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Reviews
Liberated: Enhanced Edition

If you’re a fan of gritty graphic novels and action games, Liberated: Enhanced Edition is now available for Xbox, bringing some fantastic hand drawn visuals with a story told as if you're flipping through a comic book. As the story unfolds (see what I did there?) you’ll enjoy the stylized aesthetic, then get thrown into levels where you’ll be running, sneaking and shooting your way out of bad situations, but mostly shooting as there’s no real reason to sneak and hide.

While you may have played Liberated on PC when it originally released back in 2020, this new release is the Enhanced Edition. So what exactly is new you ask? It has “enhancements in gameplay and content”, whatever that means, full voice overs for English and two new epilogue chapters, “For the Homeland” and “Glory to the Heroes”. I’d question how much was really added as an overall package from its original release, but alas, it’s new to console players, so here we are.

A comic book with a gritty noir setting, Liberated is set in a dystopian future where the government wants complete control of its citizens, violating their human rights and privacy wherever possible. If you’ve seen that Black Mirror episode about having a social score, it’s along those lines where every citizen is ranked on a variety of factors, and if they fall below a certain score they're put under the microscope of the government. The ‘Liberated’ is a group that aims to shed light on this practice, exposing what’s going on for it's people and the world to see.

Would you want your every moved to be tracked and everything you said being heard? Does this sound not all that too far distant in the future given the world we live in today? Spread across four Chapters, separated a four different comics, the story unfolds from different viewpoints. I’ll admit, the story initially intrigued me, as even though it’s got a very conspiracy vibe to it, it’s already mirroring some things we see in our real world today, so it’s really not all that farfetched.

There's large story sections where the comic book panels tend to drag on quite a bit, flipping page to page as the narrative unfolds and is slightly animated, but the characters started to wear on me after a while and felt very stereotypical. The two post story epilogues help flesh out the ending a bit more, as I wouldn’t have been satisfied with the core game’s conclusion, but the first epilogue is simply a visual novel with no gameplay while the second is more stealth focused which really isn’t how you played the rest of the game previously.

When you aren’t moving from one comic panel to the next during the narrative portions, gameplay happens across the larger panels as it zooms in and you focus in that single pane, kind of like Comix Zone for the Genesis but not as fourth wall breaking. The main gameplay portions have you running from the left side of the screen to the right, either avoiding enemies by hiding behind walls, or running and gunning your way through anyone that stands in your way.

Because Liberated is dark and gritty it appears it’s always night time, so you can only tell an enemy is coming off screen by the luminescence from their flashlights, almost acting like their cone of vision. Essentially, if you can see their flashlight, they’ll be able to see you once you’re in range. This means you need to either hide behind cover and wait for them to pass, which would take you an excruciating amount of time to do, or simply shoot everyone and aim for quick headshots.

It feels like the game wants you to employ and use stealth when possible, but the walking paths of enemies are so lengthy and slow that there’s no real reason to. Your guns have infinite ammo, you just need to reload when your clip is empty is all. The problem with these hiding spots is that while most happen around corners and objects, that’s not always the case. You’re only able to hide when you get the button prompt above your head, so you better hope that the spot that you need to duck into right away is an actual spot to prime yourself for a stealth silent kill.

Running and gunning is basically the way to go, as you aim with your Right Stick and want to ideally aim for headshots to conserve ammo. That’s about it for gameplay and there’s really only two types of enemies, those that patrol with their flashlights and those that are waiting for you behind a wall, easily noticeable once you know what to look for after the first ambush. Because every enemy appears from off screen out of your vision, you can’t really run as you’ll end up right into their flashlight and they’ll kill you before you even pull your pistol out. This forces you to slowly make your way across the comic pane at a slog, exasperated by the limited enemy types.

The only other change to the gameplay flow is the odd QTE (Quicktime Event) where you need to quickly hit the corresponding button on screen to perform an action. These are usually included to add some sort of ‘gameplay’ to action sequences where you don’t normally have control of what’s happening on screen, but it’s used quite poorly here. For example, instead of using a QTE button prompt to rush into an area after jumping over a car hood and one button per enemy kill, instead you press a QTE button four or five times to simply slide over the car hood, then the action plays out itself. Or using QTE’s to change lanes during a chase, it just felt unnecessary every time it occurred.

There’s a few puzzles in the game as well, nothing that will stump you or require a walkthrough, usually having you connect all the wires or something similar. I appreciate that there was an effort to mix up the gameplay a bit, and it make sense narratively, but it really slowed down the pacing to a grinding halt.

Combat is basic as it gets, as you can see your laser pointer from your gun, so simply try to aim for heads and rapid fire the trigger and you’ll be fine. There’s not much challenge at all aside from a few elevator rides where you’ll need to kill enemies on both sides of you, forcing you to get the first couple shots in quickly or a lucky headshot or two if you don’t want to restart these sections. There’s a few drones that will attack you in some sections as well, but one good placed shot will destroy these also. While functional, I simply found the core gameplay of slowly walking and shooting tedious, as it doesn’t change at all from its opening moments to the rolling credits.

While the gameplay failed to excite me, the noir setting and comic book style captured my attention. I quite enjoyed the black and white approach, almost as if it came from the 50’s era, yet is set in an almost cyberpunk dystopian backdrop. The black and white hand drawings are done exceptionally well within the comic book portions as the narrative plays out from page to page. The thick black markers and details have a great visual style that works with the setting and tone and being able to slightly move the camera on each panel gives it a feel like you’re actually reading a comic book.

While I applaud that voice acting is included for every line from each character, something you don’t see often in smaller games like these, the voice acting itself is something left to be desired. Voices don’t feel like they match the characters you see on screen in the comic, and where there should be emotion there’s usually quite a flat execution overall. The music is fitting for the backdrop, though unmemorable and I didn’t feel compelled to have it playing in the background as I sat down to write this like I do with other games that have an entrancing soundtrack.

I applaud the concept, as having an interactive comic book is a cool touch and not something we see often these days. The gameplay itself is mediocre at best and I would have been just as pleased if it was a visual novel overall that I could simply watch being played through, as the gameplay didn’t evolve or change by the time the credits rolled after three or four hours. An interesting narrative with a compelling aesthetic unfortunately held back by its tedious gameplay.

** Liberated: Enhanced Edition was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.3 / 10 MotoGP 22

While I’m a casual MotoGP fan, I somehow always seem to play the games, usually skipping a year or two’s entry here and there. I last reviewed MotoGP 20, skipping 21, so I was excited to get back onto the bike for some laps around the track. The MotoGP games is what actually turned me onto the sport, and while I’ll only watch a race here and there, it’s always quite exciting when I do, and that’s what MotoGP 22 is trying to recreate, an authentic MotoGP experience for fans and newcomers. It seems they’ve hit a sweet spot in the series with this year’s entry, adding the best career mode addition to date that is a game changer and had me hooked.

There’s a decent amount of content here for those wanting a robust campaign, spreading across the entire MotoGP world and 2022 Season. With over 100 riders, over 20 official circuits, there’s plenty of racing for you to customize and race at your own preferences. You’re able to create your own team or be a part of an official one, and much like previous entries, and you’ll have to hire and reject staff, from management to engineers that can improve your aerodynamics, frame, electronics and engine.

If you want to start out small before jumping into the insanely powerful MotoGP machines, you can begin in the Moto2 and Moto 3 leagues instead if you want something a bit easier to handle to begin. Even if you choose to jump right into the ‘big boy’ MotoGP league, you can customize your game to suit how many assists you want, from nearly fully automatic braking to no assists at all which will take some serious commitment to master.

When you choose what you want to race you can then choose what to partake in on race weekend, from warm ups, practice laps and qualifying, or simply just jump into the race itself without doing so. Depending on how in-depth you want to sink yourself into the MotoGP world, you can set races from just a few laps to the full experience. Choose to take part of the practice laps and you can work towards some challenges your team sets forth for you which will reward you with bike improvements, so it can be worth the time investment, along with the practice to learn your bike better. Aside from menu changes, the main campaign is vastly the same in its setup and execution from previous years.

Now, what surprised me and made me become hooked to MotoGP 22 was the new NINE SEASON 2009 Mode. Here you get to relive and partake in one of the most exciting championships in MotoGP history. Broken down into seventeen separate chapters, you’ll be facing completely unique challenges that happened at iconic moments of this mind blowing championship. Grab your helmet and take control of legends like Stoner, Pedrosa, Lorenzo and Rossi, all of which need no introduction for fans.

Each episode is captivating, as it shows historical footage outlining the drama and competition between the leaders of the 2009 Season. With almost an hour of actual footage included, narrated amazingly by Mark Neale, I didn’t realize how exciting and how much drama that was involved in this legendary championship. As you complete each chapter you’re tasked with various objectives, such as beating a certain opponent, coming in a specific place or better, and being successful will unlock a new video and race of the championship.

Actually playing as Rossi and the other icons would have been cool enough, but setting up these snippets of races with specific objectives, each with their own perspectives and challenges, was easily the pinnacle of MotoGP 22 by far. You can even unlock riders, bikes, liveries and more going through this mode. NINE SEASON 2009 is more than a simple campaign, but more like a documentary you get to experience along the way, fantastic for casual fans like myself that now have watched hours of YouTube footage on these riders and races. The drama and story of these riders and overall challenges absolutely hooked me and made for a unique experience I don’t find in many sport racers.

I won’t lie, my first few races were absolutely terrible, as I found it difficult to control the bike the way I intended. Racing a 1000cc bike going nearly 300 km/h is unfathomable, and even in game form can be quite a challenge. There’s a new tutorial section, titled the MotoGP Academy, where you’ll learn much of the basics, free to try out some of the assists and difficulty toggles to find what works best for you. These start out heavy handed, auto braking for you, but you can of course change these to whatever setting you wish. The tutorials won’t have you rushing to first place every race from the get-go but at least there’s an attempt to teach you aside from simply throwing you onto the track with cold tires.

Previous MotoGP games allowed you to drive quite aggressively, but I found this to be not the case as much in MotoGP 22. Before I would slam on the brake and lean hard into each corner and be fine. I had a much more difficult time trying to race that style in this year’s game, having to teach myself to let go of the throttle and feather the brake at times rather than simply hitting them hard as I could. Racing two wheeled MotoGP bikes is nothing like typical racing games, as you need to pre-lean and prepare to corner unlike cars. This takes a bit of time to get a feel for, as you have to lean early, but not too early or you’ll cut the corner and get a penalty (and most likely bail). There’s a point where everything simply ‘clicks’ and you get it. Once you’re able to lean in and out of corners, chaining them together with precision while near horizontal and riding the grass edges feels amazing.

Braking too feels vastly improved, having to utilize front and rear brakes while leaning takes time to master, but there’s something special when you feel one with the bike and track, hitting those apex and lines absolutely perfectly. Speaking of assist lines, I tend to keep them on to learn the tracks better, but there’s a few sections where it turns yellow and red to indicate to slow down and how much, but some of these seemed completely wrong and way off. Certain corners I had to brake well before it suggested and even then I would barely make the corner at extreme angles and powering out of the apex. I’m not sure if these adjust for what bike upgrades I currently have equipped, but certain tracks were very difficult due to these inaccurate race lines.

If you want a truly authentic experience to be as close as it gets to the real thing, I suggest turning off all assists and using the helmet camera. There’s nothing else quite like it. I found it insanely difficult but there’s definitely a unique experience to be had racing in this view. Not recommended for new players, but worth checking out for sure if you want to see what riding a bike like these would actually be like without the worry of crashing.

Online multiplayer is virtually unchanged and what you’d expect from a MotoGP game. You can customize your lobbies and races up to twelve players. Even after a couple weeks since release and having cross-gen multiplayer (same console families only), there’s virtually no one playing this online every time I go to check for races online. Maybe I’m checking at the wrong times, but I would have expected a larger community to pay with. If it helps, there’s now a split-screen mode finally included if you have someone locally to play with, something that’s been asked for many times previously.

I was hoping that skipping last year’s MotoGP 21 that I’d be blown away by this entry visually. MotoGP 22 looks fine, as lighting seems better, grass looks great and overall seemed smoother, but some of the models, even the basic choices for your character are quite bland and unimpressive, even on an Xbox Series X. Audio is in the same boat, being completely adequate, but nothing really stood out. Sure the starting line and first few corners are exciting with all the engine roars close by in turn one, but once you separate yourself from the pack, you’ll just hear the same engine whizzing without any music or commentary.

AI seemed basically on rails, as they will race their line, regardless if you’re in their way or not. There’s an option to pick up your bike and get back on track when you crash, but AI doesn’t seem to need to follow these same rules for whatever reason. The standard Career Mode was serviceable, but NINE SEASON 2009 is now the true king of the MotoGP series, one that I hope to see return with another exciting season in the inevitable MotoGP 23 next year.

Without this new exciting career mode I probably would have bailed on MotoGP 22 long before, but seeing documentary footage and racing as iconic legends of the sport was truly exciting. Hardcore MotoGP fans will most likely love this new mode, especially since they’ve made this casual fan a larger one because of it. While MotoGP 22 might be a harder sell for the fans that purchase it every year and know that there’s only incremental updates, this is probably a great entry to dive in for those on the fence or have skipped a few years of entries.

**MotoGP 22 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Blast Brigade vs. the Evil Legion of Dr. Cread

Have you been craving a light hearted, comedy infused 2D action adventure metroidvania game lately? Do you miss the days of actions movies with the overly macho and overconfident hero that wields a big gun and shoots every bad guy in sight? If you’ve answered yes, then you might want to take a look at Blast Brigade vs. The Evil Legion of Dr. Cread, developed by Allods Team Arcade, a comic inspired platforming twin stick shooter with plenty of challenge and much more length than I was initially expecting as you try and save the world.

You begin your adventure as Jeff Jefferson, a Blast Brigade secret agent that is tasked with stopping the evil Dr. Cread within his secret lair. Jeff has some funny one liners that might make you smirk now and then, and while there is a large attempt to inject some humor into the experience, it never resulted me having to snort laugh. Thankfully the core focus is on its gameplay, which is challenging yet satisfying.

While there is an overarching narrative, which you could probably guess from the game title itself, the campaign actually surprised me for a few reasons. First and foremost, it is fully voice acted when it comes to the cutscenes, and quite decently as well. I thought I would simply be Mr. Jefferson for a quick four or five hour journey, but I was wrong. You can expect to play a few different characters, each with their own special ability that allows you to access new areas or traversing around the section of the map you’re currently in. Lastly, you can expect anywhere from 15-25 hours of gameplay, depending on how much you want to explore for secrets and how challenging you find some of the rooms and bosses.

Jeff can shoot and jump in the beginning, but that’s about it. You’ll unlock some new skills and abilities as you progress, such as dashing, not only for dodging but to traverse gaps as well, throwing grenades and unlocking secondary weapons. Search hard enough and you’ll also be able to upgrade certain skills and add to your total heart pool as well, increasing your maximum health, something you’ll surely want when you face off against Dr. Cread’s challenging bosses.

As you traverse Dr. Cread’s island trying to find a way to get into his lair you’ll explore a number of different biomes, each with their own art style, mood and backgrounds. Jeff isn’t the only hero in this tale though, as you’ll meet a cast of playable characters along the way which will help you explore each area more thoroughly than previous. For example, you can’t reach many areas until you unlock Shura, as she comes with a grapple hook, allowing you to reach whole new areas and will be absolutely needed in certain boss fights. While there’s some banter between the cast, the gameplay will change slightly based on who you’re using, this is also how its Metroidvania roots start to appear as you might need to go back to a very early area to now reach somewhere new for a collectable.

Checkpoints are indicated by hammocks that Jeff and the others can rest in, not only to be used as where you’ll appear when you inevitably die, but also to refill your health and energy completely if needed. You’re going to die, a lot, so using these checkpoint hammocks strategically will be quite helpful. While they aren’t normally too far spread out, there’s a few times where I had to fight through a handful of rooms to get to the next. This meant that when I inevitably died at some point, I’d have to fight my way through the same rooms once again to try and reach the next checkpoint. This was frustrating when a hammock wasn’t beside a boss room, so I would have to traverse a room or two just to reattempt the boss I just died to for the sixth time.

Don’t let the cute and colorful comic book art style fool you, there’s quite a bit of challenge here early on. Some rooms are filled with enemies, some you can’t escape until you kill everything, and others have tons of spikes on the floors and walls. Each enemy will attack you relentlessly once you’ve been spotted or close by, and it can be annoying to have to try and deal with soldiers shooting at you, bats attacking you from above and plants lobbing poison at you from afar. When you die you drop a portion of the money you’ve earned along the way gathered from killing enemies and reappear at your last used hammock. Thankfully if you can reclaim your dropped money, if you can get back to where you died of course.

While Blast Brigade has large and open-like rooms you need to get through, your map will show how each is connected and where the doorways are. While it may seem large and open, it’s generally quite linear, especially in the first half until you start to get the abilities you need like the Grapple Hook to even get to certain portions of rooms. Each area may be made up of a dozen or so rooms, usually having one spot where you can park your motorcycle. This is Blast Brigade’s version of fast travel, allowing you to quickly zip from one area to the next if you’ve unlocked these nodes.

You control your character with the Left Stick and aim with the Right, much like a twin-stick shooter. This is all well and good, but having to jump means you need to take your thumb off the Right Stick to hit the button. This only became an issue a few times in chaotic battles or where I was trying to rapidly progress, but you eventually learn to take things a bit slower instead of rushing.

You have primary and secondary weapons. Your first primary weapon is Jeff’s trusty Assault Rifle, complete with unlimited ammo, but you will need to reload the clip and be in a certain range to hit enemies. Not firing for a few moments will automatically refill your ammo of your primary, as will emptying the clip. Secondary weapons, when unlocked, have limited ammo but are generally much more powerful, best saved for when actually needed like against bosses or annoying enemies. Your first secondary weapon will be Jeff’s shotgun, eventually getting a sniper rifle and more. Ammo for these drop randomly from enemies, so always be on the lookout to refill.

Where Blast Brigade shines best is during its handful of epic boss fights. The first couple aren’t too challenging, but they eventually become much more menacing and involved. Not only will you need to be quick with your reflexes, but you’ll have to study their patterns and find the best times to avoid, dodge and hide from specific attacks before going on the offensive. Some of these boss fights might make you think a bit more, like why are those grapple hooks in specific places, or is that attack actually avoidable? These bosses are usually huge and was easily the most memorable part of the whole experience. Just hope that you don’t die numerous times to these and have to make the trek back to attempt once again.

Manage to explore the rooms enough and you might come across some blueprints and upgrades. You’ll acquire a PDA during your adventure, allowing you to choose from a number of different upgrades you find. A helpful one for me early on was the passive ability to have money and ammo be attracted to me, so I only needed to get close to them to gather instead of having to run over them to pick them up. There’s quite a number of different abilities that can make a huge difference in your gameplay, but you’ll need to choose wisely, as you can’t enable them all.

The world of Blast Brigade is quite colorful and bright, even when deep underground in a lair or jail area. The animation is smooth and I never had any performance hiccups on an Xbox Series X. The writing is cheesy at times with terrible one-liners, but that’s by design, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say I had a few moments of laughter from some stupid jokes Jeff made. Having all of the dialogue voiced was an unexpected but welcome treat as well.

Solid controls, fun gameplay and much longer than I initially expected, Blast Brigade vs. the Evil Legion of Dr. Cread certainly has value for those that are looking for a decent Metroidvania to sink their time into. The gameplay can be quite challenging at times, and although I wish there was some more difficulty choices, I still enjoyed my time with Jeff and the others trying to stop the evil Dr. Cread.

**Blast Brigade vs. the Evil Legion of Dr. Cread was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Citizen Sleeper

While I’ve always been a fan of Tabletop Roleplaying Games (TTRPG), I’ve never really had a group of local likeminded friends to get together with and play on the weekends with a few drinks and snacks in hand. Tabletop games can be difficult to transition into a game format, as there’s nothing quite like rolling some dice and moving your pieces along the board. Citizen Sleeper, developed by Jump Over The Age, looks to recreate that tabletop experience with the inclusion of dice and numerous quests, but gives the player the control to experience the game as they wish, letting you choose your own path and make your own decisions. I’ll admit, the screenshots initially didn’t do much to excite me, but after well over one hundred cycles later, I wish it didn’t end.

Once you get a grasp of everything going on, the setting and characters, Citizen Sleeper becomes a wonderful narrative based RPG. Set aboard the ringed space station Erlin’s Eye, The Eye for short, you are what they call a sleeper, a digitized human consciousness placed within an artificial body. You’re also simply a disposable asset to Essen-Arp, a corporation that owns and controls you. Did you volunteer to be put in this artificial body? Did you die? Who controls you? Who is Essen-Arp? Why are you on this ship among others? You’re going to have dozens of questions, though by the end you should have your answers.

While not derelict, it’s clear that The Eye isn’t the best place to find yourself in the galaxy, as you’re amongst thousands of other citizens simply trying to get by and survive. Some want to leave and go elsewhere, but what do you want? Do you have your own thoughts or are you simply programmed this way? As it turns out, it seems you’re actually on the run from the corporation that built you, by why, and are they trying to get you back or destroy you?

Given that you just awoke aboard this ship, unaware of not only where you are, but what you are, you’re going to need to build some relationships if you not only want to find answers, but maybe form some friendships that will help you survive to the next cycle as well. Who actually runs The Eye though, as there seems to be a number of different conflicting factions and fragile alliances, though maybe if you can find some common ground you’ll find a way to not only survive, but thrive.

You’ll meet a wide cast of characters, each with their own intriguing backgrounds and motivations, from mechanics to bartenders, assassins and more. Who you decide to help and side with is completely up to you, there’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ perse, but remember, choices and actions could have ramifications and consequences, intentional or not. There’s a commonality of almost everyone being against the corporations though, so maybe you can use that to your advantage in certain situations.

While I’m purposely being vague and general about the overall themes and tones of the narrative, Citizen Sleeper excels in telling these smaller personal stories. There’s an encompassing story at play, but who you decide to interact with and their stories is what truly excels here, as every character I met and interacted with along the way was quite memorable, written well and had deep backstories that made me care about them one way or another.

You begin your adventure by being awoken by a mechanic that finds you, explaining where you are. Nothing really makes sense at first, so you decide to trust them, as I agreed to work some odd jobs to pay off my debt for being given a place to rest my head and recharge at the end of each cycle (essentially a day). It becomes apparent quite quickly that you’re going to need to figure out a way to survive, not only with your life, but finding a way to earn credits to pay for food as well. Each cycle you awake, you’re able to spend your time however you like. Want to spend your first few cycles working some small jobs to earn some credits, go ahead, or maybe you’ll encounter some interesting characters that may ask you for help in other ways.

Given that Citizen Sleeper is meant to emulate a TTRPG, your actions and what you can do is actually decided by the dice that are rolled for you each cycle, letting you use those dice as ‘turns’ for whatever Drive (quests) you want. You have a few different meters to monitor and keep track of since you’re artificial, remember, so when you’re healthy you’ll be given a maximum of six dice to use. When you start to deplete energy slowly each cycle, depending on how full one of your meters are, you’ll have less dice as cycles go on.

This is where juggling many things at a time comes into play, and if I’m honest, will be quite confusing in the beginning, not knowing what to focus on at first. Do you work on saving credits for some medical supplies to refill your overall health to get more dice and thus do ‘more’ each cycle, or do you give in to your hunger and spend credits on food or repaying a debt? Each action you want to take will require one of your dice, so there’s a lot of justifying what you think the best course of action is each cycle and in the long run.

In the beginning there will only be a few activities to partake in, but as you meet more people and characters and unlock new areas of The Eye, you’ll have many more opportunities open up along the way. Higher rolls of your dice will make a successful or neutral outcome to each event more of a possibility, where using your die with a “1” on a critical event may not be the best idea when it has a high chance of failure. Certain events will need a number of different interactions to complete as well. For example, maybe the local bartender needs help restoring her rundown place, so you offer to help, but doing so requires a half dozen successful rolls of your die.

Do you use all six of your dice to finish that ‘quest’ right away if you manage to get successful rolls, negating the fact that maybe you won’t be able to do a side job for some credits and eat? Where it becomes tricky to balance is when certain events will have time limits, so figuring out what 'best' to do each cycle with your dice are what you’ll constantly be balancing and figuring out. Remember though, like any good RPG, who you decide to help, or not, will have certain outcomes. You’re not only trying to survive for yourself, but do you turn down a father asking for help trying to protect their own child for your own good?

The rolls of your die when you awake each cycle are going to play a large part of your strategy. If you have a lot of ‘1’ and ‘2’ die rolls, only having a 25% chance to be successful in a certain event is quite a risk. Though if you get lucky and have some ‘5’ or ‘6’ die rolls, they are generally a guarantee of being successful in whichever task you place it into. While you’re tied to some randomness of your die rolls in the beginning of each cycle, you could possibly get a skill later on that allows a single reroll of your remaining dice once per cycle, which became invaluable later on.

Knowing what dice to use, when and in which specific events is where a lot of your strategy will come into play. This took me probably a good few dozen cycles to really grasp, but once you do it becomes much more exciting when you ‘know’ the best flow of how you should spend each cycle. Many story elements and events utilize a clock-based timer with either beginning or ending after a set amount of cycles. At first this is going to feel very overwhelming, as there’s no possible way to do everything before timers end, so you’ll need to decide who to help and when, and even if you can given the luck of your dice at the start of each cycle. Who you decide to help or side with will have a longer lasting impact overall.

While it may take a moment to get used to calling quests Drives, this is how you can track certain missions and which node they are at on the ship. More importantly are your skills. At the beginning of your adventure you’ll choose a specific character, almost like a class, with each one having a bonus to one stat and a negative to another. You won’t know how each of these will affect your experience until much later, but completing certain drives along the way or fulfilling objectives will give you skill points to use. You can improve one of five skills tied to Interface, Endure, Engineer, Engage and Intuit, and these play an important role when using your dice on certain nodes per cycle, because they will either give your dice a bonus or a negative.

For example, let’s say one of the missions has you helping a sentient vending machine, no, I’m not even joking, and you want to work on this drive, so you decide to use one of your dice to try and be successful and fill the completion meter. Let’s say this specific mission is tied to the Engineer skill, so if you have that skill and its bonus, using your ‘3’ die will actually get a bonus and make it a ‘4’, upping the chance to be successful. The negative holds true as well, so there’s a lot of strategy of what dice to use on specific missions and when. Once you start unlocking the bonuses for skills and even the higher tiers that take two skill points, this is where Citizen Sleeper really starts to shine. By the end of my first playthrough I was able to completely refill my health, ensuring I always had six dice per cycle, I had enough credits to never worry about food and was able to do hacking missions much easier when certain ones force you to use a ‘1’ die, but now allowed me to use other dice as well.

Citizen Sleeper has a ton of dialogue and a cast of characters that you’ll meet along the way. It’s difficult to not only choose who to help, but who not to when you simply don’t have enough dice to forward progress on a Drive or knowing that your 25% chance of a positive outcome is very risky. Each character has a deep backstory and I actually became quite attached and intrigued with some of their stories, always wanting to do ‘one more cycle’ to see how it progresses. With how dialogue heavy Citizen Sleeper is, it was a bit of a letdown that there was no voice acting to go along with it. In fact, there is some low key beats that take place and are great when they do kick in, but it’s a very quiet space station, so you might want to have your own music going on in the background. The artwork for the cast you meet along the way is very well done, but nothing is animated, so it’s like reading a storyboard whenever you interact with people.

While Citizen Sleeper may not be much to look at aside the station itself and some character drawings, it conveys the vastness of space and how you’re stuck on this station in the corner of nowhere. It will take a good handful of cycles for you grasp all of its mechanics and how to play Citizen Sleeper strategically, but once it clicks, it becomes very difficult to put down when you become invested in the numerous storylines of people you meet on The Eye due to the incredible writing and choices. Wake up sleeper.

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

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Mokoko X

I can’t even remember the last time I saw a game like Mokoko X. It's been a good while but if I had to guess, it would probably be back in the 90’s when Gals Panic was released and was quite a unique gaming experience for its time. Inspired by arcade games from the 80’s and 90’s, Mokoko X isn’t the type of game we see on console very often for a few reasons. While its gameplay is simple in premise, games like these are usually known for their provocative undertones, though you can rest assured, Mokoko X is clean and has no adult content aside from some suggestive poses and dialogue.

Doing some research trying to explain the tone of Mokoko X, I actually found the perfect terminology: Ecchi. A Japanese slang term for being “dirty”, sexy” or “naughty” without being explicit, simply being flirty and playful, usually having sexual overtones but not being outright based on that. Games like the Gals Panic series one of the earlier games that did this, letting you uncover scantily clad women to get a glimpse of their undergarments the better you did while playing. While there is an adult patch for the PC version of Mokoko X, the console version is safe from nudity, so rest assured little Timmy won’t see anything he shouldn’t aside from maybe some hints of cleavage and underwear.

Normally games in this genre has one intention; having you play to uncover the naughty picture as your reward. There’s usually no story elements at all, as you’re playing for that specific reason. Mokoko X actually does include some overall narrative as well as mini stories based on each stage’s boss. Every stage has you trying to best a boss and their minions as you uncover the playfield, but each has a story behind their character or reasoning. Are these stories absolutely absurd and make no sense but at least there’s some semblance of a narrative.

Why are you battling a demonic skull with headphones that shoots musical notes? Why did someone get turned into a mosquito to annoy people? Why are ghost pirates stuck in a house tormenting one of the girls? All of these odd questions will get answered, kind of. Main story portions will unlock after all of each girls’ levels are complete, but don’t go in expecting some exciting narrative, as you’re simply trying to save the innocent girls from the dangerous predicament they find themselves in. How that makes any sense given the gameplay I’m unsure, but you don’t question and simply enjoy the gameplay.

So to actually save these girls, you need to uncover 70% of the screen or more, depending on the difficulty you choose, with your little ship that creates lines behind it. You start out along the border of the picture, and once you press ‘A’ and venture beyond the safe boundary you’re open to being attacked. Your trail behind your ship is a line, and connect that to any border or section you’ve already uncovered and it will show that portion of the picture underneath, with your goal to uncover 75% or so usually to ‘complete’ the stage and move on.

What makes this difficult is that if you get touched by any of the enemies on screen while you’re not safe on your already uncovered portions, you will lose the whole line you were just working on and also lose one health. At first I thought it was best to try and make these huge squares and get a large portion done at a time, but that was far too difficult with all the enemies and projectiles on screen most of the time. Even if enemies touch or attack your trail behind you before you connect it to uncover, this will stop your current uncovering section as well, so you’re generally best to make small sections at a time, slowly creeping in the direction you want so you can then connect a large portion at once.

While you’re riding along the edges or portions you’ve already uncovered you’re generally safe from any attacks from the rebounding enemies, though this is tied to your shield meter. Your shield meter constantly drains, but to refill it you must uncover more portions, so you don’t want to have too much idle time as you can eventually become completely unsafe when your shield meter it drained. As long as you’re constantly working to uncover portions of the screen, even if small sections at a time, you shouldn’t have to worry too much about your shield meter until you corner yourself into a small section and are waiting for a safe moment to draw your lines.

Games in this genre, at least the ones that I’ve played in the past, had your cursor as a simple glowing dot of some sorts, making it easy to distinguish where you exactly at when it gets hectic and in confined spaces. Mokoko X has you piloting a ship for whatever reason, which is essentially the same thing, but it’s harder to distinguish where your hitbox is at times given how large you are compared to the lines. You eventually get used to it, but it can be tricky figuring out how to line yourself up in between two obstacles for clearance. It’s a simple concept but can be quite challenging, especially on the final stage of each girl.

There are three different difficulty levels, each adjusting the enemies, shield and most importantly, the percentage of area required to uncover to complete the stage. Only Story Mode is available when you start, but complete each of the eight girls’ groups of levels and you’ll then unlock Arcade mode, which is almost like a hardcore mode as you’ll try to get from the first stage to the last in a single go, seeing how long you can survive.

Each of the eight girls have three levels and then a final stage, for a total of 32 levels. The first three levels will each introduce you to that stage’s boss, then the fourth stage is all the bosses at once on a much larger playfield, adding much more challenge. These final levels for each girl is where I usually had to retry a few times, as you move a bit quicker due to being zoomed out, but this also makes it very difficult to see some of the enemies’ projectiles since the camera is so far out compared to the normal levels.

Each stage’s boss is unique, quirky and has its own enemy types and attack patterns, so each level feels fresh. A few of the bosses are really unique, like adding a poison cloud behind them, shooting bouncing musical notes or pausing the game for a moment constantly due to 'lag'. There are familiar looking question mark blocks that will give you bonus points if you can ‘capture’ them by uncovering the picture around it. On harder difficulties these may have detrimental effects though, adding more challenge to possibly avoid them.

You’re scored after completing every stage based on how many lives left, how much percentage of the playfield you uncovered and more. There’s online leaderboards and you get bonus multipliers based on your difficulty level, so while there’s not much reason to play again once complete, climbing the leaderboards should be incentive enough to go back again at least a few more times. Oddly enough though, many of the leaderboards seem to be filled with bot-like names, so while I placed high on many stages, some of the other people listed were clearly bots or placeholders.

If you enjoy colorful anime waifu artwork, you’ll surely enjoy the animated picture you uncover in Mokoko X. While the artwork quality is passable, it’s also not all that impressive either. If you simply enjoy the type of gameplay these arcade games have, then this won’t even be a concern. Surprisingly there’s also Japanese and English voiceovers for the characters, and while there’s not all that much dialogue, prepare to hear the same one-liners over and over again on the stages from each boss. The voice acting itself is quite amateur at best, though the upbeat music is cute and didn’t annoy me as much as I thought it might.

While a good majority of games like these are associated with being more ‘pervy’, as you’re generally trying to uncover pictures of scantily clad women, you can tell that Mokoko X was more adult in design (it does have an adult patch on Steam) given the girls poses and some of the suggestive dialogue, it’s a fun time waster and brings me back to playing games like these back in the arcades in the early 90’s, but I can foresee many wondering what type of game this is and who would enjoy it. Possibly wait for a sale, but I'm glad to see this genre make a return.

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

Overall Score: 5.7 / 10 Gunborg: Dark Matters

I truly love twin-stick shooters, the ones where you move your character with the Left Stick and aim with the Right, allowing you to move and shoot independently regardless of your direction of movement. Developed by solo developer Rickard Paulsson, Gunborg: Dark Matters is a challenging twin-stick shooter with plenty of action and some interesting gameplay mechanics, albeit a short experience.

With a game that only lasts a handful of hours, there’s not much narrative to Gunborg: Dark Matters, opening with you leaping from your ship in space, crashing into an alien spaceship to try and defeat enemies, aliens and robots as you battle against some massive bosses. You begin with simply an energy sword, jetpack and a shield to fight your way through the alien ship but kill some aliens that are shooting at you and you can pick up and wield their arms back against them.

Choose from different difficulty modes, but be prepared to be challenged, even on the easiest setting. Even on Easy, the last handful of levels even frustrated me and took dozens of deaths and retries before being able to passed. Levels begin out easy enough, having you trying to get from point A to B in a series of individual rooms that make up the dozen chapters. Each chapter has a half dozen or so rooms to complete before moving onto the next chapter, with each fourth culminating in an interesting boss fight that will test your reflexes. Rooms are filled with enemies and traps, eventually trying to overwhelm you with sheer numbers against you all at once, but even eventually massive lasers that you need to outrun as you kill all enemies for the doors to open and let you pass.

The control scheme is interesting but takes some getting used to. You move with the Left Stick and aim with the Right, swinging your sword or shooting any picked up weapon with the Right Trigger. Right Bumper is how you extend and hold out your energy shield and Left Trigger is how you jump. It’s somewhat intuitive and makes sense, but jumping mapped to the trigger takes some getting used to, as does switching between Right Trigger and Bumper while also aiming in the specific direction you’re trying to while simultaneous moving in a different direction.

You can aim in 360 degrees around you at any time, so you’ll need to be aware of the enemies firing at you from any direction. Your shield can block and deflect enemy bullets, be used to ram into enemies and knock them back, and even used somewhat like a sled to cross gaps with spikes and hazards along the floor. Your jetpack will allow you to double and triple jump, so you’ll need to be cautious of tricky platforming sections as well as fighting against aliens and robots along the way.

Combat is very skill based, as you need to be aiming in the correct direction for attacking and blocking, something that becomes challenging when you’re surrounded and need to also maneuver in quick succession. While you simply start with a large energy sword, it can do a decent amount of damage, but the real fun comes in when you kill some aliens and they drop their guns. Any enemy’s gun can be picked up and used back against them, but they have limited ammo, basically one clip, so you’ll constantly be dropping and picking up new guns along the way. Run out of guns and ammo and you’ll always have your trust energy sword to fight back with.

With a handful of different guns, they all have different strengths and weaknesses, from shotguns, lasers, grenade launchers and more. Can’t get close, use your shield to deflect their bullets right back at them, but you need to make sure you’ve got it angled at the correct direction you want to send them back to. The shield has a limited use and durability though, so you have to let it recharge for a short while after prolonged use.

Kill enemies quick enough and get your combo chain up to a certain amount and you can go into a special Dark Energy mode, making your attacks more powerful, even changing some of the properties of weapons. It’s worthwhile to get your combo up quickly to get into this mode, as you’ll defeat enemies much quicker, almost needed in the later sections that are somewhat timed.

Combat becomes quite hectic in the later levels, some sections forcing you to fight waves of enemies before being able to move on. With just a few this isn’t too hard to manage, but when you got well over a dozen shooting at you and a moving laser getting closer by the second, combat becomes quite chaotic and challenging. While deaths cause an instant respawn without any wait, you begin at the start of that stage, so if you keep dying on the third or fourth part of said stage, you need to redo the first couple sections to get back to where you initially died. This checkpoint system was quite frustrating when you die in the last portion of a level but have to fight all the way back through a handful of rooms to try again and ultimately die all over.

If you want some extra challenge on top of the difficult later half, there’s also a handful of collectable robots to find in specific rooms, unlocking special post-game rooms and a harder difficulty. I was trying to gather all these along my way, but when you’re trying to outrun a death beam, taking a 10 second detour is not easy by any means.

Visuals are colorful yet brooding, completely fitting for a spaceship taken over by rogue aliens. Gunborg: Dark Matters has a retro vibe to match a Tron-like aesthetic that plays smoothly without any hitches. The neon pink spikes that surround many areas of the ships will kill you if touched, but pop against the darker color palette and gives Gunborg some character. The audio for each weapon is distinct, but the real standout is the 80’s synthwave soundtrack that plays in the background during your adventure is a joy to listen to and never grew tiresome.

Gunborg: Dark Matters is impressive when you realize it came from a single developer, and while it may be short, clocking in at just a couple hours, I’d definitely recommend when it’s on a decent sale. The later stages spike drastically in difficulty, but those that enjoy challenges and want to hunt collectables should enjoy themselves, even if it’s just for a few days at best.

**Gunborg: Dark Matters was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Chicken Police - Paint it RED!

Just look at the box art or a screenshot or two, and you could probably guess why Chicken Police – Paint it Red intrigued me initially. As you could guess from the title alone, yes, you’re going to play as a detective that also happens to be a chicken. Its absolutely absurd premise is what drew me to it in the first place, and while I honestly wasn’t expecting much, Chicken Police has ended up being one of my favorite games in recent memory. I’m not sure why I’ve never really paid Chicken Police any attention when it originally released back in 2020, though probably because of the state the world was shifting at the time, it’s now gotten the Xbox Series X|S treatment, the perfect excuse for me to see what this was clucking about.

I would have loved to see how the idea for this game came to be, deciding on a Film Noir detective game but the people’s heads are replaced with different animals. See, absurd, yet it works incredibly well due to its clever and witty writing along with its masterful voice work and soundtrack. Given its Film Noir backdrop you can expect plenty of swearing, grittiness, self-loathing, mystery and more, completely fitting for movies based on the 1940-1950’s era of filmmaking. Riding the line of satire and seriousness, Chicken Police surprisingly sucked me in with its detective gameplay and intriguing dark narrative. A modern take on classic ‘point-and-click’ gameplay, much of your time will be speaking to numerous different and unique characters as you try and solve the case that has fallen into your lap.

Like most Noir stories, this one starts much the same, with a mysterious Dame coming to your office pleading for help which thrusts you into a very odd case that you didn’t ask for. Chicken Police’s main hook is that all of the characters are anthropomorphic animals, meaning they are animal heads and characteristics placed on human bodies with regular arms and legs. As odd as that is, it works perfectly here due to the writing and voice acting.

Set in Clawville, a brooding city overrun by organized crime, you’ll explore your gritty home full of different locations and interesting characters throughout. You’re a veteran detective counting down the days until his retirement, 121 days to be exact, but gets himself involved in a case that’s going to be more than just dangerous to himself, but his former partner as well. You are Sonny Featherland, and alongside your former partner, Marty MacChicken, you were the infamous and legendary duo, the Chicken Police. This was once upon a time though, as Sonny and Marty aren’t on good terms any longer for good reason that I won’t delve into, so when they are forced to work together once again there will be some tense moments and accusations thrown around.

The duo are complete opposites and will need to learn to not only work together once again, but trust one another if they want to make it out of this new case alive. This all began when Sonny was minding his own business and a seductive goat named Deborah enters his office with a story that couldn’t be ignored. Deborah works for Natasha Catzenko (which you can probably guess what type of animal she is) and was sent here to recruit your help specifically. Why? This won’t become apparent until much later, but Natasha owns the local Czar Club but also seems to be involved with the local ganger mob boss, so this is going to be dangerous to say the least.

Like most noir tales, this simple ask will be anything but, spiraling into a much more involved and darker story filled with betrayal, danger, violence and more. Sonny won’t be able to do this alone, so he’ll have to amend his relationship with Marty if he wants to survive this case before his retirement dates comes. Sure there’s plenty of clichés and tropes used you’ve seen many times before in a noir setting like this, but it’s written so well with drama and humor that I didn’t even care. Clawville isn’t a safe place at the best of times, so having the Chicken Police back together again exploring the seedy underbelly of the city isn’t going to help their life expectancy.

I’ll refrain from any more story details, as it's quite an interesting narrative that I enjoyed all the way until the credits rolled, but I was absolutely hooked beginning to finish, even if I could see certain story elements happen before it was fully explained. Because of the animal characters there’s plenty of humor and puns throughout, like certain swear words changed to “clucking” and personalities of certain characters that embody their type of animal as well. Each character is memorable in their own way, with Sonny and Marty stealing the show given their amount of screen time and witty dialogue. It may seem odd at first to see human bodies with animal heads, but you eventually just accept it, and sure it gets a bit ‘weird’ when you’re at a brothel, but it is part of Chicken Police’s charm.

While the actual gameplay elements to Chicken Police may be light and mostly based on dialogue choices, there are some detective elements and a few mini-games throughout to keep things interesting. You’ll need to speak to everyone you can, investigate objects and find clues to help you in your case, and while most progression is linear, you’re able to do so at your own pace. If you’re a fan of dialogue choice games then you’ll feel right at home with Chicken Police.

While I’ll delve into the visuals shortly, the whole experience wouldn’t be the same if it wasn’t presented in the way it is, not just with the character designs, but the realistic photography used as scene backdrops with the classic black and white filter that Film Noir movies were known for. Being able to explore more than thirty different places within Clawville means you’ll have plenty of locales to investigate and explore before progressing in your latest case. Certain areas are completely optional, allowing for extra lore and dialogue with certain characters. “This city never sleeps - they say. Maybe that's why it is so cranky all the time”.

Being dialogue and narrative heavy it may feel more like a visual novel at times, but the gameplay elements have some basic ‘point-and-click’ elements embedded in as well. The more you converse with characters you’ll get to know them, their story and clues that may help you if they are going to be questioned or interrogated. Uncover certain information and you might be able to question them about certain topics, usually leading you in a certain direction or to specific people for new clues. Each scene you explore will have objects you can inspect or interact with, so it’s a good idea to interact with everything you can and talk to everyone fully before moving on.

At certain points you’ll be able to interrogate certain characters, acting as a sort of mini-game where you’ll need to choose a question from usually three or four, but you’ll need to know who you’re questioning if you want them to break and give you the answers you need. If you push too hard on someone that doesn’t like cops, they probably won’t give you the information you need. Each question will move a meter plus or minus based on how they react to your questioning. It takes a few of these interrogations to get the hang of the ‘best’ questions to ask at any given time, but you’re given clues on the best way to proceed with each character you question by asking specific types of questions or maybe avoiding a certain topic altogether. These interrogation sections can be replayed if you want to try and get a better score, as you’re rated on a star based system given how much you fill up your meter by the time the nine or ten questions are done.

Chicken Police may have an odd title that may turn you away, but you’ll be impressed with its unique artistic style and aesthetic. At first I thought the animal head on a human body was odd, especially when they are made to be sexy and seductive, but it somehow really works well. For being a world and story told in black and white, Clawville may be one of the most colorful cities I’ve explored in a game with its unique cast of characters. By the time the credits rolled after about ten hours or so, everything in Chicken Police just felt normal as I was entranced by its world, characters, dialogue and setting. While there’s not much in terms on animation other than some minor movements and transitions during dialogue, I was still impressed by its own cinematic experience throughout. “Weirdly stunning” is how it’s officially described, and I couldn’t explain it any better myself from its aesthetics and how unique it appears.

What needs a special mention though is the audio as a whole. If it wasn’t for the 100% fully voiced over dialogue, I can guarantee I wouldn’t have enjoyed Chicken Police nearly as much as I did. Over eight hours of spoken dialogue was recorded, even for minor conversations and item descriptions, and it doesn’t go unnoticed. Not only is it fully voiced, but it’s done so to perfection by a large cast of characters, even to the minor ones that don’t get as much screen time as Sonny and Marty.

Kerry Shale couldn’t have possibly done a better job as Sonny, not only performing with the raspy and worn down voice you’d expect from a Noir title, but adding some humor and impeccable comedic timing. Shai Matheson as Marty was the perfect counterpart, and as a pair they made the perfect match of a believable chicken duo, as odd as that is to write and admit. The rest of the cast also did a wonderful job, making you believe that’s how their animal really would speak and act. All of this spoken dialogue would be for naught if it wasn’t for the witty and clever writing though, as I never once wanted to skip the dialogue and even had a handful of laughs, especially when “clucking” was the swear word of choice of the duo.

Even more impressive than the already perfect voice work is the stunning and beautiful soundtrack. If you take a moment to think of some smooth jazz and if you were choosing music for a Film Noir game, Chicken Police has it and is absolutely fantastic. I actually have it blasting in the background as I write this review, and the main song that Natasha sings, ‘My City Is On Fire’, is simply perfect. Special kudos to Laszlo 'vincenzo' Vincze for the amazing soundtrack filled with plenty of piano melodies. I can’t think of one way it could be any more fitting for this backdrop.

I honestly came into Chicken Police expecting not very much, maybe because of its silly title and premise, but I can admit when I’m wrong. I came away with an amazingly unique experience that I can’t speak highly enough of. Even though it may not seem like it takes itself serious initially, it’s done so well in every aspect that I truly fell in love with the game, probably one of the better games I’ve played in recent memory. Sure, some might find the premise absurd, as did I initially, but give it a chance and Chicken Police may take you by surprise if you give it the time to sink its beak into you. If you’re a fan of Noir style settings and games, Chicken Police is one of the best indie games I’ve recently played and had a clucking good time.

**Chicken Police - Paint it Red! was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 9.3 / 10 Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril

Every time I go to play a game that is trying to emulate what gaming was back when I grew up on an NES, I’m always reminded and surprised how hard gaming was back in those days. Many games back in the mid 80’s were brutally difficult and we just accepted it, that’s just how it was. I don’t think it was until decades later that I was actually able to beat the Mega Man’s, Contra’s, Blaster Master’s and more of the gaming world.

Born during the original NES era, I have a soft spot for 8-bit games that I grew up with, so naturally I was drawn towards Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril, developed by Sivak Games. This game was actually released way back in 2010, but as an actual NES cartridge, one of the first early hits of the NES homebrew scene. Published by 8-Bit Legit, Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril is now released for Xbox players to discover and enjoy with the caveat being that you’re a fan of those brutally difficult classic games from the NES era.

Inspired by Mega Man, Metroid and Castlevania, Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril is simple in premise but can be extremely challenging at the best of times, even with numerous difficulty options. I’ve clearly aged and don’t find myself enjoying dying over and over, which is probably why I don’t gravitate towards the Souls games, but I’m unable to fault Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril for being challenging, as that is its premise, as games from this era were simply this hard. I’ll admit, I made a conscious decision not to play with my Elite Series 2 controller, as I knew that I was going to become frustrated and didn’t want any risk of smashing or throwing my controller out the window. I made a good choice, as there were times where I was about to cross that line after dying a few dozen times in the same area.

Retro at its heart, you’re able to choose from a Story or Arcade Mode, depending on how much narrative element you want to sit through. While very few games from this era were very narrative heavy aside from RPG’s, I commend Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril for at least having a story to give you some backdrop and premise of why you’re fighting. Timmy is simply a young kid minding his own business talking to one of the scientists when something seems to happen outside, as it appears explosions are occurring and there’s a commotion. You’re told to stay put while the adults go and investigate what’s happened.

You’re a curious young kid though, so of course you’re going to not stay put and go see what has happened. After some brief exploring you find the scientist amongst the rubble as it appears the base has been attacked by someone, or something. You’re given a special keycard and told to pursue who has done this. You’re just a kid though, what can you do? Turns out it seems as though the scientists have been working on a special combat suit, so now it’s up to Timmy to stop the bad guy and recover what was stolen. This suit of course enhances Timmy’s natural abilities, allowing you be stronger and shoot from a blaster, much like Mega Man. So you take off to go pursue your target, but finding them won’t be easy, as the island you arrive on houses a fortress filled with enemies, traps and a handful of challenging bosses.

Much like Mega Man games, you’ll be platforming by jumping from ledge to ledge while using your blaster to shoot any enemies in your way. Unlike Mega Man though where you choose a certain level to play before defeating its boss and moving to the next, Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril instead has one large world, interconnected with rooms with multiple different branches and paths, many of which won’t be accessible until you have certain keys or abilities like the double jump you’ll find along the way, adding a Metroidvania aspect to the gameplay. This is all well and good, but with no map present, it’s going to take a lot of notes or paying attention to remember which ways you’ve previously gone or haven't before.

Much like games from this era, you’re going to die, a lot, and then even more times. From landing on one-hit death spikes, getting shot by other enemies or falling to the difficult bosses, just be ready to die more times than you can count. This is why Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril actually has a password system, numerous checkpoints and a death counter. Before starting though, quickly go over to the settings and choose your outer edge border, because Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril plays in a classic aspect ratio, so the outer edges can be filled with some artwork or made to emulate what the old classic TV’s looked like back in the day, complete with classy wood vinyl accents.

While there are multiple different difficulty options to choose from, even me trying to complete Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril on Very Easy tested my patience and reflexes at the best of times. Each difficulty up makes enemies harder and gives you less life, so even with a number of life blocks on the easier difficulties, I’d still die to bosses a handful of times before winning, or land on the instant death spikes more times than I can count. How you’re expected to complete the game on the harder difficulties with only one life bar is beyond me, but the challenge is there if you wish.

The first sections of the game will be fairly linear with maybe just a single branching path or two, but eventually you’ll start to hit blocked paths by certain blocks or seemingly impassable walls given how high and far you can jump. You’re going to find special keys, objects and abilities along the way, as well as specific teleport points labeled ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, etc. Given that the game is one large map, you’re expected to remember where you’ve been or where you should head back to where you were once unable to pass once you have a specific key or ability. Without a map this is of course very difficult if you don’t have a photographic memory, and I can’t even count how much time I wasted going in circles to places I’ve already been simply trying to figure out where I saw that blocked path I should be able to go through now.

Just like classic Mega Man, rooms will ‘reset’ every time you go back to one, even if just for a moment as you transition from one to the next and back. With well over 500 rooms and dozens of enemy types, you’re going to be challenged all the way until the credits roll. Back in the 8-Bit era, games usually opted to use a password system given that not all cartridges had batteries to keep those game saves, and it’s no different here. Every checkpoint you reach here will give you a unique password based on your location, upgrades and unlocks at that point, so get a pen and paper ready if you want to ever take a break from frustration and come back later.

While there are a decent amount of checkpoints throughout the fortress you’re exploring, every time you die you’ll be taken back to the last one you enabled. This is great, except for when you use one just before a boss, defeat said boss, then die before finding another checkpoint. The game doesn’t remember you beat the boss since you haven’t found another checkpoint since, so you’ll probably be fighting a few of the bosses a couple times until you do, something I found myself doing a handful of times.

Aesthetically, Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril looks as though it came straight from the mid-80’s alongside others in the genre at the time. Are you going to be impressed by its graphics, most likely not, but keeping in mind that this originally released on an actual NES cartridge with the same limitations, it’s an impressive feat. Sure it doesn’t look as polished as the greats like Mega Man, but again, for a single developer aiming to recreate a game for that era, it’s remarkable. The audio on the other hand is done very well, with catchy chiptune music that also feels as though it was taken straight from the era, fitting for the different backdrops and biomes as you explore.

Your enjoyment will surely depend on your resilience to frustration when it comes to dying over and over again, and while I would at times border on rage from having to do a certain section dozens of times, finally completing that section or boss was exciting and felt incredibly rewarding. Completing Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril, even on Very Easy, was quite a challenge, and I can’t fathom Unfair where you get one hit and life, but the challenge is there should you desire. While not as polished as some of the greats of the genre, Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril was an exciting yet infuriating time down 8-Bit nostalgia lane.

**Battle Kid: Fortress of Peril was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Glam's Incredible Run: Escape from Dukha

Chances are that if you’re a fan of challenging 2D platformers, you’ve most likely spent many hours with Super Meat Boy, Celeste and a handful of others in the genre, dying hundreds of time as you try and reach the end of every stage. The latest game that takes inspiration from these classics is Glam's Incredible Run: Escape from Dukha from indie developers Three Legged Egg and published by Red Art Games.

Generally in games like these there’s not a large focus on story and narrative, instead centering on the gameplay itself, which is why fans of the genre keep coming back for more. What I found odd is that there’s absolutely no story within the game itself, yet the store and game page talks about how you, Glam, are trying to rescue her mother from the realm of Caterina. How she was taken by some sort of evil witch, why, and any other questions you could come up with are not explained or even brought up in the beginning at all. As long as you go in knowing that there’s essentially no story element whatsoever and you’ll be focusing on the gameplay solely, you'll be fine.

An incredibly challenging 2D platformer, Glam is placed into a stage and must make it to the portal at the other end of the room. This is easier said than done though, as you’re going to have to use your jumping abilities, climbing, hair swinging and more if you want any chance of trying to survive and make it to the next stage. You’ll not only be having to wall jump and navigate over chasms, spikes, bullets and more, but you’ll sometimes also have to deal with some goblins and skulls with sunglasses that like to shoot projectiles at you. If that wasn’t enough, there’s some light puzzle elements as well with switches to hit, collectables to try and get and more.

Before you begin your adventure and dying repeatedly though, you’ll want to customize Glam to your liking. You can change the color of her hair, skin, eyes, top, skirt, boots and jewelry. Is there any real point aside from making her look how you want? No, not really, as there’s no gameplay differences, just simply the colors you want to see her dressed in including her hair.

Speaking of her hair, this is where one of Glam’s main skills comes into play. In many platforming games like these you usually have some sort of rope, grapple hook or dash to swing from point to point, but Glam does so with her hair. Yes, you read that right. Glam somehow has the ability to control her hair, use it like a rope and swing with it at specific points. She’s also able to grab onto certain rock portions, allowing her to hang or climb for a short period of time before she gets too tired and will let go. The same goes for swinging with her hair, as you can only do so for a short time before she will fall.

Platforming games like this live or die by its controls. If it’s not precise, players will become frustrated and not want to continue playing due to dying for what seems not their fault. I wish I could say I never became frustrated, but this review took me much longer than I expected for an indie game like this due to having to take breaks now and then when I was dying on the same level dozens of times. While I’ve never been fantastic at the genre, I’m decent, but I’m not sure if it’s the controls or design, but I struggled nearly my whole time with Glam's Incredible Run: Escape from Dukha.

Simply moving with the stick and then just three buttons, ‘X’ for your hair swing, ‘Right Trigger’ for grabbing onto walls, and ‘A’ for jump, gameplay should have been easy, but sometimes just feels ‘off’. I’m not sure if it’s simply the default button layout or what, but I lost count how many times I died because I either pressed the wrong button or somehow didn’t hit it in time. When having to grab onto walls or swing, it’s almost like it feels a bit delayed somehow. After a handful of hours I was still having issues on the levels when it becomes chaotic and you need to chain jumps, swings and moves to reach the end of the stage in quick succession.

Speaking of stages, there are 11 Chapters, each with its own backdrop, enemies and theme. The first few worlds aren’t too bad challenge wise, but there’s definitely some imbalance that needs to be addressed. Each Chapter has a good handful of levels with 220 in total. That’s a lot of levels to die in and I’m still trying to reach the final Chapters. Each Chapter tends to add some new mechanic or enemy type, as eventually you’ll be dealing with spiked walls and platforms, shooting skulls, switches to make platforms appear and disappear, bullets to jump on or swing from and more. It keeps the gameplay fresh when you don’t get stuck on a specific level for a prolonged period of time, but that happens often. Every now and then you get a level that the difficulty spike is massive that will cause you to die a hundred times, then the next might be a simple level that I beat first try, so the balance can feel a bit off at times.

With every level being handcrafted, there’s one clear correct path to the finish that will take a bunch of trial and error to sometimes figure out, not even counting the precision movement and timing needed to actually do so. For those that really want more of a challenge, certain levels also have a collectable to try and get, but these are usually incredibly difficult to reach and finish the level alive, to the point where I basically started to ignore them as it was causing me to get frustrated more than normal. A note that I made when I missed a collectable early on was that you can go back and replay a Chapter, but there’s no level select within each Chapter, so if you miss one collectable and move onto the next stage, you’re going to have to replay the whole Chapter from the beginning for another attempt to nab it. Thankfully when you die, and you will hundreds of times, you start at the beginning of the stage instantly after a quick respawn in less than a second, so there’s no waiting around for the level to reset.

What I didn’t expect was a multiplayer co-op mode where you and a local friend can play in 60 unique levels that differ from the single campaign. You’re going to need teamwork and a lot of communication if you want any chance of beating these levels though. Even more so is that you’re going to need a partner that is equally skilled as you, as if you thought the exact timing and precision was difficult in single player, both players in co-op will need to do so in unison and tandem at times to complete certain levels.

Aesthetically, Glam's Incredible Run: Escape from Dukha is bright and colorful, looking almost like an animated comic at times. While I question Glam’s design, the backgrounds are done well with some detail, but there’s a lot repetition with assets being reused throughout, causing for some tiredness if playing for a prolonged period of time in one sitting. There are some cute Easter eggs hidden if you take the time to look, like fossils of Pac-Man, EVE from Wall-E and a few others hidden in the soil sections of certain levels. As for the soundtrack, there’s a few good tracks, but there’s not a lot of selection and it doesn’t seem to always fit the mood of the gameplay, so the same few songs get repeated over and over, so after an hour or so you’ll want to put your own Spotify playlist on.

Glam's Incredible Run: Escape from Dukha has well over 200 levels, but they can feel very lifeless much of the time. With no story or reason, there’s not much reasoning to play for aside from wanting to complete all of the challenging levels. The difficulty spikes were hard to deal with, becoming frustrated when stuck on a level for quite some time, then breezing through the next handful no problem.

If you’re up for a challenge, Glam's Incredible Run: Escape from Dukha can offer a good few hours of platforming, and while the difficulty curve is all over the place like a seeing random speedbump placed on a highway out of nowhere, the gameplay itself is decent if you can get used to the controls. Priced fairly at $5 USD, Glam's Incredible Run: Escape from Dukha might not wow you, but it will scratch that 2D platforming itch if you enjoy challenging yourself.

**Glam's Incredible Run: Escape from Dukha was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Slipstream

Out Run was so popular when it released back in 1986 that it became quite an iconic game for the racing genre, so much so that even my wife had played it at some point, and she’s not even all that much of a gamer. There was something exciting when you saw that Ferrari sit-down arcade machine back when they existed, and it took quite a few quarters from my pocket growing up. When I started playing Slipstream, developed by Ansdor Games, my wife even asked me “Are you playing Out Run?”. If you couldn’t tell already tell what Slipstream’s direct inspiration was, it’s a modern-yet-retro take on the iconic Out Run.

Just like the game it takes inspiration from, Slipstream has the same setup with you racing against the clock or rivals with some awesome driving mechanics, fantastic retro graphics and an even better synthwave soundtrack that kept me wanting to race after each game ended. Inspired by the 80’s and 90’s, it looks as though it came straight out of that era, purposely, and has a handful of awesome references that you might catch if you have a keen eye, though don’t expect any blondes in your passenger seat in this game.

While there’s no career per-se, there are a handful of different game modes to play depending on your mood. Grand Tour is what I’d call the ‘main’ mode, playing out much like how Out Run did all those years ago. Here you race across different areas and biomes, where at the end of each segment you’ll decide to go Left or Right, all within a specified time limit. Reach the end of each section within the allotted time and you can move onto the next stage that is sectioned off on the grid like a pyramid.

Grand Prix is where you can challenge in one of three Cups that consist of five races. You can choose to play with stock cars, or interestingly can pick to have upgradable ones, tuning your car how you like from stats of Speed, Acceleration and Handling. The higher you place per race the more money you earn, which you can then upgrade your stats, so you better place well in the first race or two or you’ll struggle. The Cups get harder as you progress through, so it’s a great challenge to see how your driving skills have improved over the hours of playing.

Another mode I quite enjoyed was Battle Royal. This is essentially just an elimination race where the last to cross the finish line in each segment gets knocked out until there’s one winner. You can choose a number of different participants depending on how long you want to race for, but these races always added that extra touch of tenseness knowing you can’t finish last or you’re out.

Lastly you have Cannonball, Single Race and Time Attack Mode, with the last two being quite self-explanatory. Cannonball is basically a Custom Mode where you can choose the rivals, traffic and more settings to have a really particular setup. With most of these modes you’re able to play with up to four players simultaneously, though if you’re looking for online play or even leaderboards, sadly they are missing.

Slipstream is like going back into the past playing one of my favorite racers growing up, and while I normally can see right through many games that simply try to clone the success of others regardless of how much time has gone by since, Slipstream surely took its inspiration from Out Run, but has made it its own experience that is worthwhile. You might not be able to tell that Slipstream just released in this modern age with its retro style graphics, but that’s what it’s trying to be. If you really want a nostalgia hit, you can even go into the options for some fun visual options like NTSC and CRT filters if you want to pretend you’re playing on an old school TV that weighed a tonne.

You’re given just a few cars to select from, each with their own body kit and stats, and while they might not be licensed, it’s obvious which car they are supposed to resemble. Don’t expect any supercars here though, these are more meant for drifting at crazy speeds. Some will have higher top speeds but poor handling, others the opposite, while the rest are generally pretty decent across all three being more balanced. It takes some time to learn the drifting mechanics, so you’ll want to pick one car and stick with it until you get that aspect of racing down.

There are two main mechanics you’ll need to learn and become quite skilled in if you want to start winning those Grand Prix, Grand Tours and Battle Royals; drifting and slipstreaming. First off, mastering the drift. We all know what drifting is ever since The Fast and Furious became super popular, keeping your momentum going forwards but around corners at extreme angles, it’s no different here. Once you master how to do so properly, there’s a certain smile you get on your face when you’re able to drift around corners perfectly and within those tight S-curves going from one direction to the next in succession.

Easy to learn, hard to master is kind of the best way to describe it. To initiate a drift you have to tap the break then quickly get back on the gas while steering in a direction. Sounds simple, but knowing what lane you’re in on the road and trying to avoid traffic and opponents is where it starts to get tricky. Not every corner is the same curvature or length, so you need to always be watching the edges to see when the corner ends abruptly. If you hit the objects on the outer edge, just like Out Run, your car will do a few flips before landing back on your wheels, but you’ll have lost all of your momentum. Luckily there’s a rewind feature where you can go back in time five seconds to hopefully adjust and do it properly the second chance.

Slipstream is another mechanic you’ll need to learn if you want those first place finishes. It’s essentially a fancy name for drafting, where you race behind another car, and because they’re in front taking all the wind, you’ll slowly gain speed, able to slingshot past them when close. Combining this with drifting makes for some exhilarating races when you’re barely holding onto the pavement and your rear tires are inches from crashing into the wall at your tail. Aside from those two main mechanics, that’s what Slipstream has to offer, and while it may seem light on paper reading this, it brings me back to a time when games like this were meant to be simple yet has some modern takes on classic gameplay.

Aesthetically, it looks just like you would expect a small studio’s take on Out Run would look like, complete with retro pixel graphics and animation style, but with modern framerates and no slowdown. Slipstream’s greatest feature though is its synthwave soundtrack that always had my head bobbing. There’s only a few tracks but each is done wonderfully. I wasn’t sure how such a mellow soundtrack would fit with a high speed drift racer, but it works, even better so with its soundtrack. Even the tires squealing during each drift never become tiresome and make you feel like the car is barely sticking to the pavement.

Slipstream has simple controls, and once you master how to drift it becomes quite exciting to take the inside lane at a sharp angle as you overtake your rivals. I have no doubt I enjoyed it just that little bit more as I grew up in the era Slipstream is trying to mimic, and I had no idea I was missing Out Run so much until this filled that void. I just wish it had some online component or even Leaderboards would have probably added some longevity over time.

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

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Young Souls

I’ve been a fan of beat-em-ups for many years. Classics like Double Dragon, Battles Toads, Streets of Rage, Fatal Fury and more are some of the staples in the genre, so whenever a new game releases I’m generally intrigued, more so if its artwork is beautiful. Developed by 1P2P and published by The Arcade Crew, Young Souls is the latest action role playing game that is not only gorgeous to look at, but addictive to play. Better yet, it’s on Game Pass, so if you’re a member you can go play it right now. So grab a controller, hopefully a friend to play alongside on the couch and get ready to smack down some goblins, level up and sort through dozens of weapons and armor with challenging combat.

It might be because I’m a bit older now, but the introduction to main characters Jenn and Tristan emphasize how restless and bored they are sitting at home doing nothing. As orphans, the siblings were taken in and adopted by the town’s scientist. While they’re grateful to have somewhere to stay, they don’t call him Dad and hate being stuck doing errands for him all the time as he’s always in the basement doing his work. The multilevel house has some secrets though, as there’s a locked door that you’ve been told to never go inside. Naturally the siblings are curious but he professor never lets them in or tells them what’s behind the door. Life is boring for the duo until one day when the professor disappears without a trace. The mysterious locked door is finally open, so naturally you go in to explore and see maybe he’s down there.

This is where their world gets turned upside down. They find a portal to another world called the Moon Gate, able to transport you between the human world we know and the underground Goblin’s land. As you grab a rusty sword and some flimsy armor, you’ll need to find your adopted Dad, but doing so won’t be easy with a Goblin onslaught trying to make their way to the surface and escape their underground prison.

The story branches a bit further from here with a cast of interesting characters, and while it can be a bit predictable on your search to find your Dad, it was written well and more narrative heavy than I was initially expecting. Most beat-em-ups aren’t generally lauded for their story and dialogue, but I was quite surprised with Young Souls, especially in the first hour or so where there’s quite a bit of dialogue and setup. With plenty of cutscenes you can expect a lot of back and forth between the twins deciding on the best course of action or maybe some fighting, and there’s also a surprising amount of swearing. Sure, they’re teenagers so they’re going to swear, but it just surprised me a bit with the amount. The only wish I had was that the dialogue was voiced, but sadly it’s not.

A side scrolling beat-em-up at its core, there’s plenty of RPG elements as well that makes the gameplay addictive, as you want to continue playing one more dungeon to get some potential gear upgrades. Playable solo or in couch co-op, Jenn and Tristan will explore four different dungeons, each with their own biome, so expect to play for about a dozen hours or so depending on your difficulty and how much of a completionist you are.

I played through Young Souls completely solo, so you’re able to tag in your other sibling at any point with a quick tap of ‘Left Bumper’, swapping them out on the fly. If you’ve taken damage, swapping to your other sibling will have the hurt one slowly regenerate some of the damage taken, so it becomes a necessity if you want to survive on the harder difficulty. If playing couch co-op you’re able to play alongside a friend, though sadly there’s no online component to play otherwise.

You’ll be traversing between the two worlds back and forth, thankfully this can be done easily with a tablet you have to warp to specific gates and points you’ve been to before. To get around the overworld town you do have a moped to get around quicker, though you’ll rarely use it. Town is where you’ll find the Mayor, shops to purchase some new sneakers, clothes and the Happy Fit gym where you’ll train to increase your stats after you level up.

There’s no traditional skill tree, so instead you’ll earn experience points for killing goblins as you explore the dungeons below. Once you’ve leveled up you’ll need to travel back to your attic bedroom to sleep and use your earned experience. At certain levels you’ll also get a gym ticket that allows you to play a minigame to improve your Strength, Stamina or Resistance. The two siblings can train different stats, so if you want to make one more ‘tanky’ you can or one the powerhouse damage dealer, go right ahead. These minigames are just button spamming at specific intervals as you lift weights, do sit-ups or ride a bike, and while they’re not all that fun they are finished in about 30 seconds or so. The better you do the more stars you earn which will raise your chosen stat a higher amount if you earn five stars.

You’re able to earn regular cash, used to purchase coveted and expensive sneakers that can give some pretty incredible bonuses if you’re able to save up enough. You can also hit the clothing shop to buy some new threads for your characters, though this have no stats at all and are only shown when in the human world, as walking around with armor and weapons in your regular town would draw attention of course.

The bulk of your time in Young Souls takes place underground, this is where you’ll explore four different dungeons with multiple branching paths. Large doors will give you an idea of the suggested level to attempt that section and along the way you’ll find plenty of locked chests and doors that you’ll need specific Bronze, Silver, Gold and other keys for to access. This means that you’ll be traveling back to certain dungeons to access doors after you finally have specific keys to access these areas. This of course means backtracking, but thankfully once you figure out how the warp system works it’s not all that difficult to do so as there are many checkpoints along the way. The map system can be a little confusing, but standing in front of a door will show if you’ve been down that pathway or not, laid out almost like a Metroidvania.

Beat-em-ups can be remarkably deep mechanics wise, and while some are basic with just a few button presses, Young Souls has just enough to keep you engaged without becoming a mindless button masher. You’ll not only need to attack, but dodging, blocking and parrying plays a large part of our defense as well, especially when multiple Goblins are attacking you at once. Time a block just as you get attacked and a parry will leave them open for some attacks, a necessity for larger shielded enemies.

Your attack moves will vary and change based on the weapon and type you’re using and you’ll also have a ranged ability as you find them in your dungeon delving. You’ll be able to use a ranged bow, toss a bomb, mine or use some other unique abilities. These can be upgraded with special stones you find dropped from bosses as well, so it can play a large part of your overall combat strategy. With plenty of accessibility options, Young Souls can be turned from a very challenging combat brawler into a much easier experience with auto blocking, more player damage and more options if there’s a younger player that wants to experience the game without becoming frustrated and constantly dying.

With about 20 or so bosses to find along your journey, these are the most challenging yet fun portions I had in Young Souls. While many were basic and didn’t require any unique strategies, the challenge definitely kept me on my toes and needing to use my health potions. Certain enemies and bosses also have a specific parry endurance bar, so you’ll need to sometimes counter attacks before you can lay the damage on them. Combat overall feels very rewarding and satisfying, moving from the left side of the screen to the right, room to room.

As you explore dungeons and rescue certain prisoned characters, they’ll choose to help you and huge in the over world but in the sewers. This is where you’ll be able to purchase and upgrade your weapons and armor, so you’ll need to smash barrels and jars to find hidden gems and components if you want to improve your gear. I upgraded one of the final weapons to its maximum and was able to basically one-shot most enemies near the end, which felt super satisfying when I was saving all my collectables until late game. With tons of weapon and armor variety, including set bonuses, there’s plenty of gear to find what suits your playstyle and preferences, but keep in mind there’s weight for gear as well, so the heavier you are the slower you’ll move, but the offset is that you’re generally more protected or are swinging a heavier higher damaging weapon.

For how much I enjoy getting new gear and upgrading them, it was also the most frustrating part as well. There’s no easy way to compare what you’re wearing versus what you want to buy or sell. There’s also no safeguard in place to prevent you from selling gear you’re currently wearing, a lesson I sadly learned the hard way. This aspect could have used a little more work to be a bit friendlier so I didn’t feel the need to make notes of stats and names, though not a deal breaker.

Young Souls is visually striking with its bright and colorful pallet that appears to be like an animated comic. The animation is done wonderfully and the contrast between the two worlds has a great duality that emphasizes some of the narrative tones as well. The soundtrack is catchy though the lack of any voice acting was a bit of a letdown. Given how narrative heavy Young Souls is I’m sure it would have been no simple or cheap task, but feels like a missed opportunity to make it that more special.

Young Souls has a satisfying gameplay loop that has you exploring dungeons, attaining gear and delving deeper for more bosses. That said, with no New Game+ mode after the credits rolled, there’s little reason to go back aside from working towards the 100% completion. Given that Young Souls is available on Game Pass currently, there’s no reason that you can’t check it out and see if you becomw just as addicted with ‘one more dungeon’ as I did. I now live by the stone.

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

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Videogame 5

It’s been a little while since I’ve been able to sink my teeth into a Supercross game, so I was curious to see how Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Videogame 5 would pan out considering last year’s release was passable at best. With yearly entries coming in fast and furious for the indoor Supercross series, the fifth entry definitely has some improvements over previous entries, but is it enough for another yearly purchase and add enough new content to excite? The answer is somewhere in the middle.

The bulk of your time will take place in the new Career Mode and is essentially what you’d expect in a sport centric title like this. You start as a rookie entering the sport, and while there’s no real ‘story’ per-se, you’re simply moving up the ranks and classes to try and become the champion. Start out in the ‘Futures’ class, proving yourself before moving up to the 250SX class (East and West) then finally proving you’re the Pro champion at the 450SX level. Future has 3 races, 250SX has 9 per and 17 for the Pro 450SX. This of course doesn’t include qualifying races and other side events you can partake in, but you can do the math and see how quickly you could get through the core Career Mode if you try. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though, as I was initially enjoying going through the different classes and improving my rankings to win the championship of my category. I even went through both 250SX categories, East and West, and by the time I was nearing the end of the Pro series, I was more wanting it to be complete so I could be done with it, though to be fair I was trying to power through the Career in a weekend instead of slowly enjoying it.

Career Mode this time around has a few new additions that seem interesting at first and are certainly unique, but not sure if they warrant a purchase at full price if you’re still playing last year’s version. One of the more unique mechanics now added is what’s called the Rider Shape System that plays into your rider’s physical conditioning and injuries sustained during races if you are constantly crashing and bailing. Between races you’ll be shown your racer’s condition, anywhere from injured to perfect shape. Certain injuries can actually affect your performance as a rider, so you’ll need to make sure you take care of these so you can be at the top of your competitive game.

This is where Workout Sessions come into play. Taking you to the freeform Compound area, you’ll be asked with collecting five letters spelling S-H-A-P-E, attaining a certain score and then performing a certain amount of tricks like Scrubs, Whips or a Backflip. Depending on how many of these objectives you complete in the very short three minute timer will determine how much healthier your rider becomes afterwards. Keep in mind though, you only get one shot, so you may not get healed fully if you don’t perform well here, going into your next race at a disadvantage.

Between main races you can also choose to partake in training events, teaching not just some base skills, but its way to trying to show you specific strategies in races or how to properly perform certain moves. These become much more challenging as time goes on and may simply feel like glorified training modules, but I did learn a few things to make my racing better overall. There are even optional events you can join in on each week as well if you want to add some more credits to purchase new gear, but eventually money becomes such a moot point that there’s no real need to unless you really want to extended your play time as you wait for next year’s inevitable release.

You’ll also create your custom rider, though don’t expect much here as it’s bare bones as it gets. You can choose from a handful of different faces and hairstyles, change the base color of your hair, and that’s about it. Granted, you’re always going to have your helmet on and be racing when not in menus or watching the opening and closing cutscenes per race, but there’s so few options here that I didn’t even really bother caring what they looked like, which is unfortunate, as I’m usually the type to spend an hour on customizing your character to exactly how I want.

Once you reach the 450SX category after completing 250 West or East, Rivals will unlock. This is where you and another racer are told you’re rivals. Why? I’m not sure, but beating them in a few different categories will earn you a cash bonus per race if successful. Nab that Holeshot, crash less and beat their placement and you’ll almost always win against your rivals. They have a different colored name on the track, but I don’t really see the reason for this, as there’s nothing else to it. They aren’t more aggressive towards you, don’t taunt you or anything of the like, so it seems like an idea that didn’t get fleshed out properly to have any meaningful impact. By the time you reach Pro level, money isn’t really an issue unless you’re wanting to buy new parts or bikes anyways.

There’s also a journal you can check between races that give you a laundry list of optional side objectives to complete overtime. Most of these are basic such as performing certain moves like Scrubs and Whips a certain amount of times or gaining an ability point each of the four milestones you reach for completion. There’s no easy way to stick these on the screen or anything, so you need to constantly go back to the Journal between every race to see how your progress is coming in these optional objectives if you want more skill points.

If you know anything about motocross you then most likely also know or heard of Ricky Carmichael who just also happens to help you take your first steps into this Supercross sport in the early tutorials. Starting out in the Futures category you’ll be eased into the gameplay with a tutorial that will teach you the basics of riding, leaning, jumps, whoops, scrubs and more. Keeping your momentum and speed are how you’re going to win races, and without these basic skills you won’t be standing on many podiums, so best pay attention and practice, though it will take some time for it to all feel natural without thinking.

While I jumped into Career Mode right away, you might want to get a few races under your belt first to get a feel for the controls and how to properly launch and scrub so that you know how to keep up your speed in these intense official courses. Free Roam lets you return to the Compound to freely drive around a private area to explore, Time Attack, Singe Event, Championship and an Online mode are available depending on what you want to do.

Having played one or two of the previous games, Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Videogame 5 definitely feels different, even from its opening moments. Previous games felt a bit ‘floaty’ to me, but that seems to have been improved. Bikes feel much more ‘weightier’ now. No longer can you take the corners at full speeds, as you’ll need to make sure your weight is properly placed if you want to exit at a decent speed without bailing. Not only did I have to get used to taking my finger off the throttle, I had to use the brakes quite often as well.

To be successful you’re going to have to learn how to keep your speed up during turns, bends, whoop sections and more. There’s not many long straightaways, so momentum plays a huge part between first and last place. Not knowing how to lean back and ride whoops (like speedbumps and moguls) will stop you quickly or have you bail. Don’t hit a ramp section with the right speed and you’ll be bouncing from the top of each mound rather than leaping over and probably crashing when you go off track into the barriers. There is an option to enable jump lines which I found quite helpful, much like race lines that show you to turn and slowdown in racing games like Forza, but here they show you how far you should be aiming to jump in air for best results. Unfortunately they aren’t color coded, so it will take quite a bit of practice to learn what the small and large arrows mean in relation to your speed since they don’t hint if you should be going faster or slower to properly do so.

If you do end up bailing or landing in a bad angle, you are given the ability to rewind time and try to correct yourself, but these are limited. You start out with three rewinds that will mostly likely be used quite quickly in the beginning, so what do you do when they are all gone? Well, you’re going to have to land some big air, jumps, scrubs and whips to refill the bars slowly. This of course will have you trying to attempt risky moves when maybe you shouldn’t, but getting that much needed rewind can make a difference in placement.

While the bikes themselves feel heavier and control better than previous years, the AI from your opponents are as brain dead as they get. Instead of good rider AI, it seems a majority of the time the other CPU racers are basically on rails, yet will crash often and make odd choices when it comes to certain jumps. When I’m stuck in the middle of the pack, it seems as though they don’t always have to adhere to the same physics and rules that I do, as they can power through a corner at double my speed without any repercussions even with my bike fully upgraded. Difficulty seems all over the place as well, as Easy will have you lapping opponents a number of times per race, but Hard seems overly punishing and they don’t care if you’re in their race line.

The Compound makes a return, an open outdoor area full of hills, trees and numerous tracks throughout. There are twenty collectables to find, giving you a special suit and livery for your bike if you manage to find them all, but don’t get your hopes up for anything too special. While I appreciate the space to play around to have fun in, there’s nothing really here worth spending the time in unless you simply want a change of scenery from the indoor tracks. Track Editor returns also, allowing you to create the track of your dreams and share it with the rest of the community. There’s a few new tools, namely the Rhythm Section Editor which essentially allows you to save a section of your track, almost like a template, then use that in your other tracks so you don’t have to make a section of track from each individual piece. The editor is still clumsy and cumbersome to use, and while there’s no crazy pieces like loops as the game is rooted in reality, there are a few unique community creations out there worth checking out.

There is a Skill Point system in place within the campaign, allowing you to upgrade certain aspects like braking, cornering, Scrub control and more. You can only reach certain tiers bases on the series category you’ve reached, with the final upgrades being within the Pro 450SX unlock. While there’s many to unlock, it seemed impossible to tell if any of these were making much of a difference. It will take quite a grind if you want to unlock the whole skill tree, but you should have about half of it filled by the time you complete the 450SX championship.

The other half of the customization comes with your rider outfit and components for your bike. The suits, helmets boots and more are simply cosmetic, but there are plenty of choices from a handful of real world sponsors and brands. There are a few special and unique options, but don’t expect anything wacky like chicken suits or anything of the sort that you wouldn’t see in the actual sport. Bike customization also has a large list of manufacturers and parts, both which change the look of the bike for that component and the stats. Some parts will have better stats than others, but there’s no singular ‘best’, as you can get the highest stats from almost every part maker.

Career Mode will only last you so long, so that’s where the online multiplayer will have the longevity with some friends. With crossplay enabled for Xbox consoles and generations, not only is online multiplayer a draw, but split screen multiplayer finally makes a long awaited return as well. Local multiplayer usually gets overlooked and ignored, so for those that have been wanting this to return, it’s finally back. Out of the handful of races I competed online, I had no lag issues or anything major worth noting.

Visually, Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Videogame 5 is certainly passable. Nothing will amaze or 'wow' you, but that’s more likely from the nature of the sport, always being indoors at an arena and racing on brown dirt, mud and gravel. Clothing can move and flow, but you’re so focused on the race lines itself that it’s hard to take notice of much else. There are some minor texture pop-in issues, especially as a race gets loaded in and about to start, and some of the background skyboxes can be quite ugly in the compound, but nothing that takes away from the experience as a whole. What does impress is the first person view or the in-helmet camera and trying to race as you would in real life. This alone takes the experience to a whole different level that is a drastic shift from what you make be used to in Supercross games.

As for the audio, it’s exactly as you’d expect for a Supercross game, filled with loud motorbike engines and dirt flinging. Oddly enough you’re unable to completely mute the engine sounds, so I turned it as low as it would allow as it seemed to unchange for the most part. There’s absolutely no commentary during races, only a few lines before and after that are repeated over and over again. The soundtrack itself is as bland as it gets with a Rock OST that I don’t think I could remember or name any of the tracks. Do yourself a favor and put your own tunes on instead.

A slight improvement from previous year’s entries, Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Videogame 5 is certainly a passable package that will give you some entertainment if you’re a fan of the sport. While it may be repetitive and I question its longevity, especially if online play doesn’t interest you, there’s enough here for some enjoyment, though I’d suggest waiting for a sale, especially if you have last year’s entry.

**Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Videogame 5 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Shadow Warrior 3

Do you love mindlessly shooting hordes of enemies? If so you might be a fan of classic Serious Sam or the newer entries of Doom or Doom Eternal. What about games filled with toilet and childish humor but still can’t help but laugh at stupid jokes? Then you probably had a fun time with the mediocre Bulletstorm back in 2011. If you’ve ever wanted a game that combined these two types of games, look no further, as Shadow Warrior 3 is an over-the-top off-the-rails shooter that is filled with fast paced gunplay, sword fighting, crazy parkour maneuvers and so filled with poop jokes and pop culture references that I found myself literally laughing out loud at times because that’s the type of humor that I enjoy. Yes, I know I'm a manchild.

I’ll admit, I’ve not had the pleasure to play the first two Shadow Warrior games, so I wasn’t sure what to initially expect. Originally released in 1997, Shadow Warrior got a reboot back in 2013 and a sequel in 2016, so it’s got a following over the years. Picking up where the second game left off, you once again play as Lo Wang, a modern day ninja that has some kick ass moves, weapons and quite the potty mouth.

Shadow Warrior 3 starts off with Wang talking to himself, in his underwear, basically giving a recap of what happened to this point, a clever subtle way to recap events from the previous game, explaining how the world is basically doomed now because there’s a massive dragon that was let loose on the world and destroying everything at the closing events of Shadow Warrior 2. As he’s feeling sorry for himself, former enemy, Zilla, enters his treehouse and basically talks Wang into trying to stop the ancient dragon and save the world.

The two will set out, meet some familiar faces along the way and go on quite an epic journey to try and stop the world from being destroyed. Armed with just his sword and a pistol, Wang is going to have a crazy journey filled with hundreds of demon enemies trying to stop him and needing to make insane leaps, crossing chasms and wall running across massive gaps. There is more to the main narrative, but because of the very short runtime of about five to six hours on normal, I don’t want to spoil anything else since it goes quite quickly. All you need to know is that the story is entertaining, gameplay frantic and fun, and Wang is similar to having Deadpool’s type of humor.

Taking place in a Feudal Japan backdrop, there’s some beautiful level design and settings that Wang will traverse, and even though much of the time you need to be constantly moving, dashing and running as quick as you can from area to area, taking a moment here and there to take in the scenery can be quite impressive. Fighting against a number of different types of Yokai enemies from Japanese folklore, they become bigger, badder and more, uhh, unique as you progress in the story, all of which need a specific strategy to overcome.

Played in first person, Wang will be essentially wall running and leaping from point A to B where you’ll then be placed into an arena that is impassable until all enemies are defeated. If this sounds like Serious Sam you’d be correct, as it’s the same design principles. This normally would be a knock against its dated design, but the combat is so frantic and fun that it never become tiresome, nor does the exhilarating running from arena to arena.

There’s almost never a dull moment, as Wang is almost always constantly on the move, either in traversing the levels, leaping and swinging from one platform to the next, but also in combat, as you’ll need to constantly be moving if you want to survive. The level design is very linear but there are a few side paths that can house a secret or two, but they are generally quite obvious and aren’t very much of a detour at all. For those hoping that level design would be like it was in the previous game, sorry, Shadow Warrior 3 is very linear but I still quite enjoyed going from one point to the next as the setpieces were made quite well.

Wang is able to jump, double jump, dash almost constantly, wall run on specifically marked foliage pathways and use a grappling hook to swing from point to point. Because Wang has all these moves, traversing levels is quick and fun, as you’ll need to utilize double jumps and dashes midair to make it to and from certain points. There’s a certain flow that happens in these platforming sections, and once you get it down without having to think it becomes very smooth. This movement also will be needed in battles as well, as Wang only starts out with his trusty sword and a pistol.

Combat in Shadow Warrior 3 is quite simple to perform, with Right Bumper acting as your sword attacks and Right Trigger for your ranged weapons. There’s fewer weapons this time around which you’ll unlock during your journey to stop the dragon (or is it a Wyvern?), but they are all fun to use, especially once you start unlocking their upgrades. If you have access to guns, why would you use your katana you ask? Well, Wang is a ninja, so he’s quite skilled with his sword and can cause a lot of damage. With some upgrades he’ll also be able to charge his attack and send out a fire, lightning or ice attack for ranged hits as well. When you become surrounded by minions, it’s usually better to start swinging away to clear yourself some room.

Your ranged weapons on the other hand generally have quite limited ammo, so they are great to use while closing the distance or when you want to keep away from the more dangerous enemies. To refill your health and ammo you’ll need to keep an eye out in the arenas for red and blue pickups, though later you’ll get some skills that will cause enemies to drop more as well, kind of like how the recent Doom games get you to switch between ranged and melee. I found combat at first a little tricky, as it felt weird to use ‘RB’ for melee attacks, but eventually it feels natural and smooth once you get the hang of switching weapons. That said, this is encouraged, as you instantly reload your guns if you swap to your sword, so it’s generally a great tactic to unload a clip, get in close with your sword to instantly refill and then switch back again.

There’s only a handful of guns you’ll find throughout your journey, but each gun is unique and best suited for certain situations. While enemies will be reused over and over, each level or so you’re introduced to a new type of enemy that keeps things exciting and fresh. The only ones I really hated was the exploding grunts later on that were clearly copies of the Kamikazes from Serious Sam, even down to the screaming as they rush and swarm you and explode.

Wang also has a finisher meter, starting out with two units, eventually gaining three. These are used for special gore moves that leave you with a powerful weapon for a short period after one-shotting the enemy. Small grunts only require one bar of finisher but these generally only give you a quick health replenish or a cryo grenade, but using two bars on the bigger enemies will rip them to pieces as you take their weapon to use briefly. Ripping the arm off a giant troll allows you to use their club and smash enemies all around you, or ripping the eye out of these annoying flying enemies will act like a homing missile going from enemy to enemy. It’s an interesting mechanic that can make a big difference in battle if used properly but gives you a huge damage boost for a short period of time.

As you explore the levels, even in linear paths, you’ll come across upgrade orbs for Wang and for his weapons. Each skill or weapon has three tiers of upgrades, costing 1, 2 and 4 to complete and can make a huge difference in your journey. Weapon upgrades become quite interesting, as you can freely choose what to improve, but being able to shoot elemental attacks from your sword can become quite handy, as is making it so your shotgun-like weapon turns full-auto or never needs to be reloaded.

The world Wang has to traverse is absolutely breathtaking at times, and while it’s hard to take a moment to stop and take it in, the vistas are absolutely gorgeous, especially when you see a massive dragon soaring on by as you wall run and grapple hook to try and catch up with it. I never had any slowdown or pop-in issues, but there’s some harsh transitions between gameplay and cutscenes sometimes, as it can happen instantly and just feels a little off. As for the audio, the writing it juvenile, but it’s meant to be and the voice acting is decent, even if some lines are repeated at times. Wang’s lines and interactions with the other characters is hilarious at times and cringe at others, but I do believe I think that’s what developers were going for.

I quite enjoyed my time with Shadow Warrior 3 from beginning to the rolling credits. That said, the asking price is quite steep for a game that I finished in about five or six hours that is very linear and has no multiplayer component. Your enjoyment is most likely going to be determined on your sense of humor, so if you love poop jokes and swearing, you’ll most likely be laughing like I did throughout in this Bulletstorm and Doom mashup.

**Shadow Warrior 3 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.3 / 10 Roguebook

When I think of card based deck building games, the first ones that always come to mind is Gwent and Hearthstone. There’s a decent amount out there in the genre, but if you’re a deck building fan you might want to settle in and pay attention, as Roguebook took me by surprise, even as a casual fan of the genre. Are you a fan of Slay The Spire? What about Magic: The Gathering? If so, Roguebook might be exactly up your alley, as it’s very similar to Slay the Spire in many of its core mechanics, but also the backing of Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: The Gathering. Choose two heroes, prepare your strategies and build a powerful deck in this roguelike deck builder that took me by surprise.

You are trapped within the Book of Lore of Faeria, where each page consists of a new challenge and adventure. You’ll have to choose two champions to find and fight your way to freedom of this Roguebook, but doing so won’t be easy as you’ll need a plethora of strategy, great foresight, a little bit of luck and a great deck in hand.

Roguebook has you choose two heroes that will begin your adventure for that run, and as you progress through the pages and manage to defeat bosses you’ll gain access to extra characters along the way. Each character has their own card decks that suit a particular playstyle and utilize completely different setups and strategies. Different hero combinations will make for unique card combinations and strategies, so it will take some time to find what works best for you, but once you start to understand how to utilize their cards best to synergize with the other hero of choice, that’s when the magic to Roguebook starts to shine through.

You begin with Sharra, a warrior that is more based on speed, stacking her attacks, bleeds and boosting her power. Sorocco has more area of effect cards and large block cards if you choose to play a bit more defensively, a must with bosses. While he wasn’t my favorite partner hero, I tend to use Seifer almost every single time due to his deck style. He has a good health pool and attacks for huge numbers when his rage meter fills, so with some basic setup and planning he can be quite a great partner. There’s one more hero that I don’t want to spoil, and even one other tied to DLC which I quite enjoy as well, though adds for some really unique strategies. Success in Roguebook will come from finding the duo that works best for you and how to have them synergize together well with your playstyle and strategy.

Every time you play a new run you’re brought to an open page of Roguebook. Much like other games’ fog of war, the tiles on the grid are where you can explore, trying to uncover as many tiles as you can for treasure, health, ink and more. To uncover tiles that you can’t access you must use your limited paint brush strokes that will uncover a number of tiles around you. You only have a few of these paint brushes though, so you need to decide what direction you want to try and uncover, as in the fogged area you’ll see some towers or other uncovered spaces that entice you to search that direction. These towers will uncover a large area of the fog, so they are usually a great spot to try and reach.

Tiles will either be walkable on, have barriers like rocks or cliffs, or have merchants, treasure, gold and other things you’ll need to survive Roguebook. The map, or pages, are procedurally generated every time you play as well, so there’s always something new to find or fight against in every playthrough. The boss is always at the top of the page and has a direct path from the beginning, but jumping right the boss will surely end in a quick death, as you need to fight in other battles to earn gold and bonuses so you be stronger for when you do eventually take on that boss with more cards in your deck. Gold becomes important as you’ll need to purchase new cards, not only for your in-hand deck, but certain amounts of cards in your deck will also unlock perks that you can choose based on your chosen heroes for that run.

This ‘overworld’ aspect makes Roguebook more than just a standard deck builder and I quite liked the exploration parts, as this required strategy. Do you take on a few regular battles (indicated by crossed swords) or even mini bosses (red crossed swords) in hopes to get some upgrades and gold so you can get better cards before the boss? What happens if you lose a lot of life though, as health isn’t replenished after battles, so you could easily head to a boss fight and get destroyed quite quickly if you didn’t manage to find any health refills while exploring the page.

It’s not explained very well, but you’ll also notice that cards have open rune slots, which is how you can completely customize and improve your deck quite substantially, which is going to be a necessity to defeat the bosses with any purpose, especially in Chapter two and three. That said, being too overzealous can have its drawbacks, like knowing you’re going into a boss fight without full health, or if you’re really unlucky enough, finding a thief as you uncover the hexagon map that steals one of your accessories unless you can manage to have the ink to get to where he ran off to on the grid and get it back.

Good roguelikes always need to give you a reason to come back and want to play more, even more so than the thrill of finally winning. Roguebook makes each run count, as you do gain some persistent experience and unlocks as you finish each run, even if unsuccessful against chapter bosses. Find pages/scrolls along the map as you uncover the grid and these will be used to purchase permanent unlocks like perks and bonuses which will make each subsequent run just that much easier. Heroes will also level up over time and runs as well, earning new powerful and unique cards that can make a big difference.

With about 200 cards to learn and collect, there can be some really unique runs based on your current deck. There’s also dozens of relics and gems, and since even bosses are randomized at the end of each chapter, each run feels completely unique. Some cards can be quite powerful, and once you know how best to use them and combine with your partners cards, this is when Roguebook starts to become really fun. Sure there’s always a bit of randomness in games like these with the cards you’re given per hand, and it does become a bit of a grind for the first few hours until you start to put together those working strategies and have some great passive bonuses, but when it all comes together and ‘clicks’, Roguebook goes from decent to great.

Battles are turned based, and what isn’t explained all that well in the beginning is how the front and back positions of your heroes plays into strategy, just like the blocking, power and more. The beginning tutorial shows the basics but it will take a few playthroughs to really start to get it and piece it together yourself. Your duo shares the deck cards (though cards are hero specific), block and the mana (amount it costs to play cards). Your hero in the front is the one that’s generally going to be taking the brunt of your enemies attacks, so it’s imperative you know who’s going to be in the front position to take the damage if you can’t fill your block enough to negate the incoming damage.

When it’s your turn you’ll see what the enemy is going to do next on their turn, usually indicated above their head with red swords showing how much damage they’re going to attack you with. Do you forgo defending and use your mana to go on the offensive, or do the math in your head and add to your block to not take as much damage instead? Block is shared regardless of which hero plays their card, something that took me a while to figure out. This is where you need to start formulating strategies based on which cards you’re dealt each hand.

Swapping heroes to the front and back play a large part in your strategies, as sometimes card values are based on their positioning as well. This is how you can start to ‘combo’ cards, knowing the best order to play them in. You’ll also have some cards that summon Allies. Some of these add bonuses, can be saved for a quick heal or attack enemies each turn. Once I figured out how potent Bleed cards and Allies can be, I altered my initial strategies, as playing these cards may cost more upfront, they act as almost passive bonus damage each turn.

Roguebook is quite colorful, bright and has great comic inspired characters. The animation is decent and the music seems very fitting for the fantasy backdrop, almost as if you really were going opening a book and going inside of it. I’ll admit, being a casual deck builder fan, I was initially doubting that Roguebook would sink its hooks into me. Here I am a week later, delaying writing this review because I keep wanting to do ‘one more run’, constantly trying to get more cards and passives to make each run that much better. With plenty of strategy, post-game content once you complete the third Chapter and tons of possibilities with a few heroes and 200 cards, there’s plenty or replay value and longevity.

A very different card game than I was used to or expecting, if you were a fan of Slay The Spire, you’ll most likely quite enjoy Roguebook for its polished and unique take of the genre. I don’t really have much negative to say at all once you’ve figured out its intricacies and built some solid strategic foundations. Generally when I’m done a review I delete and move onto the next, but I’ve kept Roguebook installed and keep going back to it for a few more runs now and then, which speaks volumes for its addictiveness.

**Roguebook (Xbox Series X|S version) was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.7 / 10 Will You Snail

If you’re a fan of rage inducing platformers such as Celeste, Super Meat Boy or VVVVVV, developer Jonas Tyroller has been working on a new game the last few years, interestingly dev-blogging the whole process, and now has finally released Will You Snail?. Yes, it’s a question, but also the game’s title. Challenging platformers aren’t hard to find, but certain ones like the titles listed above stand out and are memorable for one reason or another. I’ll be honest, I was expecting another typical platformer that I’d forget as soon as I was done with it, but Will You Snail has so much personality and uniqueness to it that even days after completion I still laugh at some of its humor.

‘Explore. Run. Jump. Die. Repeat.’ That’s one of Will You Snail’s taglines, basically summing up its experience perfectly. Fast paced and hard as nails, you’ll be tasked with reaching the end in each room you’re challenged with, trying to ignore the AI that’s constantly berating you and figure out what has happened. If you’re a fan of bright neon colors, infuriating challenges, light puzzle solving, fourth wall breaking and a hilarious AI that taunts you every chance it gets, well, Will You Snail is something you’re going to want to check out.

Set in a simulation within some sort of virtual world or computer, you play as Shelly the Snail as you try and escape from the evil AI that constantly taunts and tries to kill you along the way, known as Squid. Squid will constantly be following you, appearing as an ominous ASCII face on the screen that emotes and berates you every chance he gets, hoping to see you die and fail. While your apparent main goal is to somehow escape, it’s not clear why you’re here, why you’re a snail and why Squid hates humanity so much. Tidbits of story are revealed here and there, but the bulk of the background lore is given in piecemeal as you find pillars that unlock small portions of the overall narrative.

It’s completely up to you if you want to search out these pillars to unlock small bites of the story, but they don’t come in order, so you’ll need to try and collect all fifty if you want to piece together what happened and why. Squid constantly breaks the fourth wall, which I always find hilarious, and he’s such an intelligent AI that he’s able to predict where you’re going to jump and move to next, so will constantly try and place traps in those spots to kill you. You’re going to die many times, but death is just a minor setback, starting at the beginning of the room you’re currently on without any wait.

You don’t speak, I mean, you’re a snail, so how could you? Squid on the other hand has tons of spoken lines of dialogue, usually insulting you or making fun when you die over and over. Even though Will You Snail is a solo game, you don’t ever really feel alone, as Squid is always there trying to predict your moments and stop you, making sure you know about it. Lines are also never repeated which is an impressive feat, and some are so specific it’s remarkable. For example, I died in one spot and he laughed at me. I of course died in the exact same spot and he snickered telling me that I’m a dumb human playing this game since I died in the exact spot right away again and didn't learn my lesson.

Left, Right and Jump, that’s all you need to know for the controls. It doesn’t get much simpler, and being a platformer, the rest of the mechanics and tricks are taught along the way. Platforming games can be a constant frustration if the controls aren’t snappy and precise. Thankfully this isn’t the case with Will You Snail, as all my deaths were completely my fault, nothing I can blame the controller or poor controls for. You’re a snail that’s able to double jump but you’ll need quick reflexes to sometimes outsmart yourself, because remember, Squid predicts where you’re going to be in a moment and tries to place traps in those spots.

Are you a fan of challenge? Are you one of those types of players that prides itself on beating games on their hardest difficulty? I bet you’ll have a hard time completing Will You Snail on the Easy difficulty. This is where some of the game’s humor starts to show, because the difficulty choices are actually Easy, Very Easy, Extremely Easy and Infinitely Easy. So naturally, Easy difficulty is actually the hardest one, but can be quite a brag if you’re able to do so. Squid is smart enough that the difficulty will also adjust on the fly based on your performance. Began out on Infinitely Easy but start to do too well? You’ll probably get bumped up a difficulty or two to compensate. This can of course be turned off for the AI to automatically decide for you on the fly, but it’s a great feature to keep a constant challenge without being constantly punishing at the same time. Even on the sections that I died dozens of times I never really become frustrated as each room is small enough and Squids one liners were always amusing, even if he questioned my manhood more than once.

Because of Squid’s AI trying to constantly predict your movements, no two playthroughs of a level is the same, as you most likely are going to try new tactics after a death. It’s quite impressive to think about the work that went on behind the scenes to predict movement from the player, so kudos for such a mechanic in a seemingly basic game like this. Outwitting Squid is sometimes more important than trying to get through a level quickly. For example, in one boss fight I had to hit a certain amount of switches, but kept dying until I realized he was learning my pattern. So I had to switch things up, waiting beside the buttons until some lasers fired before jumping onto the button and trying to be a little sporadic instead of moving in a straight and steady line.

While there’s a few boss fights, these were the highlight outside of the constant beratement towards me, which I always found hilarious. These bosses usually filled the screen and was a great change of pace to challenge yourself with some creative designs, my favorite being the massive spider that slowly crawls after you where you need to shoot its legs and body. Yes, sometimes you’ll find rooms that have turrets that will attach to your shell and fire automatically in a certain direction. This plays into some puzzle rooms and add some minor combat sections.

There are also optional puzzles you’ll find. These aren’t too challenging, but add some longevity and are completely optional if you simply want to progress. You’re able to go back to the level select at any time and go back to find hidden paths and collectables, even replay levels on higher difficulties. There’s also a few unique sections and levels where you might race against a tadpole in the water, maybe play some tower defense or even try and bounce a square “ball” into the net to progress.

I’ll admit, there was one point where I needed a break from dying so much in a single level, so I went to quit out so I could come back later, only to find I’m given the option to quit to the main menu or choose the “I’m Frustrated” mode. Choosing this takes away all frustration and has you collecting smiley faces that float around the level. Collect a certain amount of points and you level up. Why? There’s no reason, simply to be more relaxing. Again, proof of the humor within and so asinine that I couldn’t help but smile and laugh, ironically getting me to play for another half hour when I originally wanted to quit. If you’re into speedrunning, Will You Snail embraces this as well, giving a number of options to assist, and I’d love to watch some speedruns of this in the future.

Will You Snail is visually appealing with its simple retro neon-filled style, and while it may be a basic sprite style aesthetic, there are certain elements that are impressive, like when Squid tries to make levels harder by placing a feint overlay on the screen or changes the background to being in space, making it much harder to see the platform lines. If you’re susceptible to epilepsy seizures you might way to check out a trailer before delving in, but there are a ton of options to tone down some of the features and effects.

The soundtrack is quite decent, having some tunes that had me bopping my head (and is available to download from the developer for free) as I concentrate and try to not die for the twentieth time in a row, but the highlight was easily Squid’s dialogue throughout. The writing is hilarious and because it’s voiced so well it adds such a personality, especially since lines aren’t repeated over and over like in most games.

It’s clear that Will You Snail was a passion project and it shows with the final product full of creativity and hilarity. It might seem a little steep at its regular $15 price point initially, there’s a ton of replayability and extra collectables to find to challenge even the best platformer fans. If you simply want to see the credits roll you can easily make that happen in a few hours, but trying to beat the game on Easy will add a much larger time commitment. Yes it’s hard, yes you’re a snail trying to outsmart a hilarious AI and yes I died a few hundred times, but I enjoyed it throughout. The only question left is, Will You Snail?

**Will You Snail? was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**



Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Rugby 22

Before I got together with my wife I had never watched a Rugby game in my life outside of some highlight clips. Being in Canada, Rugby has a following, but it’s all about Hockey here, which is probably why I never really followed it. Well, after marrying a Kiwi from New Zealand I was given an allegiance to the All Blacks, and since learning the sport I quite enjoy watching my boys smash the opposition. Since learning the sport's intricacies, I even have my own official All Blacks jersey and enjoy watching our team dominate when World Cup occurs.

With nearly every other sport getting their own games mostly yearly, I was always curious why Rugby didn’t get the same treatment, as it is quite a popular sport in other parts of the world. After reviewing Rugby 20 two years ago I kind of understood, as it’s a harder sport to recreate with all of its special movements, rules and gameplay. Rugby 20 was “OK” at best, so with a two year gap in-between releases, I was hoping there were going to be some notable improvements and additions with this year’s entry, Rugby 22.

The lack of most sponsored teams really made Rugby 20 hard to enjoy, as you generally want to play as the teams and players you know and own jerseys of. So when it was announced that Rugby 22 was going to have the All Blacks officially joining the roster, I was of course excited and needed to play this entry. Now, I’m not going to call it a bait-and-switch, because the All Blacks are definitely in the game, but there’s some massive caveats to that claim. Also, there are still some glaring omissions of big teams, as only 10 of the National Teams are included, but more on that shortly.

Rugby 22 has crafted a Career Mode, and if you’re familiar with how FIFA games do their Ultimate Team Mode, you’ll know exactly what to expect. There’s no ‘story’ per-se, instead starting in the lower tier leagues and work your way up the divisions as you rack up wins. Completing and winning games earns you a currency which can then be used to buy packs of cards which are tied to certain players which you can add to your team. See, just like Ultimate Team.

FIFA’s Ultimate Team is insanely popular for a reason, as you get to collect virtual cards of your favorite players across teams to create your best team possible. Finally flipping that card over and seeing your favorite player is exciting, and I was hoping to get that here with my All Blacks, hoping to see cards of the Barret’s, Whitelock or iconic players like Ma’a Nonu, Richie McCaw or Dan Carter.

This is where Rugby 22 falls into a weird place, as it does have the licensed team, but virtually none of the players are included aside from a few. This means you open packs to players with silhouettes and fake names and stats, deflating the whole purpose behind having a setup like Ultimate Team. Of course you’ll start with low stat players unless you manage to pull a good card or two, but you’ll be needing to improve your team in many facets if you want to take on better competition. This is where buying packs come into play, as does improving certain aspects and stats of your team.

There’s a handful of different modes to play depending on where you want to focus. Quick Match, Career, Online or League are your main options where you can play and adjust various settings based on how you want to play and in what league. Before you even begin though you’re thrust into a training mode that shows you the basics of the game which is great in theory, but there’s quite a few aspects missing that doesn’t even get explained that had be wondering why it was omitted.

If you just want to play a game right away, Quick Match lets you do so against a friend or AI. Online Mode is there, but I’ve been unable to find a single person to play against, which is the same problem I had in Rugby 20 as well, so I can’t comment on how good the servers are unfortunately. League is where you can choose from the licensed teams (though generally just in name) from National, URC, Top 14 and Pro D2. Being a newer and more casual Rugby fan, I was more excited to play as the National teams, but once I get into the included teams, you might be disappointed to know that maybe your team didn’t make the licensing cut this year.

With over 50 Teams included in Rugby 22, keep in mind that is across all of the different leagues. Notice how there’s been no mention of Premiership teams? That wasn’t a mistake unfortunately for those Rugby league fans. The teams for URC, Top 14 and Pro D2 are here, but for National you’re going to notice a few glaring omissions.

The current roster of National teams are as follows: All Blacks, Wallabies, France Rugby, Irish Rugby, Wales, Scotland, Italy, Japan, Flying Fijians and Georgia. That’s right, just those listed 10. Surely a disappointment for England, South Africa and a laundry list of other teams that are sorely missing. Making matters worse is that even the teams that are included don’t have the full official roster either, which is like rubbing salt into a wound.

While I could get over the lack of licensed teams and players, though I’ll admit, I’m willing to give a pass because MY team is included, Rugby 22’s enjoyment will come down to its gameplay and if it’s simply fun to play. This too is a mixed answer. Attempting to recreate the sport’s intensity, some gameplay portions work really well like its Passing and Rucks, while kicking and scrums aren’t as polished.

Starting up Rugby 22 for the first time thrusts you into a tutorial match without any warning. Sure, no problem, this is where I thought I was going to learn all the ins and outs of the gameplay elements and controls. Well, you’re taught the very basics of how to run, move, pass the ball, rucks, throw ins and scrums, but that’s basically it. You’re shown how to add more players into a Ruck (simply pressing B, or holding if you want to add more than once at a time), but not how to Jackal or even kick the ball to avoid getting tackled. Scrums are briefly explained, but is a little confusing without performing them a few times over. This is going to make it very difficult to get those Tries for beginners or new players to the series.

I quite enjoy Rugby 22’s passing mechanics, using the Bumpers to choose which direction and the length the button is held to throw further. It’s not perfect and sometimes it doesn’t go to the player I initially intended, but when it does work and you can get the ball to the Winger and score that Try, it feels great when your strategy works. In general, passing feels fluid and will play into your specific strategies to find holes in the defense and feels better than it did in Rugby 20, though that may be due to the slightly quicker pacing.

Team, kits and stadium licensing is most likely going to be the biggest disappointment for hardcore Rugby fans. Rugby 22’s visuals are passable, but certainly won’t impress. With no real likeness to actual players there’s not much to compare to, but does seem to be a little dated overall when compared to the larger sports titles. As for its audio, well, it’s there, but the commentary is also nothing dynamic or exciting, with many lines repeated.

Rugby 22 is a slight improvement from Rugby 20 and is clearly the best choice for a simulation of the sport that’s recent, but it won’t compare to the FIFA’s, NHL or NBA games in any way for realism, though I doubt developers Eko Software had anywhere near the same budget to be fair. With some friends to play against, Rugby 22 could have some shelf life, but for others, the serious lack of licensing makes it feel stuck in a ruck.

**Rugby 22 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.3 / 10 KeyWe

Having been to New Zealand numerous times, I’ve always been intrigued by the Kiwi, a unique bird that has tiny wings yet cannot fly, nor has a tail, and its feathers are more fur-like rather than traditional feathers we think of. So being one of the world’s most unique flightless birds, developers Stonewheat & Sons came up with the idea to make a game featuring them running a post office. Yes, you heard that right, a pair of small kiwi birds running a mail room is the idea behind the adorable game, KeyWe.

Don’t let its adorable birds fool you though, KeyWe is a frantic but fun cooperative game where you’ll be tasked with keeping things running. Doing so isn’t easy for regular workers, so managing the business as some birds without arms, hands or the ability to fly is surely going to be a bigger challenge. Regardless, it’s up to your pair of adorable kiwis to ensure people get their mail and packages sent out on time and correctly, so get ready to jump, peck and butt slam to get the job done.

The mailroom here though isn’t your typical kind, as this was clearly built for a different animal or creature to manage and work at. Because kiwis are so small and light, this will make your job much tougher for your duo. While able to be played in single player, trust me, you’ll want to grab a friend or family member to play alongside with, locally or online, as trying to fulfil these tasks solo while controlling both birds is nowhere near as possible or as fun.

Mailroom tasks are simple in premise, but will need a coordinated effort and constant communication from your co-op partner since you’ll face some unique challenges, like large bugs that will try to pick you up and take you away, move supplies around on you, or wind and dust storms that will toss you around due to your small stature.

To make the kiwis even cuter somehow, you’re able to spend your earned stamps for completing levels within specific times (bronze, silver and gold ratings) on adorable and hilarious accessories to customize your birds how you like. Choose from a range of hats, glasses, backpacks, feather colors and more, some only attainable from playing specific minigames repeatedly or finding hidden items in levels. Being able to unlock new wardrobe and accessories is what kept me wanting to play, able to distinguish the two drastically to make them more unique looking from one another so I didn’t get mixed up with who is whom when mail is frantically flying around.

There are basically four different main level types, and while that doesn’t seem like much, as you progress they become more complex or have new obstacles or steps you need to fulfil to send out the mail. Levels are simple in premise, but can be complex to actually perform your job, striking a balance of fun and challenge that will depend on your chosen partner to play with.

The first of the four main levels revolves around typing a short notice or letter and then having it sent out for delivery. Thing is, this is done on a typewriter, but the keys are all spread out across the room. Remember, you’re a tiny kiwi bird, so you’re only going to be able to jump on one key at a time before moving to the next to finish each word. And yes, there’s a Shift key that you’ll need to coordinate with your partner to press down if you want to capitalize any of the letters, and yes, spelling counts. Make a mistake and you’ll need to run over and peck at the delete key and then resume typing out the word listed on the telegraph. In the later levels, letters get swapped for symbols and you need to refer to the legend to see which symbol replaces what letter, or a pair of letters might get completely swapped for one another, so you need to pay attention. Extra obstacles come into play as well, like vines that block you using specific keys until you peck the flowers away, or flying bugs that will pop off they key caps, forcing you to go grab it and replace it on the typewriter.

The crate shipping level was one of my favorites, having you do a little more thinking. Down the moving conveyor a crate will come and you’ll need to read the included note to figure out where it’s being sent and which stickers you’ll need to affix to the package. For example, you can see the city or town it’s going to, and to print that label you need to type in the correct four digit code laid out on a map. If the letter mentions something is heavy, then it will need the appropriate Heavy label also attached to the top of the crate, or maybe it’s Urgent or Perishable, so you need to carefully read to choose the correct sticker(s). With your kiwi partner, you’ll then need to use a crane to move the heavy lid onto the box once the item is inside, done so by two different levers; one for horizontal movement and the other for vertical. Lastly, to ship the parcel you need to choose if it’s going North or South, determined by where the town code you read is positioned on the map. It sounds confusing but makes sense once you get a few crates shipped under your belt. Carful of the quicksand in later levels.

Next is the chaotic mail room that is managed by a friendly octopus. This is where a bulk of the sorting is done for parcels and mail. Parcels come down two conveyors and need to be moved to the correct outgoing chute, but they must stay on the belt, so you’ll need to move certain ones out of the way to get them passed into the correct chute until all are sent. Then there’s the mail itself, having you looking at the panel to show which person’s mail to send that is circling on a rotating platform. Get the correct mail and send it to the outbox to have it go on its way. The later levels add some interesting variety, like being able to shoot mail into the slots with cannons and more. This is probably the most chaotic of the levels because so much is going on and you don’t always know what to focus on first. Do you both work towards the parcels first then mail, or split up and each take on one responsibility separately?

Lastly, and another one I quite enjoy, is the room where you’ll create brief letters from snipped out magazines or papers, like a ransom note. Sometimes the full words are cut out, sometimes it’s just a small part of a word or a few letters. These are scattered all throughout the room, so you’ll need to find each snipping and place them in order. This is of course only after you grab the tape lying around and put it into the player to get the phrase you need to make on paper. Once complete, bring the note to the animal waiting at the window ready to go by putting it in their backpack and fastening their buckles so it doesn’t fall out. Later levels become quite challenging too, with bugs that will move around the clippings or small tornadoes that fling you and the snippings around.

There’s enough variety and new things thrown into the four main levels as you progress through each season that it feels fresh throughout. This would have been fine enough, but there’s also a plethora of minigames, called Overtime Shifts. These are completely optional and add some unique variety. There’s a handful to check out, but the most satisfying one was by far the one where you’re tasked with popping bubble wrap, being told how many small, medium or large bubbles to pop within a certain time limit. These extra games are how you’ll earn some of the exclusive cosmetic items as well, so they make it worthwhile to spend some time playing and some will even offer extra stamps for completion, enticing you to play more than just the campaign.

As noted above, KeyWe is almost required to play co-op. Single player is absolutely possible but defeats the purpose and is incredibly challenging to even do so, trying to control both birds simultaneously with one controller. Find a friend or family member and KeyWe becomes a great time to laugh and swear at one another. It takes a surprising amount of communication if you want any chance at the silver or gold completion times, knowing what task the other is going to be responsible for and working in unison. I played alongside my daughter and we eventually figured out who was going to do what in each level, then it started to gel and become quite fun working together. I can see this being a hilarious game with some buddies over after a few drinks trying to coordinate with one another and calling each other names for failing to do the right task at the correct time because they forgot again to hold down the Shift key when you were trying to use the typewriter.

I’d wager that there may not be a cuter bird than the kiwi, and while I may be a little bias because my wife is from New Zealand and I love the country, KeyWe is an adorable co-op game that was a fun experience throughout, never really frustrating due to the game design. Find a partner to play with and you’ll have a great time laughing or swearing at one another depending on your communication skills. Being a delightful co-op game, I’d butt slam the recommended button if I was a small kiwi bird.

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

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 What Lies in The Multiverse

What lies in the multiverse? What is a multiverse? Well, if you’ve been watching the latest Marvel movies, you’ll know that this is quite a hot ‘thing’ right now. Maybe you know them as parallel/alternate universes or dimensions, but the core idea is that there’s an infinite amount of these universes where anything in our world that could happen, would, each playing out in a different way. What if you chose one option in life instead of another, that would be a completely different timeline, and things get messy when you start to deal with multiverses, as reality could shatter if they intersected or crossed over somehow.

What Lies in the Multiverse, by indie developer Studio Voyager, plays off this concept in a lighthearted way, telling a surprisingly interesting story and using 2D platforming and puzzle solving as its core gameplay elements. I’m all for stylish pixel based 2D platformers, which would have been a decent game in itself, but developers Studio Voyager and IguanaBee have crafted a puzzle game that has a narrative and characters that I actually cared about and wanted to spend more time with. Also, just because the cartoonish and bright colorful pixel art may have you assume What Lies in the Multiverse is meant for younger audiences, there’s some subtle dark themes present within.

You play as the Kid, an unnamed child that is tinkering with his computer, trying to simulate parallel universes. Of course something goes wrong and the kid’s world starts to glitch. Transported to some sterile lab he then glitches out and ends up in a lush green world, unaware of where this actually is. You meet an eccentric man named Everett, easily distinguishable due to his overly sized purple hat that looks like a mix of Jamiroquai and Cat in the Hat’s... uhh... hat.

Everett’s personality comes through in the written dialogue instantly, quickly showing the humor that is laced throughout the kid’s adventure. From hilarious one liners to smart banter, you can expect great dialogue and writing all the way until the credits roll. It seems the kid instantly accepts what Everett has to say and why he must help find his partner, Ez, though you’re never sure what Everett’s true intentions really are until much later.

Everett has a cane with a skull on it called The Voyager, the gadget he uses to warp within this new world seemingly from one dimension to the next. As you search for Ez and help Everett along the way, you’ll gain power from The Voyager, able to shift yourself between worlds, but doing so will have a different effect depending on which area you’re in. It seems people are after Everett though, a group of people called ZENITH. Why are they chasing him within the multiverse? What does Ez have to do with it? Why does the kid keep getting zapped? Why does someone get ran over by a pickup truck? These questions become answered eventually with a story that constantly shifts between humorous and serious tones, yet never feeling out of place. With a runtime of roughly six or so hours, I don’t want to spoil much more of the narrative as it’s easily What Lies in the Multiverse’s greatest aspect.

If you’re a fan of iconic platform puzzlers like Fez or Braid, you’ll feel right at home with What Lies in the Multiverse. Its core mechanic has you able to swap between two worlds to maneuver across a world to reach the goal. Of course with the multiverse concept, this plays out in really unique and interesting ways. Some levels will have you swapping gravity, others will put you in the ‘past’ or ‘present’ which has their own barriers that you’ll need to navigate both to get through. Each of these worlds have different ‘rules’ when it comes to the multiverse, but you’re given the tools to learn the concepts each time they are added before becoming more challenging in the later half.

As a puzzler game only, there’s not all that much challenge here. Sure there were a few sections that had my scratching my head for a while with trial and error, but I eventually solved the puzzle and felt smart after coming up with the solution. This is the multiverse though, so you can expect the unexpected. Each level has its own biome and tone, making for some variety as you progress in your quest to find Ez with Everett.

Can’t reach a ledge? You probably need to move a box to get on top of it to jump and reach. No box to be seen? I bet if you went into the other universe there probably would be one. This is where swapping between worlds comes into play and affects one another. Switching between worlds can be where the dark side of its story starts to show itself in subtle ways. For example, maybe in the present you’re walking within a town and see some kids playing. When you switch universes all you see is a pile of bones from two individuals. The same goes for a dog or cat you pet, where swapping over shows a corpse that’s been there for quite some time. It’s dark but in a subtle way without spelling it out or directly saying anything, so there’s lots to see and admire if you pay attention.

Now and then you might see objects or blocks that seem to be glitching, seemingly stuck between both worlds. This is where some of the more unique puzzles start to appear, as you’re going to have to figure out how moving it in one world affects it in the other. Another world will have the present world full of thick bushes that can’t be bypassed, but swapping to the other multiverse has vines appear that can be climbed but also has poisonous air, so you’re only able to stay within it for a few seconds at a time. One level has you able to invert gravity back and forth, also changing how blocks and objects are affected in the world, adding another level of complexity for the puzzles. Be curious and you may find secret paths and hidden collectables, giving you some background information and lore about the world and its people.

As you get further in the story, it seems that Everett and the kid’s jumping between worlds is causing multidimensional rifts to appear. These cause certain areas to prevent you from swapping between worlds, which is a whole other puzzle mechanic in itself. Certain glitched areas may appear, and going through these is how you change from one dimension to the next. These puzzles were the most unique and challenging, roughly halfway through the game, causing me to sit and think for some time of the best way to proceed. There are even a few levels where you’re unable to use The Voyager to swap worlds on the fly, for narrative reasons, and these levels become more about platforming and basic puzzle solving instead. I thought these levels might fall flat considering it isn’t even using the main draw of multidimensional gameplay, but they held up on their own quite well.

Even though its 2D pixel based, there’s a good amount of fine detail, not only in the artwork, but animations as well. There’s a surprising amount of body language and tone you can get from simply looking at the characters movements and reactions, usually playing into the humor aspect. With eight different chapters, you can expect a handful of different backgrounds and environments to explore, all unique from one another in color pallet and tone. Even the audio is done quite well, as swapping between worlds also changes the background music to meet the feeling of that world as well. There’s no voiceover sadly for the dialogue, but the sound effects for jumping and platform movements are what you’d expect for a retro looking game like this.

If I’m being honest, I was completely expecting another run of the mill 2D platformer before playing. Even within its opening moments, I found myself smiling from its humorous dialogue and I loved every moment I got to see the kid and Everett chat and interact. By the time the credits rolled, I was fully invested with its characters and wish there was more story to unfold. Lasting just the right length, I came away more than impressed with a completely satisfying platform puzzler full of laughs that also had a worthwhile narrative.

**What Lies in the Multiverse was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.7 / 10 Time Loader

I’m always down for a light hearted puzzle game, especially one that centers around an adorable robot and puzzles that don’t frustrate me and force me to search online for solutions for obtuse solutions. Puzzle games usually focus heavily on its gameplay, sometimes forgetting to add a compelling narrative. Time Loader, developed by Flazm, manages to balance both a fun puzzler alongside an interesting narrative that centers around time travel set in the 90’s using a robot that resembles a distant cousin of Wall-E.

There’s something charming about controlling an adorable robot, a small little AI with four wheels and a robotic arm that can be used to push, pull and swing on objects. A young child named Adam is playing in his treehouse one day and ends up tripping on one of his toy cars, causing him to fall from quite a distance and forever being in a wheelchair since. Now as an adult, he figures a way to send his little robot back in time to the mid 90’s to try and stop that fateful event from ever happening, changing his future. Tasked with changing the past, this little robot has a ton of personality and its cute aesthetic makes for a chill vibe throughout.

Being back in your childhood home growing up, you’ll need to maneuver around obstacles on a 2D plane to your destinations from room to room, but to do so you’ll need to solve puzzles along the way to progress. Being a small little robot, your perspective is different than you’re used to, able to squeeze under low objects, through vents and other ways to traverse you normally wouldn’t think of in your home.

We all know that time travel is dangerous though. If you change the past, you change the future in other ways you couldn’t expect. There’s consequences for your choices and actions. What if saving Adam from the accident makes a more serious event occur? What if then fixing that problem makes the future worse for others as well? Messing with time is going to have serious complications once the Butterfly Effect kicks in. With multiple (and a secret) endings, there’s actually reasons to replay once you’ve seen credits roll, something you don’t see often in puzzle games.

Since the gameplay happens on a 2D plane, you’ll move your robot from left to right, jump over obstacles, and use your robotic arm to manipulate certain objects or grab onto specific points to swing across gaps. During your journey back in the 90’s, you’ll also come across various upgrades for your robot, like attaching a screwdriver or soldering iron which will be needed to progress further inside the home. Levels play out fairly linear, though there’s a handful of secret collectables to find for those wanting to explore every inch.

Puzzles in Time Loader are generally simple to figure out and I never got stuck more than a few minutes as I deducted what needed to be done. Most will have you needing to reach some sort of ledge or wedge something in a specific spot to cross a gap. The most struggles I ran into weren’t actually the puzzles themselves, but simply determining what I could travel under or through without trying since certain objects blend into the background or foreground at times. Some of the puzzles become a little more complex near the end, but nothing that had me searching online for a solution and always kept itself light hearted.

Given its 90’s backdrop you can expect to see references, objects and more from the era. I smirked every time I got that nostalgia drop. Seeing a DeLorean, a Super Nintendo, a Playstation One, VHS tapes, a Gameboy and more brought me back to my own upbringing. There’s plenty of smaller details and the overall aesthetic simply has that 90’s look and color tones to it. While the visuals won’t impress, it does the job for the task at hand for a short quirky little puzzle game. The soundtrack has a great instrumental mellow tone and the voice work from the robot is cute even if infrequent.

Time Loader never overstays its welcome, able to be completed in a single sitting within a few hours if you wish, though with multiple endings based on some of your choices, it’s worth playing through again simply to spend more time within its charming world.

I was quite fond of the physics based puzzles that never became frustrating, but became actually invested at trying to save Adam from a lifetime in a wheelchair, attempting to change the past and hoping it wouldn’t make things worse in the new present. Puzzles are fun to complete and the story gives you enough motivation to see it to completion. Time Loader may be short but sweet, but I’m glad to have taken the trip back in time to the 90’s, just like how I remember it.

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

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Music Racer: Ultimate

Music based rhythm games are one of my favorite genres. Name it and I’ve probably played it, or at least listened to its soundtrack. So whenever a new musical game releases I always take note. The latest, Music Racer: Ultimate, developed by AbstractArt and Light Road Games, is an updated version of the 2018 game with the same name without the Ultimate suffix. Given that they also advertise the game with a Lamborghini Countach, my favorite car of all time, I had no choice but to check it out.

Music Racer: Ultimate is essentially the original game but with some more content and features built in, and yes, original base game owners will apparently get a 50% discount if they choose to purchase Ultimate. The rhythm game was played by many, but the PC version at its original launch was the clear superior version, as it allowed you to import and play your own music, something that was a glaring omission from the console versions. That’s what Music Racer: Ultimate aims to improve, finally giving us console players the same ability, with some unique caveats.

So you’ve played the original Music Racer and wondering what’s exactly new in this Ultimate version? You can expect new vehicles, new backdrops and of course the main reason you’d upgrade, for the ability to play your own music. A music game with a set list of songs can become stale in time, so the ability to add any from your library makes the game infinitely replayable. Don’t go in expecting any sort of narrative, career or campaign at all, it’s simply picking a song and playing it with your vehicle, that’s it. It’s as barebones as it comes, not even offering any sort of tutorial or explaining anything in the menus.

So how do you play your own music you ask? On your PC, Mac, or Mobile device you’ll need to setup a WebDAV server, essentially a way for the game to talk to your external device and stream the music from. Once you’ve installed one of the supported apps, you’ll find your appropriate music folder(s), find your device’s IP then tell Music Racer: Ultimate exactly where to find your server hosting your songs.

Currently the supported server apps are as follows and also come with a complete setup guide:

[Windows] Easy Web Server
[macOS] WebDAVNav Server
[iOS] PocketTheater WebServer
[iOS] Amerigo File Manager
[iOS] File Sharing Manager - Transfer videos & photos over WiFi
[Android] WebDAV Server
[Android] WiFi File Transfer

There are a few technical restrictions though, as you can’t simply import your gigabytes of stores music library and have it sitting in your game. Instead, you actually only download one song at a time since it’s stored in the console’s RAM for the duration of that level, so no permanently saving your audio to the system unfortunately. There’s also a 100Mb size limit and a 40 minute length restriction as well. Going through the FAQ and walkthrough was quite basic to install, setup and get running. I’m quite a techy guy, so things like this are second nature to me. After an hour of trying everything I could, I simply couldn’t get the Web Server’s to work at all on my PC or Mobile, and I exhausted all of my options. I’m not sure why Music Racer: Ultimate was unable to locate my shared folders and files, as I followed every step exactly as described and even reached out for assistance.

As of the time of this initial writing I was still unable to import my own songs with the servers listed above, which greatly deflated my excitement to play Music Racer: Ultimate. That said, it turns out I wasn't doing anything wrong, but instead was an unforeseen restriction with retail Xbox Series units and how it pulls outside data. Developers have since made a 'fix', a different type of work around, but it's not the easiest or user friendly solution out there. In the end though, I was finally able to play my library of MP3's, one at a time, which was the whole point of my excitement for Music Racer: Ultimate. There is also other ways to play songs, with the included tracklist and the awful offerings you can stream from the Audius platform (http://audius.co/), another new addition to this Ultimate version.

Also new are a handful of language translations and the game feels super smooth in 4k 120FPS. While the biggest addition is clearly the song import options, it does take a bit of external legwork and technical knowhow to actually do. There’s nothing even in-game that explains this really or walks you through the steps, so you’ll need to do some research yourself.

The premise of Music Racer: Ultimate is simple; collect white notes and dodge red pillars as you make your way down a three laned track that moves and changes based on the musical song being played. What’s unique is that the track itself and the notes react and are placed based on the song being played, so every song is a dynamic and unique experience. As you collect notes you’ll earn points which can then be used to purchase and unlock new levels and vehicles. The premise is simple and the gameplay even more so. Simply pick a song, drive along the track to collect white rectangles and repeat.

The tracks themselves change based on the song, so a higher tempo means the notes and vehicle will move much quicker, a lot of bass might make for some large hills and dips, and certain audio will cause a screen flashing bonanza that will test anyone without any epileptic seizure history. You want to collect as many points as possible, but the lack of any sort of online leaderboards makes it feel like a lonely and forgetful experience.

All of the level designs vary, unlockable with your saved up points. Most are very colorful and vibrant, with my favorites being the overly saturated neon 80’s aesthetic. Gameplay is done across three lanes; a middle and two sides, though oddly enough there’s one stage backdrop that adds a fourth lane for some odd reason, changing the default note placements. You move your vehicle between the lanes to collect the notes with a flick of the Left Stick or the Bumpers should you prefer. That’s it, that’s the whole gameplay aside from avoiding red pillars that stop your combo in Normal and Hard Mode.

With over a dozen levels to unlocks, there’s always new backdrop to play in, but there’s no real major differences aside from their aesthetics. Some levels are clearly easier than others, as some play out on a much ‘flatter’ pathway whereas others have much higher hills, dips and valleys. The reason I say some are ‘harder’ is because the stages that have more hills makes it impossible to see what lanes the notes coming up are in, even with the semi transparent highways you can see through. Gameplay can be so frantic and chaotic at times that you’re going to miss a bunch of notes because you simply have to guess what lane you should be in as you’re coming up to the crest of one of the hills. This could also apply for the obstacles you’re trying to avoid. There’s no indication of what levels are in what type of style, so it’s a lot of trial and error if you really want to play levels to gather the most points possible. I thought zooming the camera out would help, and it did slightly, but the default camera is basically on the rear bumper of the car and the furthest the camera can zoomed out didn’t help all that much.

There’s a decent amount of cars and vehicles to collect and unlock, clearly trying to replicate their real counterparts without infringing on copyright issues. I loved the default Countach, but you can also find sports cars, Knight Rider, a DeLorean, a Light Cycle and a bunch of other iconic cars. Given that the vehicles play a large part of the gameplay, I initially thought there would be differences between each of them. Sadly it all just comes down to an aesthetic choice. There’s absolutely no difference from one car to the next aside from how it looks, so choose your favorite, change its base and rims color and have at it. With vehicle differences simply being cosmetic, it really deflated my want to unlock them all. Unlocks can cost anywhere from 1000 points all the way up to 100K with seemingly no rhyme or reason as to their respective costs. Normal cars can be very expensive while super cars might be cheap.

Once you’ve chosen a level backdrop you then choose a song to play, and even this has zero descriptions. Choose from Local, Audius or Link. If you’ve not read this review prior to playing, you’re simply guessing what each does. Local are the songs that are included in Music Racer: Ultimate. This setlist has a bit of range from high tempo electronica to slower RnB beats, but don’t expect any licensed music here, just some cool tunes you might bop your head to. Audius is a streaming platform apparently, one I’ve never heard of, but you can choose to play Trending songs or search for an artist. Don’t expect many big names here, as this is definitely nowhere near the size of Spotify or Tidal for example. Lastly is Link where you could theoretically stream songs from your PC or Mobile device, but as described above, getting this to function is a pain and very non user friendly. If Music Racer: Ultimate added Spotify or YouTube support somehow, I could see myself playing quite long-term, unfortunately that’s not the case.

When choosing a song, there’s no artwork and no preview of what it sounds like, just a boring black screen with the song list, so you’re simply guessing and testing each song, hopefully keeping track of the ones you like and don’t. Once you’ve chosen a song you then decide to play Normal, Zen, Cinematic or Hard. Again, there’s no explanations as to the differences, so you have to simply try them out and see what they each entail. Luckily that’s what I’m here for. Normal will place notes on the track and the odd pillar obstacles you need to avoid to prevent your combo from being broken. Hard is just that, the same but music is harder where you’re unable to get hit or else you’ll fail. Zen Mode places no obstacles on the screen, so you can simply enjoy playing without any worry of failure, and lastly Cinematic Mode doesn’t even have you playing, meant to be used more like a moving dynamic background maybe when you have company over or something.

Music Racer: Ultimate’s greatest asset is its synthwave styled aesthetic, bringing those true 80’s vibes with the bright neon, flashing lights and polygon heavy models. Now, I’ve never had an issue with epileptic seizures and flashing lights have never bothered me, but damn, Music Racer: Ultimate seriously will put that to the test. I never got nauseous or headaches from playing, but I wouldn’t blame you if you did. With winding tracks, bright oversaturated colors, massive screen shake and more, it can become a bit much to focus on the gameplay when you’re being visually overstimulated. There are options to turn most of these down but it can still be far too much at times.

For how much I enjoyed Music Racer: Ultimate’s visuals, there were a laundry list of other problems I wasn’t able to ignore. First and foremost, for a music based game, it doesn’t feel like I’m driving over those notes to any sort of rhythm. I’m not moving my car from lane to lane based on the music, simply trying to capture them all somewhat to the music. It’s clear that the lead platform wasn’t console, as it feels like it was made for PC or Mobile and simply ported. Menus are horrendous to try to navigate, as there’s no indicator as to which option you’re currently on or trying to select. You have to simply try and toggle each on and off and hope you’re on the option you meant to.

There’s an option for more Advanced controls, again, without any description to what that means. When this is on, instead of flicking the stick Left or Right to swap lanes, you have to drive it more like a car. This combined with the visual difficulties makes it near impossible to do so. Sure it adds more challenge, but why if there’s no leaderboards? There’s a bunch of other options that can affect gameplay, but again, no descriptions means you’ll simply have to try them and figure out the differences.

The worst offender though has to be the bugs and constant softlocks I ran into while playing. Playing on an Xbox Series X and even with the Series X version of the game, I lost track of how many times my game would randomly softlock. By this I mean that all of a sudden my controller would stop working, kind of. I could still hear Party Chat, but my friends were all of a sudden not able to hear me. The buttons did nothing, even the Xbox Guide button, forcing me to pull out the battery and turning it back on. This fixed the problem some of the time, but not always. I've tried multiple setups with the headsets, wired and wireless but it seems random with the controller 'disconnect'. Sometimes I had no issues for like a handful of songs, other times it does the softlock, usually on the level select screen, but have also had it happen if you're choosing Local or Link modes. Once I've even had it do the softlock after a song was complete and you need to press Replay or Main Menu. Funny enough, I've not had a single issue yet while using the external speakers. I’ll give the developers the benefit of the doubt of an incoming fix since this was reviewed before launch day, but it frustrated me to the point of not wanting to play anymore.

That said, once you’ve played a handful of the songs, you’ve really seen all Music Racer: Ultimate has to offer. Sure you can strive to play repeatedly to unlock new levels or vehicles, but since they don’t alter gameplay at all, there’s no real reason to unless you’re a completionist since the unlocks are tied to achievements.

More a fancy visualizer with some light gameplay elements, Music Racer: Ultimate won’t impress with its basic and bland gameplay without much inspiration behind it besides being a visual smorgasbord overload. Since I spent well over an hour unable to get my own musical libraries working with Music Racer: Ultimate, I was unable to access its most important feature until an alternate fix came later on, one that isn't user friendly by any means. While it’s hard to fault a game when its asking price is quite low and fair, sitting around 7 bucks, it becomes apparent quite quickly that Music Racer: Ultimate is all style and no substance.

**Music Racer Ultimate (Xbox Series X|S version) was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Monster Crown

Tell me if you’ve heard this one before: Small indie studio wants to make a game with their grand vision, so they turn to Kickstarter only to have their initial goals smashed and then finally get to release their game to the masses. It seems like a not so uncommon path these days, and while it doesn’t always work out, it sometimes does, as in the case with Monster Crown from Canadian developers Studio Aurum.

Self-described as “A Monster Taming Game with True Crossbreeds, a Dark Story and filled to the brim with content and imagination”, there’s no denying what its main inspiration was, and while it has many similarities to the uber popular classic Pokemon games, they do just enough to differentiate themselves in some interesting ways. If original Pokemon gameplay is something that brings back waves of nostalgia and you want something similar, look no further than Monster Crown, a story about a young child setting forth on a journey that becomes something much larger than themselves. Of course, you’ll be gathering and battling Monsters along the way as well, as par the course of being very similar, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Touted as a dark story, I had some expectations in my head, as I’m used to the more kid friendly Pokemon style of narrative when you see colorful graphics like these. While it does have some darker tones, it wasn’t nearly what I was expecting. It's a bit odd to have some swearing in a game that you instantly equate to the 'other' game, but the story overall was slow to progress and not all that interesting until near the end. You’ll need to make pacts with Monsters (not capture) to prevent an evil threat from someone seeking power enveloping over your homeland, and that’s about it.

There’s a few twists, but I never cared about any of the characters, even when my Father went missing in the woods for some reason. You start out as a young child on a farm as you begin your quest, travelling from town to town, but without any overarching reason or motivation for the most part. I stayed interested because I wanted to see the types of Monsters and level them up, actually forgetting about much of the story.

One of the main differences Monster Crown has is that you don’t capture creatures, but instead make Pacts with them. You offer to take them in under your wing with protection and food in exchange for their support and power in battling other Monsters. Seems a little odd that you shove a contract paper in a Monster’s face to get them to join you, but oh well. To get them to join you though you’ll still need to enter battle with them, getting them low on health, I guess to show them ‘who’s boss’ so that they agree to your Pact. The lower their health the more successful a chance they’ll join your Monster roster.

As you travel from town to town, exploring and battling Monsters, the overworld will feel very familiar with main roads to connect towns to small pathways that might house some secrets. Instead of having to find monster in tall grass though, they will appear on the overworld map as you explore it, meaning you’re able to engage with them as you see fit or ignore them and bypass their pathways. Decide to get in range and you can initiate a battle.

As a Monster Tamer, you’re able to bring along eight different Monsters with you into battle, and just like that ‘other’ game. Your creature choice will have a lot of strategy involved, as you’ll always want to try and counter your foe’s types. These types fall into five different categories and differ from typical elements: Brute, Malicious, Will, Unstable and Relentless. In other games, elements make sense in which beats which. Here though, even hours in, I’m not sure why certain ones beat other types. Luckily they are color coded and have icons, but I’m still having to constantly check which type is best against which.

Battles are what you’d expect, choosing which ability or attack you want to use on your opponent, ideally something that is their weakness to do more damage. You can choose to use your abilities freely each turn, as there’s no Power Point system to limit you, though there doesn’t seem to be as much variety overall in abilities. My main complaint is that the speed of text during battles is far too slow without any way to speed it up, so much of the time you’re simply waiting for your next turn as text finishesscrolling.

Another main differentiator is the mechanic of swapping Monsters in battle. You can freely switch to any other non KO’d monster in your party when it’s your turn, and doing so takes your turn, but the next attack gets a bonus multiplier to your attack. So there’s some strategy involved; do you skip a turn and possibly take damage to do more damage in return next time, or do less damage now and hopefully defeat them before they retaliate?

Now technically you won’t have to grind to beat bosses, but a few extra levels certainly doesn’t hurt as monster stats will grow and they’ll unlock new abilities at certain levels. You’ll need to defeat certain people to raise the level cap of your party’s monsters, much like a Gym Leader, so you can tell what elements were borrowed from other games. What was interesting is that when you get to certain story elements or area bosses, monsters generally far out level you, which initially thought I was going to have to grind for hours to catch up. This isn’t the case. Instead, these boss fights are almost like a puzzle in a way, as the first boss gives you hints about using an ability to infect them for massive damage, or the another boss where you’ll need to interrupt their synergy (monster swapping) to avoid getting bonus damage against you. Once you learn this aspect it becomes a bit more manageable, but it’s not explained all that clearly when you first see yourself facing off against a boss ten to twenty levels higher than you.

Monsters don’t evolve in Monster Crown the way you’d expect either. Instead, you’ll be breeding your friendly monsters with one another to create some really interesting and unique offspring that takes traits from both parents. With 200 base monsters to battle and pact with, this is expanded much further with this breeding mechanic. This comes in handy when you have certain monsters that have great abilities or stats and you want to combine them. These offspring also get unique pixel graphics based on the parent combinations which was a really interesting touch. It’s a really interesting system that is simple and works well, feeling like they are more ‘yours’ than the ones you Pact with in the wild.

Graphics are what you’d expect from an indie game that’s trying to mimic classic Pokemon games from the 90’s. While the art style is 2D pixel based, there is some decent detail in the world and creature designs all things considered, but there’s also a bunch of repeated tile assets that don’t always align properly which can be a bit jarring. With different biomes, you’ll have bright beautiful colors in one area, and dark and dreary tones in another. There is quite a bit of harshness when weather patterns change in an instant though, from day to night or rain without any transition or smoothness.

As for audio, it’s also what you’d expect for the area with some chiptune music and sound effects for your attacks, but aside from that, there’s not much else to mention. One issue that frustrated me though is that for whatever reason, audio is completely turned off and muted each time you load up your save in the game. I initially thought the game audio was broken, because I changed the default music and sound effect levels, but upon starting up again, it defaults back to mute every single time.

At a certain part of the story is where you’ll unlock the Monster Breeding and even an Online component where you’re able to battle other players, theoretically. I say theoretically, as it told me the feature was unlocked, but I was unable to actually find where to do so in the menus after searching.

With a unique Synergy system and Breeding, Monster Crown differentiates itself from being a simple Pokemon clone. Sure there are a ton of similarities, and while it is a shorter affair, the monster variety was what kept me wanting to play, more so than the narrative itself.

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

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Beat Souls

The mid to late 90’s was when we really started seeing a slew of music based rhythm games. Ever since then I’ve become a massive fan of any rhythm based game, so many of my early favorites were PaRappa the Rapper, Bust a Groove, Dance Dance Revolution, Beatmania, Amplitude, Rock Band and really anything from Bemani, Konami’s music division, just to name a few. Any time a new music based rhythm game releases I’m instantly intrigued, so the latest in the somewhat rare genre now is Beat Souls from ZOO Corporation and Eastasiasoft. Self-described as a ‘cyberpop’ game, you can expect challenging gameplay, vibrant visuals and an anime inspired theme.

Being a connoisseur of musical games, I have to say, Beat Souls is one of the more unique rhythm games I’ve played in recent memory. Of course your goal is like most others in the genre, trying to amass a combo and high score to unlock new songs and move onto the next or try your skills in the harder difficulties. With dozens of songs on the docket to get into, I was excited to see what Beat Souls had to offer and if it would scratch that proverbial rhythm itch I’ve’ been having for a few years.

Don’t expect any sort of compelling narrative or story, not that many musical games have them, but Beat Souls simply has you playing a song to completion to unlock the next and a higher difficulty before eventually having access to the whole library. To do so you’ll need to have a musical prowess, incredibly quick reflexes and a resilience to overly bland song selections.

A musical rhythm game lives or dies by its music song list, which is why I still listen to classics from old games in the genre decades later, but I doubt I’d see myself searching for the song list from Beat Souls anytime soon with its uninteresting soundtrack, not that the songs are bad by any means, but they are very unmemorable, so don’t expect any licensed bangers you'll be tapping your foot to.

As you progress through the song list you’ll unlock up to four playable characters, each with their own unique perks to suit your playstyle and help against your weaknesses. Each character has fifteen songs to compete in and become more challenging the further into their set list you get. Based on your score you’ll receive a rank with bonus points coming for full combos and no hits.

Likes most games in the genre, notes will come from the top of the screen to the bottom, where you’ll need to collect them. As levels get harder, the songs not only get faster but there will be many more obstacles to avoid and more challenging note placement that will take some serious finger dexterity. Essentially you want to collect as many notes as possible to fill your Fever Gauge and avoid any obstacles so you don’t fail the song after losing your health.

Most rhythm games either have you hitting a correct note at the bottom of the screen to the beat at a precise moment, or collecting notes in some way. Beat Souls is no different, but its method is a bit more unique than most. Your character can move freely across five different lanes, tasked with catching all of the notes in various lanes that coincide with the beat of the music. Thing is, instead of your character ‘catching’ the notes, you have two “Otomo” companions that rest on each side of you that need to collect the notes, not your character. If your character hits the Beat Souls, you take damage, so it takes some practice and getting used to for placing your character not in the lane of the souls, but making sure your Otomo do instead.

As your character runs towards the top of the screen the lanes appear to come towards you, like any other endless runner, but you’ll have to maneuver quickly to not only avoid obstacles, but also placing your Otomo’s in the correct lane of the notes coming towards the bottom of the screen where you are. On top of regular walls that need to be avoided in the moving lanes, you’ll also have to look for markers on the floor to jump over as well, or again, you’ll take some damage. Thankfully now and then there are heart pickups to refill some health, but you’re going to have to be very quick with the reflexes to catch these as well, though with your character and not the Otomo’s, so keep that in mind.

So as you move left and right to change lanes as the Beat Souls flow downward, you’re also going to have to move your Otomo from side to side as well. By default one will rest in the lane to your character’s left and right, but using the Bumpers will place both Otomo on that side. This means pressing Right Bumper will have one Otomo to your right and another two lanes over on the right as well. The same goes for pressing Left Bumper, moving them to the two lanes to the left of your character. Get used to this, as the latter half of the game heavily uses this mechanic, as it’ll be the only way to collect both notes at once without your character hitting an obstacle.

To make things even more challenging, later on you’re also going to have to change your Otomo from their default Yellow color to Blue to catch the same color of notes as well. It seems like only a few mechanics to memorize, but it can become quite chaotic quickly, especially since the difficulty can ramp up out of nowhere.

While Beat Souls is quite colorful and vibrant with its palette, because of the speed of the songs and how many wall obstacles there can be on screen at one time, gameplay can become quite confusing at times. Not impossible by any means, but even a music genre veteran like myself had to replay a few songs multiple times to simply get a passing grade. Remember, you need to not get your character hit by the notes or walls, or doing so will reset your combo meter and cause your health to drain, eventually causing a song fail.

The harder songs near the end become quite challenging, having you constantly moving your character, swapping sides with your Otomo and changing their colors to collect the frenzy of notes all while avoiding a wall of damaging obstacles. There’s a leveling system in place, but I don’t see why, as there’s nothing really tied to it aside from achievements. There’s no unlocks or anything else tied to having a higher level, so I question why it’s even included in the first place. Speaking of achievements, I thought it was going to be a grind to get them, but by the time I played through the set list once, I had them all without any extra effort.

Normal difficulty isn’t too bad until the last handful of levels, but completing a level unlocks its Hard mode, obviously more of a challenge. There’s even a Hell mode for songs for those that want an endless mode that’s incredibly harder. The majority of Beat Souls is much too easy, then you hit this wall of insanely difficult songs that require some serious reflexes and memorization of note patterns.

Where Beat Souls falters the most is with is completely forgettable soundtrack, almost a cardinal sin when it comes to musical games. This isn’t to say the music is bad, but it’s all instrumental and certain songs feels like they are just chunks of a larger song, cutoff for an individual level like piecemeal. I normally gravitate towards a more House or JPop-like track, but none were really all that catchy and I’ve basically already forgotten them by the time of writing this review. With some known or licensed music, Beat Souls could have had me wanting to keep playing longer term.

The aesthetics are cute, vibrant and anime inspired chibi characters, but the levels themselves almost have too much going on at once to really take in an enjoy. With the harder levels you almost need to zone out, not focusing on one lane, simply trying to use your peripheral vision to see the note stream coming down the screen and hopefully reacting in time.

Beat Souls adds some interesting twists but ultimately will be forgotten by the time you’ve gotten all of its achievements due to the lack of online play. Sure you could reach for online leaderboards if that’s your thing, but aside from that reason alone, something just felt ‘missing’. I truly love rhythm games and am always excited to try a new one when they release, and Beat Souls was no different, but I doubt I’ll go back to play anytime soon unless showing someone for a very specific reason.

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

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 KING OF FIGHTERS XV, THE

“Shatter All Expectations." That’s the tagline for The King of Fighters XV, the latest entry in the long running fighting series that’s been around since 1994. I actually went into The King of Fighters XV with little to no expectations, not for any fault of its own, but I haven’t played a King of Fighters (KOF) game in quite a few years. While most may think of or gravitate towards the most popular fighters, Street Fighter and Tekken, especially when it comes to eSports and competitive gaming in the genre, KOF has always carved its own niche with fans due to its unique roster of characters and interesting game mechanics.

It’s hard to think that it’s been almost six years since the previous game, The King of Fighters XIV, and with such a gap in-between entries, quite a few improvements have been added, such as graphics, mechanics, roster and online improvements. With just shy of forty characters (and another dozen coming in the future with DLC) ranging from classics, popular picks and even new fighters, there’s surely to be a handful of characters you enjoy and gravitate towards to. Classic 3-on-3 battles return but also bring in a handful of completely new mechanics like Shatter Strikes, an improved MAX Mode and tweaked Rush function means there’s something for KOF veterans and newcomers alike. Having been away from the series for quite a few years, The King of Fighters XV was an easy experience to simply jump into and enjoy, yet has enough depth to become masterful without enough effort and practice.

While normally fighter games have an overall narrative, along with each character’s individual storylines, let’s be honest, that’s not why we play the genre. We play to beat each other up and have a good time mastering combos. If you do care about the ongoing storyline in the series, the saga continues from the previous game, coming to an explosive climax. Of course this isn’t really the focus, but there is an overarching storyline to become invested in if you do care about the lore within the KOF series.

A fighting game is generally only as good as its roster and mechanics, and with 39 characters (and a dozen more coming via DLC), there’s plenty of choice here for you to try out and find your ideal team of fighters. Like previous games, matches are comprised of three fighters per team. Instead of being able to freely swap out mid battle, you choose the order of the three fighters, and if you defeat your enemy, you get some health slightly replenished for the next match until all three of one team is defeated. And if you’re a long-term KOF fan, you’ll be happy to know that the original voice actors return to reprise their roles as your favorite fighters.

The King of Fighters XV features three new original fighters to the series this year as well; Isla, Dolores and Krohnen. Isla is the leader of the Rivals Team, focusing on her speed and utilizes purple phantom arms for many of her attacks. Dolores is also a member of her Rivals Team, a beginner friendly fighter that has psychic medium capabilities that allows her to contact spirits of the earth. Last for the KOF newcomers is Krohnen, leader of the team with the same name. Having an arm that can transform and a red shawl, I instantly thought he resembled Vincent Valentine from Final Fantasy VII at quick glance.

Not that you’re forced to pick your trio that belong to the same team, but when you do, their special logo will appear in the prefight screens as opposed to the typical KOF logo; A small but cool touch. Speaking of Teams, characters have been moved around, alliances made, and should make for some interesting matchups for long-time KOF fans that will notice the roster list of fan favorites. The following team compositions are as follows:

Team Hero: Shun’ei, Meitenkun and Benimaru
Team Ash: Ash, Elisabeth and Kukri
Team Sacred Treasures: Kyo, Iori and Chizuru
Team K’: K’, Maxima and Whip
Team Rival: Isla, Heidern and Dolores
Team Fatal Fury: Terry, Andy and Joe
Team Art of Fighting: Ryo, Robert and King
Team Orochi: Yashiro, Shermie and Chris
Team Super Heroine: Athena, Mai and Yuri
Team Ikari: Leona, Ralf and Clark
Team G.A.W. (Galaxy Anton Wrestling): Antonov, Ramon and The King of Dinosaurs
Team Krohnen: Krohnen, Kula and Angel
Team Secret Agent Team: Blue Mary, Vanessa and Luong

Of course in Story Mode there will be some narrative and your ending will depend on who your team is comprised of once you defeat the final boss(es), both of which can be quite challenging to learn how to counter their attacks. There’s nothing terribly exciting about the story mode aside from trying to unlock all of the different endings based on your team composition. If you’re not planning on playing against others locally or online, I suspect your excitement will wane after a short period of time.

The King of Fighters XV plays like many others fighters but utilizes some interesting mechanics, combos and counter systems in place. The traditional 3-on-3 team battle returns, but also adds some new features that should make for some interesting matchups when it comes to fighting others. The latest and newest mechanics is what’s called a Shatter Strike. This is essentially another form to counter attack an opponent, like the series’ previous Parry system, but this can be used offensively as well when you use a portion of your Super Bar.

The previous MAX Mode returns, much like a Super Bar, but has had some slight changes in KOF XV. Simply engaging MAX Mode now takes two bars, activated with ‘LK’ and ‘HP’. Once in MAX Mode your attack and Guard Crush is increased. Max Mode Quick also returns, but is also slightly tweaked, not increasing your power for attacks, allowing you to flow into your next combo without leaving that small gap for an opening.

What would a modern fighting game be without special moves right? There’s plenty here, from EX Special Moves, Super Special Moves, Max Super Special Moves and Climax Super Special Moves. Depending on the type of special moves will determine how much of your Power Gauge will be utilized, from half a bar to three bars. The Climax moves are the lengthy mini-cutscenes that take a healthy chunk of your opponent’s life if landed, but hope you don’t miss and leave yourself open for a counter.

Rush Mode returns, and while some may see it as controversial when you get to the higher level competition, this system is great for newer players like myself that can now perform “auto” combos, even able to chain right into one of the special moves. This is more meant for newcomers, essentially allowing you to string together some combos without having to memorize all of the complicated inputs. All that needs to be done is hitting Light Punch three times, and depending on the fourth input, that will choose what ‘finisher’ your combo ends with. While easy to perform, you can’t simply rely on these Rush combos, as you’ll leave yourself open if you don’t land the initial attack.

While there is a tutorial mode that will teach you the basics and all of the different attack types, what it doesn’t do well is give you a thought process of how they all connect logically. It took me quite a few hours to really grasp when to use certain moves at the most opportune times and even understand why I would at any given moment. Each character then has a more specific and in-depth tutorial, showing you have to string together their lengthy and powerful combos, but after the second or third lesson, good luck. These tutorial combos want to you string together a handful of different challenging inputs that’s going to take a good chunk of time, effort and dedication to really grasp and perform on the fly when needed. It’s very difficult to master a character and all of their movesets and combos, but of course, dedicate the time and it will pay off in the long run when you go to fight others online or locally.

Speaking of fighting others online, a fighting game can live or die by how good its netcode is. If every match is laggy or servers are terrible, the community won’t bother and the game can slowly die. Sadly we’ve seen this too many times, so I was curious what developers SNK have done to make sure that The King of Fighters XV thrives with an online community that won’t settle for anything less. In general, the better fighter games utilize something called 'Rollback Netcode'. This essentially is a clever way to handle latency online, and even after playing a few matches online with a 250+ ping in a few matches, I only lost because of my skill, not blaming it on lag. Being the first canon King of Fighters to have this implemented at launch is a big deal and shows SNK’s commitment to wanting to have a healthy online community.

There’s a handful of different online modes to choose, from typical Ranked and Casual, but also online training, room matches and a few others. While I feel most will likely gravitate towards the standard Casual and Ranked modes, it should be noted that on Xbox at least, the only crossplay enabled is within the same family on console, so keep that in mind when choosing what platform to play on with your friends. This seems like a large miss, especially if the healthy community currently starts to dissipate over time or is playing elsewhere.

There’s a ton of extras for KOF fans to enjoy, like galleries, rewatching cutscenes, and even a DJ Station where you can play any of a few hundred different songs, choosing your soundtrack. Visually, The King of Fighters XV is of course bright, colorful and flashy, especially once you perform a few of the special finishers, though I was never ‘wowed’. Voiced characters are here as well but like most fighters, expect to hear a lot of the same one-liners when performing certain moves.

While there’s a steep learning curve to reach high level play and a ton of content, there’s something for KOF beginners and veterans alike. The King of Fighters XV has a massive roster of 39 characters in the core game before any DLC, and with a healthy amount of mechanics to learn and master, it will take some patience, time and dedication to find your ideal trio to prove that you’re the true King of Fighters.

**THE KING OF FIGHTERS XV was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 RAINBOW SIX: EXTRACTION

I tried to get into Rainbow Six Siege when it was new, but it just never did anything for me. The PvP gameplay simply never resonated with my preferences and I pretty much forgot about it quite quickly. If you ever played the limited mode in Siege, Outbreak, you’ll have a pretty good idea about Rainbow Six Extraction’s premise. Based on a specific mode from Siege, Extraction is now its own dedicated game, focusing on the 1 to 3 player cooperative PvE experience.

Set a few years into the future after the outbreak, The Chimera Parasite has escaped containment and has now infected numerous cities across the United States from San Francisco, New York, Alaska and more. The Parasite has evolved over the years, now known as Archaeans, a much more fearsome and deadly enemy that the REACT (Rainbow Exogenous Analysis and Containment Team) squad is tasked with contaminating. The Rainbow team has always been tasked with some of the most difficult situations imaginable, and their task in Extraction is no different.

At the beginning you’ll have access to a handful of characters, known as Operators, and unlock more as you level up later on. If you’re a big Siege fan, you’ll be happy to know and recognize said Operators, and just like the previous title, each have their own abilities, perks and weapons specific to them and their play style. Assemble a squad of up to three player Operators and take on a cooperative PvE experience against the deadly Archaeans as you try to survive.

Each Operator has their own unique ability, best suited for specific missions, objectives and situations, though that doesn’t mean you’re forced to use them when you don’t want, but you might have a harder time using Doc for example with his healing as opposed to Vigil when a brief moment of invisibility might help you take out an elite foe silently. In no particular order, the Operators currently included and unlockable as you level are as follows, and while they all have somewhat of a back story, it’s not really a focus in Extraction; surviving is.

Doc is your healer with the ability to use his healing stim pistol from afar to heal yourself or friendlies. Finka is the other healer class, able to temporarily boost the team’s shields but also revive downed teammates from a distance. Jager is a pilot who has access to an automated turret, even able to help intercept projectiles within its radius. Rook brings armor plating for his teammates to equip, allowing you to go downed if you fall instead of straight to K.O. IQ returns and is able to detect REACT equipment through walls and obstacles. Fuze is amazing for specific modes, having the ability to place remotely detonable charges on walls and barricades, flooding the room with cluster bombs on the other side before a breach. Tachanka is one of my favorites, able to deploy a mounted LMG whenever you please, great for chokepoints, hordes or against elite enemies.

Sledge returns with his tactical hammer, allowing you to stun enemies and destroy walls and create pathways with ease. Alibi’s ability is interesting, allowing you to place a holographic-like drone that can be used as a decoy to distract enemies. Pulse does just that, setting a pulse that detects almost all objectives, nests and more through walls for the team. Capitao unlocks much later but is able to shoot silent bolts that detonate on impact, able to switch between smoke and venom bolts. Ela is who you want if you want to make use of her sticky proximity mines, great for setting traps and luring enemies into. Smoke lives up to his name, able to throw, well, remotely detonated smoke grenades that will also deal damage to enemies within the smoke cloud.

There’s a few others Operators, but as you can see, they all have their own unique abilities and traits that suit a specific playstyle and group composition. While they will all generally play the same gun-wise for the most part, it’s the synergy between the three players’ abilities that will make a world of difference, especially on the harder difficulty and endgame content. Also, don’t expect to pick one or two Operators and expect to ‘main’ them, as you’re going to need to rotate between almost all of them on a regular basis, as their status changes between matches based on what’s happened to them, such as going MIA (dying), extracting with low health and more. More on this shortly.

18 Operators, 12 Maps, 13 Enemies, 25 Gadgets, and nearly 70 guns feels like it’s got a wealth of content, which it does for a while. I word it that way because it does feel like a grind eventually when you’re trying to get all your Operators to max level 10 and work on your overall level as well. There’s varying difficulty levels as well, and I highly suggest trying to level as many Operators as possible, because if one of your main Operators go MIA and the rest are all low level, you’re going to have a hard time in certain missions taking those Operators in missions.

While there are a dozen different maps, basically every playthrough will differ because of the randomized missions within each. Essentially how it works is that you choose what map you want to play and it will be broken into three different sections (missions). You can then choose how far into missions you want to test your skill and teamwork. Where you’re dropped into the map is the Extraction zone, able to call for an extraction and leave at any point your team wants, though the earlier you leave and extract, the less XP you get, so it’s a tradeoff of risk versus reward. Sometimes retreating and extracting when low on health is the better option of having a teammate ‘dying’ and going MIA, which is a mission type.

Die on a map without being extracted or rescued and your Operator is unusable until they are rescued on the same map later on. The three levels on a map are categorized as tier 1, 2 and 3, generally getting harder on each tier, but the mission types vary and some are much more challenging than others, so it will take practice to learn which missions your team is best suited for and which Operators are the best choices.

While the maps never change, the different mission objectives each time change the variety and keep the experience fresh. The 13 different mission types vary from tracking nests, killing elite targets and more. It will take strategy to learn the best ways to proceed with the different missions and enemy types, as you’re almost always being stalked or hunted by numerous enemies. Nests will spawn enemies out every so often if not taken care of, so you need to have a plan of attack of the best way to proceed. Do you try and take on the next tier of mission when you’re low on health and risk it, or extract and let those Operators rest as you start a new game?

With about a dozen enemy types, you’ll have a lot of repetition with the normal ‘grunt’ types, but once you get high enough to fight the harder Elites and more, they require a lot more caution and strategy to take out. On top of that, on the harder difficulties you’ll also have to deal with mission ‘mutations’. These are basically randomized modifiers such as a dense fog that makes it near impossible to see, armored nests, caustic Sprawl and a handful of others that really make missions challenging. Speaking of Sprawl, the parasite infects everything near it, leaving this black sludge-like substance on the floor, walls and ceiling, slowing you to a crawl if you walk through it. You can see how this can hamper your escape efforts if you’re being chased or need to make a quick retreat. You’re able to shoot the Sprawl to clear a path, but that means you’re using your precious ammo in the process.

For those that sink in the dedication and time into Extraction, the endgame content becomes much more challenging with its Maelstrom Protocol mode. Instead of your normal 3 tiered missions, this mode challenges you with 9, on top of rotating mutations as well. Also, you’re only able to choose from a handful of randomly chosen Operators and you’ll have to deal with the hardest Archaean’s Extraction has to offer, plus you have less time than normal to complete each tier for good measure. This mode is no joke and will take a solid team to be successful with.

Each time you extract you’ll get all of the XP you’ve earned up to that point in the mission(s). Extract early and you won’t get much, finish all three tiers and you’ll get more. The harder the difficulty the more XP you’ll earn.

Each Operator earns their own XP when played, but you also gain an overall level which is where unlocks come into play. Certain cities, Operators and gear unlock at certain level milestones, so you’re almost always given new content to play until you reach max level. Bonus XP will be given if you can complete side objectives, like silent takedowns, shooting weak spots, etc, allowing you to level much quicker. An Operator that goes MIA though doesn’t get their earned XP until they are rescued though, so that should always be a priority for your team.

Operators also earn new weapons and cosmetics as they level up, improving their abilities and perks the more levels they gain. There are over twenty REACT gadgets to unlock as well, mostly different grenade types, claymores and other equipment that any Operator can equip once unlocked. Again, finding that synergy between your team is going to be key, as we made sure someone always have claymores when certain missions were in play.

While available on Xbox Game Pass, if your friend doesn’t currently subscribe they can try out Rainbow Six Extraction with an included Buddy Pass that allows them to play alongside you for 14 days. I can’t emphasize how important it is going to be to have a solid trio to have any success. While you can play solo or with random others online, without key communication, you’re going to have a bad time and have numerous Operators go MIA. Something interesting I found out was when I joined a max level friend and had my Operator go MIA from dying; He had to go and it was only then I noticed that since I wasn’t at the level to play that specific city area yet due to the unlock level, so I basically ‘lost’ that Operator until he was on the next night and could run me through that city to rescue my Operator. I don’t see this being a common problem for many but something to note that you can have Operators go MIA in levels you technically don’t have access to on your own yet.

I’ll admit, not only did I not really enjoy Siege, I fully expected to be underwhelmed with Extraction due to being very similar in gameplay elements. The PvE aspect certainly appeals to me much more but I honestly struggled in the first handful of missions to figure everything out and get a grasp on it all, even after the VR training mission. Once you wrap your head around how all the mechanics and missions work and things start to fall into place, that’s when the fun really begins.

Visually, Extraction is what you’d expect from a Siege spin-off. While I’m sure some parts have been upgraded and improved, both games look very similar aesthetically, but for good reason. Audio is as you’d expect as well, with enemies sounding menacing, weapons sounding impactful and barricades being placed still has that satisfying audio. Since there’s not much story outside of the opening cutscene and in unlocked logs, there’s not much else to note other than Operator one-liners.

Rainbow Six Extraction’s ‘fun’ is almost solely going to be based on if you have a three person squad with some friends and how effective your communication and strategy is. Another reviewer friend that was playing wasn’t enjoying Extraction nearly as much due to playing solo, but once I found two friends and gained out a handful of levels and Operators, it starts to fall into place and the fun begins, even if it does become repetitious later on. As to the longevity, that will depend on if you enjoy Extraction’s very challenging endgame and what content will be released in the future.

**Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Extraction Deluxe Edition was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.7 / 10 Infernax

Last month we were lucky enough to get our hands on an early PC preview build of Infernax, an 8-bit adventure that fans of classic NES Castlevania and Zelda II should quite enjoy. I’ll admit though, I was a bit apprehensive at first given that I’m not much of a classic Castlevania fan (I know...) or even Zelda II, so I figured Infernax would suffer the same fate from my genre tastes. I’m happy to report that I was not only wrong, but the early access build that we got to play left me wanting more, waiting for this day when Infernax releases for the masses to enjoy some classic retro gameplay filled with tons of 8-bit blood and gore for good measure.

Set in the Crusades era, a knight returns to his homeland only to find it overrun with monsters, ghouls, beasts and dark magic. Armed with just his mice and shield, Alcedor does what he must to cleanse the lands of these atrocities. While there’s not too much story within for an overarching narrative, there’s a handful of side quests that are somewhat interesting, and to solve some light puzzles you’ll need to pay attention to what certain NPC’s say or mention.

Developers, Berzerk Studio, stated they wanted to create a game that looked and felt like a genuine NES game from the era, from what made them captivating, the challenge, yet added some modern mechanics and design choices that I would argue makes for a better experience overall. It’s clear that Castlevania and Zelda II were heavy influences, and not only did they nail the classic 8-bit visual aesthetic and audio, but they’ve also somehow managed to nail the ‘feeling’ and essence of those classics as well, but with their own twist.

Before Mortal Kombat, blood wasn’t all that common in games, at least not in any significant way. Well, those days have long passed, and Infernax takes classic retro gameplay but turns the blood and gore up to eleven, and not just gratuitously without reason. For example, finally defeat a massive boss and his guts will spray all over, leaving Alcedor and the ground covered and dripping. Even with 8-bit styled visuals, there’s plenty of smaller details that don’t go unnoticed.

One of the first events that take place after arriving by boat is you having to make a choice. You encounter someone that looks like something bad has happened to them, asking you to kill them and put him out of his misery. Do you abide by his request or Pray and hope that he’ll be fine. There’s consequences for your choice, one that ends up in a mini-boss fight basically from the start of the game, setting the tone going forward. Choices you make will have consequences later down the road, and with multiple endings based on your decisions, there’s enough replayability to warrant a couple playthroughs.

You have a map in the top corner, highlighting where you’ve been and where else is yet to be explored, which is qhite handy later in the game when you’re trying to solve a puzzle and unsure if you’ve been somewhere or not. You’ll eventually meet branching paths, sometimes unsure where to go, so exploration will help you as you kill monsters and earn experience points. Sometimes these pathways will bring you to secret or currently inaccessible areas, meaning you’ll need to come back later at some point, most likely with some upgrade or ability that you’ll find within the handful of dungeons.

With a few dungeons to find and clear of a massive boss, these are quite challenging and will require patience and enemy memorization. You’ll have to find keys to unlock doors to progress, eventually culminating in a very challenging boss battle. These dungeons usually house another secret or two to find, and to complete everything Infernax has to offer, you’ll have to be quite thorough to find all of the spells and skills needed.

Killing enemies with your mace will earn you XP and they usually drop gold as well. You’ll come across a couple towns along your journey, able to spend your gold on equipment upgrades, potions and more. XP is spent at shrines that act as save points and refill your health and mana. You’re able to upgrade your Might, Health or Mana, depending on your playstyle, with each tier costing more XP than the last. Health and Mana upgrades add more to your vitals, and while it seemed Might upgrades made me dish slightly more damage, I couldn’t really tell even when it was maxed.

Shrines are also where you can input optional codes to help you progress in the game if you become stuck or frustrated, adding invincibility or infinite jumps. There’s even a cool code that was given after seeing my first ending that was awesome, but I won’t spoil what it unlocked. They’re also used as teleportation points, so you can quickly fast travel from one Shrine to the next, which is quite handy when you finally earned an ability upgrade and now can access a new area way back on the other side of the map.

If you want more challenge, there’s an option for Casual or Hardcore modes. Casual allows you to begin in the room you died in with all your gathered XP and gold up to that point, where Hardcore brings you back to the last shrine you prayed and saved at. I really appreciated this option and the optional cheat codes that should appease both types of fans.

Combat is simple with one button for attack, another for jumping and one more for your magic spells. It’s basic in premise yet works quite well. Controls are very tight, as I never once had a death that wasn’t my fault, though some enemies are much harder or trickier than others. With a handful of different enemies, you’ll need to approach each one with a different strategy. Zombies for example walk towards you slowly, floating eyes come at you at weird angles and all enemies required a different approach. While your mace simply extends out slightly in front of you, you also have a shield that can block some attacks. This is done simply by doing nothing and not moving. Not all attacks can be blocked but knowing which ones can will make a world of difference, especially when it comes to skeletons lobbying lances or throwing axes in your direction.

I grew up in the NES era, so of course I have a soft spot when it comes to 8-bit nostalgia with games like Infernax. The retro pixel artwork is done wonderfully, as are the smaller details with enemy design, blood and gore, and the massive bosses. The death animations when you do die are fantastic as well and worth a mention. The audio has that classic retro chiptune style to it as well with a great soundtrack and some ‘oomph’ to your attacks and hits.

I honestly didn’t think I was going to enjoy Infernax as much as I did, as I was unable to put it down once I got the hang of its challenging gameplay. Sure it frustrated at times with numerous deaths, but I learned. It’s obvious when a game is made as a passion project, as it simply has that ‘something special’, and Infernax is one such game. Pucker up buttercup because it’s about to get gory.

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

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Reverie Knights Tactics

Depending on your age and era you grew up gaming, when a SRPG is mentioned, you probably have different titles that come to your head. Me, I instantly think of absolutely classics like Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea, Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark, Fire Emblem and Front Mission among others. The latest to enter the genre is Reverie Knights Tactics, developed by 40 Giants Entertainment and published by 1C Entertainment. While I may not have played every SRPG out there, the ones that I’ve enjoyed I’ve sunk countless hours into, so I was quite excited to see if Reverie Knights Tactics was going to scratch that itch.

Where’s there’s near endless games in the genre to play, each needs something special to stand out amongst the crowd. Reverie Knights Tactics has some interesting mechanics that we may have seen before, but puts together an entertaining SRPG game that I gladly saw the conclusion of, wanting more as the credits rolled. Depending on your skill, you can even make it very challenging, or enjoy a simpler story based mode instead that is much more forgiving in difficulty.

You are Aurora, a young woman who is on her way across the sea to the city of Lennorian, an elven city that was ambushed and taken over by goblins. The reason she sets sail into dangerous lands is because her father went there in search of something and has not made any contact in quite some time, so of course she becomes worried. You set forth on your journey alone, but will eventually have three other companions that help you along the way for varying reasons. It’s a tale that we’ve heard before, but the writing is decent enough to keep you interested until the credits roll.

Throughout your journey you’ll have decisions to make along the way, changing the outcome and relationships by the end. Instead of ‘Good’ vs ‘Evil’ choices, you have two different possibilities from Chaos and Order. Sure, it’s basically the same thing, but there are not only story changes that will happen based on your decisions, but skill unlocks as well.

Your party of four heroes are all distinct in their personality and skills, each fulfilling a specific role like tank, healer or dps. As you travel across the lands, each area will have different levels to take on enemies in battle, dungeons to explore, loot to find and puzzles to solve. There aren’t many puzzle sections, but most are a lockpicking minigame that was frustrating at times, but broke up the monotony.

As you win battles you’ll earn Cogni, a currency used to purchase certain equipment that adds bonuses to stats. The better items cost more obviously, and each character can equip four different accessories. Each battle has a side list of bonus objectives to complete that are optional, but give bonus XP and Cogni to make the effort worth it.

These pieces of equipment will be vital for surviving, because if you’re not playing on the easier Story mode your health doesn’t refill after battles, so you’re going to have to rely on cooking food and topping up whenever possible. I’m glad that there were two difficulty options, as I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much if I had to constantly go back to camp each time to get more healing items.

Each character has three different stats that you can put a point into when you level up, customizing them however you want. Keep in mind though that you won’t be able to max out their stats, not even halfway, so choose wisely. You’re also unable to respec, so if you end up putting points into a stat you realize probably isn’t the best for that character, you’re basically out of luck. While there’s no skill tree present, certain levels will allow you to choose from one of two skills presented, allowing you to customize your characters to synergize with one another, but each is only able to equip three skills at a time. Later on, depending on your Chaos or Order choices, you’ll also get skill choices based on these that are more unique.

Battles take place on a grid with a typical isometric view that you’d find in many other SRPG’s and is turn based. Beginning of most battles has a preparation phase where you can place your units in their desired starting positions, but it’s only by a tile or two difference, so I don’t see much point in doing so other than who you want in the middle or edges of the starting spots. then comes the battle phase where the bulk of the gameplay will take place.

You have two Action Points (AP), so you can generally either move with one point and then act with another. Some abilities require two AP to be used or can be a stronger version if so, so there’s a bunch of strategy to be had based on what’s happening and your playstyle. Once each of your characters take their turns then enemy team gets to take theirs, rinse and repeat until there’s only one team left standing.

There’s a plenty of strategies to use that even revolves around how to use each battleground, as there are plenty of traps and other obstacles that can be used to your advantage if you’re clever. Not only are there exploding barrels, but poison, fire and other nodes that can be exploited to defeat your enemies. You’ll need to think ahead, not only of how to attack, but which direction to defend to prevent backstabs and to not be within trap distance if possible. This can be frustrating at times though without the ability to rotate the map in any way, which I found odd.

Each character has their own playstyles and unique special move once their Focus meter fills. These special moves are generally your most powerful moves, so it’s best to use them when needed or against a stack of enemies or a boss. If you happen to have two or more of your characters surrounding an enemy you can also choose to do a Team Attack, where both, three or all four will combine their attacks for extra damage. This adds another layer of strategy and planning ahead your moves if you want to be the most successful.

A few things that I found frustrating was that most moves don’t get explained the best in descriptions and the icons for status effects are so small it’s hard to tell what you’re inflicted with. Even worse, if you accidently move to a grid square you didn’t meant to, or miscalculated how far away to be for a certain skill, there’s no way to undo it or take it back. I can’t count the times I moved a character, thinking I was in range for one of my skills only to find out I was off by a square, so you don’t get that preview ahead of time.

If you don’t play on the Story Mode that replenishes your health after each battle, it’s quite a chore and pain to have to do so between each battle. You’ll need to craft and use items constantly to stay alive. Worse is you don’t even get healed for ‘free’ if you go back to camp either, so I found Story Mode much more enjoyable without the chore work.

Lastly, the animations and gameplay happens at a very slow pace, which I understand for a tactics based game like this, but it’s painfully slow. There’s an option to turn up the animation times by about double, but it’s something you have to remember to toggle every single battle. Why this isn’t simply a default or option that can persist I’m not sure, but it was annoying.

I quite enjoyed the hand drawn art and animations, along with the bright and colorful visuals, Reverie Knights Tactics has a great aesthetic that looks like a graphic novel come to life. Sometimes the maps can be a bit cluttered as I’ve not seen something behind an object or the tile I’m on shows that an attack is coming next move but I wasn’t able to notice it clearly. Sadly there’s no voicing for all of the dialogue, but the instrumental soundtrack is done quite well, especially the opening theme that’s beautiful.

The campaign took me about 10 or so hours to complete, and I did every side mission and quest that was available to me. There’s of course a second playthrough warranted if you want to see both outcomes for the Chaos and Order dialogue choices, and given the $31.99 asking price, it might be a good idea to get the most out of your purchase.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a great tactics style game that I couldn’t put down, but Reverie Knights Tactics did just that, having me wanting to play ‘just one more battle’. While not the most unique SRPG out there, it’s a solid experience overall and even leaves itself up for a hopeful sequel down the road even if its ending happens abruptly.

**Reverie Knights Tactics was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Windjammers 2

I never was lucky enough to play much Neo Geo when I was younger, so I missed out on some classics. One of those classics was Windjammers, a tennis-like sports game played with a Frisbee and special moves that was apparently quite decent, especially for its time. Originally released in 1994, it’s been a long almost three decade wait, but its sequel, Windjammers 2, is finally here for all those original fans.

While it may have “2” in its title and has a few special new features, after watching footage of the original, there’s quite a lot of content here that is simply an updated version of its predecessor. That’s not to say that it’s not worth playing, as the new hand drawn graphics totally suit the gameplay and the inclusion of online matches is a very welcome modern addition that was needed. Windjammers 2 respects the original gameplay without changing it too drastically so that original fans would be turned off, yet adds just enough new content and mechanics to warrant bringing it back.

The rules of Windjammers’ sport is simple. A mix of tennis, volleyball and pong, two players are placed on a walled court, much like tennis, but with a goal line behind them. The middle has a net, just like tennis, and the player who scores 15 points first wins the set, and the best of 3 sets wins the match. Interestingly, the goal line is usually divided into three sections, each one denoting a point value.

For example, the very middle of most arenas is usually smaller but worth 5 points and the outer sections of the goal line will give 3 points if you throw the disc past the goal line. There’s a time limit, so if no player reaches the 15 point limit within, the player with the highest points wins the set, or goes to sudden death if tied. Think tennis, but much more entertaining. I wish this was a real sport. There are even a few unique areas where the goal sections are different lengths and placement, and even one where the point value is based on the Frisbee in play that is randomized after each scoring chance.

Simply throwing the disc into the net wouldn’t be cool enough, so there are other ways to do so and score. The disc itself can ricochet off the arena walls, so you can bounce it like you would in Air Hockey or Pong, hoping to land in the goal area. You will also score if your opponent doesn’t catch the disc or you spike it onto the ground on their half of the court. Once you get the hang of Windjammers 2’s speed and mechanics, it becomes quite fun and entertaining when you can start to take on harder difficulties or others online.

While there’s no real career progression, you’ll play a handful of matches across a map against opponents where you’ll get a quick cutscene at the end to denote said player’s ending. If you were a fan of the original, original characters return such as Gary Scott, Jordi Costa, Loris Biaggi, Hiromi Mita and Klaus Wessel. This is a sequel though, so you can expect a handful of new and unique characters as well, such as Max Hurricane, Sammy Ho and a few others.

Each character has different stats, special moves and suit different playstyles. Some are weaker but quicker, others are faster but have less useful special moves. Fill your special meter and you’ll be able to use an EX Move, not a completely unblockable move, but one that will be very difficult to defend against. Each player’s EX Move is unique in power and pattern, as some will shoot diagonally or even in odd varying patterns, so you’ll want to know each opponent’s pattern if you want to play at a high level against others online. Interestingly, some characters are stronger, so a hard hitting move might actually push you into your own net while even catching the disc and score them a point, but these characters are usually much slower as a tradeoff.

You have a regular throw, a slapshot and a dropshot (like a lob). You can jump and smash, but every move has a counter move provided you can telegraph where the disc is going and react quickly enough to do so. Sadly the training mode was just a slideshow of how to perform different moves, bit of a letdown, as the original at least had it animated with how to perform each move with the stick and buttons while the moves get shown. It would have made a world of difference to practice the moves before moving on, so my first handful of matches had me struggling until I figured it out.

There’s not much in terms of modes, as you have arcade, versus and online, though with a sports title it’s to be expected. There are a few minigames thrown in here and there that are fun and quick to break up the monotony, also returning from the original title. Online multiplayer was a pleasant surprise, as small titles like this don’t usually get the treatment. With cross-play enabled, I had no problem finding online players to play against, and there’s even an online ranking system in place for those that want to prove themselves as the baddest Windjammer in the world. The handful of matches I partook in played decently and without too much lag and matches were found quite quickly.

Developers Dotemu, best known for Streets of Rage 4 and the upcoming TMNT: Shredder’s Revenge, has a distinct hand drawn aesthetic style in many of their games, and Windjammers 2 is no different. Gone are the original pixelated graphics and in are the slick comic book style hand drawn art and animations, to the point where I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the same artists from Street of Rage 4. The soundtrack is totally suited for that 90’s ‘radical’ vibe yet retains that retro style of tunes.

I honestly expected Windjammers 2 to be quite a simple and bland experience, but there’s some depth to its gameplay for only using a couple of buttons. If you missed out on the original Windjammers, don’t sleep on this sequel. It may seem like an odd mashup of sports, but it works and becomes quite addicting once you become a badass Windjammer.

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

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Trophy

I grew up with the NES and still remember that day that I opened my system for Christmas, starting my decades long gaming career. While that statement may age me, classic games from this era are extremely nostalgic for me, as that was my childhood. Needless to say, when a game is built with that classic 8-bit retro at its core, it speaks to me and brings me back to waking up early on the weekend, turning the TV to channel 3 and playing one game all day because of how hard it was.

Beginning as a Kickstarter, Trophy doesn’t try and hide its direct inspiration. If you grew up with and loved the classic and ultra-challenging Mega Man games on NES, screen slowdown and all, Trophy is going to fall right into your wheelhouse. Interestingly, Developers Gradual Games initially created Trophy as an actual NES cartridge to be played on the classic hardware. Thankfully they’ve decided to expand and now Trophy is available on Xbox as well, bringing gamers down memory lane with an authentic 8-bit gaming experience.

For better and worse, Trophy is a truly authentic 8-bit game, but that means that there won’t be any hand holding, the difficulty is cranked up, the narrative is loose at best, the graphics are basic, and the chiptune music is absolutely fantastic. Starting as a homebrew game, it should be noted that it’s no easy feat to turn a game from those humble beginnings to a full release for the masses, so kudos thar that feat.

Aside from a handful of RPG’s, games from this era generally weren’t known for their deep and engaging narratives. Trophy is no different, as it instead focuses on its Mega Man inspired gameplay, which is absolutely acceptable, as it nails that aspect perfectly. That said, there is a story that underlines your journey.

Two scientists travel to planet Gearus 9 to explore, finding a wonderful and peaceful place full of robot inhabitants. They end up living there for years, trading cultures and creating relationships. One decides to head back to Earth alongside a small robot, Beeper, as proof of their discovery. In their absence, Quine, the scientist who stayed back on Gearus 9, has slowly descended into darkness, proclaiming himself Lord Q and turning the robot inhabitants into violent machines. This means he must be stopped, so you and Beeper return to Gearus 9 to stop Lord Q. Problem is that Beeper is programmed to be peaceful only, and a simple human has no chance of surviving a robot onslaught. The solution? Beeper fuses with you, almost like a suit of robot armor, and Trophy is born.

As mentioned above, the story won’t win any awards, but that’s not why you play games like this. If you’ve played any of the classic Mega Man NES titles you’ll know exactly what to expect, almost to a fault. You begin by choosing one of eight levels (a ninth and final unlocks afterwards), each their own setting and biome and defended by a large and challenging boss before being able to move on. Keep in mind that Trophy is meant to be designed like a classic NES title, so you have a set amount of life, limited lives and plenty of challenge.

If you’ve not been fortunate enough to grow up in this era of gaming, you’re in for a treat. As you make your way through the levels, the screen scrolls with you, only allowing you to see enemies once they enter your vision at the edges of the screen. This means that many times as you’re moving along and dropping down, you’re not going to see enemies until it’s either too late or you only have a split moment to react. Also, just like classic Mega Man, if you move backwards then forwards to where you once were, enemies respawn where they once were, even if they were out of screen by a few pixels, so memorization will be a must.

You will be jumping and traversing across levels, using your arm blaster to shoot enemy robots that get in your path. Make no mistake about it, Trophy is hard as nails, and while thankfully there’s a classic password system in place to continue when you do inevitably die numerous times. Levels are quite large, decent in length and the bosses are massive and incredibly difficult. Defeat these bosses and you’ll get a become slightly more powerful which is always exciting, though the skill swapping from classic Mega Man games is absent here. Trophy icons will drop randomly from enemies and this is how you’ll regain small portions of health along the way, so always be on the lookout, as you’ll need it.

On one hand, I absolutely adore that Trophy is absolutely authentic to being a classic and retro NES experience, especially given it was made for an actual cartridge initially, but there are a few caveats. The 8-bit pixel work is done wonderfully for the era, the bosses are huge and levels quite expansive, but if you remember that classic ‘slowdown’ from the original Mega Man games, that also is here as well. Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was on purpose somehow, but the slowdown can happen when it gets chaotic on screen, but that’s how it sometimes was for the technology at the time. Also, given that this was designed for an 8-bit NES, don’t expect any quality of life or modern improvements, even down to not being played in widescreen format, so it seems ‘small’ on the screen at times.

There are no difficulty options, there’s no way to rewind a mistake and you’re going to die dozens of times, and you’re going to like it. That’s how games were back then, and it’s no different here. The nostalgia is dripping in Trophy, and if you didn’t know it was a ‘new’ game, you could easily assume it was a classic NES game from the 80’s, that’s how authentic it looks and plays. The chiptune soundtrack and effects are perfect for the era as well, and while the opening title theme song isn’t as memorable as the classic Mega Man theme, it’s wonderfully done.

Trophy knows what it’s trying to be, nothing more, nothing less, and it succeeds in every way. Is it going to be for everyone? No, but for those that enjoy classic 8-bit gaming and enjoy that retro gameplay or wants some nostalgia, Trophy fits the bill. While it may be a Mega Man clone at its core, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”.

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

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 RPGolf Legends

I’ve got quite a few of developer KEMCO’s RPG’s under my belt, and while they are all unique in their own way, RPGolf Legends is by far the most non-tradtional RPG I’ve played in quite some time. While I never played the original game, RPGolf when it released back in 2018, its sequel is now here for console players to enjoy.

Are you a fan of classic adventure RPG’s like Legend of Zelda? What about a connoisseur of classic golf games? Have you been yearning for the day that the two genres would blend together for one singular experience? That’s right, that time has come with RPGolf Legends. Half RPG, half Golf game, RPGolf Legends builds upon its original game by leaps and bounds, and while I thought it was going to be an odd mashup, even though it doesn’t take itself seriously, it simply works.

For an RPG that revolves around golf, the story isn’t going to win any awards, but that doesn’t mean it’s not amusing. There’s been an evil spirt that sealed off all of the golf holes in the world, resulting in the sport unable to be played and almost forgotten. This is an RPG, so of course the holes are sealed off by magic crystals, unable to be broken for any that desire the sport.

You being just a regular girl, you fill your day fishing, but one day you fish up something completely unexpected; a magical spirit golf club that is sentient and can talk. Yes, you read that right. Together, you form a friendship and embark on an amazing journey to save the sport of golf for everyone. Again, yes, you read that right. I told you RPGolf Legends doesn’t take itself seriously. While I won’t delve much more into the narrative, there’s a surprisingly amount of story within, even if it’s paper thin, but it’s simply a fun tale.

Are you travel around the open world, you’ll need to complete all 54 holes to finish your quest. These holes are split up into six distinct biomes, from ice covered lands, deserts, forests and more, each with their own challenges. You need to play the holes in order and certain areas are blocked off until you progress to a certain point, but this is nothing new for RPG fans. As you explore these lands, you’re going to also be attacked by animals, creatures and monsters, so like any good RPG, you’ll have to defeat them in combat to gain money and items.

How do you actually play the holes of golf you ask? Well, they are blocked by an impenetrable barrier that Clubby, your friend that you fished up, has the power to dissipate. The problem is that this takes a lot of energy to perform, and to make sure Clubby has the energy you’ll have to defeat enemies and complete holes to fill a meter. Once the meter is full you’ll be able to get Clubby to unlock the next hole. Rinse and repeat for each hole. Manage to get Par or better on a hole and you’ll have your Clubby meter filled slightly plus get some bonus spins of a wheel that replenishes health, energy and gold rewards.

As for the golf gameplay itself, it’s quite simple. Soon as you want to start swinging, press ‘A’ and the power meter will fill and stop when you press the button again, then the aim needle will move and your shot straightness based on where that needle lands. It’s nothing new for golf games but suits the simplistic gameplay just fine. The game does a great job of choosing the best club for your shot, though you can of course change your club and aim for more precise control. Weather also plays a factor in your shots, from rain to wind and more. For anyone that’s ever played a RPG or a golf game, you’ll feel right at home with how simple it is to pick up and play.

There’s more to the core gameplay than just golf though, as this is part RPG as well remember? Not only will you golf courses for best scores and join tournaments, maybe you want a break from the dungeon exploring and golfing, so why not go fishing for a while. Maybe you’ll want to craft items, or help the dozens of people in town that need help with many menial tasks to keep you busy. How you want to spend your time is completely up to you, as you’re not forced to do one thing or another at any time. There’s even a class system that will be tied to different outfits, giving you new abilities that will needed to progress, but I don’t want to spoil much more than that. It’s a clever take on the RPG job changes yet integrates into the golf gameplay as well.

If you’re not golfing or fishing, you’re most likely going to be in combat. How do you fight enemies you ask? By swinging your golf club at them of course. As you get new and better club sets, you’ll not only hit the ball further and have more control, but do more damage as well. Again, a clever way to integrate both genres logically. There’s a decent variety of enemies, some harder than others, but once you learn their tells for attacking, they become simple to counter. Simply spamming ‘A’ to attack won’t work, so you’ll need to fight strategically.

Tap ‘A’ to swing and attack, or hold down the button to charge up an attack with higher damage, using some of your energy in the process (different from Clubby’s charge meter). There are bosses to find and defeat, and at the each of each biome’s final hole you’ll have a unique boss battle to take on. These have you fighting the boss until you’ve knocked them unconscious, then you have a short window of time to play the course and get the ball into the cup. Once the boss awakens though you’ll have to knock them out again, usually getting a shot or two in before having to do so again. Again, an interesting meld of the two genres that kind of surprised me. You’ll eventually unlock the ability for Clubby to use certain spells, but these do take its charge meter to unlock holes by shattering the crystals, meaning more enemy fighting if you want to use them.

Aesthetically, RPGolf Legends will remind you of those classic 16-bit era RPG’s you grew up with, with golf mechanics as well. Each of the environments feel distinct, not just gameplay wise, but backgrounds and enemy variety as well, all using a different color scheme and retro palette. Music is just as varied and done quite well also. While nothing is voiced, which is acceptable given its retro style, the music changes when needed and ramps up during boss fights as you’d expect.

My only real complaint is that the camera is much too close to the character, so when you’re exploring, you’re going to get hit countless times by enemies you run into because you don’t really see them coming with how close you’re forced to your character. Also, enemies can be hidden behind objects like trees, so again, you’ll get hit when you don’t even know they are there sometimes.

I have to be honest, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect by fusing an RPG and a Golf game together, yet somehow KEMCO not only made it work, but also made it an entertaining experience as well. Sure the premise is completely out there and it doesn’t take itself seriously, but that’s where its charm comes from. While the asking price of $38.99 is quite steep and slightly overpriced in my opinion, there is actually a decent amount of gameplay to be had if you want to experience everything RPGolf Legends has to offer. While not quite a Hole In One, wait Fore a sale and you’ll enjoy this odd genre mashup.

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

Overall Score: 7.6 / 10 Tunnel of Doom

If you’re a fan of Tower Defense games and also enjoy Roguelike titles, then you might be interested in Tunnel of Doom, as its whole premise is combining these two distinct genres together. It may not seem like a logical pairing of game varieties, but it does have some interesting ideas within.

Set in the quiet mining town of Goldcrest in 1903, you play as a distraught wife, Angel, wanting to go save her husband who is trapped in the local mine. Problem is, the Mayor has sealed off the mine, and while she’s unsure why, she breaks through the barrier to search for her spouse. Armed with just a pickaxe, Angel defies orders and searches the unknown mines for her missing husband, hopefully finding other survivors along the way. It seems that there’s been a reason this mine was sealed off, as it is filled with creatures that mean to do you harm, but there’s also a seemingly friendly zombie-like character that wants you to help him defeat a foreboding evil. If that means finding your husband, then so be it.

Played in typical top-down view like most Tower Defense titles, this roguelike arms you with not much besides a pickaxe in the beginning, but as you gather materials like wood, stone and glass, you’ll be able to set traps however you like provided you have the necessary amount of materials to do so. If you’re lucky, you might even find a pistol or a rifle to be able to shoot your enemies from afar.

If you’ve grown up with classic Zelda games, you’ll quickly understand how the map system works, showing how all the rectangle rooms interconnect. In Normal mode you’re given a new map in the very first room showing all of the rooms and possible exits to reach the lower floors. Even though there’s only three floors of the mine, it’s going to take at least a dozen or more room clearings to reach an exit to go deeper.

As you enter a room, one of two things will happen. First, either nothing will happen, meaning you can simply gather any materials you find laying around by breaking the benches, chairs and barrels for wood, mining the stone ore with your pickaxe, or smashing glass and lanterns for glass shards. These are the materials you’ll use to craft traps and barriers when you reach a battle room. These are the other rooms that lock you in as soon as you enter and you won’t be able to leave until all of the enemies are defeated. Luckily you’re given time to setup your traps however you like, but more on that shortly.

Certain rooms will have lockers that require keys to open, massive stone nodes that can only be destroyed with dynamite, a wishing well pool that might grant you bonuses if you toss your hard earned gold into it, or maybe you’ll find a merchant room where you can purchase new traps and items. The map is completely randomized every time you play, so no two runs will be the same. Should you die three times in a run, and you will early on, it’s finally game over and you must start anew which is where the roguelike gameplay comes in.

The randomness can either go for or against you pretty heavily. I’ve had runs where I had a half dozen keys but no lockers to open, or the rewards inside the lockers was not worth it at all. The wishing wells on the other hand are all I saved my precious gold for once I learned how to play better. Dropping a ton of cash into this wishing well not only granted me a bunch of bonus perks, but also health refills and even empty hearts to extend my maximum life. I thought the way to go would be to save up for the expensive traps, but quickly realized that turrets and such generally wasn’t worth the cost at all.

When you do enter a battle room you’re able to see a list of which enemies are going to spawn by a list of icons in the top left corner. The more that are going to appear, the more prepared you should be. The room will show you where enemies will spawn from, usually the doorways or pits littered throughout the room. There’s no time limit to prepare for battle, so you can take your time figuring out the best way to set up your traps, which is if you even have enough materials to do so. You’re able to build traps like broken glass on the floor which will damage enemies, but can also create barricades to try and funnel enemies the way you want, like a true Tower Defense title. Until you get to the second floor you’re probably going to be struggling for resources to make any real difference though.

Once you choose to start the wave, it goes until you or all enemies die, then you can progress to whichever connected room you like. Enemies will not only chase after you, but other miner survivors as well which are helpless and sit in place. They’ll also attack your barriers and traps, and because they are so weak, it’s hard to rely on them for any real protection. Coupled with flying enemies that simply bypass your traps and barriers anyways, the whole Tower Defense portion of Tunnel of Doom’s gameplay feels unsatisfying as whole, not broken, but not very fleshed out either.

So how do you fight back? Well, you can use your pickaxe, but that’s going to do much damage and you’ll also likely get hit being so close. All that glass and stone that you picked up can be thrown, and while it won’t do much damage, ranged combat is generally a much safer option. Keep in mind though, throwing these at enemies removes them from your inventory, leaving you with less materials for barriers and traps, so it becomes a vicious cycle. If you’re lucky you’ll find the odd gun here and there, but the ammo is severely limited and won’t even last a single battle room.

I thought the turrets were going to be the end-all-be-all for the combat sections, but they get attacked so quickly that they generally end up not being worth the cost since they’re just a single use if they become damaged anyways. I eventually stopped even using them in my runs and actually got a rare achievement for beating the game without using any turrets, something I didn’t even realize was a challenge. Saving up my glass for ground traps and funneling enemies down a path over it was generally my best defense.

There’s a very small selection of enemies along the way as well. You’ve got annoying tiny spiders along the walls that can spit poison at you when you get close, bats, zombies, ghouls and a few other enemies I’ll leave as a surprise. The first floor shouldn’t give you too much trouble, but it becomes much more chaotic by the time you reach the second and third floor becoming swarmed by monsters. Luckily if there’s any light sources, that seems to hurt them as well, but only if they walk directly in it.

With combat being such a large component of Tunnel of Doom’s gameplay, it was a bit disappointing to how inaccurate it felt at times. Given that this is played in a top down view, you’re only able to attack, melee and ranged, along the 4 main axis’, not diagonally. This becomes an issue later on when you’re surrounded, as you’ll need to move to be in a position to hit directly horizontal or vertically. Melee combat is even more awkward and clumsy, as I’ve missed plenty of attacks because they moved just slightly out of my direct line of attack, only to hit me instead.

Tunnel of Doom utilizes a classic retro pixel aesthetic, and while there’s very little variety within each room of the mine, it’s easy to distinguish breakable objects and enemies from one another, except for those damn poison spitting tiny spiders that crawl on the walls and sometimes hide behind the lanterns. As for audio, well, it’s there. There’s nothing much notable from the few repeated tracks and repeated sounds that your weapons make when fighting monsters or pinging when mining a stone ore.

There are two extra modes that unlock once you’ve cleared the game once, one being a more hardcore mode and the other an endless challenge to see how long you can survive. Even with these extra modes, I can't see many playing through repeatedly over again as it just feels like a shallow experience overall. Tunnel of Doom is hard to recommend for Tower Defense fans, and for Roguelike followers there’s nothing new here to excite you either, so it falls into this kind of ‘meh’ category. Not bad by any means, but nothing excited me either, even when I finally faced and defeated the final boss.

**Tunnel of Doom was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Happy's Humble Burger Farm

I don’t think I’ve played something quite like Happy’s Humble Burger Farm before. Part fast food simulator, part horror game, I doubt you’ve played much like it as well. While it has similarities to Five Nights at Freddy’s, there’s actually quite a deep lore and interesting story here that I wasn’t initially expecting. Also, don’t let its look deceive you, it purposely appears like an old classic PSX game for most of the journey, for good reason.

Everything starts out normal-ish, with you heading to your first day on the job at the local Happy’s Humble Burger Farm, akin to any fast food chain you've visited a million times before, but once weird things start to happen, you’re in for quite a ride. The game begins right away with some sort of doctors looking over you as they’re talking about implanting some mind control device in your head. Totally normal for a game about fast food, right?

You start out playing by waking up in your seemingly normal apartment. Looking around, one of the rooms has some weird papers pinned to the wall, though I’m sure they mean nothing and have absolutely no foreshadowing at all. Notes that are creepy, something about being on an island, a nuke that went off and other things that won’t make much sense until you see the credits roll. Once you get a call about how you got the job, you’re told you’ll be on the night shift, alone, well kind of.

You’re going to have to learn how to flip burgers, make shakes, pour drinks, deep fry some nuggies and fries, bake cookies and more, all while the long lineup of customers patiently wait in line. Make sure you don’t mess up their order though, Happy wouldn’t like that. You’re given a short amount of time and very little to no training on how to do it all properly and quickly. There’s a surprising amount of backstory and lore if you take the time to explore and pay attention, one that actually had me intrigued about this odd world that only gets stranger by the day.

You’re going to be confused why you need to actually walk to work each night and why the world looks so dated, but it will all eventually make sense if you can become proficient at flipping those burgers and earning that wage, just don’t go looking where you’re not supposed to. While you’re running the place on your own, technically you have Toe, your neighbor and grilling partner, but good luck trying to understand a single word he says and holding a conversation.

You’re not just the cook though, the boss has also left a list of other objectives for you to complete for a bonus if you want, like taking in all the boxes from outside and stocking them on the shelf, cleaning the lobby and taking out all the dead rats from the traps surrounding the outside of the building. I have a feeling Happy’s Humble Burger Farm isn’t up to code on its health regulations. Before you can start helping customers though you need to clock in and turn on the Open sign, obviously.

Do this and customers will start filing in and placing their order at the till. Here you’ll see their order on the till and you’ll need to make it exact, or else. Get the order wrong or run out of time and you’ll get an infraction. Three infractions and Happy isn’t going to be so happy with you. I don’t want to spoil it, but keep Happy happy at all times.

Manage to get through your first shift and clock out and it’s time to go home and sleep. The next day seems about the same, though the orders become much more complicated and involved, requiring a lot of dexterity and speed if you don’t want to screw up any of the orders. And this is where it felt like the game was starting to fall apart in certain aspects. The controls on a controller are simply terrible. You have a small dot as your cursor, and to interact with any object, pick it up or throw them, your aim has to be exact. Having watched PC players with a keyboard and mouse, they didn’t seem to have the same issues I was with a controller. Do you get used to it eventually, sure, but it never feels great, especially when trying to frantically cook and fulfil customers’ orders without incurring any infractions.

Now, I’ve purposely been very vague about the non-coking aspects of gameplay for a reason. While there’s a few hours of gameplay to be had, the uncovering of the story and lore is the best part about Happy’s Humble Burger Farm. What I will say is that there’s a few jump scares but brimming with creepiness overall, especially once day two begins and your customers are mannequins. There’s got to be a reason you’re able to explore the rest of the small town after your shift right? Maybe you’ll unearth some answers, or even more questions.

While there’s no combat in the traditional sense, the times you need to fend off enemies is done with, well you guessed it, cheeseburgers that you piece together. Doing so isn’t easy in the regular restaurant setting, so imagine trying to do so with exploding mannequins or other distractions. This is part horror game as well, keep that in mind.

At first I wasn’t really a fan of the low-poly graphics, but it has a certain charm to it, feeling like one of those PS1 games that haven’t aged well over the years. Animations aren’t any better and textures are horrendous, but I’d wager this is on purpose, as Happy’s Humble Burger Farm proves it can look much better later on. Again, there’s a narrative reason for all of this, one that I don’t want to spoil. Audio is done quite well, with plenty of creepy sounds and hearing Happy when you incurred your three infractions simply made me tense.

While I do think the asking price is a bit steep, there’s more beneath the surface than I initially expected, well worth the time investment if you’re a fan of the fast-food horror genre, if that’s a thing. Happy’s Humble Burger Farm is best experienced if you go into it completely blind, and while the controls frustrate and never feel great, it’s a genuinely interesting story with an extremely odd and creepy aesthetic.

**Happy's Humble Burger Farm was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Asterix & Obelix: Slap Them All!

Asterix & Obelix has been around since 1959 when it debut, since then the small comic has garnered many fans, spinoffs, games, movies and more. More than 6 decades later, the franchise still has a following, enough so that developers Mr. Nutz have made the latest game, Asterix & Obelix: Slap Them All! (referred to simply as 'Slap Them All' from hereon). So what can you expect from a game with Slap Them All right in the title? Well, as you can probably guess, a lot of slapping, smacking, punching and more as the titular heroes fight back against the Roman Empire in this hand drawn adventure that looks as it came straight from the comic itself.

In 50 B.C., Gaul, what we know today as France, Belgium, Germany and surrounding areas, was occupied by the Romans, well most of it. There’s a tiny little village where Asterix and Obelix reside that are holding their own against the invading forces, so of course they set off an adventure across the land to fight back, by slapping of course. There’s six chapters, each with a handful of levels which span the duo’s adventure, fighting countless Romans, thugs and bosses. While I’ve only dabbled in the comics, I believe Slap Them All follows some of their earlier adventures. While there is an overall narrative, this is a brawler game first and foremost, so there’s some quick comic book style cutscenes between levels and chapters, but you come here for the fighting, not the story.

What surprised me was how lengthy Slap Them All was, taking roughly 6-8 hours from start to finish, and while that seems like there’s a fair amount of content for a game priced at $38.99 CAD, you’re going to wish it was over after an hour or two, as it’s repetitive as it gets, even for a brawler. That’s not to say that brawlers can’t be entertaining for hours on end, as Streets of Rage 4 and Double Dragon Neon were recent revivals of the genre and were fantastic in their own rights.

Side scrolling beat-em-ups are the norm, you know the kind, where you move from the left side of the screen to the right, stopping every so often to beat up all the bad guys in your way, Slap Them All is no different. You control Asterix and Obelix, naturally, and if playing solo, can swap back and forth to either one at the press of a button. At first I was quite impressed by Slap Them All’s visuals, as it’s quite bright and colorful, looking as though it came straight out of the comics, and while the aesthetics impressed, the gameplay actually brought down the rest of the experience.

Brawlers need something that gets you to continue wanting to play, or some sort of progression, even if minor. Slap Them All simply scores you per level, but with no online play or leaderboards, there’s virtually no reason to play a second or third time unless wanting to challenge yourself in harder difficulties, achievement hunting, or really care about obtaining a high score that only you will know about.

I normally really enjoy beat-em-ups, but when you fight the exact same handful of enemies for ten hours across the same backdrops with no variety, it gets quite stale, and quickly. There’s a few odd levels thrown in here and there that break up the monotony, like having a foot race or trying to break all the barrels in a short allotted time, but the rest of the experience is going to be as repetitive as it gets.

For a game that is all about its combat, it’s quite basic. You’re going to be spamming the ‘X’ button to attack, ‘Y’ for special moves and ‘B’ to throw enemy Romans. That’s about it. There is technically a block button, but there’s really no point using it unless you get stuck in an attack loop while surrounded. Special movies require energy and stamina to use, indicated by the lightning bolts at the top of the screen. These in theory should do way more damage and be worth it, but your stamina charges very quickly with normal attacks and these special moves don’t seem to do much more damage, if at all.

Regular attacks make combos the more you spam the attack, and most enemies are damage sponges even on the easier difficulties, requiring a few combos to defeat even the basic enemies. Enemies only come in a handful of varieties, and every single one of them look exactly the same. Most are mindless and simply walk towards you waiting to get attacked, others are bigger and can do a damaging move if you let them charge up, and lastly there’s range javelin throwers that are the bane of your existence. You need to prioritize the annoying enemies first, then the rest can be dealt with however you wish.

Asterix and Obelix can be swapped on the fly if playing solo (co-op together if with a local friend) with a button press, and both have their own attacks and movesets. This makes sense given their stature, but I found Asterix infinitely more useful than his large partner. You attack in the direction you’re facing, and I found that Asterix’s main combo tended to have a larger spread, allowing me to hit many more Romans at once compared to Obelix’s moveset. He also has a grab ability where he can swing it in a circle, depleting your stamina quickly, but hitting anyone within its radius before chucking them to the side of the screen.

Combat rarely feels satisfying though, as you’re constantly using the same moves and combos nonstop until the credits roll. Even boss fights get repeated many times, and these weren’t all that challenging aside from adding in numerous regular enemies at the same time once you learn their moves and how to avoid them. The repeated enemies become quite tiresome though, as it’s literally dozens of the same enemies on screen all the time. There’s only a few additions in the later chapters, but nothing all that exciting. Simply try and get all of the enemies in front of you, spam attack, and you’ll win. Of course barrels will contain money (points) and food to replenish your health along the way, as to be expected.

Again, Slap Them All is very visually appealing. The art style looks authentic as the original comics and even moves and animates as you’d expect the duo to, even down to Obelix’ walking waddle with his hands behind his back. While the enemies do look just as well done, seeing the same few over and over for hours becomes quite tiresome. The background music is subtle but suits the setting and gameplay, and while there’s only a few moments of voice work, mostly from the narrator between levels, it’s a shame the cutscenes weren’t narrated as well. Audio as a whole becomes tiresome though, as you’re going to hear the same punch and attack sounds for hours on end, as well as the Roman death cry repeated even on top of one another.

Adding to the frustration of repetition, I ran into a few bugs that disappointed. More than once I had an enemy stuck outside the edge of the screen where they spawn in, so I was unable to defeat them and continue on my journey, causing a restart of the level. There’s no checkpoints either, so I had to start the same level from the very beginning again too.

Asterix & Obelix: Slap Them All! was fun for the first two chapters, then I realized I had to sit through another four of the same button spamming. Normally I’m all for length in games if it has a purpose and is entertaining, but Slap Them All definitely overstayed its welcome and I made myself finish it simply for review purposes. Asterix & Obelix fans will no doubt enjoy its authentic look and feel, but the steep price tag is unlikely to warrant a purchase from brawler fans.

**Asterix & Obelix: Slap Them All! was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.3 / 10 Rune Factory 4 Special

Have you been trying to find a relaxing game where you can farm produce and flowers at your own pace? What about one where you can cook a bunch of meals? Or an adventure RPG where you can fight monsters and explore dungeons? What about a game that does all of this, and more, but also looks adorably cute? That’s where Rune Factory 4 Special comes in, a remaster from the original 3DS game from back in 2013. Rune Factory is a spinoff from the STORY OF SEASONS games, which used to be Harvest Moon, so if you’ve played either of those series, you’ll have an idea of what to expect.

For those new to the series, Rune Factory 4 Special will allow you to play however you like, be it the life of a farmer, cook, adventurer, fighting or taming monsters, crafting, simply being a social butterfly making relationships with people around town or a mixture of all aspects. Be it newcomer or series veteran, Rune Factory 4 Special will cater to any type of fan, adding plenty of new content for those that already put countless hours into the original 3DS version almost a decade ago.

After an interesting encounter with some thugs on an airship soaring through the skies, events occur and you end up falling from the airship to the land below. Thankfully you end up relatively unscathed as you just happen to fall on top of Ventuswill, a dragon that watches over the lands of Selphia. This fall has caused you to lose your memory, unsure of not only who you are but your original intentions and why you were on that airship.

Thankfully Ventuswill is a friendly dragon, watching over the people of her land, yet unable to leave. After a brief conversation, you’re invited to not only live in the castle and be a member of their community as a member of royalty, but are also given a room and a ‘job’ to earn your keep. You’re simply tasked with planting some turnips and other small jobs, eventually earning the trust of the citizens and being offered numerous jobs such as cooking, exploring, fighting monsters and crafting numerous items, along with farming.

As you earn your keep you’ll take on more responsibilities, though you’re able to focus on whatever tasks you wish at your own speed. Want to take a few days to simply talk to everyone around town to learn their story and likes? How about spending a few days just farming in your backyard garden, to either make and cook dishes or sell for profit? Or maybe you have the itch to adventure the nearby forest and caves, taking on monsters, bosses and looking for treasure. Each day may bring you closer to returning your memories and curing your amnesia, though it’s going to be quite a lengthy journey, taken at your own pace.

So if you played Rune Factory 4 all those years ago on 3DS, you might be wondering why this version has “Special” in its title. Not only is it a remaster with updated HD graphics, but there’s a handful of additional modes and bonuses as well. Dual audio allows for English or Japanese in the main story, though there’s very little voice work overall here, so it’s not as drastic as an addition as you might expect. The graphics are highly improved from its 3DS roots, as going from a small 3DS screen to large TV’s is no easy feat without it appearing pixelated and stretched, and while it’s not perfect, as it simply seems higher resolution, it still looks as though it’s a 3DS game in every other aspect.

In the original game you were able to choose one lucky suiter to eventually marry if you chose, starting a family, and while this was a cute addition, you never really saw what happened to the couple after the credits rolled. This is where Newlywed Mode and Another Episode additions come in. Newlywed Mode allows you to go on an adventure with your wife or husband from your regular game save, having some more time to bond with them in a whole new scenario that centers around them in a unique undertaking. This is also where you’ll see new animations as characters talk to one another, previously just static drawings, and some newly recorded lines.

Another Episode is simply a quickly voiced story about marriage candidates, only having two or three static pictures, but telling a story about the character, able to choose each of the main townspeople you meet in the main game, including Ventuswill. If you already mastered Rune Factory 4 in the past, you’ll be happy to know there’s an even more challenging difficulty level, Hell, making adventuring even more difficult for those that crave it. For players like myself that never got around to playing the original release, I appreciate the effort that went into adding more content and not just making a quick port to consoles on the TV.

As you embark on your adventure, you’ll first choose to play as male or female, though in a really odd way that I’ll leave to you to experience. Once you go through the first bit of narrative and are then set on your own, you’re able to play in any way you desire, never forced to focus on one thing or another. Feel free to play Rune Factory 4 Special completely as a farming game, or maybe spend hours fishing. Want to cook or craft, you can do that too. Maybe you’ll talk to residents, finding out their likes and able to give gifts, eventually able to pursue a romantic relationship if you desire. Or maybe you want to have the best gear in the game, exploring dungeons, fighting monsters and taking down fearsome bosses. It’s completely up to you how you want to live your life in the land of Selphia.

Everything you do has a skill level, raising the more you do it. Running around town a lot, your skill will go up. Farming every day, skills go up. Swinging swords, hammers, sickles or casting spells? Yup, you’ll improve those as well. Even watering your crops, bathing and everything else you do has skills to improve in should you wish.

While not forced, the relationships you can build in town can play a large part, not just narratively, but in the game as well. You can become close friends, have people fight alongside you in battle, and even date or marry one lucky person. It should be noted that it’s clear the game is a little dated, as there are no same sex options allowed, so you only able to date and eventually marry one person from the other sex if you’re able to improve your relationship with them. Each character is very unique, each with their own personalities and able to take on dates, so there’s sure to be some you’re enamored with, and others you might avoid.

Maybe you’re not interested in creating relationships, so why not befriend some monsters and turn them into pets to keep on your farm? Take great care of them and give them some fancy meals and maybe they’ll return the favor by helping you on your farm with simple chores. There might even be certain pets that will give you special items, used in a variety of different recipes and more, so be sure to experiment.

A large part of becoming a part of the town is making choice of what to do with your Princess Points. These allow you to create a better town and attract new guests and tourists. Each day you’re given a choice of tasks to fulfil at the Request Box for certain residents. Complete these objectives and you’re rewarded with items and Princess Points. These points are then used for a number of different things, such as setting up a Festival for your town, upgrading your bags and much more. Funny enough, this Request Box speaks to you, and seemingly only you. I wonder why? Basically you want your town to grow, so taking on these tasks is how you slowly start to do so.

Farming is a large part of Rune Factory 4 Special, and though you never are really forced to, I found it quite relaxing to do so in my off time. You start with a hoe, needing to till each square on your gridded garden. Once the soil is tilled you can then place seeds on it, but will also need to ensure they are watered each day if you want them to grow. You can eventually craft a fertilizer bin to place weeds and other plants in to help your crops go healthy and more bountiful as well. There’s a good handful of different crops, flowers and more to grow, some simply used for selling, while others can be used for ingredients in cooking recipes if you go down that route as well.

If you’d rather play Rune Factory 4 Special as a light hearted take on an RPG, you can do that as well, swinging a handful of different weapon types and magic spells at your enemies. Different weapons allow you to find one that suits your playstyle, either having a heavy slow high damage weapon, or a quick slashing low damage one instead. Magic is another viable option, but you need to keep in mind that almost everything you do utilizes stamina, so you’ll need to rest or eat food if you want to refill your meter. Having a local resident fight alongside you in a dungeon is fun to have some company, but don’t expect them to do much other than the odd attack. The combat itself is quite basic as well, but can be fun when you start to unlock and upgrade your weapons to higher tiers. Bosses aren’t incredibly difficult, but make sure you have some healing food or items just in case.

Cooking is quite simple given you’ve learned recipes and have the corresponding ingredients. If you have the right components you can simply choose how many to make and that’s it. Super simple. Dishes can be a great source of income, as they generally sell for much more than the base components, or can be used as health food and more when adventuring, it’s up to you. Forage enough materials and you’re also able to craft items and upgrade as well, even adding effects based on which materials you fuse with it. It’s also a simple system, but quite fun to play around with, making some unique items along the way for your dungeon adventures.

Seeing the graphical differences from the original 3DS version compared to this one is more subtle than drastic. While the artwork and everything looks cleaner overall, especially the character drawings, the game itself as a whole still looks and plays like a dated 3DS title though. Being able to play however you want, focusing on farming, cooking, relationships or adventuring is really its best strength, never forcing you down a singular path. This results in many hours of gameplay if you want to see and experience everything Rune Factory 4 Special has to offer.

With a new version in the works and coming out shortly, Rune Factory 4 Special is a great introduction to the series for newcomers and a great trip down memory lane for returning players, complete with a few new things to experience. It may feel dated at times, but it can be quite relaxing to farm one day and dungeon delve the next, all while giving gifts to your love interest.

**Rune Factory 4 Special was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.7 / 10 Serious Sam 4

Back in early 2001 an interesting new shooter emerged onto the market, Serious Sam: The First Encounter. While the world was already used to shooters, I don’t think there was anything quite like Serious Sam at the time. What made it so different was that it had you facing dozens of enemies at a time, focusing on its gunplay and level design as opposed to any real sense of narrative. If it moved, you shoot it, that’s the Serious Sam way and still maintains that to this day. Serious Sam also never took itself seriously (see the irony?) and just gave you access to tons of guns, some of which were quite unique and still iconic to this day.

While developers Croteam have made a couple non Serious Sam games, that’s basically what they’re known for, as it’s a showcase of their own engine, their bread and butter so to speak. With quite a few Serious Sam titles under their belt, the time has obviously come for the latest sequel, especially with the latest generation of consoles now available. Serious Sam 4 takes the classic gameplay formula we’ve come to expect from the series and cranks it up another notch by making the levels much more vast and making hundreds of enemies appear on screen at one time.

Technically a sequel to Serious Sam 3: BFE, which in itself is a prequel to the original game, Serious Sam 4 once again has Sam and his band of comrades taking the fight against Mental’s hordes of endless enemies. I admit, there’s a little more story here than in previous games, though that’s not a very high bar to reach. You’ll be traveling across the globe searching for the Holy Grail, help a Nonna in Rome, exploring vast open fields and of course, shooting hundreds of alien monsters. With 15 chapters to get through, only the hardcore and faithful Serious Sam fans will care the slightest bit about the story, such as finally meeting Lord Achriman. You’ve come here to blast some aliens in the face with some guns, and that’s what you’ll focus on until the credits roll.

Throughout the 15 chapters your goal is to simply get to the end of each, usually culminating in a boss fight of some sorts, some much larger and memorable than others, especially the final boss fight that is easily my highlight of the complete series. Follow the somewhat linear path until you reach a doorway you need to go through. But wait, you won’t be able to go through the door for some reason, forcing you to face off against dozens of Mental’s horde as you try to survive. Defeat all the waves of enemies and you’ll be granted access to progress further in the stage. Repeat this a few times per level and for each chapter and you have a blueprint to Serious Sam 4’s level design. It’s the same gameplay and gating that the series has had for 20 years, so while classic fans will rejoice the gameplay is unchanged, while new players might not be as impressed.

Some elements from their VR outing in the series makes a return in Serious Sam 4, like dual wielding weapons, not only of the same kind, but different as well. This though is gated behind a skill tree system that allows you to customize your Sam to your preferred playstyle. While the series has been simplistic in its design, running from point A to point B while you wait for C to open up, now the introduction of side quests have been added for those that want a little more. While completely optional, these side quests not only add some more playtime but rewards are generally worth it, usually adding a whole new weapon to your arsenal or an upgrade.

Taking place across different continents, the maps are much larger than previous titles. Now though, bigger isn’t always better. This simply means you doing more running from point to point. It may feel like it’s open world at times, especially when you get to the countryside level where you’ll want to take a vehicle to drive to your objective, but aside from the sidequests, there’s no real reason to take the time and explore these vast areas. There’s even a few moments where Sam will get to pilot a mech and destroy any enemies that stand before him, or drive a farming harvester... yup. While it’s cool to see the levels being much larger, they aren’t filled with anything of substance, so it feels empty.

Sam fans will also be glad to know that the staple enemies also make their return, from the iconic headless kamikaze bomb wielders that scream way too loudly, the werebulls, kleer skeletons and more familiar ugly faces. There’s also a couple new enemy types, of which I probably hate the most; I’m looking at you vampires that like to teleport all over the place.

There’s now a skill tree called the S.A.M. (Sirian Artifacts of Might) system. This allows you to improve certain aspects of your Sam based on how you play, generally focusing on melee or ranged combat. How you would play a Serious Sam game primarily based in melee I’m not sure, but the options are there. Each skill takes a point, with the most useful being the ability to dual wield your weapons or being able to mount enemies. It should be noted that you won’t be able to get enough skill points to max out the whole tree though unfortunately.

Like enemies, classic weaponry returns as well, like the shotgun(s), minigun and the iconic literal cannon. There’s a few new toys for your arsenal as well, of which I quite enjoyed the auto shotgun. Some side quests will even offer you upgrades for specific weapons, making them even better in your fight against Mental’s army. There are also gadgets and objects to be found hidden throughout, adding a powerup-like system than can save you from a dangerous situation.

Multiplayer also returns, though with one huge caveat. Older games in the series allowed you to play the campaign in co-op, and that’s no different here, but the player max is down from 16 to 4. That’s fine, I get it, there’s much bigger worlds and better graphics, etc, but there’s one major issue with this; there’s no matchmaking. That’s right, you can only invite people to your game from your friend list, no queuing up for a game with some strangers and a lack of a server browser. I played through the whole campaign in online co-op hoping someone would join, only to realize later that only friends are able to do so. So if you happen to have three other friends who are also Serious Sam fans, great. For everyone else, expect this to be a solo affair. Also gone is versus mode, simply opting for a co-op survival mode, also not playable via matchmaking sadly.

This is without a doubt the best looking Serious Sam game to date, and while that may seem like a compliment, it’s nothing compared to any other modern shooter out recently. Textures for enemies are great, models okay, but animations are quite janky and you only see the same handful of enemies repeated from beginning to finish. Environments are much bigger but lack any sort of character or life. The soundtrack is suitable but quite repetitive, though this is constantly drowned out by gunfire and kamikaze screamers running at you.

There’s some massive load times as well, even on an Xbox Series X. I know I’ve been spoiled with games loading incredibly quickly with the new system, but certain chapters took quite some time to load in between levels. Granted, once the chapter loads there’s no more waiting around, but that initial wait can be quite lengthy. Priced at $51.99 CAD, it’s hard to recommend aside from any of the longtime loyal Serious Sam fans that have been invested for two decades. Granted, Serious Sam 4 is currently included on Xbox Game Pass, which is the perfect price to mindlessly shoot endless hordes of aliens.

Fans of the series will know exactly what to expect; tons of guns, aliens and terrible one-liners. Like a cult movie with a dedicated following, fans will simply get it while everyone else won’t understand; Serious Sam 4 will most likely fall under this type as well, appealing to longtime fans but new players wondering what the hell is going on. Serious Sam 4 is absolutely outdated in its design and mechanics but can be fun in very short bursts for those times you want to turn off your brain and blast away some aliens.

**Serious Sam 4 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Undungeon

Normally I do a bit of research about a game before I delve in, so that I have an idea of what to expect. I decided to not do that this time with Undungeon, starting the game completely blind, unsure what to expect. What I got was a sci-fi pixel art adventure with a surprising amount of narrative and lore, almost too much at times, with some addictive yet challenging combat gameplay. Developers Laughing Machines actually had a Kickstarter to make this a reality after many years in development, and years later it’s finally come together and released for console fans as well, including Xbox Game Pass. With a really interesting story, Undungeon is going to demand your full attention if you want to make any sense of it, something I found hard to do with just how deep the narrative is.

Multiverses seem to be the new hot thing, so Undungeon delves into this idea where several parallel universes of Earth suddenly merge together at once, causing a cataclysmic event dubbed the Great Shift. This is of course a universe changing occurrence that also effected time and space causing monsters and creatures to suddenly appear, sometimes displacing homes of where tribes and people once lived. You are the Herald of the Void, part of a secret organization that is tasked with trying to restore peace and order across the chaotic lands who possess a myriad of powers and abilities. Decisions you make, who you help and how you interact with people during your journey will have consequences and outcomes based on your choices. As a Herald, you were actually designed by god-like beings, deciding outcomes of the new universe based on your actions.

If you enjoy reading a lengthy book full of plenty of dialogue and backstory, Undungeon will not disappoint. You’re thrown a ton of information right from the start about the inhabitants, world, the Great Shift, gods and much more. How you’re supposed to take this all in so quickly and know what’s going on, I have no clue. It’s quite confusing and a huge ask to delve into the deep end with so much lore right away, but there’s more than enough to take in if you enjoy that aspect. I was initially following along, but to be honest, it eventually lost me once I started talking to different races and people, becoming quite convoluted.

As you explore the lands, you’ll come across numerous characters, merchants, creatures and more. Maybe if you side with certain characters or raise enough karma, they’ll help alongside your quest as well. The world itself is quite big, but instead of a traditional overworld map that you explore, you instead choose which area to go to and it’ll show Herald walking there, reminding me somewhat like Zelda II's map, as you’ll also see little monster and helper icons along the way.

There’s plenty of places to explore, not just the main mission areas, full of items, merchants and secrets. Your main headquarters though is in Herald’s Undercover Bay, better known as H.U.B. This is your safe area between dimensions where you can speak to people that you’ve recruited, trade with merchants, craft and more. While Herald will be engaging in combat often, you’re going to have to grasp how the character customization works, as the mechanics are a bit different than most games. While you’ll find new weapons and equipment along the way, you actually equip and can upgrade your body parts like brains, hearts, eyes and more. Organs come from defeating enemies or crafting new ones once the option is unlocked during the course of the story.

Your Core though is your main piece of equipment/organs. This is essentially how you create different ‘builds’, as each different core has different slots that can be unlocked and filled with runes, adding bonuses and other features. Each different type of Core upgrade is color coded as well, and you can even combine similar runes to make for bigger passive increases when slotted in. It takes a bit of figuring out and getting used to, but once you do, the customization for your Herald is quite addictive. Interestingly, your character isn’t based on your overall level, but your individual cores instead, so if you swap to a brand new Core, you’re back at level one power-wise. How you build your character to suit your playstyle is up to you, deciding from different weapon choices, numerous ranged weapons, DoT stacking and plenty of different options and even companions.

Merchant trading doesn’t usually warrant a specific mention, but like a few other mechanics in Undungeon, it’s worth an explanation here. There’s no real currency in the game, so instead you actually have to trade items, bartering like you would in real life. Each item you find along the way has a value associated with it, so if you want to buy a new weapon or item, you need to trade that amount worth or more to receive it. For example, if the merchant has a cool upgrade or weapon you want from them and it costs 200, you then need to give 200 worth of items back in exchange for it. You can do this manually, but will spend a ton of time doing so, thankfully there’s an auto button that will do the best it can without overspending too much, but make sure to double check you’re not ‘selling’ something you want to keep before accepting. It’s an interesting trading system that I didn’t really get at first, but eventually came to accept and agree with, as it makes sense given the post-apocalyptic setting.

Next is combat, as Herald will almost constantly be in battles. You start out with a simple claw, able to swipe and inflict damage, but you’re going to have to learn how to dash and dodge, utilize range items, shield blocking and more if you want a chance at surviving and progressing. The beginning is very melee focused and doesn’t teach you much outside of the basics. Eventually you’ll start running into ranged enemies and ones that retreat, and if you aren’t proficient at range attacks, you’re going to be in for a rude awakening.

Combat is in real time, and once you grasp all of its mechanics it can be quite addictive, that is, until you hit a brick wall of difficulty near the end and will be forced to grind to progress. Annoyingly, your weapons and equipment can break, and having this happen at a really inopportune time can be quite frustrating. Remember those organ upgrades I talked about? Those become destroyed every time you die as well, making you increasingly weaker if you don’t have spares to slot in. Thankfully there’s a combat pause when you want to change weapons or equipment, or when weapons break, allowing you to take a moment for a breather and plan what you want to equip.

Another really unique mechanic is how you heal in Undungeon. Instead of a normal healing spell or potion, instead you throw a shard onto the battlefield. The first person or creature to hit and break it gets the healing from it. That’s right, your healing shard you just dropped might heal the enemy if they hit it before you. This doesn’t happen often if you simply run away real quick to drop it and swing at it, but can go awry in the middle of a chaotic battle. This is also combined with a mechanic that makes every enemy that hits you stronger each time, becoming exponentially harder the worse you do, and if you die, adds to the difficulty with your upgrades breaking.

While I wish there were different difficulty settings because of these reasons, much like a Souls game, you simply accept its challenge and try to work with it as best as you can. My only big complaint is a massive difficulty spike near the end that forced me to grind side quests and extra areas for hours to become strong enough to progress.

For how much time you are in combat, you’ll spend twice that reading all of the narrative and dialogue. Thankfully the pixel art is done fantastically, full of detail and smooth animations throughout. Every character, background and object appears to be handmade and it comes across in a great visual aesthetic. The soundtrack is done quite well also, with some low-key electronic vibes, though the glaring omission is voiced dialogue, especially given how much text there is to sift through. I get that would have been a massive order, but it really did feel like a missed opportunity to bring more immersion into the unique cast of characters and lore.

With a game so heavily invested into its narrative and lore, there’s a mountain of text to get through, great for those that love to read novels, not so much for those that want to simply play and progress the story. Undungeon can become punishingly difficult at times, especially when you aren’t focused and hit a bad streak of deaths in a row, yet there was always something bringing me back, wanting to give Herald one more go to fix the shattered universe, especially once you unlock a new character to play as.

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

Overall Score: 7.3 / 10 DEEEER Simulator: Your Average Everyday Deer Game

I’ve played a lot of weird games in my time, but I have to say, DEEEER Simulator: Your Average Everyday Deer Game ranks right up there with one of the most odd I’ve ever experienced. And yes, that is the game’s actual title, clearly replicating the average day for a deer in this simulation. Yeah, no, that’s not what DEEEER Simulator: Your Average Everyday Deer Game is about at all. Even after getting all the achievements and both endings, I’m still not totally sure what it’s about to be honest.

If you’ve ever played Goat Simulator, you have somewhat an idea of what to expect. Goat Simulator was completely goofy and wacky, but DEEEER Simulator: Your Average Everyday Deer Game (simply referred to as Deer Sim from here on) takes it to a whole new level. If you thought Goat Simulator was dumb and a waste of time, then you might as well stop reading here, as this won’t change your mind. If you’re like me though and did have some silly fun being a goat, Deer Sim is going to be right up your alley.

Were you the type of Grand Theft Auto player that just likes to run around, cause havoc and never do any story missions? Do you not care if your games have decent framerates, objectives, a narrative and control well? If you’ve answered yes to the above, then DEEEER Simulator: Your Average Everyday Deer Game is going to entertain you for about a full hour or two until you’ve experienced everything it has to offer.

While small games like this are generally ‘janky’ and lack polish, Deer Sim takes it to a whole new level, almost acting as if it's like a challenge, yet oddly enough feels as though it’s supposed to be that way. As a deer you’ll use your stretchy neck, horns and arsenal of weapons that mount to you to blast any buildings or objects you want to. Again, this is a simulator, so keep that in mind, this is obviously a totally serious take on an average day in the life of a deer.

You begin your deer simulation by first creating a human being. Yup, that’s right. While not the most robust creator out there, it’s actually got a lot more options than I was expecting. This is also the first introduction to Deer Sim’s unique and low polygon aesthetic. One you’ve made your human character you start off your journey by witnessing a deer about the get hit by a speeding truck, so you do the most natural thing any of us would do; push the deer out of the way, only to have yourself get hit by the vehicle instead. Are you dead? What happened? Why do you wake up as a deer in a weird city? Who knows, and the game isn’t going to explain any of this definitively really.

So what do you do now that you’re trapped in this deer body you ask? Cause destruction of course, because why wouldn't you? Attack any object or building and it’ll be destroyed, usually leaving behind a weapon of some kind. Grab these weapons and they’ll attach to your body permanently. The pistols you first get replace your antlers, where every weapon thereafter simply sticks to your body or on your head. The more firepower you have the quicker buildings and objects will get destroyed, ranking you on your chaos.

So now that you’re a walking deer of death, what’s next? Every rank your city destruction goes up will alert the police to come and try to stop you. Oh, you thought this was going to be normal police that are human beings? You should know better by now. The first wave of police will be sheep, posing no real threat other than their sheer (see what I did there?) numbers. The second wave of police add some polar bears that can transform into police cars, and wave three are rabbit snipers. There’s even a terminal beside the police station that can be used to edit how many of which police units come with each ranking. If you want to completely destroy and crash the game by cranking up the units on screen at once, go ahead.

So what happens after you’ve destroyed all the cops? Well, a boss appears of course. This massive corgi is waiting for you on an island to challenge you. I’m not going to spoil what happens since there’s very little gameplay as a whole anyways, but it’s certainly something you won’t expect. Once you’ve managed to beat the police boss it looks as though there’s nothing left to do, but there is, and it involves going into the future, because why not?

Once you make it to the same city in the future, you’ll start from scratch with no weapons, but that’s easily remedied, just like before. Also the same, waves of police will hunt you down once you cause enough destruction, but these are much more powerful and take more firepower to defeat. There too is a boss at the end of this world, which is nothing like you’ve played so far, but again, I don’t want to spoil anything given the short playtime. Needless to say, there are two different endings, both of which don’t really explain much and is completely off the wall like the rest of the game. If you’re looking for a cohesive narrative, it won't be found here.

Developer Gibier Games knows that Deer Sim isn’t meant to be taken seriously and completely leans into it as far as they could. Like Goat Simulator, much of this experience is simple dumb fun. Basically a large sandbox for you to play around how you wish, Deer Sim is like asking a young child what they’d want to do in a video game if it was up to them, then they went and made that. Want to take down a massive Koala that’s scaling a skyscraper? Go ahead. Why to play Othello (Reversi) against a 100ft cow? Sure, why not. Want to put antlers on humans and have them follow you like their leader as they Naruto run following you? Yup, you can do that. Want to have a mech suit made from random tigers and animals? You guessed it, totally possible. Being able to swing around the city like Spider-Man with your sticky deer head is amusing at first, but the entertainment value of this wears off quickly due to how small the city is. Oh, and when you run you stand on two legs and run comically fast while flexing your muscles. Yup, told you this was a simulator.

Aesthetically, the graphics are terrible to be quite honest. I’m not even knocking its low-poly style, but it all comes across as completely basic, simplistic designs and tons of glitches. Yes, it absolutely suits the game as whole, but it’s riddled with graphical bugs, glitches and massive framerate issues, even on an Xbox Series X. Audio is basically the same bag, playing cued sounds for basic attacks and movements, though the score is slightly better.

Lasting an hour or two tops, you’ll get everything you need from it within that amount of time, even the full list of achievements. While you can play again, there’s not really much else left to do once you’ve seen it all and destroyed everything in the city. DEEEER Simulator: Your Average Everyday Deer Game is absolutely bonkers at every chance it gets. The graphics are terrible, controls even worse, yet I wasn’t able to put it down until I got all of the achievements. It has that weird charm to it, like a terrible movie that you love for some reason.

Thankfully DEEEER Simulator: Your Average Everyday Deer Game is available on Game Pass, and honestly, this is the only way I can recommend playing it, as the asking price otherwise WAY overpriced at $25.99 CAD. I had to do a double take to make sure this was correct, because even $5 would be a big ask. If you want to turn off your brain and play a truly ‘authentic’ deer simulator where you can shoot a King Kong sized Koala off the side of a building, well, this is the game for you.

**DEEEER Simulator Your Average Everyday Deer Game was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**


Overall Score: 4.0 / 10 Farming Simulator 22

While I knew farming simulator games existed for some time, I never really paid any attention to them until GIANTS Software finally brought them to console. I started with Farming Simulator 17, updated to Farming Simulator 19 with that release, and now I’ve been farming for a few weeks with the latest entry, Farming Simulator 22. Because I’ve played the previous games in the series I had a head start on knowing how to start my farming career on the right path. Farming Simulator is exactly as it advertises, a simulation about one of the most challenging, yet important, careers you can have. While many won’t find the game “fun” with its monotonous and tedious gameplay, those that do enjoy the calming and relaxing repetition of plowing, sowing and growing your fields will be pleased to know that a number of improvements have been made in this year’s iteration.

You are a farmer, but what your business grows or deals in is completely up to you. If you want to have fields of numerous crops, raise animals or even work towards making some serious cash with production chains, there’s plenty for you to take part in. So grab some friends, even cross-platform across consoles and PC, weather the seasons and enjoy building your agricultural empire. Now if you’ve not been following the series for the past few games, I know what you’re thinking; “Why would anyone want to play a farming game?”. Don’t knock it until you try it, as it’s very relaxing when you need something of a different speed. And I kid you not, there are even e-sports for Farming Simulator and it’s absolutely fascinating to watch.

So, what’s exactly new in Farming Simulator 22? My biggest hope was that it was going to be a substantial upgrade from Farming Simulator 19 and not simply a reskin. Thankfully it seems developers have taken the time to make some improvements that make this year’s entry the best of the series, even if incrementally. While there may not be a ton of added crops and gameplay features, the overall game simply feels better, especially in the driving aspect and the addition of production lines.

So as a quick list of some of the new features and mechanics are as follows: stone picking, greenhouses, beehives, grapes, olives, sorghum (grain), licensed MACK trucks, production chains, much improved audio and visuals, fences, gates, better physics, equipment repairs, cosmetic wear and tear, new tires, license plates and Seasons. There’s a handful of other additions and improvements, like the character creator, but those listed above are the majority of the major new features.

As for crops, the newest additions are grapes, olives and sorghum. While Sorghum is just another type of grain, you’ll know how to harvest those, but grapes and olives are completely new, requiring new equipment to learn as well. Now, I was excited to have some grapes in my fields and seeing what I could create with them. First off, you need a cleared field so that you can place the posts that the vines rest on. This is where I was almost instantly disappointed, as you have to manually place all of the length and exact placement of each row. On paper that sounds great, but there’s no grid to ‘snap’ to, so if you’re like me and need your crops to be perfect, I guarantee you’re going to have some crooked crops or spaced 'wrong'. Also, without trial and error, you’re not going to know how much space to have between each row, resulting in wasted space and extra time needed to fertilize. Also, these crops can’t be automatically farmed by hired help unfortunately, so expect to spend an obscene amount of time doing all this yourself or with friends.

The new equipment needed to harvest your grapes after they’ve grown over the course of a few months is interesting to use, as there’s nothing else really like it, but it takes some getting used to and this will depend on how well you placed your rows initially. The biggest feature though has to be production chains. This is where you can turn your harvested crops into new items, like turning your grapes into juice (sorry, no wine), olives into oil, grain to cereal, wheat into flour and then even going further by adding eggs and fruit to make cakes and so on. These add new ways to expand your farm in interesting ways, and like regular products, fluctuate in price. This gives you much more to do and freedom of how you want to have your crops end up as an end product for consumers.

Seasons used to be a very popular mod, and now it’s built into the base game. This adds actual seasons into your game, and now having a snow covered winter is a new obstacle you’ll have to deal with. Also, certain crops, like grapes for example, can only be planted in certain seasons, so when you start to own a lot of land, you’re going to have to plan what to plant and when to be the most efficient. If you don’t want to deal with all that extra planning, you can also toggle Seasons to be visual only or even stay in the one you prefer. Unless I missed it somehow, I don't see a way to toggle the fast crops, allowing almost instantaneous crop completion, possibly due to the Seasons inclusion.

You start off by choosing one of the three included maps, one more than the last version, though one is essentially a remake, Erlengrat, set in the mountainous Swiss Alps. Haut-Beyleron is located in France, having dozens of fields to purchase, and there's also a map in the United States, Elm Creek that actually feels authentic for the area. You then begin a tutorial that will show you the basics, and when I say basics, you’re going to finish the tutorial and then be absolutely confused on what to do next and how. Just like the previous games, Farming Simulator simply throws you in without any hand holding, leaving you to figure out what to do, how to do it and not helping any part of the way.

This has been my biggest problem with the series since I’ve started playing, it’s as though they don’t want new players who don’t have dozens of hours to spend figuring out how to play properly to enjoy the game. You’re shown how to drive equipment, plow, sow and other simple tasks, but it doesn’t teach you how to figure out what equipment you need, where to sell it, what to do with your crops or anything else beyond the basics. Those new to the genre may become frustrated due to this, as you’re told to simply go farm, but not told how exactly. I can’t tell you how much money I’ve wasted on equipment, only to find out it was the wrong tractor or header, not even to mention the time trying to figure out all this on my own. Some slight improvement has been made for this specific situation, as the store will group equipment under crop selections, but still, nothing else is explained without having to resort to looking online externally.

Manage to figure out how to actually play and be a proficient farmer, and you’ll be happy to know that there’s more than 400 machines available for you from over 100 actual agricultural brands like MCCormick, not even including the mods that become available as content creators release new equipment, adding way more mod slots, most likely due to the new generation in hardware. The maps included are varied, each with their own beautiful scenery and farm sizes and the season changing adds more realism. Speaking of equipment, there's also random sales from time to time on used hardware in-game. This means you can get a tractor or header at a huge discount, but will cost you a little bit in repairs. Having the exact used equipment you need when it goes up for sale is a blessing, saving you potentially thousands of dollars. Those that used to have massive farms in Farming Simulator 19 will also be happy to know that the equipment allotment has also gone way up, so no more having to worry about if you have too much equipment before hitting the cap. With the equipment cap raised so high now, I'd expect your game would start to lag well before ever hitting the limit.

Speaking of realism, Farming Simulator 22 adds vastly improved visuals over the previous version but there’s so much more minor details that you’ll notice if you take the time. Yeah, the farms and world looks much better, especially when it comes to grass and rocks but now you’ll actually see your shifter move when you change gears in your tractor as well. Minor detail but adds more realism. Some things on the other hand also stick out like a sore thumb, like looking into the windows of your farmhouse and seeing a terrible textured picture of the inside instead of an actual room. Audio also got a massive boost, as each tractor and equipment sounds more unique this time around for each vehicle and part, as opposed to them all sounding basically the same like before.

Once you get over the mountain of a learning curve and start to figure out how to play the way you want, farming becomes a much more zen-like and relaxing experience. To help with this, you can invite your friends to farm alongside you, regardless of their platform. Having crossplay now means that me on my Xbox can play alongside my friends who play on PC or on PS, helpful if you have a longtime PC player friend that you want some help from. You’re able to work together on a single farm, or each have your own on the same map, working cooperatively. If I was destined to play alone, I would have given up long ago from the monotony, but farming with a buddy, getting orders of what to do and where, was much more enjoyable, working alongside one another. You're also able to rent an online dedicated server, allowing your farm friends to play however you like, changing the rules as you go and always available unlike a players hosted server where you need to be online to play.

Nearly every aspect from the last game has been improved in Farming Simulator 22, from the audio, graphics, UI changes and new crops. On an Xbox Series X, the visual upgrades were pretty substantial compared to the last version feeling much brighter and vibrant overall, adding more details, though probably won’t impress those only used to the latest AAA experiences. Production chains are a huge addition and add another layer to simply farming the crops, selling and repeat. One aspect that's gone unchanged and still annoying is the traffic. The AI simply follows their line and won't deviate from it, so when you get hit by a car hopefully it won't flip youm but it likely will.

Sadly developers have yet to solve the inaccessibility for newcomers, as the learning curve is a sheer cliff to overcome. Still a niche genre, Farming Simulator 22 is a complex and accurate representation of real world farming, and while virtual farmers will no doubt spend over a thousand hours once again in the latest version, newcomers are still going to be left wondering how others could find the monotonous grind entertaining. Those that know, know, so let the good times grow.

**Farming Simulator 22 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 Let's Sing 2022

I’m a terrible singer and can’t hold a tune, but that doesn’t stop me from doing so in the shower or during the car ride to work. I absolutely love doing karaoke, as everyone turns into the best singer in the world after a few adult drinks, myself included. So what do you do when you enjoy singing and gaming? That’s where Let’s Sing 2022 comes in.

Everyone has that ‘one song’ that they know they can belt out near perfectly, wanting to be that singing sensation that you see on TV and online. Let’s Sing 2022 rounds out their playlist from numerous genres, generations and artists to hopefully satisfy your audio tastes to sing along to. It’s alright if you don’t know the words, as they’ll be scrolling across the screen for you to sing along with. With 20 songs (plus ten more with the free DLC) you should hopefully at least find a few classics or bangers you’ll enjoy to hear and sing along to repeatedly, not just by yourself either, but with up to eight singers or online against other vocalists, regardless if you have a USB microphone or not.

As for the musical selection itself, musical taste is completely subjective, and while there were a couple I quite enjoyed singing along to, the list of 20 included songs are as follows:

The Offspring - "Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)"
Master KG feat. Nomcebo - "Jerusalema"
Rag'n'Bone Man - "Human"
Amy Winehouse - "Back to Black"
Wham! - "Last Christmas"
Madcon feat. Ray Dalton - "Don't Worry"
Topic & A7S - "Breaking Me"
Joel Corry x MNEK - "Head & Heart"
Backstreet Boys - "Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)"
Jax Jones feat. RAYE - "You Don't Know Me"
Lady Gaga - "Stupid Love"
Imagine Dragons - "Bad Liar"
Calvin Harris feat. Rag'n'Bone Man - "Giant"
Billie Eilish - "everything i wanted"
Ava Max - "Kings & Queens"
Zoe Wees - "Control"
David Guetta & Sia - "Let's Love"
Ofenbach & Quarterhead feat. Norma Jean Martine - "Head Shoulders Knees & Toes"
David Bowie - "Ashes to Ashes"
Nathan Evans (220 KID x Billen Ted Remix) - "Wellerman (Sea Shanty)"

With the Let's Sing 2022 International Song Pack (a free DLC), you can boost your song selection up to 30 total, which include:

Ariana Grande - "positions"
Jason Derulo & Jawsh 685 - "Savage Love (Laxed - Siren Beat)"
Shawn Mendes, Justin Bieber - "Monster"
Aladdin - "A Whole New World"
Sia - "Snowman"
Bruno Mars, Anderson .Paak, Silk Sonic - "Leave The Door Open"
The White Stripes - "Seven Nation Army"
Depeche Mode - "Enjoy The Silence"
Crazy Town - "Butterfly"
P!nk - "What About Us"

And of course, there’s an online song store where you can purchase numerous other songs and packs, but these come at a cost of course, so this review is solely based on the 30 songs listed above that come with a purchase of Let’s Sing 2022.

So how exactly can you sing and have the game recognize your voice you ask? There’s actually a few different options for you. You can plug in USB microphones, so if you’ve been hoarding those old Rock Band microphones, they’ll final pay off. If you’re a gamer, you most likely have a headset for chatting to your friends online, and if it’s a wired version that plugs into your controller you can opt to use these as well. It should be noted that it seems they have to be wired headsets, as none of my wireless ones would register my voice at all.

Lastly, anyone can sing along, even non-gamers as you can use any phone or smart device into a microphone by downloading the Let’s Sing Microphone App (iOS and Android). This is done basically in the same way as the Jackbox games work, having players input a room code to sync their device to the specific lobby. Choose your song(s) and up to eight players can all sing together in certain modes. You’re also able to mix and match devices, so you can have a maximum of four smartphones, 2 USB microphones and 2 headsets if playing an eight player mode.

Speaking of Modes, there’s eight different ones to test your vocals in: Legend, Classic, Mix Tape 2.0, Jukebox, Playlist Creator, Feat., World Contest and Let’s Party. Classic Mode is essentially a quick play option, choosing a song and get to singing to rack up the high scores. Mix Tape 2.0 Mode gives you an interesting playlist every time, so no two times should be the same with dynamically generated mixes. Legend Mode is what you could think of a career or campaign, as you need to earn a certain amount of start to progress and eventually challenge your rivals.

Feat. Mode has you pairing up with a friend or AI to try and sing the best cooperatively. Can you elevate each other to reach new stardom together? Singing alongside an icon was a cool touch I didn’t really expect. World Contest Mode is essentially your online play. Here you’ll challenge friends or strangers online to see who the best singer of them all truly is. Let’s Party Mode is where you’ll be if you happen to have a bunch of friends over that want to impromptu karaoke at some point during the night. This is where up to eight players can all sing together, so get everyone to download the app and they can join in with one another in randomly chosen game modes with two teams. Playlist Creator Mode is just that, giving you the freedom to create any session with the mode and songs you enjoy the most. Lastly is Jukebox Mode where you can simply have music on in the background for your party, though with the 30 song track list, this will obviously start to repeat long before last call.

As for the gameplay, if you’ve ever played any iteration of Let’s Sing, Rockband or any other vocal game, you’ll know exactly how to play. The music video plays in the background with the words at the bottom of the screen. Scrolling in the middle of the screen are the notes, indicating the octaves and tone you need to hit to earn the most points. Even non-gamers will be able to figure it out, and while the voice recognition was iffy at times, myself, my wife and child all had fun when we were singing, even if we were trying to mumble or hum the words in tune at times.

I did run into the odd issue here and there when I had more than two smartphones connected for microphones, randomly dropping in and out, eventually having to re-sync to the sessions with a new room code. Of course this meant we missed a lot of notes and words, and I’m not sure if phones have different quality microphones, but my phone compared to the wife’s seemed to pick up my voice much better than hers, though mine is also a much newer device.

With a song selection limited to 30 included songs, I have to admit that the longevity did wear off after a few days. Sure there were a handful of songs I quite enjoyed, but there’s only so many times I can sing Backstreet Boys - "Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)" before growing tired of it. Again, musical taste is completely subjective and I have a feeling that your purchase decision is going to almost solely be based on what you feel towards the track listing that’s included more than anything else.

**Let’s Sing 2022 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.8 / 10 Exo One

Sometimes simplicity makes for a better experience overall. Exo One is a perfect example of this, showcasing fluid but simplistic gameplay within a gorgeous backdrop. Unlike anything else I’ve played before, I was quite impressed with Exo One for how fluid its gameplay was once you get the hang of its controls, able to freely glide, soar and drop to reach new heights and distances in your unique alien craft.

You piloting some sort of alien ship, simply starting as a sphere, able to defy gravity and increase your speed by rolling downhill with more force. You are also able to flatten out your sphere craft, shaping into a disc-like UFO or Frisbee, able to gain height and glide for quite a distance. Your goal is to reach a mysterious beam of light far in the distance, and by far, I mean incredibly far. It’s a good thing that you travel at incredibly high speeds, even breaking the sound barrier at times if you enable your gravity enhancer to gain speed, only to shift into the disc to soar further and gain more altitude.

Exo One doesn’t take place on any planets you’ve seen before though, as you’ll journey from one unknown planet to another, each with their own atmosphere and biome. Some are mostly water like a vast ocean, others are barren scorched lands or contain jungle-like valleys.

There is a story within, though very ambiguous at the best of times. On the anniversary of the ‘Jupiter accident’, mankind is sent schematics for an alien craft, which of course we build and called Exo One. Between each world completed you get some flashback and quick snippets of some narrative, though it’s all very open to interpretation after the credits roll. Exo One isn’t a terribly long experience, able to be completed in a single sitting after a few hours should you wish, but it felt just the right length, never wearing out its welcome.

The crux of Exo One’s gameplay is its flowing traversal across alien landscapes as you try and reach a mysterious beam in the far distance. Some worlds will have you flying and gliding close to the surface of land and water, where others will have you well above the clouds or even in space. You need to use gravity and momentum to propel forwards towards your goal, and Exo One does a fantastic job at making you feel as though you’re going at an incredible speed. I actually had to look it up, but the speed of sound is 1,235 km/h or 767 mph, and it never got old to go to extreme heights only to use my gravity toggle to plummet towards the surface, breaking the sound barrier and hearing the ‘boom’ that accompanies.

While there’s no HUD or anything on screen other than your ship and the weather you go through, as long as you generally point towards the beam of light in the horizon, you’ll eventually make it towards your destination. I actually found the lack of tutorial aside from the two button controls intriguing, as you can glide and travel in any direction, but you’re instinctively curious about that beam in the distance, so you naturally want to travel towards it. While there’s no checkpoint system aside from in between worlds, you also can’t fail or die, so it’s a very relaxing experience.

There's something zen-like about rolling down a huge hill or cliff, gaining a ton of speed and launching off the top of the next only to take flight for an amazing distance. This ebb and flow of altitude change is very meditative in a certain way, and once you can master the ‘flow’, it feels very natural to pilot your craft exactly how you intended. It’s all about finding that peak arc, much like the apex in a turn while racing cars.

Each of the world’s only last a short time, but they feel extremely distant and expansive given how fast it feels you’re travelling, especially in the levels where you’re soaring well above the clouds. For the other worlds where you can dive deep into the ocean, this may trigger some with Thalassophobia, as it’s serene, but terrifying being so far underneath the water’s surface.

When it comes to gliding by shifting your craft into a disc shape, you can only do so for a limited time, indicated by how much glow you have on the surface of your craft. Once your ship is out of energy, you’ll turn back into an orb and start to descend, but doing so refills your energy again, so this is how you constantly rise and fall to cover vast distances quickly. Once you get the hang of the timing it feels very natural and simply flows, feeling very satisfying when you hit those perfect arcs.

Most of the worlds are quite relaxing and meditative in their own ways, aside from two worlds that absolute frustrated me. One world has a storm that disables your steering and gliding, forcing you to only use your gravitational pull on angled slopes to try and ‘steer’ you the way you want to go by using momentum to get around or over steep hills. Another is a stage where you’re actually in space instead of on the surface of a planet. Here you need to utilize each of the asteroids own gravitational fields to gain speed and launch yourself into the next nearby asteroid to get close to the beam that will send you to the next world. While I was able to pass these worlds, they were by far the lowlight of the whole experience, though some might enjoy the variety.

While the worlds themselves are all varied and have their own biomes and themes, they are all completely lifeless aside from your craft speeding through them. I do wish there was a way to have a ‘chapter select’ of some sorts, as missing achievements on certain worlds means you’ll have to replay from the beginning all over again to nab them.

Exo One is visually impressive for how minimalistic it is. With no HUD on the screen, there’s no distractions from taking in the beautiful and mysterious vistas across all of the different planets you traverse. Soaring through the clouds at the speed of sound never got old, neither did having my craft hit by lighting storms only to energize my ship to allow me to continually glide further into the atmosphere. Some worlds are more visually impressive than others, but they all had their own interesting features that I wanted to explore further.

The soundtrack is just as fitting, having subtle light guitar or wind instruments that feeds into the mysterious allure of each world, yet also allowing the wind, rain, airflow and gravity take center stage when it comes to audio. Gliding makes a hypnotic whirling sound, and breaking the sound barrier feels impactful. Again, it’s very simplistic in its design, mechanics and audio, but that makes for a better and more memorable experience.

For how much I enjoyed my unique and memorable journey with Exo One, aside from achievement hunting, there’s little reason to go back and play through again unless you just want to chill out and have some ambiance. The gameplay mechanics are very intuitive and feel satisfying, captivating in its own special way. Exo One is a very beautiful and unique gaming experience, one that I’m glad to have explored.

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

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Sam & Max: Beyond Time and Space - Remastered

I was quite saddened when Telltale games closed its doors back in 2018, as they’ve made some of my most memorable gaming experiences over the years. One of the earliest games that I fell in love with of theirs was the Sam & Max series, a point and click adventure filled with tons of humor, jokes and unique characters. Thankfully, some of the original development team acquired the rights to the Sam & Max games, and with the help of some former Telltale developers they’ve been hard at work at remastering the classic episodic seasons for us original fans and new ones alike.

I reviewed the first Season, Sam & Max Save the World, and came away more than impressed with how much effort went into the Remaster, as it was more than your typical coat of paint. Naturally, I expected the same treatment with Season Two, Sam & Max: Beyond Time and Space - Remastered, and again, was pleasantly surprised with all of the improvements over the original I played roughly 20 years ago. Sam & Max has been around for quite some time, not just in videogame form, but eventually spawned comics and even a TV series. I’ve been a long time Sam & Max fan, as I even have some original artwork signed hung up on my wall, so I’ve been more than excited when the classic games were getting the Remastered treatment.

For those that aren’t up to date with Sam & Max, Sam is a six-foot talking dog detective, and Max is a hyper rabbit that doesn’t shy away from chaos, mayhem and/or violence when needed, in a humorous way. Created by Steve Purcell, the duo are Freelance Police who get themselves involved into some truly odd and interesting cases and situations that only they could solve. Season Two, Beyond Time and Space, is no different, as you’ll control Sam & Max on their journey to the North Pole, to Space and even down to Hell.

Like the previous season, Beyond Time and Space is broken up into 5 episodic chapters, each directly leading into the next. While you’re not forced to play them in order, the story wouldn’t make much sense otherwise and you’ll miss a lot of the ‘in’ jokes. Pay attention and you’ll notice items you collected or references from previous episodes and seasons which was a nice touch.

I don’t want to spoil the story at all, as it’s the highlight of Sam & Max’s weird adventures, but I’m not even exaggerating when I say that you’ll face off against Santa, stop a volcano from erupting, have run ins with a mariachi band, help someone named Stinky, have zombies dancing on a disco floor, deal with Satan, of course have to help the local store owner Bosco and even have to handle a nipple pierced vampire. It’s definitely more ‘out there’ than the first season, and is better for it, completely suiting the Sam & Max style of comedy. Just make sure no one says that it’s their BIRTHDAY!

Just like the first Season Remaster, developers Skunkape went above and beyond to improve this release as well, taking the time to make this release special. Every episode has been given quite an overhaul, and for a longtime fan like myself that has played through the games more than once, seeing the improvements was exciting as you could tell they put a lot of work into the smaller details, not to mention having Steve Purcell’s blessing.

Gaming back in 2006 when it originally released was quite different from now. For starters, 4:3 was a common aspect ratio and resolutions were nowhere near the common 4K quality of today. First and foremost, Sam & Max Save the World now supports your standard 16:9 ratio, 4K resolution, HDR and much more, so it’s going to look much more modern. There’s a few other major improvements, much coming from dynamic lighting, shadows and improved lip sync. Given that there’s quite a lot of dialogue across the episodes, this was quite noticeable compared to the original release. The audio has also been remastered so that it doesn’t sound as compressed, another major improvement that is noticeable due to the heavy dialogue that takes place throughout their adventure.

There’s some really cool smaller additions and changes too that will please older fans like myself. For example, kid versions of Sam & Max look more like their comic counterparts. And while it wasn’t "appropriate" back in 2008, vampire Jurgen now has car keys hanging off his nipple ring; totally worth it for the Remaster alone. I didn’t even realize that the original game had no falling snow in the North Pole chapter due to engine limitations, which of course is no longer an issue these days, so it was added for the Remaster.

As outlined in my Sam & Max Save the World Remastered review, the voice actor for reoccurring character Bosco was recast for specific reasons, which meant a complete rerecording of his lines, and that is the same in this Season as well. While there were no new lines recorded for this Season, you may notice some small changes compared to the original because of this. Even the soundtrack audio was improved, adding eight completely new tracks with live musicians, along with sprucing up the original OST.

Puzzles were left unchanged this time, though the decal system for your DeSoto car has been updated. Back then, it wasn’t common to have games remember your choices and carry over to the next chapter, episode or game, but this system was the groundwork for how later Telltale games, like The Walking Dead, would remember your specific choices. Back then you were unable to go back and collect any decals you missed, forcing you to 100% complete an episode before moving on. They’ve even added a poster to cleverly show you which ones you’ve unlocked or missing.

Like previous Sam & Max games, the point-and-click gameplay is unchanged here with plenty of puzzles to solve along the way. You mainly control Sam as you explore and interact with objects in each scene. Walking to certain objects will have Sam place it in his inventory, generally meaning you’re going to need it to solve some certain puzzle later on. Each episode lasts at least one to three hours, depending on your detective work or use of a walkthrough, though prepare to become stumped on more than a handful of occasions. Certain puzzles can be quite obtuse, almost forcing you to brute forcing a solution by trying to use every item with every object when you can’t figure out what to do. Because of how over the top Sam & Max can be, sometimes the solutions are too completely ‘out there’ and you’ll have tons of trial and error. The game will give you subtle hints when it detects you’re stuck, able to change the frequency depending on the challenge you want.

Just like Season One, you can expect a handful of minigames along the way, though most will be required to play in your trusty DeSoto convertible, ranging from running over bagpipes to create music, shooting rats and other wacky games. There’s a handful of optional objectives you can choose to do in these sections as well, which is how you earn your decals. Collect all the decals for a really cool surprise at the end.

There really is no duo quite like Sam & Max, completely opposite yet perfectly paired. More than a handful of times I would range from a cheeky smirk to a full of snort laugh at the hilarious lines coming out of Max’s mouth. The writing all these years later still holds up, though some of the pop culture references are obviously dated and will go over younger players’ heads.

Just like the first Season, it’s clear that a lot of love and care went into making Sam & Max: Beyond Time and Space - Remastered the best game it could possibly be without changing what made it so great and memorable in the first place. While I truly enjoyed my trip down memory lane, I hope that these Remasters help find a new audience for the Sam & Max series, as their humor is perfectly on point throughout.

**Sam and Max: Beyond Time and Space – Remastered was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.8 / 10 Halo Infinite

WELCOME BACK, CHIEF:

There are an endless amount of games, but every now and then there’s one that not only garners a massive following, but becomes the face of a genre, a console, and it becomes a brand as well. When you think Xbox, you most likely think of Halo, as it was what made Xbox so popular in its early beginnings. Halo has always been special to me, and while I do have an obscenely large Halo collection, I’ve also read the majority of the novels, so my Halo lore is pretty on point. While I enjoyed the new direction that Halo 5: Guardians went in terms of its' lore, it is clear that most fans weren’t feeling the same way, so I was quite unsure what to expect with the long awaited Halo Infinite, a direct sequel to Halo 5.

First and foremost, this is a Master Chief story, so no bait and switch playing as someone else for a portion of the game. You are Spartan 117 from the opening moments until the credits roll for Halo Infinite. Also, this review is solely covering the campaign as the multiplayer portion was released weeks ago and is completely free to play.

CHIEF'S CAMPAIGN:

It’s been a very long wait to find out the consequences and outcomes from Halo 5: Guardians, as the game released back in 2015, but Halo Infinite finally answers many questions and ties together loose ends that us fans have been waiting years for, literally. Taking place roughly a year and a half after the events that took place in Halo 5: Guardians, players begin their journey as Chief alongside a new friend and AI partner. There’s so much that’s happened in Chief’s story since the first game that I’m going to assume you know most what what's happened to this point so far, not just because it would take a novel to fill in the backstory, but also Halo Infinite is clearly meant for existing Halo fans. That’s not to say that new players can’t enjoy its fantastic gameplay and dive into the world, but the narrative is very focused this time around and doesn’t delve too far into the history of certain characters or events aside from a brief mention or recap, so existing fans who know the previous characters and events that have occurred will get the absolute most out of Infinite’s continuing saga.

After Guardians’ ending, Cortana’s fate and intentions were still a mystery. What ever happened to her? Why did she do what she did and betray Chief? What happened to Chief since then? All of these, and more, will be answered quite definitively. Along with a pilot that finds Chief floating in deep space (we've all seen the trailer), you’re on your way to Zeta Halo, which is a pretty big deal if you know your Halo lore. Here you’re going to attempt to stop The Banished, an exiled faction that broke off from the Covenant Empire and who just happened to be the main adversary you faced in the Halo Wars 2, led by Atriox, a fearsome foe that had a face to face encounter with Chief.

With your new pilot friend reluctantly willing to help with you, and a new AI simply called The Weapon, Chief is going to do what he does best; defeat any enemies in his way to save humanity and stop The Banished from gaining access to Zeta Halo’s secrets. Are they looking to fire up the ring or is there something else they’re searching for? How did they end up taking over the ring in the first place? What objective was The Weapon programmed to fulfil? If Escharum is leading The Banished, what happened to Atriox? There’s plenty questions like these and many more that will be answered by the time the credits roll.

I’m purposely going to avoid anything else narrative-wise as Halo Infinite is full of questions and answers that are best experienced for yourself, and hardcore Halo fans, like myself, are going to experience some jaw dropping moments when certain events unfold. Oh, and make sure to stick around after the credits. The only other notable mention is that unfortunately co-op campaign won’t be included until roughly Spring 2022, so Halo Infinite at launch is going to be a solo affair for you as Master Chief.

The campaign is easily the series’ most expansive to date, not only because you’re placed on Zeta Halo’s exterior, but the game is now somewhat open world. I say 'somewhat' simply because in the beginning, sections of the ring are essentially cut off from one another and Chief won’t have the equipment needed to get to the next ‘area’ at first. As you play through the various campaign missions you’ll be taken to new areas thanks to The Pilot, and by the end you’ll be able to go anywhere if you can hijack and get your hands on a Banshee. The majority of the first half of the campaign missions take place on the exterior of the ring, going from area to area, whereas the last half is a bit more traditional Halo as you explore linear interior sections. And yes, once the credits roll you’ll be able to freely explore the outer ring once again to finish up any exploring and collectables that you may have missed during your initial playthrough, but more on that shortly.

I tend to find myself usually overwhelmed with open world games, as I like to be a completionist to a point, so simply having TOO much to do in a sandbox at once stresses me out. Thankfully each ‘section’ isn’t too overwhelmingly large, allowing you to capture bases, search for high value targets and more without having the whole map open to you all at once. While I did enjoy the open world variety and options, I felt much more at home in the later campaign missions within the linear forerunner interior level design that brought me some serious classic Halo nostalgia.

EQUIPMENT:

Chief has gotten many upgrades over the years with his Mjolnir armor, and while this is usually one of the biggest features in a new Halo, Chief will now have access to new equipment as well, notably the Grappleshot. This is a wrist mounted device that not only allows you to traverse in completely new ways, but it also has a variety of different uses when in combat. This allows you to shoot at nearly any surface and pulling you up to that point, flinging you with momentum, somewhat like Spider-Man. If you know your Halo lore, Chief in his armor weighs roughly a thousand pounds, so being able to propel him alone shows how powerful this new device is.

Not only will the Grappleshot be used for reaching new areas, it saved me countless times in battles, especially against bosses where I needed to make a quick escape to let my shields recharge. While there’s a small cooldown between uses, you can upgrade your equipment, Grappleshot included, to not only recharge abilities faster but allow you to perform new abilities too, like a charged up punch if you happen to grapple onto an enemy. Tired of Jackals (Kig-Yar) using their shields to block your shots? Use the Grapplehook to briefly make them open up their defenses so you can get that head shot easier. See a nearby weapon on the ground you want to access quickly, simply use your Grappleshot to snag it and pull it to you. There’s a lot of uses for this new piece of equipment and 343 Studios have made it feel like it perfectly fits with Chief’s combat prowess.

If you’ve been playing Halo Infinite’s multiplayer, you’ve already had a taste of the other equipment that Chief will acquire during his adventure. While you begin with just the Grapplehook, you’ll eventually gain access to a few other tools to round out Chief’s combat abilities such as a Shield Core, Threat Sensor, Drop Wall and Thruster. Shield core boosts your shields abilities for a short while and can be upgraded to absorb more damage. Threat Sensor is a little beacon you shoot out, showing outlines of any enemies within its radius. It can be upgraded to cover a larger area and show more enemy information. Drop Wall is self-explanatory, allowing you to drop a one way shield in front of you to hide behind briefly when needed. And lastly Thruster, allowing you to boost quickly in any direction, even while jumping, to evade when needed. It is especially useful during boss fights as you attempt to avoid massive attacks.

Every piece of equipment is able to be upgraded a number of times depending on which ones you enjoy using the most and that compliments your personal playstyle. While I would have loved to use all of the abilities, you can only have one slotted at a time, and while these can be swapped at any point, it’s quite cumbersome to do so as you need to hit a direction on the D-Pad to bring up the menu and then another press of the D-Pad to swap to the ability you want. Sure, if you memorize the directions for each equipment it won’t be an issue, but trying to do so in the middle of a challenging firefight with two Hunters or during a boss encounter will most likely get you killed. Because of this I simply just stuck with my Grappleshot and fully upgraded it first, as I actually ended up relying on it quite often including the ability to shock enemies that I stuck it to. You can swap your grenades the same way, which again, is a hassle to do when needed in a split second.

So, how do you upgrade your equipment exactly? This is where you need Spartan Cores. Each tier of upgrade requires a different amount of them and you’ll get these by completing campaign missions and searching all over Zeta Halo. Without even really spending much time exploring I was able to fully upgrade my Grappleshot to its maximum, so those that want to scour the ring will be able to upgrade more equipment as well. I just wish the way to swap equipment and grenades was more intuitive, which is really the only main complaint I have about Infinite’s gameplay.

ZETA HALO:

I wasn’t completely sure how the transition to semi-open world would feel with Halo’s gameplay, but after finally getting a grasp on how it all works and everything you can do, I quite enjoy its freedom. You’re not forced to just complete the campaign missions until you want to move to the next section of the ring, as the game allows you to explore to discover secrets, find Spartan Cores, hunting down high-profile Banished leaders, clearing out heavily guarded Banished bases and even take over UNSC Forward Operating Bases (FOB), but more on those shortly.

Even though Infinite places you on a very small section of the ring, it feels vast and huge, able to freely explore wherever you like at your own pace. Do you take a Warthog and rush into a base and try to just take out all your enemies in brutal fashion, or do you strafe around the perimeter and try to slowly pick off Banished one by one before you get overwhelmed? Your story missions are always marked on your map should you want to progress Chief’s journey, but you’re never forced to do so. Exploring pays off though, not just for Spartan Cores to upgrade your equipment, but even cosmetic armor unlocks for multiplayer as well.

New to Infinite are Boss Fights. Technically you’ve fought bosses in past Halo games, but now there are numerous ones and they actually have a life bar above their head, so you know they're quite powerful. Some bosses simply take a tremendous amount of firepower to down, whereas others are a little more involved including phases or certain tactics to make them vulnerable. While there are some new enemies you’ll face, familiar foes also return as well, and I’m not kidding when I say that Hunters are absolutely powerful once again, making me dread having to fight pairs of them at a time.

To take down your enemies you’re going to have to utilize all the weaponry you can find along the adventure. Iconic Halo weapons return with the classics like the Assault Rifle, Battle Rifle, Sniper Rifle, Rocket Launcher, Pistol (technically different than the classic Pistol), Plasma Pistol, Energy Sword, Gravity Hammer, Needler and more, but there’s also a few new ones you’ll have to try out to see if they suit your playstyle. My favorite new weapon by far though is the VK47 Commando, almost a mix of a Battle Rifle and DMR but precise and powerful at the same time, allowing for close and far accurate shots. The Bulldog is a new take on the shotgun and there’s a handful of others to find and try out, which I quite enjoyed, seeing how they all perform against my enemies.

I’m not sure if it was just me, but it felt like ammo replenishes were much more scarce this time around if you weren’t using the main weapons Banished enemies were using. You’re able to carry two weapons at a time (technically three if you’re holding a heavy turret before it runs out of ammo), so I found myself always keeping one powerful or long range weapon as a backup while constantly swapping my main weapon with whatever I could find on the ground after a hard fought battle. There are ammo refill station boxes scattered around, refilling your certain types of ammunition when used, though I’m not sure why these are within the later campaign missions when you’re not in the open world, as it doesn’t make sense lore wise.

FORWARD OPERATION BASES:

Even if you’re not into doing side missions, the Forward Operation Bases (FOB) are well worth your while to do. These are previous UNSC bases that Banished forces have taken over, so if you manage to clear them out you’ll regain control, making these safe zones where you can refill ammunition, call in certain equipment, and even have UNSC Marines join you. In the beginning you’ll only have access to your starter weapons and grenades, but as you earn Valor, a currency gained by completing missions, new equipment will unlock for you to call in at any FOB you have control of. Taking over a FOB also reveals other missions, bases, Spartan Cores and collectibles in the area nearby so you can see everything available to you. Even better, FOB’s also act as quick travel locations, so you can easily travel back to any FOB you’ve liberated at any time, not just as a travel convenience but also to restock should you want to. You’re not required to capture these points, but they come in quite handy later on when you want to explore everything Zeta Halo has to uncover.

ACCESSIBILITY:

I’ve been trying to be much more conscious about Accessibility options lately. As games are evolving to include a larger variety of gamers, accessibility options are becoming more common. “When everybody plays, we all win" isn’t just a catchy phrase Xbox is using for attention either, and Halo Infinite has plenty of options from subtitles, vision choices, UI elements, fonts, controller remapping and sensory settings like adjusting Blur, Screen Shake and more.

A NEW LOOK:

Halo Infinite on an Xbox Series X looks absolutely stunning. On more than a number of occasions I simply stood on a cliffside and took numerous screenshots of the spanning vistas across Zeta Halo. Nearly everywhere you look you can see the beauty of Zeta’s world, even with its mysterious structure that’s become fractured. There’s plenty of life on the ring of Zeta, and not just from the Banished forces, but how gorgeous the nature and biome is as well. I also never had any framerate issues and the draw distance is nothing short of amazing when looking across the whole ring. Chief is more battle worn and detailed than ever this time around too, as you can see plenty of detail in the close-up cutscenes, even the reflection on Chief’s iconic visor. Cutscenes of course are the highlight of the visuals, impressive as ever.

While the stunning visuals will be what you notice first and foremost, the audio can’t be ignored either. While there’s no licensed music in Halo Infinite, there’s no feeling quite like when an awesome battle starts to take place and that iconic theme song kicks in. It STILL gives me goosebumps after all these years, and it’s no different in Infinite. Weaponry audio seems to have been either vastly improved or completely redone, because it all sounds so much more prominent and impactful. Having played with numerous headsets, low-end to high, Halo Infinite’s audio is absolutely immersive. The dialogue is all done masterfully as you’d expect, but there’s a healthy amount of humor injected, not over the top or that stands out, but more than a few times I chuckled because of a Grunt’s one-liner or something The Weapon said.

FINISH THE FIGHT:

Halo Infinite has been a long time coming, and fans have been waiting for answers for a very long time. This latest chapter in the iconic series not only answers many outstanding questions, but asks new ones which we’ll inevitably have to wait for the next iteration to find out. I wasn’t sure what to expect from the drastic changes of having a semi-open world and utilizing the Grappleshot to quicken traversal. Even with all these major changes, it still felt like a true Halo, a refined and improved experience overall.

Playable on PC, Xbox One, Xbox Series X|S, Xbox Cloud Streaming and even via Game Pass, there’s virtually no borders to prevent you from playing Halo Infinite and experiencing this evolution of the series. I absolutely enjoyed my time stepping back into Chief’s shoes, and I wasn’t sure how connected or how much I would care about new characters, The Pilot and The Weapon, but by the time the credits rolled, I really quite enjoyed The Weapon, making for a fine replacement for Cortana in her own right. As a Halo campaign, this is easily my favorite since Reach and right up there with the best of the series. Get your favorite weapon and finish the fight, Chief.

**Halo Infinite (Campaign) was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**


Overall Score: 9.5 / 10 Circa Infinity

There’s plenty of platformer games out there, but every now and then you come across one that’s really unique, not only in its visual style of game mechanics, but in its brain-melting difficulty and challenge to try and discern what’s actually happen on screen fast enough so that you can react accordingly. This is the case with Circa Infinity, a platforming game at its core, but one that’s not like any others you’re used to. If I absolutely had to compare it to another game, the closest thing, even somewhat, would be Super Hexagon, only for its layered gameplay, but there’s more than you initially expect here.

Developed by Kenny Sun, Circa Infinity actually released quite a few years ago on PC, but now it’s getting the console treatment, and the gameplay is perfectly suited for a controller in hand to do so. Circa Infinity is as much about the simple-yet-challenging gameplay as it is the psychedelic visuals and fantastic soundtrack that goes along with it, making for a complete experience that will have you holding your breath and trying to not blink so that you don’t die and go back a ring. While there were times of frustration, I kept wanting to try 'just one more time'.

While there’s no narrative in the traditional sense, Circa Infinity focuses all of its attention to its simple and addictive gameplay. You start off playing as a nameless character that seems to be stuck within a number of black and white circles on a 2D plane. You start on the outer circle, aiming to reach the innermost one, but doing so won’t be easy.

Separated into five chapters, 50 levels await you, though good luck doing so without plenty of determination and practice. Levels start out easily enough, having you jump from layer to layer until you reach the middle, but eventually more challenges await, and not just simple enemies, but eventually a visual explosion of moving objects and enemies that will take some practice to get the hang of. Every level slowly introduces a new mechanic or enemy, adding new complexity, almost throughout the whole experience.

The core gameplay comes from running around the inner or outer layer of the circle you’re currently on, aiming to reach the middle until there’s no more circles to jump into. As you jump deeper into a layer, enemies you avoided in the last stay on the screen as the previous circle expands outwards, still within their original circle. You’re only able to flip into another layer at specific locations, usually indicated by a pie shaped cutout, forcing you to think of when the best time to avoid demons and enemies would be as they follow their own paths or directions.

Enemies vary in types and movement patterns. Some run constantly in one direction, some flip at intervals between layers, others only move when you jump, others fly to block you from jumping at specific points and many more. Things start to get crazy around the third world when you have numerous enemies and types all moving in different patterns, sometimes in opposite directions while others only move when you’re trying to jump to avoid them, not to mention having to control more than a single character.

It takes a lot of practice and quick reflexes to make any progress, so if you become frustrated at dying dozens of times, Circle Infinity might not be for you. Instead of dying, whenever you’re struck by an enemy or jump into one, you simply get thrown back one circle to your previous layer. This doesn’t seem like a big deal, but at times I became frustrated from dying, causing me to make yet another mistake, sometimes going back three or more layers due to trying to rush instead of taking my time when possible. Every handful of layers there’s a ‘checkpoint’-like system that is basically an enemy-free circle, so it’s impossible to die and regress any further back. While I wish these were more frequent, it’s a fair system overall.

In the beginning everything is black and white, save for the red colored enemies so that you know to avoid them. Later chapters do introduce new colors and mechanics that involve simultaneously using two characters and changing their colors when needed, but it’s tough to reach that far and where your brain will start to melt trying to discern everything happening on screen at once. Level design is done quite well, and none are made impossible or unfair, so if you’re struggling you’re either not seeing something or need to time your jumps better.

The end of each chapter also has you facing off against a boss, which was the highlight of the whole experience. These have you attempting to reach close to their circle, usually having to avoid projectiles of theirs of some kind or numerous enemies to avoid as well. You need to get all of the required hits in without dying or else you have to start the boss fight from the beginning. The first boss and Chapter is easy, it only scales up sharply from there on.

Once you reach Chapter 3 and 4, there’s so much going on at once on the screen that it can be near impossible at times to figure out what you’re actually supposed to do. You’ll die many, many times, but eventually all of this chaos on screen will start to become clearer, much like how you us your peripheral vision while driving, you eventually gain that ‘sense’ of everything with enough practice. It also takes a little getting used to even knowing which direction the stick will make your character(s) move, as you’re constantly rotating around a circle, so it may not always make sense that ‘Left’ on the stick will make you go a different way. Again, it eventually feels natural with time. Even when I got my most frustrated from constantly dying, I always felt like “okay, just one more try”.

Each hypnotic disc showcases the minimalistic approach while also being beautiful and entrancing in its own way. A warning to those that suffer from epilepsy though, or even motion sickness for that matter, Circle Infinity is absolutely not friendly towards those with such conditions. The audio is done quite well, having sounds for all your jumps and flips and such, but the background soundtrack is done fantastic, even my young daughter said “I love this music” as she watched me play (and die many times).

For such a minimalistic game, Circle Infinity is probably one of the more challenging ones you’ll play, requiring dedication and a whole lot of concentration if you want to make any meaningful progress across its 50 levels. I suspect it will frustrate many, if not most, but finally making to the end of a level feels ever so satisfying after dying repeatedly, provided you have the mettle to stick with it.

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

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Gynoug

Picture it, you’re in a gamer who’s wanting to play something new on your Genesis back in the radical 90's. You see the usual games that everyone has, but come across a weird looking box with ripped buff dude with some wings punching some flying demon thing on the cover. This exceptional game is titled Wings of Wor. While I don’t remember ever seeing this box or playing this game back in the early 90’s on my Genesis, having now played Gynoug (its original Japanese title), I’m glad to have experienced such a weird and unique shmup (shoot-em-up).

Given that it’s Gynoug’s 20th anniversary, it only seemed fitting to release this version to current consoles with modern quality of life updates. This is publisher Ratalaika Games’ second obscure shmup they’ve brought to modern consoles from classic developer Masaya, a trend I hope continues as I’m getting to experience old classic games I never would have otherwise.

Now, in most shumps, story and narrative aren’t usually a focus, as you generally play these to shoot a bunch of enemies and avoid bullets. Gynoug is no different. In the game itself there’s no dialogue or story in any way. The official store listing provides this huge backstory and lore, but oddly none of which is found within the game itself. Essentially, an evil entity known as the Destroyer is attacking the heavens, so it’s up to you to destroy them all and every mutated and disgusting boss that stands in your way. Again, in a shump like this, none of it will matter, as you’re simply just going to blast anything that moves.

Six challenging levels stand between you and victory, as do countless enemies, mini-bosses, massive weird grotesque bosses and power-ups along the way. At the end of each level is a massive boss, as expected, but what surprised me was that instead of piloting a ship in space against other alien ships, you instead are some sort of mythical man-creature thing with wings facing off against gross and weird monsters along the way.

While most shmups have some sort of power-up system, and Gynoug is no different, here though there are blue and red orbs that can be collected to improve your shots and damage, along with different power-ups that change your shot styles and multiple magic types to be used as your specials. The game itself teaches you absolutely nothing about what the power-ups do, how to activate your specials or anything else, so I had to do some research online. So while I was gathering all these different orbs and scrolls, I had no idea what they did or how to even use them.

Blue orbs apparently make your shot spread larger while red increase the damage you do. There’s a meter at the top of the screen that fills once you collect them. Dying will have you lose orbs, but they come so frequently that this doesn’t really become much of an issue as long as you don’t die numerous times in succession.

There are also different gem-like things to collect, changing your shot pattern between a very spread out shot, one that’s more focused forward or another that shoots front and backwards simultaneously. Either of the two are the best choices, were as the one that also shoots backwards is almost useless as not many enemies come from behind, making your front shots weaker.

Lastly for your offensive skills are scrolls you’ll find along the way. These are your magic which are used instead of typical screen clearing bombs that most shmups utilize. It seems there’s about a half dozen magic spells you can collect, holding up to three at a time, ranging from lightning bolts to arrows, shields and more. Honestly, I can only assume they were doing more damage, as I always saved them for bosses, but never seemed to make the massive difference that I was expecting.

The six levels are easily beatable in a single sitting, but because there’s no online leaderboards, I’m not sure who’s going to care much about scoring high without a way to share it, which was a bit disappointing. The gameplay itself is quite simple given the time period it’s from, moving with the Left Stick and simply firing with one button and magic uses on another. You can cycle between your magic spells which are banked, but again, the game doesn’t teach you this at all.

Just like their last release, there’s plenty of extras and bonus options available should you want. There’s not only a CRT option to make it appear you’re playing on an old classic tube TV, there’s plenty of sub options as well. Accessibility is a focus as well, allowing for rewinds when you make a mistake, Save and Load states whenever you like, and even cheat options like invulnerability, unlimited magic and more.

Given that Gynoug is from the 16-bit 1991 era of gaming, you know what to expect from its visuals and audio. Bosses are quite detailed, and given that they are massive and grotesque monsters, it was quite a unique experience for this genre. The audio was decent, not overstaying its welcome during a playthrough or two.

Out of curiosity I went online to see what a physical cartridge copy of Gynoug and Wings of Wor are currently going for. Needless to say I was quite surprised, and the mere $6 CAD to play this digital version is a minor fraction of the cost to get a physical copy. I really enjoy finding old classics that I never got to play growing up, and I hope that the trend continues with weird and unique games like Gynoug.

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

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Backbone

I agreed to do the review for Backbone for simply one reason; its backdrop is the city I was born and raised in, Vancouver BC, Canada. Because of this, I felt obligated and looked forward to see how my home was portrayed. I of course smiled and was warmed to see specific areas and landmarks that I know in person, albeit with developer Eggnut’s take on specific areas.

Backbone is not only a unique look at my hometown with a dystopian setting, it also showcases an equally unique story and characters with its film noir setting, political and class issues and some dark themes throughout. Oh, and you’re an anthropomorphic raccoon private detective, and everyone else in the city are different animals as well, which isn’t even the weirdest part of Backbone.

You are PI Howard Lotor, a regular run of the mill detective that isn’t really specially in any way. The day starts like any other with a client coming to your office to hire you. This client suspects her husband as cheating, as he’s not coming home, smells weird and has simply changed from his regular habits. You take the case which seems like it shouldn’t be a big deal, first leading you to popular nightclub The Bite. What starts as a simple case eventually evolves into something much more interesting and unforeseen, unravelling a mystery and something much larger than you expected.

I don’t want to delve much further into the narrative, as Backbone’s core experience is its story, and it’s quite a ride, even if it is a linear affair, but it’s interesting to say the least. My only complaint is that it drastically goes in a completely different direction in the last half, becoming much more complicated, which is fine, but I just didn’t feel all that satisfied with the ending in certain ways. Vague I know, but I don’t want to spoil anything.

Backbone’s core gameplay is point-and-click in nature, having you exploring different districts of the city, searching for clues and people to talk to so you can further your case. When in dialogue with another character you’re given multiple options of responses, allowing you to play your Howard in a variety of different ways. While it seems like the majority of your dialogue choices don’t matter for the overarching narrative, I could never bring myself to being a jerk or threatening someone unless it was necessary. Some dialogues can be a bit lengthy, but this allows you to create relationships with certain characters, like your trusty cab driver friend who you can call on when needing to get across town. Aside from one puzzle early on in your adventure, there’s no real puzzles either. The bulk of your gameplay is simply talking to people to further where you can go and explore or uncovering clues.

There’s a few sections where you’ll need to rely on stealth to get by some shady characters or when you’re sneaking within an area you shouldn’t be in. These sections aren’t very frequent, and I get that as a detective you sometimes do what you got to do to reach the truth, but these sections didn’t really add anything to the gameplay or happen frequent enough to have a dedicated button for. Speaking of dedicated buttons, one of the oddest design decisions I think I’ve ever seen is being able to swap to another language of your choosing in the settings at the tap of the Bumper. Why? I have no clue, but if you’re bilingual and want to swap on the fly, you can I guess? For some reason, my game once started in the secondary language and I wasn’t sure how to change it back until fumbling through the menus, trying each option.

Where Backbone truly shines is with its amazing pixel artwork and animation. There’s an interesting 2.5D effect being used, and all of the pixels are in HD, so there’s quite a lot of detail when it comes to characters, environments, backdrops, lighting, rain and more. Usually games that utilize pixel graphics lose a lot of details in the smaller objects or within animations, but not here. Honestly, Backbone probably has some of the best sprite work that I’ve seen in quite some time. Everything is very smooth in its animations and there were tons of details I could make out.

The soundtrack is equally good most of the time. Being a noir style adventure, you’ve got that typical jazz and sax in the background, completely fitting for many of the backdrops and what’s happening on screen. The OST is fantastic when it plays. What I mean by that is that when a song gets to the end of its track, it seems to simply stop, many times I was playing with dead air and no audio at all, which felt very odd. There’s also no voice work for the dialogue unfortunately, which is a shame, as it would have added more to the characters and situations.

While I enjoyed my time with Howard, unravelling the case before me, I’ll admit, it won me over early on simply for being based in my home town. Seeing a familiar yet strange version of my city was exciting, and while most won’t have the same connection, that’s what drew me to Backbone initially. While some might question the latter half of the narrative, I’m still glad to have experienced it, and since it’s currently available on Game Pass, you can do so too with little barriers.

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

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Demon Turf

Slime-san: Superslime Edition surprised me, so once I learned that developer Fabraz was making a new title, I was of course intrigued. Their latest game, Demon Turf, takes from their 2D platforming game experience and translates it into a 3D world. If you yearn for mid-90’s platforming classics like Banjo-Kazooie and Super Mario 64, then Demon Turf is going to be exactly what you’re looking for. Better yet, if you’re the type of player that enjoys speedrunning or trying to inch your way up online leaderboards, you’re in for a real treat, and challenge.

The first thing you’re going to notice is Demon Turf’s interesting aesthetic. All of the characters are seemingly drawn in 2D, but placed in a 3D world, much like Paper Mario in a sense. Playing a 3D platformer with flat characters takes a little getting used to, but eventually feels natural once you come to terms of a paper character having a round shadow beneath them.

You are Beebz, a young demon, barely a thousand years old, who wants to become the Demon Queen, but to do that she’s going to have to defeat the other demons who run the turf of certain areas beforehand. These leaders are tough, but are no match for the Demon King himself, so Beebz has her work cut out for her. Nearly everyone around her laughs it off, because how would such a young and naive demon have any chance of defeating the Demon King?

To even get a chance at facing off against the Demon King though, she will need to defeat the four turf leaders, but do even do that, she must find a battery in each level before being able to challenge them. Even though the gameplay definitely caters towards speedrunners and leaderboard chasers, even casual platformer fans can have some fun in this colorful and humor filled world full of demons.

Each level’s goal is to reach the end and get its battery, but there are also some hidden collectable candies to find as well. If you want some hints you can also press in the 'Left Stick' to have an arrow show you where the closest candy is. Each level also has a par time to beat if you want to challenge yourself for a spot on the leaderboards, but good luck with that unless you’re serious about speedrunning, plus you’re going to need some of the unlockable skills later on to even be able to attempt the times. These par times are challenging enough on their own, but world records for each level is absolutely insane. Sadly there’s no way to download someone’s ghost or watch a replay of their ten second run for a 2 minute par time.

In a 3D platforming game you need to have precision controls, or else you’re going to have a bad time, the same goes for the camera control. Demon Turf is decent in these aspects, though sometimes felt as though it could be a bit tighter. There’s an option to have manual control over your camera with the Right Stick or opt for an automatic camera that will somewhat follow you, though this never worked well enough to rely on. Given the handcrafted levels meant for speedrunning, you’re going to want to have full control over the camera when you start trying to skip certain sections and using your powers to bypass portions of the map.

The main hub town is generally meant to travel from one turf to the next to take it over, but there’s also some side events and minigames you can play as well should you want, earning you some extras. This is where you can earn your hard earned candy on abilities mods or changing Beebz' colors of hair or shirt. Each of the main turf hubs all have their own style and biomes. Each turf needs to be completed in order before working on the next, so the progression is generally linear aside from choosing which level to play in order within each turf to get batteries. One cool feature I didn’t expect was that you can challenge yourself in alternate versions of a level once the turf is cleared as well, so there’s essentially double the length of expected gameplay.

Given that Beebz is a demon, her moveset is very fitting as well. You start with just a basic jump, double jump, wall jumps, dash and a float, but certain moves will actually transform her based on the move. Specific moves for example will turn Beebz into a bat, allowing her to spin and float as she slowly descends, or a squid when underwater. You can do a longer leaping jump combined with a float to go longer distances, reminiscent of Mario’s somersault flips, needed to reach the far off platforms. Some levels are very horizontal with trampoline-like platforms, while others can be quite vertical in nature, which takes a different set of precision.

As you reach turf bosses you’ll gain new abilities as well. The first is a hookshot, allowing you to grab onto anything with a small square icon, either pulling you into the air to launch distances, or pulling enemies to you. Another is one that allows you to turn into a wheel, able to speed very quickly in a short burst, needed for speedruns obviously. You get these moves just before fighting a new turf boss, so the boss fights are not only your introduction to your new abilities, but a way to test out and learn how to use them correctly. These boss fights were quite entertaining and unique, the highlight of my time with Demon Turf. Being able to combo your jumps, gliding and abilities are how you’ll start to climb the leaderboards, as this is how you’ll be able to eventually bypass and skip complete sections of a level if you’re clever enough.

Combat plays another role in Beebz’ journey to become the Demon Queen, and the part of the gameplay I hated the most. Beebz shoots projectiles in front of her, based on the camera direction, able to rapid fire or charge for a more powerful version. Enemies either are defeated by knocking them off a platform, if an option, or being pushed into red spikes placed around the small arena. This is where you need to use your charged version, as it will knock them backwards, so you have to get between your enemy and the spikes behind them before attacking. It’s a little weird getting used to firing in the direction of the camera and not the way Beebz faces, and this is where you’ll need to use the manual camera if you want any success.

The coolest part about Demon Turf though is its checkpoint system. In most platformers, reach a certain section in a level and that’s where you’ll reappear if you die. Demon Turf does things differently though, giving you the accessibility to place your checkpoints anywhere you wish. While you only get a couple checkpoints a level, you’re able to freely place them anywhere. Have a difficult jumping section up or some combat sections you’re not good at? Place a checkpoint. Have to do some precision running and gliding and know you’re going to fall all the way to the bottom? Place a checkpoint. You get the idea. This simple idea is great for allowing you to play however you want. You can even challenge yourself to perfect runs without using any should you want, something speedrunnners will definitely be doing. Some levels I never needed to use one checkpoint, others I used all of them. Obviously there are certain sections and platforms you can’t place the flag at, but for the most part they can be used anywhere you want, even able to freely teleport between them if you are aiming to practice some trick jumps and skips. You can even use your candy in the main hub to allow you to have more checkpoints if you wish, so you better be on a lookout for that candy.

There’s plenty to do, but it’s obvious that Demon Turf is clearly aiming towards the platformer lovers that enjoy to climb online leaderboards to show off their best times, replaying levels hundreds of times to try and get just a little quicker each time. There’s nothing to force you to take part and reply levels over and over, but that’s where you’ll obviously get the most value.

The 2D art within a 3D world works well enough. The characters themselves looks decent and animated well, but many of the world textures simply don’t impress. Each biome also has its own style, but can get very oversaturated at times, especially in the opening desert turf in certain sections. The Paper Mario style does make Demon Turf stand out, feeling like a comic book come to life in a playful way.

I actually didn’t expect there to be much voiced dialogue, but almost all of it is which was quite impressive. Better yet, the voice work was actually quite bubbly and fun as well, again, feeling like it came out of a comic book with Beebz and other main characters over exaggerated reactions, giving an almost anime-like feel. Music is there, but even now trying to think of it, none of it was very memorable for the most part.

If you miss the days of mid 90’s platforming titles, Demon Turf is just the throwback that you’re looking for. Easy to get into and you can of course take your time, Demon Turf is meant to challenge you to be as quick as you possibly can to try and earn a spot on the coveted online leaderboards. While it’s a little on the pricey side without a discount, a decent sale would earn my full recommendation if you’re into speedrunning 3D platformers and want to become the Demon Queen.

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

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Corpse Party

Totally not my normal type of game or genre, I wasn’t sure what to expect from Corpse Party. Having never heard of the series before, I didn’t realize how big of a following it has, not only with its handful of games since the mid 90’s, but that it’s also spawned an anime, movies, manga and even a theme park attraction. This cult horror classic has quite an interesting history, so even researching the series was quite a journey, now updated for a new generation of gamers to find and explore.

Now, even figuring out what version of Corpse Party this was turned out to be quite a puzzle. Corpse Party originally released back in 1996 on PC using classic RPG Maker software, gathering such a fan base that it eventually received a remake titled Corpse Party: Blood Covered. That remake eventually got a remaster on 3DS back in 2016 called Corpse Party: Blood Covered... Repeated Fear, adding new characters, lines and content. So this new Corpse Party (2021 release) is essentially a remaster of the previous remaster, which in itself is a remake of the original. What makes this release special is that the graphics got a substantial boost (especially when you compare to its older versions), new characters, new chapters and even added voice acting for the newly added chapters that didn’t get that treatment beforehand. Still following along?

For those like myself that are unfamiliar with the series, Corpse Party is a survival horror game that has visual novel elements, but plays unlike many other games in the genre. There are five main chapters to play through but have more than triple that in bonus chapters, almost like extra short stories. Part visual novel, part horror, Corpse Party sure is unlike any other game I’ve previously played, for better and worse.

Given that Corpse Party is so narrative heavy, I don’t want to give much of its plot away, as that is its main draw, so I’ll try and be brief and vague purposely when it comes to the story elements. A group of students from Kisaragi Academy perform a ritual called Sachiko Ever After to send off one of their classmates who are transferring to a different school. Thing is, this is basically a cursed ritual where if you don’t perform it exact and perfectly, you’re dragged into the Heavenly Host Elementary School, an alternate dimension where you probably won’t survive.

Now these students, separated from one another in completely different dimensions, must find a way to not only escape, but stay alive. Heavenly Host Elementary School has vengeful spirits though, and the only way the students will survive is if they can reveal the truth about the deaths and murders of the students that were here long before you. Finding the truth is the only way to escape, but not everyone will survive.

Each of the five main chapters all focus on different characters, and even though they are in different planes of existence, they’re also somehow connected as well. Each chapter has multiple endings, depending on choices you make along the way and even the order you do certain events. There’s a “True Ending” for each chapter, but more often than not you’ll reach one of the numerous “Wrong Endings” for some unknown reason. There are a lot of endings, but getting the “True Ending” is what you strive for to continue on, but there’s nothing anywhere that tells you how to do so exactly.

Endings are based on your actions, and even the smallest non-essential choice can lead to a bad ending, forcing a reload from your previous save. This isn’t explained anywhere and I had to resort to looking online what I was doing wrong. To say that it’s archaic and terrible game design is putting it lightly, and even after seeing what I was doing ‘wrong’, it really didn’t make all that much sense. If you enjoy reloading game saves and trying to redo your actions in numerous ways, then you’ll certainly enjoy yourself here. If not, well, expect to see a lot of “Wrong Endings”.

Given that Corpse Party is a horror game at its core, there’s plenty of gruesome and grotesque details that are explained via dialogue, and even though much of the gameplay is pixel art, there are some very dark themes within. On that note, those sensitive to or affected by murder, gore or suicide, consider this a content warning, as there are none beforehand when you start playing.

Also, there’s some very questionable writing, and I’m not sure if it’s just a byproduct of the translation from Japanese to English or not, but the attempt at injecting some humor seems completely off and out of place. In a horror game about dead students, murders and suicide one scene, the next, two of the girls are talking about how “dat ass” makes her drool, “buttering up your pooper” and needing some “butt lotion”. The main storyline is interesting and full of twists, but then you get terrible writing like this now and then that completely takes you out of the immersion and want to sigh.

Even though Corpse Party is very narrative focused, the gameplay has you exploring the school, trying to further the investigation and finding a way to survive and escape. While most of the gameplay is linear, only allowing you to get to one room or area after triggering specific events or gathering a specific item, there’s plenty of ‘wrong’ steps you can take which will prevent you from getting the “True Ending”. Played in a top-down third person viewpoint, Corpse Party generally has you going from one room to the next, searching hallways for clues and evidence of what’s happened to the deceased students you find along the way. Keep an eye out for hostile ghost and spirits though, as you be chased and pursued at times.

Exploring the school, you’ll come across objects and notes along the way. Reading notes and letters will give some back story to what happened at the school, and objects can be picked up and used when needed, like keys or crystals that save you from a gruesome death from an unexpected spirit. If, and when, you become stuck, make sure to interact with everything you see, hopefully triggering the next event and not the wrong choice to receive the bad endings. You’re only able to save at certain spots, lit candles, so make sure to utilize multiple save slots when allowed so you can trial and experiment without much backtracking.

While there’s no direct combat, your choices are what will determine the outcome of certain events and characters. As for the new and updated content, two students, Miku Shirayume and Ryoka Iwami, integrate into the overall narrative in an interesting way in their own chapters, also having some of the ‘odd’ writing and dialogue too.

The graphics have gotten an update from its original re(release), more so in crisper 16-bit pixel aesthetics and I believe updated hand drawn visuals in the visual novel portions. While there’s not much else to look at aside from the creepy school and the odd pile of bones, much of it is left to your imagination. What I didn’t expect is that all of the dialogue is fully voiced, though only in Japanese. Of course the text is in English, though I wish there was an option for English voice over. That said, Corpse Party is very dialogue heavy at times, but expect a lot of screaming, yelling, grunting and shouting anytime something remotely scary happens. The background music is very well done though, fitting for the mood based on what’s happening, though there are invisible zone lines where the music changes on a dime once you cross.

I wasn’t sure what to make of Corpse Party before starting, and even after getting a handful of different and unique endings, I still kind of don’t. I can see the appeal and why it garnered such a following if you’re a fan of the genre, though it certainly won’t be for everybody. While I question a few of its design decisions and writing, there’s plenty of content to experience in this remaster of a remaster of a remake.

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

Overall Score: 6.3 / 10 Sherlock Holmes Chapter One

We got to check out Sherlock Holmes Chapter One long before official release, and while it was a very early build and not fully complete, it impressed me and left me wanting more time with the iconic detective. Well, the time has come and now that I’ve seen the credits roll on the final release, I’m glad to see that many improvements have been made and the time has made for a better experience overall.

Developer Frogwares is no stranger to Sherlock Holmes games, as they’ve got quite a few in their portfolio. Arguably Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments was their best outing yet with you playing as the most celebrated detective of all time (aside from Batman), but Sherlock Holmes Chapter One aims to be much bigger and better than all of the predecessor titles. Even though it has “Chapter One” in its title, this is actually not an episodic game. Instead, the title is in reference to Sherlock actually working his very first case, albeit a very personal one, acting like a prequel of sorts and an origin story.

A story driven adventure, Sherlock Holmes Chapter One centers around a young and spry 21 year old Sherlock as he makes his way back home to the small island of Cordona in the Mediterranean to investigate the mystery of his mother’s death. This is a different Sherlock than we’re used to though, as he hasn’t quite become the man we’ve all read about and seen on TV and movies. He’s young, so he’s a little cocky in his abilities, but he will surely have his detective skills put to the test with an assortment of characters you’ll come across on the island.

Alongside his lifetime friend from childhood, Jonathan, Sherlock and Jon come to pay respects at Violet Holmes’ grave, but things couldn’t be that easy, and thus their adventure begins. While the hotel you arrive in is incredibly upper class, don’t let the looks of Cordona fool you, there’s a seedy underbelly to the city that you’ll start to uncover as you dig deeper around every corner.

You’ll have your childhood friend Jon alongside every step of the way, but this isn’t the same Watson partner that we all know, this is a different Jon and he will play an integral role for Sherlock to turn into the legend we’ve all read about. Jon will keep a diary to record the choices you make, notes about your friendship, bets won or lost and even let you know when something interesting is nearby that you should make notice of. He’s a wonderful character and was a great contrast to Sherlock’s style and personality.

I quite enjoyed Sherlock’s youthful arrogance, as it’s a side we don’t get to see often in the older versions. He’s eager to prove himself, showcasing his brilliance and observation skills, even from the opening moments. While Sherlock’s legacy is already known and well documented, being able to play this younger version as he begins to earn his reputation was a very clever way to ‘open the book’ on their own interpretation of the character. You’ll have many tools at your disposal, the most important of which will be your mind with your deduction and investigative skills, keen eye for observation and of course Jon by your side at all times. Sometimes though you’ll need to get your hands dirty, either through some combat, though this is optional, or even having to utilize costume changes to have people open up to you, because beggars or thugs won’t want to help someone that’s dressed as posh as Sherlock usually does.

I won’t delve into the main storyline cases because they were by far the best part about the whole experience, but what starts out as a simple visit to your mother’s grave evolves into something much more involved and intricate with plenty of twists and turns. This is a detective game though, so you better bring your thinking cap, or else be prepared to look up walkthroughs, sadly something not available to me before launch. There will be some fan service, as you’ll hear about your childhood alongside your brother Mycroft, and there are even multiple endings, something that I was very content and satisfied with once the credits rolled.

As soon as you arrive to Cordona you arrive at your hotel, immediately thrust into solving your first mystery, returning an expensive looking cane to someone that has seemingly left it behind. How you do so will be completely up to you. Of course a simple task like this is no match for the brilliant mind of Holmes, but this leads to uncovering a more serious matter once you find its owner. There’s plenty of twists that came along the way and I came away very impressed with how it was all handled in a way that doesn’t force you one direction or another.

There’s actually very little 'handholding' at all, as cases you’re given can be solved in different orders, you’re not expected to accuse a specific person or with a certain reasoning or even a set way how to acquire some clues. Everything is left up to you to figure out in how you want to work the case(s). I’ll admit, I was expecting to simply follow a marker from point A to B and ask specific people certain questions before given the solution, but this is not how Sherlock Holmes Chapter One is designed at all, and it's better for it.

You’re able to determine guilt or innocence which I really enjoyed, as I fully expect there to always be a ‘right’ solution, but that’s not the case at all. You’re not shoehorned into deciding one way or another; you’re actually not even nudged to favor one direction over another, so your decisions are entirely your own. Sometimes there are two truths to each story, so how you decide to solve and report cases will shape the Sherlock heu grows to be. You’re also able to pursue each case at whatever pace you want to, going off to do side missions or events to break up the monotony should you wish.

The fact that the game is open world adds a whole other layer to this design. Cordona is split into different districts, each with their own theme and aesthetic. It can be quite a visual treat to simply stop and take in the architecture of some of the buildings in the rich part of town. There’s a day and night cycle, and while it doesn’t change anything gameplay wise, you’ll notice less ‘normal’ people on the streets in the dead of night, noticing more vagrants and bandits, whereas more wealthy people only come out during the daylight. While there are no vehicles to drive around, there are fast travel spots around the city where you can instantly warp from point to point should you wish to save time, as running from one end of the Cordona to the other will take a bit of time.

While combat was kind of unexpected, it’s completely optional after the tutorial section for it, able to bypass these sections completely if you would rather focus on the detective portions of Sherlock’s adventure. These combat sections only take place when it makes sense narratively, but the majority of these sections are in optional Bandit Lairs. These are essentially secluded rooms where you’re tasked with taking down all of the enemies, hopefully non-lethally. Before you can make any arrests, you’ll need to shoot off their armored weak points before performing a QTE. Instead of being a typical third person shooter, you’re encouraged to use the environment to your advantage to stun enemies, allowing you to shoot their specific areas of weakness. You’re able to play lethally and shoot enemies, but this may affect your relationship with Jon. Beating these Bandit Lairs earns you rewards and money which in turn can be used to purchase new outfits or items for your mansion.

There’s actually quite a few different mechanics in play when it comes to Sherlock solving each mystery and case that comes his way. Sherlock is a detective, and using his keen eye is what Concentration is for. This is almost like a detective mode where you can discern much more information about things and people at a quick glance, such as knowing one's occupation by his attire or what type of accent they're speaking. This isn’t simply a mode you toggle to get the ‘right answer’, but another tool you’ll use to discern the information to make the 'correct' deductions. Key witnesses or suspects you’ll be able to inspect and observe much closer, gathering some key details then profiling them in one of two ways. No one way is completely ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, but it’s what you discern from the information given to you.

Eavesdropping on conversations will also yield valuable information, as we all know people like to gossip. Maybe this gives you a new clue you’ve been trying to find or even a brand new side quest to partake in. This quick mini-game gives you a keyword at a time about a specific topic they’re talking about. If you think it relates to the topic then you circle it and decide to keep it, if not, discard it. Once you’ve found all the keywords that relate you’ll then get a vital piece of information for one of your cases. This can be redone without any consequence if you fail as well thankfully.

On certain cases you might have to use Sherlock’s chemistry understanding to solve a certain clue as well. For example, on the first case in the hotel you’ll need to discern what some alleged ‘ectoplasm’ actually is in composition. This is also done via a mini-game where you need to put certain chemicals together to reach a specific tally, though this becomes much more challenging and involved in the later cases. Like combat, these can be completely skipped without consequence should you become stuck or simply don’t want to do them.

The Mind Palace is where you’ll take all your gathered evidence and tie them all together, eventually concluding on who the suspect is or what actually occurred. There will be points where you’ll actually have to recreate the crime scene and what occurred in your head, choosing the proper placement of people and objects so that you can visualize it on your head before making a final conclusion, these can be tough though if you don't pay attention to the finer details.

Pinned Evidence is something you’ll be using quite often. This is where you have any specific piece of evidence pinned which is how you ask about this information specifically to any NPC’s you talk to. If you have multiple clues and want to ask about a specific one, you need to have that exact clue pinned. It’s a little clumsy at first, but you become accustomed to it after a few cases. Each clue that needs more solving also has an icon to indicate if you need to search somewhere, talk to someone, research it in the archives, etc. This too could have been explained and taught a bit better in the opening, but again, you will get used to it over time. There’s no simple following a waypoint marker, as you’ll actually have to read clues and figure out many things for yourself.

This approach is multilayered though, as you need to be asking about the right evidence, and maybe to get the actual truth you’ll need to wear a disguise.That’s right, you’re going to be playing dress up if you want to solve cases. If you’re dressed all fancy in the slums, most likely people aren’t going to trust you, and vice versa if you aren’t dressed like an aristocrat in the rich areas. While you could wear any suit and clothing for roleplay purposes, there are moments where you’ll actually have to utilize disguises to progress, and not just clothing, but makeup (old skin, bruises, etc), hats, masks, facial hair and more. This is where money comes into play, allowing you to purchase a multitude of clothing options, though any that are required for case completions can be rented freely.

Speaking of side quests and other things to do, there’s more than enough to keep you busy on the isle of Cordona. My Cases are your main quests, but there are a number of Cordona Stories as well, almost like mini-cases that aren’t necessarily involved, but give more lore to people or places. Some of these are quite interesting and there’s even some treasure hunting to take part in should you desire. There are even certain parts of cases where Jon will give you a specific challenge, testing you to see if you can either beat him at something or figure something out before moving on.

While the gameplay hooked me in from the first mission I was given, what surprised me the most was how amazing the voice acting was. Not that I was expecting any poor performances, but even from the first few scenes I could tell that the voice acting was done extremely well. Not just Sherlock either, but Jon and even the secondary characters you meet along the way. There was a lot of subtle accents I could notice, making the immersion that much deeper. I normally skip dialogue once I’ve read it, but I let every line finish due to how good it was performed, so bravo to everyone involved on this front, especially Alex Jordan as the witty Sherlock and Wil Coban as his counterpart, Jon. Sure there was some minor annoyances like NPC’s repeating the same line over and over when asked about evidence they know nothing about, but alas.

As for the visuals, I was more than impressed on an Xbox Series X. There are plenty of facial close-ups when it comes to the main cast and support characters, full of detail and life. Animations themselves are also done quite well, though the lip syncing is ‘so-so’ at the best of times. The city of Cordona is beautiful to take in, admiring the architecture and vistas, even in the slums.

Being in development for over two years, it’s exciting to see that Frogwares’ hard work is paying off in an exciting way with a fresh take on such a legendary character. The campaign case is split into five or so chapters, taking me about a dozen or so hours to complete, but with all of the side cases, stories and Bandit Lairs to partake in, there’s easily 40 or so hours’ worth of content to be had.

I didn’t think that Sherlock Holmes Chapter One would be something I would initially gravitate towards, but I’ve been converted once I felt like a genius after solving my first case, wanting to know more about Sherlock, Jon and his mother’s passing. Not being forced to find one ‘correct’ solution to cases was a breath of fresh air and I was completely content with the ending I received. While it’s not episodic, I’m hoping to get some form of a Chapter Two someday, as I want to see how my Sherlock evolved into the legend.

**Sherlock Holmes Chapter One was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.8 / 10 My Singing Monsters Playground

While I’ve never heard about My Singing Monsters previously, apparently it’s quite a popular game on the mobile store and PC. Looking to branch out with the IP a bit further, My Singing Monsters Playground is the latest entry in the series, though this game is much more like a Mario Party style of game instead of a tycoon based one. A multiplayer game set in the My Singing Monsters universe, you’ll play as your favorite characters as you and up to three other friends battle locally on the same screen to see who can win the most diamonds.

While there’s no main career mode or board game you play on, you instead choose one of the few available characters from the My Singing Monsters universe, each with three unlockable costumes, pick the difficulty level and simply have fun in a variety of different modes. Keep in mind, My Singing Monsters Playground only supports local multiplayer, so players will need to be in the same room, as there is no online play supported unfortunately.

There are three different modes you can your friends can play in: Tournament, Gauntlet or Freeplay. Tournament is where you’ll decide to play in 10, 15 or 20 game matches, with the winner being the one with the most diamonds at the end of the set. There’s a few extra bonus diamonds rewarded for various tasks at the end, like standing still the longest or shooting the most projectiles, where the bonuses awarded could crown a new winner if it’s been neck and neck.

Gauntlet tasks you with seeing how many games you can win in a row, resetting your progress if you lose in any of the games. Lastly is Freeplay where you can choose any of the 25 unlocked mini-games and play to your heart's content in any order you wish.

As you complete games and continue on, you’ll eventually earn tokens that can be used and redeemed for randomized rewards like decorations for your home or new skins for each of the playable characters. I wish these rewards weren’t randomized, but it’s just incentive enough to keep you playing until you earn them all.

What surprised me the most was the introductions to each mini-game you’ll partake in. In most other party games, a simple and looping video plays, showing you how the game should be played. Here though, you see a small gameplay window that looks like it’s a video playing, but it’s actually you playing in a practice-like setting. Below this is the description of your goals and on the right has the inputs, showing you how to actually play. Most of the games only utilize the ‘Left Stick’ and ‘A’ to perform most actions, though some will add ‘B’ button presses in there too depending on the mini-game. My nine year old daughter had no problem picking it up and playing without much hassle, and even my non-gamer wife played a few rounds and had no issues either, so basically anyone can play.

With 25 mini-games in total, there’s a variety of different types of games, not only Free For All matches, but 2 versus 2 and 1 versus 3 as well. My daughter and I found one slight annoyance early on doing some Freeplay on these team matches though. Firstly, you’re unable to swap and change teams. Whatever team setup you’re given you’re stuck to unless you back out and hope the next time it puts you on the same, or different, team(s). Also in Freeplay, once a game is chosen, you’re unable to back out, having to start the game and quit out from there or complete the match. Nothing game breaking, but a slight annoyance if you pick the wrong game by accident. So let’s go over each of the 25 included games, as well as their description when you’re in the practice area before the matches start, as each one usually doesn’t last more than a minute or so.

Free For All:

Hectic Hexes: “Race to the matching images without falling off. Last the most rounds to win.” Here you’ll see a TV with a specific symbol, after the symbol is shown, all of the other platforms with different icons will fall, so you better be standing on the correct icon to continue playing. After a couple rounds, laser beams will go across the board as well, so you need to pay attention to those as well as you make your way to the correct platform. Beware though, you can push one another off should you want to play dirty.

Hazardous Hurdle: “Don’t touch the pipe. It’s hot!” This mini-game is a classic. A long hot pipe rotates from the center of the play area like a propeller and you must jump over it every time it’s about to hit you. Simple but fun.

Stop and Drop: “Keep moving and don’t drop!” This is taken almost straight out of Fall Guys. As you run around the play field, every tile you previously stepped on will eventually fall, so there’s some strategy involved, and although you can jump across small gaps, you’ll have to keep an eye out for other players and where they’ve been stepping as well.

Keep Away: “Hold the glowbe as long as you can to fill your meter.” A simple game of keep away. Hold onto the object until your meter fills and you win. You can dive to steal the glowbe back and these matches don’t usually last all that long. There’s a few small ramps and such that you can use to try and slow your opponents down or run around, but it’s quite simple.

Snow Rollers: “Absorb any snowball or player smaller than you by rolling over them.” If you’ve ever played snake.io you’ll know exactly how this plays. You start pushing a small snowball, adding to your size any that are the same or smaller. As you grow you can absorb larger snowballs and even players if you’re bigger than them.

Tobog-Gone: “Time your jumps to reach the finish line first.” I really enjoy this mini-game, as you need to use the ‘A’ button to boost downwards. There’s a series of large moguls as you sled down the hill and you simply need to press the button to go downwards quicker on the ice patches. Land at the top of a hill with ice and slide down, let go of the button and you’ll launch far ahead. Think of that old classic helicopter game on your classic phone where you pressed the button to fly upwards, but it’s basically that but in reverse, and in snow, and on a toboggan.

Bitter Critters: “Avoid the bitter critters!” This is one of the games I enjoy the least. There are multiple moving platforms that rotate every so often, and your goal is to avoid the spikey turtles that will eventually charge up then fire in different directions. If they hit the platforms they will cause them to rotate, usually having you fall or into another shell that’s flying your direction.

Molten Madness: “Use your shield to bounce the balls away. Don’t get hit in the back. Three hits and you’re out!” In this game you have a bumper shield in front of you to bounce the rocks away from you. Get hit three times in the back and you’re out. Eventually plenty of rocks are fired out, becoming much more hectic as time goes on.

Rocket Punch: “Fire rockets at the competition. 3 hits and you’re out!” This is another one of the weaker games that even my kid didn’t enjoy all that much. You can jump from platform to platform, trying to avoid opponent’s rockets, all while trying to fire yours into them. Get hit three times and you’re out.

Bank Shot: “Sink the balls in your color pocket to score.” This game has you driving a bumper car-like vehicle that can also has a large poker at the front of it. You use the poker to knock balls into your colored pool, where each one in gains you a point. The only issue I had with this game is that you’re assigned a color regardless of the fur color of your monster. My monster’s color was pink, but in this game I was assigned blue. Not hard to figure out but younger players might get confused.

Blast Off: “Run as fast as you can to charge up your ship and try to launch the highest!” This is as simple as it gets. Spam the ‘A’ and ‘B’ button as fast as you can to see how high you can launch your rocket. You only got to spam the buttons for 10 seconds, but of course as we all know, that’s more than enough to have your arm be completely dead afterwards.

Dispter Bop: “Bop the Dipsters as fast as you can!” This is essentially Whack-A-Mole, but instead of in set spaces where they pop in and out, they can appear out of the ground anywhere. You’re also able to smash your other monster opponents to stun them for a quick second or two to try and whack more of the Dispters.

Monster Rally: “It’s a race. Drive fast!” This game has you using a remote control car to race around a track for a few laps. Now and then random boosts will appear as well. The camera is top down and you steer with Left and Right, just like a typical RC car. There are a few different varieties of tracks that I’ve seen from playing a handful of times, but not much variation.

Thumpede: “Run away! Don’t get thumped.” If you miss the days of classic Crash Bandicoot, you’ll love this mini-game. Here you run towards the screen, running away from a wall of critters. You can’t jump, simply trying to avoid any obstacles and green goop that slows you down.

Bouncin Around: “Bounce on another Monster’s flower to score.” Here you’re constantly jumping, able to go from platform to platform, gaining points for how many other players’ heads you can pounce on. There’s a few spots to warp around the map and you can boost jump when you want, but this game gets hectic with everyone jumping everywhere.

2 versus 2:

Unfortunately for these games you’re unable to manually edit teams. I wanted to play on the same team as my daughter, but it kept pairing each of us up with a CPU player instead. Sadly she learned that I can’t back down from a challenge.

Cannon Chaos: “Knock the blocks over onto the other team’s side.” Remember when you used to stack blocks and other objects super high? Now imagine that you and your partner are on one side, and myself and my partner on the other. Both sides have blasters that shoot balls and the goal is to knock as many pieces you can onto the other side of the wall. Simple but fun physics based shenanigans.

Pastry Punk: “Most goals wins. If the timer runs out with a tied score, the next goal wins!” Essentially Air Hockey, but each paddle is a player in a hovering bumper car. You can do a slight boost with ‘A’ and the most goals at the end of the timer wins.

Snow Brawl: “Land the most hits in 30 seconds.” This game is a simple and straight up snowball fight. You have to run up to the snowmen around the playfield to get a snowball, aim at the other team and score a point if you hit them.

Battleball: “Score the most hits in 30 seconds.” This is basically the same as Snow Brawl above, but is setup like a game of Dodgeball instead. You pick up a ball, throw it across to the other side to try and hit the other team, scoring a point if you do so. Shots can even bank off of walls here which is always fun.

Color Bumper: “Jump to your icon as fast as you can! Work as a team to win!” This one is confusing to describe, but there are basically two sets of four squares where each team is confined to their four tiles. Every few seconds you’ll have to jump to the square that shows your player’s icon, as does your partner. Once both players are on their icons you’ll gain a point and you’ll have to hop to your new square. What’s tricky is where the tiles intersect between both teams, and if you bump into another player you’ll become stunned for a second or two.

1 versus 3:

Just like in 2v2 games, you also can’t manually edit the teams here, which can be frustrating if you want to try out the single player component to each game.

Apple Grapple: “Crane – Collect as many apples as you can. Apple Pickers – Collect more apples than the crane, and don’t get collected!” This is basically one of those claw games where you can never win the plushies. One player is the claw, trying to grab as many apples as possible, and the players team together to try and get more apples collectively than the crane.

Glowbe In The Dark: “Hammer – Thump them all. Glowbes – Don’t get thumped.” The entire game is virtually played in the dark side from the three players who are running around with glowbe’s, barely lighting what’s around you. The single player is completely in the dark trying to smash the other players with their hammer, but good luck with that.

Punch-A-Bunch: “Puncher – Thump them all! Runner – Don’t get thumped!” One player sits on top of a three-way punching glove device where the other players are trying to avoid getting knocked out the ring.

Drift Wood:” Logger – Drop the logs to push them off! Runners – Avoid the logs and don’t get pushed off.” In this game, the three players are running up a steep hill with running water, trying to avoid hitting the massive logs that the single player is dropping, trying to get the players to fall off the edge.

Tilt A Slime: “Tilter – Tilt the platform to slime them all! Runners – Avoid getting absorbed by the ink!” Lastly is a game that reminds me of that old wooden ball and maze as a kid where you used the knobs to rotate the playfield, trying to get the ball to the end without falling in the holes. It’s somewhat the same premise with the solo player tilting a platform where the other three players are trying to get get caught by the 3 varying sizes of ink blobs.

The characters and world is very colorful, bright and exactly what you’d expect for a party game geared towards a younger audience. Aside from the background music that plays lightly, there’s not much to note of its audio other than the sound effects of your hammer smashing and projectiles shooting. At the end of a tournament you get to finally hear the Monsters sing, which is cute, but I figured there would be much more singing involved given its name.

With each match not lasting more than a minute, games go quickly, so even those with the shortest attention spans shouldn’t get too bored with very little downtime between games. While my kid didn’t really have a connection to the My Singing Monsters characters or world, she still enjoyed playing a tournament here and there with me, trying out all the games. Some are better than others, but with 25 total games, there’s just enough variety, though the longevity may not last with only local multiplayer.

**My Singing Monsters Playground was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.2 / 10 STORY OF SEASONS: Friends of Mineral Town

I still have my plushy animal pre-order bonuses from the old classic Harvest Moon games, as I’ve bought quite a few in the series in the past, but it’s been at least two or three console generations since I’ve been following the Harvest Moon series, a popular and adorable farming game. Turns out I’ve seemed to have missed a lot in the last decade or so, as Harvest Moon is still around, but the original creators lost the rights to the name which spawned the Story of Seasons series. While both titles exist, essentially the original Harvest Moon developers now create the Story of Season games, which is basically just another version of Harvest Moon from the veteran developers.

Harvest Moon: Friends of Mineral Town was one of the more popular games in the series for GameBoy Advance, and as you may have guessed from its title, Story of Seasons: Friends of Mineral Town is essentially a full 3D remake/remaster that follows the same storyline and gameplay, albeit with a few quality of life improvements and some tweaks here and there. Get ready to harvest some crops, go mining, upgrade tools, make friends and possibly find a love interest in this addictive farming life simulator.

When you were a young child you would visit your grandfather’s farm during the Summer, but like most of us, life happens and we grow up in the big city, forgetting what the country life was like. You remember helping on the farm, tending to the livestock, helping with the crops, making friends and simply enjoying the nature. Years have passed since those days and unfortunately your grandfather has passed, so you get an invite to come back to the countryside as the farm has been left to you in his will. So you roll up your sleeves and aim to restore the family farm back to its former glory, as the farm has not been kempt in many years. After about a year of in-game passing will show you all it has to offer, but you can play indefinitely should you want to continue the farm life.

As you return back to the countryside, you’ll need to restore your family farm, but it’s going to take a lot of work. You only begin with basic tools, so caring for the crops and livestock are going to be quite a chore in the beginning, as there are only so many hours in the day and you will become tired the more you do. You’ll begin with just some simple turnips, eventually able to purchase seeds for a number of different crops based on which season you’re in. These crops once harvested can be used to sell or cook with, but it takes a lot of time and effort to go from seeds to produce; no one said the farm life was going to be easy.

Your farm is of decent size, so you can also raise livestock as well should you want something different. Cows, chickens, rabbits, alpacas and sheep are just a few of the options you have to raise on the farm. There are even some special types of cows that I had to have on my farm due to how adorable they were.

If you’ve played the original Friends of Mineral town from many years ago and put quite a few hours into it, everything will feel familiar including some recognizable friendly faces. Some names and minor details have changed here and there, but it’s vastly the same experience when you head into town to visit your neighbors still living where you remember them all those years ago. Many familiar faces return virtually unchanged aside from updated visuals and new dialogue. There are even some new faces to meet, so even the most veteran players will have something new to discover. If you want even more to strive towards, there are even a handful of different people in the town that are eligible for a romantic relationship should you want to find that special someone in town.

There’s plenty else to do if you don’t want to dedicate every waking moment to tending your fields, such as fishing, exploring a mine, relaxing in a hot spring, talking to neighbors in town, attending events at special times of the year, cook some meals, hang at the beach and more. You’re not forced to play in one particular matter, so you’re free to do whatever you like each day you wake up, just keep in mind you have a set amount of stamina and time in a day to get your chores done should you want to.

Farming is what I spent much of my time with in the beginning, thinking that was going to be the most efficient way to earn money so that I could purchase tools and house upgrades. I started with some basic turnips, but there’s a lot of work that goes into a farm than you might not initially expect. First you need to till the soil on your land, indicated by squares on a grid within your land. Once tilled you can then place seeds of your choosing, but make sure they are crops that grow in the correct season that you’re currently in. Next, any seeds need to be watered, so if it’s not raining that day, you’ll need to get your trusty watering can, fill it from the pond nearby and water every tile that you planted seeds. Next is to simply wait a number of days, depending on the crop you chose. Each day the seeds need to be watered though, so make sure you don’t forget.

Once they’ve fully grown you can harvest them which can be used to sell for money or to have for ingredients to cook with. Different crops all grow at different intervals, some like turnips only grow once, whereas others like tomatoes and corn can yield multiple harvests before they need to be replanted. It takes a surprising amount of time and effort to have a successful farm, so make sure you don’t go too overboard planting at once, as every action also take stamina to perform.

Tilling land, planting and watering all take stamina, and if you have a huge crop to tend to, your whole day is going to be taken up simply handling these, as time progresses quite quickly. There’s a nearby hot spring where you can relax and slowly regain your stamina, but this takes a lot of time, so you’re constantly juggling time versus efficiency before it gets too late and dark to do any chores before bed. Your plot of land is quite large, and even after a year of in-game time gone by, I was only using maybe a quarter of it, as it simply becomes quite time consuming after a certain point even with the tool upgrades.

Maybe you don’t want to always commit to such a tedious chore, so instead you might want to go to the nearby cave to mine for some ore. Ore like copper, silver, gold and more will be needed to upgrade your tools, so you’ll need to invest some time here at some point. Better tool tiers make your farming duties much easier, going from only watering or tilling one tile at a time to much larger grids at once. Upgrading your axe and hammer also allow you to chop and smash the larger logs and boulders on and around your farm for building materials to upgrade your home, so you’ll always want to upgrade your tools whenever possible.

To do so though you’ll need to bring your tools and the required ore to the local store. Pay a fee and hand over the tool and you’ll get it back in a day or two depending on the tier of upgrade. This may require a little pre-planning though, as each shop in town is only open at certain times of day, and even closed on certain days as well. Everyone needs a weekend at some point right? Eventually you’ll know store hours and closed days are off by heart, but you’ll need to reference the town map often in the beginning, planning your day around a different chore possibly.

Story of Seasons: Friends of Mineral Town is adorably cute just like the original game, but it does feel a bit dated at times, even from simple things like switching tools that require a bunch of D-Pad presses. Even though many mechanics have been updated and modernized, it’s still quite a time commitment to get your farm back to its former glory. While the $49.99 CAD asking price seems a little steep, I’ve had hours pass by simply because I wanted to work on my farm ‘one more day’ before calling it for the night, constantly being distracted by one task or another.

**STORY OF SEASONS: Friends of Mineral Town was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Aeon Must Die!

Aeon Must Die is quite a unique beat-em-up, not really like many others I’ve experienced. A brawler at its core, you’ll be fighting against plenty of enemies all trying to stop you along the way in risk-versus-reward combat, a unique blend of balance of offence and defense. There’s so many ideas here that at times it can feel like Aeon Must Die lost track of what it was trying to be, as if it’s trying to do too many things at once. Certain things I really enjoyed, others I detested, so let’s get into it.

Aeon was the Emperor of the Void Armada, and I say "was" because he was overthrown and defeated, left for dead by his most trusted generals. Why was he betrayed? Why would his inner circle turn on him? You’re drip fed these answers throughout the twenty or so chapters along the way. With Aeon destroyed, he somehow survives in some form, almost like his soul or power, merging with a nameless husk called a Starspawn. With Aeon’s rage filled soul merged with your body, you now must work together to extract revenge for Aeon, but also find a mysterious entity, Nebula.

You’ll need to work together as you progress, as you still have some control of your body and mind, though that won’t last long as eventually it’s almost guaranteed that Aeon will take full control over your body, but more on that shortly. Aeon is on a revenge mission, and to get to his generals who betrayed him he’ll need to destroy anyone in his way, practically the whole city of Pantheon where he ruled over.

You don’t particularly enjoy the fact that Aeon has taken control over your body, yet you’re still conscious about it and constantly bicker and debate what you should do in situations. Forced on a path forward, you decide to work with one another for now, but every time you fall in battle, Aeon becomes closer and closer to shutting you out and taking complete control over your body. What begins as an interesting give-and-take internal battle, eventually it simply devolves into a revenge plot for Aeon extracting his revenge, but until that point you are able to decide who lives and dies if you manage to take down bosses before Aeon takes over your body completely.

There’s a surprising amount of dialogue that takes place between each chapter, and while I really did enjoy the premise, the writing itself seemed to drag on and on. Your goals and objectives as the Starspawn is really intriguing, but it eventually gets ignored once Aeon takes over, which is what happens once you die a handful of times. Not having the dialogue voiced made the whole experience fall flat as well, as there are a few parts where certain words are voiced, but that’s about it, and it's usually screaming and grunting. Given that its setup and plays out like comic book issues, I get its intention, but there’s so much to read that some voicing would have pulled me into the immersion a bit more.

In most beat-em-ups, you generally walk from one side of the screen to the other, bashing everyone’s heads in along the way. Aeon Must Die does things different though, instead having you fight one on one within a single static area as enemies take turns and swap as they all try to defeat you. It’s like being surrounded by a dozen enemies in a circle around you, but only one step in at a time to try and fight you instead of bombarding you for the easy defeat.

Combat is really the only thing to talk about here, but there’s so many mechanics in place that it’s really confusing, even after the opening tutorials. This isn’t a regular brawler, and if you try to simply spam your attacks and mash the buttons you’re not going to get anywhere. You also need to mix up your offence, as enemies will learn from the same moves being used over and over, also relying heavily on dashes and parries to survive.

The basis of combat revolves around your two different attacks, mapped to ‘X’ and ‘Y’. Your regular attacks fill a cold gauge at the bottom of the screen, where the more attacks you land with ‘X’, the closer to the left edge of the screen the bar fills. The same goes for your flame based attacks with ‘Y’, as if you use them too much in succession the bar will fill to the right of the screen. Why does this matter? When the bars fill completely to one side or the other, you become powerful in certain ways for a short period of time, but also leaves you susceptible to single-hit kills. You generally never want to fill the bar for the most part, so you need to constantly juggle cold and heat based attacks so you can’t get one-shot and die instantly.

On top of this, you also have to be defensive at all times, as you can get hit with some combos and take a lot of damage. Instead of your typical health bar above your and enemies’ heads, instead, getting hit further increases your heat or cold meter one way or the other. So attacking fills your bar, as does taking damage. It’s a really interesting design but it feels cumbersome to constantly juggle the different attack styles as well as having to be defensive with dashes to gain distance and parrying enemy attacks. The problem here is that dashing out of the way adds to the cold side of your meter, so if your bar is almost full and you need to dash out of the way from an attack that can’t be parried, you’re either going to take the damage, putting you in critical condition, or dashing which also fills your meter, also putting you in critical condition as well.

If you do fill your heat or cold meter, you don’t instantly die, but any attack during this phase will kill you, plus you’re unable to dash during this as well, so that’s why I suggest to try and avoid getting to this state whenever possible. There are enemies of different types, each having their own attack patterns and colors, but you’re constantly having to watch the bottom of your screen plus watching for enemy cues to time your parries that it’s all a bit hard to keep track of.

Even though you’re technically only fighting one enemy at a time, you’re not at the same time. The enemies on the outside don’t directly attack, but can assist their buddies in combat with special tag-like moves or place traps on the ground that you’ll almost guaranteed to walk over. The areas that you fight in are quite small, sometimes half the length when shields are placed down, not giving you a lot of breathing room to dodge and avoid certain attacks. Once you get the hang of combat after an hour or two it does become a little more manageable, though that goes all out the window when you reach certain bosses and generals that will kill you numerous times over.

There’s another interesting mechanic that had a good idea and basis, but in execution, needs a lot of rework to become useful. Instead of your typical 'lives', this is called “Purpose”. You begin with nine Purpose (lives), and each time you die, Aeon becomes closer and closer to consuming your will and completely taking over your body. If you lose all your Purpose, I rephrase, WHEN you lose all your Purpose and Aeon takes over, you do get the full suite of his movesets, but this also limits your narrative choices further in the game as Aeon can do whatever he wants now without you holding him back.

The Purpose system is a really interesting idea, and there are ways you can get Purpose back by completing levels with a certain rank or besting a boss that defeated you, but there’s generally no point, as the later bosses are so difficult I died dozens of times at each one. I know what you’re thinking, “git gud”, but I was unable to find anyone with the “good” ending where you complete Aeon Must Die with Purpose still, as you essentially get locked into Aeon’s ending once your Purpose is gone. That coupled with the achievement for even completing the game with Aeon’s ending (1%) is atrociously rare and a low percent, I’d love to see the ‘real’ ending one day (less than 1% of players have this).

The difficulty ramps up quite quickly, and once you lose all your Purpose the game does become easier to complete since there’s no real repercussions for dying anymore. Aeon is enteral after all, which I know because he says it every single time he’s resurrected. A mid-battle death doesn’t really matter, as you simply continue right where you left off. The only time you have to restart sections are during certain boss fights. I generally always look forward to boss fights as they’re usually a culmination of testing your skills that you’ve learned to that point and usually quite flashy and memorable. These boss fights against your generals are memorable, but only because you’ll never forget the frustration of dying dozens of times before figuring out how to actually defeat them. Coupled with Aeon’s generic goal of simple revenge, the dialogue between them isn’t all that compelling or interesting either.

What Aeon Must Die does get right is with its visual aesthetic and awesome electronic soundtrack. The artistic style is futuristic with sharp edged character designs and smooth hand drawn animations suit the comic book style binding it all together. While the soundtrack is good, the lack of voiced dialogue, especially when it’s very wordy at times, is more disappointing than anything. The little voicing there is generally has Aeon shouting, grunting or saying the few one-liners over and over again until the credits roll.

I even debated bringing this up in the review, but when doing my research about Aeon Must Die there was plenty to delve into, and I went down a deep rabbit hole. To say that there’s been drama and allegations during the developmental process is an understatement. I’m not going to go in-depth into it here, but I will say that it’s worth researching if the game does interest you to decide what you believe and whom to support.

I really do think there’s something unique here under the hood, but it feels like it just never came together in the way that was originally intended, which could be for many reasons. While I’m on the fence about recommending a purchase given the situation that is still yet unresolved, I’m not factoring any of this into the final score, simply judging it on the experience I had playing from start to finish, one that I was glad when the credits rolled instead of feeling accomplished due to its repetitiveness.

**Aeon Must Die was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.7 / 10 Gleylancer

The year was 1992, and if you were a shmup (shoot-em-up) fan in Japan with a Sega Mega Drive (known as the Genesis outside of North America), you were treated to a wonderful new game, Gleylancer. An awesome 16-bit shump that sadly never made its way out west until much later in 2008 but only for the Wii Virtual Console, so needless to say not many outside of the hardcore have been able to play it, until now.

Original developers, Masaya, created a great little shmup that has aged well and still holds up to classic standards, one I wish I could have played back when I was all about the Genesis growing up. Developers, Nautlander, are the ones not only responsible for porting to current consoles but adding a slew of modern day features and mechanics that arguably make it a much better game overall. Published by Ratalaika Games, Gleylancer may not be at the top tier amongst some of the icons of the genre, it certainly surprised me with how many great features it included for being such an older shump title.

Normally shump games all have the same tired old story, something revolving around an alien ambush where you need to save the planet or universe. While Gleylancer does add a little more to the tiresome formula with adding a bit more depth, it’s again a story we’ve all heard before. You are Lucia, the sixteen year old daughter of Admiral Ken Cabrock, a star fighter pilot for the Earth Federation. Facing massive losses after a surprise alien attack, the Federation decides to retreat and withdrawal from the battlefield, but upon doing so they become surrounded by a fleet of aliens, only to have their flagship, Oberon, teleported away to somewhere in space unknown.

This is where Lucia decide to hijack the prototype Starfighter, the Gleylancer, to go search and rescue her father. There’s a surprising amount of story and dialogue, especially for a shump game from this long ago. The pixelated aesthetic has a very anime style to it as well and is quite impressive given the early 90’s hardware limitations. Every few levels you’ll get a quick cutscene to further the story, but let’s be honest, we play these games for its gameplay and shooting down anything that moves, though it’s great that there’s actually some semblance of an actual narrative within.

Like most old school shmups, Gleylancer is a side scrolling shooter were you’re constantly moving on the battlefield to the right, shooting down any alien enemies in your path to face off against a large and bullet-sponge boss before moving onto the next level. Very par-the-course stuff here, but there are a few interesting mechanics that I didn’t expect, and certainly not all that common for games back in 1992.

While you’ve got your classic shoot-em-up gameplay, there’s a couple of interesting features that I really quite enjoyed. First is the option to have your ship move at four different speeds. I initially thought that this was the game speed toggle overall, but it’s actually just the movement of your ship. Well why wouldn’t you want to always be able to move as fast as possible you ask? Well, there are a few stages where you need to fly down and across narrow pathways as the level automatically scrolls, so moving slower will actually make things much easier for finer movements.

During your shooting adventure you’ll come across these silver pods that when destroyed, give you different weapon power-ups. Kind of like R-Type, your main blaster stays the same, but you can have up to two different pods that attach to your ship like a turret. Depending on the weapon type that is dropped, flying over each icon will change your gunners’ weapons, each best suited for different situations and level types. You’ll find weapons such as lasers, wide spread 5-way shots, flamethrowers, bombs that are slow but very powerful, energy sabers and even a Bound Shot that rebounds off surfaces for indoor based levels.

What surprised me more though is the multiple options for your gunner formations, chosen at the beginning of the game or when continuing. ‘Normal’ has the gunners face the direction of your ships movement at any given time. This means if you want to shoot behind you, they will face and shoot whatever direction you maneuver the ship. ‘Reverse’ is the same as Normal, but will fire in the opposite direction of the ship’s movement. ‘Search’ was easily the best choice for me, as your turrets will automatically aim and fire at the nearest enemy. There’s a few other choices, like ‘Roll’ that has your turrets constantly orbit around you, shooting in every direction, so there’s plenty of options for you to try out and see what works best with your playstyle.

While I wouldn’t categorize Gleylancer anywhere near a ‘Bullet Hell’, you know, where you have to make pixel perfect movements to avoid touching any of the screen filling bullets everywhere, the small bullets from enemies that do fire at you can be quite difficult to discern from the moving background at times. This is where some of the modern day mechanics that are introduced in this version come into play, should you want to utilize them. Options like holding a button down to reverse time and undo that mistake you just made, much like we’ve become accustomed to in modern racing games. This is a great feature for when you’re trying to learn a boss’ attack pattern or make a rookie mistake, able to undo and try again without having to replay the whole section over.

Should you need to take an unexpected break, or simply want to reload from a specific point in any of your runs, there are also six quick-save slots you can utilize for this should the need arise. This is one of the modern additions, but not the only. If you choose to play in Modern Mode, you not only get a full English Translation of the narrative parts (this was originally a Japanese only release remember) but you can also use the ‘Right Stick’ to manually control your gunners to fire in any direction you want as well, almost turning it into a twin-stick shooter. There’s even a “Cheater’s Mode” for those that want to toggle anything from invincibility, level skipping or other options to try out for fun. There is of course the included classic mode where you can play the unchanged Japanese version for those wanting a challenge without any modern day tweaks or ting 11 stages, Gleylancer will obviously be beaten in a single sitting, though it’s fun to test your skills with different formations for your gunners and harder difficulties that do make quite a difference. Sadly there’s no online leaderboard, so once you’ve got your weekend fill out of it, I doubt there’s much reason to go back. That said, for a measly $6.99 USD asking price, it’s a great little shmup that has a lot of personality full of varied level designs, massive bosses and a great soundtrack.

While it may be an obscure title, one that I’ve never even played before, shmup fans will surely no doubt enjoy their time with it, either with its true original version or a mode with a bunch of modern day tweaks that make for an arguably better experience overall. Gleylancer is a highly underrated shump that was enjoyable to play and replay with new challenges or settings.

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

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Rover Mechanic Simulator

Well, I’ve done it; I’m a fully-fledged mechanic. That is, within the confines of Rover Mechanic Simulator, developed by Pyramid Games who has a few simulator games under their belt, as well as Mars titles, so naturally they eventually blended together. There’s no shortage of simulator games in recent years, and while there’s almost a sim for every job out there, there’s finally one for those that want to be a mechanic that works on Mars rovers.

Your job is simple; repair broken and malfunctioning Mars rovers. While there’s no traditional campaign with an overarching narrative, you instead simply start in some sort of facility, most likely the maintenance or mechanic department of some Mars colony, and begin working once you pass through the doors after briefly looking out the only window you’ll see during your career. Get used to working in a windowless box, because that’s your life now as a rover mechanic.

Looking at your trusty tablet you’ll get to choose which job to take based on the company requesting the fix, the model of rover, a general clue of what’s wrong with it and the rewards for completion. With just a couple rover types to fix, you’ll go from not knowing anything about them to knowing exactly how many screws you’ll need to unscrew and put back for every rover since you’ll do many different repairs/jobs on the same rovers.

Missions all play out the same way, only differing on what you have to repair on the rover or how many steps it takes to go from acceptance to job completion. First you check your tablet and decide which job you want to undertake. There’s always some sort of correspondence from the client saying what happened and what’s not working, such as the camera isn’t working because of Mars dust, or the rover is only moving in circles. Sometimes you’ll get preliminary information about exactly what parts are going to need to be replaced, but this is only for the easier beginner jobs.

Now that you’ve chosen which rover to repair, you’ll need to use the nearby terminal to maneuver a crane to pick up the rover that’s placed in a crate and move it onto your working table. The camera is acting up and glitches, on purpose, though this can be fixed with a skill point later on if it really annoys you. The crane section only takes about 5 seconds, so it’s not really an issue though.

Now that the rover is on the mechanic table, it’s time to fix what’s wrong. But how do you know what parts need replacement? I don’t know about you, but I don’t know the first thing about Mars rovers, so even if you told me what part to take out, I’d have no clue where to even start. This is where you start to analyze individual parts of the rover, and I mean every individual part. Down on the ‘D-Pad’ puts you into inspection mode, which you then hold down ‘A’ for a moment on a specific piece and it will then show you how much durability said part has left as well as it now glowing green, yellow or red to correspond with how much durability is left. You’ll get an exact percentage and everything as well as the part name, as well its icon so you know what you’ll need to print on your 3D printer if you need to replace it.

As soon as you identify what the faulty part is, you then can remove it. You do this by pressing Left on the ‘D-Pad’ to go into disassembly mode, able to take parts of the rover off one by one. If it’s a simple and singular part, you’ll hold down ‘A’ to unscrew the screws, one by one. Thankfully you don’t need to hover over them with the slow moving cursor, but it can be time consuming. Also, you don’t need to keep track of them or anything thankfully. Where some of the time consuming mechanics come into play though is when certain pieces and parts can’t be removed until others blocking it is removed.

For example, to get into the battery and CPU housing of one of the rovers requires you to remove the solar panel on its back. To do that though you’re going to have to remove about a dozen or so other smaller components, each of which has one to a dozen screws each. Getting to a single part you need to replace can take upwards of ten minutes at times simply because it’s buried behind, underneath or inside other components. But you’re a professional, so you’re used to this of course.

You’ve found your faulty part and need to replace it, so this is where your industrial 3D printer comes into play. The 3D printer can print any part you would ever need to rebuild a new rover, so you’ll need to scroll through a lengthy list of parts to find exactly the one that you need. Thankfully the icons are large and color coded to correspond with each type of rover, but you have to find the exact part to replace, as there any many similar parts with confusing names. Choose your part, wait anywhere from ten seconds to two minutes as it prints and it will be ready for use. You can even print whole sets for major parts that house many smaller pieces, but those are costly to print and take longer obviously. If you’re smart you’ll queue printing the parts you need as soon as you identify the ones need replacing to cut down on wait times while you work on other tasks like disassembly.

Now you’ve gotten your newly printed part, it’s time to assemble everything back and hope that you didn’t miss anything. Just like disassembly, but in reverse order, hitting Right on the ‘D-Pad’ puts you in assembly mode, highlighting any missing parts with a feint blue shadow. Thankfully you can replace parts in any order as long as you see that shadow, but you’ll still need to put all the screws back.

Now that your rover is back in one piece and working order, it’s time to calibrate before you mark the job complete. Plug in the calibration tool and then you get to play another mini-game that reminds of the old classic game Pipe Dream on NES. Electricity needs to get from the start and end up in the finish, but you only have a certain amount of specific tiles to do so. On top of that there are red and green nodes that have to have certain voltage options placed, so you need to not only get the pipes to connect, but also end up with the correct voltage to complete the mini-game.

Now that you’re all done replacing faulty or damaged parts and calibrated the rover, it’s time to hand in your completed job. Doing so will earn you a chunk of XP and money that can be used on skill points and currency for 3D printed parts. Now you go back to your tablet, choose the next job and repeat the process over again. That’s about it, though there are some caveats and some more intricate pieces and electronics to replace, but that’s the basis of the gameplay loop.

There’s a few other tools you’ll need to utilize to replace specific parts. If it’s an electronic part you’ll have to fix the PCB’s. This is done at a different bench, but you’ll open up the component and then have to replace certain transistors, capacitors and other small parts, done via the 3D printer of course. To take these parts out you’ll use a soldering iron to remove them, then also soldering the new pieces back into place.

Sometimes you’ll also need to clean parts. If a part is too dirty you won’t be able to analyze it to see its quality. This is done at a different bench and you simply need to hold down ‘X’ as you move the cursor over the whole part until it’s clean. The only annoying part to this is that you then need to reattach it to the rover to analyze it, unable to do so from this bench. This means you might have to reattach a dozen pieces so you can scan it only to find out it’s broken and needs replaced, causing you to disassemble it all again. Eventually you’ll have more than enough money to print any part without thinking about it, but it’s a small oversight mechanically in my opinion.

So you’ve got a ton of broken parts that you’ve printed replacements for, so what do you do with all these worthless components? Recycle them of course! You’ll get a small amount of money in return, nothing that will make a difference, but at least it gets them out of your inventory.

The final major thing to mention is the skill points. Every time you level up you get one skill point to put into one of three trees. The three different trees focus on different mechanic perks. One gives bonuses to disassembly and assembly time, other is about lowering costs and the third is what I focused on first, allowing me to eventually have all parts automatically analyzed simply by looking at the rover, saving me a ton of time. Once you level up a bit and put some points into the skill trees, nearby everything you do becomes less of a chore and happens much quicker.

Aside from the rovers themselves, there’s nothing else to really look at given you’re stuck in a windowless cubed room. The rovers are quite detailed with their dozens of intricate and small components, though the textures themselves are quite low resolution which can be distracting. As for its audio, I hope you like to hear the same few tunes on repeat for hours, and while there’s a few different radio stations you can tune into, these repeat as well. Aside from that, all you’ll hear is the sound of your electric screwdriver when removing or replacing screws for every part. I highly suggest putting some Spotify on in the background as you repair your rovers to keep your sanity.

For how tedious the gameplay loop is, I found myself oddly addicted to wanting to repair another rover after completing one. There are some awkward controls and a lot of monotonous repetition, but it’s oddly satisfying at the same time. If you ever wanted to know what it would be like to be a Mars rover mechanic, under twenty bucks will introduce you into its tedious career.

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

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 World War Z: Aftermath

Back in 2019 when I reviewed the original release of World War Z, I was quite surprised as usually games tied to movie releases are generally terrible. Saber Interactive bucked the trend and actually made a unique zombie game that differentiated itself from others in the genre, and while it had flaws, it was a fun game that has had a following since and even numerous DLC’s along the way. Well, the time has come for their latest DLC offering, titled Aftermath.

Inspired by the movie of the same name, World War Z: Aftermath is touted as the next step and evolution of the game that has seen over 15 million players. While that statement may be a bit of a stretch once I was able to discern what actually was new in Aftermath, it does make it a better game and experience overall. With full PC and console crossplay, gather up to three other friends and take out hundreds of zombies across a multitude of stages. Full disclosure, portions of this review for World War Z: Aftermath comes from my original base game review I previously wrote, as much of the core gameplay is unchanged.

So what exactly is new with Aftermath and is it worth upgrading and purchase? Well, it’s kind of a convoluted answer at best. First off, Aftermath includes all of the content that the Game of the Year (GOTY) Edition of World War Z. If you had just the base World War Z game and was wondering what the GOTY version added, essentially it was a new set of 3 PvE missions located in France, a Horde Mode, and some character and weapon skin packs. Aftermath includes all of this GOTY content as well as its own set of content.

First off, there are two purchasing options, a discounted upgrade kit if you already own World War Z which is essentially half off, or purchasing it outright as a full and complete package. So what’s new in Aftermath you ask? The short form list would include two new maps set in Italy and Russia, a long requested first person view option, a revamped melee system, new characters, a new class, new enemies, a new Horde Mode XL and a few other gameplay tweaks and additions. So let’s delve into Aftermath’s new content shall we?

First, the two new maps are set in Italy and Russia, played as four new characters: Daniela, Giovani, Sophia and Marco. The two maps are just like other campaign offerings, each with three separate acts, both playing quite differently from one another. The first map, Rome, is set in the iconic Vatican City within Italy and culminates in some chaotic and exciting finales. The Rome mission was an interesting change of pace, having you escort an APC throughout the city, ensuring it doesn’t get overrun by near endless waves of zeke’s. This map has some variety to it with its background and street layouts, but also where you’ll encounter a new and annoying enemy; a pack of infected rats. That’s right, zeke rats can swarm you, something you’ll now have to be conscious of to look where you’re going, as they will probably go unnoticed the first few times until you know what to look for. The finale of this map was amazing to witness and really reinforced how the war against the zeke’s is something that really can’t be won.

The second map set in Russia, Kamchatka, is set in a frozen tundra and while unique, was my least favorite of the two. Of course you’ll be fighting against the endless zombie infestation as usual, but this is the dead of winter in Russia so you’ll be battling the deathly cold as well. Given how cold it is in the elements, you’re tasked with finding generators to turn on heaters, but to even get to that point you’re going to have to find fuel for your flamethrower to melt the ice covered doorways blocking your path. Stay out in the cold too long and you’ll actually start to lose health and possibly freeze to death, so you’re constantly in a rush to find the next switch to turn on the heaters to slowly make progress forward. Eventually you’ll also have to solve a simple puzzle, flipping switches in proper order to unlock the path forward, but should someone on your team get the order wrong, it resets from the beginning. You can guess how well this works with random people online on your team. While a unique setting and no shortages of zeke’s, these two maps are the bulk of Aftermath’s offering, so if you’ve been starved for new campaign content, you’ve got these to enjoy as well now.

One of the main selling points to Aftermath is the option to now play in first person view. Normally played in third person, this does change how the game itself feels. This seemed to be a very requested feature by the community, so it’s now been included should you have Aftermath. After using both, I feel that third person is how World War Z is meant to be experienced. Yes, first person works, but it just feels a little off for some reason. Maybe it’s because you don’t actually use the scopes on your guns, instead aiming down the side of the gun at your reticule, but it’s something you could get used to if you really prefer first person.

Previously, while World War Z had a melee system, it was basically a death sentence and really only used as a last resort to fend yourself off from zeke’s. The melee system has been revamped, now actually useful and a way to defend yourself better. Melee weapons now come in light, medium or heavy options, including whole new perks as well. Even better, there’s a dual wield option, so there’s much more variety to suit your playstyle.

I’m not sure if the melee system was revamped for the new class, but it certainly seems like they go hand in hand. The newest class is the Vanguard, a close quarters character that comes equipped with an electrified shield that you can use to run and smash through a horde of zeke’s, even stunning a rushing Bull if timed correctly. You can also use your shield to strategically place in front of doorways and entrances to block your teammates, giving a few moments of breathing room, eventually able to taunt them as well much like a tank class. It’s meant for a unique playstyle and certainly differentiates itself compared to the standard class offerings already available.

Lastly is the Horde Mode XL. As I mentioned in the original review, I don’t know what programming sorcery was used to create these swarms, but even after surviving dozens of them, I’m still impressed every time I witness that horde rushing towards us. I don’t know many other games that can render as many zeke’s on screen as World War Z does with its Swarm Engine.

Most impressive hands down is the technology used to render hundreds of zombies all rushing at once. If you’re familiar with the movie you know exactly what I’m talking about. Zombies in World War Z are unlike others, as they can run and rush at very fast speeds. They gather so quickly that they actually pile on top of one another, able to create an undead ladder of sorts to scale buildings, walls and defenses, and it’s no different here. Sure, the dead ones eventually fade away, but it’s done subtly and you don’t really notice it, or have time to when being rushed. Even more impressive, I never once had any technical issues or slowdown when hundreds of them were on the screen at once and even at 4K 60FPS on an Xbox Series X.

Based on the movie universe, you don’t recreate the movie, nor get to see or play as Brad Pitt, but instead play through separate mini campaigns. Just like in the film, humanity is on the verge of being wiped out from the undead, so you need to do whatever required to survive. While I enjoyed the smaller bite sized campaigns compared to one lengthy one, there was no real overarching storyline to piece it all together, even with the two new maps. While I would normally hold this against a game, it simply works here because you’re coming to kill swarms of zombies; nothing more, nothing less. Each episode has its own special moments and challenges, though generally the gameplay won’t change from beginning to end. Get to a waypoint, fight some zombies, get to next checkpoint, hunker down as a warm attacks you, get to next checkpoint and survive the final swarm of hundreds of zombies rush you. Even though that’s the majority of the game design, the swarm sections never got tiresome as it was always a challenge, especially on the harder difficulties.

Not all zombies are your standard braindead lurkers though. Just like Left 4 Dead, there are the odd few ‘special’ zombies that are much more menacing and dangerous. There are Brutes that wear armor and take a lot more firepower to take down, ones that are wearing hazmat suits that emit poison clouds when killed, Screamers that attract even more zombies and others. While these aren’t as challenging as a standard “boss” in other games, they force you to stick together as a team and take them out, because if you’re singled out and pounced on by these, there’s nothing you can do to escape on your own.

The main highlight of the gameplay though is the defense sections where you’re given a minute or two to find supplies and setup a defense perimeter. You can find barbed wire, machine gun turrets, auto turrets and more heavy weaponry that will help turn the tides. On the Easy difficulties these aren’t much of a problem, but once you start choosing the harder ones and realize friendly fire is a real thing, it becomes much more problematic to survive in. The harder the difficulty the more currency you’ll earn once completed which can be used to purchase new weaponry and skills.

Each class have their own unique abilities and specialties, though I tended to stick with Medic and heal my teammates when needed. Each class begins with a specific starter weapon, though you’re able to swap it out for any other you see during a match should you prefer. Weapons level up the more you use them, and as a Medic I start out with a SMG, so I decided to stick with them and level up that line of weaponry. As you max out a weapon’s XP, you’ll have to purchase the next tier of that gun, for a total of five tiers. The higher the tier, the more powerful it obviously becomes with attachments and stat increases.

Skills unlock at each level as well, allowing you to purchase any you see fit. Some are minor increases and bonuses, whereas others are class defining, so it’s up to you, but spend wisely as coins don’t come easily or quickly early on. Also, I found out very quickly that having to repeat missions and grinding was a real thing if you want to purchase weapons and skills.

If cooperative survival isn’t really your thing, there is a competitive mode as well with a handful of modes to partake in. In these Player vs Player vs Zombie modes (PvPvZ), you’re given different predefined classes to choose from, but like the campaign, will level them up the more you play. While the modes are unique takes on your standard King of the Hill, Deathmatch, Domination and more, the PvPvZ angle add some flair for those wanting to play competitively. I was a little surprised nothing major was added to the PvPvZ aspect for Aftermath, so those that want to fight against others won’t have much new content.

While it does eventually turn into a grind, facing off against swarms of hundreds of rushing zombies never ceases to impress with its technical prowess and core fun of shooting a mass of zombies. While it may not reinvent the gameplay, the Aftermath DLC does add some welcome additions and tweaks that make World War Z and even better zombie slayer.

Simply look at what comes with Aftermath; the two new maps and new class are clearly the highlight and while it runs better on the latest hardware, the asking price seems a little steep for what’s added. Granted, core players can upgrade for about half price ($25.99 CAD), if you’ve previously played World War Z before and was wondering if the latest DLC is going to be enough to change your mind from its repetitive design and grind, Aftermath might be an afterthought. Even so, it’s always fun to fight against a swarm, hoping to survive against hundreds of zeke’s.

**World War Z: Aftermath (Deluxe Edition) was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 Astria Ascending

It’s been a good year for JPG’s, and given that it’s my favorite genre I’ve been quite a happy lad lately. While I find it very difficult to fit in a lengthy 50+ hour JRPG with my ever-growing backlog, I’ll dedicate the chunk of time to do so if the experience is worth it. Having just finished one amazing JRPG for review, Astria Ascending released shortly after and was my next undertaking, one I was quite excited for given the pedigree of some of the creators behind it.

A classic JRPG with beautiful hand drawn visuals, I was immediately excited for Astria Ascending once it was announced. More than the visuals though, there are some seriously big names attached that made me take notice and had me hyped. Names such as Kazushige Nojima (FFVII Remake, FFX, FFVII) who helped shape the narrative, Hitoshi Sakimoto (FFXII, Vagrant Story) who composed the fantastic soundtrack, and graphic designers Hideo Minaba (FFVI, FFIX, FFXII) and Akihiko Yoshida (FFXII, Nier: Automata). These names are big deals if you know your JRPG’s, so my expectations were through the roof.

The visuals are very impressive and full of style, the backdrops are all varied and beautiful to take in and the soundtrack is a delight to listen to on repeat. The credits rolled after about 30 hours or so and by the end I was hoping to want to restart all over again, but sadly I was glad it was over. Not that I hated my time with it, as there are some great parts about Astria Ascending that I did quite enjoy, and it’s hard to fault a team of less than 20 people that developed the game in just a few short years, but I think I let my expectations get the better of me, as it never reached the plateaus of greatness I was hoping for.

Set in the vast and gorgeous world of Orcanon, you’ll fly to many different lands, each with their own biomes and enemy types. You play as a group of eight greatly different and unique characters, demi-gods to be exact, but this choosing of status is a blessing and a curse. Once you’re chosen and given mass amounts of power as a demi-god you’re tasked with defeating any evils within the world, but are only given three years left to live. Where we come into this story is when the group only has three months left to live, and of course this when there’s an ever growing evil that’s starting to approach the main cities doorsteps.

A tale of sacrifice for the greater good, having a cast of eight characters from the opening moments is something that surprised me, as normally you start with just a single character or two and meet the rest along the way, but alas, we start this journey in near the end of their duty. Tasked with bringing peace to the world, they must fight 'Noises', creatures that are appearing mysteriously out of nowhere, unsure of their origin. These monsters are dangerous, so the band of demi-gods must not only defeat any that they find along the way, but must figure out where they are coming from, as they’ve never come this close to city walls before.

I initially expected a grand tale with many twists and turns, even more so with eight unique characters, all of which do get their brief moment in the spotlight to reveal their backstory, but there’s a slog of dialogue to get through, and worse, a cast of characters, most of whom I didn’t enjoy at all for multiple reasons. I’ll admit, I think the writing is a big culprit in my distaste for many of the core characters, as many of them don’t get the same amount of dedicated screen time to flesh out their personalities, but the voice acting is another reason I couldn’t stand having to sit through some of the dialogue.

You’d think for a band of eight characters that only have a short time left to live to fulfil their holy duties that they would work as a cohesive unit to succeed in their adventure. Instead, you get characters that don’t necessarily fight with one another, but have some serious issues that make them come across like jerks, even with some racist undertones given that each character comes from a different background or alien race. There are attempts to have you care about each character by revealing their lives before being a demi-god or the reason that they fight for, but other than one or two of the characters it makes you question about living in harmony with one another.

With such big names behind many facets of its design, especially with Kazushige Nojima working on the narrative, I was expecting a grand adventure that’ve we’ve come to expect in the top-tier JRPG’s, and while it has some potential, it never feels fully cohesive for a few different reasons. Lastly, the ending kind of just happens quickly, not completely out of nowhere, but I was surprised when I saw the credits roll thinking “That’s it?” and didn’t feel satisfied at all.

As you traverse the world across a handful of different bustling cities and more than a dozen dungeons, you’ll become enamored with how gorgeous the artwork is and how addictive the turn based combat performs. While I had the credits roll after about thirty hours or so, there’s easily double that amount if you want to explore every corner of the dungeons and collect all of J-Ster cards that are a mini-game very reminiscent of Triple Triad from Final Fantasy 8. Later on there are even some flying levels as you travel from one major continent to another, changing up the pacing but feeling a little out of place. And while there are some great quality of life convenience options I really appreciated, like multiple difficulties and being able to completely replenish your health and mana in cities, there’s also a laundry list of inconveniences that frustrated me from its opening moments until the credits rolled.

Having a cast of eight unique characters from the opening moments means you’ll need to determine what types of classes you want in your party, as only four can go into combat at one time. Each character is technically meant for a specific role, having base stats that are more suited for being a caster, damage dealer, tank or healer. You’re not exactly shoehorned into forcing each character to play a specific way once you unlock sub and support jobs, but they won’t be near anywhere as efficient as others.

Each of the eight characters starts out with a base class, eventually unlocking a main one from a choice of three, so it pays to do some research before locking in your decisions. The job system is quite expansive, reminiscent of the grid system from Final Fantasy X, though there are multiple grids per character to spend your points on, so if you want to min/max it’s going to be an arduous grind. Your character’s main clothing will also change based on their chosen roll which was a cool detail, as does your weapons based on which is equipped. Speaking of which, each town you get to will have new weapons, armor and gear to purchase, though there’s no option to quickly ‘Buy and Equip’, so it’s a bit of a hassle to purchase, go into menus, put on each gear after scrolling through each of the characters, then going back to the shop to sell unwanted gear to recover some of the cost.

As you explore the dungeons you’ll see these blue orbs, which are the “Noises” containing monsters, opening a turn based battle when you attack or touch them. Given how much money and experience you’ll need to beef up your characters I suggest not skipping many battles, as there are some serious random difficulty spikes now and then and you don’t want to have to grind for a few hours just to progress.

Turned-based combat is Astria Ascending feels great... most of the time. With plenty of different monsters to fight, there’s a few interesting mechanics that you’ll need to fully understand if you want success in the later dungeons and bosses. You’ll need to learn how to utilize Cosmo Breaks for massive damage, summoning beasts to help in combat, how to utilize enemy weaknesses and a Focus Point system that is somewhat like Bravely Default’s combat system of enhancing your attacks.


As mentioned above, there are multiple difficulty options you can choose from, not just from Very Easy to Hard, but many choices for random battles such as if stored characters earn XP and more. If you decide you want to simply sit back and enjoy the story you can essentially one-shot bosses on Very Easy, or crank up the difficulty if you’re a fan of grinding. I really appreciated these options that are able to be toggled on the fly, allowing me to earn more rewards quicker so I didn’t have to arbitrarily grind to progress.

The Focus Point (FP) system is something that is only briefly explained, but can be quite powerful when utilized properly. Every time you exploit an enemies’ weakness you’ll earn FP points which can be used to bolster one of your characters action up to 4X/200%. This doesn’t mean you’ll attack or cast four times, but instead it will be that much more potent and its success rate increased. The idea behind this given that many enemies have resistances and weaknesses is that if you have a character that can only cast ‘Fire’ and they Nullify or Absorb fire damage, then at least they can contribute in a way to the party other than simply defending or passing their turn. You’re also able to swap any character in and out of battle freely, though doing so utilizes their turn.

What frustrated me the most with combat was that there’s no way to speed up battles. This means you’ll need to sit through some excruciatingly long battles with no way to do anything about it other than sit and wait. Even worse is that sometimes enemies can stun you for multiple turns and there’s nothing you can do but wait. Some bosses also go through double digit phases and form changes, so some battles can take quite a while, especially on the harder difficulties.

The worst offender though has to be the dungeon map. Instead of a grid or traditional style map that makes sense and is easily navigable, the map in Astria Ascending is borderline useless and frustrating. Every dungeon is separated into numerous singular rooms, of which the map will show you how many doors or exits to each room they have. The problem is that there’s no way to tell where you at in said room via the map. For example, say the room you’re in shows that there are three different doors to lead to other rooms. Great, expect you don’t know where you are in relation to those doors in the room. The only way to check which door it is, is to go through, check how that room attached to the new room with this blue string-like line and hope that it makes sense. You’ll need to check the map constantly and hope that you can understand it to figure out where you’ve previously been or need to go. The saving grace to this frustration is that you can freely teleport to any city or other dungeon teleport location once found without any restrictions or resource needed.

Without a doubt, the artistic style and aesthetic is what sets Astria Ascending apart from the competition. It has such a unique and gorgeous hand drawn style, not without its issues, but is simply gorgeous to look at no matter what’s on the screen. Each character is uniquely designed and each area and background is wonderfully done. There’s a surprising amount of detail in almost everything on screen, though I’d argue that some of the characters features are a little too exaggerated and sexualized. This of course means that every female has a huge chest and thighs that put Chun-Li to shame, which some will enjoy of course, but it felt a little too audacious when things start ‘bouncing’.

The soundtrack is absolutely amazing, something I’d expect from an expansive JRPG that has an epic orchestral score. I have absolutely nothing bad to say about the music and soundtrack composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto, the voice acting on the other hand is a whole other story. I don’t usually choose Japanese voice overs with subtitles when given the option of English voices, but I’d highly suggestion doing so here.

Some of the characters are voiced decently at best, but a good amount of the others are dreadful, to the point of being completely distracting. There’s also a small weird gap between when one character finishes their line and the next starts to reply or talk, throwing off the whole pacing. Couple this with being unable to fast forward or skip dialogue without skipping the whole scene and you’re going to simply have to deal with some generally unbearable voice acting.

I generally don’t like to focus on the negatives as much, but this is one of those situations where it was unavoidable and a huge distraction that took me out of the immersion. Not helping this fact was also the numerous crashes and bugs I had along the way. I’ve had hard crashes, characters not load into a map, soft locks and more, to the point that I stopped keeping count. I’ve had to do a few console hard resets to fix one bug as well, so thankfully you’re able to manually save at any point, something I do religiously anyways, so I never lost much progress when something did cause a crash.

Normally for a game to keep my attention for 30 or more hours it has to be pretty entertaining, and while I did enjoy certain aspects, I don’t honestly know if I would have seen it to completion if it wasn’t for this review. It’s not that Astria Ascending is “bad” per-se, but the pacing is way off, difficulty spikes cause forced grinding if not playing on Very Easy mode, atrocious voice acting that is incredibly distracting and there’s a lack of numerous quality of life improvements that would make it a better overall experience. Spending dozens of hours with characters you don’t relate to or even simply enjoy is a bit of a slog and not all that fun overall.

For a small studio, it’s impressive what was created in a few short years given how expansive Astria Ascending can be. I think a large part of my disappointment simply came from seeing the legendary creators that were involved and the overall experience not living up to my expectation, so part of that is on me. That said, if you want to enjoy some beautiful hand drawn artwork and an addictive combat system, Astria Ascending is also on Game Pass, so there’s little no barrier of entry without much commitment.

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

Overall Score: 6.8 / 10 Embr

While it may have originally released two years ago, Embr is finally here for console players to have a hilarious time with their friends as you act as civilian firefighters. As you team up with your friends to fight fires, not only will you save lives by rescuing people stuck in a burning building, but maybe you’ll decide that taking their hidden pile of cash at the same time is a good way to increase your salary. I mean, who’s going to notice? Not to be taken in any serious way, Embr is almost an un-simulator, as it puts a lighthearted spin on the premise of being a firefighter, focusing on fun and wackiness more than anything else.

You’re an Embr Respondr, basically the last line of defense since public funding for firefighting has run dry. While there is a single player campaign, don’t expect any real narrative, as you’re simply placed in new levels as you progress, aiming to earn the most amount of stars and fulfilling your different objectives along the way. There’s no one way to complete a stage either. If you need to save someone on the third floor of a building, maybe you fight the fire from the front door, slowly working your way up as you put out fires along the way. Maybe instead you use your ladder to get to a higher floor then smash your way through some doors, only to then toss the person you’re saving safely to the ground onto a trampoline. It’s up to you, and I found the less conventional the solution, the more fun I would have.

Not your typical firefighter, an Embr Respondr will utilize a number of tools at their disposal. First and foremost is your extinguisher, something that resembles a Super Soaker more than a typical fire hose you’d expect, along with an axe which is how you’ll break down doors and smash apart anything else breakable. As you earn more cash from mission completions and possibly lining your pocket with others’ valuables, you’ll be able to purchase a number of other tools to aid in your emergency response career, such as deployable ladders, trampolines, water grenades and more. Each tool can also be upgraded significantly, though this is going to take quite a while to achieve since there are different currencies and the costs aren’t cheap by any means.

The opening tutorial level will show you the ropes of being a Respondr, how to fight the flames and save people along the way. It’s quite simple and there’s not much to memorize, but even from the opening level you’ll notice how janky and clunky the controls feel. Instead of completely putting out flames, you instead kind of carve a path of safety with your extinguisher, as the flames can spread quite easily and quickly. Not only will you have to watch for fire all around you, but electricity still flows through the buildings, and if you spray some exposed wires, you’re going to electrocute yourself and your partners if you are standing nearby. On the flip side, you can also use water as a conduit to have electricity flow from one wire to another should you want to have a certain switch powered and enabled.

Situations can escalate quickly. One accidental swipe at a gas container and you might be blocked off from one pathway or cause an explosive barrel to set fire to a whole room. Don’t reach someone in need quick enough and maybe it’ll be too late and they’ll simply be a pile of bones, or the building is about to collapse on top of you. Regardless of the danger you got a job to do, and you want to do as best as you can for those five star ratings.

While there’s a number of different modes and objectives you can choose per level, rescuing survivors is always a blast. Your first few will be your standard style of grabbing them and literally carrying them outside to safety, but that’s boring. Why not smash a window and toss them off the second or third floor? There’s a pile of mattresses, so if they land on those they’ll be fine. I hope your aim is good, because if you miss they’ll instantly turn into a skeleton and die. Hilarity for all due to the ragdoll physics.

Your tiny extinguisher that resembles a cool Super Soaker I had once as a kid has quite a reservoir, but the flames you’re fighting against are almost never ending, so to refill you’ll have to find small pools of water, like a kitchen sink for example. Another tool you’ll need to rely on is a small tablet that acts as a special vision, allowing you to see through walls and where clients needs saving. This tablet can even be upgraded to show other vital information like health of survivors remaining or even hidden caches that you’ll want to check out for some extra pay.

You’ll be able to play 25 different missions across three separate districts, each becoming much more challenging than the last. Some of the later missions becomes quite involved and challenging, like having to take a gondola to reach the upper floors and get back down safely, that is unless you are creative with your ladder and trampoline placement. Instead of a difficulty name, instead missions are rated on a danger rating, with the higher being much more challenging. As you earn stars for completion based on a number of different factors, this is how you’ll unlock new levels and your cash can be spent on your equipment and upgrades.

There’s a number of different missions you can choose to play as well in each stage. These drastically change the gameplay based on what mode you choose, altering the main objective. Rescue missions are your standard fare where you need to save a certain mount of people from the building before it burns down. One of my favorites are Salvage Missions. Here you’ll instead need to save the client’s belongings by placing them outside the burning building. Finding small little items may only net you a buck or two, where expensive items and equipment is how you’ll quickly rack up the cash towards your goal. Finding the higher priced items is the key to completing these stages in time. Demolition is basically the opposite of the main goal, seeing how quickly you can destroy the building by blowing up barrels and other ways to spread fire and mayhem. There are a handful of other mission types as well, seven in total, but these were my favorites of the bunch, so there’s plenty of variety for you to enjoy with your friends with daily and weekly challenges thrown in as well.

While completely playable on your own, Embr’s real enjoyment comes from playing alongside three other friends where there will be plenty of laughs and probably a good amount of swearing (if you’re not playing with your kids of course). The host chooses which mission and mode to play and once all the players stand within the starting area you’re whisked off to play. It seems missions scale based on how many players there are, as we had way more objectives to fulfil the more players we had compared to playing alone, so everyone needs to pull their weight. Given that every mission is basically a sandbox to play how you wish, no two playthroughs will be the same. With cross-platform play, in theory it shouldn’t take long to find a match with others online, though even still, there’s usually not a lot of lobbies hosted at any given time whenever I would check.

Played in first person, having your Respondr do exactly what you want can be frustrating at the best of times. Controls in general seem very clunky and awkward, almost as if the game was designed to be played in VR but later adapted for a controller. I’m not sure if developers Muse Games were going for that Human: Fall Flat kind of purposeful awkwardness, but even after a handful of hours, I still had issues placing ladders exactly how I wanted and a plethora of constant smaller bugs. It should be noted that this review was originally going to be written by someone else, but because of how the camera and movement works, she felt physically nauseous after playing each mission. There are even some motion sickness option toggles, so I’m guessing this isn’t a rare occurrence.

Embr is quite bright and colorful, almost as if it came out of a comic or kids cartoon. For how destructible the environments are, there’s plenty of household items that are all detailed. Level design of the buildings themselves are done well and quite varied and seeing how each player dresses up their Respondr is always good for a laugh. Unfortunately, even on an Xbox Series X, it felt like there were some framerate issues when things became quite chaotic. The audios has kind of an elevator jazzy type of music and your extinguisher certainly sounds like you’re spraying water, but there’s nothing else of note really.

Viewing Embr critically I could list a ton of problems and issues I encountered along the way. Playing online with a friend or two makes me forget all these when we’re laughing because I just yeeted someone from the third story and missed landing them safely on the mattresses below. The laughs are memorable alongside some friends if you’re simply playing for fun and not focusing on the arduous grind to unlock everything. Embr doesn’t take itself seriously, and if you can do the same there’s some enjoyment to be had alongside others.

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

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 In Sound Mind

I feel I need to be completely honest from the start; I wasn’t looking forward to playing In Sound Mind at first. Not because of any fault of the devs or game itself, but I’m simply not good at handling scary horror games. Oddly enough, scary movies don’t phase me at all, nor does gore, but when it’s in game form I turn softer than a newborn kitten and generally don’t enjoy myself because of my nerves. But when duty calls, I put on my big boy pants and do what needs to be done, which is what I did for In Sound Mind, developed by We Create Stuff.

Having seen what they’ve worked on previously, best known for a popular Half-Life 2 mod, Nightmare House 2, I too must be honest and will admit my expectations weren’t all that high. I have no problem admitting when I’m wrong though, as after playing through In Sound Mind, I came away quite impressed with how clever it was made for a number of reasons, as they’ve really stepped up in quality with its gameplay and soundtrack.

I initially thought that as a horror game I’d simply be running away and hiding like in most, but instead experienced a psychological thriller that was designed well, strung together with an interesting story and given new mechanics as you progress. This isn’t your typical horror game, so don’t expect completely dark rooms, hiding from enemies, jump scares, blood all over the walls and tons of gore. Instead you’re treated to some really abstract imagery that could only happen in one’s mind, so it’s a good thing that’s exactly where much of this takes place.

You are Desmond Miles, a therapist who wakes up in his apartment building. As he looks out the window you see that the city has become flooded, but there’s something else in the water that looks toxic, essentially trapping you within its walls. This isn’t the building you remember though, as there seems to be many dark manifests blocking certain paths and you notice that some of the other apartments are the homes which seem to be former patients of yours. As you explore these dwellings you’ll find an old cassette tape that has a recording of your therapy sessions with them. Playing these tapes turn back time, allowing you to go through a doorway into that world, their world and mind. It’s clear these patients had some serious trauma happen to them, and as you uncover each story you get a feeling for how their lives and struggles really were, even if it’s told in an unsettling manner.

As you explore each tape for answers, you’ll find a connected story that is quite interesting, so I don’t want to spoil anything given its 10-ish hour playtime depending on your desire to search levels for hidden collectables. It seems someone is watching you during all of this though, calling you randomly through the payphones or landlines you come across during your journey, almost taunting you every step of the way? Who is this antagonist and what does he have to do with everything? Patience and grace will be how you piece it all together.

As you journey from one tape to the next, each of which will have its own unique setting, weapons, puzzles, mechanics and boss fights. Desmond begins with only a flashlight, more for lighting the way in dark places instead of a form of offence, eventually finding weapons along the way such as a pistol and shotgun if you take the time to explore. Each tape also introduces new mechanics and tools in a way that makes sense to the story that allow you to explore the hub apartment area further once you have them.

For example, the first tape that deals with his patient, Virigina, is a young girl who had a terrible accident and doesn’t want anyone to look at her due to her disfigured appearance. You can’t combat her by traditional means, so instead you’re given a piece of broken mirror. This allows will scare her away from you if she sees herself in the reflection. This mirror shard also is utilized to uncovering many secrets that can only be seen in its reflection with hints and notes on the walls that you won’t see in the real world. Each level and tape introduces a new tool like this in a clever way that relates to the story and will be needed to defeat each boss, playing out more like a puzzle rather than a normal firefight. These new tools will also allow you access new areas, such as the shard being able to cut away police tape or smashing boards down, so you’re constantly making progress in the main apartment hub each time you come back from finishing a tape at a logical pace.

Each level is very unique and differs from one another because each is a about a different patient and their experiences. The second tape for example is nothing like the first, having you dealing with dark and light whereas Virginia’s story is set in a rundown grocery store, so there’s always some variety that takes place from tape to tape. Each tape takes about two hours or so depending on your puzzle solving skills and how much time you want to spend searching for collectable pills that can permanently increase your stats like health and stamina.

The majority of the cannon fodder enemies don’t pose much threat once you have your pistol, acting more like deterrents and tension building. Ammo, health and batteries for your flashlight are generally pretty plentiful if you take the time to look around. What I did appreciate was that instead of straight up giving you direct waypoints or blatantly telling you how to deal with certain enemies or bosses, you’re instead given just enough clues and hints that you’ll put two and two together yourself.

There are a few minor issues though that I did frustrate though. Instead of having a simple way to choose your weapon or specific tool, you have to cycle through your inventory, which of course can be a pain when you’re being chased and you’re fumbling as you try to choose your pistol. Lastly, being played in first person, you’re going to detest whenever you need to jump across any gaps or want to ‘climb’ up onto other objects; it’s very clumsy and just doesn’t work all that well.

I was expecting a very dark adventure filled with blood lined walls and such, as that’s generally the go-to for horror games. Instead, In Sound Mind does have some interesting sights to take in, and there’s a surprisingly amount of color in its palette, even in the darker sections. While textures and animations won’t impress, its overall colorful aesthetic is satisfying. The soundtrack however was the best part, performed by The Living Tombstone, there’s some great tracks to be found and enjoyed.

In Sound Mind was a psychological thriller that quite surprised me. Instead of relying on gore or jump scares, it utilizes its atmosphere and setting to form a certain tone and tenseness. There are some serious subject matters that are dealt with here, but respectfully and in a thoughtful way that was interesting and made me want to move onto the next tape once I completed one. Oh, and you can pet the cat too.

**In Sound Mind was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Tails of Iron

One of my favorite movies growing up as a kid was the animated classic, The Secret of NIMH. The only reason I mention this is because it has a somewhat similar setting, as Tails of Iron has you playing as Redgi, a rat who will embark on a fantastic journey. An adventure that will surely test your combat skills, Tails of Iron has quite a dark setting and plot for how cute the characters and design appear. Don’t let its appealing art style fool you though, you’re in for a brutal and punishing adventure.

The time has come for the rat King to choose a new heir to the throne, so his two sons decide to have a duel in front of everyone to see who is most worthy. Redgi of course wins with ease, but just like the Red Wedding, disaster strikes and the Frog Clan, led by Greenwart, not only kills your father but destroys your whole kingdom in the process. You somehow survive, vowing to take revenge on Greenwart but also rebuild your home, Rat Fort. The Frog Clan is merciless though and it will be a long hard and dangerous fight to take back your home as the frogs too have allies of their own.

While the story itself is your standard fare, somehow they’ve got such an iconic narrator that voices all of the important bits that I had to sit up and take notice whenever he spoke. None other than Doug Cockle, best known as Geralt from The Witcher series, narrates all that happens on screen as you try to rescue your family and restore your kingdom; a tail worth telling.

As you explore your kingdom you’ll encounter many enemies, so you’ll first need to save some of your companions so that they can aid you along the way in your adventure. These companions may fight alongside you in certain areas or boss fights, so you won’t always feel so alone as you explore the handful of different biomes. Each area has a vast amount of underground tunnels, these are rats and insects after all. While there’s an overall map you can see how each tunnel and area connects, there are secrets to be found if you search hard enough too.

As you save your brothers and rebuild your home, they too will reopen their shops, allowing you to craft weapons, forge armor and cook recipes. Of course during your adventure you’ll need to search and kill enemies for the resources needed to do so, but taking the time to do so early on will make a huge difference later when things become much more difficult when you start to take a stand against the Frog Clan.

While you have a main quest and objective, there are a handful of side quests available that reward you with new gear or precious gold. This gold is how you’ll afford to rebuild your kingdom, but these side quests are the aspect I enjoyed the least with my time with Tails of Iron. While labelled a “side quest”, they are anything but. At some parts of the main questline you won’t actually be able to progress any further until you have enough gold to afford the costs needed. This seriously halts any progression to stand still as you take a side quest to do a fetch quest and kill a certain enemy located in a specific tunnel.

Funny enough there’s always just enough side quests to reward you with the gold needed to progress the main story, but there’s another issue as well. Side quests can only be taken one at a time, so you’ll take one, go kill your enemies, hand in, grab a new one and repeat. The problem with this too is that you’ll not only sometimes have to go to the same area repeatedly, but there’s also no fast travel, so you’ll have to backtrack every single time as well. Having to run all the way to one corner of an area to kill a few enemies, run back and do it all over again was frustrating, as I wish I could have simply taken all the side quests at once and not have to backtrack multiple times for no reason. This seriously padded the playtime, to the point where I started to not enjoy myself as much when I was doing important tasks like saving my family.

As you kill enemies you’ll be able to harvest or loot them. Some items you gather act as a form of currency, trading certain amount for other items in shops, or maybe you’ll harvest some cooking ingredients along the way as well, used in recipes that can permanently give you some health upgrades. You’ll also find iron bars and such to craft weapons and armor, so it pays to not run past most enemies, but it certainly does make each journey take much longer than you’d expect. While there’s no manual save system, you can sit at any bench or chair during your journey, as these act as save points. They are quite frequent so there’s not much of a loss in time when you do die, you just have to remember to actually activate them whenever you want to save.

Combat is where Tails of Iron truly shines though. I’ll admit, it has a Souls-like feel to it, as you need to dodge, parry, counter and time your attacks, but once you get the hang of the controls and enemy tells, it becomes much more satisfying. If you try to simply smash the attack button, you’re going to die fairly quickly. Combat is very slow and methodical, as you’ll always be waiting for enemy tells to know how you should react. You have no stamina bar, so you can roll and dodge when needed, something you’ll need to become quite adept with when you’re almost always surrounded in most unfair fights against a couple of enemies.

Normal attacks are done with the ‘Right Bumper’, heavy attacks with ‘Right Trigger’ which can also be held for a more powerful charged up version, ‘Left Trigger’ will hold out your shield and ‘B’ button will dodge and roll. Knowing when to use each type of action and reaction is something you’ll need to learn quickly. Enemies telegraph the majority of their moves, so you’ll need quick reaction times if you want any success. Battles may be slow, but you’ll only have a moment to counter with what action you want. Normal attacks can be dodged or blocked, but if the enemy has some colored lines in front of them, they’re about to do some sort of special move.

White lines indicate they’re about to use some sort of projectile towards you, blockable with your shield. Yellow means they’re about to rush at you and will hurt you if you don’t parry at the right time, stunning them for a few moments to get a few extra hits in. Red lines means you’re going to get massively hurt if you don’t dodge at the right moment, not possible to counterattack. And lastly, if they have a red circle you’ll need to dodge again, sometimes twice, as these are usually the most devastating moves. Because combat is slow paced, you’ll need to be patient and almost always counter until you gain access to heavy two handed weapons that can break through some defenses.

You’ll also get a bow and arrow, eventually a crossbow and other weapons, allowing you to shoot from afar, especially at pesky flying enemies. You’ll amass quite a number of weapons and armor along your journey, each with their own stats, damage resistance types and strengths. While you have to be at specific boxes to change your gear, there are plenty to collect to suit your playstyle. Weapons will range from swords, axes and spears and armor varies in light, medium and heavy styles, all of which have a weight to it as well that needs to be managed.

Your first few battles are probably not going to end well. It takes time to get the combat mechanics down where you don’t have to think about it too much beforehand, but once it becomes natural you’ll be parrying and dodging with precision, even against the massive and challenging bosses. Most enemies on their own don’t pose much of a threat, but it’s usually never a fair fight, sometimes having four enemies all trying to kill you at once. While there are no difficulty options, I assure you it becomes much more fun once you become proficient at combat.

Instead of having potions or estus flasks, you instead carry a canteen that will carry your healing juice. Instead of single uses, you simply drink as much as you want to heal your health, which can be difficult mid battle, but possible. This canteen needs to be refilled, either at specific kegs or gutting certain enemies. Like save points, these aren’t terribly rare, so you’re never too far from a health refill.

Tails or Iron’s greatest strength is its beautiful 2D hand drawn aesthetic, almost as though it came straight out of some sort of kids story book, reminding me of The Secret of NIMH, Mouseguard and Redwall. Even with how cartoonish it can look, Redgi’s world is a brutal and hard one filled with violence and death. Even after a hard-fought battle against some bugs, Redgi will have orange splatter all over his clothes and shield. Animations are done quite well also and even background characters and environments are beautiful to take in.

As for its audio, Tails of Iron impresses for simply one reason; they got Doug Cockle, Geralt, to narrate the game. His raspy tone fits the gloomy setting perfectly and is a perfect performance as to be expected. Interestingly, there’s no actual voice acting elsewhere, as the rats talk to each other in the squeaky gibberish with speech bubbles indicating pictures of what they are trying to convey, which makes sense given the animal characters. The music is very fitting for its tone and each area you explore, but the narration is what takes center stage.

While it may not be as tough as others in the genre, I did enjoy most of my time with Tails of Iron. The constant backtracking along with forced “side” quests really felt like padded hours onto Redgi’s adventure, and this is where it started to tire. When I was progressing my main adventure I was wanting to continually play, but having to go back and forth through the same areas a half dozen times became tiresome. Even so, Tails of Iron will last you roughly 10 hours and you can tell it was designed and created with heart and has a lot of charm to it.

**Tails of Iron was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 Crown Trick

There’s no shortage of roguelites out there, especially with smaller indie games, so when a new game releases that sells itself as a roguelite with plenty of replaybility, my interest is piqued but I keep my expectations in check. Developed by NExT Studios and published by Team17, Crown Trick is the latest rougelite that claims to add something unique to the dungeon crawling adventure, though doesn’t shy away from its high difficulty and challenge, living up to the roguelite genre at the same time. Crown Trick places you deep in a dungeon that requires a lot of planning and thought, as the key to winning is knowing that when you move, so do the enemies, much like SUPERHOT. Oh, and it’s available on GamePass, so there’s little to no barrier to checking it out if anything so far sounds interesting.

You play as Elle, a young girl who is trapped in the Nightmare Realm. As you wake you’re greeted by Crown, a sentient and literal crown that informs you about your unique situation and will guide you throughout the dungeon that you’re now trapped within. As you get to know Crown better, it’s clear that it looks down on most humans, though takes a liking to Elle, helping her as she fights within the dungeons, defeating handfuls of enemies, mini-bosses and bosses along the way. As you explore further you’ll uncover the secrets that the Nightmare Realm holds, trying to delve deeper as you search for answers and who is responsible. All of the dialogue is done in text popups, which is fine and expected for a smaller indie game, though having it narrated would have added more to the experience.

Like many roguelites, you can expect to die quite often, especially for the first few hours before you get a grasp on all of Crown Trick’s mechanics as you guide Elle through randomly generated dungeons and enemies, making slight continual progress each run. As you explore the dungeon each time, you’ll come across handfuls of different weapons, relics, familiars, NPC’s and more. Beautifully animated, Crown Trick’s main catch is its turn based strategy gameplay and combat that has enemies move the same time as when you do. You’ll have to not only use regular swords, axes, spears and more, but master elements, spells, familiars and a bunch of interesting abilities, making each run a unique experience.

Crown Trick begins with a tutorial, teaching you the basics of movement between each room that is gridded. With an isometric camera, you can see everything from a top down view, allowing you to see the grid, enemies and placement of other objects so you can start to strategize. When Elle moves or acts, that’s when time flows, so you can take your time to plan what you exactly want to do, even able to skip a turn by clicking in the Right Stick if it’s better to stay in place and wait for enemies to approach you instead.

Every weapon, ability, spell and familiar has its own attack pattern and best time of use. An axe for example will attack every square surrounding Elle whereas a spear may pierce three squares in front of her at a distance. Other weapons will attack in a ‘T’ shape and other abilities can be cast at quite a distance or can be set as traps for enemies. As you start every new run you’re given the choice of two randomized weapons. Some will have higher attack values but maybe not the pattern that you prefer. Others will have certain buffs or bonuses, though you can find new weapons along the way when you clear or reach certain rooms. You’re also given a list of randomized familiars to choose from to begin your journey as well, eventually able to equip two. Because of this randomness, some runs may not go very well whereas others will go great because of the luck you had at the beginning.

Since enemies move at the same time as Elle, you can get caught in an attack or pinned in a corner if you don’t plan your movement right, which is where your Blink (teleport) comes into play. This allows you to travel across a handful of squares away from an enemy. Some attacks will surround Elle, with the squares showing how many moves until you take damage, so you need to always be conscious of when your Blink is available since it has limited uses per room.

Every enemy has a shield that blocks or negates some damage. If you’re able to break their shields you’ll be able to score a few extra hits as they’ll be stunned, so this is a tactic you’ll have to learn if you want any success later in the dungeons. There’s even a combo system in place if you can break multiple enemy shields, so there are plenty of mechanics to learn that will take a lot of trial and error to figure out what works best. You can also use objects and the environment to your advantage, such as blowing up barrels, tossing fire onto oil patches, zapping water squares with lightning, etc.

Defeating a mini-boss allows you to use them as a familiar, basically granting you access to two spells based on their element. These cost mana to used, varying on their power and usefulness. Thankfully after each room clear you’ll have mana refill, but boss rooms are much more challenging and a bit more drawn out. You’ll be able to equip two familiars at a time eventually, easily swapping between skills with the ‘Right Trigger’. With a couple dozen familiars that are randomly spawned as you go down each dungeon floor, there are plenty of different and unique mini-bosses to defeat so that you can use them on subsequent runs.

Each room is unique every time you play, as are the enemies, room layouts and relics. Relics are special bonuses that you can find that act like passive buffs for the rest of your run. Finding these can dramatically change how successful you are on a run, and since they stack you can make some really interesting and powerful combinations the longer your run lasts. Other rooms will have special treasure chests that will net you bonus gold or weapons, and some rooms will have a large crystal where you’re going to have to make a decision. These crystals will offer great bonuses, like refilled health, mana or items, but maybe these bring a curse or will hurt you. It’s a ‘risk vs reward’ system that adds some light humor if you take the time to read the fine print.

When you die, and you will many times, you wake back up at the main hub. Before going back to your desk to enter another run when you fall asleep, you’ll be able to spend Soul Crystals you find along a way, a form of currency that can be used to upgrade many facets of gameplay, like improving your potions or other upgrades that will be permanent in subsequent runs, making each run slightly better. These vendors must be saved in rooms during your dungeon adventures, eventually housing at the hub once their room is cleared and they are rescued.

With over a hundred monsters, a handful of crazy bosses, loot goblins, dozens of skills, abilities, relics and more, there’s plenty of see every time you play and start a new run. There is just enough incentive and unlocks that make for a persistent progression, like blueprints that allow for specific weapons to have a chance to appear in new runs, while keeping things interesting and fresh with every run being procedurally generated. Successful runs and finally beating a mini-boss or large boss gives a great sense of accomplishment, as does having a specific strategy work out exactly as you planned.

NExT Studios has done a wonderful job with its artistic design and aesthetic. The design is basic but the hand drawn visuals and animations give Elle and each monster some character, showing that a lot of love went into it. Looking as though it came straight out of a book my daughter would read or cartoon she’d watch, Crown Trick will delight with its colorful and cheerful visuals. As for its soundtrack, the music and sound effects of weapons and spells are interesting, but nothing as memorable. Having voiced dialogue probably would have immersed me into Elle’s adventure more, but the music that kicks in during boss sections was always a treat.

Crown Trick surprised me with its synchronous movement mechanic, adding a unique layer of strategy but allowing me to play at my own pace. If you’re into dungeon dwelling or roguelites, there’s something of value here with its charming style and great artistic style. For those not sure or on the fence, Crown Trick is available on GamePass, making trying it out as simple as it gets to see if it hooks you.

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

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Tales of Arise

I’ve always enjoyed the Tales series ever since the popular Tales of Symphonia on Gamecube. I’ve bought most of them since, but the last one I actually played through was Tales of Vesperia back in 2008 on Xbox 360. I absolutely adored that entry, and while I’ve skipped the last few releases, I was more than excited to play the latest Tales game now that it’s back on the Xbox platform. Celebrating the 25th anniversary of the series, Tales of Arise has finally arrived, and to say the wait has been worth it is a massive understatement. It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a really in-depth and amazing JRPG; Tales of Arise checks the box in many ways. And no, you don’t need to have any knowledge of the series or have played any previous to enjoy Arise to its fullest, as it is its own standalone story.

Tales of Arise takes place on Dahna, a planet that was invaded by a much more advanced world, Rena. When Rena invaded 300 years ago they enslaved Dahna’s population, forcing them to be slaves as they harvested Dahna’s resources. With Dahna under Rena’s control and three centuries of slavery, the people of Dahna don’t know any other way of life, being stripped of their lives, freedoms, dignity, history and all possessions.

Now that Renan’s control the lands, they’ve separated Dahna into five separate realms: Calaglia, Cyslodia, Elde Menancia, Mahag Saar and Ganath Haros, each ruled by a Lord. There’s a Crown Contest that takes place every so often where all the Lords compete to become the next Renan Sovereign, with the winner of this contest being the Lord that harvests the most Astral Energy from the Dahna population and planet, as it resides in all living things. All of these, Astral Energy is stored within each Lord’s Master Core, associated with a specific element as they do whatever it takes to gather more power, killing any Dahnan’s in the process; a means to an end.

The story begins with a mysterious Dahnan man locked behind a mask that’s unable to be removed, tired of living his life a slave for the Renan’s. As he starts to fight back, chance has it that he comes across a young woman being held against her will. Wanting to change their fate they band together to take on the oppression, though for very different reasons. Given the name Iron Mask for obvious reason, this journey begins with him as someone who has no prior memories other than being a slave. When he meets Shionne, a Renan outcast, this starts a unique relationship and bond that will twist and turn as times goes on.

Most people are taught that only Renan’s can wield powerful magic, called Astral Artes, causing their eyes to glow a bright blue when casting spells. What makes the narrative so interesting from the opening moments is that Iron Mask is unable to feel any sort of pain for some reason. He can get hurt and become injured, but wouldn’t know it since he won’t feel any sort of pain. Shionne on the other hand has something inside her that she calls her “thorns”, harshly electrocuting anyone that touches her. To escape the slave camp, Iron Mask uses a Blazing Sword, a physical manifestation of Shionne’s Astra Energy, though this sword burns anyone who wields it, so it’s fate that Iron Mask can’t feel any pain. Coincidence?

Shionne wants to take down the five Renan Lords for her own motives, but since it aligns with Iron Mask’s objective of freeing his people from Rena’s rule, they decide to take this journey together. There’s actually four other characters you’ll meet and have join you along the way; Rinwell is a young girl that has a pet owl, Hootle, and acts as primarily a spellcaster. Law is a martial artist, using his fists as his main form of punishment to monsters and Renans. Dohalim is an aristocrat, well-spoken and fights with a Bo. Lastly is Kisara, a woman knight that wields heavy armor and a shield, serving under Dohalim for many years. Each character has a very unique and interesting backstory that made me love all of them in their own way, all having a moment in the spotlight to tell their tale and having a natural character progression.

As you explore the world of Dahna, each realm is rooted deep into its main element. The opening region is bathed in fire, lava and impassable mountainsides. Another is a lush green and vibrant jungle, and there's also a frozen wasteland. Each region has its own visual style, enemies and Lord to defeat, and was a joy to explore. You’re given a map of each area, seeing where the connections to other zones lie ahead, and all of the ‘dead ends’ that almost every time has some sort of collectable or secret worth making the extra trip for. Certain areas of most maps, usually the campfires, will act as teleport spots for fast travel should you want to go back to a certain area for side quests, searching for owls or fighting mini-bosses later on in your adventure.

Arise finally adds the ability to swim in water, not something you’ll do often, but will allow you access certain areas or find other hidden collectables indicated by sparkling spot sin the water or flora. You’re also able to jump, but there’s only a few parts when leaping a small gap is required to find a collectible. There are a few puzzle-like elements in some of the dungeons, but nothing you’d expect like pushing and pulling blocks, but instead using a resource called CP (Cure Points) to unblock certain pathways, but more on that shortly.

The monsters you fight are called Zeugles, brought down from Rena and are the primary type of enemy you’ll face during your adventure. These beasts range from small bugs all the way to massive and fearsome bosses that have a huge health bar. As you explore each area you’ll see Zeugles around, allowing you to bypass or engage in combat whenever you see fit. Tales games are known for their real time dynamic action combat, featuring a new and updated battle system that still has that classic Tales feel to it at the same time. There was never really much of a need to stay back and grind anywhere, as each area tended to have just the right levels of monsters for my group. With a handful of different difficulty options and a way to customize your battle commands from Auto to Manual, you can play simply for the story if you want for the most part, as the AI can take care of combat if you decide to further customize their commands and behavior in battle.

Each character can be setup with three aerial Artes and three ground. Eventually you’ll unlock a second bank to equip up to two sets, allowing you to easily change between the two by holding ‘Left Trigger’. Each Artes will have an elemental properly if it’s not a physical attack, allowing for some unique combinations or strategic planning when you’re taking on enemies with certain elemental properties to exploit their weakness.

Unlike most RPG’s, the Artes system is really interesting, allowing you to cast as many of these skills as you wwant, even successively, provided you have the AG (Arts Gauge) points. To cast your spells and special moves, Artes, you need a certain amount of AG to do so, allowing you to string together combos. AG replenishes slowly over time during battle, and you can utilize normal attacks in the meantime to keep the combo meter going while your AG refills. It’s a really interesting system, not having to worry about mana like in most other games.

Cause enough damage quickly and you’ll eventually be able to perform a Boost Strike, allowing for an instant finish of the enemy you have targeted. It usually takes about 90% of an enemies’ health bar to be depleted to trigger these, but they act as instant finishers on non-boss foes. Depending on which character you choose to ‘tag’ in with the D-Pad, you’re given a super flashy and extravagant special move where two characters team up for this Boost Strike. Even after 40+ hours of gameplay, I still enjoyed seeing these take out enemies. The other reason for using Boost Strikes isn’t just for raw damage, but to be strategic in countering enemies. For example, Rinwell can cancel a Zeugle’s casting if used at the right time, or how Kisara can stop a charging enemy in its tracks. Learning the best time to use these will become paramount when you’re facing bosses and optional side quest Zeugles. Boost Strikes also refill some of your depleted AG instantaneously, so there's some times where holding off until you've casted a few more Artes is worthwhile.

You’ll need to be quick with your reflexes as well though, trying to roll and avoid damage when a Zeugle is about to attack. Time this just right and you’ll get a perfect evasion, allowing you to sneak in a powerful counter attack during a brief slowdown of time. While some may be disappointed to know that multiplayer has been omitted this time around, having a team of six characters didn’t make it feel like a lonely experience at all.

While you don’t have to worry about mana in the traditional sense, you do need to watch your CP (Cure Points). While you can use items to heal, CP is how you perform your support abilities and Artes like buffs, heals, regens and resurrections in combat. This means you’re able to spam your damaging Artes no problem (while managing your regenerating AG), but you’ll have to mind your CP points, replenished with special rare and expensive items or resting at a camp fire or inn for the night. There are even certain areas in the field that will be blocked off unless you spend some CP to use a special skill to knock down the barrier. For example, many dead ends will have these walls that need to have CP spent to knock them down. Do you spend some of your precious CP in a long dungeon to hopefully get some worthwhile loot (hint: it’s basically always worth spending the CP) knowing it’s the same recourse you need to heal yourself?

I don’t even know where to begin to try and describe how amazingly gorgeous Tales of Arise is. From its opening moments until the credits rolled, I must have taken at least a hundred screenshots or so to use as my wallpaper, something I don’t normally bother with. For the most important cutscenes you’re treated to hand drawn anime style visuals, and even many of the typical dialogue parts were stylized in panels that look almost like a moving comic book, adding to some of the dramatic flair. Characters, environments, even every Boost Strike move is flashy, colorful and a joy to just look at. More than a few times I found myself stopping somewhere to just look far into the distance and enjoy the vistas.

The same can be said about Tales of Arise’s soundtrack. Filled with orchestral precision, each area has its own tone and feeling with the underlying tracks. Every character is voice acted to perfection, and even though I’ve heard the same battle cries a million times throughout my journey, the quality overall is perfect as it gets. This is one of those soundtracks I’ll probably go and purchase on CD or Vinyl to have for my collection, it’s on par with other JRPG classics.

Generally when I review a game I keep a 'pro' and 'con' list to help me keep track of what I want to write about and convey about the experience I had. Everything you’ve read above is on my pro list, and I had an absolutely unforgettable experience with Tales of Arise until its final credits. As for my cons and negatives list, it was actually blank by the time the credits rolled after about 40 hours. Sure I could nitpick and purposely find a few minor things here and there, but honestly, nothing detracted from the overall experience and I was up many late nights well past 3AM just because I couldn’t put it down, wanting to find out what happened next. There’s even some twists and turns that surprised me, as I was about 20 hours in thinking I had reached the pinnacle of what I thought was the main quest, only to have it open up further for a second ‘half’.

Tales of Arise is not only now my favorite Tales game to date, even surpassing my beloved Vesperia, it’s easily in my top 3 JRPG’s of all time, deserving to be compared to and alongside the best of the genre, and hands down my Game of the Year pick for 2021 without any hesitation. A compelling and complex story, wonderful character development, addictive combat, plenty of side activities to partake in like fishing or farming, stunning visuals and perfect audio are just a few reasons I can’t recommend it enough. Tales of Arise was an unforgettable masterpiece that I’ll surely play through again on NG+ eventually and anyone that’s a JRPG fan needs to play, the sooner the better.

**Tales of Arise (Ultimate Edition) was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 10.0 / 10 Super Animal Royale

I feel I should be upfront about something right away; I generally hate Battle Royales. Be it Apex Legends, Warzone, PUBG, Fortnite or the near endless others in the genre, I simply don’t enjoy them all that much. Sure I try them out to see if there’s finally one that will get me into the genre, but nothing has worked yet. Needless to say, I was a little hesitant to even give Super Animal Royale a chance because I assumed it would have the same outcome for me. Here we are weeks later and I’m still dabbling in a few matches here and there though, actually enjoying myself when I get a few rounds in.

Developed by Pixile Studios and published by Modus Games, Super Animal Royale is the latest entry into the overcrowded Battle Royale genre, but with their own twist. While the core mechanics are unchanged, pitting 64 players against one another in singles, duos or four player squads in a map that shrinks over time, instead of being ultra-competitive, you play as cute animals that are trying to be the last survivor(s).

Also, Super Animal Royale is played in a top down view, not something you see often in the Battle Royale genre, so it takes some getting used to at first. While it’s still competitive given your objective of trying to be the last one standing, the barrier of entry is much lower compared to other games and clearly doesn’t take itself as seriously. You get to customize your critters with clothing items, accessories, weapon skins and more. Given that it’s also free to play, there’s no reason to not check it out to see if it’s something you’d maybe enjoy, or the kids in the household that haven’t moved up to the more mature games yet.

Not only do you play as cute animals like cats, dogs, foxes, pandas and a bunch of others, even some of the weapons are ‘cutified’ as well, like skunk tails that make for poison gas in an area when thrown. Like most other Battle Royales, you begin a pregame lobby before you start the match on a plane, choosing where to deploy by parachuting to the ground to scavenge for weapons, armor and supplies before others around you do the same. As time goes on the map will shrink, forcing you to be in closer vicinity to your enemies until only one survives.

What I really enjoyed about Super Animal Royale was how it wasn’t all that stressful to play compared to other games in the genre. If I died it was quick and easy to leave and join another lobby before the match starts in a few moments. With crossplay enabled I never had an issue finding a match or filling a lobby full of players.

It will take some time to earn a bunch of rewards like new breeds, skins and other accessories, but you’re always making progress towards something. With seasonal content, battle passes and more, it’s free to play, but dropping a few bucks here and there for SAW tickets (paid currency) and you can get some cool looking skins and accessories if you want to stand out and show off amongst others. What I did enjoy is that most of the cosmetics that aren’t DLC are earned, not necessarily bought.

Not only will you use a plethora of weapons to defeat your enemy furries, but you can also use mounts which double as a vehicle for quick movement when trying to get away from the poison gas that shrinks the playfield of the map, but also can be used to run over enemies and cause damage as well. There’s nothing quite like getting a kill while using a huge hamster ball or riding an Emu as a teddy bear.

While there’s not a ton of different weapons, you have your typical pistols, SMG’s, Rifles, Snipers and more, but like other Battle Royales, there are different tiers as well denoted by their color grade. Obviously the better the weapon and tier the more likely you are to win a firefight, so search everywhere you can for any upgrades. You’re able to hold a few different weapons at a time, so make sure you got something for every situation and that suits your playstyle.

Since Super Animal Royale isn’t played in first person like most Battle Royales and utilizes a top down camera, a ‘fog of war’ mechanic is used, meaning you can only see what’s in front of your cone of vision, not around corners or behind objects. This makes for some interesting strategic gameplay, hiding in areas waiting for an ambush or knowing you’re vulnerable out in the open where everyone can see you.

Simply looking at its bright and colorful aesthetics, you probably wouldn’t guess that Super Animal Royale is a Battle Royale with its adorable characters until you see them shooting one another with some assault rifles. Super Animal Royale doesn’t take itself seriously and I think that’s why I find myself going back to it now and then, dabbling in a few matches here and there. Super Animal Royale might not be what comes to mind when you think of a Battle Royale game, but it’s absolutely adorable and very simple to parachute into for nearly anyone to enjoy.

**Super Animal Royale (Super Edition) was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Bus Simulator 21

When I reviewed the inaugural Bus Simulator on Xbox One back in 2019, I wasn’t blown away but I did understand what it was attempting to accomplish for its specific target audience. It had a laundry list of minor issues and didn’t wow me with its bland visuals, but I still had a certain calm and relaxing experience as I drove around the city on different routes. Well, it’s a new year and Bus Simulator 21 is now here for the masses, so I was interested to see what has been changed and improved, hoping for a slightly better experience with a few needed improvements from the last outing.

“Your Bus. Your Route. Your Schedule.”. That’s the tagline of Bus Simulator 21 and encapsulates its core game quite well. Sure, most of your time will be sitting in one of your busses, driving a route to earn money for your company and drive citizens to their destinations, but the other half of the game is the management part of running a transportation business. Part bus driver, part city planner, Bus Simulator 21 expands on its base game allowing for much more personalization with bus liveries and route planning across two very large maps compared to the previous game.

While I’m not a bus enthusiast by any means, some people out there are, and they’ll be happy to know that the same bus brands make their return like MAN, Setra, Mercedes and IVECO, but developers stillalive studios wanted more, so they’ve also now included other brands like Volvo, Alexander Dennis, Scania, BYD, Grande West, and Blue Bird, adding to a total of 30 licensed busses and unique options that are a first for the series. They all appear to be authentic, as you can sit in the driver seat in first person and toggle every knob, switch and lever as you drive from stop to stop.

Before we delve into the rest of the game maybe you’re wondering what’s exactly new in Bus Simulator 21 compared to the last version like I was. While there’s not really a bullet point list of new features, a few of the notables would be the latest inclusion of not only double-decker busses but also now e-buses as well. Driving these new additions are an interesting addition and you’re even able to walk to the top deck as well. The other major addition is a whole new map, Angel Shores, based in the US. The European Seaside Valley map returns from the previous game but it’s been slightly revamped and improved but also includes the map extension, making for a massive city to plan, route and drive. There’s also a handful of other minor improvements like AI, route planning and character customization but those previously listed are the major additions for this year’s entry.

Before you delve into your new bus driving career though you’ll be tasked with creating your character, vastly improved from the last version with 15,000 combinations, but still quite limited compared to other games. The choices are decent, though there’s some odd clothing choices available, as I had my driver in a crop top and super short skirt, not something you’d expect for professional bus attire. There’s a complete lack of lip syncing as well when you do see people talking to you up close, not a deal breaker, but distracting enough to take the immersion away.

Once you complete a short tutorial you’ll be able to choose one of the two maps depending on your preference. I of course felt right at home in Seaside Valley from the previous game but chose the new Angel Shores map to see if there were many differences. I guess given that developers are based overseas, as is the European map, it was specifically pointed out that you can turn right when at a red light, a common rule of road here though I guess not overseas. Just like the original map, each has its own districts that vary from residential, commercial and more. One area was littered with restaurants, clubs and a place where the nightlife comes alive, so I had to create a route that serviced that area during the later hours when citizens were wanting to go out for a night on the town.

As you progress through the career you’ll have main objective to complete, though you aren’t forced to do them right away if you want to sit back and enjoy driving certain routes and earn some cash for your booming business. You’ll start with a few small routes with just a few stops, eventually creating more routes as you earn enough to purchase more busses and having multiple stops all across the city. Your main objective isn’t just to constantly drive a bus route either, but plan and build routes and schedules that will earn you the most money and service the city for its citizens.

As you drive routes and stop at your scheduled bus stops you’ll drop off and pickup new passengers. The more you service these stops they’ll be able to level up, allowing more routes to connect to them. In the beginning a bus stop might only support one or two bus routes at a time, but drive the route enough and they’ll level up, allowing you to add more routes to them as you progress. As you drive and complete routes you’ll also earn cash for the business based on how well and accurately you drove. You’ll lose star ratings based on if you hit any potholes, objects, cars, people, speed, forget to use your turns signals and more, just like in real life. This is a simulator so you need to keep all of this in mind, as well as being at your stops on time. As you drive better you’ll earn more. While it’s not explicitly explained, I believe that the better you drive a route, the better the AI will drive it as well if you choose to have them take over. You can leave driving a route at any time and have a fellow AI employee take over at any time, and vice versa if you want to drive a specific route that’s already on the road.

You can build as many routes as you want, connecting any of the bus stops on the map, but you’re given much more information about people’s habits and wants, when peak times are and more, so if you delve into it you can earn much more if planned properly. Have a super heavy route full of riders that say leave school at a certain time or want to go downtown at night, then maybe you’ll want a larger or double-decker bus for those specific routes. Have very windy roads and sharp turns? Then it’s probably not a good idea to set a double length articulating bus in that area.

There are numerous difficulty and accessibility options, allowing you to customize nearly every aspect you want, like turning traffic violations off, speedbumps, potholes, automatic cashier, etc. Driving a bus route is much more involved than simply driving point A to B, as you’ll need to do your best to stay on schedule while dealing with traffic, fare evaders, changing weather and more. The simulator in the title really lives up to its name, as you’ll need to hit a switch or button for nearly everything you want to do on your bus, from turning on your lights, lowering the hydraulics, extending the ramp, e-brake and more. There’s a redial menu that you can use to quickly access these or you can play in first person and actually hit each button if you want the most authentic experience of being a bus driver, even if it takes much more time to do so.

A few quality of life improvements have been added, like being able to jump to any specific stop on the map, fast forward time, fast travel to specific points like your headquarters, bus shop or even take over any route from the NPC’s currently driving it whenever you want. Even with these minor features added, the overall gameplay felt much more fluid with not so much downtime as before. One feature that wasn’t improved though was the atrocious voice acting from the passengers that say random one-liners from time to time, and while there’s more sayings than before, it’s some of the worst voice acting I can recall.

With many more busses this time, there’s surely a few that will be your favorite, as they all drive quite differently based on their engine, turning radius, length and more. The articulated buses were very challenging to take in tight corners, but the smaller regular sized buses were much easier to maneuver in the smaller streets. The driving and turning itself does take quite a bit of getting used to and I guarantee you’re going to hit quite a few objects for the first while until you get a feel for it. You’re even able to update your buses with liveries and different colors and paint schemes. There’s even some ads you can place on the sides of buses, and while it’s nowhere near as in-depth or customizable that you’d expect from a Forza title, it certainly helped me distinguish which bus was what in the menus.

Creating and editing routes still feels a bit ‘off’. This is all done in the menus with the city map and is completely functional, but can be quite confusing once routes start to overlap each other. Routes are color coded, but having two slightly different shades of blue overlapping one another can be quite confusing as to which one you’re currently highlighting. I found it easier to delete a route and build a new one rather than editing, but you do eventually get used to the wonky menu controls the more you spend time with it.

Those that have a steering wheel for Xbox will be happy to know that a handful are currently officially supported: HORI - Racing Wheel Overdrive, Logitech G920 Driving Force and the Thrustmaster TMX Force Feedback. I have a Fanatec wheel and there are others out there, and even though they aren’t on the official supported list, they should all still work as long as the Xbox itself recognizes it as a steering wheel. You’ll simply need to configure the wheel manually and all the functions may not completely work, but it’s still great that there’s wheel support at launch, adding another layer of simulation.

Driving a bus route can be tedious and boring if you do it for a long time, so why not invite a friend to help you out? Playable in single or multiplayer, Bus Simulator 21 allows you to invite up to three other friends to help your growing transport business, with some caveats. Playing cooperatively, you and your friends can either split up and drive separate routes, drive in convoy along the same route, or ride along in each other’s bus checking passengers for fare dodgers. Be careful though, as any fines they incur goes towards your company, so if you have random people join your game and they start hitting pedestrians, you can lose all of your money and go in debt within minutes, though there are a bunch of toggles you can choose to restrict players that join you from doing certain things to prevent this.

While there are a bunch of improvements from the last game like the new dynamic weather system and a day and night cycle that does add to its realism and is welcomed, it still isn’t going to impress you with its visuals. Sure, the busses themselves are recreated to appear as their actual real counterparts, but aside from that everything else still looks quite dated. Passengers look simply 'fine' at best, but animations of walking and movement is quite janky and stiff. The environments and roads look decent, but anything not directly on the road like buildings and rock formations are of a much lower quality. Audio is basically the same, with the busses having a whirling engine sound, hearing the hydraulics release its pressure as it lowers and even being able to hear the turning blinkers, but the passenger voice acting is so terrible that it’s incredibly distracting.

Bus Simulator 21 is a slight improvement from its previous outing, adding new and welcome features like a whole new map and bus types, but still feels like it’s lacking a lot of polish. Surely simulator fans will overlook its shortcomings and enjoy creating and driving their routes but it’s a bit of a harder sell for casual bus drivers.

**Bus Simulator 21 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X with a controller/Fanatec steering wheel/pedals**

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Lake

Xbox’s Summer Game Fest was a great event, as there were a ton of games that released limited timed demos that we got to try and get an early look at. One of the games that easily stood out for me was Lake, a gorgeous narrative driven game that revolves around you fulfilling your duties as a mail courier and speaking to your customers. I’ll admit, as someone who is a courier for their day job, this was the main draw that initially intrigued me with Lake, but by the credits rolled I was glad to have gone on such a unique journey.

Now and then I need a completely different gaming experience to take a break from the high action and multiplayer games I normally gravitate towards to. I also like to reminisce about my youth, a time where things were just simpler. There was no internet, no cellphones, people knew one another and talked to strangers in public without much worry. I’m glad to have had the childhood I did, so when a game is set in the same time period, it’s almost like going back in time.

Developed by Gamious and published by Whitethorn Digital, Lake is set back in 1986 when life was much simpler, set in the small sleepy town of Providence Oaks, P.O. for short. Life in Providence Oaks is as laid back as it gets. There’s a corner store where everyone gets their supplies, a local diner that has that old classic style with vinyl covered booths and blueberry pie that is unlike anything else you’ve ever had, and a few people that live off the main road up a dirt trail, all surrounding a vast and gorgeous lake.

You are Meredith Weiss, a successful woman who works in IT in a large city, coming back to her hometown of Providence Oaks to not only take a break from her busy city life, but to help her dad who’s taking a two week vacation down in Florida. You agree to give a hand, as a small town like this really only has the one mail courier, so what better person to fill in for your dad other than his daughter who grew up in the small town? Can you readjust to a slower paced lifestyle after all these years away or you will return home at the first opportunity? The choices will be up to you.

For the next two weeks back in your hometown you’ll be tasked with delivering the mail. This is a small town though where everyone knows everyone else, and their business, so naturally many of the people are going to talk your ear off, especially when they recognize Meredith who has been gone for twenty years or so. You’ll come across many familiar faces that you haven’t seen since you were quite young, catching up on all the latest news and gossip of the small rustic town. Some people you won’t recognize as well, so maybe you’ll want to get to know them more, possibly igniting a spark of friendship or something more between you and them.

Lake tells a simple but interesting narrative in one of the most laid back ways I’ve ever experienced. Lake is very grounded in reality, having you perform a mundane job but allowing you to take in beautiful vistas during your route, talking to interesting characters both quirky and rude. There’s no right or wrong answers when choosing dialogue or way to play, further reinforcing the laid back atmosphere Lake exudes. When your two week vacation is up, will you decide to return back to your fast paced city life, or was your time in Providence Oaks an eye opener for a lifestyle that you missed for a long time? You’ll be able to see the final choices and endings coming a mile away, and while my first playthrough didn’t have the most satisfying ending, I still felt like I made the right choice for my Meredith.

Lake is such a laid back experience that you’re not forced to play in any specific way, even to the point where you can even deliver the mail in any order you desire as well. I honestly thought the mail delivery gameplay portions were going to be much more structured or timed, but they are not, completely fitting for the slow paced setting of Providence Oaks. More importantly than your day job during your vacation is talking and reconnecting with people in your hometown, all of which are interesting in their own way with their own quirks and personalities.

Because this is such a small town set back in the mid 80’s, as you deliver mail, certain people will want to chat with you, seemingly forever sometimes. It’s a good thing you aren’t timed for your route or have a quota to complete other than your dozen or so deliveries a day before you return back to the post office to complete your day. After a hard day at work you’ll have the choice of watching TV or reading a book if you didn’t make any other plans with other people during the course of your day. Some people will ask you for favors if you choose certain dialogue options, such as bringing their sick cat to get checked out, or maybe cat sitting after work one night. You can choose whatever you think is best, as there are no right or wrong choices. Maybe doing favors will open other dialogue options with people, or maybe you’ll get in trouble from your boss for sending some mail when they didn’t pay for any postage.

Meredith can choose how involved or not she wants to be in people’s lives, completely blowing them off and ignoring their requests, or try to reconnect with old acquaintances and possibly patch up a long misunderstanding after all these years. Don’t expect anything too farfetched or crazy in the story, as this is based in reality, more focused on relationships. There are two obvious choices for a love interest should you pursue it, but I didn’t end up choosing either in my first playthrough, as I simply didn’t feel all that connected to them, though will certainly see how that differs when I get around to playing a second time.

The dialogue is written well and acted quite decently, but the problem is you cannot skip any dialogue or cutscenes, even if playing for a second time to see different options, forcing you to sit through it all. At a design level I can understand this choice, as you want players to be invested in the story and characters, but when I had my game crash out and lost an over an hour of progress, having to sit through all of the same conversations again was excruciating. This is also why I didn’t delve directly into a second playthrough right away even though I do want to see the other choices and endings eventually.

Just as frustrating is the walking speed of Meredith. By default she is set to walk, which is no big deal when there’s an included run button, but even running only makes her walk ever so slightly faster, not even at a power walk speed. Again, I get that Lake is supposed to be a slow burn experience where life is a slower, but this is beyond agonizing at times when I just wish she would walk at a normal person’s pace. Take your time and enjoy the views, as you can’t force the experience to go any quicker anyways, so might as well appreciate it.

The majority of the gameplay will revolve around Meredith completing her mail courier route, driving from place to place that has either mail or parcel deliveries for the day. Pulling up the map will show you your list of deliveries for the day. There’s no path you’re forced to take or timeline it has to be completed in, so simply deliver in any order whenever you like. If that means taking a few minutes break to take in some great views around the lake or in the woods, so be it.

For those that have mail, you’ll simply pull up to their house, press ‘A’ on their mailbox and it will come off your list. If they ordered a parcel, you’ll need to go to the back of your curbside truck and choose the correct package listed by addresses. Knock on the door and if they answer you’ll get some dialogue and possibly some narrative choices before delivering. If they aren’t home you’ll simply leave it on their front steps or porch and move onto the next. The gameplay for the delivering is quite basic and really only acts as a mechanic to get you from one person to the next to forward the dialogue and narrative day to day.

Oddly enough, there’s no reason to follow any road rules, so you don’t have to worry about speeding, parking on the wrong side of the road or even hitting cars or objects. Again, you’re not graded or scored on any of this, so it doesn’t become stressful unlike doing the job in real life. An annoying design choice though was the default camera view chosen when driving. It’s actually quite low behind the truck, and because the curbside’s are quite boxy and tall, your view is obstructed partially at all times.

The main buildings in town such as the Post Office, Diner, your home, etc, will allow you to enable an auto pilot if you want to simply enjoy the scenery as Meredith drives herself there. It would have been great to have this for any address or house on the map though. There are also four major points on the map around the lake that you can instantly teleport to should you wish to save some time from the serene driving if you simply want to get through Lake quicker, though this defeats the whole purpose behind Lake’s relaxed atmosphere.

Sadly there’s also no reason to explore other than for your own curiosity or to get some gorgeous screenshots. I was hoping there would be some sort of collectables, even for some behinds the scenes artwork or something, but alas, there’s not.

One of the things I love most about Lake is its visual aesthetic. It utilizes a comic-like art style but is very colorful and has beauty everywhere you look. Lake has a very unique and distinct artistic style, one that takes your attention right away even though it’s not meant to be realistic. The audio also sets the tone, from the local radio station that you listen to during your daily courier route to the overall soundtrack that is something you’d totally expect to hear on a local indie station. All of the main characters are voiced well, adding to their own personalities and making for some memorable encounters, even the guy that works at the motel that is a jerk because he’s too busy playing video games instead of accepting the package I’m trying to deliver.

While Lake’s visual style is more than impressive, there was a laundry list of issues I encountered. At one point I had a dialogue choice not appear on screen, making it so I wasn’t able to progress. This meant I had to force close the game, losing over an hour of progress because I forgot to manually save. Because of the unskippable dialogue, I had to endure the same cutscenes all over again as well. There’s also a lot of polish that is lacking, especially in the final stretch where many shadows were glitchy and whole animations completely missing. Not a deal breaker, but it certainly stood out like a sore thumb, taking me out of the immersion of Meredith’s journey near the finale.

Lake’s atmosphere is as cozy as it gets, never forcing you to rush or engage with people more than needed if you don’t want to. After a week in I was able to drive to certain houses for deliveries without needing to reference the map, enjoying the views along the way, especially along the lakeside. Lake has a ton of flaws, but even after sticking through it until the credits rolled, I was glad to have had my experience with Meredith in Providence Oaks for her vacation.

Lake is a relaxing gaming experience that is quite unique, not just mechanically, but with its laid back game design. You can tell that Gamious made Lake with a lot of heart, as it’s a charming experience that can be enjoyed in any way you see fit. While the courier parts may become dull after a while, Lake is a great example of a charming and unique gaming experience unlike anything else if you’re looking for a comforting game to unwind with.

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

Overall Score: 7.3 / 10 Rustler

In 1999 a little sequel called Grand Theft Auto 2 released. To say that it influenced many games after the fact is an understatement, and I can’t even start to guess how many hours I sank into its world. It’s not often that older games in this style get reproduced, but Jutsu Games attempts to take what made GTA 2 so great in the first place but put their own spin on it, complete with a whole new setting in medieval times. The top-down type of gameplay isn’t seen as much anymore, so Rustler brings back this back in a hilarious parody of the popular game.

Rustler takes your classic GTA gameplay but gives it a completely new makeover set in medieval times where you’ll be laughing throughout if you enjoy poop, fart, pee and other debauchery jokes. I myself am a man-child, so of course I thought Rustler was absolutely hysterical. Rustler has some great ideas that fit the setting, like stealing horses and delivering corpses alongside other “historically inaccurate” missions but you’ll constantly fight the clunky controls, boring missions and become frustrated when you have to redo a whole mission after dying or being caught by the guards on horseback.

As you start up Rustler you’re given the game’s intro, but what makes this unique is that it’s a live action video that plays, introducing your character, Guy, and his buddy, Buddy. Even from this opening video you can tell that the tone of Rustler doesn’t take itself seriously as it shows you causing a ruckus, committing Graft Theft Horse, fighting guards and more. Rustler doesn’t take itself seriously in any way, and this is apparent from its opening minutes and lasts throughout until the end. After this intro you get treated to a hip-hop song as the game does its introduction, also hilarious if you listen to its lyrics.

You play as Guy; yes, that’s your name, and alongside your friend, Buddy, you want to join and win The Great Tournament, going from a nobody to a champion. How you do so is up to you, or ignore all of this and simply cause a ruckus for the fun of it, because why not? Full of dumb but hilarious humor, there’s plenty of pop culture references along with a heavy dose of Monty Python jokes and fourth wall breaking.

While the campaign is a decent length, many of the story missions eventually become gated off, forcing you to play though a handful of side missions until the next ‘chapter’ opens up. The story absolutely won’t win any awards, but it sure did give me some laughs throughout. You’re going to be causing havoc with your weapons, on horseback or even throwing piles of crap at your enemies to slow them down. Missions begin easy, having you smash barrels, steal a knight’s horse, bringing a body to sell to someone, roughing people up and more. Mission design is very reminiscent of that GTA 2 style, just with a completely different backdrop.

The inspiration from GTA 2 is quite obvious, from the mission types, the circles on the ground to begin missions, the type of text font that has a GTA-esque style to it, to even having a music jingle when you complete a mission. Guards are Rustler’s version of police, as you’ll earn a wanted level for killing people or doing terrible things in their line of vision. The higher your wanted rating the more will pursue and try to stop you, again, just like GTA. Guard’s horses even have red and blue lights if it wasn’t apparent enough that they are the police and will seemingly chase you forever. To get your wanted level down you either need to find Wanted posters on walls to tear down, or simply ride your horse through the Pimp-A-Horse, akin to GTA’s repainting a car. It’s absolutely absurd but fits with Rustler’s over the top humor.

Horses play a large part of traversal, as the map is a decent size when completely unlocked and you run quite slow on foot, so get used to the horse’s awkward controls because you’re going to need to use them whenever possible. You’re able to gallop and cantor with a horse, though this of course uses their stamina that must be refreshed when depleted. You’re able to also fight with certain weapons on horseback, but be careful, as running over a peasant will cause guards to chase you if they see it happen, even if by accident.

Rustler separates itself from a straight up GTA clone by also adding in a skill tree. Completing missions will get you anywhere from 1-6 skill points, depending on if you finish a side or main quest. You can spend your points on increasing Guy’s health, stamina, carrying more bolts for your crossbow, cheaper vendor pricing, not getting knocked off horses, how much throwing piles of crap on enemies slows them down by and more.

To enter The Great Tournament you’re going to need a large sum of cash. But you’re a simple peasant with no work, so clearly you’re going to do jobs for your shady ‘boss’ and other interesting characters that probably don’t do everything quite legal, acting as almost like a mercenary, doing anything you can for cash. Missions usually have a few steps in each, though failing or dying means you sometimes get put back at the very beginning section, adding for a lot of repetition and frustration. This wouldn’t be such a big deal if poor controls and bugs weren’t the main reason for failing.

I can’t count how many times my horse got stuck behind or in an object, unable to get out before the guards came and killed me. Another time a certain mission wouldn’t trigger the next step, causing me to quit out and do it all over again. It simply feels very janky with its controls and combat, but for every frustration I endured I had at least two laughs to make up for it with its absurd writing. While dialogue isn’t voiced, everyone sounds exactly like Crazy Dave from Plants vs Zombies mixed with The Sims gibberish. It somehow works quite well given Rustler’s tone and ridiculousness.

Bards were a thing back in these times, so why not hire one to follow you around? Changing his song based on what’s happening, there’s something absolutely stupid, yet hilarious, with a beatboxing bard following you side into battle or running from guards on horseback. Don’t like his song? Give him a smack to encourage them to change it up.

While it’s easy to simply categorize Rustler as a knock off GTA parody, it can be fun in short bursts. Love poop and fart jokes? Rustler is going to make you chuckle and laugh if you’re into immature and toilet humor, so I know exactly where my maturity lays. Rustler’s enjoyment either way is solely going to be based on your sense of humor, and even though I’m probably their target audience, the $40 (CAD) asking price seems a little steep for how clunky it can feel at times. Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!

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

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Merek’s Market

We got to check out an early version of Merek’s Market a short while ago, coming away impressed that its fully voiced dialogue and how much addictive and challenging gameplay there actually is for up to four players locally. Reminiscent of Overcooked’s gameplay, Merek’s Market is quite a drastic shift in backdrop, having you, Merek, running his own medieval shop. You’ll be running non-stop off your feet trying to fulfil everyone’s orders as you craft armor, weapons, gloves, and more. Some customers will even come into the store looking for other specific items, trying to haggle with you for a better price, taking away from your crafting time. Running a shop can’t be that difficult and stressful right? Yeah, you thought wrong.

Not only is there a lengthy 50 level campaign where you strive to earn Bronze, Silver and Gold Crowns based on your speed and accuracy of crafting your patrons orders, there’s also many multiplayer levels as well for up to four players locally to join in together. There’s even small narrative that takes place as you progress, upgrading your shop to be bigger and better the further you get. Not only can Merek strive to make his shop the most known and successful, with three other friends you can all enjoy the chaos that ensues together having to deal with weird customers, odd requests and people that simply aren’t buying and just want to chat, wasting your time.

Generally with games like these you simply go from one level to the next with each becoming progressively more challenging, but nothing majorly changes. Merek’s Market actually surprised me in a few ways. Your recipes for crafting start out quite basic; chop a piece of wood to craft a staff, cut some hide to make a belt, combine mud and coal to craft a vase, etc. As you get more recipes for completing stages, they too become much more involved and multi-stepped. Eventually you’ll be making swords, shields, spears, chairs, glasses, gloves and more.

Every tenth level is even a ‘boss’ like stage where you have an overall objective you want to complete, like creating a massive statue for a customer, but also trying to serve your regulars as they pop in as well. Complete these stages and your shop will be upgraded, allowing for new recipes, more room in your market and extra equipment like two furnaces or cutting boards. These were the best part of Merek’s Market, as you’re given blueprints in steps, much like reading Lego instructions, but to make these unique items you need to craft a handful of the regular items. Keep in mind you also have regular customers coming in wanting your wares as well, but make them happy and you’re timer will freeze for a short time, so you’ll need to find a way to balance both, as these levels complete when you finish crafting the big requested item. Placing each of the main pieces result in a quick minigame, either having you dance to a beat, holding your hands in a specific place that move or memory based games where you need to step on certain squares to the pattern it shows you.

Some customers aren’t interested in your craft, instead simply wanting to purchase other items you sell like bread, hammers, armor and others. They’ll give hints as to what they want and how much they want to purchase it for. This is where you need to have a keen eye, as if they’re in a rush or have fancy clothing on, they’ll probably pay more than someone that says they can’t afford as much or doesn’t have some nicer clothing. You can try to force a higher price for an item, but they may decide to go elsewhere if it’s outrageous. Can’t blame them, I do the same thing in real life as well. So you need to try and set fair prices whenever possible, that is of course if you can find the time to haggle with them between crafting a dozen other pieces of equipment for the other customers waiting in line. Some also simply want to come in to talk, sometimes giving you hints that the next knight that’s coming in to your shop later desperately needs a mace but will try and say he’s broke when in fact he’s super rich, so it’s good to pay attention.

The four player multiplayer co-op is simple to setup, simply having anyone else with a controller joining in. The controls are simple to grasp, picking up items with ‘A’, holding ‘X’ to use tools and that’s really about it. Having someone, or someones, to play with will make quite a difference, though that’s if you can get them to work at your speed and you know how to communicate well. The multiplayer levels are unique to that mode and become incredibly challenging the further you go. My wife who doesn’t really game was able to constantly craft iron bars and other items after a few practices without any problem.

One issue we did have when playing three player is that sometimes the inputs wouldn’t always work instantly, as if there was some sort of lag. Sometimes when I tried to do the button combination for when a customer is trying to pay, pressing the D-Pad direction or button wouldn’t do anything, then all of a sudden it would work. Given that we played well before the launch day and most likely fixed a Day 1 patch, I’m going to assume it’s a pre-release bug that hopefully will get fixed. Another issue that creeped up now and then is when you want to toss an item to pass to someone or simply place elsewhere so you can do something else in the meantime, the objects can get stuck behind or between objects, resulting in them being inaccessible and forcing you to re-craft said item, losing precious time. And I hope you remember where you tossed the items for later, because there’s no indicators to show where they are at a quick glance, and trying to remember where you tossed some small gloves in a four room Market is going to waste a lot of critical time.

Where the real challenge comes in is the level layouts. Some levels have a completely open layout where any player can fulfil any task or crafting, but eventually you’ll be segregated to your own section in multiplayer, forcing you to perform specific jobs. My wife for example was stuck at the furnace so she was forced to make all the iron bars and pottery since my daughter nor I could access her area with barrels blocking our way. Eventually you’ll have floating tables that need to have materials placed on it by one person until it floats to another area for someone else to take off and craft with. It’s absolutely chaotic, eventually becoming almost too much for my non-gaming co-op partners, but they still had fun trying even if we were failing often.

Once you get a perk that shows what the customers will be ordering that day within the allotted time limit, things do become a little easier, as I used to simply create any item I could during the small windows of downtime in hopes that’s what customers would be ordering. Once you memorize the recipes, Merek’s Market becomes a natural flow to play when you see an order coming up, though you’re always able to reference your crafting book if you become overwhelmed and forget how to craft a specific item for a customer. Once your market becomes multi-roomed, there’s going to be a lot more running around to do which adds a whole other level of difficulty.

All of the dialogue was not only fully voiced but done quite well, something I never expect with smaller indie games like these, so that was another welcome and unexpected surprise that I enjoyed. The visuals are quite colorful and cartoonish, as are the character designs. There’s more of a story here than expected and the challenge constantly ramps up, never giving you a moment of rest. The online leaderboards for every level should keep some coming back for more, trying to be the top Market in all the online lands.

Merek’s Market is a constant pressure of trying to appease all your customers in the quickest way possible while trying to be efficient and planning ahead, as that’s the only way you’re going to earn the top scores. It takes some getting used to, but once you have all of the recipes memorized and don’t have to consult the book, everything will start to flow much quicker when you learn how to have multiple crafts on the go. There’s a certain chaos and stress that comes with each level’s objectives and orders, but there’s also a great sense of accomplishment when you see Merek’s Market get a huge upgrade as the campaign goes on.

**Merek’s Market was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.7 / 10 King’s Bounty II

While it seems sequels are commonplace, what isn’t so common is when a game more than three decades old finally gets a direct sequel. I might have been too young at the time to fully appreciate and enjoy the original King’s Bounty back in 1990, but it’s finally getting a true sequel more than thirty years later. There’s been a handful of spin-offs and spiritual successors over the years, but never a direct sequel until now. I can only imagine how excited super fans of the original must be.

We actually got to try an early preview build on PC back in the Summer, not quite sure what to expect or how it would translate on console. Having put more than a dozen hours in across multiple characters in the preview, I came away intrigued and wanting more. Developed by 1C, King’s Bounty II makes its return as one of the classic iconic turn-based RPG with tons of improvements for a new generation of gamers to experience, expanding its lore with a whole new story, enemies and more. I’ll admit, I'm not normally one for strategic and tactical games like this, but that might simply be because not nearly as many release on console. 1C is looking to change that with King’s Bounty II, adding their own unique spin on the genre.

Taking place in the land of Nostria, it seems the world as a whole is taking a turn for the worse. Bandits litter the roads between towns, conspiracies and dangers are everywhere, creatures lie in wait for any travelers and overseas kingdoms have started to become defiant, denying the King’s rule over them. Maybe a savior will emerge to become the kingdom’s last hope to reunite the lands, even if those heroes are accidental. The overall narrative is decent at best, but that’s most likely due to the terrible voice acting makes it hard to bare at times.

Your journey begins by first picking one of three characters. Aivar, a warrior who used to be a knight of the Royal Guard was one day banished when he refused to cooperate in a coup. He escaped to a faraway land, eventually earning a reputation for himself as a masterful mercenary and leading his own troop, the Hounds of War. Eventually captured and jailed, one day he is set free by Prince Adrian with an offer that may give him his previous role and life back. Things seem too good to be true though, so he stays cautious of the offer. Being a warrior, he specializes in more physical based combat, adding damage, resistances and more when you take on battles. While he may not be capable of using magic himself, units under his command are boosted greatly due to his leadership, even earning more experience per battle.

The mage Katharine comes from a noble bloodline, spending many years away from Nostria lands searching for arcane magic and knowledge. The funds for these expeditions eventually stopped, so she returns to attempt to regain her power from the King. Being a mage, she of course sides with magical abilities compared to Aivar, utilizing very powerful magical abilities and spells. Having instant access to Air, Fire, Death and Darkness spells which will help greatly early on in battles.

Lastly is Elisa, a Paladin, somewhat of a hybrid between Aivar and Katharine. She’s decent in combat but can also delve into the spell trees as well if you want to dabble in both styles of gameplay. I enjoyed Elisa’s backstory more so than the other two actually, so there’s reason to play each character. Between all three characters I did enjoy my playthrough with Katharine the most though, simply because of the powerfulness of her spells which made a massive difference in battles early on when I was struggling.

What I found quite interesting with King’s Bounty II since I never played the original was how it feels like its gameplay is set within two completely different genres. Most of the time you’ll be exploring the lands of Nostria in third person, akin to Witcher, Dragon Age, etc, then combat is something completely different with its hexagon turned based strategy. Truth be told, I struggled with combat early on, and while there’s a brief tutorial, it doesn’t really teach much strategy wise, something I had to learn through plenty of trial and error. You’ll build an army, taking them into battle, but every single skirmish will certainly challenge you with its high difficulty.

I did quite enjoy the exploration part of King’s Bounty II, either on foot or horseback, taking my time to search for glowing objects usually containing sellable loot and gold. As you explore the lands you’ll come across different pillars, some used for fast travel, others for mana and experience. There’s also a surprising amount of side quests that are completely optional, though basically forced since you won’t be able to win many battles without doing so without their rewards of loot and experience. Once you reach the first city after meeting the Prince, the world itself feels quite alive, bustling with NPC’s going about their own business, even having conversations among themselves. There are even notices left up on the boards across town written by citizens, some being quite humorous if you take the time to read them. While not completely open world like other games, you are able to play non-linearly and explore however you wish, to an extent. You can freely explore the world until you reach a border where battles are strategically blocking your path. Manage to survive these battles and a new chunk of the map is open for you to discover further.

Instead of brute forcing your way through every problem and conflict, you’re sometimes given multiple ways to solve the issue, or forced to side with one person or another. Early on you’re given two sides of a conflict and you’ll need to decide who you want to fight and scare off based on who you think is in the right. Decisions are based on one of four influences: Power, Finesse, Anarchy or Order. The more you decide to align with one of these ideals, you’re character will eventually categorize your character as such. I chose Order when I played as Aivar and the opposite as Katharine to see the different outcomes, but also because your armies will gain bonuses if they are aligned with your ideals as well.

The other portion of King’s Bounty II comes with its strategic combat. You command an army of units, leveling them up if they survive battle and combining different types of units. While hexagon turn based combat isn’t new or unique, it feels like it’s done in an exciting way, complete with tons of challenge, though tuned way too harshly. The first battle you take part in gives you a slight tutorial of how to move units, send attacks, use abilities and magic use, but it’s so brief and doesn’t do anything to teach you strategy at all.

Even just a couple battles in, I initially lost most of my units due to poor planning and execution. Once they die in battle, they are permanently gone, so you’re going to want to be careful as possible when planning your attacks. You can replace new units by recruiting them via quests or purchasing them at a vendor (like hiring), but it will take some time to get the hang of battles, especially once you make it further than the main city, as they will require much more planning to be successful. Different unit types exist like typical bandits, sword and spearmen, hounds, and even undead that can join your army. Some unit types are better suited for different situations, so it will take time to figure out all this on your own. Some even have certain ideals tied to the influences you choose in quests, which will make them more powerful or weaker in battle, so there’s a lot to take in and learn as you go.

The problem though lies in combat’s difficulty. Many battles will cause you to lose many of your units, so you’ll have to spend the coin to recruit new ones if you want to take on new battles to progress further within the lands of Nostria. Almost every battle I seem to lose quite a few units, which racks up the expenses of getting replacements. This is why even though there are a handful of sidequests at any given time, you’re basically forced to do them all so that you can explore, loot and get enough rewards to afford new army units to progress one more step further in the story.

One major factor of my combat success came with my spell book. Aivar initially can’t utilize any spells other than single use scrolls whereas Katharine has access to many from the beginning. Yes, you could spend talent points earned from leveling up and give Aivar access to spell lines, but then comes the question about being masterful in one way of fighting or more balanced overall. I struggled quite hard with Aivar’s more physical based combat approach and had much more success with being able to use Katharine’s spells once per turn. Being able to use a high damage spell on a mini-boss fight made a massive difference, so I ended up choosing Katharine for the majority of my King’s Bounty II experience. Of course there’s a mana cost for using spells, and you can only use one per turn, so you still need to be quite strategic in choosing what spells to use and when as it’s a finite resource.

The combat difficulty only gets worse the further you progress as well, something I think may frustrate many players. It did get tweaked slightly from the early preview build that we played previously, but it’s still much too harsh. Couple this with how slow movement is when you’re exploring Nostria and having to constantly backtrack places, even on horseback, and it can feel like a slog at times, especially when you need to reload a battle for the fifth time to hopefully finally survive or not lose half your army.

World exploration combined with hex-based strategic combat is a unique blend, and while King’s Bounty II is full of high points, there's also many lows that were hard to ignore, the worst offenders being the voice acting and combat difficulty. I’m not normally one for strategic games like this, but King’s Bounty II kept me engaged, always wanting to progress one more battle so I could explore a new corner of the world. “Good things come to those who wait”, even if that wait has been thirty years.

**King’s Bounty II was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Action Arcade Wrestling

Back in May I got to preview a small little wrestling game developed by two people that missed the old school classic arcade wrestlers I grew up with like WWF Wrestlefest, WWF WrestleMania: The Arcade Game, Tecmo World Wrestling and Saturday Night Slam Masters to just name a few. Their main goal was simply to make a fun wrestling game, one that doesn’t take itself seriously in any way or is grounded by any worldly physics, and with that in mind, they’ve succeeded. While most wrestling fans flock to the yearly WWE 2K installments simply because there’s really no alternative, Action Arcade Wrestling is taking a completely different approach, trying to be a completely over the top (rope) arcade wrestler instead of anything resembling matches you’d watch on Raw or Smackdown.

Previously branded Chikara Action Arcade Wrestling, when the promotion shut down they had no choice but to drop the license and its roster, which is the game we see today with Action Arcade Wrestling. Fast paced, simple controls and aiming to bring simple joy for wrestling fans, Action Arcade Wrestling will let you body slam, clothesline and powerbomb your opponents, as well as being able to shoot lasers, wield lightsabers and other completely over the top movesets that you won’t see in other wrestling games.

Action Arcade Wrestling only utilizes two buttons for every action possible, much like classic N64 wrestling games. This makes it extremely easy for anyone to simply dive in, and even my young daughter enjoyed playing a few matches against me because of this simplicity. Strikes are mapped to the ‘X’ button and grapple to ‘A’. Moves will vary based on if you simply press the button, hold it for a stronger version or combine with a direction on the D-Pad. Anyone that’s played old 90’s 16-bit era wrestling games will feel right at home.

You aren’t able to spam moves either, as if you repeatedly use the same moves over and over it’ll automatically get blocked and reversed. This may not seem like a big deal, but if you’ve ever played a wrestling game against someone that knows how to perform the best moves in a game repeatedly, you’ll know how unfair it can be when you don’t know how to block or reverse these moves with perfect timing. Also, just like in Street Fighter, you only need to hold ‘back’ to block any attacks, making the experience easy to understand naturally.

Sadly there’s currently no career or campaign mode, but there are more than a handful of different exhibition matches to choose from. 1 versus 1, Tag Team, Battle Royal, Battle Rumble, Tornado Matches, Three Way Matches, Four Way Matches and even up to 5 versus 5 and more. The first thing I took notice of when I played my first match was how hyped up the crowd was. No one was sitting in their chairs, the lights were spinning around the arena and the crowd looked as if it had that rock concert feel to it. Even with a bunch of match types, they all generally felt the same, but sadly there’s no Cage or Hell-In-The-Cell type of setups yet.

There’s a few things that really make Action Arcade Wrestling stand out and be unique. Remember, this is an arcade wrestling game, not a simulation, so you can expect to see power-ups appear, giving you bonuses to health, defense or offense. This can change the outcome of a match really quick, as you can also take other characters’ powerups by performing a heavy move on them as well. You of course will have a ton of traditional wrestling moves that you’d expect, but this again is an arcade wrestling game, so don’t be surprised if you see certain moves that also shoot lightning out of your hands.

Even after dozens of matches I’m still smiling and having a ton of fun if playing in short bursts. There’s nothing quite like throwing your opponent outside of the ring, running to the complete opposite side’s turnbuckle and launching yourself across the screen onto them. It’s moments like this that I couldn’t get enough of. Now and then you’ll also have “Spots” to try and complete. These are randomized moves that will give you bonus points if completed in the allotted time. These points go towards your overall level progression at the end of matches, unlocking new moves or items for your wrestlers as you rank up slowly over time. You’ll quickly notice how braindead the AI is when playing against the CPU, even on the Hard difficulty setting. Most of the time they’ll just stand there waiting for you to attack them or coming directly to you, making it easy to grapple.

By default, you’ll be able to unlock up to 30 unique wrestlers. Some are obvious nods to the industry and you’ll be able to discern who they are meant to be if you know your wrestlers. While there’s huge roster of unique wrestlers included, this has been solved with the inclusion of a Create-A-Wrestler feature, titled Wrestle Lab Creation Suite. This is where you or anyone can create any wrestler you can think of, so you know all of the classic real life wrestlers are there available to download, along with some interesting and odd designs. Keep in mind though that since wrestlers don’t actually have any stats, the only differences are their skins and movesets that you can alter.

While you’re limited to 60 downloads a day of wrestlers and arenas, this never really was an issue after the first day when I was downloading as many 80’s and 90’s wrestlers I could that I watched growing up. The creation tool is actually a separate app, completely free to use, and you can basically create any wrestler you could think of quite easily as it’s very simple to use for the most part. They even let you edit layer and upload pictures for textures. The issue here though is that you need to download their app on Steam. This is the only way you can create your own wrestlers and arenas, though it makes sense given that you can create nearly anything you think of if you have the photoshop skills. The creation tool even allows you to add custom textures and body morph, but it will take some time to learn to create a wrestler or arena that looks half decent.

As for weapons, you can expect tables on fire, sledgehammers, chairs, garbage cans, lightsabers and other wacky weapons if you choose to enable them. While there’s currently no ladders, it’s hard to fault a two man dev team. The glaring omission though was online play, as Action Arcade Wrestling only supports up to four players locally on the same screen.

Keeping in mind that it’s a small indie game, the cel-shaded aesthetic actually works quite well, and since this isn’t licensed and unable to do any body scans, it made sense. Not meant to look lifelike in any way, the flashy visuals and neon colors only accentuate the crazy gameplay and makes it feel like and old school game I may have played growing up.

There are plenty of animations for all the movesets and finishers, but you’ll most likely be distracted from the random bugs you’ll come across. I’ve had my wrestler get on the top rope only to then float above everyone else, unable to do anything. I’ve had my downloaded Macho Man’s tassels disconnect from his boots and follow me around like they were orbiting my head, and once even had my character stuck in place, unable to strike or grapple anyone until it randomly decided to work. All of that being said, for such a small dev team and creating a game out of passion, it’s really hard to hold it against them. Even with a laundry list of bugs, some were funny enough that I was still smiling and having a blast.

Sure, there’s a whole essay I could write about features and modes I want, like walk-in intros and online multiplayer, especially for the asking price of just under $20 CAD, but Action Arcade Wrestling is designed to be a not-so-serious arcade wrestler where you simply enjoy yourself with how over the top it can be. It’s not trying to compete with WWE games, and the casual gameplay design means anyone can simply drop in for a match or two when you have friends over for some laughs. Can I get a Hell Yeah?

**Action Arcade Wrestling was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.7 / 10 Recompile

I’ve always been into computers ever since home PC’s were a new thing when I was a young gamer. When shows like Reboot came along, it always made me think of what goes on inside each virtual world and your hardware. This was clearly some inspiration for developers Phigames with their latest 3D metroidvania platformer, Recompile.

Set within a 3D Mainframe backdrop, Recompile starts out as a basic 3D platformer, eventually evolving into slightly more, adding combat, hacking, puzzles and more for quite a unique adventure. You play a sapient AI that just came to be, taking place completely within its own digital world. You’re essentially tasked with figuring out what happened to the digital world and choosing to bring it back online or not with a rampant AI that will try and stop you, as you now have the gift of choice with your new life.

There is more to the story, but you’ll only ever get new information whenever you find hidden collectables strewn throughout each of the levels. These data logs are dry text only affairs, but do offer an interesting perspective if you take the time to piece them all together. Having them somehow narrated would have at least helped keep my attention with them or something in between each stage to have some narrative continuing. Given that levels aren’t linear, you can miss some important text logs, and unless you find them all you’re not going to get the whole picture. The coolest part about the whole overarching narrative that your 8 hour or so playthrough actually takes place within one second of real time.

As you begin your journey, you’ll first notice how cool your character and the Mainframe world you’re in appears. As an AI, you resemble much of the protagonist from the classic Rez game on PS2, a humanoid-like structure, but clearly compiled code or something of the like. As you traverse around Mainframe you’ll notice how computer-like it appears, dark in background with bright and colorful accents you might see in Tron. The first level acts as a tutorial of sorts, showing you that there are multiple ways to get to certain areas, hidden collectables and how to find and utilize upgrades for your character.

After you complete the opening area you’re put into a hub world that you’ll be coming back to often. This is where you’ll access the four separate areas and biomes, each with their own color schemes and distinct focuses on gameplay. At the end of each you’ll battle an incredibly challenging but memorable boss, filling up a progress bar that will eventually unlock the final area and boss.

Recompile isn’t linear though, and you’re welcome to play any of the biomes in any order you wish. Now there is a suggested path as each world will net you different upgrades which will be necessary to go further in the biomes you’ve already explored. This is where the Metroidvania gameplay comes in, so you better be a fan of backtracking and aimlessly exploring until you find the missing upgrade you need before being able to progress further elsewhere. There’s a lot of places you won’t be able to reach if you can’t Dash, Double Jump or even use a Jet Pack for example, so if you choose a ‘wrong’ level to play first, you’re going to have to go back there later on once able to traverse properly, though this isn't really explained well. I eventually got stuck, spending an hour trying to figure out how to pass a huge gap only to realize I didn't have one of the necessary upgrades yet.

Certain biomes focus on different parts of the gameplay, such as one that is more combat focused, one that’s primarily platforming and another that utilizes a lot of hacking. Most of the gameplay is going to revolve around exploration and the platforming, but you’ll also have to defend yourself against enemies with your weapon as well.

There’s some light puzzle elements, mostly just having you step on a button to light up some circuitry. Hit all of the switches and a path opens or platforms appear that allow you to progress further. These aren’t terribly difficult, though the later ones do become much more involved, needing you to turn certain ones on and off again to get the correct combination for the amps to light up. While I didn’t mind these puzzles, they really slowed down the gameplay to a crawl at times as opposed to constantly moving and exploring the level you’re in.

With Recompile’s computer and data background, it only makes sense that its UI is done in classic ASCII format. This of course fits the setting absolutely perfectly, but it’s quite cumbersome to read as you aren’t always presented what you need right in the middle of the screen. This also applies to its ASCII map, giving you an idea of what section you’re in and what upgrades are nearby, but good luck figuring out how to actually use it in any realistic way.

Combat was a mixed bag, though it did get better once I got all of the weapon upgrades. You start out with a basic pistol-like weapon that is quite weak but you don’t ever have to worry about ammo. They all have computer terms for their weapon versions, like the Rocket Launcher being called BSoD. You’ll get a shotgun and even a railgun that takes a few seconds to charge up before shooting, each better suited for specific enemies and situations.

While the weapons feel great, something about the combat simply feels off. Having more than one hovering enemy attacking you is almost a guaranteed loss of half your health given how odd the aiming system is. These flying enemies will go up quite high, but as you hold Left Trigger to aim your gun, there’s actually a limit with how high you can look and aim upwards. This of course will cause you to take a lot of damage when you aren’t even able to fight back. This means you’ll need to back up so that the enemy can be in your sights, but you might back yourself off a ledge, or they’ll simply fly upwards again. Killing enemies is satisfying when they explode and their bits travel towards you, but the real challenge comes when you face off against the massive and interesting bosses.

These bosses are extremely tough, and if you go in without a few certain upgrades, you’re going to have a much more difficult, near impossible time. I’m all for challenging boss fights, as they represent skill checks before moving onto harder enemies, but the majority of Recompile doesn’t focus on combat, so these frustratingly difficult boss fights seem much more harder than they have any right to be. Be prepared to either die dozens of times from one-hit kills before making any progress or checking online how to actually find a cheap way to beat the bosses. That said, the bosses themselves are quite an experience to take in and stands out from the rest of Recompile’s gameplay in the best way.

The visual aesthetics have quite a contrast from dark black nothingness and the neon colors that accentuate many of the platforms. I have a feeling that if it was at all possible to jump into a computer and explore it digitally, this is probably not far off of how it may actually appear. The soundtrack is also fitting, adding to the mood and dark digital themes.

While I wasn’t much of a fan of the backtracking and not knowing what upgrades I got or missed, or its clumsy combat, Recompile still gave me a unique gaming experience I’m glad to have had. Its visuals are gorgeous at times, even with its minimalistic style, and while the story isn’t told in a traditional way, I quite enjoyed its concept. Given that it’s also included on Xbox Game Pass, there’s no reason to not check it out and see if it’s a program you’d like to execute or not.

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

Overall Score: 6.3 / 10 Mayhem Brawler

Ever since my earliest gaming days on the NES, I’ve been a fan of Beat Em’ Ups/Brawlers since my first time spending dozens of hours with Double Dragon. From there I moved onto Battle Toads, Final Fight and Streets of Rage just to name a few. While the genre isn’t as popular as it once was back in the day, there’s been a couple titles lately that have put Beat Em’ Ups back into the spotlight. The latest is Mayhem Brawler from Hero Concept, a Beat Em’ Up that brings back some of that classic 90’s nostalgia with its difficulty but has a decent comic book style aesthetic that’s easy to look at.

You are a part of Stronghold, a team of super-powered officers that are tasked with not just fighting crime, but will need to eventually save the whole city from different threats. You choose from Dolphin, Star or Trouble, three distinct officers with their own style, movesets and playstyle. Trouble looks as though Abraham from The Walking Dead got mixed with a werewolf, Dolphin is your musclebound slow but strong character and Star is the telekinetic female officer of the team.

The storyline takes place across comic book style boxes, all voiced decently and with a very colorful palette. Mayhem Brawler doesn’t take itself too seriously and has some comedic tones to its narrative, even sometimes breaking the fourth wall. During these story sections there’s also a fake Twitter on the right side of the screen with fans reacting to what’s going on. It’s an interesting narrative choice but is certainly unique.

You begin by checking out a situation unfolding at the local docks, but as you complete each level you’re given an option of different places to check out, each with their own backdrop, enemies and sometimes bosses as well. Each level choice isn’t just simply a different background environment either, as it will actually change the flow and outcome of the story going forward and even have three different endings available to try and get.

The comic style aesthetic is done quite well, especially the level selection as it’s offered as if you’re choosing a favorite comic book cover with a description of what your choice entails narrative wise. These comic covers are done really well, something I’d probably actually read if it was offered in real life. Complete the campaign and you’ll unlock Arcade mode, a much harder version that offers a decent challenge for those wanting more.

There are multiple difficulties, ranging from Cadet, Officer, Superhero, and Legend (described as ‘You were the best Beat Em’ Up player in the neighborhood’). I started on Officer, assuming it was the ‘Normal’ difficulty, but got wrecked quite quickly. There are a ton of enemies that have super cheap moves and attacks that can make quick work of you, so I had to go through it multiple times on Cadet, as it’s quite challenging solo.

Like basically any other Beat Em’ Up, you control your character along the playfield as a 2D sidescroller, clearing an area before it lets you move further to the right, eventually culminating in a boss fight. You spam the ‘X’ button to attack, ‘Y’ performs your special move, ‘A’ jumps and ‘Right Bumper’ is how you block. It’s not very common to have a block in a Brawler, and even on my third playthrough I would forget to rely on it, though I would highly suggest doing so as a good portion of the enemies will cheaply projectile kill you from afar if you don’t block and rush them.

Having three different playable characters means you’re going to want to do a playthrough with each at least once, but the level and story choices in between stages will offer at least a few more should you wish. Sadly there’s only local co-op, so I got my daughter to play with me for one of the runs and I had a fun hour with the kid, but she was done after that single playthrough and had little interest to do it all over again with a different character. Online co-op would have definitely added some longevity to the title, so it’s a shame that it’s absent.

You play a Beat Em’ Up for its combat, and Mayhem Brawler is no different. You’ll fight and combo against regular enemies with weapons, pipes, knives and guns, eventually facing off against more supernatural enemies like witches, wererats, werewolves, vampires, ghouls and more. Some enemies are quite basic and will simply attack if you get close, others will try to stay at a distance and simply fire their gun or projectiles at you, so you need to absolutely prioritize taking them out first. Bosses have three different phases, adding a handful of extra enemies as well between each. Most have some easy tells to distinguish before they perform some super strong move, so you just have to be careful and pick your times to go in and lay the beat down before backing away.

Defeat an enemy wielding a weapon like knives, guns, crowbars, swords and you’ll be able to pick them up and use them for yourself for a couple of hits. Usually after three hits it breaks and that’s all you get, but they do a great deal of damage. Get hit and knocked down while you’re holding a weapon though and you’ll drop it, so maybe you’ll want to toss it across the screen at those annoying projectile tossing enemies instead so you can close the gap while they recover.

Like most Brawlers, you’ll gain health by destroying barrels and eating whatever food you come across. While playing multiplayer you’ll need to communicate and organize who takes what food and when, as someone with just a sliver of health remaining can eat and take the cooked turkey, a full heal, whereas the person with barely any life left should be the one to eat it instead.

Your special attack with the ‘Y’ button has limited use, tied to a blue bar under your health, but this can refill as you do more in combat or eat certain foods. It’s not a full screen clear type of move, but will definitely help you get out of some sticky situations when you become surrounded by a handful of enemies. I was hoping there was going to be some sort of super move or team-up specials, but sadly there aren’t.

Mayhem Brawler nails the colorful and vibrant comic book aesthetic, as the backgrounds and characters are all drawn quite well, though the animations aren’t the smoothest I’ve seen. The soundtrack is about what you’d expect as well, giving some decent beats to have your head bop to as you pound some enemies into the ground, and it was great to have all of the cutscene sections actually voiced, even if the delivery was adequate at best.

Without any online multiplayer, I can’t see myself going back to this anytime soon unless my daughter randomly wants to play it again with me sometime. Mayhem Brawler is fully competent as a Beat Em’ up, checking off all the boxes, but doesn’t do much else to stand amongst the classics that we’ve seen many times before.

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

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 RiMS Racing

While there’s no shortage of racing games out there, there’s not nearly as many motocycle based ones when compared to their four wheel counterparts. If I had to name a few moto series games off the top of my head, MotoGP, TT: Isle of Man and Ride are really the only ones that I could think of that aren’t MX based. There’s clearly an audience for it as the sport is quite popular, so when a new entry into the genre emerges, my interest is piqued.

Developed by Raceword Studio and published by Nacon, RiMS Racing is a new entry into the moto genre that aims to not just simply be another run-of-the-mill simulator, but actually adds a few different gameplay mechanics that I can’t recall seeing in any other racing game. There’s big competition though if you want to take on established brands, so not only does RiMS Racing provide solid simulation two wheeled racing, but also adds a unique engineering mechanic where you’ll need to actually swap out individual parts in the garage, just as you would in real life.

Career Mode is where you’ll be spending the bulk of your time, spanning 70 grueling events that will take dedication to complete all of them. You begin by creating your racer, though not with many options compared to other racers, then choose your first bike. While there’s not a large selection of bikes, only eight actually in the base game, they are some of the most powerful and desirable European and Japanese motorcycles available today. Your first bike is free, so choose from the Ducati Panigale V4 R, MV Agusta F4 RC, Aprilia RSV4, BMW M 1000 RR, Suzuki GSX-R1000R, Honda CBR1000RR, Kawasaki Ninja ZX-10RR and Yamaha YZF-R1.

With such a low number of bikes, it definitely seems as though more effort has gone into making them as accurate and realistic as possible, especially when you can ‘explode’ the bike to swap in and out parts, but more on that shortly. While I’ve never rode any of these dream bikes, I can only assume that they perform exactly as they would in the real world given the collaboration with the manufacturers.

Throughout the course of the season’s 70 events you’ll take part in plenty of different style of races, each with varying rewards, though you’re unable to skip any events and must participate in them in order. Just like the low bike count, the circuits also aren’t plentiful, but they do include iconic courses like Laguna Seca, Silverstone, Nurbergring and more. There’s even a handful of point A-to-B maps that are quite challenging as they take place on regular roads across different country landscapes instead of closed race tracks.

With only 10-15 tracks or so including reverse versions, and 70 events, you’re going to be racing many of the same courses numerous times, so a bit of repetition can set in after some time. Races will vary in laps, length, weather and more, so there is some variety, as racing the same track in the rain is night and day compared to dry conditions. Where RiMS Racing stands out from the competition is being able to swap hundreds of aftermarket parts into your bike, changing its handling quite dramatically. While it’s easy to simply swap in parts to increase your bike’s performance, those that want to tweak every aspect of their setup and loadouts are going to get even more out of the RiMS experience.

Most racing games tend to choose to cater to a more arcade or sim-like experience. RiMS Racing absolutely lands on the sim side of the gameplay, offering a realistic racing experience that takes some getting used to. Your first few races will be filled with crashes and penalties for going off track, but once you start to dial in your bike and figure out its handling, it becomes thrilling to take 300+ kph straightaways or making perfect S-curves as fast as possible. There are numerous difficulty and realistic settings, so it’ll take a bit to figure out what works best for you when you’re starting your racing career.

The physics in RiMS Racing is absolutely incredible. You’re going to crash a lot, but that’s not the fault of the game or your bike, you just have to know how to best control your machine and make the necessary tweaks to be at peak performance. Even mid-race you can pause the action with a Motorbike Status Check (MSC) and see detailed information on nearly every part of your bike so that you can determine the best time to pit stop if needed or to change how you play. Slamming your brakes too hard and you’ll get feedback for doing so. Maybe your tire pressure or wear is starting to get low. This information is integral to being able to tweak your bike setup to suit your racing style.

Leaning and braking are integral to racing on two wheels, and you can’t simply slam the brakes or go full throttle, as the bike will absolutely fight you along the way and you’ll most likely lose control and go over the handlebars. You’re going to have to utilize easing on the triggers in and out of corners, knowing when the gear shift happens to then floor the gas as to prevent your wheels from slipping. Even knowing the angle you’re leaning is going to make a difference of when you should lay on the gas, as your back wheel will come out from under you if you gun it when you’re near horizontal or riding the edge of the grass.

Your headquarters is where you’ll spend your time in between races, not only changing and replacing parts for your bike, but choosing where to spend your upgrade points, either on Management perks, Research and Development or other areas. Certain race rewards grant you team points which can be spent in a variety of different trees, offering store discounts, more detailed information of upcoming races, less wear and tear on your bike or auto completion of mounting or unmounting bike parts. Each tree also has sub objectives that will give you bonus credits if fulfilled, like winning races with certain manufacture's parts or equipping a set amount of aftermarket parts on your bike.

Making RiMS Racing even more challenging are two other design decisions that some might question. First, there is no rewind feature at all. Sure, this makes sense for a true simulator, but there’s nothing more frustrating than bailing on a turn in a half hour race only to get passed near the end. To be fair, this does force you to become a better racer and more cautious. What I can’t get over though is how unfair and aggressive the AI can be when racing bots. They race in their dedicated line, and if you’re in their pathway, too bad for you, as they’re going to crash into you no matter what. This of course is hugely frustrating, so you’ve got to play cautious in those first few turns at the starting line until you see a clear passing opportunity.

Your default bike, regardless of choice, is going to be an amazing machine to control, but once you start to earn some cash and need to swap out worn out parts, it can make a night and day difference for performance and handling once you fit in some aftermarket pieces. Not only do you purchase from over 500 official parts, but you’re going to have to disassemble your bike to equip and unmount them, just as you would if you were a mechanic in the garage. I thought that changing some of the parts would make somewhat of a difference, but wow, spending the money on the bigger upgrades made a massive difference when it came to my bike performance. You get what you pay for.

Being able to disassemble your bike almost completely is a really unique mechanic I’ve not seen in any other racers. While someone like me that simply knows how to fill my vehicle with gas and put in oil, gearheads will most likely really adore this feature, as you have to unmount, unscrew and remove parts just to get at others. No parts are locked behind any progression walls either, you simply need to be able to afford them, having access to all of the official parts from the beginning.

Also, swapping in and out parts isn’t just a typical button press either. You’ll actually have to perform specific inputs like rotating the left stick to unscrew, holding a direction and pressing ‘A’, among other mini-games. It’s a really interesting gameplay mechanic that adds some realism and personalization to your bike, though having to do it every few races eventually does become a little tiresome. Thankfully you can opt to spend skill points on being able to auto mount and unmount parts should you wish. This also goes for pit stops, as you need to do this mini-game inputs during these as well.

While Career Mode is where you’ll spend the bulk of your time, there are a handful of other typical modes that you’d expect to find, as well as an online component. There are weekly online challenges you can partake in that test you on a specific track and bike, completing with an online leaderboard to see who is the best rider out there. There’s also a lobby system to race against other players as well, but over the course of reviewing, I was unable to find a single match with anyone else to try, so I can’t speak to its online quality. I’m hoping this doesn’t mean that the community for RiMS Racing is that small though, as once you’ve completed Career Mode there’s not much reason to repeating races unless you care about besting your old times and placements.

The KT Engine that Nacon uses in some of their other games, the bikes and tracks themselves look fantastic, as does the smooth framerate and animations, even down to the sparks when your foot pegs scrape the asphalt when cornering hard. Where the visuals falter is the draw distance, even on an Xbox Series X. You’re going to not most likely notice it given that you need to focus intently on your bike and racing lines while racing, but looking in the distance you can see the track boundaries and trees popping in far in the distance. Not a deal breaker by any means, but certainly not expected on a Series X while the rest of the game looks fantastic. For an even more immersive experience, you can race in first person view or even helmet cam, taking quite a lot of getting used to the pre-leans.

As for its audio, bikes sound authentic and unique based on which bike you’re racing with. I’m no expert, but I’m almost certain that I could hear a difference when I swapped in some aftermarket parts as well. You’re able to hear splashes of the puddles during races in the rain and even the back wheel squealing for traction when you’re hard banking a corner faster than you should. I quite enjoyed its EDM-like soundtrack, making my head bop during racing, getting me into ‘the zone’ and focusing that much harder. It should be noted though that you’re going to need to turn down the engine sounds audio specifically if you want to hear anything other than the whine of all that horsepower.

RiMS Racing is quite an enjoyable and addictive racer, adding unique gameplay elements when it comes to checking real-time bike information with MSC or choosing from hundreds of aftermarkets parts that you’ll need to actually mount and install onto your cycle. While a simulator at its core, many hardcore racing fans will find enough content here to keep them entertained for quite some time yet is just accessible enough for casual players to jump in and work towards completing the lengthy career. RiMS Racing strikes a great balance of quality and uniqueness, and I’m excited to see what they’ve got in store for a hopeful sequel in the future.

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

Overall Score: 8.4 / 10 Golf Club: Wasteland

We got to check out an early build of Golf Club: Wasteland a short while ago and came away impressed with its relaxing vibe, ridiculous (yet grounded) premise and amazing soundtrack. That was an early version, and now the full release is finally here, so the question is, has the wait been worth it? It sure has.

Demagog Studio has done something quite interesting. They’ve made a 2D platforming golf game, but one that has a narrative and some heart to it. How is that possible you ask? For starters, Golf Club: Wasteland doesn’t have a normal backdrop. Yes, it’s on Earth, but this takes place long after the planet had been wiped out and escaped to Mars to colonize. Now only the ultra-rich can afford to go to Earth for their favorite pastime, golfing. It’s a ridiculous premise, but the more I thought about it, it’s completely something that we could all see coming. I mean, two of the richest men in the world literally just went to the edge of space privately due to their privilege, so this really isn’t all that farfetched.

You are a lone golfer, Charlie, playing through various holes on Earth in your spacesuit while listening to a nostalgic radio signal from Mars while you’re above ground shooting the links. Between each hole you’ll get snippets of backstory, of which I don’t want to spoil given Golf Club: Wasteland’s short playthrough of 35 holes. Basically Earth has been long abandoned due to climate change, natural disasters and the top 1% greed; sounds familiar doesn’t it? Now that humans live on Mars, Earth has been relegated to a glorified golf course instead of a home since it’s now uninhabitable.

To prove that the ultra-rich run the world, even on Mars, the colony you’re from is actually named Tesla City, but this also is a way that Golf Club: Wasteland makes its political stances without outright directly referencing anyone or organization. Faded neon lights still litter the apocalyptic remains of Earth buildings with “Covfefe” and other billboards and graffiti that mimic the times we live in now. It’s a powerful statement done in a subtle way full of other Easter Eggs and references you may figure out if you keep an eye out.

Each hole feels unique and has its own tone. The holes begin to feel almost like a puzzle as you’ll sometimes have different options of how you want to reach the hole and find those perfect shots. Given that this is a 2D golf game, you can expect there to be shortcuts and other little tricks to find how to get the best scores possible. Certain holes will require you to hit a wall mounted button to open a garage door, while others will have shortcuts but much smaller platforms to land on that requires a lot of skill and practice.

The best part is that while you are tracked on your shots and score, it’s not the emphasis on your first playthrough, to the point where your score isn’t even shown on screen and there’s no fanfare for doing well or booing if you played a poor hole aside from your own disappointment. This made for a very relaxing experience as I hit the links across abandoned buildings, swamps filled with radioactive goo and other oddities. This meant I could focus on my shots and appreciate the background visuals, but also actually concentrate on the relaxing soundtrack from Radio Nostalgia.

For casual players wanting to simply enjoy a relaxing golfing experience, the Story Mode is where you’ll want to spend your time. You’ll earn backstory for holes you make par, but it’s not forced and you can come back to any hole you want later on. Play well enough and you’ll unlock the diary of the lonely golfer to learn more of the backstory and what happened to him and why he’s here. This gives players incentives to revisit certain chapters in hopes of a higher score. Those that want to prove their worth as an astronaut golfer can try their luck in Challenge Mode. Here you’re unable to move onto the next hole until you make it in Par. Sounds easy but some of the holes can be quite challenging until you figure them out and get the skills to land the ball exactly where you want. Lastly is Iron Mode. Here you’re unable to make any mistakes and will need to basically play perfectly to complete or you go back to the beginning, so good luck.

Most people will know how to golf in games naturally, but the controls are quite simplistic. Basically you aim the Left Stick the direction you want to hit the ball and you’ll see the aimer indicated with an arrow, the further you move the stick, the harder you’ll hit the ball. Hit the button and you’ll make the swing. These controls were changed since the preview build we experienced, so it took a little getting used to. Your golfer will automatically head to the ball with his jetpack once you’ve made your shot as well, so anyone really can pick it up and play without any need for confusing tutorials.

When you think of Grand Theft Auto, the soundtrack is probably one of the more memorable features, it’s no different with Golf Club: Wasteland either. The Radio Nostalgia that plays throughout was easily the highlight of my Golf Club: Wasteland experience. The whole game has a relaxing tonality and the chill music only helps set the mood. The broadcast will also have short stories from survivors who tell interesting stories about their memories on Earth or how they got to Tesla City. The DJ has an ultra-smooth and relaxing tone and the audio couldn’t have been any better in this aspect. Complete the campaign and you’ll even be given a QR code to download the OST, something I highly suggest doing as the music is fantastically done by Igor and Shane Berry, a former Tokyo-based DJ and Sound Designer.

It’s odd that for a golf game, the golfing aspect really isn’t its main focus. Yes, that’s what you’ll be doing throughout playing, but the underlying message feels much more important here. The artistic style is basic but beautiful for taking place on a desolate planet, even when you see seagull crap on a monument where your next hole is located or a giraffe that eats your ball if it lands nearby.

Golf Club: Wasteland’s atmosphere is great and its relaxed vibe was something I looked forward to after a long day at work or as a palate cleanser from my typical game genres. The soundtrack is absolutely fantastic and made for a really unique golfing experience. While the adventure is a brief one, able to be completed in a single sitting, you’re always able to work on bettering your score or truly challenging yourself with its Iron Mode, or do what I do and simply load it up to listen to its OST.

**Golf Club: Wasteland was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 Greak: Memories of Azur

When a game has a beautiful artistic style and aesthetic, it can be easy to forgive some of its other shortcomings. Sometimes though when the frustration outweigh the positives it brings down the whole experience, no matter how much you wanted to enjoy it. This is a tale of a gorgeous sidescrolling adventure with hand drawn visuals that I instantly fell in love with when I saw it, eventually forcing myself to play through it once you have to fight against the main mechanics the whole way through. This was the case for me with Greak: Memories of Azur.

You start out playing as the character Greak, part of a race called Courines who are under attack from a rival faction, the Urlags. The situation is getting so dire that soldiers aren’t returning home and now the Courines are starting to make plans to leave their home of Azur via an airship that they’re attempting to build. Greak’s brother and sister, Raydel and Adara, have gone missing, so before he can do anything else he must search for them among the swamps, forests and temples that neighbor their village.

Greak wields a small sword and is quite proficient with it. He’s also able to jump and climb and will need to utilize all his skills to defeat the Urlags along the way. The overarching narrative is a typical tale of you having to save everyone, though you’ll need to find your siblings before you can do so. As you eventually find and save them, they’ll join you on your quest to run errands to find parts for the airship so that everyone can escape before the Urlags take over and kill everyone. Not only is the artwork great with its colourful palette, but the few cutscenes you do get are all hand drawn, looking like a classic anime, adding even more life to the characters.

While you’ll only begin with Greak, you’ll eventually get to add siblings Adara and Raydel to your team as you progress and make your way through the lands of Azur. Most of the time you’ll be jumping and climbing platforms, stopping every few moments to fight and defeat enemies that randomly spawn along your path. Now and then you’ll have to deal with some puzzles, mostly pressure switches or sending one character to turn a crank to hold a door open while the other passes through. You’ll gain just a few more basic combat moves as you complete side quests, but there’s no skill tree or special moves.

As you explore areas you’ll come across locked off parts which you’ll need special keys or items to access. Reaching the end of one area usually culminates in a boss fight and then having you backtrack all the way to the village to hand in your quest and talk to someone. There’s a couple fast travel points, but not enough to solve the frustration of constant backtracking. The areas are decently sized but you’re constantly slowed down by having to get each character across larger gaps one at a time, but more on that shortly.

All three characters, once gained, have their own skills and playstyles. Greak simply double jumps and can attack with his sword, Adara does a small float, much like Princess Peach in classic Mario Bros games, and lastly Raydel deals more damage and can block attacks and other things with his shield. Individually they are perfectly fine to play as regardless of whom, but having to control them all simultaneously is where Greak: Memories of Azur starts to quickly fall apart.

Once you have control of two characters, you need to control both at the same time. One button will make them run to your position provided that there’s no gap or drop, and another will make them run alongside you when held. This in theory works, but in execution it’s one of the more frustrating mechanics I’ve ever had to suffer through.

Crossing small gaps shouldn’t be a big deal when you have two or more characters running alongside you, but the problem comes in since they all cross gaps differently. Greak double jumps but Adara floats when the button is held. This means they’ll land in different spots or fall into a pit. The only real solution to this is taking one character, getting them across to safety, swapping to the other and then taking them across hoping that an enemy doesn't attack the first character. Do this for every gap and large leap and you’ll start to understand how tedious this becomes, even more so once you have all three characters. If there are enemies around, good luck, because they don’t really defend themselves and if any one of the three characters die, game over and back to your last save, of which there’s no auto saves.

This issue is exasperated when it comes to boss fights. Not only do regular Urlag enemies pose problems, but bosses with large health bars are near impossible to do if you bring all your characters in to fight, because again, if one dies, game over. I suppose you’re supposed to quickly swap between characters when safe to do so and attack them at different times, but actually doing so isn’t really practical. Instead, I just hid two of my characters up on a ledge or in a corner and took on the boss solo with just one instead.

The fact that the core gameplay is built around controlling three characters, yet is the worst part of the whole experience, the longer my adventure went the less I wanted to play it when I kept failing because of the poor controls. Just as equally terrible is the inventory management. You can only hold two or three items initially with each character, but this is nowhere near enough space given you need to always have healing food and items along with quest items and more. Your bag is going to be constantly full, even if you shell out the gems to purchase a bag upgrade of a single slot. That’s right, 100 gems for a single inventory slot and only purchasable once.

There’s a mechanic about finding cooking pots to create food from three separate ingredients, but I tended to never have enough ingredients when I eventually found these pots due to lack of inventory space. Also, your inventories aren’t shared, so if one character is low on health and you’re not controlling them, you’ll need to swap, open their bag then eat before switching back.

Even worse, quest items count as bag space that needs to be held onto. So when you get two keys to open some mysterious doors, that’s two less healing items you can take with you until they are used. Also, the stacking quantity is so low that it just adds to the frustration. Some items are meant to be brought back to town to be sold for a decent price, but again, good luck having the bag space to actually do so since you’ll need as much healing food on you at all times due to the terrible group mechanics listed above.

Greak: Memories of Azur is so beautifully drawn, I hated to not enjoy the gameplay so much, as I wanted to stay within its world to admire its vistas and animation. The colors are so bright and the cutscenes are done to perfection. There’s plenty of small details and is simply a delight to take in visually. The soundtrack is done just as well, with a live orchestra performing a soothing and fitting tone that fits the aesthetic perfectly.

It's a shame that for how great Greak: Memories of Azur looks and sounds, it’s brought way down by its artificial difficulty from its poor escort controls and mechanics. I should want to play more the further I get into a game’s world, but instead the longer it went on, the less I was enjoying it, simply wanting it to be over due to its controls. Controlling multiple characters is much more frustrating than it should be, especially given how stunning its visuals are. I wanted to love Greak: Memories of Azur on its gorgeous aesthetic alone, but find it hard to recommend at its current price point due to having to constantly babysit multiple characters for a ten hour playthrough.

**Greak: Memories of Azur was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Aliens: Fireteam Elite

The Alien movies have a massive fan base, as it’s one of the more influential and important cinematic movies of our lifetime for its genre. An instant classic, Alien spawned multiple movie sequels, novels, games and more, so to say that fans are passionate about it is an understatement. We all know the history with movie licensed games though, so I’m always skeptical when a game releases that’s tied to a movie franchise. There are exceptions to the rule, but there are also textbook cases like Aliens: Colonial Marines that was a complete disaster, so I went into Aliens: Fireteam Elite with tepid expectations, as it’s built as a three player cooperative survival shooter, not tied on any specific movie.

Set 23 years after the original movie trilogy, Aliens: Fireteam Elite takes place aboard the UAS Endeavor, looking to explore and extract any survivors. If you’re an Aliens buff, you’ll be happy to know that there’s plenty of lore here that revolves around the Weyland-Yutani Corporation, or as most know it by as “The Company”, Xenomorphs, iconic weaponry like the Flamethrower and more. Given that this takes place well after the movies, mankind knows much more about the Xenomorphs, which is why you’ll have no problem shooting down hundreds of them without much effort, unlike in the movies when they were a new and unknown threat.

If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear that many of the levels were ripped right out of the movies, as it felt very much like a true Aliens experience traversing down tight corridors, never knowing what’s around the corner or ceilings. While there is an overarching narrative that takes place across 4 Chapters, each of which have 3 Acts, there’s not much to talk about unless you search around and find the hidden logs. This is exasperated by the fact there’s no real cutscenes you’d expect from a huge franchise like this, nor was any effort put into actually having NPC’s you talk to attempt any lip-syncing at all, so much of its narrative just falls flat.

Aliens: Fireteam Elite is billed as a cooperative shooter, so you’ll choose from one of five unique classes: Gunner, Demolisher, Technician, Doc and Recon. It should be noted though that you don’t actually gain access to the Recon class until after you’ve completed the campaign unfortunately. Each class has its own leveling, abilities, perks and more, so make sure to try them out and see what suits your playstyle and team best. Thankfully you are able to double up on classes, so you don’t have to worry about playing a class you don’t want to if someone else is wanting the same one. Weapon types are tied to specific classes, with more than 30 available, along with plenty of mods and attachments for your weaponry to alter their effectiveness as you take out Xeno’s. I did find it odd that Aliens: Fireteam Elite only utilizes three player co-op, yet has five classes to choose from.

Each class has two abilities mapped to the Bumpers, unique for each. I mainly played the Doc, so one of my abilities was a deployable canister that healed anyone within its radius, and the other gave an accuracy buff for myself and teammates. You aren’t forced to play a certain class or composition, but it sure did help having a Demolisher friend in our group that was able to do massive explosions when we started to get overrun by Xeno’s or Facehuggers. The Technician has a deployable mini turret that can be great when you’re trying to hold your ground against an oncoming attack, and while I didn’t gravitate to every class, you’re sure to find one that speaks to your playstyle.

To further customize your character aside from weapon choice, there’s an interesting perk system that I really enjoyed once I took the time to understand it fully, as it’s not really explained well. You have a perk board that set in a grid-like system. The grey squares are where you can place any unlocked perks and mods but they have to physically fit in this grid, much like how you had to physically fit your loot in Diablo 3’s inventory. Some perks are large 2x2 squares, others are 1x3 or larger, so you’ll need to figure out which ones you want to use and then see if there’s a way to even do so with the other mods and perks. To make things even more complicated, certain mods, usually 1x2 in size, are small, but need to be attached to certain sides of the grid where your abilities rest on its outer edge. It’s a little complicated at first, but as you level up your class you’ll unlock more grid area for your perks, allowing you to fit in more or however you see fit.

There are multiple difficulties to choose, from Casual up to Extreme, though you need to complete the campaign to unlock the two hardest. Even on Casual, your first few chapters are going to be rough going until you can get your gear score up and learn how best to stave off against the never ending swarms of Xeno. While there are 12 levels in all for the campaign, they will all generally play out the exact same way. You rush from point A to B, once there you have to hold the line and stay alive for a few minutes, then go to the next point to do it all over again until the exit of the level is accessible. There’s really no variation of this gameplay loop at all save for the final level nor is there any massive cool boss fights or setpieces. While it’s enjoyable for a while, every level is literally the same setup, so there’s some mundaneness that comes with repeating the same level layout over and over again.

The best parts are when you’re having to interact with a button or something, waiting for a door to open or a download. This is where waves of unrelenting enemies conveniently start to rush at you, becoming more challenging as you go, eventually spawning Spitters, Warriors, Preatorians and other Xeno types. These swarms can be quite challenging and hectic, but you’ll also find caches of equipment at certain points alongside ammo crates and health packs. This equipment can be special ammo types, mines, turrets and more, and will be necessary to use at the best times if you want a chance at surviving on the harder difficulties.

While you’ll fight off generic Xeno fodder most of the time, the harder enemies are much more of a bullet sponge, forcing your team to focus fire and utilizing your abilities if you want to take them down quickly before you get overrun. Remember though, Xeno’s blood is acidic and will harm you if you step in it, so you’ve always got to be aware of your footing. Thankfully this fades away quickly, as does the corpses, though it would have been cool to see a mound of Xeno corpses piled up after a massive firefight.

Just like in the films, Xenomorphs can seemingly come out of nowhere; tunnels, cubby holes, vents and any other crawl place, so you’ll always need to be on your toes. You do have the iconic radar system, looking and sounding as if it was ripped right out of the movies themselves. You do though need to learn to always be on the move though, as even when you clear one of the mini horde sections where you’re just trying to survive, enemies will almost always be in pursuit of you. This means there are very few moments of actual rest, so if someone on your team needs to use the washroom or step away, you’re going to be in for a bad time.

There are some hidden lore documents within the levels to be found, but aside from that and one hidden cache per level, there’s no real reason to explore the levels sadly. This means you literally just want to run to your objective markers whenever they appear and focus on that instead of exploration, which is a shame given how good some of the levels are designed and appear. Another design choice that some might not agree with is that there’s no regenerating health of any kind unless you have a Doc on your team. You’ll need to look for health packs set at the main checkpoints, though there’s only ever one per player placed for you, so you’re going to have to communicate who needs it the most, though you are able to heal other players with yours if needed.

So you’ve beaten the campaign and wondering what else there is to do aside from grinding through it multiple times to level up your other classes? There’s also a card system that you can choose to play if you wish that adds modifiers to each level you use them on. This card system will add unique modifiers that will make gameplay near impossible but give massive bonuses to XP and credit rewards, or rare cards that give bonus money for completion for a certain amount of damage or headshots. I enjoyed the idea of these cards but it’s implemented incredibly poorly. For example, there’s one card that challenges you with trying to headshot 75 Synthetic enemies. This is fine and good, but if you play this card on a level where you don’t find any of these enemy types, you’ve just wasted the card for no reason. The same goes for if you crash out or quit the match, the card is gone from your inventory once it’s played. The bonus XP and credits make the challenge worthwhile if you have a good enough team to fulfil these side objectives, but they can add some extreme difficulty, like doing double damage, but also taking twice as much as well.

So if Aliens: Fireteam Elite is a three player cooperative survival shooter, you’d think that its online multiplayer component would be its biggest focus right? I assumed that too but was completely wrong. You are able to play solo or with two players if you wish, and bots will replace any missing human players. Sounds good, but they are near useless on the harder difficulties and they can’t really pull their own weight in any way for the most part once you start playing on Insane or higher.

The worst offence though comes from how the matchmaking actually works. First off, there’s no drop in/out, so you’ll need to gather your party before queuing up. Worse is that if a player crashes or drops out, they are replaced with a bot but unable to rejoin until you finish or quit as well. Don’t have friends to play with but still want to play with others? Good luck. When you matchmake to find other players, you’re queuing for a specific level, Chapter 2 Act 3 for example. A 60 second timer begins to count down and if it doesn’t find any other players looking to queue for that exact level within that time, bots get placed in your game. That means you need to hope that people are queuing for the exact level and difficulty you want to attempt within the same 60 second countdown or you’re going to be playing alone with bots. There’s no lobby system or viewer and I was only able to find other players via the Looking For Group built into the Xbox. Oh and to make things worse, there’s no crossplay, so you better hope your friends also bought the game on the same console family.

Aesthetically, Aliens: Fireteam Elite looks as if it absolutely belongs in any of the iconic films. Level design, weapons and Xeno’s all look legit and can impress when you have a few moments of breathing room to take in the visuals. Audio is decent at best, as the Xeno’s screams sound just like in the movies, as does the motion tracker, but the weapons sound quite weak overall. There’s a few sections where some awesome music kicks in when you’re fighting off a horde of Xeno’s, but this is far and few in between.

Even though it’s not a fully priced new release ($49.99 CAD), it’s still quite mediocre overall. Guns don’t feel all that impactful and levels are varied in design but play out exactly the same way no matter which you choose. Having a class and a dedicated Horde mode locked behind campaign completion seems like an odd decision to me, and while that will only take a handful of hours since each level lasts roughly a half hour, you’ll most likely have your fill by the time campaign is complete.

If it wasn’t for the franchise backdrop, Aliens: Fireteam Elite would be just a basic horde shooter that becomes tiresome and repetitive unless you really want to grind to max out each of the characters and weapons. For a game that focuses on multiplayer, a mountain full of more effort could have went into quality of life improvements to make it a seamless shooter to gather friends online and shoot some Xeno’s. Game over man, GAME OVER.

**Aliens: Fireteam Elite was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.3 / 10 Eldest Souls

Bosses are meant as a way to be not only be a reward of sorts for surviving through a level, but to also challenge you and test the skills you’ve amassed so far up until that point. Boss fights can be very memorable experiences, as they’re usually quite challenging and act as a gatekeeper, making sure you have the skills and abilities to defeat them before moving onto the next chapter of a game. That is with traditional game design though, so what happens if you take the rest of the ‘game’ out and simply just leave the bosses only?

This is essentially what developers Fallen Flag Studio has done with Eldest Souls, getting rid of all that unnecessary ‘filler’ of normal enemies and exploration, opting for a unique Boss-Rush soulslike experience instead. Eldest Souls simply pits you in one boss battle until you’re proficient enough to defeat them before moving onto the next. Those that enjoy the difficulty challenge from the Souls games will feel right at home, for others, you’re going to want to make sure you have a backup controller for when you inevitably want throw yours across the room after an hour of dying to the same boss repeatedly.

While there is an overarching narrative, it’s clearly not the focus here. You’ll get snippets here and there but no major cutscenes or revelations for the most part. Man managed to fight back against the Old Gods, eventually imprisoning them within the sacred walls of the Citadel where they still remain. In retaliation, the Old Gods released calamity upon the world and now most of mankind is gone. You’re one of the sole survivors, the only one that can change fate. Armed with a massive greatsword made from pure Obsydian, you’re tasked with uncovering the mysteries of the Old Gods and saving the world before it’s too late.

Having a game describe itself as ‘soulslike’, I already knew I was going to be in for a rough time with some extremely difficult challenges. Given that Eldest Souls is a boss-rush game, you only get the best, and hardest, parts of the game one after another. Manage to survive and your character will grow in skill, able to take on the next boss challenge that awaits you.

While the boss fights back to back are the hook for Eldest Souls, there is some light exploration as you go from area to area before taking on another boss. There’s a few NPC’s to speak and interact with, some offering minor sidequests or rewards if you can find certain objects hidden along the way. It’s clear that a lot of work went into creating this world but there’s very little to do within it aside from taking in the beautiful pixel artwork.

Combat is where Eldest Souls excels. Fast paced and deliberate, you’ll need to have quick reflexes and be able to learn from your mistakes when you take on each boss a number of times before finally figuring out their attack patterns and tells. Bosses rarely let up, always keeping you on your toes, and that’s before they go through a number of phases, altering their attacks and becoming even harder as the fight goes on. I’m not ashamed to admit that I spent well more than an hour on a single boss before being able to defeat them, making the satisfaction of doing so that much better.

Being able to, and knowing when to dodge is going to be the only way you survive in Eldest Souls. If you’re a Dark Souls player that spam rolls in combat, you’re going to have a bad time. You’re only given a limited amount of stamina, so you won’t be able to freely dodge constantly; you’ll need to be much more deliberate when you do so, learning to make use of that moment of invulnerability.

Utilizing a top-down view, this means there’s also some bosses that make use of some projectiles that will make you feel like you’re playing in a bullet-hell. While there’s only eight or so bosses, they are all quite varied, each with their own attack patterns, phases and difficulty. It’s clear that these were created with a lot of thought behind their design, each challenging you in completely different ways.

While it would have been a decent experience to have a Boss-Rush mode with typical combat, there’s a really unique mechanic that really made me enjoy its combat even more. You have a light attack which is where you’ll do much of your damage, but there’s also a charge attack that will dash towards the boss and do heavier damage. This charge attack also fills a meter that will then heal you for any subsequent attacks. So it’s not like you have to be perfect for each boss fight, as you can do a charge attack then some light attacks to refill your health, but knowing the timing to do so is where the skill comes in.

There’s also a variety of different skills and abilities that you can freely swap on the fly between battles depending on what suits your playstyle. There are three different skill trees, and you can only utilize one at a time. Windslide favors those that want quicker movement, Counter allows you to deflect attacks and Berserk Slash is more offensive based moves. For each boss you kill you get a crystal that can be slotted into these trees, allowing you to customize your abilities to suit how you play. Being able to respec for free at any time means you can experiment with what build works best for you on each boss until you can finally defeat them.

The 16-bit style aesthetic is done wonderfully, as the characters and bosses are done with pixel perfection, having a surprising amount of fine details. While the world you explore between bosses is beautiful, it’s empty but makes for some scenic backdrops. Audio is done just as well; even though there’s no real dialogue, the soundtrack is done fantastically and suits the mood and tonality of Eldest Souls perfectly with epic and chaotic battles.

If you’re a glutton for punishment there’s more than enough challenge here for you. Souls fans will no doubt be able to finish the game in a few hours the first time through, but there’s New Game+ and more in store for those that want to grind even further and challenge themselves to the limits. I’ll admit, I’m still working on trying to best that final boss on my first playthrough, but I’m not getting as quickly frustrated as I do with regular Souls-like games.

For under $20 USD, Eldest Souls offers tons of replayability if you’ve got the will to endure its extreme challenge. When you die dozens of times to the same boss but start to learn their attack patterns and intricacies, you can start to see progress in your skills once you wipe away your tears of frustration. Once you finally do best that boss you’ve been stuck on for well over an hour or two, the satisfaction is insurmountable and thrilling when everything finally goes to plan.

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

Overall Score: 8.6 / 10 Blightbound

As an avid MMORPG player for over two decades, I always get excited when a game releases that not only utilizes and requires co-op, but even more so when the “Holy Trinity” is used. For the unaware, this is when a group of players require a Tank (The character that’s on the front line, usually with a sword and shield, soaking up all the damage and keeping agro in close quarters), DPS (Those that deal massive amounts of damage) and Support (Usually a healer or mage of some sorts). Best known for Awesomenauts, developer Ronimo Games has created a multiplayer dungeon crawler game that could best be described as Castle Crashers meets Diablo where three heroes band together to take on endless enemies that threatens the land.

A band of legendary heroes defeated and slayed the Shadow Titan, a massive beast that was threatening every living thing. Their victory was short lived though, as when he was defeated, it left behind a broken Sun. A fog flowed from its husk and turns any living thing into an evil creature that is exposed to it for too long. The only safe place from the Blight is high in the mountains, where our heroes take upon themselves a quest to fight back against any evil within the fog. An ancient race created powerful items that protect against Blight, which is how you stay safe within, trying to fight back and hopefully recover your homeland one day.

A team of three heroes will band together, either locally or online, and choose a dungeon to delve into that’s randomized in difficulty and rewards. Blightbound is very much a dungeon crawler, as you’ll be fighting numerous enemies, solving light puzzles and searching for loot along the way. At the end of each dungeon is a massive boss that will most likely destroy you the first few times you attempt them until you start to get better gear and improve your stats.

Each player, or bot, has a specific role to play based on their archetype. Warriors will block damage, the Rogue will deal massive damage and the Mage can heal allies. Only one person can fill a specific role in each party, so if two players enjoy playing the Mage for example, one will have to be one of the other classes if they want to play together. You begin with one of each type of hero, eventually able to find and purchase more along the way, each with their own unique abilities and playstyles.

I opted to stick with the first healer given simply because of his ability to keep my teammates alive and also place a shield on anyone that grants invulnerability for 5 seconds. Each class plays differently as well, and while I tried them all, I really enjoyed the Mage much more than the others, though you can freely switch to any other character or class between dungeon runs. This is actually encouraged, as you’re going to need to do quite a grind to reach the endgame and craft the best loot.

Each hero is unique, not only with their passives, abilities and ultimates, but how they actually play. Mages for example can heal, but to do so I need to have mana. These are dropped from combat randomly and need to be picked up shortly after they appear or they dissolve and disappear. When these orbs are gathered, not only does the person picking it up get a small heal, but I as a mage gets to bank that orb regardless who gathered it.

Knowing when to use your abilities and how to stay alive is going to make a drastic difference in your success. To use my heal I actually place a circle on the ground that then heals whomever is in it at the time, though this means you’ll need to communicate with your team, as they can be wasted if they don’t stay within the circle when the heal goes off. Dodging and avoiding enemy attacks becomes absolutely paramount later on as well, as you’ll need to avoid large damaging abilities on the ground, lasers and other attacks that can instantly kill you if you’re not careful.

Very reminiscent of Castle Crashers, Blightbound is a 2D brawler that also takes inspiration from Diablo with its loot and leveling. Based on your party makeup, levels and gear you’re given an estimate of how powerful your team is with a score. As you choose which dungeon to run, each will randomly vary in difficulty based on its Blight level. The higher the number the more challenging it will be. Good luck once you start to play the Hard or higher difficulties, as you’re going to get whooped if you don’t have a solid team that understands all of Blightbound’s mechanics.

While there’s a handful of dungeons, the randomized difficulty levels make for completely unique and challenging runs. Enemy attack patterns change on higher difficulties quite drastically as well. For example, there’s an enemy I absolutely hate that shoots out a beam from their chest that can easily destroy you in a matter of seconds if you’re not careful and avoid it. On a higher difficulty they actually have four lasers that rotate around them, making for a much more chaotic and challenging battle. I won’t lie, I had to grind the lowest Blight level dungeons for a while before I was able to slowly move up and take on the harder ones.

While there is gear and loot for you to strive to get, it’s nowhere near as in-depth as Diablo. There are multiple tiers of loot as you’d expect, but when it comes to your weapons there’s only a few options for each class in the tiers. Once you start to get blue tiered weapons for example, there’s really only four or five choices. Once you start to get higher tier gear, you’re almost forced into choosing specific gear and weapons as they eventually start to have bonuses for specific skills and abilities which you’ll want to utilize based on the heroes you have that utilize said skills. For example, I eventually got a trinket I could equip on any of my Mages, but I definitely wanted to use it as it gave me a 10% chance of casting my heal for free. Or maybe a piece of gear makes the Ice Beam skill more powerful, something that is basically useless to me since my specific Mage doesn’t have that ability.

There are bounties to complete, challenging you with defeating a certain amount of specific enemies or other objectives. There’s also a Forge where you’ll be able to create some impressive gear the further you progress your base camp, but these require a lot of dungeon grinding to get the materials you need. Some items need specific tokens you can only get by playing certain classes, which is how Blightbound encourages you to grind each archetype.

While you can play with bots if you don’t have any friends online to play with, Blightbound is a much more rewarding experience with some friends in party chat. There is cross-play enabled to find players across other platforms, though I tend to have to sit in the lobby for a few minutes each time waiting for someone to join, so I usually just end up running solo with the two bots.

Surprisingly the bots are quite decent at combat, able to dish out some serious damage and use their skills somewhat appropriately, but when it comes to puzzles it’s a whole other experience. Most puzzles have you either standing on pressure switches or hitting some lanterns until you find the right pattern to unlock the door. With three switches to stand on the AI will have no problem going to them and waiting if it’s a basic puzzle, but once there’s a little more involved you’ll start to understand my frustration. The worst of this occurred in a spot where all three characters had to stand on the pressure plates, but it was also around a tower that infinitely spawns enemies until you completed the puzzle. Needless to say, the AI bots didn’t want to complete the puzzle and simply stayed in combat the whole time.

Aesthetically Blightbound is cute and colorful to look at. Characters are hand drawn 2D cutouts but move in 3D within the dungeons, adding for an interesting Paper Mario-like effect. Much of the narrative is voiced, but it’s not experienced like most games where you have cutscenes after pivotable sections of the game, instead giving individual character stories and background based on whom you’re playing and find within the dungeons.

While I wasn’t sure what to initially expect from Blightbound, I quite enjoyed the 'Holy Trinity' class setup and addictiveness when it comes to playing alongside some friends, trying our luck on the harder difficulties as we slowly improved our characters and skills. If you have a friend or two that you’re able to grind for quite some time with in some dungeon runs you’re going to have a decent time with Blightbound. If you’re going to rely on random online players or AI bots, you’re going to have nowhere near as rewarding of an experience.

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

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Sam & Max Save the World

If I had to name some iconic characters from early 2000 games, you can bet that Sam & Max would be up there on my list somewhere. Sam & Max has been around since the late 80’s, starting with a comic, eventually branching out to TV and games. If you played an adventure game in the 90’s, it almost certainly was from LucasArts, as they were undeniable king when it came to the then popular adventure genre. I’ve been a long time Sam & Max fan, as I even have some original artwork signed hung up on my wall, so you could say I was excited when I found out Sam & Max Save the World was getting the remastered treatment for current gen.

They had a bit of a break after their first game, but returned with another in 2006. Originally released in six separate episodes under the 'Season One' banner, Sam & Max Save the World was eventually what the collection name of Season One came to be when it was complete. Oh, you’ve not heard of Sam & Max? Sam is a six-foot suit wearing dog that has quite a vernacular, and Max is a frenzied rabbit that is always hyper, incredibly quick witted and always wanting to cause bodily harm if the opportunity arises. Oh, and they also happen to be Freelance Police, created by Steve Purcell.

Before Telltale Games really broke out with their The Walking Dead series, they were the ones responsible for Sam & Max Save the World, and as far as I know, one of the first episodic game releases that I can think of. Having released on Xbox 360 under the Xbox Arcade banner, it’s been a long time coming, but Sam & Max are finally back in the spotlight with this Remastered version.

More than a simple coat of paint, developers Skunkape (a clever nod to the Sam & Max universe if you know your games) along with a handful of original Telltale team members have taken the time to make this release special. All six episodes have been given quite an overhaul, and for a longtime fan like myself that has played through the game more than once, seeing the improvements was exciting as you could tell they put a lot of work into the smaller details, not to mention having Steve Purcell’s blessing. Given the recent history of Telltale shutting its doors, this Remaster was completely unexpected but welcomed.

Gaming back in 2006 when it originally released was quite different from now. For starters, 4:3 was a common aspect ratio and resolutions were nowhere near the common 4K quality standard of today. First and foremost, Sam & Max Save the World now supports your standard 16:9 ratio, 4K resolution, HDR and much more, so it’s going to look much more modern. There’s a few other major improvements, much coming from dynamic lighting and improved lip sync. Given that there’s quite a lot of dialogue across the six episodes, this was quite noticeable compared to the original release. The audio has also been remastered so that it doesn’t sound as compressed, another major improvement that is noticeable due to the heavy dialogue that takes place. Five completely new tracks from some of the original musicians were also made for this release, so there’s something new for original fans like myself as well.

Character models themselves have also been slightly tweaked to appear better, more resembling their comic counterparts. A couple puzzles were ‘fixed’, as it turns out quite a lot of players got stuck on specific puzzles, so they simply moved an item or two to make it more noticeable. One of the biggest changes though probably has to be with the recasting of Bosco, a pivotal character you interact with in all six episodes. This apparently wasn’t a decision taken lightly, as it was originally a white actor doing a stereotypical African American impression, so it was re-recorded with a Black actor with some minor changes to the dialogue, of which the performance was fantastic.

There’s actually quite a lengthy post by the developers outlining all the changes and improvements, as there are many more, and it goes to show that all of this work was done not just deliberately to create a better game overall, but to also balance while not changing too much of which the original team created at the same time. This is where Remasters become tricky, as too many changes might draw ire from old school fans, but simply putting a new coat of paint on top can come across as lazy as well. If I had one complaint for this Remaster was that there wasn’t any section for ‘extras’ anywhere that could be unlocked, giving behind the scenes footage, storyboards or anything else you might expect.

At the beginning of each episode Sam & Max will receive a call from the Commissioner to give you your next case that needs solving ASAP. Each episode has its own contained story and case that you’ll solve, but there’s also an overarching mystery that takes place across the six episodes that you’re working towards as well. To crack the cases you’re going to have to put your detective thinking hat on and talk to everyone you can to get clues on how to proceed with each obstacle in your way to the truth. You can expect some crazy situations and situations you’d only expect to see in a cartoon or comic, which is fitting given Sam & Max’s personality and zaniness. The overarching story gets crazier and funnier as you go, so make sure you take your time and enjoy all of the cleverly written dialogue throughout.

You mainly control Sam as you explore and interact with objects in each scene. Walking to certain objects will make Sam place it in his inventory, generally meaning you’re going to need it to solve some certain puzzle later on. Each episode lasts at least one to three hours, depending on your clever detective work or use of a walkthrough, though prepare to become stumped on more than a handful of occasions. Certain puzzles can be quite obtuse, almost forcing you to brute forcing a solution by trying to use every item with every object when you can’t figure out what to do. I surprisingly remembered quite a lot of the game from my original playthrough over a decade ago, but I too became stuck on more than a handful of occasions. Because of how over the top Sam & Max can be, sometimes the solutions are too completely ‘out there’.

The majority of the time I was laughing at the jokes Sam & Max would quip to one another, especially Max’s crazy antics and one-liners. The duo get into some very peculiar situations, and seeing them talk their way out of a situation had me snort laugh more than once. While some of the pop culture jokes will go over the heads of a younger audience, the writing overall is one of the wittiest and more humour filled experiences you can have. There’s so much voiced dialogue that you’ll want to explore every option with every NPC you come across, as I guarantee you’ll chuckle on more than a handful of occasions, many of which the jokes still hold up over a decade and a half later.

Returning to playing a Sam & Max game sure brings back some serious nostalgia, and I’m so glad to report that Sam & Max Save the World still holds up to this day. Keeping in mind this genre isn’t as popular as it once was, it’s a glimpse into what early Telltale Games’ experiences were like, one that I surely miss. While it’s all been but explicitly confirmed by Skunkape, I’m now waiting for Sam & Max Season 2 and 3 to release hopefully sooner than later to continue the wacky duo's adventures.

**Sam & Max Save the World was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.8 / 10 Observer: System Redux

I actually quite enjoyed the original release of >observer_ back in 2017 when I initially reviewed it. It was a very unique take on the cyberpunk genre, mixing detective work, abstract sequences and a future that really isn’t that farfetched of an idea at the rate our world is going these days. The game got a new facelift, added mechanics and more and renamed itself Observer: System Redux back in late 2020. While I never got around to playing System Redux when it released, it recently just got an update to make use of next-gen systems on Xbox Series X|S, so of course I had to go through it one more time on my Xbox Series X to see what all the fuss about having an improved edition is all about.

Before I delve into the game itself, much of this will be from my original >observer_ review, as the core game itself hasn’t changed much aside from some new cases, mechanics and of course improved visual fidelity. If you’ve played the original >observer_ before and want to know if it’s worth going through once more, it’s more than a simple pretty paint job.

On an Xbox Series X you can expect 4K resolution, 60FPS, many upgraded textures, ray-tracing, HDR lighting and even new models and animations. The original game looked great at the time on Xbox One, so you can tell that Bloober Team has taken the time and effort to make it stand out even more on the latest consoles. You can swap the ray-tracing and more in the options on the fly, noting the differences, and with everything turned on, Observer: System Redux is quite impressive to take all in. The most notable change is obviously going to be the graphic fidelity and loading time, vastly improved from its original release. The lighting is much better, ray-tracing adds more realism to the water effects and reflections, and some models seem even more realistic. While it all seemed familiar, it certainly did perform and look much better than I remember.

Other than these improvements, Bloober Team also says that there are new mechanics, redesigned stealth (which was my most hated aspect of the original game and still is), quality of life improvements and even three new side cases that are optional, adding roughly about 20% length to the overall playtime should you do everything. If you’re unable to get into doorways the normal way, you might need to hack and decrypt the circuits to gain access. As for the improved stealth, I couldn’t tell you what was changed, as the sections where you required it were still terrible and frustrating to get through.

The bulk of the new ‘meat’ though comes in the form of the three new cases: Errant Signal, Her Fearful Symmetry and It Runs in the Family. I don’t want to give anything about these new cases away as to not spoil them for potential original players experiencing them for the first time, but I was more than impressed. These new cases were very unique and actually more memorable than some of the campaign cases itself, well worth replaying for.

Observer: System Redux tells the story about Daniel Lazarski, voiced and by the late Rutger Hauer, investigating an apartment block in Krakow set in 2084 looking for his son. This is the future and set in the cyberpunk genre, so you can expect a lot of neon, electronica and some truly unique imagery once you delve into people’s minds as Dan tries to find clues about his estranged son.

You see, Observer is attempting to be a physiological thriller, and while there may only be a handful of jump scares, some of the abstract imagery could be classified as horror. Observer feels fresh, as if they were trying to do something new, and even though there’s a handful of faults, I kept having to play until the story came to a conclusion and the credits rolled, even for a second time when I knew the outcome already.

Observer simply asks: What would you do if your fears got hacked and used against you? It’s an odd question, as I know what fears I have and what scares me, but what other twisted things could possibly be in other people’s heads? Daniel Lazarski works for a corporate funded ‘police’ unit whose sole function is to hack into suspects minds, known as an Observer. This is achieved easily, as it seems nearly everyone has had some sort of cybernetic implants, making the Chrion Corporation a super power that runs nearly everything in this digital focused world.

There’s been a digital outbreak, simply known as the Nanophage, which brings the digital dependent civilization practically to its knees. Observers are meant to be used to investigate crimes, easily finding the truth, as you can’t hide information that’s in your mind when hacked, using the evidence against you. It’s a scary vision of a world that could be, and possibly in our lifetime.

Observer begins with Daniel sitting in his car, receiving a troubling call from his distant son with no real explanation before the call ends. He tracks down his whereabouts to rundown apartment building in the seedy part of the city. This building seems to house some nasty people, and as you investigate further in search of your son you’ll uncover some troubling situations and people, which you’ll need to interact with and solve what’s going on. I don’t want to go much more into the narrative, as the story that unfolds was quite interesting, even if it only lasts around six or so hours depending on how many side cases you pursue.

You play in first person, and at its core I would best describe it as a puzzle/detective/exploration game. The majority of your gameplay in the beginning will be based around searching the apartment complex for clues and investigating crime scenes. There’s the odd dialogue choices you get to make when conversing with people, but they are only minor. There’s no weapons or combat, as a good portion of your experience will be inside the minds of others.

Your overall mission is to find your missing son, but in these slums people don’t cooperate with Observers, so you won’t find much help, leaving you mostly on your own to solve the mystery, following the smallest leads and clues. There’s no overlay map in the game, so you’ll routinely become lost, even when you find the apartment maps plastered on the wall. Luckily you’ll eventually become accustomed to the building’s layout, but it will take some time of aimlessly wandering around until you feel comfortable navigating the multi-floor building. Nearly every door is locked with no means in, so if you’re lucky, you’ll have one of the neighbors answer the door via their telecom and actually talk to you. This reinforces the fear the citizens have of the Nanophage and also the isolation many of us have been dealing with for the past two years.

Eventually you’ll come across crime scenes that need to be investigated, which brings in one of the main mechanics to Observer. To search the scene for clues, you’ll need to use your three different vision modes, each with its unique function. Right Bumper allows you to see cybernetic items, like implants, wires and anything else digital based. Left Bumper is your Biogenic vision which allows you to examine biological material, namely blood, in search of clues. Clicking in the Right Stick allows for some subtle night vision, something that will come in handy in the near pitch black basement.

I was stuck in the very first room for a while, as there isn’t a lot of explanation teaching you how to properly use your different vision modes. Once you get the hang of it and what to look for, you’ll feel like a digital version of Batman in no time, knowing what to look for with the glowing outlines of objects that can be scanned or interacted with. Using these visions basically blurs everything else I your vision except the cybernetic or biogenic objects, based on which view your using.

Scanning these items, objects, clues and people is where you’ll put your case together, learning more about your objective or how to find out where to go next. There are even a few sidequests that you can partake in if you’re adapt enough at finding and solving certain puzzles and clues. While this adds a little more length to the gameplay, they are completely optional. There’s even a mini retro game to play should you find all of the terminals hidden throughout.

Where things gets weird is when you hack into someone’s mind. The main idea behind Observer is hacking into people’s subconscious, so you’ll experience imagery like you’ve never seen before. You’ll witness events of what’s happened in their past, their fears, memories and more. Many of these sequences won’t make sense in a traditional way, and there’s a lot of symbolism that takes place, but to say that these sections are ‘weird’ is putting it lightly.

If you’ve ever wondered what a subconscious looks like in visual form, I would suspect Observer: System Redux does a great job at trying to visualize that concept. Some is extremely disturbing, horrifying and plain confusing, but one hell of an experience. There’s only a handful of these sequences, so I don’t want to spoil them, but I will say that the level design, even though mostly linear, is very memorable and unique to anything else I’ve ever experienced.

Reality can be distorted in the mind, and that’s the case here as well. Sometimes you’ll have to solve a puzzle, some of which are done in a very clever way. For example, there’s an endless hallway that seems to repeat itself every time you walk through the door, but you’ll notice a TV off to the side shows a picture of a specific doorway, so you go that way instead. The next time you walk through the door it shows a different doorway, which is your clue to follow this specific ‘path’. Do so successfully and you’ll make your way out of the never ending hallway, fail and you’re doomed to be forever wandering aimlessly in someone’s mind.

Later on there will be some hacking sections where you’re pursued by a creature, and while I completely understand why due to the narrative, these sections were more tiresome than enjoyable. I get why these took place, but always dreaded knowing that I had to avoid a hulking creature trying to find me as these stealth sections simply aren’t fun, even with the so called “redesigned stealth”. To say that these mind hack sections can disorientate you is an understatement; remember, there are no rules in someone’s mind, and you need to let go and accept that.

Visually, Observer: System Redux is quite impressive, even more so when you realize how small the team that originally developed it was. The world is completely believable, as you see the bright cyber influences at nearly every corner counteract with the dark and dirty real world. While everything does look quite well in 4K/60FPS, there were times of some minor slowdown, even on an Xbox Series X. Nowhere near as obviously as it was on Xbox One, but just noticeable enough to realize it’s happening at times.

Sound design is worth noting as well, as the background ambiance completely fits the mood and backdrop, and some of the voice acting is done quite well. I say some though with regret. Daniel is voiced by the one and only Rutger Hauer, which has quite a film pedigree, so there’s no question to his acting ability, but there were quite a few times where the delivery of some lines felt completely flat and monotone, not really feeling fit for some of the situations he was in and how he delivered the lines. That’s not to say it’s all bad, but it’s not perfect.

Observer: System Redux is a very unique title, as it’s heavily narrative driven and contains some of the most visceral and unique imagery I’ve ever experienced in a game. Some of the mind sequences are quite horrifying and paint a light on a future that, in all honesty, isn’t really that far off from our reality. Even though it may be wrapped in a science fiction cyberpunk offering, the experience within is a very dark one.

The gameplay elements may be basic and not exciting on their own, but it’s more about the journey you undertake than reaching the end point. The level design is brilliant and some of the experiences are very memorable even though it has flaws, namely the forced stealth sections. If you’re into the cyberpunk genre and want to experience something completely unique and twisted, look no further than Observer: System Redux, especially if you have an Xbox Series X or S to get the best visual experience unlike any other.

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 Lawn Mowing Simulator

It’s time to lace up those white New Balance shoes and grab a beer because it’s time to mow the lawn. Skyhook Games have taken the mundane task of mowing the lawn that many of us hated doing as kids and made a full simulator out of it, though with ride-on mowers that would have certainly made it my time cutting lawns as a kid feel less of a chore. With a few simulator games under their belt like Train Sim World, Train Simulator and others, Skyhook Games have built a reputation on creating simulator gaming experiences, and this one just happens to be about mowing the lawn.

I’ll admit, I initially scoffed at the idea when Lawn Mowing Simulator was announced, though in the last few years, simulators for other genres and mundane tasks have gained an odd popularity and following, and I don’t see this one being any different. I never used to understand the appeal of certain simulators, but my view shifted once I ended up reviewing Farming Simulator a few years back. While not for everyone, simulators like these can be quite entertaining in their own way, and while I live in an apartment and don’t have a lawn of my own to take care of, I can now do so virtually in Lawn Mowing Simulator.

I remember when I played the demo that was released a few weeks ago, thinking I was going to try it out and uninstall afterwards quite quickly, but I found myself oddly mesmerized with wanting to make the perfect lawn mower cuts and see how great I could make the lawn appear. This game is going to have a specific audience, but I have to admit that there’s been a few nights where I just needed a game to relax after playing my main gaming buffet of shooters and racers, and Lawn Mowing Simulator fit that bill perfectly. Now you too can enjoy trimming the lawn along the countryside in Great Britain. A simulator wouldn’t be worth its weight without any actual brands or manufacturers, and Lawn Mowing Simulator brings in authentic mowers from top brands like Toro, SCAG and STIGA, so those dads out there that really know their mowers should be quite pleased with its authenticity.

The bulk of your experience will come in its career mode. Here you start out as a single person accessing contracts that vary in pay and experience. Your goal is to build your lawncare business from the ground up, eventually hiring employees and managing all your expenses and assets. You’ll basically start with nothing, eventually saving enough cash to purchase better mowers, a headquarters, building upgrades, advertisements, attachments for the mowers and of course repairs, fuel and more.

You begin your lawncare career by first creating a male or female avatar. Don’t expect much of a character creator though, as you can’t even edit the basics, you simply choose from a handful of different templates and that’s it. Next, you’ll design your business logo, again, by simply choosing from a couple of icons and options without any way to add personality or edit them into something creative. Lastly is your business name, and this is where I can see some humor and puns come into play. Being the man-child that I am, my ‘Landing Strip’ lawncare business was set to take the world, well, Great Britain at least, by storm.

The majority of your gameplay is cutting lawns of course, but until you play and save enough, you’ll need to also handle your business affairs. Oddly, the business management aspect if the game was quite addicting, as you need to balance your cash flow, deciding the best time to purchase a new mower, hire a new employee or when to bite the bullet and purchase an expensive new building to accommodate your growing business.

Eventually you’ll be able to hire a worker for a weekly wage. People will apply to your business once you make a certain popularity rank, allowing you to choose to hire, ignore or fire if need be. When you do have an employee on the payroll, their skills and abilities will determine their pay. The better and more experienced they are the better job they’ll do, so naturally they’ll want to be compensated more so than an amateur landscaper. Each week you get to choose your job contracts that are available, allowing you to see the pay, experience, suggested size of mower and estimated time to complete. At first you’ll want to focus on earning as much money as you can, but this will shift later to RP (experience) gains to get your rank up quicker once money isn’t as big of an issue.

Once you have an employee working for you you’ll get to choose two jobs a week, assigning yourself one and the other job to your employee, along with what mower to use that you’ve purchased so far. I didn’t really notice a big difference in job performance of employees who were higher ranked compared to amateurs, as they always got the job done without many fines, plus employee’s level up the more jobs they do, eventually becoming specialists anyways. With enough popularity you’ll eventually be able to hire a second employee, allowing for three contracts to be completed each week, which is where the money really starts to roll in. Of course I would set them to do the longer and higher paying jobs where I could focus on the quicker contracts since they all complete when you're done your job.

So, do you save up to buy bigger and better mowers and attachments like stripe rollers, mulching kits, recyclers, grass collectors and more, or do you upgrade your headquarters and purchase more bays to store your mowers? What surprised me was that you can only ever hire two employees, even once you’ve reached the final tier of popularity and have acquired the maxed out headquarter upgrade. I found this a little odd since when you buy the last headquarters it shows you having multiple company trucks in its parking lot and a massive building, yet will only have three people working there, one being yourself.

There’s a lot that goes into mowing a lawn perfectly, more than you’d initially expect. After starting a contract you’ll first need to do a ground check. This is where you run around the yard looking for a set amount of items that have been left on the lawn, because if you don’t pick them up you’ll damage your mower if you accidently run over some sheers, garden gnomes, toys, sticks and other items. This only takes maybe a minute or so to complete but it will earn you a small bonus if you find them all in time allotted.

Next on the list is to get back to the mower on your trailer and start the engine. Put it into gear and you’ll be riding towards wherever you wish to begin the cutting. Lastly, each client wants their lawn a specific height, usually between 5-8cm, so you need to make sure your blade is adjusted accordingly. Once all of this is complete, you then begin doing what you do best, landscaping to perfection. Each job has a requirement of completion needed to be met before you can finish if you want the full payment, usually 99.5% to 99.9% cut, which is to be expected.

Your first few mowers will not be all that quick or powerful, making for yards with some hills or a lot of flowerbeds and trees quite a challenge. Eventually your mowers become larger and much more nimble, making quick work of jobs once you get used to the handling of each. Clicking in the Right Stick when still will highlight any grass you’ve yet to mow, usually a last resort to find those odd few patches you missed when making your initial passes. While I tended to cut along the edges first and work my way inwards, others may choose to do straight lines across and back; there’s no wrong way. The only time you’ll need to be very specific in your directions is when you want to add striping to the lawn, you know, the fancy lines you see in some yards or sports stadiums, only possible with a roller attachment on some of the mowers. This of course takes a little more precision and patience, but damn does the yard look good when you’re complete.

Set in Great Britain, the majority of your jobs will be in high end cottage homes, castle grounds and even some fields and farms. Some yards even have some slight inclines, making it a challenge for the smaller mowers with less horsepower. A few yards are also very intricate and have lots of curves and twists, while others are straighter and rectangle but have more trees to work around.

The grass itself can be quite tall if the owners have let it grow for quite a while, meaning your smaller mowers might need to make more than one pass at different cut heights as to not overload and damage your mower. Constantly pass over the same spots and your wheels will ruin the lawn, resulting in a fine, as will cutting any flowers or hitting the owner’s properly like fences or ornaments on the lawn. These fines aren’t major but make you want to be more precise with your passes, as you can also damage your blade and mower too if you’re not careful, resulting in larger repair bills down the road.

As mentioned above, Lawn Mowing Simulator wouldn’t be a true simulator without real world brands to back it up. This is where mowers from Toro, SCAG and STIGA come in to play, offering a dozen real world mowers that I had no idea were so expensive. Each mower has its own style of riding, steering, attachments and more. Some come with collectors that need to be emptied once full, others will mulch the clippings, it all depends on the contract and what the client wants. While there’s currently no classic push mowers or weed whackers, I’m hoping these might get added down the road. The only other glaring omission is wheel support for Xbox. I hooked mine up hoping I could find a way to make it work, but nothing as of yet, though developers have said it's in the works.

When you complete the career mode or just want a break from it, you can choose either Challenge or Free Roam mode. Free Roam is just that, allowing you to freely cut any lawn without any consequences or limits. Challenge Mode is interesting. You are tasked with very specific objectives. Sometimes this means you only have a short time limit to complete a job, or maybe your mower only has 10% fuel left, so you need to be very deliberate in your passes. These unlock the further you progress in popularity in the campaign and range from quite easy to very challenging.

While the character models and animations won’t wow you, the lawns themselves and scenery do look quite good. You can clearly see the lanes you’ve cut after you’ve passed over an area of grass, especially if the blade height is quite low. It can be a little tricky to figure out where your blade line begins and ends for cutting, but this comes with practice, of which you’ll have plenty if you want to afford everything Lawn Mowing Simulator has to offer.

I was kind of surprised that there wasn’t much of a soundtrack when mowing. Menus and such have some light music, but when you’re mowing all you’re going to hear is the 'WWHRHRHRHHRHRHRHH' sound of the engine and blades the whole time. Yes, I get that it’s like that in real life, but I highly suggest putting on a favorite Spotify soundtrack as you get your 'mow-on'. Thankfully you can turn down individual audio portions like the engine so it’s not as grating over time.

I admit, I initially laughed at the idea of Lawn Mowing Simulator when it was first announced, but after playing for hours on end, there’s nothing quite as relaxing after a long day of work, turning on the console and mowing some grass. Maybe it’s just the dad in me, but I quite enjoyed my time with Lawn Mowing Simulator and satisfaction of seeing a lawn moving job well done. Even with its minor issues and lengthy grind it still made the cut.

**Lawn Mowing Simulator was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Clone Drone in the Danger Zone

Originally a simple prototype by Doborog Games, Clone Drone in the Danger Zone went into Early Access way back in 2017 on Steam. Since then it has garnered a following for its addictive gameplay and hilarity with many updates along the way. Four years later it’s finally set for its full launch on PC, but it is also releasing alongside consoles for us Xbox fans to enjoy as well.

Clone Drone in the Danger Zone is an interesting mix of slice-em-up roguelike gameplay, robot voxel graphics and tons of humor throughout. I got a very For Honor/Chivalry II vibe from its gameplay, though with a completely different objective and aesthetic. Because of the voxel design, you can actually parts of your body removed, so if you lose a leg or an arm, it’s going to be much harder for you to survive and win. There’s not many things cooler than wielding a flaming laser sword that’s on fire or taking down a massive robot dinosaur though, both of which Clone Drone in the Danger Zone has.

Given that the bulk of Clone Drone in the Danger Zone is an arena brawler, there’s not much of a campaign here. Yes there’s some semblance of a story for those that only plan to play single player, but it’s definitely not the emphasis here. Essentially, humans are slaves to the robot overlords and have had their minds uploaded into robot bodies so that they can fight for the robots' amusement. If you die, no problem, there’s plenty more human minds to go around and be uploaded, hence where the Clone Drone title comes into play.

Not only will you have to entertain the onlookers of robots in your shiny new machine body, but you’ll have two robot announcers commentating on everything you do for the audience. This commentator duo is aptly named Commentatron and Analysis-Bot who just happen to have over 38,000 spoken words of dialogue. This duo is absolutely hilarious and is the majority of the reason I wanted to continue playing, even after the repetitiveness crept in. Spoken in your typical text-to-voice monotone speech, they will berate your failures along the way, make fun of humankind and even drop a few terrible dad jokes along the way. This comedic duo truly makes Clone Drone in the Danger Zone have some heart even though they are robots without one.

An arena game at its core, you’re essentially stuck in a room with a bunch of enemies until either they all die or you do. Once you’re dead it’s Game Over and you start from the beginning, which is where the roguelike comes into play. Waves of enemies will become progressively more challenging, either with their attacks, weapons or sheer number. And yes, you will come across massive bosses, like the Spidertron 5000, so you’ll need to learn how to not only fight, but dash out of the way and block certain attacks and projectiles. Of course Clone Drone in the Danger Zone is light hearted and doesn’t take itself seriously, so you can feel free to use emotes whenever you like as well.

There’s a handful of different modes if you plan on playing solo, offering a decent variety based on your tastes. Story Mode has a small narrative that is about human defiance, so good luck staying alive longer than the last contestant, the one before that, and of course the many before that. Endless mode is just that, as it challenges you to last as long you can survive, going up the ranks and finding the gameplay more challenging the longer you live. Lastly is Challenge Mode, where you’re given specific objectives or restrictions and need to see if you can complete them, like only using a Bow or Hammer. These are quite difficult if you’ve become accustomed to a specific weapon, but is also a great way to learn and practice with the Spear or other ones you might have initially avoided.

Voxel dismemberment isn’t just a catchy tagline to describe the gameplay, it’s actually something you’ll rely on in combat. Yeah it’s cool to completely cut off another robot’s arm or leg, but it will actually affect their ability to swing their weapon or maneuver quickly. However, the same goes for you. Lose a leg and you’ll be hopping on one foot, most likely about to meet your demise by another robot that can dash quickly. The same goes for arms, where you’re going to be at a massive disadvantage if you lose a limb.

Combat in Clone Drone in the Danger Zone is very much a jousting match. Go in too early and swing and you’re left open for an attack. Run out of energy and you won’t be able to shoot your bow or dash out of the way. This cat and mouse combat takes a little getting used to but will eventually become second nature. With a handful of different weapons you’ll also be able to choose how you want to play, wielding a slow but wide sweeping and high damage hammer, or shooting from afar with a bow and arrow that takes much more skill and timing. You can even get a kick ability that knocks your enemies off platforms and into traps. Once you take a fatal blow though, that’s it, your run is over. This usually happens with a decapitation, losing both legs or simply taking enough damage overall.

Between each successful wave you survive you’ll head back into the basement as the robots setup the next arena to try and stop you. This is where you earn one skill point for each wave you survive, allowing you to upgrade your robot as you see fit. Want to boost your laser sword with fire damage? Go ahead. Want to use a Hammer or Spear? Sure. Want to have a Jetpack, more Armor or extra lives? Spend your upgrade points freely to suit your playstyle. There’s not a huge skill tree, but each wave you survive means you get to become more well rounded and dangerous.

While you could play Clone Drone in the Danger Zone completely single player by yourself, the online modes make it much more of an entertaining experience, as who wouldn’t want to mangle other human players online for supremacy? Online Co-op allows you to team up against the waves of robots together to try and survive the Arena. Private Duels allow you to challenge a friend or foe in 1v1 battles to the death, but the real bread and butter of Clone Drone in the Danger Zone is in its Last bot Standing Mode.

This is your typical Battle Royale mode where 15 players face off in a shrinking map until there’s only one winner robot remaining. With crossplay enabled you’ll have no problem finding a match in a matter of seconds, so even when you lose you can quickly jump into another match if you don’t mind facing off against PC and other console players. In the warmup lobby you’ll see how many wins each player has above their heads so you know who to avoid which also showcases how poor the matchmaking is, as you’re going to lose quite a lot of Last Bot Standing matches before you likely get a win since you’ll be matched with very experienced players.

While graphics in games like this don’t generally matter, the voxel aesthetic works for its premise and silliness, but the real standout is the commentary by the announcers. Seriously, more than a few times I laughed out loud and the hilarity never got old. Unless you care about the online Last Bot Standing mode I’d question its longevity and the $26.99 CAD asking price. That said, Clone Drone in the Danger Zone will make you laugh on a number of occasions and can be fun to simply jump in for a few matches here and there.

**Clone Drone in the Danger Zone was provided by the publisher and reviewed on the Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Within the Blade

If you grew up in the classic 8 and 16-bit era, you’ll no doubt probably have played or seen classic side scrolling ninja games like Strider, Ninja Gaiden or Shinobi, just to name a few. There are very few things cooler than a ninja, so Ametist Studio made their own Shinobi based game, Within the Blade. If it looks familiar, that’s because it originally released a few years ago on PC under the name Pixel Shinobi: Nine demons of Mamoru. Now that it’s coming to console, and most likely because Sega owns the Shinobi name, it’s been renamed but seems largely the same experience. Since I never played the original release, I was excited to dive right in and get my ninja on.

A 2D side-scrolling stealth adventure, Within the Blade tells a tale set in 1560 A.D. about a massive civil war happening across the land. With every clan fighting it out for power, the “Black Lotus” ninja clan is Japan’s last hope to stop the “Steel Claw” clan and their warlord, or else demons, death and despair will consume the land. There’s a handful of levels, each with a narrative about getting one step closer to finding the one responsible, but you won’t care too much about the story and will instead focus on the ninja action gameplay.

There’s a few mechanics to Within the Blade that takes center stage, but at its score you’ll be playing as a Shinobi in a 2D world, complete with stealth and RPG elements. You’re encouraged to take a stealthy approach, as trying to mix it up face to face usually doesn’t end well, but you also need to be quick as well. On one hand the game wants you to not be spotted and act as a ninja, but most of the time simply rushing seemed to work much better overall. As soon as you get spotted you either need to quickly kill them or run away, the latter you’ll be doing the majority of the time once you reach the last few stages.

There are basically three different types of missions. Outside ones where you hop from building to building, avoiding traps and trying to sneak up on your opponents for some quick assassinations, trying to get to the end of the stage on the far right. The indoor levels were my bane, making me sigh every time I had to complete one of these. These levels give you a Metroidvania-like style grid map where you can see every room you’ve either been in or not. You won’t know where the exit is initially, and when you do find it you’re first going to have to explore to find the red key for the red door, green key and sometimes blue as well, making for a lot of backtracking. I didn’t enjoy these levels at all, as they were generally quite packed with enemies and traps, always giving you secondary objectives for more experience should you wish. Lastly are the boss levels at the end of each chapter, the highlight of Within the Blade by far.

There’s an optional tutorial you can choose to play at the opening menu, and it teaches you everything from the basics to dashing, assassinating, blocking and even using a hook rope to climb ledges high above. Sounds cool right? Well, you won’t get many of these abilities or tools until much later in the game, and that's if you even decide to purchase them.

As you explore each level trying to reach the end you’ll come across numerous enemies that can be killed for experience and loot. You’ll also find randomized chests along the way, generally giving you a handful of crafting materials or some secondary items like bombs or shurikens. For those that want to level up, earn more skills and loot, you can take your time and explore every inch of the stages and kill anyone you see. For those that want to progress quicker, a speed dash to the end is what you’ll be looking for.

Combat is quite fast and fluid, when it works properly that is. You’ll only start with a basic combo with your blade, but as you level up you can unlock new perks and skills based on your playstyle. The issues arises when you try to actually connect with your combos sometimes. Each attack makes your character ‘slide’ slightly forward and since you’re spamming the attack button, the moment you whiff an attack, the enemy will usually retaliate and punish you for it. You sometimes have to be pixel-perfect and this takes a lot of practice to learn the distancing and timing before attacking.

You have a block button that can deflect basic attacks, but this will need to be upgraded if you want to be able to deflect almost anything. Eventually I was able to stand on a boss and simply hold block and pick my shots. This button is also how you perform assassinations if you sneak up to an enemy undetected. If you unlock the ability you’ll also have a dash by utilizing the Bumpers, yet the game incorrectly says to double tap a direction. As you dash, flip, jump and attack, the animations look quite smooth as they string together, making you feel like a ninja when it all goes to plan.

At the end of each stages you’re given a scorecard based on a number of factors like how often you were spotted, how many damage you took and other things. You’re given a score and a title based on how well you did, but I found it quite difficult to get a decent score, as you’re going to be spotted quite often for numerous reasons, some of which are out of your control like difficult enemy placement.

There are a variety of enemies you’ll face, even zombies that only ‘die’ for a short time before coming back to life. The harder and more difficult enemies later on becomes quite a challenge until you have some critical abilities, some of which can even one-shot assassinate you as well if you leave your back exposed to them. With plenty of enemies to face, the real excitement came from the ten unique boss fights. These were the highlight of Within the Blade for me and was the reason I wanted to continue on my journey to face off against the next one.

Then there’s the weapon degradation, one of the mechanics that made me want to stop playing outright at times. Samurai and Ninja swords are supposed to be some of the most quality steel and blades known, yet can completely break on you at any given time. That’s right, your forged steel sword can simply break, leaving you to fight with just your equipment you’ve found along the way and your fists. Now, I will say that once I put my points into the bare handed skills and abilities, this wasn’t a big deal, but it takes time to do so and fighting more than one boss without a weapon wasn’t the best experience.

After most stages you’ll have the option to go back to your village to buy items, craft new ones and spend your skill points. The shop has some basic swords and such, but are much too expensive until you start knowing how to make money later on. Instead, you’ll be crafting weapons and items from materials you find along the way. With more than 200 recipes there are plenty of items to craft, but I never had a great stream of items flowing in to make much use of doing so. Also, there’s a few NPC’s in the village that you can talk to and shop at, but this isn’t told anywhere, so I didn’t even know you had to press ‘Up’ on the D-Pad to check their wares until I did it by accident.

The 16-bit style pixel visuals are a treat to look at for old-school gamers like myself, with each enemy looking unique and plenty of smaller details in the environment. Cutting down tall standing bamboo never gets old, nor does seeing tons of blood explode from an enemy. The animations are quite fluid and well done. While there’s no voice acting, the soundtrack definitely suits the feudal Japan era and has great sounding sword clashes when in battle.

The ‘floaty’ combat still caused me to make mistakes hours in and I had plenty of unfair deaths causing level checkpoint restarts. While I wasn’t a fan of the indoor level design, the boss stages made the effort of suffering through them worth it in the end, as did eventually unlocking and upgrading enough abilities to feel like an unstoppable ninja by the time the credits rolled and starting New Game+.

**Within the Blade was provided by the publisher reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Forgotten City, The

I review a ton of games, and because of such, I tend to forget many of them once the credit rolls before I move onto the next. Every now and then though there’s a game that sticks with me long after its completion, which speaks volumes to its quality, gameplay or memorable narrative. This was the case with The Forgotten City once I saw a few of its endings, especially its fourth and canon one.

If The Forgotten City rings a bell, you were most likely a Skyrim player that liked to dabble in mods, as it was originally a critically acclaimed mod that garnered more than three million downloads and a prestigious award, and for good reason. If you were a fan of the mod, you’ll be happy to know that it’s now not only its own stand-alone title, but has been re-written, has a new setting, new characters, twists and more. Add a fantastic orchestral score and professional voice acting, and you’ve got quite an entertaining and unique gaming experience.

You begin being woken up by a stranger who pulls you out of the river, saying she saw you floating by as you were unconscious. She said that someone named Al just previously was here as well but ventured away to explore, so she asks you to search for him. Once you find a mysterious portal, this is where things start to become very interesting, capturing my attention until I saw multiple endings. Now, I’m going to be intentionally vague with certain story elements and gameplay mechanics, as spoiling it would absolutely ruin much of the memorable experience, so go in as blind as you possibly can.

Upon entering this portal you’re transported 2000 years into the past within the walls of an underground ancient Roman city. There’s a catch though, there’s not only twenty three inhabitants and many golden statues of citizens, but there’s a sacred Golden Rule that absolutely cannot be broken; If one person sins, everyone dies. That’s right, if one person does something terrible, everyone pays the price. To make things even more intriguing, you’re caught in a time loop and the only person that keeps their memories each time.

The Golden Rule plays a major part not only narratively, but gameplay wise as well. Decisions you make will change future outcomes, as each secret you uncover and item you take can be used in each time loop to make new events or conversations happen. You of course need to be careful, as if you break the Golden Rule everything will come to an end. I won’t giveaway what happens exactly, but it can be quite nerve wracking if you’re far from the portal which needs to be reached to reset the day. Much like Groundhog Day, you’ll eventually start to learn people’s patterns and how to best approach them to get what you want.

This time loop makes the gameplay become quite interesting, as confronting someone with one of their secrets that you already know completely can change the outcome of specific events. The fact that you can steal an item, reset the day and keep what you took makes the gameplay quite interesting. Once you learn how to utilize and exploit the time loop, The Forgotten City becomes quite addictive as you figure out ways to solve everyone’s individual problems and needs. Not everything can be solved in the same day, so sometimes it’s best to work on one quest or person, time loop, then work on another.

Your main objective is to get back to the present in your own world by creating a paradox, but doing so won’t be so easy since you’re seemingly stuck in a time loop. You’ll need to help the other inhabitants with their problems, as doing so might get them to talk about how they got to the city or if they know how to escape, giving clues on how to get back to your time, but maybe even answers to the larger questions, like who created the Golden Rule. With four endings and multiple quests that can be solved in almost any orders, there’s plenty of mysteries to uncover within The Forgotten City.

Play a character that you get to choose their origin, gender and backstory. Certain options will give you extra bonuses for that character, like other dialogue choices or a gun with one bullet. This adds a little more flair to your options, and while you can get the endings with any character you choose, it’s more to suit your playstyle.

As you explore the city, you’ll come across plenty of objects, graffiti, statues that seemingly whisper hints to you and more. It’s quite creepy at first to see these golden statues tilt their head or give you hints as you pass by, but you’ll soon come to rely on their advice if you’re clever. There’s nothing off limits, and if a door to a building is locked, you simply need to figure out another way in or whom you can get the key from and how. Maybe helping someone with their problem will rewards you with a key, maybe purposely getting someone killed will benefit someone else. But isn’t that a sin? You’re going to find out.

The Golden Rule appears to be a deterrent initially to force you to play ‘good’, but once you learn how to use these rule breaks to your advantage, possibilities really open up. “The many shall suffer for the sins of one.” is repeated numerous times, but what if it’s not you that sins, but someone else that thinks the Golden Rule is a farce? What about the person that wants to commit suicide, is that a sin? These moral tug of wars was truly fascinating to see how certain people justify their actions, including myself thinking I was making the right decision sometimes. Sometimes being a shoulder to lean on will get you a long way, other times you might have to bribe or intimidate someone. Thinking ‘outside the box’ usually works quite well when you start to exploit the time loop.

Combat is an option eventually, but it’s very minimal. Rumor has it there’s a beast roaming the underground passageways, so you ought to be careful. While most of the golden statues littered throughout the city are just that, stationary statues, some will guide you along your way, while others may very well come to life and try to attack you. It’s up to you how you want to handle these moments, but keep in mind the Golden Rule at all times.

As you explore the Roman city, you’ll be impressed with its authenticity when it comes to its architecture and clothing. This was achieved by utilizing actual historical consultants, so if you’re a Roman history buff, you’ll enjoy simply exploring the city. Graphically, The Forgotten City is impressive in its scope. Yes, you’re in a small little underground city for the majority of your adventure, but it feels large when you’re sitting at the edge of a cliff and soaking the gorgeous vistas in. Environments and characters look fantastic which makes playing around in the photo mode a delight, but you can still somewhat see it’s Skyrim mod roots when it comes to rough facial animations and lip syncing, something that’s supposed to be improved in a future patch. The voice acting is top notch from every memorable character and the orchestral score is a delight to listen to.

The Forgotten City may have started out as a simple mod, but the small team at Modern Storyteller has taken the time and effort to craft it into its own memorable experience, one that I’m glad to have had and implore you to as well if any of the above has piqued your interest. Well worth the price of admission, The Forgotten City will leave a lasting impression once final revelations are revealed, just always keep in mind the Golden Rule.

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

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Imagine Earth

When you think city building games, Sim City, Anno or Cities: Skylines are most likely the first titles that come to mind. You know the genre, where you start with nothing and need to build a bustling city full of people, commerce and prosperity. Imagine Earth does this, but on a global scale upon a small planet. More than a simple city builder, Imagine Earth also has a large emphasis and focus on sustainability when it comes to the global climate as well.

Imagine Earth task you with building colonies on various planets, starting with a city center, building power plants, food supplies and establishing trading partners. Hopefully if you do things properly and responsibly, you won’t have to deal with too many natural disasters or population leaving in droves because of pollution. Of course, you’ll have to deal with pirates and other unknown anomalies along the way.

The year is 2048 and massive corporations have depleted all of Earth’s resources, forcing energy companies to look to the stars for new habitable planets. Looking for a new home, your job is to take a virtually untouched planet and create a colony that thrives, but of course your boss will have specific objectives for you to fulfil before being successful and giving you a promotion to work on the next planet.

The campaign takes place over the course of nine different planets, each becoming increasingly more challenging as you progress. You’ll be harvesting the planet’s natural resources, creating income, attracting population, making trade partners and more. You’ll have to deal with numerous different people and aliens along your journey with objectives constantly updating or changing based on how you’re playing. For example, I was using a lot of Oil Factories for energy generation on one planet but eventually had to clean up all the spills afterwards.

While the campaign isn’t terribly challenging, you are given three different difficulty modes with the harder ones offering more score bonuses. The last few planets do get quite difficult in some of the situations it throws your way, but nothing unfair or unmanageable. I did appreciate how Imagine Earth has a large emphasis on climate change and pollution, but doesn’t come across as too preachy or as if it has an agenda. You can build your colonies with whatever energy sources you wish, but coal, oil and other toxic ones will have detrimental effects on your planet, just like our own.

The first planet acts as a tutorial, teaching you the basics of how to start your colony by placing your main city center, creating farms and energy sources, then warehouses and harvesting numerous types of resources from within your set boundaries. Speaking of boundaries, even though the game is played on a small planetary scale, the grid itself is done with triangles instead of your typical squares or hexagons. You’re able to extend your borders for a cost, and will be able to place multiple city centers almost anywhere you desire.

Any resource within your borders can be mined and harvested, but you’ll need a warehouse to store them. You can set how much to always keep on hand for crafting items or even set to automatically sell any excess inventory. Figuring out all this isn’t really taught well, so it took some time to figure out on my own, but once you have auto selling setup it becomes much easier to earn money passively as you build your colony. Much of the game had this problem, where you’re taught the basics but are left to figure out everything else for yourself. Given that there’s a lot of menus to delve into if you want to get really in-depth with the management side of things, it takes some time to figure it all out.

The more you expand and build your colony, the more energy and food resources you’ll need. To attract more population you’re going to need housing as well, requiring more resources, so there’s always a balance and adjustments you’ll need to be mindful of. Any resources you don’t need, you can sell to other merchants or donate to potential allies. Some resources can be used to craft unique items like medicine, bombs and other items that can be quite useful or traded, depending on how you want to play.

Almost everything relates to the environment of your planet. Too much pollution and not only will people not be happy, but natural disasters like tornados, fires, oil spills or storms will appear. You’ll also have to deal with asteroids falling from space, though you could create a tower defense system should you feel inclined. You’re also going to have to deal with other organizations looking to make their mark on the planet as well, so you might make some rivals along the way if you approach on their borders.

Where you place all your buildings is quite important, as placing a specific factory or food processing where resources are nearby will make it much more efficient, so placement take an important role. With a whole tech and upgrade tree, you’re able to improve certain aspects of nearly every unit and building, offering more production, less energy consumption and more. You’ll also need to be quick on your toes, as you’ll need to deploy medicine for sectors that are in quarantine, de-escalating riots or fending off pirates trying to steal from your warehouses.

When you do finally complete the campaign there are a few other modes to keep you playing afterwards. Endless mode is just that, allowing you to freely play however and as long as you wish. There’s also a Competition Mode where you compete with other companies for the settlement license on an uninhabited planet where the first colony to reach a certain number of victory points is the winner. You can even set a custom game here to your exact preferences. Lastly, Editor Mode allows you to create a complete planet however you want in a ‘God’ mode, allowing you to even terraform if you wish.

Gameplay is quite smooth on an Xbox Series X, as I never had any slowdown when spinning the planet around from one side to the other. Buildings and resources are varied, able to distinguish what they are when zoomed out, but can see much more detail when inspecting close up. Seeing asteroid orbiting the planet above looks great, as does watching it crash down onto your buildings. The voice acting is decent but the calming ambient background music was the highlight, especially when I wasn’t worrying too much about my objective and simply working on expanding my borders or harvesting resources. One annoyance was seeing that some Keyboard/Mouse commands prompts were left in by accident on a few of the tool tips, so clearly this was ported from it's PC counterpart.

Every now and then you need a game that allows you to chill on the couch and just simply relax. Imagine Earth fits that bill perfectly. Being simple enough for anyone to jump in and start playing, but also deep enough for those that want to micromanage nearly every aspect of their colony, Imagine Earth is an entertaining colony management game that also focuses on its ecosystem and sustainability.

**Imagine Earth was provided by the publisher reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Worms Rumble

I still remember the day a friend showed me the original Worms back in the mid 90’s. A tactical turn based strategy shooter game that featured worms had me hooked from that very first game I played, and I’ve been a fan ever since, going on about two and a half decades now. Since then I think I’ve purchased or played every Worms game since, even the terrible foray into 3D gameplay, but we won’t talk about those. So I guess you could call me a hardcore Worms-er (if that’s a word).

Depending on who you ask, most old school Worms fans would probably rate Armageddon or WMD as when the series peaked, as many since those have felt very redundant without really adding much new to the formula aside from new weapons and level templates. But times change and so must franchises if they want to stay relevant with what gamers want. A handful of years ago it seemed zombies was all the rage, so tons of games coming out was set within that genre, but in the last few years popular games in the Battle Royale genre have exploded in popularity like Fortnite, PUBG and Warzone, spawning countless others. The latest to enter the Battle Royale is Team 17’s take with their longest lasting franchise, Worms Rumble.

That’s right. Gone are the traditional turn based tactical gameplay Worms is best known for and in are the Battle Royale rulesets that have you trying to be the last team, squad or worm wriggling. It’s a very drastic change from the classic gameplay we’ve come to love for decades as you now play a single worm in real time trying to shoot your enemies. While many things do translate well to the genre shift like the classic jetpack, bazooka and holy hand grenades, it’s also played in that classic Worms 2D view and there’s always tons of chaos, so it can be a little much at times to take in and figure out what exactly is going on. Just know that Worms Rumble is absolutely and completely different from any other Worms game that came before it and you’ll be able to keep your expectations in check.

Before you begin you’re going to want to customize your worm to your liking. You’ll only have a few options at the start from skin patterns, hats, accessories, eyes and more, but as you level up and earn coins you’ll be able to unlock more. The more you play the more XP and money you’ll earn, allowing you to purchase more skins, emotes, unlocks and more. While the gold comes quickly enough to purchase almost anything you want, sadly the coolest looking skins, outfits, emotes and more seem to be locked away behind a paywall.

That’s right, Worms Rumble has microtransactions riddled throughout. Yes, they are all cosmetic and won’t affect gameplay or balance, but the in-game unlockables are nowhere near as cool as the sets you can buy for real money. This wouldn’t be much of an issue if the cost wasn’t too bad with a low price or able to earn in-game from lots of playing, but expect to pay roughly $5 - $10 per DLC offering. PER, not all. It really feels like being nickel and dimed for all the skins and emote packs which, for a first impression, wasn’t a great start.

Before you jump right in you’ll first want to decide what mode you’ll want to partake in. You have Team Deathmatch, Deathmatch, Last Squad Standing and Last Worm Standing. Certain modes have level suggestions but you are able to jump into them right away if you desire to lose quickly. I’m not sure why Last Squad Standing has a level suggestion of 5 and Last Worm Standing of 10 since you can simply jump into them regardless, and there are no ways to upgrade your worm’s stats or weapon damage, but I guess those modes tend to be a little more competitive compared to Team Deathmatch or Deathmatch and developers may not want players to become quickly discouraged.

The other issue that I noticed was that the matchmaking isn’t balanced very well. Nearly every match had fresh level 1 newbies paired or pitted against higher level players. Sometimes my squad wouldn’t even be completely filled out before the match started either, so you can guess the general outcomes of mis-matches like this. It is worth noting that Worms Rumble utilizes 32 player cross platform multiplayer, so filling matches generally doesn’t take too long and you’ll be able to play with friends on PC or other consoles. 32 players all playing a single worm at once can lead to some very chaotic matches, yet still retains that ‘worm-ness’ about it even with the drastic genre shift. I do wish that you could muti-queue modes to make it quicker if you don’t really care what mode to play though. While most players will likely stick to their favorite mode of choice, I found myself sticking with the Last Squad standing, as it’s fun to play alongside other teammates and try and utilize strategy when the maps starts to fill with poisonous gas blocking off certain areas.

You begin with a random weapon, usually a pistol, assault rifle or shotgun as well as your trusty baseball bat, each of which looks and sounds like it’s straight from any of the classic Worms titles. Since Worms Rumble is a Battle Royale you’ll need to find crate drops which vary in colors denoting if they contain regular weapons or the more unique ones you’d expect to find in a Worms game like a sheep launcher, rocket shield or a sentry launcher. Each weapon type is best suited for different situations and play styles, as I tend to prefer the assault rifles given how hectic and jerky player movements can be when in a firefight. There’s also no slow paced jumping to maneuver around, as you can climb up walls with ease or roll to ‘run’ for a short time. Makes sense in the quick paced Battle Royale genre, but simply doesn’t feel like classic Worms in the slightest.

While the classic Ninja Rope is gone, you can instead find a Grapple Gun, essentially a plunger with a rope tied to it, to zip around the stage in and our of danger wherever you like much quicker. The classic jetpack also returns, allowing your worm to fly in any direction for a short time. Since this is a Battle Royale, you’ll find health kits to replenish your HP or Energy Drinks to boost your shield meter. Some of the classic Worms staples are missing though, like concrete donkeys, girders, destructible environments and others. There’s also no way to buy back teammates who have gone down either other than a brief few moments to revive them before they’re finished off.

The heart of Worms is still there with banana bombs, holy hand grenades and sheep but the change to real-time combat and Battle Royale genre swap does take quite some getting used to. While I’m not normally a Battle Royale fan and admit I wasn’t very fond of the idea of a Worms game switching genres so drastically, I did give it an honest shot and it begin to grow on me, though probably just because of my affinity towards the Worms series more than anything else.

I’m trying my hardest to not be a Worms elitist, as I’m sure Worms Rumble will find its audience and fans, but for a longtime Worm fanatic like myself, I’m not sure how much longevity it has for someone that isn’t into Battle Royales. The best part though is that Worms Rumble is on Game Pass for Xbox and PC, so there’s no reason to not check it out regardless if you’re a Worms or Battle Royale fan to decide for yourself.

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

Overall Score: 6.7 / 10 Curved Space

I’m a bit of a twin-stick shooter aficionado. It’s one of my favorite genres and I’m generally quite skilled at them, so when a new shmup (shoot-em-up) releases, you can bet than I’m intrigued and will to check it out. While many twin-stick shooters all tend to rely on the same mechanics and generally don’t differ all that much, Curved Space, developed by Only By Midnight, tries to switch things up by having it’s play surface set in space mapped to a 3D surface. So while you’re still playing on a 2D plane for shooting, the levels themselves are 3D, allowing you to fly up walls or any surface with your ship, perfectly suited for a space-based adventure.

Curved Space is more than just a cool name, as it’s the core of its gameplay as well. Each level is either an asteroid or space station of some sort with flowing and bended areas, edges and more where your ship will constantly stick to any surface, allowing you to fly from one surface, down a curve to the underside or any other. Given that this is in space, the vistas are quite beautiful to take in as you slowly spin and rotate while trying to focus on avoiding bullets and staying alive.

Most shmups tend to have a very simplistic narrative, usually revolving around saving the world, mankind or the like, and while Curved Space does have some story elements, it’s certainly not going to win any awards or be the reason why you play. The campaign revolves around a story dealing with an energy shortage and a spider invasion in space. While I have arachnophobia, thankfully these space spiders aren’t really your typical eight legged crawlies you find in your home, but instead brightly red colored enemies with a handful of different variants.

You’ll take on this spider invasion in your space ship, eventually choosing one of three versions of yourself while hinting at some major deja-vu. Each choice you make in-between levels will have you playing on a different stage or against a unique enemy. There are a red, green and blue version of yourself, each with their own idea of what the best course of action should be, adding some branching paths and levels, so seeing everything Curved Space has to offer will take a few playthroughs. This deja-vu element plays into the replayability of Curved Space, and while I don’t want to give away its hook, it’s not all that hard to see coming from a mile away either.

Like most twin-stick shmups, the Left Stick is how you’ll move your ship and aim in a direction with the Right while Right Trigger is how you’ll shoot enemy spiders. While many of the typical mechanics are here, there’s a few interesting ones as well, like having weapons drop from enemies that you can freely grab in and swap for others, supercharging your firepower with Overdrive and of course, sticking to any curved surface along with your bullets that stay along the terrain as well. It’s cool to see your bullets curve along the surfaces, and you can use this to your advantage at times if you know there are enemies around the bend, shooting them out of sight.

This curved gameplay is quite novel in the beginning, but that’s about it, as not much else is done with it mechanically. Once you realize that enemies will come to you, usually the best course of action is staying within a small area trying to avoid their bullets. Generally you’ll only need to constantly fly around the levels when you’re fighting a massive boss that’s trying to attack and chase you. Each level though is broken into smaller sections where you’re given a different objective each wave, usually having you defeat a certain amount of specific enemies, survive against endless enemies, draining energy conduits and others. Where monotony starts to set in though is that every level will have you basically doing the same objectives each time, eventually culminating in a boss battle before moving onto a brief narrative choice and starting a new level.

You’re eventually given the ability to have a dash which becomes invaluable. This short little burst in a direction is not simply for avoiding enemy projectiles, but it gives you a brief moment of invulnerability, allowing you to deflect bullets. This of course comes down to proper timing, but will be how you survive when things become chaotic, especially on the harder difficulties and boss battles. There’s a small pause between dashes for it to recharge, so you simply can’t spam it and think you’re invincible either.

You’re also given a leash ability. This is a beam that shoots straight outwards and ties them to your energy beam. You can then fire the beam to chain to other enemies or lash to designate posts to siphon their energy. Unfortunately there is one wave objective that forces you to do this, and it takes quite a long time to drain the required energy from spiders. This means you need to take the time to successfully beam your enemy then lash it to these posts, all while enemies respawn and fire upon you as you simply wait. It’s the most tedious and annoying objective in each stage and I rolled my eyes and sighed each time I had to do so.

A good shmup wouldn’t be worth its weight if it didn’t have difficulty options, online leaderboards and a handful of different modes for longevity. Thankfully Curved Space has these and checks all the boxes. Difficulties range from Casual, Normal, Hard, Extreme and Nightmare, as well as different toggles to make a custom experience and even more challenge should you desire. Each difficulty has its own leaderboard as well, so there’s plenty of reason to keep playing for those bragging rights.

Aside from campaign there’s also a handful of different modes if you’re looking for something a little different, as campaign runs can take well over two hours in a single go. Endless Mode is self-explanatory, seeing how long you’re able to go with randomized challenges. Survival Mode pits you against adapting challenges that become more difficult the longer you go. Arena Mode gives you dozens of different challenges to take on plucked from the campaign and lastly, Daily Run is a different challenge that varies each day trying to get the highest score possible.

There's a handful of different weapons you’ll find along your adventure, starting out with a simple blaster, to flamethrowers, lasers, mowers, rockets, plasma rifles and a bunch of others. Certain weapons are better suited for specific spider types but any weapon can technically get the job done. Some weapons have limited ammo, as they are much more powerful, with basically every weapon having limited ammo on the harder difficulties. To actually get one of these weapons you’ll need to fly over to it in your ship and pick it up. The problem is that the weapons appear as little pucks and can slide around the maps and might be in the middle of a pack of enemies and projectiles. They can also be destroyed if shot enough, so you'll need to watch your fire if you're trying to pick one up.

As you defeat enemies and collect their energy, eventually your Overdrive meter will fill that can be used to unleash some massive firepower for a short period of time. While in Overdrive you’re able to shoot your equipped weapon free of ammo and doing extra damage, so it’s quite useful to utilize when in a pinch. There’s even an upgrade where you can turn a full Overcharge meter into an extra life, depending on how long you want your run to go.

You’ll need to become a master at ‘lash and dash’ if you want any sort of chance at the leaderboards. This is where you leash onto an enemy, tying it to you, then dashing into it, destroying it and causing it to usually drop some health or weapons. Because dashing gives you a moment of invulnerability, it’s a very handy tactic to take out smaller enemies and even damage bosses. And while the boss battles are cool, there’s nothing really all too unique about them other than being huge in size and massive bullet sponges.

While there’s only a handful of different spider types of enemies, they all are unique in the best ways to destroy them. Some avoid your shooting from head-on while others rush right at you, but once you know the best strategy for dealing with each, it’s all about avoiding enemy fire while trying to shoot them down. After you defeat each stage’s boss a number of different upgrades will drop, though you can only choose one as a permanent choice. Some of these increase your score multiplier, allow your ship to carry more weapons, raw firepower increases and more.

The space vistas and backdrops were the most impressive visual aesthetics within Curved Space. Yeah the maps that you rotate around are cool to experience, but seeing the vastness of space or a black hole sucking everything in while your ship is stuck to the surface of an asteroid was simply awesome to watch. The only visual issue I ran into was some extreme slowdown during the final boss fight, even on an Xbox Series X, but aside from that there were no issues. The space theme is coupled with a Synthwave soundtrack from a number of artists that kept my head bumping as I took on endless spiders. That said, the voice over work in the narrative sections weren’t all that great, detracting from the overall audio experience.

Because of the curved nature of the levels, if you suffer from even mild motion sickness, Curved Space is absolutely not for you. There are a few options you can toggle to try and help with it, but constantly flipping sides and rotating around a level can be quite disorientating at times.

I always enjoy when a twin-stick shmup tries to do something different, and while Curved Space is unique in some of its design choices and is a completely competent entry into the genre, the runs can be quite lengthy and monotonous as you’re simply redoing the same objectives on each stage before repeating it all over again. Those that enjoy climbing leaderboards will have near endless replayability while others may simply enjoy staring into the void of Curved Space.

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

Overall Score: 7.6 / 10 Dark Alliance

Dungeons & Dragons has no shortage of followers or games. While I’ve dabbled in the tabletop RPG in the past, I’ve never dove into its lore or games very heavily, so I would be classified as a casual fan. The latest game in the dynasty is Dark Alliance, which I believe is canon and takes place somewhere within the official lore and timeline, but a much more knowledgeable D&D fan will have to research exactly when. So gather three of your friends and gear up for an adventure that you’d expect to find within the world of Dungeons & Dragons, fighting against spirits, goblins, giants, trolls and massive bosses as you take on your enemies and find loot. Oh, and it’s available on Game Pass, so there’s little to no barrier of entry to check it out.

While I’m not versed in the world of Dungeons & Dragons’ lore at all, I do recognize many of the characters and settings, which should be quite a treat for the devoted fan base. While there is an overarching narrative, it’s a very brief jaunt, as you instead focus on the smaller chapters’ stories as you make your way to the final area and battle. Without spoiling much, you will get to explore the world of Icewind Dale as you fight your way through each increasingly difficult area.

Join your friends for four player online co-op, and while you can play solo and alone offline, it’s a far better experience alongside others. First you’re going to have to choose one of the four characters you want to play as, each with their own distinct weapons, abilities and playstyle. For those D&D fans, you’ll be happy to see some familiar names of the characters you can play as. Choose from Drizzt, Wulfgar, Cattie-Brie or Bruenor.

Drizzt is your fast paced rogue DPS, wielding two weapons to take down his enemies when sneaking from behind. Wulfgar is your big brute that wields a massive two-handed hammer that can slam an area and take out enemies. Cattie-Brie is your typical archer, staying in the back line plucking away at enemies from afar. Lastly, and my choice, is Bruenor, the short and stout Dwarf that may be small in stature, but wields an axe and shield as he protects his allies from harm in the heat of battle.

Each character plays differently from one another, has their own set of unique abilities, skills and ultimate move. As you earn experience and level up you’ll be able to spend your hard earned gold on unlocking new moves and abilities, allowing for more varied combos and team move setups. There’s one major issue currently with the team setups, as only one player can play as any character at a certain time, meaning you can’t have two Cattie-Brie’s or Drizzt’s in a group together, so you’re going to have to organize beforehand who’s going to play whom. Apparently this is going to be changed and fixed in a future update, but in its current state it’s a bit frustrating that I was forced to play a character I initially didn’t want to because another friend already chose the one I initially wanted to first.

Missions, or as I like to call them, Chapters, are given to you a handful at a time. From the map in the hub town you and your friends will meet in you can choose which mission to play. Initially you’ll only have access to a few chapters, each of which are broken into three separate acts that need to be completed. Once you complete all the chapters you currently have access to a whole new set of missions will open up, eventually unlocking the final chapter in the story once completed on any difficulty.

As you pick an Act to play, you’ll then choose the difficulty you want to challenge your party with. There’s a gear score suggestion on each of the six difficulty ratings, and I highly suggest following the recommended gear scores when choosing, as the difficulty really starts to ramp up after level 4 if you don’t have a full set of Legendary gear. Higher levels of difficulty offer better rewards and loot, so there’s always some risk versus reward when deciding what difficulty to take on an Act with your party.

Each mission will generally play out in the same way; you begin with your main goal of getting to the end of a level after beating its boss, but there are plenty of enemies in the way with branching paths, hidden chests and secondary optional objectives. These optional objectives generally vary from finding ten specific collectables, destroy objects and defeat a secret boss. You’ll always have a marker guiding you to the main objectives and levels you’ll need to pull to progress, but you’ll constantly find optional paths that usually pay off with secrets, loot and more.

Combat is basic and allows anyone to jump in and smash some buttons, but when you start taking on the harder difficulties you’re going to have to know specific moves and how to block, parry and dodge if you want any chance of surviving. You begin with Light Attack with the Right Bumper and Heavy with the Trigger. There’s a few moves you get by combining other buttons or directions as well. For example, I can hold Left Bumper to utilize my shield and combo right into a forward rolling attack from that stance. There’s a number of new moves you can purchase with gold as you level up, of which some are level locked, but I’m not sure why these are optional, as you’re going to want the most versatility possible, especially when you take on the level 6 difficulty Acts, as enemies turn into massive sponges of damage.

While there is a lock on, it’s terribly implemented and I stopped using it quite early on. Locking onto one of the larger enemies will have the camera facing near the top of enemy, meaning the camera angle is all wonky, blocking you from seeing any incoming attacks and will generally get you killed. Even on smaller enemies, the lock on system just didn’t work as well as it should have, so I don’t suggest even bothering with it.

Combat itself does feel a little floaty at times. It can be hard to actually hit the enemy you intend, sometimes missing completely which will obviously get you killed a few times before you start to get the hang of it. The same goes for blocking and parrying, as it’s meant to be a way to stay in battle and retaliate, but sometimes the timing just seems ‘off’. When parrying does work it feels great to stun all your surrounding enemies, but when it fails and you get more than half your life taken from an attack, it can also be frustrating. Many of the larger enemies and boss attacks can’t be fully blocked, so I just started to rely on dodging primarily instead. The biggest issue with combat though comes with the team moves. Certain abilities will allow your and your friends to perform a special move by pressing Y+B, but 99% of the time when I try to trigger these attacks I either end up wasting one of my regular abilities tied to pressing 'Y' or dodging since it's the 'B' button. I have a little more luck if I don't press anything else, but I simply stopped trying to do it after failing almost every time.

You’ll be able to equip two abilities of your choice, activated by pressing ‘Y’ or holding it for a moment. Like blocking, when it works it’s great, but when you get interrupted or roll mid-animation and the timer gets used but the ability doesn’t take effect, it’s frustrating once again. You’ll unlock a handful of different abilities, so you can tailor each character to suit your playstyle. Now that I’ve been grinding the hardest difficulty mission, my group heal with Bruenor when he takes a swig of ale has been a necessity, though you could equip a taunt or other damaging moves if you decide. Each character also has a preset Ultimate move that can be used when fully charged, and when your whole team saves their abilities and Ultimate’s for a boss fight, they can be defeated in seconds if stacked correctly.

In each mission you’ll progress through the level, eventually defeating a big horde of enemies. At these designated spots you’ll be offered to rest at a camp, refilling your health and consumable potions, or you could risk it and boost your loot. These are essentially checkpoints, but you’ll need to decide as a party which to choose, as the first person to decide makes the decision for everyone in the party. Once you get proficient at combat, you’ll most likely always choose the loot increase, but can always fall back on a rest in a pinch when things go terribly wrong.

Loot will primarily drop from mini-bosses, bosses and chests, but there are the few random pieces that will drop here and there, varying in quality and tier. One design decision that I enjoyed was that you can’t actually check your loot until the mission ends and you’re all back in town, preventing party members form slowing down the mission progress every time they get a new piece of gear they want to check out. Sure, this means each trip to town takes a little longer, but everyone does it at the same time so it’s usually not too long of a wait.

Where the issues arise in loot gain though is that it seems completely random. Playing on the hardest difficultly, I’ll still get grey, green or blue gear. Obviously at my level only purples and legendary will suffice, so doing a run and getting no upgrades and useless grey's can be a bit disheartening. Gear also has up to 5 ranks, so a purple tier 5 of gear is generally going to be better than a legendary tier 4. Each piece of gear can also be upgraded with crystals you accumulate along the way, but with how often you’ll upgrade, there’s not much use until you start getting that legendary tier 5 gear. So what do you do with gear you’ve outgrown or don’t want anymore? Sell to the merchant for gold. That’s it; no deconstructing for crystal materials or anything useful, as gold becomes a moot point after you’ve bought all the consumables, upgrades and moves aside from the negligible amount to reskin gear you have with different color palettes.

There’s a few issues with this looting system though, as you don’t obtain it until you get back into town and open the chest. Firstly, if you don’t finish the mission for whatever reason, you get absolutely no rewards. There’s no partial progress; you either complete the mission or you get nothing. More than once my party and I had to quit out of a mission because an enemy or boss wouldn’t trigger and spawn, so we had no way to progress. Another time a friend lost connection and dropped from the game without any way to rejoin. This meant he had to wait until we completed the mission without him and he got nothing because of it.

This brings me to a laundry list of issues that I ran across throughout my time with Dark Alliance. Normally I wouldn’t dedicate a section to negatives like this, but many did detract from my overall experience. Yes, the game just launched and will no doubt get patched to be a better experience overall, but as of the time of this writing there were simply a bunch of minor issues that weren’t game breaking, but frustrated beyond measure. After every mission the game will disconnect you and your party, forcing you to reform all your friends together before taking on another mission and repeating the process.

Enemy AI is dumb at the best of times, even to the point of allowing you to shoot them from afar with the archer without them triggering and agroing anyone. This means if you wanted and didn’t care about how long it took, you can almost cheat every encounter and just pick them off from afar. I’ve also found my character has an interesting combo that can basically stun lock enemies, even bosses sometimes if I push them into a wall or corner. When things do go wrong and you get one-shot from a boss or go down, teammates can revive you, but the timer for doing so is much too long, making it very difficult to actually do so when there’s still a bunch of enemies about.

Visually, Dark Alliance absolutely looks as though it’s part of the Dungeons & Dragons universe, something you visualized many times while playing the tabletop or reading the novels. The level design is great, feeling as though you really are exploring a long lost dungeon or corner of some world that hasn’t been written about yet. The four main characters themselves animate well with their movesets and the armor you wear changes their visuals which is a great touch. Enemies do looks quite good, but there’s very few enemy types, so expect to fight the same trolls, goblins and more numerous times, though some will be elemental based with poison or electricity. Cutscenes are top notch and have a far better quality to them than I was expecting. Audio is about on the same level with enemies having some banter between them before you interrupt them with your onslaught and can be quite hilarious when you hear two goblins talking about their toenail collection.

While Dark Alliance doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre and has a long list of flaws and issues, I did enjoy my time with it, powering through some missions hoping to earn an upgrade to my gear along the way. While I’m unsure about its longevity once you do obtain all the gear you want, it’s a fun ride until you hit that point. Case in point, now that we've grinded all the levels on the hardest difficulties and have our sets of gear, there's little reason to go back in for more. For what it is, the $39.99 asking price is about right for the content you receive, though it is available on Game Pass for subscribers, so there’s no reason to not check it out.

I can’t give a full recommendation if you plan on playing solo, but with a few friends Dark Alliance is a much richer and better experience, even with its current shortcomings. D&D fans should have enough here that will appease while casuals can still enjoy an entertaining dungeon crawler with some buddies, a perfect fit to try out with Game Pass as long as your group can agree which characters to play as beforehand.

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

Overall Score: 7.2 / 10 Doki Doki Literature Club Plus

I’ve been reviewing long enough that there isn’t much that surprises me anymore. Sure a plot twist here and there will take me by surprise, but it’s quite a rare occurrence. The credits just rolled for Doki Doki Literature Club Plus and the only thing going through my mind is “What the **** did I just play?”. Oddly enough, that’s a huge compliment, as I’ve never quite experienced anything even remotely close to what Doki Doki Literature Club Plus offers.

Developed by Team Salvato, Doki Doki Literature Club originally released back in 2017 but is getting some improvements and additional content, hence the Plus in the title now with this release. I implore you that if you’re going to play Doki Doki Literature Club Plus (DDLC+) to go in completely blind if at all possible, just as I did. If you simply look at the screenshots you would most likely come to the conclusion that this is a basic run of the mill dating sim visual novel, but you would be way off base. Every description you read mentions disturbing content and how it’s a psychological horror experience. I almost didn’t believe them given that the screenshots and trailer don’t hint at this at all. I was so wrong. DDLC has quite a following, and now I see why.

Primarily played as a visual novel, you play as the protagonist who reluctantly gets coerced into joining the Literature Club at your high school, focused on reading and writing poetry. Sayori, your childhood friend, eventually talks you into joining, though you tend to tire from her overall positivity and constant excitement. When you finally make your way to the club for the first time you’re introduced to the other members. Natsuki is the one that tries to act tough but can bake an amazing cupcake. Yuri is very soft spoken and quiet, quite the bookworm and will take some time for her to open up about her thoughts and poetry. Lastly is Monika; just Monika, the President of the Literature Club and will constantly give you hints on how to write better poetry.

As you progress through the story you’ll chat with the girls from the club, learning more about them and their poetry writing styles. This of course will lead to different choices depending on how you decide to write your own poetry, but honestly, this isn’t really where the game starts to take a hold of your attention. As mentioned above, DDLC+ is best experienced if you go in completely blind, so because of this I’m not going to spoil anything to the best of my ability, but this also means many portions of this review are going to be vague and ambiguous, this is on purpose.

If you’ve played the original DDLC you might be wondering what’s new in this Plus edition and if it’s worth a rebuy to experience. Not only have the visuals been upgraded to full HD, there’s also six new side stories that add a couple more hours of content that in quite unique. You’re able to unlock and view more than a hundred images, art, wallpapers, sketches and more. A built in music player that you can play all of your favorite DDLC songs including 13 new unlockable songs. That might not seem like a lot of new content on paper, but I’m simply happy that I now got to experience such a memorable game on my console of choice, as I’ve actually never heard of it beforehand.

The very first warning you get when booting up DDLC+ is “This game is not suitable for children or those who are easily disturbed.” There's even an option to receive a warning before the disturbing content happens should you wish. This isn’t going to many any sense for the first two hours or so, as it starts out like any other visual novel, but when things start to ‘happen’, it goes in a completely different direction. I hate even mentioning that there’s a ‘twist’, but I’m not sure how I would feel if I had bought the game expecting a completely run of the mill dating sim visual novel but got ‘this’ instead. If you suffer from depression, anxiety or are easily disturbed, DDLC+ is not suitable for you. Again, I know this reasoning is vague, but it’s warranted.

The first two hours plays out like any other visual novel, having you sit through tons of over the top dialogue as you spam the ‘A’ button to progress each line. I’ll be honest, I was starting to fall asleep during this opening section while playing late at night as it can be a bit of a slog to get through. But then things get... weird to say the least. I normally have a good sense for twists coming, but I didn’t see this one, that’s for sure.

One of the main hooks of the game is how you need to create poetry of your own and then share it with the other girls in the club the next day. To create a poem you’ll be given a page full of different words and you simply choose any one you like. After you choose twenty or so you’re done and the narrative will progress. Depending on your word choices, you’ll notice the chibi avatars for each girl jump up and get excited if it’s a word that they approve of. If you have a keen eye, you’re going to notice that not all the words offered are cheery, bright and something you’d expect from a dating sim game. The girl who liked your poem the most will give you some extra dialogue and scenes with them.

The music and art style are disgustingly cute in the beginning. Everything sounds and appears so cheery, bright and colorful. The hand drawn artwork is fantastic and the soundtrack very memorable and already added to my Spotify playlist. This of course changes, even down to the music when things alter. The cute and cheery feeling in the beginning completely shifts in a different way, making it such a memorable experience, though I do wish the dialogue could have been voiced throughout.

Doki Doki Literature Club Plus isn’t exactly what it looks like on the surface. Again, if at all possible try and go into playing DDLC+ completely blind if you don’t already know anything about it. Like some of the bests twists out there, DDLC+ was just as shocking when you first watch Fight Club or The Sixth Sense, because if you knew their twists beforehand, it wouldn't have been the same memorable experience. DDLC+ is no different and I wish there was some way to experience it for the first time once more.

As a game on its own, DDLC+ not all that exciting when it comes to gameplay nor does anything unique mechanically, but because of how well it's executed it's incredibly memorable and has turned me into a massive fan. There are very few games that stick with me after the credits roll, and even days later, I’m still thinking about DDLC+. While some of the content and imagery may be difficult to take in for some, Doki Doki Literature Club Plus is truly something unique. I had no idea what to expect and got something twisted far beyond anything I would have even guessed. It won’t get out of my head. Welcome to the club and remember, Just Monika.

**Doki Doki Literature Club Plus was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Arkan: The dog adventurer

Are you a dog lover? Do you wish there was a game where the dog was the hero defeating its enemies? What if that dog was like a humanoid, wearing plate armor and could use its stick to whack a ball back at its enemies? If that very odd and interesting concept for a game was ever your desire, then there’s now the perfect game for you in Arkan: The dog adventurer.

That’s right, you’re an armor bearing dog that can freely move and jump around and wields a bo-like stick to whack a ball back at your enemies. If you grew up with classic brick breaker games like Arkanoid or Breakout then you’ll know exactly what to expect, except the gameplay is played horizontally instead of vertically. It’s an interesting mash up of platforming and brick breaking genres to say the least. As I write this, I also just realized that maybe the dog’s name is Arkan for its Arkanoid game roots.

You’ll move Arkan with the Left Stick, aim with the Right and hit the ball in whatever direction your cursor is aiming with the Right Trigger. There’s a bit of a delay between hits you can perform with your stick, so you’re going to want to practice your timing since you’re unable to spam the attack when the ball gets near. You’re also able to do a short teleport in the direction you’re aiming, also slowing down time in the process with the ‘Left Trigger’, and while it works, I simply forgot I had the ability until things got crazy and hectic.

While this control setup is all well and good, what doesn’t feel natural is that jumping is tied to pressing ‘Up’ on the stick instead of a dedicated button. When you want to double jump, you guessed it it, you’re going to have to press ‘Up’ twice, as well as trying to watch for the ball and maneuver Arkan on small ledges. It’s functional and works, but doesn’t feel natural, even after playing for quite a while.

Akran plays on the left side of the screen while all the bricks and enemies are on the right. Each enemy shoots a different projectile type at you and eventually you’ll also have to deal with zombie hands that raise from the ground where you’re currently standing on the very few platforms you’re given, so you’re generally always going to be on the move to avoid the other projectiles. There’s a force field that blocks Arkan from getting too close to the right side of the screen and there are plenty of pits that cause a game over if you fall in.

From what I can gather, your ball becomes slightly more powerful and quicker each time you combo hit it before it zooms off the screen if you miss it, but this really isn’t explained well. When you do miss the ball and it goes off screen it simply reappears in front of you, so there’s really no need to get yourself in harm’s way to try and save the ball. You do have a health bar though, so the most important thing is to not get hit by the projectiles or fall into the pits, or else you’ll need to restart the level. It takes quite a few levels to get the overall feel and timing, but eventually it becomes second nature as you try and survive the enemies shooting at you while double jumping from platform to platform trying to whack the ball at a specific block in front of an enemy.

There are three worlds with 20 levels each and you’re scored up to three stars, based on how many of the three stars you’ve smashed with your ball. That’s right, you aren’t scored based on how quickly you finish a level or how many bricks you broke, but how many of the three stars you collect before you destroy the last enemy to finish the level. You’re able to choose from three different difficulties, and interestingly, they aren’t tied to their own progression. This means if you’re playing on Hard and get stuck on a level, you can play it on Easy to get your stars and go back to Hard if you wish. Certain levels seem to randomly have massive spikes of difficulty, even on Easy, but you don’t have to play levels in order and can freely jump around in different levels if you get stuck.

From what I can tell, the major differences between the difficulties is the enemy count, which means many more projectiles to avoid. Hard mode is quite challenging, especially once you reach the third world. This final world essentially turns each level into how many projectiles can they throw at you and hiding enemies behind as many near destructible bricks as possible rather than clever brick placements.

With cute pixel drawn artwork, Arakan: The dog adventurer won’t ‘wow’ you by any means, but it serves its purpose by having a light hearted and colorful aesthetic. The music is about on the same level, with just a couple sounds and music tracks, but nothing memorable.

Some sort of online leaderboard or other scoring system would help Arakan have some longevity, though as it is, you're not likely to play much after you've collected all the stars and challenged yourself to every level. Truth be told, I initially thought Arakan: The dog adventurer was a mobile port brought to Xbox, but for a game that’s priced at about $5, it’s hard to complain for some simple pick up and play brick breaker action, even if its concept is a little far-fetched.

**Arkan: The dog adventurer was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.4 / 10 Chivalry 2

I review a lot of games, and sometimes the odd one lands in my lap that I wasn’t following at all, only knowing it by name, and come away quite surprised after digging in. This is the case with my latest endeavor, Chivalry II, and I love being pleasantly surprised like this. It’s time to return to the medieval battlefield with Chivalry II, a first person hack and slasher where brutality takes a front seat. Without much downtime, you’re going to be almost always on the battlefield trying to decimate the opposing team in 64 player online battles across all platforms. So grab your swords, halberds, maces, crossbows and literally anything else you can find on the battlefield and aim for those heads; it’s time for war.

First off, there’s no story mode, no campaign, simply online matches with up to 64 players in brutal medieval combat, and the focus of competitive multiplayer makes it a better experience overall, as you’ve got to have something special to compete with the other medieval games in the genre that are more narrative and single player focused. Chivalry II knows what it is and does it well, not trying to be anything more or less.

Very few movies and TV shows actually convey how brutal medieval warfare truly was. Thankfully, Chivalry II isn’t trying to make a Hollywood movie, but instead embraces the brutality of combat, allowing you to fight alongside a band of brothers as you try to dismember and decapitate your enemies on the battlefield for glory. I never played the original Chivalry so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect, especially for it being a first person melee based game. There’s something awesome about picking up a battle axe and simply swinging it in a crowd of enemies and friendlies, even before you start to learn the combat nuances that are included for those that want to become more proficient.

64 player carnage across a handful of different objective based maps means you’ve always got something to fight for. Sometimes you’re storming a castle, burning down huts or simply fighting the opposing team in team deathmatch. While there’s only a handful of maps the chaos and carnage is always evolving and changing each match, and even though I played the same maps numerous times, each battle felt different and unique due to what the players were doing.

There are essentially three different game types: Team Objective. This is where you’ll have different objectives based on if you’re attacking or defending. This was the mode that I enjoyed the most, kind of like how Conquest is the main mode Battlefield is known for, Team Objective is where Chivalry II really shines. You then have Team Deathmatch where the two factions simply go at it with one another until one team’s spawn counter reaches zero after a certain amount of kills. No objectives to get in the way here, simply kill every enemy you come across. Lastly, and my least favorite, was Free-For-All mode. Here it’s everyone for themselves, usually ending up in complete chaos. These arenas are much smaller and the first player to reach a certain score wins.

There are two factions, the Mason Order and Agatha Knights. While neither has unique traits or perks, you get to choose your playstyle by choosing one of the four classes, each with three subclasses to unlock. Each class and subclass has their own unique weaponry and abilities, though there is a little overlap with a few of the choices. Each class has their own stats, with heavy armored Knights that have a higher health pool compared to the much weaker Archers.

Knights tend to gravitate towards your more traditional tank architype, eventually unlocking swords and shield combos. Footman is kind of the middle ground, able to use long range weapons. Vanguard seems to be heavily DPS, slow to attack but are the ones wielding the massive weapons. And lastly, and my personal favorite, are the archers, able to pick off enemies from afar but have a very limited ammunition that must be found to replenish. You’ll need to reach certain levels with each class to unlock their subclasses, and while this doesn’t take too long if you focus on one at a time specifically, this is going to vary based on how proficient you can get kills and experience. Once I was able to start head-shotting with my crossbow, I was earning huge amounts of experience and unlocks.

Each subclass also has a unique ability as well. Think of this as like your Ultimate; once charged fully by doing damage and getting kills you can utilize it to help your team in various ways. Some abilities will heal nearby teammates, others will allow you to set your arrows on fire for a short period and more. There’s a handful of different abilities, though as mentioned above, some do overlap. Healing for example is doable by more than one subclass, though albeit a little differently (playing a trumpet as opposed to putting a banner down).

As you level you’ll earn new unlocks for each class, mostly cosmetic skins for your weapons and armor. Gold is earned in game by simply playing, though there is a premium currency for those wanting to unlock the coolest skins right away, as gold doesn’t tend to come in very quick, so it can be quite a grind to unlock the pricey items. Thankfully these are all simply cosmetic, so it makes no difference to the gameplay.

Combat is where Chivalry II really shines, feeling very ‘weighty’ and satisfying when you land a killing blow, decapitating your enemy after blocking and countering their attack. Combat is all about what swings you take, the angle of your attacks and timing. Combat is very fluid, and while you’ll need stamina to continually swing or block, you can also become easily outnumbered if two or more decide to gang up on you.

Interestingly, you have three separate attacks. A horizontal slash, a stab and an overhead swipe. These moves can be combined together provided you have enough stamina, and you can also hold the buttons for a longer wind up stronger attack but this leaves you open to being hit as well. Learning how to ‘drag’ is how you’re going to start winning fights. For example, if you just hit the trigger to do a horizontal attack, you’re going to have to wait for the animation to start from the far side until it connects with your enemy. When you ‘drag’ your attack, you essentially hit the swing then rotate your body so that the tip of your weapon hits the enemy sooner. It’s a really unique system and does take quite a bit of getting used do, but the practice will pay off, as many battles are won by who can land that critical first strike.

There’s a cat and mouse game pertaining to combat as well. Do you go on the offensive and hope that your enemy misses their counters and blocks, or try and parry against their attacks instead? This rock-paper-scissors style of gameplay can be quite exciting when you’re throwing in feints, kicks, mixing quick and heavy attacks and finally get that sweet well-earned kill. When you start to get really fancy you can even throw whatever weapon you’re holding at an enemy if they decide to run away. Yes, this will leave you defenseless, but you can literally pick up any weapon you see on the battlefield, even tons of random objects like barrels, crates, shovels, pitchforks and even chickens in a pinch.

It seems that crossplay is enabled by default, as I wasn’t able to see an option to disable it. This is fine, as matches fill quite quickly and I never really stood around long waiting for a match to populate. But on the other hand the most of my deaths came from PC players that are going to have a bit more finesse when it comes to ‘dragging’ the melee kills. With 64 players in a match you can decide to run in head first into a pile of enemies and just start swinging away hoping for the best, but you can also cause team damage as well, so this isn’t always the most viable solution. Also, once you get surrounded by two or more enemies, it’s very rare for you to survive when you’re outnumbered.

While there’s no traditional narrative or story, you do get some speeches you’d expect to see in a movie just before the two sides clash against one another, getting you hyped for the upcoming battle ahead. The sounds of war are brutal, as weapons clashing makes a distinct sound, as does your team mates utilizing their battle cry as they run into the battlefield after a respawn. Some instrumental music plays in the background, adding some ambiance without drowning out the shouts of your teammates and the fierce sounds of combat. Combat not only feels weighty but sounds it as well, the highlight of the Chivalry II experience. Visuals are decent, especially for having 64 player matches and large arenas that you progress in, but the models themselves are a bit dated and there’s not many skins that made me go “wow” and want to drop some real cash on.

There’s a fine balance of arcade-like gameplay that allows anyone to simply jump in and swing a massive halberd around to get some kills, but also a deep enough combat system that allows for refined and purposeful attacks that rewards your skill after hours of practice. While it’s a grind to unlock all of the subclasses and gear, it never become a frustrating chore, as I’m always happy to jump into one more battle to add a few more heads to my glorious collection.

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

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Storm Ground

There’s no shortage of Warhammer games out there, almost in every genre, but the latest is trying something different, not only with its genre melding gameplay, but fans are finally getting a Warhammer game based on the Age of Sigmar universe. Warhammer tabletop is known for its massive battles, but Storm Ground is doing something a little different, condensing the battles into smaller piecemeal affairs with a roguelike turned based strategy game that also utilizes cards. That’s a handful of different genres and mechanics, so I wasn’t sure what to expect initially. Thankfully the gameplay is addictive and strategic, even if the difficulty and grind to progress is quite high.

Instead of one long overarching narrative you play through, instead you’ll choose from one of the three included factions: Stormcast Eternals, the ghostly Nightnaughts or the poisonous Maggotkin of Nurgle. Each of the three separate campaigns have their own storyline, though to be honest, I couldn’t tell you much about them, as there’s a little dialogue here and there, but much of the lore is buried away in collectable lore scrolls, so don’t expect many cool cutscenes.

Each campaign is going to take quite a while to complete your first time, and given there are three factions, there’s quite a hefty amount of replayability and value within as long as you can endure the arduous grind and roguelike mechanics of constantly dying and starting over. Thankfully each playthrough will vary slightly, as you’re given randomized options for your missions and rewards. Manage to complete the campaign and you’ll unlock harder difficulties, essentially doubling the length of the campaign and adding new enemies and situations, so there’s plenty to see if you can keep with it long term.

Each faction plays very unique and differently, so make sure to try out each one and find which best suits your playstyle. This will take some time though, as you’re going to have to play multiple times, slowly building up your units and cards to have a better army and hopefully make it slightly further each run. Storm Ground utilizes a bunch of mechanics from very different genres. The core gameplay is a typical turned based strategy affair, but your units are actually based on the cards you’ve earned along the way, able to be leveled up and equipped with other unique gear you also find cards for when you complete matches.

Let’s start out with the cards, as that’s one of the more unique features or Storm Ground and requires understanding to fully grasp how it intertwines with the combat and roguelike progression. As you complete missions you’ll earn randomized cards varying in type and rarity. There are cards for weapons, unit types, skills, gear, skins and more. These cards are how you’ll fill out your army and what their effectiveness will be, essentially building and slowly stacking your army to become more powerful as you progress.

Units are important to get, because these are the ones that will fight alongside your hero in each mission. Some are ranged based, other melee and some have specific uses like being able to move from one end of the board to the other, particularly useful for collecting chests or making a hasty retreat. Your card collection will grow as you earn more rewards, but every time you fail the objective or your main hero dies the game is over and you must start another new campaign from the beginning. You’re allowed to choose three unit cards (and the gear their equipped with) to start each new campaign, so you are constantly making progress, albeit very slowly, almost to the point of being unnoticeable at times.

You can also get multiple cards of the same item, equipment and units, so when choosing what units to bring with you in a new run, do you choose a max level card that already has everything, or a lower leveled one that could use the experience and level up? There’s a lot of balancing like this that honestly takes a few hours of trial and error to figure out what works best for your playstyle. Make no mistake though, there are going to be times where you’ll be faced with an objective in a mission and if you didn’t bring the “right” setup of units or abilities, it’s basically impossible to beat. The randomness of the cards you earn can work for or against you, as the problem I keep having is that I have a dozen different swords for my main hero and melee units, but have only found one extra shield card in all of the hours I’ve played, so some of my units have starter equipment still while I have tons of spare swords not being able to be used.

Battles themselves are your typical turn based affair with a gridded map, showing how far you can traverse in a turn and the reach your abilities have on enemies. Your main unit is the hero for your faction, and obviously your most powerful, but you’ll be able to summon extra units based on the cards you’ve equipped before choosing the mission. While limited on how many you can summon, some units are better suited for certain missions than others, so make sure to read the mission descriptions beforehand. The main issue I had with this though is that while there’s a difficulty rating for missions, it doesn’t always seem that accurate, as I sometimes had no problem with 3 skull missions but would get destroyed in a single skull. Most missions will be some variant of killing all enemies, defeat a boss or capture a point of some sorts.

Because of the grid based system much of your tactics will be about strategic placement. You can get up on higher platforms, giving you a height advantage and combat bonuses, but the same works against you if an enemy is above. You’ll have to watch your footing as well, as there are planks of wood that can be destroyed, instantly killing a unit if they are standing on it and a certain ability is used. The same goes for edges of the map, allowing you to knock off enemies, but they can do the same.

Your strategy is going to depend on the units you’ve chosen, their abilities, skills and positioning on the map. It’s quite common to be outnumbered, so you’ll generally want to keep your team able to focus fire enemies down, but after a few hours of the same mission types, it does become a little repetitive. The main culprit to this is that the animations for movement and abilities is quite slow, with no way to speed up or skip them at all. So you have to sit through each animation every single time, not even able to queue up your other units’ until the previous finishes, so it can become a slog at times.

Each faction plays completely unique from one another and requires totally different tactics, strategy and planning to be successful. Stormcast are your typical humans, allowing you to spawn units right beside the hero and has a balance of melee, ranged and other unit types once you collect their cards. The Maggotkin were the most difficult for me to be successful with, as you can only spawn units in special poison pools but are able to change and modify these in certain ways with multiple steps of planning beforehand. The Nighthaunt uses special pillars to spawn units at, able to be placed in strategic places. I had the most success with the Stormcast as they play more ‘basic’, but for those that really want to flex their strategic planning, the other factions are a great fit that require totally different strategies.

While you generally only earn new cards from finishing a battle, each mission will also have a treasure chest on the map that can be collected by the first unit to reach it. This is great when you obtain it, as it gives you 3 bonus cards, but the issue lies in the fact that enemies can also get them, basically screwing you out of obtaining the chest for bonus cards. There are also smaller lore urns to be collected for those that care about backstory as well, but again, enemies can take it away from you if they happen to land on that grid spot first.

For those that manage to somehow complete all the faction’s campaigns there is also an online mode where you can 1v1 battle other players, with crossplay enabled. Here it’s simply your squad versus theirs. I’d love to go into more depth about what’s unique for online play, but I’ve yet been able to find a match in all my time playing Storm Ground. Every time I tried I let it sit for quite a while but an opponent was never found. Interestingly, the numbers for current players and such is shown, and the numbers are quite abysmal for online player count.

While I don’t play the tabletop Warhammer, everything in Storm Ground looks as though it’s been plucked out of the board game and converted into a video game. You’re able to zoom far out of the map or close up to see each unit’s details, and while it’s not overly impressive in its visuals, Age of Sigmar fans should enjoy the authenticity and recognize some of their favorite units on the battlefield. Better yet, you can even ‘paint’ your units to customize their color schemes which was a cool touch and a nod to its tabletop roots. As for the audio, it too is also passable but nothing very noteworthy. There’s a decent amount spoken dialogue when the Heroes have something to remark but the voice acting itself is simply acceptable at best.

For a game that’s based on strategy, I found myself sometimes frustrated because I wasn’t losing due to my lack of it, but the luck of what cards I had at any given time. Yes, as a roguelike you’re expected to fail many times before be able to progress, but the grind does get quite arduous when the rewards are seemingly randomized, forcing you to play yet again in hopes that you get an upgrade.

There’s some roughness around its edges and it does frustrate in certain aspects, but Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Storm Ground does do a good job at being accessible for newcomers to the strategy genre while adding tons of replayability, as long as you enjoy the roguelike grind that follows. While it feels priced a little high, the value is there if you’re willing to sink the hours into the lengthy and challenging campaign.

**Warhammer Age of Sigmar: Storm Ground was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.8 / 10 REKT! High Octane Stunts

Rekt! High Octane Stunts is not only the game's title, but actually the most perfect name to describe its gameplay. As you try and do crazy stunts in your car and don’t land on your wheels, you’re going to get wrecked... er, Rekt! If you’ve ever played a Tony Hawk game in the past, you’ll be well aware what it’s like to string along a combo for the whole round timer only to crash and bail at the very end, losing all your hard work; Rekt! High Octane Stunts is very reminiscent of that, even down to its score based gameplay, except you’re in a car instead of on a skateboard. So get ready to get behind the wheel, flip, spin, barrel roll, drift and perform as many stunts as you can to rack up the highest score possible before time runs out to place on the leaderbaords.

Rekt is as simplistic as it gets, simply placing you in an arena and giving you a time limit to get the highest score possible. While there’s no career mode of any sorts, you’ll still have objectives to work towards such as unlocking dozens of vehicles, spoilers, wheels, levels and saving up your currency to improve your vehicle’s stats. Because of the score attack nature that Rekt bases itself around, it can get a little tiring after about an hour straight, but makes for a great party game or some quick time to play if you only have a short time.

The main goal is to earn the highest score possible by performing stunts, ideally comboing them together in a single string until time runs out if you want any chance of topping the online leaderboards for bragging rights. While there’s only five different arenas to play around in, each one is vastly unique from one another, having their own style and unique setups of ramps, gates and rings. Very arcade-like gameplay allows you to flip, twist and spin your car in the air in any direction and drift with ease while your wheels are on the ground. Land on your wheels and you’ll earn a clean landing bonus, improving your score and combos even further. Land on anywhere else though and you’ll get ‘REKT!’, losing all of the combo and work you’ve amassed to that point.

The arcade action is simple enough to pick up and play but will take some practice to master, especially when you hit a ramp a little wonky, corkscrew a half dozen times and then need to right yourself to land on your wheels in less than a second or two. Most rounds last between a minute or two, though there are clocks scattered throughout the stages to extend your time, something that will be critical if you want to climb those leaderboards for the top spots.

As you complete runs you’ll earn currency which is used to spend on upgrading the stats of your vehicles or to spin a slot machine-like system for 1000 at a time, randomly giving you a new vehicle, spoiler, wheels or more currency. It will take some grinding to amass enough coins to unlock everything, but will eventually come in time. Each vehicle has their own stats, though it doesn’t feel drastically different from one to the next aside from a few special ones once fully upgraded. For the completionists though, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Upgrading your vehicle takes currency as well and you can boost its stats like Boost, Speed, Handling etc, though you can’t fully max any of the vehicles that I’ve noticed so far, but can come close. You can freely change your spoiler, wheels and sticker on the bottom of your vehicle to any that you’ve currently unlocked, though I do wish I could have spent coins on specific items instead of having to play the slot machine a thousand coins at a time.

Each time you play a Highscore attempt you’re also given three randomized objectives that you can choose to complete. Doing so earns you more coins and works towards the achievements as well. Many of these challenges will vary, usually tasked with performing two flips, spins, corkscrews, other stunt combinations or knocking over piles of blocks, going through gates, etc.

Given that Rekt was initially a mobile game, there is of course not much ‘meat on the bones’ so to speak. When you’re playing solo there’s actually only two modes to play: Practice, which has no real point since you don’t progress in any way, and High Score. The lure of a high score and online leaderboards is what will keep you playing, even after you’ve finally unlocked every vehicle and spoiler.

As for performing the stunts themselves, it’s very simple to do. Launch your vehicle off a ramp and flick the Right Stick in a direction to rotate it that direction. Up will frontflip, Down for backflips, Left or Right for spins and Bumpers to barrel roll. You can of course combine any of these to earn more points, but the real skill comes in trying to right your car properly for a perfect landing. Interestingly, you can hold ‘A’ and the car will stop rotating if you want a little more assistance in trying to land properly, and while I was crashing almost every time for the first hour, I eventually got the hang of it and was able to right myself for clean landings almost every time afterwards. An interesting feature too is that the color of the stage changes as your combo goes higher, almost like a filter gets applied to visually show you that your combo is going up. It’s a subtle effect but I quite enjoyed it once I realized what it meant.

You will also have some Boost, usable with the ‘B’ button, to help you get some more speed to launch yourself further and higher off each ramp if you want. When you’re attempting to land on certain platforms or go through rings, it’s going to take a lot of practice to figure out how much speed you’re actually going to need without coming up short or launching clear across where you intended to land.

Now there is multiplayer, up to four players, but sadly it’s local only. This means you’ll need to have people over on the same couch to play some of the unique multiplayer modes. Score has you challenging against each other to see who can attains the highest amount of points before the timer ends; simple. Baja is basically a checkpoint race where the first player to reach a checkpoint earns a point with the winner the first to five. Capture the Crown is your typical keep away mode where the first player to hold onto the crown for 90 seconds is the winner. Lastly is Virus, basically an infection/zombie mode where the player with the virus needs to tag everyone else, spreading the infection. The Venom-like effect on the cars was a cool touch.

I get that a small arcade game like this came from its smaller app roots, but a map editor or some online play would have kept me playing longer term. Being able to download other players’ ghost runs would also have been interesting, seeing what others do to attain those ridiculously high scores. While there is some multiplayer, it’s nothing noteworthy unless you happen to have people in the home to play with regularly. There’s plenty of unlockables to work towards but its gameplay loop is more fitting for sporadic play here and there instead of hours at a time.

It’s hard to complain for a simplistic and entertaining game that’s only priced at $6 USD. REKT! High Octane Stunts is a blast in short bursts but probably won’t have much longevity. When you finally land that full run combo and see your Gamertag appear on top of the leaderboards it’s exciting but, prepare to get REKT countless times.

**REKT! High Octane Stunts was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Jay and Silent Bob - Mall Brawl

I grew up as an 80’s child, so I’m no stranger to brutally difficult NES games. Many games from that era were so challenging, usually requiring you to start all over again from the beginning when you lost all your lives or continues. Games like that really aren’t as commonplace these days, so naturally I was excited when I saw Jay and Silent Bob – Mall Brawl, not just because I was due for some classic gaming nostalgia, but I’m a huge Kevin Smith fan, having watched all of his movies numerous times ever since the release of Clerks in 1994.

An 8-bit retro beat-em-up, Jay and Silent Bob – Mall Brawl has you controlling the iconic duo of Jay and Silent Bob as they battle numerous enemies and bosses, filled with plenty of View Askewniverse (Kevin Smith’s fictional universe) references for Smith fans. Originally meant to be a free bonus for Kickstarter backers to a still unreleased Jay and Silent Bob game, Chronic Blunt Punch, Mall Brawl released on PC and Switch last year, finally making its way to Xbox in this Arcade Edition with a few extras for Smith and NES fans to enjoy. If you miss the days of classic beat-em-ups like Double Dragon or River City Ransom from the late 80’s, you’re going to want to take note, as this is as close to those games as you can get.

Technically Jay and Silent Bob – Mall Brawl is a direct sequel to Mallrats, as the story it setup in a way where Jay and Silent Bob successfully sabotaged the Truth or Date gameshow in the mall and now must find a way to escape the mall and make your way back to the Quick Stop to hang out like they always do. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve sat down and watched Mallrats, so I took the opportunity to do so before diving in to make sure I would catch as many references as I could, and there were plenty throughout. Of course LaFours makes an appearance as the first mini-boss, the security guard who constantly tries to thwart the duo in the movie, but there’s plenty of other non-Mallrat movie references as well which I quite enjoyed as a fan.

Like many classic games from the era, you aren’t going to get any real narrative here, as the opening scene explaining the setup is all there is for any story elements. Fight your way out of the mall and make it to the Quick Stop; that’s the whole setup and payoff. Technically there’s a little something extra once you unlock Hard Mode, but I’ll leave that as a surprise.

Taking place across nine levels, you can play solo or alongside a friend in local co-op. This is of course trying to recreate that 80’s classic NES gaming, and the difficulty is no exception, so expect to die and have to restart levels many times. Old school gamers like myself won’t be shocked by this, but the difficulty does have some quite steep spikes now and then, especially near the end when you have to take on a boss gauntlet back to back. Thankfully once you beat a level you will restart at the beginning of that stage if you die, except for chapter nine, putting you back to the start of level eight if you fail the final boss fight. While I was finally able to complete the game on Normal after a handful of tries for each stage, Hard Mode unlocks after completion, but good luck ever completing that.

The classic 8-bit retro visuals, audio and gameplay made me smile, not even including all of the movie references that fans will catch onto. This updated Arcade version has a few extra bonuses, like being able to toggle between classic NES style mode or a slightly more refined Arcade version, though there’s very minimal differences that I could tell aesthetically. You can also choose different borders and toggle CRT monitor scanlines if you really want a true authentic retro experience.

Almost every level is going to most likely take you a few tries to complete, as the classic NES challenge is always present. Playable solo or alongside a friend locally, Jay and Silent Bob – Mall Brawl is certainly able to be enjoyed by yourself but co-op makes it a much more tolerable and better experience given its difficulty. Half the challenge is figuring out each enemy type’s attack pattern and how best to counter it. The skateboarders for example need to be jump kicked off their decks if you want to use it against them, or knowing how to avoid getting gored by the Mooby's mascot.

There’s actually a ton of references, not just on the Kevin Smith side, but nods to NES classics as well. For example, you’re going to have to eventually fight some musclebound pretzel head enemies, aptly called Adoughbo, a satire of Double Dragon’s mascot Abobo. There’s even a tough as nails level where you have to ride a shopping cart through the mall, trying not to crash or hit anything, a nod to the iconic Turbo Tunnel level from Battletoads. Of course there are plenty of View Askewniverse references that any Smith fan will notice instantaneously, like beating up the Easter Bunny, a Sockful-o-quarters, a boss with a huge fist and more. Many of the achievements are inside jokes that fans will smirk at as they’re popular jokes from the movies.

Combat is basic but exactly the type of gameplay you’d find from games in that era. Like Double Dragon and others, you have a Punch, Kick and Jump button, as a well as being able to swap from Jay to Silent Bob when needed. It’s a simplistic control scheme but being swarmed by enemies from all sides when playing solo can be quite difficult. This is where the character swap comes into play. With the press of a button you can freely swap between Jay and Silent Bob. More than simply playing the character you like more, there’s a strategic reason for doing so.

If you’re playing Jay for example and end up losing all your health, it will automatically swap Silent Bob in to play. The character not being used will very slowly regenerate their health and once it’s half-filled they can be tagged in again. If the second character dies before the first is ready to be swapped in, then it’s game over and you start over again from the chapter you’re currently on. The character swap eventually needs to be done strategically, as you’ll want to swap in or out based on how much health you got left or if there’s food to pick up on the ground. It would have been nice to have a moment of invulnerability when swapping, as many times I would tag in only to get hit right away, but that’s part of the challenge. When you attempt Hard Mode though health doesn’t regenerate, so you’re going to have to beat each level without both characters dying; good luck with that.

I really enjoyed the classic 8-bit visuals, giving that classic nostalgia that I grew up with. Characters from the movies are instantly recognizable and if you didn’t know any better, you might actually think it’s simply a classic NES game from the era. The chiptune music is also just as well done and also fitting for the adventure. While many movie licensed games are generally quite terrible, Jay and Silent Bob – Mall Brawl blends a fun but frustrating 80’s game experience with pop culture movie references, a perfect blend of Double Dragon and Kevin Smith source material.

While the challenge may be a little too steep for some, gamers from my era should know exactly what to expect. It by no means does anything new with the genre or gameplay but was an entertaining yet frustrating few hours of nostalgia gameplay I mostly enjoyed aside from the final two levels. It's a good thing I’m the perfect demographic for Jay and Silent Bob – Mall Brawl; an 80’s NES kid that loves Kevin Smith movies. Snoochie Boochies.

**Jay and Silent Bob - Mall Brawl was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 DRAGON QUEST BUILDERS 2

It’s been a long two year wait since it first released on other consoles, but DRAGON QUEST BUILDERS 2 has finally made its way to Xbox and Xbox Game Pass. The Dragon Quest games have been around since the mid 80’s on the NES, having numerous sequels over the past few decades, primarily focusing on the RPG genre. Then roughly a decade ago a little game called Minecraft released, creating a whole new genre which almost everyone has played in some form at this point. It’s easy to make DRAGON QUEST BUILDERS 2 comparison to Minecraft simply because of its blocky nature and block building gameplay, but this isn’t a simple Dragon Quest reskin you might initially expect. Even though it may focus more on the building side than typical RPG, there’s a great balance and blending of the two genres. For the Dragon Quest fans out there you can expect tons of Easter Eggs, references, music, slimes and more, just as if it was a typical Dragon Quest entry.

While I’ve played Minecraft before, I could never really get into it. Many love its freeform gameplay without any hand holding, but that’s exactly why I never really enjoyed it. This is where DRAGON QUEST BUILDERS 2 absolutely excels, giving you a narrative based experience that you’d expect from any of the mainline titles but also melding together that block building gameplay that you enjoy. With a much more focused approach yet still letting you create however you like, DRAGON QUEST BUILDERS 2 kind of took me by surprise, as I was initially expecting a Minecraft clone of sorts, but I couldn’t put this one down due to the addictive and quite lengthy campaign. Having no real narrative or core objectives is what made me not really care for Minecraft, and the fact that DRAGON QUEST BUILDERS 2 actually focuses on this instead is what really made me stick with it for longer than I expected. While you’re given a linear story to follow along, this lets newcomers not only to the Dragon Quest universe feel at ease, but even players like myself that never felt at home in Minecraft, teaching you new tools and mechanics slowly as you progress without ever becoming overwhelming.

You are a fabled Builder, a person with an ability to crate anything you can think of to note down in your recipe book. The Children of Hargon are an evil kind that has made ever person and monster think that destruction is the way of life, capturing and imprisoning any Builders they can find. You too become captured and are being taken somewhere on a mysterious ship, that is, until your shipwreck on a seemingly the seemingly unknown Isle of Awakening. As you awake and find everyone else dead on the shores, it seems someone else has survived, Malroth, though he doesn’t remember what happened to him or how he got there. With new friend in tow, you two embark on a journey that will work on making you the best Builder out there to fight against the Children of Hargon, but doing so won’t be easy or quick.

This is just the beginning of your adventure and only one of many islands you’ll explore during your journey. Not only do you need to fight a force of evil but uncover what has happened and why you have the special abilities of a Builder. You can’t do this alone though and Malroth will be by your side throughout. With a focus on story the journey is quite lengthy, though this is most likely due to the constant distractions of building, farming and other quests that you’ll constantly be tasked with.

As you work on your journey to become the ultimate Builder,you’ll need to start off small and work your way up as you learn new recipes and experience. You’re first tasked with creating a small room but will eventually have the freedom to craft and build anything that you like, though you’re always guided by story based quests to progress further whenever you wish to do so. Each new area and island has its own materials to craft with, farm, cook and more, so even after 30+ hours I was still learning new recipes and building new items.

Early on certain areas will be blocked off, either by vast bodies of water that are impassible or certain blocks that aren’t able to be smashed and collected, acting as a barrier to keep you contained to particular areas. As you progress in the story you’ll eventually learn new abilities or gain new gear that will allow you to explore new places. For example, you’ll eventually gain access to a Windbreaker, a parachute-like item that allows you to glide across large gaps and prevent taking falling damage. Clearly a nod to Zelda, this is one way the game slowly opens you up to new areas to explore.

Because the maps are so large there’s a handful of different teleport stones you can find to use to instantly warp to and from once found, which becomes quite useful since you’ll be doing many fetch quests. While the latter half of the game does become a little more of a grind, you are almost always learning new recipes and things to craft as you progress. Even after 15+ hours I was gaining new tools to help me become a better crafter, so you never become overwhelmed all at once.

Given that the majority of DRAGON QUEST BUILDERS 2 is much like Minecraft you can expect to be building often, be it small fences, watering holes, farms or even massive buildings, able to freely swap between first and third person whenever you see fit. Early on you’ll be given blueprints for certain buildings, showing you exactly where to place which blocks and its layers, though that’s only to be used as an early template, as you’ll want to create your buildings and farms whatever way, size or shape you wish. You’re also able to create dozens of decorative items, allowing you to customize all your creations in near endless possibilities.

The further you progress in the story the more materials you’ll be tasked with finding and collecting so you can make new items, thus the treadmill of becoming proficient and building one thing before learning new items begins. The building itself is quite easy, even in third person, as you can ‘aim’ up or downwards with a button press to place blocks exactly where you want. You’re really only limited by your imagination, and while I never really created anything extravagant, seeing what others have made online was nothing short of impressive.

Surprisingly, farming plays a large part of DRAGON QUEST BUILDERS 2’s gameplay. This is because instead of being by yourself, you make friends along the way which will help you at your base by cooking food, harvesting, planting crops, defending your base against monsters and more. Even though you’re primarily playing by yourself, though technically with Malroth by your side, it feels like a community based game at the same time in certain aspects which I really enjoyed. I wasn’t simply building for no reason; it had purpose. Your crops need to be planted, watered and looked after, which in turn can then be used to cook special food for your adventuring and villagers as well.

Combat plays a large part of DRAGON QUEST BUILDERS 2 as well, not to only gather materials from enemies, but monsters are always roaming the lands, usually where you want to gather. That said, combat is easily the weakest part of the whole DRAGON QUEST BUILDERS 2 experience. Yes you can craft new armor and weapons to survive better, but combat is quite simple that devolves into button mashing for the most part. Malroth will start fighting anything you attack so you always have backup, but all you’ll do is spam the attack button and quickly back away when the larger enemies telegraph their big attacks about to hit; rinse and repeat. You are able to charge your attack for a spin-like move, but its damage isn’t worth the time of not hitting a few times instead. Combat isn’t ‘bad’ per-se, it’s just incredibly basic and not memorable aside from the annoying times where monsters will rush your base, forcing you to fend them off. As you level up from experience in combat you’ll learn new combat abilities, but basically your and Malroth's health will go up and that’s it.

After the opening handful of quests, you’re whisked away to a completely new island, tasked with bringing back the Furrowfield Farm back to life. It’s in abysmal shape, so this is where you’ll start to learn the basics of setting up a gated farm, different housing types, how to tend to your crops and more. Quests come in small chunks, letting you focus on one or two things at a time instead of giving you a massive checklist and becoming overwhelmed. After a dozen or so hours in this area, finally completing my main objective, I thought I was near the end of my journey. Holy was I wrong. This first area, about 8-12 hours or so is basically the introduction to DRAGON QUEST BUILDERS 2, acting like a very lengthy tutorial.

That’s right, your first ten hours or so are going to be doing the first chapter of the game. After this it opens up even further if you’re trying to complete the campaign. This really shocked me but shows the value within that you’ll get, even if you don’t waste a lot of spare time building anything not needed directly to progress. As you do complete quests and objectives like harvesting, your villagers will drop hearts to show their gratitude and happiness. These are important to collect, as they are used to level up and improve your farm and village, later on being used to unlock special items, recipes and blocks as well.

If you’re like me and don’t really have an interest at building a massive castle or abode, you’ll be happy to know that up to four players can join together to work together on a single project or area. There’s a large caveat to this though; First, you need to complete that opening ‘tutorial’ I mentioned above, so you can’t even access the multiplayer until you’re about a dozen hours in. Second, from as far as I was able to tell, once you do open your Isle of Awakening for friends to join, that’s all that is allowed to join; only friends. This means you can’t have random people join you or you can’t find others to join if they aren’t already on your friends list and send an invite. Maybe there’s a workaround this that I’ve yet to figure out, but even so, multiplayer seems like a very small portion of DRAGON QUEST BUILDERS 2’s gameplay, focusing instead on the narrative and single player aspect.

While I think that Minecraft purists may not gravitate towards DRAGON QUEST BUILDERS 2’s more narrative and quest based approach, this is exactly what the genre needed for a player like me to become interested and invested in its world outside from simply given freedom to create whatever I want. This change of pace was very welcomed, and just as thought I was nearing the end of my journey, the game opened up further, giving me even more to play with however I wished, but always able to come back to that linear structure when I desire.

Block building mixed with RPG and survival elements and even farming works quite well within the Dragon Quest backdrop. Slimes and traditional enemies are fitting for a cute aesthetic like this and I kept wanting to progress further to see what new items I could craft and build with. Able to focus on any aspect you desire, DRAGON QUEST BUILDERS 2 is a great blend of genres and may surprise you with how expansive its world actually is.

**DRAGON QUEST BUILDERS 2 was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Biomutant

Back in 2017 Biomutant was announced. Since then, development goal dates have come and gone, but not anymore, as its' long awaited release date is almost here. Truth be told, I wasn’t really following its development until the past few months when it seemed the release was finally going to happen. Then something magical happened; it arrived in my lap to review and I have to say, the game has seriously surprised me. Every now and then there’s a title or franchise where I don’t have high expectation or wouldn’t have thought much of it, but then once in awhile I get to play a gem that I’m absolutely blown away in the best way. This was the case with Biomutant.

Developed by Experiment 101, it is a smaller dev-team comprised of former Just Cause developers and a few other industry types, for a total of about 20 staff. The game is published by THQ Nordic. Biomutant does what many games do, taking inspiration from other great titles while having their own take on certain aspects. If I had to compare Biomutant directly with another game I’d lean towards Fable, but with a post-apocalyptic setting filled with guns and kung-fu. There are other nods to many other games like the Zelda franchise, Devil May Cry, Fallout and more, but I kept getting that Fable feeling the more hours I sunk into Biomutant’s fascinating world. Oh, and you play as some sort of Racoon/Cat/Squirrel creature, so there’s that.

An unusual story with an unusual end is how developers describe Biomutant’s narrative, and after getting through it all and working on a New Game+ playthrough, I’d have to agree. The Tree-of-Life is what keeps the world going but over pollution has caused it to become sick and dying. Its roots are massive, spread into different corners of the world, and it is bleeding due to four massive World Eater creatures trying to destroy it. You will determine how you want to proceed, and thus, the fate of the world is in your hands.

The land is also controlled by six different factions, all divided up via their own specific ideologies and these nations are in need of someone to either unite or defeat them. Whatever choices you make along the way, the Narrator is with you every step, describing the story about your actions and consequences. Which faction will you side with? Will you show mercy or destroy everything in your path. This is your story to tell either way. The campaign itself should take you about 10-15 hours or so, but that’s only if you ignore the massive amount of side quests, exploration and puzzles you’ll come across during your journey. The world is so full and so rich with characters and narrative that it’s hard to not get sucked into someone’s side quest simply because of their personality or spend an hour in an abandoned town looking for every piece of hidden loot.

Before you begin your adventure though you’ll first need to create your character. You’re some sort of a Racoon/Cat/Squirrel-like creature and you start by choosing your breed from six different choices, each of which has its own advantages and traits, then your attributes and class. While some mixtures will go best together depending on how you want to play (melee, ranged or psi-based), you’re not hampered for choosing one over the other. The coolest part about the character creator though is how it actually changes your character’s visual appearance. For stats you’ll put points into Strength, Vitality, Intellect, Agility, Charisma and Luck, and each time you level up you get to put 10 points into a single stat, either boosting what you’re good at or making up for what you’re not.

Instead of the typical bars to adjust height, weight, etc., you can freely adjust nearly every aspect which will change your physical attributes. Choose to be smarter and your head grows bigger to showcase that massive brain you have. Want to be stronger, well if you do you’ll look more buff. Decide to play more defensive and agile? Well then, you’ll be smaller and skinnier. It’s a fun character creator to simply play around with and gives you the freedom to make your character look exactly how you want, even down to fur patterns and colors. These choices can be changed later on down the road in your adventure, but I’ll leave that up to you to figure out how. You’ll also choose a genetic resistance that will be needed to access certain areas that are full of radiation, biohazardous material, and heat or cold, but this will only give you a small portion of the 100% resistance required to fully explore these areas, but that’s where gear will come into play later on.

I spent quite a while debating over which class I wanted to play but don’t overthink it too much, as this is more of a starting point than an absolute. You’re simply given some starter skills and weapons based on your choice but and you can learn more skills and use any weapons you choose further down the road as loot starts to become plentiful. These are basically starting points and allow you to try out a certain playstyle from the beginning, like dual wielding weapons, 2-handers, range based or more skill casting.

As for the classes themselves, there are five different choices: Sentinel has increased armor, Saboteur duel wields melee weapons and can evade much better, Psi-Freak is your ‘caster’ build that has a much higher energy regen, Commando (my personal choice) is the ranged class that deals more gun damage and finally the Dead-Eye, which is the “all-around” class that allows for ranged weapons to be reloaded instantly. You’ll get to play with any weapon and skills later on, so don’t stress about choosing that perfect class in the beginning even if it doesn't initially vibe with your playstyle.

After an opening tutorial you’re put into an open world where exploration is encouraged. You’ll have a main quest to guide you from area to area, but the more you discover what’s off the beaten path, the better the whole Biomutant experience becomes. Biomutant mixes Fable RPG storytelling with melee, ranged and special abilities to make for a really satisfying experience. Each area you discover is unique, throwing in some cool enemies and puzzles along the way. Some areas have their own local storylines and characters while you progress on your overall quest dealing with the Tree-of-Life and the rivaling Tribes.

As you explore the lands you’ll come across quests that once completed will give you special mounts. Sometimes these are typical ridable animals, a mechanical horse, a clockwork hand and others, but you’ll eventually experience a submarine, massive mech-suit, Jet Ski and more that are required to explore certain areas and fight against World Eater bosses. The best part about these particular mounts is that you can find special items to customize them to change how they look. It’s simply for visual aesthetics, but it allows you to add a little personality to your rides, as I loved my Jet Ski with a duck head on the front.

As you venture across the lands you’ll come across many puzzles, abandoned towns and other secrets. Puzzles are plentiful but quite basic, usually having you rotate dials of some sort to matching colors lines in a set amount of moves. Fail and you’ll take some damage before being able to try again. These puzzles sometimes award loot or allow access to a new doorway where even better loot is kept. They are simple in nature, but I always enjoyed stumbling across them.

As you come across certain areas, instead of being blocked off by locked doors they’ll usually be covered in radiation, poison or have no oxygen. These zones require your resistances to be maxed out if you want to venture inside uncover their secrets. The Dead Zone is an area that you’ll explore during the course of the campaign with your mech suit, though because of the open world nature of Biomutant, you could theoretically head there well before you are guided to do so, but you’d need to have a set of gear with high enough resistances to survive. To explore the other areas that you’ll need resistances for, you’ll need to either have appropriate gear or find special suits that will give you 100% protection for that type of danger, usually given from certain quests.

The six Tribes in the world offer more than a narrative reason for siding with one or another. As you amass favor for your Tribe of choice you’ll fight against rival clans by taking out their outposts before being able to challenge their leader to a showdown. Do you decide to take them out and anyone that opposes you or so you try and reason with them to have them join your alliance? Either way you’ll earn a very special and unique Tribe weapon as well as learning their Wung-Fu style, giving you a new combat technique.

This is where Aura comes into play, a dark versus light / good versus evil system. Good and Bad are subjective of course, but you’ll gain Aura points based on your actions and decisions for many choices. Choosing a ‘good’ answer sometimes will give you Aura points, or what you do with a captured prisoner will also earn you some as well, deciding to let them go or killing them. Aura of course will play an important part of which ending you receive, but there’s more to it than that. This Aura also is a sort of ‘currency’ in a way, as many powers are locked behind these Auras. For example, to use a special Ice ability I had to be sided with the good Aura, whereas Dark players get a completely different skill. You’re never locked out of powers either and can freely sway your Aura back and forth between good and bad, so you can try a different route and choices whenever you wish.

This is where I played completely different in my New Game+. Yes, Biomutant has a NG+ where all your progress and gear carry over, allowing you to start anew to either further enhance your character or play in a completely different way. All your gear, skills and abilities carry over but the world essentially resets, allowing you to side with a new tribe and maybe explore some more areas you ignored the first time. Enemies scale based on your current level, so you’re generally always fighting opponents within a certain range of your level, with harder mini-bosses usually a few levels higher than you. Given that you’re constantly improving your character through gear, skills or abilities, I never felt like I was underpowered, the balancing felt just right, even for the World Eater bosses.

Combat was something I really enjoyed even after 20 hours of gameplay under my belt, as it always feels satisfying with its comic book style aesthetics. Given that Biomutant is a blend of martial arts and gunplay, there’s a great balance of offensive and general movement, which reminded me of Capcom's Devil May Cry air juggling mixed with Batman Arkham's combat style. This blend of melee and ranged combat really allows you to play however you like. I preferred the ranged gunplay, but wasn’t afraid to get up and close when needed. It’s not uncommon to be overrun and outnumbered by swarms of enemies, so you’ll need to be agile and learn to dodge and parry attacks if you want to survive. Parrying opens enemies to devastating attacks or air juggles, so it pays to get right in the thick of battle sometimes, taking out the swarm of minions before the larger enemies.

This is where your powers and abilities will help. There are two types of abilities: Biomutations and Psi-Powers. Biomutations are combat abilities that enhance your melee or ranged damage, usually adding a new combo or finisher and it requires you to purchase it with biopoints that you’ll find scattered and hidden throughout the world. Psi-Powers are unlocked with Psi-Points, also hidden around the world, but these are more your special abilities, some of which are locked to Dark or Light Aura’s and it just happens that these ones are the best ones.

Combining these powers and regular combat is natural, fluid and flows really well once you find a groove for how you want to play. My go-to, for example, is using one of my abilities to infect an enemy so that he fights for me for a short time, freeze the ground so enemies slip around back and forth as I slowly pick one off at a time with my rifle. Some abilities aren’t only useful for combat, but can help you traverse areas or get across large gaps. There’s nothing quite like using a giant bubble to get enemies stuck to it then exploding them outwards.

Your damage and armor is only going to be as good as your gear though. Thankfully there’s not only a ton of interesting and unique loot out there to be found, you’ll also be able to craft your own insanely unique weapons. You’re not limited to the starting weapon types you begin with, so you can freely swap and change weapons based on what you enjoy most, earning new skills as you progress. Gear of course has different rarities, and surprisingly the Luck attribute does seem to actually make a huge difference on finding better gear, as I was finding tons of high level parts and loot once I dumped some points into the attribute after leveling up. As you get higher, gear will start to give special bonuses as well, so there’s always going to be some new cool loot to find. You can even buy new gear from vendors, some of which is quite good, but if it’s too expensive you can improve your charisma to get better prices.

I didn’t sell any items, instead I broke them down for parts and materials, which in turn can be used in crafting and improving your gear. You are also able to craft your own weapons and this was probably one of my favorite features in Biomutant. You can not only craft a new weapon from scratch, but you can also improve the ones you have if you really enjoy it. As you find random loot throughout your adventure you’ll come across random parts and pieces that can be used to improve your gear. Even items like pencils, chains and other ‘garbage’ can be used to improve your gear’s looks and stats. It never gets old seeing what weird combinations you can create, like a massive 2H weapon with a toothbrush base and a chainsaw on the other end, or a rifle that looks something straight out of Mad Max.

You’re able to freely craft whenever you like from the menu, but you also find a workbench in many of the villages and you’ll be able to enhance your gear’s quality and rarity, for a resource fee of course. This starts to get quite costly for the highest tiers of improvements, but it makes a massive difference in your gear score, damage and more. While you are limited to only crafting weapons from scratch and not armor, any gear can be improved based on how many add-on slots it has. Of course every item also has its own base stats, so there’s near endless loot for you to compare.

Photo Mode is also included for those that love to take screenshots of their favorite moments. Simply press both Thumbsticks down and you’ll be able to play around with the camera to get that perfect shot. I ended up spending more time taking gorgeous pictures of vistas than I expected, as Biomutant’s world is to vast and lush and beautiful, even in its most ravaged areas.

On an Xbox Series X, Biomutant’s world is absolutely stunning to take in at times with 4K 60FPS. The greens of the forest are so full of color and the variety of each area really feels like you’re exploring new regions in the vast world. There’s so many small details, not only within the environment itself, but even how your character visually changes when you put on new gear and weapons. Seeing the Tree-of-Life’s roots from afar really makes you feel how small you are in this world and while there’s not a huge variety in enemy types, they all have their own unique style. Also, the comic book style words that appear in combat is a cool touch, like a “click” when you try to fire before reloading fully or “Thump!” when slicing an enemy. These of course can be turned off, but I personally though it was very fitting.

As for the audio, the Narrator that describes everything that’s happening on-screen and translating what people are saying as you converse since they all talk Sims-like gibberish, is done absolutely perfectly. Reminiscent of Fable’s narrator, Biomutant's David Shaw Parker is a calm and soothing voice, telling you about the world around you if you just got to a new area or about the Tribe that you’re about to face. Even better, many regular pre-apocalypse ‘old-world’ objects have funny names, like a guitar being called a “twing-twang” or a train a “chug-chug”, and hearing a nature documentary-like voice over narrate these always puts a smile on my face. For those that find it a little too intrusive or annoying, you are able to turn down the frequency of the narrator should you wish, or completely off, but that would definitely give you Dark Aura points in real life.

While Biomutant may have been unveiled a little early, the extra time they’ve taken to make a complete and polished game has not gone unnoticed. The only real negatives I had in my notes were minor glitches and bugs, but that’s even before the launch patch dropped. For a new studio to make something not only of this caliber and scope, while also making such an engaging world I don't want to leave is nothing short of amazing.

It’s been quite a while where I’ve been at my paying job simply waiting to come home so I could dive right back into a game; Biomutant did that for me. Even after completing the game I started up NG+ right away and continued on my journey with the same excitement. For such a small team, all of their hard work has paid off, as Biomutant is easily my top contender for Game of the Year at this point.

**Biomutant was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 9.5 / 10 Cosmic Top Secret

I’ve always enjoyed history. Back in high school I had a great teacher that made the dry material and date memorizations actually digestible, so I’ve always been fascinated with reading about what’s happened in our world, hopeful to learn from the mistakes others have made previously. Many would most likely find history fascinating, but truth be told, simply reading about it can be daunting and very hard to focus when it’s in textbook form. Movies help this somewhat, as I’m sure almost everyone has seen a great war movie that retells a specific historic event, but these usually are embellished to make for a more entertaining watch. Documentaries are great and addictive to watch, but sometimes tend to fall down the same hole of being quite dry to take all in.

This is where gaming comes in. Sure there are games that have historical accuracies or lets you play in a specific battle, but doesn’t do much to outright teach you about its history in the traditional sense. Cosmic Top Secret looks to change this, telling a unique story while also giving a serious history lesson along the way, but in a digestible and entertaining way without bombarding you with too many terms, dates and other distractions.

Based on an actual documentary, Cosmic Top Secret is based on an actual audio documentary made by Trine Laier. Her parents worked in the Danish Intelligence when she was growing up, apparently as spies, so she wanted to interview them and find out more about their past. Because of the nature of the subject matter, Cosmic Top Secret actually needed official clearance from Danish authorities to be released, as there’s some interesting situations and facts within that have now been deemed declassified.

The title isn’t just a fancy name either, Cosmic Top Secret is an actual term that NATO uses for top confidentiality, even higher than the ‘Top Secret’ classification. You play as Trine, “T” for short, as you talk to your dad about their time in Intelligence and explore areas based on the facts and stories being told. The stories are brought to life with a cast of characters you’ll meet along the way or in collectible clues as you explore. More like a storyboard playing out than a traditional type of game, Cosmic Top Secret has a very unique look and objective, so don’t expect it to really be like anything else out there.

Given that the whole point is to uncover secrets that your dad is telling you about his time during the Cold War, I don’t want to spoil any of the revelations, but I was constantly wanting to learn more as the stories went on, getting closer to that Cosmic Top Secret clearance and ultimate reveal. There’s more emotional ties that are included as well, some unexpected, but help paint the broader picture and more about T’s secrets and life. It actually makes me wonder how much I actually know about my parents and their lives when I was growing up.

Unfolding like a storybook, Cosmic Top Secret has a very unique and distinct artistic style, as it appears it's been made from paper cutouts and cardboard, with some abstract flair for good measure. You control T within five separate stages, each of which becomes higher in its security clearance as you progress. T is made out of paper, so when she moves she rolls into a crumpled paper ball or gets thrown about when she jumps a far distance. It’s quite odd at first to witness, especially since characters, T included, all have large googly-eyes, but the oddity of it makes it that much more memorable and unique.

With five main stages to explore, each one lasting roughly an hour or so, there’s tons of items to collect and find, along with hidden secrets as well. The story naturally progresses as you find collectibles, usually resulting in a picture or video from the object you found as you start to piece together the overall narrative. To complete a level you’ll need to find all the required objects, most of which are simple enough to find, but sometimes you’ll need to use your head as to where to go next.

Given that this is a game about secrets, not everything is going to be handed outright to you, forcing you to do a little exploring and thinking. As you find recordings, pictures and intel, more is shared about T’s life, her parents or events that took place during that period in the timeline of events. Once all nine required objects have been found to complete the stage, you’ll need to find the exit door and figure out the passcode. This is where some light puzzle elements come into play, forcing you to relook at the clues you’ve found and figure out the correct digits’ order to unlock the door. None of these are terribly challenging, and I really only had issues with one puzzle section, having to brute force trial and error my way through, but this adds a sense of accomplishment like you’ve decoded some sort of secret; fitting for this adventure.

You’ll be exploring these main stages, even more in depth if you want to find all the collectibles, but this is where one of the main issues rears its head: movement. T turns into a crumpled ball of paper when she’s not standing still, and seems to roll as smooth as you’d expect one to. Trying to be accurate and move in straight lines was a challenge the whole way through, and in the beginning stages this isn’t much of an issue, but there’s a weird thing where T can’t move in the opposite direction the camera is facing. When you’re attempting to make small adjustments on narrow pathways so you don’t fall later on, a little frustration can set in. There are other weird glitches like simply not being able to fall off an edge at certain times or awkward controls when T turns into a paper airplane, but I understand this indie game was created with a small team and is meant to be a deeper experience overall, so it’s somewhat forgivable.

The 2D characters in a 3D world look like paper cutouts, somehow fitting for the scenarios and setting. It’s very abstract, but that’s what gives it a certain charm. Yes, the level design is quite bland and basic, and characters look bizarre with their large googly-eyes, but it makes it feel more authentic in an odd way. While everything is voiced, it’s not in English, so you’ll need to be reading subtitles the whole way through, unless you speak Danish of course.

I initially expected Cosmic Top Secret to be a quick humor filled game solely basing it at first glance from its goofy visuals and artistic flair, but instead got an interesting documentary about a daughter interviewing her dad’s secret life as she was growing up during the Cold War. If Cosmic Top Secret was going to be reviewed and based solely on its “game-ness”, it wouldn’t be very exciting or fun and score much lower, but given that it’s an interactive documentary about really interesting subject matter if you’re into history, it somehow works as a complete package, as I see what its overall purpose and goal sets out to be.

I’ve never really experienced anything like Cosmic Top Secret before; part game, part documentary, where I actually learned quite a lot of fascinating information about the Danish Intelligence and Cold War. This makes me think that gaming could be an interesting format and medium for teaching history to gamers, but in a unique way that could resonate, as even days after completion Cosmic Top Secret still lingers in my head and I'm glad to have experienced it. Ending Transmission...

**Cosmic Top Secret was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Flowing Lights

When I think puzzles games, I tend to think of locked doors needing keys, an abundance of pieces to fit together or some intricate series of challenges to finally unlock a door or something similar. Flowing Lights took me by surprise, as by its screenshots you might be expecting a typical bullet hell shooter of some sort. In Flowing Lights though you get quite a challenging puzzle game that revolves around an alien space ship trying to simply get from point A to point B but will need to use strategy to figure a way to do so with the planet life trying to shoot at you as well. Dubbed as an 'Arcade Puzzle Shooter', each fight is a carefully crafted puzzle that you’ll need to figure out, and the challenge starts to get quite high in the later stages.

While there’s not really a deep narrative by any means, the general idea is that your ship was attracted to an unknown planet that has an unusually strong gravity pull, forcing you to land and unable to leave. This sets the backdrop as to where you are and why native life is trying to attack you. The gravity though also does play a large part of the gameplay, as you’ll need to shoot up and alongside walls, curving your shots or making them swirl around a pit to destroy carefully placed enemies.

Your ship is equipped with weaponry, which is how you’ll take out your enemies blocking your path to each stage. Your main weapon is your blaster with infinite ammunition, simply shooting straight ahead of you. Fire into a pit or along a steep wall and your bullets will curve based on the gravity and angle of the slopes. You’re also able to shoot a ‘missile’, where you hold a button, pull back in the opposite direction like a slingshot, and fire away. This attack too will adhere to gravity and will be used usually even more so than your regular shots, as this is how you’ll gain your combos, able to see the direction and curve your missile is going to follow with a simple red line.

Each world is broken into a handful of smaller bite-sized chunks, allowing you to tackle smaller sections at a time or try to complete a full world in one go. The puzzles slowly evolve and become more challenging as you go as you’d expect, even adding new enemies and obstacles in the way even in the last few worlds. While your goal for each smaller section is to reach the end, you’ll also need to destroy every enemy as well, something that will take some experimentation and a lot of deaths to figure out. Many times, especially in the later worlds, you’re going to be retrying levels dozens of times as you try and figure out the perfect strategy to progress, as you have limited health. Thankfully restarts are instantaneous so this never really becomes bothersome.

With 200 fights hand crafted, each one truly does feel like its own unique puzzle you need to overcome, complete with optional challenges for those that want to climb the leaderboards and earn the best ranks. There’s an online leaderboard, so I foresee plenty of bragging rights to be had for those able to earn the quickest S ranks. Each level will grade you from rank C, B, A and S based on your speed, combos and more. At first I was aiming for A and S ranks, but by about halfway through I was simply trying to beat the stages with any rank, usually resulting in a ‘C’ grade at best.

While enemies don’t get “harder” per se, the placement and their attack patterns are where you’ll meet the challenge. Some shoot at set intervals, some shoot a nonstop flow of bullets, while others do patterns. Some will sit in place, others will move on a set path, whereas some will either mimic your movement or do the opposite, much like how each enemy from Geometry Wars had its own pattern and strategy to beat, it’s no different here. Keep in mind the way gravity works on this world and that’s where the unique gameplay comes into play.

Thankfully, developers gFaUmNe Inc (FUN game) know that not everyone is going to have the skill or patience required to get through every level, never mind attaining 'S' rankings, so if you manage to die enough times on a stage and simply can’t beat it, you’re given the option to grab a power-up, such as deflecting off bullets, so that you can move onto the next stage. This in turn though disables leaderboard rankings, but you’re able to go back and retry any stage from any level again you’ve been to without using the power-up to place on the leaderboard, and subsequently earn achievements, of which most are tied to completing worlds with certain ranks in all stages, so good luck with that achievement hunters. This means that even though you may simply get stuck on a specific level, or two, or dozen, you can still progress and come back to them later when you’ve finally composed yourself once again. I did this quite a few times, making progress on later levels when I became stuck, then coming back to it again later on with better skill and more confidence.

Flowing Lights is quite unique in a number of different ways. An Arcade Puzzle Shooter that will seriously test your skills the whole way through its 200 hand crafted stages and may fool you with its simplistic and bland visuals, its challenge becomes borderline infuriating until you get that inevitable “ah-hah!” moment and see a simple solution all along.

**Flowing Lights was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.8 / 10 Super Meat Boy Forever

I still remember the days of booting up my Xbox 360 and checking out the newest releases on Xbox Live Arcade. XBLA was generally a place where you could find smaller indie games, and a handful were essentially the ‘face’ of these types of games. Super Meat Boy was one of these, a smaller indie game but caught a lot of attention with its perfect yet challenging gameplay. It’s crazy to think that more than a decade has gone by since the world was introduced to Super Meat Boy, and while the gaming landscape has changed quite dramatically since, the time has finally come for a sequel; aptly titled Super Meat Boy Forever.

Taking place after the events of the first game, Super Meat Boy Forever starts off by showing the latest member of the family to join Meat Boy and Bandage Girl, their small bundle of joy: Nugget. Nugget is absolutely adorable beyond measure, and while on a picnic in the park, that nasty Dr. Fetus returns to kidnap their offspring. So obviously Meat Boy and Bandage Girl set on a quest to get back their baby, but doing so won’t be easy, literally.

Super Meat Boy was known not only for its precise gameplay and controls, but its brutal difficulty. It wasn’t uncommon to die well over a hundred times in a level, but that sense of accomplishment you get when you do finally complete a stage is insurmountable. Super Meat Boy Forever is no different, as you’ll be jumping, dashing, punching and diving your way through levels, but expect to die a countless amount of times once again.

Now with most sequels the core gameplay doesn’t all change that often, usually just evolving or improving in some aspect, so the change to Super Meat Boy Forever is quite a drastic one as it’s now an auto-runner. This means that once the level starts, your character starts running in the forward direction automatically with no real way to slowdown or stop. I have a feeling this is going to turn off some original fans with such a drastic change. Yes it’s different, and yes, it takes a lot of getting used to, but the controls still feel familiar in a weird way. Just because you don’t control Meat Boy’s movement in a traditional sense, don’t for a second think this neuters the difficulty in any way, as it’s still far from easy. If anything, you almost have to be even more precise and perfect with timing your jumps and slides.

Since you don’t have to control Meat Boy’s movement with the stick you basically only need to learn two buttons. Pressing one of the face buttons will cause you to jump, and if you press it again in the air you will dash forward with a punch, also used to combo into enemies to go further. Pressing Down will cause you to slide, slipping underneath buzz saws and other obstacles but also diving quickly downwards to avoid objects as well. It may seem simplistic to only have two inputs, but the level designs are so well done that you’ll lose count of your deaths after a short while. The only issue I really had with this button setup is that since jump and punch are the same button, you can sometimes inadvertently punch dash instead of jump before you land on a platform, causing a quick death.

While the auto-runner is a drastic change, it’s not the only one. Levels are somewhat randomized when you start your game save as well. Apparently the developers made tons of ‘chunks’, basically small sections of levels which are then used based on the randomized seed you get at the beginning of the game. So each level is a handful of these ‘chunks’ put together seamlessly for a smooth experience, aside from your repeated deaths of course.

This means that every playthrough is going to seem completely unique every time you play. I’m not sure how many are going to want to replay through all over again if you do manage to complete it, but the replay value is near endless because of this design, allowing you to play almost forever, as the title suggests. While some will miss the handcrafted feel to each level, it’s going to take quite a while before you see any repeated levels. I actually got so frustrated early on and stuck that I decided to start a new game to see how different the levels would actually be, and yeah, they can be dramatically different.

Levels feel much longer than the original game, but there’s a decently forgiving checkpoint system in place that will spawn you back at when you do eventually die, usually only a few short jumps back from where you were, which I can assume is where the ‘chunks’ are seamed together. With a handful of worlds, each one is broken into six or so stages each before you get to take on a massive boss fight. These were the highlight of the experience with Super Meat Boy Forever, as they are massive room bosses, challenging you into figuring out how to actually defeating them. Finally beating these bosses are immensely satisfying the first time you finally manage to do so.

It seems almost every world introduces you to a new mechanic the further you progress as well, not only keeping things fresh and you on your toes, but also keeping the challenge and difficulty ramping up. For example, in the second world all of a sudden you’ll have to deal with waterfalls of broken glass, that if you stay in it too long you will die. A small indicator appears around you and once it fills up in a few short seconds you’ll die, so you need to constantly be moving and plan your jumps accordingly. Some levels will require you to find keys for locked cages, blocks that change based on your jumps and slides and more. These new mechanics are introduced at a steady pace, but it can feel quite overwhelming at times.

While visually everything still looks like classic Meat Boy, it definitely looks more polished and sharp overall and the gameplay is smooth as it gets. Each world has its own aesthetic and theme, so there’s some variety, but the real improvements and treat are with the cutscenes between worlds after beating a boss. These cartoons are high quality and animated quite well. While the soundtrack may not be quite as memorable as the first due to a different team, it still is quite good and changes based on the world you’re in.

If you’re an achievement hunter, you’re in for a world of hurt. Many are tied to completing levels without dying, so goodluck with that. There’s plenty of collectibles to find along the way as well which are in very difficult to reach areas, so there’s plenty to do even if you manage to complete all the levels somehow.

While many of its fundamentals have changed, some of which veterans may disagree with, it still has that same essence that made Super Meat Boy so great in the first place. I won’t lie, some levels took me well over a hundred deaths to complete, yet I still wanted to keep going to save Nugget thanks to the generous checkpoint system utilized. Super Meat Boy Forever has the potential to be played almost forever, or it may take you that long to simply beat it.

**Super Meat Boy Forever was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Little Mouse's Encyclopedia

Fun fact: Did you know that an ant hill’s longer side is South orientated?

A bunch of facts like this are small tidbits of trivia you’ll learn when experiencing Little Mouse’s Encyclopedia and will be peppered in throughout this review, as there were a ton of little details like this I learned along the way. Developed by Circus Atos, Little Mouse’s Encyclopedia isn’t so much of a traditional game as it’s more of a learning tool, almost like a book you’d get from the library for one of your younger children. Relax by controlling an adorable mouse, inspecting plants and animals while learning facts about them as you go. While it’s obviously an experience meant for younger kids, I myself even learned a few things.

Fact: Apple trees can live up to 100 years.

Less of a game and more of an experience, Little Mouse’s Encyclopedia is actually described as an interactive Encyclopedia, and I completely agree. Meant for younger curious gamers, you’ll wander across some interesting landscapes, able to interact with certain wildlife and learn things along the way. As you explore one of four areas, animals and plants will have a magnifying glass that can be interacted with which will pop up a fact card with illustrations or can animate many of the animals. With over 160 species of animals and florae to discover, there’s a lot for a young gamer to learn, even if it won’t be a long lasting experience. More than once either myself or my daughter commented “Wow!” or “Really?” when learning some interesting facts about some animals. I just wish there was more to the experience, like maybe nature videos or animations about certain aspects of the facts rather than some dry reading for younger children.

With four different areas to explore, your cute little mouse will start in its burrow, able to explore its underground tunnels and the flowers above ground. You’ll also travel to a forest, garden and pond, each with their own types of animals and vegetation that you’d actually find in the area you’re exploring. The pond for example focused more on water based plant and animal life as you swim around with an adorable mask and snorkel. There’s a few cute little details like this that gives Little Mouse’s Encyclopedia its charm.

Fact: A brown centipede’s rear legs are longer.

Controls are simple to grasp, moving with the Left Stick and using a button to either look at the fact sheet or interact with the objects. One issue that happened repeatedly when my daughter was playing though was that pressing the ‘B’ button backs you out to the menu and level select. There’s no confirmation of any kind, so when you accidentally press ‘B’, you’re whisked back to the menu.


Funny enough, the tutorial is literally just reading one slide before the achievement for completing the tutorial pops. Speaking of achievements, if you really wanted, you could unlock all of them in ten to fifteen minutes if you tried, so that’s a nice bonus for achievement hunters and to my knowledge, probably a front runner for the easiest 1000 Gamerscore ever.

Little Mouse’s Encyclopedia may be extremely light on content, as it can be ‘completed’ in a half hour at most, it's absolutely gorgeous to look at with its hand drawn illustrations, as if it’s almost done with paper cutouts. If you’ve ever read a book meant for children with colorful artwork, this is very reminiscent of that style. Tereza Vostradovská did a wonderful job with the illustrations, and while there’s not much of a ‘game’ substance, it was beautiful to look at and experience. The same goes for its audio, as it has a very soothing and relaxing soundtrack, something you’d expect to hear in the background if children books had background audio.

Fact: Catfish can live up to 40 years.

Little Mouse’s Encyclopedia reminds me of a few of the early books I bought my daughter when she was younger, though simply in game form. With 18 languages for support, nearly anyone can experience and learn something regardless of your native dialect. With it currently priced at $13.49 CAD (on sale), I have to admit, it’s a little steep for the longevity since you probably won’t get more than a half hour, hour tops, before the kids will want to move onto something else. Given than it’s also twice as much on console compared to its PC/Mobile version, I would certainly recommend waiting for a bigger sale.

Fact: Hedgehogs are solitary living creatures and has up to 8500 spines.

While more interactive encyclopedia than traditional game, Little Mouse’s Encyclopedia has a beautiful aesthetic with an emphasis on learning about nature along the way. For what it’s worth, my daughter said she would have scored it at 7 for its “cute art and mouse”, but by the last area even she was skimming the fact cards and wanting to go back to her regular games.

**Little Mouse's Encyclopedia was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.7 / 10 Bad Dream: Coma

When I first saw Bad Dream: Coma from developer Desert Fox, I initially expected it to be a small little one-off indie game. Doing so research though it seems as though there’s actually been a handful of games in the series, though the previous entries were small piecemeal games, only lasting about a half hour or so. What intrigued me the most about Bad Dream: Coma though was that it’s actually a point and click adventure title, a genre we don’t see very much more of these days, especially on console. Given that I grew up with the genre as a kid with the classics, I had to see what it was all about.

I don’t know if I was ready for what I experienced though. Disturbing is one way to put it. Taking place within a dream, this opens up the possibilities where almost anything can happen, and given its title, you know it’s not going to be all about rainbows, butterflies and unicorns. Quite the opposite, so get ready for an odd psychological thrill ride with a creepy atmosphere, blood and some extremely odd imagery. Remember though, your actions and choices will have consequences, some that won’t always be immediately apparent.

There is an overarching plot, but it will only take you a few hours to complete depending on how good at puzzle games you are, so I don’t want to really get into the narrative much as it would spoil much of the experience. Just know that you’re going to experience very odd and creepy imagery set within a very bad dream. There are even times where the fourth wall gets broken, adding a whole other weirdness layer to the whole experience.

Like most other point and click titles, you’ll be within a scene, usually with a few objects that can either be interacted with or picked up and put in your inventory. Split into multiple chapters, each one will consist of a dozen or so areas that can be explored, and you’ll need to remember how each area is attached to one another as there’s no map for a visual. With just a simple hand cursor you’ll start your adventure in this messed up dream world with a number of different ways to solve puzzles blocking your path.

Bad Dream: Coma may be a point and click, but it isn’t like your typical kind where you can basically brute force your way through by clicking every object you see, as you’re going to want to think about your actions, as there are always repercussions and consequences for your choices, actually changing the game as you go depending. There’s not much narrative outside from a few conversations with a couple characters but the world is still quite atmospheric, giving you a general ‘goal’ of solving or finding something, but doing so won’t be so easy.

Scenes are connected usually by arrows, indicating that a specific area is over that way when you click said arrow. Sometimes though the arrow blends into the artwork itself since it’s all hand drawn, and can be quite difficult to discern at first. More than once I was unable to figure out where to go simply because I wasn’t able to see the arrow to click on to navigate. Also, because there’s no map you’re going to have to fumble around with how each scene is connected with a lot of trial and error. The navigation is illogical at the best of times, and while yes, you do eventually get used to it after clicking to the wrong area a dozen times, it could have been implemented much better.

There are multiple endings and playthroughs to experience, which I’ll get into shortly, but I bring this up now because a single choice can ruin a run without your knowing. For example, I was working on the good ending and made a mistake unknowingly, locking me out of the ending I wanted, so I went to reload a previous save only to find I can only restart the chapter I was currently on. This means if you don’t notice right away that you made a ‘wrong’ mistake and a chapter ends, there’s no way to go back to a chapter select and will have to completely restart your run if aiming for a specific ending since there’s only one game save per run.

There were a number of issues I ran into though. One sequence in particular had the ‘A’ button on the dialogue box to progress actually sitting over the dialogue itself, and since it’s not voiced, I had no idea what was being said. Another time I had a “13” ticket in my inventory but had to also go collect a “3” ticket. I did so without problem but it never showed in my inventory properly, so when I gave the ‘wrong’ ticket to someone it immediately locked me out of getting the good ending, causing a whole chapter restart, which thankfully somehow worked the next time I reloaded the game. Lastly, I’ve also had the game hard crash to dashboard, causing me to lose my game save in the process. To be fair I’ve not read about others having this issue, but you can no doubt guess that I’m going to do another playthrough at a later date because of this.

Puzzles make up the bulk of the gameplay, aside from aimlessly wandering and clicking every item you come across of course. The cursor has a weird drift that is very small but noticeable when trying to click on a very small object. You’re not able to tell what’s clickable or not without hovering over the item either, and sometimes an object may not be clickable in one section, but is able to be picked up in another, so there’s a lot of repetition and aimless searching.

While the puzzles aren’t exactly linear, obviously many sections and areas won’t be accessible until you solve the puzzle before it, but this is where you start to figure out that puzzles in Bad Dream: Coma are nonsensical at the best of times. Some puzzles are logical and can be figured out with some thought, but the vast majority are extremely obtuse and not intuitive at all. I get that the setting is an odd dream world, but some of the solutions simply don’t make much sense. Traditional puzzle solving simply isn’t going to work here and thinking outside the box is a necessity, also known as trying every object in your inventory on every other object to see if anything works. I won’t lie, while I was able to solve many of the puzzles on my own, I’m not sure how I would have fared without having to check some walkthroughs online when I was stuck on numerous occasions, especially since some solutions seemed to not relate at all to the puzzle in question.

As mentioned above, Bad Dream: Coma has three endings for you to strive towards: Good, Neutral and Bad, adding some replayability for those that want it. Now I expected these endings to be tied to a few choices I made along the way but there’s much more to it than that. I was trying to work on the Good ending at first but quickly realized how difficult that actually was. This ending requires you to be, well, good at all times, not causing any direct harm, though doing so isn’t always as direct a consequence as you might expect. For example, there’s a board game you can play and if you decide to cheat, boom, you lose the good ending. That’s where the Good and Bad endings become quite challenging to get, as you basically can’t screw up once, which is where walkthroughs will come in handy.

A good example of this is in the very first scene you start your adventure in, allowing you to click on some crows. Doing so punches and kills them, instantly locking you from the good ending if that’s what you want to strive towards, so you need to think about your actions rather than just clicking everything you see. Even more surprising though is how each playthrough is quite unique from one another. Puzzles and events change based on which ending you’re currently navigating towards and the choices you make. Within the first ten minutes of my Bad playthrough compared to Good, I had some drastically different puzzles and outcomes, so multiple plays are going to be required to see and experience everything Bad Dream: Coma has to offer.

The hand drawn visuals look as though it’s been done on some old parchment, seemingly done in ink, adding some creepiness to the visuals and atmosphere. It’s a very simplistic style but works well for this world and genre yet still has a decent amount of detail when you take the time to notice. Even though the majority of the aesthetic is black and white, there are some moments with splashes of color, usually with creepy notes or blood, adding some uniqueness to its overall feel. While there’s not much for a soundtrack, the sound effects are done quite well and also add to the creepy environment and scene that you’re currently in. When you’re trying to solve a puzzle but can hear someone banging on a door, it adds some tension. While I would have preferred the dialogue to be voiced, the audio overall is passable.

While the main narrative is likely to confuse you at first, it does become interesting the further into the dream world as you progress from chapter to chapter. While there may be some symbolism and meaning behind many of its characters and scenes, but you’re most likely to come away with some frustration as you try and figure out some of the most obtuse and odd puzzles in a point and click adventure that I can remember in quite some time. That being said, Bad Dream: Coma is creepy, dark and disturbing, but it was also quite memorable and has decent replay value with its three unique endings.

**Bad Dream: Coma was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Outriders

It’s been quite a few years since I’ve played a decent shlooter (shooter + looter) akin to a Destiny, Borderlands, Anthem or The Division. Square Enix is now wanting a piece of the action, so they teamed up with developers People Can Fly, best known for Bulletstorm, to create their own take on the shlooter genre. If you like shooting, looting, fighting hordes of near endless enemies and massive bosses, then Outriders needs to be on your radar with its sci-fi backdrop and 1 to 3 player co-op with drop-in/out gameplay.

STORY:

There’s a large emphasis on narrative with Outriders, honestly more than I expected, and while not the most unique or mind blowing story out there, it’s just interesting enough to keep you engaged until the credits rolled and the endgame opens up. Earth has become inhabitable, so you among thousands of other humans have left your home in search to make a new one on the planet of Enoch, an Earth-like habitable planet among the stars. Enoch is quite the distance away though, about 80 years to reach, so you’re put into a cryosleep to pass the years as you travel.

The first people that set food on Enoch are labelled as Outriders, a squad of elite soldiers to ensure that the area is safe for everyone else. Something is wrong though and there’s a massive storm, labelled the Anomaly, destroying the majority of your fleet. Somehow you survive and are put back into cryosleep for another 30 years only to wake to a now hostile planet. You’ve become an Altered though, a soldier with special powers that you’ve absorbed from the Anomaly instead of dying like everyone else, making you a super soldier.

You’re now tasked with searching for a mysterious radio signal on the other side of the massive Anomaly where you originally landed, but doing so won’t be simple as you embark across a hostile planet filled with countless enemies and monsters through forests, swamps and deserts; it’s a good thing you inherited all those special powers Altered. There are some secondary characters you’ll meet along the way that will help you in your journey, some of which are quite memorable like Jakub, and there’s some decent twists along the way, but I don’t want to spoil much else for its narrative.

While the story itself is interesting, at times it can feel quite rushed and awkward. For example, your character seems quite uninterested in being there or wanting to do much at times and also can be incredibly brutal. There are also more than a few times where cutscenes simply jump from one moment to the next, like later on when you’re escaping from an exploding ship but the next cutscene simply shows them all fine and dandy with no explanation or showing of how they actually got out. It’s not a major plot hole or anything, but it did feel a little disingenuous with the story pacing and impact scenes like that are supposed to have. Also, while you can play co-op up to three players, only your character is shown in cutscenes, so you won’t ever see your friends even in the background oddly enough.

GAMEPLAY:

My initial impression about Outriders was that it felt a lot like The Division meets Gears of War due to its shlooter mechanics and cover based system you rely on early in the game. This cover system really goes completely out the window later on once you get a true grasp on the encouraged aggressive gameplay that it wants you to play like. Yes, there is waist-high cover setup everywhere which you’ll instinctively want to utilize early on out of habit, but Outriders is designed to be played very aggressive, and since you actually heal yourself from using your abilities and skills, you want to generally be in the thick of battle. This doesn’t mean you’re invincible, hardly the case especially on the hardier World Tiers, but once you stop trying to use cover you’ll do much better overall, particularly since endgame is all about playing through runs as fast as you possibly can, so you don’t got time to sit back and use cover.

Outriders' gameplay revolves around combining your weaponry and supernatural powers, based on which class you’ve chosen to play as, melding typical shooting mechanics with some RPG elements as well. Guns vary from your typical Assault Rifles, Snipers, LMG’s, SMG’s, Shotguns and more, but it’s really how you mix the shooting with your powers which will determine how successful you are. I admit, the aggressive approach took me some time to get used to, but once you learn which skills heal you, you start getting some great gear upgrades and learn how best to defeat certain enemies, Outriders starts to feel mechanically great, even if there are a slew of issues along the way. One of the worst offenders has to be the overabundance of loading screens. Moving to a new area? Load screen. Transitioning from one pocket of a map to another? Small cutscene. On an Xbox Series X these aren’t much of an issue especially since they can be skipped, but for those with older Xbox One’s, you’re going to detest every time you need to move to a new area.

CLASSES:

Your first character will go through a brief tutorial about the basic shooting and cover mechanics where you’ll get to choose one of four classes and begin your Altered journey once complete. The four classes are Pyromancer, Trickster, Devastator and Technomancer. Pyromancers can conjure flame abilities, burning enemies and are meant for medium range damage. Devastators are your typical tank-like class, meant to get into the thick of battles with shotguns. Tricksters are a rogue-like class, leaping in and out of battle able to do short high-dps bursts of damage. Lastly is the class I went with, the Technomancer, a medium to long range class that is more support with turrets, able to actually heal other teammates if you spec down a specific line of abilities.

Each class has its own skill tree that has three distinct subclasses to suit different playstyles. So for example, my Technomancer can spec as a healer/support, or go a more poison based damage role if I want. While there’s no “best” build for each of the classes, I did tend to find many often generally choose the same skill tree and abilities for the most part. You’re able to equip any three skills you like from your class, of which you have more choices, but depending on your build certain skills will be best suited for that playstyle. For example, my Tech Shaman build is focused on ice for not only freezing enemies in place for easier headshot damage, but I also make sure that my gear has ice based mods as well, boosting its effectiveness, but more on that shortly. Turns out it’s not just about getting the best and coolest gear, but how it all ties together with your skill tree and mod choices which is going to determine your damage output and survivability.

TIERS:

Instead of typical Easy, Medium and Hard difficulties there’s actually a completely different system in place that can be adjusted whenever you want for various reasons. You instead choose from World Tiers, ranging from 1 to 15. You begin with World Tier 1 unlocked, and the more you play you eventually earn enough XP to unlock World Tier 2 and so on. You need to be playing the highest available World Tier to earn towards unlocking the higher ones, but there’s numerous reasons you’ll want to, or not.

First, not only does World Tier 1 offer the easiest difficulty, but it won’t net you much good gear either. Playing on World Tier 15 for example instead will be much harder, but gives you much better rewards as well, so there’s a balance of finding what works best for you and your group. World Tier 1 for example has enemies two levels lower than you and also drops gear two levels lower, so getting an upgrade isn’t very likely. There’s also no modifiers for Legendary loot (the top tier of gear) to drop because of the ease. World Tier 15 though has enemies and loot +12 of your level along with a massive chance for rare and Legendary loot to drop, but this will be a much harder experience obviously. By the time you learn all of this and finish the campaign though none of it will matter, as endgame has its own separate tier system that is used in Expeditions, but more on that shortly.

LOOT:

Loot. Who doesn’t love loot? That’s why you play games like this generally, killing endless enemies hoping to see those purple and yellow beams of light indicating dropped gear. You’re able to equip a pistol, two main weapons, chest, legs, helmet, gloves and boots, so there’s plenty of gear you’ll be sifting through as you progress through your journey. Early on it’s easy to tell what’s an upgrade, as an item will have a green arrow if it’s basically ‘better’, but as you get near the end, especially endgame, there are many more factors like mods and attributes you’ll need to take into consideration when contemplating gear and upgrades.

There are of course different rarity of loot, though you’ll end up only caring about purples and Legendary stuff by the time you get to endgame. Unwanted gear can be sold or broken down into other materials which is used for crafting, upgrading and changing mods of other gear. You’ll most likely have times where you’re short on scrap currency to purchase gear, so then you’ll sell gear instead of breaking it down, only to find that you need to break more gear down to get shards to upgrade the gear you just got, so there’s a constant balance of trying to sell versus breakdown.

MODS:

You might get one piece of gear that is an upgrade in one aspect, but possibly has the ‘wrong’ mods that won’t benefit you at all, or is a sniper with close range damage bonuses, so there’s lots of factors you need to consider when swapping your gear. Mods play a large part of your gear, as these are bonuses that enhance the skills you use for your class. Blue gear has one mod slot whereas purple and above have two. Mods come in three different tiers, and the only way to ‘learn’ these mods so that you can apply them on other gear is to break down items with those mods, which is why breaking down gear early on is so important.

Purples will have tier two mods where Legendary has Tier three. Yes, you’re going to have to break down some of the best gear in the game if you want access to their mods to put on your ideal sets, which hurts to do at first. Interestingly, you’re also only able to change one mod on a piece of gear, so eventually you’re going to want to find gear that already has one of the mods you desire based on the skills and skill tree you’re using, so that you can keep that one and swap out the other mod that’s not as useful to you. You’re able to change the second mod as many times as you like for a small resource fee but you’ll generally find new gear at a steady rate, having to ‘fix’ its mods every time you upgrade until you reach endgame. How you stack and equip mods is going to make an absolute massive difference in your gameplay and success, so take the time to learn its intricacies and plan ahead what gear you want to use and it will pay off in the end.

CO-OP:

While you are able to play through the game completely solo, Outriders definitely shines when played alongside two other friends. And yes, the irony of having four classes and only three player co-op is not lost on me, nor do I understand the decision, but alas. In theory, Outriders is a simple drop-in drop-out co-op experience that you and your friends can simply enjoy, in reality though it’s a buggy mess, so much so that I have a dedicated section below for all the issues I’ve run into, including co-op problems.

There is some sort of scaling that happens when playing co-op though. Enemies seem to gain more health and deal more damage when playing with a partner. Add a third and that scales up even more, almost to the point where a friend and I don’t really enjoy having a third, as it makes all of the hardest elite enemies just massive bullet sponges. Two player co-op seems to be that ‘sweet spot’ for challenge and difficulty while still being able to do Expeditions within the allotted times. Basically anytime we have a third, we generally have a much harder time, even with the extra damage.

EXPEDITIONS AND ENDGAME:

Remember everything I said above about the World Tiers, difficulty and utilizing cover? Well, throw that all out the window, as once you beat the campaign the real endgame begins with a completely different grind. Endgame is all about Expeditions, basically time trial runs in a randomized assortment of missions, usually lasting 10-15 minutes, where the better time you make the better chance at gear you have. That’s why I said you won’t be using cover after the opening few hours, as endgame is all about rushing to beat missions as quickly as possible.

Expeditions has its own Tier system, also rank 1 to 15 to be super confusing, and is somewhat like the World Tiers where higher is harder but gives better rewards. This is how you’ll start to get the best gear, as beating missions has you opening a pod where 10-15 items spew out at the end as your reward. Where in the campaign and side missions of the core game enemies will randomly drop loot, the only loot from Expeditions are at the very end, determined by your time attack placing.

That’s it. That’s the endgame. There’s a special mission you can take on once you reach Tier 15, and yes, the gear changes are much higher and better in Expeditions, but there’s no raids, no nothing else other than grinding for Pods, the new endgame currency which you can buy the best gear with. Problem with this though is that loot scales based on which tier you’ve unlocked, and every time you tier up, the costs for gear also go up. Generally it’s going to take five to ten runs to get enough Pods to afford a piece of gear, and that’s hoping that it’s a piece you want with the correct stats and mods as well.

This is where the grind really sets in. With 10-15 minute runs it’s manageable in short bursts, but given there’s only a dozen or so Expeditions to partake in, which is randomized each time only offering a handful of choices per attempt, endgame feels like a completely different part of the game created by someone else compared to the campaign and side missions you did before the credits rolled. There’s also no raids or anything after the fact, so until more content gets added it does feel quite bare if you’re not into grinding endlessly for a chance at some high end gear.

VISUAL/AUDIO:

Visually, there were many times I had to stop, take in the vistas and nab a few awesome looking screenshots. The environments are all varied, and seeing the Anomaly is quite a thing to experience. Even though you may be trekking through a desert, it’s not all drab and brown, especially with your elemental powers adding some visual flair and brightness. Character models are decent, nothing amazing and certainly passable, though there really only is a handful of different enemy types that are constantly reused, so expect to fight against the same monster types and enemies without much variety.

As for its audio, the musical score was done quite well, adding a fitting atmosphere for your environments. Weapons all sound varied and skills impactful. I quite enjoy hearing my turret blasting nonstop only to hear that sweet sound of ice freezing over or smashing, knowing that’s my cue to start dishing out some serious damage to a frozen target. The voice acting throughout was decent, but nothing amazing, though I think that may be partly due to the writing and rushed scene transitions at times.

BUGS AND CRASHES:

Where to begin. I’ve actually lost count of how many times my game has crashed playing through Outriders, to the point that myself and friends actually made it into a drinking game, seeing who would be the next one to crash to the dashboard. For a massive ‘AAA’ game like Outriders, the amount of crashes and bugs really surprised me, many of which are still issues as of the time of this publishing. Outriders at times was more frustrating than it was enjoyable at times due to all the issues myself and others have had since its launch, which surprised me given how well the demo performed before launch. To be completely honest, if I wasn’t reviewing it, I probably would have given up playing and uninstalled, that’s how bad it was at one point. That being said, something keeps bringing me back every time I see a friend online playing as well.

While random crashes were the bulk of the issues I ran into, even on an Xbox Series X, we had a laundry list of other problems too. I’ve been stuck inside the environment, I’ve fallen through the world, I’ve respawned as a camera unable to move with my body, I’ve had weapons refuse to reload, we’ve had horrible lag in co-op games, missions not triggering, waypoints not showing up and a slew of other issues along the way. While I was fortunate enough to not run into this issue, many others were, and still are, reporting a massive bug where the game wipes your whole inventory of your loot, causing all your hours of hard work to be gone for absolutely nothing. Obviously this is being addressed by developers, but is a severe issue that unacceptable.

While they would like to claim Outriders is NOT a games-as-a-service type of game, there’s not only a requirement to create a Square Enix account, but even if you plan on playing solo for your whole Outriders career, you’ll need to always be require to be online to their servers. Many times even playing solo I was dropped from my game for some reason or another, and means there’s no pausing either. This also means that the game can be tweaked and changed on the fly from the backend, which has already seen the Trickster class receive some extreme nerfs, causing one of my friends to make a whole new character and class. While server drops have gotten better overall since launch, it’s almost daily when my friend and I have issues getting into each other’s game for some reason or another.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

I have no doubt that Outriders will improve over time but I’m kind of torn about how I feel for it in its current state given its issues. On one hand I’m addicted to the shlooter treadmill, but on the other, having already reached endgame and grind the hell out of it, I think I see my end in sight without much further to do aside from yet another run for hopefully a new piece of gear. That said, Outriders is currently included with Xbox GamePass, so there’s no reason to not jump into the shoes of an Altered to save Enoch, even if it does turn into quite a grind later on and having to suffer through numerous game crashes daily.

**Outriders was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Suggestions: Launching in its current state is unacceptable.

Overall Score: 6.7 / 10 DARQ: Complete Edition

It’s no secret that developers borrow from one another, be it under the guise of ‘inspiration’ or not, but the ones that are able to take a known style but make it their own are usually the ones that are more memorable. If you’re a fan of Little Nightmares, Limbo or Inside, then you’re going to instantly become intrigued by what developers Unfold Games have created with DARQ. It’s obvious that those classic games were the inspiration for DARQ, but they’ve put their own flair into the mix, creating a short but unique experience that looks like it’s a creation of Tim Burton. While DARQ originally released back in December 2020, the latest DARQ: Complete Edition recently came out, boasting not only upgraded Xbox Series X|S visuals, but all the DLC as well.

While there is a narrative, it’s not told in your traditional manner. Instead, you play as Lloyd, going through his dreams that quickly turn into nightmares. When Lloyd is awake, he instantly becomes sleepy, and as soon you rest your head on that pillow he has an almost outer body-like experience as he sinks into a dark dream world.

Good dreams don’t happen here though, as Lloyd is seemingly tormented by something in his subconscious, so each dream (level) becomes creepier with each sleep. In this dream world Lloyd needs to figure out how to escape by solving numerous puzzles and finding the exit. For a puzzle game I fully expected to become stumped, resorting to having to look up a walkthrough on YouTube, but that never happened. Actually, just as I was becoming quite proficient with its gravity altering and unique puzzles, it was over. There’s no dialogue or explanation of the ending, so if you’re looking for a narrative driven experience you’re going to be disappointed. Simply come in with some expectations of solving some puzzles for an afternoon and you’ll be fine.

So if you’ve already played DARQ at its initial launch you might be wondering what’s new in this Complete Edition. You of course get the base game, but it’s been improved for next-gen if you happened to have an Xbox Series X or S. You’re given an option of ‘Performance’ or ‘Cinematic’ options, Cinematic giving you subtly better looking visuals but lower framerate, or Performance mode which runs much smoother but not quite as sharp. Of course I went with Performance, but there didn’t seem to be all that much of a graphic difference between the two from what I could tell. The Complete Edition also comes with the two DLC’s that have released since, The Tower and The Crypt. While both are quite short, you interestingly don’t need to finish the base game in order to play them if you’ve already completed DARQ previously.

As you begin Lloyd’s journey, you’re simply thrown in once the game starts. There’s no text, no dialogue, you simply start moving around and have to figure out what you’re supposed to do and what button does what. If you want some hand holding, don’t expect any whatsoever. The same goes for its puzzles, as you simply need to figure out what you’re supposed to do, what items interact with others and so on. Because of the very short length this really isn’t an issue, but at least being taught how to interact with objects or change gravity to walk on walls would have been appreciated. While the world is built in 3D, you’re constrained to a 2D linear plane. This may seem simple, but you’ll eventually be walking up walls, changing ‘worlds’ to access different areas and more. Sometimes being able to walk on a ceiling will open up a different path for you to take you were previously unable to access.

There’s also some light stealth elements involved, and while there’s a dedicated button to crouch and move silently, you only ever are required to do so two or three times throughout. As you progress from each dream to the next, the world in Lloyd’s mind wanders to become more and more strange and twisted as you go, from creepy nurses that try to grab you, mannequin heads and arms that run away and need to be found and even a man with a tuba for a head. The whole world looks like something only Tim Burton could come up with, which is an extreme compliment, making DARQ memorable in that respect.

While you’re not told what to do or where to go, you’ll explore the worlds and find puzzles that either need to be solved or an item needed to progress. While the items may seem completely random at first, you’ll generally brute force your way through, sometimes having to remember where you saw an item or where to use an object you have with some light backtracking.

The puzzles in DARQ are obviously the crux of its gameplay and experience. While the world is fantastical to admire and take in with its unique visuals, the puzzles are the bulk of your experience as you finish one dream to the next. The bulk of the puzzles are simple enough that I was generally able to do them on the first or second try, though there was one puzzle in particular where the camera would constantly rotate from what you were looking at to the nurse coming slowly to get you, forcing you to try and complete it by memory off screen. This was really the only frustrating puzzle I absolutely detested in the base game, but aside from that particular one, the complete journey only took around three hours or so to complete, never really frustrating me for the most part.

The DLC’s aren’t required to have the base game completed before attempting, so you’re welcome to dive right in should you wish. While both are quite short, lasting 15-30 minutes or so, there is some new gameplay mechanics introduced, though I much enjoyed The Tower DLC compared to The Crypt.

The Tower has Lloyd diving into another dream, though this area looks so much different than anything before. Here you have multiple floors you need to explore, finding specific objects to escape the tower. At certain spots Lloyd is able to change from the dream world to some horrifying nightmare version where you’ll need to traverse back and forth between worlds to figure the way out. The Crypt on the other hand had me so frustrated I didn’t even want to complete it, as it relied much too heavily on timed and very challenging puzzles that weren’t as intriguing if you negated the strict time restrictions on each attempt.

Aesthetically DARQ has a very unique and distinct artistic style with its grey, black and white tones that looks washed out and a little hazy, as if you were trying to remember a dream after waking. Even with the bleak visuals, it stands out given its unique visuals and dream landscape. As for its audio, there really isn’t all that much aside from the footsteps and puzzles clanging here and there. When there is some light horror elements you do get a sense of tenseness, unsure what’s around the corner, but I wish its soundtrack was a little more prominent.

While DARQ’s adventure is quite short, there are some hidden collectibles to be found for those that want to get a little more out of their purchase. Oddly enough, achievements weren’t tied to level completions, but finding the hidden collectables instead. While this adds some replayability, you won’t really care unless you’re into achievement hunting most likely.

DARQ: Complete Edition is an example of quality over quantity, as it is quite short and doesn’t offer much replayability, but it’s a unique and memorable experience with its surrealism. Just as you start getting into it though, it’s over, and while not all that challenging, it may be a little too expensive at its full price, but find a good sale and you’ll have a short but sweet time exploring Lloyd’s dream world in a single sitting.

**DARQ: Complete Edition was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.7 / 10 Dungeon Defenders: Awakened

Chromatic Games has a specialty of creating tower defense games under the Dungeon Defender names. The latest entry to the series, Dungeon Defenders: Awakened, has just released onto console for those looking to scratch their tower defense itch. It’s been a few years since the release of Dungeon Defenders II, so Awakened now celebrates its return to the genre with four player co-op action to try and save the world of Etheria. Mixing traditional tower defense and action RPG combat, Dungeon Defenders: Awakened is an entertaining few hours with some friends, but a test of patience solo.

While there’s no traditional campaign with a larger overarching narrative, there are three main acts to get through, each with a handful of stages before taking on a challenging boss. While the campaign is not terribly lengthy, there are a handful of difficulties should you want to challenge yourself. You’re simply tasked with defending Etheria, somehow linked to the crystal that you must protect, but to do so you’re going to need a good amount of strategy and hopefully a friend or three.

While the three main acts won’t take too long to complete with friends, there are some other modes at least to fill your time when you do complete them. There are a few interesting additions like Challenge maps but I enjoyed Survival Mode the most. As you could probably guess, this will have you trying to survive as many waves of enemies as possible before they manage to destroy your crystal, and it’s just a matter of when, not if. Tower Mode was another interesting option, not allowing you to fight in combat, but simply having to rely on your built defenses to defeat the waves of enemies, something that is much harder than first appears. With tons of loot that’s constantly dropping and the ability to play alongside some friends, there’s enough longevity should you want it, though I found playing solo wasn’t nearly as entertaining compared to playing alongside a friend or even randoms.

Your main goal is to protect your crystal but your also going to be leveling your different characters, customizing them and hoarding tons and tons of loot along the way. Team up with 4 players and choose from one of five different characters, each of which play completely uniquely. The tutorial has you begin with the Knight character, teaching you the basics of the different phases, how to place defenses and attacking enemies. Aside from that there’s really not much else that is taught, which is a shame, as it actually hindered me in the later acts because I didn’t know about some specific mechanics which I’ll delve into shortly.

The five classes you can choose from are your typical choices of Mage, Knight, Archer, Monk and well, Robot. Each plays completely different from the others and has its own role to play in a party makeup. Now, you’re able to create multiple characters, but can only place four in your Hero Deck. The purpose of this deck is to quickly swap heroes when needed but all the experience you gain in matches are shared among your Hero Deck. While I like that I won’t have to grind out multiple characters separately, the odd choice to not have 5 spots in your deck, meaning that one character is going to get left out if you decide to try all the classes. This is how you’re going to check your loot on one character, swap to the next, outfit any upgrades, swap to the next and so on. It’s very tedious and I eventually gave up constantly trying to gear all my characters as once because of the tedium.

As you start a new map you’ll be given some time to look around, orient yourself to it and all the lanes that the enemies will be coming from. The first real phase will then be the build phase. Here you’re going to place all your defenses and traps that will hopefully impede or kill all of the waves of enemies. You’re able to see the lanes that enemies will take to get to your crystal, so you’ll know the best places and chokepoints to set your traps.

Your build options are going to vary depending on the character you choose, so some are more defense based like having pinball bouncers, spiked shields, laser grids, auras and much more. Which defenses you have access to is based on your level but it doesn’t take long to unlock them all. You have a set amount of defenses you can place though with a hard cap. Different traps cost a varying amount, so do you place many weaker defenses or less more powerful ones? You’ll also have to have enough gems dropped by enemies to even build in the first place, so you’ll have to become versed in combat as well. You’re also able to upgrade your towers and traps by spending gems, but this is something not really taught to you in the beginning, so once I learned this I began having a much easier time, especially versus the boss levels. This is pretty essential to learn and be successful, so it was frustrating that I figured this out by accident once I was in the second Act.

Once you’ve placed all your traps and you’re happy with their setup, it’s time to begin the attack phase. This is where a wave will start, having enemies pour out through the doors to try and destroy your crystal along specified lanes. While you could simply sit back and see if your defenses and traps will do the job, you’re going to want to get into the thick of battle. Each class will play completely differently, but I favored the Squire, as I liked getting up and close with my sword and being able to block with my shield. Each character also has their own special abilities that can help you in combat, such as my sword swing that let me spin in a circle and hit everything nearby for massive damage. Each class will suit a different playstyle, so try each one out and you’ll find the one best for you against the hordes of goblins, orcs and more.

Each stage is broken up into about 5 waves, but in between each you’re able to rebuild your defenses and spend your gems on upgrades should you wish. Bolster those defenses and grab your loot, as there’s going to be a ton of it on the ground to scavenge. You’ll also be rewarded with a chest of loot after each wave as well, so it’s worthwhile to take a few extra moments to check the gear for any upgrades, even though this is a very tedious process. To say that you’re going to get a lot of loot during each stage is an understatement. Oddly enough, actual upgrades are far and few in between, so you’ll be selling most of it. Also, actually picking up the loot itself is tedious, as you need to hit ‘X’ with the tiny cursor over each item, but it needs to be pixel perfect or it won’t work. This basically results in you spamming the button whenever you see loot nearby, hoping to pick it up as you run by.

While multiplayer is a big component to ideal gameplay, it’s not without its issues. For starters, quite a few of my matches had some serious lag, to the point of teleporting around and ping-ponging back and forth. I’m not sure if dedicated servers are being utilized or if its peer-to-peer (my guess), but I had issues about half the time with random players, but was generally fine when playing co-op with friends nearby. Also, to progress from build phase to attack or even finish a match, all players need to accept, so if someone doesn’t hit the button you simply sit there waiting which can be frustrating and made me want to stop playing online with random people.

Visually, Dungeon Defenders: Awakened is very colorful and bright, though there isn’t much enemy variety across the three short Acts. Also, if you’ve played the previous Dungeon Defenders titles, many assets seem to be quite familiar. There’s not much noteworthy about the music or audio either, as you’ll get typical sound effects from battle and attacking enemies, but that’s really about it.

Dungeon Defenders: Awakened is a perfectly serviceable Tower Defense with action elements to it, but it just feels a bit janky, especially navigating the menus, swapping heroes and cumbersome loot management. If you’ve got a few friends to play alongside you should have an entertaining time with Dungeon Defenders: Awakened, not so much if you’re going to play alone or solo though, even if there are plenty of modes to challenge yourself.

**Dungeon Defenders: Awakened was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 + 2 - Xbox Series X|S

Even if you weren’t a fan back at its initial release, you probably at least heard of the Tony Hawk Pro Skater series. While there were skateboard games before it, this was the series that really highlighted the sport and did skateboarding games justice. The first two games were masterpieces in their own rights and I can’t even begin to count the hours I spent on my original Playstation playing the Tony Hawk games over the years. When you think of the series, you most likely think of the opening Warehouse level, that iconic Superman song by Goldfinger and of course trying to pull of insane trick combinations that were absolutely not possible in real life; and that’s what made the series so great.

The two best games in the series, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2, were remade and released for Xbox One last Summer just a few short months before the new console launches, and while they did work on Series X, there were no real developer made improvements, until now. Activision has now released Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2 for Xbox Series X|S adding better textures, framerates, reflections, shadows, audio and more, for a price.

Now, if you’ve not played the original release on Xbox One and want to pick it up now for you Xbox One X or S, no big deal, get the Cross-Gen Deluxe bundle and you’re good to go. Where things get trick is if you already previously bought the game on Xbox One, or worse, bought a physical copy. The quick and dirty explanation is that if you bought a digital copy for Xbox One, you can upgrade to the Series X version for $10. If you are a fan of physical media and bought it on disc at a store, or wanted the awesome Collector Edition with an authentic Tony Hawk deck, well, you’re not going to be happy knowing you’re expected to pay full price again for the Xbox Series X|S version with no upgrade path to take.

While I’m not a fan of the forced rebuy for people that bought the disc version originally on Xbox One, leaving them without any other option, I do have to say that the improvements made from Xbox One to Series X is quite substantial. Full disclosure; we were provided a physical copy of Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2 at its initial Xbox One launch and another digital one for this Series X|S version. Also, the bulk of this Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2 (X|S) review will have content from my original review that pertains to the base game as that aspect is virtually unchanged.

So let’s quickly go over what’s new in the Series X|S version that Activision is trying to say is worth the upgrade price. The first two major features are going to be the native 4K support, but I really enjoyed the Fidelity vs Performance options that you’re given. Fidelity Mode lets you play in 4K60fps which is great, but Performance is a real treat for those that have a 120hz capable TV’s, as this mode plays in 1080p but 120fps. Say what you want about the real world differences between 60 and 120fps, but man, landing those grinds and combo-ing tricks in buttery smooth 120fps feels simply amazing, like a completely different game. Everything simply feels much more fluid and natural now going from trick to trick, rail to rail.

Textures appear to be sharper, shadows and reflections are definitely improved and even lighting seems to be enhanced, though maybe because I played the last version on my older TV compared to my newest I notice such a major difference. There is some extra content you get with the bundle, but what surprised me was that all of my save data carried over as if nothing changed, so thankfully I didn’t have to start my skate career all over again.

Nostalgia is a funny thing, as it can sometimes make you remember things far better than they actually were. With a slew of remake and remastered games coming in recent years, it’s easy to get swept up in nostalgia. Sometimes playing an older game you loved when you’re much older can bring disappointment, as you realize it really wasn’t as great as you remember. Thankfully this isn’t the case with Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2, as much care went into recreating these two classic games, arguably the best in the series, and is now the defining experience for skateboarding games. Both games were popular back then, and if my friends list is any indication, then it seems many have been clamoring for the return of a great Tony Hawk game.

Rebuilt from the ground up, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 brings its classic gameplay into the modern age with a boost of graphics, updated mechanics and of course, online gameplay for you and all your friends to enjoy skating together. It wasn’t clear what the future of the franchise was going to be after the abysmal Pro Skater 5 back in 2015, as it seemed to have lost that magic touch of what made the series so great, so it’s great to see classic Tony Hawk gameplay make a return, even if it’s the original two games remade.

You begin your skate career by either choosing your skater or creating your own. The options for creating are fairly decent, allowing you to create your male or female skater, but many of the options are bland or limited for the most part. While much of the clothing and gear will be locked until you reach a certain level or have enough in-game cash to purchase them. If you choose to create your own skater you’ll have low stats and will need to collect the stat point icons across the stages if you want to improve your skater.

You can also choose to skate as the iconic and legendary Tony Hawk of course, but there’s a slew of returning pro skaters, as well as some new ones for this release. Some of the notable returning pros are Chad Muska, Eric Koston, Bob Burnquist, Elissa Steamer, Bucky Lasek and more. It’s been many years since these two games originally released though, and many new and upcoming skaters have been making headlines and are now included in the game as well. Skaters Nyjah Huston, Leo Baker, Leticia Bufoni, Aori Nishimura, Lizzie Armento, Shane O’Neill, Riley Hawk and Tyshawn Jones round out the new class of skaters and is a welcome addition to the series.

Across both games, you have a persistent skater level that ranks up as you complete more challenges, regardless of which skater you’re currently using. Leveling up will earn you access to new clothing, skate gear and trick slots for specials. The cosmetic store is quite expansive and it will take a lot of hours playing if you want to purchase everything that is offered. With an absolute ton of challenges to attempt to complete as well, you’ll have plenty to focus on even after you’ve unlocked every level.

If you’re new to the Tony Hawk series, the gameplay is simple enough to play but takes time and effort to master. You’re given two minute runs to get the highest score possible or complete certain objectives like finding the letters S-K-A-T-E, hidden video tapes, grinding a certain amount of tables and much more. This 2 minute piece-meal approach is an old mechanic, but still works and suits the gameplay quite well. The games were known for not only pulling off crazy tricks, but combo-ing them all together in a completely unrealistic way, like pulling off Tony’s iconic 900 spin off a building to grind a bus and pulling off a manual with a dozen tricks in-between. This arcade take on skateboarding is what made it so fun in the first place and still holds up all these years later.

Skate Tours is where you’ll take on level by level, unlocking new ones as you complete certain amounts of objectives. The levels were just as iconic as the gameplay and soundtrack, so it was fantastic diving right back into familiar territory with levels I could probably recreate and draw from memory I put so much time into them when I was younger. Everything simply feels authentic and just as you remember, which is impressive given how much new is included as well. The majority of all the content from the original games are in, save for a few of the songs for licensing reasons I could only assume, but is amped up with a new graphic engine, new models (that look more realistic than ever), HDR lighting and smooth gameplay that makes it a better experience than ever before. There are some fundamental changes though which took me a while to get used to, such as being able to revert, a move that wasn’t available in these first games (it was introduced in THPS3) but allows for more combo transitions from landing vert moves. While some purists may frown upon adding changes, I believe this one is for the better overall, even if it does change the original flow and combo lines of the games.

So you’re now a pro skater and have collected everything the game has to offer and unlocked every stage? Well, this is where Create-A-Park comes in. While not a new feature to the series, now that online gaming is the norm you’re not only able to create any crazy skate park idea that you can imagine, but also upload it and share it for anyone else to try as well. The tools are quite simple to use and offer a lot more variety and options than ever before as well, so make sure to check online as there are some absolutely crazy park creations out there. Online simultaneous multiplayer is now an option as well, so gather your friends and challenge them to a variety of different challenges, like longest combo, highest score and more. There are casual and ranked sessions you can join, and although functional and lag free, having more robust options would be welcome.

Arguably, more iconic than the gameplay for the THPS series is its soundtrack. At the time, not many games used real world licensed soundtrack to this degree and opened me up to a ton of different musical genres. These games were actually the first gaming soundtrack I ever purchased on CD and defined a bunch of my musical tastes. With a quick click of the Right Stick you can instantly skip the song playing, or even completely disable certain songs you don’t like in the options. The developers knew that the soundtrack is a big deal with this remake, so they were able to get the majority of the original soundtrack included for this remaster, which is exciting, but also added 37 completely new tracks, most of which feel as if they blend into the original soundtrack seamlessly. What really matters though is that “Superman” by Goldfinger is still included and great as ever.

Remastering old games that gamers cherish is tricky, because if you put minimal effort into it you might ruin that classic feeling and nostalgia people have for said game, but change too much and you have the same results, so there’s a fine balance needed to preserve but improve at the same time. It’s abundantly clear that a lot of effort, time and care went into this remaster, balancing classic gameplay but improving many aspects simultaneously.

More than a simple coat of paint, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 for Xbox Series X|S not only brings back that nostalgia and great memories growing up playing every chance I could, but modernizes many of its fundamentals without completely changing everything about the classics that made it so great in the first place. For fans of the classics like myself, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 is a perfect example of how to preserve its original essence as to what made it so great in the first place but adding many improvements at the same time.

Even for the biggest Tony Hawk game fans out there like myself, asking gamers to fork over a full repurchase if you happened to buy a disc version instead of digital on Xbox One is quite a steep ask, one that may put a bad taste in some mouths. The $10 upgrade fee for previous digital owners is also going to put some people off, as many games are offering the free upgrade for the Series X versions via Smart Delivery, so it's a shame to not see that here as well. That said, Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1 + 2 - Xbox Series X|S is absolutely worth it if you have a newer 120hz capable TV or haven't already purchased it on Xbox One, as there’s no better arcade skate game out there on the market today nor one that will play as smooth.

**Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 (X|S) was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 9.3 / 10 SAMURAI SHODOWN

Samurai Shodown, or SamSho for short by many in the community, has been around since the early 90’s, though if you weren’t a fan of the series and followed it I couldn’t blame you if you’ve never really played many, if any, of the series prior to this one. While I’ve played the odd one here and there since it’s Neo Geo roots, it never really found the same audience over here to the same popularity as the Street Fighter’s, Tekken’s, Mortal Kombat and others. That being said, after finally putting some time into the latest Samurai Shodown, I actually prefer many of its mechanics compared to other fighters.

Touted as a reboot for the series, Samurai Shodown isn’t like other fighters were it wants you to memorize complicated movesets and trying to string together lengthy combos. Instead, Samurai Shodown bases its gameplay around its weapon based combat and much slower pace. Most fighting games try and have you attack and retaliate as quick as possible to string together high damaging combos before your opponent can counter or recover. Samurai Shodown on the other hand is more about being patient and waiting, punishing your opponent for any mistakes they make. While there are combos, they aren’t the main goal or way you’ll defeat your opponent. Simply countering a missed or blocked hit with a heavy attack can cause some serious damage where single moves can easily do more than half of their health if landed.

Samurai Shodown actually came out in 2019, so why are we reviewing it now? Well, with the new consoles now available, many games are updating their games to be Xbox Series X enhanced, and Samurai Shodown is the latest game to do so. If you’ve already purchased Samurai Shodown on Xbox One, you’ll be happy to know that SNK has opted for the free update via Smart Delivery; no repurchase up upgrade fee needed that other publishers are requiring.

While of course 4K is one of the new features, there are two main reasons you’ll want to play, or replay, on an Xbox Series X: 120 FPS and load times. The loading was quite atrocious on Xbox One, not only in length but frequency when going from menu to menu or even fight to fight. With the new hardware, fights load in quicker than half the original time needed to wait, so now you’ll only be sitting for 10 seconds or so for each load screen; a huge improvement from last gen.

The main selling feature about the Xbox Series X version though is no doubt its 120 FPS. That’s right, your traditional 60fps is all well and good, but the framerate is now literally doubled. Not once did I experience any slowdown or hiccups, and I have to admit, playing a fighting game that is THIS smooth did take a little getting used to. Granted, you do need a compatible TV to make use of this feature, which thankfully I do, so experiencing it was quite a treat as there’s no other fighting game that can claim this feature to the best of my knowledge.

It’s also worth noting that all of your previously bought DLC carries over, as does your save data, so no need to worry about starting all over again. Lastly, I have to say, with the new D-Pad on the new Xbox controllers, fighting with a controller did feel much better. Of course this is absolutely in no way a substitution for a traditional fight stick, but for casual players, the new controller does feel substantially better for this genre compared to last gen.

If you’ve been following the Samurai Shodown games since its iteration, this one is actually set before the first game within the timeline. Like most fighting games outside of a few, there’s no real overarching narrative, but instead, each character you play has their own smaller storyline, culminating in the same boss fight at the end. So don’t expect much from a single player point of view unless you’re a fan of simply honing your skills versus the CPU.

At its initial launch there were 16 fighters included. Since then a number more have been added, almost doubling the initial count via DLC and Season Passes. Many fan favorites have returned, and while it doesn’t come anywhere near the ‘jiggly physics’ that the Dead or Alive series is known for, quite a few of the women characters are quite oversexualized in their costumes. On a side note, the Deluxe Edition gets you a handful of new characters, skins and Season Pass, giving access to even more characters. It would have been a great gesture to offer an Ultimate version or something that came with all the DLC, but alas.

Interestingly, there is a tutorial mode that will teach you the basic mechanics, but it’s not really like other fighters. Instead of learning all the moves and combos, you instead learn the individual systems that Samurai Shodown utilizes, like movements, rage meter, disarms, counters and more. What it doesn’t do well at teaching you though is when to use these. Yes, you know how to activate them, but not any strategy for the best time to do so.

What surprised me was that each character really only has a handful of moves/specials unlike most fighters that give you way too many to remember. This means that a lot of your fighting will come from the simple light, medium and heavy attacks. Since you’re fighting with weapons, this will generally suffice in the end. This makes Samurai Shodown much easier to get into without becoming overwhelmed with remembering an endless amount of moves and combos. A single well placed attack can easily change the momentum of battle.

To also celebrate the launch on Xbox Series X some major balance changes went live with the latest patch, but the big addition was a completely new mechanic called Guard Crush. Because Samurai Shodown is a much more defensive and counter based fighter, players tend to turtle and just wait to punish mistakes, so Guard Crush was added to counter this. There’s a lot of intricacies with this new mechanic, but essentially if you block way too much, your opponent will basically get a free heavy attack on you as punishment, so you better start practicing your parries and counters. Another reason you simply can’t button mash in Samurai Shodown.

While there are many layered mechanics that you’ll need to master, my favorite was the Rage Bar. This is a meter that fills when you counter or take damage that allows you to go into Rage Mode for a short time. During this short window you can than utilize your ultimate attack, Lighting Blade. This is a move that does absolutely massive damage if you can land it on your opponent, but should you miss, that was your only chance to do so. Again, a single move like this can easily change the outcome of a match, so never count yourself or your enemy out.

There’s plenty of online and offline modes, but I really enjoyed being able to download other players’ “ghost” characters. Think of these like Forza’s Drivatar system where the game learns how you play then other players can play versus your skillset without having to play each other in real time. There of course is online play against other players, casual and ranked, but given that the game is now two years old I had a hard time finding any games to play every time I tried, so I’m not quite sure how active the community still is.

Samurai Shodown is much slower paced compared to other fighting games, which I really enjoyed. Button mashing will absolutely not work and the name of the game is to counter and punish your opponents’ mistake rather than memorizing long combos and a phonebook of different moves per character. You always have a fighting chance to make an extreme comeback.

Visually, Samurai Shodown is quite impressive, not just from its fidelity, but 120 FPS for a fighting game is absolutely fantastic to play; smooth doesn’t even begin to describe how it feels to play. Granted, you’ll need the TV that supports this, but if you do you’re in for a treat. Most fans will enjoy the authentic Japanese voice acting as well, adding some authenticity to the setting.

Much like most fighting games, the barrier of entry is low as Samurai Shodown is simple to pick up and play, but there’s plenty of underlying mechanics that will take some dedication to master. While button mashers won’t fair well, Samurai Shodown plays quite differently from many others in the genre. Being full priced still two years after its launch is a little surprising, but there’s also no other fighters on the market that can boast about 120 FPS.

**SAMURAI SHODOWN Xbox Series X|S was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 Hunting Simulator 2

Being a city born friendly Canadian, I’m not much of a hunter at all. Truth be told, I’ve only ever fired a handgun once in my life, so I know basically nothing when it comes to actual hunting wild game in the woods. After having played Hunting Simulator 2 for Xbox Series X I may not be a master huntsman, but I surely did learn a lot about the sport/hobby. Regardless about your feelings towards hunting, there’s a game for nearly every niche out there, and it’s no different here with Hunting Simulator 2 from Nacon. So grab over 160 licensed and official weapons, clothing and accessories and learn how to hunt 33 different species of animals across Texas, Colorado and Europe.

Normally this is where I would jump right into describing the campaign or story mode, as usually this is where you spend the majority of your time in single player games, but there is none included in the base game at all. You’re simply thrown into a quick tutorial that teaches the basics and can be skipped if you like, but then you’re simply let loose into the world, choosing where and what you want to hunt without any other direction or tutelage. Basically it’s open season and you’re able to hunt whatever animals you wish, provided you purchase the corresponding license and correct weaponry. Now, there is a more narrative experience that is offered through DLC, but it’s not included in the base game in which this review entails.

So you’ve previously played Hunting Simulator 2 already on Xbox One and wondering what is new? Well, like most upgraded versions on Xbox Series X you can expect a sweet 4K resolution along with smooth 60 frames per second and virtually no loading times. While I’ve not played the original release on Xbox One at its initial launch, I was quite impressed with the visuals on the Xbox Series X version, especially in the vast environments and vistas since you’re always on foot and don’t run all that fast, so you can take in the scenery as you’re trailing game.

The other thing of note is that like other Nacon games, these Xbox Series X versions are NOT playable on Xbox One. That means if you want these upgraded versions you’re going to have to pay for it, even if you previously bought Hunting Simulator 2 on Xbox One originally. Most publishers allow for a Smart Delivery upgrade if playing on Xbox Series X, but Nacon is still charging extra for those that want the better version if you happen to have an Xbox Series S or X. If there were some major differences I could see the argument, but with their other Xbox Series X offerings, you simply get a better performing and prettier version without any other drastic improvements. If the new story DLC or even weapon packs were included in the Xbox Series X version it would be a little more forgivable, but sadly it’s not, so if you’re debating a repurchase it’ll simply come down to if you want a slightly better looking version with no real load times.

The opening tutorial shows you the basics of how to track down your prey and what to do with it after you successfully manage to kill your target. Outside of that, you’re simply thrown into the game and expected to know the best way to progress, something I struggled with for the first few hours before having to delete a few game saves once I figured everything out for myself.

You begin in your lodge, your homebase where you can purchase new weapons, clothing, gear, licenses, practice in the shooting range and admire your trophies. To start out you need to buy a license for the animals you want to hunt. Going down the list you’ll see all the 33 different animal species along with the type of ammunition required to legally hunt them down. For example, to hunt fowl and other flying animals you’ll need to use your shotguns, bigger game will require your rifle and different calibers of ammunition. This is important, as you’ll accrue massive fines for killing animals you don’t have a license for or kill them with the wrong ammo type. This is briefly touched on in the tutorial, but doesn’t sink in until you make a grave mistake and lose all your money from fines.

To start hunting you must first choose your first license of what you want to hunt. Now, you’re able to choose anything from ducks to bears or even moose, and the first animal you choose gives you an unlimited amount of them you’re able to hunt. This is something very important to note, as I found out the hard way of choosing a much more difficult animal to hunt means you’ll struggle for much longer. After choosing big game as my ‘free’ animal with an unlimited amount I could kill them, I must have wasted the first two or three hours not successfully killing anything, getting frustrated and killed any animal I could find, only to get fined and lose all my money. This prompted me to delete my save and start again.

Next attempt I decided that I’ll simply buy all the licenses I could and hunt anything I come across. I bought nearly every license I could across all three maps and thought I’d found a way to cheat the system. I was wrong. After buying all these licenses I had no money left for different guns, meaning I only had my starter weapon, unable to kill the big game without a rifle. Of course once I did come across a bobcat and shot it, I was massively fined for using the wrong caliber and was broke again. This was the second time I deleted my save, as you can purchase a duck license, but you need to do so for each of the three maps if you want to jump from one map to the next and hunt the same game.

So I had finally figured it out. I chose a map I liked with a watering hole right beside my starting point, so I decided to buy licenses for duck and geese on this map only and focus on building up my trophies and rewards slowly but surely. This started to work, as I would hunt my unlimited amount of geese whenever I saw them and also bag any ducks nearby as well. Then I ran into another problem; my starter companion dog wouldn’t go fetch the fowl I shot down that was lying in the water, as if he didn’t know how to swim. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong, so I had to resort to Google to solve my problem. Turns out the starter dog isn’t able to pickup and carry game you’ve successfully killed in the water, something that wasn’t explained anywhere in game that I was unable to find. So this meant I had to go back to my lodge, buy the other dog type and finally could send him to fetch my kills. Problem solved, kind of.

There was one more issue that I ran into before figuring out how to play much more proficiently. While my first license was set to Geese, this meant I could hunt them in an unlimited amount, no big deal. I chose ducks as well though, and each license gave me up to ten that I could capture and sell. Now this is where it got a little frustrating. You’re able to kill as many as you want, but you can only sell up to the 10 at a time. You’re not allowed to capture or sell any more than your limit until you return to your lodge and purchase a new license, but where the problem came in is that I had actually shot down more than a dozen, and any unclaimed game left on the map when deciding to head back to the lodge results in a fine. So yup, you guessed it, because I shot down more than my allotted amount, I was unable to sell them or repurchase another license without going back to my house and getting a nasty fine. This meant having to keep track of what exactly I’ve shot down and not going over so that I could return to the lodge and repurchase a new license without any fines.

The lands of Colorado, Texas and Europe are quite varied, each offering their own distinct look and feel, from dense forest to muddy swamplands that are quite vast, just keep in mind you need to purchase licenses for each area, even if it’s the same animal species. Some game is easier to hunt than others, as I chose fowl because they are easy to find where you’d expect in watered areas, whereas bigger game like deer, elk, cougars, etc need to be tracked by following their tracks and droppings. This is where your trusty sidekick dog comes in, as they can find a trail or even lead you to them. It’s not always that easy though, as I’ve spent well over an hour tracking an animal only to lose its trail and nothing to show for it other than wasted time. The animals themselves all have their own AI and react to the situations, so you’ll have to learn how to be out of sight and to cover your scent with items as well.

While I’m not a hunter in any respect, over 160 of the included items, clothing and weapons are officially licensed from their real world counterparts from brands like Winchester, Bushnell, Kryptek, Browning and more. While I can’t verify how realistic they perform compared to their actual counterparts, they certainly look the part and appear to be authentic. Clothing has different visibility stats but I couldn’t really tell much of a difference of how it actually affected gameplay all that much. You can also purchase binoculars, callers, scents to attract or cover your smell also.

Visually, Hunting Simulator 2 is quite impressive when it comes to its lush environments in the wild, and the audio made it sound like I was actually lost somewhere deep in nature. More than a few times I found myself stopping to simply take in the landscapes and nab a screenshot or two. While the graphic jump from Xbox One to Series X is decent, it totally doesn’t warrant a repurchase if you’ve already bought it for last gen. If you’re playing for the first time and have an Xbox Series X, then obviously it’s a given that this will be the best version you can get.

While not the most exciting game, you’ll spend the majority of your time simply trying to find your prey, tracking it in a number of ways with a trusty canine companion by your side. When those moments of discovery finally come and you only have a few moments to take your shot, this is where Hunting Simulator 2 becomes quite exciting. Be ready to take long lonely strolls through the woods though, as that will be the majority of your experience without any campaign to guide you.

**Hunting Simulator 2 Xbox Series X|S was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.8 / 10 Signs of the Sojourner

I always appreciate when a game developer tries to come up with something new. I’m even more impressed when they can actually pull it off. Signs of the Sojourner from Echodog Games released last year on PC to many praises and acclaims, so naturally the time has come for console players to experience this unique narrative based deck-building game. That’s right, narrative plays front and center, but the gameplay revolves around the unique card management play that is used to navigate conversations between characters. I’m not sure if there’s technically a narrative card genre, but Signs of the Sojourner is just that, having you converse and connect with people along your journey, talking about the past, present, future and experiences along the way.

Given that Signs of the Sojourner is a narrative heavy game, it’s odd that your character is completely silent. Actually, none of the dialogue is voiced, which would have had me immersed just that little bit more, but I digress. As you play your cards, based on if you do so ‘correctly’, you’ll either get a positive or negative reaction, and thus is the crux of the core gameplay.

Sadly your mother has passed away and now it falls upon you to take over her store. But it’s not so simple, as you’re going to need goods to sell, meaning you’ll have to travel to other nearby towns to find items to sell in your shop. As you adventure from place to place you’ll meet interesting and unique characters, some that will share stories about your dear mother and others that simply are a delight to converse with. Just like how your mother travelled for all those years to stock up her store, you’re going to now have to figure out a way to do the same. Thankfully a good friend back in your hometown of Bartow will watch over the store as you’re away trying to procure a supply chain of goods.

While Bartow is your hometown that you’ll need to return to after every lengthy trip, you’ll get to visit a dozen or so other towns, each with their own style, look and community of people. Given that you’ve never really been on the road by yourself, you won’t really have an idea where you should go, but as you talk to different people they’ll reveal information like nearby cities or shortcuts between areas. Some characters reside in certain towns, whereas others will drift and wander. It’s completely up to you who you want to talk to and when, forging friendships or rivalries, depending on how your card based strategy plays out.

With numerous people to talk to in many places, there’s no way to experience everything Signs of the Sojourner has to offer in a single playthrough. Do you choose to focus on stocking the store and living up to your mom’s reputation while saving Bartow in the process, or do you try and figure out what exactly happened to your mom and her past? There are many branching narrative paths and endpoints, and while there’s not one specific way to “win”, even that will be subjective. This allows for multiple playthroughs and endings, and doing so differently each time gives a unique perspective and experience.

Signs of the Sojourner’s gameplay comes from its card based mechanics. Your cards act as your way of conversing with another character and you have a deck that shows at the bottom of the screen. The middle of the screen shows how many cards must be played in order for a section of dialogue to be finished, and how you successfully, or unsuccessfully play those cards will determine the type of reaction you’ll receive. Each card has a symbol on the left and right edge in the middle and you’re tasked with matching the last card’s symbol with your next card, much like how you play dominoes. These symbols start out with just triangles and circles, but eventually you’ll also have to try and match diamonds, squares and swirls. Each symbol also represents certain traits and ways that conversations will go. Even more interesting, each symbol relates to specific dialogue paths, so there’s plenty of experimentation to be had.

You’re only allowed to have a certain amount of cards in your deck at a time though, so if you’ve built yours around circle and square cards for example, you’re most likely not going to have much luck trying to converse with a character in another town that utilizes mostly a diamond or square deck. Thankfully you can see what each character generally has in their decks before choosing to talk, and outcomes of conversations will affect the narrative and ending you get at the end of your journey.

So to ‘finish’ a conversation you’ll need to either fulfil each ones requirements to succeed or fail, indicated by white dots at the top of the screen to succeed, or a certain amount of black to fail. Each time you get through the play field matching cards you’ll get some small dialogue. Win enough times, usually two or three, and you’ll succeed in that conversation, sometimes getting an item for your store or other pertinent information. Fail enough times by not matching and you’ll lose a black dot, lose all of these and you’ll ‘fail’ the conversation and not get items or information towards the larger goal you’re working towards.

It may sound simple to basically utilize the mechanics of dominos with cards, but there’s quite a bit of strategy involved that took me some time to really grasp. One of the most important mechanics you’ll want to master as soon as possible is how to Accord. This basically adds a safety net, allowing you to play a mismatched card without penalty of failure. An accord will get added to the last card played once four of the same symbol are played in a row, so four triangles for example. This means you can play any card you want next and the accord will go away but you won’t fail the conversation, acting as a proper play even without the match.

The problem I had on my first playthrough was that I was trying to visit every place and collect every type of symbol and card, but you can only hold a dozen or so in your deck, so it’s impossible to do so. About halfway through I was failing so many conversations because I simply didn’t have the correct cards for the people I was talking to, so that’s when I decided to focus on two symbols only and simply talk to solely those people. This meant I wasn’t able to visit certain places because I know I wouldn’t be able to succeed in dialogue with them, but that’s what I then focused on for my second playthrough instead. Again, you’re goal isn’t to talk to everyone and go everywhere, so you decide how you want to steer your focus each time.

You’ll want to acquire as many as items as you can before you return back home, but travelling too far will give you fatigue cards, which are basically unplayable cards that cause an instant conversation fail, making the difficulty ramp up. This is where a lot of my frustration came into play, as I wanted to travel and talk to people but you’re essentially penalized for the amount of distance you travel. These fatigue cards are also not compatible with the accord setups either, and since both sides of the card are blank, you’ll lose one black dot for playing the card, then another when the NPC can’t match it either. Thankfully your fatigue cards are removed once your 30-50 day trip comes to an end when you return to Bartow though.

The other system in place that I didn’t really enjoy was the card swap you’re forced to do after ending a conversation. No matter if you win or lose, you have to choose one of your cards to swap out with one of theirs. This usually results in a downgrade of cards, so you’ll want to always keep one card reserved as a ‘junk’ card to swap out each time once you have a deck build that you’re generally content with. This also means there’s no real ‘best’ deck because you can only hold a small amount anyways, which is why you’ll want to specialize in two symbols or so. I just wish I could have chosen to not swap a card at the end of a conversation.

Road trips take days and weeks, so you’ll see how long the drives to each town is going to take. The calendar will show where the travelling caravan is going to be as well as special events possibly taking place in towns, so it’s up to you the routes you want to take each trip. At the end of your fifth round trip you’ll receive your ending based on your store performance and relationships you’ve fostered along the way.

Signs of the Sojourner appears as if it’s been completely hand drawn, which has its own charm to it. The color pallet is quite varied and each town you visit has its own style and look to it. Aesthetically it almost looks as it’s been quickly sketched and colored, but this also gives it a somewhat playful and warm feel to it. The soundtrack on the other hand was very well done in every way. Just like its visuals, each town also has its own sound and feel to it, making each area feel unique as you visit and converse. While I do wish the dialogue was voiced for more immersion, the light and instrumental soundtrack made up for what it lacked.

Signs of the Sojourner is a really unique and fascinating way to approach dialogue in gaming. While some may see the gameplay as simplistic card placement, there’s an underlying reasoning for your card choices. It’s simplistic to understand the card game mechanics but will take some dedication to not only master its deeper intricacies, though it will require multiple playthroughs to see everything Signs of the Sojourner has to offer. Regardless if you aren’t generally into narrative heavy games or even card based ones, Signs of the Sojourner is a really unique experience that I’m glad to have had.

**Signs of the Sojourner was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Kaze and the Wild Masks

While I grew up in the early days of gaming, some of my fondest memories and franchises come from the classic 16bit era. Just like how shooters and Battle Royals are commonplace these days, back in the 90’s it was all about platformers with games like Sonic, Mario, Mega Man, Bubsy, Donkey Kong Country and Crash Bandicoot to name a few, each of which had a special something to them, as they still hold up quality wise all these decades later. Kaze and the Wild Masks clearly took inspiration from the classics and has recreated an experience just as good as if it was from the original era itself. Kaze and the Wild Masks takes that fast paced classic 16bit platforming action from the 90’s and puts its own spin on the formula, resulting in an experience that brought me back to those days as a kid when I was glued to the TV on my SNES or Genesis.

Normally games in this genre don’t rely too heavily on a narrative, and it’s not really any different with Kaze and the Wild Masks either. There is a light story revolving around something about the Crystal Islands becoming cursed, so Kaze needs to save her friend Hogo, only to find that vegetables have gone enraged and will attack her on sight. You’ll find special masks that transform you into legendary guardians and give you powers as you try and restore order to your home islands. Much of the lore is actually hidden behind finding collectables, so you may miss out on a few details if you don’t spend the time to find everything in game.

The opening world is akin to Sonic, being green and lush, teaching you how to jump, float and spin. Many enemies can be defeated with the spin attack that slightly lunges you forward, while others will only be able to be defeated by jumping on them due to their teeth. As you work your way to the end of the stage at the right of the screen, you’ll battle carrots, corn and other vegetables that eventually can shoot at you with fireballs. While they aren’t difficult themselves to defeat, the handcrafted worlds are done well where you’re going to have to time your jumps just perfectly if you don’t want to get hit.

While the majority of the levels are linear in design, going left to right, there are plenty of secrets and collectables to find for those willing to risk falling into pits or getting hit by strategically placed enemies. While you could easily get through Kaze and the Wild Masks in a single sitting if you didn’t care about any of the collectables, it will take much longer to find everything, not even including the Time Trial challenges that unlock once a stage is beaten.

Rather than having a cluttered UI on the screen, instead, your sidekick Hogo indicates how much health you have by its color. Of course falling into a pit or something will instantly kill you, but you’ll be able to refill your health with hearts you find throughout the levels. Each world consists of about seven or eight levels, culminating in a really fun and challenging boss fight before moving onto the next island in your airship. Like most games in the era, worlds will vary in styles from jungle, ice, lava and more. Eventually there will be some stages that rely on timed run-away sections which were challenging but fair. There are even some stages that feel ripped right out of Donkey Kong Country with its barrel blasts, bringing back some serious nostalgia.

Actually, not once did I really become frustrated with my time in Kaze and the Wild Masks, and this is due to the perfect controls. A platforming game with poor controls can absolutely kill a game, so thankfully this isn’t the case here. Even with underwater sections, everything felt precise and smooth, even when having to make quick evasions and perfectly timed jumps. With 4K 60FPS, Kaze and the Wild Masks is simply a smooth experience all around.

While you want to get to the end of each stage, you’ll also have side objectives of finding the letters K-A-Z-E, collect 100 gems, find and complete both bonuses stage challenges and then the Time Trials as well. This means you’ll most likely be playing levels numerous times to find everything, and while I didn’t obsess about finding and collecting everything, especially in the later and more challenging levels, being able to take a break from repeated dying in a stage and trying again later adds longevity. Completionists will be kept busy with plenty to do.

Something I didn’t even know was a feature until later on in the difficult stages is the ability to skip levels if you die repeatedly. On Casual difficulty, dying over and over again will eventually prompt and ask you if you’d like to skip the level and move onto the next. Of course you won’t get to keep any of the collectables and will have to go back to get them, but this was great for my daughter who simply wanted to try a new level when unable to beat a specific level or boss. And yes, this goes for boss levels as well, so anyone on casual mode can progress, even to the end if they require the assistance; a feature my daughter and I really appreciated.

While the majority of the game will have Kaze running and jumping to get to the end, every few levels you’ll find a mask that when donned, transforms you into a mystical creature with unique powers. You’ll get to experience being an Eagle, Shark, Lizard and Tiger. Being the eagle allows you to fly by tapping the jump button and shoot a projectile. Being the tiger means you can dash quickly in a direction and wall climb. Sharks can swim very quickly and indefinitely in the water but I enjoyed being the lizard the most. The lizard auto runs without being able to slow down or stop, reminding me of the great boss levels from Rayman Legends. These sections of gameplay are catered to the animal you currently are, changing things up and breaking the monotony of the standard levels.

If you simply glanced at Kaze and the Wild Masks you might even guess that it was actually from the 16bit era. Yes, of course it looks a bit shinier and prettier, but the pixel art is top notch and wonderfully done. The color pallet is bright and gorgeous, as are the smooth animations from Kaze’s moveset and enemies. The level variety and massive bosses are simply enjoyable to look at and take in, as the atmosphere overall is simply well done in every way. The same goes for the audio, where it may not be quite as memorable, but the soundtrack themes are fitting and changes to set a mood and tone based on what’s happening on screen or what level you’re currently exploring.

Kaze and the Wild Masks brought me back to a simpler time where I just enjoyed playing a memorable platforming game. It pays homage to numerous classics but makes a name for itself along the way. While it may not gain the same level of appreciation and following as the classics, it can certainly hang in there with the best of them. If you yearn for those 16bit glory days of 90’s platforming, Kaze and the Wild Masks will bring back those waves of nostalgia while giving you plenty to strive to collect.

**Kaze and the Wild Masks was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.7 / 10 Black Legend

For me to get hooked onto a game it generally either needs a really intriguing narrative or some addictive gameplay. Developers Warcave have attempted to do both with Black Legend, and while the overall plot is an interesting mystery to unravel, I quickly became hooked with its addictive turn based combat and unique class blending mechanics. I wasn’t really sure what to make of Black Legend from its initial trailers, but glad to have put the time into it that I have.

Set in the 17th century, the city of Grant is believed to have been cursed, as a thick and dangerous fog suddenly envelops as far as you can see within its walls. As it turns out, this deadly fog has actually been created by a mad alchemist and leader of a cult, Mephisto. This cult is killing anyone in their way and taking over the city, so you and a few mercenaries are tasked with doing everything possible to stop them and find a way to rid Grant of the deadly fog that enshrouds its streets. This fog not only hides cultist enemies in every corner but beasts as well. Few refugees remain within Grant’s walls but will give a helping hand, for something in return of course. The focus will be the main story, but there are a handful of sidequests to take on as well for those looking to experience more of Black Legend's lore.

Exploration is one half of Black Legend’s core gameplay. Here you’ll be wandering the streets of Grant in search of loot, survivors, enemies and other secrets. Exploration is slow paced, so you get to take in the brooding atmosphere within Grant’s walls. Even though the fog sets a grim and bland grey overall tone, the atmosphere of a desolate and dangerous city is conveyed with corpses being hung in the streets, streaks of blood and enemies roaming around nearly every corner.

Speaking of roaming, expect to get lost quite often. There’s no minimap, or map of any kind actually. This means you’re going to have to find the street signs placed at intersections and read the directions to each place to find the way to go. These sign posts will point you in the right general direction, but many gates and doors will be locked until you open it from the other side, which means a slight detour usually. There are a handful of districts, and within each one you explore there are a number of different named areas. While this isn’t too much of an issue, where it gets confusing is if you need to backtrack two or more districts, as none of the signs tell you how each district is connected or in what direction, so expect to be lost if you don’t have a great memory. I understand the lack of a map is intentional, but it’s also the source of almost of all my frustration with Black Legend as well.

A feature I really didn’t expect but appreciated was being able to customize the difficulty to cater however you want. Not only can you choose from Easy to Hard difficulty, but there’s a bunch of sliders as well, allowing for auto healing and resurrections after battles, experience point amounts and more. While I enjoyed the easier difficulty options, Normal seems to be that sweet spot of risk versus reward while also keeping a decent challenge. You can of course make it much more challenging if you want to be punished for every mistake you make as well.

The class system is what I really enjoyed playing with once I was able to put some time into it and really understand how it works. With 15 playable classes, you’re able to freely choose and swap any character to any class outside of battle. Better yet, mastering classes allows you to unlock certain skills, abilities and passives that can be used to cross-class. Since classes are weapon based, you can learn skills from a class then use them as secondary abilities when you change classes again. While you could simply stick with one class, there’s no reason to, as I focused on learning as many abilities as I could from all classes for each character, able to create some really unique class combinations and cater to my playstyle or situation at hand. This also plays into how to properly synergize your team for the combat in battles you’ll face.

When you aren’t exploring the streets and alleys of Grant you’ll most likely be in combat all of the other time. Enemies wander and patrol in the city, each with their own cone of vision you can see on the ground. Enter their sight and you’ll be instantly placed into turn based combat, somewhat reminiscent of an XCOM. This means you can completely bypass and ignore combat should you wish most of the time, but you’re going to want all the experience you can get to level up those class abilities.

Once you’re in combat you’ll notice a bar at the top that shows everyone’s turn in order. This is based on many factors relating to class and stats. During your turn you’re given a set amount of movement and action based points. While not explained very well in the beginning tutorial, once you start to learn its intricacies, combat becomes quite interesting and strategic. You’re not restricted to set move and action turns in order either, as you can move, use an ability then move again if you wish, provided you have the resources to do so. Played on a grid-like system, you’ll need be able to see your travel distance and which squares your abilities will hit within.

While this basic combat would have been sufficient, the alchemical system is really what makes Black Legend’s combat stand out. Many skills when utilized will apply a ‘humour’ on its target, ranging from four different types indicated by their corresponding color. You can pile stacks of humours on a target, displayed by arrows above the enemies’ head, though this is a bit confusing and could use some refinement to be easier to quickly understand. Stacked humours can then be ‘exploded’ so to speak with a Catalyzing Attack. This is basically using all the humour stacks on the target as bonus damage. Once you get a good portion of the way through Black Legend, this is really going to be the best way to dish out serious damage, especially against the unique and very difficult bosses. Something to keep in mind is that enemies can use this humour stacking system on your team as well, so you’ll need to always be mindful of when it might be best to use one of your turns to cleanse yourself instead of attacking.

Combat itself is quite interesting and challenging, but it does take quite a bit of time to learn all of its intricacies. I do wish this was taught better in the beginning, but with enough time invested you’ll eventually start to figure out the small details that will make combat much easier overall. My biggest complaint in this regard is that the bar at the top shows the class icon of the turn order, but if you’re using multiple people with the same class there’s no way to know which one is going to be next. Thankfully though is there is a 1X, 2X or 3X speed multiplier for combat, so you don’t have to spend as much time simply waiting for actions to play out.

Overall, Warcave has done a great job with the fundamentals for Black Legend, I just wish there were a few smaller improvements that would make for a better experience overall, the lack of a map being the most obvious and frustrating one. The camera during battle is top-down, but it can be impossible at times to see what’s going on without zooming in quite far, as if the camera gets set behind an object or a tree for example, it doesn’t make that item invisible so you can see through it, so your view becomes obstructed quite often. Lastly, the UI is serviceable but could have more information, especially when buying and selling from the NPC stores.

The aesthetic is very fitting for the 17th century time setting, being very dark, grey and gloomy, varying in each district, but the visuals are quite dated overall. The voice acting all around wasn’t all that great, but the music and soundtrack fit the dangerous and deadly streets of Grant quite well, setting the atmosphere. While the audio or visuals won’t blow you away in either respect, it still comes together to create an interesting setting that drew me in each time I played.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Black Legend after watching its trailer, but came away with an addictive combat and class system that made me want to fight every battle I came across in the streets of Grant to create even more unique class combinations. With an interesting narrative I wanted to find out what caused the deadly fog that had engulfed the city and enjoyed doing so, even if there were bumps in the bloodied road along the way as I became lost after every turn without a map.

**Black Legend was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Suggestions: A map... please.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Monster Truck Championship Xbox Series X|S

Back in October 2020, Monster Truck Championship released, touted as being the first monster truck simulator as opposed to the typical arcade experience you get with these types of games. I actually ended up reviewing the original Monster Truck Championship on an Xbox One X as it was just before the new console launch, and while I appreciated a new take on the monster truck genre, it had a slew of issues with its visual fidelity, framerate drops and draw distance which took away from the experience as a whole.

It seems they’ve taken feedback to heart and have made some improvements for the new consoles, releasing a version specifically for Xbox Series X/S. Now boasting 4K 60FPS, Monster Truck Championship on Xbox Series X fixes many of the issues I had with its original release on last gen. To be honest, I expected to be given the option of a Quality or Performance mode like how most next-gen titles are doing, but that isn’t the case here, as you simply get a smoother experience overall. It should also be noted that this isn’t a free upgrade/patch like how many titles are doing if you bought last-gen versions that upgrade to Series X, so if you’ve previously bought Monster Truck Championship for Xbox One and want it for Series X, it’s going to cost you another rebuy unfortunately, which is quite disappointing.

That being said, I wish this next-gen version was the version I initially reviewed, as it’s a much smoother experience overall. Full disclosure; we were provided a code for Monster Truck Championship at its initial launch for Xbox One and for Monster Truck Championship for Xbox Series X. Also, much of this Monster Truck Championship review will have content from my original review that pertains to the base game, as nothing substantial on that front hasn’t changed aside from the fresh coat of paint.

The tricks Monster Trucks can do now these days is absolutely insane, and I can’t even imagine having the power of nearly 2000 horses at your disposal to crush anything in front of you. Monster Trucks, before the world is in the situation it’s in these days, were so popular that they were able to fill arenas full of fans wanting to watch these machines do what they do best.

What initially intrigued me about Monster Truck Championship, developed by NACON and TEYON, is that it touts itself on being the first Monster Truck “simulator”. While there’s been a handful of Monster Truck games in the past, they were usually always very arcade-y, so I was curious to see what a simulation take would be. Now on one hand, if a game is being touted as a simulator, I would expect it to reflect the sport as accurately as possible, which meant I was excited to see the classic and best known trucks there are such as Bigfoot and Gravedigger. Sadly Monster Truck Championship isn’t licensed at all, so don’t expect to see any real life counterparts in the game.

The majority of your time is going to be spent in the Career Mode, and while there is an online component, there’s little to no reason to play it, which I’ll get into shortly. You start your Monster Truck career with a basic truck with basically no stats in the lowest League possible. As you win events you’ll earn points and money, allowing you to eventually move up the ranks and into the bigger leagues. There are over 25 arenas for the different event types, some indoors and others out, but they all blend together, none really standing out from the others.

Each of the three leagues are broken into different events, with each event then consisting of two to five individual races or destruction modes. You have your typical races, drag races and then destruction and freestyle events. It’s important to differentiate these two main types of events, as the physics are completely different in both, which takes some getting used to, but more on that shortly. The early events won’t cost anything to enter, but the closer events get to the finals the more the entry cost becomes, though so does the rewards you can earn for