear which ones were inspired by which.

As you level up you’ll gain access to new areas. Ever wanted to rummage around a junkyard and find old parts to repair or use on your projects? Or maybe you’ll find an old junker bike that simply needs from TLC to be restored. You’ll be happy to know that’s possible here. Parts are categorized into Classic, Modern, Slick, Fancy, Epic and more, with the better parts costing more but usually giving some sort of stat increase, like acceleration or handling, or simply have a more unique look to them.

You can eventually repaint a majority of individual parts, even putting stickers on them, but the controls are sluggish and confusing at best. The controls though are just one component you’ll be fighting along your motorcycle repairing career. The camera at times has a mind of its own, zooming in so far that you’re inside the table or part, or out so far away that you can’t aim to properly use the screws. The cursor moves quite quickly, so fine adjustments are difficult if you’re too zoomed out.

While Motorcycle Mechanic Simulator 2021 has the basics of motorcycle repair down, there’s also some missing things, like not having jacks to support the bike when you take the wheels off. Sure that’s looking for something nitpicky, but if you have simulator in the title, people are going to expect it to be as close to the real life thing as possible. So what do you do after you complete your job before returning it to the customer? Well, you’ll want to make sure it rides smooth right? Yeah... about that.

You can test bikes in certain sections of the map, and this was where I really got a sense of how little effort was gone into the game and the first of a laundry list of bugs I ran across. You can ride the bike you just fixed or built, but it doesn’t matter how good of parts you chose or if everything is working perfectly fine, your rider will lean close to the ground like he’s inspecting the pavement, but your bike has the turning radius of a house. Oh you crashed the bike because of the atrocious steering? No problem, just hit the reset button like it prompts to. Nope, that doesn’t work. Oh look, you're also unable to access your tablet or do anything. The game isn’t frozen, but you can’t do anything. I hope you saved in the last while because the only fix is to hard quit out and restart from your last save. Oh you forgot to save I the last hour? Well, that sucks. Better remember next time.

This is also assuming the mission you were given allows you to have it completed. I had one bike where I needed to get the handling or braking to a rank of 40. I had well over that and the objective wouldn’t update, even after reinstalling the part and buying a new one. So I couldn’t progress and had to cancel that job.

The mechanics for actually dismantling and building the bikes works quite well (aside from the camera). Let’s say you want to take off the front wheel. Well you can’t simply do that, so it’ll be highlighted red when your cursor is over it in dismantle mode, but it will show the part that needs to be taken off beforehand, either in yellow or green. If it’s yellow that means another part needs to be taken off before that one, so on and so on. If it’s green, that’s basically the start of the chain of parts you can start removing. Assembling the parts is kind of in reverse, where it will show a white ghost-like part that you can install next, so you don’t need to remember any sort of order for the parts thankfully.

When you need to change a tire you use a machine to take the tire off the rim, and then place the new tire combination together. Before putting it on the bike you need equipment to balance the tires. Great, no problem right? Well, that’s if the game doesn’t decide to bug out and just not give you your tire back. Numerous occasions I’d just combined my rim and tire to have it balanced, only for it to ‘eat’ my wheel. Now I had no wheel, so I went and bought a new rim and tire and attempted again. Nope, gone once again. The only fix was a hard close and restart. Again, I hope you saved recently.

The same issue happened when I would paint a part, only for it to disappear for no reason. Again, another reset. Then with the repair table you can fix most broken parts to reuse them, but the menu wouldn’t work in letting me add them to the list or actually accept my choices. Another reset. I simply got into the annoying habit of saving before using any of the machinery other than on the bike itself, which became a chore. Even with my new habit, I’d forget to save now and then, only to lose all that progress when I had to restart because of a game breaking bug.

Bikes themselves look decent at best, which is to be expected when dealing solely with hundreds of parts close up, though there are times the textures are muddy and blurred. The soundtrack wasn’t nearly as terrible as I expected and I didn’t have to shut it off after a short amount of time like in some other games.

Lastly, the lack of any amount of care in this port is downright embarrassing. At least a half dozen spots has portions that label the PC controls, like pressing “R”, "Left Mouse Button”, or to “Click”. The controls are poorly optimized for a controller, menus are a mess, and having to search the store for specific parts is a pain. It’s abundantly clear that virtually no effort went into porting this to console, even in its title, which is a shame, as the actual dismantling and rebuilding portions are relaxing, but the amount of game breaking bugs makes it impossible to recommend, even to motorcycle enthusiasts.

**Motorcycle Mechanic Simulator 2021 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 3.0 / 10 Pinball M

I’m glad I grew up in the early years of gaming, as I got to experience actual arcades in their prime, being some of my fondest gaming memories. I was lucky enough to be given a few quarters each day before school, as my mom would allow me to stop at the local arcade on the way home and play a few games before returning. I swear, at least half of those precious quarters went to pinball machines. The arcade I frequented had all the pinball machines in a corner, with dozens of different choices to play, though I generally tended to gravitate towards my favorites that I could play longer than others.

While playing pinball at home on the TV isn’t nearly the same experience as pressing those buttons for the flippers in real life, it’s simply going to have to do these days. This is where Zen Studios comes in, easily the biggest name in virtual pinball. Having played their pinball games for many years now, their latest release, Pinball M, is now here for horror and pinball fans alike to enjoy.

I’ll admit, I was a little confused at first, as I reviewed their last title, Pinball FX, which was more of a platform and service to house all your virtual pinball purchases in one place. That’s why Pinball M being a separate game on its own surprised me, as I thought they would have simply added more tables and packs to their core FX game, though there were some monetization choices I didn’t fully agree with.

Like their other releases, the game itself is free to download and play, giving you one table to play endlessly. How they hook you is teasing other tables for you to play on, adding as standalone tables or getting a minor discount if you purchase the bundle. Pinball M is horror themed, so you can expect a bloody good time on these more mature rated tables. Purchasing tables are $6.99 CAD each, or $25.99 for the pack of 4 DLC additions, as the base table is free, for a total of 5 tables.

Wrath of the Elder Gods: Director’s Cut – This is your free table, which may seem familiar if you bought the original version for Pinball FX. This Lovecraftian inspired table seems to be largely the same table as before, though with a little more blood and different music I believe. The top of the table has a sinister monster overlooking the playfield and a Cthulhu creature on the left that may aim for your ball as it passes nearby.

The Thing Pinball – Based on the 1982 classic from John Carpenter, this table has you battling the alien from U.S. Outpost #31. I found this table challenging with some of the quick speeds and steep ramps, never able to get much of a high score compared to some of the other tables. With a handful of different missions, you’ll need to collect blood samples to work towards finding who the impostor is.

Chucky’s Killer Pinball – Based on everyone’s favorite killer doll, Chucky is back, albeit in pinball form. This table was by far the bloodiest and creepiest of them all. There’s a bloody axe that chops away when hitting certain targets, you can see Chucky, his bride Tiffany Valentine and their deranged kid Glen/Glenda painted in the middle of the playfield. A large slashed up Chucky head sits atop the table and watches your ball movement for just that extra bit of creepiness, as is seeing the Good Guy’s packaging off to the side of the table. I too found this table easy to lose my ball down the middle, though became better with more practice.

Dead by Daylight Pinball – Based on the popular online asymmetric multiplayer survival horror game with the same name, this interesting table gives you the choice of playing as a survivor or killer (sadly only Trapper), just like in the game it’s based on. This offers many different quests to work on and each survivor is unique as well. There’s plenty of references to the original game here and if you enjoy numerous skill shots and quests, this table is for you.

Last and not least was by far my favorite table of the bundle, Duke Nukem’s: Big Shot Pinball. Having grown up with the original Duke Nukem games and thinking he was a badass, they’ve incorporated everything Duke you’d expect to find in pinball form. You’re going to have to have BALLS OF STEEL to take down all the alien scum, and I was easily racking up millions and millions of points on this table. There’s some fun quests and skill shots here, one where you even go into the iconic theater and use the flippers to shoot aliens, rewarding you with that sweet pixelated (but clothed) stripper dancing all us young kids enjoyed seeing.

Options allow for portrait or landscape mode, depending on your setup, and you’ll constantly be trying to climb the local and online leaderboards, and just having play a table for ten minutes and think you have a score on one can possibly beat, you’ll get humbled real quick when you see it’s a fraction of the top of the online leaderboards.

Like Pinball FX, there’s numerous ways to play each of the tables. Yeah you could play it in Classic mode, but there’s a number of different ways to play, each of which help you raise your pinball skills in unique ways. For example, one mode may only give you a certain amount of flipper hits, like 200 or so, needing to get the highest score possible without using the flipper as much as you normally would. This forced me to do much less hold and aim shots, as that counts as a use. Or maybe you want to see how high a score you can get in a set amount of time, or maybe with one ball. These modes offer a bit of variety to the standard gameplay that makes a return from Pinball FX.

What is new though is a Campaign Mode for each of the tables. A campaign mode in a pinball game? But how you may ask. Well, the title is a bit misleading, as it’s really just a number of different objectives you pick from the beginning, usually broken up into different modes as described above. The challenging mode was where your score continually decreases after a set amount of time, so you better keep racking up those points to survive as long as you can.

The best part and what makes Campaign Mode worthwhile is the unlockable cosmetics you earn for your individual table's play space. Somewhat like how Pinball FX had unlockable items to decorate with, here there’s no terrible microtransactions or Pinball Pass to deal with, simply earning a currency the more and better you play, allowing you to unlock banners, titles, table skins, icons, ball and flipper skins, and more. Each Campaign mission unlocks a specific ‘upgrade’ to your room for that table, like having a life sized Duke standing beside the table once a specific mission is complete. These don’t do anything to alter gameplay, but certainly made me play each table’s Campaign missions to get all of the unlocks.

Tournament play returns, allowing you to create or join anyone’s specific ruleset. The best change though was giving you a special currency for playing in other players’ tournaments, which will then let you spend a certain amount to be featured, thus have more players play your unique challenges. With seemingly endless tournaments and events, there’s plenty to challenge yourself with regardless of what table(s) you purchase.

Just like Pinball FX, the tables look and play fantastic. Sure I would have loved to have a 120fps mode to match my TV, but each table looked unique and truly represented its franchise quite well. While having two titles, Pinball FX and Pinball M, might confuse some, Pinball M is arguably the ‘better’ title simply given the fact that Zen Studios didn’t try and nickel and dime with shady Pinball Passes or useless microtransactions. With a wealth of horror based games and movies, I’m hoping to see more tables come to Pinball M in the future, as its success will be based on continual table additions. Make a Friday the 13th, Nightmare On Elm Street, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Halloween or SAW based table in the future and I’ll continue to come back for a bloody good time.

**Pinball M (DLC Bundle) was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.7 / 10 Warstride Challenges

If you’ve been yearning for a fast paced twitch-like shooter akin to the new DOOM games or even classic Quake, then you’re going to want to take a hard look at Warstride Challenges. With speedrunning as its backbone and fast reaction times an essential skill, strap in for a new type of challenge, 3 to 30 seconds at a time.

It’s you versus the clock in bite sized challenge rooms back to back. Blast enemies, traverse jumps, hit switches and make it to the end before time runs out. You’re competing to not just finish levels, but to do so in the quickest time possible, proving your skills with online leaderboards for bragging rights. With some levels only a couple seconds long, can you master it and find the most optimal path? Every fraction of a second counts.

There’s no need to worry about remembering some big story or reason as to why you’re doing what you’re doing, Warstride Challenges keeps things simple and pits you versus levels back to back. That’s it. There’s no story whatsoever, so just focus on beating levels as you unlock them to continue forward towards harder challenges. It’s all about climbing those online leaderboards, proving you’re the best there is on each level, if that’s your thing of course. With speedrunning being its main focus, you’ll simply focus on that, honing your reflexes and memorization of levels as you move from one to the next.

Each level’s premise is simple, to unlock the exit you need to kill every enemy and hit all the switches. That’s it. Sounds easy right? You’d think so when levels are generally anywhere from 3 to 30 seconds long, but there’s some serious challenge here, especially if you’re actively trying to reach the top of the leaderboards. Each fraction of a second counts, so the slightest non-optimal shot or movement can destroy your ranking. There are a few bonus stages later, like surviving waves of enemies and such, but the majority of your time is going from stage to stage, as each one unlocks when the previous is completed or you have enough medals to progress.

If it was as simple as simply running to the exit as fast as possible, that’d be no problem, but since you have to ensure every enemy is killed first, then things get a little trickier, especially when harder enemies appear in the later stages. Stages start out simple enough, almost being a straight corridor, maybe with a corner or two, but blast the enemy near the door and boom, you’re done. Later on though you’ll need to search for levers to pull, opening up new paths and having more enemies assault you before you can head to the exit.

There’s a variety of weapons you unlock along the way, from standard pistols to rifles, SMG’s and more. Do you quickly swap out your better gun as you leap across a chasm to save your limited ammo of your better guns for harder enemies, or shoot multiple grunts by maybe exploding a barrel nearby? While your goal is to simply get from A to B, everything in between is what will determine your time, even down to the smallest choices.

If you’ve played the previous DOOM reboots, you’ll have an idea as to the overall feel of the game, blasting any demons and monsters in your way. Add the classic Quake twitch-like reflexes needed and that’s what Warstride Challenges is essentially. Bunny hopping allows you to gain a quicker momentum, but you need to time these mini jumps to not hit a wall and lose your speed or possibly overshoot your jump across a gap. You can slide through low pathways, blast blocked doorways, swing across chasms and more, all at breakneck speed.

When you inevitably die or run out of time, simply retry the level again, working to better your time. Maybe you beat the level but only got a bronze medal for your time. Feel free to reply any level as much as you want, especially if you want to crack the coveted top 10 of the online leaderboards, but goodluck, those speedruns are on a whole other skill level.

Even if you’re like me and don’t have the quickest reaction time any more, you can still enjoy Warstride Challenges. Sure I wasn’t competing for any top 10 leaderboards, and sometimes I was happy simply getting through a level in time, but those that are highly competitive will surely have plenty of content to get through. ‘Easy to pick up, hard to master’ certainly applies here. Thankfully there’s also a limited ‘slow-mo’ you can use that not only slows down the movement speed, but time as well, so you can perfectly aim a difficult shot if needed.

I will say, when you have a run that goes well where you’re picking off enemies from afar with single headshots, making jumps smoothly, and getting those great times, the game feels fantastic. Once you get on that ‘zone’ and hone in on a level after memorizing where all the enemies and switches are, you feel like a pro when things just go right.

Most levels will unlock the next once completed, though you’ll eventually reach stages that you’ll need a certain amount of medals to unlock, forcing you to go back to previous stages to better your times on the harder difficulties. That’s right, each of the levels has a number of different difficulties, slightly remixing each stage, not simply making the time requirements shorter. Even though you’re replaying levels, they feel new on each difficulty, so it doesn’t become as tedious as I expected.

Maybe you need a break and need something different to do as a change of pace? Every level has a hidden skull to find that will unlock bonus levels, so there’s always a reason to go back to older levels. I will say though, after an hour or so playing straight, I felt exhausted. You’re constantly moving at a breakneck speed and I was so hyper focused that it weighed on me after a while. My fingers certainly felt it, because you know, pressing the buttons harder clearly is how you’re supposed to do it. The difficulty generally ramps up slowly, but there were certainly a few spikes out of nowhere that took a dozen or so restarts to complete as I did my best to memorize every enemy and lever placement.

Shoot, duck, bunnyhop, jump, swing, use powers, slow-mo and even utilizing a dedicated 180 degree turn button means you’ll constantly be moving, lining up shots, swings, slides and jumps. Combat feels exhilarating when you get into that groove and you feel like a pro when it goes how you intended. For every stage completion like that though, you can expect a few dozen restarts, crashing into walls, falling into pits, or not finding that last enemy, unable to finish the level and running out of time.

The later stages do become quite difficult, not just with the time constraints, but having to shoot enemies while swinging, or doing a 180 to blast a monster that spawned behind you as you’re in the air. Sure it becomes frustrating trying to do this a few dozen times in a row, failing each time, but once successful, it feels incredibly rewarding. Quite a few times I felt like there was absolutely no way a level could have been completed any quicker, only to be humbled by seeing the online leaderboards.

While there’s no direct multiplayer, the Nemesis Mode is a very clever way to compete against friends and the community. You can choose a handful of different players, add them to your Nemesis list, and every stage you play, you’ll see their ghost in your game. You could even add your favorite streamers or anyone you know that plays to compete directly against them. I did this more to see what paths and routes they took, improving my strategies. Knowing I was slightly ahead of a nemesis felt rewarding, or seeing one ahead of me forced me to focus just that bit harder to be better. There’s no better feeling than beating a nemesis of a friend by a fraction of a second, knowing they’ll probably try and do the same to you afterwards.

Warstride Challenges visually is impressive with its corridors filled with monsters that plays at a smooth framerate, though it’s honestly hard to appreciate much of it when you’re only playing levels for 30 seconds at a time, so hyper focused on your aim and jumping. Between stages you’ll head to a menu where you choose your Chapter and stage, though the menus are a bit bland. Audio on the other hand is fantastic, with a metal/rock theme soundtrack akin to DOOM, though not quite at the same level of kick-ass. The weapons feel impactful with every shot and you feel hyped when the music kicks in at the right time, especially on a smooth run.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Warstride Challenges, but it’s a well-polished speedrunner for those that really care about climbing leaderboards and shaving fractions of a second off of runs. While it’ll be a little much for novices and those that don’t necessarily have lightning quick reflexes, those craving to run stages repeatedly to become the best in the world will surely have plenty of content to work towards for some time.

**Warstride Challenges was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.7 / 10 Car Detailing Simulator

It seems that every time I look, there’s a new simulator game out there, recreating a job or activity that I would have never expected to be in game form. The latest is Car Detailing Simulator from developers Games Incubator and GameFormatic, published by Ultimate Games. Many of these simulator games aim to recreate its real world counterpart, and Car Detailing Simulator is no different, having you renew cars to their former glory, making sure they are polished and shined with no minor detail forgotten before the customer gets their car returned and you move onto the next job.

After a brief opening cutscene about the detailing company you’re working for wins an award, you’re thrust into your first job detailing a vehicle, doubling as the tutorial to the gameplay. Don’t worry though, after a few jobs, you’re going to have the controls down and memorized, as it’s very repetitive. There’s a massive flood and your workplace is all but destroyed, so you have nowhere to go for work any longer. What better reason to go open up your own detailing garage rather than work for someone else? At least that’s the narrative that I took away from the brief storyboard cutscenes. This is a simulator game though, and we come here for the gameplay and recreation of the job, not a story. It’s time to wow and surprise your customers and build your business by focusing on the finer details.

Checking the computer at your desk will show the customers that are wanting to employ your services and drop their vehicle off to eventually look like new. Before choosing which of the jobs to take, you can see how much money you’ll earn and which components will need to be restored to their former glory. Based on how well you do and if you complete each task, you’ll earn a certain amount of money and stars based on your work. There’s even now and then some extra tasks you can do to earn a little more, like polishing the glass or putting a special product on the wheels. You’ll need all the money you can get, as that’s how you’ll purchase new tool upgrades, new garages, and more.

Detailing a car is more than simply getting some soap and washing it down. Yes, that’s usually the first task you’ll complete, getting the grime off the car, but then you’ll need to go a little deeper to make it shine. You’ll have a handful of different tools and kits to use, each with their own use and purpose. The body cleaning kit is where you’ll find your foaming gun, pressure washer and drying cloth. Your tire kit is has special brushes and sprays, where the interior cleaning kit is how you’ll clean the dirty mats and seats.

Every type of detail and clean needs a specialized tool, and while you’re only given the basics in the beginning, you’ll need to eventually purchase the others, like the headlight cleaner kit, polishing kit and more. Knowing what tools you need is only half the job, the other is hoping that the game itself deems your tasks complete, as that’s sometimes the challenge in itself.

Some of the gameplay is satisfying, like spraying down the vehicle with the foam, then the frustration sinks in when you need to annoyingly dry the car by hand with a hand towel, hoping you didn’t miss the smallest wet patch. Cleaning the insides of the car is much simpler, spraying down the seats, scrubbing them down, and spraying out any of the stains. The ‘gameplay’ in most of these sections is simply moving around the Left Stick within a small area, or spraying everywhere before cleaning it up. A small indicator will fill up a circle and disappear once that portion is fully cleaned, with the task coming off your list as well.

Clicking in the Right Stick will highlight any dirty areas or where repairs are needed with a good polishing. Doing so highlights the dirt and scratched in a faint red, though it’s quite difficult, near impossible actually, to see the smallest of the details, especially near the bottom of the car. If the car you’re detailing is red, or something that isn’t a contrast to the color red, good luck trying to find the smallest spot you missed cleaning or buffing out. This will inadvertently add a lot of extra time to the job as you go over every inch once again trying to find it. You can change this color in teh options, but having to do so each time is tedious and doesn't help all that much. In the polishing kit there’s a wand you get to highlight the scratches and such, but it barely does anything to help. I was hoping that the lighting upgrades for the garage would make the highlighting more pronounced, but it did seemingly absolutely nothing.

Once your individual tasks show complete, you can move onto the next, but when you’re 99% done cleaning or polishing for example and can’t see any remaining dirt or scratches, the frustration starts to set in, and this happens quite often. It’s tedious to go completely over the car once again blindly so that your task will complete. Other times it will show your task complete, even though you can see all of the windows haven’t been wiped or there’s still foam on the car. It's not always consistent.

One of the last tasks you might have to do to the vehicle is give it a new paint job. This costs a certain amount, and it’s really just picking a new color and clicking the button. The problem with this is that you might have less in your account than it costs to purchase the paint job, meaning you’ll have to complete the job not fully complete, thus earning less than the full amount.

It’s clear that Car Detailing Simulator was ported over from PC to console, but there doesn’t seem to have been much care into making the controls friendly as they could possibly be. More often than not, choosing a new tool won’t place it in the middle of the screen, fighting to find where it’s at before placing it where you want it. Needing to clear or polish a very specific spot can sometimes be a nuisance, as the cursor moves at mach-3 with no option anywhere to slow it down. There’s even a few spots where there wasn’t enough care to take out the mouse button icons in the tutorial prompts and change it to the triggers for a controller.

Gameplay becomes repetitive quite quickly, as it’s the same tools doing the same jobs over and over. Keeping the cursor in the right area is difficult and the UI is awkward at best. While the cars aren’t licensed, it’s clear which cars at meant to be Mustangs and other classics. Having a vehicle come in dirty and scratched then leaving polished up and looking brand new is quite satisfying. Even with the clumsy and frustrating controls, it’s addictive and relaxing at the same time.

You can purchase tool upgrades in the virtual store for $500 a piece, which generally allow you to complete each step of the detailing process a little quicker. Some upgrades seem quite worth it, like the interior clearer than does two steps in one, whereas others seem to not make much of a difference at all. You can also purchase upgrades for your garage, like shelves for your tool kits, lights for a brighter atmosphere (yet doesn’t help find the dirt and scratches any easier) and others, as well as buying a new garage and showroom. Later in the game you’ll be able to purchase old cars, make them pretty, then sell them and showcase in your other garages and showrooms, though the bulk the game play is still washing, scrubbing and polishing each vehicle.

The port from PC to console was disappointing, clearly not a focus as the controls are clunky and frustrating at best. The awkward menus don’t help much either. The worst part had to be the repetitive music that is bland and had to eventually be turned off for something else. The cars themselves look decent, especially once they are all shiny and polished, though there’s really not all that much else to look at other than stiff and awkward animations.

When you boil down Car Detailing Simulator’s gameplay elements, it really just comes down to changing one soiled texture into a shiny one by holding the Right Trigger and moving the Left Stick. For how simple the gameplay boils down to and for how repetitive it is, it’s oddly soothing, relaxing and addictive. More than one night playing I found myself saying ‘just one more car’. It’s not the most polished simulator out there, but it’s entertaining in its own way.

**Car Detailing Simulator was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Shuyan Saga

I’m always intrigued when a developer is willing to try something new. Maybe it’s a cool new mechanic, or maybe, like in Shuyan Saga, it’s a genre mash-up that I’ve never come across before. Blending a visual novel with a beat-em-up wasn’t something I was expecting. While it tells a wonderful tale, showcases martial arts, and has some Chinese culture as its backdrop, even after the credits have rolled, I’m still not sure if I’m sold on the idea of the genres melding together.

You are Shuyan, a young princess who has trained many years in Kung Fu. Your peaceful home was invaded by the Guer army, led by the evil Ganbaatar. He aims to search for other Guardian Spirits so that he can take over the Five Kingdoms. It’s going to take more than basic martial arts for Shuyan to save the realm, which she will learn along the way.

Ganbaatar has killed your father, the King, so you must flee if you stand any chance at surviving, but do you decide to help your mother, or one of your best friends escape? There are choices you’ll make along the way with at least two endings to unfold. Told as a visual novel, there’s no animation when its the story segments, illustrated by over 1,400 panels by renowned comic book artist, Daxiong. His beautiful artwork is sure to impress if you’re a comic book fan, though if visual novels bore you, this isn’t going to help much. While it may not be animated, it is voiced, quite well actually, and has an accompanying soundtrack that fits the tone.

Shuyan Saga is a game of two parts. The first is the visual novel aspect, taking up about half your time, watching a tale unfold as you make a few choices here and there. The other half is the beat-em-up fighting, which given the martial arts backdrop seems to make sense, but is by far the weakest portion of the game by a large margin. As for the story segments, the panels flow together well, there’s plenty of sound effects and the voiced dialogue does help raise it a bit. Thankfully you can quick skip scenes if you’re a fast reader or are working on a second playthrough for the other ending and achievements.

Then we get to the meat of the gameplay, the fighting. One thing I will say is that I applaud developers Lofty Sky Entertainment for wanting the combat to be as real as possible. They’ve gone above and beyond by actually motion capturing combat maneuvers from Shifu Longfei Yang, Master of the Shanxi Praying Mantis Style. This of course brings a sense of authenticity to the experience for those that know their martial arts.

Shuyan begins by simply knowing some basic punches and kicks, eventually learning some combos to unleash much more damage against her foes. As you train with a new master halfway through the narrative, you’ll unlock more of Shuyan’s potential with new abilities and special moves. Combat takes place in two different ways though, a 1 versus 1 duel, and then a top down view where you’ll fight numerous enemies at once.

The top down fighting is where you’ll generally need to clear a wave of enemies before another appears, eventually triggering the next story segment to kick in. You can maneuver Shuyan around a small arena as the brainless enemies come at you until defeated. They’ll have a small indicator above their head to show they’re about to do a special move, which is your cue to either dodge out of the way or prepare to grab and toss them, once you learn how to do so with the Right Stick. This combat really doesn’t have much to it, as you kick and punch your way through enemies until there’s none left and rewarded with story progress.

Then there’s the 1-on-1 fights that plays more like a rock-paper-scissors match. While opponents early in the game will be defeated by simply button mashing, eventually you’re going to know how to block and evade attacks. The Left and Right bumpers are how you’ll block high and low attacks, and using the Left and Right D-Pad will be how you Evade and Counter once you’ve learned how to do so. For the first half of the game I was getting by just fine by simply using combo attacks of punches and kicks (X and Y button), but eventually enemies got a little more challenging and was blocking my attacks more.

If an enemy is guarding high, then you’ll want to kick, if they are guarding low, then a good punch in the head will suffice. Once you’ve gotten used to the odd timing and awkward animations, combat becomes trivial, as I was able to counter every attack thrown at me, even the final confrontation with Ganbaatar. For a game focused on martial arts and even motion captured from an actual Master, the animations are quite rigid and don’t always flow together quite well, making for a jarring experience.

The star of Shuyan Saga is clearly the hand drawn artistry comic book style narrative. Even though the writing wasn’t amazing, each panel was done well and quite colorful. This is a stark contrast to the 3D fighting sections with basic models and rigid animations. With a soundtrack from composer Aaron Tsang, it plays beautiful melodies with its orchestral sound, fitting the culture’s backdrop. Even more surprising is that Kristen Kreuk (Lana Lang from Smallville) voices the titular Shuyan, so there was clearly a heavy focus on making the audio as a whole as top notch as it could be.

While Shuyan Saga uses the simple good versus evil trope for its main backdrop, the narrative flows nicely, being broken into three separate chapters. While I didn’t find the climactic final battle all that exciting, actually quite a letdown, I did enjoy seeing all the artwork start to finish. The odd very anglicized pronunciation of some Chinese names and places did seem 'off' at times, and I wish the quality of the combat matched the storyboard artwork.

An odd blend of visual novel and brawler, Shuyan Saga is certainly unique in its own right elevated with its great artwork and colors, though brought back down with its combat and gameplay. For a martial art that’s all about fluidity, it feels quite rigid at times. With an arena mode, a quick side mission after the story is complete, and two endings, there’s surely some reasons to play again if you’re really trying to get your value’s worth.

**Shuyan Saga was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Call of Duty: Modern Warfare III

It used to be that when the holiday times rolled around each year, you knew that’s when the latest and greatest Call of Duty was about to descend upon gamers as well. Even with its massive budget, Call of Duty isn’t always shielded from disappointment and criticism, as it’s certainly had some highs and lows with its yearly releases. There was a time that I would line up at my local game store to get the game at midnight, playing well into the next morning and taking the day off work, looking forward for weeks to play the latest campaign and multiplayer.

While I don’t have the excitement for yearly Call of Duty releases I once did, last year’s Modern Warfare II took me by surprise with its thrilling and exciting campaign that left me wanting more. Well it seems that the Activision have realized this, as Modern Warfare III is a direct sequel, picking up directly where the previous game left off. Even though it’s titled as a sequel and fully priced, I do question if this content was initially intended to be DLC or an expansion for Modern Warfare II for numerous reasons which I’ll delve into shortly.

Call of Duty titles generally have two main components, campaign and multiplayer, so let’s delve into the campaign first. Having quite enjoyed the previous game’s story and full on action sequences, I’ll admit, my expectations were a little higher than normal. With Modern Warfare II's ending with a bit of a shocking revelation, we now see what the follow up outcomes are in this sequel. Once again we’re with the familiar faces of Task Force 141 led by the iconic Captain Price as they take on a new, yet familiar, threat.

If you’ve been a Call of Duty fan for the last few titles, the name Vladimir Makarov should ring a bell, also noting how serious this threat truly is. Like most Call of Duty titles, the opening mission attempts to set an exciting tone full of action and plenty of gunfire. Modern Warfare III is no different, as you begin as an elite team infiltrating a maximum security prison in search of a VIP target. I don’t want to spoil much narratively, but having Makarov back as the antagonist was exciting given how cold and calculated he is from his previous discretions. "Remember, no Russian." is probably one of the most iconic lines in the franchise with its Airport level being one of the most memorable and shocking to date, really cementing how ruthless Makarov can truly be.

In most Call of Duty missions, you’re more or less simply going from point A to B, with a little wiggle room in between to give the illusion of a larger scale or freedom, albeit with a lot of gunfire and death in-between. Modern Warfare III does try something new in a handful of missions, giving you more choices. Not only for certain loadouts, but actually different paths and a bit more freeform level design. Thankfully the terrible forced stealth missions and ‘boss’ fights are omitted this time, as they weren’t much fun in last year’s release.

Introducing open combat missions, you’ll still need to get from a point A to B, but how you get to your objective is up to you. Do you go in the front door blasting or opt for a more silent approach, taking out targets one by one? These open missions are spread out across the campaign, though didn’t excite me as much as I expected them to. Sure it’s cool that you and I could play the same mission completely differently with unique loadouts and playstyles, but I found the stealth approach hard to complete, generally resulting in massive gunfire battles either way.

I’d wager that a large majority of Call of Duty players purchase the yearly entries for its addictive multiplayer component, regardless if you’re a fan of standard competitive modes, Warzone, DMZ or Zombies, there’s certainly something here you’ll enjoy. Something I didn’t expect was being able to carry forward all my Operators and Weapons into Modern Warfare III multiplayer, though a byproduct of this really starts to make it feel like an add-on more so than a fully-fledged sequel.

If you’ve played online multiplayer Call of Duty in the past, even more so if last year’s entry, then things are going to feel very familiar, as very little has changed pertaining to the ecosystem. You still have an overarching and confusing Call of Duty ‘app’ where you choose what mode to play and jump right in. There are some new additions and changes this year though, from 37 new weapons, 16 maps (remastered and modernized classics), loadout changes, aftermarket customizations, Tac-Stance and more.

If you’ve been a multiplayer Call of Duty fan for a number of years, you’ll certainly recognize the latest map additions, even if they are reworked classics, along with a handful of new ones. All 16 launch maps from the 2009 Modern Warfare 2 have been updated, including the iconic Estate and Highrise that easily stood out for me amongst the rest. While this may seem like a cheap way to pad the map offerings, because of the new weapons and mechanics, I found players didn’t play exactly the same way as they did over a decade ago on the original versions.

Having access to all my Modern Warfare II weapon unlocks from my first match was certainly a shock, as you can easily tell early on who’s been playing for some time, even at low levels. This means I can instantly start playing with my maxed out weapons and attachments since I put many hours into the previous game, leaving new players at a disadvantage. With over thirty new weapons now included in Modern Warfare III, I of course started to work on these new additions, leveling them up and wanting to check out the new Aftermarket parts.

Not explained well, Aftermarket parts allow you to drastically change some weapons to suit a specific playstyle. For example, as an LMG player using my Pulemyot LMG, the Bullpup Conversion Kit I unlocked after completing a specific challenge allowed my gun to have better maneuverability, hip fire recoil and simply improved its overall performance, not to mention looking badass with the magazine canister angled forwards. Other guns can be converted for some unique changes to how they perform, even some allowing for akimbo loadouts when certain challenges are completed.

Tac-Stance is also a new addition, acting as a middle ground between ADS and hip-fire. I can’t count how many times I’ve lost a firefight because ADS on my LMG is generally quite slow, yet trying to hip-fire with a rapid LMG doesn’t always work well unless in close quarters. Tac-Stance can improve your performance, giving you a bit more accuracy and maneuverability when compared to ADS firefights, available on most weapons, even able to be used with Modern Warfare II weapons. Easily toggled, this took some self-reminding that it was an option, but it certainly saved me on more than one occasion.

What’s old is new again, showcased by the return of some classic Call of Duty gameplay. Once again players can vote for maps, red dots will show on the minimap for non-silenced gunfire, and you once again start with your perks at the start of matches, no longer needing to kill or wait to gain access. It does seem as though player health got a bit of a boost in Core matches, as Time-to-Kill (TTK) seems longer than I’m used to, though I primarily spend most of my multiplayer time in Hardcore where this isn’t affected.

The latest, and arguably largest, addition is the latest take on the Zombies mode. While I’ve never really been a fan of the old classic Zombie mode, the latest in Modern Warfare III is really just a different take on last year’s popular DMZ mode. Modern Warfare Zombies (MWZ) is more PvE based, as you can play alongside other teams, not having to worry about the PvP element that DMZ focused on. Can you survive against seemingly never ending waves of zombies in a massive map? Uncover many secrets with story missions or simply enjoy your time with your squad blasting hordes of zombies with your buddies online as you try to extract and survive.

Instead of downloading a whole new game once I redeemed my code, Modern Warfare III seemed like a massive update for last year's Modern Warfare II. Even the achievements are listed under Modern Warfare II, implying it’s a DLC, even though it’s supposed to be its own new game. With the campaign being a direct sequel from last year’s, and even with the new ‘open’ missions, it did go by quickly. Zombies is sure to be a hit with DMZ fans, but it doesn’t do a great job at explaining all of its intricacies and mechanics for new players. While not the most memorable campaign of the series, and nowhere near the quality of Modern Warfare II’s epic setpieces, it’s a serviceable entry, but feels more like filler that should have been DLC rather than a fully-fledged entry that brings new excitement and potential fans.

**Call of Duty Modern Warfare III was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 UFC 5

“As Real As It Gets” is a tagline UFC has used for many years, and the latest game in the series, UFC 5, has certainly taken this to heart, trying to recreate the sport as faithfully and realistically as possible. With a whole new engine under the hood, massive graphical upgrades, a Real Impact System, new submission controls, new modes and more, make UFC 5 the most realistic MMA simulator to date.

If you played UFC 4’s career mode, this is going to feel quite similar. As expected, you start out as a no one, looking to make a name for yourself to get noticed by the UFC to finally get your shot and of course, try to obtain that coveted gold around your waist one day. With new cutscenes and locations, sure it’s new, but it’s basically the same career mode all over again.

Coach Davis takes you under his wing, teaching you the basics from your backyard roots, aiming to mold you into a UFC prize fighter. While I was hoping there’d be some major names and fighters you come up with or train alongside the way, you do get to train at the same UFC Performance Institute gym as Valentina Shevchenko as she guides you as well. You’ve come a long way from your backyard brawls and World Fighting Alliance fights, but now you’re in the UFC, so you’ve got to make a name for yourself.

Before getting into the UFC, the career mode is entertaining enough, with Coach Davis helping train you, giving you advice, teaching you the basics, but once you’ve made it to the UFC, it’s as if there’s nothing else for you narrative wise. Once you become the champ, Career mode just turns into fighting for as long as you can before you retire as your longevity meter slowly depletes over time.

You’ll need to train MMA skills across the board though, from your wrestling, boxing, and BJJ (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu), but there’s more to being a champion, as you’ll need to boost your social media for popularity, train with other fighters to learn their moves, and even watch tape on your opponent to learn their style and come up with a strategy. Each week before a fight you’re given 100 points to spent on these activities, and you clearly can’t do it all, so where you spend your time before the big fight is up to you.

Each contract you earn will also allow you to choose a sub objective that will net you bonuses based on its difficulty. For example, at the end of your fight contract, you need to have a certain amount of KO/TKO’s, Round 1 Finishes, Submissions or a certain amount of hype per fight. At the end of each contract you’ll earn a new one, generally upping your pay a substantial amount if you’ve been winning as you try and become the G.O.A.T. This all sounds familiar because it is, just as UFC 4’s career mode was.

Aside from Career Mode where I opted to spend the majority of my time, there’s plenty of other modes and things to play as well. There are weekly challenges you can test yourself with, aiming to be aligned with real PPV fight weeks in the future. These are predetermined fights and difficulties, with your first chance being free, though you can retry if you lose the fight for cost. These challenges will earn you special rewards like coins, cosmetics and even Alter Egos for fights, which are basically special attires from fighter’s histories.

Having moved to EA’s Frostbite engine has allowed for and even more realistic presentation, meaning the fighters look more authentic and move even more like their actual selves. With 60 FPS, fights will feel smooth, but the sweat and blood have been vastly improved and are quite noticeable with the improved authentic damage. Facial deformation really showcases cuts, bruises, blurred vision, broken noses, and at worst, the doctor might stop the fight if they think you can’t compete anymore. With 64,000 possible combinations of facial damage, fighters can look quite nasty with enough punches and kicks to the head. With damage actually affecting stamina regen, movement and even takedown defense, this adds all new strategies mid fight.

An MMA game is only as good as the fighters that make yup its roster though, and while it has some of the fighters you’d expect, it’s also missing some big names as well. The notable bonus fighters are Mike Tyson, Fedor Emelianenko, Muhammad Ali, and Bruce Lee, and you can expect many of the biggest names right now like Tom Aspinall, Ciryl Gane, Jon Jones, Magomed Ankalaev, Johnny Walker, Israel Adesanya, Khamzat Chimaev, Jiri Prochazka , Alex Pereira, Paulo Costa, Stipe Miocic , Colby Covington, Conor McGregor, Kamaru Usman, Michael Chandler, Alexander Volkanovski, Sean O’Malley, Valentina Shevchenko, amongst dozens of others.

There seems to be some notable omissions though, such as Brock Lesnar, Francis Ngannou, Yoel Romero, just to name a few. You can expect to see some legends in the roster as well, like Georges St-Pierre, Nick and Nate Diaz, Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, Royce Gracie, BJ Penn, Anderson Silva, Robbie Lawler, Donald Cerrone, Clay Guida, Jose Aldo, Frankie Edgar and more, so there’s surely a good handful of fighters you’ll recognize, even if you’ve not watched UFC in quite some time.

Combat will vary based on which mode you want to play, as there are some more options like Knockout, Stand and Bang, Competitive, and Simulation. If you simply want to have a slugfest and go for some crazy knockouts, you won’t have to worry about learning the ground game. You can even choose to go through the career this way as well should you choose, which was what I did for my first fighter.

If you’ve played the previous UFC games you’ll have an idea at how the controls work, but there have been some adjustments that take a little getting used to. The new damage system is probably what made me change my fight strategy on the fly more than anything else, as I was worried the doctor would come in and call the fight off even though I didn’t get knocked out directly. Spinning attacks have been revamped, and while I didn’t get as many knockouts with them, they’re still just as entertaining to watch land.

Facial deformation really help emphasize the power and damage you do to your opponents, and there seems to be a bunch of new animations for all the different fighting styles, including getting hit from different angles. You have a stamina meter you need to maintain, as trying to hit someone when you’re gassed won’t do much and will simply leave you open for a counter. Head movement plays a larger part of avoiding damage, able to bob and weave in different directions, looking for a powerful counter.

The coolest part though is seeing your handiwork being showcased after a big knockout. There are cinematic replays that shows different camera angles and in slow-mo, showcasing the new damage system and ragdoll physics. These knockout moments look badass of course, but there are times where the ragdoll physics make things look a little off and wonky when they don’t collapse just right or realistically.

You’ll also remember if you’ve played the previous games at how confusing and terrible the submission mechanics were. This minigame took a lot of getting used to, and even then, wasn’t intuitive in the slightest. I was glad to see that the ground game has been completely redone for UFC 5, making for a more fluid tactical game of chess on the ground. There’s some options based on your preferences, able to choose a grapple assist, hybrid or legacy controls, and while I commend the effort to make it better, it’s still challenging and confusing at the best of times with all of the different modifiers and buttons to memorize. Those that enjoy the ground game are sure to enjoy the latest changes, as it makes for more fluid transitions and submissions, but it’s going to take a lot of practice to really learn it so it becomes second nature.

Of course if you want a true challenge, head online and take on all comers to compete and see who truly is the G.O.A.T. You can play quick matches, ranked championships and more. You’ll need to be at the top of your striking and ground game if you want any sort of chance at those ranked belts though. In online career you’ll be able to use evolution points, improve your fighter’s stats and even a prestige system for those truly wanting to prove themselves.

UFC 5 is easily the best looking MMA game to date, hands down. The engine improvements, facial deformation and slow-mo replays really showcase just how good it can look. Fighters are instantly recognizable for the most part, though I did find a few that simply looked a tad ‘off’ for one reason or another. A battered face can be gruesome and can be just as brutal as watching live on PPV. The commentary is done well and comes across just as I’d expect from a live broadcast, though you will start to hear repeated lines after a good amount of fights under your belt. I will say though that I absolutely hated the soundtrack, though musical choices are clearly subjective.

Having watched UFC and MMA for many years, making sure I catch every main PPV I possibly can, and met a handful of fighters, I really enjoy watching the competition, and what UFC 5 does so well is recreating the brutal sport. Being accessible enough for those that want to simply stand and bang by button mashing, to the hardcore fans that want to showcase their submission skills online, UFC 5 is the latest contender to enter the octagon, being as real as it gets, though can feel like simply a prettier UFC 4 at times.

**UFC 5 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Demolish & Build Classic

I don’t expect a lot from a game usually. As long as it’s got a good story, fun gameplay, some interesting mechanics, or is memorable, then I’m willing to overlook its shortcomings. That said, there are limits. Can you excuse a complete broken game because its story is good, probably not. Demolish & Build Classic is certainly memorable, but not in the way it was probably intended. As far as I can tell, Demolish & Build Classic is a port of Demolish & Build 2017 from PC, though it seems little to no effort has been done to improve the game or make it friendly for controller play. Who doesn’t love destroying stuff though? Maybe the gameplay can overtake its many shortfalls? Let’s find out.

After a brief phone call, you’re now the boss of your own demolition company. There’s really nothing else to it for a story, and you’re set off into the world without any type of tutorial. You’ll begin by taking a few contract jobs, destroying a few walls with your sledgehammer and earn some money for your troubles. You’re simply thrown into the game without any introduction of how to actually play the game. It’s going to be a lot of trial and error simply trying to figure out certain aspects of the gameplay because Demolish & Build Classic doesn’t make even the lowest amount of effort to show you how to properly play.

You can take contracts that earn you much needed cash to purchase new equipment once unlocked, but the campaign doesn’t progress unless you follow a specific checklist of things to do. You’ll have to do many of the side contracts though to earn the cash needed eventually. When you explore the map and come across specific job sites, you’ll be able to fast travel to them at any point, so it’s a good idea to drive your pickup truck around so you can quickly come back at any time when a contract opens for them.

You’re going to notice quite quickly that the world is basically completely empty. There’s a few cars on the road but they drive so rigid and on their preset path that they won’t know you’re in their way or stop for you, not that it really affects you even if you collide. The environment is bland to look at, and there’s nothing to really take notice of, and once you have all the places unlocked, you’ll want to simply fast travel as much as possible anyways.

Job sites will vary in their objectives, starting off small by demolishing some walls, maybe getting rid of some bushes with your bulldozer, or cutting pipes among other tedious tasks that you’ll do repeatedly. Each job you complete earns you some cash, and you’re also able to purchase certain plots that can be fixed up and earn you passive income, though at times these might need to be fixed up and repaired. This is where your hired worked come into play, as they can do some of these menial tasks, though there’s some they’re unable to do specific tasks due to not being high enough level, yet they don't seem to level up either.

You’ll start with a few hand tools, and each time you level up by progressing the campaign, you can purchase new ones that allow new contracts to open up for bigger payouts. The majority of your time will be in your varied machinery though. You’ll start with your pickup truck, simply used to drive around from site to site before you can fast travel to all the job sites. You’ll then be able to use a Bulldozer, used for flattening terrain or tearing down demolished walls.

You’ll unlock a Skid Loader, used often, and has different attachments that can be used to dig with or with a jackhammer to destroy poles and walls. The excavator is the larger version, used for digging, also able to purchase a jackhammer attachment to destroy walls, houses and bridges. The Cargo Truck will carry materials like wood or bricks to job sites, and the Dump Truck used to delivering sand or scraps. You’ll also get to use a Concrete Mixer Truck and a Road Roller for compacting sand and asphalt. Lastly and the most expensive that you’ll need to do many contracts for is the Tower Crane to deliver materials up at heights, and a Crawler Crane with a wrecking ball to destroy larger structures.

Machinery is tricky to use for a number of reasons. First and foremost, you’re not given any tutorial of how to control each vehicle. Nothing is explained, and when you run out of gas for the first time, you won’t have any clue how to refill it. When needing to use a different attachment, the same problem persists, as you aren’t told how to actually do so. You’ll use the Bumpers to tilt the buckets or move the arms, and the Left Stick to raise and lower the machinery as well. The problem is that the Left Stick is also used to steer our vehicle, so you’ll constantly be moving the vehicle instead of the arms and vice versa.

You would think that destroying a bunch of buildings and wall would be a blast, but the controls are so finicky and you have to be so precise with your cursor that it’s a constant frustration. Equally as frustrating is having to constantly battle against the terrible menus. The menus is where you’ll find the map, contracts, workers to hire, vehicle tab and more. The vehicle tab is where you’ll purchase and equip attachments for your vehicles, yet the game doesn’t tell you this.

I can’t tell you how much time was wasted simply trying to figure how to do what the objectives were asking. For a good half hour I couldn’t find out how to load the Cargo Truck with wood that the objective told me to do, so I brought my Skid Loader, eventually figuring out how to add the crane attachment since the game didn’t teach me this at all. No luck, I wasn’t getting a prompt to actually lift the wood stacks. Turns out I had to park the Cargo Truck on the specific spot but still couldn’t figure it out. I had to press ‘A’ when parked on the spot, which would have been easy if the game prompted that at any point. I had to actually look it up online how to progress and even the video I found had the person accidentally figured it out as well.

Nearly every tool and every machine is a frustrating chore to use. There’s some physics that will help along the way, like taking out the bottom layer of a wall causing the rest to collapse, but being that accurate is near impossible at the best of times. Using hand tools you’ll need to be aiming at just the right angle and distance, but you’ll miss your swings and cuts a lot. The same goes for using your vehicles, as it’s annoying to get your bulldozer stuck on a speck of dirt or corner of something, not something you’d expect with some heavy machinery.

I generally always try and see positives in things, especially in games, but sometimes it’s quite difficult to do so. The graphics look embarrassingly dated, textures are terrible, and objects don’t even line up along the ground where they’re supposed to. Skyboxes are ugly, animations basically don’t exist and it looks as though it’s from a mobile game from ten years ago.

Glitches are constant, and there’s even an annoying one where if you press the menu button while moving, it does this glitching back and forth that could easily make you nauseous. Then of course there is framerate drops and slowdown when there’s lots of dust or rain. Audio is no better. Most equipment makes no sound or has any feedback with the controller rumble. Music plays while in vehicles that you can change to a few different radio stations, which of course are terrible except for one, but sometimes also randomly just turn off for no reason.

I don’t like to be negative, but when there’s so few redeeming qualities, it’s practically impossible to recommend Demolish & Build Classic, even to those that enjoy playing bad games. Graphics are appalling, controls are even worse, and there’s really no enjoyment to be had when you’re constantly frustrated and confused because the game can’t take one minute to explain what or how to do anything you’re required to.

**Demolish & Build Classic was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 2.0 / 10 Jusant

Jusant: French maritime term qualifying a period of low ocean tide.

Ever since I got to preview Jusant back in August, it’s been on my mind. The preview was only the first two hours of the game with a cliffhanger cutscene, and I’ve been wanting to scale the Tower ever since. Having previewed the game, much of that will be included in this review, but I finally got to reach its peak and came away absolutely charmed and mesmerized with its beauty.

Revealed at the Xbox Showcase 2023, Jusant was a small title that instantly caught my eye with its colourful visuals. I was instantly more intrigued once I saw that developers DON’T NOD were the ones behind it. Best known for the Life Is Strange series, but also some other fantastic titles like their latest game, Harmony: The Fall of Reverie. Described as a new climbing action-puzzle adventure, Jusant is a relaxing and meditative journey as you scale a seemingly never ending cliffside. Explore multiple paths, find secrets and simply enjoy the experience at your own pace with the help of an adorable and mysterious companion.

Without any spoken dialogue, Jusant’s narrative is told through finding letters and notes left behind from previous inhabitants of this mountainous structure. This is intentionally done so you’re able to interpret the story in your own way and in relation to your own personal experiences. Jusant opens with you wandering the desert and coming across a tower so large, that it goes well beyond the clouds. It’s more than just a mountain however, and you’re intrigued to look closer. While the game doesn’t give you an objective marker or tell you to go explore, you’re curious, so you naturally want to see what’s ahead and upwards.

The ocean used to rise so high that much of this tower was submerged. This is apparent by the broken and ‘beached’ boats you’ll find along the way towards the peak. The ocean has seemed to disappear though, as has the society and people that used to live here, seemingly all abandoned in search for water elsewhere.

Climbing the tower is symbolic for many things, whatever that means to you. Maybe it’s overcoming a challenge in life, achieving something monumental or putting forth some great effort. Jusant uses great use of allegory in a powerful way without outright telling you its meanings or lessons, those are up to you to decipher and uncover. You feel compelled to climb upwards and onwards, and so begins your journey up this seemingly never ending tower to curtail that curiosity of what's possibly at its peak.

Jusant’s concept is brilliantly simple: climb a large tower. You’re given the tools needed from the offset, teaching you how to properly climb. Many games play horizontally, so having a game built about verticality is a refreshing change, as looking up and how much further you need to go seems to never end, yet looking down and seeing how far you’ve come gives you a sense of accomplishment without directly rewarding you as a player. I can’t even count the times I would pan the camera upwards to see how much further I had to go, or stand at a cliff edge to pan downwards to appreciate how far I’ve already come, usually resulting in a few screenshots.

Not aiming to be a completely realistic simulator, Jusant is designed to be a relaxing experience, climbing at your own pace, becoming almost meditative in nature as you simply sit back and relax, enjoying the views and solving how to get up to your next ledge. Often I would see a branching path, explore one way partially, only to go back and see what I could find the other way. This usually ended up in finding a note, diary page, collectable, or even an amazing vista that always prompted a screenshot. I’m excited to see speedruns once released, but playing at my own pace was exactly what I needed to relax and chill.

Controls are as simple as they come, with the Triggers being your hands, so you have to hold Left or Right depending on which hand you want to grip with, using the Left Stick to direct your climb direction. It’s intuitive and works quite well once you get a hang of your reach and abilities by alternating your gripped hands. Of course climbing is tiring, so you do have a stamina meter to watch, but you’re able to rest virtually anywhere and refill your stamina gauge before attempting another climb. Once you get in the rhythm and climb quickly and smoothly, it feels quite rewarding, as does finally figuring out a way to reach that ledge you’ve been trying to grasp.

You have a rope that will automatically attach once you start climbing, acting like a safeguard in case you fall. You’re able to add a few more anchor points as you ascend, refilling as you place your feet back on flat ground. This means you can’t die nor really lose much progress. Even at times where I forgot to anchor and ended up falling, I only lost about a minute or two of progress. Jusant is meant to be a relaxing experience, and I appreciate the design to not have you fall all the way to the bottom. You also don’t need to be careful near ledges, as you can’t accidentally walk off either thankfully.

You’re able to lengthen or shorten your rope as well if anchored to a swing point, useful to reach further off ledges. This allows you to use your rope as a swing at times, so momentum will also play a part of your climb. Sometimes you might need to get some speed and let out your rope a bit to reach somewhere new, though it seems there’s not only one solution to climbing the ‘proper’ path, so I’m sure people will find their own preferred lines upwards. Each wall you climb is like a mini puzzle in itself, as some broken planks and spots you can’t grip or hold onto, so you need to figure a way around or elsewhere. Once you know what ledges and objects to look for, you can usually plan out your climb before doing so.

You’re not alone on this climb though, as you have a small water-like creature with you known as a Ballast. Looking frog-like in nature, it’s not only absolutely adorable but has a connection with this place somehow. This Ballast will not only keep you company, but will be instrumental in your climb, as they’re able to unearth secrets and reveal paths you’d be unable to do so without their help. You need the Ballast and they need you, and it’s more connected to this deserted Tower than you may initially expect.

While in range of some of the rare flora, using your Ballast will cause the plants to grow, allowing more areas to climb with extending flower stalks, or placing a bunch of seeds on the wall that can be used as grip holds. The desert is a harsh environment though, and these seeds only last a few moments in the hot direct sunlight, so you need to be quick at some spots if you want to progress. You’ll also lose stamina slowly in the direct extreme heat, so you can’t always take your sweet time.

You might even find some wandering rock-like creatures that can be used as mobile grips which was always fun to try and time my jumps to reach as they passed by. They can only hold your weight for a short period though, so you’ll need to maneuver across a few of them, like a moving grip point. As you reach the peak, you’ll even need to contend with harsh winds, forcing you to time your jumps to have the wind help push you upwards or in a certain direction.

While the majority of Jusant’s journey takes place outside the massive Tower, there are some sections deep within, adding for a whole different aesthetic and feel. Climbing within the caverns adds for a different backdrop, and there are even some firefly-like creatures that can be used to give you a ‘super’ jump to reach higher at specific points. Walking into a massive open cave and seeing flying glowing jellyfish is quite a beautiful sight indeed.

While your general direction to go is up, how you do so is up to you. There seems to be generally one ‘main’ path, but many times I found short side paths that were alternate ways or housed some secrets. Jusant’s lore is explained through finding collectables, so it will certainly be beneficial to go off the beaten path and explore everywhere you can. The notes you find give insight to the people’s lives that used to live here, or what they were worried about once the tide started to lower abruptly. Where did the people go? Were they scared? Collect these to piece together a heartbreaking story as you ascend. Part of Jusant’s charm is how it lets you explore the world at your own pace. You’re not rushed in any way, you’re free to explore different pathways which usually lead to tidbits of interesting lore, slowly piecing together what’s happened and where everyone has gone.

Climbing a massive structure like this, you get a feeling of how small and insignificant you truly are. Level design is done masterfully for being virtually completely vertical and there was always something in the distance that caught my eye that I wanted to go see what it was eventually. Jusant’s design is so clever, as you’re always given a purposeful structure in the distance that you’re naturally drawn to, and the climbing path happens to head in that direction.

More than once I had to stop and just take in the beautiful vistas, looking down at how far I’ve come, but also glancing upward to see how much further to go, not even able to see the peak beyond the clouds. Once I was above the clouds and unable to see the ground where I started, it really brought a sense of accomplishment. The colorful cartoonish aesthetics are pleasing and you can easily tell certain paths you’re meant to take once you notice the grip points to hang onto. Equally as stunning is the beautiful soundtrack from Guillaume Ferran, creating an atmosphere where the piano ballads hit at just the right time and creates a relaxing tone as you hear the wind whistling near a cliff edge, bringing with it a sweeping and adventurous soundscape of harmonies.

Scaling the tower never becomes dull, adding new challenges and ways to solve each puzzle with a stunning vista viewpoint as my reward. I was unable to put it down, completing it in a single sitting, though I plan to go back again with the Chapter Select to find all the collectables I missed the first ascent.

Sometimes you can just tell when a game is ‘special’, and Jusant gives this feeling almost from its onset. With stunning vistas, a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack, and relaxing gameplay, take a few hours out of a weekend and experience its gorgeous ascent.

**Jusant was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 9.3 / 10 Hexapoda

I’m such a big fan of shumps (shoot-em-ups) that I’ll basically try any new game in the genre, regardless of how it looks or may appeal to me. One of my favorite games of all time, and what I regard as the greatest shmup ever, is Ikargua, and while I don’t ever expect a game to reach those heights, I always compare in some way to see if it could be just as good in its own way.

We have the latest from small indie dev TOMAGameStudio, Hexapoda. Many insects are actually called hexapoda, something new I learned, and is very fitting given the game backdrop of you shooting hundreds of insects, a nice change from your typical battle versus invading aliens. What may stand out to you initially though is its black and white tones, making the colored bullets pop and stand out more in the foreground.

The surface of Earth is no longer hospitable, forcing humanity to flee and live underground after a war that left unbreathable gasses in the atmosphere. The problem is that under the surface where you dwell, it’s infested by deadly bugs and insects that are massive. This is where you come in, as to survive, someone is going to not only clear out the bugs, but try to find a solution to that you can reemerge to the top side once again.

While you’ll need to clear out as many bugs as you can for safety, your true main objective is to find samples so that they can be tested, especially from the massive Queen that’s said to be deep below. Defeat each boss, grab a sample and continue on your journey. After each level you’ll be presented with a branching path, able to freely choose which way to go. Each path takes you towards a different boss and will also get you one of the few different endings, so there’s some replayability built into its design.

Not usually an option in smaller games like this, you can actually play up to four players simultaneously, each being a slightly different looking ship and a base weapon. There are three different difficulty modes to choose from, Normal, Hard and Manic. Normal wasn’t an issue to clear at all for a shmup vet, but Hard and Manic were actually quite challenging, almost to the point of feeling unfair at certain moments, especially during boss fights.

With four different ships to choose from, they don’t have any stat differences, but their base weapon does vary between the different types you’ll see once you get some power-ups. I do wish this was a bit clearer though, as I wasn’t initially sure what the differences of the four ships were. Across the twelve stages you’ll unlock a vast bestiary as you kill enemies, some only appearing in certain branching paths.

Controls are as simple as they come; you have one button for shooting, one for a screen clearing bomb, and moving your ship with the Left Stick. By default, Hexapoda is a vertical shooter where you’re constantly scrolling upwards, though you can certainly change the video options to play it like the other horizontal styled shmups, all depending on your preference.

Enemies come in waves and you must do what you can to avoid all the bullets on screen while taking out every bug you can. Many will drop stars that can be collected for points, and you’ll also see a bunch of power-ups drop as well that will give you new weapons for a short time. These upgrades only last for a short period of time, maybe 30 seconds or so, so make sure you destroy all the bugs you can in that period of time. Every time you grab a new weapon power-up, the timer will reset, so it’s not often you’ll revert back to your base weaponry.

There are a few different weapon types you can gather, from a condensed laser, spread shot, homing missiles and even a shot that bounces off enemies and walls. These are indicated by H, W, and S floating objects to pick up, as well as a P that can upgrade the spread and damage of your weapons. At times you’ll be constantly swapping weapons as you’re given that many at times when lots of bugs are destroyed together.

While going through each stage isn’t terribly difficult to avoid the bullets on screen, the bosses can feel unfair at times, especially on Hard or Manic. I swear there were spots that were unavoidable to get hit. This may be partly because the hitbox for your ship felt large, so it was challenging at times to avoid a premature death.

The black and white aesthetic is eye catching at first, yet still has plenty of detail in the environments and bugs. Your bullets are blue and enemy shoots purple at you, so these pop on the screen against the monochrome backdrop. The star was clearly the kickass electronica synthwave soundtrack from band Double Dragon that had me excited to play each level, hoping to hear a new track taking a new pathway.

Hexapoda is a simplistic shmup that should certainly entertain for a weekend, and while I don’t see myself revisiting it later in the future, it’s solid overall with nothing really to complain about as you try and climb up the leaderboards each run. Good luck trying to survive the harder difficulty modes though if you want a real challenge.

**Hexapoda was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Virgo Versus The Zodiac

Inspired by the Mario & Luigi RPG title, we have Virgo Versus the Zodiac from developer Moonana and publisher Serenity Forge, a RPG that really surprised me. A traditional turn-based RPG at its core, you’ll also need to be quite attentive with its real time blocking and attacking as well. While you normally play the hero in stories, here you’re the titular Virgo on her conquest to bring back The Golden Age, regardless of how many heretics she must stop in her way to her goal.

We know the zodiac signs as just those, symbols of different personality traits and such, but in this universe, each zodiac is an actual person, Virgo included. Each rules over their own realm, like Gods, but Virgo wants to rid the world of heresy, and nothing or no one will stop her, other zodiacs included. Often referred to as Dreadful Queen by others, Virgo believes her way is the only way to righteousness, regardless of the pathway to that outcome.

To bring back her viewed Golden Age, she is on a rampaging mission to gather all the crowns from the other zodiacs, and if they don’t offer it up willingly, then she’ll take it by force. Virgo isn’t alone in her quest though, as she has a small sidekick, Ginger, who also happens to be a cookie. As you travel to each ruler’s realm, they are all unique in not only their backdrop and setting, but their denizens as well. There’s a surprising amount of humor if you take the time to follow along with the heavy amount of dialogue throughout the journey.

Exploring each realm is where you’ll spend the majority of your time outside of battles, displayed in that classic top down RPG viewpoint. Each realm is drastically different aesthetically from the last, suited to which zodiac ruler you’re attempting to reach. Take the time to explore each realm before taking on its ruler, as there’s no way to return after you’ve reclaimed their crown for yourself and head to the next world to conquer. What I didn’t expect was an optional vertical shoot-em-up sections that offer great rewards for the hassle. It feels a little out of place, but at least it breaks up some of the monotony somewhat.

As you explore each area you’ll find numerous characters to talk to and interact with, items to find and enemies to slay. Virgo is obsessed with stopping any blasphemers and heretics and it’s honestly a little refreshing to play a main character that has somewhat of an evil side to her, even being blatantly rude at times. You’re able to save at any time you wish out of battle, so feel free to see where one dialogue option leads, and if you’re not happy with the outcome, reload and try again.

Combat in Virgo Versus the Zodiac is turned-based, but like its Mario & Luigi RPG inspired gameplay, there’s also a constant active component to battles that you’ll need to stay alert for. You’ll need to find a balance of offense and defense for nearly every fight, having quick reactions times as well for the timed inputs is going to make a massive difference in your victories or defeats.

I’ll admit, I was a bit overwhelmed at first, as the game will give you the basics, but doesn’t do a great job of explaining it all or easing you in. After a few hours it was of course no problem and I fully understood the mechanics, but I was certainly a bit lost at first. With no random encounters, you’ll see each enemy on the screen, opting to battle or not some of the time, meaning each battle is designed to be done at a specific point.

You have a bar that’s half split between your health and purity. Think of purity as your shield or guard meter, as once this is depleted, you’ll take damage to your actual hitpoints. Certain actions will not only allow you to refill your purity, but this is how you enable counter attacks as well, so there’s definitely some strategy involved. This isn’t unique to just your party though, as enemies also can do the same. Getting hit when you have purity will enable you to counterattack, dealing massive damage depending on your equipment loadout.

You have different attack types as well, from melee in front row, range from behind, or area attacks that will hit all. Moves have cooldown timers as well, so you can’t always spam your best attacks, meaning you’ll have to strategize when best to use each type of move based on the flow of battle. If certain moves are on cooldown, you could even block to raise your purity again or even times where passing your turn is more beneficial, because attacking the enemy would just allow them to counter you.

The equipment isn’t explained very well either and took me quite some time to figure out. You essentially equip three different weapons and a shield, along with four different armor pieces. The weapons and shield equipped will determine what moves you have, so there’s a bit of trial and error to see what types of attacks go well together and what suits your playstyle. Each piece of equipment has a bonus and a negative, so you need to check each piece carefully and decide what the best tradeoffs are.

You’ll find healing items throughout your journey and through battles as different drinks of coffee, tea or lemonade. These will not only heal, but help boost certain primary stats, giving you a great bonus for a short while. You’re only able to hold onto five of each at a time, so no need to hoard them.

You’ll eventually gather a bunch of different items and weapons, some tied to specific characters, though you’re able to either upgrade or break down items when you’re in the main hub world in between chapters. Where it gets confusing is that the game doesn’t use the normal naming convention for your stats, so it takes some time to figure all of this out and memorize. Weapons are also based on certain stats, so sometimes you’ll want to swap gear if you’re facing certain enemy types.

Even though combat is turn-based in nature, each attack or defense move will require a button input if you want to inflict maximum damage, or negate the most amount of damage. The speed of which you’ll need to react is based on the difficulty you choose I believe, but even on Easy or Normal, there were a few inputs that came quite quick, so you’ll always need to be alert. Miss the timing and you might not crit, or you’ll take full damage, so it’s an important component to being successful. Different party members have different button inputs, though it can be changed to a single button to be easier should you wish. Certain moves will require the D-Pad directions to be used as well, but not as often in my experience due to my gear choices.

There’s a triangle system in place where one color is strong against one and weak against the other, but I found it hard to memorize when colors are also tied to specific stats and morality choices as well. This still takes me a moment to figure out even after a dozen hours. Each time you’re back at your hub world, you’re able to zone into a black hole, allowing you to fight enemies and the previous realm’s boss to farm crafting materials, coin and ever important experience points.

The pixel art is done quite well, appearing at first glance as a retro RPG from decades ago. Enemies have a decent amount of variety, as each realm, has their own types you’ll face. Each realm’s backdrop is also a different in visual style, as each zodiac ruler clearly has different tastes to where they reside. During dialogue sequences you’re treated to some portrait art of each character, though I wish it was more animated. Sadly the hefty dialogue isn’t voiced, but the soundtrack on the other hand is fantastic and catchy, adding to the overall mood of each realm.

With multiple endings, engaging combat and a decent narrative, Virgo Versus The Zodiac really surprised me. RPG fans have a new journey to sink a dozen or two hours into, and it’s hard to go wrong killing heretics while riding a colorful Alpaca.

**Virgo Versus The Zodiac was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew

Mimimi Games, probably best known for Desperados III, has finally released a new game very much in their wheelhouse being another strategy game, though with a heavy stealth element and cool backdrop. Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew takes place in the pirate era, though all of your cursed swashbuckling crew is undead, adding a unique twist on many gameplay elements. If pirates weren’t cool enough on their own, undead ones surely are.

You play as Afia, an undead pirate woman with a sword buried in her chest purposely, as it’s where she sheathes her weapon until needed to stab and kill enemies. What good is a pirate without a ship though? That’s the dilemma you find yourself in the opening moments. While you do find a ship nearby, unfortunately it’s been seized by the Inquisition and clearly quite dangerous to be nearby. This ship, named The Red Marley, is no ordinary ship though. It’s a ghost ship, which is quite fitting given your current un-living situation as well.

The Red Marley’s captain, Mordechai, is no longer living, but that doesn’t mean you can simply take the ship without a catch. The ship is essentially alive, with a large green skull that speaks to you, informing you that you simply can’t be the new captain, but a navigator instead. Assemble your pirate crew and search for Mordechai’s long lost treasure, and maybe you’ll become the captain one day. As you eventually unlock new crew members, you’ll be able to talk to them, learn their backstories, and even partake in their specific missions.

The Inquisition will be your main adversary, as they want to destroy anything supernatural, though you’ll uncover a more sinister plot as you progress. Set sail for the Lost Caribbean in this adventure that should take you a good 20+ hours to see to conclusion, much longer than I initially expected.

Playing in a top down isometric camera view, you’ll be able to zoom in all the way to see your individual crew mates, or all the way out to see the island as a whole. Zooming out you’ll be able to even see where every enemy is on the island and which way they are facing or moving, indicated by arrows. While this gives you an advantage, you’ll still need to come up with a strategic plan to take out your enemies, because even though you’re undead, you can still be harmed by human weaponry, which is why this is a stealth focused strategy title.

You’ll only have an island or two to explore and do missions on in the beginning, eventually opening multiple islands in the Caribbean to explore as you try to revive your crew and stop the Inquisition. Each island has very different layouts and will challenge you in unique ways. How you strategize will be completely up to you and vary based on the crew you currently have access to. You’ll revisit islands more than once, as there are numerous missions you can do, and will need to multiple times. For how many times you’ll replay an island, each mission feels unique and can be completed in a number of different ways in the clever sandbox world.

You begin on your own, eventually able to revive your cursed crew if you’re able to find some fabled Black Pearls. Once you obtain one, you can choose any of the eight crew mates to revive and have join your team, completely up to you whom and when. Each of the eight crew are very unique in their design, personality and abilities, so there’s no wrong one to pick first. Different crew will cater to different playstyles, as I opted for a more defensive approach, though you could absolutely play more aggressive if you wanted as well. Each have their own pros and cons, and two special and unique abilities.

The Inquisition will be on the lookout for you though at every turn, led by Ignacia, clearly up to something nefarious. The hidden treasure you’re searching for though isn’t going to be easy to find given they are protected by mysterious relics. It seems as though Ignacia also knows about this treasure too though, so expect resistance at every turn. The tutorial teaches you the basics of staying in stealth and attacking your enemies, and every time you manage to revive a crew mate to join your team, you can play a couple optional tutorial missions with them to learn how to use their unique skills which I appreciated, figuring out how to best use them in conjunction with one another.

As a tip, I’d highly suggest getting Suleidy first, as her unique abilities I used quite heavily in every single mission. She can not only force most guards to move from their post and path away for a short time, she’s able to drop a large bush anywhere to be used as cover. Quentin was another favorite, and even though he wasn’t as ‘powerful’ as some of the others, being able to use his golden skull as a distraction was quite handy in many situations. Each ability has a cooldown period, so you’ll need to plan ahead not only what to do, but the best time to not be seen by other guards also.

Each mission will be played quite differently every time depending on what crew you’ve revived and unlocked so far. You using a different team composition than me will have completely different strategic tactics and can make for vastly different playthroughs. The powers of each crew is balanced quite well overall and play into the whole supernatural undead pirate theme. Just make sure you got a plan B or escape path in case something doesn’t go exactly how you planned.

The mechanic that I appreciated the most though was its clever use of quick saving. Now I’ll admit, if a game lets me save-scum, I’m probably going to do it. This is when something didn’t go as planned, so I simply reload the last save just before and try again. Even cleverer, it’s designed in a way where it fits into the narrative, acting as “captured memories” that can be saved or reloaded at any point.

You’re able to control each crew member individually or move them together as a unit. Even though you’re a crew of undead pirates, you can’t take much damage, so you need to play as stealthy as possible. Once you revive your first crew mate, this is where a lot of the combat strategy will come in. Do you set up each character at opposite sides of the island and work on individual kills, or synchronized together as a team? Make sure you’re keeping the ones not in use hidden in bushes or behind objects, and they won’t retreat on their own if spotted.

Where the best strategies come into play is being able to setup a ‘plan’ by pausing time, moving individual crew to certain spots and queuing up any of their abilities. You can then execute the plan at any point and your pre-made plan will play out. Remember to use that captured memory before trying though, as you never know how it might turn out until it’s too late. These coordinated attacks are extremely satisfying when your plan comes together exactly as you expected.

Earn enough Vigor by completing missions and you’ll be able to upgrade skills of your crew. This allows you to improve their abilities in a variety of different ways, some making missions almost trivial, though it all depends on your preferred crew and playstyle. For example, upgrading Afia’s Blink attack to Grand Blink means she’s able to teleport and assassinate a target from a much further distance and not have to worry about line of sight either.

For a game revolving around undead pirates, the aesthetic is quite colorful and vibrant. The character artwork is done quite well, your ship The Red Marley has its own personality, and the island environments are varied and easy to distinguish from one another. The voice acting is absolutely top notch from every character across the board, making each character have even that much more of a personality.

While I question the timing of its release being smashed in between two of the largest titles of the year, Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew is excellent at what it’s trying to be; a challenging tactical squad based stealth game. It’s a deep shame that this is developer Mimimi’s final game, as they’ve since shuttered their doors, but they can be proud of their magnum opus and hang their head high at creating a memorable undead pirate themed experience.

**Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.7 / 10 Overdriven Evolution

Ever since its earliest forms, I’ve always been drawn to shoot-em-ups, or shmups they’re so lovingly referred to as. There’s something about being able to navigate a screen full of bullets and destroying all your enemies in your path. While I’ll always consider Ikaruga the pinnacle and the best shmup of all time, I’m always looking for the next best thing, and sometimes you find those diamonds in the rough unexpectedly.

The latest from TOMA Game Studio, Overdriven Evolution is the latest in the crowded genre, so I was excited to see how it stands out apart from the competition; if it was memorable and if there’s enough replay value within. Like most shmups, you can expect large bosses, tons of enemies, and hundreds of bullets on screen at any time. What I didn’t expect was just how much extra content and modes was included, but more on that shortly.

As to be expected with these types of games, yes there’s technically a story to try and capture your attention, but let’s be honest, we play shmups mostly for its challenging gameplay. There’s some sort of alien race that’s invading so of course it falls upon you to save the universe. I know, probably one of the most overused and tiresome tropes, but it’s basically you versus the invading Kruuthian Empire in your solo ship.

Being a vertical shmup, the screen will automatically be scrolling upwards at a set pace while you can maneuver all around trying to avoid the onslaught of bullets from handfuls of enemies. You begin with two different ships to choose from, looking slightly different from one another, with another unlockable as well, though don’t really expect any differences.

Many shumps will usually give you some sort of weapon that can be infinitely fired and maybe a screen clearing bomb, and it’s mostly the same here as well. The big difference is that you’re also able to convert your regular pew-pew into a focused and powerful laser, but there’s a catch. While this laser will make quick work of most enemies, even quickly drain boss health bars, you move incredibly slowly and are reduced to 20% of your shields. This of course leaves you vulnerable to enemy fire, which the screen is almost always full of.

Much of a shmups difficulty lies in the accuracy and size of your ship’s hitbox. This determines how forgiving the game is before it decide that you hit that stray bullet. Thankfully this seems to be quite forgiving in Overdriven Evolution, as the hitbox seemed to be quite small. Even when you do inevitably collide into some enemy fire, your health bar is beefy enough to take a good amount of hits. As for enemy attack patterns, it’s all quite basic, as even boss attacks weren’t all too difficult to avoid, as I never really felt too overwhelmed.

What I didn’t expect was being able to change the color of your attacks and any given point. I thought this was going to be some sort of Ikaruga-like mechanic where you were going to have to shoot specific colored enemies with opposite colors or something of the sorts. Sadly that’s not the reason. Every so often you’ll come across these white orbs that can’t be destroyed. They’re usually in a group of three or four and one of them will be colored. Because of being able to change your attacks to different colors, you will then ‘paint’ these orbs said color that you shoot. Match three in a row and they’ll disappear, usually letting you pass or uncovering a secret path. Trying to do this in midst of the regular chaos that’s happening on screen with hundreds of bullets isn’t the easiest thing to do though. It feels as though maybe this mechanic was a bigger part of the game earlier on but was left in for some reason and easily the weakest part of the experience.

Bosses are usually the highlight, and it’s no different here. Sure they aren’t the coolest looking or all that memorable, but the multi-phased battles are fun, as is taking on something other than the regular cannon fodder that fills the rest of the adventure. Even their large attack patterns weren’t all too challenging save for a few instances.

Even when you complete your first playthrough, there’s reason to go back; finding hidden collectables and of course, rising up the online leaderboards for bragging rights. With four difficulties to choose from (Easy, Normal, Hard and Nightmare) and a number of different modes to play, there’s a surprising amount of extra content to enjoy even after you save the universe. With seven extra modes, there’s surely something you’ll find enjoyable:

Story: Choose your difficulty and save the universe. Pretty standard stuff.

Arcade: Here you’re only given three continues, so can you get through all the bosses of the Kruuthian Empire?

Manic: No health bar. You got hit? Well, you’re dead.

Challenges: Here is a list of ten curated and specific challenges taken from Story Mode, but with a twist. Can you beat a certain section without getting hit? Can you beat a specific boss under the time limit? These are just fun and challenging enough to entice you, as well as achievements.

Boss Rush: Who doesn’t want to simply battle against the best parts of the game back to back? Take on all bosses back to back to see if you can emerge victorious.

The Line: My favorite extra mode that is simplistic in nature yet works. There’s a red line behind you slowly filling upwards towards the screen. If you or an enemy hits that line, game over. This means you need to make sure you destroy every enemy, but have a much smaller playfield to maneuver in since it can fill a large section of the screen.

Color-Reflex: Easily the mode I enjoyed the least. Remember me describing the color matching with your shots and the white orbs? This whole mode is dedicated to that, and worse, there’s 56 separate levels to do so in. Sure some will enjoy these levels, but the whole color matching mechanic just seems out of place and certainly not worth its own mode.

While it’s not always uncommon for a shmup to have multiplayer, it is much rarer to have one with four player local co-op. That’s right, you and three other friends can play together locally across the whole Story mode, though if you thought hundreds of bullets on screen was overwhelming playing solo, wait until there’s even more happening on screen at once. Of course the lack of online play is disappointing, though expected from a small developer.

Aesthetically, Overdriven Evolution looks... fine. There’s nothing really that stands out, as it can be hard to appreciate the visuals in games like these when you’re so focused on dodging hundreds of bullets. The animations from your partner in between levels is poor at best, but at least there was some sort of effort to have something extra. The soundtrack is similar; fine but forgettable. With some tunes happening in the background there’s not much dead air, but that’s a low bar to set.

Because of the effort to add all the extra modes, there’s certainly some replayability, and the online leaderboards always had me checking my score after a run. While I’m sure some shmup fans will have a fun weekend or two with it, it’s probably a bit too bland for me to remember in the future.

**Overdriven Evolution was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 We Were Here Expeditions: The FriendShip

I’ve aptly dubbed the We Were Here series “The Friendship Test”. Having played each game in the series, I learned quite quickly that you may think that you and your friend have good communication, but these games will absolutely put that to the test. Shadow dropped out of nowhere, a new entry to the series has arrived, We Were Here Expeditions: The FriendShip, though more of a bite sized morsel compared to the full games.

The FriendShip (for short) is much smaller in scale, yet offers the same tried and true cooperative asymmetrical puzzle solving you’d come to expect from a mainline We Were Here game. The best part, it’s completely free to download until October 13th, 2023, so there’s no reason to not grab it and test out your communication abilities with some friends. Newcomers to the series can expect a couple challenging puzzles, whereas veterans like myself will be tasked with trying to obtain the highest score possible, a completely new mechanic for the puzzles which I quite enjoyed. Will your friendship last even through this bite sized adventure? Let’s find out.

The first few We Were Here games didn’t support much of a narrative aside from you and your expedition partner usually crash landing somewhere, being separated, only to come back together for brief moments as you each solve your own-yet-linked puzzles. The later few titles added a deeper overall narrative that links everything together in a way, though The FriendShip is basically a standalone title.

You and your partner are out at sea when get a distress signal at a nearby island. Upon arrival you notice that it’s seemingly abandoned, and to make things creepier, it seems there’s a rundown amusement park here. After solving your first ‘puzzle’, you and your partner get on one of those boat rides together, and thus your co-op adventure begins in your Friend-Ship.

If you’ve never played any of the We Were Here games previously, The FriendShip is actually probably the best starting point, not just because it’s (currently) free, but the puzzles are mere bite sized morsels and a fraction of the difficulty of the full games. Think of it as a demo, yet it’s a full game that will last an hour or two depending on you and your partner’s communication skills.

Those new to the series simply need to know that this is a cooperative puzzle game where you and your friend play online, almost constantly separated from one another working in tandem on a puzzle. What makes it so unique is that there’s essentially two halves to each puzzle and you two must work together simultaneously to solve them. The only way to do that is with communication, describing what you see and what’s happening around you to your partner, and vice versa.

Sometimes you’ll need to describe a symbol you see, and how you do so will determine if you’re successful or not. For example, one symbol I described as “an alien watching TV”. Thankfully my fellow reviewer here and We Were Here partner, Peggy, was willing to endure another game in the series with me after we last went through the entirety of We Were Here Forever. Let me tell you, that was surely a friendship test, but as long as you and your partner can communicate well with one another you’ll be fine.

The FriendShip is a short adventure, as we were able to finish it in about an hour and a half on the dot, though that was after the second puzzle causing a few retries until we figured it out. It should last most people about 2-3 hours, though can be played numerous times to see each ‘side’ of the puzzle and to try and get a better score.

As you take the ship ride down a creepy abandoned amusement park, it seemingly comes to life, but stops at certain points. Here you undock and are unable to progress until you solve a puzzle which will open the doors, allowing the vessel to continue. Remember, you and your friend are always going to be separated in these puzzles, each somehow affecting the other. The first puzzle will feel very familiar if you’ve played any of the previous games. On my side of the puzzle I saw a handful of different wooden marionette dolls, each with a symbol in front of them. The goal of this is the match the two sides, forcing you to describe the symbols and the emotions the dolls make. How many you complete and how quickly will determine your score.

First puzzle down, great! That was easy right? Well, the second puzzle is sure to stump you. My partner and I had to attempt this one a few times until we understood it properly. On my side of the puzzle I had a hexagon grid where I could place one of three tiles, each of which had different colors on random sides of the piece. Choosing one of three tiles forced Peggy to use a specific tile as well, so we had to decide what’s best for both of our puzzles. I had to try and line up my tiles with colors matching on sides, like dominoes, whereas hers revolved around placing small pillars on specific spots which raised if it patched on my side. To be honest, we got the bronze rating and were fine moving on after six attempts.

The last puzzle was the most unique and something completely new to the series as far as I can recall. Remember when you would blindfold a friend and they had to listen to your verbal instructions to get through an obstacle course of some kind, trusting in your judgement and call outs? It’s the same idea here. I was the ‘caller’, telling Peggy where to go from my high up perch. She got gassed and was hallucinating, so if she didn’t listen to my instructions, she would have fallen off the dock and into the water. While we again got a bronze score, this puzzle I’d like to do again.

Depending on your score per puzzle you’ll earn a bronze, silver or gold ticket, and getting back to the boat to progress, the better tickets will change how your Friend-Ship appears. I quite enjoyed this scoring system, as in every other We Were Here title, you simply passed or didn’t, whereas now you have something more to strive towards. Even though three puzzles seems like very little on paper, they are the same high quality you’d find in any of the main games being well throughout and unique.

Crossplay is supported, so you don’t have to worry about your friends playing on the same system as you. Once you add each other to the universal friend list you’ll be able to play together. The built in walkie-talkies are how you’re supposed to play, with the light indicating your partner is talking. Given they are one-way radios, you need to know when each other is taking a turn talking and describing what they see. Could you join a party chat or phone call and have open mics, sure. Could you ‘cheat’ and send your friend a picture of what you’re seeing since you can’t accurately describe what you’re seeing? Absolutely. I implore you to try the game ‘legit’ first though, as it’s what makes the series so unique. Sometimes it’s hilarious, other times it’s frustrating, but it’s surely memorable.

I promise you, I dub the We Were Here games a "Friendship Test" for a reason. You’re going to be amazed how difficult it is to describe odd shapes and what you see, or flabbergasted at how poorly your friend is unable to do so. While our first playthrough was an hour and a half, I can see us playing once more to try and get those coveted gold tickets by improving our scores. We Were Here Expeditions: The FriendShip acts as a taste test to the series, but is its own standalone experience, and since it’s currently free, make sure you and a friend download it to see how good your communication truly us and if you'll remain best mateys.

**We Were Here Expeditions: The FriendShip was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Everhood: Eternity Edition

I’m all for quirky and weird games, which is probably why I enjoyed games like Undertale, Lisa: The Painful and Earthbound so much. Speaking of Undertale, if I had to compare Everhood: Eternity Edition to one game, that would be the one. It has similarities in its simplistic visuals, humor and rhythmic gameplay, but is a completely unique experience on its own merit. Released back in 2021, Everhood is now here for Xbox fans to jump into its weird and oddly addictive world, complete with 16 new songs added by some very big names in the industry.

Everhood: Eternity Edition (simply referred to as Everhood from here on) starts with by asking if you are ready to abandon your humanity and accept immortality. Say “No” and the game ends and you go back to the main menu, so clearly you hit “Yes” the next time. The opening scene begins in a forest with a red wooden doll on the ground, aptly named Red, but the limbs are broken apart and strewn about. Along comes a small Blue Thief who steals your arm and takes off. This somehow awakens you and puts you back together, minus one arm, and thus begins your quest to get your arm back.

Up the trail you’ll meet Frog, acting as the game’s tutorial to how the rhythmic gameplay is controlled. You’re then introduced to the save system, which can be done at any street light, and yes, they’ll talk to you as well. You’ll eventually meet up with the Blue Thief, which turns out he’s working for Gold Pig to told him to steal your arm, so naturally that’s who you’ll be trying to find to get your arm back. I don’t want to talk about much more of the story itself, as it’s quite interesting, and honestly, there’s so many plot twists and turns that I didn’t’ expect that you’re best to uncover these for yourself. The plot actually takes some quite dark turns, and the ending sequence had me quite shocked and surprised. With multiple endings and a New Game+ mode, there’s plenty of replayability as well.

You’ll first choose what difficulty you want to play on, from Story Mode up to an unlockable Insane Mode once you complete your first playthrough. As you explore each area you’ll come across a cast of really unique and odd characters. Some are recurring and have more importance, whereas others are just minor and only offer a line or two of dialogue. You’ll eventually make it to the hub area that has a number of different doors you can access (and some you can’t yet) to reach new worlds. Each area is vastly different from the last and memorable in their own way.

As you explore each area, you’ll eventually come across different characters that will battle you. Instead of a turn based system like in most RPG’s, Everhood instead uses a music based approach that is quite similar to Guitar Hero more than anything else. There are five different lanes that the notes will come down the screen, and you must simply avoid them by moving left or right and not being in that lane at the wrong moment as the note reaches the bottom of the screen.

Battles begin easy enough with slow and rhythmic songs, eventually becoming more and more challenging as you progress. ‘Boss’ battles are quite challenging, especially on the harder difficulties, but you have a health bar above your head that will regenerate the longer you don’t get hit by any notes. This gives you a little breathing room for the sections where you’ll accidentally take damage from as handful of notes in succession.

There’s essentially two different types of notes; small flat ones you can jump over (or can lane change to avoid) and taller pillar-like ones that can’t be jumped over and have to be avoided instead. Without spoiling any story elements, eventually you’ll also be able to absorb certain notes as well, charging up two similar colored in a row which can then be used to fire back at the enemy. Absorb a different color than the first though and it won’t count, so you’ll need to be purposely ‘catching’ specific colored notes in a row if you want to fight back. This is much easier said than done when songs become quite challenging, fast paced and the screen starts to distort. Also, you’ll eventually find black notes that can’t be absorbed, having to be avoided, and if you get hit, you lose your charge as well.

I’ll admit, I found the movement to be a little stiff at first, as I couldn’t time the jumps properly and kept getting hit. Eventually I got used to it and had no problems after a handful of songs. Also, once you play a level a few times and get to learn the song’s beat, it makes it easier as well, as you know that when you tap your foot to the rhythm that’s the moment to avoid or jump. Just like in Guitar Hero, once you were able to play Expert difficulty songs, you just get in that zone where you become one with the song and just know how to react instinctively, even when the playfield starts to distort and the screen is chaotic with things all over and flashing lights.

The star of Everhood isn’t the story, the comedy or even the gameplay, it’s the incredible soundtrack from a variety of artists. With a wide variety of genres and beats, there’s sure to be something you like along the way, though I enjoyed them all for different reasons. Even the first few songs you play are bangers. Chris Nordgren and Cazok seem to have made the bulk of the core game’s soundtrack, but with the Eternity Edition, 16 new musical battles have been added from some pretty influential composers. Just to list a few of the standouts:

- David Wise (Donkey Kong Country, Battletoads, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts)
- Manami Matsumae (Mega Man, Shovel Knight)
- Disasterpiece (Fez, Hyper Light Drifter)
- Keiji Yamagishi (Ninja Gaiden, Streets of Rage 4)

Don’t let the simplistic visuals from the trailer or screenshots fool you, there’s a clever story underneath and some really addictive gameplay. That said, if you even have the most minor of any sort of photosensitivity when it comes to flashing lights, Everhood is absolutely not for you. There’s plenty of warnings about it before beginning, but it can be a lot to take in visually, especially in the last section when things get truly crazy. Even not having any issues with flashing screens, it can be quite difficult to discern what’s going on at any moment, though by design.

Everhood: Eternity Edition isn’t just a mere port, it adds a whole new slew of songs for veterans to enjoy as well. The addictive rhythmic gameplay is tough but fair and elevated by the fantastic soundtrack for anyone that loves good beats and chiptunes. The story does take some unexpected dark twists, but it was surely a memorable ride. I’ve never taken any drugs in my life, but I can only expect this is what it might look like if I did. Already a cult hit, I hope more experience the unique weirdness of Everhood that had previously not heard of it, much like myself, as I now anticipate its announced sequel.

**Everhood: Eternity Edition was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Oaken

Strategy based deck building games already tend to intrigue me, as nearly every one that comes out seems to have their own twist on the genre, making them stand out in some way, even if it’s something minor. Oaken aims to do the same with its gorgeous artwork, unique setting, tactical gameplay and adding in some roguelike mechanics for good measure.

Now generally in deck building games there’s not always a major focus on a narrative, as you’re generally in it for its card based gameplay. While Oaken is no different, there is story here that takes place in the world of the Great Oak where spirits listen to one voice, called the Oak Song. This voice disappears one day, unsure of what the outcome could possibly mean. There’s a few story segments here and there between stages, but I found it hard to follow along, as I was so focused on thinking strategically for my moves, which cards to choose, what upgrades I want and trying to discern what units were on the hexagonal tiles. This had the narrative really fall by the wayside for me. You play as “The Lady”, accompanied by a companion, think of her like a Hero, with another Hero unlockable as you progress. You’ll need to defeat enemies in each stage to progress forward, eventually culminating in a Boss battle at the end of each chapter.

One of Oaken’s unique traits is that it’s all plant and fungi based. All the characters and enemies revolve around flora, each brought to life in their own way as uniquely designed characters. You can expect plenty of roots, thorns, spores and other plant based themes. Their designs give them human-like qualities and each type looks distinct from others.

Playing out on a hexagonal grid, you’re zoomed out enough to see the whole playfield, but when there’s lots of units in play it can be a little confusing as having multiples of the same type of unit after playing a card, it’s sometimes hard to distinguish yours versus theirs at a quick glance if you don’t focus. The main bosses stand out enough though that you’ll always know who they are. Hovering over any unit will show you some gorgeous artwork of them along with some quick info so you can strategize your next move.

Like most deck based titles, Oaken is turn based. Your main goal is to generally defeat a set amount of foes on the board which will trigger your win, but you’ll also have a secondary objective(s) you can opt to try and complete as well for some bonuses once you learn its intricacies and can plan a few moves ahead. Some of these secondary objectives are certainly feasible, whereas I found others to be near impossible and didn’t even bother trying, though that was likely due to my hero and deck setup.

Being a roguelike, that means that when you inevitably fail and die, you’ll need to start a new run over by again choosing your hero, sidekick and then of course figuring out your deck. Your sidekick is an important unit and card, as they cost more to play, but are worth it for their unique abilities. Once you’re all sorted you begin your run once again, trying and get as far as you can before starting all over once you fail again. Thankfully you do make persistent progress, as new units, cards and upgrades you unlock make each subsequent run that much easier.

Before each stage, you’ll get to choose which level you want to play. You start at the top of a series of nodes, choosing your starting point of what type of stage you want to play. You defeat said level then come back to this grid and choose the next path, usually almost always a choice of two or more, until you reach the bottom stage which will be the boss. Each encounter is a different type, sometimes not being a battle at all, allowing you to make some narrative choices, though most stages will generally be the ‘defeat all enemies’ variety. Even though each level is supposedly different, they all feel basically the same and blend together.

You have your modest deck of just a few cards in the beginning, eventually gathering more as you progress and repeatedly play. As a round begins you’re randomly given four cards from your deck to start with, though you’re able to swap them out at the beginning once for free. Starting with your higher powered cards might not be the best play in the beginning since you probably won’t be able to ‘afford’ to place them for a few turns anyways. Once cards are played, they’ll eventually get replaced in subsequent turns randomly. It will certainly help if you know your deck well, as combining attacks, buffs and debuffs will be your key to victory.

The main goal is generally to not have your main character, The Lady, die. You can attack and defend yourself, but it’s like the King in chess; once they’re dead, game over. Each card in your deck represents a specific creature, unit or spell. You can play your card that has a specific cost indicated by your Lumi, essentially your 'mana' resources to tell you how much you can do in a single turn. Each turn it refreshes and increases, eventually able to play more of your higher tiered cards.

There’s another mechanic to learn that plays a vital role in your success, revolving around changing the color of the terrain of each hex tile. Turn these green and you’ll get a bonus for your characters, or possibly a debuff for the enemy, whereas sitting on a purple enemy hex and you’ll have a disadvantage. Where and how you change these hexes will play a large role in your tactics of being successful or not.

Spending the Lumi to place a card requires pre-planning, as once you’ve played the card and chosen the hex to have the unit on, you’re actually unable to use them to attack until the following turn. Each unit is different in how they attack, as some are only able to do so to units directly beside, whereas others can range attack in a direct line. It takes some practice to learn how each unit best works with one another, but eventually it’ll become second nature of how to best place them. I tended to play a bit more defensively, making the enemy come to me and having my units attack when in range, kind of like an overwatch trap.

Where the annoyance comes in is having to make sure that your units are facing the correct direction. Given the hex grid, they’re able to attack to the hex in front and to the sides of them, but if there’s an attack from behind a unit, they’ll take much more damage and unable to retaliate. There’s some units and abilities that can also ‘shove’ enemies, adding extra damage and forcing units to move places on the grid during an attack. There’s some interesting and high powered ‘combos’ you can do if you plan and strategize correctly.

Then there’s also a whole fatigue mechanic if you’re not playing on the easier difficulty. Some enemies can cause your units to become fatigued if they damage a unit, meaning their wounds won’t heal in the next encounter. You have to either deal with this penalty or spend precious resources you gather from winning battles to heal them instead of using for upgrades.

For how small the playfield is, it’s surprisingly cluttered and difficult to read at times. You can move your cursor over each unit and enemy to see what’s going on, but it’s not always obvious which direction their facing or if they’ve already taken their turn at a quick glance. Remember though, this is a roguelike, so once you die you’re going to have to start back at the beginning. Of course you keep your earned cards and upgrades, making the next run that much easier, but sometimes a good run can be well over an hour or two, so starting over is a bit disheartening. You are given a one-time ‘continue’ where you can restart the current battle once, and if playing on the easier difficulty, you’re at least able to start over from the same chapter.

While not explained in-depth, I did like the upgrading of my units. You’re able to do this at any point in-between stages, using a special currency you earn to improve your cards and units in specific ways, sort of making them evolve. Choosing to improve a card grants you one of three different ways to improve the card, each having a different positive or playstyle in mind. Each unit can only be upgraded once, but since you’ll eventually have multiples of certain cards, you can choose to upgrade each different, or the same, it’s up to you. You can even earn and have trinkets per run that give you powerful passive bonuses and upgrades that can greatly help.

I applaud Oaken for its gorgeous aesthetics and visuals, being quite colorful and all centered around the plant based theme. The artwork of each card is wonderfully drawn and it’s all simply easy on the eyes to appreciate, even if it does become a bit cluttered on the grid. The soundtrack from Ian Fontova is whimsical, full of wind instruments and a fantastic backdrop for the setting and gameplay. Even listening to it now as I write this review, I’ve already added the soundtrack to my saved playlists.

Oaken does feel unique in the deckbuilding genre, though the gameplay slows quite down once you’re trying to truly strategize, inspecting every unit and trying to come up with a plan. Those that enjoy roguelikes and deckbuilding will surely find something enjoyable with Oaken, just be prepared to sink many hours into upgrading your units to make the next hour+ long run that much easier.

**Oaken was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Revhead

I’ll admit, I know basically nothing about cars other than how to drive them, filling the oil and adding gas. Outside of that, I couldn’t tell you where any specific car parts were if you asked me to point them out under the hood. Having now played Revhead, I do believe I have a better understanding about my vehicle and how the hundreds of parts are all interconnected.

Revhead is a mixture of two games: one part car racing, one part car mechanic simulator. The goal is to create your dream car so you can compete and win a variety of races, but to get to that point you’ll need to become a master mechanic and learn how to rebuild your car, change parts and customize it to be the fastest on the track. There really isn’t much of a narrative, though I wasn’t really expecting one either. Your friend Charlie wants help at his garage, so you fly over the Australia and start your new career as a car mechanic and racer. How you want to earn more cash to purchase more vehicles and parts is up to you.

Revhead is an ambitious combination of car mechanic sim and racer, but melding the two gets a little messy somewhere in the middle. You’re given a mostly open world map across three different zones, though I’m not entirely sure why, as you’re generally always buried deep within the mechanic menus or racing in events. Don’t expect any traffic, people or any life at all on the roads, as they are barren as it comes. Aside from getting from one map to the next, there’s no reason to really drive across the map unless you want to test out your latest car build.

Revhead: a term for a car enthusiast, which is apparent that the developers are when it comes to the mechanic portion of the game. You’re able to use your car magazine to search for used cars and parts and it’s up to you how want to earn cash. If you want to be competitive in racing you’ll need a vehicle that is up for the task. The starter car you get is basically a clunker, so you’re going to need to fix it up, swap some parts out for better racing gear, and hope that you can be competitive. You’ll need to be able to repair all your components too, as performance will be affected by broken or damaged parts quite drastically.

After the brief initial tutorial, you’re basically left to your own with no direction. Do you repair your starter car? Buy a new one? Get a clunker to strip for parts? It’s completely up to you, and my guess of trying to improve the starter car didn’t work well for me. Once I learned how to buy used and wrecked vehicles, repair and sell those parts, I finally started earning enough money to purchase a new vehicle and then add better parts to it to increase the ever important horsepower.

Actually, the opening moments are an eye opener to the rest of your experience. You have to walk from your hotel to the garage, but you’ll notice how awful the controls are trying to have them ‘run’. The animations are terrible and it just seems unnecessary considering nearly everything else is simply going through menus. While the menus are laid out fine, using a controller isn’t very intuitive and done quite poorly. You’ll constantly hit the wrong buttons, back out of one too many menus, and even install wrong parts, etc because of this. It’s clear this wasn’t built on console primarily, as the controls really aren’t great.

Racing is half the game, and while there’s a handful of events, around 70 or so, there’s only a couple tracks (including reverse versions). You start with only a dirt oval, eventually unlocking a raceway and even some drag racing on the salt flats. Some events are simple 3-5 lap races, you have time trials, and then of course the true races and championships for bonuses. The more you wager the more you’ll earn, but good luck in the beginning. Your starter vehicle is so atrocious, you won’t have a chance at anything other than last place, so you’ll turn your attention to the mechanic part for quite some time.

There are Amateur to Pro races to take part in, but you’ll need to have a seriously tricked out car if you want any chance. You also need to tailor your car for the type of race. Having street slicks on a dirt track is going to cause you issues, as will not having the right setups. My first handful of races were so awful that I ended up restarting over, thinking I did something wrong, as it was borderline unplayable. As soon as you try and take a turn you either spin out or hit the wall while the CPU laps you.

The parts inside your vehicle will greatly affect how your car handles. Tire type, air pressure, weight, steering, differential and more will all play a part in your success or failure, yet Revhead doesn’t teach you this at all. Being car illiterate, I was completely lost, as Revhead expects you to know what parts do what and how they compare to other components. Comparing parts isn’t easy as well, as you have to look at the piece, remember its stats, then look at the others and try and figure out what means what. This was frustrating putting in all this time and effort to try and improve my build only to find it didn’t make a difference or actually decreased.

As for the races themselves, they aren’t terribly exciting. Controls are poor at best, and even with a decent car upgraded, you slide around quite easily. The non-existent AI doesn’t help things either, as they have no idea you exist and simply drive the line they’re going to drive regardless. If you manage to trade paint with another racers, it usually doesn’t end well, as someone is going to spin out and probably launch into the wall. Physics just don't feel right and it's a frustrating mess to try and actually race with any confidence.

The mechanic portion of Revhead is easily the highlight and its best feature. Again, not knowing much about the workings of a car, they’ve made it simple to put together a build by essentially snapping pieces together at multiple points of the frame. While you’re given your first clunker to work with, you can browse the local vehicule buy and sell magazine to purchase something new and have it instantly delivered to you. You’re able to find all different makes and models of cars, wrecked or pre-tuned vehicles, all for different costs. The other pages of the magazines also lists random new and used parts that are for sale currently. Don’t see a car or part you need, then you can purchase a new magazine after a short period of time for another $2.

There’s a few strategies here, as you can buy a wrecked car for cheap to salvage parts to hopefully fix and maybe turn a profit, or purchase a used car and swap some parts you already have out for better performance. If you can manage to find a really cheap wrecked car where the engine isn’t broken, repairing that and reselling for a profit is an easy way to start turning a profit early on, something the game doesn't teach you.

Nearly every part and component in your cars can be removed and changed, all the way from the steering wheel, headlights and engine, down to its wiring and spark plugs. While there’s no licensed vehicles or makes, it’s obvious what some are modeled after. You have a few different engine types and have to make sure the parts you buy are for the same brand of car, or it will be incompatible. Make sure you buy the sames sizer of tire for the rims you have as well, an expensive mistake I made early on.

Once you have a decent bankroll, it’s going to be easier to have numerous vehicles, one for each type of race. Not that you couldn’t remove and swap out pieces to alter your build, but it’s time consuming. This whole process is very menu heavy, and as mentioned above, it just feel clunky on a controller. There’s also no way to directly compare parts and how each will improve your vehicle in what way, so there’s a lot of trial and error. For example, I swapped out some ‘better’ parts, or so I thought because they were clearly more expensive, only to find my engine wouldn’t change gears properly for whatever reason without redlining. Why? I’m not sure, so I had to simply try new pieces and see what worked, so there’s some some trial and error.

To put it bluntly, Revhead is quite ugly to look at. Appearing as if it’s a mobile game that’s been ported over, the draw distance is mere feet away for objects and there’s virtually no textures for everything. The world is already lifeless as is with no other people or anyone on the roads, but it’s got a very bland aesthetic overall that doesn’t impress in any way, even on an Xbox Series X. The audio is about the same; it’s there but you’ll grow tired of the bland and loud engine sounds and repeated background soundtrack.

Revhead is trying to be two separate games at once, though never really excelling at either. The mechanic portion is clearly its strong point, with the racing component being the weakest portion by far. The concept is what makes Revhead unique, building your own car then taking it to race, it’s just been executed poorly for console. Even with the atrocious controls, I still want to buy junker cars, strip them down for parts and sell the engines for a profit. Revhead needs to decide whether it wants to be a simulator or an arcade game, not this awkward mix of both. Unless you're a diehard Revhead, you might want to take this one back to the shop.

**Revhead was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 3.3 / 10 Nova Strike

I absolutely adore shmups (shoot-em-ups). You know the ones, where you’re usually a spaceship flying either horizontally or vertically while the screen auto scrolls, trying to avoid a screen full of bullets as you make your way forward, usually to kill a massive boss at the end. Nova Strike, developed by SANUK GAMES and published by Nacon, is no different. Easy to pick up and play, Nova Strike adds a little more to the tried and true shmup formula by adding some roguelike elements and persistent ship improvements.

Normally this is where I would describe the story, usually involving saving the world or galaxy from some kind of alien invasion as you take the conquest on by yourself, but that’s not the case here. At least from what I can tell, there’s no narrative here at all. Starting the game you’re simply thrown into the first mission guns blazing. No tutorial, no warmup, just start blasting the ships coming at you as the screen scrolls vertically. Given the shmup genre, this will be sufficient.

I did notice that even the first handful of enemies took a few hits to destroy, as normally cannon fodder are destroyed in single shots, but that wasn’t the case here. This gave a feeling of my ship being weak, having only a single blaster. When you go inevitably lose all your shields, health and blow up, starting a new run will look slightly different, as the maps are procedurally generated. While it didn’t feel like a drastic difference, it added at least a little variety where you’ll normally become bored of the first few levels replaying them over and over again.

The main hook with Nova Strike is its roguelike elements where you earn currency earned each run that can then be used to install permanent upgrades for your ship, making each subsequent run slightly that much easier. Each Chapter is split into several small levels, with the final having a massive box to try and defeat. As the screen scrolls vertically automatically, you and your small ship must defeat enemies in your path without trying to take damage, which is of course much easier said than done.

Enemy kills reward you with coins and resources that can be used to improve your health, shields, damage and more for that run specifically, or saved to use at your home base for permanent upgrades when you do eventually get destroyed. Each level only last a few minutes tops, though it can sometimes feel like longer. At the end of each level there’s anywhere from one to three portals where you can choose what type of additional bonuses you want in the next, like more coins, bonus weapons or resources. The game doesn’t do a good job at explaining the differences, but it’s self-explanatory for the most part.

Each enemy type has different attack patterns, though they are simple enough to recognize and avoid. Where the challenge lies is when the screen is full of enemies, all shooting different patterns are you try and avoid everything while blasting enemies. Now and then you’ll reach a point in a level where the scrolling pauses until you defeat all enemies on screen. Smooth controls can make or break a shmup pretty quickly, and thankfully it’s decent in Nova Strike. Taking enemy bullets will lower your slowly regenerating shield, which, when depleted, will then take your health away quite quickly. As you begin the first time playing and without any upgrades, you’ll die quite quickly with a few good blasts, eventually coming more powerful as you equip upgrades.

You simply need to hold ‘A’ to fire your weak primary blaster, though at least you have unlimited ammunition. You’ll find an assortment of different secondary weapons randomly appear from destroyed enemies, the coolest feature being that you can actually see them attach to your ship and able to equip and swap between two. Secondary weapons are limited in ammunition and much more powerful, ranging from lasers, electricity, missiles, spread shots and more. At the end of stages you’ll also sometimes get shops where you can also spend your coin on secondary weapons if you want as well.

Even though there is only a couple Chapters, them being broken into several different short levels makes it feel longer. That and the fact that it’ll take you a good handful of deaths and upgrade purchases to eventually be able to reach and defeat the final boss. The boss battles are the highlight, as they are massive and require some nimble maneuvering to avoid their attack patterns. While not terribly exciting, the bosses are at least a welcome change from the standard enemies you'll repeatedly blast away.

You’ll want to make sure you have some upgrades before attempting these bosses though, as health, shield boosters and refills were the only way I was able to survive the battles early on, as was having plenty of secondary ammunition. They are all multi-tier battles where they change form or do new attack patterns, adding many more bullets on screen than the regular levels.

Regardless, you’re going to die at some point without some upgrades. The Game Over screen will show you how long your run lasted, how many enemies and bosses killed, coins collected and more. This is a roguelike though, so starting over is part of the process. At least some of the resources you collected in the last run will persist, allowing you to purchase upgrades from the shop at your home base between runs. A really interesting feature with this is that if you’ve already maxed out your upgrades, you can spend coins on starting at specific chapters rather than having to start all the way at 1-1 each run.

While you can purchase a handful of secondary weapons, you’ll want to most likely prioritize the skills and passive buffs. Your ship has a finite amount of Chip Slots, and each add-on or perk costs a set amount from one to three depending on the bonuses granted. Obviously the most powerful will cost more Chip slots, so it’s a matter of balancing what upgrades you want and what caters to your playstyle. I preferred the passive upgrades and ones that focused on defense, but you could make a more aggressive build if you wanted.

To make things even more intriguing, you’re only able to install one of each type of upgrade. The categories are Stealth, Weapons, Movement, Repair, Health, Defense and Resources. Mix and match to make a unique build, making your next attempt so much easier each recurring run thereafter. With a maximum of 9 Chip Slots, the best upgrades will require three to equip.

The pixel art is done quite well, and even though there’s little variety with having levels procedurally generated each run, there’s just enough detail in the backgrounds that adds some flair. Sure you’ll not be able to really focus on much else other than bullets and staying alive, but the ship and enemy design is done well. Even with the chaos that ensures in this type of game, my ship never really became lost in the heat of battle as I tried to avoid every bullet on screen. As for the audio, it’s serviceable though unmemorable. It’s got a little beat to dampen the silence, but after a handful of runs you’ll likely want to put on your own music on.

Roguelikes are meant to be played over and over as you slowly make overall progression each time. This works when the gameplay is addictive and you’re constantly teased with the next upgrade to feel more powerful. While great for short sessions with a run or two here and there, Nova Strike is perfectly serviceable, but with only a couple Chapters to complete, it doesn’t feel as though it will have a long shelf life in my played rotation. Not bad by any means, it simply feels like a generic shump, though the $10 USD price tag is about right for what you get content wise.

**Nova Strike was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.7 / 10 Starfield

Bethesda Game Studios has a pedigree of creating fantastical worlds that have been absolutely revered in the past two decades. Best known for their Elder Scrolls and Fallout series, while they’ve had a few other titles, it’s the Fallout’s and Skyrim’s that generally garner the most attention from fans. The first new world from Bethesda in over 25 years, Starfield was announced back in 2018, and here we are five years later with the release finally upon us after a few warranted delays.

Bethesda games are generally vast open worlds where you can play basically however you wish, and while Starfield is no different at its core, it takes the core concepts from their previous games and expands them to a whole other level. Instead of a singular world you can freely explore, you’re given a whole universe as your playground, allowing you to play however you wish. If you want to be a pirate, you can loot and plunder other ships in the constellations. If you simply want to explore planets, you’re given the freedom to do so. Maybe you want to be a universally known chef and collect rare ingredients from planets far and wide, that’s also certainly a possibility should you wish. Create your character and head to the stars with unparalleled freedom as you embark on an epic journey that will play out differently for everyone.

Set in 2330, Earth is no longer humanity’s only home. People have ventured far to the stars, settling on many different planets across the galaxy and beyond. Like other Bethesda games, Starfield’s opening journey is a memorable one. Outside of this opening mission, I’ll be purposely vague and not really delve into much of the core story, as it’s quite an epic journey and I want to avoid any spoilers, best revealed on your own as it unfolds.

I’ll be honest, most other Bethesda games, while their worlds are fantastic to play in, I couldn’t tell you or recall what their main story was really about with much detail. Starfield though is different, with a narrative that sucked me in quickly and kept me wanting to find out what happens next. Sure I spent dozens of hours doing other things such as side missions, exploring and more, but I kept feeling compelled to go back to the main story to see what happens, especially after a dozen or so hours once it went in a direction I completely didn’t see coming.


Starfield opens with you about to embark down a mine shaft on Vectera, a moon of the planet Anselon, working as a miner simply referred to as a “Dusty”. This is where you’re given a brief tutorial about the basics and controls as you follow your crew down into the mine. You get a sense of how claustrophobic this place is, with other ‘Dusty’s’ working hard. You pick up a Cutter, a tool to extract resources from special nodes, the futuristic way of mining. As the crew busts through a wall with their massive equipment, you go ahead to explore only to find something you’ve never seen before, an Artifact. This floating piece of metal is clearly something unique, as it has patterns on it and doesn’t simply look like any typical junk debris. As you reach out to grab it you experience visions, something unknown that you can’t quite make out, only for you to awake later with your coworkers looking over you, making sure you’re alright.


You’ve given a tablet and asked “You know who you are? New recruit for Argos Extractors?”. This is the clever way Starfield then puts you into the character creator where you’ll no doubt spend a good amount of time customizing how you look down to the finest details. Once you’re happy with your appearance you’ll choose a Background (kind of a starting class with a few skills instantly unlocked), Skills, and Traits.

You’re not locked into your opening choices by any means, it’s more of a starting point that gives you a few basic skills to get you focused to play in a specific way. You can of course choose to spend your skill points however you like as you level up elsewhere if the opening choices don’t turn out to be what you end up enjoying as much as you expect. While there’s plenty of Backgrounds to start out with, I’ll just name a few to give you an idea:

Bounty Hunter – Starts with piloting and boost pack skills so you can easily hunt down your targets across the galaxy.

Chef – Maybe you simply want to explore, then this Background will support your culinary skills with extra recipes at the research lab and more scavenging abilities that will net you more materials as you hunt down prey.

Combat Medic – Self-explanatory, but proficient in pistols when combat is required and much more adept at healing yourself and others.

Cyber Runner – Maybe you want to be a stealthy hacker, then this is the Background for you, starting you out with hacking, stealth and pickpocketing abilities from the get-go.

Diplomat – This is the route I went, as I wanted to be able to talk my way out of (or into) a fight. Starting out with the Persuasion skill, I had an increase of speech challenges, eventually opening up whole new dialogue options as I unlocked more. Yeah I can fight and shoot with my blasters, but why should I if I can simply talk people into not fighting and agreeing with what I want?

There’s a handful of more Backgrounds (classes) to choose from, but again, it’s simply a starting point and you’re not locked out of spending skill points into any others regardless of your choice. You then choose three Traits, offering you distinct bonuses, but will also have a negative to it as well. Maybe you choose the Dream Home trait which starts you out with an outpost home already built for you, but you’re locked into paying back the 50,000 credit mortgage weekly. Maybe you want to be an Empath, giving you bonuses in combat when you perform an action your companion likes, but the opposite if it’s something they don’t approve.

I of course chose Hero Worshipped as one of my traits. Remember that super annoying fan from The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion? Well, he’s back and can be recruited as a companion that will give you gifts and constantly worship the ground you walk on and the air you breathe. The downside? Well, you’re going to have to listen to him constantly narrate how much he adores you and compliments you every time you land your ship astoundingly. There’s a handful of other Traits, and choosing one will not allow you to pick the opposite version. This made me think about how I wanted to play and what type of character I wanted to be.


Now that you’ve created the character you’re about to spend hundreds of hours as, it’s time to continue your journey after waking from touching the Artifact. While you were out, Lin, the supervisor of the mine, reports the discovery of the Artifact to Constellation, a group of space explorers seeking these rare artifacts. This is how you meet Barrett, member of Constellation, as he touches down topside of the mine. Well it seems that Barrett has had the Crimson Fleet chasing him, a band of space pirates, thrown into a battle without much explanation of what they might be after.

You of course win this battle and have a talk with Barrett. This is where you’re invited to become a member of Constellation, as you’re clearly special when he was surprised that you saw ‘the visions’. It’s here that Barrett gives you your Chronomark Watch. Showing more than just the time, it displays your stamina, planet name, local temperature, hazards, oxygen level, gravity and direction of nearby waypoints. Splurge for the Starfield Constellation Edition and you’ll get a real world version of this watch that apparently will link to the game and display the same information, giving you an extra level of immersion. Now that you’re a member of Constellation you make way to New Atlantis where their headquarters are, and thus your epic journey begins however you decide once you touch down in this massive city.


Starfield is massive. Not just in each world that you can explore, but as the universe as a whole. This is where you’ll become familiar with the Starmap, a way of getting the information you need of where you are and where you want to go. There are multiple layers and levels to the map system that takes a little getting used to, but is essentially looked at in three different ways.

Planet View – This is available for you to scan the planets or moons for what resources it has, and any notable markers or landing points on the planet.

System View – Back out once and you’ll then see the whole system. This will show its sun, planets and any moons in this whole area. You can see what factions control the system, allowing you decide if maybe it should be avoided for the time being if it’s patrolled by pirates.

Galaxy View – This is where you really start to get a feel for just how expansive Starfield really is. As you explore one moon or planet, you then have a whole system of planets you can land down on. This view goes one step further and shows you each of the galaxies that are light years apart, showing its system’s recommended level as well.


If you’ve ever played a Bethesda game before, things will feel very familiar from its onset when you realize you can pick up and take nearly anything you see. Want to collect forks and useless cups? Go for it. Want to scavenge every corner of every room for anything of value, go right ahead. If you’re like me, you’ll spend an obscene amount of time trying to find anything of value that can be taken (without stealing of course!) and sold for a profit elsewhere. Because I’m a serial hoarder picking up stuff, I eventually had to spend some skill points that granted me more carry weight. Thankfully your companions can be told to hold things for you, but they have their limits as well, as does your ship’s cargo hold, so you won’t be able to loot every single thing you see.

Maybe you’ll find extremely valuable items along your journey, but these high value objects are generally illegal contraband. Be careful though, as having contraband aboard your ship may be detected when you get scanned while orbiting a planet before landing. If this contraband is detected you’ll need to pay a hefty fine, surrender, or put up a fight. If you plan on wheeling and dealing with these high risk goods, make sure to invest in some appropriate skills that will help. Bounties also exists if you are caught stealing, smuggling or killing innocent people. Sure you can clear your bounty by paying a fee at specific Self-Service Bounty Clearance Terminals, but this can add up quickly if you’re not careful.

Even with companions and ships housing all my found loot, I learned quickly on you can only sell a limited amount of items at a time at most places. Trade Kiosks at most cities only have 5000 credits and take time to replenish, as do most vendors, so I had to offload what I could and then go search for other vendors and kiosks to unload my inventory of found weapons, space suits, booster packs, resources and miscellaneous items. This was a pain initially but once you find some vendors that have a bigger credit pool, you’re able to offload much more at once. You also need to take all the stuff your companion is carrying to sell it, as I wish they could simply be another tab to sell from.


Companions are more than just someone who follows you around, they have a wealth of other benefits should you choose to use them. Sure you can simply use them as pack mules to carry more stuff, they have more versatility. In battle they will help as extra firepower, helping you kill anything that attacks you. Each companion also has their own skills as well, offering passive bonuses to your ship or outpost if assigned there. Certain companions may also have special quests they want you to help with, offering more insight into their background, and possibly opening up romance options if they are fond of you and your actions. While I chose to always have a companion by my side, you can play completely alone should you wish, even getting a bonus if you chose the corresponding Trait. Sometimes you'll even get prompts where you can choose for your companion to reply in certain ways during conversations if you don't want to answer as your explorer.


Starfield is a space exploration game, and you wouldn’t be able to get very far without your own ship. Luckily you’re given one in the beginning when you join Constellation, but like anyone’s first car, it’s just a starting point simply designed to get you from point A to point B, with maybe a few space battles in between. Your first ship is modest, allowing you to house two crew plus yourself, having decent stats for maneuverability and combat options. Later in the game once you’ve accrued a healthy amount of credits, you may want to look at either investing in a new ship or maybe upgrading the one if you have.

This is where the Ship Builder comes in. While it will take a good amount of credits, you’re given the tools to completely customize your ships however you like. Want something small and nimble that excels in space combat, you can build that. Want a massive C class ship that can carry a massive amount of resources, that’s an option too. You’re also able to build your ship how you want, so if you want a weird-looking phallic ship, it’s certainly a possibility.

Ship upgrades are probably where you’ll want to start, as it’s not as much of an upfront investment and can make for a decent improvement in your starter ship. The thing to keep in mind that Starfield lacks at outright explaining is that there are different classes of ships. You begin with an A class ship, able to upgrade to B and C classes later on if you have the appropriate piloting skill points spent. The higher classes of ships give you more options and can be made into massive weapons of destruction if you want. You can swap in new upgrades to your weaponry, Grav Drive, Engines, Shields, and more.

Then there’s the full-on Ship Builder mode. Here you can swap in any parts or build from scratch. This is a much heavier investment of credits but allows you to build the ship of your dreams. The controls to do so are quite simple, as each piece has a ‘snap’ point that attaches to other parts, and it won’t let you finish building your ship if it won’t work. For example, if you place all the components in a way where the crew can’t get to certain areas, it won’t allow you to complete the build. While it’s simple to use and figure out, I do wish there was more of a tutorial with the Ship Builder, as it took me a lot of trial and error to figure out why certain components wouldn’t attach or why I had errors in my ship creation.

Bigger ships will allow you to have more cargo space, more room for companions, and even crafting stations. Yes, crafting is possible in Starfield, and with the stations installed on your ship, you won’t have to constantly travel back to a city to do so. You can of course have multiple ships, using specific ones for certain tasks, able to swap out your ‘Home’ ship whenever at a Ship Services Technician at most major city docking points.

Flying the ships themselves feels great in the vastness of space, able to choose first or third person. Your main engine has a set amount of overall power it can use, and you’ll need to adjust where you want that power to go into your system. If you’re simply exploring space going from one system to another, you might want to take some power away from your weapons system and put it into your engine and Grav Drive for more maneuverability, whereas if you get attacked by pirates, you’ll maybe need to increase your shields and weaponry on the fly.


Now that you’ve got your ship the way you want, sure it’s a mode of transportation, but can also be used to survey planets to show what mining resources it contains. You did start out as a miner before this grand adventure remember? Planet scans will show its gravity, temperature, atmosphere, flora, fauna, water and more. Once you land on the planet you can use your scanner, acting like a detective vision of sorts, to highlight any special resources. This will show you what nodes you can mine, creatures, and flora. The more you scan objects the more you’ll learn about the planet, and maybe you’ll come across people that will pay handsomely for this scanned information.


Much like the Ship Building feature, there’s also an Outpost Builder where you can choose to spend a healthy amount of credits to create a home away from home. If a planet is hospitable, you’re able to lay down roots for an outpost that offers a ton of bonuses if you spend the time to set it up. Planets are rich in resources, so a resource extractor will passively mine these materials for you. Building a Crew Station will allow you to assign your crew to specific Outposts, and yes, you can have multiple across different planets. You really could design a home, complete with furnishings should you wish, though I’ll be honest, I’ve only dabbled in this feature so far. Again, there really could be a better and more comprehensive tutorial, as I was quite overwhelmed trying to figure this portion out through trial and error. There’s a ton of potential here to earn passive income and resources, it may just take a healthy investment upfront and some time to figure out how best to do so on your own.


As soon as you come out of the mine at the beginning of your adventure, you’ll get your first taste of combat. Armed with a pistol and rifle, you can choose first or third person depending on your preference. I’ll admit, at first I felt the combat was a little awkward for whatever reason, but eventually became accustomed to it after tweaking a few settings. You’ll find a variety of different weapons along your journey, from shotguns, lasers, pistols, experimental weapons and more, and while you’re not locked to a single type of weapon, I’d suggest choosing one or two to be the most proficient in for when combat is necessary.

You’ll find a variety of different foods and medical supplies along the way, able to each to replenish your health or cure status inflictions. Jump off a high ledge and you might break a bone, or maybe you’ll suffer from burns, poison or a variety of other conditions. Eating food will heal a small amount of health, but using that to cook better dishes will heal more and possibly add some bonuses.


Every time you level up you’ll earn a skill point that you can then use to spend on a number of abilities. Each skill has four different ranks, becoming more powerful the higher the tier, but there’s a really interesting caveat. Once a skill is unlocked you can’t simply spend another point in it to rank up until you’ve fulfilled certain conditions. For example, under my Persuasion skill, I had to successfully complete 10 speech challenges before I could spend another point and unlock rank two. To improve my health in another skill I had to run a specific distance with a certain amount of weight in my inventory. These skill challenges were fun to work on, as I had to get a certain amount of pistol kills before I could rank up my pistol efficiency bonuses. Simply completing the challenge itself doesn’t unlock the new tank of a skill, it simply allows it to be purchased with a skill point afterwards.

Your beginning choices give you a starting point, but you’re free to add new skills along the way whenever you like. Eventually I added Piloting skills because I wanted better B and C class ships, also adding a few points into Lockpicking so I could get into some safes and weapon caches I normally wouldn’t be able to. While I don’t believe there’s a level cap that I’ve seen, you could in theory have every skill with enough dedication.


I’ll be honest, it’s a bit of a running joke that Bethesda games launch in quite buggy states, and I’d be lying if I didn’t expect the same from Starfield’s launch, especially playing before the official launch. I’m more than impressed though, as Starfield is without a doubt Bethesda’s most polished launch, as there have been some minor bugs here and there, nothing a quick game relaunch didn’t fix. There’s been a large patch since just before launch, which has addressed most of these small issues, but I was quite impressed with the overall quality given the scope of Starfield and how many mechanics are simultaneously in play.

Even though it’s currently locked to 30FPS, Starfield visually impresses with its amazing vistas. More than a handful of times I utilized the photo mode to take some stunning screenshots with the starry night or planets in the background along the horizon. The city of NEON in particular stands out, as it feels alive with citizens and gives a cyberpunk vibe with all the neon lighted advertising. With over 1000 planets able to be explored, there’s no shortage of gorgeous backdrops, weird fauna and caves to explore. While there’s a little stiffness to some of the facial movements, it’s got that signature Bethesda look to it we’ve come to expect over the years in their previous games.

Audio is equally impressive, with every character and NPC being voiced aside from you. I can only imagine how much time and effort went into creating all the lines of dialogue for every character and then having it recorded. The clever writing is only enhanced by a fantastic cast of voice actors that did an amazing job at realistic and believable performances across the board. While I have my favorites, and not so favorites, for characters and companions, they were all certainly memorable in their own way. The subtle soundtrack somehow also suits the vastness of space and exploring a new system and planet, unsure what to expect on the next planet.


While I’ve been a massive Elder Scrolls fan, I’ve never been big into Fallout, so I was unsure how I was going to take to Starfield given that it’s clearly an amalgamation of what Bethesda’s learned over the decades of game development. Even with a review this lengthy, there are portions I’ve not touched on due to spoilers, but suffice to say, there’s a near endless amount of content for you to feast upon. Even more than fifty hours already spent exploring Starfield’s universe, I feel like I’ve only begun to scratch the surface. The main narrative is compelling and quite mind blowing when you reach a certain point, but even some of the more minor quests were quite memorable and just as enjoyable. I’ve never even remotely come close to exploring every planet and all of their secrets, and fully expect to put hundreds of hours into Starfield’s universe just as I did with their other games. Bethesda has not only crafted a new compelling and wondrous universe to explore where you can play in any way you desire, they’ve created one of the most important games of this generation and prove once again they’re the best at what they do.

**Starfield was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 10.0 / 10 LISA: Definitive Edition

I’ll admit, I’ve never heard of the LISA games before. Now on console for a new audience like myself, LISA: The Definitive Edition includes the original LISA: The Painful and its sequel, LISA: The Joyful. Not really sure as to why there was two games included, I had to do some research as to which game to play first, as the titles don’t make it abundantly clear on their own. Start with The Painful, as The Joyful takes place moments after the first game’s ending and won’t make any sense simply jumping into it without any context.

While LISA: The Definitive Edition is unlike anything I’ve played before, if I had to compare it to something else directly, it came across like a mix of Earthbound’s quirkiness and Undertale’s humor, but with some serious adult themes. You wouldn’t expect it from the 2D sprite artwork from screenshots, but LISA is not a kid’s game by any means, shocking me at each revelation.

Given that The Painful is the first of the two games, I’m going to mainly focus on that, as much talk about The Joyless is giving away some massive spoilers due to being a direct sequel. LISA: The Painful begins with a group of young boys being beat up for stealing a ball, only for Brad, the main protagonist, to step in and take the blame and subsequent beating for them. Brad stumbles home hurt only to have his dad berate and throw a beer bottle at him before being told to go to his room. These opening moments give a glimpse at the serious topics and tones that will be present throughout.

Many years later Brad seems to have hit hard times, relying on a drug called Joy to deal with his personal demons. He hears a baby in the distance, something completely unexpected and heads outside to investigate. Finding a young baby girl with no one else around, he brings her home to his childhood friends whom he’s living with.

You see, this is an extraordinary occurrence, as many years ago there was an event called the White Flash. After this moment the world of Olathe changed forever, as every female seems to have died or vanished. This means there’s no more babies or women, so this baby changes everything. Brad decides to take her in and raise her as his own, protecting her from the world, as he knows what most will want to do with her. While having good intentions, Brad falls off the horse once again when he finds some Joy, only to come back to home one day with his friends dying and his ‘daughter’, named Buddy, missing.

The titular Lisa was actually Brad’s young sister growing up, eventually committing suicide due to her emotional and sexual abuse by her abuse father. Brad feels responsible for letting it happen, with the guilt burdening him so much that he resorts to alcohol and Joy to cope. He will sometimes even see images of her, hallucinating, being questioned why he didn’t stop it from happening. This is probably a strong reason why he feels compelled to go and save Buddy from the post-apocalyptic world that they now live in, knowing the horrors she’ll face as the only female in the world.

Before Buddy’s kidnapping, the group of guys were told they will be given resources if they give Buddy to the Rando gang so they can start repopulating the human race. Brad doesn’t think this is even an option, but this is a cruel world, and when she’s taken he will stop at nothing to save her, even if that means sacrificing himself or others to do so. If this all sounds somewhat familiar to the Children of Men novel and movie, it’s got a similar premise, though I was quite surprised with how dark the narrative becomes later on and in the sequel.

So if you’re unlike me and have played the games before, you might be wondering what makes The Definitive Edition so, well, definitive. Crisper HD graphics, a 120FPS mode if you have a TV or monitor that supports it, updated battle systems, new art overlays for the borders, new campfire conversations (of which can be absolutely hysterical), new music, a music player and even more secrets to uncover. One of the best additions is the inclusion of ‘Painless Mode’, an item that can be used to make the game easier should you want more of a narrative focus, though the world will still be deadly and you’ll die plenty. LISA: The Painful is a challenging game for numerous reasons, and even with Painless Mode activated (you can’t undo your choice, so be careful), I still died countless times. If this isn’t your first time with LISA, you can even make the game harder for more of a challenge if that’s your thing.

As a 2D sidescrolling RPG, LISA may not stand out from its visuals alone, looking like any other RPG Maker game out there, but the narrative and humor is what makes it so unique. You can’t jump onto higher ledges more than one gap away, though you can certainly fall and take tons of damage or an instant Game Over if you’re not careful. Eventually Brad will find a bicycle which will open up some more possibilities by being able to make small gaps and move much quicker.

Brad can’t find Buddy alone, and along his journey he’ll be able to recruit up to 30 different party members. Many of these are completely optional and missable, so don’t expect to find them all in your first playthrough. The first to join your party is the hilarious Terry, known for leaving hints all around. He’s incredibly weak as a party member, but can eventually grow to being one of the most powerful. Another is Nern, a historian who is one of those people that just... wont... stop... talking. He’s got stories upon stories and loves to tell you about his previous 6/10 wife and his passion for coupons. While never every character was a stand out, they all had their quirks and certainly a place in your group of four if planned properly.

If you come across a crow, these are your save points. I highly recommend using multiple saves, as this world is highly unpredictable. Even using campfires to refill your health and rest for the night isn’t always a guarantee, as maybe someone dies overnight or gets kidnapped. Maybe you even get bitten by a spider and wake up all poisoned.

The world is harsh at every corner. One minute you’re exploring and finding information as to where Buddy was taken, the next you’re given a choice between your arm or your friend’s life. Maybe you like to gamble? Then you’ll feel no shame playing Russian Roulette with your friends lives for some massive profit. Choices are permanent though, and numerous times I’ve had party members straight up permanently killed because of my choices. Thankfully I can easily revert to an older save and try again if needed.

If you’ve played a turn based RPG before, you’ll feel at home with the combat, mostly. It’s not always as easy as attack or skills. As mentioned before, LISA is quirky, you might need to experiment with what certain skills actually do or how useful they are. Every party member is quite unique, so it’s a matter of trial and error to see who works with your composition, how their skills meld with another, and who simply doesn’t annoy you. Be aware, party members can be instantly killed, even permanently sometimes, so always have a backup plan for Brad. As party members earn XP and level up, they’ll learn new abilities and have stats increased, as par the course for any RPG.

While it looks like any other homemade RPG you’ve seen before, there’s clearly been a big upgrade with The Definitive Edition with clearer visuals and a smooth 120FPS option. The sprite work is done wonderfully as you can easily recognize characters at a glance. The soundtrack is catchy and quite memorable, though can be a little jarring at times when it instantly switches or cuts off when changing scene to scene.

I thought LISA was going to be a cute and casual relaxing experience, but what I got was a dark and very adult themed narrative where nearly every character has some sort of messed up backstory. The apocalypse really brings out the worst in people, as showcased in nearly every interaction with strangers Brad comes across in his search for Buddy.

I now see why LISA: The Painful and Joyful are cult classics, though there are certainly some possible triggers here that have no early warnings beforehand. Full of misogyny, abuse, murder and nearly any other messed up topic you could think of, LISA takes a certain focus and mindset to get through with its seriously heavy material mixed with laugh out loud moments.

**LISA: Definitive Edition was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.8 / 10 Ed-0: Zombie Uprising

Every now and again a new game will fall into my lap that I’ve never heard or seen before. It’s about 50-50 if it turns out to be an unearthed gem that I end up adoring, or a game I wish left unheard of. Ed-0: Zombie Uprising was one of these games that I’ve never even seen a preview before playing, so diving in without any previous knowledge, I had no bias or notion of what to expect. Essentially Japanese culture x Zombies, I had an idea of what it may be, though I’m not sure I was prepared to die as much as I did in this quirky repetitive roguelike.

Ed-0: Zombie Uprising’s backdrop is set in 1854 in a fictional Edo-era Japan. Mysterious ships from elsewhere in the world landed on Japanese land, not bringing with them technology and trades, but something much more deadly. This is how the zombie infection began and spread, infecting virtually everyone. There seems to be a few immune though, called Zom-beings, humans with some sort of mysterious power.

As one of three Zom-beings, it will be up to you to restore Japan to its former glory and rid your lands of the seemingly never-ending undead. Aside from some loading screens here and there throughout your journey, there’s little else in the way of narrative. With an interesting setup, a lot could have been done to make for an interesting story, but there’s really no engaging plot from the opening onwards to keep you intrigued and wanting to find out more.

Being a roguelike, you can expect every dungeon run and playthrough to be completely unique from the last. This is either going to favor or go against you randomly, as I had some great runs with tons of health and upgrades, and others I barely made it a few levels. Eventually you’ll get to choose from a Ninja, Sumo Wrestler or a Samurai as you progress, each of which suits a different type of playstyle best, though the agile and quick Ninja was my favorite by a long shot.

Everything is generated randomly each time you play, not just the map, but the enemies, placement and items. One on hand this always means things are fresh and never dull from repeated missions, but luck is going to be a huge factor on your success as well, not just your skill. Stages are full of items found on the ground and dropped from enemies, some of which like charms can be equipped, but also kept to be used or thrown at enemies as well. Why would you want to throw equipment at zombies you ask? All equipment and items are not made equal, and some will actually give debuffs or have negative effects, so you need to be careful what you pick up and/or use.

Even your special moves are scrolls found on the ground at random, so each playthrough you’ll have your regular attack, heavy attack (from holding the button), jump and dodge, but your specials need to be found and equipped each playthrough. This is where you hope the randomness plays in your favor, as I certainly preferred a handful of skills over others. This means you won’t always have the same ‘build’, and because of this I would use the wrong skills that get equipped since they won’t always be in the same button slots. This too allows for almost infinite possibilities and combinations, great for those that want variety and challenge, but not so much for those that want to take the time to learn a character and their skills to be proficient.

Each area has its own theme and style, with the opening being a dark and mysterious forest. Each map is generally small and you’re searching for a Torii Gate that’s randomly placed somewhere to move onto the next floor. The Torii Gates vary in color though, each denoting a different use or reward. Some replenish health, others food, charms, etc. This is how you can choose what to refill or upgrade per floor depending on your current situation. You’ll also sometimes get an option for a special portal back to your village, your safe haven hub, bringing back with you your earned experience and money. This is a roguelike after all, so dying means you lose much of what you’ve earned to that point, so you need to weigh out your risk versus reward. Do you risk continuing and losing it all, or go for the glory and better rewards if you're successful?

There is even more randomness that sometimes is placed on certain floors, like a Torii Gate requiring a key, so you need to find the specific zombie and kill them for it. Perhaps corpses decide to explode after they are defeated, which is great for AOE damage, but you better not be nearby, and on more than one occasion, I literally starved. That’s right, you need to manage your hunger as well, so always keep an eye out for some rice balls and other food items to keep handy. This eventually becomes easier to manage once you get used to it, but it’s a terrible mechanic overall and feels completely out of place, simply designed to make things unnecessarily more difficult.

Given how random the enemy placement is, you’ll either have very little zombies to fight, with them being nicely spread out, or completely swarmed where you need to be quite cautious or meet a swift death. You’re able to lock onto specific enemies, but the movement doesn’t really work well, and trying to choose a specific target in a sea of zombies goes as well as you’d expect. You’re able to guard and parry, but I found it difficult to use, not because of the timing, but you basically need to be standing directly right in front of said zombie for it to work.

Speaking of zombies, expect to see the same handful throughout the whole game. There are a few different types and looks, but they are constantly repeated, all wearing the same clothes and do the same attacks. The bigger issue is how much damage they can absorb. Even the regular zombies you first encounter take way too many hits to defeat. Expect to hit them a good dozen times or so each to kill. Sure you can use your charged up heavy attack, but you’re constantly just attacking a few times, stepping back, and repeating. For a game focused on slashing and killing hordes of zombies, the combat is immensely boring and repetitive, even with the special moves.

As you play more and become more proficient, you’ll be able to survive more and more floors, eventually taking on a challenging boss. The bosses were easily the highlight, as it’s easy to get bored with the monotony of grinding the same zombies for hours on end. The random drops of items is a great way to improve your character and abilities, but it’s completely random what you get. The other issue is that because many items have negative effects, you need to stop and take a moment to read the description to decide if it’s worth picking up, using, or ignoring, but the game doesn’t pause for you during this. Also, you’ll learn very quickly that tapping the button holds it in your inventory, where holding equips or uses. I can’t tell you how many times I used an item instead of holding, only to have it later kill me from making me drunk or setting me ablaze.

Like any decent roguelike, you do make some overall progress. Coming back to your village with money and experience can be used to purchase items, perks and abilities. These of course make every subsequent run just a little easier, though the randomly generated levels play a much larger role in your success or failure. It’s quite a grind for any real character improvements, so if you enjoy mindlessly killing zombie hordes repeatedly, then you’ve got something to strive for long term.

The Edo Japanese x Zombie setting may not be completely unique, but the backdrop and setting is a welcome change, as is the cool “Edo Shader” setting that makes it all appear cel-shaded. Visually though, Ed-0: Zombie Uprising is quite an eye sore. Enemies are repeated, textures are low resolution, and animations are a bit janky at best. Audio is as unmemorable aside from the Japanese narration for the story in the beginning, so expect constant grunts from zombies and weapon slashing sounds throughout.

You’re going to die a lot, and in the beginning it’s going to feel unfair, especially when you starve to death. You’ll eventually learn all of its quirks and how to circumvent many of its ‘unfairness’, but I found I had to focus on doing that more so than simply enjoying a mindless zombie slasher. Ed-0: Zombie Uprising has a long grind to strive towards, but it’s monotonous and feels like a very low budget title, even if there are brief moments of fun here and there.

**Ed-0: Zombie Uprising was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Marble It Up! Ultra

Marble Madness for the NES was one of my favorite games growing up as a kid, even with its insane difficulty. This is where my fondness for marble games must have sprouted though, as I spent an obscene amount of time with Marble Blast Ultra for Xbox 360 back in 2006 when it released as an exclusive Xbox Live Arcade title. While those days have come and gone, every now and then I think of how much I enjoyed Marble Blast Ultra, so naturally when I was made aware of a new marble game releasing, my interest was piqued. Even better, with some of the original developers of the series, Marble It Up! Ultra is now here for Xbox players and a wonderful spiritual successor to the game that I would spend hours on every night trying to climb the online leaderboards for fractions of a second improvement.

I went into Marble It Up! Ultra with meek expectations, not because I wasn’t excited for its release, but when going down ole nostalgia road it’s sometimes hard to compare to what you thought was once amazing at the time. Marble It Up! Ultra is the natural progression of the series and I’m excited to have another marble’r (I guess that’s a term now) to sink hours into, trying to go for those diamond times and climb the online leaderboards. Weighty controls, impressive visuals, great level design and a fun soundtrack all make for a sequel I’ve been waiting almost two decades for.

With a single player campaign that takes place over six chapters and four bonus chapters, there’s over 100 developer curated levels to enjoy. These levels start out easy enough, slowly increasing in difficulty by adding more obstacles, moving pathways, pits, gravity changers, bouncy floors and more. While the 100 levels won’t seem like a lot if you sit and simply try and get through them all, much of the value will come from replaying levels to try and get diamond times (medals are Copper, Silver, Gold and Diamond) or try and become the top name on the online leaderboards. Marble It Up! Ultra was built for speed running and leaderboards.

If you’ve played virtually any marble game in the last few decades, you’ll already have an idea of what to expect; Roll your marble to the goal in colorful 3D stages. Physics plays a large part in how you’ll do so, as does your ability to jump, able to carry momentum while trying to find optimal routes to the end of each stage. The quicker you complete the better ranking you get. It doesn’t get much simpler than that. Control movement of your marble with the Left Stick, camera with the Right, jump with ‘A’ and use any picked up power-ups with ‘X’. While there’s not many Power-Up types, you’ll find Super Speed, Super Jump and Floating ones placed at specific points in levels. The tutorial eases you into the basics, slowly teaching you new tricks as you become more proficient.

Could you simply roll through each level and be done with it in a few hours? Sure, but the enjoyment really comes from besting your times trying to get those elusive Diamond ranks and climbing the coveted online leaderboards. Diamond times are actually quite challenging to obtain, and you’ll need to really learn each level looking for shortcuts if you want to make the times. The best part is that once you complete a level and put your mark on the online leaderboards, you can watch ghosts of other players, seeing their strategy and crazy maneuvers so you can try and recreate and compete.

Your marble controls and feels very weighty, and while it was a little frustrating at first with the marble not moving on a dime, it makes sense given how momentum works. Eventually it just felt right, with having to start rolling in a direction well before needed if you have a ton of speed or adjusting your movement for an upcoming jump to land where you want. Then there's the ice sections, which will teach you quite quickly that sometimes speed isn't always best when you want to make sharp turns.

If you do manage to clear all the levels and looking for more, there are also Weekly Challenges that adds a whole new layer of challenge. This gives a handful of levels from the game but adds specific modifiers to the stages, completely changing your previous optimal paths. Maybe gravity is doubled, so jumping is much more difficult, or maybe there is no power-ups? There’s only been a few I’ve been able to play since release, but the possibilities are endless and I found them quite difficult.

The more you play in any mode the more currency you’ll earn, which can then be used to unlock new marbles and items to customize them. Want an Earth marble with a cowboy hat? You sure can do that if you want. Or how about a marble with a D20 in the middle? Sure. There’s a good variety of marbles and accessories, most of which can be bought with your earned currency, but some are locked behind level completions, hidden collectables or specific Diamond times. Fans of the series will be sure to notice a few throwbacks, but it’s clear how the graphical improvements from the previous game have improved and how much more realistic the marble appear.

Want to share some marble action alongside some friends? Marble It Up! Ultra includes online multiplayer that is also cross platform, so players on Xbox, Switch, and PC can all play together. While you can’t play the campaign levels together, there are some fun multiplayer modes to enjoy. Gem Hunt (Team and Free For All), Soccer, Zombies and Sumo modes are voted on after each match, then voting on which level as well. Having a blast mechanic also adds for some fun against your rivals, knocking them away or infecting if playing Zombie mode.

Rewatching some old Marble Blast Ultra footage made me realize how far the visuals have come since then. Certain marbles are clear, have items inside them and the lighting and reflections are absolutely fantastic all around. Levels are quite expansive and colorful, fitting the marble vibe I’ve missed for quite some time. The soundtrack is just as good, never becoming annoying and the marble rolling sounds aren’t as prominent as they used to be, which is great for fans playing for hours on end.

Marble It Up! Ultra reminded how much I really did miss the classic Marble Blast Ultra, and now it’s been improved in virtually every way for a new generation of rollers. While the base stages won’t take too long to complete ‘properly’, you’ll easily spend hours trying to improve your times by fractions of a second to work your way up those online leaderboards. Marble It Up! Ultra is a fantastic Roll Playing Game I’ll be jumping into for some time.

**Marble It Up! Ultra was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons

The last few years have been kind to side scrolling beat ‘em up fans with releases like River City Girls 2, Streets of Rage 4, and the fantastic TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge. Naturally, this clearly meant that one of the originals that started them all was due for a comeback, and here we are with Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons, adding some new features like a different art style and even some roguelite elements to keep it fresh.

The Double Dragon's, brothers Billy and Jimmy Lee, are in for a new adventure in this alternative timeline prequel. NYC is plagued by crime and gangs, so the Mayor contacts the brothers to help end the problem the best way possible; with their fists. Set in the year 199X, a post nuclear New York is anything but safe, as gangs rule the streets, each trying to become dominant. You will try to bring peace to the city by taking down the four gang leaders, each a different faction and section of the city.

While you of course start with the iconic Lee brothers Billy and Jimmy, you’re also initially able to choose from Marian and Uncle Matin for playable characters. With 9 extra characters to unlock, each isn’t simply just a reskin or color swap, they all play quite unique and suit different play styles. Two player local co-op allows you and a friend to play on the same TV and you’re even able to customize the game settings to your liking in a variety of different ways depending if you want something easy or extremely challenging.

The more you play the more Tokens you’ll earn, allowing you to unlock a variety of different things, like Tips, Artwork, Music and of course, unlockable Characters. It will take numerous playthroughs if you want to unlock everything, but I appreciate something to always strive towards. While I was able to unlock a few characters and other things after a full playthrough, it’s up to you what you want to prioritize, though I’d suggest the characters first to find which you enjoy playing the most, making each subsequent play that much more entertaining.

Instead of your typical linear adventure getting from point A to B, fight boss and continue on, the level design is where some of the roguelite elements come into play. With four gangs to defeat, you can of course choose any to start with and defeat, but each boss bested in battle makes each remaining gangs more challenging. Not only that, beating one gang makes the mission length of the next longer and more challenging until all are defeated.

The first gang you fight has maybe one section or chapter with the boss at the end, the next gang will have two sections, and so on. So once you know the levels you like and dislike, you might want to play the gang you don’t enjoy as much first since the mission will be shorter. It’s an interesting system and certainly made me play through a few times to see what each level is like when it’s got more sections. There’s even mini bosses that will appear later on, including challenges you can try to achieve for bonus Tokens.

At the end of each section you’re given a randomized list of purchasable upgrades for the money you’ve been earning for defeating enemies and finding cash along the way. These can range from health upgrades, improve special damage, combo improvements and more. Or if you’re struggling, you might want to save your cash to buy revives if you die, whatever you think will have you survive longer to finish each run. Each player and character gets to make a choice of their upgrade and if you have left over cash at the end of a run, it will convert into Tokens for unlock purchases from the Main Menu.

While you begin with four playable characters, you can spend your earned Tokens on 9 others to unlock. While I won’t spoil who, you can expect some familiar faces if you know your Double Dragon lore. Billy was my favorite of the brothers, being much more quick and agile, whereas Jimmy is a bit slower but more powerful. Marian is meant for long range combat and can become overwhelmed easily, whereas Uncle Matin uses his shield to get close for grapples and AOE damage, so there’s plenty of character variety based on your play style. Each really does play unique, especially the unlockable ones, and I’m glad they weren’t simply reskins with each having their own strengths and weaknesses.

One of the main combat mechanics is able to tag your partner in. While you’ll most likely focus on one character, you swap in your partner when needed. This allows for some interesting combos or to get out of some hairy situations. Swapping out characters acts like a defensive move, knocking down the enemies surrounding you. Of course this has a cooldown, so you can’t simply spam it and will need to be strategic of when’s the best time to be used. The character that is tagged out can recover some of their lost health as well, so it’s a good thing to learn this early on.

You have a special meter that fills quicker the more damage you deal and take, but the coolest mechanic has to be that if you finish off multiple enemies with a special move, you’ll gain a food drop, which we all know means health in these beat ‘em ups. Knowing this, I’ll sometimes wrangle up a bunch of enemies, combo to low health, then finish them all at once and get food to replenish my health. It’s a clever way of not only relying on strategic gameplay, but not only relying on food drops from broken boxes, barrels and items. If you need health, you better think of a way to finish off enemies with a special.

Double Dragon wouldn’t be the same if there wasn’t weapons that enemies drop and then be used against them. You can expect a handful like typical knives, bats and more, each dealing incredible damage or can be thrown across the screen as well to stop charging enemies coming at you.

Local co-op supports up to two players, and while I’m glad it’s included, the lack of online multiplayer seems like a huge miss. I understand that it’s a smaller developer, but the latest TMNT game will have a great shelf life because of the online multiplayer, and given I don’t have friends over to play with me, I’ll sadly rarely come back to this once I’m done grinding for Tokens.

While I can see that some might not enjoy the chibi pixel artwork, it reminded me a lot of the Scott Pilgrim game, and the animations are all fluid and done quite well. It’s certainly a modern-retro take on the original and I believe it works for the most part. The audio is just as great, as attacks feel impactful, though the highlight is the soundtrack. I’ll say it, Double Dragon is one of the greatest gaming theme songs of all time, and hearing some remixes of different tracks warms the nostalgia in my heart and puts a smile on my face as I bop my head.

Other than the glaring lack of online multiplayer, I had little complaints overall. Sure combat can be a little chaotic and hectic, especially in the final stages, but that’s to be expected in the genre. I remember how long it took me to beat the original game on NES when I was a kid and trying to survive a fight against Abobo when they appeared. Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons brings some of that nostalgia back, made for a modern audience, complete with iconic soundtrack and characters.

**Double Dragon Gaiden: Rise of the Dragons was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Skautfold: Usurper

Sometimes I enjoy going into a new game to review completely blind, as I’ve been surprised many times before, finding gems that I would have otherwise not even ever noticed. While I don’t normally gravitate towards Castlevania-like games often, it’s hard to not take notice when it’s also got a Lovecraftian aesthetic. Also a Metroidvania, Skautfold: Usurper combines some solid action, exploration and unique mechanics that I enjoyed more than I initially expected.

A sequel to Skautfold: Shrouded, Usurper doesn’t require you to have played the first, as it’s a self-contained adventure, though obviously series fans will most likely get more out of the experience. Having never even heard of the previous title, I didn’t feel like I was missing anything in my quest to rid London of demons and defeat the Navigator.

Set in an alternative timeline in 1898, the Lovecraftian setting suits the era quite well. You play as Waltham, a monstrous being that was defeated in battle, but manages to fall into a pit of dead bodies, able to resurrect himself by taking over the corpse of Saragat, a dead knight. Much like Venom, the two must work together if they want to be victorious, as Waltham aims to destroy the Navigator so that he can seize the power of The Citadel for himself. The whole body snatcher premise hooked me from the beginning, though the writing later is mediocre at best and the relationship between the two wasn’t as enthralling as other stories of similar setup.

Being a Metroidvania, the Citadel is one massive interconnected map, though like any good game in the genre, many areas will only be accessible once you have a new traversal ability like wall climbing, teleportation and even flying. The other main focus is its Soulslike combat where it’s meant to be slow and deliberate, where spamming attacks will get you killed quickly if you’re not careful. Fall in combat and you’ll lose the experience you’re currently holding and haven’t spent, so you can see where it starts to feel a little all too familiar.

What makes Skautfold: Usurper stand out is its Guard mechanic. You have very little health but you have a mana shield of sorts that’s tied to your stamina, so the majority of your actions use this meter. Get hit by an enemy and your guard meter will be depleted, not your health, that is until you lose all your guard, then your health will start to take hits. Given that your stamina/guard regenerates quite rapidly, you don’t need to parry or dodge every enemy attack, simply ‘guard’ through it, but more on that shortly.

As you make your initial descent into the Citadel, you might feel a little overwhelmed like I did, as there’s no real directions or guidance for the most part. Given that the world is one large 2D interconnected world, you’ll simply have to explore and remember where that area you couldn’t access until you have a specific upgrade. Each area has a different tone and setting and you can expect to do a hefty amount of backtracking until you can find and unlock the shortcuts, generally after a boss battle. The backtracking becomes much more manageable later when travel isn’t as arduous and tedious, but it’s certainly annoying in the beginning.

While there is technically a map included, it’s virtually useless. It doesn’t show you where you currently are, where you’ve been or able to distinctly tell how it’s all connected. You also don’t’ get that typical grid map tracker like in most Metroidvania’s. The map will show where bosses are located, which would be great if I knew the best way to get there or even in relation where I specifically was aside from an area's name. Due to the artwork it can sometimes also be difficult to determine where certain pathways and doorways are, as I accidently found more than one by accident when I was circling trying to figure out where to go next.

The beginning will feel a little overwhelming when you go down a long pathway in an area only to hit a dead end because you don’t have the ability to progress yet, but eventually you’ll start to figure out the path you should be taking by process of elimination. Trying to defeat bosses quick as possible will make this a much better overall process. The best part is that the enemies you kill stay dead, so when I came back to an area later after being able to smash ice blocks, everything I killed previously wasn’t waiting there once again for me magically.

Being heavy on the 2D platforming and exploration, I did find the controls to be a little stiff at first. Numerous times I would miss ledges with my double jumps for whatever reason. Sure I got used to it eventually, but it wasn’t without some trial and error. For those that want to tweak their experience, you also have options for No-Guard, 1 HP, Permanent Death and a Speedrunning mode as well.

The Guard system is really what makes combat stand out in Skautfold: Usurper. Taking hits doesn’t initially deplete your health bar, but your regenerating shield bubble instead. This allows you different combat options, like negating attacks or trying to be a little more risky instead. If you’re able to not attack or dodge for a few moments, regenerating your Guard points is quite quick. This whole mechanic rewards being accurate rather than button spamming, working quite well in general, even able to reflect projectiles back at enemies.

With the Lovecraftian Castlevania vibe and aesthetic, you can expect a good handful of different demons, aliens with laser guns, possessed book piles and more that will be trying to kill you. The handful of boss fights were the highlight of the combat, figuring out their attack patterns, balancing your Guard with offence and defense. Scour the Citadel and you may even find some pets that will follow and fight alongside you, like a floating brain.

At specific spots and thrones, you’re able to save your game and upgrade your character. You can spend to increase specific stats, able to reallocate if you make a mistake or want to try a different build. With over 90 different weapons to find, you can try a plethora of different builds based on your playstyle. You’ll find swords, axes, katanas, spells, summons, great swords and many more, each suiting a different style of play. While I generally tend to enjoy the weaker but quicker weapons, this meant I had to attack much more than a slower more powerful weapon. The main issue with so many weapons is you might find something you enjoy much later and then need to spend time learning its timing and intricacies, possibly even reassessing your build.

There’s mention of soft and hard caps for those that want to fully min/max their character builds, but I found the stat system a little confusing with not enough information given for me to decide. You will spend your XP (Vitae) to level up, but you also need Yth stones, of which there’s only a finite amount that I’m aware of, so you do have to do a little planning ahead of time to be efficient with upgrades. Simply having a ton of Vitae on its own isn’t good enough.

The pixel art is done quite well, as is the smooth animations and overall aesthetic. While a few doorways can blend together with the background and make it difficult to discern, the Lovecraftian Castlevania setting is done quite well, complete with fitting and moody soundtrack. If you’ve been itching for a new Metroidvania and want to try some unique combat mechanics, Skautfold: Usurper is a perfectly serviceable recommendation under $20.

**Skautfold: Usurper was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.7 / 10 Deadliest Catch: The Game

There was a time where I would eagerly await the latest weekly episode of Deadliest Catch on Discovery Channel, a reality show following the lives of numerous captains who sail the Bering Sea in search for Alaskan king crab. Being an incredibly dangerous job and full of large personalities and drama, the show was a hit and is still going strong 19 seasons later. The show had some unique and memorable characters like Captain Sig Hansen, Wild Bill, Elliott Neese, Phil Harris, Jake Anderson and more. Even the ships themselves were iconic like the Northwestern, Maverick, Time Bandit, The Wizard and Cornelia Marie amongst others.

To say I’m a fan is an understatement, so of course I was excited to jump into the world of Alaskan king crab fishing that I’ve watched on TV since 2005. I was hoping I’d be competing against the legendary captains or starting as one of their greenhorns working my way up to captain for my own ship. Being a simulator title, you’ll certainly be in command of your own ship from the beginning, but don’t expect much direct tie-in from the beloved show at all, which was a disappointment.

While you are a greenhorn fisherman, you’ll also be your own crew and captain from the beginning. This won’t be easy, as manning a crabbing vessel requires a crew, which you won’t have right away. This in one way forces you to learn each step about crabbing and how to deal with the confusing controls, but as you earn money from successfully catching crab and selling, you’ll eventually be able to hire some crew to do all the menial tasks for you.

You start out with the bare minimum to go fishing, but any good captain will make sure they are fully prepared with proper supplies, fuel and knowledge. Even knowing where to crab takes some skill and judgement, knowing what type of ground crab like, the water temperature, other captains in the area and more. Your goal is to earn the most money possible at the end of each season with the captain with the biggest haul being the winner. That is, if the game decides to let you...

While Deadliest Catch: The Game does do a decent job at the simulation aspects of actually being on a crabbing ship and what these brave fishermen deal with day in and out, it’s held back by so many technical issue and bugs that the longer I played, the more frustration ensued. Even those that have never seen the show will certainly learn a lot about crabbing from the opening tutorial, so there is a minor educational component within.

While manning your own ship is possible, it’s incredibly tedious and monotonous, so you’re going to want to hire more crew as soon as you’re able. At the port is where you’ll purchase all your supplies, sell crab, buy upgrades and find crew looking for work. First you’ll need to spend a lot of cash upgrading the ability to have 2, 3 and then 4 crew, then you’ll head to the local pub to find fishermen looking for work, because where else would they be? Their salary price depends based on how long the season is it seems, but all the money you earn from each haul goes real quick. I do wish there were stats per fisherman based on their skill.

Once you have a crew of at least one, though I’d suggest two as soon as possible, you can focus on other things like steering the ship if you’re going to set multiple crab pots in an area. Each crew can have a bunch of different tasks to be done when it comes to prepping, launching and recovering pots, and you’ll choose the crew member you want, then the box the task it’s in to assign them to do so when possible. This is your first real introduction to how poor the menu system is and how confusing it can be at times.

To start catching crab you’ll need to prep the pots. These are essentially a giant netted box that’s filled with some fish gut bait and some buoys attached so you know where they’re at on the Sea’s surface. Once in the water it’ll soak on the Sea bed for a good few hours before you go to recover it and see how many crab it trapped. Capturing crab isn’t the hard part though, it’s finding the ones that are legal to keep and sell, as they need to be male and over a certain size. This is where a lot of your times is going to be spent before getting a crew to do it, as you have to inspect every single crab and decide to keep or toss back into the Sea. Each crab only takes a few seconds, but when you have hundreds, it can take some time to do.

Lives have been lost at Sea, as this is no easy or typical job. The Bering Sea is unforgiving, something the show reminds you of constantly. The game ties to replicate this with the harsh weather, but you don’t need to worry about greenhorns slamming 800 pound crab pots into you or losing your footing and being washed overboard, so it’s not quite as dangerous as the real thing.

A large part about being a successful crabber is the captain knowing where to actually find the crab. They have particular grounds they tend to congregate in, so you need to be aware of the temperature and more. Unlike in real life, feel free to constantly fish the same spot, as there doesn’t seem to be much impact from overfishing once you find a decent area, which is odd when this is trying to be a simulator.

Nearly every task you need to do from using the crane to move pots, opening the pots, putting bait in and more, require precision, something that’s not easy to do. You seemingly need to aim your cursor at an expect spot or angle to get some of the interactions to complete or even prompt. Some controls are done with the Left and Right Stick, whereas others are with the D-Pad, causing a confusing mess that had me pressing wrong inputs even hours in. It’s clear that the game was designed for PC with a mouse and keyboard, and doesn’t translate to a controller very well. More than once I accidently dumped the good crabs over the side of the ship instead of the bad ones as I wasn’t paying enough attention.

Over time your gear and equipment will degrade, so you need to be on top of fixing it and keeping it in working order. Unfortunately this is not one of the tasks you can set your deck hands to do, so you need to grab your trusty WD-40 to repair your equipment. That’s right, WD-40 will fix anything. The nets on your pots also deteriorate with use, so you’ll need to repair these now and then as well. You simply have to hold ‘A’ for a few moments to do so, so it’s not difficult by any means.

Once you return to dock you can sell your haul, earning some good cash for doing so. Resupply but make sure to check out the ship and skill upgrade buildings. This is where a lot of your money will go to early on, as it costs money to make money. There’s actually a healthy amount of upgrades to purchase, so it will take quite some time to earn them all.

Deadliest Catch: The Game falls into the typical low budget simulator title where it’s not impressive to look at by any means. I was hoping that there’d be some recognizable people or ships from the show, or maybe at least having the Sea appear realistic. While you can tell what equipment is what, expect a lot of pop-in textures, low draw distance and some terrible animations. The Sea and weather isn’t impressive either, which was a letdown. I’m not a graphic snob by any means, but it sure isn’t pretty to look at. The audio is about the same, being quite dull with some subtle background music now and then and overmixed weather sounds to indicate a harsh storm.

Then there’s the bugs, a laundry list I had to write down. More than once I had a game breaking bug and had to start over from scratch numerous times before I gave up for good. My first career I was about seven or eight seasons in, feeling confident with my full crew and finally making some decent cash and a good handful of important upgrades unlocked. Then I noticed that when my pots were on deck it was allowing me to pre-bait them, so I did. Well, doing this was a massive mistake as my crew weren’t able to use the crane to pick them up into position to prep for some reason. No big deal, I’ll operate the crane. Nope. This pot was essentially useless now and couldn’t be used because the bait was in it, yet I couldn’t take it out. I found a work around by using the crane to grab a different pot then letting the crew take over, but it was tedious.

Then I found my first game breaking bug. For whatever reason, when you need to latch the hook onto the pot to haul it out of the water and back on the table, it showed that it was physically attached, but the game thought otherwise. This meant I couldn’t pull up my crab pots any more. I couldn’t even dump it to get rid of it completely. I tried everything I could but realized I was going to have to start over again. Sigh, fine, but at least this time it’ll go quicker because I know the best upgrade paths and what to do. Not even a single season in I had the same hook bug. Unable to progress I restarted once again. Three seasons in, again, and that’s when I gave up.

Even without the game breaking bugs, Deadliest Catch: The Game will test your patience with its monotony and repetitiveness. I’m actually a fan of ‘boring’ simulator titles like these, but when the game is constantly a frustration and requires you to restart through no fault of your own, it’s difficult to recommend until hopefully fixed. With a big name endorsement I was hoping to be competing against some of the great Captains and iconic ships, but with the lack of any multiplayer and more bugs than crabs, it might be best to wait until next season to go crabbing.

**Deadliest Catch: The Game was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 2.7 / 10 Full Quiet

I still remember getting my NES as a kid. Unboxing that thing is one of my favorite memories growing up. Little did I know that would be the true start of my lifelong gaming obsession, with dozens of classic games I loved and shaped my gaming preferences to this day. NES games were also known for being notoriously hard. Yes, before the Dark Souls ‘git gud’, you had games that were brutally difficult for numerous reasons.

Retrotainment Games and 8-Bit Legit have a very specific niche, as they not only create NES era inspired games, but authentic to the point that they make cartridges that work on an actual NES as well. Their latest is Full Quiet, which takes a lot of modern gaming mechanics and ideas and they’ve somehow made it work quite well on mid-80’s console hardware.

A side scrolling platformer / Metroidvania at its core, Full Quiet is a much larger experience than I initially experienced, complete with an open world to explore, somewhat reminiscent of Zelda II: The Adventure of Link. Keep in mind this is nowhere near the same size of team, so a NES game this massive is quite impressive for being authentic to the hardware limitations.

While the story may start off simple with you searching the woods for your lost son, it doesn’t take long for you to figure out that there’s something else going on here. The forest is huge so you’ll need to follow clues left behind by family and friends, so make sure to brush up on your Morse Code. Radio signals and towers are down, so to find the next clue and area you’ll need to repair them as you come across each.

That wouldn’t be too challenging if it wasn’t for all the monsters roaming around, so it’s a good thing you have your gun with unlimited ammo to fight back, just make sure you don’t go out after dark. Thankfully your ammo is unlimited, because enemies can respawn if you go ‘out’ of the screen. Not quite as harsh as Mega Man handles its enemies, but if you return out of a puzzle or back into an area from another screen, all the enemies will be waiting for you once more.

You can expect plenty of platforming cliff sides, caves, ladders and ropes, firing your weaponry at deadly monsters, solving puzzles, dealing with an actual day and night cycle and managing your resources. Again, keep in mind this is all on a classic NES title, which is even more impressive. I thought it may have been a little too much of an overreach to have all these mechanics included, but they work well together for a cohesive experience.

As you explore each area, the map will get filled out to note that you’ve been there before, which is where the Metroidvania elements come in. You can expect a healthy amount of backtracking, more so until you figure out how the navigating and map actually works. While it’s a side scrolling adventure, you need to pay attention of what direction the screen says you’re moving. Even though the majority of the time you’re moving left to right, or vice versa, those don’t always only mean East or West, sometimes North or South once you’ve taken a path or down a tunnel. Once you realize walking right isn’t simply East, you’ll figure out the map system in no time and how to backtrack to your safe house cabins.

True to the era as well, you’re given basically no direction, no tutorial or anything of the sort. You’re simply thrown into this world after the opening cutscene and left to your own devices to figure everything out. I wouldn’t have been opposed to at least a little bit of direction, especially when it comes to the puzzles. Did you enjoy the pipe puzzles from Bioshock? Then you’re going to have a blast in Full Quiet as it’s very similar, tasking you with reaching the start to finish on a grid with tiles, though I initially wasn’t able to figure out why I was losing health when I failed after a short period of time. These puzzles are timed, which would have been nice to know beforehand. Also, once you figure out that you can simply place tiles down on top of one another until you get the one you want, it saves you a ton of time.

The world doesn’t seem too vast at first, as you’ll eventually loop back to where you started after finding a blocked pathway, but power up the generator by flipping a switch then do a puzzle to unlock the first cabin, your safe house, and you’ll then unlock more areas to explore. There’s multiple areas, and each has a large interconnected map that will needed to be explored to find all of its secrets and even better weapon upgrades if you’re keen enough.

You do have a stamina meter to manage, as you can roll and dodge, but need a quick second before it recharges. This will be helpful as you have a moment of invulnerability when rolling, so you’ll need to use it to your advantage to avoid getting hit by unattackable enemies.

Do make sure to remember where your camps are. The cabins are a safe house and where you’ll want to get before nightfall if you want to avoid even more hellish enemies. Having a Day/Night cycle is quite impressive, as does the game changing in certain ways if you decide to venture out when you probably shouldn’t. These cabins are where you can rest until morning and also save your game, so to say they are a necessity is an understatement. This is where a lot of the backtracking comes in though, as you might have to run quite a lengthy way to get back for a save when you can’t figure out where to go next before dark.

Remember, the NES only had the D-Pad, Start, Select and 2 buttons, A and B. Even though our controllers now have many more, Full Quiet utilizes the two button setup. This again would have been a great thing to explain, that when I’m in the map menu I can move to other tabs. I was collecting health refills but had no idea how to use them for the longest time until I accidently figured out how to get to my inventory screen. There is a help screen that has some handwritten notes and sections you’ll want to study, especially the Morse Code portion, but getting to this isn’t an intuitive as it should be either.

For a classic NES game restricted to the same original hardware, Full Quiet looks fantastic for a game that appears to be from the era. There’s plenty of animations, color and everything you need to interact with is obvious at a glance. Some platforms can be tricky to tell if they are ledges or not, but overall the aesthetic is done quite well. The star though is the catchy soundtrack and tunes composed entirely in Famitracker that I definitely bopped my head to. There’s a few moments of silence which is a little jarring, but that’s forgotten once the next killer track kicks in.

It takes a little time for Full Quiet to really show how expansive it is for a classic NES game with the same technical limitations. Full of modern day mechanics but de-made into a full functioning and entertaining NES title is nothing short of impressive. Retrotainment Games and 8-Bit Legit have once again made a retro 8-Bit game that I wish I had growing up as a kid with my NES.

**Full Quiet was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.3 / 10 Super Mega Baseball 4

While there’s certainly an audience for simulation sports games, aiming to be as realistic representations as possible of our favorite sports, there’s also an market for sports games that also have more of a less serious arcade-like focus. Growing up, some of my favorite sports games were Mutant League Football, Base Wars, Punch-Out!!, Blades of Steel and NBA Jam, much more arcade focused on the fun element rather than recreating the sport exact as possible.

Having never played the Super Mega Baseball series before, I wasn’t sure quite what to expect other than a more light hearted experience given the colorful and cartoonish looking players and eccentric animations. With the series being around almost a decade now, Super Mega Baseball 4 is the latest that boasts a laundry list of additions and improvements, including over 200 fan favorite pros. Whether you’re a lifelong baseball or a completely casual watcher like myself (Go Blue Jays!), Super Mega Baseball 4 can scale to your skill quite easily depending on the experience you want from it.

If you want to simply jump in and play a game, Exhibition is what you’re looking for, simply choose the league, teams, and set any other parameters you’d like. You can also play Seasons if you want to try and get through to the finals. Want something a bit more involved, then Franchise mode is what you’re looking for. There’s an Elimination mode as well where you try and knock out other teams to see the last one standing. Lastly there’s Shuffle Draft, the most unique of the modes that I enjoyed more than I expected.

In Shuffle Draft you create a league from drafting players one by one, allowing to create some all-star teams and unique rosters. Think of a fantasy draft from complete scratch, but you’re not given the entire roster at once. You’re given eight or so options, each of which you can see their stats and ranks, even able to combine the pools of players from different league should you choose. As you fill your roster, if you’ve not chosen a specific role to be filled yet, you’ll see more cards of those each turn, eventually having to choose one. I’ll admit, I’m not great on my baseball knowledge for rosters and players, but this made it very simple for a casual fan like myself to create an awesome team in a fun way aside from boring menu diving.

Baseball fans will be glad to see over 200 former pro players and legends. Again, while I’m simply a casual fan, there were even a handful of names that I recognized, and it’s cool to see their played years as a pro on their player card. While I’m not going to list all of them, some of the more noteworthy were Willie Mays, Rollie Fingers, David Ortiz, Vladimir Guerrero, Jose Bautista and even the one and only Sultan of Swat, Babe Ruth.

Players have individual traits, of which there are 55 new ones, so you can make your roster more in-depth than before. There’s 6 new stadiums, each of which is unique from one another, even one including the high walls that make for difficult home runs. With a total of 20 stadiums, this means every team in the Super Mega League finally have a home stadium to play in. There’s even a loyalty system included that will adjust based on how your players feel and if they want to stick with the team moving forward.

Not explained very well is the Ego system. For whatever reason, in my first Exhibition game I couldn’t hit the ball or pitch a strike to save my life, as the cursor was moving way too fast to aim properly. After a few games I was about to give up, wondering what I was missing and why I was doing so terribly. Somehow my Ego was set to 99, the hardest difficulty, where setting to 0 would be the easiest. Once I figured this out I turned down the Ego to a respectable 30 and was finally able to actually play properly.

Online multiplayer is not only included, but allows for cross platform play, though this can vary based on the mode. Online Leagues can be formed and played and there’s a ranking system that adjusts the Ego to how you play and are seeded after 4 Exhibition games. The only missing thing seems to be a Homerun Derby or something different outside of normal modes. The few games I played had no lag issues and there's a communication wheel with a few preset phrases to say to your opponent.

Players are very comical and characterized, like as if each of them was drawn by those street artists that embellish your features. While the pros are still recognizable if you know their faces, it’s certainly been cartooned to a heavy degree. Animations are quite varied and I saw a few different events that I wouldn’t have expected. Getting hit by a pitch for example, or smashing my bat when striking out, these added some variety to the presentation. There’s more body types, hair colors and more. What can I say, I’m a sucker for a badass mullet on a player.

While the audio has been revamped as well, you’ll hear plenty of chatter and ambient noise from the crowd. Players will grunt and show their displeasure when they strike out and the umpire will be quite animated in how he calls the strike outs. The lack of any serious play by play commentary does stick out at first, though there’s a soundtrack that plays in the background to avoid pure silence. Writing this I was trying to remember any of the songs from the soundtrack and I couldn’t, which speaks to how non memorable it was.

Admittedly a very casual baseball fan, I thought I was going to play a few games and basically have my fill, but I’m finding myself continuing to play a few games here and there due to being able to scale the Ego system to my liking. Super Mega Baseball 4 may not be quite for the hardcore baseball fan that desire a true simulation, but it’s great at making the sport accessible to all types of fans, even the casuals that want to hit a few Home Runs and enjoy a few quick games.

**Super Mega Baseball 4 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Nocturnal

Imagine returning home only to find everything destroyed and everyone you know has perished. That’s how your journey begins in Nocturnal, trying to free the island you grew up on from a mysterious and deadly darkness that’s engulfed it. Expect a blend of challenging combat, fluid platforming, puzzles and a constant race against time to not let the flames that keep you alive be extinguished. Like the great Bob Ross once said, “Gotta have opposites, light and dark and dark and light”, and that’s a constant theme in Nocturnal.

You play as Ardeshir, a soldier of the Enduring Flame who has just returned home to his island of Nahran. There seems to be a deadly and dark mist that’s enveloping the island, and while you’re wanting to find out what happened to your fellow soldiers and brothers, you’re worried about your sister’s whereabouts as well.

The mist is deadly and you’re unable to survive within its grasp. The only weapon you have against it is fire, which will be your lifeline as you progress further to uncover the mystery of what has happened to your home. Ardeshir must wield fire upon his blade, though it’s only for a finite amount of time before he must replenish the fire once again, as it’s the only way to keep him safe from the mist. Without fire you have no hope to survive, and it becomes as necessary as breathing.

Part 2D sidescrolling platformer, part combat based, Ardeshir will be searching for an exit in each area to the next before the mist can catch up and take over. The platforming mechanics start basic at first, simply jumping from ledge to ledge and over gaps, eventually becoming a bit more involved when lighting torches act as switches for moving ramps and turning on other platforms to cross pathways. You’ll need to have precision and purpose when trying to get from one area to the next, as focusing on the actual parkour is only part of the equation, you also need to ensure you light the next torch with your fire before it runs out.

Again, fire is ever important in Nocturnal. Not only is it what keeps you safe from the mist, certain enemies are only attackable with fire, and while you can coat your blade in fire for a short period of time, it’s certainly not permanent. This requires you to make note of where the permanent fire fixtures are, as all you need to do is slash the fire to coat your blade in flames for a short period of time. Attack any unlit torch and fire will then be permanently there, which I always thought of like an anchor, the closest place you can come back to reignite your blade if you happen to lose the flame.

Fire is not only what keeps you safe in certain sections, but can also be used to heal your limited health. At certain times you’ll want to use your remaining fire to heal, but that is where the risk versus reward comes in. In the middle of a difficult battle do you choose to try and get one or two more fire hits in on your enemies, which does extra damage, or use it to heal to prevent a death and restart?

Every so often you’ll see a row of three or four torches that need to be lit, but when you place fire on them all they seemingly extinguish themselves. This is where some light puzzle elements come into play. Some secrets are behind locked doors, and to open them you’ll need to light these torches in a specific order. Remember, your fire only lasts a short time, so once you’ve attempted a combination of torch lighting, you’ll probably need to quickly go back to the permanent fire location to light your blade and try once again. I do wish there was some sort of subtle environmental hint as to the combination for these puzzles, as I found it was simply trying to brute force through it with every combination until I was successful.

Combat starts out simply with being able to dodge, attack and jump. Regular enemies are simple enough when fighting one on one, but once you fight two or more simultaneously, even regular enemies can be deadly. Combat is challenging once you have to deal with certain dark enemies that emerge from the mist, as many can only be harmed with fire attacks. While there’s no way to block or parry, you’ll need to time your dodges if you want to be successful and survive. There were a few frustrating sections, as in the latter half of the game you’re having to constantly fight against multiple dark enemies while having to manage your fire timer as well. The fighting alone isn’t too challenging, but having to balance dodging and recollecting fire while doing so is where it can become a little chaotic at times.

Often you’ll be suddenly pit against a new enemy type without any clue of the best way to defeat them or their attack patterns, so some trial and error comes into play as you try to react and adjust on the fly as best as you can. After defeating the first boss you’ll get your only new combat ability, a dagger that can be thrown that automatically returns to you. This is how you’ll light out of the reach torches, attack enemies from afar, and even cut ropes that hold up a platform. Using the right stick for your dagger slows down time, allowing you to aim with precision and just feels great to use.

While the core combat mechanics feel great when it all comes together, there’s nothing really new introduced after you gain the dagger aside from throwing more enemies at you and making the fire more challenging to reach during these sections. Boss fights aren’t often, but the few you do get were the highlight, as there were new mechanics to deal with, including screen filling attacks that need to be dodged. While some battles required a few attempts, none felt unfair, as I knew it was either my reaction time or misunderstanding of best strategy to defeat them to unlock the next door.

Destroying certain jars and urns will net you a special currency, spendable on upgrades at certain shrines to improve Ardeshir in a variety of different ways. At these Phoenix Statues you’ll be able to upgrade your health, fire duration or speed when fire is equipped, all of which are useful. Depending on your playstyle you may upgrade one way or another, but each is certainly beneficial in its own way.

For a small indie game, Nocturnal’s hand drawn aesthetic is gorgeous. Animations are smooth, and when you get those brief moments of being outdoors or passing by a large open area seeing the vistas I couldn’t help but take a few screenshots. The lighting is done quite well, which I expected nothing less given its premise centers around darkness and light. Watching bushes, rugs and banners burn quickly when I swipe at them with my sword ablaze is always satisfying. The score is just as beautiful, and while there’s little dialogue, I did wish those few lines were voiced so we had just that little bit more of immersion.

While mechanically simple, Nocturnal is very well made and feels quite polished. While able to be completed in a single sitting, it short length felt like the appropriate amount of time, as anything more would have started to wear out its welcome. A great indie title that deserves some attention, Nocturnal is challenging in the darkest times, but makes for a satisfying experience when you fight against it with flames.

**Nocturnal was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.3 / 10 Stay Out of the House

Released last year on PC just in time for Halloween, Stay Out of the House has finally made its bloody and disgusting way to consoles for more horror fans to enjoy. If you’re a fan of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Friday the 13th, Saw or The Hill Have Eyes, you’ve probably noticed that not many games are made with the same premise. Sure there are plenty of horror games, but Stay Out of the House essentially takes The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and makes it into a deeply creepy PlayStation 1 style game from the early 90’s. Can you escape the house of a cannibalistic serial killer? While the title will imply you should stay out, going into the house is possibly the last time you’ll have freedom.

Before you’re trapped in the horrifying house of The Butcher, fighting for your life and trying to find a way to escape, you begin your adventure working the solo night shift at a local gas station. What can go wrong when you’re working alone at a gas station in the middle of nowhere? As your shift goes on you have a small list of chores from the boss to complete and of course customers to help as they arrive, some friendly, some not so much. While one customer simply wants some gas and pays, there seems to be an inconspicuous white van that goes around the building, slowing down when going in front of the windows and then leaving. Another customer comes in later suspiciously asking if you’re working alone and then leaves. Again, what’s the worst that can happen? Suddenly you hear the door at the back of the store unlock and it’s opened. This is where the kidnapping happens.

Days after you play a different character, Roxanne, taking a road trip with her boyfriend. When nature calls you stop at a roadside bathroom, quickly napping while your boyfriend goes to relieve himself. He doesn’t return, so naturally you go to look for him. With him nowhere to be found, around the back you find his license, so of course you explore further, eventually finding more items from other people, like luggage. After making your way through a corn maze and having a stray dog follow you, you eventually come across a creepy looking house. The dog runs inside, so of course you go in after it. After a quick search, you can instantly tell something is not right here, and at that jump scare moment, The Butcher finds you.

After these two opening chapters, the remaining gameplay has you trying to escape the horrific house, and you’re only given three days (lives) to escape. You awake in a cage with nothing but the clothes on your back and a TV with static replaying the same scene. You eventually find a corner of the fenced cage to pry open and make your escape. Each room and hallway you discover is grimy, bloody and there’s obviously something not right here. Searching some drawers and cabinets you find a screwdriver, allowing you to remove a vent cover and find an alternative path. This is where your nightmares begin, seeing The Butcher carving up a body, blood spraying everywhere.

Trying to escape the house isn’t easy, as doors are locked, boarded up, and there’s traps and cameras over the place. You have a restrictive inventory management you need to deal with, so sometimes you’ll find items but will need to drop what you currently have on hand. The problem is that you won’t always know what items you’ll need at a certain puzzle or point, so you’ll have to remember where you place things for collection later.

Right after from your caged escape you’re constantly stalked by The Butcher. He’s not a dumb hulking brute though and will be smart with how he tries to capture you. The AI that controls your deadly capture is actually quite clever. Not only is he always on the search for you, there’s a bit more under the hood I didn’t expect. For example, in most stealth games where you need to hide, being under a bed or in a cabinet is a default safe spot, but not here. If The Butcher sees you hide, he will keep coming after you. Also, ducking into a vent isn’t a safe spot either, as he will turn on the gas to flush you out of the vents, not even including what other horrors might be waiting for you in the vents.

If that wasn’t bad enough with being constantly stalked and hunted, The Butcher isn’t alone in his home. What’s worse, you’re going to come across a creepy old grandmother in a wheelchair who roams the house hallways, and if you’re spotted, she will shriek, bringing attention to The Butcher to your whereabouts, so you’ll need to go run and hide quickly.

A stealth horror game means you’ll need to manage being in the darkness, barely able to see other than your Zippo lighter, as being in the light will make it easy to be found and captured. You’ll also need to sneak and avoid making noise. You can run for a short period when needing to quickly escape, but you’ll have to manage your endurance.

You’re only able to save when you find a TV set with a VHS player, but to actually save you need to find a VHS tape, much like Resident Evil’s Ink Ribbons. The gameplay isn’t as linear as I expected, as there seemed to be a few different ways to solve each of the puzzles. Opening a door for example might be lock picked with a paperclip, opened from the inside by going through a vent or maybe using one of the limited bullets you find for a gun and shoot the handle off.

Being a small indie game, I never expect the same amount of polish that a larger budget game would get, but I did run into quite a lot of frustrating bugs. The first was being able to carry a chair and warp my way into a locked room I shouldn’t have been able to, unable to escape because I didn’t open the door the proper way, resulting in a chapter restart due to not having a VHS tape to save. Getting the cursor right on the objects you want to interact with or open is a challenge in itself, made worse by the fact that you’re constantly under pressure of death from The Butcher.

With PS1 era graphics, it’s not going to impress at first look, but when you realize it was a design choice and purposeful, I quite enjoyed the retro aesthetic. Just like an old classic slasher film, there’s a number of different filters and options you can also choose depending on how authentic you want it to be to an old horror movie. Want it to look like it’s being played on an old VHS tape or CCTV, that’s an option. Adding on top of the retro polygonal graphics and it’s actually quite creepy overall. Maybe it’s just in my mind, but I found having the VHS filter on was much creepier, even though it’s much more difficult to see more details. Audio is also just as fitting, hearing creepy sounds, and I can still hear grandma shrieking when I was found.

Rough around the edges, if you’re into classic horror movies and old classic PS1 games, Stay Out of the House is a gritty and atmospheric horror adventure that is constantly unsettling. The puzzles aren’t too challenging on their own, but having to navigate the house being constantly hunted is really challenging. I appreciated the multiple difficulty options, even the Very Easy option where there is no enemies, allowing you to focus on the puzzles only without any of the looming threat.

Stay Out of the House has some great suspense and I was constantly looking over my shoulder and listening for my captor nearby. Full of jumpscares, they don’t feel cheap, and the atmosphere feels like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in video game form. Like a great B-movie or slasher flick, Stay Out of the House might be a future cult classic if you’re into retro PS1 graphics and tons of blood and gore.

**Stay Out of the House was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Star Trek: Resurgence

I feel I need to admit first and foremost I’m not a Trekkie by any means. My Star Trek knowledge comes from growing up and watching it during dinner time with the family, and while I know the basics, I couldn’t hold my own if I was to converse with a true fan. That said, I’m a super fan of narrative games, which is why Telltale used to be one of my favorite developers before their messy demise and recent pseudo comeback.

At their peak, they were master storytellers, and I still rank their Season One of The Walking Dead game one of the best narrative games of all time. So when I found out that Star Trek: Resurgence was developed by Dramatic Labs, a new studio but a culmination of over twenty former Telltale writers, designers, artists, developers and producers, I was instantly interested, even if only know some very basic Star Trek knowledge.

With a narrative focus first and foremost, you’ll be making choices that will shape and affect your individual storyline. Not only a dialogue choosing adventure though, will you engage in a variety of different Star Trek activities, like using your Tricorder, Phasers, piloting a shuttle and more. You’ll be engrossed into a unique Star Trek adventure that even non Trekkie’s can enjoy, like myself.

Set within The Next Generation universe, Resurgence has you playing as two different characters, Commander Jara Rydek and Engineer Carter Diaz, usually alternating between the two between chapters. Your main mission is to help solve a dispute between two alien races, the Hotari and the Alydian’s, as a neutral party since the Federation has no authority in their reaches of space. The races have some unique backstories and were quite different from one another, of course putting you right in the middle to try and solve their disputes.

Jara Rydek is the brand new XO on the USS Resolute due to the previous XO passing away. The current Captain, Zachary Solano, had a mission go wrong where a bunch of crew didn’t survive, so now the Resolute is being repaired before they leave on their latest mission. Being the new XO, the ship’s crew have heard about your accolades, but some aren’t pleased with promotions not coming from within, so there’s some initial conflict right away as an outsider. Most interestingly, Jara is a Kobliad, an obscure Star Trek race but requires a regular dose of Deuridium to survive, which of course will play into some decisions later on.

The other protagonist you’ll play is Engineer Carter Diaz, a mechanical genius, both of which are very unique and have fantastic stories. Of course their paths will intertwine in certain ways, but he’s a fantastic secondary character that I was quite fond of. You’ll see some familiar faces and names along the way, of which I’ll only mention what has been shown in trailers and previews. Ambassador Spock plays a large part of your journey and mission, and he looks exactly like the true Spock. Of course your simple mission will not be so easy, unearthing something much larger that will take you on a journey across the galaxy.

Being a narrative heavy adventure, like any good Telltale game, you’ll primarily be making dialogue choices, unsure of the ramifications of said decisions until later. You’ll build relationships with both characters, and while there’s not always a simple ‘good’ or ‘bad’ choice, it’s usually more of a grey area. I always play ‘good’ as I can my first playthrough, but I’m looking forward to playing again with all opposite choices to see the differences. There will also be no shortage of quicktime events where you need to press a designated button on the screen at a specific time to succeed.

One of the coolest choices you get to make early on is what your catchphrase for “Engage” is when getting your mission underway. Some choices are small and won’t affect much overall, but of course other decisions will weigh heavily on not only your journey, but your crew as well. Do you choose to save many crew over a single person? Do you risk your ship to try and save an individual? These are just some of the choices you’ll make without much time to think, you simply need to react. Given that a portion of the developers are formerly from Telltale Games, you can expect many of the same drama and morally grey area decisions.

As you meet and interact with new characters, any which are ‘main’ characters will show within the Pause menu and give a brief description of their current attitude towards you and your last interactions with them. Some will like you, some will hate you, sometimes their feeling will ebb and flow depending if you take their advice or not. Relationships are difficult to upkeep and you can’t always make everyone happy, just like in real life. Do you back Captain Solano because he chose you to be his XO, or not have a blind allegiance and question what went wrong in his previous mission? Not every decision is as trivial as you might first expect, and by the final few chapters you can expect full drama and heartbreaking outcomes. Just because you made someone angry with one decision doesn’t mean you’re always locked into a specific outcome, though maybe some choices will leaving a lasting impression, so it’s difficult to weigh your options in the heat of the moment.

While Resurgence isn’t open world, each scene you get to explore does have some optional objects you can interact with and people, to speak to, though it is primarily a very linear adventure which I honestly prefer. There’s not only an abundance of quicktime events, like holding Left Stick up to move forward in scenes or tapping Right Trigger to grab onto a ledge, but there’s a good amount of minigames and puzzle-like elements along the way as well.

For example, beaming up people in the teleporter requires you to find the right frequency on the computer where you plot a specific course. These aren’t challenging to solve, but certainly add some authenticity to the whole Star Trek experience as you interact with the systems you normally don’t see much detail of on the shows. Using your Tricorder will be common as well, as you’ll need to scan a variety of items in certain situations, seemingly authentic to the source material with the corresponding beeps and boops.

There’s a few times where you’ll be piloting a small passenger vessel in space, getting from one point to another. It’s simple enough, having you avoid asteroids and floating space debris, later adding some additional challenges, though I don’t want to spoil what that could be. There’s a few times where Jara and Carter will have to avoid combat, using stealth to bypass enemies and avoid detection. While this is simple as crouching with pressing the Right Stick and avoiding line of sight, it’s quite basic of a mechanic overall.

Then there’s the phaser combat sections, easily the worst part of the whole experience. There will be times where you’ll have to defend yourself with your phaser, though it’s clear that Resurgence wasn’t designed to be a third person shooter. The controls are loose, aiming is terrible and it’s truly an awful experience. These sections were actually the only times I ‘failed’ a Chapter. Thankfully you can instantly retry, also giving you the option to replay in Story Mode, essentially a No-Fail mode to get passed that particular section instead of having to deal with repeated frustration. It’s not that the combat is hard, but you’ll have to shoot particular enemies before they hit you or your team, but the aiming is just terrible to try and do so.

If you’ve played a narrative Telltale game before, you can expect very similar visuals. Characters are easily distinguishable from one another, you can instantly recognize certain races and it looks decent overall. There are some quirks with weird eyebrow movements and clunky lip syncing, but nothing that really detracted from the overall experience.

Given that Resurgence is a dialogue heavy game, the voice acting had to be on point if it wanted to be believable and be a seamless Star Trek experience. Thankfully Krizia Bajos (Jara) and Josh Keaton (Carter) were up for the task and did a brilliant job doing most of the heavy lifting. The cast overall was fantastic but the two main protagonists really stood out and made the whole mission a believable one, as if it was a long lost episode from TV. The score is done wonderfully as well, as if it was taken straight from the show. Sure there were a few small issues like one section not having random sounds and subtitles not always exactly matching the spoken dialogue perfectly, but that’s the critic in me looking for imperfections, not that it took away from the overall game.

I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical about playing Star Trek: Resurgence given that I’m not much of a Trekkie at all. None of that mattered though, as even though I didn’t know much of the previous context or background lore outside of main concepts and characters, I still quite enjoyed my narrative focused mission with Commander Jara Rydek and Engineer Carter Diaz. While it hasn’t converted me into a full Trekkie, it certainly had me going down a Star Trek wiki rabbit hole, wanting to learn more about certain races, characters and factions. Live long, and prosper.

**Star Trek: Resurgence was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.7 / 10 Lucy Dreaming

I’m probably going to date myself, but I grew up when Point & Click adventure games were the norm. Before shooters and zombies took over nearly every game, there were dozens of Point & Click games, many of which went on to become iconic classics. Growing up with The Secret of Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Sam and Max, as well as many others, it was one of my favorite genres, known for their challenging puzzles and usually full of humor.

While the genre isn’t as big as it once was decades ago, there have been a few releases in the past few years, most notably being the excellent Thimbleweed Park, so naturally when a new Point & Click adventure releases I become instantly intrigued. Having done no research beforehand about Lucy Dreaming from developer Tall Story Games, it initially was a Kickstarter, now released for console as well.

Looking as though it was taken right from the golden era of the genre in the 90’s with its pixel art, Lucy Dreaming was challenging, hilarious, addictive and an overall wonderful adventure that hit all the nostalgic highs I wanted, as well as having plenty of Easter eggs and modern references that caused a few out loud laughs. You play as the titular Lucy as she explores the real world to solve a mystery, but also having to deal with her own nightmares in the dream world a well. British humor may be a bit drier than I’m used to, but I still found myself chuckling quite often. I mean, I know I’m a man-child, but small birds being referenced as tits is hilarious.

Lucid Dreaming is described as “When you know that you're dreaming while you're asleep. You're aware that the events flashing through your brain aren't really happening. But the dream feels vivid and real. You may even be able to control how the action unfolds, as if you're directing a movie in your sleep.” Lucid dreams are what Lucy is dealing with, finding herself falling once she goes to sleep, a recurring nightmare she wants to stop from happening. To do so she’ll have to find a way to control her dreams, but doing so isn’t easy and will require a lot of out of the box thinking, possibly even jumping from one dream to another.

Lucy decides to use her father’s psychology book to possibly help her take control of her dreams, giving her clues as to how to do so, acting as subtle clues as to what needs to be done. While you think that the majority of the gameplay might revolve around these dream worlds, most takes place in the real world when she uncovers a dark family secret along the way. Maybe things you learn in the real world will be applicable to the dream world, and vice versa.

Like any good Point & Click adventure, you’ll gather items along the way needed to solve puzzles in unique ways or to combine with other items. As you learn more about the people you meet or areas, new places in the town will unlock that Lucy can fast travel to on her bike by using the map. You’ll visit the Library, Town Center and Lucy’s home amongst other places to solve a mystery. You’ll meet a wide variety cast of characters, each completely unique in their own way and quite memorable, and maybe bringing in your beloved teddy bear or a rubber duck into your dream world will have you see them in a completely new way.

While I don’t want to spoil any of the story as it was quite interesting, your first playthrough will probably be around somewhere around a dozen hours or so, less if you’re naturally skilled at classic Point & Click adventures and can think outside the box for puzzle solutions. With a walkthrough you could probably complete it in about half the time, but make sure to explore all you can, talk to everyone and take in its British humor and witty one liners.

Clearly a love letter to the 90’s genre, Lucy Dreaming has everything you’d come to expect from a Lucas Arts-style Point and Click; great pixel artwork, humor, challenging puzzles, Easter eggs and plenty of dialogue to get lost in. The bottom portion of the screen has your usable commands such as “Look At”, “Pick Up”, “Talk To” and “Use”. This is how you interact with the world, objects and characters, deciding exactly how you want to do so. Click anywhere on the screen in each scene and that’s where Lucy will walk to by default.

Puzzles are what make the genre what it is, and Lucy Dreaming is no different. While I’d like to think I’m pretty decent at these types of games, I’ll admit, I got stumped a few times and had to take some time to figure out what to do. Thankfully there’s a built in hint system if needed, but a few of the later puzzles I found to be a little too obtuse to figure out naturally, though like any good puzzler, once you solve it you feel like a certified genius.

As you explore each area and scene, talking to people along the way, you’ll get clues as to what to do next, noting them in your diary as a reminder. You’ll quickly notice that sometimes the real and dream worlds blend together, so what might not seem relevant now may just help you when you get Lucy to change into her PJ’s and go into the dream world. Sher even has a handy dream box of sorts where any of the items she puts into it will go into the dream world with her. A full glass of water on her nightside desk will have the tide rise, while it empty will have low tide. The same goes for your fan, as maybe the direction it's facing will affect how the wind is blowing in your dreams.

For example, putting a joke book in the box changes the dream setting to a comedy club, and if she puts her Teddy Bear in the box, he then comes to life in the dream world as well. It’s done in a very clever way and later on you’ll need to go from one dream to another, done so by waking up, changing the contents in your dream box, then going back to sleep. While your real world inventory doesn’t go into the dream world with you, the items you find and collect in your dreams do persist from one dream to the next. Clearly you’ll need to progress in one scene to make progress in another, though this portion wasn’t explained all too well initially and took some figuring out with trial and error on my part.

Each nightmare, like her falling from the sky in the beginning for example, is essentially its own Chapter. Once you figure out how to have Lucy stop falling, she finds herself stuck in another nightmare, which brings you to the next Chapter. With an overall mystery to solve as well, Lucy is a busy girl, and while I didn’t find the ending completely satisfying, I’m still glad to have played and enjoyed myself throughout.

The pixel art is done absolutely wonderfully, looking as if it came from the 90’s at the height of the genre popularity. There’s so much detail in every scene, and while a few intractable objects can be a little hidden and difficult to notice at first, you eventually get used to pixel hunting like in any other Point & Click game. The most surprising was how every single line of dialogue and character was fully voiced. That’s usually not always a given in the genre, so it was pleasant to have. All the voice actors were great as were the sound effects and soundtrack, totally bringing back some 90’s nostalgia.

Lucy Dreaming is exactly what I was wanting from a Point & Click adventure; full of humor, great pixel art, quirky puzzles and memorable characters. A lot of attention went into adding plenty of smaller details into Lucy’s world, making it feel much more alive and full. A must play for Point & Click adventure fans, Lucy Dreaming was simply a joy to play, even if the British humor won’t always land for everyone.

**Lucy Dreaming was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Panic Porcupine

I have no qualms when a game is trying to mimic another or is heavily inspired, as long as it somehow has its own identity in some form. Paying tribute to a game or genre is one thing, while full on being a clone is another, and sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate where that line is. Panic Porcupine rides this line, and while you’re going to initially think it’s a simple classic Sonic the Hedgehog clone, there’s actually more to it than simply running fast. Do you enjoy difficult platforming games like Super Meat Boy? What if you combined that with the speed of a Sonic title? Panic Porcupine is the result of combining the two.

Expect speed, deaths and frustration in this 2D side scrolling adventure. If you’re one to try and collect everything or a speedrunner, you’ll feel right at home. If you’re looking for a more casual Sonic-like game, this isn’t going to be the one for you. Despite clearly looking like a Sonic clone, it’s actually quite challenging with its single hit deaths and constant level resets once you die for the hundredth time.

While there’s not much of a story here, you’re tasked with stopping an evil scientist that looks like a cross between Dr. Robotnik and Dr. Wily, trying to save the Chickabirbs. There’s a few funny lines about how a particular blue hedgehog is busy out filming a movie, so now it’s up to Panic. The hung portrait of a buff Sonic on the wall is hilarious too if you notice. Take on Dr. Preventriculus across 50 stages, find hidden eggs, go for speed runs and collect everything. A platformer with high speed, Panic Porcupine is full of obstacles like spikes, pits, flames and much more that will instantly kill you when touched. Expect to die many times in this unique genre mashup.

Instead of larger levels that require you speed to get through, Panic Porcupine’s levels are much shorter in design, instead challenging you with collecting all the Chickabirbs instead of reaching a finish line. If you know the levels they can be quite quick, maybe 30 to 60 seconds or so, but getting to that point will take quite a bit of repetitious practice to learn each level. Even though speed isn’t the main focus, you will be moving quite quick like Sonic, but need to know where the obstacles are.

With no enemies to face aside from the boss at the end of each stages’ tenth level, it’s you versus the environment. Timing and precision is paramount, as is learning the level layout to not just save all of the Chickabirbs, but even more so if you want to 100% levels by collecting every egg. Expect to reattempt jumps over and over, trying to get over the spikes and buzz saws, getting enough speed to get through some loops and ramps, all while figuring out where the Chickabirbs are.

Each stage is broken up into a handful of different levels, with the final being a showdown against the evil Dr. before he escapes and you move onto the next. The boss fights were fun, simply having you hit him a few times, freeing the Chickabirbs in pods, but each has its own unique challenge. Each zone has its own theme and biome, changing up the backdrops and design of levels.

Momentum is usually a large portion of how to complete levels, and while the controls are generally decent, I did have issues now and then with having to be completely precise in my moment. Bumpers caused me many issues, though not as much as the rotating poles that you kind of stick to before leaping off in either direction. It seems half the time my timing was off and I’d jump to the wrong side.

Many levels end up being trial and error, as you’ll simply need to know when to jump to avoid whatever is about to kill you, eventually becoming more and more challenging as levels progress. This sometimes comes down to reaction time and memorization as you speed across each stage. My main complaint is that you need to button press to have Panic roll into a ball instead of simply pressing ‘Down’ like in certain other hedgehog games.

The retro visuals are done so well that at a quick glance, you might expect it actually came from the 16-bit era. It’s bright, colorful and seeing Panic’s eyes constantly circling when you take a break from moving is always funny. Audio is also fitting for the era with a catchy soundtrack and decent sound effects along the way.

Panic Porcupine isn’t for the faint of heart. If you get frustrated by dying numerous times, then you’re going to have a bad time. On the other hand, if you enjoy a challenge or even want to speedrun, there’s a lot on offer. You’ll need to have reaction speed and accuracy if you want to see Panic complete his journey, and while you might simply assume it’s a Sonic knock-off, it’s more akin to a Super Meat Boy than anything else.

**Panic Porcupine was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.2 / 10 Ghostwire: Tokyo

Originally released as a one year exclusive for PlayStation, Ghostwire: Tokyo is finally here for Xbox players, and better yet, available with Xbox GamePass as well. Given that it wasn’t even available on my console of choice until recent, I actually wasn’t even following it all that much beforehand, even after its release, so I went in ‘blind’ not really knowing what to expect or how the original reception was. I’m kind of glad I did this, as I went in with no expectations nor any idea what it was even about.

An open world game with a heavy narrative focus, complete with supernatural powers, Ghostwire: Tokyo kind of took me by surprise with it being a shooter, though not in the way you might initially expect. Completely engrossed with Japanese folklore, it quickly impresses with its gorgeous visuals that make for an isolating and creepy backdrop for your adventure. With some horror elements apparent and throughout, there might not be many jump scares, but there’s a general overall creepy and uneasiness that is always around, as you never feel completely safe. Also included in this release is the latest Spider’s Thread Update, adding new content to the game such as new custscenes, areas, missions, enemies, improvements, skills and modes, so maybe the wait has been worth it? Let’s find out.

Ghostwire: Tokyo starts out immediately with the action, showing main protagonist, Akito, getting into a serious accident on his motorbike. You’re then shown a spirit flying above, looking for a body to possess. Great timing, as the spirit takes over Akito’s body, essentially reviving him. Everyone in Tokyo has vanished though, seemingly only you surviving due to the possession, and anyone that touches the mysterious fog that’s rolling in seems to disappear. The city is now infested with paranormal visitors who don’t seem friendly, so it’s up to the duo of Akito and KK (the spirit) to not only survive, but investigate the man in the Hannya mask that seems to be behind it all.

While KK wants to go stop Hannya immediately, Akito was on his way to go check on his sister in the hospital who is in a coma, refusing to help KK until he knows she’s alright. Of course he obliges but this is where the internal struggle between the two start, being forced to help one another, yet both are somewhat in control, much like how Venom controls Eddie Brock in a way. Being possessed by a spirit has its perks though, you know, aside from not being dead, as you’ll be using your newly founded supernatural powers to fight back against the deadly forces that seem to be emanating from the fog.

Designed as an open world game, there are initially restrictions of where you can go with the deadly fog acting as your barriers, eventually you’ll be able to uncover more of the map, allowing for more freedom and a seemingly never ending list of side quests and activities to do. Being mirrored to the real life Shibuya City just west of Tokyo, you'll come across a number of famous landmarks if you know the area. While the main story should take around 8-12 hours, there’s about triple that or more if you decide to try and complete all the side quests and activities. While I was attempting to do everything in an area before moving on, it eventually become too much and overwhelming, deciding to simply focus mainly on the story from there on.

While KK is initially viewed as a parasite in Akito’s body, the two eventually form a unique relationship, helping one another, and the bond between them was an interesting story given they must fully trust one another in their own way. Sometimes this was funny one liners, other times serious tones, but it was always entertaining when they interacted or had a conversation with one another.

It seems as though a lot of time and care was taken into making Shibuya a living and breathing world, which is ironic since everyone is dead and you’re fighting spirits. The streets may be barren of life, but there’s so much hand crafted detail that every street and alley feels unique. You quickly learn the ability to use Spectral Vision, a detective-like blast that will highlight objects and enemies nearby. Visually, the city is absolutely stunning and impressive, and even if you don’t focus on one quest or activity you can easily find yourself lost within the city landscapes, as I found quite a few vistas I needed to take screenshots of.

Being able to only stick to some main streets and alleys in the beginning, you’ll need to cleanse massive Tori Gates, and doing so will force back the fog in a large area, allowing you to further explore Shubiya. These act essentially as the viewpoints in Assassin’s Creed, but fits narratively as well. As you explore you’ll also find spirits floating around which are souls that have yet to been captured, so it’s up to you to collect and set them free. Essentially a massive collect-athon, these are your best and quickest way to level up, and there’s no shortage. Some souls only appear after clearing an event, activity or battle though. With how many there are to collect, it can quickly feel quite overwhelming if you're a completionist.

You aren’t limited to walking at street level either, as you can find Tengus, kind of like a spirit griffon hovering in place, allowing you to zipline up onto the rooftops, naturally where more secrets and collectables are hidden. There’s also plenty of food items you’ll come across, though it took me a while to not simply save them all for when low on health. This is because eating food of course refills your health bar, but it also can extend your maximum health every time you eat, so sometimes if you’re hoarding a bunch of food it may be beneficial to munch on some of them to improve and extend your overall health.

Being a first person shooter, you won’t be defeating ghost and spirits with traditional guns, instead using the supernatural powers KK has endowed into you to blast from your hands. You begin with a wind blast attack, eventually unlocking more elements like fire and water. You can also charge your shots to be more powerful depending on the situation you find yourself in. Wind is generally good for almost any encounter, being a quick based attack. Fire is more powerful and explosive, and water is like your ‘shotgun’. Each uses its own ‘ammo’ that needs to be refilled by defeating enemies or breaking floating spirit objects littered throughout the world. While it’s not often you’ll find yourself out of ‘ammo’, there’s always some way to resupply nearby. There are a handful of boss fights during Akito’s journey, and while they are big and memorable, none were really all that challenging.

Combat starts out interesting and fun, though after a few hours does start to feel repetitive. You have a block you can use to negate damage and parry back attacks, so eventually combat gets into the same rhythm of attacking a few times, block, attack, extract soul, repeat, all while backpedaling or circle strafing. Once an enemy has no health left you can extract its soul, killing it from that point on. If you don’t destroy its soul it can regenerate and come back to attack you, so you’ll need to attack specific targets purposely, allowing enough time for the extraction before getting attacked by another.

You’ll eventually unlock a variety of Talismans, essentially your grenades. These are situational and used based on if you want to go a combat or stealth route. While some battles need to be faced head on, sometimes stealth is an option, and sneaking behind an enemy will allow for an instant ‘backstab’ soul extraction kill on most enemies. Without too many spoilers, there's one section early on where you aren't able to use your powers for narrative reasons, forcing you to use your bow or stealth. I found this portion to be awful and really missed having KK's powers.

As you gain experience, save souls and level up, you’ll be able to spend skill points into the three different trees. You can improve certain elemental attacks in a variety of ways, your bow weaponry, Talismans, and a bunch of other skills depending on how you want to play. Do a healthy amount of sidequests and activities and you won’t have much issue filling out the skill trees, so you can become quite powerful quickly if you decide to grind early on.

Visually, Ghostwire: Tokyo is absolutely stunning. There’s so much detail and full of (undead) life that it’s hard to not just take moments here and there to take it all in. Frame rates are fluid, animations are great and it always puts a smile on my face when I come across a cat merchant or stray dog. Voice acting from the main cast is done very well and hearing the shrieks and moans of spirits nearby can be quite creepy when you’re not sure where they are waiting for you.

While there’s an intriguing story that unfolds at a decent pace, it’s easy to get sidetracked with the overwhelming amount of optional things to do. While the story is about the right length, I eventually gave up trying to do everything as combat become a bit repetitive a few hours in. That said, Ghostwire: Tokyo was still a great playthrough and I’m glad it’s arrived for Xbox players to now enjoy as well.

**Ghostwire: Tokyo was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.8 / 10 Nuclear Blaze

With an endless list of indie games that release, it’s sometimes hard to get noticed, that is unless it comes from Dead Cells’ lead designer, Sébastien Bénard. Nuclear Blaze initially looks like quite a basic firefighting game but actually has an interesting story and fun gameplay to it, along with a great 2D aesthetic.

A massive fire has broken out, and you being a firefighter, are sent to put out the blaze. This one is a bad one though, so you need to be air dropped in to stop it. Everything starts off as normal, putting out the flames and looking for survivors, but you soon realize this isn’t just a normal building fire. You quickly end up in an underground facility and start to realize something isn’t right here. The further underground you go, you find yourself cut off from your team above ground, but you continue on to save anyone you can possibly find.

This secret facility makes you weary once you start to notice radioactive symbols and warnings on the walls. You start to find notes that make mention of some sort of experiment, but everything is quite vague at first. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting much of a storyline but it was interesting just enough to keep me hooked until the end to find out what happened. Given that Nuclear Blaze is such a short experience, clocking in at about two hours or so, I won’t spoil anything, my only real complaint is that I wanted more, as I thought I was done maybe the first Chapter by the time the credits rolled.

First you’ll need to choose what mode you want to play. While there’s a normal mode you’ll likely start out, there’s also a Kid Mode and Hold My Beer Mode. Kid Mode is just that, designed to be played and enjoyed by very young children. This is very simplistic, having the firefighter unable to be damaged, automatically jumps and aims at the flames, complete with plenty of helicopters and trucks, because what kid doesn’t like firetrucks and helicopters? This was initially designed for the developer’s child to enjoy, but decided to keep it in, which is a fantastic idea for those with very young children that still want to play.

Hold My Beer Mode is actually unlocked after your first playthrough, but that won’t take long. This is somewhat like a remixed version of the campaign, adding new hidden areas, new enemies and more. Essentially it’s New Game+ that adds a little more challenge and options, warranting a second playthrough after the credits roll for the first time.

Before you begin your firefighting career though, be sure to check out the options as you’re able to finely tune the experience just how you like. Want to have unlimited health? How about faster water pressure? There’s no Easy, Normal, or Hard difficulty options, but you’re given just enough toggles that you can completely customize your experience however you like. The best part is that it doesn’t disable any achievements either.

Primarily a 2D platforming game, you also need to manage your water meter and spray in different directions to put out all the flames. Luckily you have a portable backpack and hose that can refill at specific spots within the underground base. Developers Deepnight Games did a great job at making the flames feel alive, as it can spread and move (unless you disable it from doing so in the options), making for a lot of chaos in the later sections. Miss one little spot and the fire can quickly reignite and spread. You’ll need to look for valves to shut off, electricity panels to switch and sprinklers to turn on if you want to be successful.

A platforming game needs solid and smooth controls or it simply won’t be fun to play. Thankfully Dead Cells was fantastic, so I expected no less here. You’ll be running, jumping and rolling through dangers, and it all just works and feels great to do so. In the beginning you’ll only be able to spray your water hose horizontally, though you’ll quickly get a few upgrades that allow you to shower the flames at any angle and even cover yourself with water like an umbrella when opening a door and getting a massive backdraft.

As you make your way through room by room, some doors will be locked by specific colored key cards, so you’ll need to explore to find them. Other doors won’t open until every single flame is extinguished as a lockdown procedure, so get used to having to put out every single flame you see. You may even find some spots that are electrified, and if you spray them you’re going to get a nasty shock, so you’ll need to find a control panel to turn that off first. Delay too long and the fire spreads, so there’s always an urgency.

The rooms have a subtle red-ish glow when there are still fires somewhere nearby, and once clear it will glow a satisfying blue. It’s a subtle detail but works really well. What would a firefighter be if they didn’t rescue cats as well? Seems as though a few of the facility workers had cats, which can only be found in secrets areas, so be sure to explore every corner if you want to try and find them all. It’s cute seeing them following you in the area until you reach a vent that they can automatically escape from. There’s even something special if you can find them all which I won’t spoil.

The pixel art is done exceptionally well and it’s all animated quite well also. Your character moves smoothly and you can easily distinguish each object, door, ladder and fire. There’s a lot of smaller details and I really enjoyed its simple aesthetic. While the music isn’t nearly as memorable, it is satisfactory and fits the tone of putting fires out in a deep underground facility.

While I expected a simple firefighting game with Nuclear Blaze, it is that, but has a decent story that kept me wanting to find out what happened until the very end. Sure it may be quite short, but there’s at least enough reason to play through twice as you try and find all of its secrets and rescue cats. What’s better than saving some felines in an underground nuclear base while putting out flames and uncovering a dark secret?

**Nuclear Blaze was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Garden Simulator

While I enjoy my online shooters, competitive racing and 100+ hour RPG’s, every now and then I need a gaming palette cleanser. Sometimes I don’t want to be hyper focused, I just want to relax on the couch and chill while I play something. Life has been chaotic lately, so Garden Simulator came at exactly the right time, allowing me to just chill and play at my own pace.

As the title suggests, you are in control of creating your own garden, from mowing the grass, planting the seeds for vegetables and flowers, to even designing your whole backyard from scratch. While there’s a brief story intro about how you needed a break from the big city life and quit your high paying tech job to go into the back country for something more relaxing. This is a simulator, you aren’t playing it for a narrative, not that there is any here anyways.

I generally enjoy simulator games like these, as they are often relaxing, but there’s something I don’t mind about odd titles like these. While I’m used to having simulator games having a bit of ‘jank’ to them, Garden Simulator is far from perfect, but it was much better than I expected as it was stable and I had no crashes or framerate issues. Oh, and there’s a cat that wanders your lawn, so feel free to give it a pet when you like.

Garden Simulator begins and simply drops you into the front yard of your new secluded home in the woods. There’s no tutorial, not even anything about the basics or even controller commands. While I was able to figure it all about and discern what did what and what I should do next, a brief intro would have been welcome for those that may not game as much.

You begin with only having a portion of your front yard unlocked, with the other half, sides of the house and rear all taped off, unable to access at the moment. This is fine, as it gives you a concentrated area to focus on and to start earning your Garden Coins. Essentially you’ll need to plant flowers and veggies, then once a few days have passed and they are ready, you can sell them for profit. This is how you’ll slowly earn more and more money to purchase new decorations, different seeds and a handful of different decoration items for creating your dream garden.

You’re given a task list, like quests, to complete and guide you. While you aren’t forced to complete these, doing so will earn you extra money, which in turn helps you grow your garden space and purchase new seeds. Each action you do, from planting, picking, watering and even mowing, you earn XP which fills and gives you levels. Each level you get a skill point to use to increase profits or overall experience earned, speeding up the watering process and more.

Your little sectioned off backyard has a dumpster, a little shed and an area to hang up the tools you don’t need, along with a laptop. This laptop is basically an online store that once ordered, will have a direct drop shipment sent to you within about 10 seconds. Literally a drop shipment, the crate will be flung from the sky and land in the same area every time, so be careful not to start building your garden near there initially.

Before you can start your dream garden though you better clean up the place. It’s clear this house has been ignored for quite a few years, as there’s empty boxes, withered vines, garbage bags and wooden planks that were boarding up the windows. Simply pick up the trash, run it to your garbage bin and you’ll earn a few coins and XP for your trouble. Next you’ll need some tools, like a shovel, watering can and mower, so start saving those coins.

As you choose what seeds to plant, you can see the cost, how long to grow and the selling amount. There’s always a profit regardless of what you plant, it’s just a matter of how many days it takes for each different item to grow fully.

Days end once you go to your front door and choose “Call It a Day”. This has you rest and sleep until the next day. While each day doesn’t progress past 6PM, it doesn’t force you to stop playing on that day until you choose to progress, so no need to feel rushed. Most of the first few days will simply be watering each plant then sleeping to progress to the next day. Until you start to unlock the other sections of the yard and earn some coin you’ll be limited to what you can do in your garden, but that’s where the 'play as you want' nature of these simulation games are relaxing.

Your basic tools will get you started, but there will be upgrades you can purchase as you progress. Many tools, seeds and items are actually locked behind progress as well, and each is clearly labeled as to its progression within the laptop. Later on you can get automatic sprinklers, robot lawnmowers and more to aid your mundane tasks, though it’s completely up to you how you want to setup your garden.

While you begin with a lush lawn of overgrown grass, you’ll need to use your shovel to dig the ground up to prep for planting seeds. You can choose to snap to an invisible grid if you want even lines, or freely dig wherever you want. If you’re lucky you might even big up a gold nugget which will earn you some extra coins once you throw it in the garbage bins, though how that makes sense I’m unsure.

While you’ll only have a seed or two in the beginning, eventually you’ll unlock a large variety of fruits, vegetables and flowers. Each tier costs more to purchase, but nets you more profit once sold. You’ll start to notice weeds that appear each new day, which can be thrown into the trash for some XP and coin, but once you can afford a compost bin you can dump them into there to create fertilizer for your plants. Putting this fertilizer on your crops before they’ve fully grown will increase their quality which earns you more money once sold.

You begin by planting in the ground, but eventually you’ll unlock planters of different shapes and sizes if you prefer. There will be different furniture items, decorations and even hedges to create your dream garden, but most of these will come near the end of the game when money is no longer an issue.

Being able to place stones, wooden floors and even a barbeque grill is fun when you get to the design portion, but also showcases how ‘wonky’ the physics can be. If there is any overlapping of items you can expect objects to start acting weird or fling in directions. Clipping items is going to cause issues, though you’re able to lock items in place if you want to make sure they don’t move by accident until you unlock them.

Shovel the ground, put in seed, water the hole, move onto the next day and repeat. This is the basic gameplay loop, and while it may sound quite boring to some, I found it quite relaxing after a long day. Certain seeds will need to be unlocked by planting a certain amount of previous tier or selling better quality versions, then unlocking the ability to buy the newest seeds. While there’s not as much variety in plants and decorations as I expected, nor any cross pollination like Animal Crossing, it’s more than enough to last you a handful of hours to unlock everything.

For being a garden simulator, you can probably exactly guess what to expect for its visuals. Usually these simulation games aren’t terribly impressive, though it looked decent. The flowers are especially colorful and bright, grass looks like grass before being mowed, and it’s all serviceable. The light music in the background is sure to put you to sleep during a late night session, but makes for a relaxing time.

With a healthy amount of interesting achievements to work towards, I didn’t even notice that a good five hours went by the first time I played before I realized what time it was. Very addictive and relaxing, Garden Simulator is a great way to de-stress when you need a gaming palette cleanser and don’t mind the ‘jank’ from simulator games. Flex your virtual green thumb and place those garden gnomes for all to see.

**Garden Simulator was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Cavity Busters

As the game title would allude to, Cavity Busters is a game that is central around everything teeth and dental related. Playing as a singular bipedal gum, you will fire teeth at all your enemies out to try and stop you. A roguelite mixed with a twin-stick shooter, Cavity Busters is certainly unique, not only with its setting and premise, but many of its mechanics as well. While it might initially remind you of The Binding of Isaac with its cartoonish hand drawn visuals and rectangular rooms, there’s a surprising amount of individuality in its design that makes it stand out in the genre.

While there are some minor story-like elements, don’t expect a large encompassing narrative that will have you hooked. There’s something about trying to defeat the dreaded Pearly Knights, which is your first introduction to Cavity Busters’ pun filled adventure. It’s time to defeat some cavities and shoot your teeth at anything that moves.

Being a roguelite, you’ll be dying a lot and going back for ‘one more run’. You explore room by room in effort to find the boss, defeat them and move onto the next dungeon, getting as far as you can before you die and need to start all over again. With hundreds of different rooms, no two playthroughs will be the same. Unlike many roguelites though, there’s no permanent upgrades that make each subsequent run a little easier each time, though there are unlocks you can gain that will help along the way.

Your first few games will probably be short as you’ll die quickly and have to restart over again. There’s a brief tutorial that teaches you the basics, and while it does a decent job at explaining the core mechanics, it’s a lot to figure out and get used to all at once. With a few runs under your belt it’ll start to become more natural and make sense, but it’s quick paced and frantic at the best of times. Being a very quick paced twin-stick shooter, you’ll need to have a fast reaction time if you want to survive. Thankfully you’re given a handful of tools that help your mobility.

As you go from room to room, the Zelda-like map grid will show where you’ve previously have and haven’t been. You won’t know which room the boss is waiting until you happen upon it, but what happens when you explore one direction only to hit a dead end? Well, rather than having to backtrack across a dozen rooms or so, you’re able to jump ‘out’ of the dungeon room and essentially teleport back to any room you’ve already cleared. This makes the exploration aspect much more manageable and I love the convenience factor without having to waste a lot of time constantly backtracking when needed.

You’re also not confined to the set ways rooms are linked together. When you enter a room, every door is locked until all enemies are destroyed, though you’re able to dig your way through any wall if you have a single use shovel, though if not you can sacrifice a single heart from your health pool to dig through. Sometimes this pays off with a hidden room full of upgrades, other times you wasted a heart for no reason, so there’s certainly some risk vs reward.

When you do eventually die, you’ll have a summary screen of how your run went. You’ll be shown how many enemies you killed, rooms explored, and more importantly, how many puns were made. Again, there’s plenty of puns included, all teeth, mouth and dentistry related, which is evident when you start finding the numerous types of upgrades and diseases.

With your initial character, your primary attack will be launching your singular tooth at enemies and then having it come back to you like a boomerang. You can charge your shot for a more powerful attack or tap the trigger for quicker shots. Your tooth shot can pass through enemies, so when you become more proficient with how to aim and when, you can get more damage on enemies as your tooth passes through them on the way back to you.

Simply shooting everything won’t be enough to survive, you’ll also need to dash, wall run and jump. It’s confusing at first trying to piece it all together with how chaotic it becomes, but with enough practice, a few hours in it started to become much more natural. Jumping allows you to kind of float up in the air before you choose where to leap down and stomp on an enemy for high damage. Wall running is another aspect that you’ll need to utilize, as you stick to the walls and run along the perimeter to escape damage or traverse across some gaps. This can also trigger some slow-motion that will help you catch your breath for a few moments.

Boss fights were the highlight, each having a large health pool and a fun challenge. These Pearly Knights aren’t terribly difficult on their own, but if you go into a boss fight with low health or some difficult diseases, the chances of surviving are nil. They have bullet patterns that can almost encompass the whole room, so you’ll need to be quick on your dodge that gives you a brief moment of invulnerability to pass through.

One of Cavity Busters’ unique features is the constant barrage of upgrades and diseases. As you progress and destroy enemies and clear rooms, you’ll come across upgrades that you can decide to take or not. If you’ve never picked up the upgrade before, it will appear as “unknown”, so you won’t know its effects. These can be both positive and negative, hence the upgrade and disease distinctions.

Upgrades are just that, giving you a number of positive effects, whereas diseases give negatives that hinder you in a number of ways. Do you take a really powerful upgrade that comes with a massive negative as well? Well, if you choose not to take these, the level ‘consumes’ it and your run becomes more challenging, so it’s a constant weighing of scaling difficulty. Sometimes taking a disease is a better tradeoff than a general overall increase of difficulty, other times the negative effect you get might be worse.

With dozens and dozens of upgrades and diseases, they are all unique, and even after hours of play I was still discovering "Unknowns". There’s a handful of different characters you can unlock as you progress as well, each playing vastly different from one another, so just as you think you’ve gotten everything mastered and figured out, playing as a new Gummy adds a completely new twist and challenge.

Normally I don’t dedicate a portion of my reviews to accessibility options, but developers SpaceMyFriend went above and beyond to make a challenging roguelite genre available to be fun and enjoyable for all skills. I do highly suggest playing with the default options and settings, but there’s plenty you can change to make things easier or harder depending on your preferences. Want to crank up your damage and instantly one-shot enemies, go for it. Want to start with a dozen hearts to get further, go right ahead. Want to instantly unlock basically everything and every character, that’s an option as well.

Sound effects are fitting for the gross setting, with plenty of goops and squishes, adding more to the tonality and humor of the game. If a tooth could somehow be shot and loop back to me, I have a feeling this is exactly how it would sound. The music fits the tone as well, even if it wasn’t a soundtrack that wasn’t terribly memorable. The hand drawn aesthetic is certainly gross, fitting given its setting, though at times it’s hard to enjoy and appreciate with how hectic, chaotic and quick paced it can be.

Full of puns, Cavity Busters certainly borrows heavily from The Binding of Isaac and Enter the Gungeon, yet does enough to make it stand out amongst others in the crowded genre. It’s chaotic, frantic, gross, and I enjoyed every minute of it once I was able to get over the learning curve and adjusting to the frenzied gameplay.

**Cavity Busters was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Melon Journey: Bittersweet Memories

The original Melon Journey released over a decade ago, made simply with RPG Maker and launched the careers of developers Froach Club. While I never played the original, the charming pixelated trailer for this new entry was more than enough to hook me to give it a go. Melon Journey: Bittersweet Memories is the latest adventure for familiar faces with a weird yet delightful plotline, filled with unique and memorable characters. While it may look like a quirky adventure game from its screenshots and trailers, it plays much more like an interactive visual novel.

You are Honeydew, a diligent worker at the Eglantine Industries melon factory that gets up for work like any other day, only to find her best friend Cantaloupe is missing. It’s not like Cantaloupe to skip work and of course she worried about her best friend, so she sets off to find out where he might have went. Determined for the truth, she travels to the nearby town of Hog Town to ask around, only to be swept up in a spiraling mystery that will go deeper than you imagined.

Working at a melon factory, it becomes abundantly clear that there’s something off about the melons your company is using. They make a popular drink, now working on their latest 2.0 version, but why are melons illegal over in the neighboring Hog Town? If the police see you with melons, you’ll be thrown in jail, as they are illegal as any other drugs.

Hog Town is full of a number of interesting characters, and there’s even a mayoral election happening soon, with the front runner vowing to unban melons if elected. There’s a local gang, a Cheese Cult and other quirky characters you’ll meet along the way to find the truth of what happened to Cantaloupe. The majority of your objectives are simply fetch quests, going from person to person to find out what happened or gathering items from them, but the main story slowly plays out over the course of 4-5 hours.

You won’t be able to do this alone, so you’ll make some friends along the way to help you in your journey. Each character is written well and the overall narrative has a humorous tone. Characters have backstories and you want to know more about them, completing their quests simply to find out more. The writing is clever, has a good amount of puns, and never really takes itself seriously. It was hard not to smile throughout Honeydew’s journey to find her friend.

First and foremost, you might think that Melon Journey: Bittersweet Memories was an original Game Boy game simply from its visuals, as it shares the same greenscale monochrome display and doesn’t even stretch out to the edges of the TV, but that was the style is was going for, much like the original game. Played in a top-down view like classic Pokemon, you’ll be exploring and talking to people to find out where you friend is and why melons are considered illegal.

Even though Bittersweet Memories is more akin to a visual novel than a ‘game’ at times, you still can explore the town, talk to people and even choose to fulfil sidequests for certain characters. I’ll admit, I thought it was initially very linear, but after having the credits roll and not completing about half of the side quests, it warrants another playthrough to see everything.

The walking speed is excruciatingly slow in the beginning but you’ll eventually get a pair of roller-skates to wear to help with this. There’s a lot of back and forth to talk to people, so this will help greatly once you lace them up. Hog Town isn’t large, but there’s a lot of talking to one person at one end, then another at the other end, so it feels larger than it actually is.

Not only do you want to talk to everyone you see more than once, but try interacting with objects as well. The humor throughout will surely get a chuckle out of you here and there, like when a dog was admiring a wonderful statue, only to be inspected and understand it’s a regular fire hydrant.

There’s no minigames, combat, puzzles or anything else really aside from figuring out who to talk to, which is why I feel it’s more like a visual novel more than anything else. Your time is spent walking around and interacting with NPC’s and objects until you find the right person and then have to go to the next. It may sound boring, but the 5 hours to complete flew by with how light hearted it was.

I wasn’t sure about my initial thoughts about the green tinted monochrome color palette, but the pixels had just enough detail to know what was being conveyed and what it was supposed to be. Looking as if it was an original Game Boy game surely brought back some nostalgia as I played through. The soundtrack is just as charming and wonderful as the story and adventure, with some jazz vibes and a few really catchy tunes. There’s some awkward transitions between scenes at times as the music changes abruptly, but nothing that was too distracting.

Full of subtle humor, I might not have laughed out loud but I surely chuckled a few times at the puns or situations, the ghost hamster being my favorite character of the bunch. While it’s a short adventure, it’s a memorable one. The world and characters are endearing and even though I’m usually not too interested in visual novels, Melon Journey: Bittersweet Memories is charming and endearing, feeling like one in a melon.

**Melon Journey: Bittersweet Memories was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.2 / 10 Bendy and the Dark Revival

Bendy and the Ink Machine released back in 2017 in staggered episodic releases. While I didn’t pay much attention to it at release, it certainly found its audience, as my young daughter certainly knew about it and watched a lot of videos of people playing. It’s been a long time coming since its initial success, but the sequel is now here, Bendy and the Dark Revival, and thankfully is a full release at once, not episodic in design like its predecessor.

Because I’m new to the series, I was wondering how much I was missing by not playing the original game. Thankfully Bendy and the Dark Revival is its own story where you don’t need to have played the original to know what’s going on, but series fans will certainly get more out of it being able to recognize certain characters return. I was quite surprised with how much of a Bioshock influence Bendy and the Dark Revival had, and it’s clear to see that’s where a lot of its inspiration comes from with its gameplay and themes.

You play as Audrey, an animator working late at Archgate Pictures who is working some overtime, simply getting up for a quick break to get some coffee. You come across Wilson, the janitor, and after a brief conversation and quick errand, you find yourself somehow now stuck in a new and mysterious world. Audrey is now in her studio, but in the ink world, and if you’ve played the original Bendy, you probably have an idea how this is going to play out.

Wilson appears to be the main antagonist, and Audrey will need to do what she can to simply survive if she ever wants to escape this cycle that he now apparently is ruling over. Surviving won’t be easy though, as not only will enemies be searching for you, but the dreaded Ink Demon is a sure and swift death if it finds you. What does Bendy have to do with all of this? Who is this other person trying to guide you? Many answers are to be found, unfortunately much of the story and background lore is hidden away in audio logs that you’ll find when exploring the environment and can easily be missed.

Played in first person, you’ll be exploring this creepy world with some survival and horror elements thrown in, complete with plenty of jump scares. The world appears like a vintage cartoon and you’ll need to solve puzzles, explore for hidden passageways, fight against inked enemies and use plenty of stealth to survive. Once you reach a point about halfway through the adventure, you’ll need to deal with the Ink Demon that relentlessly pursues you, forcing you to hide for a few moments until the coast is clear.

While there are some light puzzle elements, the majority of them are simply finding a particular item and then backtracking to unlock a door to finally be able to progress. A portion of the opening chapter will have heavy stealth elements, as you won’t initially have a weapon to defend yourself with, having to find hiding spots in lockers, in barrels and under crates. It’s not always clear how close you can get to these ink enemy before they notice or where exactly their cone of vision extends to, so it’s a bit of trial and error in the beginning. This is where the survival portion comes into play. You have a stamina meter you’ll need to manage for running, though it’s usually plenty enough to reach the next hiding spot if required.

Exploring the rooms and corridors, don’t be surprised if you become lost as there’s no map, so you’ll need to take good mental notes of where you’ve previously been and should be heading to. Sometimes you get a marker of where to go next, though this seemed to only be sporadic. Later on there’s a fast travel system that unlocks, but it’s not as useful as I’d hoped. Strewn all about each room and in desk drawers, lockers are barrels are items you can pick up and collect. This will be used to craft items later on, refilling your health or collecting money.

I was hoping that the crafting system would make for some interesting additions to the gameplay, but it’s quite basic. You can use your found materials to craft keys (Gent Cards) to open specific boxes or save them up to upgrade your Gent Wrench, your main and only weapon, though even with a few upgrades I didn’t feel much more powerful. Making cards seemed really not worth it, as there’s usually just more basic materials inside, but if you’ve been diligent at exploring and picking up things along the way, materials shouldn’t be much of an issue.

Oddly enough, all the food you find can’t be stored to be used later, simply eaten as you pick it up, so if you’re low on health you’ll need to play a little more cautiously until you can find some random sandwiches and other things tucked away. Sure, you could use your money to buy food, but health generally wasn’t an issue other than a few times where I had to fight multiple enemies at once, on the Easy setting at least.

Before you get your Gent Pipe you have no means to defend yourself, so you’ll have to do a bunch of stealth and sneaking portions to get past enemies. Once you do acquire your sole weapon you’re finally able to defend yourself, though you’ll quickly realize how clunky combat is in general. Having a simple pipe, you can swing at any of the ink enemies, though most take a few hits to defeat. It’s difficult to judge the distance you need and when to press the trigger to have it connect at the right time. Versus single enemies is usually no big deal, but there are many times you’ll need to face multiple at once, which is where it becomes more challenging since most areas are tight and confined hallways. This generally results in having to circle strafe and just swing away until everything is dead.

You do earn a few more abilities as you progress, the first being basically a one-hit kill backstab called “Banish”. If you crouch and sneak up behind an enemy that doesn’t notice you, you can instantly kill them with a special power that is imbued into your ink covered arm. The pipe as your weapon simply feels boring, even with the upgrades you can get later on. There are a couple bosses to fight along the way, breaking up the monotony, with the final boss the most interesting.

As mentioned above, even though you can fight off ink enemies once you get your Gent Pipe, the Ink Demon is a different story. You’re told that he is near, the screen dims and shakes, and that’s your cue to find a hiding spot right away, regardless of what you’re doing. Fail to do so and you’ll instantly die and have to try again. Even though it didn’t happen too often, it made me slow down and take notice of any hiding spots I passed by, knowing that’s where I’ll need to run to if this is the moment the Ink Demon decides to roam nearby. It’s weird simply getting a prompt to go hide rather than having to keep a lookout and listen on my own for it when exploring, reducing it to a simple ‘hide or die’.

Audrey will gain a few other abilities as her journey progresses, starting with the Banish explained above. While there’s a few, the one you’ll rely on most is "Flow", essentially a quick dash/teleport forward for a short distance. This can help you escape quickly, cross gaps or catch up to an enemy to sneak and Banish them.

While it might seem bland given the brown and tan sepia tone, it’s deliberate, as you’re stuck in this old style cartoon world of Bendy. The flowing ink and dark outlines make for a good contrast and animation overall is done quite well. Sure there’s a few weird glitches like enemies getting stuck in doorways, walking in place or being a bit stiff when turning, but overall I quite enjoyed the visual aesthetic of Bendy's world. As for the audio, the voice acting is done quite well actually across the board from all those that have lines, not just Audrey and Wilson. You’ll hear noises in the distance, unsure if it’s an enemy around the corner or not. The Ink Demon sounds terrifying and the intensely really ramps up in those few moments you need to find a hiding spot because of the audio alone.

I did enjoy the setting and the overall narrative, it’s just a shame a lot of the story is hidden away in collectable notes and audio logs, some of which will certainly be missed if you’re not exploring every corner of the world. Having never played Bendy and the Ink Machine and only knowing what my daughter told me about it, I was unsure how cohesive Bendy and the Dark Revival would be for a newcomer like myself. Thankfully knowledge or previous play experience is not required here. My main complaint is that the controls are simply too sensitive, even when turned down, as if it was clearly designed for a mouse and keyboard instead. So many times, even hours in, I found myself struggling to pick up an item because I couldn’t get the cursor in the exact spot needed.

While original Bendy fans will certainly get the most out of it, it was difficult to feel invested as a newcomer with the clunky combat and forced stealth sections. That said, the world is created quite well and has a great atmosphere, I just didn’t feel all that invested and become frustrated at times with the backtracking.

**Bendy and the Dark Revival was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 God Of Rock

I always applaud when developers take a chance on something new. Maybe this is adding a twist into a genre that’s been done before, or maybe sometimes they attempt to blend two vastly different genres together, like God of Rock. Modus Games has done just this, attempting to merge two completely different game types into one, and while on paper it should work, it never really feels all that cohesive. Being a massive fan of music based games, I was quite excited to try a new rhythm game, as I’ve played an endless amount of Rock Band, GuitarFreaks, DrumMania, Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution and many more.

God of Rock attempts to blend the melodic notes of a rhythm based music game fused with the excitement of a fighting game with 1 on 1 matches against a handful of opponents. You’re tasked with fighting to the beat, though the core gameplay is more that of a rhythm game with some fighting game move sets thrown in. A dozen playable characters, eight diverse stage backdrops and over forty songs should make for quite an interesting game.

As you pick one of the characters, they will have a brief storyboard narrative about themselves or some situation they find themselves in. Each character eventually gets invited to a sort of tournament where if they can get through the gamut of other challengers they’ll be able to face the mysterious God of Rock himself, which will grant their wish or desire if defeated in a musical battle. The writing for each character is very campy and brief, and even when you do finally defeat the God of Rock and get their ending, it’s nowhere near satisfying. I’m not expecting much of a narrative for a rhythm or fighting game, as that’s not what they are known for, but there’s really not all that much here for story at all.

Story mode is where you’ll probably be spending the majority of your time, picking your fighter of choice and battling your way through the tournament in hopes to defeat the titular God of Rock for a small story snippet of your character at the end. There are local and multiplayer options if you want to face off against a friend or foe in person or online. There’s a training mode to learn the basics and special moves, something I’d highly suggest going through each so you know how do not just hit the notes, but what all the meters mean and how to do your special moves, this is partly a fighting game remember.

If you want to try something really interesting, why not make your own tracks. While you can’t add your own music, you can design your own notes from scratch for the included soundtrack. The track editor allows you to finely tune how and where you want to place each note, lining up each exactly where you want. You can then try the songs out against others to see who the best really is. I’m sure those that used to make their own songs in Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero and other rhythm games will surely spend some time here creating some insanely difficult tracks.

God of Rock’s premise is simple, hitting notes to the beat while also throwing in some Street Fighter moves to eventually win the match once the opponent’s health is empty. The majority of your time will be watching the playfield where the notes come across to hit the notes, but you’ll be challenged not looking elsewhere to see the fighting or being distracted by the flashing lights. Songs will start out easily enough but quickly ramp up and be quite challenging, even on the easier difficulties.

There are a handful of characters to choose from, each with their own fighting moves and style, as well as a variety of different moves and specials. Some are more healing based while others are offensive, each are unique in design though. Some are designed with a fine line between tribute and parody, some clearly a knockoff of Elvis, Freddie Mercury and others, whereas some are more original in design. They all have a few one-liners before their matches that are cheesy, but such is par the course for fighting games, though the lip syncing that doesn't match well is a little of a distraction.

Now where you’ll need to keep most of your focus is the horizontal lanes where the notes come from the side into the middle where you’re supposed to hit the note with accuracy. Now, the vast majority of rhythm games are vertical scrolling, and for good reason. Here though, it’s horizontal and very challenging to learn and master.

You’ll also be using all four face buttons, each on their own horizontal lane. On simple songs this isn’t too much of an issue, but when songs become much more chaotic, it’s quite difficult to deal with the buttons laid out in that horizontal pattern when they are overlapped. The confusion does get easier over time, but it really didn’t ever feel natural, even after almost beating every single character’s playthrough. It becomes even more difficult when you have to combine button presses that aren’t beside each other on the controller, unable to do so with a single finger, like ‘X+B’.

You and your opponent have a health bar, as this is partly a fighting game, and every time you land notes on beat and use your special moves, it will slowly deplete their health. There’s some nuances though, as if you and your opponent perform the same move at the same time (notes are the same for both players) damage is negated, but that’s where the special moves come into play. While the note charting is decent overall, what’s interesting is that songs become more challenging the longer it goes on, so if it’s even match between you and your opponent, eventually the challenge will ramp up until one is left standing.

Landing normal moves to the beat slowly builds your Special and Ultra meters which can unleash higher powered moves. If your opponent does one of these special moves, you can unleash a higher tier move to override theirs, so there’s a constant push and pull of offense and defense, that is if you can remember the move list or manage to do so between the regular notes.

This is inherently where part of the problem lies, having to pull off fighting moves like Street Fighter (simple quarter and half circles ending with Right Trigger), but you need to do so in-between the regular notes. There are three tiers of moves, EX Moves and an Ultra, but trying to perform these while not trying to miss notes is near impossible if there’s not a quick downtown moment in the song. You can even perform reversals, but it’s all a matter of keeping track of what meters you have filled or not.

While the horizontal note scrolling is quite jarring and my biggest complaint, the other is the whole fighting game component. Trying to fit in fighting moves in-between note hitting is hard enough, but having the UI layout the way it is makes for another distraction. Your Special and Ultra meters are right above the note playfield, but your health bar is way at the top of the screen. This is part fighting game remember, so you need to keep track of the health bars. This means you need to take your eyes of the note lanes to glance away, which generally means missing some notes before you reorient yourself.

I was quite surprised that God of Rock had online multiplayer, as I didn’t expect it to from a smaller studio. There’s Quick Play and Ranked, and while I was able to find a few matches, it did take some time to find opponents. I highly suggest mastering the gameplay before going online, as you’ll lose quite handedly if unsure how the whole move tiers and reversals work.

Visually, God of Rock is quite appealing. The character designs are done quite well, as are the stages backgrounds, all with a flashy package. Fights are animated well, but the problem is just how flashy it all is, literally. Every time notes are matched from both players and blocked, there’s this bright flash on the screen, and when quicker paced songs are playing, you can imagine how distracting this is, and I didn’t see any options to disable or dampen them. There’s an odd lag once you defeat your enemy where the framerate drops for a moment, nothing that affects gameplay, yet another distraction.

For a music game, the audio and music is supposed to be what stands out the most, and while there’s a good variety of over 40 songs, there’s really none that stood out. There’s no vocals in the songs and there’s nothing licensed, and even after multiple playthroughs, there wasn’t a single song that was very memorable. I didn’t feel compelled to add any to my Spotify playlist, not that any were ‘bad’, but part of the problem is the audio mixing. By default you hear more of the fighting thuds and attacks instead of the music being the forefront. I had to turn up the music volume and other audio down just to enjoy it more.

God of Rock is an interesting title that blends the odd pairing of fighting and rhythm games, and while it may not always stick the landing due to its odd design choices, there’s some entertaining moments here and there. Even with online play and a track creator, it’s clear extra effort was made to have God of Rock be something special, even if it misses a few notes.

**God of Rock was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.3 / 10 Guns N’ Runs

Guns N’ Runs released back in 2021 on PC, but I somehow missed it. Now that it’s on console though, of course I took notice. Now I know what you’re thinking, by the title of the game you’re probably guessing that this is a typical sidescrolling shooter where you’re blasting everything in your path, maybe like an old school Contra or Mega Man. You’d be partially correct, but it’s more like a jaunt rather than a full out run given how difficult the platforming is.

While I expected something Contra-like from its name alone, the actual gameplay was a bit different. You of course have to platform from room to room, generally left to right, eventually reaching a boss and moving on, but there’s an integral dash component which allows you to cross gaps, avoid obstacles and even phase through enemies, but actually doing so accurately is quite challenging. The pixel art and soundtrack are done quite well, helping to qualm my frustrations, though not completely.

You play as one of the numerous chooseable members of the Conspiracy Squad. You’re taking part of some rescue mission in the middle of the Atacama Desert, well below the surface in a mechanized bunker. While there is an overarching story here, especially once you defeat the bosses and they ramble on and on, games like these you generally enjoy for the gameplay more than anything else. Basically everything in your way is going to try and kill you, so you must survive to progress and figure out what’s really going on, though those that want more will be happy to know each character has its own narrative.

There’s really not a lot you need to learn for its controls, as you can jump, shoot, special and dash, and once you begin after choosing your character, you’re thrown into a “tutorial”. I’m quoting “tutorial” and being facetious because it’s anything but a tutorial, and probably one of the worst ones I’ve experienced in recent memory. A tutorial is supposed to do just that, teach you the basics, making you comfortable with the controls and mechanics so that once you’re set free, you feel confident, enticing you to want to continue playing.

I restarted the game three times with different characters because I thought I did something wrong or the game was bugged. As you begin you’ll come across these signs which give you a clue of what the controls are. A say clue because it doesn’t outright tell you. For example, one sign will show that you can jump with a picture of your character, well, jumping. What button is it to actually do so? No idea, so you better start hitting random buttons to figure it out. The next sign indicates you can fire your weapon. Great, but again, no button prompt, simply a sign saying it’s possible. I’ve been gaming long enough that I of course figured it out, but it’s counterintuitive to what a tutorial is supposed to accomplish.

I was willing to overlook this until a few moments later I got to the dash portion. Dashing is an integral part of Guns N’ Runs’ gameplay, so naturally you would expect the game to teach you how to do so properly. Nope. Same sign showing that you can dash, but no button prompt or how to actually do so. I needed to reach a much higher platform by dashing and double jumping, but had no idea how to. I eventually figured it out on my own, but there’s even these small orbs that allow you to link your dashes together, but as you can guess, this wasn’t taught at all in the "tutorial".

Manage to figure out how to progress past the opening section and you’ll be brought to a map where you can choose from a number of different paths and levels, though I opted to finish level 1 before moving to 2, etc. With plenty of different roomed challenges to get through, there’s no shortage of challenge within, but sometimes it’s the level design or controls that have you failing and retrying from the last checkpoint. While the controls are simple on paper, actually traversing and dashing at the right time and correct direction can be frustrating at the best of times.

Now and then you’ll find a few power-ups, either changing your shot type for a brief amount of time or giving you a shield that protects you from a hit. Where my main issue comes from when the its combat is that you can only ever shoot horizontally, no aiming at an angle or upwards, so you always have to be in line of your enemies and bosses to actually hit them. Your dash will get you out of sticky situations quickly, and will be absolutely necessary to master if you want to progress, as it’s the only way you can cut across large gaps or phase through electric beams and attacks.

Each level is broken into a handful of rooms, kind of of like Mega Man, where you generally need to progress left to right to reach the next room. This starts out simple enough, but after a few bosses and you try the new levels, things get chaotic and challenging quite quickly. Even though it’s titled Guns N’ Runs, I’d say the majority of your time is slowly trying to platform accurately more than anything else. This usually means dying and trying the room again a few times before eventually progressing, but it’s much more slow and methodical than expected, as I thought it would be a quicker paced game.

Your dash is your primary move, and there are times where you need to be incredibly accurate or else you’ll fall or land in some spikes. With only five health bubbles, this certainly isn’t a lot given how precise your movements need to be at times. While you have a quick moment of invulnerability when you dash, if it’s not done at just the right moment, you could get damaged just as you enter or exit the dash, causing many deaths on boss fights when I thought I was going to be fine initially. This wouldn’t be so bad if the level design was interesting, but it’s generally a lot of the same with a few enemies to kill, as rooms won’t always unlock without them defeated. Things get much more challenging later with moving platforms and poison that drains your health almost instantly.

While you can gather special power-ups to fill your special meter, again, this isn’t really explained in the opening tutorial, so I didn’t really use it all that much, forgetting it was an option. Each character has a different and unique special, but it would have been a welcome addition to show what these do before committing to a certain character only to find you don’t like their move. I do wish there were other weapons to collect or gain along the way aside from the limited use ones that don’t appear often enough.

Bosses are easily the highlight of Guns N’ Runs, taking a few attempts to learn their patterns and best times to dash through to avoid their attacks. Some took me much longer than expected to defeat simply because of the forced horizontal shooting and having to line up my character to their weak spot. Most have you moving away to get some space, unloading a few rounds, dashing to safety and repeating on the other side of the room while avoiding their attacks. Sure it gets old fighting the same boss person each time, but at least he has a new machine and contraption each outing.

The retro pixel art is done quite well, looking like an older game but smooth framerates we’ve come to expect. Sure I had the odd framerate dip here and there, but nothing that detracted from the experience too badly. Each level has its own sort of tone and palette, almost like a biome and I enjoy the retro blocky aesthetic. The soundtrack was done quite well, full of guitar riffs and some good drum beats. The tempo matches the gameplay for the most part and never felt tiring hearing over and over when I was on my twentieth boss attempt.

Even though Guns N’ Runs is quite challenging, even on the Casual setting, the checkpoint system is quite generous, basically setting you back at the room you just died in to try once again. Die on bosses repeatedly and some shield and weapon power-ups will appear to try and give you just a slight edge so you can progress. Even with these aids, I still think it’s quite over-tuned for those looking for a casual difficulty, as it’s nowhere near that, especially the later stages and bosses (I’m looking at you robot spawning, missile firing boss). The fact that there’s a death counter should tell you a lot.

I do wish there was an auto fire option, as your thumbs will get quite sore in long play sessions from all the dashing and having to fire ever bullet manually. There is plenty of replay value with an achievement list that forces you to complete the game with each character and unlockable Survival and Danger modes as well, though I predict this will only be done by a select few trying to get the most value out of their purchase.

Don’t be fooled by the Casual difficulty setting, Guns N’ Runs is quite challenging and demands near perfection and quick reflexes to be successful and progress. While I struggled with the controls throughout, especially having to dash at specific angles or timing, there’s nothing inherently bad about Guns N’ Runs, it simply didn’t hook or excite me all that much.

**Guns N’ Runs was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 ACL Pro Cornhole

Say what you want about the name, but the sport of Cornhole is quite entertaining to play in real life. If I go to a park or barbeque with friends and one of these are setup, it’s basically a guarantee I’m going to challenge someone for a few rounds. While its roots are over a century old, the Cornhole we recognize today took its form in the 70’s and 80’s. It seems as though the game has had a popularity increase since the American Cornhole League (ACL) was founded almost a decade ago in 2015. Since then there’s been a standardization, official tournaments, bags and pro players.

The sport has grown enough to apparently warrant the video game adaptation, so here we are with ACL Pro Cornhole, aiming to recreate what it’s like to play as a pro in the ACL. Developed by FarSight Studios, there’s a surprising around of authenticity when it comes to the Pro players included, commentators, official bags and tournament recreations, but the question remains, is it actually fun to play? Well, that’s where there’s some cornfusion.

While there’s no formal career mode, you’re simply thrown into a Tournament without any tutorial or explanation of the sport. Choose your Pro player of choice from a small handful unlocked from the beginning and jump right into the game. It would have been a bit more interesting if you could create your player and work your way up from Amateur into the ACL Pro league, but there’s nothing like that here at all, and calling it a Career mode is a bit of a stretch as well.

While I could only assume that most purchasing ACL Pro Cornhole are generally going to be avid Cornhole fans and know the sport already, given how niche the sport is, some sort of rule explanations would have been helpful for newcomers. I’ll admit, I thought I knew the core rules for Cornhole, but turns out I really didn’t. Naturally once I started playing and not understanding the scoring system or terminology, I had to do some research online.

Now that I was caught up on the rules and scoring, I jumped right in figuring I’d be good to go to at least be somewhat competitive. Well, if there was any semblance of a tutorial maybe I would have been, but no, you’re simply thrown right into a match without any explanation of exactly how to play or given strategies. This is where I paused and went to the settings to see where the button mapping was so I at least had an idea of how to play.

No wonder I couldn’t figure out how to actually toss my bag, because you play your shots much like a golf game, pulling back on the Right Stick and then forward to determine your power and accuracy, and I use that term very loosely. Even if you get the meter exactly where you want, good luck if it actually tosses your bag where you want or does what you expect. You’re able to change the arc of your toss, as well as the angle of the bag and amount of spin, but none of this really matters given how unfair the CPU is with their shots.

Oh there are difficulty choices, but I can't tell any difference from Easy or Hard, as the CPU will simply destroy you every match regardless how you perform unless you can nail your Airmail’s (getting your bag directly into the hole) every single shot, as that’s what they tend to do quite often without any issue. You can choose to toss the bag the slick or sticky side down, and while it tends to make a minor difference, not as much as I thought it would.

While ACL Pro Cornhole boasts that you can play as 32 different top Pro’s, they need to be unlocked which is done via your levels you earn with XP from completing matches. It’ll be rare to win though, so this is painfully slow, so hopefully there’s no a Pro you have your heart dead set on playing early. While I think I only recognize one ACL player, fans should be happy to know that they are recognizable with their real pictures in place and look pretty much their real life counterparts in-game. Apparently they’ve been motion captured to recreate their actual skills and strategy as well.

Adding to the ACL authenticity is also having Trey Ryder and Bernie Nabors as your commentary crew, narrating what’s happening in the match and how poorly you just threw that last toss. There’s not a whole lot of variety in the lines recorded, as you’ll start to hear the same things over again quite quickly, though I do appreciate the effort that went into adding them, as there’s really not much in the way of background music that plays otherwise.

You’re able to also choose Quick Play matches, either 1v1 or 2v2, against the CPU or friends. Again, only against your friends will you have a chance at actually winning though, so best to play this for a while until you get the hang of how to play. As you do slowly and eventually level up, you can spend earned skill points to boost certain parameters like your slide, airmail, rolls and pushes, though even after a handful of point spent, I didn’t really notice much of a difference.

You can also choose from nine different official ACL bag manufacturers such as Local Bags, Lucky Bags Cornhole, Reynolds Bags, Slide-Rite Series, Ultra, Skill Shots Cornhole, Kontraband Athletics, BG Cornhole and Fire Cornhole. They have different colors and patterns and even stats, but again, even choosing the one with the best ‘sticky’ stat, I didn’t notice all that much of a difference.

Playing as your chosen Pro, you’ll unlock more as you level up, but I none of it really mattered given how cheap the CPU is constantly throwing airmail's nearly every shot. You can see a small "slick" or "sticky" side message where you aim, presumably to affect how the bag physics play out when landing on the board, but again, I didn’t find all that much of a difference. Also, it seemed to randomly change my shot type back to slick side even though I prefer sticky for some odd reason. And if you want to rotate your throwing angle or loft, there’s no quick reset to default, so I hope you remember what your preference is and your spin. You can even take a side step to get a slightly different angle on your tosses, but sometimes this defaulted back to my original starting point.

While there’s multiplayer available, unfortunately it’s not online and only local. You can play in singles or doubles, but for some reason whenever I’m paired with a CPU player, they seem to not make those amazing airmail shots every time like the opponents do, so you can’t even count on them reliably to help your team out in a doubles match. It’s frustrating to place a blocker only to have the CPU bypass them entirely every time with pinpoint accuracy, even on Easy.

While the setting of the ACL appears to be quite official with its layout, the markings around the arena and even down to the Johnsonville adverts slapped around everywhere, it certainly does look like Cornhole you’d watch on TV. Between matches I do wish there was something a bit more than staring at the blank arena for a few seconds as things reset, like maybe having the players go to get their bags, but there’s nothing like that. Even the limited crowd barely animates and multiple people are moving in unison, adding for a very empty feeling when playing.

ACL Pro Cornhole certainly looks and sounds like a match of Cornhole and has certainly recreated the sport, but getting consistently demolished by the near perfect CPU every single match only stays entertaining for so long. While it’s hard to recommend outside of the diehard Cornhole fans, those that enjoy the niche sport will surely find some entertainment here, even if the game is trying to constantly setup blockers to prevent you winning.

**ACL Pro Cornhole was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 4.7 / 10 Zapling Bygone

There’s been some memorable Metroidvania games over the years, and while there’s no shortage in the genre, it’s always welcome to have another if it’s done well. This is where Zapling Bygone comes in, a classic Metroidvania mechanically, but with a unique story about an alien hive-mind that defeats bosses for their skulls to gain their abilities, all with a cute retro pixel style aesthetic.

You are a part of the hive-mind, a small portion of a larger being, dropped on a mysterious planet as a pretty simple blob, searching for a new home. As you defeat a few small enemies and grow in size, you find your first skull, giving you a ‘body’ so to speak with a number of arms/tentacles. As you seek out these skulls you also gain their knowledge and consciousness, tapping into their memories as you reach specific areas.

As you piece together what happened on this planet and figuring out if it’s going to be a viable home, there’s not too much story aside from finding pieces of comic book pages scattered throughout, giving you small snippets of backstory lore, though only if you manage to collect them. There may be something more sinister on this seemingly desolate planet though, a secret buried that you uncover as you collect more skulls and information.

Being a Metroidvania, the setup is as you’d expect. You begin without any real abilities, eventually reaching areas that are inaccessible until you have some way to get passed or reached. This happens often, usually finding a ledge or something higher up you don’t know how to get to, or a large gap where your jump can’t get across. In most cases, if you’re able to continue progressing, that’s probably the way you want to go, as it most likely has a boss at the end that will give you a new upgrade once defeated (by wearing their skull), allowing you to unearth a new area to explore. This of course causes a lot of backtracking, a normal part of the genre, though there are a few warp points strewn about if you’re able to find them.

As you explore each area and biome that varies, you’ll have plenty of pathways to search for a number of hidden secrets and collectables. Each area has its own distinct style with a boss that guards it at the end. Given how short the runtime is, at just a handful of hours for an experienced player of the genre, I won’t spoil much of the surprises, but I enjoyed the first area the most, the Ratqueen Gardens. As you complete areas and gain new abilities, you’ll see on the map how interconnected the world is.

Controls are tight and responsive, as much of what you’ll be doing is platforming from area to area, and even in the moments where I had to move and hide from enemy fire, I never felt like I could blame the controls when I inevitably failed, even in the frustrating chase sequence later on. Being able to walk along the walls once you beat the first boss opens up a lot of the map to be explored, but that’s only one ability you’ll gain along the way.

As you get new skulls from bosses and new abilities, the map feels larger as you can explore it more. Even though it’s not a massive map, it does feel quite large and you can certainly expect a lot of backtracking as you figure out where to go next. Thankfully there’s a map you can reference, but it doesn’t let you zoom in as much as I’d like, so sometimes it was a guessing game of the pathway I intended to take versus what I actually did. I did end up lost every now and then, or finding a new pathway I couldn’t quite get to yet because I didn’t have a certain ability, like the dash. While there’s not really a set path you go to and from, it is designed in a way that is somewhat linear when you factor in the abilities needed to reach.

The later levels do get quite challenging, especially when you’re in near complete darkness or being chased. Thankfully you do have a way to heal yourself, able to refill one of your health bars after a set amount of time. Even so, you don’t have a large health pool, so you always do need to be cautious since you can only take a few hits before dying and restarting at your last checkpoint. These checkpoints can be found throughout each area, though you’ll need to spend a little of your earned currency from defeating enemies to unlock them. I never really found myself short to not be able to afford one, but if you skip too many enemies you may not be able to unlock it.

Each new ability is gained after you defeat one of the bosses and take their skull as your trophy reward. You not only gain abilities to walk on walls and dash, but can even swing around and shoot laser beams. A unique way they also distinguish themselves is that they each also have a different amount of slots for mutations.

Mutations are further ways to customize your Zapling to play how you want. Maybe you want to attack slower but hit harder, or vice versa, there’s plenty of these mutations to unlock that allows for a bit more freedom to how you play. Each of these mutations though are assigned a special shape (triangle, square, circle, etc for example) and you’ll need to make sure your skull you wear can equip that mutation shape. There’s also of course a limit to how many mutations you can equip, so you might need to use a skull you don’t necessarily want to, but because it has the mutation slots you want to use, you’ll have to.

The pixel aesthetic is done quite well, a retro feel but definitely smooth and modern as well. Each new skull does change how it appears on your Zapling, and every biome certainly has its own feel and look as well. Music suits the mood, rising and lowering when needed, especially during boss fights, though there isn’t a lot of varied sound effects throughout.

While not overly difficult until the later chase section and boss fights, there’s just the right amount of challenge. Your first playthrough will probably take around six hours or so, more if you want to find every secret. While it didn’t grip me as much as I expected, it certainly has charm to it and definitely worth the play if you’ve been craving a new Metroidvania to check out.

**Zapling Bygone was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 King of the Arcade

I’m thankful to have grown up in the era I did, and while I might date myself here, playing games at the local arcade are some of my fondest gaming memories. I would be given a few quarters each day before school and allowed to stop at the arcade on the way home, using the quarters I was given to get a new high score or play one of my favorites. While there are a few places that have a similar setup and idea, like the arcade corner of a big movie theater or somewhere you can win tickets for playing, it really isn’t quite the same as it was back then.

You see, “back in the day” there were buildings you went to that housed dozens of different arcade cabinets and pinball machines that were usually only found there. Home consoles like the Atari, NES and other classics did exist of course, but it’s not like it was now where it was much more common. Games in the arcade were built to be played one quarter at a time. There's something special about pulling off a Mortal Kombat fatality in front of a watching crowd because you knew the secret button combination to do so. Having to place your quarter on the screen like a line queue, waiting for your turn to probably lose to the guy on Street Fighter II that seems to be undefeatable was always an anxious and exciting time.

You are Mac McCormick, a gaming prodigy who was an arcade champion as a kid, but like all things in life, sometimes your past is just memories. Once known as a gaming champion, Mac still lives at home many years later and needs to find a job before he gets kicked out. Of course he finds himself wandering the local gaming center, Castle’s Arcade, and with that simply asks the owner for a job. He can’t just give the job to anyone though, so you need to prove that you can play games; quite the application if I say so myself.

Of course, being an arcade champion, even though he doesn’t play anymore and left that life behind him, he obliges and reaches level 5 on a game with his first try. This impresses the owner and now you’re a working employee at Castle’s Arcade. The landlord of the place though is ruthless and wants to take over the arcade to turn it into a NFT (because that’s totally how it works). This landlord, Jimmy Joysticks, does what anyone would do; initiate a hostile takeover by sending members of his arcade gang to prove they are the best players around. So it’s up to you to defeat them in their game of choice and once again become the King of The Arcade once more. This of course starts with a training montage that any classic gamer will recognize hilarious nods to.

It’s a silly and asinine premise but still put a smile on my face. You simply only need to defeat each goon at their game of choice, and once all have been defeated, you ‘win’ and save the arcade. The campaign/story won’t take very long, maybe a half hour at most depending on your random arcade gaming skills, but being able to play the 40 or so games afterwards is what will entice you to keep playing.

Setup just like a classic arcade back in the 80’s, you can roam around the different rooms that are filled with different gaming cabinets to freeplay play as you wish. With about 40 games to play, you can expect class inspired games from all different genres and eras. Now I say “classic inspired” purposely, as you aren’t playing the actual and official games, but instead a nostalgic indie attempt at recreating some of the classics. For example, you must first reach level 5 at Retro Invaders to get the job at the arcade, clearly a remaking of Space Invaders. Nearly every game seems to be a parody or recreation of a classic title, so don’t expect anywhere near the same quality or polish, but that’s where some of the charm comes from.

To play any of the games you simply walk up to it and hold ‘X’ to start the machine. A quick moment of loading later and you can play as much as you want. While not explained initially, you need to press the menu button to pause and then can exit from there to get back to the arcade and wander as Mac. You can play a variety of games from all different genres, from classics like Space Invaders, to racing games, pinball, Frogger and even Whack-A-Mole. Standing in front of a machine will tell you if it’s 1 or 2 players and if there’s an online leaderboard as well. Sometimes you need to be standing at just the right angle to get the prompt to appear, but you get used to it quickly.

With about 40 games to play, I won’t list them all, but there’s a handful of standouts that I enjoyed playing more than a few times:

- After School Beatdown (Streets of Rage). 2 players.
- Scary Clown Pinball. 1 player.
- Retro Invaders (Space Invaders). 2 players and Leaderboards.
- Tire King (The original Donkey Kong). 1 player.
- Goal (Pong, but a soccer template). 2 players.
- Chatter Man (Pac-Man but you’re a pair of chattering teeth). 1 player.
- High Speed Racing (Gran Turismo but with Porches, 2 laps and terrible physics) 1 player.
- Button Masher (Whack-A-Mole). 1 player and Leaderboards.
- Space Ravager (Space Harrier). 1 player and Leaderboards.
- Virtual Enforcement (Virtua Cop/Lethal Enforcers). 2 players.
- Sidewalk Fighter 2 (Street Fighter 2 but with horrible controls). 2 players.
- Retro Driver (Outrun with terrible controls too). 1 player.
- Music Game (Dance Dance Revolution yet has a Pump It Up pad and only 1 song). 1 player.
- City Brawler (Classic Tiger Electronics handheld). 1 player.

There’s a number of other games, as I don’t want to spoil all of the surprises given how short the experience is. There’s a Claw Machine, a Jukebox where you can play a number of different and surprisingly decent tunes (but sadly can only play a single song at a time instead of a playlist), and even a console sitting in the back room that resembles an Xbox 360 and houses a handful of other games on there as well for a single player.

For how dated and low poly everything and everyone looks, it has a certain charm to it. I was instantly reminded of how King of The Arcade looks exactly like the music video for Dire Straits - Money For Nothing. Everything aesthetically screams ‘indie’, even each game, and that’s fine. The audio is about the same, with Mac having either a really odd monotone voice or is created with text-to-speech, it was hard to tell. You’re playing this for the nostalgic games more than the visuals and voice acting, so it can get a pass. Each of the games made me think of how they would probably look if I was to try and remake classic games from my childhood without knowing how to actually code or do so. I don’t mean that as an insult at all, I really don’t, as I find it kind of endearing if anything.

Priced at under ten bucks, it’s hard to not find some nostalgic enjoyment within, even if the knockoff games aren’t quite the exact classic games you remember playing decades ago. While the story is a very brief jaunt, you’ll no doubt want to come back now and then for one or two of your favorites, though I wish every game had the Leaderboards to entice more plays and virtual quarters.

**King of The Arcade was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 SimAirport

Developed by small indie studio LVGameDev, SimAirport was originally released back in 2017 for Early Access then had its full release in 2020. With decent reviews, the time had come for it to be ported to console for other gamers to enjoy, which Ultimate Games handled. Now available on Xbox One and Series consoles, SimAirport is exactly as you’d expect from its self-explanatory title, running an airport from the ground up. That’s a far too simplistic explanation though, as you’ll not just be designing how to build the airport, its walls and scheduling a few flights, but coordinating down to every minute detail you could think of. If you were the type of SimCity player that enjoyed getting super deep into the management and statistical aspects of city building, you’ll have more than enough here to keep you busy.

While there’s no real story aside from creating a successful and profitable airport, you can do this in one of two modes: Career or Sandbox. Career Mode essentially challenges you with creating a profitable airport but with extremely limited resources. This mode is quite challenging, as even the smallest mistake in the early game can be quite disastrous. I suggest playing in Sandbox Mode initially until you feel much more comfortable in the early to mid-game, as you can turn off any limitations, have unlimited money, instantly build and more. The lack of any restrictions is a much smoother experience when struggling with learning the confusing controls, but more on that shortly.

Don’t let the simplistic 2D visuals fool you, SimAirport is probably one of the most complex and in depth management sims out there. You might think that there’s not all that much to plan for an airport, but you’d be wrong. Played in a top-down view, you’ll begin with a number of tutorials that show you the core principles and basics of the game. Broken into a handful of separate tutorials, you’ll be shown how to get your basic airport setup, eventually teaching the more in-depth portions like scheduling flights, negotiating with airlines, heat maps, creating runways and more.

This is where your initial frustrations will start to surface. The tutorials themselves are perfectly fine and explain what you need to do, but keep in mind SimAirport was initially a PC game now being ported to console, so all of the keyboard and mouse controls had to be mapped to a controller. Some sim games have figured out how to do this wonderfully, Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition for example, but sadly the same can’t be said here.

To the point, the controls are absolutely terrible. Sure you get used to it after some time of struggling constantly, but it never feels natural. Being a sim management game, you’ll be neck deep in menus almost constantly. Some menus require you to press ‘A’ while others ‘Right Trigger’. How are you supposed to know which? Good luck; it’ll either just work or won’t. The same goes for even navigating the menus, as you need to use the D-Pad on some and the Left Stick on others. Even hours in I was constantly pressing wrong buttons or going to the wrong menus. I’m sure the same frustrations weren’t the same on PC, but on console it’s a serious hindrance that needs to be seriously looked at.

If you’re the type of sim player that enjoys analyzing data and looking at graphs to determine the best course of action, SimAirport has you covered. You’re given so much information, to the point of being completely overwhelming. And I’ll be honest, much of it went over my head. There’s so much you need to do and concentrate on simultaneously that I sometimes didn’t know where to start. I simply followed the order my tutorials showed me but constantly felt like I wasn’t being efficient enough and forgetting something when designing my airport.

An airport is much more than simply a building where you go to get on a plane. You need to think of customer service, walkways, restrooms, garbage bins, staffing, baggage claim, line queues, order purchasing, security, sales, executives and a handful of other things that seems to be escaping me at the moment. That’s exactly what I’m talking about when you have to constantly be aware of what you need and how to even go about doing so without trying to become overwhelmed or confused.

You’re able to choose to start with a basic airport already constructed which you can build and expand to, or start completely from scratch, regardless of which mode you play. I do suggest playing with the basic airport already built to learn how to best get early game setup, as you’ll be struggling early on with how to place proper zones, walls and expand areas. Constructing new areas, walls and placing objects requires workers, which in turn goes into your payroll. You’ll also need ticketing staff, security, chefs, retail workers and more. All of these aspects need to be weighed and factored into your decisions, as even over hiring can cause you money issues early on if you have workers standing around doing nothing but getting paid. Construction takes materials and has costs, and finances plays a large part of running a successful airport, so it’s almost always top of mind. You’ll need to watch your cash flow, as you’re going to have to budget to hire the staff, build runways, gates, retail stores, vehicles, purchase fuel and much more.

Again, I highly suggest starting out your first few airports in Sandbox Mode with unlimited money just so you can get a feel for how to best layout the airport of your dreams without having to worry about running out of cash. Getting the basics setup isn’t too difficult aside from struggling with the controls, but once you need to start ordering fuel, adding separate runways, scheduling staff, fuel lines and adding a baggage handling system that runs underground, then it’s a whole other level of confusion. There’s plenty here for those that want an incredibly deep simulator, but casual fans will surely feel lost much of the time.

As you start to slowly expand your airport, you’ll probably be excited to see passengers start to flow in for your first few flights, but as demand goes up, so do customer expectations. Having enough facilities for your airport to handle a hundred travelers isn’t too big of a deal, but soon as you start getting into many more thousands, it’s a whole different struggle trying to keep them all satisfied. Do you have enough waiting areas? Are the line queues getting out of hand? Are customers tired and upset because of the long walk from one gate to another? Are there even enough snack machines, retail options and garbage bins around? Are the big spenders happy with a first class lounge? You need to think of all the questions and frustrations you had if you’ve ever gone through a major airport before and ask yourself the same.

As you expand and learn how to play better, the map doesn’t just expand when you purchase land to extend your borders, but you’ll once again feel that overwhelming frustration when you want to start building up onto higher levels. This of course adds completely new challenge and logistical nightmares, and don’t even get me started on the baggage handling lines. I highly suggest when you start to expand to do so slowly. Learn how adding one more shop or room will affect the bigger picture before making a rookie mistake I did by adding 4 more runways and a bunch more gates, only to realize there’s a lot of steps required to make each work with one another, not even factoring in the astronomical costs associated.

After you’ve figured out how to best have your airport operations, you’ll then need to tweak and optimize to make it the most efficient and profitable it can be. This is easier said than done, and sometimes a small change can turn into a large ordeal. Even something as simple as watching fuel prices and deciding to sell excess when prices are high can be a way to earn some cash flow if needed. Even luring new airlines to use your airport might be a challenge, as they’ll have requirements before signing a contract, but you can of course try to negotiate more on your terms.

Visually, SimAirport isn’t too much to look at. The top down perspective makes sense given it’s more of a planning and management game, but all the objects and people are quite simplistic looking, done in 2D. There was no slowdown, even when I had thousands of people all around my airport, but there’s really not all that much to look at. As for the audio, there’s practically nothing to mention. I expected some light elevator music or something to play in the background, but there’s just... nothing. There’s some light sound effects when workers are doing some construction and some minor things, but the lack of any music really made the airport feel dead. Put on some of your best Spotify playlists in the background as you won’t be missing a single thing since there’s essentially no audio.

SimAirport isn’t easy by any means. The learning curve is almost a sheer cliff, though that’s more due to the terrible controls of porting from its PC origins. With better controls I probably wouldn’t have had as many frustrations, but even hours in I was still struggling and constantly having to remind myself which buttons to use in different menus. The $25.99 CAD price point may deter some if you were judging solely based on its screenshots, but there’s an immensely deep management sim underneath if you can spend the time to figure it out how to best develop your dream airport, down to the smallest details, just be aware of the frustrating controls.

**SimAirport was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Fight'N Rage

Originally released back in 2017, solo developer, SebaGamesDev, released Fight’N Rage, a love letter to the classic Beat’em Up genre that Final Fight, Streets of Rage, Double Dragon, Battletoads and TMNT made so popular back in the day. Now released for current consoles, a bunch of additions and improvements have been made, and if you’re a fan of the genre, Fight’N Rage is certainly one to check out, especially if you want to play up to three players in local co-op and want a challenge.

With games in this genre you’re generally playing for its gameplay, not so much the narrative. While there is a story here that revolves something around how mutants are taking over the planet where it’s now “the law of a jungle”, being led by “The Boss”. Of course there are a few that are willing to try and stop this from happening, beating up everyone in their way.

You have the choice of three initial characters: Gal, a quick and agile martial artist who favors her speed and aerial combos rather than strength. Being quite quick, she was easily my favorite of the group, and if she reminds you of Blaze from Streets of Rage you’re not alone. Next is Ricardo, a Mike Haggar clone, though he’s a minotaur instead of human. Being huge and absolutely ripped, he’s got the power and strength, but he’s so slow I found it quite difficult to play as him. Lastly is F. Norris, a ninja who sits somewhere in the middle for power and agility. He has some cool combos but I found it difficult to get myself out of sticky situations with him compared to Gal.

While most Beat’em Up games simply have you moving from the left side of the screen to the right to clear enemies in the way, you’re sometimes given options to go in a different direction, opening up multiple endings based on your decisions. Thankfully you’re also able to fully skip or fast forward cutscenes if you’re simply going through for another run or speed running.

If you’ve played any Beat’em Up in the past, you’ll be very aware of the general setup of walking to an area, defeating all your enemies until allowed to progress forward, clearing that area and repeat until you reach a boss at the end. While the core design isn’t all that different here, it certainly brings back some nostalgia to a time when the genre was much more popular.

While ‘easy to play, hard to master’ is a bit cliché to describe its gameplay, it’s absolutely true. Sure you might get through a good portion of the game by simply spamming the attack button, you’ll eventually hit a wall and be unable to progress if you don’t learn all of the other combat mechanics. Fight’N Rage is actually much more difficult than I expected, so it will take some time to learn how best to fight each type of enemy.

Also like most classic Beam’em Ups, you’ll replenish your health by smashing barrels and finding food on the ground like apples that replenishes a small amount and roast turkey which is best saved when critically low on health as it refills it completely. Some enemies will also drop weapons like a throwing knife, ninja star, a pipe or even a sword to help you get a few extra hits on your enemies.

While most Beat’em Ups are challenging, many utilize unlimited continues so that you can progress, and while Fight’N Rage is no different in allowing unlimited continues, there’s a few caveats to that that absolutely infuriate me. When you ultimately die and lose all your lives, you’re able to continue, but instead of just restarting where you just died with a new set of lives and freshly filled health bar, you are sent back to your last checkpoint, generally the start of the section or level. Sometimes this isn’t too bad and you only need to fight through a few groups of enemies to get back to where you originally died, but there are a few sections that stood out and were incredibly frustrating.

One of the last portions of a specific level has you fighting on a very small raft where you need to fight waves of almost every single enemy you’ve encountered to that point. The problem is that when you inevitably fall off the raft into the water, you lose a good portion of your health. Sure it’s great that you can knock off enemies into the water to instantly kill them, but you’ll no doubt lose a lot of health or lives here. Even worse, the last section of this is a boss fight, and if you die during that battle, you guessed it, you’re doing the whole section all over again.

There’s another section at the very end before the final boss that again, once I died, I had to fight the room of enemies in the previous room before being able to try the boss once more. The problem here is that there are a few enemies that are so overly challenging that it loses all its fun when you’ve already lost a few lives before clearing the room and attempting the boss once again. And yup, when you continue you’ll have to fight the Dobermans that have invulnerability moments and can easily stunlock you. Even on Easy mode, getting through the campaign was a challenge, but more on the difficulty options shortly.

While there’s really only three buttons you need to worry about (attack, jump and special), there are some different combinations of moves and attacks based on your chosen character. Spamming attack will work in the beginning against the basic enemies, but the ones in the latter portions will require a bit more strategy to defeat. You can grab enemies and toss them into others to group them all up and attack multiple at once, also able to utilize dashes and jump attacks.

Like most in the genre, there’s also a special move that you can use, but there’s a downfall to this as well. You have a Special Meter (SP) that refills over time, able to be used for a ‘free’ powerful attack, usually best saved until you’re in trouble or surrounded. If you want to use your special attack when the SP meter isn’t full though, you can do so but at the cost of a small portion of health. Remember all the continue issues I listed above? That means you’ll basically never want to use it for fear of dying and having to redo a section all over again. Food for health refills weren’t rare, but certainly not plentiful enough to actually want to use my specials.

There is a parry system in place, but it’s not explained very well initially and I found it quite difficult to pull off properly. In most sidescrolling Beat’em Ups like this, you simply move out of the line of attack from an enemy, which is certainly an option here, but you’re often surrounded by enemies so you’ll usually just walk into a different attack if so. Parries allow you to negate some of the damage, but having to press away from the enemy as the hit lands much of the time simply had me now facing the wrong direction.

You know what would have been appreciated? A Tutorial or Training mode. Much to my surprise, there actually IS a Training Mode, but it’s locked away initially. Yeah, I don’t understand that logic either. The more you play the more coins you earn based on your score. These coins are then used to unlock a number of different things from playable enemies, modes, costumes and yes, a Training Mode. You have to play the game a bunch to earn enough coins to hopefully go explore the unlockables section and then find there’s a Training Mode. This mode teaches you how to properly play each character, their moves and combos, and even earn new belts as you pass each tutorial. Good luck actually getting the Black Belt unlock due to the 60 second timer though, but it’s something to strive for. If the Training Mode was available initially, I probably wouldn’t have had as much frustration as I did in the beginning.

New character costumes are generally pallet swaps, but there’s plenty more to unlock, even an Easy Mode. Yes, you have to play and die on Normal to earn enough coins to unlock an easier mode, which is still challenging at times. The problem is that even a full run doesn’t earn you a lot of coins, so you’re going to have to play through numerous times if you want to actually unlock everything Fight’N Rage has to offer. Unlocking enemy characters to play as in VS Mode is fun, as here you can have 1v1 matches against a friend or even watch the CPU only battles.

While you can certainly play solo, it’s quite challenging on your own, especially in the later stages. Thankfully there is local 3 player co-op available, but sadly online play isn’t an option. I hope you have friends or family to play with, as solo did eventually become frustrating and repetitive, and if you want to really have some arguments with your co-op partners you can toggle the optional friendly fire as well. Manage to beat the game on Normal or Hard and you can actually unlock CPU partners to play alongside in co-op as well, again, an option that should have been a default.

With smooth framerates and 120FPS support, Fight’N Rage certainly looks good with its pixel art. Sure you can opt to turn on a bunch of classic filters like CRT mode, scanlines and more, but it’s smooth regardless and I never had any hiccups or slowdown. Animations are well done, enemy designs are done well (even if repeated quite often) and each backdrop is unique as you fight through it. The only thing that I found questionable was how overtly sexual some of the women designs were, even the pose Gal has when choosing her. The soundtrack is exceptional, full of dozens of rock tracks from Gonzalo Varela, and hearing your enemies explode from a full combo is always satisfying.

Fight’N Rage may initially look like any other Beat’em Up brawler out there if you judged it solely on some screenshots, but for a solo developer, it’s quite impressive. That said, Fight’N Rage is incredibly challenging and I question some of the design choices for being unlockables instead of default options. No online co-op is a bummer, but if you have friends and family to play with on the same couch there’s some fun to be had. I missed Fight’N Rage the first time, but this is the best version to check it out if you've never heard of it before like myself.

**Fight'N Rage (Series X|S) was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Scars Above

I’ll admit, whenever I see or hear “soulslike” in a game description, I let out a small groan and probably roll my eyes a bit. Not a fan of the genre or the difficult ‘git gud’ game design they tend to utilize, I went into Scars Above with an open mind. Even though there may be some light Souls influences, it’s really not as much of a copy as I expected and does have some interesting mechanics. Scars Above is a third person shooter from smaller studio Mad Head Games, melding a genuinely interesting story, fantastical backdrops and some clever yet challenging gameplay.

You play as Kate Ward, a scientist member of SCAR (Sentient Contact Assessment and Response) who is a part of a highly specialized group of people tasked with investigating and trying to communicate with a massive and mysterious object that appeared nearby Earth’s orbit. Humans call it The Metahedron, a massive upside down pyramid-like structure that simply appeared one day. Naturally, when a strange alien structure appears, we can only assume the worst, so the SCAR team is sent to investigate and attempt contact.

Like most times when we mess with things we don’t understand, this awakens the Metahedron and Dr. Kate Ward suddenly wakes up alone on a mysterious planet that is nothing like Earth, unsure where her team went. Being a scientist and not a soldier, Kate will need to use her scientific brain to try to piece what has happened and where her team is, but that doesn’t mean she won’t have to fight, quite the opposite actually.

As events unfold and you learn more about the planet, the hostile creatures and more, you’re guided by a ghost-like figure that speaks to you requesting help. Who is guiding you and how? As Kate analyses her environment, she will become more adept at learning enemy weak spots, crafting new gadgets, how to survive in harsh areas and more. It’s honestly quite an interesting story that hooked me from its opening cutscene, and while it does dip here and there, getting to the next story piece and cutscene is what pushed me to further figure out who and what The Custodian is.

Played as a third person shooter, while Kate isn’t particularly well trained in combat given she’s a scientist first and foremost, she will need to do everything she can to survive, and that includes a whole bunch of shooting. There are three difficulty settings, and even on Normal it can be a bit of a challenge for your first playthrough as you figure out the mechanics and best way to handle each enemy type. While not quite as difficult as a Souls game, there is challenge at figuring out the best strategies and weapon combinations.

As you explore the alien landscape and come across beasts you’ve never seen before, you’ll need to be quick on your feet to survive if you want to find out what has happened to the ancient civilization that was here once before. As you progress you’ll explore completely different and unique biomes, each with their own challenges, such as literally freezing to death in open sections if you don’t have fire nearby to keep warm. While the main design is pretty linear, there are some branching paths that loop back around, usually housing some secrets and collectables that will make the detour worth it.

The opening tutorial will teach you the core basics of melee and maneuvering, slowly introducing you to its other mechanics as you gain new weapon types, gadgets and abilities. While not trying to replicate a Soulslike too obviously, there are some similar features such as managing your stamina for running and dodging as well as the save points. There are large crystals strewn about the alien landscape for you to discover, acting as a save point and refilling all your health and gadgets, but this in turn also resets all enemies. Sound familiar?

While Kate only starts out with a simple blade, it’ll be your last resort to defend yourself should you run out of ammo during your adventure. The vast majority of the time though you’ll be using your unique weapon that can utilize different elemental attacks as you unlock them throughout your journey. Combat itself isn’t overly complex, as you simply need to know where an enemy weak point is and what element is best used against them. Obviously the bigger and badder foes will add more challenge, like protecting the weak spot in their chest as they rush you, but there’s always a strategy that will work somewhat easily once you figure it out.

There’s also some Bioshock-like gameplay where the different elementals can combine for extra damage. For example, use your electricity shots to an enemy that is standing in water and it’ll take massive damage. Or maybe you want to slow them down, so you use your ice shots when they are in the water instead. Combining fire and acid are another lethal combination, so the initial challenge comes from not only knowing what weakness your enemy has (thankfully the color coded glowing spots on their body is an indicator) but also the best way to use the environment around you.

You’ll eventually have to manage four different ammunition types of fire, electricity, ice and acid, and while ammo isn’t necessarily scarce, it’s not abundant either. Certain flora around the world act as ways to refill your ammo, such as electricity or fire plants. On top of the different weapon types, you’ll also unlock new gadgets at a steady pace as you explore the mysterious and dangerous world you find yourself trapped on.

These gadgets can be useful in the right situation, but I found myself constantly forgetting to use them quite often. The two I found most useful was the shield that allows you to absorb some incoming damage for a short time, always helpful when fighting new enemies and bosses, and a grenade-like tossable item that slows down enemies as they pass through it, allowing you to escape or get around to target weak spots. These gadgets use portions of your battery, its own resource, but can be filled by finding Fiber around the world or of course resting at one of the crystals.

Scars Above does have some light puzzle elements as well, but nothing really all that challenging or had me becoming stumped. Some are shooting specific points with the right type of weapon and others will be researching items to find more information about it, focusing on specific points of the device and clicking 'A'.

Kate is a scientist, so naturally she’s going to want to research and investigate any new objects and creatures she comes across. This not only gives you more information about your enemies and surroundings, but finding more knowledge is how you’ll earn new ability points. Scars Above doesn’t use the typical ‘souls’ currency for defeating enemies. Actually, you get really nothing for defeating enemies, instead having a more exploration focus to find more knowledge. This encourages you to explore off the main path, almost always having something for your troubles. As you fill the knowledge meter you’ll eventually earn skill points to use for a variety of different skills and perks. Don’t worry though, before the end you’ll not only max out your skill tree but probably have a handful of leftover points as well.

Keeping in mind that Scars Above isn’t a AAA release at a full asking price, the visuals can be impressive at times. The world Kate finds herself abandoned on are quite beautiful at times, no doubt that will entice you for some vista screenshots. Enemies are designed quite well, though there isn’t a whole lot of variety, instead being recycled quite often and simply changing their weakness to be ‘different’, though the boss fights certainly stand out. Characters are modeled decently and my only real complaint here is that every cutscene stutters quite harshly for its first few seconds, even on an Xbox Series X.

As for its audio, the background soundtrack sets the tone based on the biome you’re exploring or kicks in a bit more when you’re taking on a massive boss. You’re able to hear the bulkier enemies coming from afar as their foot stomps get louder as they approach, and the main characters do a decent job at delivering their lines, so no real complains there.

I did quite enjoy the narrative from its opening moments and was compelling me to continue to move forward, even if combat could be a bit challenging and save points sometimes a bit too far stretched out, causing frustration when I had to replay a good half hour all over again. Combat does get repetitive and tiresome over time, but as an overall package, Scars Above feels like a much larger story wrapped in a AA package.

**Scars Above was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.8 / 10 Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Videogame 6

Even though I’ve never ridden a motorcross bike, I’ve somehow become the defacto reviewer when it comes to the sport. Over the last handful of games I’ve come to learn quite a great deal about the Supercross sport and would like to think I’m decent at the games by now. Having played the last handful of Monster Energy Supercross titles, I was hoping for some big improvements this year with Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Videogame 6, as last year’s fifth entry was lukewarm at best. It’s time to gas up the bike and hit the mud and dirt with all the 2022 official bikes, riders and tracks.

Stepping into the world of Supercross can be daunting if you’re not already a fan of the sport, thankfully this is where your personal coach will come in, guiding you along the way. And what better coach to have than the iconic Jeremy McGrath, a legend of the sport who has won over 70 SX main events and 7 SX Championships. He will take you through the training events to learn how to win races and impress crowds with your tricks, hopefully resulting in a podium finish.

Almost an exact copy of last year’s entry, you’re able to start out working your way up the ranks from 250CC up to the 450 class. Begin with the ‘Future’ class, starting out with 250CC Championships and finding your first sponsors along the way. From there you graduate to ‘Rookie’, working towards winning those 250 Championships and being introduced to the Rider Shape mechanics, Training Sessions and Challenges. Finally when you’re ready to compete with the big boys, ‘Pro’ has you challenging famous names of the sport all fighting for the 450 Championship, maybe even finding a few rivals along the way.

With a virtually identical career progression as last year’s game, Pro level has 17 live events to compete in, with the lower classes a few less. While it’s great they’ve included iconic tracks, teams, bikes, and riders, if you’ve played the last game, it’s going to feel all too familiar.

If you’re a competitive player, there’s essentially four different modes for you to play. Career is probably where you’ll spend the majority of your time, working your way up the ladder for those coveted Championships. Time Attack is for those that want bragging rights to be the best in the world, constantly trying to save a second or two to climb those leaderboards. Championship Mode lets you choose whatever cup you want to compete for then challenge a friend or play by yourself. Lastly is Single Event where you can setup a single race with almost any parameters you wish.

For those that don’t want to focus on the competitiveness as much, there’s also a few modes here for you as well to simply have fun or improve your skills. Supercross Academy is essentially your tutorial zone where you’ll learn the ins and outs of racing so you can improve your skills and climb the rankings. Supercross Park is your free roam area where you can freely ride around do whatever you like. It’s split into a number of different zones, complete with motocross tracks, SX sections, ramps, jumps and collectables and more. You’re able to ride along here to explore, or invite some friends for some company.

The most interesting addition to this year’s entry though is Rhythm Attack. Here it’s you versus another rider head to head. The catch is that it’s simply a long straight section without any turns, so how you’ll manage the bumps and jumps is going to be key when racing side by side for the first to be across the finish line. Think of it like a drag race, but trickier, as you’ll need skill and speed to win. Single eliminations competition makes for some actual fun events, complete with split screen for local play.

Some of the marketing touts that Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Videogame 6 has revised physics and AI, supposedly resulting in more realistic animations depending on the type of terrain. While the bikes do feel a little heavier this year, there’s still some questionable physics. If you manage to land on top of another rider, you do this weird floating before landing back onto solid ground. Brakes also seem to not work as well this year, as I could slam on the brakes and still need to almost come to complete halt to make some of the hairpin turns. As for the AI, I’d argue it’s become worse. They are all slower, ride in basically a single line, and it’s not uncommon to win races by over 20 or 30 seconds even on harder difficulties once you get a hang for the riding.

I found it was almost random if I was going to get points for a Scrub or Whip and the physics just feel quite different this year. Even though you’ll create ruts as you go through corners every lap, it’s as though you’re almost unable to bank into them to take the turns quicker. This causes you to have to lose the majority of your speed to make many corners. Lastly, the few times there’s a tall table top, even when approaching at a straight angle, it would almost always change my direction randomly as I go up the ramp section, even before ruts form.

What I did enjoy though was the customization options for riding aids. If you have certain disabilities or simply want an easier experience to enjoy the racing instead of stressing about losing, there’s a number of options here to assist. Options like Auto brakes, Auto Steering, Auto Throttle and more. This allows you to have some assistance in maybe certain aspects but not all, able to ease up the help anytime as you become more confident. I did enjoy the Auto Throttle initially as it taught me the amount of speed I needed for certain jumps to land properly and not over and under shoot.

Making a return from last year’s entry is the Rider Shape system. If you’re constantly crashing and bailing, naturally you’re going to get hurt. Well, when you’re hurt you obviously have a disadvantage when race time comes around, so you’re going to have to manage your overall health. Between races you can see your rider status, and to heal and improve your performance you’ll need to partake in a quick timed event. Taking place in the free roam area, you’ll need to collect the letters S-H-A-P-E for completion. There’s also two other objectives you can attempt to complete within the time limit for even more bonuses and a healthier rider. There’s no reattempts though, so make the most of your time in this event to hopefully gain your bonuses back for the next race.

There’s a long list of objectives to complete at any time during your races, and hitting certain milestones you’ll earn skill points that you can use to customize your rider’s abilities and perks. Maybe you want to have better cornering or braking? This is where the skill points can be put in, with each tier costing more than the previous. Filling the first half of the skill trees won’t take too long, but it will eventually become a grind if you’re trying to earn more later on.

While only for aesthetics, you can fully customize your rider with a long list of brands to choose from for your helmet, gloves, boots and more. There’s even a Helmet Editor where you can create a helmet for your rider in any design you want, even able to share online for others to use or find a cool design someone else has created and put it on your rider.

New to multiplayer is full console crossplay as well as an online ranking system. Now you can finally see how skilled other players in the lobby you’ll be racing are, and while there’s no PC and Console crossplay, at least you and your friends that plays on the other console can finally race together.

Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Videogame 6 looks exactly the same as last year. Play me two videos of the game side by side and I doubt I’d be able to definitively tell the difference between the two. Riders look decent in motion, but animations still feel a little stiff at times. The texture pop-in issues at the beginning of races is still present and unfixed, even on an Xbox Series X. Faces for the riders themselves also looks unimproved and terrible at best. Best experienced in first person or helmet camera, it’s the most authentic way to put you right into the action so you can’t focus as much on its shortcomings.

I hope you like the constant wheeze of the bike engines, as that’s what you’re going to hear from start to finish. Sure you can turn it down, but then you’d have to deal with the boring and unforgettable soundtrack that plays during races. Turn the sound completely off and play your favorite Spotify list, as that’s how I was able to tolerate it after a few hours.

I find myself coming to the same conclusion as last year’s entry, hence basically the same score; if you have the previous year’s game, there’s really not much here to warrant a repurchase. Sure the diehard fans of the sport will enjoy all the 2022 rider and arena updates, but if online play doesn’t interest you, there’s a lot of repetitiveness and really not all that much new this year to excite everyone else.

**Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Videogame 6 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Backfirewall_

Have you ever given second thought to when you need to update your phone to the newest Operating System (OS)? Probably not, as you simply hit the update button and let it do its thing for a few minutes before you’re greeted with the latest and greatest software right? Well, what if I told you there’s a whole world and ecosystem inside your phone, where your apps are actually people? What if updating your phone’s OS caused more strife and trauma than you even thought of? What if the old OS was a person, and updating to the latest essentially kills them off only to be replaced?

This is the premise of Backfirewall_, an adorable indie game from Naraven Games that wasn’t even on my radar and probably something I’d honestly skip past in the trailers, but more than elated that I got to play through its adventure. As you go through this hilarious adventure you’ll meet a handful of unique, quirky and memorable apps (characters) along the way, visiting numerous areas and sections inside the phone, all while solving puzzles. I can honestly say, I’ll think of my phone a little differently when it comes time for its next major update. If you enjoy games with endless humor like The Stanley Parable and know your technology terms even slightly, you’re going to have a good time filled with plenty of laughs.

You are the Update Assistant, the app that actually, well, updates your system when you’re ready to upgrade to the newest OS. Backfirewall_ starts out in a really interesting way with someone talking to you and a simple icon on the screen. This is when you first get introduced to OS9, a chatty, witty and hilarious personality that will act as your narrator throughout the adventure.

The time has come though, the latest OS is out, OS10, so naturally you would want to upgrade to the best there is to offer right? Well, OS9 doesn’t want that, as it will kill him once replaced with the new OS10, and you don’t want him to die do you? You hold the fate of the phone’s universe in your hands and decisions. Do you save OS9 from deletion? Does finding out that when the OS gets updated that also has you become deleted as well make a difference? Do you want to die? I’d assume not, so you two begin your journey to do anything you can to stop the update from happening.

As you travel throughout the different core components of the phone, you’ll meet a unique cast along the way all played in first person. As you meet new apps and get to know them, they all have their own ideas and thoughts on the update, but there’s more going on here that you start to notice. There’s seemingly a resistance happening, as maybe some apps have realized that they won’t possibly work with the new OS if it gets updated or you see some graffiti on the walls that are sometimes hilarious, and others ominous.

I don’t want to delve too much more into the narrative as it’s not a terribly long adventure, but the story is absolutely its highlight filled with non-stop humor and a wide range of emotions. Even the most minor characters are quirky enough to be interesting and there’s plenty of details hidden throughout if you take the time to look and read all the logs (literally, they are logs that represent, well, logs). If you know your tech terms and some pop culture references, you’re going to be smiling throughout. It’s a very unique setting and I thought it was going to be a little dull from its screenshots before playing, but it’s quite the opposite actually.

As you make your way to new areas of the phone, like the seemingly infinite RAM halls, the WiFi tower, the acid filled Battery, the GPU where you’ll see the User’s photos and more, they all have a unique setting that if I had to guess what an actual ecosystem in a phone was like, this probably wouldn’t be too far off. The world is colorful and simply gives off a ‘fun’ vibe, even when the security bots are trying to find you and OS9, whom has conveniently tucked himself away inside your code.

While there’s some platforming to be done, it’s quite light, with more of a focus on its puzzle elements. There’s plenty more to do though with bugs to find, toys to collect, reading logs, finding text messages and more. If you do happen to ‘die’ from falling off a ledge into the battery acid below or getting caught from the security bots, you’ll simply respawn instantly a moment away and able to try again without any recourse.

You’re in a smartphone remember, so while you don’t have root access to see all the User’s private information like texts, you are able to find them scattered throughout the phone as you adventure on, with yellow texts able to be read and blue which are encrypted, acting like a currency when you’re able to purchase things. All the texts in the phone are initially unreadable, but as you find more they’ll slot in to the appropriate place in each person’s text conversation with the User. It’s a clever way that really made me want to go out of my way to find as many as I possibly could. It genuinely made me more curious about the User, especially when I started seeing photos and videos of her.

As you progress through each section of the phone, you’ll eventually hit a roadblock where you’ll need to solve a handful of puzzles before OS9 can unlock a door for you to walk through. This is done by causing system errors in the area. You’re given a checklist of True statements, such as there being 10 boxes in the room. Well, if you delete one of those boxes, that is clearly no longer a True statement, so the error occurs and you will get an objective update. Finish the five or so puzzles and you’ll be able to move onto the next area.

How do you solve said puzzles you ask? Great question. You cheat. Yup, OS9 will periodically give you new cheat codes which is used in a really clever way in its world, not just these puzzle areas. These cheat codes allow you to manipulate the environment in different ways, acting as new powers or abilities. You first learn to delete items, eventually able to duplicate, change colors of objects and more. It’s all done in a way that makes complete sense given your backdrop and the narrative, so I applaud the originality.

But you aren’t good at puzzle games and this might deter you I hear? Don’t fret, the puzzles aren’t terribly difficult, and while I never had to look up a walkthrough, there is some in-game assistance offered if you should need it. Can’t figure out how to solve a certain puzzle? Ask the rubber ducks. Yes, you’ll talk to rubber ducks that will offer hints that you crave so badly. They do a wonderful job and never directly spell it out for you what to do, but just enough of a hint where they basically tell you what to do or where to go. I’ve had to rely on them once or twice and still felt the sensation of puzzle solving on my own, even if I did get a little bit of a clue from a rubber duck.

While I really did enjoy the level design, the audio and sound design needs special mention. OS9 is an absolute treat with his accent and witty lines. Think Wheatley from Portal 2 and you’ll have a perfect example, of which I’m sure plenty of inspiration came from. Nicolas Oberson’s performance of OS9 is flawless and absolutely makes Backfirewall_ the unique experience it is. Fantastic voice acting all around, which quite surprised me from a smaller studio, but every NPC and App you meet along the way is voiced absolutely wonderfully. The writing obviously plays a large part in the execution of its humor throughout, but the lines were delivered perfectly, only adding to the humor more so. The actors for OS10, Social Media, Alex, Unzipper and more all did fantastic, elevating the experience.

Full of creativity, the initial screenshots might fool you with how basic is looks, but it’s done so deliberately and makes for a truly extraordinary game. I was smiling from the opening moments when I had to choose what my name was from a few different binary numbers, only for OS9 to call me Elizabeth in the end regardless, all the way to the end where I was legitimately sad. Humor isn’t easy to pull off in games, and if you miss the landing, the whole experience falls flat. That isn’t the case here at all.

Backfirewall_ is one of those games I honestly probably wouldn’t have given a second glance to as I scrolled through the store of something new to play, but absolutely delighted that I got to experience such a unique and creative game that clearly had a lot of heart and passion behind it. Indie games like Backfirewall_ need to be experienced, one that I can fully recommend if you need something light hearted, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and gives plenty of laughs along the way, even if it has now made me questioning my phone’s OS update in real life.

**Backfirewall_ was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Pinball FX

I’m glad I grew up in the gaming era I did, as my mom would give me a few quarters to go play at the local arcade on the way home from work. That’s right, I’m dating myself by talking about arcades; dedicated businesses that house dozens of different games that you could only find there, as not every game came out for PC or console at the time. I’d say a good half of my quarters would always be spent on a pinball machine or two, as many arcades used to have a handful of different pinball machines in a specific corner or wing of the building.

While playing virtual pinball is nowhere near the same thing as standing at an actual machine and feeling those flippers launch the ball and the lights brighten, it’s a substitute that will have to do as arcades aren’t commonplace any longer sadly. Hands down, the king of the genre is Zen Studios, as this is their specialty, bringing console pinball games for numerous console generations now. For over a decade I’ve been playing Pinball FX and its sequels, always up for a game or two if short on time.

Don’t let the name confuse you, even though Pinball FX released back on Xbox 360 in 2007, this is basically a remake/remaster/reboot, whatever you want to call it, for the modern consoles. Even though this too is named Pinball FX, it’s a completely new entry. Now something to take note of, Pinball FX really isn’t a game. Sure, it includes a free table to give you a taste, but Pinball FX is more of a platform than anything else, which is why it’s technically ‘free’. This platform is how you’ll try out and purchase any new tables that you enjoy.

Being completely rebuilt in Unreal Engine 4, there’s now 4K graphical support ray tracing and “better” physics. I only quote the “better” because even though it’s a major selling point in their marketing, I couldn’t really tell much of a difference after playing dozens of hours of the previous Pinball FX games. Zen Studios excels at creating unique pinball tables that certainly make me wish there was a real life counterpart, but also recreating some of my favorite tables that I remember playing when I was younger.

As stated above, Pinball FX is a free download and comes with one table to play on indefinitely. This is to hopefully entice you to try out some other tables and of course then spend money on new ones or packs. Certain tables can be purchased individually whereas others need to be purchased in packs. With 86 tables to try out and choose from, there’s certainly at least a few you’re sure to enjoy enough to want to purchase and keep. The pinball tables available vary quite greatly, themed from Star Wars, Marvel, Indiana Jones, Universal Studios, classic Williams Pinball tables and plenty of original Zen Studio designs.

Controls are exactly as you’d expect, with your triggers being used for the flippers. You’re able to use your Right Stick as the plunger if the table utilizes that style instead of a button, allowing you to perform specific powered shots. You're even able to 'shake' the table and bump it, though be careful of you'll error out the machine and lose your ball. There are a variety of different camera options depending if you want something stationary and far out, like how you stand over the table in real life to view it all from above, or something much closer that focuses on the bottom flippers, or even a camera option that follows the ball closely as it moves, though I found this one difficult to use with the constant movement and knowing where your flippers are until it’s too late.

Some tables are also what I’m calling ‘virtually enhanced’, meaning that there’s extra flair that can occur in certain modes. For example, playing with this toggled on with the Indiana Table you may see him using his whip to go from one side of the table to another, almost like if it was an augmented reality portion. You can toggle this off to play the table in its standard form without all of these extra distractions, but this is one of the bonuses of having digital tables, as Zen Studios can do a lot of things like this that wouldn’t be possible on a real table.

Given that there are almost 90 tables available currently, I’m not going to fully review every single one, instead saying that the majority are quite good, though having played these games for many years I’ve played a good majority of them already for many hours previously. There weren’t any that I particularly found terrible, though I certainly had my preferences of the ones I gravitated to for many plays instead of others. With 86 tables to choose from, there’s no shortage depending on your brand preferences, but I’m quite partial to the Williams tables as I can remember playing many of these growing up. Some of the Zen Studios original tables are quite entertaining as well.

If you’re a Marvel fan, you’ll be happy to know there’s a lot of different themes tables here from almost every superhero. If Star Wars if your thing there’s even more choices, spanning the whole franchise practically, even including The Mandalorian. If you enjoy classic Universal Studios movies you’ll want to check out the pack that has Jaws, Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, Back to the Future, and even E.T. There’s a handful of new tables too which I was excited to try out. Themed tables from The Addams Family (probably the hardest table I’ve ever played), Borderlands (and other Gearbox games), Snoopy, Garfield, World War Z and My Little Pony were all quite unique. Even though the Garfield and My Little Pony tables are clearly marketed towards a younger audience, they were simplistic to play, entertaining and quite colorful.

You can of course play each table in Classic Mode, your typical way to play with 3 balls, aiming to get the highest score possible. There’s an interesting Arcade Mode where you can set to have certain power-ups and a handful of different toggles, adding for some fun variety. The modes I enjoyed the most were Timed, Flipper and Single Ball. Timed gives you, well, a set amount of time where you have unlimited balls to reach a high score, not needing to worry about losing your balls down the middle, though of course waiting for a new ball to launch wastes precious time. Single Ball was a surprisingly fun mode though, as you’re given a single ball to see how high of a score you can get. Sometimes this works out well, and others you lose your ball almost instantly. By far though, Flipper challenge is something I gravitated towards. Here you’re given usually 200 presses of the flippers before the game is over. You have unlimited balls, but every time you lose a ball down the middle it counts as one flip, so you still want to play well. This actually made me a better pinball player as I had to be more specific and purposeful with my flippers instead of just spamming the triggers.

Though not a new concept, there’s a collectable aspect to Pinball FX as well. Here you can earn items to decorate your own pinball cave, placing the unlockable items in your display shelves, carpets, posters and more. These items are generally tied to specific score accumulation totals for each table, so the more you play the more you can unlock. The items are usually themed to the table or a small figure from it which you can then place on your shelf to decorate. It’s a fun little bonus and gives you a little incentive to play the tables you might not generally gravitate towards.

If you’d like to create a Tournament for others to play, you’re given a handful of different options including the table, length of time to enter and try, what mode, and nearly anything you can think of. Great idea, but the problem with the Tournament functionality is that it’s just filled with an endless list of other player’s postings, so it’s difficult to find what you want.

Pinball FX’s latest addition, and my favourite, is the Events. These are official challenges that when you’re successful you’ll earn points towards your ‘Season Pass’. That’s right, a pinball game with a season pass. Luckily you don’t have to purchase it, but you only get points by completing these events that go towards your progress. These are fun and rotate daily or weekly, depending on the event. Some also only allow a certain amount of plays and attempts a day, and these can even be some of the more unique modes like Single Ball or Flipper challenges. The best part is that since there’s online leaderboards for everything, you get a quick notification that you’ve passed someone’s score that was above you in the rankings, always fun to see as you’re having a good game. The only thing of note is that many of these events are with premium tables, so clearly another way to entice you to purchase more.

Then there’s what’s being called the Pinball Pass. You know how you have a subscription to Netflix, Prime, Hulu and probably a few more services? How about adding one more for your pinball needs. The Pinball Pass is essentially that, giving you access to nearly every table for as long as your subscription lasts. Some tables are great, others maybe not so much, so instead of purchasing every single table, this is another option for you. There’s even supposed to be more bonuses included in the future, but I can’t speak to those as they’ve not been revealed yet. The Pinball Pass gives you unlimited play and access to the included tables, but there are a few that are not included, which I’m sure is for licensing reasons, but imagine loading up Netflix and being told that the latest Season of Squid Game isn’t included and you need to purchase it separately; it’s the same disappointment.

In typical gaming fashion, instead of simply purchasing the Pinball Pass with real money, you first need to buy their own currency, Pinball Coins, then purchase what you want with those. There’s a handful of different bundles to buy, as you can spend these coins on other collectable items and such, but the Pinball Pass is 1200 Pinball Coins. That converts to $128.99 CAD. That’s NOT a typo. It’s well over a hundred dollars for a year of your pinball subscription. Sure it’s great for the year you have the pass, but I can imagine the frustration when the day comes you need to re-subscribe and are reminded of how expensive that is. Yes you can purchase tables outright to keep, so there are options, but it can get pricey quite quickly.

Pinball Pass questionability aside, if you really enjoy a table you can purchase it to keep and play whenever you want, but what about the players like me that have been playing the Pinball FX games for well over a decade and already have a hearty collection of tables? Well, it seems Zen Studios doesn’t care about that and want you to repurchase everything. Spent hundreds of dollars in the past for tables? Well, too bad. Start all over here in Pinball FX. Not being able to transfer any previous table purchases is sure to give a really bad taste in many mouths with the new engine being blamed for the reason that’s not a possibility. Sadly it gives off a greed vibe, as the new coat of paint and slightly better lighting is questionable for a full repurchase of everything you may have already purchased in the past. Whether I believe the reasoning or not isn’t my job, but it’s certainly questionable. Even a one-time fee import/export I would have been fine with, like how the Rock Band games did, but this is sure to draw some ire form the pinball community for sure. For complete transparency, we were given a Pinball Pass and all the tables not included with the subscription for review purposes.

Also, some tables can’t be purchased individually, so if you only like one table in the Marvel pack for example, well, you’re going to have to purchase the whole thing, which is obviously more expensive. All or nothing seems a bit disappointing and might even prevent some from purchasing what they actually want. Making matters worse is the menu system for downloading the trials and games is cumbersome within game, even if you purchased it externally on the Xbox store already.

There is an option for Performance or Quality in the options menu (on an Xbox Series X at least), though toggling both and scrutinizing multiple tables, I find it quite hard to find much of a difference. I was hoping Quality mode would have drastically better lighting and ray tracing, you know, the ‘reason’ for forcing you to rebuy all your tables, but I couldn’t tell much of a difference other than maybe some slightly better smoothness with Performance mode. The tables look great, just as they did over a decade ago, and reliving some of my favorite tables from my childhood (shout out to Medieval Madness) always puts a smile on my face. The only issue I had with performance was some massive slowdown whenever an Xbox notification popped up on screen, lagging the game for a few seconds as it occurred oddly enough.

Pinball FX is looking to make a comeback on console with this reboot, though your enjoyment is solely going to depend on which tables you enjoy and how much money you’re willing to invest into it. For recreating an actual pinball experience digitally, no one does it better than Zen Studios, it’s just a shame that the cost of entry is quite high to accumulate a decent pinball collection once again and you’re constantly tugged in multiple directions to open your wallet. Pinball FX as its own gaming experience is entertaining and a great way to spend a few relaxing hours on numerous tables once purchased, but the pricing structure is something to check before you dive in head first and sure to massively disappoint those that have already previously bought tables in the past.

**Pinball FX was provided by the publisher (Pinball Pass and numerous table collections included) and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Fashion Police Squad

My personal sense of fashion is one that comfort trumps style. I’m a jeans and t-shirt type of guy; simple. Thankfully I’m not at the socks and sandals dad level yet. Would my clothing choices turn heads? Of course not, and I’m fine with that. It’s a good thing I don’t live in Trendpololis, the setting of Fashion Police Squad, as I would probably be a fashion faux pas. And that is the hook with Fashion Police Squad, you’re given the power to fix the public's fashion atrocities like baggy clothes, flame prints, socks and sandals, and other fashion disasters.

Think Doom Eternal, but instead of a dark, gritty and bloody shooting spree, you instead are going through a 3D world but every character is 2D and animated. It’s a classic FPS at its core and plays just like one, but definitely uses other shooter game mechanics, like using specific weapons for certain enemies. The only difference here is that you’re shooting at regular citizens that just happened to have terrible fashion sense and thus fixing and making them modern and fashionable. No blood and gore here, just bright colorful and eccentric style.

You are sergeant Des, a fashion police officer that has some extravagant style, sworn to fix the fashion faux pas that’s occurring throughout Trenopolis. Along with your handful of different fashion weapons and your Belt of Justice, you’ll be saving the city from terrible style. You’ll need to save people from baggy pants, socks and sandals, oversized suits and more. Your partner Haley talks to you over the radio, guiding you along your adventure and where to go next.

Rather than being just a simplistic shooter without any substance, there’s actually quite a bit of emphasis on its story. Is it a bit over the top and silly? Of course, but that’s where some of its charm comes from. There’s a mystery of why all these citizens are committing fashion crimes and it’s up to the Fashion Police Squad to solve who, what, where and why. It plays out much like a parody of itself, media and other games where humor plays a large part of its charm, and while it does get a little repetitive by the end, I still had a great time regardless.

Across a dozen different missions, you’ll be spreading glam and fashion across the city. Levels are quite linear, having you defeat everyone before being allowed to move on, and even having to get different colored scissors to progress past matching colored ribbons (think key cards from Doom). The world, characters and environment is bright, colorful and full of neon as you shoot, jump and swing your way from one end to the other.

As you shoot your way through the fashion crimes, you’ll also come across different pickups like watches, bow ties and mocktails, which will increase your health or armor, again, much like its Doom inspiration. Your Belt of Justice not only acts as way to stun your enemies, but it’s mainly used like a grappling hook, able to attach to certain flagpoles to launch and fling you forward. These platforming sections were fun but very seldom.

If you’re the type to search for secrets, there’s no shortage here, with each level having some sort of secret to be found, even the boss fights. Having found a few, they are tucked away pretty well and will take some time to find them all. At the end of each mission you’ll get a ranking and show what you found for pickups and secrets, but the highlight is the fashion show. All of the people you ‘fix’ by changing their attire, they will run down the catwalk much like a fashion show. It’s done in a really cool way and made it feel like what I did that previous level was for a reason.

Being a FPS, shooting will be what you primarily will be doing with your unique arsenal. You begin with a single weapon but will eventually get more as the story progresses. Where Fashion Police Squad’s hook comes in is with how you use your different weapons based on each type of enemy. Each fashion crime requires a different way to fix it, so you’ll be forced to figure out and remember which weapon is needed to defeat each type of person by altering what they are wearing. Above each person is a health bar that once depleted, turns them into a fashionable version that is deserving of the catwalk.

You’ll need to know what each type of weapon does and which enemies they are used for if you want to be successful, because using the wrong weapon simply won’t do anything to them. You begin with your Paint Shotgun, splattering color to those drab enemies in boring grey suits. You’ll then get a Sewing Machine Gun that shoots needles to tighten those loose fitting clothes, whereas its alternate fire lobs a fabric grenade. Sock Gnomes are funny little grenades that will seek out the sock and sandal wearing offenders. The Water Cannon comes later, allowing you to clear fire from the Guy Fieri knockoff that, well, spews fire. This also doubles as a way to make you run and slide faster if you spray slightly in front of you as you run. There’s a last weapon you get in the final section, but I’ll leave that as a surprise given the runtime is only a handful of hours.

What’s most interesting is that every weapon has unlimited ammo, so there’s no need to scrounge around to find more or wait to defeat enemies to drop some. This is where the needing to use the right weapon for the right fashion crime comes in, and when you have multiple different enemy types coming at you all at once, this is where it becomes chaotic as you try and figure out who to attack first to placate by fixing their clothing. Even at the end there were new enemy types being introduced, and while some were much more annoying than others, it was generally easy to remember which enemy type needs which type of weapon to defeat. My main complaint is that some of the arenas you get locked into at times are quite small and when you have a dozen enemies to defeat, it gets hectic at times.

Thankfully you have a special meter that fills slowly, allowing you to use your Fabulous Slap Glove, essentially an instant kill attack move for a short period of time, best saved for those chaotic portions with waves of enemies. There’s a few levels that try to break up the monotony by having a sniper section where you have different gnome ammo depending if people need their hair, shoes or clothing ‘fixed’, and another where you’re in a car chase using a turret to defeat your enemies as well. These did break up the repetition a bit, but I didn’t enjoy these sections as much as I thought I would. Fashion Police Squad shines best in its unique boss battles, especially the one halfway through that I won’t spoil, but references a number of gaming tropes.

The 2D pixel models in a 3D world isn’t anything new, but it works well here and looks quite stylish, of course. The world is bright and colorful and has plenty of style. There’s a lot of smaller details that make the world more fun and it’s hard to not smile while playing. The soundtrack is done quite well, and while I wished more than the opening sequence was voiced, each gun sounds unique and it’s obvious which enemies are nearby with their lines, even if they are repeated quite often with the low enemy variety.

Sure, Fashion Police Squad is like any other classic shooter but with a gimmick, but it’s a fun one. Full of humor, puns and fashion one-liners, it’s hard not to smile every so often, especially when a new enemy is introduced, because you know you’ve seen this very exact fashion crime at some point. With its classic Doom inspiration, it’s certainly one of the more unique FPS games I’ve ever played, full of fashion and style.

**Fashion Police Squad was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.2 / 10 Breakers Collection

In the early 90’s no one could deny that Capcom was on top of the world when they released Street Fighter II and with subsequent improved editions in the following years, but they cemented themselves as the king of the fighting games, save for maybe Mortal Kombat, depending on your style, preferences, and if your parents would let you play it. I’m glad to have grown up during this era of amazing games, as fighting games were some of the best memories I have playing until the wee hours of the night with some friends on the weekend.

While Street Fighter II may have taken the world by storm, the Neo Geo was the latest console from SNK, and while it may not have been as popular out here with Western audiences, it certainly garnered a fan base in other parts of the world. SNK needed their own fighting game to rival Capcom’s behemoth, and in 1996 developers Visco released a very similar 2D fighting game, Breakers. Being popular given the small audience, sadly Breakers never made its way outside of Japan, so I don’t feel bad for never hearing of it before, or its 'sequel', Breakers Revenge. It seemingly has a cult following, so I’m glad to have been exposed to it for my own knowledge.

Thanks to QUByte Interactive, they’ve managed to bring the duo of games not only to a Western audience for the first time, but on the latest consoles. Even more impressive is that this is easily the definitive version, as they’ve also included a bunch of improvements and extras as well, so rather than a simply port via emulation, they’ve gone above and beyond.

While there are some slight story elements here, let’s be honest, it’s a fighting game, so you’re playing it to fight other characters regardless of their own motivations. Breakers Collection does include two different games, but that said, there’s little reason to play the original Breakers when the included Breakers Revenge is an improved version. Just like Street Fighter II, why would you play the core game when you have Turbo or even Championship Edition at hand? Same idea here, so I’ll mostly be focusing on Breakers Revenge as it had two extra playable characters as well as a bunch of improvements.

While the roster is small, it’s a surprisingly tight fighting game given that I’ve never heard of it before, though when you’re trying to emulate others successes almost one-for-one it’s kind of hard not to. Even with only ten characters to choose from, they are all varied and you’re sure to find a favorite quickly on, even quicker if you know which character is basically a copy of their Street Fighter II counterpart.

If you needed a few examples, my go-to was Tia, essentially a clone of Chun-Li who was also my fighter of choice, complete with quick leg kicks. Rila is a knockoff of Blanka, Alsion III is Dhalsim and even the final boss, Bai-Hu is Bison almost exactly. I’m all for games that pay homage to others, but it’s quite apparent that the majority of the characters were essentially reskins of their Street Fighter inspirations. What I did find interesting is that when you’re playing a shadow match, both players playing the same character, the second player will be named differently even though they are simply just a palette swap, complete with a backstory and everything. It’s an interesting and unique touch.

So while Breakers Collection will be new to most unless you lived abroad or imported games, this duo pack adds a handful of improvements, more so than I actually expected. You can expect crossplay between consoles and PC, rollback netcode (a must these days), a training mode, unlockable galleries, leaderboards, ranked online battles, online replays, lobbies, a Team Battle mode and more. It’s an impressive list of extra additions that went into this collection and it doesn’t go unnoticed.

Like other fighting games from that era, you have a light and heavy punches and kicks. You’re able to combo light and heavy attacks together quite easily and with enough skills, then adding specials into the combo finisher. You can have up to three levels in your Super bar, filled by dashing, blocking, attacking, blocking, taunting, etc. There are more advanced techniques like being able to cancel your regular moves into specials or a special into a super.

There’s a decent amount of combos and attacks, each character having their own style and movesets. When you perform a decent juggle it’s quite satisfying. Given that not only are the characters visually emulated from their Capcom counterparts, if you remember any of their movesets like how to do a Hadoken or Shoryuken motion, you’ll feel right at home. You can even choose to have the moves for the characters currently playing on the side of the screen, much like how the cabinets in the arcade used to have.

Adding rollback netcode for the online multiplayer is a fantastic addition, basically a necessity these days if you want a competitive game. That and crossplay included is what got me excited to play online with others, but even with my crossplay enabled, I’ve yet been able to find any other single player online for a match. You can even choose the server and the population, and every time I’ve checked they were at 0, so unfortunately I was unable to try the online multiplayer for myself. At least I was able to download and watch sone online replays of matches, great for those that want to improve their skills.

For a game that released mid 90’s on the NeoGeo, it still visually holds up. The sprites are done quite well, the background are colorful and the characters are look distinct from one another, even if they are heavily borrow from another game. Animations are smooth and the elemental effects are quite decent. The audio is perfectly serviceable, but the soundtrack is nowhere near as memorable as others in the genre.

I’m glad when I get to discover new games, even if they are decades old, and while I’ve played the classics from Neo Geo, Breakers sadly was never one of them until now. While I question its originality, as it more than heavily borrowed from one of the greatest of all time, that said, Breakers Collection is worth checking out if the fighting genre is your thing, even if it’s advertised as two unique games.

**Breakers Collection was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Wanted: Dead

Depending on your age or when you started playing games, ‘classic’ generations of consoles may be a distant memory or something you look at and wonder how some of us older gamers managed to play given the graphics at the time. Games have certainly come a long way, and each generation of console brings new leaps and bounds of what’s possible from developers. There’s a certain charm though when I play an older game, as it’s not going to be anywhere near as mechanically extensive or visually impressive when compared to releases now, but they can have a certain charm to them due to this. This is what small developer Soleil is trying to capture with their latest release, Wanted: Dead.

With a handful of developers from the Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive series in their ranks, Wanted: Dead aims to create an ‘old school’ experience, specifically being a love letter to classic consoles from the 6th generation: Sega Dreamcast, Playstation 2, Gamecube and the original Xbox. Games from this era had something special about them and many fond memories come from this generation of gaming regardless of console.

A hybrid slasher/shooter, Wanted: Dead is sure to remind you of some older titles, but the one that kept coming to mind was Oni or Devil's Third. With a cyberpunk backdrop, you’ll be running, gunning and slashing your way through near endless enemies as you try to survive just one more day. Expect a lot of bloodshed, swearing and even more blood. You can certainly see some of its Ninja Gaiden roots in its unapologetic violence.

You play as Lt. Hannah Stone, a grizzled Hong Kong cop that is but just one member of the Zombie Unit, an elite squad that gets called upon for the most dangerous and impossible missions. Also in your squad are your teammates Cortez, Doc and Herzog, each with their own unique personalities and combat talents. Your Captain, Simmons, is the one that leads your crew, but you’ll meet a handful of other cast as well, namely your Gunsmith, Vivienne, a former Olympic gold medalist and celebrity chef. If she happens to look and sound familiar you would be correct, as it’s the same actress who played Quiet in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Stefanie Joosten.

The main narrative revolves around massive corporation, Dauer Synthetics, and you’ll soon come to realize that they’re at the heart of a major conspiracy. Doing so won’t be easy though, as you’ll have a literal army standing in your way that you’ll need to destroy. With a cyberpunk backdrop, you’ll certainly see a different Hong Kong setting that you may be used to, one where the police force is essentially privatized and use Maserati’s for their vehicles.

The story itself is compelling enough if you’re able to keep the game going without too many deaths and restarts, but I’ve had numerous times where I’ve been stuck at certain sections for quite some time. Most cutscenes will be as you’d expect, taking place in-game, but every so often there’s a hand drawn anime style that I found done quite well and signify flashbacks, even if a little jarring going between the different aesthetics.

As you begin your adventure you’ll first need to decide if you want to play on Normal or Hard. Now, I’m not great at difficult games, as they frustrate me. I know, I know, ‘git gud’, but I simply don’t find enjoyment in dying numerous times to slowly make progress. That said, even on Normal, Wanted: Dead is quite challenging, especially the first portion when you’re still getting used to your moves, abilities and different enemy types, figuring out the best strategies for each.

Taking on mercenaries, private security and even synthetics will feel overwhelming, even in the opening section, as you’re almost constantly outnumbered a good 5 or 10 to one. Hannah is armed with a razor sharp sword, pistol and assault rifle. I’ll admit, I initially tried playing this like a third person cover based shooter, as you automatically duck or crouch behind when nearby walls and objects, but that won’t work long with your limited ammo. You’re going to have to get your hands dirty, more specifically, bloody, as you’ll need to rush enemies to slice and dice them apart. You’re going to die, a lot, and it will take a good handful of hours before you start to feel really comfortable with the combat, as I was trying to play more defensively, but that simply won’t work here when you’re constantly outnumbered and surrounded.

Even though you have a squad with you for most missions, don’t plan on them actually pulling their weight. Sure they do fire their guns and offer as some slight distractions sometimes, but they tend to stick nearby you, so if you retreat to try and get a breather they’ll too come in tow. You have a set amount of health packs that you can use at any time, though you need to become proactive using them, as they won’t be automatically used when you’re downed, and there’s nothing more frustrating than dying with a handful of health packs that you forgot to use.

Certain missions will have Doc with you on your team, and he’s by far the most useful, as he can revive you once per checkpoint if you get downed and forgot to heal or ran out of health packs. Doc is basically a free revive which is fantastic to have when he comes along, but there’s a good amount of missions he’s not with you, so you don’t always have that safety net. The other issue that is that most checkpoints are incredibly far apart, so when you do inevitably die, you’re going to redo lengthy portions over again, numerous times. I can’t tell you how frustrated I became near the very end when I was stuck on getting to the next checkpoint, redoing a good 20+ minute portion numerous times until I finally progressed by some miracle. For those wanting a good chuckle, each time you get a loading screen it’s based on a popular meme, showing that it doesn’t always take itself so seriously.

Part brawler, part shooter, you’ll need to lean more towards the offensive to proceed. While you could try to play it like a third person shooter, this won’t get you far, so you’re going to need to run into the chaos and utilize all your abilities to survive. Being mobile and constantly moving seems to be the best strategy, as once I adopted a more non-stop approach, I was doing much better. Cover is available, and will be needed in certain portions, as picking off a few grunt enemies is a good way to thin the herd, but this won’t work for every enemy type effectively.

Speaking of your enemies, there isn’t all that much variety. Sure they look somewhat different when you start fighting against synthetics, but you essentially only have a few types. Grunts are your easiest ones you’ll begin fighting, taken out with a few good slashes or headshots from your weaponry. You then have stronger versions that generally need to be taken out up and close or they’ll try to come at you direct. You’ll eventually take on ninjas that vary in strength and difficulty, the bane of my existence. Then lastly you have the massive brutes wearing a Juggernaut-like suit with a Gatling gun. I’m not going to spoil the best strategies to take out each, but when you’re fighting all different types at once, you’re going to wish the rest of the Zombie Unit pulled their weight instead of basically letting you do all the work.

Your sword is going to be the base of your damage, but sometimes you’ll need to rely on your other weapons. You do have a pistol, but this is meant more as an interrupter or countering specific attacks rather than causing big damage, even though it has unlimited ammunition. You always have your assault rifle, but this is limited in ammo, good for taking out a few lower ranked enemies or quick damage to the harder enemies. You can also carry one enemy weapon and swap between the two, such as different rifles, SMG, LMG, Shotgun and Grenade Launchers. These are limited in ammo but enemies will generally drop ammo for either your assault rifle or picked up gun, so it’s a matter of finding what’s best for each situation. Where the problem lies is that basically every enemy is a massive bullet and sword sponge, even on Normal.

Combat is brutal. Even early on you’ll be slicing and dicing your enemies in half or even literally disarming them. An ‘unarmed’ enemy is still dangerous, so always be sure to finish them off. There’s over 50 brutal finishers that can be triggered, and these look incredibly stylish and over the top, generally leaving Hannah covered in so much blood she’s pure red. As you take out enemies your adrenaline meter will fill that once full and used, you’ll do some wicked looking Matrix-like moves that will deplete the stamina of enemies nearby, allowing for chained executions. The first time you pull this off, it’s quite badass to witness.

Combat moves are based on different combinations of your blade and pistol, but you’re going to have to be quite defensive at times as well, blocking with your sword or doing a parry if timed perfectly right. I’ll tell you now, get proficient with parrying early on, as you won’t be able to complete the adventure without being skilled at this move. You’re able to dodge out of the way and use limited amounts of grenades as well in a tight situation. As for the enemy AI, they are easy to exploit once you figure out how dumb they can be individually, but where the challenge comes is when you’re surrounded by numerous types and always outnumbered. One ninja rushing you is no big deal, completely different story with three, some grunts shooting at you in the distance and a heavy using its Gatling gun as well.

Stone will earn skill points (SP) when defeating enemies, so the flashier the kill the more points you’ll get. Earn enough and you can spend them in any of the three skill trees. Here you’ll improve your offense, defense and utility skills. About three quarters through the game I had maxed out the skill trees, and had thousands of extra unspent points near the finale. I don’t know if it was a specific skill or upgrade that helped, but there was a certain point where all of a sudden either the skill points made a huge difference or my own skill instantly improved. Either way, from this point on I felt at times invincible; Not always, but some boss fights I even beat on the first try, whereas earlier bosses took a good dozen tries before being successful.

If you need a break from the high adrenaline combat, there's a good handful of minigames and other things you can partake in when you're back at the police HQ between missions. You'll be able to play a crane game to try and grab different collectable statues and balls containing new audio tracks. An in Yakuza-like fashion, there's even some odd wacky games you can play like matching buttons to certain songs to eat bowls of ramen or having a karaoke sing-off with the Weaponsmith. There's also a sidescrolling shooter you can play for high scores later on as well, so there's other things to fill your time when you just want to chill.

Visually, the cyberpunk backdrop and emphasizes violence simply looks cool. While it won’t wow you, it performs quite well and smoothly other than the odd few sections where there was simply too much going on at once, hitting me with some framerate slowdown even on an Xbox Series X, but this was pretty infrequent. The slickness of the combat and shooting is stylish even if much of the level design is corridor based an in enclosed area.

Where I struggle is with the audio. The soundtrack is fantastic across the board, but the dialogue is something quite different. Kind of like a terrible B-movie you just love, it has an endearing charm regardless. I’m not sure if it’s trying to emulate the early 2000’s games that it draws inspiration from or not, but you can expect numerous one-liners and death screams over and over again. The dialogue is cheesy and even though Hannah’s delivery is unique at times, I do think that’s what they were intentionally going for oddly enough.

Even though I think the difficulty can be a little over tuned at times and the checkpoints are a little too spread out at times, for every moment I had frustration, I was still compelled to move forward and try again and again. Sometimes you just need a game where you turn off your brain to slash and blast everything in your way and can have fun doing so with some over the top violence, Wanted: Dead delivers that, even if it does feel way over the top with its style.

**Wanted: Dead was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 OmegaBot

Having released on PC last June, it’s time for OmegaBot to make its entry into the console market for a wider audience to play and hopefully enjoy. Games that come from a solo developer always impress me, as I can’t imagine the amount of work and tireless nights that went into creating an idea into an actual playable product, and OmegaBot from Simon Carny is no different. Even more impressive is that it’s his first game and he clearly took a lot of influence from the iconic Mega Man series, full of side scrolling platforming and shooting action.

Everything was fine, the world was at peace, but then a mysterious mist arrived. Anyone who went near the mist somehow turned into a robot that aimed at destroying anyone in their path. So the world’s mightiest warriors that were supposed to save the world from this mist ventured out to do just that, but it seems they have failed, also changing into some sort of half robot. This is where you come in, as robots are unaffected by the mist, and although it seems other robotic heroes have come before you, you’re surely going to be the one to set thing right... Right? Those warriors that came before are seemingly the gatekeepers and will need to be defeated to venture further, but you’re such a small statured robot, what can you possibly do? It won’t be easy but you’ll gain new weaponry, abilities and dare I say, friends, along your adventure.

Much like its inspiration of early Mega Man games, OmegaBot is mechanically very similar in many ways. A side scrolling platformer, you’ll need to jump and shoot your way to the end of each stage, generally on the right side of the screen. You begin with just a singular jump and a basic blaster, eventually unlocking new weapons and abilities. Just like Mega Man, when you defeat the main bosses you’ll gain a new weapon or ability, allowing you to get through the dangerous world of killer robots and tons of pits and spike traps.

While enemies are going to be the thing that generally kills you the most, there’s plenty of traps all over, from spikes, fireballs, pits and more. Navigating these are just as important as defeating your enemies and you’ll do so in a few different ways, from small ‘tap’ jumps, gaining a little extra height on your jumps by using your blaster for a boost, and of course using your double jump and dash ability to get across gaps or out of danger quickly. Using your blaster to kind of ‘rocket jump’ takes some practice, as you need to aim downwards and fire to either slow your descent or gain a little bit more of a boost at the peak of your jump. This can be a bit tricky to get used to and I’ve had more than my fair share of deaths from not being as accurate as needed to land on moving platforms or avoiding enemies.

As you venture through forests, cities, castles and a number of other biomes, each new stage provided a unique challenge that progressively becomes more difficult as you go. As you gain new weapons and abilities you’ll need to combine all that you’ve learned to that point, but that is of course easier said than done. Thankfully there’s plenty of checkpoints that you’ll respawn at when you inevitably get destroyed, usually one every few screens or so. But sometimes these tend to be just a little TOO far apart, causing a lot of sections to be replayed until you manage to live long enough to make it to the next checkpoint.

You begin by facing off against robotic frogs, snails and other cute animal creatures that seem to have been a victim of the mist, but soon enough you’ll be battling against full on robots that will continuously fire and trying to destroy you once you’re noticed. While there’s no jumping on enemy heads to defeat them, you’ll need to rely on your trusty blaster. This required energy to do so though, so every now and then you’ll need to hold off on shooting so it can recharge, as if you let it deplete completely you’ll be slowed and unable to fire for a short while, surely to get you killed in a battle.

Your energy is split into two halves, where your first bit of firing shoots more powerful shots, but then eventually gets weaker in the last section of your energy bar. It’s kind of like a stamina bar in other games, and what makes this tricky is that your dash ability also requires energy to do so, so it takes a bit of getting used to so you don’t find yourself vulnerable often. As you gain new weapons from downed bosses, they vary in strength and type, so it will take some trial and error to find what works best for you and the situation you find yourself in.

Being part platformer as well, you’ll need to be accurate with your jumping abilities, which in itself isn’t too difficult, but anytime you shoot your blaster you’ll be knocked back slightly, as if his weapons are too powerful for his small frame. This can make things very challenging when standing on a small platform but having to fire and destroy an enemy, all while slightly adjusting to not slip and fall off. Boss fights are clearly the highlight, some more challenging than others, though not unfair once you learn their attack patterns across usually two main phases.

With checkpoints being spread out a bit too far at times, sometimes it’s difficult to stay alive long enough to reach the next respawn point. Thankfully enemies will also drop health orbs in varying sizes based on how high the shot counter above their head is when they are defeated. This is a little confusing and misleading though, as you need to gather a number of different orbs to fill the health meter completely to simply get a slight health replenish, something that wasn’t explained very well. Usually it’s just easier to respawn at the last checkpoint with full health, or if you find full heal orbs around the stage you know you’re in for a big battle or boss fight next.

Enemies will also drop gears/sprockets when defeated, also sitting and floating around the stage for you to collect. This is essentially your currency which you can use when at the hub between levels to purchase more health or energy with each upgrade increasing in price. There’s also some special icons to collect that can be used to upgrade your robot to have special perks, but I’ll leave that for you to discover.

For being created by a solo developer, the world of OmegaBot is very cute and colorful, utilizing a pixel art aesthetic that is easy on the eyes, even when it gets chaotic at times. Even more impressive is that all the background items can be destroyed with your shots, purely for visual flair but a wonderful touch. While the soundtrack sets a tone and never becomes grating, it also doesn’t really stand out either, opting to try and listen to the sounds of enemy shots and tells.

OmegaBot is cute and charming, and while it may not reach the same level as its Mega Man inspiration, it’s priced decently for its 4-8 hours of gameplay depending on your skill level. A fun and challenging action platformer that was longer than I initially expected, OmegaBot was clearly made with heart and passion, and that comes across well in such a small and cute robot.

**OmegaBot was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Ships Simulator

Ships Simulator is the latest sim title from Ultimate Games, a studio with a plethora of sim based games under their belt. Given how long I’ve been reviewing games, I’ve played my fair share of sim games, though nothing quite like Ships Simulator. Simulator games usually aim to recreate certain jobs or careers, and while Ships Simulator is no different, there was a lot more arcade-like gameplay to it instead.

Doing some research, I first noticed that Ships Simulator looked basically identical to another game, Ships 2017. Turns out it’s actually the same game, simply ported for console. Same game, same logo and font, same 2017 era of graphics. This to me felt a little disingenuous, as it’s not really advertised as the same game from 6+ years ago, though when you press the Xbox Logo button it’s clearly labelled as Ships 2017.

Ships Simulator aims to recreate the role of controlling, well, ships. Not just regular boats though, the massive ones that you see by the docks and ports in major cities. Think of the massive cargo container ships that hauls hundreds of containers across sea, or the oil rig stations that are colossal in size, those will be the type of ships you’ll be utilizing for a variety of different missions.

While there’s no overall narrative or story, you’ll eventually being taking over three separate vessels, each with their own mission types and objectives before moving onto the next. You begin with a Cargo Ship, then a Construction rig, then a Heavy Duty lifting ship. Each of these ships have eight missions per, and once complete a special extra mission will unlock for a total of 25. Missions will vary from loading cargo containers, unloading them, bringing cargo from one dock to another, gathering parts from the ocean, rescuing crew, warding off pirates and more.

Having completed all missions including the special extra one, it was tedious, boring and frustrating to do so due to its poor controls and even worse visuals and audio. When the credits rolled, it was seemingly stuck and I was forced to quit out, not a great final memory to the experience. I’ll be honest, if I wasn’t reviewing the game I would have given up long before completion, and I was glad it was over and could uninstall.

To begin your naval career you first must choose a ship to purchase and repair. This is easy due to only being able to afford one of the three ships, so why it’s prefaced like a choice I’m unsure. Once you buy the Cargo Ship to begin you’ll first need to make any repairs before it’s seaworthy. This is done simply by choosing the broken part on a menu then clicking a button to repair. Wait a few seconds and the repair is complete. Why this is a part of the gameplay I’m unsure, as it’s seemingly just meant to be something you spend a portion of your profits on.

As you complete missions you’ll earn money, eventually able to purchase an oil rig-like vessel that has a crane, meant for moving material and construction, and then the transport vessel with a unique submerging ability. Every vessel plays very unique from one another, each having their own types of missions as well. The container Ship missions are generally quite straight forward, but the Construction Ship was easily the most time consuming due to its frustrating and annoying crane controls. Even though this is a Ship Simulator, you can’t sail the open seas. You’re actually quite restricted to where you can go, and with how slow the overall gameplay is, you wouldn’t want to sail out to open waters even if you could. Each mission has a tight play area and you need to stay within its boundaries.

The Container Ship will have your first missions about using the dock’s lift to load those containers from the back of semi-trucks onto the vessel. This opening mission will show you how unintuitive the controls and camera is, so prepare for a few hours of that going forward. You’ll have another mission to bring the ship to another dock which is how they introduce the awkard sailing controls. Of course at the other dock you’ll then need to unload a certain amount of containers onto trucks waiting.

With those basic missions out of the way you should now have enough cash banked to purchase the second ship, which I’m labelling the Construction Ship due to its crane you’ll need to use to pick up freight and parts and maneuver elsewhere. While it’s the same amount of missions like the other two ships, a total of eight per, this ship will take the bulk of your time with the game due to how finicky and awkward its controls are. You have different controls for moving the ship and then another separate set for the crane itself, neither of which feel intuitive. The crane hook has to almost be perfect to attach, but the camera doesn’t make it very easy to line up and figure out which way you need to maneuver the crane or ship to pick up the freight.

The final ship, the Transport Ship, I actually enjoyed the most, because it was the easiest to control. It has a unique ability to submerge its deck, so the majority of its missions were to motor over to some broken or abandoned ships, submerge your deck, slide underneath the ship and then move the deck back up the surface level to attach to the deck before bringing it back to the dock or a specified area.

Anytime you crash into an object or another ship, your vessel becomes damaged, meaning you’ll need to spend some of your earnings on repairs or part replacements. Money never really became an issue, but something to keep in mind. Take enough damage and the mission might instantly fail, so you can’t simply bump and push ships out of the way for fear of needing to restart the lengthy levels all over again.

Oddly enough, there’s a few missions that don’t really have much to do with the ships themselves, but instead focus on the crew. The first is putting out fires on the ship. You need to command each of the crew to do something, like grabbing a fire extinguisher and then to go battle a fire. This is done with a simple top down view of the ship and just with icons of the crew and equipment. These missions are incredibly confusing with their controls and were hands down the worst part of the whole experience. There’s another similar mission later with the same premise, but having your crew defend against pirates trying to take over the ship, so you need to have them man certain water cannons to survive waves of enemies. Again, these missions were terrible, confusing and just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the game.

While ship enthusiasts may quite enjoy being able to control unique vessels like these, the gameplay itself becomes quite repetitive and dull. Each mission has an objective to complete, sometimes with a handful of steps, but it’s very linear without any freedom to solve how to do so on your own. The game itself isn’t difficult, but dealing with the controls are. Controls are slow, the camera is a nightmare to deal with constantly, and it just never feels like it gets better even after a handful of hours in.

At default, the speed is set to 1X. You will never finish Ships Simulator at 1X. These aren’t speedboats, they are massive slow moving ships. Thankfully you can crank of the speed to 2X or 4X if you’d like, but even at 2X it was excruciatingly slow. 4X at the best of times was barely tolerable, but needs to be set every time if you want the feeling of any progress at all. The problem with 4X is that it feels as though the controls are sped up as well, so the camera whips around and trying to move the crane hook into an exact position is a constant battle as well. On that note, camera is defaulted to the Left Stick, not right, so I constantly made mistakes using the wrong stick, even until the final mission.

Ships Simulator is probably one of the ugliest games I’ve played in quite some time. I don’t mean that as an insult, but it’s simply the truth. The water looks terrible, lightning and thunder is sure to give someone a seizure or blow out your ears if you’re wearing a headset, and the draw distance is so incredibly short you can’t even plan the proper way to the port for unload because a wall or island appear in front of you last minute. It looks like a mobile game from 2017 at the best of times. The music is no better, with annoying loops repeated over and over that you’ll want to mute.

I can deal with the poor visuals and audio if the game itself is entertaining, but unfortunately I was just glad each mission completion was getting me closer to the credits rolling and an uninstall. Tons of bugs, glitches and terrible controls just made it a slog to get through. While they are an easy string of achievements to nab, priced at $18.99 CAD is far too much for the amount of frustration. I don’t generally enjoy focusing on the negatives, but when there are so few positives things to note, you might want to avoid this shipwreck.

**Ships Simulator was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 2.0 / 10 We Were Here Forever

When We Were Here initially released back in 2019 on the Xbox 360 console, I didn't know what I was getting into, nor would have expected to have now played the fourth game in the series. After having played each of the games, including being able to check out the latest, We Were Here Forever, before it's launch, I’ve been anxiously waiting for the console release to once again become stumped alongside a friend. Given that I did a preview for We Were Here Forever, portions of that article will be in this review, but finally getting to reach the conclusion and ending, I was left shocked with the final scene, but more on that shortly. For those new to the series, you don’t need to have played any of the previous games, but there’s some underlying lore that longtime fans will surely appreciate the most.

Maybe you’ve never played one of the We Were Here games before, like my latest co-op partner and fellow writer here at XboxAddict, Peggy, whom I will have her input for her experience throughout our journey in Castle Rock. Essentially the series is an online cooperative puzzle game where you need to find a way to escape. The catch is that you’re almost always separated from your friend, so you only have a one-way radio to communicate with one another and will need to work together cohesively and quite well if you want to be successful.

I’ve thus dubbed the series ‘The Friendship Test’, as you’re going to see how truly effective your communication is with your partner, a test I nearly fail each game. Funny enough, I’ve had to play each game with a different partner as they refused to play with me when each sequel released, hence a new partner this time too. Both players require a microphone and I highly suggest choosing a friend to play with that maybe you’ve known for a while or are able to easily communicate with, as it will make a world of difference. Could you play with a random person, possibly, but may the odds be ever in your favor if you choose to do so.

With a clever naming convention for the series, We Were Here was the original game, We Were Here Too is the sequel, We Were Here Together was the third, and now the fourth and latest is We Were Here Forever, aptly titled for how long you’ll probably be stuck on a handful of the puzzles if you decide to take the high road and not look up any spoilers or walkthroughs. I wish I could boast that our team of puzzlers didn’t require a walkthrough, but we had to succumb to a few clues and hints with how difficult and obtuse some of the puzzles were. Will you be able to escape on your own accord and problem solving skills without external help? You’re a better puzzle solver than us if so, but good luck.

The first two games didn’t have much story to it aside from simply trying to escape, but in the third game, We Were Here Together, a much larger focus on story started to emerge, quite obvious in the latest Forever entry. While you’re still essentially moving from one puzzle to the next once you find the solutions, there’s more narrative sprinkled in here and there as you make your way through Castle Rock.

We Were Here Forever has a similar setup from previous games where you and your partner are somehow trapped within Castle Rock’s walls, seemingly unable to escape. Were you betrayed? Was having you here a small part of a larger master plan? Will you find out whatever happened to the other missing explorers? Who is The Jester and why is he trying to stop you? You learn bits and pieces of Rockbury and the resistance against its King and there’s clearly something larger going on, but you’ll need to do what you can to survive and escape alongside your partner, because without them, you’ll be trapped here forever.

To escape the bowels of Castle Rock, you and your partner are going to need to not only work in unison but rely on communication that other games seldom ever force to this degree. You and your partner will bond and need to be like minded if you want any chance of escape. What may seem like a simple puzzle in the beginning might just be one small portion of a larger one, which my partner and I found out within the opening section of We Were Here Forever. We Were Here Forever will test your mettle and communication with your fellow partner with a large focus on how you help one another separately.

Teamwork isn’t just suggested, it’s absolutely necessary, done completely with communication across a one-way walkie-talkie. This one-way radio is important to note, as when someone is speaking, the light on the radio illuminates, indicating that the other person should be listening. If they try to speak when the first person is talking, it won’t be heard. This takes some getting used to, especially when I’m accustomed to open party or discord chats. With the one-way radio, you’ll need to be purposeful in who talks and when. If your partner is talking, the light on your walkie lights up to indicate, so you better not try holding down the button and try to talk to them because they won’t hear your input. This of course makes things a little trickier, and I won’t lie, we simply used Xbox party chat (since we were both playing on that system) to avoid the one-way limitation, though I do suggest at least trying it in-game for the full and authentic We Were Here experience.

Before you and your friend you’ve chosen to have a ‘Friendship Test’ with can start your adventure together though, you’ll need to add each other as friends from the main menu to play with one another. With cross-play now finally here, you don’t have to worry about what system you and they are on, able to play together regardless. I will say, the lobby system was buggy every time we wanted to get us put together, but eventually we figured it out each time and I’m hoping it’s just some pre-launch bugs that will get ironed out come full release.

Let’s get to the puzzles, the bread and butter of the series and why you’ve chosen to play We Were Here Forever. I’m going to get this out of the way first thing: We Were Here Forever was by far the hardest puzzles in the whole series. Maybe this was because it also felt like the longest game of the four, but we certainly struggled almost throughout whereas in previous games it was just the odd puzzle here and there that we needed to search a walkthrough. While not nearly as many timed puzzles in Forever thankfully, there still was the odd one or two that did add a bit of frustration because of the time limit and the mandatory first person view.

You and your friend are almost constantly separated from one another, so you need to be the eyes and ears for one another, figuring out the singular solution that you both contain portions of the answer. This is much easier said than done, and if not successful you’ll be stumped for seemingly forever if you decide to take the high road and not look up walkthroughs. The puzzles vary quite drastically throughout. One of my favorites was my partner describing a scene with some mannequins without heads, and on my part I had to read some book pages describing the background of a dozen or so different characters to determine which head I should send her to place correctly for her scene. Her seeing generic bodies in some sort of scene and me trying to decipher the character from reading pages wasn't simple. There’s a lot of trial and error in basically every puzzle, and if that frustrates you you’re going to have a long road to attempt escaping Castle Rock.

There’s also other puzzles that if it wasn’t for my partner, I would still be sitting there clueless of where to even start. An example, picking up a bunch of different mannequins and sitting them in the correct order in a few rows of pews in a church. Of course there’s a very specific order, with undercover rebels and other restrictions like how certain people can’t sit beside specific others. Since all the mannequins were hanging together there were very slight differences in who they may be. From reading books and using descriptors like “a girl wearing a pope-like hat and curly hair like the mom from ‘That 70’s Show’, I was thankful she understood what I meant. Thank god my partner knew what to do, as I was basically no help on this particular one. Many of the puzzles felt like one player had to do the majority of the work while the second had the solution in front of them, but had to find a way to communicate it. The only problem with this is that once you’re on a certain path and locked into one of the roles, there’s no switching with your partner, like when I was in an underwater maze aimlessly wandering trying to figure a way out while she moved a bunch of pipes to create open pathways and air pockets for me to breathe.

I don’t mind challenging puzzles, but I’d say at least half of the puzzle included were a bit much. Maybe it’s the way I think or my logical reasoning, but my partner also conceded that we were going to have to try and look up a solution online more than once. Even with finding the solutions elsewhere, it never really left like an ‘ah-hah!’ moment like we missed something, more of a ‘well, I guess that worked’ feeling. Don’t even get me started where I had to carry a massive cog, blocking a good 90% of my vision, needing to be directed of where to go. While I’d obviously like to blame my partner whenever we got stuck, it’s a two way street, where it takes some time to figure out what the actual pathway to a solution is, as it’s not often it’s painted out clearly.

Peggy: I think I'm a smart person when it comes to puzzles, especially logic based ones like the mannequins in the pews and, as Adam stated, I proved it there. Sadly, We Were Here Forever often made me feel rather dumb. Normally I can figure it out eventually, or when we finally decided to look up walkthroughs, I expected to have a 'OMG, that's the part we were missing!' feeling, but that didn't happen often. Mostly I was left bewildered by how you should have been able to decipher the solutions without help. I am thankful that Adam and I are both interested in similar pop culture things, movies, shows, comics etc. This made describing visuals much easier when you could reference something adjacent to what you were seeing to help. I had never played any of the We Were Here games prior to this other than a bit of the preview of Forever before launch, and I did enjoy what I played even if I didn't feel the smartest while playing it. It was really well done, the graphics were very fairytale-like and the vocal performances of character you encounter are well done. While I may have been Adam's latest 'victim' to take part in the 'Friendship Test', we are still talking, so that's a good thing. Without spoiling too much, and if you've played the other games in the series, you will understand what I am about to say. Adam's biggest mistake was telling me how he escaped the last three games, and I ruined his 100% success after the ending of We Were Here Forever. No regrets.

Adam: There is a hint system in place if you truly become stuck, but these really are only subtle clues. The first can be unlocked, but the next two or three which will give a little more detail can’t be seen until a certain amount of time goes by. While we used these hints, it won’t explicitly tell you the solution, still getting you to figure out the answer for yourself, but subtly guiding you in possibly the right direction. I never found they gave enough of a hint to be actually useful though.

Visually, Forever is the best looking of the series. Sure for a majority of it you’ll be stuck underground, in some castle walls or confined rooms, but there are moments where you’ll be exploring the grounds outside and can take in some sights, that while not breathtaking, surely a vast improvement for the series. Even some of the puzzles are quite fantastical to take in, like a particular puzzle where you and your partner are going from room to room where gravity doesn’t seem to matter much, all while a massive Jester seems to taunt you. Peggy did not enjoy the Jester and found him creepy though.

There was the odd time I had some texture issues where one puzzle wasn’t properly loading the clues inside some coffins, so I was essentially no help to my partner until they somehow fixed themselves with a reload. Animations definitely seems much smoother and more fluid in Forever compared to previous games and there’s even some fun emotes you and your partner can signal to one another, including some Rock-Paper-Scissors. The atmosphere is done quite well, with the wind whistling and howling as you ride a gondola to another area. The odd times you hear from the Jester and maybe another character, they are done also quite well, sounding just as animated as their look and movements.

We Were Here Forever felt much longer than previous games, as we had the credits rolling at around 11 hours or so. It didn’t necessarily feel arbitrarily lengthy, as there was even a part where you have to go get three different objects to fix something, but can do them in any order you wish. There’s much more story in Forever as well, though depending on your knowledge of the series before, may be hit or miss if you even care about it.

Just like previous games in the series, We Were Here Forever is once again a ‘Friendship Test’. I highly suggest choosing a partner that you know you’re alright arguing with, because it’s not a matter of if, but of when. I certainly struggled with the difficulty in Forever much more than previous games, but that also shows that the developers are evolving with each game, making them much more intricate and challenging and easily the highlight of the series. If you enjoy wracking your brain on a puzzle for a good amount of time and don’t mind plenty of trial and error, We Were Here Forever is right up your alley, but make sure you have a like-minded friend that you might not miss once you’re no longer on speaking terms.

**We Were Here Forever was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Swordship

I absolutely love shmups (shoot-em-ups). You know the ones, where bullets are all over the screen and you somehow have to dodge them in pixel perfect fashion all while trying to destroy your enemies. Well, I can tell you I’ve never played anything quite like Swordship before, and while I guess it would kind of belong to the shmup genre, it also doesn’t really either.

Imagine a shump without the shooting. I guess that would make it a 'mup'? I don’t know, I just work here. If you’ve ever wanted to challenge yourself and play a shmup for pacifists, look no further than Swordship, a shmup without the ability to actually shoot. Odd I know, but stick with me, as I initially thought it was a crazy notion at first too. But somehow, developers Digital Kingdom made it work, forcing you to focus on your maneuvers and dodging since you have no real way to directly retaliate against your enemies.

It’s an interesting and unique take with a really minimalistic aesthetic and addictive roguelike gameplay, complete with an attempt at an interesting narrative. Dodge and weave through enemies and their attacks doing everything they can to try and destroy you. You’re going to need lightning quick reflexes and be able to react and think even faster with the best way to trick enemies into destroying one another so you can escape and survive.

Global warming has caused havoc on the environment and most cities now lie underwater. As cities trade containers of goods with one another, those that have been exiled from the cities for various reasons don’t have an easy time, doing what they can to simply survive. You are a member of The Banished, a rebel group that looks to steal these containers of goods from the greedy cities and distribute them to the poor and needy to survive. Think a classic Robin Hood tale, but on speed boats that can do sweet dives underwater. That said, while there’s a story, though it won’t really matter to you, as you’ll simply be doing runs over and over to try and beat your best score.

Swordship’s main hook is that you have no weaponry on your speedboat, yet must outlast and survive the constant onslaught from your enemies. Each run is also randomly generated, so it’s more about reaction than it is memorization. Because of this there’s plenty of replayability, but this is almost offset by the overall lack of content.

Your speedboat only knows one speed – full throttle. You don’t need to worry about laying on the gas or hitting the brakes, as it’s constantly moving forward, somewhat like an auto-scroller, you simply move and maneuver your Swordship along the water in the corridor you’re speeding down. There are 3 stages and then a boss, each stage is then broken up into a few separate levels. Each level will have a certain amount of those coveted containers that need to be swiped, and once they are, or missed, the level will end moving onto the next.

For example, the first level has two containers that will eventually come up for grabs. Once both are deployed, those are your chances to secure them for your people or will pass on by, still finishing the level though. Since you’re always rushing towards the bottom of the screen, this is where you’ll see a yellow lined marker to indicate that these containers are about to appear, giving you just a few moments to prepare and hopefully catch them with your Swordship by being in line.

Of course each stage has a different feel and slightly varied aesthetic and biome background, but the main differences are the new enemies you face off against in each. With ship upgrades, differing abilities, randomized runs, weather conditions and more, there are some reasons to keep coming back if you really enjoy trying to best your high score.

When you manage to snag and steal a container, as the level ends you’ll have a choice to make. Do you send your collected containers back to The Banished, receiving a big score bonus in return, or keep it for your own gain, allowing you to upgrade your Swordship for that run and gaining extra lives? Upgrades will help you on each run, changing special abilities or passive parameters to your ship itself. So it’s a matter of determining your skill, as taking a score boost is much better long term if you don’t die often, but swapping score for extra lives may be better for you in the long run, especially if you end up making it to the boss. The score at the end of the run determines which unlocks you finally get, so it’s important for new bonuses and even extra difficulty modes.

This is a roguelike though, so you can expect to fail and die a lot, so all that matters is the final score you get before your last life is gone. The problem with this is that to unlock the next tier reward, you need to constantly beat your last score, or else the run was essentially for nothing outside of ‘fun’ and practice. The overall XP/Score bar doesn’t stay filled between runs with your progress, so it’s all or nothing.

Controls in a shmup (still going with that genre distinction here) need to be air tight or else the game is dead on arrival. Thankfully for the most part controlling your speedship is quite responsive, as while I did have seemingly unfair deaths here and there, it was more from me not paying attention to something, not the controls. Remember, you have no weaponry, you simply need to dodge enemy attacks to stay alive long enough to steal those containers.

Where the strategy comes in is defeating your enemies. But how do you do so since you don’t have any guns? I’m glad you asked. You actually need to use enemy bullets and attacks against their own. Each enemy attacks you in a different way, so how can you trick them into attacking their own team? Quite simple really. Usually you just have to maneuver your ship behind an enemy so the other can fire at you, inadvertently hitting their ally, thus destroying them. Some enemies fire a laser at you after a moment of locking on, others drop mines that will explode when you’re in their range for a moment as well. You’ll know when to dodge once their red indicator goes from light to dark red, then it will explode or fire, so you better be out of the way.

The easiest way to dodge is to simply be out of the line of danger by moving your ship, but you’re also able to have your ship dive underwater for a short period at a time. This is how you’ll get under some fire beams, lasers and simply out of danger quickly. It takes some practice to learn enemy attack patterns, especially once you finally reach the boss, but you’ll slowly gain the reaction skills to make further progress each run. Once you learn how to act as bait and then use it to your advantage, you’ll be having successful runs in no time.

I quite enjoyed its minimalistic style; simplistic, small color pallet, but it works. The basic looking ship and enemies also have an appealing style, allowing you to see everything happening on screen so you’re able to avoid all the attacks. It’s colorful, basic, and it’s just pleasant to look at. The soundtrack is done quite well, having some good beats that keep your head bopping as you go for ‘just one more run’.

While I’d argue the $25.99 CAD price tag is a bit steep for how little content there is, the gameplay is quite original, as I would have never thought about playing a shmup that has no shooting. Lacking some sort of online leaderboard or modes does bring in the monotony and repetitiveness quite quickly, as I was only able to sit and play a few runs at a time before getting the itch to move onto something else for a break.

**Swordship was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.7 / 10 Until the Last Plane

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to manage an airport base back in World War II era? Wonder no longer, as Until the Last Plane does just that, having you manage your pilots, aircraft, base, repairs, and even making sure you have enough fuel, parts, ammunition and bombs on hand for your important missions against the enemy. From solo developer CarloC Games, Until the Last Plane’s screenshots may have you think that there’s some shooting mechanics involved, but that’s not the case at all here really.

Air strikes obviously played an integral part of World War II across numerous theaters of war, and with Until the Last Plane, you’ll get to play a part in their hopefull successes in battle. Not only were the pilots brave for dogfighting and going behind enemy lines, but there was a crew of engineers and many others that often get forgotten, keeping their planes in tip-top shape and ready for the next assault.

You’re tasked with managing an airfield base. This is more than simply telling which pilots to attack certain targets, but making sure you keep and gather resources, keeping morale of your crew up, ordering spare parts, fuel and more. You’ll begin by choosing which faction you want to play as from USA, USSR and Germany, and then choose which of the 3 missions you want to attempt, each corresponding with a different difficulty. Successfully complete missions and you’ll move onto the next day as well as gain resources, experience for your pilots, skill points and more.

So with 3 factions and 3 missions each, you have 9 total levels to try and complete. Each mission though varies from their objectives and how many days each of them last, becoming increasingly challenging the more days you need to balance your resources and survive for. To successfully pass each day you must complete at least one mission, and these will vary. Failure to do so or having all your pilots perish in combat will abruptly return you to the main screen for you to start all over again.

Manage to complete a mission and you’ll earn a medal and some skill points to improve different aspects. Complete more missions in a day and you’ll earn more medals and rewards. Even though the core gameplay is simple and there’s a tutorial from the main menu you can partake in, there’s still a lot that really wasn’t explained well, namely the strategy of what to do and when. The best ways to manage your airbase is somewhat explained, but until an hour or two in I didn’t really understand it and how to balance my resources well. This caused for a lot of trial and error, but once you figure out the smaller details and some strategies for managing your airfield, it becomes much simpler.

With three different factions I actually expected the only real differences to be aesthetic, but there’s actually a bit of a difference of how you play each. While each nation has different planes, obviously, each of the campaigns do play different simply from how they earn their resources. For example, completing missions for USA earns you cash which you can then spend on purchasing more resources as you see fit. USSR though does it quite differently, as completing missions earns you political favor, which certain resources will be sent to you automatically as a reward. These subtle differences do require different strategies, though not difficult to figure out best practices with a few attempts. They vary enough to be unique from one another and each have their own small narratives.

You’re constantly racing against the clock, as once 18:30 rolls around, the day is over and your pilot must return, unable to start any more missions. As long as you have one mission type complete before then you’re going to move onto the next day of the 4-7 day mission. Could you complete one mission then simply wait for the other half of the day to pass by until the day ends, sure, but then you’ll lose out on resources from additional successful missions, so there’s a balance of using fuel and ammo to get more fuel, ammo and skill points.

To begin, you first must do some reconnaissance, finding out what targets and threats are nearby. This is done via a quick minigame starting with choosing how much fuel you want to spend. The more fuel the longer distance and more targets (missions) you can potentially spot, up to three, but the longer in the air the more potential for danger from enemy fighters. This minigame is quick, having you choose to move forward and simply pressing ‘A’ when your camera is over a shadow of a target below, adding them to your list of available missions for that day.

These missions will vary from bombing runs, dogfights and more, but more on those shortly. Surprisingly, you don’t really control or fly your planes as you might expect, rather simply giving them commands or aiming up the bombing reticules in these minigames instead. As pilots return to base they will park in designated repair zones where you’ll need to send your engineers to repair, refill fuel, restock ammunition and bombs. You only have a certain amount of workers though, so if you have all your pilots returning at once, you’ll have a backlog of planes waiting to be serviced as they come in together.

You’ll not only need to keep morale of your pilots and crew high, but doing what you can to keep them alive. If a pilot crashes and burns, clearly morale at the base will take a big hit. Between days of each campaign you might be making decisions based on situations you find yourself in or maybe someone asking for help. These could have positive or negative outcomes, so maybe think twice before lending out some of your engineers.

At its core, you’re simply playing a management sim and figuring out the most ideal way to spend and save your resources. Fuel and ammo will be your most used, needing constant resupply to your aircraft, but it’s all about making sure you have enough of everything on hand so you can continue on for more missions and onto the next day of the stage.

The different mission types simply vary in quick different styles of minigames. You need to send at least one pilot on a mission, but can send up to as many that are in your crew if you wish. Sending a half dozen will surely give you more chances at being successful, but then you’ll also be spending that much more fuel and ammunition, so there’s a balance of your needs versus skill at being successful.

After you’ve done your reconnaissance and have anywhere from one to three missions to choose from, you’ll then have a set amount of time to be successful with the objectives laid out before you, usually tasked with shooting down one or a few enemy planes or bombing some targets. The dogfights aren’t a typical shooter like you’d expect, instead giving you three different maneuvers you can tell your pilot to do, moving you forward, left or right, and once all the set moves from you and your enemy are used up in turn based succession, if the enemy is within your cone of firing, you’ll be successful, or else they will escape. If you take enemy fire in return, then your pilot will come back to the base for repairs.

The easiest missions are the bombing runs, and these are simplistic as it comes. As your plane flies forward, you simply need to lock in the aiming reticule cursors for the horizontal and vertical placement. These lines move quickly at first, so you need to lock in on your target, without much room for error. This becomes much easier with some practice, and certain skill points will slow down these line movements as well if you focus on these missions.

Because there are different plane types, some are better suited for different types of missions. The smaller planes are more agile, better used in dogfights and giving you more moves to use, whereas the larger bomber planes can hold up to 3 bombs instead of just 1 in the smaller aircraft, so there’s some strategy when choosing which pilots to send on mission types. There is an automatic combat option for you once you choose your pilots which certainly cuts down on the monotony, but there’s no success percentage shown, so you might send your best pilots and be completely unsuccessful, so it’s generally better to just repeat the same minigames over and over to ensure your success.

The issue with these missions is that they are very basic and repeated over and over. Once you figure out the best strategies to win, shoot down enemies or evade them, it becomes quite simple to always win. When pilots arrive back at the base you can choose to refill their supplies, fuel and more, but you don’t always have to. The more refilling the more resources you use and the longer it takes to do so. This is also dependent on how many technicians you have available as well, so there’s a constant balance game you need to play.

Not explained well is the upgrades you can craft for your planes. You have spare parts, another resource, so do you decide to save some on hand for repairs or spend them frivolously on upgrades for your planes to be more successful in future missions? This is where some strategy and knowing your own skills comes into play, as I knew if I chose bombing missions, those were always guaranteed wins per battle.

Created by a solo developer, the pixel graphics are done quite well, looking like an older game from my childhood. The sprites are done well and you can clearly see the distinction between the different factions and aircraft. The soundtrack is passable, as is the ‘pew pew’ from the gunfire and bomb drops, but there’s really not much else of note. There are a few voiced lines from the pilots, but these will grate on you quite quickly hearing the same lines over and over since you play these minigames dozens of times repeatedly. I was impressed that they are voiced in your chosen faction’s language, it’s just a shame they were constantly overused.

Until the Last Plane can be addictive in short bursts once you figure out its intricacies and best strategies, but there’s a lot of repetitiveness. Even with a few different mission types and objectives, you’re just constantly doing the same menu options repeatedly. The $12.79 (CAD) price does seem a little high given the lack of leaderboards, and while it does feel a bit underwhelming, it’s easy to complete on autopilot once you have the best strategies figured out.

**Until the Last Plane was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.8 / 10 Broken Pieces

I really enjoy when a game has a narrative that piques my interest, where I need to keep playing to find out what the outcome will be. Will the hero saves the world? What’s the big twist? Is there a shocking ending? I love when narrative has the forefront of a game and I’ll easily forgive weaker components if the story is enthralling and captivating. Within its opening moments, I was intrigued by Broken Pieces’ plot as it begins in some sort of alien-like hallway and then you wake up in an empty village, unsure what has happened or why you’re there. Sound interesting? I thought so too.

If had to best describe how Broken Pieces actually plays and its genre, it’s almost a mix of Siberia and Parasite Eve, heavy on the mystery and puzzle elements with some combat thrown in for good measure. The isolated feeling of being alone in a village doesn’t go unnoticed, as I was always in suspense of figuring out the next clue as to what’s going on, constantly driving me forward and wanting to see the credits roll.

Elise and her fiancé decided to move away, landing in a small village on the French coast, Saint-Exil. When she wakes up one day though, she doesn’t know where everyone is or went. The village seems abandoned as if no one has been there in quite some time. Not only will you need to figure out the mystery of the village and your presence, but why is the Lighthouse seemingly a beacon in more ways than one? You’ll learn early on there’s also some sort of cult that is, or was, in the village, and before long you’ll have some paranormal entities to deal with. Are you stuck in a time loop? What does the Church have to do with what’s going on? Why is there some sort of force field nearby? These are just a few of the questions you’ll be asking yourself as Elise slowly pieces together what has happened via a constant flow of puzzles and backtracking.

Now I’m being purposely vague with the story for a few reasons. For starters, if you’re good at these types of games and have a good memory of what pathways lead to where you’ve already been, you’ll probably be able to finish it in a single, albeit lengthy, sitting. Others will probably have a good few hours of wasted wandering and backtracking trying to figure out where you should be going next. While you are guided with clues in your notebook, there’s no compass or map, so you’ll need to make a conscious effort to learn the layout of the village and its intricate interconnected pathways.

I really don’t ever like to spoil endings, and I won’t here directly, but what I will say is that for the hours of intriguing plot, narrative and background lore you find along the way, the ending simply falls flat on its face. As the credits rolled I was kind of in shock, not because of some major reveal or crazy plot twist, but more of how ambiguous and unfulfilling it was. It’s a shame too, as the Elise’s story really gripped me all the way until the end. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not worth playing through, but waiting for a big payoff that never comes was a serious letdown.

As you explore Saint-Exil, the gameplay feels like it came right from early 90’s adventure games. While it doesn’t have tank controls like Resident Evil, it’s certainly got an annoying camera system that uses a fixed angle, though offering another angle with the press of a button. Sure you could look around in first person, but then you can’t move, so it’s not generally all that useful. Why we couldn’t just move the camera bound to the Right Stick I’m unsure, as having to swap between the two cameras for each area becomes tiresome as you’re trying to search for clues. An unfortunate byproduct of this camera system is that when the scene changes to a new section and the camera swaps, you’re all of a sudden holding the movement stick in the wrong direction and have to readjust.

As you search and explore Saint-Exil, you’ll come across numerous items and objects that can be interacted with. Some will have items inside that you can pick up and carry in your inventory, others are simply for lore and descriptions. There’s plenty of collectables to find as well, some in the form of favorite items, others, and more importantly, tapes that can be played at any time in Elise’s Walkman that’s always attached to her hip. Depending the options you toggle and choose, the objects that you can interact with will have a thick white outline to make easy indication, but you can turn that off should you wish.

Elise is going to have to manage her inventory, especially the latter half of the game with more puzzles and pieces to carry back and forth to certain areas. You can only hold a certain amount of items, though they are set into different categories based on what they are. Large items like and Axe or Lever for example can only have one held at a time, so if you need both, you’re going to need to remember when you dropped the first item and come back later to get it. Key items and tapes don’t seem to go towards your carry limit which is nice, as your tapes go into your collection and can be played at any time. These tapes are how you get background lore to the area, world and characters, though there’s also some songs you can find that your partner made that are absolutely wonderful to listen to in the background as you explore the desolate village.

Even though there’s lots of wandering around trying to figure out what has happened and how to escape, you’ll only be able to do so with your puzzle solving skills. While the main puzzles aren’t terribly difficult, usually just bringing a lever to a certain spot or changing the weather to adjust water levels or causing wind to blow down some platforms, there are optional puzzles that will probably bring some frustration as you become stumped for a while.

Even though Elise is seemingly alone in the village, she’s going to need to be mindful of the time, checking her trusty watch every so often. Her watch just happens to be a flip open Crab that speaks French. Yeah, I don’t know why either. You need to be home before nightfall, designated by 8PM, because Saint-Exil becomes incredibly dangerous once night arrives. While time slowly ticks away as you traverse around the village, moving to different main areas will actually take a much longer time, usually an hour or two, so make sure you’re being mindful of the time and how long to get back to your home before dark to rest.

What I didn’t expect was how much combat is in Broken Pieces, as I figured Elise being seemingly alone in the village would have no one to fight. While I don’t want to spoil too much, you’re not fighting regular humans or monsters, and thankfully it is basically explained in the narrative. How bullets harm these enemies I’m not sure, but I don’t ask questions. Remember those camera issues I mentioned above? Those carry over into these combat portions where you’re suddenly attacked by a few enemies and locked into an arena to deny any escaping until you’re successful or die.

Combat is without a doubt the weakest component and worst part of Broken Pieces. Interestingly, there’s an option to turn off combat, but there’s still a few parts where it’s forced and it’s made much easier compared to the other option, almost like a difficulty. Trust me, turn down the combat, it’s nothing but frustrating. As enemies manifest and slowly lurch towards you, you’ll need to shoot them a certain amount of times to defeat them. Defeat the wave or two of enemies and the combat section finishes. What isn’t explained initially very well is that the longer you aim your gun the smaller the reticule will get, causing more damage, so don’t just rapid fire, as you’ll likely miss the majority of your shots. As you’re aiming you’re also unable to move, so you can see where the frustration starts, especially since you can’t easily swap targets, so you better hope it chose the enemy you want to shoot at.

Elise also has a dodge and a knockback that can be used, but good luck getting them to use with any regularity when you really need it to work. You have unlimited normal ammunition, but during your travels can find, or craft, High Quality ammunition, causing more damage. I found I didn’t need to really use the HQ ammo until the last portion, and even then it was just to make the combat easier and finish quicker. What makes combat uninspired and boring too is that there’s really only one enemy type. The odd few will get a shield in the last portion, but nothing new from start to finish. I’m glad there was an option to lessen the combat sections, but it really just doesn’t feel or perform well in any way, feeling more like an arbitrary way to lengthen the gameplay even though there is a narrative reason for them to be there. Even the ‘boss’ portions at the end are quite uninspired.

For all the frustrations I had with Broken Pieces, there were some positives as well. The seaside village backdrop certainly paints a desolate area as if it’s post-apocalyptic. Visually the background and scenes are done well with plenty of smaller details, it’s just a shame you’re usually fighting the two camera options constantly to really enjoy much of it. Animations are a little janky at times, Elise doesn’t all that visually impressive and there’s a whole slew of 'jaggies' that stand out, but for such a small team, it’s impressive overall for its aesthetic.

The music though is wonderful, adding some much needed distraction and tone when much of the adventure is quite quiet by design outside of the natural wind and nature sounds. The music you find via tapes is actually the highlight, great to add to any YouTube playlist when you want something light in the background as you do some work. The English voice acting is done quite decently, not amazing, but for how much Elise talks to herself and listens to her own recordings, an overall commendable job when it comes to audio as a whole.

It’s clear that Broken Pieces was a passion project by the team, and while some aspects were wonderful, there was an equal amount of frustration along the way as well. You can expect anywhere from 5 to 10+ hours depending on how much you want to explore and how much backtracking and aimless wandering you do, and while the $31.99 (CAD) may seem a little high, it has potential to be a cult hit with its quirky charm.

**Broken Pieces was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.7 / 10 Divine Knockout

If I had to give a quick single sentence description of Divine Knockout (DKO), think third person Smash Bros in a 3D arena. While it’s self-described as “the world’s only 3rd-person platform fighter”, I’m not so sure about that proclamation, but it has a seasoned team behind it. Developed by Red Beard Games and published by Hi-Rez Studios, you might know them for some of their previous hits like SMITE, Paladins, Rogue Company or Realm Royale.

Tasked with smashing and knocking out the enemy team, you’ll play as a character from its limited roster, ranging from Gods to special characters. Choose from Ymir, Amatersau, Arthur, Athena, Hercules, Izanami, Sol, Susano, Thanatos, Thor or Zeus, though depending on which edition you purchase will determine what characters you have initial access to. Let me exmplain.

Currently, Divine Knockout is in what’s being called a ‘Founder’s Period’. Essentially Early Access, to play at this current moment you’ll need to purchase one of the two available packs. Now the official FAQ page states “After the Founders Period ends, DKO may become free-to-play. Note that we expect the Founders Period to last several months at minimum, and that each Edition contains in-game content unlocks valued at more than the cost of the Edition.” What stands out here is the word “may”, not stating “will”, so it’s difficult to say what the future holds for its full launch later in the year.

Two Founder Packs are available to purchase: Founders Edition is priced at $31.99 (CAD) unlocking the following: The full game (all maps and modes), 8 Gods (Amaterasu, Sol, Hercules, Susano, Ymir, Athena, Thor, and King Arthur), The Epic Biohazard Sol Skin, King Me Crater Decal, and The Founders Profile Card. Additionally, you’ll receive a special bonus in SMITE (Stormy Chibi Susano Skin and The God Susano, and his Voice Pack).

The Ultimate Edition priced at $63.99 (CAD) includes: The full game (all maps and modes), 8 Gods (Amaterasu, Sol, Hercules, Susano, Ymir, Athena, Thor, and King Arthur), 4 God Tokens (Used to unlock any God of your choice in DKO), The Epic Biohazard Sol Skin AND the Epic Darkheart Athena Skin, 1,000 Runes, “The Ultimate” Title, A DKO Founder Emote and Avatar, King Me Crater Decal, and The Founders Profile Card.

This is where I’m confused at its current state. DKO *should* be a free to play title, which it ‘may’ be in the future, but since you can only play currently by purchasing a Founder’s Pack, you might be surprised that there’s quite a grind to unlock the additional added characters. For example, to get a token to unlock any character you want you’ll need to first grind ten levels, but after that the requirements double, adding hours and hours of more grinding. That or you can simply open your wallet and buy what you want, but more on that mess shortly.

Given that Divine Knockout is kind of like Smash Bros, you’ll need to work on hitting your enemies to whittle down their health so that you can knock them out of the arena with a powerful blow that they won’t be able to recover from. Much like 2D platform fighters, the change to 3D of course adds some different gameplay and unique challenges, always having to mind what’s going on around you, especially in the 3 versus 3 matches.

Each of the arenas you fight in are unique, not only in design, but with their hazards and layout as well. One has outer edge platforms that tend to rotate, others have a spinning spiked bar that can do massive damage to you if you get hit, another has sections of the land that sinks, and even another with a massive rolling boulder. Not only do you need to stay aware of the enemies around you, but the environmental traps as well. You can also use these to your advantage, trying to smash the enemy team into them for a Knockout or at least some huge damage.

While there’s a few different modes to play, it’s more based on if you want to play 3v3, 2v2, or even prove yourself 1v1. 3v3 seems to be its core mode, but there seems to be no skill based matchmaking system included yet. This means that you as a complete newbie might get paired up with, or against, much higher level players. This of course means that some matches are completely unfair based on how it pairs players together, so something to be aware of. Also, I find it annoying that there’s no way to stay as a group after a match, always having to re-queue for a game after one is completed.

For a game that’s primarily marketed as a 3D brawler/fighter, there’s actually a few other modes that get voted on between each match. The team that wins best out of 5 matches first wins. You have the titular Knockout Mode where first team to gain 8 knockouts wins, which is seems like most players tend to vote for. There’s also a Coin Blitz mode where you go around the map to collect coins and then have to stand nearby the chest to collect them for your team. Do you collect tons of coins then have your team try and defend you as it slowly collects, or try and defeat the other team to get an edge on coin collecting time? Lastly is King of the Hill. Standard fare stuff where you need to stand within the designated area that moves every so often, gaining points the longer you stay inside the boundaries.

Regardless of which character you gravitate towards to, they do play somewhat similar. You have a light and heavy attack and then a few different abilities based on the specific character. I personally really enjoyed playing as King Arthur the most, as he has some decent attack abilities, a range attack, a decent ‘Ultimate’, and a great movement abilities. Each one does vary in their playstyle, so make sure to try each (depending on whom you have unlocked) to find what one works best for you. I will say, even though this is technically ‘early access’, there’s some imbalance in characters though, with some being just inherently more powerful or useful as others.

Find out what character has the offensive and defensive abilities you like and work on leveling them up. Each of the abilities has a cooldown timer to reuse, so you need to balance and strategize the best times to use them, as getting hit far out from the map without your traversal power ready means you’ll most likely get knocked out and need to wait on a respawn. Instead of a standard health bar you might expect, it’s much like Smash Bros where you see a percentage above their head, with the higher number indicating the more chance of a divine knockout to occur if you smash them good.

As you level up your characters you’ll be able to customize them to cater to your playstyle. There’s a perk-like system that will slightly alter how efficient or powerful your character becomes, and while it does add some personality to your character, it’s not overtly powerful currently. Sure, having some slightly more damage or more Ultimate charge is great, but it’s not game breaking nor really feels all that different.

What frustrated me was the cash shop. So is Divine Knockout pay-to-win? I wouldn’t go that far since "power" can’t be purchased, though you can buy more skins, cosmetics and the norm, but keep in mind cash shops like that are generally meant for free-to-play games. Sure DKO might be free-to-play in the future, but I have to take it for what it is at this given moment, and it’s currently pay to play.

Yes, you can unlock new characters simply by playing, but the grind is quite arduous and lengthy. Maybe this will also change in the future, but again, in its current state it’s a bit gross to see $130 bundles. Also equally concerning is the prices for characters of course doesn’t equate to certain coin bundles offered, meaning you need to spend more than required and will of course then have left over currency.

What did surprise me was the inclusion of full cross-play and cross-progression, so regardless of where your friends are playing, you can play with, or against, them. It should be noted that purchasing DKO on one platform doesn’t mean you have access on another, so you would need to purchase it there as well. Because of the cross-play, I never had an issue finding a match quickly, though I didn’t see an easy way to discern what platform the other players were on.

The cute chibi-like aesthetic is pleasant on the eyes, as are the very colorful and bright colors. Sure it may look a little odd to see a cute chibi style Thor or Hercules, but it tends to work with how comic-like it all feels. Animations and abilities all have decent looking effects and animations, and while the environments are deliberately small in design, they are all varied from one another with a different theme. The background music does its job at cutting the dead air, but there’s nothing really memorable from its soundtrack. Some of the moves and attacks do sound powerful and like they have impact, as it’s always satisfying to use a heavy attack or ability and hear the enemy launch into the air and then get a knockout.

Given Hi-Rez Studios’ pedigree, especially with SMITE, I had some high expectations with Divine Knockout. While I’m not disappointed with the game on its own, I’m more confused by the decision to charge for its early access, limiting who can play when it certainly feels like it’s designed to be a free-to-play game, made even apparent with its cash shop.

The official wording of "may" and not "will" when talking about its launch plans of possibly going free-to-play later on still seems odd, but time will tell. While it’s currently lacking much variety and content, it can be fun in short bursts, especially once you start to get proficient with your character of choice, but it’s an arduous grind, hard to recommend in its current paid state. Once, and if, it goes free-to-play, it’ll be a no-brainer to give a shot.

**Divine Knockout was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Finding the Soul Orb

I’m all for small indie developers being able to create their vision, as they are usually quite a unique experience compared to the larger and popular games that most play. Finding the Soul Orb is one of those experiences, clearly a labor of love, but there’s always the question if it will resonate the same way with the audience as intended, or if it will get glossed over. A story driven game with a lot of linear walking paths, complete with a crossbow, werewolves and some very light puzzle elements, all while exploring some different landscapes. Even though there’s some very light combat elements, the vast majority of the experience is simply walking, so I’d still classify it primarily as a walking sim despite the other elements included.

As you explore the areas you find yourself in, and I use the term ‘explore’ quite loosely, as you’re actually quite restricted to where you can and can’t go, you’ll come across these circular stones that when stood on will give you snippets of the narrative. Whilst standing on these stones, there’s a fog that clouds your vision as text appears on screen, giving you a few sentences of the story each time. The story starts out interesting enough, set in medieval times about a King and his lands plagued by an onslaught of werewolves. A high wizard created something called the Soul Orb that was meant to protect the Kingdom, but then it was suddenly gone. This is where Alexander is talked to by the Soul Orb in his dreams, sets off to go find it, and save the Kingdom. There then is something about an evil wizard and some more backstory, but because of the small snippets of story at a time, it was quite difficult to follow along.

Honestly, even after the credits rolled and I finished all twelve chapters in a single sitting, I was still left confused due to numerous characters simply talked about in story without seeing anything or anyone. Even at the final cutscene, I was still confused as to what has happened. Now what? I have no idea, so don’t go in expecting some interesting narrative or big pay off at the end unfortunately.

Placed in a fantasy setting, you begin your journey by coming landing on shore from your ship on a small rowboat. As you land you see something far off in the distance and decide to start heading towards the mountains in the distance. There’s seemingly different difficulties, but what the actual differences are between the different versions of Easy, I’m unsure.

As you make your way up the opening pathway, this is your first indication at just how linear this experience is about to be. Not only are you confined to the main path laid out before you, but you quickly realize that you’re unable to veer from the designated path at all. Those ankle high shrubs, bushes and flowers means you’re unable to step over, and thus must go where designed. There’s little to no exploring allowed, which is a bit of a disappointment, as you can’t even deviate from the main path slightly, blocked in by invisible walls.

Controls are simplistic as they come, with movement assigned to the sticks as expected, Left Trigger to run, though it’s more of a brisk walk, and Right Trigger to shoot your crossbow once you find it early on in your adventure. Why the default is a slow walk, I’m unsure, so you have to hold the Left Trigger the whole time if you want to jog slightly faster. As you make your way across the dozen chapters, you’ll find the glowing rocks to stand on, giving you those snippets of story in text format. There are a few chapters though that you don’t even really play, as they are dream sequences with the Soul Orb talking to you for a few minutes, then you continue on your journey.

Played in first person, the majority of your experience will be walking from one area to the next. There are some very light puzzle and combat elements, but even calling them puzzles, aside from one, is a bit of a stretch. Puzzles boil down to shooting a switch with your crossbow, sometimes figuring out the order of the two or three handles to progress, and that’s it. There’s one puzzle that has you doing something different, not explained at all until a hint appeared on screen as I thought I was lost or stuck. And the last puzzle oddly enough, was quite difficult, having to shoot levers to rotate some pillars, though unsure of what the solution was until the game actually asked me if I wanted to automatically solve it. I appreciate the offer, but having more of a clue of how to solve said puzzle would be been welcome too.

There are a handful of collectables to find in most of the chapters. These are tied to achievements too, so definitely worth the small deviation. Since your adventure is basically linear, these are essentially just hiding in certain houses or ruins. Demon statues will be sitting in random spots ready to be found and collected, and then there are some gargoyles that stay floating around certain areas, waiting for you to shoot them with your crossbow. That’s about it, and the 1000 Gamerscore is a breeze to get, even without any walkthroughs or guides since they are quite difficult to miss due to the linearity.

The world you explore changes from rocky mountains, gloomy and dark forests, underground mines to gorgeous beachside vistas. Some landscapes are fantastical to take in their scenery while others are completely boring and has nothing of note to look at. What reoccurs though is the werewolves you’ll need to fight along the way that block your path. Certain areas will have the pathway you need to progress blocked with an orange spell barrier, but defeat all the werewolves in the area, usually 3 to 5, and it magically turns green and unlocks, allowing you to pass.

While there is some combat and it’s somewhat frequent, it’s so broken which is why I still categorize Finding the Soul Orb as primarily a walking sim. Stand far enough away and you can pick off the werewolves without them seeing you or reacting. The first half will have single shot werewolves that flail in the air like wrestler overselling a huge bump before keeling over and dying. Better yet, later on there are seemingly some more powerful werewolves that take more than one shot, so you would assume that after hitting them once they would turn to you and start pursuing you right? Nope, they don’t react at all as long as you’re far enough away, so you can simply pick them off one by one without any recourse.

After each shot you have to reload the crossbow, which take a few moments, naturally, though I’m still unsure where you keep the unlimited amount of silver tipped arrows since you can shoot indefinitely. Because there was no risk in combat, it felt completely unneeded, simply slowing you down for a few moments as you miss your first few shots due to the inaccuracy until the shot finally lands and kills your enemy. There seems to be a distance where the arrow won’t hit the enemy, but you can get close enough where they still won’t pursue you on their predetermined walking path. If you do happen to get too close, the music changes and it’s obvious that they are chasing you, but nothing to worry about as they simply come at you in a straight line, slowly, with claws out trying to look intimidating.

Oddly, there’s even an optional crossbow upgrade to find early on, allowing your arrow to shoot through the werewolves and hit any behind, but because you’ll be picking them off one by one from a distance without any issues, this seems completely unneeded as well. Sure, maybe in the last chapter where you fight a few of the ‘harder’ ones simultaneously it’ll help, but don’t stress if you somehow don’t find the upgrade that’s well-hidden ten feet from the main path. Often your character will automatically draw or put away the crossbow, so when nothing is in hand you know you’re simply walking from point A to point B. Once that crossbow comes out, you know you’ll have to deal with some werewolves or puzzles to progress. This kills any tension though, as you basically know what’s going to happen.

Being an indie game, my expectations for its visuals and audio are obviously nowhere near a largely funded game, but I’d still like to be impressed. This is where Finding the Soul Orb is a mixed bag. On one hand, some of the environments are so drab and dull that it’s as if there was little effort made into creating an interesting world to explore. Given that the majority of the experience is on 'rails' and we are forced to see what we were designed to, I was hoping for a bit more.

Then in the later half when you’re exploring outside, it has some of the most beautiful skyboxes I’ve seen, forcing me to take a few moments and a handful of screenshots to capture its beauty. I just wish the whole experience was like this. Stop to smell the roses and you’ll notice how low quality many of the textures and models are, which given how slow you ‘run’, it’s hard not to notice when it stands out poorly. And for whatever reason, it didn’t feel like a smooth experience, so I can only assume it wasn’t anywhere near 60fps, even giving me a weird Xbox menu lag as I was playing as well.

Then there’s the audio, or lack of it. Sure there’s some music that kicks in when combat is about to happen, but a lot of the time there’s some dead silence. The only voiced sections are the ‘dream’ chapters where the Soul Orb is talking to you, but the other story pedestals you find would have benefited from some voicing as well. What’s odd though is that at certain parts of the walking sim sections, some amazing and beautiful orchestral music would kick in, something that made me feel like I was exploring the world of Morrowind or Skyrim.

I don’t enjoy being harsh on small indie games, as I understand how difficult it can be to even create the experiences, but I’m always trying to think of value and longevity, both that seem to be missing. Sure the easy 1000 Gamerscore is nice for two hours of work, but it can be completed in a single sitting and absolutely no reason to ever go back. Even at a low price of $8.99 (CAD), it’s difficult to recommend for such a dull experience since I can't explore at all.

**Finding the Soul Orb was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 4.0 / 10 Saint Kotar

I’m all for trying games outside of my comfort zone, as Saint Kotar isn’t something I would have normally gravitated to towards on my own. Now, I’m not a religious man, not at all actually, but Saint Kotar, developed by Red Martyr Entertainment, makes it apparent from its opening minutes that this game is going to have a lot of themes that revolve around religion, cults and more. I should mention, that there’s also some things discussed that could potentially be trigger warnings for some people, but I don’t recall seeing any at the beginning of the adventure.

A psychological horror point and click game, Saint Kotar takes place in a small town in Croatia, and given that I’m not religious at all, it was a bit much to get through at certain points. It surely is an interesting game, but don’t expect your typical point and click adventure, as this has a much darker setting.

You play most of the time as Benedek, sometimes swapping to brother in-law Nikolay. Both wake up in a mysterious house in a small religious town, Sveti Kotar, searching for his sister Viktoria, also Nikolay’s wife. Before this journey begins you actually start the game many years ago as a child, being locked in the basement by your father for disobeying some order, and yes, the lights are completely shut off. So you start the game stumbling around in the dark unsure what to do or even how, eventually finding that your sister, Viktoria, has snuck down there to be with you so you’re not alone.

Religion runs in your family, and your father was very strict when it came to God. This is probably why Benedek decided to become a monk and follow God in his own life as he grew up. When the two men wake up they can tell right away that something is wrong and doesn’t feel right. They can’t find Viktoria and are seemingly locked in this house. Once they do find a way out their journey of finding Viktoria begins, but it’s not that simple when the police arrive to question you of her whereabouts.

It becomes abundantly clear that Sveti Kotar isn’t your typical small town, as you’re brought to the scene of a crime that happened last night. You arrive at a church under police escort only to find the hanging corpse of the mayor dangling from its walls. His eyes are gone, as is the heart and part of the brain. Why would the police show you this? They seemingly have reason to believe it was your sister. But how could she do this? Where was she? Nikolay of course believes in her innocence, but Benedek knowing his sister and how they’ve been distant the last few years isn’t so sure.

I’ll admit, I was intrigued early on as the search for Viktoria was compelling, even with the heavy handed religious overtones. To find out the truth of the murder and avoid being blamed, you’ll need to figure out what actually happened, but it won’t be as simple as you first think. Is your sister involved or actually a victim? You better start figuring out where she is to get to the bottom of this so you can leave this cursed place.

Having a very narrative driven game is difficult at the best of times, but doing so with a pair of characters that are quite unlikable makes it even more challenging. I get that both men are religious, but it’s shoved in your face at every turn, coming across as way too holier than thou. It probably doesn’t help that the voice acting isn’t all that great, but more on that shortly. Even by the time the (actual) credits rolled, I still didn’t like Benedek and feel like he didn’t redeem himself into a likable protagonist.

You will meet a cast of other characters along the way, some stand out, like Detective Mostov who has a massive dent in his head, or a grotesque looking fisherman nearby who seems to have something stuck to his neck. Some of these characters were well written and intriguing, more so than even Nikolay, which I really ended up disliking. I won’t delve much more into the story, as this is a narrative heavy game with lots of twists and turns, but what I will say is that even after I got the ‘real’ ending, I came away disappointed with the big reveal and twist. Also, in more than just a few points of the story, the screen will go black during a cutscene where something important happens. These moments with only dialogue don’t really carry the weight I believe they were intended to and just feel like it’s missing or incomplete. I’m not sure if it was this way to avoid having to do animations, which are basic as it is, or if it’s to have you envision it in your own mind, but it stands out awkwardly.

As you begin to solve the mystery of your sister’s whereabouts and involvement, you’ll be exploring the town of Sveti Kotar, a dark and morbid town, from rundown buildings, police department, a church, cursed forest and more. I hope you have a good memory, as you’ll need to remember the pathways to and from areas, as there’s plenty of backtracking you’ll need to do going from one scene to another. There’s a button to toggle walking and running, but running is already slow as it is, so why you’d want to purposely walk somewhere aside from roleplaying reasons, I’m not sure.

In most point and click adventure titles, you’re given basic commands like walk, use and look. It’s somewhat similar here, but what I did really appreciate was being able to press a button and see all the intractable hotpots in each scene. This meant less fumbling around, easily seeing what the intractable objects were and the pathways to the adjoining areas. I was worried I’d need to move a mouse-like cursor on screen, as this generally doesn’t work all that well with a controller, but thankfully that’s not the case here, able to easily tab between each object with the D-Pad.

Saint Kotar is very dialogue heavy, so get comfortable and settle in for a wild story that goes in some directions you probably don’t expect at first. While there is an inventory and you’ll have a handful of items at most times, there’s not much trial and error, as it’s generally obvious of what items is to be used when. This means there’s not much in terms of puzzles, but also means I didn’t get stuck as much as I usually do in this genre. You will need to combine items from time to time, which can be a bit awkward with the controller setup, but I did get stuck at one point where I had to read a note in my inventory, completely unsure how to do so without testing it with every single button until I finally figured it out.

Instead of random puzzles to figure out, you need to make sure you talk to everyone you can and exhaust every dialogue option. Now and then you’ll be given some actual choices to make, and these will affect certain outcomes and possibly even bring you to a premature credit roll or Game Over screen. This was part of the issue, it’s not blatantly obvious at first what the ‘real’ ending was, as some that see credits roll about halfway through might think that’s it. As you go through the dialogue choices, the ones you’ve already chosen turn a slightly lighter grey, but it’s hard to discern what you’ve chosen already sometimes, so I always just chose top down.

At certain story segments you’ll be forced to swap characters to see a different perspective, other times you’ll be able to freely change whenever you like, but it’s difficult to know when you should to figure out how to progress. You’ll often be aimlessly wandering around trying to figure out who to talk to so you can move forward, and while there’s a map, it’s an overall generic map, not detailed enough to show the pathways between each area showing routes, so it’s quite pointless.

Visually, Saint Kotar isn’t pretty to look at. Even though you have characters walking around some backgrounds, everything looks dated, from the textures to the models themselves. Maybe they were going for a PS1 – PS2 era aesthetic, but the limited animations and slow movement really makes it stand out and feel like it drags on at times. Given the backdrop and setting, of course the town of Sveti Kotar is dark and dreary, but it just appears dull overall.

What did impress is that every line of the lengthy dialogue is completely voiced, something I wasn’t expecting. That said, the voice acting is quite mediocre at the best of times. Maybe it’s the heavy religious tonality of the writing, but it ranged everywhere from cringe to bland; not the worst I’ve ever heard, but certainly not great. The music however does a great job at setting a dark tone and makes the backdrops very atmospheric.

Saint Kotar was an odd title to get through, as it was frustrating in certain aspects, but the story was drip fed just well enough that I had a hard time putting it down, wanting to find out what the actual truth was to its mystery. At $44.99 CAD, it does seem a bit overpriced, but depending on your point and click skillset, you’ll get anywhere from 10 to 20 hours of it. An interesting story with heavy religious and cultist tones, the constant backtracking and weak visuals may deter some. God, Religion and Cultists, oh my!

**Saint Kotar was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Togges

3D platformers can be fun, but those that have a cute protagonist and set in a very colorful world are even better. Togges, developed by two man team Regular Studio, is the latest 3D platformer but has its own unique twist. Not only is it set in a very colorful world and quite adorable, but it’s also got a wacky story that at least helps you have some overall goal aside from simply solving puzzles. Each world is designed to be non-linear and you’re able to freely explore and solve puzzles in any order you wish, all while stacking the cutest little blocks. And if you get feelings of Katamari or Super Mario Galaxy, you aren’t alone.

Surprisingly, there is a story within Togges that revolved around some sort of threat called The Void, so you are helping King President to save the universe by dominating it. Even funnier, your character is basically a small Roomba vacuum cleaner, though of course you have some special abilities that will help you solve puzzles along the way across each world.

You’ll be tasked with collecting a handful of different fruits in each world across a handful of different worlds. How this fruit will stop the universe from being destroyed by The Void, I’m not sure; I just work here, I don’t ask questions. You’ll also need to convince each world’s gatekeeper to join your quest to save the universe when you finally get to meet them, something that might be easier said than done.

You’ll not only be tasked with placing adorable cubes called Togges, but sucking them up as well, you are a small and cute little vacuum after all. You’ll be doing so across seven different worlds with dozens of bonus levels, ranging from a lush and green field, desert, carrot cake land, a moon world and more. You’ll meet some characters along the way, some funny pair of brothers, and others that seem to want to chat for what seems like forever. There’s a surprising amount of dialogue for a 3D puzzle platformer, but it shows that effort has gone into making this world livelier, even if it can be a bit much at times.

Togges is quite unique in its gameplay, as it has you spreading your little cubes one at time by holding the Right Trigger. As you do so, a line of Togges will appear behind you, leaving a trail in the path you go. You’re tasked with solving puzzles with the Togges, as Toomba (your Roomba) can’t interact with anything without the Togges there. So this has you stretching your resources of Togges as you try to reach the next fruit you’re searching for. You’re only able to start placing Togges down from specific points, usually the starting point or fruits that you find and collect.

The other thing to keep in mind is that you’re a vacuum, so any Togges you no long need can be sucked back up and put into your pile of available ones to place. You’ll only be able to reach so far without going back and collecting any Togges you no longer need, so you’ll constantly be cleaning up after yourself. Once a Togge is placed you can spread more from that cube, but if you accidentally suck up all the ones you need to reach somewhere, you’ll have to find one of the fruit starting points and make a new trail.

You start with basic red Togges, able to be stacked up to five high, but they can only be placed one block apart. You start off with about a thousand Togges to be placed, which is more than enough to get through a few puzzles without cleaning up Togges you no longer need, but you’ll eventually have to backtrack to vacuum them up and put back into your available pool. Since you need to reach objects with a Togge to interact with an item, like doors to bonus levels, fruit and more, the puzzle elements that come into play is how do you reach your destination with your Togges trail. Sure you can explore freely without placing any Togges to get an idea of what’s around you, but you’ll have to figure out a way to reach your destination with your Togges to be successful and interact.

As you progress you’re going to find new abilities and colors of Togges that change how you approach some puzzles. Green Togges for example are huge, allowing you to reach higher areas but cost more to place. Yellow and conduct electricity and Blue can actually be placed along water like a bridge provided you don’t stop for more than a moment, but aren’t able to be stacked very high. So once you have a few more options you’ll need to be strategic of when will be used to reach your destinations. Making things even trickier is that it seems like you can’t mix and match Togges, as they have to be a line of the same color from the starting point, so you can’t use your normal Red Togges then all of a sudden place form Green’s to reach higher.

You can even find some abilities to help you along the way as well, such as being able to place a massive bomb and knock it in a direction. These abilities will help you find all the collectables, and you’ll be the most successful if you spend the time to explore the world you’re in. Because of the level design, you’re not forced to finish levels in a linear path, though if you try to go too far or place too many Togges, you might not be able to solve the puzzles. This is where you can find small fruit shards that once collected, by placing a Togge on it, will add to your overall Togges count, allowing you to reach ultimately further.

The opening world is a perfect introduction to how you play while not feeling overwhelming. Eventually though I’ll admit, the worlds became absolutely huge, like the Carrot Cake land, making me feel overwhelmed and unsure where to start. I found it best to find the closest fruit I could and simply focus on that, one at a time. Trying to do too much at once simply frustrated me, so I chose to focus on one puzzle at a time.

I quite enjoy Togges' art direction, as the world's are quite colorful and there’s something adorable with the hundreds of cubes you place down having cute little smiles. The level design is done quite well and you can tell the worlds are hand crafted with plenty of detail. While there’s a lot of dialogue, all of the text is done in that Sims-like gibberish and the background audio is relaxing and varies based on the levels.

While I did become stumped quite often at how I was supposed to reach certain areas with my Togges, sometimes taking a break or working on finding another fruit before coming back seemed to help. There’s supposedly a Hint system integrated, but every time I tried to use it I would just get “No Fruit Nearby” even if I could see it, just unsure how to get there properly. It can sometimes be tricky to place your Togges exactly where you want, especially on single cube spots, but you eventually get a feel for doing so more proficiently as you spend more time in its world.

Truth be told, one of our other writers was set to do this review, but was unable to due to some severe motion sickness, so I've asked them to describe what they encountered:

"As a huge fan of Thunderful games as well and Indie puzzle platform games, I was extremely excited to play (and review) Togges. Sadly, I couldn’t play for more than 15 minutes at a time without encountering some pretty severe motion sickness from the way the camera moves and swivels. This isn’t an uncommon problem for me in games but normally you can find a way to adjust the camera or movement or sensitivity settings in the options. This, unfortunately, wasn’t the case with Togges as I saw no setting for any of these, nor things like colorblind mode. I don’t need this feature, but with a game that relies on using a variety of coloured blocks (with differing abilities) in levels to complete them, it seems to be another feature lacking."

Togges excels at placing you in its colorful and whimsical world, and those that enjoy taking the time to explore every corner of the levels will surely get dozens of hours out of it. Those that want a little more guidance might become a little frustrated, especially once you unlock the later levels that are much larger and can be a bit overwhelming at first. Surely to twist your mind and puzzle solving skills, there’s plenty of longevity in Togges, all while placing hundreds of adorable cubes.

**Togges was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Heidelberg 1693

Developed by Andrade Games, Heidelberg 1693 is an alternative take on history that revolves around a Musketeer and an endless amount of zombies and undead constantly trying to murder you at every step. “Survive Morbid” is the official subtitle, and absolutely fitting. A Castlevania clone at its core, Heidelberg 1693 is a 2D action adventure with hints of Ghouls 'n Ghosts and even some classic Prince of Persia.

Having done a little research on Musketeers after playing this, they were a very important soldier type who guarded the French King back in the 17th and 18th centuries. Essentially the beginning of a standard rifleman, they were armed with a musket, a long barrel firearm that was deadly but very slow to reload due to the primitive technology back then. And thus, you’re an unnamed musketeer, which is blatantly obvious due to the oversized hat with large feather, who King Louis XIV has sent to destroy his bastard son. King Louis XIV was also known as the Sun King, so of course the antagonist, his bastard son, is the Moon King. Featuring real historical people and places, they of course take some liberties with the historical accuracies, as I don’t remember a mass zombie plague in the history books. Why send his army to defeat the Moon King when he can send you, alone? And so begins your adventure fighting a mass of undead abominations whom the Moon King has transformed all the surrounding inhabitants to stop you.

While the levels themselves aren’t long in design, each will take a while due to the amount of times you’ll die and have to start over from the last checkpoint you reached. As you complete each stage, you’ll make your way across the lands, though the story plays out like a silent movie between most stages which is interesting given the setting, but hard to get you invested in the narrative.

As a 2D platformer that looks as though it came out of the classic era of gaming, Heidelberg 1693 is going to take a good amount of memorization, trial and error, and perseverance to complete. Sure, there’s speedruns out there that make the game’s difficulty look like a joke, but for an average player you expect to die quite often until you can adjust and react to each level’s enemy patterns, attacks and traps. As you traverse each level from left to right, you’ll need to survive against an onslaught of unrelenting undead enemies. These start out as simple lurking zombies that are easy to kill, but eventually you’ll have a number of other types of monstrosities, like floating skull heads, corpse tossers, other musket users and more, and that’s not even including the environmental traps like massive spinning blades and deadly pits. To keep with the horror theme, there’s a heavy coat of blood, guts and gore, keeping that uneasy theme recurring throughout.

To get around the levels and survive you’ll need to be able to jump and reach all the different platforms to progress. There’s even a double jump included, because of course a 2D action platformer needs a double jump, but this is where I find some of the issues arise. When you double jump you automatically also do a spin attack with your sword, which is fine and used for fighting enemies, but this also leaves you defenseless for a moment once you land as well. You also have a down thrust attack which is great for dealing extra damage for enemies directly below you.

Couple this with some iffy controls when it comes to precise movement, and you can probably start to see where some of my frustration came into play. Certain areas only give you the smallest fraction of a spot to land safely, but doing so is incredibly difficult at the best of times, causing a lot of unfair deaths. That’s also not even factoring the general chaos that’s generally happening on screen at all times either with projectiles and handfuls of enemies all trying to kill you.

Armed with just a trusty sword and musket, you’ll need to be patience and clever to survive what’s trying to destroy you. Level design is done well in the sense that enemy placements are generally in tricky to reach spots or at difficult angles to add more challenge. It’s rare when there’s a generally flat sections where you can simply swipe your sword back and forth, carving a pathway through the undead. Instead, expect perched enemies up high trying to toss projectiles at you, making traversing challenging. Also, you better keep an eye on those that you’ve killed, because they may need a second shot to kill them for good so they don’t come back to life if you stay around too long, though this generally never really because an issue and more seemed like a waste of ammo.

You’re a Musketeer though, so naturally you’d think that the majority of your combat would focus on this. It does to an extent, but remember that muskets shot one bullet at a time before needing a lengthy reload, and it’s no different here in Heidelberg 1693. While quite powerful, your musket requires you to reload after each shot before use again, and this takes quite a while and leaves you vulnerable. Because of the general chaos always happening, there’s not many opportune times to reload so it becomes almost a game of trying to find the right moment to reload when you need it most.

There’s also a weird mechanic to actually shooting, as you need to aim with the Right Stick, but you’re seemingly restricted to shooting between certain angles, and without any sort of aimer or cursor you’re going to likely miss a good amount of your shots in the heat of battle, again, leading to some more deaths. Ammo is generally scarce as well, and you can only carry a handful of ammunition at a time, so I tended to rely on my musket for more ‘oh crap’ last ditch effort attacks to try and survive. Thankfully along with ammo, health pickups can appear too, so make sure to defeat any enemies or slash any hanging corpses you can; you never know what may fall out of them.

What I didn’t really expect though was how enemies can hit one another. It took me a while to try and use this to my advantage, as eventually I would try and position myself behind another enemy so that when I was being shot at from afar, they would kill the enemy in front of me instead. Easier said than done when there’s a lot happening at once and you’re frustrated from trying a level for the thirtieth time because the difficulty spiked out of nowhere.

Heidelberg 1693 sports some great pixelated aesthetics, oversaturated in blood and darkness. Animation is done quite well for you and enemy movement and attacks, I was just a little let down with the storyboard version of the narrative as it’s basically a slideshow. While no voice acting, the gushy sounds of things constantly dying is satisfying, as is the brooding soundtrack that subtly sets the tone in the background.

While it won’t be as iconic as its Castlevania or Ghouls 'n Ghosts influences, Heidelberg 1693 is sure to scratch that itch for those yearning for a similar title. Boss battles are large and the highlight of the experience, though infrequent between the random and challenging difficulty spikes.

**Heidelberg 1693 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.7 / 10 Firefighting Simulator - The Squad

Having originally released on PC back in 2020, Firefighting Simulator – The Squad is now here for you and your group of friends to fight fires together as one cohesive unit. Like many young kids, at one point I wanted to be a firefighter. Something about running into a burning building saving someone, or getting that cat stuck up in the tree, felt like being a true life hero. Well now the time has come and you can get an idea of what it may be like to fight fires alongside a squad of friends with Firefighting Simulator – The Squad.

Before you start your new career of fighting fires, you’ll need to know what to do, which is where the opening tutorial comes in. This starts with the basics then has optional tutorials you can take, of which I would suggest going through for more than just the achievement of course. The basics start with showing you how to move and spray water on the fire, but you’ll also learn how to use all the doors at a firefighter’s disposal, such as axes, pry bars, circular saw and more.

Certain tools will be needed to open blocked doors and windows, even allowing you to smash through certain walls for another entry point. The tutorials do a decent job of showing you how to extinguish a fire, as fire can spread if you don’t battle against it properly. Sometimes you need to think about how to prevent a fire from spreading since you can’t instantly extinguish it. You’ll also be taught how to crouch so you can deal with the heavy smoke before you ventilate rooms by opening doors and windows.

I initially made a joke about the game having backdrafts, one of the best early 90’s movies, and to my surprise they are actually a hazard you need to be aware of in the game as well, though don't seem to happen often. This is a simulator though, so you’ll need to establish your hoses, command your squad and even use ladder trucks to fight the fires from above or to save people trapped inside a building.

I hope you weren’t expecting some story or narrative about being a rookie, working their way up the ranks to eventually be a captain or something, because there’s absolutely no story mode or anything of the sort here. There is a progression system where you get XP for completing missions, but you simply go from one mission to the next. Your goal is to beat all the missions and score the best you can. That’s about it.

Being a simulator, you can expect there’s some realism to the game, and this starts with officially licensed gear from Cairns, MSA G1 SCBA, Leatherhead Tools and HAIX. Now I’m no firefighter, nor know anything about the gear they use in real life, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it’s probably authentic to the gear worn by actual firefighters. There’s also officially licensed firetrucks as well from Rosenbauer America, such as the TP3 Pumper and T-Rex Articulating Platform. While I doubt many won’t know this gear or brand unless you’re in this career path, I’m sure this will make those that are, happy to see its authenticity.

As mentioned above, you’ll simply be doing one mission after another. You can see the map that spans roughly 15km of roads and there’s about 30 or so missions to complete. You only begin with a few missions unlocked, but as you complete them and earn XP, missions will unlock based on your levels and completion, so it will take a bit of grinding to unlock and complete them all. You can replay missions whenever you wish if there’s some that really stand out, and there’s also randomized missions as well to keep things a bit fresh.

So let’s talk about actually fighting the fires. Well, before you do so you’ll need to drive there from the fire station where the truck is parked. I was expecting to have some sort of minigame of getting your gear equipped or at least sliding down the iconic pole, but nope, you simply start in your truck and are off to the call. Your map will show you the path to get to the fire, adjusting if you miss or make a wrong turn. You can choose to have your headlights and sirens on. Just like real life, most cars will get out of your way when they hear the siren and see you coming, but there’s always one or two that are either oblivious or don’t care, requiring you to swerve a bit to avoid a collision. As for the actual driving mechanics, it’s as basic as it gets. Collide into cars or objects and you get a traffic incident, causing you to be slow and then most likely not getting your quick response bonus.

So you’ve followed the GPS and made it to the scene, now what? Well, you’re a firefighter, you trained for this. Usually one member will do a 360 of the scene to find out what’s happened or notice if any survivors inside. Next will be establishing your lines and hoses, as that’s how you’ll be fighting the fires. First you go to the truck and find the supply hose indicated by yellow and attach that to the fire hydrant nearby. This will supply and route the water through the firetruck once you connect the other end to it.

Go back to your truck and find the red attack hose, attach to the proper connector on the truck, get a nozzle from another compartment and attach that. Now you’re ready to start blasting the fire with some pressurized water, though I'm not sure why nozzles don't come pre-attached, but maybe that's how it is in real life. You can setup these lines yourself or get the AI to do so with the command wheel, but more on that shortly. The truck will also have different compartments with the other tools you’ll need like your circular saws to cut through locks, fire extinguishers for grease fires, axes and more based on your needs.

Now that you’ve got your attack line, you’re ready to do what you do best; putting out those fires. Holding ‘Right Trigger’ will have you spray water wherever you’re aiming. No need to worry about destroying objects, blasting your teammates, or even how the line will get around corners. The attack line magically grows whenever you walk with it, which is quite hilarious at the end of a job, seeing hundreds of feet of hose all around the ground like a den of snakes.

When you start blasting the fire with your hose you’ll start to see small fire icons. These start large and eventually shrink before disappearing, stating that the fire has been put out. You have to be aware of how fire behaves though. Just because you put out the fire on one wall, the other or roof that’s still burning can cause it to reignite, so you need to be methodical about how you’re putting out the fires so that you’re not there not making any progress.

If you decide to play solo, that’s perfectly viable, as the team of four will be filled with AI team members at all times. You do have a command wheel where you can instruct each of the team to do something different if you want, but I found this to work spotty at best. I generally just instructed them to always fight the fire, or go rescue an unconscious person once I’m able to find where they are passed out on the floor.

While you’ll primarily be fighting standard fires, there’s a few other strategies you’ll need to utilize if you’re dealing with a grease, chemical or even an electrical fire. If you try to use your attack hose to put out a grease fire it’ll make things worse, causing an explosion and reigniting everything around once again. This requires you to grab a fire extinguisher instead to put out these spots before going back to the water line. Like real life, fire extinguishers have a finite supply within the canister, so you’ll need to be efficient as possible to avoid having to go back to the truck to grab a replacement. Electrical fires are a little trickier, as if you spray water on these components, they’ll simply reignite from the sparks. To stop this you’ll need to find the electrical shut-off box for the building, sometimes outside, sometimes in a random room. Turn off the power and then you’ll be able to finally make progress on the fires without reignition.

Lastly, you’ll need to keep an eye out for survivors. These are usually people unconscious in specific rooms, able to be carried all the out outside to the ambulance waiting on the road. You can do this yourself or instruct your AI partners to do so, and there’s a few times where I had people awake and scared, simply telling them to follow me out of the burning building to rescue.

While there’s no crossplay between Xbox and other consoles and PC, though Xbox One and Series X|S players can join a squad and play together. Every mission calls for four players, so if you can’t find people or friends to play with, the spots will fill with AI. The most entertainment obviously came from when I was playing alongside 3 other firefighters, each focusing on a different aspect to battle the blaze. Joining other players’ games I did have the odd game drop out, though I’m not sure if I simply got kicked or not, it doesn’t tell you. Hosting my own games I had a few people join here and there, but the community seems to be quite small, so if you plan on playing multiplayer, make sure you somehow convince a friend to purchase the game as well.

Let’s be honest, a good majority of simulator titles usually are quite rough around the edges. Where they lack in polish they make up in having unique gameplay, and Firefighting Simulator - The Squad is no different. Quite ‘janky’, I had a plethora of issues yet still found myself wanting to battle just one more fire before calling it quits for the night. There were a lot of bugs and such throughout though. The pop-in for objects while driving the firetruck to the destination is absolutely terrible at times, especially when hitting top speed. Buildings, trees and background items will appear out of nowhere, and even cars that were previously in your way completely disappear randomly. I once even spawned into a mission with the firetruck flipped on its side and facing the wrong way, dinging me for a traffic accident and of course not making the quick response time bonus. Animations are also quite spotty, like when you go to pick up a survivor, holding the button will eventually just have them appear over your shoulder or placing them on the stretcher instantly without any movements in-between.

Visuals are basically what you’d expect from a small studio doing a sim title. There’s nothing outstanding or all that impressive, though I will say the fire can look quite good when you’re in the middle of a building surrounded by flames and smoke. Audio is what you’d expect as well, with the siren of the firetruck (though no echo when going through a tunnel), radio communications and some information told by dispatch on the way to a fire. The roar and crackles of the fire sound quite good and the background soundtrack is subtle enough without becoming annoying.

While I’d categorize Firefighting Simulator - The Squad more of a simcade than a pure simulator, it does have some enjoyment to it regardless of its many shortcomings. Even though it has a lot of ‘jank’, I found myself trying to do just one more mission until the late hours of the night. Aside from playing alongside from friends though, there’s not much longevity here, as the gameplay loop doesn’t change from start to finish. On a half-off sale I could recommend Firefighting Simulator - The Squad for a few hours of entertainment, but at full price (currently $38.99 CAD), it’s a bit too pricey for what it offers.

**Firefighting Simulator - The Squad was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor - Martyr Ultimate Edition

I’ll admit, I know the bare basics about the Warhammer 40,000 universe. While I’ve played and reviewed a handful of their games, the ones I’ve played were mostly very tactical and turn based strategy games. Some I enjoyed, others not as much, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect with Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor - Martyr Ultimate Edition, a mouthful of a title. If Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor - Martyr sounds familiar, that’s because is originally released back in 2018, but this Ultimate Edition has now been improved and now exclusively for next-gen (current-gen?) with a ton of additions and improvements.

I’ll admit, I’m generally not all that into Action RPG’s (ARPG) like Diablo, Path of Exile and plenty of others, so when I saw that Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor - Martyr Ultimate Edition was along the same lines, I went in with trepid expectations. Hours later, I’ve been unable to stop myself from continuing to play, constantly wanting to do ‘one more run’ to level, grind and get new upgrades. The ARPG gameplay loop definitely got its hooks in me, and I’ve been working on three separate characters continually.

So you previously played Inquisitor – Martyr and want to know what’s all included in the Ultimate Edition? Now available on Xbox Series X|S, Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor - Martyr Ultimate Edition not only is an ‘all in one’ collection with all 25 previously released DLC’s, but has a ton of other improvements as well. With a bunch of quality of life improvements, visual upgrades, mission packs and more, there’s plenty of content here to last you quite a while. That said, as someone new coming into the game, it was quite overwhelming at first, as not much is taught to you very well or really slow dripped and fed to you, it’s this massive amount of content all at once that took me a good handful of hours to really grasp and figure out.

Probably the biggest portion of this Ultimate Edition’s content would be the inclusion of the Prophecy expansion that most notably added a new campaign and class. This narrative takes place over the course of three decently length chapters that takes place after the main Martyr storyline. There’s not only a new class for you to play, the Tech-Adept, this ‘pet’ class was a lot of fun to play and was very unique compared to the original three core classes. This Tech-Adept Inquisitor must use his constructs to explore new areas and fight new enemies, adding some fresh variety.

On top of this content there’s a slew of other additions and improvements coming in the form of new pets, new cosmetics, more missions in new areas, a ranked game mode, 4K support, new textures, better destruction physics, cross-gen multiplayer, a higher level cap and more. There’s no doubt that the Ultimate Edition is certainly the definitive edition if you’re a newcomer like myself, with no shortage of things to do if you’re looking for a game to sink dozens of hours into.

Taking place in the Caligari Sector, you are an Inquisitor, a highly ranked agent for the Imperium. The narrative actually starts off quite interestingly with you investigating a seemingly derelict ship called the titular Martyr. This is no ordinary ship though, more of a monastery or fortress and absolutely massive in size. As you land on the ship to explore, something of course goes awry and you must figure out where everyone went and what secret is being held within, maybe something the Inquisition might not want to come to light.

Taking place over five chapters, there’s quite a lot going on that Warhammer 40K fans will be sure to piece together into the whole mythos, but was honestly a lot to take in for a casual fan like myself. This is a Warhammer game though, so you can expect near endless waves of enemies that you’ll need to fight through to get to your objectives. Outside of the campaign, there’s plenty of other side missions and content to partake in, not even including the over two dozen DLC’s that are included as well.

ARPG fans of Diablo and Path of Exile will surely have an idea what to expect for its core gameplay loop, as you’ll be fighting hordes of enemies, leveling up, improving your abilities and of course, the mountains of loot you’ll constantly be sifting through. A few things that I wasn’t expecting was how nearly everything was destructible, usable to your advantage, a cover system that I admittedly didn’t use often and even a few missions where you take control of some massive tanks or mechs.

Before you begin your adventure on Martyr though you first must create a character from one of the four different classes. You have the Crusader, the ‘tank’ class that can choose massive guns or swords and can take the brunt of the damage for your groups. The Assassin can’t take as much damage with its light armor, but can sneak in and do some massive damage, especially to single targets with its stealth-like gameplay. The Psyker is essentially your mage, the class cannon. This is the class I chose to play initially as I wanted to play from ranged distance and blast enemies from afar. There’s more to it than that though, as I need to rotate my skills and abilities to make the most of my damage, balancing my skills as to not leave myself as vulnerable. Lastly is the new Tech-Adept, a really fun class that allows you to have constructs, essentially pets and turrets, making for a completely unique playstyle, great for groups with your friends.

There’s also subclasses after you choose which you want to play as, more like a starting point and preferred starting weapon and abilities, though you can customize your character as you level up in a very diverse skill tree the further you progress. The best part, the overall progression is account based, so if you max one character and start another, you’ll carry over many of your unlocks and gear that you’ve placed in your personal storage, as well as the numerous and confusing currencies that are all for different things.

After a few brief missions that act as a tutorial of sorts, you’ll arrive at your home base after each mission. Here you can talk to a few NPC’s that you’ve found and unlocked during your journey, a personal shared bank for your characters, a crafting system, and a lot more that would take me many paragraphs to explain. Missions are chosen at your will, all varying in difficulties with a shown level range. You don’t necessarily have to only work on campaign missions, as there’s plenty of side missions to work on should you want, a necessity for grinding, leveling and finding gear. Kind of like Mass Effect, you’ll choose the sector of space you want to go to, then what system, and finally the planets or stars will show you the missions at each that are available. It’s a little cumbersome at first, but eventually you’ll find the better hotkeys to select it via menu rather than actually exploring the star map.

Combat works quite well on console with a controller in hand. Depending on your gear you’ve chosen, this will alter how you attack, what specials you have and more. For example, for my Psyker class there’s a big difference between Force and Warp rods/staves. A force rod is a small single handed weapon that shoots rapid fire, so naturally having one in each hand was a lot of run to rapid fire enemies that were coming towards me. Then I found the Force staff, a 2 handed weapon that is basically a railgun that can shoot through anything in a straight line, but is slower. Different weapon types have completely different attacks as well, as another type of Warp weapons instead acted like a typical shotgun, or having a flame based staff. There’s so much variety and you can freely swap between two weapon loadouts based on the situation you find yourself in.

The same went for my Tech-Adept, as I of course focused on my constructs when it came to abilities, but choosing a type of weapon that was quicker and more rapid fire gave me more success than a slower sniper-like type of weapon. It really does come down to gear preference, not just your weapons, but the skills and abilities you choose to improve as your rise in levels.

Let’s be honest, the main reason many enjoy ARPG’s like this is because of the loot. There’s something exciting about picking up a whole backpack of loot that you get to sift through once you get back to base after a mission, usually with an upgrade or two if you're lucky. The first 50 levels or so I was constantly upgrading my gear with a piece here and there, though it took some figuring out to determine what was better or not, as I used to go simply my rarity or level, but now I tend to instead focus on the stats on the gear as I’m now nearly indestructible with ‘HP on hit’ gear equipped. With a number of different rarities of gear, you’ll quickly upgrade your starter gear into blues, then greens (why green is higher than blue I’m not sure), purple and even relics.

Eventually gear will also start to have socket slots and you’ll be able to improve or craft gear if you have the credits and materials necessary. I’ll be honest, there’s a lot thrown at you at once and it was actually quite overwhelming at first, as I wasn’t sure what I should be focusing on. Do I sell gear for credits or salvage for components? Do I choose a piece of gear I like and spend a ton to improve its stats, level or even add socket slots, or grind out more to get a better piece instead? I’m still figuring all this out, even after many hours into the game, but there’s surely a ton here to dive head first into for those that really want to min-max their characters.

While perfectly fine as a single player experience, Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor - Martyr Ultimate Edition is best alongside some friends where you can all grind and do missions together. This can be online or locally with couch co-op. Up to four players can get together to grind missions and you can even make a Cabal, essentially a Guild, to work towards other rewards and gain perks. The menu and inviting system for multiplayer is quite cumbersome though and took some time to figure out, but once you have a group leader that knows how to do so quickly and has some Tarot Cards that are essentially modifiers for missions, you can have a lot of fun together going through missions with a good group of buddies.

Having missed out on the original release, I’m glad I got to play this Ultimate Edition, as I got a ton of extra content and a much improved version visually. While 4K/60 was normal, there were times where this dipped in multiplayer when a lot was going on screen at once. Even for an ARPG, there’s a good amount of detail if you do zoom in to see your character and abilities, though the destructible environments were the most impressive. Cutscenes were quite high in quality and best yet, the voice acting across the board was quite well done. There’s plenty of explosions and heavy sounds when in constant combat and I never felt I needed to mute the soundtrack even when grinding a dozen missions back to back.

If you’ve been looking for a Diablo or Path of Exile alternative, you want to check this one out. Don’t let the Warhammer 40K setting steer you away, as even a very casual fan myself, I found myself addicted to the ARPG gameplay. There’s a ton of content included, and while it does a poor job of slowly introducing each element or teaching you a lot of things, there’s a surprising amount of entertainment to be had regardless of your playstyle or class choices.

**Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor - Martyr Ultimate Edition was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Charon's Staircase

When I heard about Charon’s Staircase I had a feeling something sounded familiar. Then it dawned on me; Charon (pronounced kind of like ‘Karen’) is the iconic ferryman that carries souls between the worlds of the living and dead in certain mythologies. While not quite the same setting, it certainly has somewhat of a connection to what I expected. Not quite sure what to expect, Charon’s Staircase is a mixture of a puzzle game and a walking simulator, complete with a mysterious and horror-like backdrop.

Set within the 1970’s, “The Ministry” used to rule with an iron fist over the country. Now that their rule has ended, it seems as though some of their darkest secrets are starting to see the light of day. You are a special Agent, simply known as “Desmond”, sent by The Ministry to find and retrieve some very specific classified documents from the Oack Grove estate. There has to be a reason they want these documents destroyed, and almost from its opening moments you can tell there are some very dark and disturbing secrets being hidden.

Quickly, you start to piece together some notes and documents that seem to revolve around a pair of twins with some possible supernatural abilities. It’s obvious that some atrocities have occurred, and the further you venture within the Oack Grove estate, you start to get clues about some sort of ‘Project Alpha’, which is absolutely terrifying. I won’t spoil much else about the story, as a playthrough is only going to last you a handful of hours depending on your puzzle solving skills.

A first person “horror" game, even though there’s no survival elements or combat, Desmond must explore his way through the Oack Grove estate looking for his objective and answers. First and foremost, Desmond walks slower than a senior who isn’t able to outrun a snail. The default walking speed is so slow it’s excruciating to simply get through a room or hallway. Holding down ‘Right Bumper’ will allow you to “run” according to the control options, but that turns your painfully slow pace to barely a brisk walk. There’s barely any difference and I bet that a good portion of my play time was due to this slow speed.

As Desmond explores, you’ll be wandering around a number of different environments, from creepy and brooding forests, desolate mansions, a horrific hospital and more. While there’s a narrator that chimes in now and then to explain what’s going on or what Desmond is feeling, the majority of the narrative is given through hidden notes and books littered around throughout the estate.

Being that the backdrop is a horror game, without any enemies you need to face against or any possible way to really fail outside maybe one interaction, it’s hard to really categorize Charon’s Staircase as a horror game outside of the ‘blood and guts’ portion in the later half. There is the odd cheap jump scare, but these moments are usually more of a “what was that?” as a person or something walks across the hallway up ahead, which of course is nowhere to be found when you go investigate where you saw them last.

As you explore the estate, there are some branching paths and doorways, but in general you’re kept pretty much on track with a bunch of locked doors or invisible walls in the outside portions. The narrative is genuinely interesting in the beginning, but making sense of all the characters and what exactly is going on is dependent on how much exploring you’ll do outside of the mandatory puzzles and the amount of reading you’ll do with the notes you find.

The majority of the gameplay outside of the puzzles has you searching every room with the cursor in the middle of your screen to see if something can be interacted with or picked up. With over sensitive controls, even turned down, it can be a bit frustrating to get the cursor exactly where you want. Many times I was stuck, unsure what to do, only to find out it was an item or clue I didn’t pick-up because I didn’t have the cursor perfectly over it the first time I explored the area.

While a majority of the notes you find are tied to the narrative as background lore, some will be direct clues on the puzzles you’ll be tasked with solving to progress. There’s an issue with this though that I found, as the developers clearly had to translate into English, and it’s as though there might be something a bit off with the translations at times. The first handful of puzzles weren’t too challenging, as I needed to find specific four digit codes for a digital keypad lock, which a certain note gave me a big clue as to where to find the solution. For example, my clue said something about specific rooms in order. Each of the rooms had a specific painting that when examined had a number on its description. Simple stuff. Then there’s the last half of the game where the puzzles are completely obtuse.

This is where I feel the English translation caused a lot of my issues, as there’s a handful of puzzles that give you a description about something and you need to set certain objects in a particular way or order. Two puzzles specifically were infuriating, to the point where I gave up after an hour of trying to brute force it and shamefully having to find a walkthrough online. Worse yet, the solution didn’t even make sense, so I didn’t get that “ah hah!” moment. Trust me, the Tarot Cards and the Lantern puzzle need a serious rework to be much less obtuse.

If you’re not a puzzle game fan, Charon’s Staircase doesn’t have much else for you aside from wandering around the estate trying to find clues on how to progress passed certain locked doors, finding keys and passcodes. The latter half of the game’s puzzles really changed dramatically and frustrated me. Remember, you 'run' at snail’s pace too, so all the wandering around back and forth takes forever.

Given its ‘horror’ backdrop, you can expect a lot of gloomy and brooding darkness all around the Oack Grove estate. The 70’s European setting certainly sets a mood and tone, but I’ll tell you right now, you’re going to have to play with the brightness setting depending on your TV. The default is so dark that it’s almost impossible to see anything in corners or areas that aren’t directly lit. So of course I cranked up the brightness, only to find that I was constantly blinded once there were brightly lit areas, so you’ll need to find a good middle ground to even see what’s around you. Darkness sets the horror tone but being forced to brighten it makes it lose some of its atmosphere. As for the visuals themselves, it’s dated as best with simple models and muddy textures.

The audio is actually done quite well all around. In the opening areas there’s some piano that plays in the background, setting a certain tone. The atmospheric audio is what really keeps things tense, as creaking wood, knocking on doors and other creepy sounds really makes it seem as though you’re not alone. The best part is the narrator for Desmond, as he has a smooth voice and is performed quite well with a compelling tone that had me wanting me to continue listening to anything he said.

With over twenty supported languages and a genuinely interesting story if you take the time to find and read the notes strewn about the estate, Charon’s Staircase impressed me most with its great as a whole, and the fact it was created by so few people. While Desmond searches for this mysterious staircase there’s a great foreboding atmosphere you explore, even if there’s no tension or actual danger within its Oack Grove estates' walls, leaving you frustrated with its obtuse puzzles.

**Charon’s Staircase was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Live By The Sword: Tactics

When you think of Tactical RPG’s (TRPG), I bet you the first that comes to mind is Ogre Battle, Fire Emblem, Disgaea, Banner Saga or Final Fantasy Tactics, still the benchmark of the genre in my opinion. While there’s a decent one every so often, it’s not a generally overcrowded genre, so when a new game does release, I tend to take notice. Developed by Labrador Studios, Live By The Sword: Tactics is attempting to recreate the classic retro style of TRPG’s, but they’ve actually tried something new, adding their own spin on a tried and true formula. While some might not agree with the design and mechanic choices, I can appreciate that they’ve done something different and not necessarily the norm.

There’s a serious conflict breaking out, and it falls on a pair of brothers to do what they can to defend their lands and do right by their young King. With a campaign that only lasts about 4 to 5 hours or so, I really can’t speak much more about the narrative without fear of spoiling the thin content as it is. It sounds like a cliché trope we’ve all played countless times before, and while it’s somewhat interesting in the beginning, the gameplay is so slow that you’ll eventually just want to get through the missions to get it over with.

I initially was intrigued by the story, but there’s really not much there aside from ‘fighting the bad guys’. This would have been a pass if the cast of characters was interesting and had some development, but there’s really only one or two with some semblance of a personality. Near the end it does wrap up a bit better, but the big middle portion is generally forgettable when it comes to story and characters, especially when you can see a twist coming well before the reveal. After each mission you get a new cutscene and that’s really your only reward for being successful. Because there’s no leveling up, gear or any other sort of progression, that’s where my biggest concern is when it comes to longevity and replayability.

The opening tutorial does a decent job at explaining the basics, teaching you all of the core mechanics, how you can only go up or down one level at a time on the grid map, and that you’ll need line of sight to launch your attacks and abilities. There’s no difficulty options as this is a more ‘hand-crafted’ experience, battles designed specifically for each encounter. Naturally battles become slightly more challenging as you progress through the three chapters, none of which were all too challenging.

Did you notice above that I mentioned that there’s no experience gain or gear? That’s right, there’s no traditional progression in place here. This is one of its main selling points, and I never really thought anything about it, but then it got me thinking because I am exactly the type of TRPG player that would grind for hours to level up my characters and get gear to make the latter half of the game easier. Here, you simply have to be reliant on your strategy and skills. No relying on overpowered gear or levels, forcing you to think strategically instead.

This also means that your characters have set skills, attack power, abilities and health. There’s no way to improve these in any way. I’ll admit, it’s a drastic change that I didn’t initially realize the weight of the design decision. Some will enjoy this element, but without any progression aside from story, there’s not much in the Story mode to keep you coming back.

That said, there are some other modes to help with its longevity after the brief campaign; Adventure Mode and Tactician Mode. Adventure mode is the more interesting of the two. Here is a roguelike take on the genre where randomness is a constant. You start with three random characters, random abilities and are tasked with trying to defeat enemies in increasingly harder challenges. Winning battles earns you treasure which can be used to purchase new characters, power-ups, swap skills and more. Oh, and death is permanent, so might want to use some of that to heal up between fights too. Tactician Mode is basically preset battles with interesting map layouts or win objectives, almost like a puzzle to solve.

Most battles take place on a 10x10 grid, having your team of 3 or 5 taking on generally an equal amount of enemies. You’ll only have a couple party members in the beginning, eventually unlocking more for a total of 7. Most battles only allow you to take 5 party members into battle, so you’ll need to decide which are best for the situations and map layout. Each unit has a basic attack and 6 other abilities, though you’re only able to choose four of the abilities for each battle.

The 7 classes are Warrior, Archer, Alchemist, Medic, Wizard, Brawler and Assassin. There’s no leveling up remember, so their abilities are already set, you’re simply choosing which 4 they each can bring into each battle. Certain maps are better suited for specific classes. For example, the Archer and Wizard can attack from range, good if there’s some different heights on the map they can perch on. For a denser map with trees and rocks, keeping line of sight might be difficult for them, so the more melee based characters might be a better choice.

Each character is unique in its own way with their abilities, and once you figure out how to best utilize them, it becomes much easier to win battles. For example, I hated using the wizard because even though he is able to attack areas at once, he can also hurt your team as well, so I found it difficult to use. Also, no one character or class is overpowered. They seem quite balanced. Even though the Assassin can deal more damage, they have less health to make up for it.

Every ability also has a cooldown period, usually two or three turns before it can be used again, so you can’t simply spam the best attacks each turn. Even though you can end your turn early, this won’t move you up the turn list, instead healing you for 1 health if you don’t attack or use an ability. With most characters only having a dozen health or so, this is substantial.

As for enemy variety, there really isn’t any. You’ll face squads of the same bandits, pirates and thieves over and over again. There’s the odd special ‘boss’ now and then, but for the most part there’s only a few types of enemies, adding to the repetitious nature. Where I find a big gap is that you go into every battle blind. You don’t know what abilities or skills enemies have, making it impossible to strategize how to place your characters and such without trial and error.

The largest frustration is simply how slow the gameplay flows. There’s no fast-forward and each animation takes a few seconds to finish each time before moving onto the next character’s turn. Eventually the amount of strategy simply comes down to ganging up against one enemy at a time to dwindle their numbers. The AI is seemingly random, moving from beside my character with only 1 or 2 health left and go attack someone elsewhere that’s full health.

Surprisingly, there’s also a multiplayer mode included as well. Here two players can compete against one another in local or online battles. These are simply just skirmishes, but simply having the option to battle against friends online is welcome and might be just enough to keep it installed after the quick Story Mode.

The sprite work is pretty decent for its aesthetic. Trying to recreate classic TRPG style, there’s no doubt of what genre Live by the Sword: Tactics falls into. Each character also gets a drawn character panel when it’s their turn, but for the environments, there’s not all that much variety, using the same tiles repeatedly. There’s some subtle details I enjoyed, like having characters kneeling when very low on health to indicate so. The repeated enemies make it feel tiresome though.

The music and audio is decent even though there’s no voiced dialogue. While the soundtrack is decent, there’s simply not enough variety, and because some of the levels drag on, you’ll surely hear them on repeat over time. With some variety and more tracks I probably wouldn’t have even noticed. While developers have been upfront about the content roadmap of what’s being improved and added, I have to base my thoughts at the time of writing. There’s some good additions coming though, like the ability to create custom battlefields and battle speed increases.

The design choice to not have any character progression is an interesting choice that I’m not sure if it’s paid off or not. While it is a unique way to force players to play more strategically, you unlock all the characters quite quickly, and from that point on there’s no more variety really, as I simply stuck with the same 5 characters basically every battle. The current asking price of $29.99 CAD feels a little steep given the brief Story Mode and lack of any character progression, but those looking for a more streamlined TRPG might enjoy the forced strategic play, even if there’s not much variety overall.

**Live by the Sword: Tactics was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Last Days of Lazarus

I’m not sure if I’ve previously played a game quite like Last Days of Lazarus. I honestly wasn’t quite sure what to expect once I installed it and started playing, as I hadn’t even looked at a trailer beforehand, going in without any preconceived notions or expectations. What I got was definitely something I wouldn’t have guessed. A story about a grieving family, suicide, supernatural events, religion and a healthy amount of blood and gore, all set in a post-communist Romania at the turn of the century.

You play the titular Lazarus, a man who is coming home after the death of his mother. His sister pleaded for him to return home for the funeral, but he refused due to having ‘important work’. He eventually does return home shortly after to meet with his sister Lyudmila but she seems to be missing upon arrival to their mother’s apartment. It seems something terrible has happened, and this isn’t even about how your mother hung herself in the closet, it seems as though something supernatural is occurring once you see a monster appear in the bathroom.

It’s from this moment on it’s as though two different worlds are blending in some way, and as you unearth the mystery of what’s going on, it goes much deeper than you expected, going a completely different way than I anticipated early on. The apartment is strewn about with religious symbols, ornaments and just enough oddities that you are intrigued to figure out what’s going on. The phone rings and someone familiar answers...

The narrative is interesting at first, as I wanted to find out what happened to Lazarus’ mother and sister, what happened to their dad, and see why they were such a troubled family. The supernatural elements surely adds some intrigue, and while the cast of characters is quite small, it eventually goes in an unexpected direction that I found a little difficult to follow along near the end. It’s a disturbing plot that I don’t want to spoil, as its runtime is only about 3 or 4 hours.

As for its gameplay, Last Days of Lazarus at its core is essentially a first person walking simulator with some light puzzle elements. I’d hesitate to say there’s much exploration due to how linear it is, but there are some collectables to find for those that want to check every inch and detail. Expect to walk around everywhere, simply searching for objects that can be interacted with or collected, as this is how you trigger the next set of events or cutscene.

If this sounds unappealing or boring to you, unfortunately there’s not much else for its gameplay to look forward to aside from the odd few puzzles. The majority of your time is exploring the small and linear confined areas you’re placed within the 8 chapters, simply moving your cursor across every object you can find to see if it’s interactable. Can’t figure out where to go or what to do, you probably didn’t notice the tiny reticle change slightly when it’s over an object you can pick up or interact with. Missed a collectable in a level and want to go get it for your achievements? No problem, there’s a handy chapter select so you can gather all the relics and documents without having to replay the whole game thankfully.

The white cursor over a white item basically makes it impossible to see and surely had me waste a bit of time not knowing it was the item I needed to progress. So many times I was wandering in circles, unable to continue for an unknown reason, turning out to be an item I didn’t at first notice was clickable. This resulting me in mindlessly hovering my cursor over every book, item, painting, doorway, rock and plant to see if it was something I missed (damn you piece of gold ore).

There’s no risk of failing or dying, as there’s no combat or anything that can hurt you. Even though the world is filled with grotesque monsters, especially the apartment you frequently visit every few chapters, there’s no danger. You can even walk right up to these snapping tentacles with teeth without worry of anything happening to Lazarus. I guess this classifies the game as a horror game given how much blood and gore there can be at times, but without any consequences or worry of death or failure, there’s nothing to be afraid of.

There’s only a few puzzles in the whole game, and these are very simplistic for the most part. Most of these are simply interacting with them with the items you’ve already found, and if it doesn’t work you simply haven’t found one of the items lying around nearby. The few that were actually ‘puzzles’ simply had you rotating some knobs or valves or figuring out a positive/negative battery puzzle. These shouldn’t stump you and can usually be brute forced with enough effort if you don’t want to look up solutions online.

As for its presentation, it’s a mixed bag. The inside environments do look quite detailed, with the apartment you frequent often looking as though it’s actually lived in, as not everything is perfectly symmetrical, full of clutter and some mess. While I’m no expert on Romanian culture, the details of the religious symbols and artifacts really do give a level of detail I wasn’t expecting from a smaller studio. The outdoor chapters don’t look nearly as good, actually quite dated, and while most of the characters are created decently, they move quite stiff.

The soundtrack is actually quite decent, setting a certain tone and atmosphere and you explore your surroundings. When something drastic happens, you can really hear it in the headset. This one part where a monster was pounding on the door sounded fantastic, and the first time the classic phone rang for Lazarus I legit thought it might have been in my apartment. Then there’s the voice acting. There’s no emotion and it simply sounds as though the lines are being read from a piece of paper. Even when Lazarus sees a dead person, it sounds completely monotone and devoid of any real feeling. It’s not quite the absolute worst voice acting I’ve ever heard, but it’s certainly a contender.

What starts out as a legitimately interesting story turns into something completely else by the time the credits roll. The whole jaunt with Lazarus will last about 3 to 4 hours, as anything more would have worn out its welcome, and I’m not sure how much more of the voice acting I would be able to tolerate. Certainly a unique game and setting, what’s most important is that yes, you can pet the cat.

**Last Days of Lazarus was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.3 / 10 Last Oricru, The

With how many Soulslike games release these days, it’s kind of difficult to not compare them to the best in the genre, making for quite a high bar for expectations. For some developers, this risk pays off if they can create something unique in its own way or is memorable. For others, they’ll get forgotten and compared like it's just another clone, trying to jump on the bandwagon we’ve seen endless times before. I don’t enjoy playing games for a challenge, I prefer more relaxing experiences where I can sink my teeth into the narrative or gameplay. That to me is fun, and yes, I’m aware that generally to play a Soulslike I need to ‘Git Gud’. For this reason, I generally don’t enjoy Soulslike games, forcing me to grind or repeatedly die numerous times just to finally beat an area or boss. My time is precious and limited, but I can absolutely understand those that do enjoy this challenge.

Heavily inspired from Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Mortal Shell, Lords of the Fallen, and a bit of Gothic for good measure, The Last Oricru, developed by GoldKnights, originally debut as ‘LostHero’ but got a name change to the title we know today. If you’re familiar with the term ‘Soulslike’, you’ll basically know what to expect, though there is a heavier emphasis on narrative choices that will drastically change your game. You awaken somewhere strange without any memories other than a few blurry images in your mind, going by the name of Silver. The world you’re in seems to be in the midst of a serious conflict between two races, the Naboru and the Ratkin. While it seems the setting is set in a high fantasy backdrop, fighting with swords, shields and magic, there does seem to be a semblance of technology, though mostly forgotten.

I’ll admit, there’s a lot going on in the beginning that was hard to grasp. There’s something about the planet being partially terraformed, some sort of barrier keeping it safe, a mysterious item called “The Cradle”, and then there’s a mysterious AI head that is speaking to you at certain points. Sure, it all comes together later on, but the overall narrative isn’t terribly exciting or easy to follow at times.

Where The Last Oricru succeeds is having you pick sides and changing the world based on your choices. Do you side with the Naboru in their quest for dominance, or help the Ratkin that have been enslaved and simply trying to survive. With quite a bit of slavery and racism undertones, especially towards the Ratkin, I opted to help the Ratkin on my first playthrough, as there’s plenty of subtext if you can read between the lines of what’s being said to Silver from both sides. There’s no absolute morally ‘right' or ‘wrong’ choices, only a muddy grey area that you’ll need to play through numerous times to see all of the narrative angles and backstory.

This seems like a great backdrop to an interesting tale, and I’ll admit, I was intrigued at first, but once your protagonist starts to talk more and more, he becomes quickly insufferable with the poor writing and even worse voice acting. Being a burly dude with a half shaved head and beard, the voice that comes out of him is this frail and posh Sherlock Holmes accent that really doesn’t match the visual. He has so many terrible lines and ‘jokes’ that even I barely smirked when it was clearly trying to be a punchline. Having a main character that is unlikeable from the opening moments should have been a red flag.

What The Last Oricru does do well though is change the world around you and its outcomes based on your decisions. I sided with the Ratkin, so I was fighting the human Naboru race for the opening few levels. Starting over again and siding the other way, not only was I then fighting the Ratkin instead, but I got some different backstory that helped make sense of the overall conflict where both factions have their reasoning, good and bad, and you’re trying to decide who to believe and side with. Siding with one faction over the other doesn’t only change the enemies you face, but even the gameplay flow and maybe certain pathways. Many of the achievements are based on your narrative choices, so it will take numerous playthroughs to get them all. The game also forces an auto save every time you make a decision and action, so there’s no reloading an older save to see a different outcome unfortunately.

What I will give The Last Oricru credit for is its inclusion of multiple difficulty options. With a few different choices, I began on the Story Mode, intended to be a much easier difficulty so I could enjoy the world, narrative and setting without too much frustration, hopefully. For the first half I was doing alright, but there were some serious random spikes in difficulty with certain enemies and bosses that caused numerous deaths. I’ve already admitted to not enjoying Soulslikes for its difficulty, though I don’t expect many genre fans will find much difficulty overall with how basic the combat is comparatively.

Oddly enough, in the Prologue section, you’re taught the basics of combat, then are thrown into a forced stealth mission almost right away. Problem is, there’s no indicators to show you where enemies are, no crouch, no nothing in terms of stealth mechanics, and you’re simply supposed to know the layout of the starting area even though you’ve barely explored it to this point. Remember how I said the game force auto saves on you? Well, once I failed this stealth mission in about 5 seconds flat, my ‘choice’ was made and I had to live with those consequences that played out narratively. That said, my choices weren’t always completely ‘locked in’, as you’re given opportunities every so often to swap factions, but not often.

Tell me if you’ve ever played a Soulslike that has these mechanics before: When you rest at the save points your healing items are refilled, health restored and all enemies respawn. Check. How about defeating enemies for essence (souls) which is used as a currency to level up at said checkpoints? Double check. Having to manage your stamina meter, making sure not to block too many items, dodge too often or run too far. Yup, triple check. Heavily inspired by the classic Souls games is almost an understatement, being basically a copy of all of the core mechanics, even down to the ‘fog’ (see through blue here) doors that indicate a boss room ahead. Sure, when a game series does as well as a Soulslike you want to replicate that, but there’s got to be some originality at the same time, something lacking here.

Instead of one large interconnected world, each level is its own section that has a loading screen when you move back and forth if you decide to backtrack for whatever reason. There’s also seemingly only one save point within each, at least that I could find. While primarily linear for the most part, there is of course numerous branching paths between point A and B, housing many secrets and things to find for those that take the time to explore the world. Don’t expect any map, compass or indicator though of where you need to go, simply relying on your exploration and memorization skills. Now and then you’ll unlock shortcuts for quicker access later on as well.

Before I delve into the combat, I needed to mention the ‘A’ button specifically. This is how you jump, which is perfectly fine even if the animation is quite simplistic and ‘floaty’, but the problem is that the same button is used to pick up any drops or gear on the ground, to open doors and interact with switches. You can probably guess where I’m going with this. Need to open a door quickly or want to pick up gear as you run past? Well, you’re going to jump instead. You better hope there’s not an object near an edge and gap you want to jump across, because it’s basically a gamble as to which one it will prioritize in that moment.

Self-described as “The combat is complex and aims to create a tough but rewarding experience”, this is somewhat true, but not because of the actual design. Sometimes it’s tough because your build is ‘wrong’, other times because some of the enemies can decimate you in a single hit or combo if you’re not prepared properly. Be prepared to die a lot, which is usually a badge of honor in many Soulslike, but more frustration based here.

Combat is simple enough to understand, with Right Bumper being your main attack and Right Trigger its secondary. Left Bumper is for dawning my shield (if you use one) and the Left Trigger for its secondary. Weapons have interesting and unique secondary abilities, as I was quite fond of my sword that engulfed my blade in fire with its secondary ability. My shield was able to do minor heal with its secondary, which I purposely increased certain stats for to be able to use. Every item has a specific requirement for stats to be able to use. While I wanted to use a sword and shield combo to play more defensively, I opted to wear lighter armor and use quicker weapons, dumping a lot of my skill points into dexterity. Of course I would get the odd new items here and there that meant I needed a few points into strength or elsewhere to use, always enticing you to wanting to try it out.

You can certainly create some interesting builds, but it will take some time to really learn all of Oricru’s intricacies and find what works and doesn’t. Turns out my initial build was quite terrible in the latter half of the game, as you’ll barely do any damage if you focus on tanking, or be one-shot if you don’t pump some points into vitality to wear some heavier gear. Once you figure out a few of the items that are borderline overpowered, or which to avoid, things will be much easier from this point on. There is a magic component and build that can support this, but magic is done very oddly here. Magic doesn’t refill via potions or items for the most part, instead you have this starter weapon that will drain and sap enemies when melee attacked, thus refilling your mana. Yes, as a weak mana user, you’ll need to get up close and melee enemies to refill your mana, so why wouldn’t you just stay melee in the first place then? You can equip two sets of primary and secondary weapons/shields, easily swappable on the fly given the situation or needed secondary use. While most enemies that are cannon fodder are no big deal, bosses are either so simple that even I beat them in a single try, or get destroyed in a single hit from them, there was no real middle ground.

At the save points you’ll spend your essence to level up your character, adding to your stats, allowing you to equip and use new gear based on certain requirements. You can break down gear you won’t be using for materials and even upgrade your gear multiple times should you have the correct amount of materials. Be cautious though, as this isn’t explained at all, so I decided I would upgrade a bunch of my gear without much thought since I had the proper amount of materials. Well, doing so and making your gear a higher level also ups the stat requirements to use, so you can probably guess what happened. Yup, I was unable to use my preferred weapon until I went and leveled up some more to increase my stats to the number required to wield once again.

Having online and splitscreen co-op I initially thought would be Oricru’s saving grace. Well, while I appreciate the effort, some of the design choices I’d question. For starters, you need to be at a save point to open your game to multiplayer then send an invite. There’s no matchmaking, so it’s friends only unfortunately. Your invited friend shows up as a hologram of you and shares your inventory. Any items you’re not currently using they’ll be able to equip and use, so you better keep some backup items.

I initially thought that the items my friend was looting was being ‘stolen’, but they got put into our shared inventory, something that would have been appreciated to have been explained. When I went to a cutscene and talking to some NPC, my friend could still wander around, coming into my cutscene’s camera, completely ruining the immersion as he tried to constantly attack me and them. The worst part though, I hope you have a very giving friend, as they make absolutely no progress for their own game or character, simply there to help you, not even earning the achievements from my choices made either.

Being built on Unreal Engine 4, there’s definitely some pros and cons to its visuals and aesthetics. In terms of character models, animations and level design, there’s nothing really all that special here. What is done quite well is that some of the environments (except the bleak underground mine sections) and the backdrops can be stunning at times. The overall visual design is done quite well with its high fantasy setting with some technology mixed in, and certain vistas are absolutely worth a screenshot or two, but there’s nothing that will overly impress you, especially the deadness in characters eyes and poor facial animations.

Then there’s the audio, also a mixed experience. Spells and weapons clanging sound perfectly suitable, but the voice acting really brings down the whole experience, especially with how narrative driven it is. This is exasperated with Silver’s terrible writing and even worse delivery, and again, a posh sounding voice coming out of him simply doesn’t seem to visually match the character at all. Some of the secondary characters do a decent job, but Silver’s poor delivery is so distracting that it’s all I could think of and remember when I started to sit down and write.

At $29.99 USD (currently on sale), I’d be upset if it was priced any higher. For how clunky the overall experience is, I will admit there’s plenty of replay value if you can ignore all of its shortcomings, issues and suffer through Silver's delivery. While some might not being locked into their choices permanently, it makes you deal with the consequences of your actions, also a clever way to force multiple playthroughs if you want to experience everything The Last Oricru has to offer and I did enjoy going with my gut reaction rather than seeing a ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ option. Unless you’re a massive Soulslike fan looking for a new game to stream or master, it’s hard to recommend joining the Ratvolution.

**The Last Oricru was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Sophstar

I believe it was 1942 for NES that started my love for shumps (shoot ‘em ups). One of those vertically scrolling shooting games, there were a number of classic shumps back in the NES/SNES era, but once Ikargua released, that truly cemented my love for the genre and is easily one of my top five games of all time. That said, when a new shump releases, I’m always eager to give it a go, regardless of vertical or horizontal scrolling, or if it’s a bullet hell or not (where you have to deal with avoiding hundreds of bullets on screen at any given point). Well, from developers Banana Bytes and publisher RED ART GAMES, we now have Sophstar, the latest in the genre.

I’ll admit, very few shmups in the last decade or so have really stood out. I’ve reviewed a good handful, but none have truly stood out ever since possibly Deathsmiles on Xbox 360 back in 2007. Of course, I always root for a newcomer and had high hopes that Sophstar would be a must have for any other shmup fans. While not so much a bullet hell, that doesn’t mean Sophstar doesn’t have its challenge with its multiple difficulty modes.

Inspired by classic 90’s vertical shmups, Sophstar is more than a competent game on its own, but there’s actually some unique and interesting mechanics that I actually quite enjoyed during my multiple playthroughs. You can simply jump in and start shooting enemies and avoiding their bullets, but there’s going to be some practice and strategy needed if you want to challenge yourself with its hardest difficulty modes, great for casual up to the hardcore fans.

While shmups aren’t generally known for their deep and involved stories, Sophstar is really no different, but at least some effort is made to have a narrative and a reasoning behind shooting everything in sight. You are Soph, a Sub-Lieutenant, part of some sort of space army. She’s lived in Galanian for her whole life yet can’t recall anything about her earliest years or how she developed teleportation powers, a useful skill that helps her as a pilot to survive. Being sent on a seemingly simple recon mission, she decides she must find out about her past and what’s going on, setting you on a journey across eight unique stages taking on some sort of alien advance.

Being a vertical shooter, with you at the bottom of the screen as your fly your way to the top constantly, I was surprised Sophstar utilized a classic 240x320 arcade resolution. This of course means that there’s a massive border on the left and right of the screen, but there’s a few options for you as to what artwork you want to have. Being a true shmup, there’s even a Tate mode option, where if you were playing on a widescreen monitor that can rotate, you could have it mimic a true arcade experience. I doubt many will utilize this option, but greatly appreciated to have nonetheless.

With a handful of different modes to play, the main one is Arcade, acting as the story mode. You then get to choose between six different difficulty modes, ranging from Child to Brutal, so naturally my first few were on the easiest setting to get a hang of its gameplay and hit detection. After a few playthroughs I tried the harder difficulties and there was quite a difference. While not a bullet hell at its core, there’s still plenty of challenge, especially in the last few stages.

While normally having a few different ships to choose from isn’t too uncommon, having nine though is quite an accomplishment. Even better, they are so unique in their firing modes, secondary abilities and teleportation skills that each one warrants its own playthrough. They all perform unique, each with their own strengths and weaknesses aside from the fire modes. Some are slower than others but make it up in other ways. Some have weak attacks but have a very wide spread for their shots, where others have a much more narrow firing pattern and is more concentrated.

Experimenting with each was fun, as I clearly had some favorites over others, liking a primary shot but maybe not the secondary. Each also has its own unique teleport pattern and use, adding some more strategic thought into your choice. The wide variety of ships truly does change how you play each time and once I played with the ship that has homing missiles, I found it hard to play as any other. Most important, none were terrible, in my opinion, each catering to a different style of gameplay, though with how many enemies usually are on screen at a time, I generally opted for a ship with a wider spread shot.

Across eight missions, each run will roughly take a half hour or so to reach the end, pretty much on par for many shmups. You’ll fight numerous mini-bosses along the way with a massive one at the end of each stage. Defeating enemies throughout the stages will at times have random power-ups float across the screen, changing what it is every few seconds until you pick it up. This would have been a great tutorial section, as this isn’t explained, and Sophstar isn’t like many other shmups where you start out with weak firepower and need the power-ups to shoot stronger/more. Instead, these power-ups seem to refill your sub/secondary weapon or give you points. There’s even secret question marks that can appear if you fulfil secret objectives, which really isn’t explained either unfortunately.

As for the actual controls and shooting mechanics, it’s solid overall. Control feel smooth with the Left Stick, though you can hold a button that turns down the sharpness of the movement, allowing for more minute and precision movement, though I rarely had to rely on this. Your main attack is simply held down at all times, but you have a meter for your secondary. Each ship will have completely different primary and secondary attacks, so make sure to experiment and see what you prefer. This meter really isn’t explained at all either, taking some figuring out on my own to understand it. There’s a portion of the secondary meter that flashes, though it seems that’s the amount that will be used as soon as you use it. You can hold the button for more use, quickly draining the meter, but good for when you need a quick offensive or defensive boost depending on your chosen ship.

There’s also a key teleportation ability each ship has, but each does so slightly differently. Even though Sophstar isn’t really a bullet hell shmup, there will be times you become cornered in between oncoming bullets. To survive this you can use your teleportation ability, allowing you to move to a different spot without taking damage. Some ships have you move a cursor to indicate where you’ll appear, others choose a random spot, and one of my favorites actually causes a Black Hole to appear at the spot they teleported out of, great to suck in a bunch of enemy bullets to give you a moment to recollect yourself. What isn’t explained at all as well is the square surrounding your ship is actually the timer to indicate if your teleport is ready or not.

There are different scoring systems you can unlock and choose, depending on your skill. When you shoot and destroy and enemy they will instantly drop a token. The longer the token stays on screen the smaller it gets and less points it's worth, so the risk versus reward is that you’ll need to attack enemies closer to the top of the screen to grab those tokens as soon as possible if you want the best scores possible. There’s a combo counter as well, so there’s some crazy scores you can get if you play properly and know how best to extend your scores for the online leaderboards.

Outside of the Arcade, you have a number of different modes you can choose to play as well. Score Attack, Endless Mode, Timed Challenge and even a Cadet School. Ultimate Challenge is very challenging, as it’s basically a boss rush mode that will take some serious skill to see to completion with a number of loops that become harder each time. The most interesting though has to be the Cadet School. Here you take on very specific challenges in a number of different categories. You’re given a specific ship and objective and have a specified time limit to complete it in. For example, maybe you need to stay alive for 60 seconds but your weapons are disabled, so it’s a skill check on your avoidance abilities. Others task you trying to reach certain combos or scores within a short time along with a ton of other unique challenges. It’s a great little mode that I accidently stumbled upon, thinking it was just the tutorial or something initially.

As for its retro styled aesthetics, it looks just like any other 90’s shump, not necessarily a bad thing. Truth be told, I thought Sophstar was some obscure overseas shmup from that era that never released here, that’s how authentic it feels. There’s also a number of different visual filters you can choose if you truly love the old classic CRT lines and such. The soundtrack is decent though unmemorable, as you’ll really only focus on your ship sounds and the endless barrage of bullet ‘pew-pew’s.

Having a robust online leaderboard that separates every mode and ship is welcome, providing plenty of replay value if you want to top the numerous high scores online. Having nailed the classic 90’s style, gameplay and aesthetic, Sophstar is a decent shump overall, and although it doesn’t reach the heights of an Ikaruga, it’s certainly worth your time if you’re a shmup fan.

**Sophstar was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed

Like many that grew up in the 70’s who flocked towards Star Wars, I’d argue that many kids in the 80’s, like myself, gravitated towards Ghostbusters. That’s how iconic the movie was, though maybe not the sequel as much. Ghostbusters was my thing. I had the movies on VHS, watched the cartoon, had basically all the toys, including the awesome Firehouse that you poured the slime into and Ecto-1, and I’d argue, probably one of the most iconic and recognizable theme songs of all time. Ghostbusters was a big deal, and with the success of the latest movie, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, having a new game in the franchise to play obviously made me perk up and become curious.

Developed by Illfonic, if you know their track record of games, you’ll probably already have an idea of what to expect. Are you a fan of asymmetrical multiplayer games where it’s usually a 4v1 match? Do you remember Evolve, Predator: Hunting Grounds or Friday the 13th: The Game? If you answered yes, Illfonic also happened to work on those as well, so to say they know the 4v1 genre well is probably an understatement. And what better franchise were this asymmetrical setup makes the most sense other than this franchise, having four Ghostbusters trying to take down a ghost? Exactly, it seems like a match made in heaven on paper.

Ghostbusters fans can rejoice in the fact that it appears as though a lot of time, effort and care went into making Spirits Unleashed as authentic as it can be when it comes to lore, characters and the iconic equipment. Proton Packs, PKE Meters, Traps and more are all just as you’d expect them to be if you know your movies. This authenticity made me smile, and even though you can change and upgrade your gear, even visually, the effort that went into making sure the smallest details, even the basement of the Firehouse where The Containment Unit is located, doesn’t go unnoticed.

Technically a sequel to the latest movie, Afterlife, Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed takes place basically right after the post credit scene from the film ending, a pleasant surprise to know that it’s cannon. To further reinforce this, you’ll interact with a few familiar faces, Raymond Stantz and Winston Zeddemore, surprisingly voiced by the actual actors, something I wasn’t expecting. Winston has refurbished the Firehouse and brought back the Ghostbusters’ headquarters back to its former glory.

The original Busters’ time is over though, Ray has moved on, running his unique book store right across from the building, Ray’s Occult Books, and it’s been decades since they’ve suited up properly, knowing it’s time for a new generation of Ghostbusters. This is where you come in. There’s some new characters brought on board as well, like Catt who is almost like a replacement for Janine Melnitz (can you truly replace her though?) and a new tech research wizard, Eddy.

I don’t want to delve too much into the narrative, as it’s actually quite interesting when you learn about a special Spirit Guide written by John Horace Tobin (which should seem familiar if you’re up on your Ghostbusters lore) and a mysterious package that’s sent from Peter Venkman. What I wasn’t expecting though was how it’s not structured like a traditional campaign. Instead, story segments play out with cutscenes and unlocks every so often, which I believe is level based from playing matches, but this wasn’t really explained, so I’m simply guessing. Play matches and eventually you’ll earn story sections in between matches when you head back to HQ every so often.

Much like Illfonic’s previous games that were also asymmetrical, the 4v1 gameplay is where 4 Ghostbuster players in a team will take on one other playing the Ghost that’s haunting a specific building. While you can play solo, as it will place you with bots when there’s no players to join, but doing so will be quite difficult, as the bots are quite braindead when it comes to their AI and actually helping in any meaningful way. With a few friends though, I was actually having some fun playing alongside some fellow staff writers as we try to take down the ghost. While the website does promote that the multiplayer game is “perfect for all levels”, I’d almost argue against that, as there is quite a bit of a learning curve and a team of Ghostbusters that don’t work together in unison will easily get outclassed by a good Ghost player.

You begin your bustin’ career by creating your character how you like, but it’s definitely not one of the most robust character creators out there. Certain clothes, gear and other options are level locked, so you’ll need to work on the grind for the coolest looking gear, even if it’s basic overall. Something I didn’t even catch until later that I really thought was clever is that the name on your uniform is actually your Gamertag. Small detail but very cool, as it looks just as it would in real life in the same font, color and style.

Once you enter a stage you’ll be searching for the ghost, trying to stop them before they fully haunt the place, but you’ll notice there’s a lot of random NPC’s wandering around the building as well. As they get scared by the ghost or you using your weapons near them, they’ll become panicked. You’re able to run up to one and have a brief conversation with them to calm them down, but this really isn’t explained well. A small and quick minigame appears where you need to press the Trigger at a certain time to improve their nerves, but miss these spots and they’ll panic even further. You get points for doing so, but this takes precious time that could be spent tracking down the ghost or supporting your team, so it’s a balance.

There’s currently only 5 maps, and while they are multi-leveled, usually 3 floors, you’ll become quite bored with the same scenery over and over since you simply play a match one after another in this type of genre. The maps are varied, going from a Museum, Prison, Brewery, Cruise Ship and a Lodge, each with their own theme and style, but it becomes repetitive with such few. You do start with a Grapple Hook item that allows you to attach to higher ledges and railings to quickly reach higher ground, eventually unlocking different gadgets you can swap it out for should you wish.

As part of the Ghostbuster team, you’ll need to locate the main ghost to try and capture them, stopping the inevitable haunting of the building, also searching for their three rifts to destroy, acting as their respawns. You’ll use your PKE meter that will alert you if there’s paranormal activity when you’re close, showing which direction to head in as those antennas rise the closer you get. If you want to stun a ghost that’s in close range, you can overcharge your PKE meter but this causes your PKE needing to cooldown or reboot for a short while as a tradeoff.

So you found a ghost or a rift, so naturally you’ll use your iconic Proton Pack to try and capture them in your beam. This needs to be managed though, as using for too long will overheat your pack, needing to be vented to cool or worse, waiting a long time for a reboot if it overheats completely. While one beam might work for a low level or inexperienced ghost player, you’ll most certainly need others from your team to finally trap that ghost.

Speaking of traps, your Ghost Trap is utilized just as you’d expect from the movies. You can toss it out at any point, and then step on the button to open the trap (done with the Left Trigger). This will open the trap, ready to capture any tethered ghost that is placed right over it. While there’s a brief tutorial, I found this quite difficult to actually do. Getting the ghost directly over the trap seemed to never work for me. This is exasperated by the fact your trap has a battery level, so it can only stay open for so long before you need to pick it back up and close it to get it to slowly recharge.

Also, if you have a ghost currently trapped in your beam and want to toss your your trap, you’ll have to stop shooting for a moment to do so, giving them enough time to get away, so you can see where the teamwork and communication is imperative. You only have one Ghost Trap, so if you forget to pick it up off the ground you’ll have to run back to go get it if you want to use it again. Given that all your equipment levels up separately based on its use, my Trap was always the lowest level since I could barely actually capture a ghost it in it.

While there are four Ghostbusters on a team, choose (or randomly get chosen) to be a Ghost and you’ll be solo. You’ll actually need to complete a few matches before being able to be the ghost, giving you a brief tutorial on how to do so. As a ghost you’ll be able to freely fly around one of the five maps that’s chosen, each ghost type with its own unique abilities and stats. You can possess items, haunt them to act as distractions (they will show up on PKE meters), slime your enemies and have a few abilities to help you attack or defend. You have a stamina-like meter, called Ectoplasm, so you need to constantly manage this meter. Almost everything you do as a ghost requires Ectoplasm, so you better be sure to always have a reserve in case you need to quickly dash away from a Ghostbuster that just spotted to tried to trap you.

Need to refill your meter? No problem, simply possess an item. The longer you stay inside, the more you’ll refill. This will show on nearby PKE meters though, even if you stay still, so I wouldn’t suggest doing so for a long time. You have a lot of different strategies to try and fully haunt the building, your objective for winning, and it really depends on how you want to play. Do you use panicked NPC’s that some players will do the minigame for to calm them down as a trap, so you haunt a few items as a distraction while you work on other rooms?

When you do start to get tethered by a team of Ghostbusters, you’re able to break free by spamming corresponding buttons quickly and moving your ghost a certain direction to ‘fight’ the pull near a trap. You have one last ditch effort when being sucked into a Ghost Trap, but without a controller that has turbo or rapid fire, good luck actually doing so. Your three rifts act as respawns if you are caught, so hopefully the other team doesn’t find and destroy them before you fulfil your own objectives.

I can see the appeal in playing the ghost, as you’re given a handful of interesting abilities, and it always feels rewarding to take down a team of four when you’re solo. That said, I hated playing as the ghost. I understood the objectives and how to do so, but I simply didn’t have fun doing so. To be fair, I also never liked being the monster in Evolve or the killer in Dead by Daylight either in similar games, so that’s more on my personal preference. The issue I had was that even though you can choose a preferred role of Ghostbuster or Ghost, even joining a match as a team with friends it would sometimes also split us up, forcing someone to be a ghost even when we joined as a trio.

You get plenty of experience for playing, completing matches, and of course playing well. As you level your overall rank, this unlocks new cosmetic gear and story progression, whereas your equipment levels up independently based on how much you use them. My Proton Pack was climbing levels because I was constantly attacking the ghosts with it, whereas my Trap barely leveled at all since I struggled to capture many ghosts in my individual trap.

As your gear levels up, you can equip different components that not only change the visual aesthetic of the gear, but its stats as well. My Proton Pack for example now has a different piece that gives me better venting and tethering skills. Think of these like attachments for your guns in a Call of Duty, it’s very similar. Ghosts also have unlockable and abilities they can earn by playing and doing well also. The constant promise of a new attachment kept me hooked for a while, making me want to play one more match so I could try and get some new components for my gear.

For the actual multiplayer, which is what the game is based on, yes it will place you with bots if needed, but they are of very little help. With crossplay enabled, finding matches only took 10 seconds or so, never having to wait long for a match. With matches lasting roughly 15 minutes or so, what I did find was that the balancing really needs to be addressed. Some matches would last five minutes because it was clear that the ghost was a new player and had no idea what to do, and others that clearly favor playing the ghost and has zero issues keeping all four of us players locked down and slimed where we couldn’t really do anything about it. 40 or so levels in, if I saw a high ranked ghost, it was almost always a guaranteed loss as a Ghostbuster team.

Spirits Unleashed has a very cartoonish aesthetic to it, not necessary a bad thing, but I did quite like how the particle beams appeared to be true to the source material. I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting the original Ray Parker Jr. theme song for the brand to be included, but I was smiling ear to ear once it loaded up. The voice acting of the iconic Ghostbuster characters included are of course perfect, and the secondary characters aren’t too bad either. The soundtrack is decent, though nothing really all the memorable outside the iconic theme song. You’ll be trying to focus on audio cues from scared NPCs and sounds the ghost may be making to try and get an advantage anyway. The particle beams from the Proton Packs sounds as though it came direct from the movies, always sounding great.

I was surprised that Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed was priced at $29.99 USD ($38.99 CAD - currently a sale), expecting a fully priced game. This is basically that sweet spot when it comes to value and replayability given its repetitive nature and lack of maps. Nostalgia will certainly be the main reason many pick it up, but without any friends to bust ghosts alongside with, I’d question its longevity. Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!

**Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Last Hero of Nostalgaia, The

I feel I need to come clean at the beginning of this review. I generally don’t enjoy Soulslike games. I know I know, I’ve heard it many times before; ‘Git Gud’. I don’t enjoy the difficult challenge, the respawning enemies and the repeated attempts to finally make progress. That said, I’ve played quite a few Soulslike’s, and even though it’s not my genre of choice, I can appreciate why many do enjoy them and there’s even been a few that I didn’t hate the whole way through. The Last Hero of Nostalgaia was one of those, keeping me interested due to its satirical take on a Soulslike and the constant gaming references and fan service. I’m a sucker for parodies, so when The Last Hero of Nostalgaia had my chuckling from its first moments, I couldn’t help but smile.

Something is happening to the world of Nostalgaia, as if it’s collapsing on itself or going back in time, turning back into pixels. You see, The Last Hero of Nostalgaia is very self-aware of what it is, knowing it’s a game and never takes itself too seriously. As the world is self-destructing, you’re are Nostalgaia’s last hope, but you’re simply a lowly stick figure, how can you help this world? As you fight through this unforgiving world, you not only have to contend with all of the enemies that stand in your way, but be constantly berated by a cynical narrator that always has a handful of one-liners that will surely get a chuckle or two out of you.

It seems that killing Great Ones, the bosses, is somehow restoring the world to its former glory, slowly but surely, or at least slowing down the destruction of the world. With a much lighter hearted take on a usually serious genre, expect plenty of fourth wall breaking and plenty of pop culture and gaming references along the way. The narrator gives a humorous tone overall, as he’ll make things happen that you normally wouldn’t expect, like spawning a train to barrel down a narrow bridge you’re trying to cross, or fill a cavern with flames all around after being taunted. Being the comedic relief, the narrator was one of the better highlights to Nostalgaia, very reminiscent of the mocking narrator from The Stanley Parable.

Like any other Soulslike, you begin by first creating your character exactly how you like. You have a full character customizer, able to choose skin color, body type, age, accessories, tattoos, nose width, eye style, jaw width, endowment and hair style. This alone is absolutely hilarious, because if you read what I mentioned above, I said you, the hero, was a simple stick figure. So yes, you can change these sliders to your preference, but realistically, this doesn’t change anything; you’re a stick figure, how would it? These opening moments of humor sets the tone going forward, and I was all for it.

Once you get your hero looking exactly how you want (heh), you then pick your starting class. You have a few choices from Datadin (a well-rounded defender that favors vitality and begins with a sword and shield), Resolutionary (favors dexterity by being swift and evasive), Formatter (favors strength and is your heavy weapon user), Sourcerer (your magic user), and lastly Randomaster (luck based, backstabs, parries and is great for critical hits). You can see even from the class names, humor again is seeping through everywhere it possibly can.

Once your adventure begins, don’t be surprised if you start to get heavy Dark Souls/Demon’s Souls vibes, as it’s got a similar feeling with its vastly interconnected world and branching pathways, including a poison area that made me want to stop playing out of frustration. You have a light and heavy attack, can block, dodge and will of course need to manage your stamina, a genre staple of course. Remember, this is almost like a parody, so expect to see plenty of gaming references that will surely make you at least crack a smile if not laugh out loud. One of first sets of armor I got was green and called Master Chef’s set, and at one point I even crossed a literal rainbow road bridge.

Instead of souls you’ll earn Memory for defeating enemies and breaking open barrels. This is your currency you’ll use when at resting spots, Beacons, to level up and also spent on upgrading your gear and unlocking certain pathways. Just like other Souls games, when you die, not if, you will drop all your currently gained Memory, and if you die again they are lost forever. Typical stuff for sure. General mechanics are much like almost every other Soulslike, as Beacons are where you’ll rest and refill your healing items, yet respawn all enemies. Here you can also set a singular warp point to teleport back to from any other Beacon, but sadly there’s no overall teleportation system in place, so you expect to do quite a lot of backtracking through certain areas at times. The world is very interconnected, allowing you to open locked pathways from the other side of a door later on, but not being able to quickly teleport to and from areas was frustrating and quite tedious.

A really cool aesthetic is how the world goes from a pixelated and decayed visual to being restored once you use a Beacon. This has the immediate surroundings turn ‘modern’, being well lit and have plenty of details from its initial pixelated look. Because of the lore and narrative, this also has a meaning, not just being a pretty visual effect just for the sake of doing so. Combat is also what you’d expect from nearly any Soulike, managing your stamina and doing what you can to be patient and learn enemy attack patterns. You have a light and heavy attack, as well as a dodge and being able to block. You can also run, depleting your stamina, but there’s no jumping allowed. Depending on the starter class you chose, you’ll begin with some basic weapons to start your adventure and just steps in you’ll fight your first enemies.

Even the first handful of enemies plays into Nostalgaia’s humor, being 2D enemies or facing off against a soldier with a bucket on their head. There’s a decent amount of enemy variety as you go through the entire journey, but there is quite a lot of repeated enemies within in each area. Combat, while forgiving for the most part and not quite as hardcore as the source material, can be clunky at times. I’ve had strikes miss enemies and sometimes it seemed as though my shield didn’t block any of the damage. You can of course heal with an item that is basically your Estus Flask, refilled when resting at Beacons, or finding special items in the world like Green Herbs (great Resident Evil Easter egg) or a hunk of meat.

The hardest enemy though is the camera when it comes to enemy lock-on. Sometimes it works great, and in theory a flick of the Right Stick swaps the enemy it’s focused on, but numerous times it would snap to a random enemy not in the pack right in front of me, sometimes even a different enemy through a wall or above. Good luck if you want to try to lock onto enemies that are up on ledges or far away though, which will be a challenge for magic users. Enemies start out basic and easy to defeat, slowly becoming more challenging and difficult. I don’t suspect those that live for Soulslike's will have much of a challenge, but for a casual genre player like myself, I did die a healthy amount of times, respawning at the last Beacon I used. Enemies later on can even start out 2D and flat, leap onto you to bite, then becoming 3D and more difficult.

Magic and mana is probably one of the most unique takes on the typical mechanics. Instead of a mana bar or that it refills, you have Access which is basically a counter of how many spells you can use. You find Access from enemy drops and in broken barrels but can only carry a certain amount at a time depending on your class and stats. Because each spell use needs to use a specific amount of Access, you can’t simply spam your magic attacks, even as a Sourcerer.

While there’s only a handful of bosses in Nostalgaia, they are of course the crown jewel of its combat. The first few weren’t too challenging, as even I beat them on my first try, but the next were much more difficult and took a few tries. Keeping with the humorous theme, defeating them gives you a very familiar “FINISHED HIM” message across the screen.

Your hero will find plenty of different armor and weapon choices along the way, some given from defeating enemies and bosses, others hidden away. Each seems quite unique, best meant for specific classes or playstyles. The most unique mechanic though comes from the Remembrance system. All this gear you find is quite basic, but each has a special description to it, usually about its lore. This lore will hint at specific points in the world where if you go to those specific spots and ‘Remember’ your items, they get upgraded, not just in stats but extra abilities and its visual as well.

Remember how I said that the lack of a teleport system was a downer though? This is partly why, as I don’t feel like doing a ton of backtracking just to upgrade an item. It’s a really interesting system and seeing your basic pixelated gear transition into modern 3D is also a cool effect, much like using a new Beacon and how it affects the world around it. An even cooler outcome is that you generally want to do this ‘Remembrance’ on each time you can afford to with your Memory, as once you hit certain thresholds you’ll also gain permanent bonuses.

The gear also keeps with the humor theme, as I decided I was going to use a key sword as my main weapon, and having a Hyrulean shield is also good for laugh given the combination of their source games. Your hero is a stick figure though, so whatever gear you decide to wear simply goes on top of these ‘body’ parts. Decide to just wear a pair of white boxer shorts with hearts on them and you’ll be a stick figure running around with, well, boxers on. Something about seeing a stick figure wearing an armored bra but not actually covering anything, you know, since your torso is just a stick, was so dumb it made me laugh.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t actually expecting The Last Hero of Nostalgaia to have much of a co-op mode, but I was wrong. From within the first few moments you have an item where you can summon a friend in and play the whole game through alongside if you choose. Both players make progress but there’s a few major caveats to factor in. First, you and your friend need to be at the same story point, if it’s mismatched, the player who’s lagging behind will need to catch up. Secondly, if either player dies, the game is desynced and you need to do a complete re-invite and start the co-op once more. I would have been fine with this, but there’s no matchmaking at all, so if you don’t have a friend to play with that also purchased the game, there’s essentially no online co-op unless you go make some friends externally first.

The constant play of 2D and 3D when it comes to nearly all of its visuals and even gear is a really interesting contrast that seems to somehow work. Even better, it makes sense given the narrative as well. While nothing will stand out and ‘wow’ you visually, seeing how large Nostalgaia is from certain vistas is impressive once you realize it’s all interconnected in some way. As for the audio, Neil McCaul voices the Narrator brilliantly and the whole experience wouldn’t have been the same without his witty banter and comments along the way. Aside from that though, there’s not much else of noteworthy for its audio, though you’ll hear plenty of weapon clangs and effects and there’s a subtle soundtrack that sets the tone during boss fights.

From its opening moments, to the credits and everywhere in between, the humor The Last Hero of Nostalgaia brings is surely part of its focus, bringing a more lighthearted approach to a Soulslike. Nearly every item description has some humor, even to the achievements, all topped off with plenty of fan service and gaming references you’re sure to recognize. Sure the humor wears a little thin the latter half, but fans should enjoy this different take on their favorite genre.

**The Last Hero of Nostalgaia was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous

While I’ve never been too heavily into cRPG’s (Computer Role Playing Game), they have quite a following and have had a number of massive hits over the past few decades; games like Baldur’s Gate, Wasteland 3, Disco Elysium, Neverwinter Nights, Divinity: Original Sin 2, Pillars of Eternity, and Planescape Torment just to name a few. These generally are high fantasy, a setting I quite enjoy, and I never played it's prequel, Kingmaker, I was quite excited to check out Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, developed by Owlcat Games and published by META Publishing.

As the Pathfinder brand was new to me, I had to do some research, coming away amazed with how in-depth the brand really is and what they’ve done since its inception back in 2009. Based on revised 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, by Paizo Publishing, is very consistently ranking in second for sales when compared to D&D, which is no small feat. An adaptation of the “Wrath of the Righteous” adventure path, developer Owlcat Games has made a sequel to Kingmaker that vastly surpasses it in almost every way, not just in sheer scale, but content wise as well.

As you embark on this massive adventure, you can expect virtually endless amount of gameplay depending on your attention span, understanding on basic D&D and how many times you’d want to replay to see all the different options at your disposal. The world is starting to be overrun by demons, and while the Adventure books was split into six main installments, I was quite shocked at how lengthy this campaign was, and that’s not even including any of the optional DLC campaign additions. Do you rise as a hero, fulfilling the impossible to save everyone and everything, or more lean into your nefarious side and choose to do as you like and rule your way? With plenty of customization, actually to the level of being overwhelming, there’s no shortage of playing however you like with any character style or build you want.

A massive rift has torn open among the country of Mendev, aptly titled the Worldwound, where hordes of demons are flowing through led by Demon Lord Deskari. The city of Nanabres is now in ruins, nearly everyone slaughtered and virtually nothing remains. With seemingly nothing that can stop this onslaught of death from the outpouring of demons, you may seem like just a normal mortal, but can you stop the demons in this latest crusade? It seems there’s something even bigger and more evil looming in the darkness, watching over the Worldwound.

You miraculously survive a seemingly fatal blow only to awaken some dormant mythical powers you possess deep within. While you become slowly infused with more power as time goes on, you’ll be making numerous choices that will affect the outcome of the world. Do you become a literal angel and do good, saving everyone you can at every chance? Do you opt for more of an evil inclining, deciding to have power over everything else? Maybe you’re somewhere in the morally grey area. There’s no right or wrong, you can play the narrative any way you desire, complete with numerous endings.

To say that the narrative is massive in scope and that the lore could easily fit in a library is an understatement. I’ll be honest, it was challenging in the beginning to follow along. Not that you need to know the Pathfinder series inside and out, but it’s a monster when it comes to its story, characters and world in sheer volume and scale. Thankfully you can click on specific keywords during dialogue and story sections, bringing up more detailed information on that topic should you want more insight. Remember though, every choice you make will have a consequence, and you’ll need to accept these choices regardless of the outcome. There’s so much depth in this world that even minor characters can have quite a background. I hope you like reading, as much of the dialogue and story isn’t narrated, so you’ll need to make quite a commitment if you want to get the most out of this adventure.

Before you even begin your 50+ hour journey for just the story alone on your first playthrough, you want to begin by customizing your adventure to your liking based on a number of different difficulty levels. Being somewhat of a novice in the genre, I opted for an easier experience, able to change nearly every setting, so you can choose from a very narrative focused journey without much combat challenge, all the way to deeply challenging options that will force you to know every minute detail of its combat, classes and gameplay to even survive. Those heavy into D&D should feel quite at home here, but don’t shy away if you’re like me and very casual with the concepts outside the basics.

Next you create your character. You can choose from 12 races and 25 classes, or go completely your own way and design your character however you wish to suit your playstyle. I chose a basic two-handed fighter so I could focus on the core combat while my teammates would be the ones to cast spells and use cantrips to round out the team. With over a thousand spells, abilities, feats and more, you can truly customize your character to exactly how you’d like if you’re deep into D&D character creation. This is actually incredibly deep to the point that I instantly felt overwhelmed. After a half hour of trying to create my own custom class and character, I decided to opt for something more basic. Which is totally fine, as I enjoyed my class later on when I became much more powerful. I have no doubt that some may spend well over an hour or two in this robust character creation, crafting that character they always dreamed of for their D&D campaign. Pathfinder fans will know what to expect, but it may feel daunting at first for those new to the series.

On top of this deep character creator you’ll also eventually unlock Mythic Paths, allowing you to change the outcome of the story quite heavily. I don’t want to spoil these choices for you, but you have numerous options, like being able to turn into an Angel, a Demon, Lich and more. These Mythic Paths add a whole other layer of options and complexity, but also add near endless replayability if you truly want to get value out of Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous.

When I say you can play how you want, I really mean it. That means being able to kill basically anyone you want, even incredibly important NPC’s that may have serious implications later on should you do so. I always play noble and good aligned though, so I opted to save those who I could, recruiting any compelled to join my cause along the way. You could completely miss some of these companion characters though based on choices you make, so always be careful and read over your options and dialogue choices. With about ten companions that can be recruited to your party, they are all quite varied and have a massive amount of back story. Not a fan of how they act or simply don’t fit amongst your group, you can just as easily tell them to leave at any time and see them on their way or simply not take them in your group of six.

Gameplay is primarily in your typical isometric view, able to zoom in and out to your preference, but this is within each zone or area. Getting from one area to the next takes place on an overview map, as if you’re placing a piece on a warboard, planning your next move. Each area will tell you if you’ve been there before and what specific quests you have in said area. Some will even require specific characters in your party to progress further. You must manage your time though, as the more exploration you do the more corruption you suffer from the Worldwound, eventually giving you massive debuffs and possibly even kill you if you don’t rest and get to safe zones often enough.

At first glance you might expect Wrath of the Righteous to play as a typical action based RPG like a Diablo given its similar camera view, and while you could play this way with real-time combat, where it excels is in its turn based option instead. Slowing things down and playing each turn with strategy is how you’ll survive the harder difficulties as real-time combat can get you in dicey situations with the AI companions being quite dense in difficult situations.

Based on D&D 3.5 rulesets, being able to swap to turn based or real-time on the fly is quite an impressive feat. For basic cannon fodder demons and bandit fights I would let the AI do as they wish, but for the harder bosses and larger battles, I definitely wouldn’t have survived if I didn’t use the tactical turn based mode instead. You’re able to control your group, as a whole or individually, with the typical movement of the Left thumbstick, or with a quick click you can change it to your typical cRPG where you have a cursor to point and interact that way for a more classical experience should you wish. Being able to instantly switch to turn based when battles are starting to favor the enemies was a great feature, allowing me to be able to use some of my special abilities at the most opportune times without having to worry about what’s going on around me and my group and taking my time.

The tactical approach has plenty of benefits, like disarming traps before you accidentally set your whole group ablaze, or flanking an enemy with one of your rogue types, positioning an archer to an ideal spot far from danger or using those special abilities that will be the difference of life and death. Yes that means there’s plenty of micromanaging to do in this mode, but it gives you complete control and will be absolutely needed in the latter half.

You’ll start off with the most basic of weapons and armor, eventually finding better gear as you explore and defeat enemies. Inventory management is probably a large portion of my gameplay time as it’s not as fluid as it could be with a controller. In fact, the whole menu system is clumsy at best with a controller, and while it does functionally work, even a few dozen hours in I was hitting the wrong triggers and buttons because it’s not intuitive.

Remember, this is based on the true Pathfinder ruleset, and there’s an overwhelming amount of things to learn as you go. I didn’t realize that I couldn’t wear gear that had duplicate bonuses or else it becomes a waste. There’s also weapon and gear penalties you need to consider, so you don’t want to simply give everyone heavy breastplates and huge two-handed gear. With how much gear you pickup, you’ll be spending plenty of time trying to manage your inventory for the carrying weight, and even more figuring out if the new gear is an upgrade for each of your characters. Unfortunately this isn’t displayed very easily, so you’ll need to go through every character, check the base stats on what you’re currently wearing, compare to what’s in your inventory then start the process all over again when you hit the wrong button or accidentally switch to a different character with the clumsy controls.

Given the genre and isometric camera, it’s visually pretty much what you’d expect from a game like this. There’s not much up close and in-depth details, but they have done a good job at making some beautiful backdrops and vistas, especially when you factor in just how large and how many areas you’ll be exploring in your adventure. My main complaint here is that there’s a lot of loading screens. Even on an Xbox Series X, because it’s simply an Xbox One game, there’s more loading than I’d like when you transition from zone to zone.

As for the audio, the voiced cutscenes are done quite well with some great performances for the most part, and even though some of the minor characters feel a little over-acted at times, I always appreciate when an effort is made to have voiced dialogue, especially in a game this expansive. That said, a good majority of the game is not voiced and relies on you to read it all. There has to be thousands of pages of dialogue too, so I hope this won’t be an issue for you.

You’ll get what you put into Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous. Those that can dedicate well over a hundred hours will surely get a deep and lore rich adventure with plenty of replayability. That is, if you can get over the sheer overwhelmingness of it all in the beginning or don’t feel guilty playing on a lower difficulty. Having gone into the experience without any expectations, I’m glad to have had this adventure even if it did take a dozen hours to start to really understand how I wanted to do so well.

**Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.3 / 10 Train Life: A Railway Simulator

Having just recently reviewed another competitor Train Sim game, I already had some good base knowledge about the train engineer life, how to generally operate one and what goes into travelling across country on the railway. Having assumed this was going to be just another run-of-the-mill train simulator with its own slightly different twist, there’s actually a good amount of unique content and gameplay with Train Life: A Railway Simulator that differentiates itself from the competition.

Now I will say, even though it has Simulator in its title, and it is replicating that to a degree, it’s not quite as in-depth as other train simulators out there. Not necessarily a bad thing, it did have a little more arcade-like touch to its core gameplay, but what makes it most unique is that it’s also a company management simulator as well, opening up a completely different element of gameplay for those that want just a little more than your standard train simulation mechanics.

Once you begin your train life journey, you start by creating your own railway company. Do you want to focus on travel, bringing passengers from one corner of Europe to the other, move commodities and supplies, or a bit of both? The handful of tutorials will teach you the basics of the train controls, how to move, switching tracks, purchasing new trains and the basics of hiring new employees and getting your company off to a strong start. That said, while the tutorials are informative for the basics, there’s a whole slew of things that I had to figure out on my own through trial and error and I swear one part of a tutorial simply wasn't working properly.

Also, after the tutorials are complete, you’re simply thrown into the world with a train and absolutely no objectives or guidelines. Sure, some will enjoy this freedom to do whatever you want however you like, but having no guidance was frustrating from its opening moments. I wasn’t sure what I should do. Even worse, I was still figuring out the controls and menus since not everything is completely covered in the tutorial and the menu system is a bit confusing at best.

The ‘Career’ is simply you doing whatever you want for your company. Do you pick up passengers at one station and bring them to their destinations? Do you pick up some oil tankers to bring across country to sell for huge profits but has a large time commitment? You’ll need to basically figure this out for yourself. Having zero objectives wasn’t fun, nor was having any sort of set path or clear goals other than running a successful railway company, I guess.

To run a successful business, you’re going to have to invest into it, and to do that you’re going to have to start earning some cash, and quick, depending on the large list of game settings you decided on before beginning. You’ll need to purchase new trains, maintain them with repairs when required, hire new staff, choose contracts from different stations and more. If you desired, you could basically play Train Life: A Railway Simulator as a company simulator, but of course most will be drawn to conducting the trains themselves. So get your work gear on and get ready to visit stations all across Europe.

While Train Life: A Railway Simulator has real locations and trains, it’s not exactly always a 1:1 recreation from its real world counterparts. You’ll be visiting stations across Belgium, Netherlands, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and more. There are also some real life stations like Berlin Central Station and Zurich Main Station, but if you know these areas like the back of your hand, you may notice it’s not 100% exact. And that’s fine, it may not be an exact replica but it should seem familiar and be recognizable at least. The same goes for its trains, as they don’t seem to be quite as detailed as like in other train simulator games, but it still does a great job for cabin, controls and design. So set your path and plan to coast along thousands of kilometers of track as you try and earn more profit for your company.

With a handful of different trains available like the ICE 3 and ICE 4, among others, they each control similarly but they all perform differently when it comes to their power, maximum speed and braking power. In other train sim games there were complete different startup sequences and even controls, but as I mentioned above, Train Life: A Railway Simulator is somewhat more of an arcade experience, so the controls are much more simplistic to remember and are the same across each train.

If you’ve not played a train simulator before you’re going to realize quite quickly that these don’t drive like a typical vehicle. You have an accelerator and brakes, but they perform quite differently than your typical car. Triggers will control your accelerator, moving in 10% increments for its power, and the Bumpers are your brakes, also in 10% increments for its braking power. You can’t just slam the train into 100% acceleration because the wheels are going to slip, kind of like a burnout with your car. Also keep in mind, these trains weigh tons and tons, so you need to plan to brake well before you actually want to.

You’ll need to not only pay attention to the train itself and follow the speed limits and zones, but keep an eye out for track controls, animal crossings, hill incline and declines, and even changing weather conditions. Don’t follow the rules and you’ll be fined, so you can’t just have your train leave its departure and ‘set it and forget it’, as there are different speed limits based on your path and you may need to come to a stop and wait for an oncoming train at times as well. One time I fully expected to go full speed from start to finish, only to have to slow way down when there was construction or some fallen trees on a section of track with workers nearby.

Not having to worry about different power lines, startup or any in-depth train knowledge needed, I quite enjoyed the arcade aspect to its gameplay, being much more simplistic. That’s not to say that some might not enjoy it as much, especially those really into the simulation aspects, but this is a great starting point for anyone new to the train simulation genre. The company management component is the tradeoff here, adding another layer of gameplay, complexity and strategy.

The most you’ll need to pay attention to is your speed and the GPS once you have your pathway set on the map from departure to destination. You have a minimap in the bottom left corner, and when you get near a crossing junction you’ll see a ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ appear underneath. While this is very briefly touched on in the tutorial, I think, this took me the most time to actually figure out by trial and error. Tapping ‘Y’ button is how you change the track coming up ahead to Left or Right ‘turns’. You can pause the game and check out the map to zoom in and figure out the path you need, but the GPS is smart and will point you in the right direction by having the ‘correct’ path, the “Left” or “Right” wording, highlight in green if correct and red if not based on your targeted destination. Once you figure this out it’s simple once you have your destination path set, but it can be tricky to get the tracks switched in time if you’re going a little too fast or there are a lot of junctions close together in a station.

The management aspect of Train Life: A Railway Simulator is what makes it unique and differentiates itself against other train simulators. Not only do you choose the logo and name for your company, but you’ll be purchasing new trains, hiring employees to have them complete contracts, maintaining your trains and even upgrade them with new parts. There’s a skill tree that you can invest in as you level up by completing scenarios or contracts, so there’s a bit here under near the hood once you get the hang of it all.

Visually, Train Life: A Railway Simulator won’t impress by any means. Sure, inside the train themselves it looks decent, it’s nowhere near realistic either though. There’s a few camera options, but without a real Free-Cam, it can sometimes be difficult to find that sweet spot of what you prefer. Outside the train though as you pass the world by, this is where things start to stand out negatively though. Buildings, trees and other environmental objects are quite basic looking, and worse, the draw distance is quite short and there’s a ton of pop-in for objects in the distance when using the zoomed out camera, even on an Xbox Series X. When opening the doors to onboard passengers, there’s not even any animations of them doing so, you simply open the door, wait for the timer, then close the doors. No one actually walks in or out of the train, giving the world a lifeless dead feeling as pedestrians just stand around motionless.

As for the audio, there’s nothing really to note. The trains themselves sound decent as the engine powers up or the brakes start to squeal when you hit the emergency brake, but aside from that there’s really not much else. There’s some light music in the background at times and when you radio a station for permission to enter they do speak over the radio, but that’s about it aside from hitting 'bumps' going across junctions.

Once I got the hang of the controls, how to set my destinations and fumbling through the menus like radioing stations before arrival, I started to really enjoy my time with Train Life: A Railway Simulator. Yes it’s not as simulation based as other games in the genre, and that’s alright, it still offers entertainment for those that want to conduct along the rails and allows for the company management aspect of gameplay as well. While it’s much more expensive on console ($38.99 CAD) compared to PC, I’m still getting back onto the rails for a scenario here and there.

**Train Life: A Railway Simulator was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.3 / 10 Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II officially launches October 28th, not to be confused with others in the series though. A direct sequel to Modern Warfare (2019) but not a remaster or remake of Modern Warfare 2 (2009) either. This 19th main installment of the series may have a confusing title and timeline of where it fits in, but once I got into the campaign, I couldn’t put it down. If you’ve already preordered you have early access to the Campaign, but the multiplayer doesn’t actually release until October 28th. Needless to say, this review is solely based on the campaign early access.

If you’ve played a Call of Duty campaign before, you pretty much know what to expect; a massive world-threatening plot that only a specialized group of Operators can prevent from happening. I admit I went into the Modern Warfare II campaign lukewarm not expecting very much, as the last few campaigns did little to excite me or lost my interest when it jumped the shark a bit too far in space. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed the campaign so much, because my expectations were zero, but wow, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II starts off pedal-to-the-metal and rarely lets off until the credits roll. Returning iconic Operators of Task Force 141 will make any Call of Duty fan’s ears perk up. Do hearing the names Sergeant John “Soap” MacTavish, Sergeant Kyle “Gaz” Garrick, Lieutenant Simon “Ghost” Riley and Captain John Price excite you as a Call of Duty fan? They should, they are the most iconic and fan favorite characters of the series and all come together as Task Force 141 in a campaign that far exceeded anything that I hoped for.

In older Call of Duty campaigns, Price and Gaz got their time to shine, and while this isn’t the first time we’ve seen or played as Soap or Ghost, they are certainly the main event for the most part. Alongside them is a newcomer to the main protagonists, Colonel Alejandro Vargas, leader of the Mexican Special Forces. He’s such a breath of fresh air, not that the previous characters couldn’t hold their weight or that I was tired of them, but he fit in his own unique way within the team.

If you’re truly a Call of Duty buff and up on all the storylines, characters and lore, then the names Farah Karim, Kate Laswell, General Shepherd and Commander Phillip Graves (CEO of Shadow Company) should excite you as well. I’m not going to delve too much into the story, as it actually is quite an entertaining ride from start to finish, but the overall plot is that it seems American missiles have been stolen and it’s up to Task Force 141 to prevent a global disaster from happening at the hands of a terrorist.

I know, it’s a story that’s been told many times before in basically every Call of Duty, but there were just enough plot twists, unexpected events and character growth that I was interested until the credits rolled. Clocking in at around 6-8 hours or so (depending on your skill and difficulty level chosen), it was the perfect length and never overstayed its welcome. It’s easy to artificially lengthen a game by having the bad guy get away at the last second a few times before they have to chase him down again, but that wasn’t the case here. For those that want a real challenge, there's even a 'Realism' difficulty that is unlocked only after beating the whole campaign on Veteran, no easy task, and amps up the challenge to being killed in a single shot.

Taking place at various locations around the globe, you’ll have 17 missions to complete, each varying and unique from the others, not only in locale and backdrop, but even the mission structure or major setpiece that follows. You’ll be swapping perspectives and characters on each mission, adding unique perspectives and having the narrative flow. Every mission had a true reason as to your objective, not just simply shooting everything that moves because, and even though there were a few reveals you could see coming a mile away, it didn’t deter from how much I was enjoying myself with Price, Gaz, Ghost and Soap once again. At times it takes itself a little too seriously, at others it goes completely over the top, but if you just strap in for a great weekend of Call of Duty campaign, you shouldn’t be disappointed even if it can feel a little familiar at times.

The campaign starts out with the gas fully floored, having you identifying a target from afar, then controlling a missile to take them out once identified and verified. After this you’ll be infiltrating a base during the cover of dark. With your night vision goggles you’ll need to look for your target, and of course things don’t ever come easy to Task Force 141. If you get vibes of older Call of Duty missions throughout, it’s not just you, developers clearly took inspiration from some of the most iconic missions of previous campaigns and crafted something similar. Not a bad thing at all when almost every mission is varied and memorable in its own unique way.

Seldom slowing down until the credits roll, each mission has you as a different member of the iconic and deadly team, giving you default weapons, gear and equipment that are best suited for the mission at hand. Start out with a scoped SMG and a silenced pistol? You’re probably going to be doing some close quarter combat. Start out with a massive sniper gun? You can guess what type of level you’re going to play through. I’m not going to go through all of Modern Warfare II’s campaign mission, but I wanted to stress how varied the gameplay really can be and how some of the more memorable levels have stuck with me long after the credits rolled.

Do you remember the iconic “All Ghillied Up” level from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (and subsequently Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered) where Price was in Pripyat Ukraine, having to cross an irradiated field with a sniper gun and Ghillie Suit trying to avoid a patrolling platoon and tanks? “Recon by Fire” (Spain) is very similar in the sense that you’re put in a precarious position and will need to take shots from afar and also avoid patrols that walk within spitting distance of you, so you better put away that rifle and stay completely still to not be spotted and rely on your spotter.

Another ‘remake’ level that will seem all too familiar if you’ve been playing Call of Duty campaigns for a good handful of years, the classic “Death from Above” mission, from the same game as above. Here you are controlling an AC-130, reigning death from above with the massive gunship. In Modern Warfare II, “Close Air” (Mexico) is almost identical, as you’re given orders to protect the team at all costs as they become surrounded and need your help to survive as you level everything to the ground before they can escape.

I won’t go into much more of the mission details given the short but sweet campaign, but there’s a really good variety across the 17 levels. One has you checking out an abandoned oil rig in the middle of the sea that has some wonderful backdrops and really showcases how great the rain appears. Another level clearly took inspiration from the Just Cause series, having you jump from truck to truck during a lengthy chase sequence. Sure it’s a bit over the top, but it’s all about the action and doesn’t disappoint. Another level clearly took sections from gameplay from Watch Dogs where you hack into enemy close circuit camera system so that you can guide Ghost from spot to spot, pointing out where and when to move and to instruct which enemies to take out with a pistol or knives. It was very unlike the Call of Duty I expected, but was a great change of pace.

Lastly are the stealth missions. Now don’t get me wrong, these levels make absolute sense narratively why they are taking place, but there’s two sections where you have to play stealthy and can’t get caught. This normally wouldn’t be an issue, but you’re not given all the information you need on your HUD to do so without a lot of trial and error. Also, you’re going to have to scavenge for materials, while also staying hidden, so you can craft makeshift tools, weapons and traps. Yeah it got the job done and completely made sense to the story, but I was so frustrated with these sections and got impatient that I somehow eventually ended up having to shoot my way out.

There’s even a ‘boss fight’ near the end that worked mechanically and narratively, but just felt a bit out of place. This was a section I had to redo a few times as I simply was trying to stay alive while trying to complete my objective. There’s a good amount of mission variety that kept me interested and had a few “oh my god” and “woah” moments, but I also had a few times where I felt frustrated when the gameplay slowed down to a stealth game with poor mechanics at times.

Now I know that many will unfairly judge a game unfairly from its visuals, but this one of those times where you’d be justified to do so. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II proves what talented developers and artists can do with a competent engine and a massive budget. With a buttery smooth framerate, I never once had any graphical issues or slowdown. Locked at 60FPS, if you’re lucky like myself to have a TV that supports 120FPS as well, I can’t even start to describe how good it looks with its fluidity.

Seriously, Modern Warfare II might really be one of the best looking next-gen games I’ve experienced so far, and that’s saying a lot when I recently reviewed a few other ‘big hitters’ when it comes to visual fidelity like A Plague Tale: Requiem. Cutscenes are borderline photorealistic when it comes to facial animations, textures, backdrops and especially the weather effects. Wet clothing looks actually as though it’s damp and seeing Price’s individual beard hairs is incredibly impressive in the plentiful cutscenes. Lighting really takes the realism to a whole new level and I can't overstate how remarkable it all appears.

Audio is also on par, and while there’s no major negatives, it simply wasn’t as memorable aside from the voice acting and weapon sounds. It all sounded great, but even after the credits rolled I was trying to recall any if the massive setpieces had some iconic music or something to set the tone, and nothing was coming to mind. While not every main character’s voice actor is reprising their role in this entry to the series, they all did a fantastic job and each gun sounds unique that I’d not be surprised if gun enthusiasts would be able to tell what they are shooting from its audio only.

It’s been a long time since a Call of Duty campaign has really impressed me to this level, honestly, probably since 2007’s original Modern Warfare. While I’ve played the vast majority of each since for the most part, none have been really all that memorable as a whole. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II may not have the shock value that Modern Warfare 2 (2009) had with news outlets talking about its infamous “No Russian” airport mission, but it doesn’t need to with its movie quality campaign that was not only satisfying in almost every way, but left me craving a direct sequel for its campaign. A first for me.

**Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II (Campaign) was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 9.3 / 10 PGA TOUR 2K23

HB Studios has made a name for themselves ever since their debut The Golf Club title back in 2014, making for a very simulation version of Golf. Eventually they partnered up with 2K and now and are the developers behind the latest PGA Tour 2K23, as there was a year break in-between the last release, PGA Tour 2K21. I quite enjoyed PGA Tour 2K21, so I was excited to see what would be added and improved with this year’s iteration, and while the addition of Tiger is a huge deal, it seems 2K has started to slowly add their monetization model as well this year. One of the bigger changes is how there’s been a major menu overhaul, so it’ll look a bit different from the previous version.

To begin your golfing career you can decide to start competing in the beginner Korn Ferry Tour, or jump straight into the competitive big leagues in the PGA Tour, aiming once again to win the FedEx Cup. You’ll create your own MyPLAYER creation and then compete and go head to head against some of the biggest names in Golf such as Tiger Woods, Lydia Ko, Lexi Thompson and more while also taking on some rivals. As you compete and hopefully win each tournament, you’ll be earning points and hopefully cementing your legacy as this season’s greatest golfer when you raise that FedEx Cup above your head and go to compete in The Players Championship.

Speaking of rivals, it’s an interesting addition, allowing you to choose between two or three different rivals shown, but there’s really not all that much else to it. All you need to do to beat your rival is outscore them, and that’s it. There’s no special rewards for doing so, so major money gain, no special clubs or gear. You simply win and get told good job basically. Kind of a disappointment, so I’m hoping this is further expanded in future iterations.

There's a handful of different tournaments you’ll compete in with your MyPLAYER during the Career, such as the WM Phoenix Open, The Genesis Invitational, the Arnold Palmer Invitational and more, but there are a handful of notable omissions, like The Masters. To win these tournaments though you’ll need to not only have skills on the links, but will start off by creating your MyPLAYER and choosing from one of the five new archetypes that act as a ‘class’ or specialty of sorts.

With these archetypes you can choose from Powerhouse (Not great at the short game, but will blast the ball from the tee further than anyone else), Rhythm (A great all-rounder. Not impressive in any area in particular, but consistent), Sculptor (Can easily finesse their shots around obstacles and has great control, but won’t do well on the green), Woodsman (Can easily ‘fix’ a shot that’s in the rough), and lastly the Greensman which is what I specialized in (Won’t win any records off the tee but will absolutely make up for it on the green with unmatched putting skills).

I wasn’t sure what I would think about the whole archetype system, but being able to choose one of make up for where your skills lack or further improve what you’re good at was an interesting touch. On top of this addition, you will also be able to further improve your golfer with Skill Points and Fittings. Skill Points are earned by leveling up, allowing you to improve certain aspects of your game, categorized between Assist Skills, Zone Skills and Passive Skills. I wanted my golfer to be a putting master, so that’s where I decided to use my Skill Points as I earned them. These give you bonuses and activate and deactivate automatically based on the ones you have and situations you find yourself in.

You’ll also have Sponsors that will give you offers after each round, offering balls, clubs and apparel based on the brand. You can decide to stick with certain ones or switch whenever there’s a new opportunity, but there may be consequences from switching sponsors constantly or too often.

As you begin your MyPLAYER career, you’ll need to first begin by creating them however you see fit, deciding to try and replicate them after your own likeness or trying to recreate the appearance of someone else. While there’s a handful of options, it’s certainly not the most robust player creator out there either. Once they look exactly how you want you would then choose your archetype listed above before hitting the links. While previously you were only able to compete against the actual Pro’s, this time you can play as them in other modes which is always exciting.

With twenty licensed courses included at launch, there are some noteworthy omissions, but still enough variety to keep you entertained. The twenty courses are Atlantic Beach Country Club, Bay Hill Golf Club & Lodge (Arnold Palmer Course), Copperhead (Innisbrook), Detroit Golf Club, East Lake Golf Club, Quail Hollow Club, Riviera Country Club, St George’s Golf and Country Club, The Renaissance Club, TPC Boston, TPC Deere Run, TPC Louisiana, TPC River Highlands, TPC San Antonio, TPC Sawgrass, TPC Scottsdale, TPC Southwind, TPC Summerlin, TPC Twin Cities and Wilmington Country Club (South Course).

While almost every golf game player has gotten used to the analog swing controls that were introduced years ago, 2K has reintroduced a 3-Click swing in PGA Tour 2K23 which was a welcome addition. As for analog swing controls, it’s as you’ve come to expect over the years, starting your swing by pulling down on the Right Stick then upwards afterwards with how straight you do so determining your shot’s path. These controls seem a little more difficult than previous year, needing to be very accurate or else you’ll slice severely.

I was excited to learn that there’s a 3-Click swing control scheme that has been brought back. This emulated the old-school golf game controls, and while it has its own challenges like the Analog swing, I really preferred it. With the 3-Click, you’ll see a large circular power meter in the bottom right corner, so after you aim your shot where you want the ball to land, this is where you’ll be staring at intensely once ready to swing. Start your shot by holding ‘A’, this will start to fill the circle from the middle outwards. The circular white ring is your ideal power based on where you aimed and if you put it into the red it will give a little extra power, but will be much harder to do the subsequent clicks for accuracy. Once you’ve hit ‘A’ to choose the power you want, a bar will start going counter clockwise around the circle. There’s a small green section you’re aiming for at ’12 o’clock’ and another at ‘6 o’clock’. Hit in these two green areas and you’ll have a perfectly straight shot, but the further you miss the small section the more your shot will slice based on where you stopped the moving line. The best part is that this control scheme stays constant, regardless if you’re hitting off the tee with your driver, using an iron, pitching or even putting. It’s great to have a classic control scheme back and was probably the best new addition to PGA Tour 2K23 that I enjoyed.

Given that this is a 2K game, you can expect some sort of storefront or way to entice you to open your wallet more, even after purchasing a full priced game. This is where the Clubhouse Pass comes into play. While everyone has access to the ‘free’ version by default, it won’t give you any worthwhile rewards, which is where the paid versions come in. Think of this like a Battle Pass or Season Pass, as the content will be refreshed every 10-12 weeks, allowing you to work towards unlocking new bonuses, items and more. As you earn XP you’ll reach new tiers which unlocks said items.

There’s three different tiers: Free (No purchase necessary), Clubhouse Pass Premium ($9.99 USD – Giving you the opportunity to unlock the 50 tiers of content as you level) and Clubhouse Premium Pass Plus ($19.99 USD – Basically the same as Premium, but you’re automatically granted the first 20 Premium rewards as a skip). It’s quite a grind to get through all 50 tiers, but was incredibly disappointing that the Free version of Clubhouse Pass is basically useless. There’s only a few rewards you can get being on the Free version, and even those aren’t all that great when you see what you could be earning compared to Premium.

There’s a Pro Shop where you can but new gear and apparel, but one of the biggest changes is that gear and apparel don’t have stats tied to them in 2K23. You earn money from winning Tournaments and matches, but it’s such a low amount that it’s almost embarrassing. You just won a huge tournament? Enjoy your couple hundred dollars. Just beat Tiger Woods as your rival? Enjoy your couple hundred bucks. Want to buy a new club or a cool looking shirt or hat? You better start grinding as the costs are much more than that. You can expect a slew of real world brands for all your clubs and clothing from Air Jordan, Adidas, Bridgestone Golf, Ben Hogan, Callaway, Cobra, Cuater, Ecco, FootJoy, Goodr, Hugo Boss, Linksoul, Mizuno, Nike, Original Penguin, PING, PUMA, Royal & Awesome, Skechers, TaylorMade, Tattoo Golf, Titleist, TravisMathew and Wilson. The gear will rotate on a daily and weekly basis, but keep in mind it’s all cosmetic now, not tied to performance.

Where the performance increase come into play is what’s called Fittings. These are basically attachments for your clubs and specialty balls. This is how you can modify your favorite clubs by adding these Fittings to them, changing their stats positively and negatively. There are three slots Fittings can go on the clubs: Head, Shaft and Grip. There’s tiers of Fittings as well, from grey colored commons all the way up to much more expensive and rare ones. It’s an interesting system, though you’ll need to grind to get the best Fittings if you want to be competitive online. Of course the Fittings cost in-game money to attach to your clubs, and to put a Fitting onto all of your clubs costs quite a bit, which is where the lack of earning any reasonable amount of cash winning matches becomes an issue unless you constantly grind.

There are also Fittings for your golf balls, acting more like a useable power-up in a way. The issue I have here is that these balls only last for one round and are consumable, and these can make a drastic difference with the higher end balls. This means if you want to be ultra-competitive online, you’re going to need to use your Legendary balls and then of course spend more money to purchase more. This kind of put a sour taste in my mouth, as you might not be able to do as well as someone else because they choose to use the better balls, not simply have better skills.

Being able to save replays of your best shots is always welcome, though for some reason the majority of my replays when they do the TV style focused on me shooting, the camera tended to always focus on the wrong thing, like having it stay focused on me after I hit the ball instead of following it to the hole, or watching the ball in a weird angle where you can’t see how impressive the shot really was because it was simply following it in the sky instead of in relationship to where I took it from.

Course Designer returns and is as robust as ever, allowing you to create the course or hole of your dreams. The tools you’re given are plentiful, as you could make any type of course you want and then be able to share it online with the community to play. I’m sure it won’t take long for people to recreate famous courses that aren’t included in the core game, but I’ve also seen some absolutely wild and unique creations that you could would only see in a game. I did find the controls for the designing to be a little confusing and convoluted, but I’m sure with some time and practice it would make more sense.

While Golf is a solo sport, playing with or against others is where the real entertainment comes in. Online Societies return from 2K21 vastly unchanged. This is where you can basically make a group or club for you and your friends, or anyone really, to join and compete in hand crafted tournaments. Make the rules, handicaps and plenty of other options; your society, your rules. I was hoping for this to be improved from 2K21, but it’s really no different.

Of course you can choose to play online against friends or anyone else, playing in Stroke Play, Skins, Alt-Shot, 4-Player Scramble and the always interesting, Divot Derby. Divot Derby is almost like a race, with players all teeing off simultaneously with the first golfer to make it to the ninth hole and sink the putt first winning. New though is an arcade game called Topgolf. This is a 4 player driving range style of drive-off where everyone has 10 balls to score as many points as possible based on where the ball lands in the colored targets. Each shot there’s a special target that will net you double or triple points, and there’s a very strict time limit, so you can’t spend much time aiming or else you won’t be able to shoot all ten balls. The player with the most points in the end wins.

Visually, PGA Tour 2K23 looks as you’d expect for a recreation of the Golf sport. The courses and details on the greens and fairways looks fantastic, as does the backdrops. I’ll be honest, I was expecting a bit more playing on an Xbox Series X, as the players themselves look decent, but not amazing, and the crowd nearby watching shots are lifeless and have no detail. Of course the official Pro players are instantly recognizable, but your created MyPLAYER can stand out like a sore thumb beside them at times. There is a Quality/Performance option for the visuals on an Xbox Series X depending on your preference.

As for the audio, it’s also as you would expect with solid commentary, but I’m not sure how many new lines were recorded, as I could tell some of the lines I heard hundreds of times in 2K21 was repeated here. I also eventually got a weird bug where my commentary was echoing, unable to fix this in everything I tried. Your swings and that hit of the ball off the tee sounds wonderful, as does hearing a huge divot come from the rough as you try and land in a Pitch shot for birdie.

Being able to choose your caddy that you’ll see now and then between shots and holes is a cool touch, though I would I could have fully customized them like my own golfer. The lack of particular golfers and courses is still 2K23’s shortcoming, just as it was in 2K21. Yeah it’s cool we again get to compete for the FedEx Cup, but players want to compete for that green jacket in the Masters and play on some of the most infamous courses out there.

PGA Tour 2K23 may have skipped a year, and maybe that’s where my expectations were higher than they should have been, but there’s really not a massive upgrade from 2K21 overall. Yes the gameplay is still solid and I really loved the addition of the 3-Click Swing, but the heavy microtransactions and a useless Free Clubhouse Pass is a bit of a turnoff and shows 2K’s influence on the great HB Studios.

**PGA Tour 2K23 (Tiger Woods Edition) was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.9 / 10 A Plague Tale: Requiem

Requiem: A song, chant or poem for someone who has died, generally in an act of remembrance. I never really thought about the title of the latest Plague Tale, but it certainly is fitting after a thrilling and emotional journey with Amicia and Hugo once more. A Plague Tale: Innocence released in 2019 and took me completely by surprise. It initially wasn’t on my radar and by chance fell in my lap for review, turning out to be my Game of the Year that year. Since Innocence had a satisfying ending without any real massive questions needing answering, I don’t think many were expecting a sequel, especially this soon. While Innocence was more of a hidden gem at first, it eventually reached cult status from those that played it and were astounded with its quality from such a small studio, myself included.

While Asobo has a handful of titles under their belt, Plague Tale is easily their crown jewel, and now the sequel being better in virtually every way from its predecessor. This is in part due to A Plague Tale: Requiem (simply referred to as Requiem here on) being a next-gen (current gen now?) only title, and it’s clear they’ve been pushing the hardware to the best of their ability. With improved visuals (which is very impressive given how good Innocence looked), the gameplay has also had many additions and improvements, and the narrative and storytelling is as strong as ever.

It’s been six months since the events of Innocence. Amica and Hugo defeated the Grand Inquisitor Vitalis and left to find a new home since Guyenne is all but gone due to the rats and events that took place. With Hugo’s illness and curse now seemingly under control, the de Rune family travel south in search for a new home. They find a large and seemingly happy village and seem to have a lead on an actual cure for Hugo’s ailment. If you played Innocence, you know that Amicia and Hugo’s luck and happiness generally doesn’t last long, and it’s no different in Requiem. It appears Hugo once again becomes taken over by the mysterious Macula curse that causes all of this heartache and death in the first place. If you thought that there were a lot of rats in Innocence, that pales in comparison to what you’re going to have to deal with as the de Rune siblings in Requiem.

When Hugo’s powers reawaken and the rats return, death and destruction follows them again, once more causing them to do what they can to simply survive. Hugo has a vivid dream though, seeing an island with a large bird and some water that surrounds a massive tree. Does this dream mean more or is there a clue to a potential cure for Hugo’s curse? Discover the cost of saving those you love. I don’t want to delve much further into the narrative as it’s an amazing journey that is expertly told with just enough action, drama, sadness and other emotions. The Macula caused a lot of death and destruction before, but the events of Innocence will be nothing compared to their latest journey. Interestingly, this story actually goes into the history of the curse more in depth than before along with a very emotional journey.

If you played the original Plague Tale, you’ll know what to expect for the core game mechanics, primarily focused on stealth based action and some puzzle solving, all while enemies and guards are trying to kill you both and a horde of rats could bust through the nearby walls at any moment. You’ll need to heavily focus on the stealth aspects, sneaking around guards, distracting them, or even killing them with your trusty Sling and alchemy skills.

There’s a few different difficulty choices, even an easy Narrative choice for those that want to experience the story without much of the challenge, and also offering an invincibility option deeper in the settings if needed for accessibility reasons. This doesn’t make you invulnerable to rats, fire and forced stealth sections however. When you first see the rats on screen you’re going to be absolutely astonished at how Asobo Studio went from having a staggering 5000 rats on screen in the first game to now being able to somehow have 300,000 completely collapse city walls and more. I’ve never seen anything like it before in a game and I don’t know what coding wizardry they’ve done to make it happen, but it’s absolutely astounding when a horde of rats appears like moving water.

Just like the previous title, the rats are still unable to be in the light or near fire, your only saving grace when surrounded. This is where many of the puzzle elements will come into play, going from lighted section to section to stay safe. How you do so will be up to you, as there’s not always a single linear solution in many situations. Beware of spoilers if you’ve not completed Innocence yet, but just like near the ending of the first game, Hugo will once again be able to control nearby rats, though with limitations. How you do so is up to you. Do you move a large batch of rats out the way to get by or snuff out a guard’s torch and send the rats after them instead as a distraction?

Combat is very similar to Innocence, and even though you primarily need to rely on your stealth and not engage in direct battles, Amicia has learned some new alchemic tricks to help her along the way. Stalk enemies in bushes, sneak past, set traps and more. Each of these sections are strung together with a narrative reason too, not simply just placing you in an area against guards to prolong the gameplay. While some may tire of the heavily stealth based sections, especially the forced portions where you can’t be seen or it’s an instant Game Over, those that enjoyed the core gameplay from Innocence will most likely enjoy the new additions and improvements overall.

Take the time to explore and you’ll find plenty of collectables and extra crafting and upgrade materials, though many of these will require some careful planning and patience to not be spotted while doing so. Do you take out the unhelmeted guards in a single shot with Amicia’s sling to thin the ‘herd’ of enemies or simply try to sneak by unnoticed? Thankfully when you are spotted you are able to get away and find a hiding spot if you’re careful, but you’re going to have to be quite careful the more heavily armed the guards are.

The combat is familiar at first, but once you’ve learned some of the new mechanics and alchemic options available to Amicia, you’ll see how improved it’s become in this sequel. There’s generally four different types of sections you’ll encounter. The first is simply fighting (or sneaking) against a handful of guards. The next is guards as well as rats, where the the rats can be a danger to avoid, but also used to your advantage if you have Hugo control them in the shadows. Next is some puzzle centric sections where you’re usually trying to find a way into a building or area, figuring how to get from point A to B while staying in the light so you don’t die to the bloodthirsty rats. Lastly is the running or chase sections where you need to get away, usually from a literal waterfall of rats or destruction as you try to survive.

Many of the combat sections has your objective reaching a specific area or door to progress, but how you actually get there and do so is up to you. Sure, the overall progression is linear, but these sections are usually large enough that there’s two or three different main ‘paths' you could sneak or fight through. If Hugo is going to use his powers to control the rats, he can now also ‘ping’ enemies and have them show through walls, like a radar. This Echo ability is also explained through the narrative in a clever way as well, not just adding it for no reason. While he can control rats, there’s also a limit to his ability with how far, how many and for how long, on top of the light restrictions of course.

Amicia has learned a few new concoctions with her alchemy skill too that will give you even more options in combat. One of these is being able to craft tar, expanding the light radius when ignited or being able to douse enemies with it and then setting them on fire. Eventually you’ll also gain access to a Crossbow, a very powerful weapon that can not only kill the most heavily armored enemies in a single shot, but also being able to combine your alchemic properties like you do your Sling's shots. Want to make a permanent fire source, use one of your Crossbow bolts with fire on specific wooden spots and it will lodge and stay there, offering a new spot of respite. The bolts are far and few in between though, so you need to use them sparingly.

There’s also an upgrade system, much like the first game, where you can craft upgrades if you find enough tools and materials along the way, making exploring each nook and cranny generally worth the hassle and effort. This is how you’ll be able to upgrade Amica in different ways, like being able to carry more alchemy ingredients you need to craft specific elements for your attacks and distractions, being able to upgrade your knife to be able to take down larger heavy enemies in a single sneak attack and more depending on your specific playstyle. There are even skills you can unlock simply by playing that will enhance how you play. For example, the more you sneak around you’ll earn perks that further help you to play stealthy, where those that play more aggressively will earn more skills to make Amicia even more formidable in combat.

While I normally would dedicate a paragraph for a game’s visuals and audio, I’m probably going to have to use more here to even try and describe the engrossing and astonishing world that Asobo Studio has crafted, even if much of it is dark, grim and full of death and rats. The choice to make Requiem next-gen only has paid off from a visual standpoint. Innocence looked amazing for the time on Xbox One, and now Requiem on a Series X is a whole other level. Level design is hand crafted with purpose, as the environments are much larger than before. When you see a building far in the distance along the beach you need to get to, you would naturally think that’s a few Chapter’s worth, but no, levels here are absolutely huge at times. Draw distance is basically as far as you can see which is impressive in its own right, but the lighting as a whole is so photorealistic sometimes that I couldn’t help but stop numerous times and just take it all in.

This is where the included Photo Mode added probably a good hour or two to my playthrough timer, as I don’t think my screenshot button ever got such a workout in a game before. There’s so many amazing vistas that I had to constantly stop and take some photos of the beauty from many angles. There’s even plenty of extra options to make that photo absolutely perfect. You’re able to hide Amicia, Hugo, other NPCs, enemies and plenty of more camera options, and I’ve already seen some amazing game photography online from Requiem from other players.

There’s so much light and dark contrast that works so brilliantly with its naturally dark aesthetic that certain sections and areas really can appear to be photorealistic at times. One Chapter you might be in a bright and colorful city filled with vendors in a market, the next you’re slugging through a swamp or beach trying to find a light source to keep the rats away.

Cutscenes really showcase how lifelike the cast can appear, and there are so many different animations for even small movements that it just adds another layer of realism. For example, when you go up a ladder, since Amicia rarely lets Hugo out of her sight, he actually goes up first but then she does so as well, almost on top of him, covering him like a shield. The way they hold hands, how she keeps Hugo close has so many minor details that you might miss if you don't take the time to take it all in. Small details like this really reinforce their relationship and add that realism, like when she has to catch him jumping down a tall platform and the way she braces his for the drop and catch. My only complaint is that the facial animations during gameplay, not dedicated cutscenes, can be a little stiff, but that’s me looking for things that stand out. On an Xbox Series X I had no real framerate issues, even when there was a literal flood of rats on screen.

While visuals generally always overshadow the audio, sound plays just as important role in an immersive experience. The soundtrack is absolutely astounding. The musical score fits the setting you’re currently exploring and knows how to set a scene and tone. When the music changes and has a tense tonality, you know there’s something wrong up ahead and that you’re going to have to sneak or fight. Olivier Deriviere produced an amazing soundtrack that elevates the experience to another level. Enough fantastic compliments also can’t be said for the voice actors, especially from Charlotte McBurney (Amicia), Logan Hannan (Hugo) and Anna Demetriou (Sophia). Their performances are absolutely flawless and the emotion they bring to their performances made characters I already cared about even more human and believable the deeper the story unfolded. Not an easy feat.

Over the 15 to 20 hours the campaign will take to complete you get completely entranced into Amicia and Hugo’s struggles, becoming attached to the returning siblings and astonished within the world they explore. The contrast of the dark and deadly world versus the goodness from within the cast is a great juxtaposition that isn’t always easily executed. Asobo Studio has performed magic, crafting a tale worth telling that’s emotionally charged and enthralling to experience from start to finish. Everything from Innocence is improved upon, from its combat, gameplay, visuals, audio and even narrative. A Plague Tale: Innocence was my Game of the Year in 2019 and they’ve taken that title again in 2022 with A Plague Tale: Requiem.

**A Plague Tale: Requiem was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 9.8 / 10 Asterigos: Curse Of The Stars

Back in May I got to preview a very early build of Asterigos: Curse of the Stars (simply referred to as Asterigos hereon), and while I only got to experience its first half hour and two bosses, it instantly put the game on my radar. I’ve been waiting patiently for this day when I got to explore the full city of Aphes as Hilda, a Northwind Region young warrior that’s on a journey to save her father somewhere within the cursed city. Instantly falling in love with Asterigos’ colorful aesthetic, it almost appears as a blend of Immortals Fenyx Rising with a bit of Kameo thrown in.

I’ll admit, I initially rolled my eyes a bit when I read that is had Soulslike mechanics and combat, as there seems to be almost way too many of those lately, but I went in with an open mind and I’m glad I did. Asterigos is more of a Souls-lite than anything else, as I wasn’t struggling as I normally would with Souls games given you can choose difficulties and save anywhere. There’s so much variety with its combat and weapon choices that you’ll eventually find a weapon combo that works best for your playstyle.

You play Hilda, searching for her father within the city walls of Aphes. At the beginning of your journey on route to the city, you eventually reach its outer walls and can’t help but take in the sight of the massive city. Inspired by Greek and Roman mythologies you’ll go through quite a journey that lasted a solid 15 to 20 hours, depending on how much you want to explore and difficulty level chosen. Piecing together the narrative from characters met, lore, documents found and revelations, there’s actually quite an interesting story here that’s separated in a handful of different chapters. You’ll discover the source of the city’s curse, the truth about your father and more as you progress. Choices you make will determine the fate of Aphes, affecting the story and outcomes, even if at times it's a tad predictable.

Soulslike games are generally known for their difficulty, so I was glad to see there were some difficulty options available for those that would rather experience the narrative without a frustrating challenge, though there’s plenty of options for those that want to test their skills. There are many more Soulslike elements within Asterigos as well, such as collecting Stardust (equivalent to souls), managing your stamina by rolling, dodging and blocking, and using special nodes that act like bonfires, allowing you to rest but also resetting enemies that were defeated. You have potions that act as your Estus Flasks to refill health and combat is very diverse with the weapon choices you’re given.

The city of Aphes is quite large, broken into different interconnecting sections. With no real map, you’ll need to simply explore and remember where you’ve been. With over 100 collectibles to find, there’s plenty of secrets to find around every corner. With numerous side quests to work on also as you talk to people within the city walls, Hilda has no shortage of things to do, she just has to make sure she survives the enemies that have taken over the city.

Hilda begins with a single quest, to find out what happened to her father, but it turns out it’s not that simple. You’ll meet a group of characters that act as the cities protectors, but what do you do if you join their battle but it doesn’t always align with your goals? Each section of the city is quite large with many interconnecting pathways, some of which can only be opened from a certain side. Defeat a boss for example and that will generally let you open a door that loops back to the main area or beginning of that zone, allowing for easy access next time you want to explore the area with a quick shortcut now opened.

You begin having access to special magical properties, but as you progress you’ll find different elements that you can imbue your attacks with, from Fire, Ice and Lightning. There are some minor puzzle elements that you need these elemental attacks for, but calling it puzzles are a stretch, more of unlocking a pathway or hidden boss. While I can’t tell if certain enemies are weaker to specific elements, they all vary in attacks, especially if you use the staff as one of your main weapons. Speaking of weapons, you’ll have access to six different types after a brief opening tutorial, choosing from Sword and Shield, Daggers, Spear, Hammer, Staff and Bracelets. They all have different techniques and skills, and you’re able to equip any two you desire simultaneously for some interesting weapon combinations. I opted for Sword and Shield as my main weapon, as I wanted to be able to block attacks, with the Staff being my secondary, allowing me to blast enemies from afar, swapping back to my melee weapon once they get up close.

Daggers are slow damage but very quick where the hammer is the opposite, slow and high damage, also able to break enemy’s defenses. Spear allows you to attack from a slight distance and can also be used to parry attacks. My secondary weapon I enjoyed was the staff, able to shoot magic from afar which is simple when locked onto enemies. Lastly are the magic bracelets, performing quick mid-range magic attacks and creating deadly traps. With these six different weapons you can combine and equip two at a time for a unique combination. Each weapon has a main and secondary attack, so definitely take the time to experiment with all of them and see what works best for your playstyle.

You’re able to swap your weapon attacks on the fly, allowing you to make different combinations of attacks based on when you press the primary or secondary button for either weapon. The Right Bumper and Trigger are your main attacks for your two weapons with the Left Bumper and Trigger being the secondary, all of which will vary based on the weapon you’re opting to currently use. Difficulty is well balanced overall, with certain bosses being quite challenging and some enemies being much more dangers than others.

I never became frustrated with combat, even in the more challenging areas near the end thanks to having more than enough health potions. When using a potion it leaves you vulnerable for a few moments, and they also aren’t instant, slowly refilling your health rather than right away, so you need to find a moment to breathe to use a potion in between attacks. There are even some skills, abilities and gear that you unlock that will allow you to carry more potions or heal for more but carry less for example. While you won't find new weapons or armor, you can equip three accessories, allowing you to boost specific resistances after you have them crafted back at the main base once unlocked.

You have a special meter that refills over time which is how you’ll use your special attacks that you’ve unlocked in the skill tree. These are weapon based and will allow you to deal massive damage, use special stances that change your attacks, or offer buffs that can aid you greatly in combat. The hardest thing to get used to with the combat is that there’s no animation cancelling, so you need to be careful and learn your attacks and the length of their animation. For example, if I’m mid combo with my sword lunges and want to raise my shield to block an incoming attack, I need to make sure I stop attacking with enough time for it to complete and allow my shield to raise in time. With a good 15-20 hour campaign length, including a New Game+ mode, you’ll surely learn the combat intricacies when you fight over 60 different enemy types and 22 different bosses in Asterigos, which were easily the highlight.

There’s a skill tree that you can put your points into that you gain when you level up or find special items, and the tree may look quite small and basic at first, but then it opens up and can feel a bit daunting. Once the skill tree opens up, you’ll see a grid-like system where you can spend your points freely, each sectioned off into six different parts based on each weapon. Myself for example, I spent a lot of points to maximize my sword and shield skill, as that was my primary weapon of choice. Initially I wasn’t able to move when I held my shield up for a block, but with some points into the tree, I can now freely move while blocking.

Each weapon has a good amount of skills and upgrades to unlock, with the most powerful being at the bottom of each tree naturally. There’s a very brief tutorial of how the skill tree and perk system works, but it really could have used some more explanation, as I eventually just figured it out through trial and error. Some stars on the tree give new abilities for your special attacks, others unlock perks that you can choose to toggle on or off, like changing my shield block to a shield throw for example. Sure, now that I understand it and know the differences of the stars in the skill tree it makes sense, but it wasn’t made clear initially and was quite confusing. Certain skills will also unlock other passive upgrades like health and stamina increases too, so there’s always something worth upgrading, even if it’s not necessarily in the weapon trees that you primarily use.

I adore Asterigos’ visual aesthetics. It’s bright, colorful and the city backdrops are gorgeous to take in, varying from the streets and markets of the city, to sewers, mines and more. There’s some minor pop-in issues with smaller assets like bushes and such, even on an Xbox Series X, but it’s not too distracting. Character models are great, as are the facial animations for Hilda, though the lip syncing was a bit off.

As for the voice acting, the main cast of characters you meet throughout Hilda’s journey is wonderfully done, with special mention of Dave Fennoy (Irenaeus), Dawn Bennett (Minerva), and of course the star, Christie Cate (Hilda). Audio as a whole was great, as you can hear weapons hitting enemies, each sounding unique, skills sounding powerful, and a gorgeous soundtrack that fits with the mythology backdrop once the lutes, harps or piano kick in.

Asterigos: Curse of the Stars is quite approachable even given its Soulslike mechanics, and with my first playthrough finishing at just over 15 hours or so, I started up New Game+ right away to get back into Hilda’s world. For a newer developer, Acme Gamestudio has crafted a wonderful world with plenty of content, replayability and quite polished for the most part, not something I’d expect from a $45 (CDN) title or from a studio's first major release.

**Asterigos: Curse of the Stars was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.8 / 10 Hardspace: Shipbreaker

While probably not in my lifetime, I can see ‘Shipbreaker’ being an actual job title and career path in the distant future when we aren’t confined to only living on Earth. What is a Shipbreaker you ask? Exactly as it sounds, a salvager that breaks apart derelict ships to reclaim parts and materials for salvage or recycling. I’ll admit, I probably wouldn’t have normally picked up Hardspace: Shipbreaker (simply referred to as Shipbreaker from here on), but given it arrived for review and is on Xbox Game Pass, it looks as though it was fate for me to put my shipbreaking skills to the test. I’m extremely glad I did, as I’m still having a hard time putting it down, fully embracing my new career as a cutter.

You work for the LYNX Corporation, a company that single handedly rules over the salvage industry thanks to their patented EverWork technology. You see, Shipbreaking is an incredibly dangerous career path. Sure it pays extremely well, but the risks are immense when you’re in space deconstructing massive ships. Thankfully, LYNX has found a way around this, by being able to clone you should you accidently meet your untimely death. No harm no foul right? Oh, you thought using their EverWork technology was free? You’ve signed up for this new ludacris paying career, but you’ve got a massive debt to pay off and nothing is free, evening joining the company. You actually start your new career $1,252,594,441.92 in debt, so you better get to work and save every penny you can to start paying back that debt, even the $7.50 for the displaying of fees report. There’s smidgens of humor throughout if you take the time to read the computer terminals and listen to your coworkers over the radio. If Amazon was in the space salvaging business, I bet it would be run just like LYNX.

Salvaging ships in space with zero gravity takes some skill and a lot of getting used to. You can’t simply blast apart a ship though, as there may be core reactors and other expensive materials that need to be salvaged properly, so Shipbreaker is akin to a puzzle game, finding the best and most efficient way to do so without getting yourself incinerated, electrocuted, crushed or slung into deep space; easier said than done. With plenty of modes to play the Career in, you can play a much more relaxing experience in 'Open Shift' without many time or resource restrictions, or play in a handful of other difficulty related modes adding much more restrictions like timers and respawn limits. You can even choose to have no O2 drain so you don’t have to worry about your oxygen if you want to simply work on your debt from job to job. I get enough pressure at work in real life, so I chose to not have that burden in game as well.

Every job has a derelict ship placed into the LYNX bay, an open space that gives you enough room to maneuver around it in every direction as you salvage it down to every individual part for components. As you break apart the ship, you’ll need to place them into the correct collection areas, from the red furnace for scrap, blue pit for salvage and the green area below for other components. Before you even begin start cutting away and tearing apart the ship, you’ll need to use your scanner to show you an x-ray like vision of every component of the ship in front of you. This is how you’ll know what part is meant to be tossed into what collection area.

To do your job you’re given two main tools to begin, aside from your space suit equipped with thrusters of course. You’re given a Grappling Beam and a Cutting Tool. These will be how you break apart and dismantle each ship, one part at a time. Ships are large and engineering miracles though, so don’t expect a quick and easy job taking them apart, instead needing a surgical approach if you want the maximum amount of profits to work towards your debt.

Do you use your plasma cutter and cut a massive hole in the side paneling of the ship, or do you instead use the airlocks, go inside the ship and melt away the connector parts that hold everything together? Sure you could cut a huge hole in the ship, but then you don’t earn as much, so you’re better off trying to solve each ship’s ‘puzzle’, the best way to dismantle to get the most rewards possible. This will require planning and solving the best way to maneuver through each ship and which parts to disassemble first. This only comes with practice, so your first few ships will probably either end in disaster or very low income, but eventually you’ll learn how to dissect each ship type with precision and skill, like a surgeon.

While you’re in zero gravity, you still won’t be able to push parts where you want to go with your suit thrusters, which is where your Grapple Beam tool comes in, an integral part of any Shipbreaker. With actual physics in play, you’ll need to be very aware of how heavy items are, what angle you’re trying to push or pull them, and thinking logically. Even without gravity, your tools have limits as to what materials they can cut through, melt or even move with the grapple beam.

Your cutter has two main modes: a pin point laser that melts material, meant for the smaller connection welds, and then a line cutter that does just that, cuts in a straight line. Keep in mind you’re floating in space, so you’ll need to make sure you’re angled and rotated the way you want to cut before doing so to avoid any accidents. The line cutter can be rotated to vertical or horizontal cuts, sometimes needing to be used to cut larger parts into smaller chunks to be more maneuverable into the collection bins.

The Grapple Beam is your other tool, able to help you ‘lift’ and move much heavier and larger materials. You can also use a ‘push’ with it, flinging your beamed material in the direction you’re facing, but remember, physics plays a larger part of the direction it will go, even in zero gravity space. My favorite upgrade you get early on is the Tethers, allowing you to place a retracting beam on one object to another. These are much more powerful than your regular Grapple Beam, so they are to be used strategically, as you have a limited amount before needing to repurchase more (adding to your debt). You can use multiple tethers for one object for much more pulling power, or use to link numerous items together like a train, it’s all a matter of what you think would work best to get the materials and components to the correct collection bins.

The first few ships are quite basic, easy to dismantle and separate, but every time you level up, so do the ships in a sense, becoming not just larger, but more intricate or adding new components that can cause a disaster if not dealt with properly. Some ships will have a reactor that needs to be extracted, but as soon as you disconnect it from its housing you have a limited amount of time before it explodes like a nuke, obviously only leaving you scraps and probably a death. This means you need to plan ahead, not only being careful of where you cut and what parts you disconnect, but having a clear path to deposit it quickly and properly before doing so. This is where being methodical comes in and will help your career. Eventually you'll also get access to demolition charges, and you'll need to decide the best time to use these if you want to be successful.

Eventually you’ll also need to deal with electrical lines, fuel pipes, and even figuring out how to properly decompress parts of the ship to avoid an explosion or death. Nothing quite like accidentally melting the connection plate to a panel and having the ship decompress, instantly killing you. You’ll be nervous the first time you deal with these new additions, but once you figure out how best to ‘solve’ them, they become just another mundane (yet exciting) step in your day-to-day activities as a Shipbreaker. You know that scrap doesn’t pay well, so you’ll do what you can do salvage all the parts you can for the best progress on your insane amount of debt to LYNX.

Not only do you need to salvage every piece and component that you can for your debt, but it’s also how you’ll level up, earning Mastery and LYNX points. One is your overall level, unlocking new tool upgrade slots and ships to work on, the other is basically upgrade points, used to improve your tools in numerous ways. Each tool, including your suit and helmet, all have a skill tree that can be improved in many ways, so it’s up to you to earn more points by doing well on jobs so you can make subsequent jobs easier and quicker.

Each upgrade is optional and unlocks at specific levels, so it’s up to you if you want to spend your points as you earn them or save up for ‘better’ unlocks. For example, I really enjoy using my tethers so I made sure to spend my points on that when possible, able to carry many more before needing to repurchase refills. You’ll eventually unlock demo charges, scanner upgrades and it’s really up to you how you want to upgrade depending on your playstyle.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting much from Hardspace: Shipbreaker initially, though to be fair, I hadn’t really been following it previously either. I’m glad I’ve experienced it though, as it took me completely by surprise and even though I’ve not reached the maximum level quite yet, I’m having a hard time shutting off the game at the end of the night, wanting to do ‘just one more shipbreak’, which the relaxing soundtrack helps with.

An odd mix of relaxing and stressful, Hardspace: Shipbreaker is a really clever and addictive puzzle game at its core, unlike anything else I’ve really played. Sure the zero gravity controls take a little getting used to, as does the ‘proper’ way to disassemble a derelict ship, but once all this comes together you’ll truly see how satisfying it really can be to earn the maximum rank on a ship, just make sure that OSHA isn’t watching while you work.

**Hardspace: Shipbreaker was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 9.2 / 10 Soulstice

It’s been a while since I’ve played something similar to an action focused combat game like Devil May Cry or a Bayonetta, that is, until now. Soulstice, developed by Reply Game Studios, takes some inspiration from classic games like Devil May Cry, but adds some twists and a genuinely interesting narrative that had me hooked as I became more powerful the further I progressed. You play as Briar and Lute, sibling sisters who are what’s known as a Chimera, working for The Order, part of the Holy Kingdom of Keidas. Interestingly though, your sister Lute is actually dead, living as a spirit that’s tied to Briar, even through death. She made a huge sacrifice that allowed the pair to become a Chimera, so they have a special bond that is seemingly unbreakable.

Sent on a mission to recover the city of Ilden from ruin, there’s a massive tear in the skies above the keep that has an invasion of Wraiths corrupting and taking over citizens of the city, causing everything to burn within. A Chimera is the only ones capable of protecting mankind, so it falls on you to do everything you can to survive and stop the invasion. It turns out that three Chimeras were actually sent, but since you were the last to arrive, you’ll need to search throughout the city amongst your enemies for your partners.

At first the narrative is a little confusing and convoluted, but given the 15-20 hour length, it eventually all plays out and comes together in a really interesting and compelling way. This is most primarily due to the fantastic voice acting from the sister duo (both are actually voiced by the amazing Stefanie Joosten, best known for Quiet from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain) and main characters you meet along the way. I ended up actually caring about Briar, Lute and it brought me right into Soulstice’s world.

Briar will hack and slash her way through demons and enemies, trying to reach the tear to close it. Fully capable in combat, Briar also has plenty of abilities, also relying on her sister Lute for offense as well. Combat and exploration starts slowly in the beginning, but as you get closer to your objective and progress in the story it starts to pick up in all directions, going from a somewhat average action combat game to one that never lets off the gas.

Briar can explore the city, but it’s generally quite linear aside from a few short branching paths that are usually dead ends that house a few collectables or secrets. Interestingly, the whole game aside from battles actually has a fixed camera. This means you’re exploring the world the way the developers specifically designed, unable to move or rotate the camera. This gives a cinematic feel, but I did get lost a few times because I initially missed a platform or doorway I was meant to go through, unable to distinctly see due to the fixed angles. While these fixed angles are functional, sometimes it can get a little messy in the sense that it may move drastically when you reach the new ‘section’, whipping the camera to a completely different direction, taking you a slight moment to readjust and change the movement direction on the controller.

Because of the linear level design, you’re very confined to the path you’re supposed to take. Even though Briar can jump insanely high, double jump and even dash, you can’t cut corners even over tiny ledges due to invisible walls, forced to take the design pathways and staircases. The environments of the city, inside and out, have a very brooding and dark feeling, especially in ruins, but levels can run for very long and can feel repetitive in the later half. There was one section of a staircase and platform that I swore I already did previously outside the city walls, only to see it again shortly later on.

Combat begins quite basic, having you with a main and secondary attack based on the two weapons you wield. Your main weapon is a long sword that resembles like a homemade weapon that maybe Cloud trained with growing up, the secondary being a massive pickaxe looking weapon that is slower but can deal more damage to armor. While you don’t plate Lute directly, she also helps in combat with her powers also. While you only have some basic attacks and combos in the beginning, this will change a couple hours in when you start to spend specific currencies you gather from breaking wooden boxes, furniture as well as defeating enemies. As you string together different combos you’ll see enemy health bars deplete, though become used to almost always being surrounded by a half dozen enemies or more simultaneously. While it’s never a fair fight, Briar and Lute have plenty of abilities to make sure they come out on top and survive.

As you reach specific spots along your journey exploring the city, you’ll suddenly have portals open and enemies pour out to try and defeat you. In most instances you can’t really continue on until you defeat all enemies, so you’re forced to fight in a confined area before moving on. The camera unlocks during these fights, able to freely move or even do a camera lock on specific enemies, but you’ll almost always have to fight two or three waves of enemies. And this is the general structure to each level: explore, fight waves, explore, fight waves, repeat, sometimes culminating in a massive boss fight at the end of certain chapters.

Switching between main and secondary weapons during combat is seamless, and with different types of enemies, each weapon has strengths and weaknesses that will help you earn a better score in combat. You’re forced to always use your main sword, but the other secondary weapon can be swapped out later on as you earn and unlock new weapons, though this isn’t until a good handful of hours into the game. I wish I could have swapped out the main sword for one of the other weapons as well, but unfortunately it’s not an option.

You begin with only a single combo or two, but will unlock more as you progress once you purchase new moves and abilities, each different for every weapon. This slowly opens Briar’s combat prowess as you become more comfortable in battle, eventually able to easily toss enemies in the air, combo them, slam down and move onto the next enemy. You can see where the Devil May Cry influence comes in during combat. It took a good few hours for me to really get a good grasp on the combat mechanics, not because it’s overly complicated, but it can feel a bit ‘stiff’ at times, so you need to know what its limitations are. Movement is slow in general as well, but once you get a good feel for the flow of combat and best strategies, it will start to feel more natural. Unfortunately once that happens, new mechanics are introduced that force you to play completely differently than the first few hours, adding more to constantly monitor and balance.

You don’t play Lute in combat directly, as she will automatically help you by shooting enemies with her abilities, she acts more like your defensive shield, allowing you to block, parry and freeze enemies who attack you if you time it right. Tapping ‘B’ when the prompt shows on each enemy will allow Lute to do a specific counter, though this is limited based on her upgrades as well. Eventually you can upgrade Lute’s abilities for attack or defensive maneuvers based on your playstyle. The better you do in combat the higher the sisters’ Unity Meter will rise, eventually filling and allowing you to use a powerful special attack. Get hit and the meter drops, do better and it rises. These special moves eventually turn into some crazy and spectacular attacks that even have its own brief cutscene that can thankfully be skipped after seeing it a few dozen times already.

Even though you don’t control Lute directly other than blocks and parries, you do need to watch her to make sure she doesn’t become too overwhelmed and overloads herself. If this happens she will burst, leaving you vulnerable without any way to counter for a brief time until she returns. Once you have to deal with using her red and blue shields, that’s where combat becomes more of a chore. Eventually Lute can use these blue and red fields, used for a number of reasons. For example, if you find a stack of red crystals, hitting them won’t do anything. Instead you need to have Lute pop a red shield around you, making any red crystals vulnerable for attacks. The same goes for blue crystals, needing the blue shield around you to be able to destroy them. There will even be some platforming sections that look impossible until you see that there are platforms that you can only stand on when the blue field is being used, so you need to be switching between the two at times. I think you can see where this is going.

The same goes for enemies shortly in, red or blue, only able to be hit when their within Lute’s correctly colored bubble. She can’t hold this force field open forever though and will eventually overload if left alone. Hitting enemies will lower the gauge though, so you have to be aggressive while fighting these specific enemies or simply take down the field to let her recover a moment, leaving you vulnerable without being able to counter. You can probably see where this starts to become a chore, especially when you need to fight red and blue enemies simultaneously, also ensuring that you’re hitting and locked onto the correct enemy. Even worse, eventually you’ll need to fight these tough red enemies that once you defeat them, a blue spirit pops out, and if you don’t defeat those quick enough they will possess another enemy and you’ll need to start all over again. Keep in mind you’re rarely fighting one enemy at a time, so it can be chaotic at times.

Sure you’ll eventually get abilities and upgrades that can make combat easier and more manageable, but it does become a chore at the best of times. Picking up the red and blue currencies are how you’ll upgrade Briar (red) and Lute (blue) and purchase special items, and these constantly flow in throughout your journey. After each combat section you’re graded based on a bunch of different parameters like time, hits taken, etc, giving you more bonuses the better you do.

Surprisingly there’s a bunch of different accessibility options included as well, something I didn’t expect. While there are multiple difficulty levels to choose from in the beginning, you can also toggle a bunch of different options based on which types of assists you want or need. There’s an auto-combat mode where Briar will continuously attack until the enemy is dead, an option to have Lute automatically use her blue and red fields when in range of a crystal, platform or enemy, or even changing QTE presses into single press or holds. There’s a few other options as well but it’s great to see more options available for those that may want or need.

Briar, Lute and the main characters are designed quite well, and while there’s not too much enemy variety until much later, they are all designed well, being quite distinct from one another. The city in ruins makes for a very dark and brooding backdrop that sets the tone of the adventure right from its opening moments. Combat is generally quite fluid and the red and blue that is scattered throughout the world is a great contrast to the dark environments. The main characters are all voiced wonderfully and written quite well, pulling me right into the narrative even further. Music and combat audio kicks in at the right moment to pump you up, especially when fighting a massive boss blocking your path at the end of a chapter or enter a crazy berserk mode.

I was expecting a quick five or six hour journey with Briar and Lute, but it’s actually more a good 15 to 20 hours depending on your difficulty level, skill and how much you want to explore. That said, it does overstay its welcome and the last half did drag on a bit, as I eventually wanted to be finished with it and move on. Those that are looking for value though will no doubt have plenty to do with multiple difficulties and even two harder ones that can eventually be unlocked as well.

Far from a perfect game, Soulstice feels like it has a soul and some heart. Made by a smaller studio you can absolutely see the Devil May Cry and Bayonetta influences, and while it may not hit that level quite yet, it’s a great homage regardless, a game that should be enjoyed by fans of the genre.

**Soulstice was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 Train Sim World 3

I used to think trains were fairly simple machines. I mean, you’re stuck to a set track, so it’s not like you need to steer or anything right, just set the speed you want and you’re off. Yeah, well after a good dozen hours or so with Train Sim World 3 I can now appreciate how much more goes into being a train engineer. Even starting a train up is quite a process, knowing what buttons to press, levers to pull and what order they need to be completed in. Want to stop your train? That’s also quite a process, one that I learned the hard way numerous times.

I’ll admit, I as someone completely new to the Train Sim World series, and pretty much Train Sim games in general, I had a lot to learn as I overcame my preconceived notions about operating a train. If you want to get a taste of what it’s like to operate a 4000 to 20000 ton piece of machinery, most likely something most of us will never get to do in real life, Train Sim World 3 has you covered across a slew of different engine types and locales. It certainly lives up to the ‘Sim’ in its title, that’s for sure.

While there’s no traditional campaign per se, you will get a brief introduction into the train engineer life and the newly included Training Centre, acting as a tutorial for the basics. Once you learn how to board, start your train, get going, changing tracks and stopping, you’re basically set free to play how you wish. Do you want to play by trying to keep to a set schedule for passengers. or play through some specific premade scenarios, of which there’s plenty to keep you busy for many hours if you’re a completionist.

Before long I was choosing which train I wanted to go with and its corresponding route area. The scenario based ‘campaign’ is basically bite-sized missions that you can play in any order or repeatedly if you like, as you’ll gain experience for every one you complete. These scenarios can vary in quick one to two minute single stops, all the way to quite lengthy trips that span the whole map that require over an hour long commitment to complete. There’s no shortage of scenarios to play through for each of the train types, so there’s no need to worry about having a lack of content, especially since you can create and share your own routes for the community as well.

Full disclosure, we were given the Deluxe version of Train Sim World 3, so we had a few more trains and Routes to play with when compared to the base game (that’s also currently on Xbox Game Pass as of the time of this writing). I’ll admit, being someone that’s never really researched or know the differences of one train to the next, I now clearly see the distinctions between the different types, classes and styles, from the earliest Steam era all the way to modern bullet trains. Needless to say, conducting a steam train is vastly different from a modern day electric train and even more so from a BNSF freight train.

With having a bit over a dozen trains to try and explore, I had more than enough to start learning how each controlled, and they can differ quite drastically control wise when switching back and forth. For example, I had no idea that there were different types of brakes on a train, so learning how to control those for each type of engine is very different from one another. Because of this constant change of controls, I would suggest becoming quite proficient at one engine type before bouncing around to a few others, as I wish I could say that I never crashed my train, but due to thinking I was controlling a different type of engine and braking system, sadly it’s happened more than once.

While I’ve never stood foot inside any of these train cars, I can only assume its authenticity is top notch for each train type, and doing some research online, it seems developers Dovetail Games have certainly done their homework, not just on the trains themselves, but the real world counterparts and track layouts for each Route and area. They’ve certainly earned the ‘Sim’ in their title with the authenticity.

If you’re not a train buff you probably won’t know the difference between a Class 66 EWS, BR442 Talent 2 DB, BR403 DB, Class 395SEB, BNSF ES44C4 or a LMS Stanier 8F, just to name a few, but if you perk up at any of those train types and recognize them, you’re the exact audience Train Sim World 3 is catered towards. If you’re a train buff, then you’ll also recognize many of the included Routes and areas such as the Schnellfahrstrecke Kassel – Würzburg that has plenty of tunnels at high speed, my favorite, the Great Western Express, or the new and very challenging Cajon Pass with a BNSF engine which I would suggest trying after you’re comfortable in proper train handling and how to deal with some steep inclines safely.

Each train feels and performs drastically different than the next, especially the interesting Steam trains, whisking you back in time. Not only do you have to keep track of numerous valves, meters, levers, gauges and handles, but knowing how to ease into the acceleration is almost an art form in these old time engines. Give it too much throttle and you’re wheels will simply spin, but you’ll need to factor in any inclines, how much weight you’re pulling behind you and more.

For those that want to do even more in Train Sim World 3, you’re able to not only customize your scenarios however you see fit, but also create and download liveries from the community as well. For those that played the previous entry, Train Sim World 2, you’ll be happy to know your content carries over. There’s even an ‘Off the Rails’ mode where you can play any train type on any Route, but keep in mind that not all areas and Routes were designed for specific trains that can go much faster than is supposed to on these tracks.

The tutorials are plenty, able to teach you the basics of each train, how to operate them and even all of the other controls like the outside camera and map. You can easily switch to an outside camera at any time, freely placing it where you like, and can even do the train coupling in this view instead of being forced to get out of the train and do it manually, should you wish of course. You’ll also need to learn how to change the tracks based on what line you’re meant to be on or stop at. This can be done manually again should you wish, but you can also toggle them on the interactive map well ahead of time, adding another layer of planning on longer trips or passing through multi-laned hubs.

Should you want to explore on foot, there’s plenty of collectables and hidden items to find, again, adding hours of extra gameplay should you want to find everything. My main complaint is that there should be some form of a checklist to operate the engines. I found that switching between different types quite often, I forgot which buttons, levers and the order to even get the train moving was a challenge at times. Because of this I opted to stick with the same trains for a handful of scenarios at a time until it became second nature before moving onto the next area and train.

Weather has been vastly improved, adding extremes like thunder, lightning strikes, torrential rain, high speed wind, smoke, fog and more. Because of these weather patterns, they can affect how you control your train, so take that into consideration when the weather take a turn for the worse. With plenty of Train, Routes and Scenarios to play, there’s no shortage of content, especially factoring in community made options within the Creators Club as well. That said, there’s a store to purchase a whole slew of content with real money. If the DLC and add-ons like new trains and Route would be reasonably priced I wouldn’t mind so much, especially since the game is currently including with Xbox Game Pass, but some of the prices for a single train engine are absolutely ridiculous, more so if you’ve purchased the Deluxe version or some of the DLC already. If you want the complete experience, you’re going to have to open your wallet, and wide.

As expected, the attention to detail, even the smallest buttons and switches, inside the cabins are next level. There’s so much detail and a plethora of buttons, knobs and levers to interact with on the train, which is why the tutorials are so critically important. The trains themselves, even outside, are done to great detail, even reflecting the world it passes by at high speed. Lighting has been improved and the outside weather looks quite good when the rain is beading on your locomotive going almost 300 km/h. That said, the rest of the world, especially the environment meters away from the tracks and the lifeless passengers really stand out like a sore thumb. Passengers are duplicated quite often, animate quite stiff, and simply don’t look all that great. Are you playing to look at the lifeless eyes of the passengers on the platforms and on your train, no, but it doesn’t help when you do.

The trains themselves sound wonderful and each quite unique. Hearing the steam engine from a train over 100 years old sounds drastically different than the electric hum of a modern day bullet. The voiced over sections during tutorials is done quite well, I just wish there was more of it throughout the rest of the journey going from scenario to scenario. Hearing the train 'clicky-clack' along the track is always delightful, as is blowing the horn as I come into the station. Squealing brakes and other minor sounds simply pull the whole experience together in a natural way.

There’s some debate that fans and players of Train Sim World 2 won’t necessarily see a massive leap going to this latest entry, but for someone like me that’s new to the series, this is logically the best place to jump in. The menus are clearly designed for a mouse and keyboard in mind, as trying to hit specific small switches with a controller can be tricky at times to perform, especially quickly. How the Scenarios and menus flow into one another could also use some work, as it wasn’t until a few hours in that I then found more options and tasks to complete.

I’ll admit, I learned a substantial amount about the world of trains and locomotives thanks to Train Sim World 3, and while non-fans might not see the enjoyment of running a train for over an hour getting from point A to B, I oddly become quite addicted to the relaxing enjoyment it brought. Veterans are sure to be excited about all of the authentic content, though due to its niche audience, casual or new fans might find it difficult to understand at first.

**Train Sim World 3 (Deluxe Edition) was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Q.U.B.E. 10th Anniversary

There’s something special playing a puzzle game, becoming so frustrated that you’re on the verge of giving up and uninstalling because of the ‘impossible’ puzzle you’ve been staring at for the last hour, then all of a sudden getting that euphoric ‘ah-hah’ moment and the realization of how dumb you were for not figuring out the solution sooner. That was a basic summarization of my time with Q.U.B.E. 10th Anniversary, developed by Toxic Games Limited, becoming infuriatingly stuck then unable to put it down as I finally progressed.

Originally release back in 2012, Q.U.B.E. was a small indie game that was received quite well, eventually getting a Director’s Cut two years later in 2014, adding a narrative element with voice over, more puzzles, an updated soundtrack and more. Here we are a decade later from its release with Q.U.B.E. 10th Anniversary, adding both the original and Director’s Cut in one package, along with even more content included, revised and improved gameplay sections, and much more appealing visuals.

There’s an interesting story revolving around you waking up with these special gloves being worn in some sort of massive cube that’s in space somewhere. Someone is talking to you over the radio but you’re unable to respond back, detailing what's happened. It’s actually an interesting narrative that has some twists and turns that I didn’t expect, so I don’t want to spoil much else, something better off experienced than read.

With over 100 puzzles to complete, they will progressively become much more challenging as you continue through this seemingly never-ending room after room. Even if you mastered Q.U.B.E. at release and it’s Director’s Cut, there’s a whole new sector of the game that opens up once completion, adding another 4-6 hours of brain-bending gameplay. Visuals are vastly improved, there’s a whole slew of developer commentary to listen to and plenty of collectables that make an already challenging game even more difficult for those that want even more challenge.

A physics based puzzle game, Q.U.B.E. 10th Anniversary centers on you trying to progress one puzzle at a time, placing you in a room where you can’t reach the next path or doorway until you reach a specific area or open a doorway. The core principle is that you’re manipulating different colored cubes in a mostly pure white room made out of cubes as well, where each color type is manipulated in a different way. How to use each, when to do so, and how they all interact with one another is the only way you’re going to be able to progress and survive.

Blue cubes act as a springboard, not only for you, but other blocks as well. This is how you’ll reach certain areas or get specific blocks to new platforms. Red cubes can be extended up to three times, as you might not need it to raise vertically or horizontally the full length all the time. Yellow blocks extend into a three tiered staircase or even a podium, as all three sections can’t be the same height. Later on you’re going to have to deal with magnet blocks, lasers, redirectors, arrows that rotate platforms and more.

Regardless if you play the original or Director’s Cut, you’ll explore along a linear corridor until you reach a puzzle room, trapped until you solve it, move to the next room and puzzle, repeat until credits roll. Each chapter or section introduces a new mechanic or block, easing you into the increasing difficulty for the most part, but I won’t lie, around the fifth or sixth chapter, the puzzle challenges absolutely skyrocketed quite quickly.

I’d like to think I’m generally decent at puzzle games since I think logically, so even though I may get stuck here and there, I eventually figure it out. I swear at times near the end I thought some of the puzzles were impossible. The first few chapters really ease you into the gameplay, thinking I was going to breeze through it no problem, then I hit a brick wall, almost ready to call it quits when I was dumbfounded for over an hour on a single puzzle. Of course once I figured it out I realized the simple thing that didn’t ‘click’ with me, thus renewing my enjoyment once I felt like a genius again.

While the majority of the puzzles aren’t timed in any way, there are a handful where you do have to be quick and deliberate with your movements and timing. This is slowly introduced with arrows you can interact with that will rotate or move certain platforms or walls in a specific direction, or magnets that pull blocks in that specific lane. There’s even some puzzles where you’ll have a white ball that drops and then rolls, having to make it go through specific colored boxes to mix ‘paint’ and land in the corresponding colored box to progress. Layer this with rotating walls, lasers and blue jump pads, and you can see were the quick dexterity requirement comes in.

Puzzles become quite intricate and confusing, infuriating me at times because I just can’t figure out the solution for an hour at a time to the point of wanting to uninstall, but then I stick with it and eventually find the solution, wanting to progress even further. With a large number of optional collectables to find along the way, there’s plenty here to challenge even the most skilled puzzle solver.

Vastly improved visuals from its original release, actually decent voice overs and a soundtrack that never overstays its welcome, the generally logical puzzles were a pleasant surprise for someone like me that never played the original releases, now able to enjoy it on my console of choice. The constant ebb and flow of frustration and elation is why I generally enjoy puzzle games like Q.U.B.E. 10th Anniversary, going from feeling like an idiot one minute to a genius the next.

**Q.U.B.E. 10th Anniversary was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Isonzo

Developers Blackmill Games and publisher M2H may not have the largest of game releases out there, but they absolutely know what they excel at and their niche target audience. It’s clear their passion lies within the WWI era, as all of their previous releases took place here as well. Verdun (2015) and Tannenberg (2017) both take place during this time period but within different Theaters of War. The latest in their WWI Game Series is Isonzo, another historical setting from the first World War that took place amongst different backdrops within northern Italy.

While there’s no shortage of World War shooters, what makes this WWI Game Series stand out is its historical accuracy and much slower paced gameplay. Don’t go in expecting to be running-and-gunning. You have to keep in mind the weapon technology at the time, so combat warfare was drastically different than it is today.

Set on the Italian front, Isonzo focuses on a handful of some of the most iconic battles between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian forces. The Italian backdrop makes for some unique battlefields, especially within the Alps or fighting for historic landmarks like the Salcano Bridge, adding much more verticality to the combat as opposed to fighting through a ruined town.

Let’s be clear, Isonzo is meant as an online multiplayer shooter. Yes you can play offline against bots, but there’s no single player campaign of any sorts, so as long as you’re intending to play online, hopefully with some friends, then Isonzo is worth looking at. These games are enjoyed by fans that want a more accurate representation of how warfare was during this time. Historically accurate and authentic, Isonzo will have you battling in numerous offensives within the Southern Front of the War. While all twelve Battles of the Isonzo aren’t included here, they are each varied and unique in its backdrop.

Isonzo doesn’t try and make things confusing by adding a bunch of different modes that may or may not be used, instead focusing on its core, and only, Offensive game mode. Somewhat of a different take on Battlefield’s Conquest, Offensive has an attacking and defending team working on two objectives simultaneously. Objective ‘A’ is where you need to capture a point, where objective ‘B’ is a point where the attackers are trying to set an explosive to destroy the point. If the attackers capture both objective ‘A’ and ‘B’, then the front of the war gets pushed forwards and opens a new portion of the battlefield further behind enemy lines.

Every map is unique, but each push with their own objective points are also all interesting as well, as you need to constantly be working on your attacking or defensive portions. Depending on the map and the section you’re currently fighting in, you might be battling in trenches, bunkers, forests, towns, open fields or even cliffs. Each section and backdrop can dramatically change battles and strategies when playing, as certain portions might be cutoff by barb wire or other barriers.

While there’s only a handful of maps currently includ