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Star Trek: Resurgence

I feel I need to admit first and foremost I’m not a Trekkie by any means. My Star Trek knowledge comes from growing up and watching it during dinner time with the family, and while I know the basics, I couldn’t hold my own if I was to converse with a true fan. That said, I’m a super fan of narrative games, which is why Telltale used to be one of my favorite developers before their messy demise and recent pseudo comeback.

At their peak, they were master storytellers, and I still rank their Season One of The Walking Dead game one of the best narrative games of all time. So when I found out that Star Trek: Resurgence was developed by Dramatic Labs, a new studio but a culmination of over twenty former Telltale writers, designers, artists, developers and producers, I was instantly interested, even if only know some very basic Star Trek knowledge.

With a narrative focus first and foremost, you’ll be making choices that will shape and affect your individual storyline. Not only a dialogue choosing adventure though, will you engage in a variety of different Star Trek activities, like using your Tricorder, Phasers, piloting a shuttle and more. You’ll be engrossed into a unique Star Trek adventure that even non Trekkie’s can enjoy, like myself.

Set within The Next Generation universe, Resurgence has you playing as two different characters, Commander Jara Rydek and Engineer Carter Diaz, usually alternating between the two between chapters. Your main mission is to help solve a dispute between two alien races, the Hotari and the Alydian’s, as a neutral party since the Federation has no authority in their reaches of space. The races have some unique backstories and were quite different from one another, of course putting you right in the middle to try and solve their disputes.

Jara Rydek is the brand new XO on the USS Resolute due to the previous XO passing away. The current Captain, Zachary Solano, had a mission go wrong where a bunch of crew didn’t survive, so now the Resolute is being repaired before they leave on their latest mission. Being the new XO, the ship’s crew have heard about your accolades, but some aren’t pleased with promotions not coming from within, so there’s some initial conflict right away as an outsider. Most interestingly, Jara is a Kobliad, an obscure Star Trek race but requires a regular dose of Deuridium to survive, which of course will play into some decisions later on.

The other protagonist you’ll play is Engineer Carter Diaz, a mechanical genius, both of which are very unique and have fantastic stories. Of course their paths will intertwine in certain ways, but he’s a fantastic secondary character that I was quite fond of. You’ll see some familiar faces and names along the way, of which I’ll only mention what has been shown in trailers and previews. Ambassador Spock plays a large part of your journey and mission, and he looks exactly like the true Spock. Of course your simple mission will not be so easy, unearthing something much larger that will take you on a journey across the galaxy.

Being a narrative heavy adventure, like any good Telltale game, you’ll primarily be making dialogue choices, unsure of the ramifications of said decisions until later. You’ll build relationships with both characters, and while there’s not always a simple ‘good’ or ‘bad’ choice, it’s usually more of a grey area. I always play ‘good’ as I can my first playthrough, but I’m looking forward to playing again with all opposite choices to see the differences. There will also be no shortage of quicktime events where you need to press a designated button on the screen at a specific time to succeed.

One of the coolest choices you get to make early on is what your catchphrase for “Engage” is when getting your mission underway. Some choices are small and won’t affect much overall, but of course other decisions will weigh heavily on not only your journey, but your crew as well. Do you choose to save many crew over a single person? Do you risk your ship to try and save an individual? These are just some of the choices you’ll make without much time to think, you simply need to react. Given that a portion of the developers are formerly from Telltale Games, you can expect many of the same drama and morally grey area decisions.

As you meet and interact with new characters, any which are ‘main’ characters will show within the Pause menu and give a brief description of their current attitude towards you and your last interactions with them. Some will like you, some will hate you, sometimes their feeling will ebb and flow depending if you take their advice or not. Relationships are difficult to upkeep and you can’t always make everyone happy, just like in real life. Do you back Captain Solano because he chose you to be his XO, or not have a blind allegiance and question what went wrong in his previous mission? Not every decision is as trivial as you might first expect, and by the final few chapters you can expect full drama and heartbreaking outcomes. Just because you made someone angry with one decision doesn’t mean you’re always locked into a specific outcome, though maybe some choices will leaving a lasting impression, so it’s difficult to weigh your options in the heat of the moment.

While Resurgence isn’t open world, each scene you get to explore does have some optional objects you can interact with and people, to speak to, though it is primarily a very linear adventure which I honestly prefer. There’s not only an abundance of quicktime events, like holding Left Stick up to move forward in scenes or tapping Right Trigger to grab onto a ledge, but there’s a good amount of minigames and puzzle-like elements along the way as well.

For example, beaming up people in the teleporter requires you to find the right frequency on the computer where you plot a specific course. These aren’t challenging to solve, but certainly add some authenticity to the whole Star Trek experience as you interact with the systems you normally don’t see much detail of on the shows. Using your Tricorder will be common as well, as you’ll need to scan a variety of items in certain situations, seemingly authentic to the source material with the corresponding beeps and boops.

There’s a few times where you’ll be piloting a small passenger vessel in space, getting from one point to another. It’s simple enough, having you avoid asteroids and floating space debris, later adding some additional challenges, though I don’t want to spoil what that could be. There’s a few times where Jara and Carter will have to avoid combat, using stealth to bypass enemies and avoid detection. While this is simple as crouching with pressing the Right Stick and avoiding line of sight, it’s quite basic of a mechanic overall.

Then there’s the phaser combat sections, easily the worst part of the whole experience. There will be times where you’ll have to defend yourself with your phaser, though it’s clear that Resurgence wasn’t designed to be a third person shooter. The controls are loose, aiming is terrible and it’s truly an awful experience. These sections were actually the only times I ‘failed’ a Chapter. Thankfully you can instantly retry, also giving you the option to replay in Story Mode, essentially a No-Fail mode to get passed that particular section instead of having to deal with repeated frustration. It’s not that the combat is hard, but you’ll have to shoot particular enemies before they hit you or your team, but the aiming is just terrible to try and do so.

If you’ve played a narrative Telltale game before, you can expect very similar visuals. Characters are easily distinguishable from one another, you can instantly recognize certain races and it looks decent overall. There are some quirks with weird eyebrow movements and clunky lip syncing, but nothing that really detracted from the overall experience.

Given that Resurgence is a dialogue heavy game, the voice acting had to be on point if it wanted to be believable and be a seamless Star Trek experience. Thankfully Krizia Bajos (Jara) and Josh Keaton (Carter) were up for the task and did a brilliant job doing most of the heavy lifting. The cast overall was fantastic but the two main protagonists really stood out and made the whole mission a believable one, as if it was a long lost episode from TV. The score is done wonderfully as well, as if it was taken straight from the show. Sure there were a few small issues like one section not having random sounds and subtitles not always exactly matching the spoken dialogue perfectly, but that’s the critic in me looking for imperfections, not that it took away from the overall game.

I’ll admit, I was a bit skeptical about playing Star Trek: Resurgence given that I’m not much of a Trekkie at all. None of that mattered though, as even though I didn’t know much of the previous context or background lore outside of main concepts and characters, I still quite enjoyed my narrative focused mission with Commander Jara Rydek and Engineer Carter Diaz. While it hasn’t converted me into a full Trekkie, it certainly had me going down a Star Trek wiki rabbit hole, wanting to learn more about certain races, characters and factions. Live long, and prosper.

**Star Trek: Resurgence was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.7 / 10 Lucy Dreaming

I’m probably going to date myself, but I grew up when Point & Click adventure games were the norm. Before shooters and zombies took over nearly every game, there were dozens of Point & Click games, many of which went on to become iconic classics. Growing up with The Secret of Monkey Island, Maniac Mansion, Day of the Tentacle, Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, Sam and Max, as well as many others, it was one of my favorite genres, known for their challenging puzzles and usually full of humor.

While the genre isn’t as big as it once was decades ago, there have been a few releases in the past few years, most notably being the excellent Thimbleweed Park, so naturally when a new Point & Click adventure releases I become instantly intrigued. Having done no research beforehand about Lucy Dreaming from developer Tall Story Games, it initially was a Kickstarter, now released for console as well.

Looking as though it was taken right from the golden era of the genre in the 90’s with its pixel art, Lucy Dreaming was challenging, hilarious, addictive and an overall wonderful adventure that hit all the nostalgic highs I wanted, as well as having plenty of Easter eggs and modern references that caused a few out loud laughs. You play as the titular Lucy as she explores the real world to solve a mystery, but also having to deal with her own nightmares in the dream world a well. British humor may be a bit drier than I’m used to, but I still found myself chuckling quite often. I mean, I know I’m a man-child, but small birds being referenced as tits is hilarious.

Lucid Dreaming is described as “When you know that you're dreaming while you're asleep. You're aware that the events flashing through your brain aren't really happening. But the dream feels vivid and real. You may even be able to control how the action unfolds, as if you're directing a movie in your sleep.” Lucid dreams are what Lucy is dealing with, finding herself falling once she goes to sleep, a recurring nightmare she wants to stop from happening. To do so she’ll have to find a way to control her dreams, but doing so isn’t easy and will require a lot of out of the box thinking, possibly even jumping from one dream to another.

Lucy decides to use her father’s psychology book to possibly help her take control of her dreams, giving her clues as to how to do so, acting as subtle clues as to what needs to be done. While you think that the majority of the gameplay might revolve around these dream worlds, most takes place in the real world when she uncovers a dark family secret along the way. Maybe things you learn in the real world will be applicable to the dream world, and vice versa.

Like any good Point & Click adventure, you’ll gather items along the way needed to solve puzzles in unique ways or to combine with other items. As you learn more about the people you meet or areas, new places in the town will unlock that Lucy can fast travel to on her bike by using the map. You’ll visit the Library, Town Center and Lucy’s home amongst other places to solve a mystery. You’ll meet a wide variety cast of characters, each completely unique in their own way and quite memorable, and maybe bringing in your beloved teddy bear or a rubber duck into your dream world will have you see them in a completely new way.

While I don’t want to spoil any of the story as it was quite interesting, your first playthrough will probably be around somewhere around a dozen hours or so, less if you’re naturally skilled at classic Point & Click adventures and can think outside the box for puzzle solutions. With a walkthrough you could probably complete it in about half the time, but make sure to explore all you can, talk to everyone and take in its British humor and witty one liners.

Clearly a love letter to the 90’s genre, Lucy Dreaming has everything you’d come to expect from a Lucas Arts-style Point and Click; great pixel artwork, humor, challenging puzzles, Easter eggs and plenty of dialogue to get lost in. The bottom portion of the screen has your usable commands such as “Look At”, “Pick Up”, “Talk To” and “Use”. This is how you interact with the world, objects and characters, deciding exactly how you want to do so. Click anywhere on the screen in each scene and that’s where Lucy will walk to by default.

Puzzles are what make the genre what it is, and Lucy Dreaming is no different. While I’d like to think I’m pretty decent at these types of games, I’ll admit, I got stumped a few times and had to take some time to figure out what to do. Thankfully there’s a built in hint system if needed, but a few of the later puzzles I found to be a little too obtuse to figure out naturally, though like any good puzzler, once you solve it you feel like a certified genius.

As you explore each area and scene, talking to people along the way, you’ll get clues as to what to do next, noting them in your diary as a reminder. You’ll quickly notice that sometimes the real and dream worlds blend together, so what might not seem relevant now may just help you when you get Lucy to change into her PJ’s and go into the dream world. Sher even has a handy dream box of sorts where any of the items she puts into it will go into the dream world with her. A full glass of water on her nightside desk will have the tide rise, while it empty will have low tide. The same goes for your fan, as maybe the direction it's facing will affect how the wind is blowing in your dreams.

For example, putting a joke book in the box changes the dream setting to a comedy club, and if she puts her Teddy Bear in the box, he then comes to life in the dream world as well. It’s done in a very clever way and later on you’ll need to go from one dream to another, done so by waking up, changing the contents in your dream box, then going back to sleep. While your real world inventory doesn’t go into the dream world with you, the items you find and collect in your dreams do persist from one dream to the next. Clearly you’ll need to progress in one scene to make progress in another, though this portion wasn’t explained all too well initially and took some figuring out with trial and error on my part.

Each nightmare, like her falling from the sky in the beginning for example, is essentially its own Chapter. Once you figure out how to have Lucy stop falling, she finds herself stuck in another nightmare, which brings you to the next Chapter. With an overall mystery to solve as well, Lucy is a busy girl, and while I didn’t find the ending completely satisfying, I’m still glad to have played and enjoyed myself throughout.

The pixel art is done absolutely wonderfully, looking as if it came from the 90’s at the height of the genre popularity. There’s so much detail in every scene, and while a few intractable objects can be a little hidden and difficult to notice at first, you eventually get used to pixel hunting like in any other Point & Click game. The most surprising was how every single line of dialogue and character was fully voiced. That’s usually not always a given in the genre, so it was pleasant to have. All the voice actors were great as were the sound effects and soundtrack, totally bringing back some 90’s nostalgia.

Lucy Dreaming is exactly what I was wanting from a Point & Click adventure; full of humor, great pixel art, quirky puzzles and memorable characters. A lot of attention went into adding plenty of smaller details into Lucy’s world, making it feel much more alive and full. A must play for Point & Click adventure fans, Lucy Dreaming was simply a joy to play, even if the British humor won’t always land for everyone.

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

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Panic Porcupine

I have no qualms when a game is trying to mimic another or is heavily inspired, as long as it somehow has its own identity in some form. Paying tribute to a game or genre is one thing, while full on being a clone is another, and sometimes it’s difficult to differentiate where that line is. Panic Porcupine rides this line, and while you’re going to initially think it’s a simple classic Sonic the Hedgehog clone, there’s actually more to it than simply running fast. Do you enjoy difficult platforming games like Super Meat Boy? What if you combined that with the speed of a Sonic title? Panic Porcupine is the result of combining the two.

Expect speed, deaths and frustration in this 2D side scrolling adventure. If you’re one to try and collect everything or a speedrunner, you’ll feel right at home. If you’re looking for a more casual Sonic-like game, this isn’t going to be the one for you. Despite clearly looking like a Sonic clone, it’s actually quite challenging with its single hit deaths and constant level resets once you die for the hundredth time.

While there’s not much of a story here, you’re tasked with stopping an evil scientist that looks like a cross between Dr. Robotnik and Dr. Wily, trying to save the Chickabirbs. There’s a few funny lines about how a particular blue hedgehog is busy out filming a movie, so now it’s up to Panic. The hung portrait of a buff Sonic on the wall is hilarious too if you notice. Take on Dr. Preventriculus across 50 stages, find hidden eggs, go for speed runs and collect everything. A platformer with high speed, Panic Porcupine is full of obstacles like spikes, pits, flames and much more that will instantly kill you when touched. Expect to die many times in this unique genre mashup.

Instead of larger levels that require you speed to get through, Panic Porcupine’s levels are much shorter in design, instead challenging you with collecting all the Chickabirbs instead of reaching a finish line. If you know the levels they can be quite quick, maybe 30 to 60 seconds or so, but getting to that point will take quite a bit of repetitious practice to learn each level. Even though speed isn’t the main focus, you will be moving quite quick like Sonic, but need to know where the obstacles are.

With no enemies to face aside from the boss at the end of each stages’ tenth level, it’s you versus the environment. Timing and precision is paramount, as is learning the level layout to not just save all of the Chickabirbs, but even more so if you want to 100% levels by collecting every egg. Expect to reattempt jumps over and over, trying to get over the spikes and buzz saws, getting enough speed to get through some loops and ramps, all while figuring out where the Chickabirbs are.

Each stage is broken up into a handful of different levels, with the final being a showdown against the evil Dr. before he escapes and you move onto the next. The boss fights were fun, simply having you hit him a few times, freeing the Chickabirbs in pods, but each has its own unique challenge. Each zone has its own theme and biome, changing up the backdrops and design of levels.

Momentum is usually a large portion of how to complete levels, and while the controls are generally decent, I did have issues now and then with having to be completely precise in my moment. Bumpers caused me many issues, though not as much as the rotating poles that you kind of stick to before leaping off in either direction. It seems half the time my timing was off and I’d jump to the wrong side.

Many levels end up being trial and error, as you’ll simply need to know when to jump to avoid whatever is about to kill you, eventually becoming more and more challenging as levels progress. This sometimes comes down to reaction time and memorization as you speed across each stage. My main complaint is that you need to button press to have Panic roll into a ball instead of simply pressing ‘Down’ like in certain other hedgehog games.

The retro visuals are done so well that at a quick glance, you might expect it actually came from the 16-bit era. It’s bright, colorful and seeing Panic’s eyes constantly circling when you take a break from moving is always funny. Audio is also fitting for the era with a catchy soundtrack and decent sound effects along the way.

Panic Porcupine isn’t for the faint of heart. If you get frustrated by dying numerous times, then you’re going to have a bad time. On the other hand, if you enjoy a challenge or even want to speedrun, there’s a lot on offer. You’ll need to have reaction speed and accuracy if you want to see Panic complete his journey, and while you might simply assume it’s a Sonic knock-off, it’s more akin to a Super Meat Boy than anything else.

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

Overall Score: 7.2 / 10 Ghostwire: Tokyo

Originally released as a one year exclusive for PlayStation, Ghostwire: Tokyo is finally here for Xbox players, and better yet, available with Xbox GamePass as well. Given that it wasn’t even available on my console of choice until recent, I actually wasn’t even following it all that much beforehand, even after its release, so I went in ‘blind’ not really knowing what to expect or how the original reception was. I’m kind of glad I did this, as I went in with no expectations nor any idea what it was even about.

An open world game with a heavy narrative focus, complete with supernatural powers, Ghostwire: Tokyo kind of took me by surprise with it being a shooter, though not in the way you might initially expect. Completely engrossed with Japanese folklore, it quickly impresses with its gorgeous visuals that make for an isolating and creepy backdrop for your adventure. With some horror elements apparent and throughout, there might not be many jump scares, but there’s a general overall creepy and uneasiness that is always around, as you never feel completely safe. Also included in this release is the latest Spider’s Thread Update, adding new content to the game such as new custscenes, areas, missions, enemies, improvements, skills and modes, so maybe the wait has been worth it? Let’s find out.

Ghostwire: Tokyo starts out immediately with the action, showing main protagonist, Akito, getting into a serious accident on his motorbike. You’re then shown a spirit flying above, looking for a body to possess. Great timing, as the spirit takes over Akito’s body, essentially reviving him. Everyone in Tokyo has vanished though, seemingly only you surviving due to the possession, and anyone that touches the mysterious fog that’s rolling in seems to disappear. The city is now infested with paranormal visitors who don’t seem friendly, so it’s up to the duo of Akito and KK (the spirit) to not only survive, but investigate the man in the Hannya mask that seems to be behind it all.

While KK wants to go stop Hannya immediately, Akito was on his way to go check on his sister in the hospital who is in a coma, refusing to help KK until he knows she’s alright. Of course he obliges but this is where the internal struggle between the two start, being forced to help one another, yet both are somewhat in control, much like how Venom controls Eddie Brock in a way. Being possessed by a spirit has its perks though, you know, aside from not being dead, as you’ll be using your newly founded supernatural powers to fight back against the deadly forces that seem to be emanating from the fog.

Designed as an open world game, there are initially restrictions of where you can go with the deadly fog acting as your barriers, eventually you’ll be able to uncover more of the map, allowing for more freedom and a seemingly never ending list of side quests and activities to do. Being mirrored to the real life Shibuya City just west of Tokyo, you'll come across a number of famous landmarks if you know the area. While the main story should take around 8-12 hours, there’s about triple that or more if you decide to try and complete all the side quests and activities. While I was attempting to do everything in an area before moving on, it eventually become too much and overwhelming, deciding to simply focus mainly on the story from there on.

While KK is initially viewed as a parasite in Akito’s body, the two eventually form a unique relationship, helping one another, and the bond between them was an interesting story given they must fully trust one another in their own way. Sometimes this was funny one liners, other times serious tones, but it was always entertaining when they interacted or had a conversation with one another.

It seems as though a lot of time and care was taken into making Shibuya a living and breathing world, which is ironic since everyone is dead and you’re fighting spirits. The streets may be barren of life, but there’s so much hand crafted detail that every street and alley feels unique. You quickly learn the ability to use Spectral Vision, a detective-like blast that will highlight objects and enemies nearby. Visually, the city is absolutely stunning and impressive, and even if you don’t focus on one quest or activity you can easily find yourself lost within the city landscapes, as I found quite a few vistas I needed to take screenshots of.

Being able to only stick to some main streets and alleys in the beginning, you’ll need to cleanse massive Tori Gates, and doing so will force back the fog in a large area, allowing you to further explore Shubiya. These act essentially as the viewpoints in Assassin’s Creed, but fits narratively as well. As you explore you’ll also find spirits floating around which are souls that have yet to been captured, so it’s up to you to collect and set them free. Essentially a massive collect-athon, these are your best and quickest way to level up, and there’s no shortage. Some souls only appear after clearing an event, activity or battle though. With how many there are to collect, it can quickly feel quite overwhelming if you're a completionist.

You aren’t limited to walking at street level either, as you can find Tengus, kind of like a spirit griffon hovering in place, allowing you to zipline up onto the rooftops, naturally where more secrets and collectables are hidden. There’s also plenty of food items you’ll come across, though it took me a while to not simply save them all for when low on health. This is because eating food of course refills your health bar, but it also can extend your maximum health every time you eat, so sometimes if you’re hoarding a bunch of food it may be beneficial to munch on some of them to improve and extend your overall health.

Being a first person shooter, you won’t be defeating ghost and spirits with traditional guns, instead using the supernatural powers KK has endowed into you to blast from your hands. You begin with a wind blast attack, eventually unlocking more elements like fire and water. You can also charge your shots to be more powerful depending on the situation you find yourself in. Wind is generally good for almost any encounter, being a quick based attack. Fire is more powerful and explosive, and water is like your ‘shotgun’. Each uses its own ‘ammo’ that needs to be refilled by defeating enemies or breaking floating spirit objects littered throughout the world. While it’s not often you’ll find yourself out of ‘ammo’, there’s always some way to resupply nearby. There are a handful of boss fights during Akito’s journey, and while they are big and memorable, none were really all that challenging.

Combat starts out interesting and fun, though after a few hours does start to feel repetitive. You have a block you can use to negate damage and parry back attacks, so eventually combat gets into the same rhythm of attacking a few times, block, attack, extract soul, repeat, all while backpedaling or circle strafing. Once an enemy has no health left you can extract its soul, killing it from that point on. If you don’t destroy its soul it can regenerate and come back to attack you, so you’ll need to attack specific targets purposely, allowing enough time for the extraction before getting attacked by another.

You’ll eventually unlock a variety of Talismans, essentially your grenades. These are situational and used based on if you want to go a combat or stealth route. While some battles need to be faced head on, sometimes stealth is an option, and sneaking behind an enemy will allow for an instant ‘backstab’ soul extraction kill on most enemies. Without too many spoilers, there's one section early on where you aren't able to use your powers for narrative reasons, forcing you to use your bow or stealth. I found this portion to be awful and really missed having KK's powers.

As you gain experience, save souls and level up, you’ll be able to spend skill points into the three different trees. You can improve certain elemental attacks in a variety of ways, your bow weaponry, Talismans, and a bunch of other skills depending on how you want to play. Do a healthy amount of sidequests and activities and you won’t have much issue filling out the skill trees, so you can become quite powerful quickly if you decide to grind early on.

Visually, Ghostwire: Tokyo is absolutely stunning. There’s so much detail and full of (undead) life that it’s hard to not just take moments here and there to take it all in. Frame rates are fluid, animations are great and it always puts a smile on my face when I come across a cat merchant or stray dog. Voice acting from the main cast is done very well and hearing the shrieks and moans of spirits nearby can be quite creepy when you’re not sure where they are waiting for you.

While there’s an intriguing story that unfolds at a decent pace, it’s easy to get sidetracked with the overwhelming amount of optional things to do. While the story is about the right length, I eventually gave up trying to do everything as combat become a bit repetitive a few hours in. That said, Ghostwire: Tokyo was still a great playthrough and I’m glad it’s arrived for Xbox players to now enjoy as well.

**Ghostwire: Tokyo was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.8 / 10 Nuclear Blaze

With an endless list of indie games that release, it’s sometimes hard to get noticed, that is unless it comes from Dead Cells’ lead designer, Sébastien Bénard. Nuclear Blaze initially looks like quite a basic firefighting game but actually has an interesting story and fun gameplay to it, along with a great 2D aesthetic.

A massive fire has broken out, and you being a firefighter, are sent to put out the blaze. This one is a bad one though, so you need to be air dropped in to stop it. Everything starts off as normal, putting out the flames and looking for survivors, but you soon realize this isn’t just a normal building fire. You quickly end up in an underground facility and start to realize something isn’t right here. The further underground you go, you find yourself cut off from your team above ground, but you continue on to save anyone you can possibly find.

This secret facility makes you weary once you start to notice radioactive symbols and warnings on the walls. You start to find notes that make mention of some sort of experiment, but everything is quite vague at first. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t expecting much of a storyline but it was interesting just enough to keep me hooked until the end to find out what happened. Given that Nuclear Blaze is such a short experience, clocking in at about two hours or so, I won’t spoil anything, my only real complaint is that I wanted more, as I thought I was done maybe the first Chapter by the time the credits rolled.

First you’ll need to choose what mode you want to play. While there’s a normal mode you’ll likely start out, there’s also a Kid Mode and Hold My Beer Mode. Kid Mode is just that, designed to be played and enjoyed by very young children. This is very simplistic, having the firefighter unable to be damaged, automatically jumps and aims at the flames, complete with plenty of helicopters and trucks, because what kid doesn’t like firetrucks and helicopters? This was initially designed for the developer’s child to enjoy, but decided to keep it in, which is a fantastic idea for those with very young children that still want to play.

Hold My Beer Mode is actually unlocked after your first playthrough, but that won’t take long. This is somewhat like a remixed version of the campaign, adding new hidden areas, new enemies and more. Essentially it’s New Game+ that adds a little more challenge and options, warranting a second playthrough after the credits roll for the first time.

Before you begin your firefighting career though, be sure to check out the options as you’re able to finely tune the experience just how you like. Want to have unlimited health? How about faster water pressure? There’s no Easy, Normal, or Hard difficulty options, but you’re given just enough toggles that you can completely customize your experience however you like. The best part is that it doesn’t disable any achievements either.

Primarily a 2D platforming game, you also need to manage your water meter and spray in different directions to put out all the flames. Luckily you have a portable backpack and hose that can refill at specific spots within the underground base. Developers Deepnight Games did a great job at making the flames feel alive, as it can spread and move (unless you disable it from doing so in the options), making for a lot of chaos in the later sections. Miss one little spot and the fire can quickly reignite and spread. You’ll need to look for valves to shut off, electricity panels to switch and sprinklers to turn on if you want to be successful.

A platforming game needs solid and smooth controls or it simply won’t be fun to play. Thankfully Dead Cells was fantastic, so I expected no less here. You’ll be running, jumping and rolling through dangers, and it all just works and feels great to do so. In the beginning you’ll only be able to spray your water hose horizontally, though you’ll quickly get a few upgrades that allow you to shower the flames at any angle and even cover yourself with water like an umbrella when opening a door and getting a massive backdraft.

As you make your way through room by room, some doors will be locked by specific colored key cards, so you’ll need to explore to find them. Other doors won’t open until every single flame is extinguished as a lockdown procedure, so get used to having to put out every single flame you see. You may even find some spots that are electrified, and if you spray them you’re going to get a nasty shock, so you’ll need to find a control panel to turn that off first. Delay too long and the fire spreads, so there’s always an urgency.

The rooms have a subtle red-ish glow when there are still fires somewhere nearby, and once clear it will glow a satisfying blue. It’s a subtle detail but works really well. What would a firefighter be if they didn’t rescue cats as well? Seems as though a few of the facility workers had cats, which can only be found in secrets areas, so be sure to explore every corner if you want to try and find them all. It’s cute seeing them following you in the area until you reach a vent that they can automatically escape from. There’s even something special if you can find them all which I won’t spoil.

The pixel art is done exceptionally well and it’s all animated quite well also. Your character moves smoothly and you can easily distinguish each object, door, ladder and fire. There’s a lot of smaller details and I really enjoyed its simple aesthetic. While the music isn’t nearly as memorable, it is satisfactory and fits the tone of putting fires out in a deep underground facility.

While I expected a simple firefighting game with Nuclear Blaze, it is that, but has a decent story that kept me wanting to find out what happened until the very end. Sure it may be quite short, but there’s at least enough reason to play through twice as you try and find all of its secrets and rescue cats. What’s better than saving some felines in an underground nuclear base while putting out flames and uncovering a dark secret?

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

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Garden Simulator

While I enjoy my online shooters, competitive racing and 100+ hour RPG’s, every now and then I need a gaming palette cleanser. Sometimes I don’t want to be hyper focused, I just want to relax on the couch and chill while I play something. Life has been chaotic lately, so Garden Simulator came at exactly the right time, allowing me to just chill and play at my own pace.

As the title suggests, you are in control of creating your own garden, from mowing the grass, planting the seeds for vegetables and flowers, to even designing your whole backyard from scratch. While there’s a brief story intro about how you needed a break from the big city life and quit your high paying tech job to go into the back country for something more relaxing. This is a simulator, you aren’t playing it for a narrative, not that there is any here anyways.

I generally enjoy simulator games like these, as they are often relaxing, but there’s something I don’t mind about odd titles like these. While I’m used to having simulator games having a bit of ‘jank’ to them, Garden Simulator is far from perfect, but it was much better than I expected as it was stable and I had no crashes or framerate issues. Oh, and there’s a cat that wanders your lawn, so feel free to give it a pet when you like.

Garden Simulator begins and simply drops you into the front yard of your new secluded home in the woods. There’s no tutorial, not even anything about the basics or even controller commands. While I was able to figure it all about and discern what did what and what I should do next, a brief intro would have been welcome for those that may not game as much.

You begin with only having a portion of your front yard unlocked, with the other half, sides of the house and rear all taped off, unable to access at the moment. This is fine, as it gives you a concentrated area to focus on and to start earning your Garden Coins. Essentially you’ll need to plant flowers and veggies, then once a few days have passed and they are ready, you can sell them for profit. This is how you’ll slowly earn more and more money to purchase new decorations, different seeds and a handful of different decoration items for creating your dream garden.

You’re given a task list, like quests, to complete and guide you. While you aren’t forced to complete these, doing so will earn you extra money, which in turn helps you grow your garden space and purchase new seeds. Each action you do, from planting, picking, watering and even mowing, you earn XP which fills and gives you levels. Each level you get a skill point to use to increase profits or overall experience earned, speeding up the watering process and more.

Your little sectioned off backyard has a dumpster, a little shed and an area to hang up the tools you don’t need, along with a laptop. This laptop is basically an online store that once ordered, will have a direct drop shipment sent to you within about 10 seconds. Literally a drop shipment, the crate will be flung from the sky and land in the same area every time, so be careful not to start building your garden near there initially.

Before you can start your dream garden though you better clean up the place. It’s clear this house has been ignored for quite a few years, as there’s empty boxes, withered vines, garbage bags and wooden planks that were boarding up the windows. Simply pick up the trash, run it to your garbage bin and you’ll earn a few coins and XP for your trouble. Next you’ll need some tools, like a shovel, watering can and mower, so start saving those coins.

As you choose what seeds to plant, you can see the cost, how long to grow and the selling amount. There’s always a profit regardless of what you plant, it’s just a matter of how many days it takes for each different item to grow fully.

Days end once you go to your front door and choose “Call It a Day”. This has you rest and sleep until the next day. While each day doesn’t progress past 6PM, it doesn’t force you to stop playing on that day until you choose to progress, so no need to feel rushed. Most of the first few days will simply be watering each plant then sleeping to progress to the next day. Until you start to unlock the other sections of the yard and earn some coin you’ll be limited to what you can do in your garden, but that’s where the 'play as you want' nature of these simulation games are relaxing.

Your basic tools will get you started, but there will be upgrades you can purchase as you progress. Many tools, seeds and items are actually locked behind progress as well, and each is clearly labeled as to its progression within the laptop. Later on you can get automatic sprinklers, robot lawnmowers and more to aid your mundane tasks, though it’s completely up to you how you want to setup your garden.

While you begin with a lush lawn of overgrown grass, you’ll need to use your shovel to dig the ground up to prep for planting seeds. You can choose to snap to an invisible grid if you want even lines, or freely dig wherever you want. If you’re lucky you might even big up a gold nugget which will earn you some extra coins once you throw it in the garbage bins, though how that makes sense I’m unsure.

While you’ll only have a seed or two in the beginning, eventually you’ll unlock a large variety of fruits, vegetables and flowers. Each tier costs more to purchase, but nets you more profit once sold. You’ll start to notice weeds that appear each new day, which can be thrown into the trash for some XP and coin, but once you can afford a compost bin you can dump them into there to create fertilizer for your plants. Putting this fertilizer on your crops before they’ve fully grown will increase their quality which earns you more money once sold.

You begin by planting in the ground, but eventually you’ll unlock planters of different shapes and sizes if you prefer. There will be different furniture items, decorations and even hedges to create your dream garden, but most of these will come near the end of the game when money is no longer an issue.

Being able to place stones, wooden floors and even a barbeque grill is fun when you get to the design portion, but also showcases how ‘wonky’ the physics can be. If there is any overlapping of items you can expect objects to start acting weird or fling in directions. Clipping items is going to cause issues, though you’re able to lock items in place if you want to make sure they don’t move by accident until you unlock them.

Shovel the ground, put in seed, water the hole, move onto the next day and repeat. This is the basic gameplay loop, and while it may sound quite boring to some, I found it quite relaxing after a long day. Certain seeds will need to be unlocked by planting a certain amount of previous tier or selling better quality versions, then unlocking the ability to buy the newest seeds. While there’s not as much variety in plants and decorations as I expected, nor any cross pollination like Animal Crossing, it’s more than enough to last you a handful of hours to unlock everything.

For being a garden simulator, you can probably exactly guess what to expect for its visuals. Usually these simulation games aren’t terribly impressive, though it looked decent. The flowers are especially colorful and bright, grass looks like grass before being mowed, and it’s all serviceable. The light music in the background is sure to put you to sleep during a late night session, but makes for a relaxing time.

With a healthy amount of interesting achievements to work towards, I didn’t even notice that a good five hours went by the first time I played before I realized what time it was. Very addictive and relaxing, Garden Simulator is a great way to de-stress when you need a gaming palette cleanser and don’t mind the ‘jank’ from simulator games. Flex your virtual green thumb and place those garden gnomes for all to see.

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

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Cavity Busters

As the game title would allude to, Cavity Busters is a game that is central around everything teeth and dental related. Playing as a singular bipedal gum, you will fire teeth at all your enemies out to try and stop you. A roguelite mixed with a twin-stick shooter, Cavity Busters is certainly unique, not only with its setting and premise, but many of its mechanics as well. While it might initially remind you of The Binding of Isaac with its cartoonish hand drawn visuals and rectangular rooms, there’s a surprising amount of individuality in its design that makes it stand out in the genre.

While there are some minor story-like elements, don’t expect a large encompassing narrative that will have you hooked. There’s something about trying to defeat the dreaded Pearly Knights, which is your first introduction to Cavity Busters’ pun filled adventure. It’s time to defeat some cavities and shoot your teeth at anything that moves.

Being a roguelite, you’ll be dying a lot and going back for ‘one more run’. You explore room by room in effort to find the boss, defeat them and move onto the next dungeon, getting as far as you can before you die and need to start all over again. With hundreds of different rooms, no two playthroughs will be the same. Unlike many roguelites though, there’s no permanent upgrades that make each subsequent run a little easier each time, though there are unlocks you can gain that will help along the way.

Your first few games will probably be short as you’ll die quickly and have to restart over again. There’s a brief tutorial that teaches you the basics, and while it does a decent job at explaining the core mechanics, it’s a lot to figure out and get used to all at once. With a few runs under your belt it’ll start to become more natural and make sense, but it’s quick paced and frantic at the best of times. Being a very quick paced twin-stick shooter, you’ll need to have a fast reaction time if you want to survive. Thankfully you’re given a handful of tools that help your mobility.

As you go from room to room, the Zelda-like map grid will show where you’ve previously have and haven’t been. You won’t know which room the boss is waiting until you happen upon it, but what happens when you explore one direction only to hit a dead end? Well, rather than having to backtrack across a dozen rooms or so, you’re able to jump ‘out’ of the dungeon room and essentially teleport back to any room you’ve already cleared. This makes the exploration aspect much more manageable and I love the convenience factor without having to waste a lot of time constantly backtracking when needed.

You’re also not confined to the set ways rooms are linked together. When you enter a room, every door is locked until all enemies are destroyed, though you’re able to dig your way through any wall if you have a single use shovel, though if not you can sacrifice a single heart from your health pool to dig through. Sometimes this pays off with a hidden room full of upgrades, other times you wasted a heart for no reason, so there’s certainly some risk vs reward.

When you do eventually die, you’ll have a summary screen of how your run went. You’ll be shown how many enemies you killed, rooms explored, and more importantly, how many puns were made. Again, there’s plenty of puns included, all teeth, mouth and dentistry related, which is evident when you start finding the numerous types of upgrades and diseases.

With your initial character, your primary attack will be launching your singular tooth at enemies and then having it come back to you like a boomerang. You can charge your shot for a more powerful attack or tap the trigger for quicker shots. Your tooth shot can pass through enemies, so when you become more proficient with how to aim and when, you can get more damage on enemies as your tooth passes through them on the way back to you.

Simply shooting everything won’t be enough to survive, you’ll also need to dash, wall run and jump. It’s confusing at first trying to piece it all together with how chaotic it becomes, but with enough practice, a few hours in it started to become much more natural. Jumping allows you to kind of float up in the air before you choose where to leap down and stomp on an enemy for high damage. Wall running is another aspect that you’ll need to utilize, as you stick to the walls and run along the perimeter to escape damage or traverse across some gaps. This can also trigger some slow-motion that will help you catch your breath for a few moments.

Boss fights were the highlight, each having a large health pool and a fun challenge. These Pearly Knights aren’t terribly difficult on their own, but if you go into a boss fight with low health or some difficult diseases, the chances of surviving are nil. They have bullet patterns that can almost encompass the whole room, so you’ll need to be quick on your dodge that gives you a brief moment of invulnerability to pass through.

One of Cavity Busters’ unique features is the constant barrage of upgrades and diseases. As you progress and destroy enemies and clear rooms, you’ll come across upgrades that you can decide to take or not. If you’ve never picked up the upgrade before, it will appear as “unknown”, so you won’t know its effects. These can be both positive and negative, hence the upgrade and disease distinctions.

Upgrades are just that, giving you a number of positive effects, whereas diseases give negatives that hinder you in a number of ways. Do you take a really powerful upgrade that comes with a massive negative as well? Well, if you choose not to take these, the level ‘consumes’ it and your run becomes more challenging, so it’s a constant weighing of scaling difficulty. Sometimes taking a disease is a better tradeoff than a general overall increase of difficulty, other times the negative effect you get might be worse.

With dozens and dozens of upgrades and diseases, they are all unique, and even after hours of play I was still discovering "Unknowns". There’s a handful of different characters you can unlock as you progress as well, each playing vastly different from one another, so just as you think you’ve gotten everything mastered and figured out, playing as a new Gummy adds a completely new twist and challenge.

Normally I don’t dedicate a portion of my reviews to accessibility options, but developers SpaceMyFriend went above and beyond to make a challenging roguelite genre available to be fun and enjoyable for all skills. I do highly suggest playing with the default options and settings, but there’s plenty you can change to make things easier or harder depending on your preferences. Want to crank up your damage and instantly one-shot enemies, go for it. Want to start with a dozen hearts to get further, go right ahead. Want to instantly unlock basically everything and every character, that’s an option as well.

Sound effects are fitting for the gross setting, with plenty of goops and squishes, adding more to the tonality and humor of the game. If a tooth could somehow be shot and loop back to me, I have a feeling this is exactly how it would sound. The music fits the tone as well, even if it wasn’t a soundtrack that wasn’t terribly memorable. The hand drawn aesthetic is certainly gross, fitting given its setting, though at times it’s hard to enjoy and appreciate with how hectic, chaotic and quick paced it can be.

Full of puns, Cavity Busters certainly borrows heavily from The Binding of Isaac and Enter the Gungeon, yet does enough to make it stand out amongst others in the crowded genre. It’s chaotic, frantic, gross, and I enjoyed every minute of it once I was able to get over the learning curve and adjusting to the frenzied gameplay.

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

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Melon Journey: Bittersweet Memories

The original Melon Journey released over a decade ago, made simply with RPG Maker and launched the careers of developers Froach Club. While I never played the original, the charming pixelated trailer for this new entry was more than enough to hook me to give it a go. Melon Journey: Bittersweet Memories is the latest adventure for familiar faces with a weird yet delightful plotline, filled with unique and memorable characters. While it may look like a quirky adventure game from its screenshots and trailers, it plays much more like an interactive visual novel.

You are Honeydew, a diligent worker at the Eglantine Industries melon factory that gets up for work like any other day, only to find her best friend Cantaloupe is missing. It’s not like Cantaloupe to skip work and of course she worried about her best friend, so she sets off to find out where he might have went. Determined for the truth, she travels to the nearby town of Hog Town to ask around, only to be swept up in a spiraling mystery that will go deeper than you imagined.

Working at a melon factory, it becomes abundantly clear that there’s something off about the melons your company is using. They make a popular drink, now working on their latest 2.0 version, but why are melons illegal over in the neighboring Hog Town? If the police see you with melons, you’ll be thrown in jail, as they are illegal as any other drugs.

Hog Town is full of a number of interesting characters, and there’s even a mayoral election happening soon, with the front runner vowing to unban melons if elected. There’s a local gang, a Cheese Cult and other quirky characters you’ll meet along the way to find the truth of what happened to Cantaloupe. The majority of your objectives are simply fetch quests, going from person to person to find out what happened or gathering items from them, but the main story slowly plays out over the course of 4-5 hours.

You won’t be able to do this alone, so you’ll make some friends along the way to help you in your journey. Each character is written well and the overall narrative has a humorous tone. Characters have backstories and you want to know more about them, completing their quests simply to find out more. The writing is clever, has a good amount of puns, and never really takes itself seriously. It was hard not to smile throughout Honeydew’s journey to find her friend.

First and foremost, you might think that Melon Journey: Bittersweet Memories was an original Game Boy game simply from its visuals, as it shares the same greenscale monochrome display and doesn’t even stretch out to the edges of the TV, but that was the style is was going for, much like the original game. Played in a top-down view like classic Pokemon, you’ll be exploring and talking to people to find out where you friend is and why melons are considered illegal.

Even though Bittersweet Memories is more akin to a visual novel than a ‘game’ at times, you still can explore the town, talk to people and even choose to fulfil sidequests for certain characters. I’ll admit, I thought it was initially very linear, but after having the credits roll and not completing about half of the side quests, it warrants another playthrough to see everything.

The walking speed is excruciatingly slow in the beginning but you’ll eventually get a pair of roller-skates to wear to help with this. There’s a lot of back and forth to talk to people, so this will help greatly once you lace them up. Hog Town isn’t large, but there’s a lot of talking to one person at one end, then another at the other end, so it feels larger than it actually is.

Not only do you want to talk to everyone you see more than once, but try interacting with objects as well. The humor throughout will surely get a chuckle out of you here and there, like when a dog was admiring a wonderful statue, only to be inspected and understand it’s a regular fire hydrant.

There’s no minigames, combat, puzzles or anything else really aside from figuring out who to talk to, which is why I feel it’s more like a visual novel more than anything else. Your time is spent walking around and interacting with NPC’s and objects until you find the right person and then have to go to the next. It may sound boring, but the 5 hours to complete flew by with how light hearted it was.

I wasn’t sure about my initial thoughts about the green tinted monochrome color palette, but the pixels had just enough detail to know what was being conveyed and what it was supposed to be. Looking as if it was an original Game Boy game surely brought back some nostalgia as I played through. The soundtrack is just as charming and wonderful as the story and adventure, with some jazz vibes and a few really catchy tunes. There’s some awkward transitions between scenes at times as the music changes abruptly, but nothing that was too distracting.

Full of subtle humor, I might not have laughed out loud but I surely chuckled a few times at the puns or situations, the ghost hamster being my favorite character of the bunch. While it’s a short adventure, it’s a memorable one. The world and characters are endearing and even though I’m usually not too interested in visual novels, Melon Journey: Bittersweet Memories is charming and endearing, feeling like one in a melon.

**Melon Journey: Bittersweet Memories was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.2 / 10 Bendy and the Dark Revival

Bendy and the Ink Machine released back in 2017 in staggered episodic releases. While I didn’t pay much attention to it at release, it certainly found its audience, as my young daughter certainly knew about it and watched a lot of videos of people playing. It’s been a long time coming since its initial success, but the sequel is now here, Bendy and the Dark Revival, and thankfully is a full release at once, not episodic in design like its predecessor.

Because I’m new to the series, I was wondering how much I was missing by not playing the original game. Thankfully Bendy and the Dark Revival is its own story where you don’t need to have played the original to know what’s going on, but series fans will certainly get more out of it being able to recognize certain characters return. I was quite surprised with how much of a Bioshock influence Bendy and the Dark Revival had, and it’s clear to see that’s where a lot of its inspiration comes from with its gameplay and themes.

You play as Audrey, an animator working late at Archgate Pictures who is working some overtime, simply getting up for a quick break to get some coffee. You come across Wilson, the janitor, and after a brief conversation and quick errand, you find yourself somehow now stuck in a new and mysterious world. Audrey is now in her studio, but in the ink world, and if you’ve played the original Bendy, you probably have an idea how this is going to play out.

Wilson appears to be the main antagonist, and Audrey will need to do what she can to simply survive if she ever wants to escape this cycle that he now apparently is ruling over. Surviving won’t be easy though, as not only will enemies be searching for you, but the dreaded Ink Demon is a sure and swift death if it finds you. What does Bendy have to do with all of this? Who is this other person trying to guide you? Many answers are to be found, unfortunately much of the story and background lore is hidden away in audio logs that you’ll find when exploring the environment and can easily be missed.

Played in first person, you’ll be exploring this creepy world with some survival and horror elements thrown in, complete with plenty of jump scares. The world appears like a vintage cartoon and you’ll need to solve puzzles, explore for hidden passageways, fight against inked enemies and use plenty of stealth to survive. Once you reach a point about halfway through the adventure, you’ll need to deal with the Ink Demon that relentlessly pursues you, forcing you to hide for a few moments until the coast is clear.

While there are some light puzzle elements, the majority of them are simply finding a particular item and then backtracking to unlock a door to finally be able to progress. A portion of the opening chapter will have heavy stealth elements, as you won’t initially have a weapon to defend yourself with, having to find hiding spots in lockers, in barrels and under crates. It’s not always clear how close you can get to these ink enemy before they notice or where exactly their cone of vision extends to, so it’s a bit of trial and error in the beginning. This is where the survival portion comes into play. You have a stamina meter you’ll need to manage for running, though it’s usually plenty enough to reach the next hiding spot if required.

Exploring the rooms and corridors, don’t be surprised if you become lost as there’s no map, so you’ll need to take good mental notes of where you’ve previously been and should be heading to. Sometimes you get a marker of where to go next, though this seemed to only be sporadic. Later on there’s a fast travel system that unlocks, but it’s not as useful as I’d hoped. Strewn all about each room and in desk drawers, lockers are barrels are items you can pick up and collect. This will be used to craft items later on, refilling your health or collecting money.

I was hoping that the crafting system would make for some interesting additions to the gameplay, but it’s quite basic. You can use your found materials to craft keys (Gent Cards) to open specific boxes or save them up to upgrade your Gent Wrench, your main and only weapon, though even with a few upgrades I didn’t feel much more powerful. Making cards seemed really not worth it, as there’s usually just more basic materials inside, but if you’ve been diligent at exploring and picking up things along the way, materials shouldn’t be much of an issue.

Oddly enough, all the food you find can’t be stored to be used later, simply eaten as you pick it up, so if you’re low on health you’ll need to play a little more cautiously until you can find some random sandwiches and other things tucked away. Sure, you could use your money to buy food, but health generally wasn’t an issue other than a few times where I had to fight multiple enemies at once, on the Easy setting at least.

Before you get your Gent Pipe you have no means to defend yourself, so you’ll have to do a bunch of stealth and sneaking portions to get past enemies. Once you do acquire your sole weapon you’re finally able to defend yourself, though you’ll quickly realize how clunky combat is in general. Having a simple pipe, you can swing at any of the ink enemies, though most take a few hits to defeat. It’s difficult to judge the distance you need and when to press the trigger to have it connect at the right time. Versus single enemies is usually no big deal, but there are many times you’ll need to face multiple at once, which is where it becomes more challenging since most areas are tight and confined hallways. This generally results in having to circle strafe and just swing away until everything is dead.

You do earn a few more abilities as you progress, the first being basically a one-hit kill backstab called “Banish”. If you crouch and sneak up behind an enemy that doesn’t notice you, you can instantly kill them with a special power that is imbued into your ink covered arm. The pipe as your weapon simply feels boring, even with the upgrades you can get later on. There are a couple bosses to fight along the way, breaking up the monotony, with the final boss the most interesting.

As mentioned above, even though you can fight off ink enemies once you get your Gent Pipe, the Ink Demon is a different story. You’re told that he is near, the screen dims and shakes, and that’s your cue to find a hiding spot right away, regardless of what you’re doing. Fail to do so and you’ll instantly die and have to try again. Even though it didn’t happen too often, it made me slow down and take notice of any hiding spots I passed by, knowing that’s where I’ll need to run to if this is the moment the Ink Demon decides to roam nearby. It’s weird simply getting a prompt to go hide rather than having to keep a lookout and listen on my own for it when exploring, reducing it to a simple ‘hide or die’.

Audrey will gain a few other abilities as her journey progresses, starting with the Banish explained above. While there’s a few, the one you’ll rely on most is "Flow", essentially a quick dash/teleport forward for a short distance. This can help you escape quickly, cross gaps or catch up to an enemy to sneak and Banish them.

While it might seem bland given the brown and tan sepia tone, it’s deliberate, as you’re stuck in this old style cartoon world of Bendy. The flowing ink and dark outlines make for a good contrast and animation overall is done quite well. Sure there’s a few weird glitches like enemies getting stuck in doorways, walking in place or being a bit stiff when turning, but overall I quite enjoyed the visual aesthetic of Bendy's world. As for the audio, the voice acting is done quite well actually across the board from all those that have lines, not just Audrey and Wilson. You’ll hear noises in the distance, unsure if it’s an enemy around the corner or not. The Ink Demon sounds terrifying and the intensely really ramps up in those few moments you need to find a hiding spot because of the audio alone.

I did enjoy the setting and the overall narrative, it’s just a shame a lot of the story is hidden away in collectable notes and audio logs, some of which will certainly be missed if you’re not exploring every corner of the world. Having never played Bendy and the Ink Machine and only knowing what my daughter told me about it, I was unsure how cohesive Bendy and the Dark Revival would be for a newcomer like myself. Thankfully knowledge or previous play experience is not required here. My main complaint is that the controls are simply too sensitive, even when turned down, as if it was clearly designed for a mouse and keyboard instead. So many times, even hours in, I found myself struggling to pick up an item because I couldn’t get the cursor in the exact spot needed.

While original Bendy fans will certainly get the most out of it, it was difficult to feel invested as a newcomer with the clunky combat and forced stealth sections. That said, the world is created quite well and has a great atmosphere, I just didn’t feel all that invested and become frustrated at times with the backtracking.

**Bendy and the Dark Revival was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 God Of Rock

I always applaud when developers take a chance on something new. Maybe this is adding a twist into a genre that’s been done before, or maybe sometimes they attempt to blend two vastly different genres together, like God of Rock. Modus Games has done just this, attempting to merge two completely different game types into one, and while on paper it should work, it never really feels all that cohesive. Being a massive fan of music based games, I was quite excited to try a new rhythm game, as I’ve played an endless amount of Rock Band, GuitarFreaks, DrumMania, Guitar Hero, Dance Dance Revolution and many more.

God of Rock attempts to blend the melodic notes of a rhythm based music game fused with the excitement of a fighting game with 1 on 1 matches against a handful of opponents. You’re tasked with fighting to the beat, though the core gameplay is more that of a rhythm game with some fighting game move sets thrown in. A dozen playable characters, eight diverse stage backdrops and over forty songs should make for quite an interesting game.

As you pick one of the characters, they will have a brief storyboard narrative about themselves or some situation they find themselves in. Each character eventually gets invited to a sort of tournament where if they can get through the gamut of other challengers they’ll be able to face the mysterious God of Rock himself, which will grant their wish or desire if defeated in a musical battle. The writing for each character is very campy and brief, and even when you do finally defeat the God of Rock and get their ending, it’s nowhere near satisfying. I’m not expecting much of a narrative for a rhythm or fighting game, as that’s not what they are known for, but there’s really not all that much here for story at all.

Story mode is where you’ll probably be spending the majority of your time, picking your fighter of choice and battling your way through the tournament in hopes to defeat the titular God of Rock for a small story snippet of your character at the end. There are local and multiplayer options if you want to face off against a friend or foe in person or online. There’s a training mode to learn the basics and special moves, something I’d highly suggest going through each so you know how do not just hit the notes, but what all the meters mean and how to do your special moves, this is partly a fighting game remember.

If you want to try something really interesting, why not make your own tracks. While you can’t add your own music, you can design your own notes from scratch for the included soundtrack. The track editor allows you to finely tune how and where you want to place each note, lining up each exactly where you want. You can then try the songs out against others to see who the best really is. I’m sure those that used to make their own songs in Dance Dance Revolution, Guitar Hero and other rhythm games will surely spend some time here creating some insanely difficult tracks.

God of Rock’s premise is simple, hitting notes to the beat while also throwing in some Street Fighter moves to eventually win the match once the opponent’s health is empty. The majority of your time will be watching the playfield where the notes come across to hit the notes, but you’ll be challenged not looking elsewhere to see the fighting or being distracted by the flashing lights. Songs will start out easily enough but quickly ramp up and be quite challenging, even on the easier difficulties.

There are a handful of characters to choose from, each with their own fighting moves and style, as well as a variety of different moves and specials. Some are more healing based while others are offensive, each are unique in design though. Some are designed with a fine line between tribute and parody, some clearly a knockoff of Elvis, Freddie Mercury and others, whereas some are more original in design. They all have a few one-liners before their matches that are cheesy, but such is par the course for fighting games, though the lip syncing that doesn't match well is a little of a distraction.

Now where you’ll need to keep most of your focus is the horizontal lanes where the notes come from the side into the middle where you’re supposed to hit the note with accuracy. Now, the vast majority of rhythm games are vertical scrolling, and for good reason. Here though, it’s horizontal and very challenging to learn and master.

You’ll also be using all four face buttons, each on their own horizontal lane. On simple songs this isn’t too much of an issue, but when songs become much more chaotic, it’s quite difficult to deal with the buttons laid out in that horizontal pattern when they are overlapped. The confusion does get easier over time, but it really didn’t ever feel natural, even after almost beating every single character’s playthrough. It becomes even more difficult when you have to combine button presses that aren’t beside each other on the controller, unable to do so with a single finger, like ‘X+B’.

You and your opponent have a health bar, as this is partly a fighting game, and every time you land notes on beat and use your special moves, it will slowly deplete their health. There’s some nuances though, as if you and your opponent perform the same move at the same time (notes are the same for both players) damage is negated, but that’s where the special moves come into play. While the note charting is decent overall, what’s interesting is that songs become more challenging the longer it goes on, so if it’s even match between you and your opponent, eventually the challenge will ramp up until one is left standing.

Landing normal moves to the beat slowly builds your Special and Ultra meters which can unleash higher powered moves. If your opponent does one of these special moves, you can unleash a higher tier move to override theirs, so there’s a constant push and pull of offense and defense, that is if you can remember the move list or manage to do so between the regular notes.

This is inherently where part of the problem lies, having to pull off fighting moves like Street Fighter (simple quarter and half circles ending with Right Trigger), but you need to do so in-between the regular notes. There are three tiers of moves, EX Moves and an Ultra, but trying to perform these while not trying to miss notes is near impossible if there’s not a quick downtown moment in the song. You can even perform reversals, but it’s all a matter of keeping track of what meters you have filled or not.

While the horizontal note scrolling is quite jarring and my biggest complaint, the other is the whole fighting game component. Trying to fit in fighting moves in-between note hitting is hard enough, but having the UI layout the way it is makes for another distraction. Your Special and Ultra meters are right above the note playfield, but your health bar is way at the top of the screen. This is part fighting game remember, so you need to keep track of the health bars. This means you need to take your eyes of the note lanes to glance away, which generally means missing some notes before you reorient yourself.

I was quite surprised that God of Rock had online multiplayer, as I didn’t expect it to from a smaller studio. There’s Quick Play and Ranked, and while I was able to find a few matches, it did take some time to find opponents. I highly suggest mastering the gameplay before going online, as you’ll lose quite handedly if unsure how the whole move tiers and reversals work.

Visually, God of Rock is quite appealing. The character designs are done quite well, as are the stages backgrounds, all with a flashy package. Fights are animated well, but the problem is just how flashy it all is, literally. Every time notes are matched from both players and blocked, there’s this bright flash on the screen, and when quicker paced songs are playing, you can imagine how distracting this is, and I didn’t see any options to disable or dampen them. There’s an odd lag once you defeat your enemy where the framerate drops for a moment, nothing that affects gameplay, yet another distraction.

For a music game, the audio and music is supposed to be what stands out the most, and while there’s a good variety of over 40 songs, there’s really none that stood out. There’s no vocals in the songs and there’s nothing licensed, and even after multiple playthroughs, there wasn’t a single song that was very memorable. I didn’t feel compelled to add any to my Spotify playlist, not that any were ‘bad’, but part of the problem is the audio mixing. By default you hear more of the fighting thuds and attacks instead of the music being the forefront. I had to turn up the music volume and other audio down just to enjoy it more.

God of Rock is an interesting title that blends the odd pairing of fighting and rhythm games, and while it may not always stick the landing due to its odd design choices, there’s some entertaining moments here and there. Even with online play and a track creator, it’s clear extra effort was made to have God of Rock be something special, even if it misses a few notes.

**God of Rock was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.3 / 10 Guns N’ Runs

Guns N’ Runs released back in 2021 on PC, but I somehow missed it. Now that it’s on console though, of course I took notice. Now I know what you’re thinking, by the title of the game you’re probably guessing that this is a typical sidescrolling shooter where you’re blasting everything in your path, maybe like an old school Contra or Mega Man. You’d be partially correct, but it’s more like a jaunt rather than a full out run given how difficult the platforming is.

While I expected something Contra-like from its name alone, the actual gameplay was a bit different. You of course have to platform from room to room, generally left to right, eventually reaching a boss and moving on, but there’s an integral dash component which allows you to cross gaps, avoid obstacles and even phase through enemies, but actually doing so accurately is quite challenging. The pixel art and soundtrack are done quite well, helping to qualm my frustrations, though not completely.

You play as one of the numerous chooseable members of the Conspiracy Squad. You’re taking part of some rescue mission in the middle of the Atacama Desert, well below the surface in a mechanized bunker. While there is an overarching story here, especially once you defeat the bosses and they ramble on and on, games like these you generally enjoy for the gameplay more than anything else. Basically everything in your way is going to try and kill you, so you must survive to progress and figure out what’s really going on, though those that want more will be happy to know each character has its own narrative.

There’s really not a lot you need to learn for its controls, as you can jump, shoot, special and dash, and once you begin after choosing your character, you’re thrown into a “tutorial”. I’m quoting “tutorial” and being facetious because it’s anything but a tutorial, and probably one of the worst ones I’ve experienced in recent memory. A tutorial is supposed to do just that, teach you the basics, making you comfortable with the controls and mechanics so that once you’re set free, you feel confident, enticing you to want to continue playing.

I restarted the game three times with different characters because I thought I did something wrong or the game was bugged. As you begin you’ll come across these signs which give you a clue of what the controls are. A say clue because it doesn’t outright tell you. For example, one sign will show that you can jump with a picture of your character, well, jumping. What button is it to actually do so? No idea, so you better start hitting random buttons to figure it out. The next sign indicates you can fire your weapon. Great, but again, no button prompt, simply a sign saying it’s possible. I’ve been gaming long enough that I of course figured it out, but it’s counterintuitive to what a tutorial is supposed to accomplish.

I was willing to overlook this until a few moments later I got to the dash portion. Dashing is an integral part of Guns N’ Runs’ gameplay, so naturally you would expect the game to teach you how to do so properly. Nope. Same sign showing that you can dash, but no button prompt or how to actually do so. I needed to reach a much higher platform by dashing and double jumping, but had no idea how to. I eventually figured it out on my own, but there’s even these small orbs that allow you to link your dashes together, but as you can guess, this wasn’t taught at all in the "tutorial".

Manage to figure out how to progress past the opening section and you’ll be brought to a map where you can choose from a number of different paths and levels, though I opted to finish level 1 before moving to 2, etc. With plenty of different roomed challenges to get through, there’s no shortage of challenge within, but sometimes it’s the level design or controls that have you failing and retrying from the last checkpoint. While the controls are simple on paper, actually traversing and dashing at the right time and correct direction can be frustrating at the best of times.

Now and then you’ll find a few power-ups, either changing your shot type for a brief amount of time or giving you a shield that protects you from a hit. Where my main issue comes from when the its combat is that you can only ever shoot horizontally, no aiming at an angle or upwards, so you always have to be in line of your enemies and bosses to actually hit them. Your dash will get you out of sticky situations quickly, and will be absolutely necessary to master if you want to progress, as it’s the only way you can cut across large gaps or phase through electric beams and attacks.

Each level is broken into a handful of rooms, kind of of like Mega Man, where you generally need to progress left to right to reach the next room. This starts out simple enough, but after a few bosses and you try the new levels, things get chaotic and challenging quite quickly. Even though it’s titled Guns N’ Runs, I’d say the majority of your time is slowly trying to platform accurately more than anything else. This usually means dying and trying the room again a few times before eventually progressing, but it’s much more slow and methodical than expected, as I thought it would be a quicker paced game.

Your dash is your primary move, and there are times where you need to be incredibly accurate or else you’ll fall or land in some spikes. With only five health bubbles, this certainly isn’t a lot given how precise your movements need to be at times. While you have a quick moment of invulnerability when you dash, if it’s not done at just the right moment, you could get damaged just as you enter or exit the dash, causing many deaths on boss fights when I thought I was going to be fine initially. This wouldn’t be so bad if the level design was interesting, but it’s generally a lot of the same with a few enemies to kill, as rooms won’t always unlock without them defeated. Things get much more challenging later with moving platforms and poison that drains your health almost instantly.

While you can gather special power-ups to fill your special meter, again, this isn’t really explained in the opening tutorial, so I didn’t really use it all that much, forgetting it was an option. Each character has a different and unique special, but it would have been a welcome addition to show what these do before committing to a certain character only to find you don’t like their move. I do wish there were other weapons to collect or gain along the way aside from the limited use ones that don’t appear often enough.

Bosses are easily the highlight of Guns N’ Runs, taking a few attempts to learn their patterns and best times to dash through to avoid their attacks. Some took me much longer than expected to defeat simply because of the forced horizontal shooting and having to line up my character to their weak spot. Most have you moving away to get some space, unloading a few rounds, dashing to safety and repeating on the other side of the room while avoiding their attacks. Sure it gets old fighting the same boss person each time, but at least he has a new machine and contraption each outing.

The retro pixel art is done quite well, looking like an older game but smooth framerates we’ve come to expect. Sure I had the odd framerate dip here and there, but nothing that detracted from the experience too badly. Each level has its own sort of tone and palette, almost like a biome and I enjoy the retro blocky aesthetic. The soundtrack was done quite well, full of guitar riffs and some good drum beats. The tempo matches the gameplay for the most part and never felt tiring hearing over and over when I was on my twentieth boss attempt.

Even though Guns N’ Runs is quite challenging, even on the Casual setting, the checkpoint system is quite generous, basically setting you back at the room you just died in to try once again. Die on bosses repeatedly and some shield and weapon power-ups will appear to try and give you just a slight edge so you can progress. Even with these aids, I still think it’s quite over-tuned for those looking for a casual difficulty, as it’s nowhere near that, especially the later stages and bosses (I’m looking at you robot spawning, missile firing boss). The fact that there’s a death counter should tell you a lot.

I do wish there was an auto fire option, as your thumbs will get quite sore in long play sessions from all the dashing and having to fire ever bullet manually. There is plenty of replay value with an achievement list that forces you to complete the game with each character and unlockable Survival and Danger modes as well, though I predict this will only be done by a select few trying to get the most value out of their purchase.

Don’t be fooled by the Casual difficulty setting, Guns N’ Runs is quite challenging and demands near perfection and quick reflexes to be successful and progress. While I struggled with the controls throughout, especially having to dash at specific angles or timing, there’s nothing inherently bad about Guns N’ Runs, it simply didn’t hook or excite me all that much.

**Guns N’ Runs was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 ACL Pro Cornhole

Say what you want about the name, but the sport of Cornhole is quite entertaining to play in real life. If I go to a park or barbeque with friends and one of these are setup, it’s basically a guarantee I’m going to challenge someone for a few rounds. While its roots are over a century old, the Cornhole we recognize today took its form in the 70’s and 80’s. It seems as though the game has had a popularity increase since the American Cornhole League (ACL) was founded almost a decade ago in 2015. Since then there’s been a standardization, official tournaments, bags and pro players.

The sport has grown enough to apparently warrant the video game adaptation, so here we are with ACL Pro Cornhole, aiming to recreate what it’s like to play as a pro in the ACL. Developed by FarSight Studios, there’s a surprising around of authenticity when it comes to the Pro players included, commentators, official bags and tournament recreations, but the question remains, is it actually fun to play? Well, that’s where there’s some cornfusion.

While there’s no formal career mode, you’re simply thrown into a Tournament without any tutorial or explanation of the sport. Choose your Pro player of choice from a small handful unlocked from the beginning and jump right into the game. It would have been a bit more interesting if you could create your player and work your way up from Amateur into the ACL Pro league, but there’s nothing like that here at all, and calling it a Career mode is a bit of a stretch as well.

While I could only assume that most purchasing ACL Pro Cornhole are generally going to be avid Cornhole fans and know the sport already, given how niche the sport is, some sort of rule explanations would have been helpful for newcomers. I’ll admit, I thought I knew the core rules for Cornhole, but turns out I really didn’t. Naturally once I started playing and not understanding the scoring system or terminology, I had to do some research online.

Now that I was caught up on the rules and scoring, I jumped right in figuring I’d be good to go to at least be somewhat competitive. Well, if there was any semblance of a tutorial maybe I would have been, but no, you’re simply thrown right into a match without any explanation of exactly how to play or given strategies. This is where I paused and went to the settings to see where the button mapping was so I at least had an idea of how to play.

No wonder I couldn’t figure out how to actually toss my bag, because you play your shots much like a golf game, pulling back on the Right Stick and then forward to determine your power and accuracy, and I use that term very loosely. Even if you get the meter exactly where you want, good luck if it actually tosses your bag where you want or does what you expect. You’re able to change the arc of your toss, as well as the angle of the bag and amount of spin, but none of this really matters given how unfair the CPU is with their shots.

Oh there are difficulty choices, but I can't tell any difference from Easy or Hard, as the CPU will simply destroy you every match regardless how you perform unless you can nail your Airmail’s (getting your bag directly into the hole) every single shot, as that’s what they tend to do quite often without any issue. You can choose to toss the bag the slick or sticky side down, and while it tends to make a minor difference, not as much as I thought it would.

While ACL Pro Cornhole boasts that you can play as 32 different top Pro’s, they need to be unlocked which is done via your levels you earn with XP from completing matches. It’ll be rare to win though, so this is painfully slow, so hopefully there’s no a Pro you have your heart dead set on playing early. While I think I only recognize one ACL player, fans should be happy to know that they are recognizable with their real pictures in place and look pretty much their real life counterparts in-game. Apparently they’ve been motion captured to recreate their actual skills and strategy as well.

Adding to the ACL authenticity is also having Trey Ryder and Bernie Nabors as your commentary crew, narrating what’s happening in the match and how poorly you just threw that last toss. There’s not a whole lot of variety in the lines recorded, as you’ll start to hear the same things over again quite quickly, though I do appreciate the effort that went into adding them, as there’s really not much in the way of background music that plays otherwise.

You’re able to also choose Quick Play matches, either 1v1 or 2v2, against the CPU or friends. Again, only against your friends will you have a chance at actually winning though, so best to play this for a while until you get the hang of how to play. As you do slowly and eventually level up, you can spend earned skill points to boost certain parameters like your slide, airmail, rolls and pushes, though even after a handful of point spent, I didn’t really notice much of a difference.

You can also choose from nine different official ACL bag manufacturers such as Local Bags, Lucky Bags Cornhole, Reynolds Bags, Slide-Rite Series, Ultra, Skill Shots Cornhole, Kontraband Athletics, BG Cornhole and Fire Cornhole. They have different colors and patterns and even stats, but again, even choosing the one with the best ‘sticky’ stat, I didn’t notice all that much of a difference.

Playing as your chosen Pro, you’ll unlock more as you level up, but I none of it really mattered given how cheap the CPU is constantly throwing airmail's nearly every shot. You can see a small "slick" or "sticky" side message where you aim, presumably to affect how the bag physics play out when landing on the board, but again, I didn’t find all that much of a difference. Also, it seemed to randomly change my shot type back to slick side even though I prefer sticky for some odd reason. And if you want to rotate your throwing angle or loft, there’s no quick reset to default, so I hope you remember what your preference is and your spin. You can even take a side step to get a slightly different angle on your tosses, but sometimes this defaulted back to my original starting point.

While there’s multiplayer available, unfortunately it’s not online and only local. You can play in singles or doubles, but for some reason whenever I’m paired with a CPU player, they seem to not make those amazing airmail shots every time like the opponents do, so you can’t even count on them reliably to help your team out in a doubles match. It’s frustrating to place a blocker only to have the CPU bypass them entirely every time with pinpoint accuracy, even on Easy.

While the setting of the ACL appears to be quite official with its layout, the markings around the arena and even down to the Johnsonville adverts slapped around everywhere, it certainly does look like Cornhole you’d watch on TV. Between matches I do wish there was something a bit more than staring at the blank arena for a few seconds as things reset, like maybe having the players go to get their bags, but there’s nothing like that. Even the limited crowd barely animates and multiple people are moving in unison, adding for a very empty feeling when playing.

ACL Pro Cornhole certainly looks and sounds like a match of Cornhole and has certainly recreated the sport, but getting consistently demolished by the near perfect CPU every single match only stays entertaining for so long. While it’s hard to recommend outside of the diehard Cornhole fans, those that enjoy the niche sport will surely find some entertainment here, even if the game is trying to constantly setup blockers to prevent you winning.

**ACL Pro Cornhole was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 4.7 / 10 Zapling Bygone

There’s been some memorable Metroidvania games over the years, and while there’s no shortage in the genre, it’s always welcome to have another if it’s done well. This is where Zapling Bygone comes in, a classic Metroidvania mechanically, but with a unique story about an alien hive-mind that defeats bosses for their skulls to gain their abilities, all with a cute retro pixel style aesthetic.

You are a part of the hive-mind, a small portion of a larger being, dropped on a mysterious planet as a pretty simple blob, searching for a new home. As you defeat a few small enemies and grow in size, you find your first skull, giving you a ‘body’ so to speak with a number of arms/tentacles. As you seek out these skulls you also gain their knowledge and consciousness, tapping into their memories as you reach specific areas.

As you piece together what happened on this planet and figuring out if it’s going to be a viable home, there’s not too much story aside from finding pieces of comic book pages scattered throughout, giving you small snippets of backstory lore, though only if you manage to collect them. There may be something more sinister on this seemingly desolate planet though, a secret buried that you uncover as you collect more skulls and information.

Being a Metroidvania, the setup is as you’d expect. You begin without any real abilities, eventually reaching areas that are inaccessible until you have some way to get passed or reached. This happens often, usually finding a ledge or something higher up you don’t know how to get to, or a large gap where your jump can’t get across. In most cases, if you’re able to continue progressing, that’s probably the way you want to go, as it most likely has a boss at the end that will give you a new upgrade once defeated (by wearing their skull), allowing you to unearth a new area to explore. This of course causes a lot of backtracking, a normal part of the genre, though there are a few warp points strewn about if you’re able to find them.

As you explore each area and biome that varies, you’ll have plenty of pathways to search for a number of hidden secrets and collectables. Each area has its own distinct style with a boss that guards it at the end. Given how short the runtime is, at just a handful of hours for an experienced player of the genre, I won’t spoil much of the surprises, but I enjoyed the first area the most, the Ratqueen Gardens. As you complete areas and gain new abilities, you’ll see on the map how interconnected the world is.

Controls are tight and responsive, as much of what you’ll be doing is platforming from area to area, and even in the moments where I had to move and hide from enemy fire, I never felt like I could blame the controls when I inevitably failed, even in the frustrating chase sequence later on. Being able to walk along the walls once you beat the first boss opens up a lot of the map to be explored, but that’s only one ability you’ll gain along the way.

As you get new skulls from bosses and new abilities, the map feels larger as you can explore it more. Even though it’s not a massive map, it does feel quite large and you can certainly expect a lot of backtracking as you figure out where to go next. Thankfully there’s a map you can reference, but it doesn’t let you zoom in as much as I’d like, so sometimes it was a guessing game of the pathway I intended to take versus what I actually did. I did end up lost every now and then, or finding a new pathway I couldn’t quite get to yet because I didn’t have a certain ability, like the dash. While there’s not really a set path you go to and from, it is designed in a way that is somewhat linear when you factor in the abilities needed to reach.

The later levels do get quite challenging, especially when you’re in near complete darkness or being chased. Thankfully you do have a way to heal yourself, able to refill one of your health bars after a set amount of time. Even so, you don’t have a large health pool, so you always do need to be cautious since you can only take a few hits before dying and restarting at your last checkpoint. These checkpoints can be found throughout each area, though you’ll need to spend a little of your earned currency from defeating enemies to unlock them. I never really found myself short to not be able to afford one, but if you skip too many enemies you may not be able to unlock it.

Each new ability is gained after you defeat one of the bosses and take their skull as your trophy reward. You not only gain abilities to walk on walls and dash, but can even swing around and shoot laser beams. A unique way they also distinguish themselves is that they each also have a different amount of slots for mutations.

Mutations are further ways to customize your Zapling to play how you want. Maybe you want to attack slower but hit harder, or vice versa, there’s plenty of these mutations to unlock that allows for a bit more freedom to how you play. Each of these mutations though are assigned a special shape (triangle, square, circle, etc for example) and you’ll need to make sure your skull you wear can equip that mutation shape. There’s also of course a limit to how many mutations you can equip, so you might need to use a skull you don’t necessarily want to, but because it has the mutation slots you want to use, you’ll have to.

The pixel aesthetic is done quite well, a retro feel but definitely smooth and modern as well. Each new skull does change how it appears on your Zapling, and every biome certainly has its own feel and look as well. Music suits the mood, rising and lowering when needed, especially during boss fights, though there isn’t a lot of varied sound effects throughout.

While not overly difficult until the later chase section and boss fights, there’s just the right amount of challenge. Your first playthrough will probably take around six hours or so, more if you want to find every secret. While it didn’t grip me as much as I expected, it certainly has charm to it and definitely worth the play if you’ve been craving a new Metroidvania to check out.

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

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 King of the Arcade

I’m thankful to have grown up in the era I did, and while I might date myself here, playing games at the local arcade are some of my fondest gaming memories. I would be given a few quarters each day before school and allowed to stop at the arcade on the way home, using the quarters I was given to get a new high score or play one of my favorites. While there are a few places that have a similar setup and idea, like the arcade corner of a big movie theater or somewhere you can win tickets for playing, it really isn’t quite the same as it was back then.

You see, “back in the day” there were buildings you went to that housed dozens of different arcade cabinets and pinball machines that were usually only found there. Home consoles like the Atari, NES and other classics did exist of course, but it’s not like it was now where it was much more common. Games in the arcade were built to be played one quarter at a time. There's something special about pulling off a Mortal Kombat fatality in front of a watching crowd because you knew the secret button combination to do so. Having to place your quarter on the screen like a line queue, waiting for your turn to probably lose to the guy on Street Fighter II that seems to be undefeatable was always an anxious and exciting time.

You are Mac McCormick, a gaming prodigy who was an arcade champion as a kid, but like all things in life, sometimes your past is just memories. Once known as a gaming champion, Mac still lives at home many years later and needs to find a job before he gets kicked out. Of course he finds himself wandering the local gaming center, Castle’s Arcade, and with that simply asks the owner for a job. He can’t just give the job to anyone though, so you need to prove that you can play games; quite the application if I say so myself.

Of course, being an arcade champion, even though he doesn’t play anymore and left that life behind him, he obliges and reaches level 5 on a game with his first try. This impresses the owner and now you’re a working employee at Castle’s Arcade. The landlord of the place though is ruthless and wants to take over the arcade to turn it into a NFT (because that’s totally how it works). This landlord, Jimmy Joysticks, does what anyone would do; initiate a hostile takeover by sending members of his arcade gang to prove they are the best players around. So it’s up to you to defeat them in their game of choice and once again become the King of The Arcade once more. This of course starts with a training montage that any classic gamer will recognize hilarious nods to.

It’s a silly and asinine premise but still put a smile on my face. You simply only need to defeat each goon at their game of choice, and once all have been defeated, you ‘win’ and save the arcade. The campaign/story won’t take very long, maybe a half hour at most depending on your random arcade gaming skills, but being able to play the 40 or so games afterwards is what will entice you to keep playing.

Setup just like a classic arcade back in the 80’s, you can roam around the different rooms that are filled with different gaming cabinets to freeplay play as you wish. With about 40 games to play, you can expect class inspired games from all different genres and eras. Now I say “classic inspired” purposely, as you aren’t playing the actual and official games, but instead a nostalgic indie attempt at recreating some of the classics. For example, you must first reach level 5 at Retro Invaders to get the job at the arcade, clearly a remaking of Space Invaders. Nearly every game seems to be a parody or recreation of a classic title, so don’t expect anywhere near the same quality or polish, but that’s where some of the charm comes from.

To play any of the games you simply walk up to it and hold ‘X’ to start the machine. A quick moment of loading later and you can play as much as you want. While not explained initially, you need to press the menu button to pause and then can exit from there to get back to the arcade and wander as Mac. You can play a variety of games from all different genres, from classics like Space Invaders, to racing games, pinball, Frogger and even Whack-A-Mole. Standing in front of a machine will tell you if it’s 1 or 2 players and if there’s an online leaderboard as well. Sometimes you need to be standing at just the right angle to get the prompt to appear, but you get used to it quickly.

With about 40 games to play, I won’t list them all, but there’s a handful of standouts that I enjoyed playing more than a few times:

- After School Beatdown (Streets of Rage). 2 players.
- Scary Clown Pinball. 1 player.
- Retro Invaders (Space Invaders). 2 players and Leaderboards.
- Tire King (The original Donkey Kong). 1 player.
- Goal (Pong, but a soccer template). 2 players.
- Chatter Man (Pac-Man but you’re a pair of chattering teeth). 1 player.
- High Speed Racing (Gran Turismo but with Porches, 2 laps and terrible physics) 1 player.
- Button Masher (Whack-A-Mole). 1 player and Leaderboards.
- Space Ravager (Space Harrier). 1 player and Leaderboards.
- Virtual Enforcement (Virtua Cop/Lethal Enforcers). 2 players.
- Sidewalk Fighter 2 (Street Fighter 2 but with horrible controls). 2 players.
- Retro Driver (Outrun with terrible controls too). 1 player.
- Music Game (Dance Dance Revolution yet has a Pump It Up pad and only 1 song). 1 player.
- City Brawler (Classic Tiger Electronics handheld). 1 player.

There’s a number of other games, as I don’t want to spoil all of the surprises given how short the experience is. There’s a Claw Machine, a Jukebox where you can play a number of different and surprisingly decent tunes (but sadly can only play a single song at a time instead of a playlist), and even a console sitting in the back room that resembles an Xbox 360 and houses a handful of other games on there as well for a single player.

For how dated and low poly everything and everyone looks, it has a certain charm to it. I was instantly reminded of how King of The Arcade looks exactly like the music video for Dire Straits - Money For Nothing. Everything aesthetically screams ‘indie’, even each game, and that’s fine. The audio is about the same, with Mac having either a really odd monotone voice or is created with text-to-speech, it was hard to tell. You’re playing this for the nostalgic games more than the visuals and voice acting, so it can get a pass. Each of the games made me think of how they would probably look if I was to try and remake classic games from my childhood without knowing how to actually code or do so. I don’t mean that as an insult at all, I really don’t, as I find it kind of endearing if anything.

Priced at under ten bucks, it’s hard to not find some nostalgic enjoyment within, even if the knockoff games aren’t quite the exact classic games you remember playing decades ago. While the story is a very brief jaunt, you’ll no doubt want to come back now and then for one or two of your favorites, though I wish every game had the Leaderboards to entice more plays and virtual quarters.

**King of The Arcade was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 SimAirport

Developed by small indie studio LVGameDev, SimAirport was originally released back in 2017 for Early Access then had its full release in 2020. With decent reviews, the time had come for it to be ported to console for other gamers to enjoy, which Ultimate Games handled. Now available on Xbox One and Series consoles, SimAirport is exactly as you’d expect from its self-explanatory title, running an airport from the ground up. That’s a far too simplistic explanation though, as you’ll not just be designing how to build the airport, its walls and scheduling a few flights, but coordinating down to every minute detail you could think of. If you were the type of SimCity player that enjoyed getting super deep into the management and statistical aspects of city building, you’ll have more than enough here to keep you busy.

While there’s no real story aside from creating a successful and profitable airport, you can do this in one of two modes: Career or Sandbox. Career Mode essentially challenges you with creating a profitable airport but with extremely limited resources. This mode is quite challenging, as even the smallest mistake in the early game can be quite disastrous. I suggest playing in Sandbox Mode initially until you feel much more comfortable in the early to mid-game, as you can turn off any limitations, have unlimited money, instantly build and more. The lack of any restrictions is a much smoother experience when struggling with learning the confusing controls, but more on that shortly.

Don’t let the simplistic 2D visuals fool you, SimAirport is probably one of the most complex and in depth management sims out there. You might think that there’s not all that much to plan for an airport, but you’d be wrong. Played in a top-down view, you’ll begin with a number of tutorials that show you the core principles and basics of the game. Broken into a handful of separate tutorials, you’ll be shown how to get your basic airport setup, eventually teaching the more in-depth portions like scheduling flights, negotiating with airlines, heat maps, creating runways and more.

This is where your initial frustrations will start to surface. The tutorials themselves are perfectly fine and explain what you need to do, but keep in mind SimAirport was initially a PC game now being ported to console, so all of the keyboard and mouse controls had to be mapped to a controller. Some sim games have figured out how to do this wonderfully, Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition for example, but sadly the same can’t be said here.

To the point, the controls are absolutely terrible. Sure you get used to it after some time of struggling constantly, but it never feels natural. Being a sim management game, you’ll be neck deep in menus almost constantly. Some menus require you to press ‘A’ while others ‘Right Trigger’. How are you supposed to know which? Good luck; it’ll either just work or won’t. The same goes for even navigating the menus, as you need to use the D-Pad on some and the Left Stick on others. Even hours in I was constantly pressing wrong buttons or going to the wrong menus. I’m sure the same frustrations weren’t the same on PC, but on console it’s a serious hindrance that needs to be seriously looked at.

If you’re the type of sim player that enjoys analyzing data and looking at graphs to determine the best course of action, SimAirport has you covered. You’re given so much information, to the point of being completely overwhelming. And I’ll be honest, much of it went over my head. There’s so much you need to do and concentrate on simultaneously that I sometimes didn’t know where to start. I simply followed the order my tutorials showed me but constantly felt like I wasn’t being efficient enough and forgetting something when designing my airport.

An airport is much more than simply a building where you go to get on a plane. You need to think of customer service, walkways, restrooms, garbage bins, staffing, baggage claim, line queues, order purchasing, security, sales, executives and a handful of other things that seems to be escaping me at the moment. That’s exactly what I’m talking about when you have to constantly be aware of what you need and how to even go about doing so without trying to become overwhelmed or confused.

You’re able to choose to start with a basic airport already constructed which you can build and expand to, or start completely from scratch, regardless of which mode you play. I do suggest playing with the basic airport already built to learn how to best get early game setup, as you’ll be struggling early on with how to place proper zones, walls and expand areas. Constructing new areas, walls and placing objects requires workers, which in turn goes into your payroll. You’ll also need ticketing staff, security, chefs, retail workers and more. All of these aspects need to be weighed and factored into your decisions, as even over hiring can cause you money issues early on if you have workers standing around doing nothing but getting paid. Construction takes materials and has costs, and finances plays a large part of running a successful airport, so it’s almost always top of mind. You’ll need to watch your cash flow, as you’re going to have to budget to hire the staff, build runways, gates, retail stores, vehicles, purchase fuel and much more.

Again, I highly suggest starting out your first few airports in Sandbox Mode with unlimited money just so you can get a feel for how to best layout the airport of your dreams without having to worry about running out of cash. Getting the basics setup isn’t too difficult aside from struggling with the controls, but once you need to start ordering fuel, adding separate runways, scheduling staff, fuel lines and adding a baggage handling system that runs underground, then it’s a whole other level of confusion. There’s plenty here for those that want an incredibly deep simulator, but casual fans will surely feel lost much of the time.

As you start to slowly expand your airport, you’ll probably be excited to see passengers start to flow in for your first few flights, but as demand goes up, so do customer expectations. Having enough facilities for your airport to handle a hundred travelers isn’t too big of a deal, but soon as you start getting into many more thousands, it’s a whole different struggle trying to keep them all satisfied. Do you have enough waiting areas? Are the line queues getting out of hand? Are customers tired and upset because of the long walk from one gate to another? Are there even enough snack machines, retail options and garbage bins around? Are the big spenders happy with a first class lounge? You need to think of all the questions and frustrations you had if you’ve ever gone through a major airport before and ask yourself the same.

As you expand and learn how to play better, the map doesn’t just expand when you purchase land to extend your borders, but you’ll once again feel that overwhelming frustration when you want to start building up onto higher levels. This of course adds completely new challenge and logistical nightmares, and don’t even get me started on the baggage handling lines. I highly suggest when you start to expand to do so slowly. Learn how adding one more shop or room will affect the bigger picture before making a rookie mistake I did by adding 4 more runways and a bunch more gates, only to realize there’s a lot of steps required to make each work with one another, not even factoring in the astronomical costs associated.

After you’ve figured out how to best have your airport operations, you’ll then need to tweak and optimize to make it the most efficient and profitable it can be. This is easier said than done, and sometimes a small change can turn into a large ordeal. Even something as simple as watching fuel prices and deciding to sell excess when prices are high can be a way to earn some cash flow if needed. Even luring new airlines to use your airport might be a challenge, as they’ll have requirements before signing a contract, but you can of course try to negotiate more on your terms.

Visually, SimAirport isn’t too much to look at. The top down perspective makes sense given it’s more of a planning and management game, but all the objects and people are quite simplistic looking, done in 2D. There was no slowdown, even when I had thousands of people all around my airport, but there’s really not all that much to look at. As for the audio, there’s practically nothing to mention. I expected some light elevator music or something to play in the background, but there’s just... nothing. There’s some light sound effects when workers are doing some construction and some minor things, but the lack of any music really made the airport feel dead. Put on some of your best Spotify playlists in the background as you won’t be missing a single thing since there’s essentially no audio.

SimAirport isn’t easy by any means. The learning curve is almost a sheer cliff, though that’s more due to the terrible controls of porting from its PC origins. With better controls I probably wouldn’t have had as many frustrations, but even hours in I was still struggling and constantly having to remind myself which buttons to use in different menus. The $25.99 CAD price point may deter some if you were judging solely based on its screenshots, but there’s an immensely deep management sim underneath if you can spend the time to figure it out how to best develop your dream airport, down to the smallest details, just be aware of the frustrating controls.

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

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Fight'N Rage

Originally released back in 2017, solo developer, SebaGamesDev, released Fight’N Rage, a love letter to the classic Beat’em Up genre that Final Fight, Streets of Rage, Double Dragon, Battletoads and TMNT made so popular back in the day. Now released for current consoles, a bunch of additions and improvements have been made, and if you’re a fan of the genre, Fight’N Rage is certainly one to check out, especially if you want to play up to three players in local co-op and want a challenge.

With games in this genre you’re generally playing for its gameplay, not so much the narrative. While there is a story here that revolves something around how mutants are taking over the planet where it’s now “the law of a jungle”, being led by “The Boss”. Of course there are a few that are willing to try and stop this from happening, beating up everyone in their way.

You have the choice of three initial characters: Gal, a quick and agile martial artist who favors her speed and aerial combos rather than strength. Being quite quick, she was easily my favorite of the group, and if she reminds you of Blaze from Streets of Rage you’re not alone. Next is Ricardo, a Mike Haggar clone, though he’s a minotaur instead of human. Being huge and absolutely ripped, he’s got the power and strength, but he’s so slow I found it quite difficult to play as him. Lastly is F. Norris, a ninja who sits somewhere in the middle for power and agility. He has some cool combos but I found it difficult to get myself out of sticky situations with him compared to Gal.

While most Beat’em Up games simply have you moving from the left side of the screen to the right to clear enemies in the way, you’re sometimes given options to go in a different direction, opening up multiple endings based on your decisions. Thankfully you’re also able to fully skip or fast forward cutscenes if you’re simply going through for another run or speed running.

If you’ve played any Beat’em Up in the past, you’ll be very aware of the general setup of walking to an area, defeating all your enemies until allowed to progress forward, clearing that area and repeat until you reach a boss at the end. While the core design isn’t all that different here, it certainly brings back some nostalgia to a time when the genre was much more popular.

While ‘easy to play, hard to master’ is a bit cliché to describe its gameplay, it’s absolutely true. Sure you might get through a good portion of the game by simply spamming the attack button, you’ll eventually hit a wall and be unable to progress if you don’t learn all of the other combat mechanics. Fight’N Rage is actually much more difficult than I expected, so it will take some time to learn how best to fight each type of enemy.

Also like most classic Beam’em Ups, you’ll replenish your health by smashing barrels and finding food on the ground like apples that replenishes a small amount and roast turkey which is best saved when critically low on health as it refills it completely. Some enemies will also drop weapons like a throwing knife, ninja star, a pipe or even a sword to help you get a few extra hits on your enemies.

While most Beat’em Ups are challenging, many utilize unlimited continues so that you can progress, and while Fight’N Rage is no different in allowing unlimited continues, there’s a few caveats to that that absolutely infuriate me. When you ultimately die and lose all your lives, you’re able to continue, but instead of just restarting where you just died with a new set of lives and freshly filled health bar, you are sent back to your last checkpoint, generally the start of the section or level. Sometimes this isn’t too bad and you only need to fight through a few groups of enemies to get back to where you originally died, but there are a few sections that stood out and were incredibly frustrating.

One of the last portions of a specific level has you fighting on a very small raft where you need to fight waves of almost every single enemy you’ve encountered to that point. The problem is that when you inevitably fall off the raft into the water, you lose a good portion of your health. Sure it’s great that you can knock off enemies into the water to instantly kill them, but you’ll no doubt lose a lot of health or lives here. Even worse, the last section of this is a boss fight, and if you die during that battle, you guessed it, you’re doing the whole section all over again.

There’s another section at the very end before the final boss that again, once I died, I had to fight the room of enemies in the previous room before being able to try the boss once more. The problem here is that there are a few enemies that are so overly challenging that it loses all its fun when you’ve already lost a few lives before clearing the room and attempting the boss once again. And yup, when you continue you’ll have to fight the Dobermans that have invulnerability moments and can easily stunlock you. Even on Easy mode, getting through the campaign was a challenge, but more on the difficulty options shortly.

While there’s really only three buttons you need to worry about (attack, jump and special), there are some different combinations of moves and attacks based on your chosen character. Spamming attack will work in the beginning against the basic enemies, but the ones in the latter portions will require a bit more strategy to defeat. You can grab enemies and toss them into others to group them all up and attack multiple at once, also able to utilize dashes and jump attacks.

Like most in the genre, there’s also a special move that you can use, but there’s a downfall to this as well. You have a Special Meter (SP) that refills over time, able to be used for a ‘free’ powerful attack, usually best saved until you’re in trouble or surrounded. If you want to use your special attack when the SP meter isn’t full though, you can do so but at the cost of a small portion of health. Remember all the continue issues I listed above? That means you’ll basically never want to use it for fear of dying and having to redo a section all over again. Food for health refills weren’t rare, but certainly not plentiful enough to actually want to use my specials.

There is a parry system in place, but it’s not explained very well initially and I found it quite difficult to pull off properly. In most sidescrolling Beat’em Ups like this, you simply move out of the line of attack from an enemy, which is certainly an option here, but you’re often surrounded by enemies so you’ll usually just walk into a different attack if so. Parries allow you to negate some of the damage, but having to press away from the enemy as the hit lands much of the time simply had me now facing the wrong direction.

You know what would have been appreciated? A Tutorial or Training mode. Much to my surprise, there actually IS a Training Mode, but it’s locked away initially. Yeah, I don’t understand that logic either. The more you play the more coins you earn based on your score. These coins are then used to unlock a number of different things from playable enemies, modes, costumes and yes, a Training Mode. You have to play the game a bunch to earn enough coins to hopefully go explore the unlockables section and then find there’s a Training Mode. This mode teaches you how to properly play each character, their moves and combos, and even earn new belts as you pass each tutorial. Good luck actually getting the Black Belt unlock due to the 60 second timer though, but it’s something to strive for. If the Training Mode was available initially, I probably wouldn’t have had as much frustration as I did in the beginning.

New character costumes are generally pallet swaps, but there’s plenty more to unlock, even an Easy Mode. Yes, you have to play and die on Normal to earn enough coins to unlock an easier mode, which is still challenging at times. The problem is that even a full run doesn’t earn you a lot of coins, so you’re going to have to play through numerous times if you want to actually unlock everything Fight’N Rage has to offer. Unlocking enemy characters to play as in VS Mode is fun, as here you can have 1v1 matches against a friend or even watch the CPU only battles.

While you can certainly play solo, it’s quite challenging on your own, especially in the later stages. Thankfully there is local 3 player co-op available, but sadly online play isn’t an option. I hope you have friends or family to play with, as solo did eventually become frustrating and repetitive, and if you want to really have some arguments with your co-op partners you can toggle the optional friendly fire as well. Manage to beat the game on Normal or Hard and you can actually unlock CPU partners to play alongside in co-op as well, again, an option that should have been a default.

With smooth framerates and 120FPS support, Fight’N Rage certainly looks good with its pixel art. Sure you can opt to turn on a bunch of classic filters like CRT mode, scanlines and more, but it’s smooth regardless and I never had any hiccups or slowdown. Animations are well done, enemy designs are done well (even if repeated quite often) and each backdrop is unique as you fight through it. The only thing that I found questionable was how overtly sexual some of the women designs were, even the pose Gal has when choosing her. The soundtrack is exceptional, full of dozens of rock tracks from Gonzalo Varela, and hearing your enemies explode from a full combo is always satisfying.

Fight’N Rage may initially look like any other Beat’em Up brawler out there if you judged it solely on some screenshots, but for a solo developer, it’s quite impressive. That said, Fight’N Rage is incredibly challenging and I question some of the design choices for being unlockables instead of default options. No online co-op is a bummer, but if you have friends and family to play with on the same couch there’s some fun to be had. I missed Fight’N Rage the first time, but this is the best version to check it out if you've never heard of it before like myself.

**Fight'N Rage (Series X|S) was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Scars Above

I’ll admit, whenever I see or hear “soulslike” in a game description, I let out a small groan and probably roll my eyes a bit. Not a fan of the genre or the difficult ‘git gud’ game design they tend to utilize, I went into Scars Above with an open mind. Even though there may be some light Souls influences, it’s really not as much of a copy as I expected and does have some interesting mechanics. Scars Above is a third person shooter from smaller studio Mad Head Games, melding a genuinely interesting story, fantastical backdrops and some clever yet challenging gameplay.

You play as Kate Ward, a scientist member of SCAR (Sentient Contact Assessment and Response) who is a part of a highly specialized group of people tasked with investigating and trying to communicate with a massive and mysterious object that appeared nearby Earth’s orbit. Humans call it The Metahedron, a massive upside down pyramid-like structure that simply appeared one day. Naturally, when a strange alien structure appears, we can only assume the worst, so the SCAR team is sent to investigate and attempt contact.

Like most times when we mess with things we don’t understand, this awakens the Metahedron and Dr. Kate Ward suddenly wakes up alone on a mysterious planet that is nothing like Earth, unsure where her team went. Being a scientist and not a soldier, Kate will need to use her scientific brain to try to piece what has happened and where her team is, but that doesn’t mean she won’t have to fight, quite the opposite actually.

As events unfold and you learn more about the planet, the hostile creatures and more, you’re guided by a ghost-like figure that speaks to you requesting help. Who is guiding you and how? As Kate analyses her environment, she will become more adept at learning enemy weak spots, crafting new gadgets, how to survive in harsh areas and more. It’s honestly quite an interesting story that hooked me from its opening cutscene, and while it does dip here and there, getting to the next story piece and cutscene is what pushed me to further figure out who and what The Custodian is.

Played as a third person shooter, while Kate isn’t particularly well trained in combat given she’s a scientist first and foremost, she will need to do everything she can to survive, and that includes a whole bunch of shooting. There are three difficulty settings, and even on Normal it can be a bit of a challenge for your first playthrough as you figure out the mechanics and best way to handle each enemy type. While not quite as difficult as a Souls game, there is challenge at figuring out the best strategies and weapon combinations.

As you explore the alien landscape and come across beasts you’ve never seen before, you’ll need to be quick on your feet to survive if you want to find out what has happened to the ancient civilization that was here once before. As you progress you’ll explore completely different and unique biomes, each with their own challenges, such as literally freezing to death in open sections if you don’t have fire nearby to keep warm. While the main design is pretty linear, there are some branching paths that loop back around, usually housing some secrets and collectables that will make the detour worth it.

The opening tutorial will teach you the core basics of melee and maneuvering, slowly introducing you to its other mechanics as you gain new weapon types, gadgets and abilities. While not trying to replicate a Soulslike too obviously, there are some similar features such as managing your stamina for running and dodging as well as the save points. There are large crystals strewn about the alien landscape for you to discover, acting as a save point and refilling all your health and gadgets, but this in turn also resets all enemies. Sound familiar?

While Kate only starts out with a simple blade, it’ll be your last resort to defend yourself should you run out of ammo during your adventure. The vast majority of the time though you’ll be using your unique weapon that can utilize different elemental attacks as you unlock them throughout your journey. Combat itself isn’t overly complex, as you simply need to know where an enemy weak point is and what element is best used against them. Obviously the bigger and badder foes will add more challenge, like protecting the weak spot in their chest as they rush you, but there’s always a strategy that will work somewhat easily once you figure it out.

There’s also some Bioshock-like gameplay where the different elementals can combine for extra damage. For example, use your electricity shots to an enemy that is standing in water and it’ll take massive damage. Or maybe you want to slow them down, so you use your ice shots when they are in the water instead. Combining fire and acid are another lethal combination, so the initial challenge comes from not only knowing what weakness your enemy has (thankfully the color coded glowing spots on their body is an indicator) but also the best way to use the environment around you.

You’ll eventually have to manage four different ammunition types of fire, electricity, ice and acid, and while ammo isn’t necessarily scarce, it’s not abundant either. Certain flora around the world act as ways to refill your ammo, such as electricity or fire plants. On top of the different weapon types, you’ll also unlock new gadgets at a steady pace as you explore the mysterious and dangerous world you find yourself trapped on.

These gadgets can be useful in the right situation, but I found myself constantly forgetting to use them quite often. The two I found most useful was the shield that allows you to absorb some incoming damage for a short time, always helpful when fighting new enemies and bosses, and a grenade-like tossable item that slows down enemies as they pass through it, allowing you to escape or get around to target weak spots. These gadgets use portions of your battery, its own resource, but can be filled by finding Fiber around the world or of course resting at one of the crystals.

Scars Above does have some light puzzle elements as well, but nothing really all that challenging or had me becoming stumped. Some are shooting specific points with the right type of weapon and others will be researching items to find more information about it, focusing on specific points of the device and clicking 'A'.

Kate is a scientist, so naturally she’s going to want to research and investigate any new objects and creatures she comes across. This not only gives you more information about your enemies and surroundings, but finding more knowledge is how you’ll earn new ability points. Scars Above doesn’t use the typical ‘souls’ currency for defeating enemies. Actually, you get really nothing for defeating enemies, instead having a more exploration focus to find more knowledge. This encourages you to explore off the main path, almost always having something for your troubles. As you fill the knowledge meter you’ll eventually earn skill points to use for a variety of different skills and perks. Don’t worry though, before the end you’ll not only max out your skill tree but probably have a handful of leftover points as well.

Keeping in mind that Scars Above isn’t a AAA release at a full asking price, the visuals can be impressive at times. The world Kate finds herself abandoned on are quite beautiful at times, no doubt that will entice you for some vista screenshots. Enemies are designed quite well, though there isn’t a whole lot of variety, instead being recycled quite often and simply changing their weakness to be ‘different’, though the boss fights certainly stand out. Characters are modeled decently and my only real complaint here is that every cutscene stutters quite harshly for its first few seconds, even on an Xbox Series X.

As for its audio, the background soundtrack sets the tone based on the biome you’re exploring or kicks in a bit more when you’re taking on a massive boss. You’re able to hear the bulkier enemies coming from afar as their foot stomps get louder as they approach, and the main characters do a decent job at delivering their lines, so no real complains there.

I did quite enjoy the narrative from its opening moments and was compelling me to continue to move forward, even if combat could be a bit challenging and save points sometimes a bit too far stretched out, causing frustration when I had to replay a good half hour all over again. Combat does get repetitive and tiresome over time, but as an overall package, Scars Above feels like a much larger story wrapped in a AA package.

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

Overall Score: 6.8 / 10 Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Videogame 6

Even though I’ve never ridden a motorcross bike, I’ve somehow become the defacto reviewer when it comes to the sport. Over the last handful of games I’ve come to learn quite a great deal about the Supercross sport and would like to think I’m decent at the games by now. Having played the last handful of Monster Energy Supercross titles, I was hoping for some big improvements this year with Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Videogame 6, as last year’s fifth entry was lukewarm at best. It’s time to gas up the bike and hit the mud and dirt with all the 2022 official bikes, riders and tracks.

Stepping into the world of Supercross can be daunting if you’re not already a fan of the sport, thankfully this is where your personal coach will come in, guiding you along the way. And what better coach to have than the iconic Jeremy McGrath, a legend of the sport who has won over 70 SX main events and 7 SX Championships. He will take you through the training events to learn how to win races and impress crowds with your tricks, hopefully resulting in a podium finish.

Almost an exact copy of last year’s entry, you’re able to start out working your way up the ranks from 250CC up to the 450 class. Begin with the ‘Future’ class, starting out with 250CC Championships and finding your first sponsors along the way. From there you graduate to ‘Rookie’, working towards winning those 250 Championships and being introduced to the Rider Shape mechanics, Training Sessions and Challenges. Finally when you’re ready to compete with the big boys, ‘Pro’ has you challenging famous names of the sport all fighting for the 450 Championship, maybe even finding a few rivals along the way.

With a virtually identical career progression as last year’s game, Pro level has 17 live events to compete in, with the lower classes a few less. While it’s great they’ve included iconic tracks, teams, bikes, and riders, if you’ve played the last game, it’s going to feel all too familiar.

If you’re a competitive player, there’s essentially four different modes for you to play. Career is probably where you’ll spend the majority of your time, working your way up the ladder for those coveted Championships. Time Attack is for those that want bragging rights to be the best in the world, constantly trying to save a second or two to climb those leaderboards. Championship Mode lets you choose whatever cup you want to compete for then challenge a friend or play by yourself. Lastly is Single Event where you can setup a single race with almost any parameters you wish.

For those that don’t want to focus on the competitiveness as much, there’s also a few modes here for you as well to simply have fun or improve your skills. Supercross Academy is essentially your tutorial zone where you’ll learn the ins and outs of racing so you can improve your skills and climb the rankings. Supercross Park is your free roam area where you can freely ride around do whatever you like. It’s split into a number of different zones, complete with motocross tracks, SX sections, ramps, jumps and collectables and more. You’re able to ride along here to explore, or invite some friends for some company.

The most interesting addition to this year’s entry though is Rhythm Attack. Here it’s you versus another rider head to head. The catch is that it’s simply a long straight section without any turns, so how you’ll manage the bumps and jumps is going to be key when racing side by side for the first to be across the finish line. Think of it like a drag race, but trickier, as you’ll need skill and speed to win. Single eliminations competition makes for some actual fun events, complete with split screen for local play.

Some of the marketing touts that Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Videogame 6 has revised physics and AI, supposedly resulting in more realistic animations depending on the type of terrain. While the bikes do feel a little heavier this year, there’s still some questionable physics. If you manage to land on top of another rider, you do this weird floating before landing back onto solid ground. Brakes also seem to not work as well this year, as I could slam on the brakes and still need to almost come to complete halt to make some of the hairpin turns. As for the AI, I’d argue it’s become worse. They are all slower, ride in basically a single line, and it’s not uncommon to win races by over 20 or 30 seconds even on harder difficulties once you get a hang for the riding.

I found it was almost random if I was going to get points for a Scrub or Whip and the physics just feel quite different this year. Even though you’ll create ruts as you go through corners every lap, it’s as though you’re almost unable to bank into them to take the turns quicker. This causes you to have to lose the majority of your speed to make many corners. Lastly, the few times there’s a tall table top, even when approaching at a straight angle, it would almost always change my direction randomly as I go up the ramp section, even before ruts form.

What I did enjoy though was the customization options for riding aids. If you have certain disabilities or simply want an easier experience to enjoy the racing instead of stressing about losing, there’s a number of options here to assist. Options like Auto brakes, Auto Steering, Auto Throttle and more. This allows you to have some assistance in maybe certain aspects but not all, able to ease up the help anytime as you become more confident. I did enjoy the Auto Throttle initially as it taught me the amount of speed I needed for certain jumps to land properly and not over and under shoot.

Making a return from last year’s entry is the Rider Shape system. If you’re constantly crashing and bailing, naturally you’re going to get hurt. Well, when you’re hurt you obviously have a disadvantage when race time comes around, so you’re going to have to manage your overall health. Between races you can see your rider status, and to heal and improve your performance you’ll need to partake in a quick timed event. Taking place in the free roam area, you’ll need to collect the letters S-H-A-P-E for completion. There’s also two other objectives you can attempt to complete within the time limit for even more bonuses and a healthier rider. There’s no reattempts though, so make the most of your time in this event to hopefully gain your bonuses back for the next race.

There’s a long list of objectives to complete at any time during your races, and hitting certain milestones you’ll earn skill points that you can use to customize your rider’s abilities and perks. Maybe you want to have better cornering or braking? This is where the skill points can be put in, with each tier costing more than the previous. Filling the first half of the skill trees won’t take too long, but it will eventually become a grind if you’re trying to earn more later on.

While only for aesthetics, you can fully customize your rider with a long list of brands to choose from for your helmet, gloves, boots and more. There’s even a Helmet Editor where you can create a helmet for your rider in any design you want, even able to share online for others to use or find a cool design someone else has created and put it on your rider.

New to multiplayer is full console crossplay as well as an online ranking system. Now you can finally see how skilled other players in the lobby you’ll be racing are, and while there’s no PC and Console crossplay, at least you and your friends that plays on the other console can finally race together.

Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Videogame 6 looks exactly the same as last year. Play me two videos of the game side by side and I doubt I’d be able to definitively tell the difference between the two. Riders look decent in motion, but animations still feel a little stiff at times. The texture pop-in issues at the beginning of races is still present and unfixed, even on an Xbox Series X. Faces for the riders themselves also looks unimproved and terrible at best. Best experienced in first person or helmet camera, it’s the most authentic way to put you right into the action so you can’t focus as much on its shortcomings.

I hope you like the constant wheeze of the bike engines, as that’s what you’re going to hear from start to finish. Sure you can turn it down, but then you’d have to deal with the boring and unforgettable soundtrack that plays during races. Turn the sound completely off and play your favorite Spotify list, as that’s how I was able to tolerate it after a few hours.

I find myself coming to the same conclusion as last year’s entry, hence basically the same score; if you have the previous year’s game, there’s really not much here to warrant a repurchase. Sure the diehard fans of the sport will enjoy all the 2022 rider and arena updates, but if online play doesn’t interest you, there’s a lot of repetitiveness and really not all that much new this year to excite everyone else.

**Monster Energy Supercross - The Official Videogame 6 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Backfirewall_

Have you ever given second thought to when you need to update your phone to the newest Operating System (OS)? Probably not, as you simply hit the update button and let it do its thing for a few minutes before you’re greeted with the latest and greatest software right? Well, what if I told you there’s a whole world and ecosystem inside your phone, where your apps are actually people? What if updating your phone’s OS caused more strife and trauma than you even thought of? What if the old OS was a person, and updating to the latest essentially kills them off only to be replaced?

This is the premise of Backfirewall_, an adorable indie game from Naraven Games that wasn’t even on my radar and probably something I’d honestly skip past in the trailers, but more than elated that I got to play through its adventure. As you go through this hilarious adventure you’ll meet a handful of unique, quirky and memorable apps (characters) along the way, visiting numerous areas and sections inside the phone, all while solving puzzles. I can honestly say, I’ll think of my phone a little differently when it comes time for its next major update. If you enjoy games with endless humor like The Stanley Parable and know your technology terms even slightly, you’re going to have a good time filled with plenty of laughs.

You are the Update Assistant, the app that actually, well, updates your system when you’re ready to upgrade to the newest OS. Backfirewall_ starts out in a really interesting way with someone talking to you and a simple icon on the screen. This is when you first get introduced to OS9, a chatty, witty and hilarious personality that will act as your narrator throughout the adventure.

The time has come though, the latest OS is out, OS10, so naturally you would want to upgrade to the best there is to offer right? Well, OS9 doesn’t want that, as it will kill him once replaced with the new OS10, and you don’t want him to die do you? You hold the fate of the phone’s universe in your hands and decisions. Do you save OS9 from deletion? Does finding out that when the OS gets updated that also has you become deleted as well make a difference? Do you want to die? I’d assume not, so you two begin your journey to do anything you can to stop the update from happening.

As you travel throughout the different core components of the phone, you’ll meet a unique cast along the way all played in first person. As you meet new apps and get to know them, they all have their own ideas and thoughts on the update, but there’s more going on here that you start to notice. There’s seemingly a resistance happening, as maybe some apps have realized that they won’t possibly work with the new OS if it gets updated or you see some graffiti on the walls that are sometimes hilarious, and others ominous.

I don’t want to delve too much more into the narrative as it’s not a terribly long adventure, but the story is absolutely its highlight filled with non-stop humor and a wide range of emotions. Even the most minor characters are quirky enough to be interesting and there’s plenty of details hidden throughout if you take the time to look and read all the logs (literally, they are logs that represent, well, logs). If you know your tech terms and some pop culture references, you’re going to be smiling throughout. It’s a very unique setting and I thought it was going to be a little dull from its screenshots before playing, but it’s quite the opposite actually.

As you make your way to new areas of the phone, like the seemingly infinite RAM halls, the WiFi tower, the acid filled Battery, the GPU where you’ll see the User’s photos and more, they all have a unique setting that if I had to guess what an actual ecosystem in a phone was like, this probably wouldn’t be too far off. The world is colorful and simply gives off a ‘fun’ vibe, even when the security bots are trying to find you and OS9, whom has conveniently tucked himself away inside your code.

While there’s some platforming to be done, it’s quite light, with more of a focus on its puzzle elements. There’s plenty more to do though with bugs to find, toys to collect, reading logs, finding text messages and more. If you do happen to ‘die’ from falling off a ledge into the battery acid below or getting caught from the security bots, you’ll simply respawn instantly a moment away and able to try again without any recourse.

You’re in a smartphone remember, so while you don’t have root access to see all the User’s private information like texts, you are able to find them scattered throughout the phone as you adventure on, with yellow texts able to be read and blue which are encrypted, acting like a currency when you’re able to purchase things. All the texts in the phone are initially unreadable, but as you find more they’ll slot in to the appropriate place in each person’s text conversation with the User. It’s a clever way that really made me want to go out of my way to find as many as I possibly could. It genuinely made me more curious about the User, especially when I started seeing photos and videos of her.

As you progress through each section of the phone, you’ll eventually hit a roadblock where you’ll need to solve a handful of puzzles before OS9 can unlock a door for you to walk through. This is done by causing system errors in the area. You’re given a checklist of True statements, such as there being 10 boxes in the room. Well, if you delete one of those boxes, that is clearly no longer a True statement, so the error occurs and you will get an objective update. Finish the five or so puzzles and you’ll be able to move onto the next area.

How do you solve said puzzles you ask? Great question. You cheat. Yup, OS9 will periodically give you new cheat codes which is used in a really clever way in its world, not just these puzzle areas. These cheat codes allow you to manipulate the environment in different ways, acting as new powers or abilities. You first learn to delete items, eventually able to duplicate, change colors of objects and more. It’s all done in a way that makes complete sense given your backdrop and the narrative, so I applaud the originality.

But you aren’t good at puzzle games and this might deter you I hear? Don’t fret, the puzzles aren’t terribly difficult, and while I never had to look up a walkthrough, there is some in-game assistance offered if you should need it. Can’t figure out how to solve a certain puzzle? Ask the rubber ducks. Yes, you’ll talk to rubber ducks that will offer hints that you crave so badly. They do a wonderful job and never directly spell it out for you what to do, but just enough of a hint where they basically tell you what to do or where to go. I’ve had to rely on them once or twice and still felt the sensation of puzzle solving on my own, even if I did get a little bit of a clue from a rubber duck.

While I really did enjoy the level design, the audio and sound design needs special mention. OS9 is an absolute treat with his accent and witty lines. Think Wheatley from Portal 2 and you’ll have a perfect example, of which I’m sure plenty of inspiration came from. Nicolas Oberson’s performance of OS9 is flawless and absolutely makes Backfirewall_ the unique experience it is. Fantastic voice acting all around, which quite surprised me from a smaller studio, but every NPC and App you meet along the way is voiced absolutely wonderfully. The writing obviously plays a large part in the execution of its humor throughout, but the lines were delivered perfectly, only adding to the humor more so. The actors for OS10, Social Media, Alex, Unzipper and more all did fantastic, elevating the experience.

Full of creativity, the initial screenshots might fool you with how basic is looks, but it’s done so deliberately and makes for a truly extraordinary game. I was smiling from the opening moments when I had to choose what my name was from a few different binary numbers, only for OS9 to call me Elizabeth in the end regardless, all the way to the end where I was legitimately sad. Humor isn’t easy to pull off in games, and if you miss the landing, the whole experience falls flat. That isn’t the case here at all.

Backfirewall_ is one of those games I honestly probably wouldn’t have given a second glance to as I scrolled through the store of something new to play, but absolutely delighted that I got to experience such a unique and creative game that clearly had a lot of heart and passion behind it. Indie games like Backfirewall_ need to be experienced, one that I can fully recommend if you need something light hearted, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and gives plenty of laughs along the way, even if it has now made me questioning my phone’s OS update in real life.

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

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Pinball FX

I’m glad I grew up in the gaming era I did, as my mom would give me a few quarters to go play at the local arcade on the way home from work. That’s right, I’m dating myself by talking about arcades; dedicated businesses that house dozens of different games that you could only find there, as not every game came out for PC or console at the time. I’d say a good half of my quarters would always be spent on a pinball machine or two, as many arcades used to have a handful of different pinball machines in a specific corner or wing of the building.

While playing virtual pinball is nowhere near the same thing as standing at an actual machine and feeling those flippers launch the ball and the lights brighten, it’s a substitute that will have to do as arcades aren’t commonplace any longer sadly. Hands down, the king of the genre is Zen Studios, as this is their specialty, bringing console pinball games for numerous console generations now. For over a decade I’ve been playing Pinball FX and its sequels, always up for a game or two if short on time.

Don’t let the name confuse you, even though Pinball FX released back on Xbox 360 in 2007, this is basically a remake/remaster/reboot, whatever you want to call it, for the modern consoles. Even though this too is named Pinball FX, it’s a completely new entry. Now something to take note of, Pinball FX really isn’t a game. Sure, it includes a free table to give you a taste, but Pinball FX is more of a platform than anything else, which is why it’s technically ‘free’. This platform is how you’ll try out and purchase any new tables that you enjoy.

Being completely rebuilt in Unreal Engine 4, there’s now 4K graphical support ray tracing and “better” physics. I only quote the “better” because even though it’s a major selling point in their marketing, I couldn’t really tell much of a difference after playing dozens of hours of the previous Pinball FX games. Zen Studios excels at creating unique pinball tables that certainly make me wish there was a real life counterpart, but also recreating some of my favorite tables that I remember playing when I was younger.

As stated above, Pinball FX is a free download and comes with one table to play on indefinitely. This is to hopefully entice you to try out some other tables and of course then spend money on new ones or packs. Certain tables can be purchased individually whereas others need to be purchased in packs. With 86 tables to try out and choose from, there’s certainly at least a few you’re sure to enjoy enough to want to purchase and keep. The pinball tables available vary quite greatly, themed from Star Wars, Marvel, Indiana Jones, Universal Studios, classic Williams Pinball tables and plenty of original Zen Studio designs.

Controls are exactly as you’d expect, with your triggers being used for the flippers. You’re able to use your Right Stick as the plunger if the table utilizes that style instead of a button, allowing you to perform specific powered shots. You're even able to 'shake' the table and bump it, though be careful of you'll error out the machine and lose your ball. There are a variety of different camera options depending if you want something stationary and far out, like how you stand over the table in real life to view it all from above, or something much closer that focuses on the bottom flippers, or even a camera option that follows the ball closely as it moves, though I found this one difficult to use with the constant movement and knowing where your flippers are until it’s too late.

Some tables are also what I’m calling ‘virtually enhanced’, meaning that there’s extra flair that can occur in certain modes. For example, playing with this toggled on with the Indiana Table you may see him using his whip to go from one side of the table to another, almost like if it was an augmented reality portion. You can toggle this off to play the table in its standard form without all of these extra distractions, but this is one of the bonuses of having digital tables, as Zen Studios can do a lot of things like this that wouldn’t be possible on a real table.

Given that there are almost 90 tables available currently, I’m not going to fully review every single one, instead saying that the majority are quite good, though having played these games for many years I’ve played a good majority of them already for many hours previously. There weren’t any that I particularly found terrible, though I certainly had my preferences of the ones I gravitated to for many plays instead of others. With 86 tables to choose from, there’s no shortage depending on your brand preferences, but I’m quite partial to the Williams tables as I can remember playing many of these growing up. Some of the Zen Studios original tables are quite entertaining as well.

If you’re a Marvel fan, you’ll be happy to know there’s a lot of different themes tables here from almost every superhero. If Star Wars if your thing there’s even more choices, spanning the whole franchise practically, even including The Mandalorian. If you enjoy classic Universal Studios movies you’ll want to check out the pack that has Jaws, Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, Back to the Future, and even E.T. There’s a handful of new tables too which I was excited to try out. Themed tables from The Addams Family (probably the hardest table I’ve ever played), Borderlands (and other Gearbox games), Snoopy, Garfield, World War Z and My Little Pony were all quite unique. Even though the Garfield and My Little Pony tables are clearly marketed towards a younger audience, they were simplistic to play, entertaining and quite colorful.

You can of course play each table in Classic Mode, your typical way to play with 3 balls, aiming to get the highest score possible. There’s an interesting Arcade Mode where you can set to have certain power-ups and a handful of different toggles, adding for some fun variety. The modes I enjoyed the most were Timed, Flipper and Single Ball. Timed gives you, well, a set amount of time where you have unlimited balls to reach a high score, not needing to worry about losing your balls down the middle, though of course waiting for a new ball to launch wastes precious time. Single Ball was a surprisingly fun mode though, as you’re given a single ball to see how high of a score you can get. Sometimes this works out well, and others you lose your ball almost instantly. By far though, Flipper challenge is something I gravitated towards. Here you’re given usually 200 presses of the flippers before the game is over. You have unlimited balls, but every time you lose a ball down the middle it counts as one flip, so you still want to play well. This actually made me a better pinball player as I had to be more specific and purposeful with my flippers instead of just spamming the triggers.

Though not a new concept, there’s a collectable aspect to Pinball FX as well. Here you can earn items to decorate your own pinball cave, placing the unlockable items in your display shelves, carpets, posters and more. These items are generally tied to specific score accumulation totals for each table, so the more you play the more you can unlock. The items are usually themed to the table or a small figure from it which you can then place on your shelf to decorate. It’s a fun little bonus and gives you a little incentive to play the tables you might not generally gravitate towards.

If you’d like to create a Tournament for others to play, you’re given a handful of different options including the table, length of time to enter and try, what mode, and nearly anything you can think of. Great idea, but the problem with the Tournament functionality is that it’s just filled with an endless list of other player’s postings, so it’s difficult to find what you want.

Pinball FX’s latest addition, and my favourite, is the Events. These are official challenges that when you’re successful you’ll earn points towards your ‘Season Pass’. That’s right, a pinball game with a season pass. Luckily you don’t have to purchase it, but you only get points by completing these events that go towards your progress. These are fun and rotate daily or weekly, depending on the event. Some also only allow a certain amount of plays and attempts a day, and these can even be some of the more unique modes like Single Ball or Flipper challenges. The best part is that since there’s online leaderboards for everything, you get a quick notification that you’ve passed someone’s score that was above you in the rankings, always fun to see as you’re having a good game. The only thing of note is that many of these events are with premium tables, so clearly another way to entice you to purchase more.

Then there’s what’s being called the Pinball Pass. You know how you have a subscription to Netflix, Prime, Hulu and probably a few more services? How about adding one more for your pinball needs. The Pinball Pass is essentially that, giving you access to nearly every table for as long as your subscription lasts. Some tables are great, others maybe not so much, so instead of purchasing every single table, this is another option for you. There’s even supposed to be more bonuses included in the future, but I can’t speak to those as they’ve not been revealed yet. The Pinball Pass gives you unlimited play and access to the included tables, but there are a few that are not included, which I’m sure is for licensing reasons, but imagine loading up Netflix and being told that the latest Season of Squid Game isn’t included and you need to purchase it separately; it’s the same disappointment.

In typical gaming fashion, instead of simply purchasing the Pinball Pass with real money, you first need to buy their own currency, Pinball Coins, then purchase what you want with those. There’s a handful of different bundles to buy, as you can spend these coins on other collectable items and such, but the Pinball Pass is 1200 Pinball Coins. That converts to $128.99 CAD. That’s NOT a typo. It’s well over a hundred dollars for a year of your pinball subscription. Sure it’s great for the year you have the pass, but I can imagine the frustration when the day comes you need to re-subscribe and are reminded of how expensive that is. Yes you can purchase tables outright to keep, so there are options, but it can get pricey quite quickly.

Pinball Pass questionability aside, if you really enjoy a table you can purchase it to keep and play whenever you want, but what about the players like me that have been playing the Pinball FX games for well over a decade and already have a hearty collection of tables? Well, it seems Zen Studios doesn’t care about that and want you to repurchase everything. Spent hundreds of dollars in the past for tables? Well, too bad. Start all over here in Pinball FX. Not being able to transfer any previous table purchases is sure to give a really bad taste in many mouths with the new engine being blamed for the reason that’s not a possibility. Sadly it gives off a greed vibe, as the new coat of paint and slightly better lighting is questionable for a full repurchase of everything you may have already purchased in the past. Whether I believe the reasoning or not isn’t my job, but it’s certainly questionable. Even a one-time fee import/export I would have been fine with, like how the Rock Band games did, but this is sure to draw some ire form the pinball community for sure. For complete transparency, we were given a Pinball Pass and all the tables not included with the subscription for review purposes.

Also, some tables can’t be purchased individually, so if you only like one table in the Marvel pack for example, well, you’re going to have to purchase the whole thing, which is obviously more expensive. All or nothing seems a bit disappointing and might even prevent some from purchasing what they actually want. Making matters worse is the menu system for downloading the trials and games is cumbersome within game, even if you purchased it externally on the Xbox store already.

There is an option for Performance or Quality in the options menu (on an Xbox Series X at least), though toggling both and scrutinizing multiple tables, I find it quite hard to find much of a difference. I was hoping Quality mode would have drastically better lighting and ray tracing, you know, the ‘reason’ for forcing you to rebuy all your tables, but I couldn’t tell much of a difference other than maybe some slightly better smoothness with Performance mode. The tables look great, just as they did over a decade ago, and reliving some of my favorite tables from my childhood (shout out to Medieval Madness) always puts a smile on my face. The only issue I had with performance was some massive slowdown whenever an Xbox notification popped up on screen, lagging the game for a few seconds as it occurred oddly enough.

Pinball FX is looking to make a comeback on console with this reboot, though your enjoyment is solely going to depend on which tables you enjoy and how much money you’re willing to invest into it. For recreating an actual pinball experience digitally, no one does it better than Zen Studios, it’s just a shame that the cost of entry is quite high to accumulate a decent pinball collection once again and you’re constantly tugged in multiple directions to open your wallet. Pinball FX as its own gaming experience is entertaining and a great way to spend a few relaxing hours on numerous tables once purchased, but the pricing structure is something to check before you dive in head first and sure to massively disappoint those that have already previously bought tables in the past.

**Pinball FX was provided by the publisher (Pinball Pass and numerous table collections included) and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Fashion Police Squad

My personal sense of fashion is one that comfort trumps style. I’m a jeans and t-shirt type of guy; simple. Thankfully I’m not at the socks and sandals dad level yet. Would my clothing choices turn heads? Of course not, and I’m fine with that. It’s a good thing I don’t live in Trendpololis, the setting of Fashion Police Squad, as I would probably be a fashion faux pas. And that is the hook with Fashion Police Squad, you’re given the power to fix the public's fashion atrocities like baggy clothes, flame prints, socks and sandals, and other fashion disasters.

Think Doom Eternal, but instead of a dark, gritty and bloody shooting spree, you instead are going through a 3D world but every character is 2D and animated. It’s a classic FPS at its core and plays just like one, but definitely uses other shooter game mechanics, like using specific weapons for certain enemies. The only difference here is that you’re shooting at regular citizens that just happened to have terrible fashion sense and thus fixing and making them modern and fashionable. No blood and gore here, just bright colorful and eccentric style.

You are sergeant Des, a fashion police officer that has some extravagant style, sworn to fix the fashion faux pas that’s occurring throughout Trenopolis. Along with your handful of different fashion weapons and your Belt of Justice, you’ll be saving the city from terrible style. You’ll need to save people from baggy pants, socks and sandals, oversized suits and more. Your partner Haley talks to you over the radio, guiding you along your adventure and where to go next.

Rather than being just a simplistic shooter without any substance, there’s actually quite a bit of emphasis on its story. Is it a bit over the top and silly? Of course, but that’s where some of its charm comes from. There’s a mystery of why all these citizens are committing fashion crimes and it’s up to the Fashion Police Squad to solve who, what, where and why. It plays out much like a parody of itself, media and other games where humor plays a large part of its charm, and while it does get a little repetitive by the end, I still had a great time regardless.

Across a dozen different missions, you’ll be spreading glam and fashion across the city. Levels are quite linear, having you defeat everyone before being allowed to move on, and even having to get different colored scissors to progress past matching colored ribbons (think key cards from Doom). The world, characters and environment is bright, colorful and full of neon as you shoot, jump and swing your way from one end to the other.

As you shoot your way through the fashion crimes, you’ll also come across different pickups like watches, bow ties and mocktails, which will increase your health or armor, again, much like its Doom inspiration. Your Belt of Justice not only acts as way to stun your enemies, but it’s mainly used like a grappling hook, able to attach to certain flagpoles to launch and fling you forward. These platforming sections were fun but very seldom.

If you’re the type to search for secrets, there’s no shortage here, with each level having some sort of secret to be found, even the boss fights. Having found a few, they are tucked away pretty well and will take some time to find them all. At the end of each mission you’ll get a ranking and show what you found for pickups and secrets, but the highlight is the fashion show. All of the people you ‘fix’ by changing their attire, they will run down the catwalk much like a fashion show. It’s done in a really cool way and made it feel like what I did that previous level was for a reason.

Being a FPS, shooting will be what you primarily will be doing with your unique arsenal. You begin with a single weapon but will eventually get more as the story progresses. Where Fashion Police Squad’s hook comes in is with how you use your different weapons based on each type of enemy. Each fashion crime requires a different way to fix it, so you’ll be forced to figure out and remember which weapon is needed to defeat each type of person by altering what they are wearing. Above each person is a health bar that once depleted, turns them into a fashionable version that is deserving of the catwalk.

You’ll need to know what each type of weapon does and which enemies they are used for if you want to be successful, because using the wrong weapon simply won’t do anything to them. You begin with your Paint Shotgun, splattering color to those drab enemies in boring grey suits. You’ll then get a Sewing Machine Gun that shoots needles to tighten those loose fitting clothes, whereas its alternate fire lobs a fabric grenade. Sock Gnomes are funny little grenades that will seek out the sock and sandal wearing offenders. The Water Cannon comes later, allowing you to clear fire from the Guy Fieri knockoff that, well, spews fire. This also doubles as a way to make you run and slide faster if you spray slightly in front of you as you run. There’s a last weapon you get in the final section, but I’ll leave that as a surprise given the runtime is only a handful of hours.

What’s most interesting is that every weapon has unlimited ammo, so there’s no need to scrounge around to find more or wait to defeat enemies to drop some. This is where the needing to use the right weapon for the right fashion crime comes in, and when you have multiple different enemy types coming at you all at once, this is where it becomes chaotic as you try and figure out who to attack first to placate by fixing their clothing. Even at the end there were new enemy types being introduced, and while some were much more annoying than others, it was generally easy to remember which enemy type needs which type of weapon to defeat. My main complaint is that some of the arenas you get locked into at times are quite small and when you have a dozen enemies to defeat, it gets hectic at times.

Thankfully you have a special meter that fills slowly, allowing you to use your Fabulous Slap Glove, essentially an instant kill attack move for a short period of time, best saved for those chaotic portions with waves of enemies. There’s a few levels that try to break up the monotony by having a sniper section where you have different gnome ammo depending if people need their hair, shoes or clothing ‘fixed’, and another where you’re in a car chase using a turret to defeat your enemies as well. These did break up the repetition a bit, but I didn’t enjoy these sections as much as I thought I would. Fashion Police Squad shines best in its unique boss battles, especially the one halfway through that I won’t spoil, but references a number of gaming tropes.

The 2D pixel models in a 3D world isn’t anything new, but it works well here and looks quite stylish, of course. The world is bright and colorful and has plenty of style. There’s a lot of smaller details that make the world more fun and it’s hard to not smile while playing. The soundtrack is done quite well, and while I wished more than the opening sequence was voiced, each gun sounds unique and it’s obvious which enemies are nearby with their lines, even if they are repeated quite often with the low enemy variety.

Sure, Fashion Police Squad is like any other classic shooter but with a gimmick, but it’s a fun one. Full of humor, puns and fashion one-liners, it’s hard not to smile every so often, especially when a new enemy is introduced, because you know you’ve seen this very exact fashion crime at some point. With its classic Doom inspiration, it’s certainly one of the more unique FPS games I’ve ever played, full of fashion and style.

**Fashion Police Squad was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.2 / 10 Breakers Collection

In the early 90’s no one could deny that Capcom was on top of the world when they released Street Fighter II and with subsequent improved editions in the following years, but they cemented themselves as the king of the fighting games, save for maybe Mortal Kombat, depending on your style, preferences, and if your parents would let you play it. I’m glad to have grown up during this era of amazing games, as fighting games were some of the best memories I have playing until the wee hours of the night with some friends on the weekend.

While Street Fighter II may have taken the world by storm, the Neo Geo was the latest console from SNK, and while it may not have been as popular out here with Western audiences, it certainly garnered a fan base in other parts of the world. SNK needed their own fighting game to rival Capcom’s behemoth, and in 1996 developers Visco released a very similar 2D fighting game, Breakers. Being popular given the small audience, sadly Breakers never made its way outside of Japan, so I don’t feel bad for never hearing of it before, or its 'sequel', Breakers Revenge. It seemingly has a cult following, so I’m glad to have been exposed to it for my own knowledge.

Thanks to QUByte Interactive, they’ve managed to bring the duo of games not only to a Western audience for the first time, but on the latest consoles. Even more impressive is that this is easily the definitive version, as they’ve also included a bunch of improvements and extras as well, so rather than a simply port via emulation, they’ve gone above and beyond.

While there are some slight story elements here, let’s be honest, it’s a fighting game, so you’re playing it to fight other characters regardless of their own motivations. Breakers Collection does include two different games, but that said, there’s little reason to play the original Breakers when the included Breakers Revenge is an improved version. Just like Street Fighter II, why would you play the core game when you have Turbo or even Championship Edition at hand? Same idea here, so I’ll mostly be focusing on Breakers Revenge as it had two extra playable characters as well as a bunch of improvements.

While the roster is small, it’s a surprisingly tight fighting game given that I’ve never heard of it before, though when you’re trying to emulate others successes almost one-for-one it’s kind of hard not to. Even with only ten characters to choose from, they are all varied and you’re sure to find a favorite quickly on, even quicker if you know which character is basically a copy of their Street Fighter II counterpart.

If you needed a few examples, my go-to was Tia, essentially a clone of Chun-Li who was also my fighter of choice, complete with quick leg kicks. Rila is a knockoff of Blanka, Alsion III is Dhalsim and even the final boss, Bai-Hu is Bison almost exactly. I’m all for games that pay homage to others, but it’s quite apparent that the majority of the characters were essentially reskins of their Street Fighter inspirations. What I did find interesting is that when you’re playing a shadow match, both players playing the same character, the second player will be named differently even though they are simply just a palette swap, complete with a backstory and everything. It’s an interesting and unique touch.

So while Breakers Collection will be new to most unless you lived abroad or imported games, this duo pack adds a handful of improvements, more so than I actually expected. You can expect crossplay between consoles and PC, rollback netcode (a must these days), a training mode, unlockable galleries, leaderboards, ranked online battles, online replays, lobbies, a Team Battle mode and more. It’s an impressive list of extra additions that went into this collection and it doesn’t go unnoticed.

Like other fighting games from that era, you have a light and heavy punches and kicks. You’re able to combo light and heavy attacks together quite easily and with enough skills, then adding specials into the combo finisher. You can have up to three levels in your Super bar, filled by dashing, blocking, attacking, blocking, taunting, etc. There are more advanced techniques like being able to cancel your regular moves into specials or a special into a super.

There’s a decent amount of combos and attacks, each character having their own style and movesets. When you perform a decent juggle it’s quite satisfying. Given that not only are the characters visually emulated from their Capcom counterparts, if you remember any of their movesets like how to do a Hadoken or Shoryuken motion, you’ll feel right at home. You can even choose to have the moves for the characters currently playing on the side of the screen, much like how the cabinets in the arcade used to have.

Adding rollback netcode for the online multiplayer is a fantastic addition, basically a necessity these days if you want a competitive game. That and crossplay included is what got me excited to play online with others, but even with my crossplay enabled, I’ve yet been able to find any other single player online for a match. You can even choose the server and the population, and every time I’ve checked they were at 0, so unfortunately I was unable to try the online multiplayer for myself. At least I was able to download and watch sone online replays of matches, great for those that want to improve their skills.

For a game that released mid 90’s on the NeoGeo, it still visually holds up. The sprites are done quite well, the background are colorful and the characters are look distinct from one another, even if they are heavily borrow from another game. Animations are smooth and the elemental effects are quite decent. The audio is perfectly serviceable, but the soundtrack is nowhere near as memorable as others in the genre.

I’m glad when I get to discover new games, even if they are decades old, and while I’ve played the classics from Neo Geo, Breakers sadly was never one of them until now. While I question its originality, as it more than heavily borrowed from one of the greatest of all time, that said, Breakers Collection is worth checking out if the fighting genre is your thing, even if it’s advertised as two unique games.

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

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Wanted: Dead

Depending on your age or when you started playing games, ‘classic’ generations of consoles may be a distant memory or something you look at and wonder how some of us older gamers managed to play given the graphics at the time. Games have certainly come a long way, and each generation of console brings new leaps and bounds of what’s possible from developers. There’s a certain charm though when I play an older game, as it’s not going to be anywhere near as mechanically extensive or visually impressive when compared to releases now, but they can have a certain charm to them due to this. This is what small developer Soleil is trying to capture with their latest release, Wanted: Dead.

With a handful of developers from the Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive series in their ranks, Wanted: Dead aims to create an ‘old school’ experience, specifically being a love letter to classic consoles from the 6th generation: Sega Dreamcast, Playstation 2, Gamecube and the original Xbox. Games from this era had something special about them and many fond memories come from this generation of gaming regardless of console.

A hybrid slasher/shooter, Wanted: Dead is sure to remind you of some older titles, but the one that kept coming to mind was Oni or Devil's Third. With a cyberpunk backdrop, you’ll be running, gunning and slashing your way through near endless enemies as you try to survive just one more day. Expect a lot of bloodshed, swearing and even more blood. You can certainly see some of its Ninja Gaiden roots in its unapologetic violence.

You play as Lt. Hannah Stone, a grizzled Hong Kong cop that is but just one member of the Zombie Unit, an elite squad that gets called upon for the most dangerous and impossible missions. Also in your squad are your teammates Cortez, Doc and Herzog, each with their own unique personalities and combat talents. Your Captain, Simmons, is the one that leads your crew, but you’ll meet a handful of other cast as well, namely your Gunsmith, Vivienne, a former Olympic gold medalist and celebrity chef. If she happens to look and sound familiar you would be correct, as it’s the same actress who played Quiet in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, Stefanie Joosten.

The main narrative revolves around massive corporation, Dauer Synthetics, and you’ll soon come to realize that they’re at the heart of a major conspiracy. Doing so won’t be easy though, as you’ll have a literal army standing in your way that you’ll need to destroy. With a cyberpunk backdrop, you’ll certainly see a different Hong Kong setting that you may be used to, one where the police force is essentially privatized and use Maserati’s for their vehicles.

The story itself is compelling enough if you’re able to keep the game going without too many deaths and restarts, but I’ve had numerous times where I’ve been stuck at certain sections for quite some time. Most cutscenes will be as you’d expect, taking place in-game, but every so often there’s a hand drawn anime style that I found done quite well and signify flashbacks, even if a little jarring going between the different aesthetics.

As you begin your adventure you’ll first need to decide if you want to play on Normal or Hard. Now, I’m not great at difficult games, as they frustrate me. I know, I know, ‘git gud’, but I simply don’t find enjoyment in dying numerous times to slowly make progress. That said, even on Normal, Wanted: Dead is quite challenging, especially the first portion when you’re still getting used to your moves, abilities and different enemy types, figuring out the best strategies for each.

Taking on mercenaries, private security and even synthetics will feel overwhelming, even in the opening section, as you’re almost constantly outnumbered a good 5 or 10 to one. Hannah is armed with a razor sharp sword, pistol and assault rifle. I’ll admit, I initially tried playing this like a third person cover based shooter, as you automatically duck or crouch behind when nearby walls and objects, but that won’t work long with your limited ammo. You’re going to have to get your hands dirty, more specifically, bloody, as you’ll need to rush enemies to slice and dice them apart. You’re going to die, a lot, and it will take a good handful of hours before you start to feel really comfortable with the combat, as I was trying to play more defensively, but that simply won’t work here when you’re constantly outnumbered and surrounded.

Even though you have a squad with you for most missions, don’t plan on them actually pulling their weight. Sure they do fire their guns and offer as some slight distractions sometimes, but they tend to stick nearby you, so if you retreat to try and get a breather they’ll too come in tow. You have a set amount of health packs that you can use at any time, though you need to become proactive using them, as they won’t be automatically used when you’re downed, and there’s nothing more frustrating than dying with a handful of health packs that you forgot to use.

Certain missions will have Doc with you on your team, and he’s by far the most useful, as he can revive you once per checkpoint if you get downed and forgot to heal or ran out of health packs. Doc is basically a free revive which is fantastic to have when he comes along, but there’s a good amount of missions he’s not with you, so you don’t always have that safety net. The other issue that is that most checkpoints are incredibly far apart, so when you do inevitably die, you’re going to redo lengthy portions over again, numerous times. I can’t tell you how frustrated I became near the very end when I was stuck on getting to the next checkpoint, redoing a good 20+ minute portion numerous times until I finally progressed by some miracle. For those wanting a good chuckle, each time you get a loading screen it’s based on a popular meme, showing that it doesn’t always take itself so seriously.

Part brawler, part shooter, you’ll need to lean more towards the offensive to proceed. While you could try to play it like a third person shooter, this won’t get you far, so you’re going to need to run into the chaos and utilize all your abilities to survive. Being mobile and constantly moving seems to be the best strategy, as once I adopted a more non-stop approach, I was doing much better. Cover is available, and will be needed in certain portions, as picking off a few grunt enemies is a good way to thin the herd, but this won’t work for every enemy type effectively.

Speaking of your enemies, there isn’t all that much variety. Sure they look somewhat different when you start fighting against synthetics, but you essentially only have a few types. Grunts are your easiest ones you’ll begin fighting, taken out with a few good slashes or headshots from your weaponry. You then have stronger versions that generally need to be taken out up and close or they’ll try to come at you direct. You’ll eventually take on ninjas that vary in strength and difficulty, the bane of my existence. Then lastly you have the massive brutes wearing a Juggernaut-like suit with a Gatling gun. I’m not going to spoil the best strategies to take out each, but when you’re fighting all different types at once, you’re going to wish the rest of the Zombie Unit pulled their weight instead of basically letting you do all the work.

Your sword is going to be the base of your damage, but sometimes you’ll need to rely on your other weapons. You do have a pistol, but this is meant more as an interrupter or countering specific attacks rather than causing big damage, even though it has unlimited ammunition. You always have your assault rifle, but this is limited in ammo, good for taking out a few lower ranked enemies or quick damage to the harder enemies. You can also carry one enemy weapon and swap between the two, such as different rifles, SMG, LMG, Shotgun and Grenade Launchers. These are limited in ammo but enemies will generally drop ammo for either your assault rifle or picked up gun, so it’s a matter of finding what’s best for each situation. Where the problem lies is that basically every enemy is a massive bullet and sword sponge, even on Normal.

Combat is brutal. Even early on you’ll be slicing and dicing your enemies in half or even literally disarming them. An ‘unarmed’ enemy is still dangerous, so always be sure to finish them off. There’s over 50 brutal finishers that can be triggered, and these look incredibly stylish and over the top, generally leaving Hannah covered in so much blood she’s pure red. As you take out enemies your adrenaline meter will fill that once full and used, you’ll do some wicked looking Matrix-like moves that will deplete the stamina of enemies nearby, allowing for chained executions. The first time you pull this off, it’s quite badass to witness.

Combat moves are based on different combinations of your blade and pistol, but you’re going to have to be quite defensive at times as well, blocking with your sword or doing a parry if timed perfectly right. I’ll tell you now, get proficient with parrying early on, as you won’t be able to complete the adventure without being skilled at this move. You’re able to dodge out of the way and use limited amounts of grenades as well in a tight situation. As for the enemy AI, they are easy to exploit once you figure out how dumb they can be individually, but where the challenge comes is when you’re surrounded by numerous types and always outnumbered. One ninja rushing you is no big deal, completely different story with three, some grunts shooting at you in the distance and a heavy using its Gatling gun as well.

Stone will earn skill points (SP) when defeating enemies, so the flashier the kill the more points you’ll get. Earn enough and you can spend them in any of the three skill trees. Here you’ll improve your offense, defense and utility skills. About three quarters through the game I had maxed out the skill trees, and had thousands of extra unspent points near the finale. I don’t know if it was a specific skill or upgrade that helped, but there was a certain point where all of a sudden either the skill points made a huge difference or my own skill instantly improved. Either way, from this point on I felt at times invincible; Not always, but some boss fights I even beat on the first try, whereas earlier bosses took a good dozen tries before being successful.

If you need a break from the high adrenaline combat, there's a good handful of minigames and other things you can partake in when you're back at the police HQ between missions. You'll be able to play a crane game to try and grab different collectable statues and balls containing new audio tracks. An in Yakuza-like fashion, there's even some odd wacky games you can play like matching buttons to certain songs to eat bowls of ramen or having a karaoke sing-off with the Weaponsmith. There's also a sidescrolling shooter you can play for high scores later on as well, so there's other things to fill your time when you just want to chill.

Visually, the cyberpunk backdrop and emphasizes violence simply looks cool. While it won’t wow you, it performs quite well and smoothly other than the odd few sections where there was simply too much going on at once, hitting me with some framerate slowdown even on an Xbox Series X, but this was pretty infrequent. The slickness of the combat and shooting is stylish even if much of the level design is corridor based an in enclosed area.

Where I struggle is with the audio. The soundtrack is fantastic across the board, but the dialogue is something quite different. Kind of like a terrible B-movie you just love, it has an endearing charm regardless. I’m not sure if it’s trying to emulate the early 2000’s games that it draws inspiration from or not, but you can expect numerous one-liners and death screams over and over again. The dialogue is cheesy and even though Hannah’s delivery is unique at times, I do think that’s what they were intentionally going for oddly enough.

Even though I think the difficulty can be a little over tuned at times and the checkpoints are a little too spread out at times, for every moment I had frustration, I was still compelled to move forward and try again and again. Sometimes you just need a game where you turn off your brain to slash and blast everything in your way and can have fun doing so with some over the top violence, Wanted: Dead delivers that, even if it does feel way over the top with its style.

**Wanted: Dead was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 OmegaBot

Having released on PC last June, it’s time for OmegaBot to make its entry into the console market for a wider audience to play and hopefully enjoy. Games that come from a solo developer always impress me, as I can’t imagine the amount of work and tireless nights that went into creating an idea into an actual playable product, and OmegaBot from Simon Carny is no different. Even more impressive is that it’s his first game and he clearly took a lot of influence from the iconic Mega Man series, full of side scrolling platforming and shooting action.

Everything was fine, the world was at peace, but then a mysterious mist arrived. Anyone who went near the mist somehow turned into a robot that aimed at destroying anyone in their path. So the world’s mightiest warriors that were supposed to save the world from this mist ventured out to do just that, but it seems they have failed, also changing into some sort of half robot. This is where you come in, as robots are unaffected by the mist, and although it seems other robotic heroes have come before you, you’re surely going to be the one to set thing right... Right? Those warriors that came before are seemingly the gatekeepers and will need to be defeated to venture further, but you’re such a small statured robot, what can you possibly do? It won’t be easy but you’ll gain new weaponry, abilities and dare I say, friends, along your adventure.

Much like its inspiration of early Mega Man games, OmegaBot is mechanically very similar in many ways. A side scrolling platformer, you’ll need to jump and shoot your way to the end of each stage, generally on the right side of the screen. You begin with just a singular jump and a basic blaster, eventually unlocking new weapons and abilities. Just like Mega Man, when you defeat the main bosses you’ll gain a new weapon or ability, allowing you to get through the dangerous world of killer robots and tons of pits and spike traps.

While enemies are going to be the thing that generally kills you the most, there’s plenty of traps all over, from spikes, fireballs, pits and more. Navigating these are just as important as defeating your enemies and you’ll do so in a few different ways, from small ‘tap’ jumps, gaining a little extra height on your jumps by using your blaster for a boost, and of course using your double jump and dash ability to get across gaps or out of danger quickly. Using your blaster to kind of ‘rocket jump’ takes some practice, as you need to aim downwards and fire to either slow your descent or gain a little bit more of a boost at the peak of your jump. This can be a bit tricky to get used to and I’ve had more than my fair share of deaths from not being as accurate as needed to land on moving platforms or avoiding enemies.

As you venture through forests, cities, castles and a number of other biomes, each new stage provided a unique challenge that progressively becomes more difficult as you go. As you gain new weapons and abilities you’ll need to combine all that you’ve learned to that point, but that is of course easier said than done. Thankfully there’s plenty of checkpoints that you’ll respawn at when you inevitably get destroyed, usually one every few screens or so. But sometimes these tend to be just a little TOO far apart, causing a lot of sections to be replayed until you manage to live long enough to make it to the next checkpoint.

You begin by facing off against robotic frogs, snails and other cute animal creatures that seem to have been a victim of the mist, but soon enough you’ll be battling against full on robots that will continuously fire and trying to destroy you once you’re noticed. While there’s no jumping on enemy heads to defeat them, you’ll need to rely on your trusty blaster. This required energy to do so though, so every now and then you’ll need to hold off on shooting so it can recharge, as if you let it deplete completely you’ll be slowed and unable to fire for a short while, surely to get you killed in a battle.

Your energy is split into two halves, where your first bit of firing shoots more powerful shots, but then eventually gets weaker in the last section of your energy bar. It’s kind of like a stamina bar in other games, and what makes this tricky is that your dash ability also requires energy to do so, so it takes a bit of getting used to so you don’t find yourself vulnerable often. As you gain new weapons from downed bosses, they vary in strength and type, so it will take some trial and error to find what works best for you and the situation you find yourself in.

Being part platformer as well, you’ll need to be accurate with your jumping abilities, which in itself isn’t too difficult, but anytime you shoot your blaster you’ll be knocked back slightly, as if his weapons are too powerful for his small frame. This can make things very challenging when standing on a small platform but having to fire and destroy an enemy, all while slightly adjusting to not slip and fall off. Boss fights are clearly the highlight, some more challenging than others, though not unfair once you learn their attack patterns across usually two main phases.

With checkpoints being spread out a bit too far at times, sometimes it’s difficult to stay alive long enough to reach the next respawn point. Thankfully enemies will also drop health orbs in varying sizes based on how high the shot counter above their head is when they are defeated. This is a little confusing and misleading though, as you need to gather a number of different orbs to fill the health meter completely to simply get a slight health replenish, something that wasn’t explained very well. Usually it’s just easier to respawn at the last checkpoint with full health, or if you find full heal orbs around the stage you know you’re in for a big battle or boss fight next.

Enemies will also drop gears/sprockets when defeated, also sitting and floating around the stage for you to collect. This is essentially your currency which you can use when at the hub between levels to purchase more health or energy with each upgrade increasing in price. There’s also some special icons to collect that can be used to upgrade your robot to have special perks, but I’ll leave that for you to discover.

For being created by a solo developer, the world of OmegaBot is very cute and colorful, utilizing a pixel art aesthetic that is easy on the eyes, even when it gets chaotic at times. Even more impressive is that all the background items can be destroyed with your shots, purely for visual flair but a wonderful touch. While the soundtrack sets a tone and never becomes grating, it also doesn’t really stand out either, opting to try and listen to the sounds of enemy shots and tells.

OmegaBot is cute and charming, and while it may not reach the same level as its Mega Man inspiration, it’s priced decently for its 4-8 hours of gameplay depending on your skill level. A fun and challenging action platformer that was longer than I initially expected, OmegaBot was clearly made with heart and passion, and that comes across well in such a small and cute robot.

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

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Ships Simulator

Ships Simulator is the latest sim title from Ultimate Games, a studio with a plethora of sim based games under their belt. Given how long I’ve been reviewing games, I’ve played my fair share of sim games, though nothing quite like Ships Simulator. Simulator games usually aim to recreate certain jobs or careers, and while Ships Simulator is no different, there was a lot more arcade-like gameplay to it instead.

Doing some research, I first noticed that Ships Simulator looked basically identical to another game, Ships 2017. Turns out it’s actually the same game, simply ported for console. Same game, same logo and font, same 2017 era of graphics. This to me felt a little disingenuous, as it’s not really advertised as the same game from 6+ years ago, though when you press the Xbox Logo button it’s clearly labelled as Ships 2017.

Ships Simulator aims to recreate the role of controlling, well, ships. Not just regular boats though, the massive ones that you see by the docks and ports in major cities. Think of the massive cargo container ships that hauls hundreds of containers across sea, or the oil rig stations that are colossal in size, those will be the type of ships you’ll be utilizing for a variety of different missions.

While there’s no overall narrative or story, you’ll eventually being taking over three separate vessels, each with their own mission types and objectives before moving onto the next. You begin with a Cargo Ship, then a Construction rig, then a Heavy Duty lifting ship. Each of these ships have eight missions per, and once complete a special extra mission will unlock for a total of 25. Missions will vary from loading cargo containers, unloading them, bringing cargo from one dock to another, gathering parts from the ocean, rescuing crew, warding off pirates and more.

Having completed all missions including the special extra one, it was tedious, boring and frustrating to do so due to its poor controls and even worse visuals and audio. When the credits rolled, it was seemingly stuck and I was forced to quit out, not a great final memory to the experience. I’ll be honest, if I wasn’t reviewing the game I would have given up long before completion, and I was glad it was over and could uninstall.

To begin your naval career you first must choose a ship to purchase and repair. This is easy due to only being able to afford one of the three ships, so why it’s prefaced like a choice I’m unsure. Once you buy the Cargo Ship to begin you’ll first need to make any repairs before it’s seaworthy. This is done simply by choosing the broken part on a menu then clicking a button to repair. Wait a few seconds and the repair is complete. Why this is a part of the gameplay I’m unsure, as it’s seemingly just meant to be something you spend a portion of your profits on.

As you complete missions you’ll earn money, eventually able to purchase an oil rig-like vessel that has a crane, meant for moving material and construction, and then the transport vessel with a unique submerging ability. Every vessel plays very unique from one another, each having their own types of missions as well. The container Ship missions are generally quite straight forward, but the Construction Ship was easily the most time consuming due to its frustrating and annoying crane controls. Even though this is a Ship Simulator, you can’t sail the open seas. You’re actually quite restricted to where you can go, and with how slow the overall gameplay is, you wouldn’t want to sail out to open waters even if you could. Each mission has a tight play area and you need to stay within its boundaries.

The Container Ship will have your first missions about using the dock’s lift to load those containers from the back of semi-trucks onto the vessel. This opening mission will show you how unintuitive the controls and camera is, so prepare for a few hours of that going forward. You’ll have another mission to bring the ship to another dock which is how they introduce the awkard sailing controls. Of course at the other dock you’ll then need to unload a certain amount of containers onto trucks waiting.

With those basic missions out of the way you should now have enough cash banked to purchase the second ship, which I’m labelling the Construction Ship due to its crane you’ll need to use to pick up freight and parts and maneuver elsewhere. While it’s the same amount of missions like the other two ships, a total of eight per, this ship will take the bulk of your time with the game due to how finicky and awkward its controls are. You have different controls for moving the ship and then another separate set for the crane itself, neither of which feel intuitive. The crane hook has to almost be perfect to attach, but the camera doesn’t make it very easy to line up and figure out which way you need to maneuver the crane or ship to pick up the freight.

The final ship, the Transport Ship, I actually enjoyed the most, because it was the easiest to control. It has a unique ability to submerge its deck, so the majority of its missions were to motor over to some broken or abandoned ships, submerge your deck, slide underneath the ship and then move the deck back up the surface level to attach to the deck before bringing it back to the dock or a specified area.

Anytime you crash into an object or another ship, your vessel becomes damaged, meaning you’ll need to spend some of your earnings on repairs or part replacements. Money never really became an issue, but something to keep in mind. Take enough damage and the mission might instantly fail, so you can’t simply bump and push ships out of the way for fear of needing to restart the lengthy levels all over again.

Oddly enough, there’s a few missions that don’t really have much to do with the ships themselves, but instead focus on the crew. The first is putting out fires on the ship. You need to command each of the crew to do something, like grabbing a fire extinguisher and then to go battle a fire. This is done with a simple top down view of the ship and just with icons of the crew and equipment. These missions are incredibly confusing with their controls and were hands down the worst part of the whole experience. There’s another similar mission later with the same premise, but having your crew defend against pirates trying to take over the ship, so you need to have them man certain water cannons to survive waves of enemies. Again, these missions were terrible, confusing and just didn’t seem to fit with the rest of the game.

While ship enthusiasts may quite enjoy being able to control unique vessels like these, the gameplay itself becomes quite repetitive and dull. Each mission has an objective to complete, sometimes with a handful of steps, but it’s very linear without any freedom to solve how to do so on your own. The game itself isn’t difficult, but dealing with the controls are. Controls are slow, the camera is a nightmare to deal with constantly, and it just never feels like it gets better even after a handful of hours in.

At default, the speed is set to 1X. You will never finish Ships Simulator at 1X. These aren’t speedboats, they are massive slow moving ships. Thankfully you can crank of the speed to 2X or 4X if you’d like, but even at 2X it was excruciatingly slow. 4X at the best of times was barely tolerable, but needs to be set every time if you want the feeling of any progress at all. The problem with 4X is that it feels as though the controls are sped up as well, so the camera whips around and trying to move the crane hook into an exact position is a constant battle as well. On that note, camera is defaulted to the Left Stick, not right, so I constantly made mistakes using the wrong stick, even until the final mission.

Ships Simulator is probably one of the ugliest games I’ve played in quite some time. I don’t mean that as an insult, but it’s simply the truth. The water looks terrible, lightning and thunder is sure to give someone a seizure or blow out your ears if you’re wearing a headset, and the draw distance is so incredibly short you can’t even plan the proper way to the port for unload because a wall or island appear in front of you last minute. It looks like a mobile game from 2017 at the best of times. The music is no better, with annoying loops repeated over and over that you’ll want to mute.

I can deal with the poor visuals and audio if the game itself is entertaining, but unfortunately I was just glad each mission completion was getting me closer to the credits rolling and an uninstall. Tons of bugs, glitches and terrible controls just made it a slog to get through. While they are an easy string of achievements to nab, priced at $18.99 CAD is far too much for the amount of frustration. I don’t generally enjoy focusing on the negatives, but when there are so few positives things to note, you might want to avoid this shipwreck.

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

Overall Score: 2.0 / 10 We Were Here Forever

When We Were Here initially released back in 2019 on the Xbox 360 console, I didn't know what I was getting into, nor would have expected to have now played the fourth game in the series. After having played each of the games, including being able to check out the latest, We Were Here Forever, before it's launch, I’ve been anxiously waiting for the console release to once again become stumped alongside a friend. Given that I did a preview for We Were Here Forever, portions of that article will be in this review, but finally getting to reach the conclusion and ending, I was left shocked with the final scene, but more on that shortly. For those new to the series, you don’t need to have played any of the previous games, but there’s some underlying lore that longtime fans will surely appreciate the most.

Maybe you’ve never played one of the We Were Here games before, like my latest co-op partner and fellow writer here at XboxAddict, Peggy, whom I will have her input for her experience throughout our journey in Castle Rock. Essentially the series is an online cooperative puzzle game where you need to find a way to escape. The catch is that you’re almost always separated from your friend, so you only have a one-way radio to communicate with one another and will need to work together cohesively and quite well if you want to be successful.

I’ve thus dubbed the series ‘The Friendship Test’, as you’re going to see how truly effective your communication is with your partner, a test I nearly fail each game. Funny enough, I’ve had to play each game with a different partner as they refused to play with me when each sequel released, hence a new partner this time too. Both players require a microphone and I highly suggest choosing a friend to play with that maybe you’ve known for a while or are able to easily communicate with, as it will make a world of difference. Could you play with a random person, possibly, but may the odds be ever in your favor if you choose to do so.

With a clever naming convention for the series, We Were Here was the original game, We Were Here Too is the sequel, We Were Here Together was the third, and now the fourth and latest is We Were Here Forever, aptly titled for how long you’ll probably be stuck on a handful of the puzzles if you decide to take the high road and not look up any spoilers or walkthroughs. I wish I could boast that our team of puzzlers didn’t require a walkthrough, but we had to succumb to a few clues and hints with how difficult and obtuse some of the puzzles were. Will you be able to escape on your own accord and problem solving skills without external help? You’re a better puzzle solver than us if so, but good luck.

The first two games didn’t have much story to it aside from simply trying to escape, but in the third game, We Were Here Together, a much larger focus on story started to emerge, quite obvious in the latest Forever entry. While you’re still essentially moving from one puzzle to the next once you find the solutions, there’s more narrative sprinkled in here and there as you make your way through Castle Rock.

We Were Here Forever has a similar setup from previous games where you and your partner are somehow trapped within Castle Rock’s walls, seemingly unable to escape. Were you betrayed? Was having you here a small part of a larger master plan? Will you find out whatever happened to the other missing explorers? Who is The Jester and why is he trying to stop you? You learn bits and pieces of Rockbury and the resistance against its King and there’s clearly something larger going on, but you’ll need to do what you can to survive and escape alongside your partner, because without them, you’ll be trapped here forever.

To escape the bowels of Castle Rock, you and your partner are going to need to not only work in unison but rely on communication that other games seldom ever force to this degree. You and your partner will bond and need to be like minded if you want any chance of escape. What may seem like a simple puzzle in the beginning might just be one small portion of a larger one, which my partner and I found out within the opening section of We Were Here Forever. We Were Here Forever will test your mettle and communication with your fellow partner with a large focus on how you help one another separately.

Teamwork isn’t just suggested, it’s absolutely necessary, done completely with communication across a one-way walkie-talkie. This one-way radio is important to note, as when someone is speaking, the light on the radio illuminates, indicating that the other person should be listening. If they try to speak when the first person is talking, it won’t be heard. This takes some getting used to, especially when I’m accustomed to open party or discord chats. With the one-way radio, you’ll need to be purposeful in who talks and when. If your partner is talking, the light on your walkie lights up to indicate, so you better not try holding down the button and try to talk to them because they won’t hear your input. This of course makes things a little trickier, and I won’t lie, we simply used Xbox party chat (since we were both playing on that system) to avoid the one-way limitation, though I do suggest at least trying it in-game for the full and authentic We Were Here experience.

Before you and your friend you’ve chosen to have a ‘Friendship Test’ with can start your adventure together though, you’ll need to add each other as friends from the main menu to play with one another. With cross-play now finally here, you don’t have to worry about what system you and they are on, able to play together regardless. I will say, the lobby system was buggy every time we wanted to get us put together, but eventually we figured it out each time and I’m hoping it’s just some pre-launch bugs that will get ironed out come full release.

Let’s get to the puzzles, the bread and butter of the series and why you’ve chosen to play We Were Here Forever. I’m going to get this out of the way first thing: We Were Here Forever was by far the hardest puzzles in the whole series. Maybe this was because it also felt like the longest game of the four, but we certainly struggled almost throughout whereas in previous games it was just the odd puzzle here and there that we needed to search a walkthrough. While not nearly as many timed puzzles in Forever thankfully, there still was the odd one or two that did add a bit of frustration because of the time limit and the mandatory first person view.

You and your friend are almost constantly separated from one another, so you need to be the eyes and ears for one another, figuring out the singular solution that you both contain portions of the answer. This is much easier said than done, and if not successful you’ll be stumped for seemingly forever if you decide to take the high road and not look up walkthroughs. The puzzles vary quite drastically throughout. One of my favorites was my partner describing a scene with some mannequins without heads, and on my part I had to read some book pages describing the background of a dozen or so different characters to determine which head I should send her to place correctly for her scene. Her seeing generic bodies in some sort of scene and me trying to decipher the character from reading pages wasn't simple. There’s a lot of trial and error in basically every puzzle, and if that frustrates you you’re going to have a long road to attempt escaping Castle Rock.

There’s also other puzzles that if it wasn’t for my partner, I would still be sitting there clueless of where to even start. An example, picking up a bunch of different mannequins and sitting them in the correct order in a few rows of pews in a church. Of course there’s a very specific order, with undercover rebels and other restrictions like how certain people can’t sit beside specific others. Since all the mannequins were hanging together there were very slight differences in who they may be. From reading books and using descriptors like “a girl wearing a pope-like hat and curly hair like the mom from ‘That 70’s Show’, I was thankful she understood what I meant. Thank god my partner knew what to do, as I was basically no help on this particular one. Many of the puzzles felt like one player had to do the majority of the work while the second had the solution in front of them, but had to find a way to communicate it. The only problem with this is that once you’re on a certain path and locked into one of the roles, there’s no switching with your partner, like when I was in an underwater maze aimlessly wandering trying to figure a way out while she moved a bunch of pipes to create open pathways and air pockets for me to breathe.

I don’t mind challenging puzzles, but I’d say at least half of the puzzle included were a bit much. Maybe it’s the way I think or my logical reasoning, but my partner also conceded that we were going to have to try and look up a solution online more than once. Even with finding the solutions elsewhere, it never really left like an ‘ah-hah!’ moment like we missed something, more of a ‘well, I guess that worked’ feeling. Don’t even get me started where I had to carry a massive cog, blocking a good 90% of my vision, needing to be directed of where to go. While I’d obviously like to blame my partner whenever we got stuck, it’s a two way street, where it takes some time to figure out what the actual pathway to a solution is, as it’s not often it’s painted out clearly.

Peggy: I think I'm a smart person when it comes to puzzles, especially logic based ones like the mannequins in the pews and, as Adam stated, I proved it there. Sadly, We Were Here Forever often made me feel rather dumb. Normally I can figure it out eventually, or when we finally decided to look up walkthroughs, I expected to have a 'OMG, that's the part we were missing!' feeling, but that didn't happen often. Mostly I was left bewildered by how you should have been able to decipher the solutions without help. I am thankful that Adam and I are both interested in similar pop culture things, movies, shows, comics etc. This made describing visuals much easier when you could reference something adjacent to what you were seeing to help. I had never played any of the We Were Here games prior to this other than a bit of the preview of Forever before launch, and I did enjoy what I played even if I didn't feel the smartest while playing it. It was really well done, the graphics were very fairytale-like and the vocal performances of character you encounter are well done. While I may have been Adam's latest 'victim' to take part in the 'Friendship Test', we are still talking, so that's a good thing. Without spoiling too much, and if you've played the other games in the series, you will understand what I am about to say. Adam's biggest mistake was telling me how he escaped the last three games, and I ruined his 100% success after the ending of We Were Here Forever. No regrets.

Adam: There is a hint system in place if you truly become stuck, but these really are only subtle clues. The first can be unlocked, but the next two or three which will give a little more detail can’t be seen until a certain amount of time goes by. While we used these hints, it won’t explicitly tell you the solution, still getting you to figure out the answer for yourself, but subtly guiding you in possibly the right direction. I never found they gave enough of a hint to be actually useful though.

Visually, Forever is the best looking of the series. Sure for a majority of it you’ll be stuck underground, in some castle walls or confined rooms, but there are moments where you’ll be exploring the grounds outside and can take in some sights, that while not breathtaking, surely a vast improvement for the series. Even some of the puzzles are quite fantastical to take in, like a particular puzzle where you and your partner are going from room to room where gravity doesn’t seem to matter much, all while a massive Jester seems to taunt you. Peggy did not enjoy the Jester and found him creepy though.

There was the odd time I had some texture issues where one puzzle wasn’t properly loading the clues inside some coffins, so I was essentially no help to my partner until they somehow fixed themselves with a reload. Animations definitely seems much smoother and more fluid in Forever compared to previous games and there’s even some fun emotes you and your partner can signal to one another, including some Rock-Paper-Scissors. The atmosphere is done quite well, with the wind whistling and howling as you ride a gondola to another area. The odd times you hear from the Jester and maybe another character, they are done also quite well, sounding just as animated as their look and movements.

We Were Here Forever felt much longer than previous games, as we had the credits rolling at around 11 hours or so. It didn’t necessarily feel arbitrarily lengthy, as there was even a part where you have to go get three different objects to fix something, but can do them in any order you wish. There’s much more story in Forever as well, though depending on your knowledge of the series before, may be hit or miss if you even care about it.

Just like previous games in the series, We Were Here Forever is once again a ‘Friendship Test’. I highly suggest choosing a partner that you know you’re alright arguing with, because it’s not a matter of if, but of when. I certainly struggled with the difficulty in Forever much more than previous games, but that also shows that the developers are evolving with each game, making them much more intricate and challenging and easily the highlight of the series. If you enjoy wracking your brain on a puzzle for a good amount of time and don’t mind plenty of trial and error, We Were Here Forever is right up your alley, but make sure you have a like-minded friend that you might not miss once you’re no longer on speaking terms.

**We Were Here Forever was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Swordship

I absolutely love shmups (shoot-em-ups). You know the ones, where bullets are all over the screen and you somehow have to dodge them in pixel perfect fashion all while trying to destroy your enemies. Well, I can tell you I’ve never played anything quite like Swordship before, and while I guess it would kind of belong to the shmup genre, it also doesn’t really either.

Imagine a shump without the shooting. I guess that would make it a 'mup'? I don’t know, I just work here. If you’ve ever wanted to challenge yourself and play a shmup for pacifists, look no further than Swordship, a shmup without the ability to actually shoot. Odd I know, but stick with me, as I initially thought it was a crazy notion at first too. But somehow, developers Digital Kingdom made it work, forcing you to focus on your maneuvers and dodging since you have no real way to directly retaliate against your enemies.

It’s an interesting and unique take with a really minimalistic aesthetic and addictive roguelike gameplay, complete with an attempt at an interesting narrative. Dodge and weave through enemies and their attacks doing everything they can to try and destroy you. You’re going to need lightning quick reflexes and be able to react and think even faster with the best way to trick enemies into destroying one another so you can escape and survive.

Global warming has caused havoc on the environment and most cities now lie underwater. As cities trade containers of goods with one another, those that have been exiled from the cities for various reasons don’t have an easy time, doing what they can to simply survive. You are a member of The Banished, a rebel group that looks to steal these containers of goods from the greedy cities and distribute them to the poor and needy to survive. Think a classic Robin Hood tale, but on speed boats that can do sweet dives underwater. That said, while there’s a story, though it won’t really matter to you, as you’ll simply be doing runs over and over to try and beat your best score.

Swordship’s main hook is that you have no weaponry on your speedboat, yet must outlast and survive the constant onslaught from your enemies. Each run is also randomly generated, so it’s more about reaction than it is memorization. Because of this there’s plenty of replayability, but this is almost offset by the overall lack of content.

Your speedboat only knows one speed – full throttle. You don’t need to worry about laying on the gas or hitting the brakes, as it’s constantly moving forward, somewhat like an auto-scroller, you simply move and maneuver your Swordship along the water in the corridor you’re speeding down. There are 3 stages and then a boss, each stage is then broken up into a few separate levels. Each level will have a certain amount of those coveted containers that need to be swiped, and once they are, or missed, the level will end moving onto the next.

For example, the first level has two containers that will eventually come up for grabs. Once both are deployed, those are your chances to secure them for your people or will pass on by, still finishing the level though. Since you’re always rushing towards the bottom of the screen, this is where you’ll see a yellow lined marker to indicate that these containers are about to appear, giving you just a few moments to prepare and hopefully catch them with your Swordship by being in line.

Of course each stage has a different feel and slightly varied aesthetic and biome background, but the main differences are the new enemies you face off against in each. With ship upgrades, differing abilities, randomized runs, weather conditions and more, there are some reasons to keep coming back if you really enjoy trying to best your high score.

When you manage to snag and steal a container, as the level ends you’ll have a choice to make. Do you send your collected containers back to The Banished, receiving a big score bonus in return, or keep it for your own gain, allowing you to upgrade your Swordship for that run and gaining extra lives? Upgrades will help you on each run, changing special abilities or passive parameters to your ship itself. So it’s a matter of determining your skill, as taking a score boost is much better long term if you don’t die often, but swapping score for extra lives may be better for you in the long run, especially if you end up making it to the boss. The score at the end of the run determines which unlocks you finally get, so it’s important for new bonuses and even extra difficulty modes.

This is a roguelike though, so you can expect to fail and die a lot, so all that matters is the final score you get before your last life is gone. The problem with this is that to unlock the next tier reward, you need to constantly beat your last score, or else the run was essentially for nothing outside of ‘fun’ and practice. The overall XP/Score bar doesn’t stay filled between runs with your progress, so it’s all or nothing.

Controls in a shmup (still going with that genre distinction here) need to be air tight or else the game is dead on arrival. Thankfully for the most part controlling your speedship is quite responsive, as while I did have seemingly unfair deaths here and there, it was more from me not paying attention to something, not the controls. Remember, you have no weaponry, you simply need to dodge enemy attacks to stay alive long enough to steal those containers.

Where the strategy comes in is defeating your enemies. But how do you do so since you don’t have any guns? I’m glad you asked. You actually need to use enemy bullets and attacks against their own. Each enemy attacks you in a different way, so how can you trick them into attacking their own team? Quite simple really. Usually you just have to maneuver your ship behind an enemy so the other can fire at you, inadvertently hitting their ally, thus destroying them. Some enemies fire a laser at you after a moment of locking on, others drop mines that will explode when you’re in their range for a moment as well. You’ll know when to dodge once their red indicator goes from light to dark red, then it will explode or fire, so you better be out of the way.

The easiest way to dodge is to simply be out of the line of danger by moving your ship, but you’re also able to have your ship dive underwater for a short period at a time. This is how you’ll get under some fire beams, lasers and simply out of danger quickly. It takes some practice to learn enemy attack patterns, especially once you finally reach the boss, but you’ll slowly gain the reaction skills to make further progress each run. Once you learn how to act as bait and then use it to your advantage, you’ll be having successful runs in no time.

I quite enjoyed its minimalistic style; simplistic, small color pallet, but it works. The basic looking ship and enemies also have an appealing style, allowing you to see everything happening on screen so you’re able to avoid all the attacks. It’s colorful, basic, and it’s just pleasant to look at. The soundtrack is done quite well, having some good beats that keep your head bopping as you go for ‘just one more run’.

While I’d argue the $25.99 CAD price tag is a bit steep for how little content there is, the gameplay is quite original, as I would have never thought about playing a shmup that has no shooting. Lacking some sort of online leaderboard or modes does bring in the monotony and repetitiveness quite quickly, as I was only able to sit and play a few runs at a time before getting the itch to move onto something else for a break.

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

Overall Score: 6.7 / 10 Until the Last Plane

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to manage an airport base back in World War II era? Wonder no longer, as Until the Last Plane does just that, having you manage your pilots, aircraft, base, repairs, and even making sure you have enough fuel, parts, ammunition and bombs on hand for your important missions against the enemy. From solo developer CarloC Games, Until the Last Plane’s screenshots may have you think that there’s some shooting mechanics involved, but that’s not the case at all here really.

Air strikes obviously played an integral part of World War II across numerous theaters of war, and with Until the Last Plane, you’ll get to play a part in their hopefull successes in battle. Not only were the pilots brave for dogfighting and going behind enemy lines, but there was a crew of engineers and many others that often get forgotten, keeping their planes in tip-top shape and ready for the next assault.

You’re tasked with managing an airfield base. This is more than simply telling which pilots to attack certain targets, but making sure you keep and gather resources, keeping morale of your crew up, ordering spare parts, fuel and more. You’ll begin by choosing which faction you want to play as from USA, USSR and Germany, and then choose which of the 3 missions you want to attempt, each corresponding with a different difficulty. Successfully complete missions and you’ll move onto the next day as well as gain resources, experience for your pilots, skill points and more.

So with 3 factions and 3 missions each, you have 9 total levels to try and complete. Each mission though varies from their objectives and how many days each of them last, becoming increasingly challenging the more days you need to balance your resources and survive for. To successfully pass each day you must complete at least one mission, and these will vary. Failure to do so or having all your pilots perish in combat will abruptly return you to the main screen for you to start all over again.

Manage to complete a mission and you’ll earn a medal and some skill points to improve different aspects. Complete more missions in a day and you’ll earn more medals and rewards. Even though the core gameplay is simple and there’s a tutorial from the main menu you can partake in, there’s still a lot that really wasn’t explained well, namely the strategy of what to do and when. The best ways to manage your airbase is somewhat explained, but until an hour or two in I didn’t really understand it and how to balance my resources well. This caused for a lot of trial and error, but once you figure out the smaller details and some strategies for managing your airfield, it becomes much simpler.

With three different factions I actually expected the only real differences to be aesthetic, but there’s actually a bit of a difference of how you play each. While each nation has different planes, obviously, each of the campaigns do play different simply from how they earn their resources. For example, completing missions for USA earns you cash which you can then spend on purchasing more resources as you see fit. USSR though does it quite differently, as completing missions earns you political favor, which certain resources will be sent to you automatically as a reward. These subtle differences do require different strategies, though not difficult to figure out best practices with a few attempts. They vary enough to be unique from one another and each have their own small narratives.

You’re constantly racing against the clock, as once 18:30 rolls around, the day is over and your pilot must return, unable to start any more missions. As long as you have one mission type complete before then you’re going to move onto the next day of the 4-7 day mission. Could you complete one mission then simply wait for the other half of the day to pass by until the day ends, sure, but then you’ll lose out on resources from additional successful missions, so there’s a balance of using fuel and ammo to get more fuel, ammo and skill points.

To begin, you first must do some reconnaissance, finding out what targets and threats are nearby. This is done via a quick minigame starting with choosing how much fuel you want to spend. The more fuel the longer distance and more targets (missions) you can potentially spot, up to three, but the longer in the air the more potential for danger from enemy fighters. This minigame is quick, having you choose to move forward and simply pressing ‘A’ when your camera is over a shadow of a target below, adding them to your list of available missions for that day.

These missions will vary from bombing runs, dogfights and more, but more on those shortly. Surprisingly, you don’t really control or fly your planes as you might expect, rather simply giving them commands or aiming up the bombing reticules in these minigames instead. As pilots return to base they will park in designated repair zones where you’ll need to send your engineers to repair, refill fuel, restock ammunition and bombs. You only have a certain amount of workers though, so if you have all your pilots returning at once, you’ll have a backlog of planes waiting to be serviced as they come in together.

You’ll not only need to keep morale of your pilots and crew high, but doing what you can to keep them alive. If a pilot crashes and burns, clearly morale at the base will take a big hit. Between days of each campaign you might be making decisions based on situations you find yourself in or maybe someone asking for help. These could have positive or negative outcomes, so maybe think twice before lending out some of your engineers.

At its core, you’re simply playing a management sim and figuring out the most ideal way to spend and save your resources. Fuel and ammo will be your most used, needing constant resupply to your aircraft, but it’s all about making sure you have enough of everything on hand so you can continue on for more missions and onto the next day of the stage.

The different mission types simply vary in quick different styles of minigames. You need to send at least one pilot on a mission, but can send up to as many that are in your crew if you wish. Sending a half dozen will surely give you more chances at being successful, but then you’ll also be spending that much more fuel and ammunition, so there’s a balance of your needs versus skill at being successful.

After you’ve done your reconnaissance and have anywhere from one to three missions to choose from, you’ll then have a set amount of time to be successful with the objectives laid out before you, usually tasked with shooting down one or a few enemy planes or bombing some targets. The dogfights aren’t a typical shooter like you’d expect, instead giving you three different maneuvers you can tell your pilot to do, moving you forward, left or right, and once all the set moves from you and your enemy are used up in turn based succession, if the enemy is within your cone of firing, you’ll be successful, or else they will escape. If you take enemy fire in return, then your pilot will come back to the base for repairs.

The easiest missions are the bombing runs, and these are simplistic as it comes. As your plane flies forward, you simply need to lock in the aiming reticule cursors for the horizontal and vertical placement. These lines move quickly at first, so you need to lock in on your target, without much room for error. This becomes much easier with some practice, and certain skill points will slow down these line movements as well if you focus on these missions.

Because there are different plane types, some are better suited for different types of missions. The smaller planes are more agile, better used in dogfights and giving you more moves to use, whereas the larger bomber planes can hold up to 3 bombs instead of just 1 in the smaller aircraft, so there’s some strategy when choosing which pilots to send on mission types. There is an automatic combat option for you once you choose your pilots which certainly cuts down on the monotony, but there’s no success percentage shown, so you might send your best pilots and be completely unsuccessful, so it’s generally better to just repeat the same minigames over and over to ensure your success.

The issue with these missions is that they are very basic and repeated over and over. Once you figure out the best strategies to win, shoot down enemies or evade them, it becomes quite simple to always win. When pilots arrive back at the base you can choose to refill their supplies, fuel and more, but you don’t always have to. The more refilling the more resources you use and the longer it takes to do so. This is also dependent on how many technicians you have available as well, so there’s a constant balance game you need to play.

Not explained well is the upgrades you can craft for your planes. You have spare parts, another resource, so do you decide to save some on hand for repairs or spend them frivolously on upgrades for your planes to be more successful in future missions? This is where some strategy and knowing your own skills comes into play, as I knew if I chose bombing missions, those were always guaranteed wins per battle.

Created by a solo developer, the pixel graphics are done quite well, looking like an older game from my childhood. The sprites are done well and you can clearly see the distinction between the different factions and aircraft. The soundtrack is passable, as is the ‘pew pew’ from the gunfire and bomb drops, but there’s really not much else of note. There are a few voiced lines from the pilots, but these will grate on you quite quickly hearing the same lines over and over since you play these minigames dozens of times repeatedly. I was impressed that they are voiced in your chosen faction’s language, it’s just a shame they were constantly overused.

Until the Last Plane can be addictive in short bursts once you figure out its intricacies and best strategies, but there’s a lot of repetitiveness. Even with a few different mission types and objectives, you’re just constantly doing the same menu options repeatedly. The $12.79 (CAD) price does seem a little high given the lack of leaderboards, and while it does feel a bit underwhelming, it’s easy to complete on autopilot once you have the best strategies figured out.

**Until the Last Plane was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.8 / 10 Broken Pieces

I really enjoy when a game has a narrative that piques my interest, where I need to keep playing to find out what the outcome will be. Will the hero saves the world? What’s the big twist? Is there a shocking ending? I love when narrative has the forefront of a game and I’ll easily forgive weaker components if the story is enthralling and captivating. Within its opening moments, I was intrigued by Broken Pieces’ plot as it begins in some sort of alien-like hallway and then you wake up in an empty village, unsure what has happened or why you’re there. Sound interesting? I thought so too.

If had to best describe how Broken Pieces actually plays and its genre, it’s almost a mix of Siberia and Parasite Eve, heavy on the mystery and puzzle elements with some combat thrown in for good measure. The isolated feeling of being alone in a village doesn’t go unnoticed, as I was always in suspense of figuring out the next clue as to what’s going on, constantly driving me forward and wanting to see the credits roll.

Elise and her fiancé decided to move away, landing in a small village on the French coast, Saint-Exil. When she wakes up one day though, she doesn’t know where everyone is or went. The village seems abandoned as if no one has been there in quite some time. Not only will you need to figure out the mystery of the village and your presence, but why is the Lighthouse seemingly a beacon in more ways than one? You’ll learn early on there’s also some sort of cult that is, or was, in the village, and before long you’ll have some paranormal entities to deal with. Are you stuck in a time loop? What does the Church have to do with what’s going on? Why is there some sort of force field nearby? These are just a few of the questions you’ll be asking yourself as Elise slowly pieces together what has happened via a constant flow of puzzles and backtracking.

Now I’m being purposely vague with the story for a few reasons. For starters, if you’re good at these types of games and have a good memory of what pathways lead to where you’ve already been, you’ll probably be able to finish it in a single, albeit lengthy, sitting. Others will probably have a good few hours of wasted wandering and backtracking trying to figure out where you should be going next. While you are guided with clues in your notebook, there’s no compass or map, so you’ll need to make a conscious effort to learn the layout of the village and its intricate interconnected pathways.

I really don’t ever like to spoil endings, and I won’t here directly, but what I will say is that for the hours of intriguing plot, narrative and background lore you find along the way, the ending simply falls flat on its face. As the credits rolled I was kind of in shock, not because of some major reveal or crazy plot twist, but more of how ambiguous and unfulfilling it was. It’s a shame too, as the Elise’s story really gripped me all the way until the end. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not worth playing through, but waiting for a big payoff that never comes was a serious letdown.

As you explore Saint-Exil, the gameplay feels like it came right from early 90’s adventure games. While it doesn’t have tank controls like Resident Evil, it’s certainly got an annoying camera system that uses a fixed angle, though offering another angle with the press of a button. Sure you could look around in first person, but then you can’t move, so it’s not generally all that useful. Why we couldn’t just move the camera bound to the Right Stick I’m unsure, as having to swap between the two cameras for each area becomes tiresome as you’re trying to search for clues. An unfortunate byproduct of this camera system is that when the scene changes to a new section and the camera swaps, you’re all of a sudden holding the movement stick in the wrong direction and have to readjust.

As you search and explore Saint-Exil, you’ll come across numerous items and objects that can be interacted with. Some will have items inside that you can pick up and carry in your inventory, others are simply for lore and descriptions. There’s plenty of collectables to find as well, some in the form of favorite items, others, and more importantly, tapes that can be played at any time in Elise’s Walkman that’s always attached to her hip. Depending the options you toggle and choose, the objects that you can interact with will have a thick white outline to make easy indication, but you can turn that off should you wish.

Elise is going to have to manage her inventory, especially the latter half of the game with more puzzles and pieces to carry back and forth to certain areas. You can only hold a certain amount of items, though they are set into different categories based on what they are. Large items like and Axe or Lever for example can only have one held at a time, so if you need both, you’re going to need to remember when you dropped the first item and come back later to get it. Key items and tapes don’t seem to go towards your carry limit which is nice, as your tapes go into your collection and can be played at any time. These tapes are how you get background lore to the area, world and characters, though there’s also some songs you can find that your partner made that are absolutely wonderful to listen to in the background as you explore the desolate village.

Even though there’s lots of wandering around trying to figure out what has happened and how to escape, you’ll only be able to do so with your puzzle solving skills. While the main puzzles aren’t terribly difficult, usually just bringing a lever to a certain spot or changing the weather to adjust water levels or causing wind to blow down some platforms, there are optional puzzles that will probably bring some frustration as you become stumped for a while.

Even though Elise is seemingly alone in the village, she’s going to need to be mindful of the time, checking her trusty watch every so often. Her watch just happens to be a flip open Crab that speaks French. Yeah, I don’t know why either. You need to be home before nightfall, designated by 8PM, because Saint-Exil becomes incredibly dangerous once night arrives. While time slowly ticks away as you traverse around the village, moving to different main areas will actually take a much longer time, usually an hour or two, so make sure you’re being mindful of the time and how long to get back to your home before dark to rest.

What I didn’t expect was how much combat is in Broken Pieces, as I figured Elise being seemingly alone in the village would have no one to fight. While I don’t want to spoil too much, you’re not fighting regular humans or monsters, and thankfully it is basically explained in the narrative. How bullets harm these enemies I’m not sure, but I don’t ask questions. Remember those camera issues I mentioned above? Those carry over into these combat portions where you’re suddenly attacked by a few enemies and locked into an arena to deny any escaping until you’re successful or die.

Combat is without a doubt the weakest component and worst part of Broken Pieces. Interestingly, there’s an option to turn off combat, but there’s still a few parts where it’s forced and it’s made much easier compared to the other option, almost like a difficulty. Trust me, turn down the combat, it’s nothing but frustrating. As enemies manifest and slowly lurch towards you, you’ll need to shoot them a certain amount of times to defeat them. Defeat the wave or two of enemies and the combat section finishes. What isn’t explained initially very well is that the longer you aim your gun the smaller the reticule will get, causing more damage, so don’t just rapid fire, as you’ll likely miss the majority of your shots. As you’re aiming you’re also unable to move, so you can see where the frustration starts, especially since you can’t easily swap targets, so you better hope it chose the enemy you want to shoot at.

Elise also has a dodge and a knockback that can be used, but good luck getting them to use with any regularity when you really need it to work. You have unlimited normal ammunition, but during your travels can find, or craft, High Quality ammunition, causing more damage. I found I didn’t need to really use the HQ ammo until the last portion, and even then it was just to make the combat easier and finish quicker. What makes combat uninspired and boring too is that there’s really only one enemy type. The odd few will get a shield in the last portion, but nothing new from start to finish. I’m glad there was an option to lessen the combat sections, but it really just doesn’t feel or perform well in any way, feeling more like an arbitrary way to lengthen the gameplay even though there is a narrative reason for them to be there. Even the ‘boss’ portions at the end are quite uninspired.

For all the frustrations I had with Broken Pieces, there were some positives as well. The seaside village backdrop certainly paints a desolate area as if it’s post-apocalyptic. Visually the background and scenes are done well with plenty of smaller details, it’s just a shame you’re usually fighting the two camera options constantly to really enjoy much of it. Animations are a little janky at times, Elise doesn’t all that visually impressive and there’s a whole slew of 'jaggies' that stand out, but for such a small team, it’s impressive overall for its aesthetic.

The music though is wonderful, adding some much needed distraction and tone when much of the adventure is quite quiet by design outside of the natural wind and nature sounds. The music you find via tapes is actually the highlight, great to add to any YouTube playlist when you want something light in the background as you do some work. The English voice acting is done quite decently, not amazing, but for how much Elise talks to herself and listens to her own recordings, an overall commendable job when it comes to audio as a whole.

It’s clear that Broken Pieces was a passion project by the team, and while some aspects were wonderful, there was an equal amount of frustration along the way as well. You can expect anywhere from 5 to 10+ hours depending on how much you want to explore and how much backtracking and aimless wandering you do, and while the $31.99 (CAD) may seem a little high, it has potential to be a cult hit with its quirky charm.

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

Overall Score: 5.7 / 10 Divine Knockout

If I had to give a quick single sentence description of Divine Knockout (DKO), think third person Smash Bros in a 3D arena. While it’s self-described as “the world’s only 3rd-person platform fighter”, I’m not so sure about that proclamation, but it has a seasoned team behind it. Developed by Red Beard Games and published by Hi-Rez Studios, you might know them for some of their previous hits like SMITE, Paladins, Rogue Company or Realm Royale.

Tasked with smashing and knocking out the enemy team, you’ll play as a character from its limited roster, ranging from Gods to special characters. Choose from Ymir, Amatersau, Arthur, Athena, Hercules, Izanami, Sol, Susano, Thanatos, Thor or Zeus, though depending on which edition you purchase will determine what characters you have initial access to. Let me exmplain.

Currently, Divine Knockout is in what’s being called a ‘Founder’s Period’. Essentially Early Access, to play at this current moment you’ll need to purchase one of the two available packs. Now the official FAQ page states “After the Founders Period ends, DKO may become free-to-play. Note that we expect the Founders Period to last several months at minimum, and that each Edition contains in-game content unlocks valued at more than the cost of the Edition.” What stands out here is the word “may”, not stating “will”, so it’s difficult to say what the future holds for its full launch later in the year.

Two Founder Packs are available to purchase: Founders Edition is priced at $31.99 (CAD) unlocking the following: The full game (all maps and modes), 8 Gods (Amaterasu, Sol, Hercules, Susano, Ymir, Athena, Thor, and King Arthur), The Epic Biohazard Sol Skin, King Me Crater Decal, and The Founders Profile Card. Additionally, you’ll receive a special bonus in SMITE (Stormy Chibi Susano Skin and The God Susano, and his Voice Pack).

The Ultimate Edition priced at $63.99 (CAD) includes: The full game (all maps and modes), 8 Gods (Amaterasu, Sol, Hercules, Susano, Ymir, Athena, Thor, and King Arthur), 4 God Tokens (Used to unlock any God of your choice in DKO), The Epic Biohazard Sol Skin AND the Epic Darkheart Athena Skin, 1,000 Runes, “The Ultimate” Title, A DKO Founder Emote and Avatar, King Me Crater Decal, and The Founders Profile Card.

This is where I’m confused at its current state. DKO *should* be a free to play title, which it ‘may’ be in the future, but since you can only play currently by purchasing a Founder’s Pack, you might be surprised that there’s quite a grind to unlock the additional added characters. For example, to get a token to unlock any character you want you’ll need to first grind ten levels, but after that the requirements double, adding hours and hours of more grinding. That or you can simply open your wallet and buy what you want, but more on that mess shortly.

Given that Divine Knockout is kind of like Smash Bros, you’ll need to work on hitting your enemies to whittle down their health so that you can knock them out of the arena with a powerful blow that they won’t be able to recover from. Much like 2D platform fighters, the change to 3D of course adds some different gameplay and unique challenges, always having to mind what’s going on around you, especially in the 3 versus 3 matches.

Each of the arenas you fight in are unique, not only in design, but with their hazards and layout as well. One has outer edge platforms that tend to rotate, others have a spinning spiked bar that can do massive damage to you if you get hit, another has sections of the land that sinks, and even another with a massive rolling boulder. Not only do you need to stay aware of the enemies around you, but the environmental traps as well. You can also use these to your advantage, trying to smash the enemy team into them for a Knockout or at least some huge damage.

While there’s a few different modes to play, it’s more based on if you want to play 3v3, 2v2, or even prove yourself 1v1. 3v3 seems to be its core mode, but there seems to be no skill based matchmaking system included yet. This means that you as a complete newbie might get paired up with, or against, much higher level players. This of course means that some matches are completely unfair based on how it pairs players together, so something to be aware of. Also, I find it annoying that there’s no way to stay as a group after a match, always having to re-queue for a game after one is completed.

For a game that’s primarily marketed as a 3D brawler/fighter, there’s actually a few other modes that get voted on between each match. The team that wins best out of 5 matches first wins. You have the titular Knockout Mode where first team to gain 8 knockouts wins, which is seems like most players tend to vote for. There’s also a Coin Blitz mode where you go around the map to collect coins and then have to stand nearby the chest to collect them for your team. Do you collect tons of coins then have your team try and defend you as it slowly collects, or try and defeat the other team to get an edge on coin collecting time? Lastly is King of the Hill. Standard fare stuff where you need to stand within the designated area that moves every so often, gaining points the longer you stay inside the boundaries.

Regardless of which character you gravitate towards to, they do play somewhat similar. You have a light and heavy attack and then a few different abilities based on the specific character. I personally really enjoyed playing as King Arthur the most, as he has some decent attack abilities, a range attack, a decent ‘Ultimate’, and a great movement abilities. Each one does vary in their playstyle, so make sure to try each (depending on whom you have unlocked) to find what one works best for you. I will say, even though this is technically ‘early access’, there’s some imbalance in characters though, with some being just inherently more powerful or useful as others.

Find out what character has the offensive and defensive abilities you like and work on leveling them up. Each of the abilities has a cooldown timer to reuse, so you need to balance and strategize the best times to use them, as getting hit far out from the map without your traversal power ready means you’ll most likely get knocked out and need to wait on a respawn. Instead of a standard health bar you might expect, it’s much like Smash Bros where you see a percentage above their head, with the higher number indicating the more chance of a divine knockout to occur if you smash them good.

As you level up your characters you’ll be able to customize them to cater to your playstyle. There’s a perk-like system that will slightly alter how efficient or powerful your character becomes, and while it does add some personality to your character, it’s not overtly powerful currently. Sure, having some slightly more damage or more Ultimate charge is great, but it’s not game breaking nor really feels all that different.

What frustrated me was the cash shop. So is Divine Knockout pay-to-win? I wouldn’t go that far since "power" can’t be purchased, though you can buy more skins, cosmetics and the norm, but keep in mind cash shops like that are generally meant for free-to-play games. Sure DKO might be free-to-play in the future, but I have to take it for what it is at this given moment, and it’s currently pay to play.

Yes, you can unlock new characters simply by playing, but the grind is quite arduous and lengthy. Maybe this will also change in the future, but again, in its current state it’s a bit gross to see $130 bundles. Also equally concerning is the prices for characters of course doesn’t equate to certain coin bundles offered, meaning you need to spend more than required and will of course then have left over currency.

What did surprise me was the inclusion of full cross-play and cross-progression, so regardless of where your friends are playing, you can play with, or against, them. It should be noted that purchasing DKO on one platform doesn’t mean you have access on another, so you would need to purchase it there as well. Because of the cross-play, I never had an issue finding a match quickly, though I didn’t see an easy way to discern what platform the other players were on.

The cute chibi-like aesthetic is pleasant on the eyes, as are the very colorful and bright colors. Sure it may look a little odd to see a cute chibi style Thor or Hercules, but it tends to work with how comic-like it all feels. Animations and abilities all have decent looking effects and animations, and while the environments are deliberately small in design, they are all varied from one another with a different theme. The background music does its job at cutting the dead air, but there’s nothing really memorable from its soundtrack. Some of the moves and attacks do sound powerful and like they have impact, as it’s always satisfying to use a heavy attack or ability and hear the enemy launch into the air and then get a knockout.

Given Hi-Rez Studios’ pedigree, especially with SMITE, I had some high expectations with Divine Knockout. While I’m not disappointed with the game on its own, I’m more confused by the decision to charge for its early access, limiting who can play when it certainly feels like it’s designed to be a free-to-play game, made even apparent with its cash shop.

The official wording of "may" and not "will" when talking about its launch plans of possibly going free-to-play later on still seems odd, but time will tell. While it’s currently lacking much variety and content, it can be fun in short bursts, especially once you start to get proficient with your character of choice, but it’s an arduous grind, hard to recommend in its current paid state. Once, and if, it goes free-to-play, it’ll be a no-brainer to give a shot.

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

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Finding the Soul Orb

I’m all for small indie developers being able to create their vision, as they are usually quite a unique experience compared to the larger and popular games that most play. Finding the Soul Orb is one of those experiences, clearly a labor of love, but there’s always the question if it will resonate the same way with the audience as intended, or if it will get glossed over. A story driven game with a lot of linear walking paths, complete with a crossbow, werewolves and some very light puzzle elements, all while exploring some different landscapes. Even though there’s some very light combat elements, the vast majority of the experience is simply walking, so I’d still classify it primarily as a walking sim despite the other elements included.

As you explore the areas you find yourself in, and I use the term ‘explore’ quite loosely, as you’re actually quite restricted to where you can and can’t go, you’ll come across these circular stones that when stood on will give you snippets of the narrative. Whilst standing on these stones, there’s a fog that clouds your vision as text appears on screen, giving you a few sentences of the story each time. The story starts out interesting enough, set in medieval times about a King and his lands plagued by an onslaught of werewolves. A high wizard created something called the Soul Orb that was meant to protect the Kingdom, but then it was suddenly gone. This is where Alexander is talked to by the Soul Orb in his dreams, sets off to go find it, and save the Kingdom. There then is something about an evil wizard and some more backstory, but because of the small snippets of story at a time, it was quite difficult to follow along.

Honestly, even after the credits rolled and I finished all twelve chapters in a single sitting, I was still left confused due to numerous characters simply talked about in story without seeing anything or anyone. Even at the final cutscene, I was still confused as to what has happened. Now what? I have no idea, so don’t go in expecting some interesting narrative or big pay off at the end unfortunately.

Placed in a fantasy setting, you begin your journey by coming landing on shore from your ship on a small rowboat. As you land you see something far off in the distance and decide to start heading towards the mountains in the distance. There’s seemingly different difficulties, but what the actual differences are between the different versions of Easy, I’m unsure.

As you make your way up the opening pathway, this is your first indication at just how linear this experience is about to be. Not only are you confined to the main path laid out before you, but you quickly realize that you’re unable to veer from the designated path at all. Those ankle high shrubs, bushes and flowers means you’re unable to step over, and thus must go where designed. There’s little to no exploring allowed, which is a bit of a disappointment, as you can’t even deviate from the main path slightly, blocked in by invisible walls.

Controls are simplistic as they come, with movement assigned to the sticks as expected, Left Trigger to run, though it’s more of a brisk walk, and Right Trigger to shoot your crossbow once you find it early on in your adventure. Why the default is a slow walk, I’m unsure, so you have to hold the Left Trigger the whole time if you want to jog slightly faster. As you make your way across the dozen chapters, you’ll find the glowing rocks to stand on, giving you those snippets of story in text format. There are a few chapters though that you don’t even really play, as they are dream sequences with the Soul Orb talking to you for a few minutes, then you continue on your journey.

Played in first person, the majority of your experience will be walking from one area to the next. There are some very light puzzle and combat elements, but even calling them puzzles, aside from one, is a bit of a stretch. Puzzles boil down to shooting a switch with your crossbow, sometimes figuring out the order of the two or three handles to progress, and that’s it. There’s one puzzle that has you doing something different, not explained at all until a hint appeared on screen as I thought I was lost or stuck. And the last puzzle oddly enough, was quite difficult, having to shoot levers to rotate some pillars, though unsure of what the solution was until the game actually asked me if I wanted to automatically solve it. I appreciate the offer, but having more of a clue of how to solve said puzzle would be been welcome too.

There are a handful of collectables to find in most of the chapters. These are tied to achievements too, so definitely worth the small deviation. Since your adventure is basically linear, these are essentially just hiding in certain houses or ruins. Demon statues will be sitting in random spots ready to be found and collected, and then there are some gargoyles that stay floating around certain areas, waiting for you to shoot them with your crossbow. That’s about it, and the 1000 Gamerscore is a breeze to get, even without any walkthroughs or guides since they are quite difficult to miss due to the linearity.

The world you explore changes from rocky mountains, gloomy and dark forests, underground mines to gorgeous beachside vistas. Some landscapes are fantastical to take in their scenery while others are completely boring and has nothing of note to look at. What reoccurs though is the werewolves you’ll need to fight along the way that block your path. Certain areas will have the pathway you need to progress blocked with an orange spell barrier, but defeat all the werewolves in the area, usually 3 to 5, and it magically turns green and unlocks, allowing you to pass.

While there is some combat and it’s somewhat frequent, it’s so broken which is why I still categorize Finding the Soul Orb as primarily a walking sim. Stand far enough away and you can pick off the werewolves without them seeing you or reacting. The first half will have single shot werewolves that flail in the air like wrestler overselling a huge bump before keeling over and dying. Better yet, later on there are seemingly some more powerful werewolves that take more than one shot, so you would assume that after hitting them once they would turn to you and start pursuing you right? Nope, they don’t react at all as long as you’re far enough away, so you can simply pick them off one by one without any recourse.

After each shot you have to reload the crossbow, which take a few moments, naturally, though I’m still unsure where you keep the unlimited amount of silver tipped arrows since you can shoot indefinitely. Because there was no risk in combat, it felt completely unneeded, simply slowing you down for a few moments as you miss your first few shots due to the inaccuracy until the shot finally lands and kills your enemy. There seems to be a distance where the arrow won’t hit the enemy, but you can get close enough where they still won’t pursue you on their predetermined walking path. If you do happen to get too close, the music changes and it’s obvious that they are chasing you, but nothing to worry about as they simply come at you in a straight line, slowly, with claws out trying to look intimidating.

Oddly, there’s even an optional crossbow upgrade to find early on, allowing your arrow to shoot through the werewolves and hit any behind, but because you’ll be picking them off one by one from a distance without any issues, this seems completely unneeded as well. Sure, maybe in the last chapter where you fight a few of the ‘harder’ ones simultaneously it’ll help, but don’t stress if you somehow don’t find the upgrade that’s well-hidden ten feet from the main path. Often your character will automatically draw or put away the crossbow, so when nothing is in hand you know you’re simply walking from point A to point B. Once that crossbow comes out, you know you’ll have to deal with some werewolves or puzzles to progress. This kills any tension though, as you basically know what’s going to happen.

Being an indie game, my expectations for its visuals and audio are obviously nowhere near a largely funded game, but I’d still like to be impressed. This is where Finding the Soul Orb is a mixed bag. On one hand, some of the environments are so drab and dull that it’s as if there was little effort made into creating an interesting world to explore. Given that the majority of the experience is on 'rails' and we are forced to see what we were designed to, I was hoping for a bit more.

Then in the later half when you’re exploring outside, it has some of the most beautiful skyboxes I’ve seen, forcing me to take a few moments and a handful of screenshots to capture its beauty. I just wish the whole experience was like this. Stop to smell the roses and you’ll notice how low quality many of the textures and models are, which given how slow you ‘run’, it’s hard not to notice when it stands out poorly. And for whatever reason, it didn’t feel like a smooth experience, so I can only assume it wasn’t anywhere near 60fps, even giving me a weird Xbox menu lag as I was playing as well.

Then there’s the audio, or lack of it. Sure there’s some music that kicks in when combat is about to happen, but a lot of the time there’s some dead silence. The only voiced sections are the ‘dream’ chapters where the Soul Orb is talking to you, but the other story pedestals you find would have benefited from some voicing as well. What’s odd though is that at certain parts of the walking sim sections, some amazing and beautiful orchestral music would kick in, something that made me feel like I was exploring the world of Morrowind or Skyrim.

I don’t enjoy being harsh on small indie games, as I understand how difficult it can be to even create the experiences, but I’m always trying to think of value and longevity, both that seem to be missing. Sure the easy 1000 Gamerscore is nice for two hours of work, but it can be completed in a single sitting and absolutely no reason to ever go back. Even at a low price of $8.99 (CAD), it’s difficult to recommend for such a dull experience since I can't explore at all.

**Finding the Soul Orb was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 4.0 / 10 Saint Kotar

I’m all for trying games outside of my comfort zone, as Saint Kotar isn’t something I would have normally gravitated to towards on my own. Now, I’m not a religious man, not at all actually, but Saint Kotar, developed by Red Martyr Entertainment, makes it apparent from its opening minutes that this game is going to have a lot of themes that revolve around religion, cults and more. I should mention, that there’s also some things discussed that could potentially be trigger warnings for some people, but I don’t recall seeing any at the beginning of the adventure.

A psychological horror point and click game, Saint Kotar takes place in a small town in Croatia, and given that I’m not religious at all, it was a bit much to get through at certain points. It surely is an interesting game, but don’t expect your typical point and click adventure, as this has a much darker setting.

You play most of the time as Benedek, sometimes swapping to brother in-law Nikolay. Both wake up in a mysterious house in a small religious town, Sveti Kotar, searching for his sister Viktoria, also Nikolay’s wife. Before this journey begins you actually start the game many years ago as a child, being locked in the basement by your father for disobeying some order, and yes, the lights are completely shut off. So you start the game stumbling around in the dark unsure what to do or even how, eventually finding that your sister, Viktoria, has snuck down there to be with you so you’re not alone.

Religion runs in your family, and your father was very strict when it came to God. This is probably why Benedek decided to become a monk and follow God in his own life as he grew up. When the two men wake up they can tell right away that something is wrong and doesn’t feel right. They can’t find Viktoria and are seemingly locked in this house. Once they do find a way out their journey of finding Viktoria begins, but it’s not that simple when the police arrive to question you of her whereabouts.

It becomes abundantly clear that Sveti Kotar isn’t your typical small town, as you’re brought to the scene of a crime that happened last night. You arrive at a church under police escort only to find the hanging corpse of the mayor dangling from its walls. His eyes are gone, as is the heart and part of the brain. Why would the police show you this? They seemingly have reason to believe it was your sister. But how could she do this? Where was she? Nikolay of course believes in her innocence, but Benedek knowing his sister and how they’ve been distant the last few years isn’t so sure.

I’ll admit, I was intrigued early on as the search for Viktoria was compelling, even with the heavy handed religious overtones. To find out the truth of the murder and avoid being blamed, you’ll need to figure out what actually happened, but it won’t be as simple as you first think. Is your sister involved or actually a victim? You better start figuring out where she is to get to the bottom of this so you can leave this cursed place.

Having a very narrative driven game is difficult at the best of times, but doing so with a pair of characters that are quite unlikable makes it even more challenging. I get that both men are religious, but it’s shoved in your face at every turn, coming across as way too holier than thou. It probably doesn’t help that the voice acting isn’t all that great, but more on that shortly. Even by the time the (actual) credits rolled, I still didn’t like Benedek and feel like he didn’t redeem himself into a likable protagonist.

You will meet a cast of other characters along the way, some stand out, like Detective Mostov who has a massive dent in his head, or a grotesque looking fisherman nearby who seems to have something stuck to his neck. Some of these characters were well written and intriguing, more so than even Nikolay, which I really ended up disliking. I won’t delve much more into the story, as this is a narrative heavy game with lots of twists and turns, but what I will say is that even after I got the ‘real’ ending, I came away disappointed with the big reveal and twist. Also, in more than just a few points of the story, the screen will go black during a cutscene where something important happens. These moments with only dialogue don’t really carry the weight I believe they were intended to and just feel like it’s missing or incomplete. I’m not sure if it was this way to avoid having to do animations, which are basic as it is, or if it’s to have you envision it in your own mind, but it stands out awkwardly.

As you begin to solve the mystery of your sister’s whereabouts and involvement, you’ll be exploring the town of Sveti Kotar, a dark and morbid town, from rundown buildings, police department, a church, cursed forest and more. I hope you have a good memory, as you’ll need to remember the pathways to and from areas, as there’s plenty of backtracking you’ll need to do going from one scene to another. There’s a button to toggle walking and running, but running is already slow as it is, so why you’d want to purposely walk somewhere aside from roleplaying reasons, I’m not sure.

In most point and click adventure titles, you’re given basic commands like walk, use and look. It’s somewhat similar here, but what I did really appreciate was being able to press a button and see all the intractable hotpots in each scene. This meant less fumbling around, easily seeing what the intractable objects were and the pathways to the adjoining areas. I was worried I’d need to move a mouse-like cursor on screen, as this generally doesn’t work all that well with a controller, but thankfully that’s not the case here, able to easily tab between each object with the D-Pad.

Saint Kotar is very dialogue heavy, so get comfortable and settle in for a wild story that goes in some directions you probably don’t expect at first. While there is an inventory and you’ll have a handful of items at most times, there’s not much trial and error, as it’s generally obvious of what items is to be used when. This means there’s not much in terms of puzzles, but also means I didn’t get stuck as much as I usually do in this genre. You will need to combine items from time to time, which can be a bit awkward with the controller setup, but I did get stuck at one point where I had to read a note in my inventory, completely unsure how to do so without testing it with every single button until I finally figured it out.

Instead of random puzzles to figure out, you need to make sure you talk to everyone you can and exhaust every dialogue option. Now and then you’ll be given some actual choices to make, and these will affect certain outcomes and possibly even bring you to a premature credit roll or Game Over screen. This was part of the issue, it’s not blatantly obvious at first what the ‘real’ ending was, as some that see credits roll about halfway through might think that’s it. As you go through the dialogue choices, the ones you’ve already chosen turn a slightly lighter grey, but it’s hard to discern what you’ve chosen already sometimes, so I always just chose top down.

At certain story segments you’ll be forced to swap characters to see a different perspective, other times you’ll be able to freely change whenever you like, but it’s difficult to know when you should to figure out how to progress. You’ll often be aimlessly wandering around trying to figure out who to talk to so you can move forward, and while there’s a map, it’s an overall generic map, not detailed enough to show the pathways between each area showing routes, so it’s quite pointless.

Visually, Saint Kotar isn’t pretty to look at. Even though you have characters walking around some backgrounds, everything looks dated, from the textures to the models themselves. Maybe they were going for a PS1 – PS2 era aesthetic, but the limited animations and slow movement really makes it stand out and feel like it drags on at times. Given the backdrop and setting, of course the town of Sveti Kotar is dark and dreary, but it just appears dull overall.

What did impress is that every line of the lengthy dialogue is completely voiced, something I wasn’t expecting. That said, the voice acting is quite mediocre at the best of times. Maybe it’s the heavy religious tonality of the writing, but it ranged everywhere from cringe to bland; not the worst I’ve ever heard, but certainly not great. The music however does a great job at setting a dark tone and makes the backdrops very atmospheric.

Saint Kotar was an odd title to get through, as it was frustrating in certain aspects, but the story was drip fed just well enough that I had a hard time putting it down, wanting to find out what the actual truth was to its mystery. At $44.99 CAD, it does seem a bit overpriced, but depending on your point and click skillset, you’ll get anywhere from 10 to 20 hours of it. An interesting story with heavy religious and cultist tones, the constant backtracking and weak visuals may deter some. God, Religion and Cultists, oh my!

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

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Togges

3D platformers can be fun, but those that have a cute protagonist and set in a very colorful world are even better. Togges, developed by two man team Regular Studio, is the latest 3D platformer but has its own unique twist. Not only is it set in a very colorful world and quite adorable, but it’s also got a wacky story that at least helps you have some overall goal aside from simply solving puzzles. Each world is designed to be non-linear and you’re able to freely explore and solve puzzles in any order you wish, all while stacking the cutest little blocks. And if you get feelings of Katamari or Super Mario Galaxy, you aren’t alone.

Surprisingly, there is a story within Togges that revolved around some sort of threat called The Void, so you are helping King President to save the universe by dominating it. Even funnier, your character is basically a small Roomba vacuum cleaner, though of course you have some special abilities that will help you solve puzzles along the way across each world.

You’ll be tasked with collecting a handful of different fruits in each world across a handful of different worlds. How this fruit will stop the universe from being destroyed by The Void, I’m not sure; I just work here, I don’t ask questions. You’ll also need to convince each world’s gatekeeper to join your quest to save the universe when you finally get to meet them, something that might be easier said than done.

You’ll not only be tasked with placing adorable cubes called Togges, but sucking them up as well, you are a small and cute little vacuum after all. You’ll be doing so across seven different worlds with dozens of bonus levels, ranging from a lush and green field, desert, carrot cake land, a moon world and more. You’ll meet some characters along the way, some funny pair of brothers, and others that seem to want to chat for what seems like forever. There’s a surprising amount of dialogue for a 3D puzzle platformer, but it shows that effort has gone into making this world livelier, even if it can be a bit much at times.

Togges is quite unique in its gameplay, as it has you spreading your little cubes one at time by holding the Right Trigger. As you do so, a line of Togges will appear behind you, leaving a trail in the path you go. You’re tasked with solving puzzles with the Togges, as Toomba (your Roomba) can’t interact with anything without the Togges there. So this has you stretching your resources of Togges as you try to reach the next fruit you’re searching for. You’re only able to start placing Togges down from specific points, usually the starting point or fruits that you find and collect.

The other thing to keep in mind is that you’re a vacuum, so any Togges you no long need can be sucked back up and put into your pile of available ones to place. You’ll only be able to reach so far without going back and collecting any Togges you no longer need, so you’ll constantly be cleaning up after yourself. Once a Togge is placed you can spread more from that cube, but if you accidentally suck up all the ones you need to reach somewhere, you’ll have to find one of the fruit starting points and make a new trail.

You start with basic red Togges, able to be stacked up to five high, but they can only be placed one block apart. You start off with about a thousand Togges to be placed, which is more than enough to get through a few puzzles without cleaning up Togges you no longer need, but you’ll eventually have to backtrack to vacuum them up and put back into your available pool. Since you need to reach objects with a Togge to interact with an item, like doors to bonus levels, fruit and more, the puzzle elements that come into play is how do you reach your destination with your Togges trail. Sure you can explore freely without placing any Togges to get an idea of what’s around you, but you’ll have to figure out a way to reach your destination with your Togges to be successful and interact.

As you progress you’re going to find new abilities and colors of Togges that change how you approach some puzzles. Green Togges for example are huge, allowing you to reach higher areas but cost more to place. Yellow and conduct electricity and Blue can actually be placed along water like a bridge provided you don’t stop for more than a moment, but aren’t able to be stacked very high. So once you have a few more options you’ll need to be strategic of when will be used to reach your destinations. Making things even trickier is that it seems like you can’t mix and match Togges, as they have to be a line of the same color from the starting point, so you can’t use your normal Red Togges then all of a sudden place form Green’s to reach higher.

You can even find some abilities to help you along the way as well, such as being able to place a massive bomb and knock it in a direction. These abilities will help you find all the collectables, and you’ll be the most successful if you spend the time to explore the world you’re in. Because of the level design, you’re not forced to finish levels in a linear path, though if you try to go too far or place too many Togges, you might not be able to solve the puzzles. This is where you can find small fruit shards that once collected, by placing a Togge on it, will add to your overall Togges count, allowing you to reach ultimately further.

The opening world is a perfect introduction to how you play while not feeling overwhelming. Eventually though I’ll admit, the worlds became absolutely huge, like the Carrot Cake land, making me feel overwhelmed and unsure where to start. I found it best to find the closest fruit I could and simply focus on that, one at a time. Trying to do too much at once simply frustrated me, so I chose to focus on one puzzle at a time.

I quite enjoy Togges' art direction, as the world's are quite colorful and there’s something adorable with the hundreds of cubes you place down having cute little smiles. The level design is done quite well and you can tell the worlds are hand crafted with plenty of detail. While there’s a lot of dialogue, all of the text is done in that Sims-like gibberish and the background audio is relaxing and varies based on the levels.

While I did become stumped quite often at how I was supposed to reach certain areas with my Togges, sometimes taking a break or working on finding another fruit before coming back seemed to help. There’s supposedly a Hint system integrated, but every time I tried to use it I would just get “No Fruit Nearby” even if I could see it, just unsure how to get there properly. It can sometimes be tricky to place your Togges exactly where you want, especially on single cube spots, but you eventually get a feel for doing so more proficiently as you spend more time in its world.

Truth be told, one of our other writers was set to do this review, but was unable to due to some severe motion sickness, so I've asked them to describe what they encountered:

"As a huge fan of Thunderful games as well and Indie puzzle platform games, I was extremely excited to play (and review) Togges. Sadly, I couldn’t play for more than 15 minutes at a time without encountering some pretty severe motion sickness from the way the camera moves and swivels. This isn’t an uncommon problem for me in games but normally you can find a way to adjust the camera or movement or sensitivity settings in the options. This, unfortunately, wasn’t the case with Togges as I saw no setting for any of these, nor things like colorblind mode. I don’t need this feature, but with a game that relies on using a variety of coloured blocks (with differing abilities) in levels to complete them, it seems to be another feature lacking."

Togges excels at placing you in its colorful and whimsical world, and those that enjoy taking the time to explore every corner of the levels will surely get dozens of hours out of it. Those that want a little more guidance might become a little frustrated, especially once you unlock the later levels that are much larger and can be a bit overwhelming at first. Surely to twist your mind and puzzle solving skills, there’s plenty of longevity in Togges, all while placing hundreds of adorable cubes.

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

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Heidelberg 1693

Developed by Andrade Games, Heidelberg 1693 is an alternative take on history that revolves around a Musketeer and an endless amount of zombies and undead constantly trying to murder you at every step. “Survive Morbid” is the official subtitle, and absolutely fitting. A Castlevania clone at its core, Heidelberg 1693 is a 2D action adventure with hints of Ghouls 'n Ghosts and even some classic Prince of Persia.

Having done a little research on Musketeers after playing this, they were a very important soldier type who guarded the French King back in the 17th and 18th centuries. Essentially the beginning of a standard rifleman, they were armed with a musket, a long barrel firearm that was deadly but very slow to reload due to the primitive technology back then. And thus, you’re an unnamed musketeer, which is blatantly obvious due to the oversized hat with large feather, who King Louis XIV has sent to destroy his bastard son. King Louis XIV was also known as the Sun King, so of course the antagonist, his bastard son, is the Moon King. Featuring real historical people and places, they of course take some liberties with the historical accuracies, as I don’t remember a mass zombie plague in the history books. Why send his army to defeat the Moon King when he can send you, alone? And so begins your adventure fighting a mass of undead abominations whom the Moon King has transformed all the surrounding inhabitants to stop you.

While the levels themselves aren’t long in design, each will take a while due to the amount of times you’ll die and have to start over from the last checkpoint you reached. As you complete each stage, you’ll make your way across the lands, though the story plays out like a silent movie between most stages which is interesting given the setting, but hard to get you invested in the narrative.

As a 2D platformer that looks as though it came out of the classic era of gaming, Heidelberg 1693 is going to take a good amount of memorization, trial and error, and perseverance to complete. Sure, there’s speedruns out there that make the game’s difficulty look like a joke, but for an average player you expect to die quite often until you can adjust and react to each level’s enemy patterns, attacks and traps. As you traverse each level from left to right, you’ll need to survive against an onslaught of unrelenting undead enemies. These start out as simple lurking zombies that are easy to kill, but eventually you’ll have a number of other types of monstrosities, like floating skull heads, corpse tossers, other musket users and more, and that’s not even including the environmental traps like massive spinning blades and deadly pits. To keep with the horror theme, there’s a heavy coat of blood, guts and gore, keeping that uneasy theme recurring throughout.

To get around the levels and survive you’ll need to be able to jump and reach all the different platforms to progress. There’s even a double jump included, because of course a 2D action platformer needs a double jump, but this is where I find some of the issues arise. When you double jump you automatically also do a spin attack with your sword, which is fine and used for fighting enemies, but this also leaves you defenseless for a moment once you land as well. You also have a down thrust attack which is great for dealing extra damage for enemies directly below you.

Couple this with some iffy controls when it comes to precise movement, and you can probably start to see where some of my frustration came into play. Certain areas only give you the smallest fraction of a spot to land safely, but doing so is incredibly difficult at the best of times, causing a lot of unfair deaths. That’s also not even factoring the general chaos that’s generally happening on screen at all times either with projectiles and handfuls of enemies all trying to kill you.

Armed with just a trusty sword and musket, you’ll need to be patience and clever to survive what’s trying to destroy you. Level design is done well in the sense that enemy placements are generally in tricky to reach spots or at difficult angles to add more challenge. It’s rare when there’s a generally flat sections where you can simply swipe your sword back and forth, carving a pathway through the undead. Instead, expect perched enemies up high trying to toss projectiles at you, making traversing challenging. Also, you better keep an eye on those that you’ve killed, because they may need a second shot to kill them for good so they don’t come back to life if you stay around too long, though this generally never really because an issue and more seemed like a waste of ammo.

You’re a Musketeer though, so naturally you’d think that the majority of your combat would focus on this. It does to an extent, but remember that muskets shot one bullet at a time before needing a lengthy reload, and it’s no different here in Heidelberg 1693. While quite powerful, your musket requires you to reload after each shot before use again, and this takes quite a while and leaves you vulnerable. Because of the general chaos always happening, there’s not many opportune times to reload so it becomes almost a game of trying to find the right moment to reload when you need it most.

There’s also a weird mechanic to actually shooting, as you need to aim with the Right Stick, but you’re seemingly restricted to shooting between certain angles, and without any sort of aimer or cursor you’re going to likely miss a good amount of your shots in the heat of battle, again, leading to some more deaths. Ammo is generally scarce as well, and you can only carry a handful of ammunition at a time, so I tended to rely on my musket for more ‘oh crap’ last ditch effort attacks to try and survive. Thankfully along with ammo, health pickups can appear too, so make sure to defeat any enemies or slash any hanging corpses you can; you never know what may fall out of them.

What I didn’t really expect though was how enemies can hit one another. It took me a while to try and use this to my advantage, as eventually I would try and position myself behind another enemy so that when I was being shot at from afar, they would kill the enemy in front of me instead. Easier said than done when there’s a lot happening at once and you’re frustrated from trying a level for the thirtieth time because the difficulty spiked out of nowhere.

Heidelberg 1693 sports some great pixelated aesthetics, oversaturated in blood and darkness. Animation is done quite well for you and enemy movement and attacks, I was just a little let down with the storyboard version of the narrative as it’s basically a slideshow. While no voice acting, the gushy sounds of things constantly dying is satisfying, as is the brooding soundtrack that subtly sets the tone in the background.

While it won’t be as iconic as its Castlevania or Ghouls 'n Ghosts influences, Heidelberg 1693 is sure to scratch that itch for those yearning for a similar title. Boss battles are large and the highlight of the experience, though infrequent between the random and challenging difficulty spikes.

**Heidelberg 1693 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.7 / 10 Firefighting Simulator - The Squad

Having originally released on PC back in 2020, Firefighting Simulator – The Squad is now here for you and your group of friends to fight fires together as one cohesive unit. Like many young kids, at one point I wanted to be a firefighter. Something about running into a burning building saving someone, or getting that cat stuck up in the tree, felt like being a true life hero. Well now the time has come and you can get an idea of what it may be like to fight fires alongside a squad of friends with Firefighting Simulator – The Squad.

Before you start your new career of fighting fires, you’ll need to know what to do, which is where the opening tutorial comes in. This starts with the basics then has optional tutorials you can take, of which I would suggest going through for more than just the achievement of course. The basics start with showing you how to move and spray water on the fire, but you’ll also learn how to use all the doors at a firefighter’s disposal, such as axes, pry bars, circular saw and more.

Certain tools will be needed to open blocked doors and windows, even allowing you to smash through certain walls for another entry point. The tutorials do a decent job of showing you how to extinguish a fire, as fire can spread if you don’t battle against it properly. Sometimes you need to think about how to prevent a fire from spreading since you can’t instantly extinguish it. You’ll also be taught how to crouch so you can deal with the heavy smoke before you ventilate rooms by opening doors and windows.

I initially made a joke about the game having backdrafts, one of the best early 90’s movies, and to my surprise they are actually a hazard you need to be aware of in the game as well, though don't seem to happen often. This is a simulator though, so you’ll need to establish your hoses, command your squad and even use ladder trucks to fight the fires from above or to save people trapped inside a building.

I hope you weren’t expecting some story or narrative about being a rookie, working their way up the ranks to eventually be a captain or something, because there’s absolutely no story mode or anything of the sort here. There is a progression system where you get XP for completing missions, but you simply go from one mission to the next. Your goal is to beat all the missions and score the best you can. That’s about it.

Being a simulator, you can expect there’s some realism to the game, and this starts with officially licensed gear from Cairns, MSA G1 SCBA, Leatherhead Tools and HAIX. Now I’m no firefighter, nor know anything about the gear they use in real life, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that it’s probably authentic to the gear worn by actual firefighters. There’s also officially licensed firetrucks as well from Rosenbauer America, such as the TP3 Pumper and T-Rex Articulating Platform. While I doubt many won’t know this gear or brand unless you’re in this career path, I’m sure this will make those that are, happy to see its authenticity.

As mentioned above, you’ll simply be doing one mission after another. You can see the map that spans roughly 15km of roads and there’s about 30 or so missions to complete. You only begin with a few missions unlocked, but as you complete them and earn XP, missions will unlock based on your levels and completion, so it will take a bit of grinding to unlock and complete them all. You can replay missions whenever you wish if there’s some that really stand out, and there’s also randomized missions as well to keep things a bit fresh.

So let’s talk about actually fighting the fires. Well, before you do so you’ll need to drive there from the fire station where the truck is parked. I was expecting to have some sort of minigame of getting your gear equipped or at least sliding down the iconic pole, but nope, you simply start in your truck and are off to the call. Your map will show you the path to get to the fire, adjusting if you miss or make a wrong turn. You can choose to have your headlights and sirens on. Just like real life, most cars will get out of your way when they hear the siren and see you coming, but there’s always one or two that are either oblivious or don’t care, requiring you to swerve a bit to avoid a collision. As for the actual driving mechanics, it’s as basic as it gets. Collide into cars or objects and you get a traffic incident, causing you to be slow and then most likely not getting your quick response bonus.

So you’ve followed the GPS and made it to the scene, now what? Well, you’re a firefighter, you trained for this. Usually one member will do a 360 of the scene to find out what’s happened or notice if any survivors inside. Next will be establishing your lines and hoses, as that’s how you’ll be fighting the fires. First you go to the truck and find the supply hose indicated by yellow and attach that to the fire hydrant nearby. This will supply and route the water through the firetruck once you connect the other end to it.

Go back to your truck and find the red attack hose, attach to the proper connector on the truck, get a nozzle from another compartment and attach that. Now you’re ready to start blasting the fire with some pressurized water, though I'm not sure why nozzles don't come pre-attached, but maybe that's how it is in real life. You can setup these lines yourself or get the AI to do so with the command wheel, but more on that shortly. The truck will also have different compartments with the other tools you’ll need like your circular saws to cut through locks, fire extinguishers for grease fires, axes and more based on your needs.

Now that you’ve got your attack line, you’re ready to do what you do best; putting out those fires. Holding ‘Right Trigger’ will have you spray water wherever you’re aiming. No need to worry about destroying objects, blasting your teammates, or even how the line will get around corners. The attack line magically grows whenever you walk with it, which is quite hilarious at the end of a job, seeing hundreds of feet of hose all around the ground like a den of snakes.

When you start blasting the fire with your hose you’ll start to see small fire icons. These start large and eventually shrink before disappearing, stating that the fire has been put out. You have to be aware of how fire behaves though. Just because you put out the fire on one wall, the other or roof that’s still burning can cause it to reignite, so you need to be methodical about how you’re putting out the fires so that you’re not there not making any progress.

If you decide to play solo, that’s perfectly viable, as the team of four will be filled with AI team members at all times. You do have a command wheel where you can instruct each of the team to do something different if you want, but I found this to work spotty at best. I generally just instructed them to always fight the fire, or go rescue an unconscious person once I’m able to find where they are passed out on the floor.

While you’ll primarily be fighting standard fires, there’s a few other strategies you’ll need to utilize if you’re dealing with a grease, chemical or even an electrical fire. If you try to use your attack hose to put out a grease fire it’ll make things worse, causing an explosion and reigniting everything around once again. This requires you to grab a fire extinguisher instead to put out these spots before going back to the water line. Like real life, fire extinguishers have a finite supply within the canister, so you’ll need to be efficient as possible to avoid having to go back to the truck to grab a replacement. Electrical fires are a little trickier, as if you spray water on these components, they’ll simply reignite from the sparks. To stop this you’ll need to find the electrical shut-off box for the building, sometimes outside, sometimes in a random room. Turn off the power and then you’ll be able to finally make progress on the fires without reignition.

Lastly, you’ll need to keep an eye out for survivors. These are usually people unconscious in specific rooms, able to be carried all the out outside to the ambulance waiting on the road. You can do this yourself or instruct your AI partners to do so, and there’s a few times where I had people awake and scared, simply telling them to follow me out of the burning building to rescue.

While there’s no crossplay between Xbox and other consoles and PC, though Xbox One and Series X|S players can join a squad and play together. Every mission calls for four players, so if you can’t find people or friends to play with, the spots will fill with AI. The most entertainment obviously came from when I was playing alongside 3 other firefighters, each focusing on a different aspect to battle the blaze. Joining other players’ games I did have the odd game drop out, though I’m not sure if I simply got kicked or not, it doesn’t tell you. Hosting my own games I had a few people join here and there, but the community seems to be quite small, so if you plan on playing multiplayer, make sure you somehow convince a friend to purchase the game as well.

Let’s be honest, a good majority of simulator titles usually are quite rough around the edges. Where they lack in polish they make up in having unique gameplay, and Firefighting Simulator - The Squad is no different. Quite ‘janky’, I had a plethora of issues yet still found myself wanting to battle just one more fire before calling it quits for the night. There were a lot of bugs and such throughout though. The pop-in for objects while driving the firetruck to the destination is absolutely terrible at times, especially when hitting top speed. Buildings, trees and background items will appear out of nowhere, and even cars that were previously in your way completely disappear randomly. I once even spawned into a mission with the firetruck flipped on its side and facing the wrong way, dinging me for a traffic accident and of course not making the quick response time bonus. Animations are also quite spotty, like when you go to pick up a survivor, holding the button will eventually just have them appear over your shoulder or placing them on the stretcher instantly without any movements in-between.

Visuals are basically what you’d expect from a small studio doing a sim title. There’s nothing outstanding or all that impressive, though I will say the fire can look quite good when you’re in the middle of a building surrounded by flames and smoke. Audio is what you’d expect as well, with the siren of the firetruck (though no echo when going through a tunnel), radio communications and some information told by dispatch on the way to a fire. The roar and crackles of the fire sound quite good and the background soundtrack is subtle enough without becoming annoying.

While I’d categorize Firefighting Simulator - The Squad more of a simcade than a pure simulator, it does have some enjoyment to it regardless of its many shortcomings. Even though it has a lot of ‘jank’, I found myself trying to do just one more mission until the late hours of the night. Aside from playing alongside from friends though, there’s not much longevity here, as the gameplay loop doesn’t change from start to finish. On a half-off sale I could recommend Firefighting Simulator - The Squad for a few hours of entertainment, but at full price (currently $38.99 CAD), it’s a bit too pricey for what it offers.

**Firefighting Simulator - The Squad was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor - Martyr Ultimate Edition

I’ll admit, I know the bare basics about the Warhammer 40,000 universe. While I’ve played and reviewed a handful of their games, the ones I’ve played were mostly very tactical and turn based strategy games. Some I enjoyed, others not as much, but I wasn’t really sure what to expect with Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor - Martyr Ultimate Edition, a mouthful of a title. If Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor - Martyr sounds familiar, that’s because is originally released back in 2018, but this Ultimate Edition has now been improved and now exclusively for next-gen (current-gen?) with a ton of additions and improvements.

I’ll admit, I’m generally not all that into Action RPG’s (ARPG) like Diablo, Path of Exile and plenty of others, so when I saw that Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor - Martyr Ultimate Edition was along the same lines, I went in with trepid expectations. Hours later, I’ve been unable to stop myself from continuing to play, constantly wanting to do ‘one more run’ to level, grind and get new upgrades. The ARPG gameplay loop definitely got its hooks in me, and I’ve been working on three separate characters continually.

So you previously played Inquisitor – Martyr and want to know what’s all included in the Ultimate Edition? Now available on Xbox Series X|S, Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor - Martyr Ultimate Edition not only is an ‘all in one’ collection with all 25 previously released DLC’s, but has a ton of other improvements as well. With a bunch of quality of life improvements, visual upgrades, mission packs and more, there’s plenty of content here to last you quite a while. That said, as someone new coming into the game, it was quite overwhelming at first, as not much is taught to you very well or really slow dripped and fed to you, it’s this massive amount of content all at once that took me a good handful of hours to really grasp and figure out.

Probably the biggest portion of this Ultimate Edition’s content would be the inclusion of the Prophecy expansion that most notably added a new campaign and class. This narrative takes place over the course of three decently length chapters that takes place after the main Martyr storyline. There’s not only a new class for you to play, the Tech-Adept, this ‘pet’ class was a lot of fun to play and was very unique compared to the original three core classes. This Tech-Adept Inquisitor must use his constructs to explore new areas and fight new enemies, adding some fresh variety.

On top of this content there’s a slew of other additions and improvements coming in the form of new pets, new cosmetics, more missions in new areas, a ranked game mode, 4K support, new textures, better destruction physics, cross-gen multiplayer, a higher level cap and more. There’s no doubt that the Ultimate Edition is certainly the definitive edition if you’re a newcomer like myself, with no shortage of things to do if you’re looking for a game to sink dozens of hours into.

Taking place in the Caligari Sector, you are an Inquisitor, a highly ranked agent for the Imperium. The narrative actually starts off quite interestingly with you investigating a seemingly derelict ship called the titular Martyr. This is no ordinary ship though, more of a monastery or fortress and absolutely massive in size. As you land on the ship to explore, something of course goes awry and you must figure out where everyone went and what secret is being held within, maybe something the Inquisition might not want to come to light.

Taking place over five chapters, there’s quite a lot going on that Warhammer 40K fans will be sure to piece together into the whole mythos, but was honestly a lot to take in for a casual fan like myself. This is a Warhammer game though, so you can expect near endless waves of enemies that you’ll need to fight through to get to your objectives. Outside of the campaign, there’s plenty of other side missions and content to partake in, not even including the over two dozen DLC’s that are included as well.

ARPG fans of Diablo and Path of Exile will surely have an idea what to expect for its core gameplay loop, as you’ll be fighting hordes of enemies, leveling up, improving your abilities and of course, the mountains of loot you’ll constantly be sifting through. A few things that I wasn’t expecting was how nearly everything was destructible, usable to your advantage, a cover system that I admittedly didn’t use often and even a few missions where you take control of some massive tanks or mechs.

Before you begin your adventure on Martyr though you first must create a character from one of the four different classes. You have the Crusader, the ‘tank’ class that can choose massive guns or swords and can take the brunt of the damage for your groups. The Assassin can’t take as much damage with its light armor, but can sneak in and do some massive damage, especially to single targets with its stealth-like gameplay. The Psyker is essentially your mage, the class cannon. This is the class I chose to play initially as I wanted to play from ranged distance and blast enemies from afar. There’s more to it than that though, as I need to rotate my skills and abilities to make the most of my damage, balancing my skills as to not leave myself as vulnerable. Lastly is the new Tech-Adept, a really fun class that allows you to have constructs, essentially pets and turrets, making for a completely unique playstyle, great for groups with your friends.

There’s also subclasses after you choose which you want to play as, more like a starting point and preferred starting weapon and abilities, though you can customize your character as you level up in a very diverse skill tree the further you progress. The best part, the overall progression is account based, so if you max one character and start another, you’ll carry over many of your unlocks and gear that you’ve placed in your personal storage, as well as the numerous and confusing currencies that are all for different things.

After a few brief missions that act as a tutorial of sorts, you’ll arrive at your home base after each mission. Here you can talk to a few NPC’s that you’ve found and unlocked during your journey, a personal shared bank for your characters, a crafting system, and a lot more that would take me many paragraphs to explain. Missions are chosen at your will, all varying in difficulties with a shown level range. You don’t necessarily have to only work on campaign missions, as there’s plenty of side missions to work on should you want, a necessity for grinding, leveling and finding gear. Kind of like Mass Effect, you’ll choose the sector of space you want to go to, then what system, and finally the planets or stars will show you the missions at each that are available. It’s a little cumbersome at first, but eventually you’ll find the better hotkeys to select it via menu rather than actually exploring the star map.

Combat works quite well on console with a controller in hand. Depending on your gear you’ve chosen, this will alter how you attack, what specials you have and more. For example, for my Psyker class there’s a big difference between Force and Warp rods/staves. A force rod is a small single handed weapon that shoots rapid fire, so naturally having one in each hand was a lot of run to rapid fire enemies that were coming towards me. Then I found the Force staff, a 2 handed weapon that is basically a railgun that can shoot through anything in a straight line, but is slower. Different weapon types have completely different attacks as well, as another type of Warp weapons instead acted like a typical shotgun, or having a flame based staff. There’s so much variety and you can freely swap between two weapon loadouts based on the situation you find yourself in.

The same went for my Tech-Adept, as I of course focused on my constructs when it came to abilities, but choosing a type of weapon that was quicker and more rapid fire gave me more success than a slower sniper-like type of weapon. It really does come down to gear preference, not just your weapons, but the skills and abilities you choose to improve as your rise in levels.

Let’s be honest, the main reason many enjoy ARPG’s like this is because of the loot. There’s something exciting about picking up a whole backpack of loot that you get to sift through once you get back to base after a mission, usually with an upgrade or two if you're lucky. The first 50 levels or so I was constantly upgrading my gear with a piece here and there, though it took some figuring out to determine what was better or not, as I used to go simply my rarity or level, but now I tend to instead focus on the stats on the gear as I’m now nearly indestructible with ‘HP on hit’ gear equipped. With a number of different rarities of gear, you’ll quickly upgrade your starter gear into blues, then greens (why green is higher than blue I’m not sure), purple and even relics.

Eventually gear will also start to have socket slots and you’ll be able to improve or craft gear if you have the credits and materials necessary. I’ll be honest, there’s a lot thrown at you at once and it was actually quite overwhelming at first, as I wasn’t sure what I should be focusing on. Do I sell gear for credits or salvage for components? Do I choose a piece of gear I like and spend a ton to improve its stats, level or even add socket slots, or grind out more to get a better piece instead? I’m still figuring all this out, even after many hours into the game, but there’s surely a ton here to dive head first into for those that really want to min-max their characters.

While perfectly fine as a single player experience, Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor - Martyr Ultimate Edition is best alongside some friends where you can all grind and do missions together. This can be online or locally with couch co-op. Up to four players can get together to grind missions and you can even make a Cabal, essentially a Guild, to work towards other rewards and gain perks. The menu and inviting system for multiplayer is quite cumbersome though and took some time to figure out, but once you have a group leader that knows how to do so quickly and has some Tarot Cards that are essentially modifiers for missions, you can have a lot of fun together going through missions with a good group of buddies.

Having missed out on the original release, I’m glad I got to play this Ultimate Edition, as I got a ton of extra content and a much improved version visually. While 4K/60 was normal, there were times where this dipped in multiplayer when a lot was going on screen at once. Even for an ARPG, there’s a good amount of detail if you do zoom in to see your character and abilities, though the destructible environments were the most impressive. Cutscenes were quite high in quality and best yet, the voice acting across the board was quite well done. There’s plenty of explosions and heavy sounds when in constant combat and I never felt I needed to mute the soundtrack even when grinding a dozen missions back to back.

If you’ve been looking for a Diablo or Path of Exile alternative, you want to check this one out. Don’t let the Warhammer 40K setting steer you away, as even a very casual fan myself, I found myself addicted to the ARPG gameplay. There’s a ton of content included, and while it does a poor job of slowly introducing each element or teaching you a lot of things, there’s a surprising amount of entertainment to be had regardless of your playstyle or class choices.

**Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor - Martyr Ultimate Edition was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Charon's Staircase

When I heard about Charon’s Staircase I had a feeling something sounded familiar. Then it dawned on me; Charon (pronounced kind of like ‘Karen’) is the iconic ferryman that carries souls between the worlds of the living and dead in certain mythologies. While not quite the same setting, it certainly has somewhat of a connection to what I expected. Not quite sure what to expect, Charon’s Staircase is a mixture of a puzzle game and a walking simulator, complete with a mysterious and horror-like backdrop.

Set within the 1970’s, “The Ministry” used to rule with an iron fist over the country. Now that their rule has ended, it seems as though some of their darkest secrets are starting to see the light of day. You are a special Agent, simply known as “Desmond”, sent by The Ministry to find and retrieve some very specific classified documents from the Oack Grove estate. There has to be a reason they want these documents destroyed, and almost from its opening moments you can tell there are some very dark and disturbing secrets being hidden.

Quickly, you start to piece together some notes and documents that seem to revolve around a pair of twins with some possible supernatural abilities. It’s obvious that some atrocities have occurred, and the further you venture within the Oack Grove estate, you start to get clues about some sort of ‘Project Alpha’, which is absolutely terrifying. I won’t spoil much else about the story, as a playthrough is only going to last you a handful of hours depending on your puzzle solving skills.

A first person “horror" game, even though there’s no survival elements or combat, Desmond must explore his way through the Oack Grove estate looking for his objective and answers. First and foremost, Desmond walks slower than a senior who isn’t able to outrun a snail. The default walking speed is so slow it’s excruciating to simply get through a room or hallway. Holding down ‘Right Bumper’ will allow you to “run” according to the control options, but that turns your painfully slow pace to barely a brisk walk. There’s barely any difference and I bet that a good portion of my play time was due to this slow speed.

As Desmond explores, you’ll be wandering around a number of different environments, from creepy and brooding forests, desolate mansions, a horrific hospital and more. While there’s a narrator that chimes in now and then to explain what’s going on or what Desmond is feeling, the majority of the narrative is given through hidden notes and books littered around throughout the estate.

Being that the backdrop is a horror game, without any enemies you need to face against or any possible way to really fail outside maybe one interaction, it’s hard to really categorize Charon’s Staircase as a horror game outside of the ‘blood and guts’ portion in the later half. There is the odd cheap jump scare, but these moments are usually more of a “what was that?” as a person or something walks across the hallway up ahead, which of course is nowhere to be found when you go investigate where you saw them last.

As you explore the estate, there are some branching paths and doorways, but in general you’re kept pretty much on track with a bunch of locked doors or invisible walls in the outside portions. The narrative is genuinely interesting in the beginning, but making sense of all the characters and what exactly is going on is dependent on how much exploring you’ll do outside of the mandatory puzzles and the amount of reading you’ll do with the notes you find.

The majority of the gameplay outside of the puzzles has you searching every room with the cursor in the middle of your screen to see if something can be interacted with or picked up. With over sensitive controls, even turned down, it can be a bit frustrating to get the cursor exactly where you want. Many times I was stuck, unsure what to do, only to find out it was an item or clue I didn’t pick-up because I didn’t have the cursor perfectly over it the first time I explored the area.

While a majority of the notes you find are tied to the narrative as background lore, some will be direct clues on the puzzles you’ll be tasked with solving to progress. There’s an issue with this though that I found, as the developers clearly had to translate into English, and it’s as though there might be something a bit off with the translations at times. The first handful of puzzles weren’t too challenging, as I needed to find specific four digit codes for a digital keypad lock, which a certain note gave me a big clue as to where to find the solution. For example, my clue said something about specific rooms in order. Each of the rooms had a specific painting that when examined had a number on its description. Simple stuff. Then there’s the last half of the game where the puzzles are completely obtuse.

This is where I feel the English translation caused a lot of my issues, as there’s a handful of puzzles that give you a description about something and you need to set certain objects in a particular way or order. Two puzzles specifically were infuriating, to the point where I gave up after an hour of trying to brute force it and shamefully having to find a walkthrough online. Worse yet, the solution didn’t even make sense, so I didn’t get that “ah hah!” moment. Trust me, the Tarot Cards and the Lantern puzzle need a serious rework to be much less obtuse.

If you’re not a puzzle game fan, Charon’s Staircase doesn’t have much else for you aside from wandering around the estate trying to find clues on how to progress passed certain locked doors, finding keys and passcodes. The latter half of the game’s puzzles really changed dramatically and frustrated me. Remember, you 'run' at snail’s pace too, so all the wandering around back and forth takes forever.

Given its ‘horror’ backdrop, you can expect a lot of gloomy and brooding darkness all around the Oack Grove estate. The 70’s European setting certainly sets a mood and tone, but I’ll tell you right now, you’re going to have to play with the brightness setting depending on your TV. The default is so dark that it’s almost impossible to see anything in corners or areas that aren’t directly lit. So of course I cranked up the brightness, only to find that I was constantly blinded once there were brightly lit areas, so you’ll need to find a good middle ground to even see what’s around you. Darkness sets the horror tone but being forced to brighten it makes it lose some of its atmosphere. As for the visuals themselves, it’s dated as best with simple models and muddy textures.

The audio is actually done quite well all around. In the opening areas there’s some piano that plays in the background, setting a certain tone. The atmospheric audio is what really keeps things tense, as creaking wood, knocking on doors and other creepy sounds really makes it seem as though you’re not alone. The best part is the narrator for Desmond, as he has a smooth voice and is performed quite well with a compelling tone that had me wanting me to continue listening to anything he said.

With over twenty supported languages and a genuinely interesting story if you take the time to find and read the notes strewn about the estate, Charon’s Staircase impressed me most with its great as a whole, and the fact it was created by so few people. While Desmond searches for this mysterious staircase there’s a great foreboding atmosphere you explore, even if there’s no tension or actual danger within its Oack Grove estates' walls, leaving you frustrated with its obtuse puzzles.

**Charon’s Staircase was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Live By The Sword: Tactics

When you think of Tactical RPG’s (TRPG), I bet you the first that comes to mind is Ogre Battle, Fire Emblem, Disgaea, Banner Saga or Final Fantasy Tactics, still the benchmark of the genre in my opinion. While there’s a decent one every so often, it’s not a generally overcrowded genre, so when a new game does release, I tend to take notice. Developed by Labrador Studios, Live By The Sword: Tactics is attempting to recreate the classic retro style of TRPG’s, but they’ve actually tried something new, adding their own spin on a tried and true formula. While some might not agree with the design and mechanic choices, I can appreciate that they’ve done something different and not necessarily the norm.

There’s a serious conflict breaking out, and it falls on a pair of brothers to do what they can to defend their lands and do right by their young King. With a campaign that only lasts about 4 to 5 hours or so, I really can’t speak much more about the narrative without fear of spoiling the thin content as it is. It sounds like a cliché trope we’ve all played countless times before, and while it’s somewhat interesting in the beginning, the gameplay is so slow that you’ll eventually just want to get through the missions to get it over with.

I initially was intrigued by the story, but there’s really not much there aside from ‘fighting the bad guys’. This would have been a pass if the cast of characters was interesting and had some development, but there’s really only one or two with some semblance of a personality. Near the end it does wrap up a bit better, but the big middle portion is generally forgettable when it comes to story and characters, especially when you can see a twist coming well before the reveal. After each mission you get a new cutscene and that’s really your only reward for being successful. Because there’s no leveling up, gear or any other sort of progression, that’s where my biggest concern is when it comes to longevity and replayability.

The opening tutorial does a decent job at explaining the basics, teaching you all of the core mechanics, how you can only go up or down one level at a time on the grid map, and that you’ll need line of sight to launch your attacks and abilities. There’s no difficulty options as this is a more ‘hand-crafted’ experience, battles designed specifically for each encounter. Naturally battles become slightly more challenging as you progress through the three chapters, none of which were all too challenging.

Did you notice above that I mentioned that there’s no experience gain or gear? That’s right, there’s no traditional progression in place here. This is one of its main selling points, and I never really thought anything about it, but then it got me thinking because I am exactly the type of TRPG player that would grind for hours to level up my characters and get gear to make the latter half of the game easier. Here, you simply have to be reliant on your strategy and skills. No relying on overpowered gear or levels, forcing you to think strategically instead.

This also means that your characters have set skills, attack power, abilities and health. There’s no way to improve these in any way. I’ll admit, it’s a drastic change that I didn’t initially realize the weight of the design decision. Some will enjoy this element, but without any progression aside from story, there’s not much in the Story mode to keep you coming back.

That said, there are some other modes to help with its longevity after the brief campaign; Adventure Mode and Tactician Mode. Adventure mode is the more interesting of the two. Here is a roguelike take on the genre where randomness is a constant. You start with three random characters, random abilities and are tasked with trying to defeat enemies in increasingly harder challenges. Winning battles earns you treasure which can be used to purchase new characters, power-ups, swap skills and more. Oh, and death is permanent, so might want to use some of that to heal up between fights too. Tactician Mode is basically preset battles with interesting map layouts or win objectives, almost like a puzzle to solve.

Most battles take place on a 10x10 grid, having your team of 3 or 5 taking on generally an equal amount of enemies. You’ll only have a couple party members in the beginning, eventually unlocking more for a total of 7. Most battles only allow you to take 5 party members into battle, so you’ll need to decide which are best for the situations and map layout. Each unit has a basic attack and 6 other abilities, though you’re only able to choose four of the abilities for each battle.

The 7 classes are Warrior, Archer, Alchemist, Medic, Wizard, Brawler and Assassin. There’s no leveling up remember, so their abilities are already set, you’re simply choosing which 4 they each can bring into each battle. Certain maps are better suited for specific classes. For example, the Archer and Wizard can attack from range, good if there’s some different heights on the map they can perch on. For a denser map with trees and rocks, keeping line of sight might be difficult for them, so the more melee based characters might be a better choice.

Each character is unique in its own way with their abilities, and once you figure out how to best utilize them, it becomes much easier to win battles. For example, I hated using the wizard because even though he is able to attack areas at once, he can also hurt your team as well, so I found it difficult to use. Also, no one character or class is overpowered. They seem quite balanced. Even though the Assassin can deal more damage, they have less health to make up for it.

Every ability also has a cooldown period, usually two or three turns before it can be used again, so you can’t simply spam the best attacks each turn. Even though you can end your turn early, this won’t move you up the turn list, instead healing you for 1 health if you don’t attack or use an ability. With most characters only having a dozen health or so, this is substantial.

As for enemy variety, there really isn’t any. You’ll face squads of the same bandits, pirates and thieves over and over again. There’s the odd special ‘boss’ now and then, but for the most part there’s only a few types of enemies, adding to the repetitious nature. Where I find a big gap is that you go into every battle blind. You don’t know what abilities or skills enemies have, making it impossible to strategize how to place your characters and such without trial and error.

The largest frustration is simply how slow the gameplay flows. There’s no fast-forward and each animation takes a few seconds to finish each time before moving onto the next character’s turn. Eventually the amount of strategy simply comes down to ganging up against one enemy at a time to dwindle their numbers. The AI is seemingly random, moving from beside my character with only 1 or 2 health left and go attack someone elsewhere that’s full health.

Surprisingly, there’s also a multiplayer mode included as well. Here two players can compete against one another in local or online battles. These are simply just skirmishes, but simply having the option to battle against friends online is welcome and might be just enough to keep it installed after the quick Story Mode.

The sprite work is pretty decent for its aesthetic. Trying to recreate classic TRPG style, there’s no doubt of what genre Live by the Sword: Tactics falls into. Each character also gets a drawn character panel when it’s their turn, but for the environments, there’s not all that much variety, using the same tiles repeatedly. There’s some subtle details I enjoyed, like having characters kneeling when very low on health to indicate so. The repeated enemies make it feel tiresome though.

The music and audio is decent even though there’s no voiced dialogue. While the soundtrack is decent, there’s simply not enough variety, and because some of the levels drag on, you’ll surely hear them on repeat over time. With some variety and more tracks I probably wouldn’t have even noticed. While developers have been upfront about the content roadmap of what’s being improved and added, I have to base my thoughts at the time of writing. There’s some good additions coming though, like the ability to create custom battlefields and battle speed increases.

The design choice to not have any character progression is an interesting choice that I’m not sure if it’s paid off or not. While it is a unique way to force players to play more strategically, you unlock all the characters quite quickly, and from that point on there’s no more variety really, as I simply stuck with the same 5 characters basically every battle. The current asking price of $29.99 CAD feels a little steep given the brief Story Mode and lack of any character progression, but those looking for a more streamlined TRPG might enjoy the forced strategic play, even if there’s not much variety overall.

**Live by the Sword: Tactics was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Last Days of Lazarus

I’m not sure if I’ve previously played a game quite like Last Days of Lazarus. I honestly wasn’t quite sure what to expect once I installed it and started playing, as I hadn’t even looked at a trailer beforehand, going in without any preconceived notions or expectations. What I got was definitely something I wouldn’t have guessed. A story about a grieving family, suicide, supernatural events, religion and a healthy amount of blood and gore, all set in a post-communist Romania at the turn of the century.

You play the titular Lazarus, a man who is coming home after the death of his mother. His sister pleaded for him to return home for the funeral, but he refused due to having ‘important work’. He eventually does return home shortly after to meet with his sister Lyudmila but she seems to be missing upon arrival to their mother’s apartment. It seems something terrible has happened, and this isn’t even about how your mother hung herself in the closet, it seems as though something supernatural is occurring once you see a monster appear in the bathroom.

It’s from this moment on it’s as though two different worlds are blending in some way, and as you unearth the mystery of what’s going on, it goes much deeper than you expected, going a completely different way than I anticipated early on. The apartment is strewn about with religious symbols, ornaments and just enough oddities that you are intrigued to figure out what’s going on. The phone rings and someone familiar answers...

The narrative is interesting at first, as I wanted to find out what happened to Lazarus’ mother and sister, what happened to their dad, and see why they were such a troubled family. The supernatural elements surely adds some intrigue, and while the cast of characters is quite small, it eventually goes in an unexpected direction that I found a little difficult to follow along near the end. It’s a disturbing plot that I don’t want to spoil, as its runtime is only about 3 or 4 hours.

As for its gameplay, Last Days of Lazarus at its core is essentially a first person walking simulator with some light puzzle elements. I’d hesitate to say there’s much exploration due to how linear it is, but there are some collectables to find for those that want to check every inch and detail. Expect to walk around everywhere, simply searching for objects that can be interacted with or collected, as this is how you trigger the next set of events or cutscene.

If this sounds unappealing or boring to you, unfortunately there’s not much else for its gameplay to look forward to aside from the odd few puzzles. The majority of your time is exploring the small and linear confined areas you’re placed within the 8 chapters, simply moving your cursor across every object you can find to see if it’s interactable. Can’t figure out where to go or what to do, you probably didn’t notice the tiny reticle change slightly when it’s over an object you can pick up or interact with. Missed a collectable in a level and want to go get it for your achievements? No problem, there’s a handy chapter select so you can gather all the relics and documents without having to replay the whole game thankfully.

The white cursor over a white item basically makes it impossible to see and surely had me waste a bit of time not knowing it was the item I needed to progress. So many times I was wandering in circles, unable to continue for an unknown reason, turning out to be an item I didn’t at first notice was clickable. This resulting me in mindlessly hovering my cursor over every book, item, painting, doorway, rock and plant to see if it was something I missed (damn you piece of gold ore).

There’s no risk of failing or dying, as there’s no combat or anything that can hurt you. Even though the world is filled with grotesque monsters, especially the apartment you frequently visit every few chapters, there’s no danger. You can even walk right up to these snapping tentacles with teeth without worry of anything happening to Lazarus. I guess this classifies the game as a horror game given how much blood and gore there can be at times, but without any consequences or worry of death or failure, there’s nothing to be afraid of.

There’s only a few puzzles in the whole game, and these are very simplistic for the most part. Most of these are simply interacting with them with the items you’ve already found, and if it doesn’t work you simply haven’t found one of the items lying around nearby. The few that were actually ‘puzzles’ simply had you rotating some knobs or valves or figuring out a positive/negative battery puzzle. These shouldn’t stump you and can usually be brute forced with enough effort if you don’t want to look up solutions online.

As for its presentation, it’s a mixed bag. The inside environments do look quite detailed, with the apartment you frequent often looking as though it’s actually lived in, as not everything is perfectly symmetrical, full of clutter and some mess. While I’m no expert on Romanian culture, the details of the religious symbols and artifacts really do give a level of detail I wasn’t expecting from a smaller studio. The outdoor chapters don’t look nearly as good, actually quite dated, and while most of the characters are created decently, they move quite stiff.

The soundtrack is actually quite decent, setting a certain tone and atmosphere and you explore your surroundings. When something drastic happens, you can really hear it in the headset. This one part where a monster was pounding on the door sounded fantastic, and the first time the classic phone rang for Lazarus I legit thought it might have been in my apartment. Then there’s the voice acting. There’s no emotion and it simply sounds as though the lines are being read from a piece of paper. Even when Lazarus sees a dead person, it sounds completely monotone and devoid of any real feeling. It’s not quite the absolute worst voice acting I’ve ever heard, but it’s certainly a contender.

What starts out as a legitimately interesting story turns into something completely else by the time the credits roll. The whole jaunt with Lazarus will last about 3 to 4 hours, as anything more would have worn out its welcome, and I’m not sure how much more of the voice acting I would be able to tolerate. Certainly a unique game and setting, what’s most important is that yes, you can pet the cat.

**Last Days of Lazarus was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.3 / 10 Last Oricru, The

With how many Soulslike games release these days, it’s kind of difficult to not compare them to the best in the genre, making for quite a high bar for expectations. For some developers, this risk pays off if they can create something unique in its own way or is memorable. For others, they’ll get forgotten and compared like it's just another clone, trying to jump on the bandwagon we’ve seen endless times before. I don’t enjoy playing games for a challenge, I prefer more relaxing experiences where I can sink my teeth into the narrative or gameplay. That to me is fun, and yes, I’m aware that generally to play a Soulslike I need to ‘Git Gud’. For this reason, I generally don’t enjoy Soulslike games, forcing me to grind or repeatedly die numerous times just to finally beat an area or boss. My time is precious and limited, but I can absolutely understand those that do enjoy this challenge.

Heavily inspired from Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Mortal Shell, Lords of the Fallen, and a bit of Gothic for good measure, The Last Oricru, developed by GoldKnights, originally debut as ‘LostHero’ but got a name change to the title we know today. If you’re familiar with the term ‘Soulslike’, you’ll basically know what to expect, though there is a heavier emphasis on narrative choices that will drastically change your game. You awaken somewhere strange without any memories other than a few blurry images in your mind, going by the name of Silver. The world you’re in seems to be in the midst of a serious conflict between two races, the Naboru and the Ratkin. While it seems the setting is set in a high fantasy backdrop, fighting with swords, shields and magic, there does seem to be a semblance of technology, though mostly forgotten.

I’ll admit, there’s a lot going on in the beginning that was hard to grasp. There’s something about the planet being partially terraformed, some sort of barrier keeping it safe, a mysterious item called “The Cradle”, and then there’s a mysterious AI head that is speaking to you at certain points. Sure, it all comes together later on, but the overall narrative isn’t terribly exciting or easy to follow at times.

Where The Last Oricru succeeds is having you pick sides and changing the world based on your choices. Do you side with the Naboru in their quest for dominance, or help the Ratkin that have been enslaved and simply trying to survive. With quite a bit of slavery and racism undertones, especially towards the Ratkin, I opted to help the Ratkin on my first playthrough, as there’s plenty of subtext if you can read between the lines of what’s being said to Silver from both sides. There’s no absolute morally ‘right' or ‘wrong’ choices, only a muddy grey area that you’ll need to play through numerous times to see all of the narrative angles and backstory.

This seems like a great backdrop to an interesting tale, and I’ll admit, I was intrigued at first, but once your protagonist starts to talk more and more, he becomes quickly insufferable with the poor writing and even worse voice acting. Being a burly dude with a half shaved head and beard, the voice that comes out of him is this frail and posh Sherlock Holmes accent that really doesn’t match the visual. He has so many terrible lines and ‘jokes’ that even I barely smirked when it was clearly trying to be a punchline. Having a main character that is unlikeable from the opening moments should have been a red flag.

What The Last Oricru does do well though is change the world around you and its outcomes based on your decisions. I sided with the Ratkin, so I was fighting the human Naboru race for the opening few levels. Starting over again and siding the other way, not only was I then fighting the Ratkin instead, but I got some different backstory that helped make sense of the overall conflict where both factions have their reasoning, good and bad, and you’re trying to decide who to believe and side with. Siding with one faction over the other doesn’t only change the enemies you face, but even the gameplay flow and maybe certain pathways. Many of the achievements are based on your narrative choices, so it will take numerous playthroughs to get them all. The game also forces an auto save every time you make a decision and action, so there’s no reloading an older save to see a different outcome unfortunately.

What I will give The Last Oricru credit for is its inclusion of multiple difficulty options. With a few different choices, I began on the Story Mode, intended to be a much easier difficulty so I could enjoy the world, narrative and setting without too much frustration, hopefully. For the first half I was doing alright, but there were some serious random spikes in difficulty with certain enemies and bosses that caused numerous deaths. I’ve already admitted to not enjoying Soulslikes for its difficulty, though I don’t expect many genre fans will find much difficulty overall with how basic the combat is comparatively.

Oddly enough, in the Prologue section, you’re taught the basics of combat, then are thrown into a forced stealth mission almost right away. Problem is, there’s no indicators to show you where enemies are, no crouch, no nothing in terms of stealth mechanics, and you’re simply supposed to know the layout of the starting area even though you’ve barely explored it to this point. Remember how I said the game force auto saves on you? Well, once I failed this stealth mission in about 5 seconds flat, my ‘choice’ was made and I had to live with those consequences that played out narratively. That said, my choices weren’t always completely ‘locked in’, as you’re given opportunities every so often to swap factions, but not often.

Tell me if you’ve ever played a Soulslike that has these mechanics before: When you rest at the save points your healing items are refilled, health restored and all enemies respawn. Check. How about defeating enemies for essence (souls) which is used as a currency to level up at said checkpoints? Double check. Having to manage your stamina meter, making sure not to block too many items, dodge too often or run too far. Yup, triple check. Heavily inspired by the classic Souls games is almost an understatement, being basically a copy of all of the core mechanics, even down to the ‘fog’ (see through blue here) doors that indicate a boss room ahead. Sure, when a game series does as well as a Soulslike you want to replicate that, but there’s got to be some originality at the same time, something lacking here.

Instead of one large interconnected world, each level is its own section that has a loading screen when you move back and forth if you decide to backtrack for whatever reason. There’s also seemingly only one save point within each, at least that I could find. While primarily linear for the most part, there is of course numerous branching paths between point A and B, housing many secrets and things to find for those that take the time to explore the world. Don’t expect any map, compass or indicator though of where you need to go, simply relying on your exploration and memorization skills. Now and then you’ll unlock shortcuts for quicker access later on as well.

Before I delve into the combat, I needed to mention the ‘A’ button specifically. This is how you jump, which is perfectly fine even if the animation is quite simplistic and ‘floaty’, but the problem is that the same button is used to pick up any drops or gear on the ground, to open doors and interact with switches. You can probably guess where I’m going with this. Need to open a door quickly or want to pick up gear as you run past? Well, you’re going to jump instead. You better hope there’s not an object near an edge and gap you want to jump across, because it’s basically a gamble as to which one it will prioritize in that moment.

Self-described as “The combat is complex and aims to create a tough but rewarding experience”, this is somewhat true, but not because of the actual design. Sometimes it’s tough because your build is ‘wrong’, other times because some of the enemies can decimate you in a single hit or combo if you’re not prepared properly. Be prepared to die a lot, which is usually a badge of honor in many Soulslike, but more frustration based here.

Combat is simple enough to understand, with Right Bumper being your main attack and Right Trigger its secondary. Left Bumper is for dawning my shield (if you use one) and the Left Trigger for its secondary. Weapons have interesting and unique secondary abilities, as I was quite fond of my sword that engulfed my blade in fire with its secondary ability. My shield was able to do minor heal with its secondary, which I purposely increased certain stats for to be able to use. Every item has a specific requirement for stats to be able to use. While I wanted to use a sword and shield combo to play more defensively, I opted to wear lighter armor and use quicker weapons, dumping a lot of my skill points into dexterity. Of course I would get the odd new items here and there that meant I needed a few points into strength or elsewhere to use, always enticing you to wanting to try it out.

You can certainly create some interesting builds, but it will take some time to really learn all of Oricru’s intricacies and find what works and doesn’t. Turns out my initial build was quite terrible in the latter half of the game, as you’ll barely do any damage if you focus on tanking, or be one-shot if you don’t pump some points into vitality to wear some heavier gear. Once you figure out a few of the items that are borderline overpowered, or which to avoid, things will be much easier from this point on. There is a magic component and build that can support this, but magic is done very oddly here. Magic doesn’t refill via potions or items for the most part, instead you have this starter weapon that will drain and sap enemies when melee attacked, thus refilling your mana. Yes, as a weak mana user, you’ll need to get up close and melee enemies to refill your mana, so why wouldn’t you just stay melee in the first place then? You can equip two sets of primary and secondary weapons/shields, easily swappable on the fly given the situation or needed secondary use. While most enemies that are cannon fodder are no big deal, bosses are either so simple that even I beat them in a single try, or get destroyed in a single hit from them, there was no real middle ground.

At the save points you’ll spend your essence to level up your character, adding to your stats, allowing you to equip and use new gear based on certain requirements. You can break down gear you won’t be using for materials and even upgrade your gear multiple times should you have the correct amount of materials. Be cautious though, as this isn’t explained at all, so I decided I would upgrade a bunch of my gear without much thought since I had the proper amount of materials. Well, doing so and making your gear a higher level also ups the stat requirements to use, so you can probably guess what happened. Yup, I was unable to use my preferred weapon until I went and leveled up some more to increase my stats to the number required to wield once again.

Having online and splitscreen co-op I initially thought would be Oricru’s saving grace. Well, while I appreciate the effort, some of the design choices I’d question. For starters, you need to be at a save point to open your game to multiplayer then send an invite. There’s no matchmaking, so it’s friends only unfortunately. Your invited friend shows up as a hologram of you and shares your inventory. Any items you’re not currently using they’ll be able to equip and use, so you better keep some backup items.

I initially thought that the items my friend was looting was being ‘stolen’, but they got put into our shared inventory, something that would have been appreciated to have been explained. When I went to a cutscene and talking to some NPC, my friend could still wander around, coming into my cutscene’s camera, completely ruining the immersion as he tried to constantly attack me and them. The worst part though, I hope you have a very giving friend, as they make absolutely no progress for their own game or character, simply there to help you, not even earning the achievements from my choices made either.

Being built on Unreal Engine 4, there’s definitely some pros and cons to its visuals and aesthetics. In terms of character models, animations and level design, there’s nothing really all that special here. What is done quite well is that some of the environments (except the bleak underground mine sections) and the backdrops can be stunning at times. The overall visual design is done quite well with its high fantasy setting with some technology mixed in, and certain vistas are absolutely worth a screenshot or two, but there’s nothing that will overly impress you, especially the deadness in characters eyes and poor facial animations.

Then there’s the audio, also a mixed experience. Spells and weapons clanging sound perfectly suitable, but the voice acting really brings down the whole experience, especially with how narrative driven it is. This is exasperated with Silver’s terrible writing and even worse delivery, and again, a posh sounding voice coming out of him simply doesn’t seem to visually match the character at all. Some of the secondary characters do a decent job, but Silver’s poor delivery is so distracting that it’s all I could think of and remember when I started to sit down and write.

At $29.99 USD (currently on sale), I’d be upset if it was priced any higher. For how clunky the overall experience is, I will admit there’s plenty of replay value if you can ignore all of its shortcomings, issues and suffer through Silver's delivery. While some might not being locked into their choices permanently, it makes you deal with the consequences of your actions, also a clever way to force multiple playthroughs if you want to experience everything The Last Oricru has to offer and I did enjoy going with my gut reaction rather than seeing a ‘good’ vs ‘bad’ option. Unless you’re a massive Soulslike fan looking for a new game to stream or master, it’s hard to recommend joining the Ratvolution.

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

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Sophstar

I believe it was 1942 for NES that started my love for shumps (shoot ‘em ups). One of those vertically scrolling shooting games, there were a number of classic shumps back in the NES/SNES era, but once Ikargua released, that truly cemented my love for the genre and is easily one of my top five games of all time. That said, when a new shump releases, I’m always eager to give it a go, regardless of vertical or horizontal scrolling, or if it’s a bullet hell or not (where you have to deal with avoiding hundreds of bullets on screen at any given point). Well, from developers Banana Bytes and publisher RED ART GAMES, we now have Sophstar, the latest in the genre.

I’ll admit, very few shmups in the last decade or so have really stood out. I’ve reviewed a good handful, but none have truly stood out ever since possibly Deathsmiles on Xbox 360 back in 2007. Of course, I always root for a newcomer and had high hopes that Sophstar would be a must have for any other shmup fans. While not so much a bullet hell, that doesn’t mean Sophstar doesn’t have its challenge with its multiple difficulty modes.

Inspired by classic 90’s vertical shmups, Sophstar is more than a competent game on its own, but there’s actually some unique and interesting mechanics that I actually quite enjoyed during my multiple playthroughs. You can simply jump in and start shooting enemies and avoiding their bullets, but there’s going to be some practice and strategy needed if you want to challenge yourself with its hardest difficulty modes, great for casual up to the hardcore fans.

While shmups aren’t generally known for their deep and involved stories, Sophstar is really no different, but at least some effort is made to have a narrative and a reasoning behind shooting everything in sight. You are Soph, a Sub-Lieutenant, part of some sort of space army. She’s lived in Galanian for her whole life yet can’t recall anything about her earliest years or how she developed teleportation powers, a useful skill that helps her as a pilot to survive. Being sent on a seemingly simple recon mission, she decides she must find out about her past and what’s going on, setting you on a journey across eight unique stages taking on some sort of alien advance.

Being a vertical shooter, with you at the bottom of the screen as your fly your way to the top constantly, I was surprised Sophstar utilized a classic 240x320 arcade resolution. This of course means that there’s a massive border on the left and right of the screen, but there’s a few options for you as to what artwork you want to have. Being a true shmup, there’s even a Tate mode option, where if you were playing on a widescreen monitor that can rotate, you could have it mimic a true arcade experience. I doubt many will utilize this option, but greatly appreciated to have nonetheless.

With a handful of different modes to play, the main one is Arcade, acting as the story mode. You then get to choose between six different difficulty modes, ranging from Child to Brutal, so naturally my first few were on the easiest setting to get a hang of its gameplay and hit detection. After a few playthroughs I tried the harder difficulties and there was quite a difference. While not a bullet hell at its core, there’s still plenty of challenge, especially in the last few stages.

While normally having a few different ships to choose from isn’t too uncommon, having nine though is quite an accomplishment. Even better, they are so unique in their firing modes, secondary abilities and teleportation skills that each one warrants its own playthrough. They all perform unique, each with their own strengths and weaknesses aside from the fire modes. Some are slower than others but make it up in other ways. Some have weak attacks but have a very wide spread for their shots, where others have a much more narrow firing pattern and is more concentrated.

Experimenting with each was fun, as I clearly had some favorites over others, liking a primary shot but maybe not the secondary. Each also has its own unique teleport pattern and use, adding some more strategic thought into your choice. The wide variety of ships truly does change how you play each time and once I played with the ship that has homing missiles, I found it hard to play as any other. Most important, none were terrible, in my opinion, each catering to a different style of gameplay, though with how many enemies usually are on screen at a time, I generally opted for a ship with a wider spread shot.

Across eight missions, each run will roughly take a half hour or so to reach the end, pretty much on par for many shmups. You’ll fight numerous mini-bosses along the way with a massive one at the end of each stage. Defeating enemies throughout the stages will at times have random power-ups float across the screen, changing what it is every few seconds until you pick it up. This would have been a great tutorial section, as this isn’t explained, and Sophstar isn’t like many other shmups where you start out with weak firepower and need the power-ups to shoot stronger/more. Instead, these power-ups seem to refill your sub/secondary weapon or give you points. There’s even secret question marks that can appear if you fulfil secret objectives, which really isn’t explained either unfortunately.

As for the actual controls and shooting mechanics, it’s solid overall. Control feel smooth with the Left Stick, though you can hold a button that turns down the sharpness of the movement, allowing for more minute and precision movement, though I rarely had to rely on this. Your main attack is simply held down at all times, but you have a meter for your secondary. Each ship will have completely different primary and secondary attacks, so make sure to experiment and see what you prefer. This meter really isn’t explained at all either, taking some figuring out on my own to understand it. There’s a portion of the secondary meter that flashes, though it seems that’s the amount that will be used as soon as you use it. You can hold the button for more use, quickly draining the meter, but good for when you need a quick offensive or defensive boost depending on your chosen ship.

There’s also a key teleportation ability each ship has, but each does so slightly differently. Even though Sophstar isn’t really a bullet hell shmup, there will be times you become cornered in between oncoming bullets. To survive this you can use your teleportation ability, allowing you to move to a different spot without taking damage. Some ships have you move a cursor to indicate where you’ll appear, others choose a random spot, and one of my favorites actually causes a Black Hole to appear at the spot they teleported out of, great to suck in a bunch of enemy bullets to give you a moment to recollect yourself. What isn’t explained at all as well is the square surrounding your ship is actually the timer to indicate if your teleport is ready or not.

There are different scoring systems you can unlock and choose, depending on your skill. When you shoot and destroy and enemy they will instantly drop a token. The longer the token stays on screen the smaller it gets and less points it's worth, so the risk versus reward is that you’ll need to attack enemies closer to the top of the screen to grab those tokens as soon as possible if you want the best scores possible. There’s a combo counter as well, so there’s some crazy scores you can get if you play properly and know how best to extend your scores for the online leaderboards.

Outside of the Arcade, you have a number of different modes you can choose to play as well. Score Attack, Endless Mode, Timed Challenge and even a Cadet School. Ultimate Challenge is very challenging, as it’s basically a boss rush mode that will take some serious skill to see to completion with a number of loops that become harder each time. The most interesting though has to be the Cadet School. Here you take on very specific challenges in a number of different categories. You’re given a specific ship and objective and have a specified time limit to complete it in. For example, maybe you need to stay alive for 60 seconds but your weapons are disabled, so it’s a skill check on your avoidance abilities. Others task you trying to reach certain combos or scores within a short time along with a ton of other unique challenges. It’s a great little mode that I accidently stumbled upon, thinking it was just the tutorial or something initially.

As for its retro styled aesthetics, it looks just like any other 90’s shump, not necessarily a bad thing. Truth be told, I thought Sophstar was some obscure overseas shmup from that era that never released here, that’s how authentic it feels. There’s also a number of different visual filters you can choose if you truly love the old classic CRT lines and such. The soundtrack is decent though unmemorable, as you’ll really only focus on your ship sounds and the endless barrage of bullet ‘pew-pew’s.

Having a robust online leaderboard that separates every mode and ship is welcome, providing plenty of replay value if you want to top the numerous high scores online. Having nailed the classic 90’s style, gameplay and aesthetic, Sophstar is a decent shump overall, and although it doesn’t reach the heights of an Ikaruga, it’s certainly worth your time if you’re a shmup fan.

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

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed

Like many that grew up in the 70’s who flocked towards Star Wars, I’d argue that many kids in the 80’s, like myself, gravitated towards Ghostbusters. That’s how iconic the movie was, though maybe not the sequel as much. Ghostbusters was my thing. I had the movies on VHS, watched the cartoon, had basically all the toys, including the awesome Firehouse that you poured the slime into and Ecto-1, and I’d argue, probably one of the most iconic and recognizable theme songs of all time. Ghostbusters was a big deal, and with the success of the latest movie, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, having a new game in the franchise to play obviously made me perk up and become curious.

Developed by Illfonic, if you know their track record of games, you’ll probably already have an idea of what to expect. Are you a fan of asymmetrical multiplayer games where it’s usually a 4v1 match? Do you remember Evolve, Predator: Hunting Grounds or Friday the 13th: The Game? If you answered yes, Illfonic also happened to work on those as well, so to say they know the 4v1 genre well is probably an understatement. And what better franchise were this asymmetrical setup makes the most sense other than this franchise, having four Ghostbusters trying to take down a ghost? Exactly, it seems like a match made in heaven on paper.

Ghostbusters fans can rejoice in the fact that it appears as though a lot of time, effort and care went into making Spirits Unleashed as authentic as it can be when it comes to lore, characters and the iconic equipment. Proton Packs, PKE Meters, Traps and more are all just as you’d expect them to be if you know your movies. This authenticity made me smile, and even though you can change and upgrade your gear, even visually, the effort that went into making sure the smallest details, even the basement of the Firehouse where The Containment Unit is located, doesn’t go unnoticed.

Technically a sequel to the latest movie, Afterlife, Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed takes place basically right after the post credit scene from the film ending, a pleasant surprise to know that it’s cannon. To further reinforce this, you’ll interact with a few familiar faces, Raymond Stantz and Winston Zeddemore, surprisingly voiced by the actual actors, something I wasn’t expecting. Winston has refurbished the Firehouse and brought back the Ghostbusters’ headquarters back to its former glory.

The original Busters’ time is over though, Ray has moved on, running his unique book store right across from the building, Ray’s Occult Books, and it’s been decades since they’ve suited up properly, knowing it’s time for a new generation of Ghostbusters. This is where you come in. There’s some new characters brought on board as well, like Catt who is almost like a replacement for Janine Melnitz (can you truly replace her though?) and a new tech research wizard, Eddy.

I don’t want to delve too much into the narrative, as it’s actually quite interesting when you learn about a special Spirit Guide written by John Horace Tobin (which should seem familiar if you’re up on your Ghostbusters lore) and a mysterious package that’s sent from Peter Venkman. What I wasn’t expecting though was how it’s not structured like a traditional campaign. Instead, story segments play out with cutscenes and unlocks every so often, which I believe is level based from playing matches, but this wasn’t really explained, so I’m simply guessing. Play matches and eventually you’ll earn story sections in between matches when you head back to HQ every so often.

Much like Illfonic’s previous games that were also asymmetrical, the 4v1 gameplay is where 4 Ghostbuster players in a team will take on one other playing the Ghost that’s haunting a specific building. While you can play solo, as it will place you with bots when there’s no players to join, but doing so will be quite difficult, as the bots are quite braindead when it comes to their AI and actually helping in any meaningful way. With a few friends though, I was actually having some fun playing alongside some fellow staff writers as we try to take down the ghost. While the website does promote that the multiplayer game is “perfect for all levels”, I’d almost argue against that, as there is quite a bit of a learning curve and a team of Ghostbusters that don’t work together in unison will easily get outclassed by a good Ghost player.

You begin your bustin’ career by creating your character how you like, but it’s definitely not one of the most robust character creators out there. Certain clothes, gear and other options are level locked, so you’ll need to work on the grind for the coolest looking gear, even if it’s basic overall. Something I didn’t even catch until later that I really thought was clever is that the name on your uniform is actually your Gamertag. Small detail but very cool, as it looks just as it would in real life in the same font, color and style.

Once you enter a stage you’ll be searching for the ghost, trying to stop them before they fully haunt the place, but you’ll notice there’s a lot of random NPC’s wandering around the building as well. As they get scared by the ghost or you using your weapons near them, they’ll become panicked. You’re able to run up to one and have a brief conversation with them to calm them down, but this really isn’t explained well. A small and quick minigame appears where you need to press the Trigger at a certain time to improve their nerves, but miss these spots and they’ll panic even further. You get points for doing so, but this takes precious time that could be spent tracking down the ghost or supporting your team, so it’s a balance.

There’s currently only 5 maps, and while they are multi-leveled, usually 3 floors, you’ll become quite bored with the same scenery over and over since you simply play a match one after another in this type of genre. The maps are varied, going from a Museum, Prison, Brewery, Cruise Ship and a Lodge, each with their own theme and style, but it becomes repetitive with such few. You do start with a Grapple Hook item that allows you to attach to higher ledges and railings to quickly reach higher ground, eventually unlocking different gadgets you can swap it out for should you wish.

As part of the Ghostbuster team, you’ll need to locate the main ghost to try and capture them, stopping the inevitable haunting of the building, also searching for their three rifts to destroy, acting as their respawns. You’ll use your PKE meter that will alert you if there’s paranormal activity when you’re close, showing which direction to head in as those antennas rise the closer you get. If you want to stun a ghost that’s in close range, you can overcharge your PKE meter but this causes your PKE needing to cooldown or reboot for a short while as a tradeoff.

So you found a ghost or a rift, so naturally you’ll use your iconic Proton Pack to try and capture them in your beam. This needs to be managed though, as using for too long will overheat your pack, needing to be vented to cool or worse, waiting a long time for a reboot if it overheats completely. While one beam might work for a low level or inexperienced ghost player, you’ll most certainly need others from your team to finally trap that ghost.

Speaking of traps, your Ghost Trap is utilized just as you’d expect from the movies. You can toss it out at any point, and then step on the button to open the trap (done with the Left Trigger). This will open the trap, ready to capture any tethered ghost that is placed right over it. While there’s a brief tutorial, I found this quite difficult to actually do. Getting the ghost directly over the trap seemed to never work for me. This is exasperated by the fact your trap has a battery level, so it can only stay open for so long before you need to pick it back up and close it to get it to slowly recharge.

Also, if you have a ghost currently trapped in your beam and want to toss your your trap, you’ll have to stop shooting for a moment to do so, giving them enough time to get away, so you can see where the teamwork and communication is imperative. You only have one Ghost Trap, so if you forget to pick it up off the ground you’ll have to run back to go get it if you want to use it again. Given that all your equipment levels up separately based on its use, my Trap was always the lowest level since I could barely actually capture a ghost it in it.

While there are four Ghostbusters on a team, choose (or randomly get chosen) to be a Ghost and you’ll be solo. You’ll actually need to complete a few matches before being able to be the ghost, giving you a brief tutorial on how to do so. As a ghost you’ll be able to freely fly around one of the five maps that’s chosen, each ghost type with its own unique abilities and stats. You can possess items, haunt them to act as distractions (they will show up on PKE meters), slime your enemies and have a few abilities to help you attack or defend. You have a stamina-like meter, called Ectoplasm, so you need to constantly manage this meter. Almost everything you do as a ghost requires Ectoplasm, so you better be sure to always have a reserve in case you need to quickly dash away from a Ghostbuster that just spotted to tried to trap you.

Need to refill your meter? No problem, simply possess an item. The longer you stay inside, the more you’ll refill. This will show on nearby PKE meters though, even if you stay still, so I wouldn’t suggest doing so for a long time. You have a lot of different strategies to try and fully haunt the building, your objective for winning, and it really depends on how you want to play. Do you use panicked NPC’s that some players will do the minigame for to calm them down as a trap, so you haunt a few items as a distraction while you work on other rooms?

When you do start to get tethered by a team of Ghostbusters, you’re able to break free by spamming corresponding buttons quickly and moving your ghost a certain direction to ‘fight’ the pull near a trap. You have one last ditch effort when being sucked into a Ghost Trap, but without a controller that has turbo or rapid fire, good luck actually doing so. Your three rifts act as respawns if you are caught, so hopefully the other team doesn’t find and destroy them before you fulfil your own objectives.

I can see the appeal in playing the ghost, as you’re given a handful of interesting abilities, and it always feels rewarding to take down a team of four when you’re solo. That said, I hated playing as the ghost. I understood the objectives and how to do so, but I simply didn’t have fun doing so. To be fair, I also never liked being the monster in Evolve or the killer in Dead by Daylight either in similar games, so that’s more on my personal preference. The issue I had was that even though you can choose a preferred role of Ghostbuster or Ghost, even joining a match as a team with friends it would sometimes also split us up, forcing someone to be a ghost even when we joined as a trio.

You get plenty of experience for playing, completing matches, and of course playing well. As you level your overall rank, this unlocks new cosmetic gear and story progression, whereas your equipment levels up independently based on how much you use them. My Proton Pack was climbing levels because I was constantly attacking the ghosts with it, whereas my Trap barely leveled at all since I struggled to capture many ghosts in my individual trap.

As your gear levels up, you can equip different components that not only change the visual aesthetic of the gear, but its stats as well. My Proton Pack for example now has a different piece that gives me better venting and tethering skills. Think of these like attachments for your guns in a Call of Duty, it’s very similar. Ghosts also have unlockable and abilities they can earn by playing and doing well also. The constant promise of a new attachment kept me hooked for a while, making me want to play one more match so I could try and get some new components for my gear.

For the actual multiplayer, which is what the game is based on, yes it will place you with bots if needed, but they are of very little help. With crossplay enabled, finding matches only took 10 seconds or so, never having to wait long for a match. With matches lasting roughly 15 minutes or so, what I did find was that the balancing really needs to be addressed. Some matches would last five minutes because it was clear that the ghost was a new player and had no idea what to do, and others that clearly favor playing the ghost and has zero issues keeping all four of us players locked down and slimed where we couldn’t really do anything about it. 40 or so levels in, if I saw a high ranked ghost, it was almost always a guaranteed loss as a Ghostbuster team.

Spirits Unleashed has a very cartoonish aesthetic to it, not necessary a bad thing, but I did quite like how the particle beams appeared to be true to the source material. I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting the original Ray Parker Jr. theme song for the brand to be included, but I was smiling ear to ear once it loaded up. The voice acting of the iconic Ghostbuster characters included are of course perfect, and the secondary characters aren’t too bad either. The soundtrack is decent, though nothing really all the memorable outside the iconic theme song. You’ll be trying to focus on audio cues from scared NPCs and sounds the ghost may be making to try and get an advantage anyway. The particle beams from the Proton Packs sounds as though it came direct from the movies, always sounding great.

I was surprised that Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed was priced at $29.99 USD ($38.99 CAD - currently a sale), expecting a fully priced game. This is basically that sweet spot when it comes to value and replayability given its repetitive nature and lack of maps. Nostalgia will certainly be the main reason many pick it up, but without any friends to bust ghosts alongside with, I’d question its longevity. Who you gonna call? Ghostbusters!

**Ghostbusters: Spirits Unleashed was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Last Hero of Nostalgaia, The

I feel I need to come clean at the beginning of this review. I generally don’t enjoy Soulslike games. I know I know, I’ve heard it many times before; ‘Git Gud’. I don’t enjoy the difficult challenge, the respawning enemies and the repeated attempts to finally make progress. That said, I’ve played quite a few Soulslike’s, and even though it’s not my genre of choice, I can appreciate why many do enjoy them and there’s even been a few that I didn’t hate the whole way through. The Last Hero of Nostalgaia was one of those, keeping me interested due to its satirical take on a Soulslike and the constant gaming references and fan service. I’m a sucker for parodies, so when The Last Hero of Nostalgaia had my chuckling from its first moments, I couldn’t help but smile.

Something is happening to the world of Nostalgaia, as if it’s collapsing on itself or going back in time, turning back into pixels. You see, The Last Hero of Nostalgaia is very self-aware of what it is, knowing it’s a game and never takes itself too seriously. As the world is self-destructing, you’re are Nostalgaia’s last hope, but you’re simply a lowly stick figure, how can you help this world? As you fight through this unforgiving world, you not only have to contend with all of the enemies that stand in your way, but be constantly berated by a cynical narrator that always has a handful of one-liners that will surely get a chuckle or two out of you.

It seems that killing Great Ones, the bosses, is somehow restoring the world to its former glory, slowly but surely, or at least slowing down the destruction of the world. With a much lighter hearted take on a usually serious genre, expect plenty of fourth wall breaking and plenty of pop culture and gaming references along the way. The narrator gives a humorous tone overall, as he’ll make things happen that you normally wouldn’t expect, like spawning a train to barrel down a narrow bridge you’re trying to cross, or fill a cavern with flames all around after being taunted. Being the comedic relief, the narrator was one of the better highlights to Nostalgaia, very reminiscent of the mocking narrator from The Stanley Parable.

Like any other Soulslike, you begin by first creating your character exactly how you like. You have a full character customizer, able to choose skin color, body type, age, accessories, tattoos, nose width, eye style, jaw width, endowment and hair style. This alone is absolutely hilarious, because if you read what I mentioned above, I said you, the hero, was a simple stick figure. So yes, you can change these sliders to your preference, but realistically, this doesn’t change anything; you’re a stick figure, how would it? These opening moments of humor sets the tone going forward, and I was all for it.

Once you get your hero looking exactly how you want (heh), you then pick your starting class. You have a few choices from Datadin (a well-rounded defender that favors vitality and begins with a sword and shield), Resolutionary (favors dexterity by being swift and evasive), Formatter (favors strength and is your heavy weapon user), Sourcerer (your magic user), and lastly Randomaster (luck based, backstabs, parries and is great for critical hits). You can see even from the class names, humor again is seeping through everywhere it possibly can.

Once your adventure begins, don’t be surprised if you start to get heavy Dark Souls/Demon’s Souls vibes, as it’s got a similar feeling with its vastly interconnected world and branching pathways, including a poison area that made me want to stop playing out of frustration. You have a light and heavy attack, can block, dodge and will of course need to manage your stamina, a genre staple of course. Remember, this is almost like a parody, so expect to see plenty of gaming references that will surely make you at least crack a smile if not laugh out loud. One of first sets of armor I got was green and called Master Chef’s set, and at one point I even crossed a literal rainbow road bridge.

Instead of souls you’ll earn Memory for defeating enemies and breaking open barrels. This is your currency you’ll use when at resting spots, Beacons, to level up and also spent on upgrading your gear and unlocking certain pathways. Just like other Souls games, when you die, not if, you will drop all your currently gained Memory, and if you die again they are lost forever. Typical stuff for sure. General mechanics are much like almost every other Soulslike, as Beacons are where you’ll rest and refill your healing items, yet respawn all enemies. Here you can also set a singular warp point to teleport back to from any other Beacon, but sadly there’s no overall teleportation system in place, so you expect to do quite a lot of backtracking through certain areas at times. The world is very interconnected, allowing you to open locked pathways from the other side of a door later on, but not being able to quickly teleport to and from areas was frustrating and quite tedious.

A really cool aesthetic is how the world goes from a pixelated and decayed visual to being restored once you use a Beacon. This has the immediate surroundings turn ‘modern’, being well lit and have plenty of details from its initial pixelated look. Because of the lore and narrative, this also has a meaning, not just being a pretty visual effect just for the sake of doing so. Combat is also what you’d expect from nearly any Soulike, managing your stamina and doing what you can to be patient and learn enemy attack patterns. You have a light and heavy attack, as well as a dodge and being able to block. You can also run, depleting your stamina, but there’s no jumping allowed. Depending on the starter class you chose, you’ll begin with some basic weapons to start your adventure and just steps in you’ll fight your first enemies.

Even the first handful of enemies plays into Nostalgaia’s humor, being 2D enemies or facing off against a soldier with a bucket on their head. There’s a decent amount of enemy variety as you go through the entire journey, but there is quite a lot of repeated enemies within in each area. Combat, while forgiving for the most part and not quite as hardcore as the source material, can be clunky at times. I’ve had strikes miss enemies and sometimes it seemed as though my shield didn’t block any of the damage. You can of course heal with an item that is basically your Estus Flask, refilled when resting at Beacons, or finding special items in the world like Green Herbs (great Resident Evil Easter egg) or a hunk of meat.

The hardest enemy though is the camera when it comes to enemy lock-on. Sometimes it works great, and in theory a flick of the Right Stick swaps the enemy it’s focused on, but numerous times it would snap to a random enemy not in the pack right in front of me, sometimes even a different enemy through a wall or above. Good luck if you want to try to lock onto enemies that are up on ledges or far away though, which will be a challenge for magic users. Enemies start out basic and easy to defeat, slowly becoming more challenging and difficult. I don’t suspect those that live for Soulslike's will have much of a challenge, but for a casual genre player like myself, I did die a healthy amount of times, respawning at the last Beacon I used. Enemies later on can even start out 2D and flat, leap onto you to bite, then becoming 3D and more difficult.

Magic and mana is probably one of the most unique takes on the typical mechanics. Instead of a mana bar or that it refills, you have Access which is basically a counter of how many spells you can use. You find Access from enemy drops and in broken barrels but can only carry a certain amount at a time depending on your class and stats. Because each spell use needs to use a specific amount of Access, you can’t simply spam your magic attacks, even as a Sourcerer.

While there’s only a handful of bosses in Nostalgaia, they are of course the crown jewel of its combat. The first few weren’t too challenging, as even I beat them on my first try, but the next were much more difficult and took a few tries. Keeping with the humorous theme, defeating them gives you a very familiar “FINISHED HIM” message across the screen.

Your hero will find plenty of different armor and weapon choices along the way, some given from defeating enemies and bosses, others hidden away. Each seems quite unique, best meant for specific classes or playstyles. The most unique mechanic though comes from the Remembrance system. All this gear you find is quite basic, but each has a special description to it, usually about its lore. This lore will hint at specific points in the world where if you go to those specific spots and ‘Remember’ your items, they get upgraded, not just in stats but extra abilities and its visual as well.

Remember how I said that the lack of a teleport system was a downer though? This is partly why, as I don’t feel like doing a ton of backtracking just to upgrade an item. It’s a really interesting system and seeing your basic pixelated gear transition into modern 3D is also a cool effect, much like using a new Beacon and how it affects the world around it. An even cooler outcome is that you generally want to do this ‘Remembrance’ on each time you can afford to with your Memory, as once you hit certain thresholds you’ll also gain permanent bonuses.

The gear also keeps with the humor theme, as I decided I was going to use a key sword as my main weapon, and having a Hyrulean shield is also good for laugh given the combination of their source games. Your hero is a stick figure though, so whatever gear you decide to wear simply goes on top of these ‘body’ parts. Decide to just wear a pair of white boxer shorts with hearts on them and you’ll be a stick figure running around with, well, boxers on. Something about seeing a stick figure wearing an armored bra but not actually covering anything, you know, since your torso is just a stick, was so dumb it made me laugh.

Surprisingly, I wasn’t actually expecting The Last Hero of Nostalgaia to have much of a co-op mode, but I was wrong. From within the first few moments you have an item where you can summon a friend in and play the whole game through alongside if you choose. Both players make progress but there’s a few major caveats to factor in. First, you and your friend need to be at the same story point, if it’s mismatched, the player who’s lagging behind will need to catch up. Secondly, if either player dies, the game is desynced and you need to do a complete re-invite and start the co-op once more. I would have been fine with this, but there’s no matchmaking at all, so if you don’t have a friend to play with that also purchased the game, there’s essentially no online co-op unless you go make some friends externally first.

The constant play of 2D and 3D when it comes to nearly all of its visuals and even gear is a really interesting contrast that seems to somehow work. Even better, it makes sense given the narrative as well. While nothing will stand out and ‘wow’ you visually, seeing how large Nostalgaia is from certain vistas is impressive once you realize it’s all interconnected in some way. As for the audio, Neil McCaul voices the Narrator brilliantly and the whole experience wouldn’t have been the same without his witty banter and comments along the way. Aside from that though, there’s not much else of noteworthy for its audio, though you’ll hear plenty of weapon clangs and effects and there’s a subtle soundtrack that sets the tone during boss fights.

From its opening moments, to the credits and everywhere in between, the humor The Last Hero of Nostalgaia brings is surely part of its focus, bringing a more lighthearted approach to a Soulslike. Nearly every item description has some humor, even to the achievements, all topped off with plenty of fan service and gaming references you’re sure to recognize. Sure the humor wears a little thin the latter half, but fans should enjoy this different take on their favorite genre.

**The Last Hero of Nostalgaia was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous

While I’ve never been too heavily into cRPG’s (Computer Role Playing Game), they have quite a following and have had a number of massive hits over the past few decades; games like Baldur’s Gate, Wasteland 3, Disco Elysium, Neverwinter Nights, Divinity: Original Sin 2, Pillars of Eternity, and Planescape Torment just to name a few. These generally are high fantasy, a setting I quite enjoy, and I never played it's prequel, Kingmaker, I was quite excited to check out Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous, developed by Owlcat Games and published by META Publishing.

As the Pathfinder brand was new to me, I had to do some research, coming away amazed with how in-depth the brand really is and what they’ve done since its inception back in 2009. Based on revised 3rd Edition Dungeons and Dragons, Pathfinder, by Paizo Publishing, is very consistently ranking in second for sales when compared to D&D, which is no small feat. An adaptation of the “Wrath of the Righteous” adventure path, developer Owlcat Games has made a sequel to Kingmaker that vastly surpasses it in almost every way, not just in sheer scale, but content wise as well.

As you embark on this massive adventure, you can expect virtually endless amount of gameplay depending on your attention span, understanding on basic D&D and how many times you’d want to replay to see all the different options at your disposal. The world is starting to be overrun by demons, and while the Adventure books was split into six main installments, I was quite shocked at how lengthy this campaign was, and that’s not even including any of the optional DLC campaign additions. Do you rise as a hero, fulfilling the impossible to save everyone and everything, or more lean into your nefarious side and choose to do as you like and rule your way? With plenty of customization, actually to the level of being overwhelming, there’s no shortage of playing however you like with any character style or build you want.

A massive rift has torn open among the country of Mendev, aptly titled the Worldwound, where hordes of demons are flowing through led by Demon Lord Deskari. The city of Nanabres is now in ruins, nearly everyone slaughtered and virtually nothing remains. With seemingly nothing that can stop this onslaught of death from the outpouring of demons, you may seem like just a normal mortal, but can you stop the demons in this latest crusade? It seems there’s something even bigger and more evil looming in the darkness, watching over the Worldwound.

You miraculously survive a seemingly fatal blow only to awaken some dormant mythical powers you possess deep within. While you become slowly infused with more power as time goes on, you’ll be making numerous choices that will affect the outcome of the world. Do you become a literal angel and do good, saving everyone you can at every chance? Do you opt for more of an evil inclining, deciding to have power over everything else? Maybe you’re somewhere in the morally grey area. There’s no right or wrong, you can play the narrative any way you desire, complete with numerous endings.

To say that the narrative is massive in scope and that the lore could easily fit in a library is an understatement. I’ll be honest, it was challenging in the beginning to follow along. Not that you need to know the Pathfinder series inside and out, but it’s a monster when it comes to its story, characters and world in sheer volume and scale. Thankfully you can click on specific keywords during dialogue and story sections, bringing up more detailed information on that topic should you want more insight. Remember though, every choice you make will have a consequence, and you’ll need to accept these choices regardless of the outcome. There’s so much depth in this world that even minor characters can have quite a background. I hope you like reading, as much of the dialogue and story isn’t narrated, so you’ll need to make quite a commitment if you want to get the most out of this adventure.

Before you even begin your 50+ hour journey for just the story alone on your first playthrough, you want to begin by customizing your adventure to your liking based on a number of different difficulty levels. Being somewhat of a novice in the genre, I opted for an easier experience, able to change nearly every setting, so you can choose from a very narrative focused journey without much combat challenge, all the way to deeply challenging options that will force you to know every minute detail of its combat, classes and gameplay to even survive. Those heavy into D&D should feel quite at home here, but don’t shy away if you’re like me and very casual with the concepts outside the basics.

Next you create your character. You can choose from 12 races and 25 classes, or go completely your own way and design your character however you wish to suit your playstyle. I chose a basic two-handed fighter so I could focus on the core combat while my teammates would be the ones to cast spells and use cantrips to round out the team. With over a thousand spells, abilities, feats and more, you can truly customize your character to exactly how you’d like if you’re deep into D&D character creation. This is actually incredibly deep to the point that I instantly felt overwhelmed. After a half hour of trying to create my own custom class and character, I decided to opt for something more basic. Which is totally fine, as I enjoyed my class later on when I became much more powerful. I have no doubt that some may spend well over an hour or two in this robust character creation, crafting that character they always dreamed of for their D&D campaign. Pathfinder fans will know what to expect, but it may feel daunting at first for those new to the series.

On top of this deep character creator you’ll also eventually unlock Mythic Paths, allowing you to change the outcome of the story quite heavily. I don’t want to spoil these choices for you, but you have numerous options, like being able to turn into an Angel, a Demon, Lich and more. These Mythic Paths add a whole other layer of options and complexity, but also add near endless replayability if you truly want to get value out of Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous.

When I say you can play how you want, I really mean it. That means being able to kill basically anyone you want, even incredibly important NPC’s that may have serious implications later on should you do so. I always play noble and good aligned though, so I opted to save those who I could, recruiting any compelled to join my cause along the way. You could completely miss some of these companion characters though based on choices you make, so always be careful and read over your options and dialogue choices. With about ten companions that can be recruited to your party, they are all quite varied and have a massive amount of back story. Not a fan of how they act or simply don’t fit amongst your group, you can just as easily tell them to leave at any time and see them on their way or simply not take them in your group of six.

Gameplay is primarily in your typical isometric view, able to zoom in and out to your preference, but this is within each zone or area. Getting from one area to the next takes place on an overview map, as if you’re placing a piece on a warboard, planning your next move. Each area will tell you if you’ve been there before and what specific quests you have in said area. Some will even require specific characters in your party to progress further. You must manage your time though, as the more exploration you do the more corruption you suffer from the Worldwound, eventually giving you massive debuffs and possibly even kill you if you don’t rest and get to safe zones often enough.

At first glance you might expect Wrath of the Righteous to play as a typical action based RPG like a Diablo given its similar camera view, and while you could play this way with real-time combat, where it excels is in its turn based option instead. Slowing things down and playing each turn with strategy is how you’ll survive the harder difficulties as real-time combat can get you in dicey situations with the AI companions being quite dense in difficult situations.

Based on D&D 3.5 rulesets, being able to swap to turn based or real-time on the fly is quite an impressive feat. For basic cannon fodder demons and bandit fights I would let the AI do as they wish, but for the harder bosses and larger battles, I definitely wouldn’t have survived if I didn’t use the tactical turn based mode instead. You’re able to control your group, as a whole or individually, with the typical movement of the Left thumbstick, or with a quick click you can change it to your typical cRPG where you have a cursor to point and interact that way for a more classical experience should you wish. Being able to instantly switch to turn based when battles are starting to favor the enemies was a great feature, allowing me to be able to use some of my special abilities at the most opportune times without having to worry about what’s going on around me and my group and taking my time.

The tactical approach has plenty of benefits, like disarming traps before you accidentally set your whole group ablaze, or flanking an enemy with one of your rogue types, positioning an archer to an ideal spot far from danger or using those special abilities that will be the difference of life and death. Yes that means there’s plenty of micromanaging to do in this mode, but it gives you complete control and will be absolutely needed in the latter half.

You’ll start off with the most basic of weapons and armor, eventually finding better gear as you explore and defeat enemies. Inventory management is probably a large portion of my gameplay time as it’s not as fluid as it could be with a controller. In fact, the whole menu system is clumsy at best with a controller, and while it does functionally work, even a few dozen hours in I was hitting the wrong triggers and buttons because it’s not intuitive.

Remember, this is based on the true Pathfinder ruleset, and there’s an overwhelming amount of things to learn as you go. I didn’t realize that I couldn’t wear gear that had duplicate bonuses or else it becomes a waste. There’s also weapon and gear penalties you need to consider, so you don’t want to simply give everyone heavy breastplates and huge two-handed gear. With how much gear you pickup, you’ll be spending plenty of time trying to manage your inventory for the carrying weight, and even more figuring out if the new gear is an upgrade for each of your characters. Unfortunately this isn’t displayed very easily, so you’ll need to go through every character, check the base stats on what you’re currently wearing, compare to what’s in your inventory then start the process all over again when you hit the wrong button or accidentally switch to a different character with the clumsy controls.

Given the genre and isometric camera, it’s visually pretty much what you’d expect from a game like this. There’s not much up close and in-depth details, but they have done a good job at making some beautiful backdrops and vistas, especially when you factor in just how large and how many areas you’ll be exploring in your adventure. My main complaint here is that there’s a lot of loading screens. Even on an Xbox Series X, because it’s simply an Xbox One game, there’s more loading than I’d like when you transition from zone to zone.

As for the audio, the voiced cutscenes are done quite well with some great performances for the most part, and even though some of the minor characters feel a little over-acted at times, I always appreciate when an effort is made to have voiced dialogue, especially in a game this expansive. That said, a good majority of the game is not voiced and relies on you to read it all. There has to be thousands of pages of dialogue too, so I hope this won’t be an issue for you.

You’ll get what you put into Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous. Those that can dedicate well over a hundred hours will surely get a deep and lore rich adventure with plenty of replayability. That is, if you can get over the sheer overwhelmingness of it all in the beginning or don’t feel guilty playing on a lower difficulty. Having gone into the experience without any expectations, I’m glad to have had this adventure even if it did take a dozen hours to start to really understand how I wanted to do so well.

**Pathfinder: Wrath of the Righteous was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.3 / 10 Train Life: A Railway Simulator

Having just recently reviewed another competitor Train Sim game, I already had some good base knowledge about the train engineer life, how to generally operate one and what goes into travelling across country on the railway. Having assumed this was going to be just another run-of-the-mill train simulator with its own slightly different twist, there’s actually a good amount of unique content and gameplay with Train Life: A Railway Simulator that differentiates itself from the competition.

Now I will say, even though it has Simulator in its title, and it is replicating that to a degree, it’s not quite as in-depth as other train simulators out there. Not necessarily a bad thing, it did have a little more arcade-like touch to its core gameplay, but what makes it most unique is that it’s also a company management simulator as well, opening up a completely different element of gameplay for those that want just a little more than your standard train simulation mechanics.

Once you begin your train life journey, you start by creating your own railway company. Do you want to focus on travel, bringing passengers from one corner of Europe to the other, move commodities and supplies, or a bit of both? The handful of tutorials will teach you the basics of the train controls, how to move, switching tracks, purchasing new trains and the basics of hiring new employees and getting your company off to a strong start. That said, while the tutorials are informative for the basics, there’s a whole slew of things that I had to figure out on my own through trial and error and I swear one part of a tutorial simply wasn't working properly.

Also, after the tutorials are complete, you’re simply thrown into the world with a train and absolutely no objectives or guidelines. Sure, some will enjoy this freedom to do whatever you want however you like, but having no guidance was frustrating from its opening moments. I wasn’t sure what I should do. Even worse, I was still figuring out the controls and menus since not everything is completely covered in the tutorial and the menu system is a bit confusing at best.

The ‘Career’ is simply you doing whatever you want for your company. Do you pick up passengers at one station and bring them to their destinations? Do you pick up some oil tankers to bring across country to sell for huge profits but has a large time commitment? You’ll need to basically figure this out for yourself. Having zero objectives wasn’t fun, nor was having any sort of set path or clear goals other than running a successful railway company, I guess.

To run a successful business, you’re going to have to invest into it, and to do that you’re going to have to start earning some cash, and quick, depending on the large list of game settings you decided on before beginning. You’ll need to purchase new trains, maintain them with repairs when required, hire new staff, choose contracts from different stations and more. If you desired, you could basically play Train Life: A Railway Simulator as a company simulator, but of course most will be drawn to conducting the trains themselves. So get your work gear on and get ready to visit stations all across Europe.

While Train Life: A Railway Simulator has real locations and trains, it’s not exactly always a 1:1 recreation from its real world counterparts. You’ll be visiting stations across Belgium, Netherlands, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany and more. There are also some real life stations like Berlin Central Station and Zurich Main Station, but if you know these areas like the back of your hand, you may notice it’s not 100% exact. And that’s fine, it may not be an exact replica but it should seem familiar and be recognizable at least. The same goes for its trains, as they don’t seem to be quite as detailed as like in other train simulator games, but it still does a great job for cabin, controls and design. So set your path and plan to coast along thousands of kilometers of track as you try and earn more profit for your company.

With a handful of different trains available like the ICE 3 and ICE 4, among others, they each control similarly but they all perform differently when it comes to their power, maximum speed and braking power. In other train sim games there were complete different startup sequences and even controls, but as I mentioned above, Train Life: A Railway Simulator is somewhat more of an arcade experience, so the controls are much more simplistic to remember and are the same across each train.

If you’ve not played a train simulator before you’re going to realize quite quickly that these don’t drive like a typical vehicle. You have an accelerator and brakes, but they perform quite differently than your typical car. Triggers will control your accelerator, moving in 10% increments for its power, and the Bumpers are your brakes, also in 10% increments for its braking power. You can’t just slam the train into 100% acceleration because the wheels are going to slip, kind of like a burnout with your car. Also keep in mind, these trains weigh tons and tons, so you need to plan to brake well before you actually want to.

You’ll need to not only pay attention to the train itself and follow the speed limits and zones, but keep an eye out for track controls, animal crossings, hill incline and declines, and even changing weather conditions. Don’t follow the rules and you’ll be fined, so you can’t just have your train leave its departure and ‘set it and forget it’, as there are different speed limits based on your path and you may need to come to a stop and wait for an oncoming train at times as well. One time I fully expected to go full speed from start to finish, only to have to slow way down when there was construction or some fallen trees on a section of track with workers nearby.

Not having to worry about different power lines, startup or any in-depth train knowledge needed, I quite enjoyed the arcade aspect to its gameplay, being much more simplistic. That’s not to say that some might not enjoy it as much, especially those really into the simulation aspects, but this is a great starting point for anyone new to the train simulation genre. The company management component is the tradeoff here, adding another layer of gameplay, complexity and strategy.

The most you’ll need to pay attention to is your speed and the GPS once you have your pathway set on the map from departure to destination. You have a minimap in the bottom left corner, and when you get near a crossing junction you’ll see a ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ appear underneath. While this is very briefly touched on in the tutorial, I think, this took me the most time to actually figure out by trial and error. Tapping ‘Y’ button is how you change the track coming up ahead to Left or Right ‘turns’. You can pause the game and check out the map to zoom in and figure out the path you need, but the GPS is smart and will point you in the right direction by having the ‘correct’ path, the “Left” or “Right” wording, highlight in green if correct and red if not based on your targeted destination. Once you figure this out it’s simple once you have your destination path set, but it can be tricky to get the tracks switched in time if you’re going a little too fast or there are a lot of junctions close together in a station.

The management aspect of Train Life: A Railway Simulator is what makes it unique and differentiates itself against other train simulators. Not only do you choose the logo and name for your company, but you’ll be purchasing new trains, hiring employees to have them complete contracts, maintaining your trains and even upgrade them with new parts. There’s a skill tree that you can invest in as you level up by completing scenarios or contracts, so there’s a bit here under near the hood once you get the hang of it all.

Visually, Train Life: A Railway Simulator won’t impress by any means. Sure, inside the train themselves it looks decent, it’s nowhere near realistic either though. There’s a few camera options, but without a real Free-Cam, it can sometimes be difficult to find that sweet spot of what you prefer. Outside the train though as you pass the world by, this is where things start to stand out negatively though. Buildings, trees and other environmental objects are quite basic looking, and worse, the draw distance is quite short and there’s a ton of pop-in for objects in the distance when using the zoomed out camera, even on an Xbox Series X. When opening the doors to onboard passengers, there’s not even any animations of them doing so, you simply open the door, wait for the timer, then close the doors. No one actually walks in or out of the train, giving the world a lifeless dead feeling as pedestrians just stand around motionless.

As for the audio, there’s nothing really to note. The trains themselves sound decent as the engine powers up or the brakes start to squeal when you hit the emergency brake, but aside from that there’s really not much else. There’s some light music in the background at times and when you radio a station for permission to enter they do speak over the radio, but that’s about it aside from hitting 'bumps' going across junctions.

Once I got the hang of the controls, how to set my destinations and fumbling through the menus like radioing stations before arrival, I started to really enjoy my time with Train Life: A Railway Simulator. Yes it’s not as simulation based as other games in the genre, and that’s alright, it still offers entertainment for those that want to conduct along the rails and allows for the company management aspect of gameplay as well. While it’s much more expensive on console ($38.99 CAD) compared to PC, I’m still getting back onto the rails for a scenario here and there.

**Train Life: A Railway Simulator was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.3 / 10 Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II officially launches October 28th, not to be confused with others in the series though. A direct sequel to Modern Warfare (2019) but not a remaster or remake of Modern Warfare 2 (2009) either. This 19th main installment of the series may have a confusing title and timeline of where it fits in, but once I got into the campaign, I couldn’t put it down. If you’ve already preordered you have early access to the Campaign, but the multiplayer doesn’t actually release until October 28th. Needless to say, this review is solely based on the campaign early access.

If you’ve played a Call of Duty campaign before, you pretty much know what to expect; a massive world-threatening plot that only a specialized group of Operators can prevent from happening. I admit I went into the Modern Warfare II campaign lukewarm not expecting very much, as the last few campaigns did little to excite me or lost my interest when it jumped the shark a bit too far in space. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed the campaign so much, because my expectations were zero, but wow, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II starts off pedal-to-the-metal and rarely lets off until the credits roll. Returning iconic Operators of Task Force 141 will make any Call of Duty fan’s ears perk up. Do hearing the names Sergeant John “Soap” MacTavish, Sergeant Kyle “Gaz” Garrick, Lieutenant Simon “Ghost” Riley and Captain John Price excite you as a Call of Duty fan? They should, they are the most iconic and fan favorite characters of the series and all come together as Task Force 141 in a campaign that far exceeded anything that I hoped for.

In older Call of Duty campaigns, Price and Gaz got their time to shine, and while this isn’t the first time we’ve seen or played as Soap or Ghost, they are certainly the main event for the most part. Alongside them is a newcomer to the main protagonists, Colonel Alejandro Vargas, leader of the Mexican Special Forces. He’s such a breath of fresh air, not that the previous characters couldn’t hold their weight or that I was tired of them, but he fit in his own unique way within the team.

If you’re truly a Call of Duty buff and up on all the storylines, characters and lore, then the names Farah Karim, Kate Laswell, General Shepherd and Commander Phillip Graves (CEO of Shadow Company) should excite you as well. I’m not going to delve too much into the story, as it actually is quite an entertaining ride from start to finish, but the overall plot is that it seems American missiles have been stolen and it’s up to Task Force 141 to prevent a global disaster from happening at the hands of a terrorist.

I know, it’s a story that’s been told many times before in basically every Call of Duty, but there were just enough plot twists, unexpected events and character growth that I was interested until the credits rolled. Clocking in at around 6-8 hours or so (depending on your skill and difficulty level chosen), it was the perfect length and never overstayed its welcome. It’s easy to artificially lengthen a game by having the bad guy get away at the last second a few times before they have to chase him down again, but that wasn’t the case here. For those that want a real challenge, there's even a 'Realism' difficulty that is unlocked only after beating the whole campaign on Veteran, no easy task, and amps up the challenge to being killed in a single shot.

Taking place at various locations around the globe, you’ll have 17 missions to complete, each varying and unique from the others, not only in locale and backdrop, but even the mission structure or major setpiece that follows. You’ll be swapping perspectives and characters on each mission, adding unique perspectives and having the narrative flow. Every mission had a true reason as to your objective, not just simply shooting everything that moves because, and even though there were a few reveals you could see coming a mile away, it didn’t deter from how much I was enjoying myself with Price, Gaz, Ghost and Soap once again. At times it takes itself a little too seriously, at others it goes completely over the top, but if you just strap in for a great weekend of Call of Duty campaign, you shouldn’t be disappointed even if it can feel a little familiar at times.

The campaign starts out with the gas fully floored, having you identifying a target from afar, then controlling a missile to take them out once identified and verified. After this you’ll be infiltrating a base during the cover of dark. With your night vision goggles you’ll need to look for your target, and of course things don’t ever come easy to Task Force 141. If you get vibes of older Call of Duty missions throughout, it’s not just you, developers clearly took inspiration from some of the most iconic missions of previous campaigns and crafted something similar. Not a bad thing at all when almost every mission is varied and memorable in its own unique way.

Seldom slowing down until the credits roll, each mission has you as a different member of the iconic and deadly team, giving you default weapons, gear and equipment that are best suited for the mission at hand. Start out with a scoped SMG and a silenced pistol? You’re probably going to be doing some close quarter combat. Start out with a massive sniper gun? You can guess what type of level you’re going to play through. I’m not going to go through all of Modern Warfare II’s campaign mission, but I wanted to stress how varied the gameplay really can be and how some of the more memorable levels have stuck with me long after the credits rolled.

Do you remember the iconic “All Ghillied Up” level from Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (and subsequently Call of Duty: Modern Warfare Remastered) where Price was in Pripyat Ukraine, having to cross an irradiated field with a sniper gun and Ghillie Suit trying to avoid a patrolling platoon and tanks? “Recon by Fire” (Spain) is very similar in the sense that you’re put in a precarious position and will need to take shots from afar and also avoid patrols that walk within spitting distance of you, so you better put away that rifle and stay completely still to not be spotted and rely on your spotter.

Another ‘remake’ level that will seem all too familiar if you’ve been playing Call of Duty campaigns for a good handful of years, the classic “Death from Above” mission, from the same game as above. Here you are controlling an AC-130, reigning death from above with the massive gunship. In Modern Warfare II, “Close Air” (Mexico) is almost identical, as you’re given orders to protect the team at all costs as they become surrounded and need your help to survive as you level everything to the ground before they can escape.

I won’t go into much more of the mission details given the short but sweet campaign, but there’s a really good variety across the 17 levels. One has you checking out an abandoned oil rig in the middle of the sea that has some wonderful backdrops and really showcases how great the rain appears. Another level clearly took inspiration from the Just Cause series, having you jump from truck to truck during a lengthy chase sequence. Sure it’s a bit over the top, but it’s all about the action and doesn’t disappoint. Another level clearly took sections from gameplay from Watch Dogs where you hack into enemy close circuit camera system so that you can guide Ghost from spot to spot, pointing out where and when to move and to instruct which enemies to take out with a pistol or knives. It was very unlike the Call of Duty I expected, but was a great change of pace.

Lastly are the stealth missions. Now don’t get me wrong, these levels make absolute sense narratively why they are taking place, but there’s two sections where you have to play stealthy and can’t get caught. This normally wouldn’t be an issue, but you’re not given all the information you need on your HUD to do so without a lot of trial and error. Also, you’re going to have to scavenge for materials, while also staying hidden, so you can craft makeshift tools, weapons and traps. Yeah it got the job done and completely made sense to the story, but I was so frustrated with these sections and got impatient that I somehow eventually ended up having to shoot my way out.

There’s even a ‘boss fight’ near the end that worked mechanically and narratively, but just felt a bit out of place. This was a section I had to redo a few times as I simply was trying to stay alive while trying to complete my objective. There’s a good amount of mission variety that kept me interested and had a few “oh my god” and “woah” moments, but I also had a few times where I felt frustrated when the gameplay slowed down to a stealth game with poor mechanics at times.

Now I know that many will unfairly judge a game unfairly from its visuals, but this one of those times where you’d be justified to do so. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II proves what talented developers and artists can do with a competent engine and a massive budget. With a buttery smooth framerate, I never once had any graphical issues or slowdown. Locked at 60FPS, if you’re lucky like myself to have a TV that supports 120FPS as well, I can’t even start to describe how good it looks with its fluidity.

Seriously, Modern Warfare II might really be one of the best looking next-gen games I’ve experienced so far, and that’s saying a lot when I recently reviewed a few other ‘big hitters’ when it comes to visual fidelity like A Plague Tale: Requiem. Cutscenes are borderline photorealistic when it comes to facial animations, textures, backdrops and especially the weather effects. Wet clothing looks actually as though it’s damp and seeing Price’s individual beard hairs is incredibly impressive in the plentiful cutscenes. Lighting really takes the realism to a whole new level and I can't overstate how remarkable it all appears.

Audio is also on par, and while there’s no major negatives, it simply wasn’t as memorable aside from the voice acting and weapon sounds. It all sounded great, but even after the credits rolled I was trying to recall any if the massive setpieces had some iconic music or something to set the tone, and nothing was coming to mind. While not every main character’s voice actor is reprising their role in this entry to the series, they all did a fantastic job and each gun sounds unique that I’d not be surprised if gun enthusiasts would be able to tell what they are shooting from its audio only.

It’s been a long time since a Call of Duty campaign has really impressed me to this level, honestly, probably since 2007’s original Modern Warfare. While I’ve played the vast majority of each since for the most part, none have been really all that memorable as a whole. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II may not have the shock value that Modern Warfare 2 (2009) had with news outlets talking about its infamous “No Russian” airport mission, but it doesn’t need to with its movie quality campaign that was not only satisfying in almost every way, but left me craving a direct sequel for its campaign. A first for me.

**Call of Duty: Modern Warfare II (Campaign) was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 9.3 / 10 PGA TOUR 2K23

HB Studios has made a name for themselves ever since their debut The Golf Club title back in 2014, making for a very simulation version of Golf. Eventually they partnered up with 2K and now and are the developers behind the latest PGA Tour 2K23, as there was a year break in-between the last release, PGA Tour 2K21. I quite enjoyed PGA Tour 2K21, so I was excited to see what would be added and improved with this year’s iteration, and while the addition of Tiger is a huge deal, it seems 2K has started to slowly add their monetization model as well this year. One of the bigger changes is how there’s been a major menu overhaul, so it’ll look a bit different from the previous version.

To begin your golfing career you can decide to start competing in the beginner Korn Ferry Tour, or jump straight into the competitive big leagues in the PGA Tour, aiming once again to win the FedEx Cup. You’ll create your own MyPLAYER creation and then compete and go head to head against some of the biggest names in Golf such as Tiger Woods, Lydia Ko, Lexi Thompson and more while also taking on some rivals. As you compete and hopefully win each tournament, you’ll be earning points and hopefully cementing your legacy as this season’s greatest golfer when you raise that FedEx Cup above your head and go to compete in The Players Championship.

Speaking of rivals, it’s an interesting addition, allowing you to choose between two or three different rivals shown, but there’s really not all that much else to it. All you need to do to beat your rival is outscore them, and that’s it. There’s no special rewards for doing so, so major money gain, no special clubs or gear. You simply win and get told good job basically. Kind of a disappointment, so I’m hoping this is further expanded in future iterations.

There's a handful of different tournaments you’ll compete in with your MyPLAYER during the Career, such as the WM Phoenix Open, The Genesis Invitational, the Arnold Palmer Invitational and more, but there are a handful of notable omissions, like The Masters. To win these tournaments though you’ll need to not only have skills on the links, but will start off by creating your MyPLAYER and choosing from one of the five new archetypes that act as a ‘class’ or specialty of sorts.

With these archetypes you can choose from Powerhouse (Not great at the short game, but will blast the ball from the tee further than anyone else), Rhythm (A great all-rounder. Not impressive in any area in particular, but consistent), Sculptor (Can easily finesse their shots around obstacles and has great control, but won’t do well on the green), Woodsman (Can easily ‘fix’ a shot that’s in the rough), and lastly the Greensman which is what I specialized in (Won’t win any records off the tee but will absolutely make up for it on the green with unmatched putting skills).

I wasn’t sure what I would think about the whole archetype system, but being able to choose one of make up for where your skills lack or further improve what you’re good at was an interesting touch. On top of this addition, you will also be able to further improve your golfer with Skill Points and Fittings. Skill Points are earned by leveling up, allowing you to improve certain aspects of your game, categorized between Assist Skills, Zone Skills and Passive Skills. I wanted my golfer to be a putting master, so that’s where I decided to use my Skill Points as I earned them. These give you bonuses and activate and deactivate automatically based on the ones you have and situations you find yourself in.

You’ll also have Sponsors that will give you offers after each round, offering balls, clubs and apparel based on the brand. You can decide to stick with certain ones or switch whenever there’s a new opportunity, but there may be consequences from switching sponsors constantly or too often.

As you begin your MyPLAYER career, you’ll need to first begin by creating them however you see fit, deciding to try and replicate them after your own likeness or trying to recreate the appearance of someone else. While there’s a handful of options, it’s certainly not the most robust player creator out there either. Once they look exactly how you want you would then choose your archetype listed above before hitting the links. While previously you were only able to compete against the actual Pro’s, this time you can play as them in other modes which is always exciting.

With twenty licensed courses included at launch, there are some noteworthy omissions, but still enough variety to keep you entertained. The twenty courses are Atlantic Beach Country Club, Bay Hill Golf Club & Lodge (Arnold Palmer Course), Copperhead (Innisbrook), Detroit Golf Club, East Lake Golf Club, Quail Hollow Club, Riviera Country Club, St George’s Golf and Country Club, The Renaissance Club, TPC Boston, TPC Deere Run, TPC Louisiana, TPC River Highlands, TPC San Antonio, TPC Sawgrass, TPC Scottsdale, TPC Southwind, TPC Summerlin, TPC Twin Cities and Wilmington Country Club (South Course).

While almost every golf game player has gotten used to the analog swing controls that were introduced years ago, 2K has reintroduced a 3-Click swing in PGA Tour 2K23 which was a welcome addition. As for analog swing controls, it’s as you’ve come to expect over the years, starting your swing by pulling down on the Right Stick then upwards afterwards with how straight you do so determining your shot’s path. These controls seem a little more difficult than previous year, needing to be very accurate or else you’ll slice severely.

I was excited to learn that there’s a 3-Click swing control scheme that has been brought back. This emulated the old-school golf game controls, and while it has its own challenges like the Analog swing, I really preferred it. With the 3-Click, you’ll see a large circular power meter in the bottom right corner, so after you aim your shot where you want the ball to land, this is where you’ll be staring at intensely once ready to swing. Start your shot by holding ‘A’, this will start to fill the circle from the middle outwards. The circular white ring is your ideal power based on where you aimed and if you put it into the red it will give a little extra power, but will be much harder to do the subsequent clicks for accuracy. Once you’ve hit ‘A’ to choose the power you want, a bar will start going counter clockwise around the circle. There’s a small green section you’re aiming for at ’12 o’clock’ and another at ‘6 o’clock’. Hit in these two green areas and you’ll have a perfectly straight shot, but the further you miss the small section the more your shot will slice based on where you stopped the moving line. The best part is that this control scheme stays constant, regardless if you’re hitting off the tee with your driver, using an iron, pitching or even putting. It’s great to have a classic control scheme back and was probably the best new addition to PGA Tour 2K23 that I enjoyed.

Given that this is a 2K game, you can expect some sort of storefront or way to entice you to open your wallet more, even after purchasing a full priced game. This is where the Clubhouse Pass comes into play. While everyone has access to the ‘free’ version by default, it won’t give you any worthwhile rewards, which is where the paid versions come in. Think of this like a Battle Pass or Season Pass, as the content will be refreshed every 10-12 weeks, allowing you to work towards unlocking new bonuses, items and more. As you earn XP you’ll reach new tiers which unlocks said items.

There’s three different tiers: Free (No purchase necessary), Clubhouse Pass Premium ($9.99 USD – Giving you the opportunity to unlock the 50 tiers of content as you level) and Clubhouse Premium Pass Plus ($19.99 USD – Basically the same as Premium, but you’re automatically granted the first 20 Premium rewards as a skip). It’s quite a grind to get through all 50 tiers, but was incredibly disappointing that the Free version of Clubhouse Pass is basically useless. There’s only a few rewards you can get being on the Free version, and even those aren’t all that great when you see what you could be earning compared to Premium.

There’s a Pro Shop where you can but new gear and apparel, but one of the biggest changes is that gear and apparel don’t have stats tied to them in 2K23. You earn money from winning Tournaments and matches, but it’s such a low amount that it’s almost embarrassing. You just won a huge tournament? Enjoy your couple hundred dollars. Just beat Tiger Woods as your rival? Enjoy your couple hundred bucks. Want to buy a new club or a cool looking shirt or hat? You better start grinding as the costs are much more than that. You can expect a slew of real world brands for all your clubs and clothing from Air Jordan, Adidas, Bridgestone Golf, Ben Hogan, Callaway, Cobra, Cuater, Ecco, FootJoy, Goodr, Hugo Boss, Linksoul, Mizuno, Nike, Original Penguin, PING, PUMA, Royal & Awesome, Skechers, TaylorMade, Tattoo Golf, Titleist, TravisMathew and Wilson. The gear will rotate on a daily and weekly basis, but keep in mind it’s all cosmetic now, not tied to performance.

Where the performance increase come into play is what’s called Fittings. These are basically attachments for your clubs and specialty balls. This is how you can modify your favorite clubs by adding these Fittings to them, changing their stats positively and negatively. There are three slots Fittings can go on the clubs: Head, Shaft and Grip. There’s tiers of Fittings as well, from grey colored commons all the way up to much more expensive and rare ones. It’s an interesting system, though you’ll need to grind to get the best Fittings if you want to be competitive online. Of course the Fittings cost in-game money to attach to your clubs, and to put a Fitting onto all of your clubs costs quite a bit, which is where the lack of earning any reasonable amount of cash winning matches becomes an issue unless you constantly grind.

There are also Fittings for your golf balls, acting more like a useable power-up in a way. The issue I have here is that these balls only last for one round and are consumable, and these can make a drastic difference with the higher end balls. This means if you want to be ultra-competitive online, you’re going to need to use your Legendary balls and then of course spend more money to purchase more. This kind of put a sour taste in my mouth, as you might not be able to do as well as someone else because they choose to use the better balls, not simply have better skills.

Being able to save replays of your best shots is always welcome, though for some reason the majority of my replays when they do the TV style focused on me shooting, the camera tended to always focus on the wrong thing, like having it stay focused on me after I hit the ball instead of following it to the hole, or watching the ball in a weird angle where you can’t see how impressive the shot really was because it was simply following it in the sky instead of in relationship to where I took it from.

Course Designer returns and is as robust as ever, allowing you to create the course or hole of your dreams. The tools you’re given are plentiful, as you could make any type of course you want and then be able to share it online with the community to play. I’m sure it won’t take long for people to recreate famous courses that aren’t included in the core game, but I’ve also seen some absolutely wild and unique creations that you could would only see in a game. I did find the controls for the designing to be a little confusing and convoluted, but I’m sure with some time and practice it would make more sense.

While Golf is a solo sport, playing with or against others is where the real entertainment comes in. Online Societies return from 2K21 vastly unchanged. This is where you can basically make a group or club for you and your friends, or anyone really, to join and compete in hand crafted tournaments. Make the rules, handicaps and plenty of other options; your society, your rules. I was hoping for this to be improved from 2K21, but it’s really no different.

Of course you can choose to play online against friends or anyone else, playing in Stroke Play, Skins, Alt-Shot, 4-Player Scramble and the always interesting, Divot Derby. Divot Derby is almost like a race, with players all teeing off simultaneously with the first golfer to make it to the ninth hole and sink the putt first winning. New though is an arcade game called Topgolf. This is a 4 player driving range style of drive-off where everyone has 10 balls to score as many points as possible based on where the ball lands in the colored targets. Each shot there’s a special target that will net you double or triple points, and there’s a very strict time limit, so you can’t spend much time aiming or else you won’t be able to shoot all ten balls. The player with the most points in the end wins.

Visually, PGA Tour 2K23 looks as you’d expect for a recreation of the Golf sport. The courses and details on the greens and fairways looks fantastic, as does the backdrops. I’ll be honest, I was expecting a bit more playing on an Xbox Series X, as the players themselves look decent, but not amazing, and the crowd nearby watching shots are lifeless and have no detail. Of course the official Pro players are instantly recognizable, but your created MyPLAYER can stand out like a sore thumb beside them at times. There is a Quality/Performance option for the visuals on an Xbox Series X depending on your preference.

As for the audio, it’s also as you would expect with solid commentary, but I’m not sure how many new lines were recorded, as I could tell some of the lines I heard hundreds of times in 2K21 was repeated here. I also eventually got a weird bug where my commentary was echoing, unable to fix this in everything I tried. Your swings and that hit of the ball off the tee sounds wonderful, as does hearing a huge divot come from the rough as you try and land in a Pitch shot for birdie.

Being able to choose your caddy that you’ll see now and then between shots and holes is a cool touch, though I would I could have fully customized them like my own golfer. The lack of particular golfers and courses is still 2K23’s shortcoming, just as it was in 2K21. Yeah it’s cool we again get to compete for the FedEx Cup, but players want to compete for that green jacket in the Masters and play on some of the most infamous courses out there.

PGA Tour 2K23 may have skipped a year, and maybe that’s where my expectations were higher than they should have been, but there’s really not a massive upgrade from 2K21 overall. Yes the gameplay is still solid and I really loved the addition of the 3-Click Swing, but the heavy microtransactions and a useless Free Clubhouse Pass is a bit of a turnoff and shows 2K’s influence on the great HB Studios.

**PGA Tour 2K23 (Tiger Woods Edition) was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.9 / 10 A Plague Tale: Requiem

Requiem: A song, chant or poem for someone who has died, generally in an act of remembrance. I never really thought about the title of the latest Plague Tale, but it certainly is fitting after a thrilling and emotional journey with Amicia and Hugo once more. A Plague Tale: Innocence released in 2019 and took me completely by surprise. It initially wasn’t on my radar and by chance fell in my lap for review, turning out to be my Game of the Year that year. Since Innocence had a satisfying ending without any real massive questions needing answering, I don’t think many were expecting a sequel, especially this soon. While Innocence was more of a hidden gem at first, it eventually reached cult status from those that played it and were astounded with its quality from such a small studio, myself included.

While Asobo has a handful of titles under their belt, Plague Tale is easily their crown jewel, and now the sequel being better in virtually every way from its predecessor. This is in part due to A Plague Tale: Requiem (simply referred to as Requiem here on) being a next-gen (current gen now?) only title, and it’s clear they’ve been pushing the hardware to the best of their ability. With improved visuals (which is very impressive given how good Innocence looked), the gameplay has also had many additions and improvements, and the narrative and storytelling is as strong as ever.

It’s been six months since the events of Innocence. Amica and Hugo defeated the Grand Inquisitor Vitalis and left to find a new home since Guyenne is all but gone due to the rats and events that took place. With Hugo’s illness and curse now seemingly under control, the de Rune family travel south in search for a new home. They find a large and seemingly happy village and seem to have a lead on an actual cure for Hugo’s ailment. If you played Innocence, you know that Amicia and Hugo’s luck and happiness generally doesn’t last long, and it’s no different in Requiem. It appears Hugo once again becomes taken over by the mysterious Macula curse that causes all of this heartache and death in the first place. If you thought that there were a lot of rats in Innocence, that pales in comparison to what you’re going to have to deal with as the de Rune siblings in Requiem.

When Hugo’s powers reawaken and the rats return, death and destruction follows them again, once more causing them to do what they can to simply survive. Hugo has a vivid dream though, seeing an island with a large bird and some water that surrounds a massive tree. Does this dream mean more or is there a clue to a potential cure for Hugo’s curse? Discover the cost of saving those you love. I don’t want to delve much further into the narrative as it’s an amazing journey that is expertly told with just enough action, drama, sadness and other emotions. The Macula caused a lot of death and destruction before, but the events of Innocence will be nothing compared to their latest journey. Interestingly, this story actually goes into the history of the curse more in depth than before along with a very emotional journey.

If you played the original Plague Tale, you’ll know what to expect for the core game mechanics, primarily focused on stealth based action and some puzzle solving, all while enemies and guards are trying to kill you both and a horde of rats could bust through the nearby walls at any moment. You’ll need to heavily focus on the stealth aspects, sneaking around guards, distracting them, or even killing them with your trusty Sling and alchemy skills.

There’s a few different difficulty choices, even an easy Narrative choice for those that want to experience the story without much of the challenge, and also offering an invincibility option deeper in the settings if needed for accessibility reasons. This doesn’t make you invulnerable to rats, fire and forced stealth sections however. When you first see the rats on screen you’re going to be absolutely astonished at how Asobo Studio went from having a staggering 5000 rats on screen in the first game to now being able to somehow have 300,000 completely collapse city walls and more. I’ve never seen anything like it before in a game and I don’t know what coding wizardry they’ve done to make it happen, but it’s absolutely astounding when a horde of rats appears like moving water.

Just like the previous title, the rats are still unable to be in the light or near fire, your only saving grace when surrounded. This is where many of the puzzle elements will come into play, going from lighted section to section to stay safe. How you do so will be up to you, as there’s not always a single linear solution in many situations. Beware of spoilers if you’ve not completed Innocence yet, but just like near the ending of the first game, Hugo will once again be able to control nearby rats, though with limitations. How you do so is up to you. Do you move a large batch of rats out the way to get by or snuff out a guard’s torch and send the rats after them instead as a distraction?

Combat is very similar to Innocence, and even though you primarily need to rely on your stealth and not engage in direct battles, Amicia has learned some new alchemic tricks to help her along the way. Stalk enemies in bushes, sneak past, set traps and more. Each of these sections are strung together with a narrative reason too, not simply just placing you in an area against guards to prolong the gameplay. While some may tire of the heavily stealth based sections, especially the forced portions where you can’t be seen or it’s an instant Game Over, those that enjoyed the core gameplay from Innocence will most likely enjoy the new additions and improvements overall.

Take the time to explore and you’ll find plenty of collectables and extra crafting and upgrade materials, though many of these will require some careful planning and patience to not be spotted while doing so. Do you take out the unhelmeted guards in a single shot with Amicia’s sling to thin the ‘herd’ of enemies or simply try to sneak by unnoticed? Thankfully when you are spotted you are able to get away and find a hiding spot if you’re careful, but you’re going to have to be quite careful the more heavily armed the guards are.

The combat is familiar at first, but once you’ve learned some of the new mechanics and alchemic options available to Amicia, you’ll see how improved it’s become in this sequel. There’s generally four different types of sections you’ll encounter. The first is simply fighting (or sneaking) against a handful of guards. The next is guards as well as rats, where the the rats can be a danger to avoid, but also used to your advantage if you have Hugo control them in the shadows. Next is some puzzle centric sections where you’re usually trying to find a way into a building or area, figuring how to get from point A to B while staying in the light so you don’t die to the bloodthirsty rats. Lastly is the running or chase sections where you need to get away, usually from a literal waterfall of rats or destruction as you try to survive.

Many of the combat sections has your objective reaching a specific area or door to progress, but how you actually get there and do so is up to you. Sure, the overall progression is linear, but these sections are usually large enough that there’s two or three different main ‘paths' you could sneak or fight through. If Hugo is going to use his powers to control the rats, he can now also ‘ping’ enemies and have them show through walls, like a radar. This Echo ability is also explained through the narrative in a clever way as well, not just adding it for no reason. While he can control rats, there’s also a limit to his ability with how far, how many and for how long, on top of the light restrictions of course.

Amicia has learned a few new concoctions with her alchemy skill too that will give you even more options in combat. One of these is being able to craft tar, expanding the light radius when ignited or being able to douse enemies with it and then setting them on fire. Eventually you’ll also gain access to a Crossbow, a very powerful weapon that can not only kill the most heavily armored enemies in a single shot, but also being able to combine your alchemic properties like you do your Sling's shots. Want to make a permanent fire source, use one of your Crossbow bolts with fire on specific wooden spots and it will lodge and stay there, offering a new spot of respite. The bolts are far and few in between though, so you need to use them sparingly.

There’s also an upgrade system, much like the first game, where you can craft upgrades if you find enough tools and materials along the way, making exploring each nook and cranny generally worth the hassle and effort. This is how you’ll be able to upgrade Amica in different ways, like being able to carry more alchemy ingredients you need to craft specific elements for your attacks and distractions, being able to upgrade your knife to be able to take down larger heavy enemies in a single sneak attack and more depending on your specific playstyle. There are even skills you can unlock simply by playing that will enhance how you play. For example, the more you sneak around you’ll earn perks that further help you to play stealthy, where those that play more aggressively will earn more skills to make Amicia even more formidable in combat.

While I normally would dedicate a paragraph for a game’s visuals and audio, I’m probably going to have to use more here to even try and describe the engrossing and astonishing world that Asobo Studio has crafted, even if much of it is dark, grim and full of death and rats. The choice to make Requiem next-gen only has paid off from a visual standpoint. Innocence looked amazing for the time on Xbox One, and now Requiem on a Series X is a whole other level. Level design is hand crafted with purpose, as the environments are much larger than before. When you see a building far in the distance along the beach you need to get to, you would naturally think that’s a few Chapter’s worth, but no, levels here are absolutely huge at times. Draw distance is basically as far as you can see which is impressive in its own right, but the lighting as a whole is so photorealistic sometimes that I couldn’t help but stop numerous times and just take it all in.

This is where the included Photo Mode added probably a good hour or two to my playthrough timer, as I don’t think my screenshot button ever got such a workout in a game before. There’s so many amazing vistas that I had to constantly stop and take some photos of the beauty from many angles. There’s even plenty of extra options to make that photo absolutely perfect. You’re able to hide Amicia, Hugo, other NPCs, enemies and plenty of more camera options, and I’ve already seen some amazing game photography online from Requiem from other players.

There’s so much light and dark contrast that works so brilliantly with its naturally dark aesthetic that certain sections and areas really can appear to be photorealistic at times. One Chapter you might be in a bright and colorful city filled with vendors in a market, the next you’re slugging through a swamp or beach trying to find a light source to keep the rats away.

Cutscenes really showcase how lifelike the cast can appear, and there are so many different animations for even small movements that it just adds another layer of realism. For example, when you go up a ladder, since Amicia rarely lets Hugo out of her sight, he actually goes up first but then she does so as well, almost on top of him, covering him like a shield. The way they hold hands, how she keeps Hugo close has so many minor details that you might miss if you don't take the time to take it all in. Small details like this really reinforce their relationship and add that realism, like when she has to catch him jumping down a tall platform and the way she braces his for the drop and catch. My only complaint is that the facial animations during gameplay, not dedicated cutscenes, can be a little stiff, but that’s me looking for things that stand out. On an Xbox Series X I had no real framerate issues, even when there was a literal flood of rats on screen.

While visuals generally always overshadow the audio, sound plays just as important role in an immersive experience. The soundtrack is absolutely astounding. The musical score fits the setting you’re currently exploring and knows how to set a scene and tone. When the music changes and has a tense tonality, you know there’s something wrong up ahead and that you’re going to have to sneak or fight. Olivier Deriviere produced an amazing soundtrack that elevates the experience to another level. Enough fantastic compliments also can’t be said for the voice actors, especially from Charlotte McBurney (Amicia), Logan Hannan (Hugo) and Anna Demetriou (Sophia). Their performances are absolutely flawless and the emotion they bring to their performances made characters I already cared about even more human and believable the deeper the story unfolded. Not an easy feat.

Over the 15 to 20 hours the campaign will take to complete you get completely entranced into Amicia and Hugo’s struggles, becoming attached to the returning siblings and astonished within the world they explore. The contrast of the dark and deadly world versus the goodness from within the cast is a great juxtaposition that isn’t always easily executed. Asobo Studio has performed magic, crafting a tale worth telling that’s emotionally charged and enthralling to experience from start to finish. Everything from Innocence is improved upon, from its combat, gameplay, visuals, audio and even narrative. A Plague Tale: Innocence was my Game of the Year in 2019 and they’ve taken that title again in 2022 with A Plague Tale: Requiem.

**A Plague Tale: Requiem was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 9.8 / 10 Asterigos: Curse Of The Stars

Back in May I got to preview a very early build of Asterigos: Curse of the Stars (simply referred to as Asterigos hereon), and while I only got to experience its first half hour and two bosses, it instantly put the game on my radar. I’ve been waiting patiently for this day when I got to explore the full city of Aphes as Hilda, a Northwind Region young warrior that’s on a journey to save her father somewhere within the cursed city. Instantly falling in love with Asterigos’ colorful aesthetic, it almost appears as a blend of Immortals Fenyx Rising with a bit of Kameo thrown in.

I’ll admit, I initially rolled my eyes a bit when I read that is had Soulslike mechanics and combat, as there seems to be almost way too many of those lately, but I went in with an open mind and I’m glad I did. Asterigos is more of a Souls-lite than anything else, as I wasn’t struggling as I normally would with Souls games given you can choose difficulties and save anywhere. There’s so much variety with its combat and weapon choices that you’ll eventually find a weapon combo that works best for your playstyle.

You play Hilda, searching for her father within the city walls of Aphes. At the beginning of your journey on route to the city, you eventually reach its outer walls and can’t help but take in the sight of the massive city. Inspired by Greek and Roman mythologies you’ll go through quite a journey that lasted a solid 15 to 20 hours, depending on how much you want to explore and difficulty level chosen. Piecing together the narrative from characters met, lore, documents found and revelations, there’s actually quite an interesting story here that’s separated in a handful of different chapters. You’ll discover the source of the city’s curse, the truth about your father and more as you progress. Choices you make will determine the fate of Aphes, affecting the story and outcomes, even if at times it's a tad predictable.

Soulslike games are generally known for their difficulty, so I was glad to see there were some difficulty options available for those that would rather experience the narrative without a frustrating challenge, though there’s plenty of options for those that want to test their skills. There are many more Soulslike elements within Asterigos as well, such as collecting Stardust (equivalent to souls), managing your stamina by rolling, dodging and blocking, and using special nodes that act like bonfires, allowing you to rest but also resetting enemies that were defeated. You have potions that act as your Estus Flasks to refill health and combat is very diverse with the weapon choices you’re given.

The city of Aphes is quite large, broken into different interconnecting sections. With no real map, you’ll need to simply explore and remember where you’ve been. With over 100 collectibles to find, there’s plenty of secrets to find around every corner. With numerous side quests to work on also as you talk to people within the city walls, Hilda has no shortage of things to do, she just has to make sure she survives the enemies that have taken over the city.

Hilda begins with a single quest, to find out what happened to her father, but it turns out it’s not that simple. You’ll meet a group of characters that act as the cities protectors, but what do you do if you join their battle but it doesn’t always align with your goals? Each section of the city is quite large with many interconnecting pathways, some of which can only be opened from a certain side. Defeat a boss for example and that will generally let you open a door that loops back to the main area or beginning of that zone, allowing for easy access next time you want to explore the area with a quick shortcut now opened.

You begin having access to special magical properties, but as you progress you’ll find different elements that you can imbue your attacks with, from Fire, Ice and Lightning. There are some minor puzzle elements that you need these elemental attacks for, but calling it puzzles are a stretch, more of unlocking a pathway or hidden boss. While I can’t tell if certain enemies are weaker to specific elements, they all vary in attacks, especially if you use the staff as one of your main weapons. Speaking of weapons, you’ll have access to six different types after a brief opening tutorial, choosing from Sword and Shield, Daggers, Spear, Hammer, Staff and Bracelets. They all have different techniques and skills, and you’re able to equip any two you desire simultaneously for some interesting weapon combinations. I opted for Sword and Shield as my main weapon, as I wanted to be able to block attacks, with the Staff being my secondary, allowing me to blast enemies from afar, swapping back to my melee weapon once they get up close.

Daggers are slow damage but very quick where the hammer is the opposite, slow and high damage, also able to break enemy’s defenses. Spear allows you to attack from a slight distance and can also be used to parry attacks. My secondary weapon I enjoyed was the staff, able to shoot magic from afar which is simple when locked onto enemies. Lastly are the magic bracelets, performing quick mid-range magic attacks and creating deadly traps. With these six different weapons you can combine and equip two at a time for a unique combination. Each weapon has a main and secondary attack, so definitely take the time to experiment with all of them and see what works best for your playstyle.

You’re able to swap your weapon attacks on the fly, allowing you to make different combinations of attacks based on when you press the primary or secondary button for either weapon. The Right Bumper and Trigger are your main attacks for your two weapons with the Left Bumper and Trigger being the secondary, all of which will vary based on the weapon you’re opting to currently use. Difficulty is well balanced overall, with certain bosses being quite challenging and some enemies being much more dangers than others.

I never became frustrated with combat, even in the more challenging areas near the end thanks to having more than enough health potions. When using a potion it leaves you vulnerable for a few moments, and they also aren’t instant, slowly refilling your health rather than right away, so you need to find a moment to breathe to use a potion in between attacks. There are even some skills, abilities and gear that you unlock that will allow you to carry more potions or heal for more but carry less for example. While you won't find new weapons or armor, you can equip three accessories, allowing you to boost specific resistances after you have them crafted back at the main base once unlocked.

You have a special meter that refills over time which is how you’ll use your special attacks that you’ve unlocked in the skill tree. These are weapon based and will allow you to deal massive damage, use special stances that change your attacks, or offer buffs that can aid you greatly in combat. The hardest thing to get used to with the combat is that there’s no animation cancelling, so you need to be careful and learn your attacks and the length of their animation. For example, if I’m mid combo with my sword lunges and want to raise my shield to block an incoming attack, I need to make sure I stop attacking with enough time for it to complete and allow my shield to raise in time. With a good 15-20 hour campaign length, including a New Game+ mode, you’ll surely learn the combat intricacies when you fight over 60 different enemy types and 22 different bosses in Asterigos, which were easily the highlight.

There’s a skill tree that you can put your points into that you gain when you level up or find special items, and the tree may look quite small and basic at first, but then it opens up and can feel a bit daunting. Once the skill tree opens up, you’ll see a grid-like system where you can spend your points freely, each sectioned off into six different parts based on each weapon. Myself for example, I spent a lot of points to maximize my sword and shield skill, as that was my primary weapon of choice. Initially I wasn’t able to move when I held my shield up for a block, but with some points into the tree, I can now freely move while blocking.

Each weapon has a good amount of skills and upgrades to unlock, with the most powerful being at the bottom of each tree naturally. There’s a very brief tutorial of how the skill tree and perk system works, but it really could have used some more explanation, as I eventually just figured it out through trial and error. Some stars on the tree give new abilities for your special attacks, others unlock perks that you can choose to toggle on or off, like changing my shield block to a shield throw for example. Sure, now that I understand it and know the differences of the stars in the skill tree it makes sense, but it wasn’t made clear initially and was quite confusing. Certain skills will also unlock other passive upgrades like health and stamina increases too, so there’s always something worth upgrading, even if it’s not necessarily in the weapon trees that you primarily use.

I adore Asterigos’ visual aesthetics. It’s bright, colorful and the city backdrops are gorgeous to take in, varying from the streets and markets of the city, to sewers, mines and more. There’s some minor pop-in issues with smaller assets like bushes and such, even on an Xbox Series X, but it’s not too distracting. Character models are great, as are the facial animations for Hilda, though the lip syncing was a bit off.

As for the voice acting, the main cast of characters you meet throughout Hilda’s journey is wonderfully done, with special mention of Dave Fennoy (Irenaeus), Dawn Bennett (Minerva), and of course the star, Christie Cate (Hilda). Audio as a whole was great, as you can hear weapons hitting enemies, each sounding unique, skills sounding powerful, and a gorgeous soundtrack that fits with the mythology backdrop once the lutes, harps or piano kick in.

Asterigos: Curse of the Stars is quite approachable even given its Soulslike mechanics, and with my first playthrough finishing at just over 15 hours or so, I started up New Game+ right away to get back into Hilda’s world. For a newer developer, Acme Gamestudio has crafted a wonderful world with plenty of content, replayability and quite polished for the most part, not something I’d expect from a $45 (CDN) title or from a studio's first major release.

**Asterigos: Curse of the Stars was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.8 / 10 Hardspace: Shipbreaker

While probably not in my lifetime, I can see ‘Shipbreaker’ being an actual job title and career path in the distant future when we aren’t confined to only living on Earth. What is a Shipbreaker you ask? Exactly as it sounds, a salvager that breaks apart derelict ships to reclaim parts and materials for salvage or recycling. I’ll admit, I probably wouldn’t have normally picked up Hardspace: Shipbreaker (simply referred to as Shipbreaker from here on), but given it arrived for review and is on Xbox Game Pass, it looks as though it was fate for me to put my shipbreaking skills to the test. I’m extremely glad I did, as I’m still having a hard time putting it down, fully embracing my new career as a cutter.

You work for the LYNX Corporation, a company that single handedly rules over the salvage industry thanks to their patented EverWork technology. You see, Shipbreaking is an incredibly dangerous career path. Sure it pays extremely well, but the risks are immense when you’re in space deconstructing massive ships. Thankfully, LYNX has found a way around this, by being able to clone you should you accidently meet your untimely death. No harm no foul right? Oh, you thought using their EverWork technology was free? You’ve signed up for this new ludacris paying career, but you’ve got a massive debt to pay off and nothing is free, evening joining the company. You actually start your new career $1,252,594,441.92 in debt, so you better get to work and save every penny you can to start paying back that debt, even the $7.50 for the displaying of fees report. There’s smidgens of humor throughout if you take the time to read the computer terminals and listen to your coworkers over the radio. If Amazon was in the space salvaging business, I bet it would be run just like LYNX.

Salvaging ships in space with zero gravity takes some skill and a lot of getting used to. You can’t simply blast apart a ship though, as there may be core reactors and other expensive materials that need to be salvaged properly, so Shipbreaker is akin to a puzzle game, finding the best and most efficient way to do so without getting yourself incinerated, electrocuted, crushed or slung into deep space; easier said than done. With plenty of modes to play the Career in, you can play a much more relaxing experience in 'Open Shift' without many time or resource restrictions, or play in a handful of other difficulty related modes adding much more restrictions like timers and respawn limits. You can even choose to have no O2 drain so you don’t have to worry about your oxygen if you want to simply work on your debt from job to job. I get enough pressure at work in real life, so I chose to not have that burden in game as well.

Every job has a derelict ship placed into the LYNX bay, an open space that gives you enough room to maneuver around it in every direction as you salvage it down to every individual part for components. As you break apart the ship, you’ll need to place them into the correct collection areas, from the red furnace for scrap, blue pit for salvage and the green area below for other components. Before you even begin start cutting away and tearing apart the ship, you’ll need to use your scanner to show you an x-ray like vision of every component of the ship in front of you. This is how you’ll know what part is meant to be tossed into what collection area.

To do your job you’re given two main tools to begin, aside from your space suit equipped with thrusters of course. You’re given a Grappling Beam and a Cutting Tool. These will be how you break apart and dismantle each ship, one part at a time. Ships are large and engineering miracles though, so don’t expect a quick and easy job taking them apart, instead needing a surgical approach if you want the maximum amount of profits to work towards your debt.

Do you use your plasma cutter and cut a massive hole in the side paneling of the ship, or do you instead use the airlocks, go inside the ship and melt away the connector parts that hold everything together? Sure you could cut a huge hole in the ship, but then you don’t earn as much, so you’re better off trying to solve each ship’s ‘puzzle’, the best way to dismantle to get the most rewards possible. This will require planning and solving the best way to maneuver through each ship and which parts to disassemble first. This only comes with practice, so your first few ships will probably either end in disaster or very low income, but eventually you’ll learn how to dissect each ship type with precision and skill, like a surgeon.

While you’re in zero gravity, you still won’t be able to push parts where you want to go with your suit thrusters, which is where your Grapple Beam tool comes in, an integral part of any Shipbreaker. With actual physics in play, you’ll need to be very aware of how heavy items are, what angle you’re trying to push or pull them, and thinking logically. Even without gravity, your tools have limits as to what materials they can cut through, melt or even move with the grapple beam.

Your cutter has two main modes: a pin point laser that melts material, meant for the smaller connection welds, and then a line cutter that does just that, cuts in a straight line. Keep in mind you’re floating in space, so you’ll need to make sure you’re angled and rotated the way you want to cut before doing so to avoid any accidents. The line cutter can be rotated to vertical or horizontal cuts, sometimes needing to be used to cut larger parts into smaller chunks to be more maneuverable into the collection bins.

The Grapple Beam is your other tool, able to help you ‘lift’ and move much heavier and larger materials. You can also use a ‘push’ with it, flinging your beamed material in the direction you’re facing, but remember, physics plays a larger part of the direction it will go, even in zero gravity space. My favorite upgrade you get early on is the Tethers, allowing you to place a retracting beam on one object to another. These are much more powerful than your regular Grapple Beam, so they are to be used strategically, as you have a limited amount before needing to repurchase more (adding to your debt). You can use multiple tethers for one object for much more pulling power, or use to link numerous items together like a train, it’s all a matter of what you think would work best to get the materials and components to the correct collection bins.

The first few ships are quite basic, easy to dismantle and separate, but every time you level up, so do the ships in a sense, becoming not just larger, but more intricate or adding new components that can cause a disaster if not dealt with properly. Some ships will have a reactor that needs to be extracted, but as soon as you disconnect it from its housing you have a limited amount of time before it explodes like a nuke, obviously only leaving you scraps and probably a death. This means you need to plan ahead, not only being careful of where you cut and what parts you disconnect, but having a clear path to deposit it quickly and properly before doing so. This is where being methodical comes in and will help your career. Eventually you'll also get access to demolition charges, and you'll need to decide the best time to use these if you want to be successful.

Eventually you’ll also need to deal with electrical lines, fuel pipes, and even figuring out how to properly decompress parts of the ship to avoid an explosion or death. Nothing quite like accidentally melting the connection plate to a panel and having the ship decompress, instantly killing you. You’ll be nervous the first time you deal with these new additions, but once you figure out how best to ‘solve’ them, they become just another mundane (yet exciting) step in your day-to-day activities as a Shipbreaker. You know that scrap doesn’t pay well, so you’ll do what you can do salvage all the parts you can for the best progress on your insane amount of debt to LYNX.

Not only do you need to salvage every piece and component that you can for your debt, but it’s also how you’ll level up, earning Mastery and LYNX points. One is your overall level, unlocking new tool upgrade slots and ships to work on, the other is basically upgrade points, used to improve your tools in numerous ways. Each tool, including your suit and helmet, all have a skill tree that can be improved in many ways, so it’s up to you to earn more points by doing well on jobs so you can make subsequent jobs easier and quicker.

Each upgrade is optional and unlocks at specific levels, so it’s up to you if you want to spend your points as you earn them or save up for ‘better’ unlocks. For example, I really enjoy using my tethers so I made sure to spend my points on that when possible, able to carry many more before needing to repurchase refills. You’ll eventually unlock demo charges, scanner upgrades and it’s really up to you how you want to upgrade depending on your playstyle.

I’ll admit, I wasn’t expecting much from Hardspace: Shipbreaker initially, though to be fair, I hadn’t really been following it previously either. I’m glad I’ve experienced it though, as it took me completely by surprise and even though I’ve not reached the maximum level quite yet, I’m having a hard time shutting off the game at the end of the night, wanting to do ‘just one more shipbreak’, which the relaxing soundtrack helps with.

An odd mix of relaxing and stressful, Hardspace: Shipbreaker is a really clever and addictive puzzle game at its core, unlike anything else I’ve really played. Sure the zero gravity controls take a little getting used to, as does the ‘proper’ way to disassemble a derelict ship, but once all this comes together you’ll truly see how satisfying it really can be to earn the maximum rank on a ship, just make sure that OSHA isn’t watching while you work.

**Hardspace: Shipbreaker was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 9.2 / 10 Soulstice

It’s been a while since I’ve played something similar to an action focused combat game like Devil May Cry or a Bayonetta, that is, until now. Soulstice, developed by Reply Game Studios, takes some inspiration from classic games like Devil May Cry, but adds some twists and a genuinely interesting narrative that had me hooked as I became more powerful the further I progressed. You play as Briar and Lute, sibling sisters who are what’s known as a Chimera, working for The Order, part of the Holy Kingdom of Keidas. Interestingly though, your sister Lute is actually dead, living as a spirit that’s tied to Briar, even through death. She made a huge sacrifice that allowed the pair to become a Chimera, so they have a special bond that is seemingly unbreakable.

Sent on a mission to recover the city of Ilden from ruin, there’s a massive tear in the skies above the keep that has an invasion of Wraiths corrupting and taking over citizens of the city, causing everything to burn within. A Chimera is the only ones capable of protecting mankind, so it falls on you to do everything you can to survive and stop the invasion. It turns out that three Chimeras were actually sent, but since you were the last to arrive, you’ll need to search throughout the city amongst your enemies for your partners.

At first the narrative is a little confusing and convoluted, but given the 15-20 hour length, it eventually all plays out and comes together in a really interesting and compelling way. This is most primarily due to the fantastic voice acting from the sister duo (both are actually voiced by the amazing Stefanie Joosten, best known for Quiet from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain) and main characters you meet along the way. I ended up actually caring about Briar, Lute and it brought me right into Soulstice’s world.

Briar will hack and slash her way through demons and enemies, trying to reach the tear to close it. Fully capable in combat, Briar also has plenty of abilities, also relying on her sister Lute for offense as well. Combat and exploration starts slowly in the beginning, but as you get closer to your objective and progress in the story it starts to pick up in all directions, going from a somewhat average action combat game to one that never lets off the gas.

Briar can explore the city, but it’s generally quite linear aside from a few short branching paths that are usually dead ends that house a few collectables or secrets. Interestingly, the whole game aside from battles actually has a fixed camera. This means you’re exploring the world the way the developers specifically designed, unable to move or rotate the camera. This gives a cinematic feel, but I did get lost a few times because I initially missed a platform or doorway I was meant to go through, unable to distinctly see due to the fixed angles. While these fixed angles are functional, sometimes it can get a little messy in the sense that it may move drastically when you reach the new ‘section’, whipping the camera to a completely different direction, taking you a slight moment to readjust and change the movement direction on the controller.

Because of the linear level design, you’re very confined to the path you’re supposed to take. Even though Briar can jump insanely high, double jump and even dash, you can’t cut corners even over tiny ledges due to invisible walls, forced to take the design pathways and staircases. The environments of the city, inside and out, have a very brooding and dark feeling, especially in ruins, but levels can run for very long and can feel repetitive in the later half. There was one section of a staircase and platform that I swore I already did previously outside the city walls, only to see it again shortly later on.

Combat begins quite basic, having you with a main and secondary attack based on the two weapons you wield. Your main weapon is a long sword that resembles like a homemade weapon that maybe Cloud trained with growing up, the secondary being a massive pickaxe looking weapon that is slower but can deal more damage to armor. While you don’t plate Lute directly, she also helps in combat with her powers also. While you only have some basic attacks and combos in the beginning, this will change a couple hours in when you start to spend specific currencies you gather from breaking wooden boxes, furniture as well as defeating enemies. As you string together different combos you’ll see enemy health bars deplete, though become used to almost always being surrounded by a half dozen enemies or more simultaneously. While it’s never a fair fight, Briar and Lute have plenty of abilities to make sure they come out on top and survive.

As you reach specific spots along your journey exploring the city, you’ll suddenly have portals open and enemies pour out to try and defeat you. In most instances you can’t really continue on until you defeat all enemies, so you’re forced to fight in a confined area before moving on. The camera unlocks during these fights, able to freely move or even do a camera lock on specific enemies, but you’ll almost always have to fight two or three waves of enemies. And this is the general structure to each level: explore, fight waves, explore, fight waves, repeat, sometimes culminating in a massive boss fight at the end of certain chapters.

Switching between main and secondary weapons during combat is seamless, and with different types of enemies, each weapon has strengths and weaknesses that will help you earn a better score in combat. You’re forced to always use your main sword, but the other secondary weapon can be swapped out later on as you earn and unlock new weapons, though this isn’t until a good handful of hours into the game. I wish I could have swapped out the main sword for one of the other weapons as well, but unfortunately it’s not an option.

You begin with only a single combo or two, but will unlock more as you progress once you purchase new moves and abilities, each different for every weapon. This slowly opens Briar’s combat prowess as you become more comfortable in battle, eventually able to easily toss enemies in the air, combo them, slam down and move onto the next enemy. You can see where the Devil May Cry influence comes in during combat. It took a good few hours for me to really get a good grasp on the combat mechanics, not because it’s overly complicated, but it can feel a bit ‘stiff’ at times, so you need to know what its limitations are. Movement is slow in general as well, but once you get a good feel for the flow of combat and best strategies, it will start to feel more natural. Unfortunately once that happens, new mechanics are introduced that force you to play completely differently than the first few hours, adding more to constantly monitor and balance.

You don’t play Lute in combat directly, as she will automatically help you by shooting enemies with her abilities, she acts more like your defensive shield, allowing you to block, parry and freeze enemies who attack you if you time it right. Tapping ‘B’ when the prompt shows on each enemy will allow Lute to do a specific counter, though this is limited based on her upgrades as well. Eventually you can upgrade Lute’s abilities for attack or defensive maneuvers based on your playstyle. The better you do in combat the higher the sisters’ Unity Meter will rise, eventually filling and allowing you to use a powerful special attack. Get hit and the meter drops, do better and it rises. These special moves eventually turn into some crazy and spectacular attacks that even have its own brief cutscene that can thankfully be skipped after seeing it a few dozen times already.

Even though you don’t control Lute directly other than blocks and parries, you do need to watch her to make sure she doesn’t become too overwhelmed and overloads herself. If this happens she will burst, leaving you vulnerable without any way to counter for a brief time until she returns. Once you have to deal with using her red and blue shields, that’s where combat becomes more of a chore. Eventually Lute can use these blue and red fields, used for a number of reasons. For example, if you find a stack of red crystals, hitting them won’t do anything. Instead you need to have Lute pop a red shield around you, making any red crystals vulnerable for attacks. The same goes for blue crystals, needing the blue shield around you to be able to destroy them. There will even be some platforming sections that look impossible until you see that there are platforms that you can only stand on when the blue field is being used, so you need to be switching between the two at times. I think you can see where this is going.

The same goes for enemies shortly in, red or blue, only able to be hit when their within Lute’s correctly colored bubble. She can’t hold this force field open forever though and will eventually overload if left alone. Hitting enemies will lower the gauge though, so you have to be aggressive while fighting these specific enemies or simply take down the field to let her recover a moment, leaving you vulnerable without being able to counter. You can probably see where this starts to become a chore, especially when you need to fight red and blue enemies simultaneously, also ensuring that you’re hitting and locked onto the correct enemy. Even worse, eventually you’ll need to fight these tough red enemies that once you defeat them, a blue spirit pops out, and if you don’t defeat those quick enough they will possess another enemy and you’ll need to start all over again. Keep in mind you’re rarely fighting one enemy at a time, so it can be chaotic at times.

Sure you’ll eventually get abilities and upgrades that can make combat easier and more manageable, but it does become a chore at the best of times. Picking up the red and blue currencies are how you’ll upgrade Briar (red) and Lute (blue) and purchase special items, and these constantly flow in throughout your journey. After each combat section you’re graded based on a bunch of different parameters like time, hits taken, etc, giving you more bonuses the better you do.

Surprisingly there’s a bunch of different accessibility options included as well, something I didn’t expect. While there are multiple difficulty levels to choose from in the beginning, you can also toggle a bunch of different options based on which types of assists you want or need. There’s an auto-combat mode where Briar will continuously attack until the enemy is dead, an option to have Lute automatically use her blue and red fields when in range of a crystal, platform or enemy, or even changing QTE presses into single press or holds. There’s a few other options as well but it’s great to see more options available for those that may want or need.

Briar, Lute and the main characters are designed quite well, and while there’s not too much enemy variety until much later, they are all designed well, being quite distinct from one another. The city in ruins makes for a very dark and brooding backdrop that sets the tone of the adventure right from its opening moments. Combat is generally quite fluid and the red and blue that is scattered throughout the world is a great contrast to the dark environments. The main characters are all voiced wonderfully and written quite well, pulling me right into the narrative even further. Music and combat audio kicks in at the right moment to pump you up, especially when fighting a massive boss blocking your path at the end of a chapter or enter a crazy berserk mode.

I was expecting a quick five or six hour journey with Briar and Lute, but it’s actually more a good 15 to 20 hours depending on your difficulty level, skill and how much you want to explore. That said, it does overstay its welcome and the last half did drag on a bit, as I eventually wanted to be finished with it and move on. Those that are looking for value though will no doubt have plenty to do with multiple difficulties and even two harder ones that can eventually be unlocked as well.

Far from a perfect game, Soulstice feels like it has a soul and some heart. Made by a smaller studio you can absolutely see the Devil May Cry and Bayonetta influences, and while it may not hit that level quite yet, it’s a great homage regardless, a game that should be enjoyed by fans of the genre.

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

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 Train Sim World 3

I used to think trains were fairly simple machines. I mean, you’re stuck to a set track, so it’s not like you need to steer or anything right, just set the speed you want and you’re off. Yeah, well after a good dozen hours or so with Train Sim World 3 I can now appreciate how much more goes into being a train engineer. Even starting a train up is quite a process, knowing what buttons to press, levers to pull and what order they need to be completed in. Want to stop your train? That’s also quite a process, one that I learned the hard way numerous times.

I’ll admit, I as someone completely new to the Train Sim World series, and pretty much Train Sim games in general, I had a lot to learn as I overcame my preconceived notions about operating a train. If you want to get a taste of what it’s like to operate a 4000 to 20000 ton piece of machinery, most likely something most of us will never get to do in real life, Train Sim World 3 has you covered across a slew of different engine types and locales. It certainly lives up to the ‘Sim’ in its title, that’s for sure.

While there’s no traditional campaign per se, you will get a brief introduction into the train engineer life and the newly included Training Centre, acting as a tutorial for the basics. Once you learn how to board, start your train, get going, changing tracks and stopping, you’re basically set free to play how you wish. Do you want to play by trying to keep to a set schedule for passengers. or play through some specific premade scenarios, of which there’s plenty to keep you busy for many hours if you’re a completionist.

Before long I was choosing which train I wanted to go with and its corresponding route area. The scenario based ‘campaign’ is basically bite-sized missions that you can play in any order or repeatedly if you like, as you’ll gain experience for every one you complete. These scenarios can vary in quick one to two minute single stops, all the way to quite lengthy trips that span the whole map that require over an hour long commitment to complete. There’s no shortage of scenarios to play through for each of the train types, so there’s no need to worry about having a lack of content, especially since you can create and share your own routes for the community as well.

Full disclosure, we were given the Deluxe version of Train Sim World 3, so we had a few more trains and Routes to play with when compared to the base game (that’s also currently on Xbox Game Pass as of the time of this writing). I’ll admit, being someone that’s never really researched or know the differences of one train to the next, I now clearly see the distinctions between the different types, classes and styles, from the earliest Steam era all the way to modern bullet trains. Needless to say, conducting a steam train is vastly different from a modern day electric train and even more so from a BNSF freight train.

With having a bit over a dozen trains to try and explore, I had more than enough to start learning how each controlled, and they can differ quite drastically control wise when switching back and forth. For example, I had no idea that there were different types of brakes on a train, so learning how to control those for each type of engine is very different from one another. Because of this constant change of controls, I would suggest becoming quite proficient at one engine type before bouncing around to a few others, as I wish I could say that I never crashed my train, but due to thinking I was controlling a different type of engine and braking system, sadly it’s happened more than once.

While I’ve never stood foot inside any of these train cars, I can only assume its authenticity is top notch for each train type, and doing some research online, it seems developers Dovetail Games have certainly done their homework, not just on the trains themselves, but the real world counterparts and track layouts for each Route and area. They’ve certainly earned the ‘Sim’ in their title with the authenticity.

If you’re not a train buff you probably won’t know the difference between a Class 66 EWS, BR442 Talent 2 DB, BR403 DB, Class 395SEB, BNSF ES44C4 or a LMS Stanier 8F, just to name a few, but if you perk up at any of those train types and recognize them, you’re the exact audience Train Sim World 3 is catered towards. If you’re a train buff, then you’ll also recognize many of the included Routes and areas such as the Schnellfahrstrecke Kassel – Würzburg that has plenty of tunnels at high speed, my favorite, the Great Western Express, or the new and very challenging Cajon Pass with a BNSF engine which I would suggest trying after you’re comfortable in proper train handling and how to deal with some steep inclines safely.

Each train feels and performs drastically different than the next, especially the interesting Steam trains, whisking you back in time. Not only do you have to keep track of numerous valves, meters, levers, gauges and handles, but knowing how to ease into the acceleration is almost an art form in these old time engines. Give it too much throttle and you’re wheels will simply spin, but you’ll need to factor in any inclines, how much weight you’re pulling behind you and more.

For those that want to do even more in Train Sim World 3, you’re able to not only customize your scenarios however you see fit, but also create and download liveries from the community as well. For those that played the previous entry, Train Sim World 2, you’ll be happy to know your content carries over. There’s even an ‘Off the Rails’ mode where you can play any train type on any Route, but keep in mind that not all areas and Routes were designed for specific trains that can go much faster than is supposed to on these tracks.

The tutorials are plenty, able to teach you the basics of each train, how to operate them and even all of the other controls like the outside camera and map. You can easily switch to an outside camera at any time, freely placing it where you like, and can even do the train coupling in this view instead of being forced to get out of the train and do it manually, should you wish of course. You’ll also need to learn how to change the tracks based on what line you’re meant to be on or stop at. This can be done manually again should you wish, but you can also toggle them on the interactive map well ahead of time, adding another layer of planning on longer trips or passing through multi-laned hubs.

Should you want to explore on foot, there’s plenty of collectables and hidden items to find, again, adding hours of extra gameplay should you want to find everything. My main complaint is that there should be some form of a checklist to operate the engines. I found that switching between different types quite often, I forgot which buttons, levers and the order to even get the train moving was a challenge at times. Because of this I opted to stick with the same trains for a handful of scenarios at a time until it became second nature before moving onto the next area and train.

Weather has been vastly improved, adding extremes like thunder, lightning strikes, torrential rain, high speed wind, smoke, fog and more. Because of these weather patterns, they can affect how you control your train, so take that into consideration when the weather take a turn for the worse. With plenty of Train, Routes and Scenarios to play, there’s no shortage of content, especially factoring in community made options within the Creators Club as well. That said, there’s a store to purchase a whole slew of content with real money. If the DLC and add-ons like new trains and Route would be reasonably priced I wouldn’t mind so much, especially since the game is currently including with Xbox Game Pass, but some of the prices for a single train engine are absolutely ridiculous, more so if you’ve purchased the Deluxe version or some of the DLC already. If you want the complete experience, you’re going to have to open your wallet, and wide.

As expected, the attention to detail, even the smallest buttons and switches, inside the cabins are next level. There’s so much detail and a plethora of buttons, knobs and levers to interact with on the train, which is why the tutorials are so critically important. The trains themselves, even outside, are done to great detail, even reflecting the world it passes by at high speed. Lighting has been improved and the outside weather looks quite good when the rain is beading on your locomotive going almost 300 km/h. That said, the rest of the world, especially the environment meters away from the tracks and the lifeless passengers really stand out like a sore thumb. Passengers are duplicated quite often, animate quite stiff, and simply don’t look all that great. Are you playing to look at the lifeless eyes of the passengers on the platforms and on your train, no, but it doesn’t help when you do.

The trains themselves sound wonderful and each quite unique. Hearing the steam engine from a train over 100 years old sounds drastically different than the electric hum of a modern day bullet. The voiced over sections during tutorials is done quite well, I just wish there was more of it throughout the rest of the journey going from scenario to scenario. Hearing the train 'clicky-clack' along the track is always delightful, as is blowing the horn as I come into the station. Squealing brakes and other minor sounds simply pull the whole experience together in a natural way.

There’s some debate that fans and players of Train Sim World 2 won’t necessarily see a massive leap going to this latest entry, but for someone like me that’s new to the series, this is logically the best place to jump in. The menus are clearly designed for a mouse and keyboard in mind, as trying to hit specific small switches with a controller can be tricky at times to perform, especially quickly. How the Scenarios and menus flow into one another could also use some work, as it wasn’t until a few hours in that I then found more options and tasks to complete.

I’ll admit, I learned a substantial amount about the world of trains and locomotives thanks to Train Sim World 3, and while non-fans might not see the enjoyment of running a train for over an hour getting from point A to B, I oddly become quite addicted to the relaxing enjoyment it brought. Veterans are sure to be excited about all of the authentic content, though due to its niche audience, casual or new fans might find it difficult to understand at first.

**Train Sim World 3 (Deluxe Edition) was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Q.U.B.E. 10th Anniversary

There’s something special playing a puzzle game, becoming so frustrated that you’re on the verge of giving up and uninstalling because of the ‘impossible’ puzzle you’ve been staring at for the last hour, then all of a sudden getting that euphoric ‘ah-hah’ moment and the realization of how dumb you were for not figuring out the solution sooner. That was a basic summarization of my time with Q.U.B.E. 10th Anniversary, developed by Toxic Games Limited, becoming infuriatingly stuck then unable to put it down as I finally progressed.

Originally release back in 2012, Q.U.B.E. was a small indie game that was received quite well, eventually getting a Director’s Cut two years later in 2014, adding a narrative element with voice over, more puzzles, an updated soundtrack and more. Here we are a decade later from its release with Q.U.B.E. 10th Anniversary, adding both the original and Director’s Cut in one package, along with even more content included, revised and improved gameplay sections, and much more appealing visuals.

There’s an interesting story revolving around you waking up with these special gloves being worn in some sort of massive cube that’s in space somewhere. Someone is talking to you over the radio but you’re unable to respond back, detailing what's happened. It’s actually an interesting narrative that has some twists and turns that I didn’t expect, so I don’t want to spoil much else, something better off experienced than read.

With over 100 puzzles to complete, they will progressively become much more challenging as you continue through this seemingly never-ending room after room. Even if you mastered Q.U.B.E. at release and it’s Director’s Cut, there’s a whole new sector of the game that opens up once completion, adding another 4-6 hours of brain-bending gameplay. Visuals are vastly improved, there’s a whole slew of developer commentary to listen to and plenty of collectables that make an already challenging game even more difficult for those that want even more challenge.

A physics based puzzle game, Q.U.B.E. 10th Anniversary centers on you trying to progress one puzzle at a time, placing you in a room where you can’t reach the next path or doorway until you reach a specific area or open a doorway. The core principle is that you’re manipulating different colored cubes in a mostly pure white room made out of cubes as well, where each color type is manipulated in a different way. How to use each, when to do so, and how they all interact with one another is the only way you’re going to be able to progress and survive.

Blue cubes act as a springboard, not only for you, but other blocks as well. This is how you’ll reach certain areas or get specific blocks to new platforms. Red cubes can be extended up to three times, as you might not need it to raise vertically or horizontally the full length all the time. Yellow blocks extend into a three tiered staircase or even a podium, as all three sections can’t be the same height. Later on you’re going to have to deal with magnet blocks, lasers, redirectors, arrows that rotate platforms and more.

Regardless if you play the original or Director’s Cut, you’ll explore along a linear corridor until you reach a puzzle room, trapped until you solve it, move to the next room and puzzle, repeat until credits roll. Each chapter or section introduces a new mechanic or block, easing you into the increasing difficulty for the most part, but I won’t lie, around the fifth or sixth chapter, the puzzle challenges absolutely skyrocketed quite quickly.

I’d like to think I’m generally decent at puzzle games since I think logically, so even though I may get stuck here and there, I eventually figure it out. I swear at times near the end I thought some of the puzzles were impossible. The first few chapters really ease you into the gameplay, thinking I was going to breeze through it no problem, then I hit a brick wall, almost ready to call it quits when I was dumbfounded for over an hour on a single puzzle. Of course once I figured it out I realized the simple thing that didn’t ‘click’ with me, thus renewing my enjoyment once I felt like a genius again.

While the majority of the puzzles aren’t timed in any way, there are a handful where you do have to be quick and deliberate with your movements and timing. This is slowly introduced with arrows you can interact with that will rotate or move certain platforms or walls in a specific direction, or magnets that pull blocks in that specific lane. There’s even some puzzles where you’ll have a white ball that drops and then rolls, having to make it go through specific colored boxes to mix ‘paint’ and land in the corresponding colored box to progress. Layer this with rotating walls, lasers and blue jump pads, and you can see were the quick dexterity requirement comes in.

Puzzles become quite intricate and confusing, infuriating me at times because I just can’t figure out the solution for an hour at a time to the point of wanting to uninstall, but then I stick with it and eventually find the solution, wanting to progress even further. With a large number of optional collectables to find along the way, there’s plenty here to challenge even the most skilled puzzle solver.

Vastly improved visuals from its original release, actually decent voice overs and a soundtrack that never overstays its welcome, the generally logical puzzles were a pleasant surprise for someone like me that never played the original releases, now able to enjoy it on my console of choice. The constant ebb and flow of frustration and elation is why I generally enjoy puzzle games like Q.U.B.E. 10th Anniversary, going from feeling like an idiot one minute to a genius the next.

**Q.U.B.E. 10th Anniversary was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Isonzo

Developers Blackmill Games and publisher M2H may not have the largest of game releases out there, but they absolutely know what they excel at and their niche target audience. It’s clear their passion lies within the WWI era, as all of their previous releases took place here as well. Verdun (2015) and Tannenberg (2017) both take place during this time period but within different Theaters of War. The latest in their WWI Game Series is Isonzo, another historical setting from the first World War that took place amongst different backdrops within northern Italy.

While there’s no shortage of World War shooters, what makes this WWI Game Series stand out is its historical accuracy and much slower paced gameplay. Don’t go in expecting to be running-and-gunning. You have to keep in mind the weapon technology at the time, so combat warfare was drastically different than it is today.

Set on the Italian front, Isonzo focuses on a handful of some of the most iconic battles between Italy and the Austro-Hungarian forces. The Italian backdrop makes for some unique battlefields, especially within the Alps or fighting for historic landmarks like the Salcano Bridge, adding much more verticality to the combat as opposed to fighting through a ruined town.

Let’s be clear, Isonzo is meant as an online multiplayer shooter. Yes you can play offline against bots, but there’s no single player campaign of any sorts, so as long as you’re intending to play online, hopefully with some friends, then Isonzo is worth looking at. These games are enjoyed by fans that want a more accurate representation of how warfare was during this time. Historically accurate and authentic, Isonzo will have you battling in numerous offensives within the Southern Front of the War. While all twelve Battles of the Isonzo aren’t included here, they are each varied and unique in its backdrop.

Isonzo doesn’t try and make things confusing by adding a bunch of different modes that may or may not be used, instead focusing on its core, and only, Offensive game mode. Somewhat of a different take on Battlefield’s Conquest, Offensive has an attacking and defending team working on two objectives simultaneously. Objective ‘A’ is where you need to capture a point, where objective ‘B’ is a point where the attackers are trying to set an explosive to destroy the point. If the attackers capture both objective ‘A’ and ‘B’, then the front of the war gets pushed forwards and opens a new portion of the battlefield further behind enemy lines.

Every map is unique, but each push with their own objective points are also all interesting as well, as you need to constantly be working on your attacking or defensive portions. Depending on the map and the section you’re currently fighting in, you might be battling in trenches, bunkers, forests, towns, open fields or even cliffs. Each section and backdrop can dramatically change battles and strategies when playing, as certain portions might be cutoff by barb wire or other barriers.

While there’s only a handful of maps currently included, I will say, these maps are massive. While you only battle in a small sector at a time based on the objectives that have or haven’t been captured and destroyed yet, starting at the beginning of a match until the very last section and you’ll start to understand how large these battlefields really can be.

While the battlefields and landscape is obviously historically accurate, so is the weaponry, air attacks and artillery, outfits, music and even mustaches as well. Cut paths through barb wire, spot enemies with your binoculars, place sandbags or periscopes, drop sniper shields, use multiple paths or tunnels to flank your enemy or storm head on, there’s plenty of different strategies to employ when you face off against other players online.

Isonzo offers six different classes for you to choose from based on historical roles. While you’ll only have access to the starting weapon and equipment, as you level up each class you’ll then unlock more weaponry and gear to further customize your soldier. Each class has its own strengths and specific role in combat, and having a healthy mix of each type will surely help your side succeed in the War.

The six classes in Isonzo might not seem like they differ too much early on, but once you’ve completed some challenges and unlocked their better gear, weapons and perks, you’ll start to notice a more distinct difference. Officers start out with only a pistol but can send directions of where to attack or place arrows on the map for everyone to see. They can also call in air support if there are flares placed, so they are the main support of your team, and only two officers per team are allowed at one time. Riflemen are your core infantry, Assault can eventually get high impact weapons, Mountaineers can spot enemies and mark them for the team to see with their binoculars, Snipers take out targets from afar and Engineers can build weapons and tools used on the battlefield.

Being historically accurate, a single shot can, and usually will, kill you. If not fatal instantly, you may get critically injured, needing to use your bandage kit or have someone else heal you to you don’t bleed out. When working as a team in squads and in tandem with a specific strategy, Isonzo goes from a run-of-the-mill WWI solo shooter to quite a tactical experience that I really couldn’t get enough of as an Officer, calling in artillery barrages or dropping of poisonous mustard gas.

The more you play and better you perform, you’ll level up your overall rank, but the class you're currently playing will also rise in level as well. This is where the specific class challenges come into play and how you unlock new weapons and gear for them. At specific levels you are given special class objectives that, when met, will give you specific rewards, like the new guns or equipment. These are catered for the specific class, like a Mountaineer spotting a specific amount of enemies or an Officer calling in a number of air supports on objectives. These aren’t terribly difficult but doing so allows you to move onto the next challenges once you reach specific levels.

Surprisingly there is crossplay between consoles, but not between console and PC as of now. With plenty of players currently, there’s no issue finding a lobby to play in, though you can setup a custom match with your friends whenever you like, or even have it open to the public. Keep in mind that when playing in custom matches you won’t earn XP progression though.

Developers have already shared their upcoming roadmap of content, including the next three free expansions that will add plenty of content such as new maps, a new faction, more challenges, more custom match options, cosmetics, prestige, new game mode and more. While the core experience may feel a little bare once you’ve gotten used to the classes and played each map dozens of times, this free content coming is a great sign of future support.

Are there bugs and glitches? Sure. Are there times I got stuck in the landscape and had to redeploy? You bet. Did any of that hamper my enjoyment? Not as much as I expected. Isonzo looks and performs leaps and bounds better than their previous two games, which I can only guess is a direct result to their further experience and the latest hardware. Animations are vastly improved from 2017’s Tannenberg, and while the visuals won’t blow you away, some of the backdrops and battlefields are a visual treat to take in, if you aren’t getting shot at from a marksman of course. Weapons sound distinct and it’s not uncommon to hear someone from either team screaming as they take their last breath after being dropped from a lethal shot.

Easily my favorite in the series, Isonzo offers class based and slow paced World War I gameplay that surely takes some getting used to, but is also a very unique experience compared to other shooters in the genre. The verticality of the level design of cliffside battles and unique classes is what keeps me coming back for one more onslaught on the battlefield, even if the map variety is a bit low and only having a single mode can be tiresome at times. While Isonzo may not have the polish and same experience of a top shelf AAA shooter, it’s quite clear to see that it’s a labor of love and passion from a smaller team that aims to bring a historically accurate representation of WWI combat that should appeal to its specific niche audience.

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

Overall Score: 7.3 / 10 Circus Electrique

Usually when I first watch a trailer for a new game I can generally get an idea and feel for how the game is going to be. I’ll admit, watching the trailer for Circus Electrique left me somewhat confused at to what I was about to experience. I’m glad I did experience it though, as Circus Electrique is an odd blend of turn based tactical combat, a narrative RPG, but also a circus management game, all wrapped in a Victorian era steampunk aesthetic. Intrigued by this unique mashup yet?

While you don’t play directly as her, the protagonist is Amelia, a young journalist that’s related to the Ringmaster of the circus, Randy. You’re actually here investigating an event being dubbed as “The Maddening”, which is having people in London being killed at random after becoming violent and aggressive. With her tamed lion along her side, Leonidas, you’ll investigate what’s the root cause for The Maddening with circus performers acting as your bodyguards as you explore six districts within London.

The narrative is intriguing at first, wondering what’s going on and some more sub-plots beneath the surface, but I’ll admit, it was hard to follow along at times simply because of all the circus management and game mechanics you need to constantly be checking in on and having to focus on. As you explore each district you’ll battle against numerous types of enemies, some robotic and others creepy looking. Boss battles await at the end of each district as well, something you better have planned to prepare for well ahead of time.

There’s numerous distinct portions to Circus Electrique’s gameplay, each unique and a lot to remember and manage, but all intertwined simultaneously. A large portion is the actual circus management that plays in a daily cycle. The big top tent is where you’ll plan for your daily (or multiple days) shows, choosing which performers will be the main, secondary and supporting acts. Certain performers are better suited for specific roles, but each character also has preferences on who they like, and don’t like, to work with, that makes for a better show overall. So it becomes almost like a puzzle to figure out the best ‘team’ to make a show from your inventory of performers to earn the most stars. The more stars you earn the more resources you gain, allowing you to craft more items to earn better performers and more fans. It’s quite confusing in the beginning, especially since you also need to keep enough people on your team for the exploration and combat sections, but more on that shortly.

At the end of each day after a combat portion, you then get your rewards for the circus show you setup that was performed, adding a day since The Maddening investigation began. These shows start out with just three performers, eventually going to four or five, but also upping certain ‘stat’ requirements to even start the show, so it’s somewhat a puzzle on figuring out if you have the proper performers to even start some of the shows with bigger rewards. It’s very complex, and even trying to detail and explain it is difficult, as it took me quite a while to eventually figure out.

The circus grounds will have many different areas you can interact with, each meant for a different use. The Train is where you can recruit new performers that appear randomly, but this of course costs money and resources to do so but you can only house a limited number at a time, so choose wisely, as you need to start leveling them up as soon as you can if you want to be successful in combat. When your performers are used for combat rounds they will most likely return injured. This is where the Sleeping Cart comes in, as they will need to rest to refill their health if you want them to survive subsequent battles. The Artisan is where you’ll go to craft items. As you defeat enemies in battle and perform circus events daily, you earn a number of different resources which can then be used to create specific items like healing potions for health and devotion, bonuses for your shows, bomb-like items to use in combat and many more. There’s a huge list of items that can be crafted though you can only bring a certain amount into each battle, so there’s definitely some strategy involved.

You’ll eventually be able to equip Super Skills, so The Workshop is where you’ll go to choose which ones you want to research. These are essentially special attacks that can be used after a certain amount of turns for a huge advantage in battle. Depending on your choices you could get a heal for your whole team, critical buffs, damage to the whole enemy team and many more. With three different tiers of Super Skills, once your Amazemeter is filled to certain levels you can then choose to use these abilities that will reset the meter, so it’s best saving these for difficult or boss battles. The higher the tier the more powerful the skill will be, so there’s a strategy of holding off longer for a more powerful version of the ability.

Before you get into the turn based battles, you first need to explore the district map along a set path. After the first map you’ll then choose branching paths, almost like a board game, all eventually leading you to its boss. Do you choose a shorter path with less ‘stops’ but maybe filled with more battles, or a longer path with possibly more rewards along the way? At these forks in the road you’ll have to make a choice and then you’re committed to that one way path, unable to go the other way until you defeat the district's boss and can then replay the area should you choose.

At each ‘stop’ along the path you’ll get a story segment, special items, healing or battles, depending on the icon shown that you land on. Much of the time you’ll be put into a battle though, and this is where you team of four performers comes to fight four opposing enemies in turn based combat. Keep in mind these are circus performers, so you can expect to build your team across fifteen different archetypes, from clowns, strongmen, fire blowers, mentalists, acrobats and many more. Each class is quite unique and has a different skillsets that works ideally with specific other classes.

Taking place on a 2D field, your team has four positions to fill from front to back, as does the enemy. Each performer has a set of abilities and attacks they can perform, but many are only usable in specific positions. For example, your strongman is generally the ‘tank’, dealing huge damage and able to take the biggest hit from enemies. Generally this means he’s best in the front two slots, as that’s where he can attack from, but if he's in the two rear spots he has an ability that he can buff up his defense and offence and then place him ahead a few positions.

Learning where each archetype is best where takes a while to figure out, plus it also is based on your playstyle, but once I figured out my ideal team of performers and their positions I was performing much better in combat. You can move your characters positions back and forth, but that takes your current turn and you can see the order of your and enemy team turn placement, adjusting your strategy accordingly.

While you might think that simply depleting an enemy’s health to zero would be the way to win a battle, that’s not the only way. There’s an equally important stat called Devotion that is just as imperative, if not more so, to keep track of for yourself and enemies. Devotion determines how they perform in battle, but if it’s completely depleted they’ll retreat from the battle, so sometimes it’s more strategic to use abilities that deplete their devotion instead of their health to force them to flee from battle. It’s a really unique system that takes some getting used to but will definitely keep strategic thinkers on their toes.

After each battle you get the latest newspaper showcasing what happened the previous day for your circus and combat outcomes. There’s some lore and story bits embedded into the recent events, giving some insight into its unique world. You definitely don’t need to read all of these to understand the main story, as that plays out in dialogue cutscenes for the most part, but will give you a deeper appreciation for its world.

Circus Electrique has a gorgeous aesthetic if you’re into the Victorian and Steampunk style. It’s colorful, characters are drawn well, and it certainly feels as though you’re living amongst a cast of unique circus performers for a living. The cutscenes are voiced actually quite well and the soundtrack is something you’d probably hear in one of the circus tents when you go to watch a live show under the big top.

My main complaint is that there’s simply much too much going on simultaneously in Circus Electrique. With a handful of different mechanics, you are taught each one, but having new things to manage and figure out before you’ve even become comfortable with what you just got shown is quite overwhelming early on. Even playing on Normal I was struggling initially, eventually starting a new game and having a more balanced time on Easy. There’s a codex you can reference anytime you forget any of the tutorials or instructions, but it’s a mountain to sift through.

While I quite enjoyed the turned based strategic combat of choosing my ideal performers and how they all best worked with one another, I struggled early on with understanding the management aspect. With enough time you’ll get the hang of it, but there’s almost too much going on, feeling quite overwhelming initially. Fans of Darkest Dungeon should feel right at home, but newcomers and casual players will most likely feel quite overwhelmed in the opening hours until it all starts to make sense and come together.

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

Overall Score: 7.3 / 10 Steelrising

Developer Spiders may not produce massive AAA titles, but they have a distinct style and I’m always going to be excited for their releases. Ever since 2019’s GreedFall, which I absolutely loved, I've been eagerly awaiting their next release. Well, that time has come, as their latest title, Steelrising, is now here. I’ll admit, when I first saw the trailer for Steelrising I was quite impressed with its unique premise and setting, especially since it was coming from one of my favorite developers, but then I became a little more cautious and apprehensive once I realized it was going to be a Soulsborne, a genre I generally don’t enjoy due to its difficulty. Now if you’re like me and tend to shy away from Soulslike titles, don’t worry, as developers have given some options to make it much more approachable for those that don’t want to be forced into a difficult challenge, but more on that shortly.

Steelrising may draw many similarities to others in the genre due to its combat and mechanics, but it certainly has a unique backdrop and setting that I thoroughly enjoyed start to finish. Set during the French Revolution, you’ll explore iconic locales such as Saint Cloud, Luxembourg and Bastille Versailles among other cities. While this setting isn’t utilized often in gaming, what really makes Steelrising stand out is its alternative take on historic events, as it has a mixture of Steampunk, Teslapunk and Clockpunk subgenres as well.

Paris 1789, this alternative take on the historic French Revolution tells a story about King Louis XVI and how he’s gone mad after commanding a legion of mechanical robots called Automatons. Exemplary engineer Vaucanson was the one who designed and created these Automatons, but not initially for these destructive reasons, as the city of Paris is now burning and crumbling. Citizens are revolting, but they are no match for these Automatons, and as a result are being slaughtered if they are found. Following the King’s orders, there seems to be no one or anything able to stop this destruction and massacre. Who can possibly stop this tyrant King? That’s where you, Aegis, comes in.

Changing the course of factual history, Queen Marie-Antoinette is introduced to her new bodyguard, Aegis, an Automaton that resembles a nimble and royal mannequin, but one that is able to speak and have reason, self-aware and intelligent. Originally designed as a dancer, Aegis only follows Antoinette’s orders and has a surpassingly amount of combat capability given that she was designated as her bodyguard. Unable to leave the palace, Antoinette tasks Aegis with heading to the docks to sail for Paris so that she can search for her missing children and to find your creator, Vaucanson, as it seems he might be the only one that will be able to stop the Automatons since he was their designer.

Along Aegis’ journey you’ll meet other historical figures such as Robespierre and Lafayette, amongst others. You’ll have quite a challenging journey as you try to stop the Mad King, as every Automaton along the way will be trying to destroy you. The French Revolution backdrop combined with the clockpunk setting melds together absolutely perfectly, creating an alternative history that was a treat to explore.

More than simply a sentient robot narrative, Aegis has more about her that you’ll learn along the way. You’ll help save and recover people that stood up to the King, finding more about what happened and learning each step of the way where you’re next target or person of interest will be. That’s oversimplifying though, as you’re going to have to battle numerous enemies around almost every corner, which is where the Soulslike gameplay comes in. You’ll customize your Aegis at the beginning, choosing the basics like her wig, ‘skin’ color and material like what type of metal parts of her are made out of before you leave the Palace for the capital city.

Before I get into the core gameplay and mechanics, I needed to dedicate a section for the developer’s conscious decision to make Steelrising approachable for anyone that wants to play it and see it to its conclusion, regardless of their skill. I’ll admit, I generally don’t enjoy Souls games simply because of their high difficulty, as I don’t have the patience to die over and over to finally progress. To me that’s not fun, but I totally understand why they are also so popular because of these reasons as well. I usually become discouraged because of the genre’s difficulty, so I was elated to see that Spiders made a way for players like myself that wanted to enjoy the game without any of the frustration should I choose. While I’m completely aware this is a polarizing topic where you’re supposed to ‘Git Gud’, but with the inclusion of an Assist Mode, Steelrising truly is a game for all players, hardcore to completely casual.

More than simply having Easy, Medium and Hard difficulties, you are instead able to balance the game to whatever your preferred liking is across a number of different settings. The settings you can toggle are Reduce Damage (0% to 100%), XP lost upon death (Yes / No), Improve Stamina Regeneration (0% to 300%), Activate Easy Cooling (Yes / No). These adjustable settings allow you to play however you want. Want to be invincible to learn the game in the beginning? Go ahead. Want to not lose all your currency when you die? Sure thing. These can be toggled on/off or adjusted whenever you like, so as you become more comfortable with its mechanics and gameplay, you can turn down the sliders to make it more of a challenge should you want to. Not knowing there was an Assist Mode included, I was initially worried I’d not be able to see Steelrising to its conclusion, but thankfully because of the developer’s commitment to inclusivity, I was indeed able.

Yes, my first playthrough was having many of the assists on, slowly turning them down as I become more comfortable and confident, and now I’m working on my next playthrough with no Assists. Some might scoff at adding these assists, but it made me going from being apprehensive about the game because of its perceived difficulty and genre, to being able to enjoy its story and narrative without having to spend hours becoming frustrated. I also believe they’ve found a great middle ground, as turning Assist Mode on disables any achievement earnings, which I believe is fair compromise.

After creating Aegis the way you want her to look from the limited options, you then choose one of four classes. These give you different starting stats and weapons, suited for different styles of play. Bodyguard is your heavy weapon user that is strong but slow, Soldier does more physical damage but less resilient, Dancer uses two metal fans that can combine to be a shield as you move around and attack very quickly, and lastly the Alchemist that specializes in chemical weapons that ignite, freeze or electrocute enemies with ease.

Aegis will explore numerous settings and areas, and while the level design is generally linear, there is of course some minor branching paths that will house many secrets, enemies and more. You can’t really go a ‘wrong’ way but there are many dead ends that somewhat funnel you down the correct path. There’s no map though to navigate, so you’ll need to be aware of where you’ve previously been. You’ll come across many locked doors and paths, but once you explore and find a way around, you can then unlock said doors and thus opening more shortcut paths for the future when you come back later with new abilities. Each level and area is quite large and the interconnectivity is done quite well, even if there’s not too much verticality to its design.

As you reach specific story parts and beat specific bosses, you’ll earn new abilities that allow you to traverse to new areas in a number of different ways. First you’ll unlock a mid-air dash, allowing you to cross larger gaps and get over certain fences that block your path. Your next upgrade allows Aegis to power kick through weak points on specific walls, usually hiding your next path or a secret. Lastly you’ll get a grapple hook that can be used to traverse on specific attach points, very reminiscent of Sekiro’s gameplay. Even better, all of these traversal abilities can also be used in combat for specific situations as well.

To say that Steelrising takes heavy inspiration from other Souls games is putting it mildly. That doesn’t necessarily mean that it feels like a cheap copy like others sometimes feel, but if you’ve ever played a Soulslike before, you’re going to know what to expect for its core mechanics. You have a health and stamina bar that needs to be managed, though your endurance bar is more attached to your overheating since you’re a robot after all. Deplete this meter and you’ll be unable to act for a short period, though thankfully you’re able to vent your heat. This is done with a clever ‘active reload’ mechanic, where if you hit the button at the right time, you’ll get your endurance back much quicker. Instead of bonfires to rest and level up at, you search and find Vestals. Here you’ll spend your hard earned Anima Essence (essentially your souls) on leveling up, upgrading Aegis or purchasing new weapons and armor. Like other Souls games, using Vestals will also reset enemy placements but also refill your health.

Being an Automat, Aegis can be upgraded in numerous ways. You can spent you Anima Essence on improving your specific attributes, leveling you up every time you do so, but you’ll also have four separate different module slots that you can place different upgrades into. Some of these will improve your health, maybe give you more damage when low on health, add more armor and a handful of different options. Each of these slots start at tier 1, able to be upgraded to tiers 2 and 3 for much more powerful improvements if you can gather enough special keys to do so.

At these vestals you’re also able to upgrade your weapons, not only requiring your precious Anima Essence but also a number of different materials as well, some of which you’ll need to do some exploring or beat some nasty enemies to collect them from. Instead of an Estus Flask you instead have a Burette which can also be improved to heal more health or have more doses. Aegis will also find a collection of different armor and clothing along the way, each looking quite distinct and unique from one another and having different attribute improvements. You’ll be able to mix and match hats, chest, legs and boot slots for Aegis, making her look quite intriguing, royal and fancy depending on your choice.

What is a Soulslike without its challenging and unique combat though? Steelrising is no different, having Aegis fight against a seemingly endless army of Automatons. Much like Sekiro and Bloodborne, Steelrising rewards you for fighting more aggressive, though of course you’ll need to be able to dodge, parry and block if you want to survive. Each enemy has different attack patterns that you must learn to counter and avoid if you want Aegis to survive, with bosses, called Titans, testing your skill and patience.

There are 8 different categories of weapons with more than 40 different choices, ranging from Fans, Chains, Claws, Maces, Halberds, Dual Swords, Tonfas and Wheels. Each weapon also has its own special move that could be a block, parry, counterattack, ranged attack, ice infusion and more. The weapons all feel so unique and change the gameplay quite drastically, so it’s definitely worth experimenting with. I initially started my Dancer off with the fans, eventually switching up to some claws for the fast combat attacks.

When it comes to combat, you have light, heavy and charged attacks, as well as the special move for your weapon. You also equip two weapons of choice, allowing you to quickly swap on the fly between them based on your situation. For example, I used my range weapons to try and freeze my enemies before they got to me, then switching to my claws for a barrage of quick attacks before I dodge back out and gather my composure. If you don’t run, you’re also able to sneak up behind unsuspecting Automatons for a massive attack.

Enemy design is done quite well as it’s very steampunk inspired and range from quick fodder to hulking Titan bosses. While the enemy types are somewhat limited and repeated throughout Aegis' journey, it at least makes sense given the narrative and robot army setting. Early on you’ll fight one enemy at a time, but in the later stages you can expect to battle against a few simultaneously which is where you’ll need to rely on your combat prowess to be successful. There is a camera lock which works well for the most part, but can get a little finicky in the more chaotic fights when you need to swap from target to target while locked on.

Steelrising has some amazing and gorgeous vistas when you take a moment to stop Aegis from battle and exploration and simply take in the sights. The landscape of France is quite a sight to behold even though its burning, destroyed and there’s a massacre happening. The lighting and shadows has improved leaps and bounds from their last game and each area had its own style and tone of scenery. It’s obvious that the developers took a lot of time to study the era, as the whole experience feels just as I would imagine the French Revolution would for that time period, but with robots. Human characters on the other hand aren’t as equally impressive, having stiff animations and a lack of emotion even in the most dramatic cutscenes. That said, the voice acting across the board was absolutely fantastic, especially Aegis, sounding robotic given her creation, but with some soul and humanistic nature. The soundtrack is fitting, adding a tone that suits the backdrop and setting, and weapons sound impactful and distinct, especially when you hear weapons clanging off of the Automatons.

For how much I enjoyed Steelrising for its approachability and gorgeous backdrop, there were some issues along the way. Even on an Xbox Series X, there were some massive framerate issues in certain sections, not often, but enough to make note of. Oddly enough, this even happened during some cutscenes, but given that I was playing through weeks before the official launch without the day 1 patch, I’m going to assume this will only improve now that it’s released.

Steelrising is easily Spider’s most ambitious work and I can’t applaud them enough for the unique setting and backdrop, even if the core mechanics are what we’ve experienced dozens of times before. There is of course a steep learning curve in the beginning, but anyone with ample Souls experience should feel right at home. Thankfully you don’t have to ‘Git Gud’ to enjoy Steelrising to completion even as a casual fan, as long as you don’t mind disabling achievements.

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

Overall Score: 8.2 / 10 Cursed to Golf

Just when I think I’ve seen every genre combination out there, I’m surprised once again. Cursed to Golf combines the sport of golf with some roguelike elements, an odd mixture that I certainly wasn’t expecting from developers Chuhai Labs. A simple premise, a morbid story, card based power-ups, bumper walls, randomly generated courses, simple controls and adorable pixel art makes for a unique golfing experience that I didn’t quite expect but had an entertaining time playing.

You begin your story playing through a tournament, about to win on the 18th hole by a large margin. As you line up your winning shot the unthinkable happens; lightning strikes your club mid-swing, killing you instantly. You awake somewhere you don’t recognize by a large ghost-like being that welcomes you to Golf Purgatory. That’s right, you didn’t go to Heaven or Hell when you met your fate, now stuck somewhere in between. But not all is depressing though, as you’re told that you can ascend back to life if you can manage to defeat the ominous Greenskeeper in 18 holes of golf across four different biomes. I told you this was an oddly morbid story.

As you progress your way through Golf Purgatory one hole at a time, you’re going to notice that the rules of the sport are slightly different down here compared to what you were used to when you were alive. First and foremost, instead of each hole having a par in the traditional sense, you instead start with five swings allowed to reach the hole, and each swing reduces it by one. As long as you make it to the hole before there’s zero swings left you’ll progress, but there's no way you'll reach the pin on some of these holes in less than twenty shots. Failure to do so though and you’ll be sent all the way back to the beginning of Golf Purgatory, which is where the roguelike elements come into play. It’s an odd ruleset but works quite well with the other mechanics and rules. To survive Golf Purgatory you’ll need to complete all 18 holes in one go, something that is much more difficult than I initially expected.

Because you’re stuck in Golf Purgatory, don’t expect typical courses and holes you’d find in the living world. Instead, you can expect holes that are almost dungeon or puzzle-like, sometimes with branching paths where you can attempt for shortcuts but require much more skill and precision with your shots. To make thing seven more interesting, you also collect cards that offer single use abilities or bonuses, but more on those shortly.

Taking place on a 2D playfield, the randomly generated holes will greatly vary in length, obstacles and difficulty. You’ll not only have to deal with reaching the hole before you run out of shots, but avoiding bunkers, water hazards, spikes, TNT boxes and more. I told you, Golf Purgatory isn’t like real world golf at all. Certain holes will require 10 or 20 shots to complete, so how do you pass the course if you only begin with 5 shots you ask? Littered throughout the course you’ll find silver and golf shot idols, where if you manage to destroy these by hitting your ball through them you’ll gain more shots to your counter. Silver Idols add +2 shots and gold +4, so they are definitely worth going slightly out of your way to the hole to destroy these if you believe in your golf skills.

To keep things simple you only have to worry about using one of three different clubs; your Driver, Iron or Wedge. The driver is for your long range shots, iron for higher angles and wedge for getting out of bunkers and short range shots. You’ll notice I didn’t mention a putter, and that’s because there is none, so you need to factor this in for your setup shots, as the short range ‘putts’ can be a little tricky to do. Pressing ‘A’ start the power meter, press again to determine the power you want, then you’ll see the angle/height meter with ball trail moving up and down. Press ‘A’ one more time and you’ll complete your shot. Eventually you’ll also be able to add some spin to your shots, forwards or backwards, so you can have them land or roll exactly where you want.

Before you even take your shot though, you’ll want to use the ‘B’ button to move the camera around the course to figure out the best path and to watch for any hazards that will be in your way. Many of these holes will have numerous paths you can take to the flag, sometimes even having multiple different holes, so you’ll need to plan ahead which way you want to go, making every shot count. Some holes feel almost like a puzzle when you have to decide to use teleporters or not, though I found it impossible to tell which portal it would exit from if there were multiple.

The Scotsman is the first person you meet when you awake in Golf Purgatory, an ally that teaches you the rules down here, also the owner of Eterni-Tee, a store you’ll be spending your earned cash from each hole for new cards to hopefully survive Golf Purgatory. Clear enough holes and the final one in each biome will have you facing off against a boss, which your friend The Scotsman will be your first opponent. These ‘boss fights’ is more like a turned based race to the hole against your opponent, though there are special shrines that will zap them with lighting if destroyed, causing them to miss one of their turns. They can hit much further and accurate than you, so you’re going to have to play smart, plan ahead and know when you use your Ace Cards.

Ace Cards adds a unique twist on the gameplay, as most holes are so long and technical that there’s no way to reach the hole in the five shots you’re given. With more than 20 different Ace Cards, these vary in what they do for you, allowing you to add shots to your counter, perform mulligans, shoot multiple balls at once, perform a U-Turn with your ball, stop time and more. These unique power-up cards will need to be used at the right times if you want to survive Golf Purgatory and ascend. These cards are single use though, so if you run out of cards early on, the later holes will be near impossible to complete, so you need to only use them when needed. These add a layer of unique strategy, especially during the boss fights and make for a unique golfing experience that I quite enjoyed. Do well on holes to earn cash to buy more card packs at the Eterni-Tee store so you have a chance at getting out of Golf Purgatory.

The bright and colorful pixel art is gorgeous to look at, even when you factor in the dark narrative. The animations are done quite well, as your golfer takes a portal to the ball after each shot and The Scotsman is larger than life in personality. While there’s no voiced characters, instead using gibberish sound effects, the soundtrack is done quite well and is catchy, never wearing out its welcome even after attempting to progress through Golf Purgatory dozens of times.

Cursed to Golf is one of those games that I wasn’t sure what to really expect but came away not only surprised, but smiling every time I played. Even though I’ve yet to ascend out of Golf Purgatory, I’m enjoying each attempt, getting better with my shots and strategizing when to use my Ace Cards. At $25.99 CAD, the price might initially seem a little high for an indie golf game, but the roguelike gameplay and high difficulty adds near endless replayability on the links.

**Cursed to Golf was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Arcade Paradise

I’m glad to have grown up in the era of gaming that I did. Born in the 80’s, I not only grew up with home consoles in their infancy, but I’m also old enough to have many fond memories of arcades, an establishment that really isn’t as prevalent as it once was. Sure there are a few places that have arcade machines, like in bigger theaters and such, but it’s just not the same as it was ‘back in the day’. I would be given a few quarters each day so that after school I could stop at the local arcade and play a few games before coming home, so of course it was natural to dream of running my own arcade when I was a kid.

It looks like that time has come, even if it is virtually, as Arcade Paradise is essentially an arcade simulator where you not only run the business side, but can also play every single game in your establishment as well. Gameception! The catch? Well, you don’t actually start with an arcade per-se, but a laundromat that you eventually convert into the business you actually want. You play as Ashley, and after getting a call from your dad, you’re told that you’ll now be running the family business, a neighborhood laundromat. Exciting stuff, I know. So when she goes to start doing the laundry and cleaning up, she notices that there’s a few old dusty arcade cabinets in the storage room. So she does what any gamer of my generation would do; dust them off, plug them in and start letting customers know that there’s an arcade in the back of the laundromat.

Your father doesn’t seem keen on this idea, I mean, who’s going to place their hard earned quarters into the machines to play games when they will need them to do their laundry? Well, it’s time to prove him wrong that you can turn a profit, and maybe, convert the laundromat into an arcade fully, not just hidden in the back room. Oh, did I mention that your dad is Gerald and he’s away on a trip to the Riviera. Oh, and he’s voiced by Doug Cockle, yes, that voice actor best known as Geralt of Rivia from The Witcher. It’s a hilarious little nod that didn’t go unnoticed.

Before you’re able to begin your new arcade empire, you’ll first need to earn money for the basics. It’s a good thing you have a laundromat to start getting some cash flow, but that’s obviously not the business you want to be in for the long term. So to start earning some cash, you’ll do laundry of customers that leave their loads there. First you have to put the load into the washer, wait 3 minutes for it to finish, put it into the dryer, wait another 3 minutes, then finish sorting into a basket for pickup. If you do so quickly without much delay you’ll get a better rank and thus more money.

I’ll admit, the opening few hours are a bit dull and lackluster, as doing loads of laundry isn’t the most exciting gameplay. Sure, in between timers you can play some of the machines in the back, and are encouraged to, but I felt compelled as I needed to focus on the laundry side of the business. That was until the arcade side of the profits started to exceed the boring portion.

So what else do you do to earn cash early on other than some laundry? Well, you earn cash for taking gum that customers stick to random spots, cleaning the toilet when it becomes plugged, and taking out full bags of trash. Again, not the most exciting gameplay elements as it becomes tiresome to have to do so each day, but it’s a simple way to earn some cash early on. You’ll also eventually get daily tasks that you choose to work on that’s sent to your PDA that earn you some bonus cash if you complete them. These tasks usually have you playing a certain game for a set amount of time, clearing a set amount of gum and other tasks.

Speaking of your PDA, the epitome of 90’s digital communication, this is where you can track all of your business stats, settings for your arcade cabinets and more. Your stylish Casio watch also will beep when certain events happen, alteting you to complete laundry wash or dry cycles, toilets clogged, or games that need fixing.

So you’re becoming bored of the laundry business and want the arcade portion to take off, but not sure how exactly? Well, if customers see you playing certain games, they’ll be inclined to do so as well and its popularity will increase, thus earning you more money. Each game also has a list of challenges and goals to reach for those that want more to strive for, though completely optional. Most also have an online leaderboard which was completely unexpected and surprising, but well appreciated.

So if your arcade machines are earning money how do you get those quarters? Well, just like in real life you’ll need to empty out the hoppers, basically a basket where all the quarters stay until cleared out. With your PDA you can not only change the difficulty of each game, but the cost to play as well. Do you make a game that’s hard but cheap, expensive but easy or somewhere in between? The more customers play the games, you’ll see what earns you the most money per hour and can adjust. Of course it doesn’t cost you to play since they’re your machines thankfully.

So where do you put all these arcade machines as you save up and keep purchasing the more than 35 arcade games? Not only can you change the floor plan and layout, placing machines in specific spots, but maybe putting a game that doesn’t do well beside a game that earns the most might help it. Being set in the 90’s you’ll use your dial-up internet in the office to go onto the world wide web to purchase new arcade machines that will show up the next morning once you have enough cash to afford them.

So what happens when you bought all the machines and fill the back room? Well it’s a good thing you know someone that can get you a deal on expanding your back room. Looks like it’s time to take down that wall from the storage closet if that means room for a few more games right? That’s where the core gameplay loop comes in, buying all the available machines, then purchasing the building upgrade for more arcade room, repeat.

Of the 35 or so games you can purchase and play, while there may not be any official or licensed games we grew up with, there’s clearly inspired games from the classics that you’ll know what game it’s ‘supposed’ to be. More than just simple clones, many have their own twists and can be quite addicting to play, forgetting you’re playing a game within a game. You can expect everything from classic vector based games, air hockey, darts, all the way up to some Nintendo 64 or original Playstation era of games and genres. You might even get some emails from customers that want to challenge you to certain games’ high scores. Better yet, many of the games include multiplayer if you have someone locally that wants to play along or versus you, so a lot of effort went into making these arcade games feel like they would as if you were playing them in person.

Oddly enough, there’s two different types of currencies in Arcade Paradise. The most common is your regular dollars earned from doing laundry, chores, tasks and of course emptying the arcade hoppers, but you’ll also slowly earn British Pounds that is strictly used for passive upgrades for you, your business or new CD’s for the jukebox. Upgrades range from quicker walking, though barely a sprint, being able to see the trash and gum easier, buying a new car so you can get to work earlier and then work longer to earn more, among others.

Being an arcade business simulator, Arcade Paradise knows where its strengths are, with its own games, but aside from that there’s a lot of mundane to sift through, especially in its opening hours of simply doing laundry. I find it odd that there’s zero customer interaction, as there’s this weird pixelation that happens when you get close to people until they disappear. The visuals aren’t anything special, basically appearing like any other simulator type of game, but of course I have a soft spot for its gaming content. The soundtrack has some good tunes in the jukebox you can purchase (and earn quarters from) though I wish you could play the songs in a playlist instead of having to go back to play a song after each ends.

Being a simulator game, there is of course a grind, but it’s much more manageable when you’re spending most of your time actually playing games. With over 35 arcade games to purchase and play, you might forget that you’re playing a game within a game, but it certainly reminded me of finding a cool arcade as a kid where I would dump all my quarters after school. A ‘rags to riches’ story where you can also start raking in the money, one quarter at a time.

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

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Tribes of Midgard

Released on PC just over a year ago, Tribes of Midgard is finally opening the door to Valhalla for console players. Developed by Norsfell Games and published by Gearbox, Tribes of Midgard is not only finally coming to console, but also coincides with its latest and largest Season update yet, Inferno Saga, adding plenty of new content for even the most veteran players. I’ll admit, I’m always a little hesitant and cautious when a popular PC game comes to console later on, only because they don’t always have a great track record of being ‘console-fied’. How many times have you played a game that was first on PC but when you go to play it with a controller it simply doesn’t feel great to do so, or it’s overly complicated? Well I’m happy to announce that isn’t the case here. Not only will Xbox players finally get to jump into Tribes of Midgard with a slew of content to play with, but it feels natural with a controller in hand as well.

An interesting blend of building, combat and survival elements with a Viking inspired backdrop, Tribes of Midgard is a lot to take in initially. At first I felt quite lost, unsure what to do even after the brief Tutorial that really only shows the core basics. With three Seasons of content, there’s plenty here to uncover and figure out, but the game instead does a very hands-off approach and lets you and your friends simply figure it out. That said, I was a bit confused and discouraged in the beginning, as I wasn’t sure what I was really supposed to do, where to go, or better yet, why. That said, eventually grasping some of its concepts and mechanics, it eventually fell into place, made sense, and then I was starting to enjoy my runs.

While I don’t normally gravitate towards survival based games, being able to play alongside with up to 8 friends sure does make it more bearable and fun. You must do everything in your power to protect the sacred Seed of Yggdrasil tree, the only way you’ll prevent the end of the world from occurring. The nightly invasions of Helthings are trying to do what they can to destroy the sacred tree, as are the massive Jotnar, so you’re going to have your hands full. If that all sounds like too much and you want a much more relaxed experience, the latest Survival mode update may be up your alley instead. Here you can play at your own pace without having to worry about protecting your tree nightly from invaders. But I’m getting a little ahead of myself, so let’s start with the basics first.

There are two main modes you’ll play solo or alongside with random players or friends, Saga or Survival Mode. Regardless of the mode you play, you start with nothing but the clothes on your back, so you’ll need to scrounge around looking for sticks and rocks so you can craft some harvesting tools to harvest stones, ore and different types of trees. Gather enough materials and you’ll finally be able to craft items like weapons, armor and more. Each world is procedurally generated, so it’ll be a different experience each time you play in this roguelike adventure.

Regardless of the mode you play, you’re constantly progressing in some way with your overall Season XP, unlocking new items and bonuses as you climb the 50 ranks. The longer you survive, the more rewards you gain. Crafting is a very large component to your success but isn’t terribly convoluted and can be quick to get the hang of. Each item has certain material requirements, and if you have them on hand in in storage you’ll be able to create them without issue. Of course the best items are going to reward unique and hard to get items, so you better work on your combat items and skills to take down the harder challenges the world entices you with.

As I said above, there’s a basic tutorial but it really doesn’t do nearly enough to fully explain all of the different elements and mechanics. As someone who normally doesn’t play games like these simply because of the lack of hand holding or explanation, I felt quite lost and confused at first. The beginning portion is usually focused on gathering materials so you can craft better items, which will then push you further from your home base to find the higher tiered materials so you can continue the cycle.

The first mode to try out, and I’d consider the main or most campaign-like, is Saga Mode. This is where you’ll eventually have access to 8 different classes, each play quite differently but most are locked behind certain progression milestones that will take some time to get through. Saga has you having to defend your Seed of Yggdrasil or else Game Over. Each night you’re attacked by evil forces and becomes more challenging as time goes on, so the challenge becomes greater the longer you survive, but the rewards become greater as well as you can take on some massive and epic bosses.

Once you’ve found the basic gather basic sticks and flint, you’ll be able to craft your Lumber Axe, Pickaxe and Fishing Pole. This will allow you to start gathering from any nodes you final along your exploration on the sizable map. As you gather materials you’ll then craft a weapon such as a sword, axe, hammer or spear, along with a full set of armor. This gear will allow you to take down enemies for other resources and survive the further you go from your home base, eventually finding the next tier of materials and so on.

As soon as the sun sets though you better head back to your town, as Helthings will spawn all around, trying to destroy the Seed at Yggdrasil at its center. You start with some basic gates to keep enemies out, but after a night or two unchecked, they won’t hold back the onslaught much longer. You should be spending your days exploring, gathering and fighting so that you can come back at night to defend your village until the sun rises once again. You can even spend precious resources to build Archer Towers as well if you deem it fit to do so.

You’ll also be able to upgrade each of the vendors which is how you’ll craft the better weapons, gear and items. This takes many materials as well as Souls, essentially the game’s currency that is earned from killing enemies and collecting resources. Each tier of course takes more materials, so there’s a balance of what you want to upgrade first so you can craft the better items. Upgrading these vendors also makes them more powerful when they pitch in to help with the Helthings that makes it through the gates, so it’s worthwhile to do so even if you won’t be crafting much from them in the long run.

Given that Tribes of Midgard is now on Season 3 of its content update, that doesn’t mean the original content is gone. On the contrary, as you can choose any of the main quests, almost like chapters, so you can experience all of its content at your own pace without having to worry about rushing through before a new Season drops, which seems to be roughly every six months or so.

I’ll be honest, even though I now know what I’m supposed to be doing and the general flow to the game, I still find Saga Mode quite stressful with its ‘time limit’ of sorts, having to constantly defend your base each night. Yes the big boss fights are cool, but I find it quite challenging, especially solo. While I normally avoid survival based games, I was quite skeptical that I was going to enjoy Survival Mode here, but surprisingly I ended up enjoying it the most of the two modes. Dubbed as Survival 2.0, it’s been completely revamped and improved to coincide with the Season 3 and its console launch. This is more of a sandbox mode, allowing you to play at your own pace with any out of the pressure of Saga Mode since you don’t need to defend your village. You start out with nothing just like before aside from your ability to build your own settlement however you like, should you even choose to. Here you’ll build the crafting stations you want, where you want, and even build the walls and buildings however you choose.

Instead of having to come back nightly to defend, you no longer have that stress and can explore to seek out the massive Jotnar bosses for great rewards. You can still access the main Saga quests here so you have an overall goal, but aren’t pressured by a specific timeline. Better yet, you’re able to start an online Survival Mode and the server will stay up for anyone or your friends to join. For example, you quit playing on the fifth day but your friends continue to play on your server until day 20, when you came back it’ll be day 20 (or whenever they left it unattended). This was quite surprising, as normally for games like these to do that you need to purchase a rented server, so kudos to the devs for making this a reality. The catch is that you can only have two online matchmaking game saves at once, so you’ll need to leave one of the servers if you want to join a new one after that point. You’re constantly always working towards your overall Season XP, so you’ll get the bonuses you’ve earned to that point regardless.

Combat overall is quite basic with you having to simply press ‘X’ to swing, but depending on the weapon you might have other special attacks. Higher tiered weapons will cost more materials to craft, but will have special properties or abilities, so they’re generally worth the investment. Attacking enemies builds up a gauge which can then be used to use your special moves if you’ve filled enough of the meter. You can dodge with ‘B’, an important and necessary skill to master if you want to survive. You can craft food and potions to help replenish your items, but lose all your health and you’ll die, having to run all the way back to get your corpse.

There’s also a skill tree system called Blessings. In Saga Mode you first make the choice of the 8 different classes you want to play and you’re locked to the choices that class gives you. In Survival Mode though it’s more freeform, allowing you to choose from 90 different skills, allowing you to really make a unique class with a variety of skills you want to combine with a higher level limit of 50. With so many skills, I was trying new ones and combos each game that I started to see what works best with my playstyle, so there’s plenty to experiment with.

If you’ve previous played Tribes of Midgard on PC and are simply wondering what’s new in the Season 3: Inferno Saga content, well, there’s a laundry list of additions, fixes and changes. I’m not going to go through everything, but at a very high level you can expect a massive amount of new content, with Survival 2.0 being one of the main highlights that I just spoke about. Inferno Saga adds a new Ancient Surtr, essentially a final boss, a completely new biome (volcanos are fun but don’t run through the lava), fishing, the new spear weapon that’s simplistic to craft and much more. To explore a volcano you’re going to need a lot of protection from the heat, so do you craft fire resistant gear or opt for some specialty potions instead? I won’t spoil the boss fights, but they were quite challenging but fun to do with a group of fellow adventurers.

I quite enjoyed having the new spear weapon as my first choice since it only requires wood to craft. Because of its length you can fight from a slightly longer distance which is always great as you’re learning the combat and enemy patterns. Fishing poles are also new, a way to not only pass some time, but gather resources needed for specific crafting recipes. When you do finish a game or decide to leave a server you’ll get a new Game Over screen that gives a lot more information such as what you earned XP doing, how the team overall did and a leaderboard-like screen that shows who was best at what specifically, such as healing, crafted items, enemies slain and more.

Being able to play Survival Mode at your own pace was easily the highlight for myself, as I didn’t enjoy the constant pressure of Saga Mode. If I want to spend a few hours simply exploring and gathering resources so I can build my village up or upgrade my crafting stations, I can do so. The building mode itself is quite simple to use, choosing what item you’ve crafted you want to place on a grid scaled to 1x1x1 for ease of use, even able to change height levels if you want to create ramps or stairs. Since there’s no other villagers, all the crafting will be up to you and your friends playing alongside you. The magical Allforge can be placed anywhere and where you’ll also spend your Souls for repairs as well.

You’ve probably noticed I’ve been talking about Seasons, and with many games that use this type of progression, there’s usually some sort of store as well where you can purchase other items. It’s no different here. You’ll earn coveted Golden Horns from doing certain feats and accomplishments in-game, almost like a premium type of currency which can be used in the Shop to purchase items. Most items are basically really cool skins and aesthetic items, though there are a few of the skin packs that I really liked, but can only be bought with a Platinum currency that you have to spend real money on. Normally I don’t mind cash shops like this as it’s for aesthetic skins, but that’s when a game is free-to-play. Problem is, Tribes of Midgard isn’t free, so you’ll be paying more on top of the game’s price if you want the coolest looking gear.

As for Tribes of Midgard’s visuals, they use a cel-shaded aesthetic that somehow works decently with the Viking backdrop. Each biome varies from one another and their environments look distinct. The map itself is quite large, so there’s plenty to explore and find along the way. The highlight is easily the massive Jotnar bosses that really make the world appear to have some scale to their might. As for the audio, there’s not much to mention or that stands out. The background audio serves its purpose of breaking the silence, and enemies will make sounds, but there’s not much else of note.

Tribes of Midgard did a great job of transitioning to console, feeling natural on a controller without feeling overwhelming like many PC to console ports. There’s a mountain of content to get through for the most dedicated but you’ll have to get over the learning curve hurdle before it all makes sense. While playable solo, I highly recommend finding some friends to play alongside with, as I wasn’t enjoying myself playing alone, but with some friends it made a world of difference.

**Tribes of Midgard was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Way of the Hunter

Even though I grew up in a time before the internet and spent much of my childhood outdoors, I wouldn’t consider myself much of an outdoorsman by any means. Being Canadian, I’ve also only shot a gun once in my life, so I’m by no means a master hunter, hell, I’ve never even seen a moose in real life. I was quite curious about Way of the Hunter, developed by Nine Rocks Games, as I wanted to see just how authentic of an experience they could portray as my only real experience is from other similar games in the genre. Way of the Hunter aims to bring an authentic and realistic adaptation of the sport by giving you two massive areas to explore and hunt while being surrounded by a beautiful landscape and natural habitats of the wildlife. More than simply finding your target and shooting them, you’ll truly need to embody a hunter mentality, as animals can change their habits and alter their packs based on how you play.

I’ll admit, I didn’t really expect much of a narrative, because if we’re being honest, in a hunting game you come to shoot your prey without worry of much else. Surprisingly, Way of the Hunter adds not only a story, but some interesting elements that revolve around more than simply shooting specific targets. There’s a narrative here that revolves around a family hunting business and the relationships between its members. You play as River, a man who has come to his grandfather’s Bear Den Ranch to take over things while he’s away. Located within Idaho in the Nez Perce Valley, River remembers coming to the Ranch in his younger years when his grandfather taught him not only what it means to be a hunter, but specifically an ethical hunter. The Bear Den Ranch is part of the local community and takes orders from nearby restaurants that needs specific meat, which is where you’ll come in, filling in for your grandfather’s shoes.

Things won’t be easy though, as hunting specific animals isn’t always an exact science, as there’s plenty of variables you need to factor in. On top of this, there’s rumors of people getting sick when they eat the meat from the animals in the area, so is there some sort of disease spreading around? You start out with a brief tutorial that shows you the bare basics such as exploring your ranch, how to use your weapons and gear, and finally going to the range to try out your aim. It seems that the badger population nearby has been exploding, so you’ll be tasked with taking a few out, thus begins your hunting career.

Once the tutorial and a few missions are complete, you’re free to play however you wish, either following the story missions or taking on extra objectives and working on those instead. There’s even a multiplayer mode you can play with your friends, but more on that shortly. I’ll admit, I was quite overwhelmed at first, not because of the amount of objectives I was given, but the sheer amount of freedom once you realize how large the two maps actually are. To say that the maps themselves are large is a massive understatement, and I was trying to figure out a way to convey just how large they are. To put it into perspective, the world map in Red Dead Redemption was 12 square miles and Grand Theft Auto V was 49 square miles. Each of the two maps in Way of the Hunter is 55 square miles. You read that right, both maps are larger than GTA V and when you factor in that much of the gameplay takes place on foot, you really get a sense for how vast your hunting grounds truly are.

Thankfully you also have a Jeep-like vehicle to get around the map a bit quicker, though doing so will scare all the nearby wildlife away due to its loud engine of course. And yes, you can indeed hit wildlife that crosses in front of you, but you won’t get any real money or be able to taxidermy them for obvious reasons. It’s a good thing that you also can’t really damage your vehicle either, as I hit a moose going full speed, which should have destroyed my Jeep, but was completely fine afterwards. Don’t expect to really do much off-roading though, as these have surprisingly little power, making them really only road and flat valley capable. You are able to teleport back to your main lodges and campsites, and if there’s a parking sign you can then summon your vehicle back so you don’t have to walk for miles to get it when you decide to go off-trail for a few hours.

On top of a vast nature backdrop, you have a full 24 hour day and night cycle and changing weather as well. To say that there were gorgeous nature backdrops is an understatement, and thankfully there’s a photo mode for those that want to take some inspiring snapshots. The environments and animals themselves are quite well done and it can really appear like you’re in the middle of nowhere surrounded by nature which is probably its highlight. While the nature backdrop may be the most visually impressive, the animals themselves are done just as well when it comes to how detailed and realistic they can act. There may be a limited amount of actual species to hunt, but they do have realistic behaviors that can change based on how you play. Constantly hunting near their most used watering hole? Chances are they won’t come back as often. Hunting mostly females will cause the population to drop whereas hunting the low quality males will cause possibly more high quality trophy animals to appear in the future. It’s an interesting ecosystem that I can’t personally verify, but could make for some interesting long term outcomes for those that sink many hours in.

There’s a whole trophy system in place that generates antlers based on a number of factors as well, so there’s some really interesting mechanics in place to add some variety to the animals themselves over time. The more stars the trophy animal has, the more it’ll be worth if you’re able to successfully hunt it. It won’t be easy though, as you simply can’t get close to the animals without them becoming spooked and running into the distant tree line. You’ll not only need to maneuver slowly and purposely, but watch which way the wind is blowing, as they’ll pick up on your scent if they are downwind. Even though there are moose and bears included, they too will be just as scared of you and noise, so you don’t have to worry about defending yourself or being attacked.

You have Hunter Sense, almost like a concentration mode that allow you to focus to find tracks, droppings, feeding areas, watering spots and more. You have to be standing still to utilize Hunter Sense at first but it will also allow you to get a visual of sounds in the distance and even analyze blood spatter when you do make successful shots but they run off. You can customize how many indicators you want or not depending on how hardcore you want your hunting experience to be, but even with everything completely on, it’s still quite a challenge at the best of times.

Hunting isn’t as simple as waiting around for an animal to appear as you aim your shot hoping to take it down. It actually really surprised me with how much work goes into simply even tracking down your game before you can even visually confirm where they are. No lie, I’ve spent over an hour trying to track down some specific white tailed deer, so you need to have plenty of patience if you want any success.

So you manage to follow numerous tracks, droppings and other clues and finally spot some game down a field 500 meters away. You slowly creep closer, eventually making it to about a hundred meters away before lining up your shot. You aim, hold your breath and pull the trigger. The sound of the rifle is deafening and every deer starts to sprint far away as fast as it can. You watch the one you shot but it’s still running from the adrenaline. I make a visual note of the trees I last saw it and head for that area to look for some blood to begin the final chapter of my hunt.

I find the blood spatter and begin following the direction I think it went. There’s nothing to aim you in one direction or another aside from finding the next blood splatter where it dripped and following the trail. I follow the trail and note that it shows a small amount of blood and if there are air bubbles in it, denoting if I hit the lungs or not. I follow the trail for about a half hour and eventually lose the tracks. Yes, you read that right, I was following blood spatter for half an hour and eventually gave up because of frustration. Was it my fault my shot wasn’t as good as it could have been, sure, but the patience required to track an injured animal for miles simply wasn’t fun. Sure, when I made better shots it only took a few minutes to find where they eventually collapsed, but factor in that it takes a good amount of time to even get to the point of finding the game to hunt. Hunter Sense slightly highlights what it wants you to see, and I’m not asking for a glowing flare or arrows, but it’s just as easily missable with its faint outlines.

Once you find your animal you’ll be presented a screen that shows exactly how your bullet hit them, which arteries it hit and how much it’s worth to sell if you don’t want to keep it for taxidermy to showcase in your home. You can see how much energy it was hit with, which weapon was used, the distance, its weight, age, sex and more. Seeing why it died so quickly was easy to determine, like when I shot through its heart or both lungs for example. You can sell your kills which is then used for new gear, weapons and more.

When it comes to your weapons and gear, there’s a handful of choices, but not as much as you might initially expect. You start out with Grandpa’s Old Rifle (30-30 Win) but can eventually afford new and better rifles depending on your preferences. There are some real world licensed gear from Leupold, Bushnell, Overgaard, Remington, Steyr and others, but there’s only a handful of choices. A few of the rifles you can purchase is the Remington 783, Steyr Pro Hunter II, Steyr Monobloc, Steyr SM12, Steyr Zephyr II, Steyr Carbon CL II among a couple others. As for shotguns your choices are Bonser & Klein Standard, Hol-Den the Jack 1502 and Morning silence (20 Ga). That’s basically it for weapons, so you might notice the lack of bows, crossbows and pistols which might disappoint some that wanted to hunt with those.

There are only two binoculars to choose from and a handful of different scopes; Leupold VX-Freedom 2-7x33, Leupold VX-6HD 3-18x44, Leupold VX-Freedom 1.5-4x20, Overgaard Long range 3-15X50 and the Leupold VX-3HD 4.5-14X40. There are even Red Dot or Carbine Optic options but good luck getting that close to your target. For a chance to get your prey you’re going to want to invest in the different type of callers as well; Elk, Roe, Deer grunt, Red Deer, Hog, Duck, Goose, Jackrabbit Predator and Moose. You’ll notice that there’s no ammo choices, which is a bit surprising, as each gun simply get its own ammunition to use, refillable by going to your vehicle truck or at the cabin for free.

There’s a handful of perks you can earn simply by playing as well that will improve different aspects of your character. You can improve in different categories: bolt action, lever-action, break action (shotguns), hiker, outdoorsman, explorer and strategist. Some of these simply require you to walk a certain distance, hit a number of targets with specific weapon types and other objectives. Most of these will come naturally in time, but some are absolutely unreasonable, like crawling for 7 miles while prone. When you see how slow you crawl you’ll understand why this is insane. Funny enough, I had a bug that worked out in my favor and nabbed me most of the non-shooting perks instantly. I joined an online match and it did the typical falling/floating bug which then tossed me below the world. I guess the game took this as walking and crawling distance, as it instantly unlocked all these perks that would take dozens of hours to attain, not that I was complaining, but was an early taste of the amount of issues and bugs Way of the Hunter has, which I’ll delve into shortly.

Able to play in co-op mode with a friend, I was curious how different the experience would be alongside another hunter. First you pick which of the two maps you want to hunt in, the difficulty and then begin playing together. First off, you can’t progress any of your story missions or objectives when in co-op, so don’t expect to get help from a friend to take down the two white tail deer you need for that quest, which is quite a shame. There’s no character customization at all either, so both players looks exactly the same, and while he was able to get into my vehicle and we could drive together, he wasn’t able to use my Jeep as a driver. Any progress you do make from kills, selling and map explored do carry over to your single player game, which is great, but there’s only a handful of fast travel points that are locked behind missions, so expect to be getting a lot of cardio in. It’s a shame you can’t even fast travel to your co-op friend, though I could see why the limitation. Because whoever takes the shot on an animal first, there's no real reason you want to hunt side by side unless you are able to coordinate very efficiently. I've determined that there's essentially no reason to play online with a partner unless you want some company, but even then you might as well just group up in a Party Chat and play separately while talking.

This is where the experience started to fall apart for me, as there are a laundry list of issues, bugs and other problems that can’t be ignored. For a game that heavily relies on audio as a cue to take in for hints of where game may be, I’ve lost count of how many times my audio completely dropped out, forcing me to completely quit out of the game to fix. Or I’ll be running down a small creek which has some trickling water audio, then all of a sudden the volume amps up and it sounds like I’m standing beside some white rapids at a river, then it goes completely silent. There’s no consistency.

During my first mission to cull the badger population behind my Ranch I shot my target then noticed that one of the others was running away, but up in the air, eventually stopping as if it was flying. Of course I took the shoot and got a ‘free’ kill, but this wasn’t the first time. Another time I shot some ducks for a mission and as the others of the flock flew away, they reached a certain point in the air then just stopped. Their animation was still flying, but they were standing targets. Again, of course I grabbed my shotgun and took the kills, but it seriously dropped the immersion.

There are a number of graphical issues, like how my co-op partner’s hand was flipped and the wrong way when using his caller, the gun going through his head without him holding it, or the constant texture pop-in. Even on an Xbox Series X, it’s as though the game isn’t able to keep up with where you’re looking or going, made even worse when driving the Jeep. Even the dot on your scope sometimes takes a second or two to appear when aiming. Plenty of stuttering and you’ll most likely even notice the texture issues from the opening cutscene.

Way of the Hunter can be absolutely gorgeous when it wants to be, especially when you find some vistas that challenge you to not take a photo. The two maps offer so much dense nature that you’re likely to never see all of its hills, waterfalls, rivers and more. The sound of nature can be quite immersive, when it works, like hearing the mosquitos, frogs and crickets at night with some animal breaking some branches in the distance. The gunshots are loud as hell with a headset on and the echo sounds very realistic as it reverberates through the environment.

For all of the things I enjoyed about Way of the Hunter, I was constantly reminded about all of the issues and bugs along the way. There’s some great ideas here, and while it may be a bit basic with its weapon choices and handful of animals to hunt, there’s quite a feeling to be had when you finally track down your kill after spending the last hour attempting to and about to give up. With some polish and patches I could see Way of the Hunter being quite immersive and fun to play alongside friends, it’s just a shame that it’s currently held back by a plethora of issues that frustrate. I have no doubt this will improve in time, but in its current state, Way of the Hunter will absolutely reward the dedicated fans that can overlook its numerous shortcomings and have a mountain size of patience. For the rest of us, you’re going to become more than frustrated and have hours with little to no progress.

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

Overall Score: 5.5 / 10 Severed Steel

Have you ever wondered how much more of a badass John Wick would be if he was in The Matrix, but also able to use bullet time from Max Payne and FEAR while also having the parkour skills form Mirror’s Edge? Think SUPERHOT but on steroids, and that’s essentially what you have with Severed Steel. A first person single player shooter that not only has some kick ass mechanics, but with fluidity to its movement with its interesting parkour, destructible environments, plenty of slow motion bullet time and you, a one-armed badass that won’t let anything get in her way to complete her mission, even gravity.

You are Steel, a one-armed woman operative on a mission that won’t stop moving even for a moment, as every second counts and performing fancy parkour maneuvers isn’t just to look cool, it’s to keep you alive. Do you remember how cool it was to play SUPERHOT for the first time, able to move around and avoid bullets with ease? Imaging taking that to the next level, where time doesn’t stop, but you’re given much more maneuverability, even able to disarm enemies and kill them with their own weapons before they can react. Even from the opening tutorial missions, Severed Steel never lets up, constantly having you move, jump, double jump, wall run, dive and more to get to your destination, but of course there are plenty of enemies standing in your way, so you’ll have to become fluid with your movement and shooting if you want to survive, using all the tools available to you.

While there is a semblance of a narrative here, there’s just a few short silent cutscenes that play out as a storyboard across the very short campaign. Because you’ll be able to easily complete this in a single sitting, I don’t want to spoil anything of the 'story', as there’s not much to grasp onto in the first place. You’re playing this for its gameplay, so thankfully it performs that portion quite well. There is a New Game+ mode to unlock and even a FireFight Mode, so there is some decent replay value here even with the short campaign.

First and foremost, I’ll admit, I’m older now, so my twitch reflexes aren’t what they used to be, so I was curious how I would fare at a game like this where every moment and shot counts. Thankfully developers have put in a slew of accessibility options to allow even the newest players still be able to enjoy Severed Steel as intended. Not only are there multiple difficulties, but plenty of options for audio, visual and gameplay choices depending on your needs.

Playing on Easy my first time was a treat because you get unlimited slow-mo/bullet time, no need to use it sparingly. Is the movement a little too quick for you to keep up with? There’s an option to turn down the running speed. Don’t want the hassle of having to trigger the slow-mo manually? Check the option to have it automatically activate when you’re doing a stunt. You’re able to kick enemies that are close to you, so naturally there’s an option to have this done automatically as well if you want. You can even choose to automatically stop at ledges if your reaction time is lagging. With a bunch of other accessibility options, there’s no reason basically everyone couldn’t enjoy Severed Steel regardless of any handicaps or disabilities.

Generally each level is only a few minutes long if you’re quick enough, most having you get from point A to point B, but some levels will require you to destroy certain objects or trigger pressure pads before you can proceed to the next. The levels that require you to kill everyone is always fun, especially since you have like a radar type of vision where you can see enemies through walls, knowing if you should jump or slide when coming through a door. around a corner or through a wall.

Not only do you get some cool movements to be completely fluid, the environment is also fully destructible as well. Don’t want to waste time running up the stairs to get to the object you need to destroy? Blast a hole in the floor underneath and shoot from below for a quicker finish to the level, though little pistol bullets won’t do much, so you’ll need some bigger firepower to utilize this strategy. Early on you get an arm-cannon, akin to Mega Man or Samus from Metroid Prime, and this is how you cans cause the most environmental destruction.

Just as fluid as the parkour movement is, combat is just as stylish, as you’re combining headshots with your jumps, wall runs, slides, dives and even throwing weapons. When not playing on Easy, kills will refill your bullet time meter and health, so you want to find that balance of constant pressure and accuracy. Better yet, when you’re doing these stunts you’re invincible, so it pays off to constantly be moving and being as flashy as possible or than for looks.

Rather than having enemies in set spots simply waiting for you to take them out, there’s a dynamic AI in place that has them constantly searching and chasing you at your last known location. This keeps things interesting each playthrough, as it won’t always be the same each time because it’s based on your actions as well. Have a long hallway with a handful of enemies at the end you can’t reach? Start stunting all the way to them and you’ll arrive unharmed so you can start taking them out. The ‘forced’ aggression takes some getting used to, as I’m so accustomed to always hiding around corners or walls, but this is how the game rewards your constant pressure. Essentially you’re in God Mode if you’re stunting, but you need to get the kills to get that missing health and bullet time back.

Interestingly, there’s also no reloading the guns you find from enemies either. Remember, you only have one arm, so it would be quite difficult to reload while also performing all these acrobatic moves that would put a veteran circus performer to shame. So what do you do when you’re out of ammunition? It’s obvious isn’t it? Throw that weapon at an enemy to stagger them as you close the gap. Sure you’ll find cool guns that you wish you could use for longer, but you’re almost constantly swapping to new weapons as you pick them up and you’re so focused on your movement and shots.

Got no weapon and there’s an enemy ahead? No problem, run right into them with a slide, grab their weapon, kick them away and blast them with a headshot in bullet time. It’s an awesome feeling to grab a weapon from an enemy and then killing them with it a second later while diving backwards or up and over them. Seriously, the movement and shooting mechanics never become dull and you constantly feel like a pure badass, even for having one arm.

Do you miss the classic Firefight Mode from Halo Reach where you had to take on waves of enemies? Fear not, as Severed Steel has that here as well with plenty of stages, a leveling system, weapon unlocks, a bunch of modifiers and even an online Leaderboard. I initially didn’t expect I’d play this mode often, but it’s oddly addicting due to all the weapon choices and modifiers you can choose. With a bunch of optional challenges per level as well, there’s plenty of reason to come back to Firefight Mode after you complete the brief Campaign.

While basic for its aesthetics, I’m fond of its visuals that have plenty of neon and brightness, even if it’s the same enemies repeatedly until the end. A handful of levels had some minor hitching at the start of certain sections, even on an Xbox Series X, but nothing aside from these off few moments. The audio on the other hands is on point. Weapons sound 'meaty' and impactful, but the real star is the electronic soundtrack that plays in the background, blending amazingly with the fast paced shooting and yet even somehow works when you’re in slow motion bullet time. Just like how DOOM and DOOM Eternal’s badass soundtracks elevated its gameplay, the same is here in Severed Steel.

Sure some may scoff at the just under $30 CAD price point for such a short campaign, but this is why there’s a saying of "quality over quantity", and Firefight Mode helps with this near endless replay value. It’s been a long time since I’ve had this much fun in a shooter while also feeling like a complete badass from start to finish. Severed Steel rewards stylish parkour that’s fun to pull off while testing your shooting accuracy in bullet time that has you feeling like John Wick was in The Matrix.

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

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Hell Pie

Do you miss the days of classic 3D platforming? Do you also have the sense of humor akin to a 12 year old? If you answered yes to both of these questions, you might want to check out Hell Pie, an obscene 3D platformer that heavily relies on its humor and crudeness to make you laugh. Developed by Sluggerfly, Hell Pie may looks cute from its initial screenshots, but rest assured, this is an M-rated game for very good reason. Clearly having some inspiration from Conker’s Bad Fur Day when it comes to its humor, Hell Pie takes it up a notch even further, being borderline gross and obscene, and I couldn’t stop laughing or smirking throughout. I normally keep my reviews PG, but given the content, I feel that would be a disservice to Hell Pie’s essence, so there may be some colorful language below.

Humor can only carry a game so far though, so if the gameplay and mechanics don’t hold up on its own, then it’ll simply be forgotten. Thankfully that isn’t the case here, as you have a quite decent 3D platformer, creative levels, and movement feels like it flows smoothly once you get the hang of using your chained angel, Nugget, to air jump, swing and get around the vast levels. Yes, you read that right, your angel that’s chained to you. I told you this was going to be out there.

You know how there’s seven deadly sins right? Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy and Pride? Well, turns out that there’s actually an eighth, Bad Taste, represented by the small statured demon, Nate, whom you’ll be playing through this obscene adventure. Nate is clearly not taken very seriously in Hell, stuck to a desk job. Sitting in his office the phone rings one day.

Turns out it was none other than Satan himself, instructing his chef to make him a special pie for his birthday. Looks like Satan got the wrong number though and called you by mistake, so it’s obviously your job to make this happen for Satan, or else. You aren’t a cook though, so you head to meet the actual chef, informing him of your task. He’ll bake the pie for you but he doesn’t have the grotesque ingredients, so this task falls on Nate to travel to the overworld to get them in time for Satan’s party.

While quite a tall order for such a short demon, thankfully you aren’t alone, as you’ll have Nugget alongside you, an angel that’s chained to one of your horns so he can’t get away, essentially being your grappling hook and weapon as you swing him around at enemies. Nate and Nugget will explore a handful of disgusting worlds, battle even grosser enemies and swing and jump to their destinations by any means possible while meeting a unique cast of characters along the way.

Again, Hell Pie is deceptively cute looking from the outside, but once you start seeing its content and violence, it’s quite obscene. The core gameplay comes from the 3D platforming as you explore each of the overworlds as you look for those coveted ingredients for Satan. The earlier levels are quite basic and simple in layout, eventually becoming more involved and spread out, requiring more finesse when it comes to your actual platforming skills.

This is where Nugget comes into play, your partner that you keep chained to you at all times, used as your air anchor, grapple hook and weapon. I know, it’s absurd to use a fat little angel with wings as a weapon and hostage, but I told you Hell Pie was M-rated. Nate can jump, double jump and dash, but that will only get him so far when you need to traverse vertically or across huge chasms of death. Nugget is how you can anchor yourself midair to swing and reach greater heights; he is an angel with wings after all. While the movement may not be as smooth as say Spider-Man, once you get a feel for Hell Pie’s physics and limitations, it feels great being able to reach areas via a shortcut because you know just how to swing to make those gaps.

While you’ll be able to use Nugget as an air anchor once in the beginning, search around the levels for some Candymeat and you can upgrade and improve Nuggets skillsets, allowing for even more options when it comes to traversal. While levels will be designed in a way that you’re generally meant to go in a linear and intended path, the freeform 3D platforming and your skills with Nugget can allow you to basically cross levels in almost any way you wish. With some upgrades, Nugget can then be used for more air anchors, other attack moves or even health upgrades. By the final world you should be able to easily traverse Nate around with ease to get anywhere you can see.

As you explore the levels you’ll constantly come across these little purple blobs, as this is the currency you collect throughout. Nate can use these to buy outfits for himself and Nugget. Do these outfits do anything to change the gameplay? Absolutely not. Did I want to collect all the money to buy them all? I sure did. There’s something hilarious dressing the duo up in suits in one level and a BDSM ‘gimp’ outfit the next. There’s a decent amount to unlock and find along the way and at one point I was even gambling my money to try and hit a jackpot to purchase more outfits. Some are quite out there and unique, always good for a laugh.

Aside from currency and cans of Candymeat to collect, you’ll also want to keep an eye out for baby unicorns and golden cats. These tiny unicorns aren’t just to add another type of collectable either, as these are what you’ll use, well... sacrifice, to gain new horns for Nate which equate to new abilities. Yes, you’ll be sacrificing baby unicorns to further improve Nate’s own abilities. While simply sacrificing would be bad enough, Hell Pie has you spamming a button to literally rip the horns out of their heads, thus killing them, to sacrifice to gain these new powers. I told you this game was over the top.

These new horns will allow Nate to run quicker by boosting, maybe charging up for a powerful dash that allows him to break through barred up cages or boxes, and more. I thought that collecting all of these would have been necessary to progress through most of the game, but they don’t seem to be unless you want to collect everything Hell Pie has to offer.

While there were some minor bugs here and there, as well as some annoying camera issues getting stuck or showing an awkward angle, nothing was a deal-breaker overall. The most annoying bug I had was having to use a valve that was invisible on the ground and then wouldn’t be placed where I had to bring it, but simply restarting at my last checkpoint fixed this.

Filled with tons of crude humor, pop culture references and a ton of grossness, there’s nothing quite like taking on some German turds only to collect the used tampon ingredient needed for Satan's pie. Yes, you read that right, I told you Hell Pie was obscene and edgy. Even though your playthrough will take roughly 8-10 hours or so, more if you want to collect everything, I really don’t want to spoil much of the worlds, enemies, situations and jokes, as that’s what kept me hooked wanting to play, more so than the actual gameplay itself.

There’s a surprising amount of bright colors and palettes being used and the art direction is fantastic. Sure some will question the content, like having naked overweight slobs in a feces filled sewer, but each level is quite distinct in its design. Animations, especially for the platforming, is smooth, and together with the great level design makes for a satisfying experience. Audio, while decent, isn’t at the same level, mostly due to the lack of any voice acting. Sure there’s some speech bubbles and the overall sounds are adequate, but no voiced dialogue brought down the experience just a little for myself.

Hell Pie is absolutely over the top with attempting to be purposely obscene and gross, and it succeeds at doing so. While its core gameplay as a 3D platformer is worth the play alone, your enjoyment will lie in how adolescent your sense of humor is. I’m a twelve year old at heart, so of course I laugh at farts, fighting Nazi turds and other taboo topics. While the shock value wears off in the later half, thankfully Hell Pie can fall back on its solid platforming gameplay, simply being a fun game at its core. If you need a cheap laugh and want to just have some fun, Hell Pie is the disgusting and obscene game you might have been looking for.

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

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Train Valley: Console Edition

I remember growing up I had two train sets, some old one that was passed down from my grandparents and the one that many young children had, the wooden one with the tracks that would easily snap into one another for whatever track setting you wanted. There’s some sort of unique simplicity playing with trains as a kid, being able to place the tracks all around your room however your imagination could come up with.

Originally released back in 2018 for PC, Train Valley is now making its way to console for a new audience to discover and enjoy their love of trains, aptly titled Train Valley: Console Edition. The premise is not much different than playing with model trains as a kid, connecting and laying down tracks for your trains to reach their destinations without causing any crashes or delivering to the wrong station. While much more of a puzzle game as opposed to a sim-like, I struggled for the first few maps until I got the hang of its controls and mechanics, then it was hard to put down after that point.

So what’s new with Train Valley: Console Edition other than finally releasing on home consoles? Well, there’s obviously controller support and the optional Germany DLC that was released for PC is also included here as well, bumping the original four Seasons of campaign up to five. You need to play the Seasons in order with Germany containing plenty of challenge, drastically more difficult than the rest of the game.

In these levels you’ll start in the World War I era, the fall of the iconic Berlin Wall and to today’s modern Frankfurt Airport as backdrops. I’ll admit, these levels were the most frustrating due to conditions out of your control. In the rest of the Train Valley: Console Edition you simply have to deal with connecting trains properly via tracks to reach their destination, but in the Germany DLC you’re going to have to deal with planes randomly bombing your tracks and having to avoid a massive super train that races across the map at different intervals.

Campaign Mode consists of you playing through the five different Seasons that each consist of 5 regular levels then one randomized longer one. You’ll travel across the globe for each Season, experiencing different eras of trains and scenery: Europe (1830–1980), America (1840–1960), USSR (1880–1980), Japan (1900–2020) and Germany (1830-2020).

As you play through the different locations and eras you’ll also notice different events as you progress through the years. Keen eyes might notice World War references, Cold War, Berlin Wall, the Gold Rush and more. With over thirty different types of trains you’ll have to factor in track length and locomotive speeds to avoid any unnecessary crashes as trains from the mid 1800’s travel nowhere near as fast as modern high-speed ones. While there is a Sandbox mode where you can play without time or money limits, the bulk of your play will surely take place in the different campaign stages as they vary and all have their own layouts and challenges.

I didn’t really know what to expect from Train Valley: Console Edition when I first started due to not doing any research beforehand. I figured the cute little trains would make for a relaxing time placing down some tracks as I got one train from station to the next. I didn’t realize that my first hour or so would be deceptively challenging and frustrating. Sure the first few levels start out easy enough, but then the difficulty curve kicks in and you’re having to manage a half dozen trains all at once without having them crash or going bankrupt which forces a level restart.

While there is a brief tutorial, it didn’t do a great job at explaining every mechanic unless I missed something. I kept having my trains collide and couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong until I realized I was able to have trains stop on the tracks while they wait for others to pass, or have them completely reverse the other way if needed. Once I figured this out, I actually started having a lot more fun even though the control scheme on a controller doesn’t feel quite natural as it could be.

Each level begins with at least two stations and it’s up to you to design how you want to lay the track down to connect them. Each placement on the grid costs money and you do have a budget, so you need to be efficient. Simply click on the end you want to extend track from then guide with the Stick and it’ll place the track once you confirm, allowing you to go in straight lines or curves and intersections. This is easy at first, but there’s also obstacles on the map that can technically be destroyed to place down track, but this costs a lot more money, so needs to be avoided early on until you have a bigger profits to draw from.

Stations are color coded and when a train is ready to depart from them randomly, they’re color coded to the station they’re meant to reach, so it becomes a challenge to have tracks leading to one another with a bunch of switches to allow for different turns and bends depending on the departing and destination stations. You want to set your trains out as quickly as possible as each pays a specific sum of money, but that diminishes over time the longer you wait. Earn more money, place more tracks, depart more trains and repeat.

Your track layout is generally pretty restricted in the sense that you can only place on flat ground, there’s no bridges or tunnels, so certain areas of the environment you have to simply avoid and make pathways around it unless specific levels place these bridges and tunnels for you. These becomes more of a challenge when you have a huge lake in the middle of the map and are forced to create a track around its perimeter instead of being able to go straight across.

Where tracks intersect will place switches that determine which way a train will go when it crosses over. This is easy to manage when you only have to deal with a train or two, but soon as you get three or more it becomes much more challenging having to keep track of all of the trains and which will arrive to certain intersections first. Don’t keep an eye on this properly and you’re sure to have many train crashes and probably go bankrupt when having to rebuild your tracks.

You’re able to set how fast you want the overall speed to go, which has some benefits and challenges. The faster times goes the less waiting you have to do for trains to reach their destination, but you’re also going to have to be much quicker with watching all your trains and switches. Also, there’s a yearly taxes to pay, so you better be earning money at a good rate to keep up.

The only way you’ll be able to manage is the critical use of the time pause, not only to keep track of everything going on screen at once in the later stages, but to actually figure out where your cursor is when using the controller. You can build track and change switches while the speed is set to paused, but you’ll need to un-pause to have trains travel and waiting for track building to be completed. Even with using the pause liberally you’ll also have to make sure you know when to stop a specific train or have it go in reverse to allow for a passing train or to switch tracks.

Given that this is specifically the Console Edition, I was hoping that the controls would be on point and simple to use. You use the Bumpers to switch between placing track, destroying objects, sending off trains, switching track directions, and interacting with trains to stop or reverse them, but it never feels great. Even after hours of playing and across all the Seasons, I still had to check the top left of the screen to see what mode I was currently in.

I can’t tell you how many times I accidentally sent a train out for departure when I meant to do something else instead. Part of the problem is that your cursor is so absolutely tiny that it’s hard to tell where you’re currently highlighting. Even on a 65” TV I had to squint to look where my cursor was and had to constantly use the Pause to simply reorient myself as to what I was doing. How’d you’d play this without the time pause I have no idea, as it would take sometimes ten seconds for me to find where my cursor was only to realize I wasn’t even set to the right mode.

Train Valley: Console Edition was oddly addictive once I learned all of its intricacies and mechanics that wasn’t taught well from the beginning. Sure there’s not much substance under the surface other than delivering color coded trains to their respective stations, and the first hour or so will be frustrating, but it eventually clicks and become quite entertaining to make intricate track layouts and having trains narrowly miss one another as they pass by one another. Choo choo choose Train Valley: Console Edition if you want an addictive locomotive puzzler, albeit with some initial awkward controls.

**Train Valley: Console Edition was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Mothmen 1966

Mothmen 1966 is quite a unique experience. Developed by a small indie duo, many games bring some nostalgia to my early gaming days growing up, but this might be going almost as far back as I can remember, having a very mid to late 80’s aesthetic that I remember playing when I was quite young. Before I begin with this review as normal though, I have to be honest, I had to do some research into some of the terms and lore that heavily influences this whole experience.

While most people will think of the iconic Tarantino movie when they hear Pulp Fiction, it was actually originally a term for stories that were published in magazines from around 1900 to the 1950’s, actually getting their name from the cheap pulp paper they were printed on, sometimes referred to as "Pulps". If you need an example of how important these were for storytelling later in the future, Conan the Barbarian actually originated in Pulp magazines, which obviously later was adapted to newer media.

Have you ever heard of the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, Ogopogo, a Yeti or a Chupacabra? These are called cryptids, creatures that have many stories about sightings but with no scientific proof, aren’t generally accepted as being real. Given the game’s title, it’s obvious that Mothman is the cryptid inspiration for its story. I wasn’t aware, but Mothman is rooted deep in West Virginia folklore from 1966 from people that reported seeing a "large flying man with ten-foot wings" with eyes that glow red.

One of the most miraculous meteor shower displays that ever occurred over North America happened during the Leonid meteor shower of 1966. While this meteor shower happens annually, the one that occurred in 1966 was apparently quite a sight to behold, as these rare special showers only happen every 33 years or so if we’re lucky. Combining this rare occurrence with the Mothman legacy is where this story takes place.

Mothmen 1966 is what’s called a Pixel Pulp, possibly a new genre and style that the indie developers have seemed to nail exactly as intended. I’ll be upfront though, this wasn’t at all what I was expecting, as it’s essentially a very short visual novel that utilizes old 80’s visual aesthetics when gaming was done on bulky VGA monitors with limited color palettes.

Given that Mothmen 1966 is easily completable in a single sitting, lasting maybe an hour or two tops, I’m not going to delve too far into its narrative, as that’s its whole experience. Taking the original West Virginia lore but adding its own twists, feeling much like an episode of X-Files or The Twilight Zone, novelist Nico Saraintaris and artist Fernando Martinez Ruppel seem to work well together, as the writing is done quite well and the retro computer graphics complement the story even more.

Mothmen 1966 starts with Holt working at his gas station late one night. Kids come by and are being pesky brats, but he goes back to playing a unique variation of solitaire with his grandmother, Elsie. At this moment three men dressed in complete black enter the gas station and from this point on, things start to get...weird. You’ll then meet the main couple, Lee and Victoria, driving somewhere unknown which is where you see something above the tree line with some bright red eyes.

Each character in the beginning seemed quite one dimensional, but as you play through each chapter you’ll play from a different perspective and character, eventually unearthing their secrets and motivations for what they are doing and why. Holt seems to be building some sort of mysterious project behind the gas station, Lee seems like he’s got some anger issues, Victoria has a secret she needs to tell Lee but can’t seem to get the courage, and Lou is tagging along who seems to know way too much about history and folklore.

Given that Mothmen 1966 is a visual novel at its core without too much interaction, the only real settings you’ll be able to adjust is the message speed and how much of a delay between completed scenes and dialogue if you choose to have it automatically scroll instead of having to press ‘A’ every paragraph to further the narrative. The story as a whole is interesting enough that I wanted to see it to completion, even before realizing it was quite short, though the last section seemed a little rushed.

Much like those old-school ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ types of books, Mothmen 1966 gives the same kind of vibes where you’ll be given some different dialogue options as you progress through the story, though this seems like a smokescreen given that there’s basically a linear path of progression for the most part, especially when it comes to the few puzzle sections. Choose ‘wrong’ and you’ll die, being sent back to the choices again, sometimes having to brute force the ‘correct’ path of multiple choices.

There’s a couple sections where you’ll need to choose how to proceed or survive. The first is when you’re surrounded by a pack of coyotes and you need to choose which ones in order to shout at to keep them away until you can get back into your car. Another situation is when you’re surrounded by Mothmen sitting on top of a few streetlights, but if you don’t choose the exact correct order to smash out the lights you’ll die and have to restart these sections over again. There’s not many of these puzzle-like sections, but they were undoubtedly the weakest portions of the whole experience, simply using trial and error to figure out the correct option path.

Funny enough, the highlight for me aside from its retro graphical style was the inclusion of a replayable “Impossible Solitaire” minigame that you’re taught at the beginning of the adventure. Once unlocked you can replay this from the main menu at any time and is oddly addictive. What makes this variation of Solitaire so different and “Impossible” you ask? You play the game with the same core rules of regular Solitaire, but when you’re out of possible moves you have to grab a card from the discard pile. The trick here is that you have to guess if it’s going to be a Black or Red card. Guess wrong and it’s Game Over and you start all over again. After about a hundred tries I’ve come close but still not completed Impossible Solitaire, though you’re not required to do so to continue on in your adventure.

This is where Mothmen 1966 shows some of its weaknesses and annoyances, as you have to choose from a menu if you want to move your cursor Left or Right, then another menu option to choose your selection, same when you guess Red or Black cards from the discard pile. Sure you get used to it and I get that it’s replicating classic gaming from when this is how games were controlled, but it’s quite tedious and annoying to control instead of giving you the option to move a cursor with the Left Stick.

With a visual novel that only lasts about an hour or so it might be hard to justify a purchase, but there’s a handful of achievements to hunt for to add a bit more replayability, like seeing every death scene. There is a brief demo/side story from the main menu as well, but won’t add much more playtime to the overall package.

As odd as it is to say, the retro pixel based artwork may not impress many, but growing up during the era of gaming where this was how some of the better games looked, it certainly brought back some nostalgia where I would have to play games from old 5.25-inch Floppy Disks. Colors are heavily saturated and the palette only consist of a few colors at most. Utilizing a mostly blue and green tones, the red eyes from the Mothmen drastically stand out, adding emphasis on the storytelling. For how retro the pixel graphics are, there’s a surprising amount of detail in many of the scenes which is quite impressive given the era its trying to replicate. Character profile pictures appear in the top corners when there's dialogue to indicate who is speaking and when with their facials changing depending on the scene. It’s an odd blend of simplistic pixel art without much detail, yet has enough detail so that you can determine shadows and density. It’s wonderfully done and shows a lot of hard work went into its tone and style, a very distinct bravura you don’t see any more.

The audio is also trying to replicate early to mid-80’s computer gaming with very basic ‘beeps’ and ‘boops’. As text is appearing on screen it has a distinct typewriter-like sound, and while there’s not much of a traditional soundtrack there is instead distinct sound effects that was quite grating at times. The screech of Mothmen or other sounds seems to happen often enough to be annoying and more than once my wife asked me to turn it down from the annoying audio. Yes it’s most likely trying to be a jarring experience, but the audio transitions didn’t sound very smooth at times or had basically no audio at all.

Mothmen 1966 is a very brief visual novel with an interesting story, akin to a short story or something I swear I saw on an episode of X-Files once. While the price may be a little steep given the hour or two long adventure, at least you have an interesting take on Solitaire you can challenge yourself with, as long as you can handle the annoying menu base controls.

**Mothmen 1966 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 True Fear: Forsaken Souls Part 2

Hidden object games (HOG’s) used to be immensely popular way back in the mid 90’s to 2000’s sometime. The last few years, Artifex Mundi used to be really the only developer bringing these type of games to console where you were given a scene and had to find hidden objects in a usually static image that made it quite difficult, much like a Where’s Waldo. It’s a new day and developer Goblinz has decided to make quite an entrance with their latest title, True Fear: Forsaken Souls Part 2. When Myst released near the mid 90’s and its sequel Riven a few years later, it not only took the puzzle adventure genre by storm, but incorporated some HOG elements where you needed to move from scene to scene to find key items you needed to solve puzzles with point and click, incorporating both genre types.

I never played the original True Fear: Forsaken Souls, so I went into its sequel, True Fear: Forsaken Souls Part 2, completely blind. Doing some research, it turns out the original was actually reviewed and ranked quite highly for a HOG. In generally, most HOG’s are set in some sort of fantasy backdrop, but not here, instead putting you in the middle of a mystery with plenty of horror elements as you try to escape.

It’s been quite a wait for this sequel, as the original released back in 2015, and after seeing the credits roll I really hope it’s a much shorter wait for the concluding chapter that is designed to be a trilogy. If you played the original, you’ll be happy to know that the long wait has resulted in a much longer game and experience overall with twice the amount of puzzles, better graphics and continuing the story exactly where the original left off. Better yet, there’s a demo to try if you want to see if its gameplay is something that might interest you or not.

Having not played the precursor, I was wondering if there was going to be some sort of recap to fill new players like myself in to the events that have happened to this point. While you’ll obviously get more out of the sequel having played the first, there is a brief opening cutscene that explains the events that took place beforehand, so you won’t come into Part 2 completely lost.

Taking place literally moments after the original’s ending, you again play as Holly, searching for her sister within the Dark Falls Asylum. While the narrative isn’t always front and center, the core experience comes from its gameplay and puzzle solving with some story bits thrown in here and there just enough to keep you intrigued, slowly peeling away layers of an intricate story. The story elements are a slow drip, enough to keep a mystery about it all but always just enough to keep you interested to see its conclusion.

By solving puzzles, finding clues and making your way through the Asylum, you’ll not only uncover some answers you’re looking for, but probably have more questions as revelations come to light. What happened to her sister? What about her Mother? There’s no way anyone could have survive that tragic fire, right? Holly might start to see things, or are they really there? With much of the story being told in journal findings, cassette tapes, letters and a handful of cutscenes, keep in mind that True Fear: Forsaken is designed to be a trilogy, so you might not get all of the answers you seek by the end if you manage to solve its more challenging puzzles.

Before you begin Holly’s adventure though you need to decide the difficulty you want to play on. There are three different difficulty settings that offer varying levels of help and hints, as well as a separate setting for specifically the puzzles as well. Even on both sliders set to the easier settings, some puzzles can be a bit obtuse, but with an integrated hint system and even able to bypass puzzles completely if you become stumped, there’s plenty of options regardless of your skill level.

If you’ve ever played Myst, Riven, The 7th Guest or any other similar games in the genre, you’ll have an idea what to expect. Part action puzzle game, part HOG, you’ll traverse the asylum scene by scene, looking for objects that will eventually all play a part of numerous puzzles later down the road. If you’ve played a HOG before, you’ll know that your cursor needs to hover over the item that you want to click, though this is sometimes easier said than done given how large the aiming reticule is. On easier difficulties the objects in a scene will also have a sparkle to them, telling you exactly where to click if you simply want to experience the game without much of the hassle.

Given its horror backdrop, there are a few creepy moments but you don’t have to worry about many jump scares or worrying about being chased or timed in any of the puzzles. You’re simply searching each scene for objects that can be put in your inventory and figuring out where and when to use them appropriately to continue on your adventure. Obvious items like keys will unlock certain doors or other things, but you might need to use a dagger to pry open something, cut some cloth or hammer some frozen ice to find out what that shiny object is underneath.

In many HOG’s there’s generally a little bit of backtracking, but usually once you’ve found all of the items in a scene you’re pretty much done there for the most part. Not in True Fear: Forsaken Souls Part 2 though. Expect to backtrack constantly, even all the way back to the opening scenes as you gather new objects in your bag that can now be used to solve a new puzzle. With roughly forty scenes or so, there’s a lot of areas you’ll explore numerous times, but it never becomes stale. Thankfully there’s also a map-like system in place that is presented in a Polaroid style layout where you can instantly fast travel from any scene to another if you don’t want to use the D-Pad to move in a direction. On the easier settings you’ll even be shown an exclamation point on the specific Polaroid scenes where there’s something you can gather or solve, always guiding you should you want the assistance. Simply stumbling between dozens of scenes would be frustrating, so I was glad to have the guide when needed to save ample time.

As for the puzzles themselves, there’s plenty of different styles, each varying in type and difficulty. Sometimes you’ll simply need to spot a specific amount of differences between two similar pictures, other times you’ll need to use numerous handles to rotate some gears or solve a pipeline puzzle. Given that the puzzles are the core gameplay element aside from the HOG portions, I don’t want to spoil any of them, but some will surely stump you and make you want to rely on the integrated hint system. I’ll admit, there were two or three near the end where I needed to utilize the auto-solve on a puzzle, as spending 15 minutes trying to brute force my way through simply didn’t work.

Kudos to you if you don’t use the hint system or go check YouTube for some sort of walkthrough, especially with how pixel specific you sometimes need to be to even find the puzzle pieces you need at times. If there was a puzzle you really enjoyed you can even replay any of them from the main menu once unlocked for more practice. While some puzzles felt a tad obtuse, at least there were no ‘red herrings’, meaning every item you pick up will be used for something else at some point in Holly’s adventure.

I wasn’t initially sure how a HOG would work with a horror backdrop, but the aesthetic was done quite well and the puzzles made completely sense given the objects found. While you won’t be scared really at any point, there is an overall creepy undertone that never goes away as you explore a seemingly abandoned Asylum. While there’s basically no dialogue outside of finding some hidden tapes and the odd cutscene, there’s classic creaks and noises that will make you think something is nearby around the corner. While not many musical tracks there is some repetition, but it never really outstayed its welcome, probably most likely due to me rather focusing on scanning each scene with my eagle eyes to look for anything that seems out of place and trying to figure out what to do with each inventory item.

For a HOG that should last 8-10 hours or so depending on your skill level and dependency on built-in hints, the $12.99 CAD price tag is by far more than a fair price. I’m definitely going to go back and play the first game as I wait for the trilogy conclusion, hopefully sooner than later. While I wasn’t a fan of the abrupt cliffhanger ending, True Fear: Forsaken Souls Part 2 certainly knows how to engross you an in interesting story, test your puzzle solving skills with a horror backdrop and is one of the better HOG’s I’ve played in recent memory.

**True Fear: Forsaken Souls Part 2 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Firegirl: Hack 'n Splash Rescue DX

Developed by Dejima Games and published by Thunderful Games, Firegirl: Hack ‘n Splash Rescue DX is finally here for console gamers to play and enjoy after a PC only release last December. With a bunch of improvements, this ‘definitive’ edition of Firegirl, denoted by the DX, is now here and feels right at home with a controller in hand.

You are Firegirl, a young woman just starting her career, following in her father’s footsteps. As a firefighter game I wasn’t really expecting much of a narrative, but there is an interesting enough story here that plays out over the few hours of gameplay as you use your firehose and axe to save survivors in burning buildings, trains and forests.

Fires are mysteriously breaking out all across the city, so the Mayor and Fire Chief are going everything they can to help get it all under control, which is where you come in. These aren’t just normal fires though, as they seem as though they are some sort of monsters that have been created or started purposely, as they all have faces and are trying to prevent you from doing your job. As if it wasn’t weird enough to have flames with faces, you’ll also be fighting against bats and birds created from fire as well as some other monstrosities along the way.

Why have fires suddenly started appearing across the city non-stop and what are these Fire Tomb books you keep coming across that the FBI seems so interested in? Looks like there’s a mystery for you to solve as well as putting out the flames. It’s a good thing Firegirl knows how to do her job well, not only utilizing the hose to put out fires but to be able to use it like a jetpack as well to traverse the fire engulfed buildings.

What I was first drawn to in Firegirl, and most likely you as well, is its unique and well done visual aesthetics. A mixture of pixel art, environments and a 2D sidescroller, it really ‘pop’s for lack of better term. Firegirl herself stands out amongst the background and foreground with her pixel design and bright colors and a lot of work was done with the fire to make it blend a cartoony style yet somewhat realistic.

Somewhat a roguelike, every level you play is procedurally generated, so each time you’re in a burning building trying to save the survivors it will be different each time. Being a 2D platformer at its core, you generally can’t see that far in front or below you, adding for some tension, never sure what’s beyond the door you’re about to break down with your axe or below you when you’re about to drop down.

Levels are quite short, starting you with three minutes on the clock as you’re tasked with finding the survivors and escaping before it’s too late. Oddly enough you aren’t forced to fight any fires if you don’t want to. You will have to if you want to get passed certain areas without getting damaged, but I found it odd that this wasn’t tracked in any way. With how the levels are randomly made, it’s not much of a hassle to get through even if you don’t get good luck with a good building layout. Sometimes you’ll find the exit quite early, so do you spend more time in the building searching for survivors for a bigger payout but risk possibly dying when you lose all your hearts, or take what you can get?

While there’s a little backtracking at times, certain doors will engulf with flames once you pass through, forcing you to move forward and finding another way around. You never know how long the other pathways will be or where the survivors are, so it’s always a gamble since there’s no map for you to reference.

The first hour or so will be exploring burning apartment buildings with many floors, sometimes even multiple buildings, but later on Firegirl will also be searching for survivors on a moving subway train, within a forest and even a high class hotel-like building. Regardless of the level type, every time you play the stage is completely randomized. The forest levels are much more vertically designed, the train stages are challenging because if you take too much time fighting fire enemies the detached parts of the train might get away too far to cross the gap. The hotel levels can be multiple floors high but have large open rooms, complete with water fountains that are used as a refill for your water meter but also as a springboard to reach heights way above. The Fire Chief will give you a hint when you’re near a survivor, but that could be in any room above or below, so it’s sometimes a bit misleading.

Each mission has a set amount of survivors you’re on the hunt for before you exit, usually two or three, though you can leave the level early once you find the exit if you want, you simply won’t get the maximum amount of cash by doing so for your expensive upgrades. There are even bonus pets you can find to add extra money and fans if you search every possible room.

Fighting fires means you need your trusty hose and backpack full of water, so you’ll need to keep an eye on your water gauge. Simply spraying non-stop will have you run out of water quite quickly, so once an enemy has been put out you'll want to conserve your water. You’ll also need to use your hose as a jetpack, akin to Super Mario Sunshine, to cross large gaps to prevent yourself from taking fall damage. Using your hose takes a little getting used to, as when you go to spray, Firegirl plants her feet and can’t move, and for some reason it also always defaults to spraying at a 45 degree angle which you adjust with the thumbstick in any direction you want, factoring in the arc of your water.

As you explore you might find broken toilets or water jugs that can refill your water gauge back to full. Not spraying for a while will also refill your tank but that takes time, something you don’t have a lot of in short two to three minute levels. Thankfully every enemy you do put out with your hose adds a second or two to your clock, so it’s a balance of exploration to find survivors within time but also taking the time to defeat fire enemies to add more time to explore.

To smash through doors and piles of collapsed wood you’ll need to use your trusty axe. This takes a moment and I was hoping there would be some other mechanic or use for it, but there’s not. Holding Right Trigger will cause Firegirl to plant her feet and start spraying her hose in the direction you aim. Using her hose as a jetpack takes some practice, but eventually you’ll be able to cross gaps without any issue, especially when going from rooftop to rooftop in certain apartment levels.

You earn cash for completing levels with the amount based on if you died or not and how many survivors saved. Find all of the survivors and you’ll earn huge bonuses, though you at least earn some cash regardless of the outcome. Once you saved them they can be hired at your fire hall, offering different bonuses and upgrades when you spend more cash. In the beginning I was only earning $2000 for finishing a level (without all survivors), and now I get well over $6000 regardless of the outcome, so it takes some time to invest in the different upgrades, but is well worth it in the long run.

The first hour will be quite tough as you get used to the controls and don’t have much of a water reservoir in your backpack or much pressure for your hose. As you buy the upgrades it will become much more manageable, making each run easier. Purchase medkits, more hearts, hose upgrades, fan bonuses and more, there’s plenty to grind as you fight your way through the story and uncover where all these fires are originating from.

Firegirl’s visual aesthetics are simple yet impressive. While I have gotten hit and died a few times simply because I couldn’t see an enemy behind something in the foreground, the layers give it a retro-modern look that I quite enjoyed. The music doesn’t vary much but it is catchy, never feeling like I needed to mute it or put my own playlist on in the background instead.

Priced at just over $20 CAD, there’s certainly some value here, and although it is fun especially once you start purchasing all of the upgrades, it does get quite repetitive, even with the procedurally generated levels. Firegirl: Hack 'n Splash Rescue DX might not set the world on fire but it is an adorable take on firefighting.

**Firegirl: Hack 'n Splash Rescue DX was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.1 / 10 House Builder

If there was ever a game where you could discern what it was about simply from its title, House Builder would be it. Describing its gameplay exactly with its title, you’ll be building houses from all different types and styles from around the world styles including real world construction methods. While I’ve never built a house or done much construction work at all, there’s something fun about being a one-man construction crew without having to worry about all the physical labor, inclement weather, horrible bosses and union dues.

While there’s no Career mode per-se, you progress from house to house after each one has been completed in linear fashion. You’re tasked with building a specific style of house based on the world region you’re in. These structures already some with a predetermined schematic, so it’s not like you’re going to actually do any designing or have any creativity, you’re simply grabbing the right tools and materials to place them in the correct spots before moving onto the next step.

This makes the gameplay quite linear and straightforward, yet this is also why I was hooked and couldn’t put it down, as there’s something relaxing about going from point A to point B with material C in hand without having to worry about messing up somehow. You won’t have to worry about contracts, timelines, space constraints or anything else, simply build the house with the materials required step by step.

We all have a different interpretation of what a house really is, though you’re probably picturing a typical box or rectangle with an A-frame roof with a yard or garage right? Well, houses were built long before what we consider modern these days, varying greatly depending on the country and year. A perfect example, the first ‘house’ you’re going to build is a quaint little igloo up in the arctic. That’s right, House Builder starts with you building a house out of ice blocks and snow. Not exactly what you thought you signed up for? Don’t worry, it’s mainly used as an introduction level to its gameplay mechanics and controls.

After about 20 minutes or so it takes to complete this igloo you’ll then move onto the next house, a mud hut in Africa. With only a handful of levels I don’t want to spoil too much given the low number of houses to build, but you can expect many different styles, not just from an igloo and mud hut, but log cabins, a Canadian house, traditional Japanese home, brick house and a completely modern building that would easily cost in the millions. The more interesting thing about each of these stages is that you’re also following the building processes and materials that would be used to construct these in real life.

You begin by choosing which stage you want to play on a world globe that can be rotated, showing you the available stages based on where they geographically located. The first few levels are free to start playing and building, but eventually you have to purchase the next, almost like buying the plot of land before you can build. Money comes in steady enough that you shouldn’t have an issue affording each level as they unlock for the most part unless you get careless ordering new materials, but more on that shortly.

As each house becomes more complex to build there’s more steps in each process, eventually taking over an hour per house to build by the last few. Cutting ice out of the frozen tundra takes a few seconds to gather blocks where you then carry them over to the igloo to begin constructing, eventually moving onto the mud hut where you’ll need to mix water and clay to make some mud tiles, cutting down trees for wood and twine. Later stages have you using modern day tools like nail guns, saws, wrenches and even a crane when you’re building pre-fab homes. Each stages becomes slightly more involved with the steps required and also becomes larger, adding a second floor, roof shingles, insulation and more. It’s actually a bit educational learning the different production methods, especially when I was working on a traditional Japanese home.

Just like in real life, you’ll start at the foundation, working your way up step by step, log by log, brick by brick. While you’re basically just running from point A to get a material to point B and place it down, there’s a certain zen or calmness to the relaxing gameplay without worrying about a timeline or other hazards. Now and then you might have to order supplies from a vendor and have it delivered instantly on a truck (that’s super amazing service) but you’re simply grabbing it from the truck and then carrying the pieces to the dedicated spot to place.

New steps are introduced slowly with a decent amount of explanation. The first hiccup was when I was building a log cabin, unsure of how long I was supposed to cut trees and then how to actually debark them. Making clay and cement was a little clumsy at first too, but once you get the hang of it of how to place items into others it becomes second nature quickly afterwards. Eventually you’ll have to level the land for its foundation, install reinforcement blocks and even place the baseline for the plumbing underground (though this was the most infuriating step in all of the house builds due to lack of proper instruction). The new levels add some curveballs to the gameplay or some new installation methods, all of which are simple to understand once you get used to the wonky controls. There’s even one stage where you want to build a new house, but the old abandoned one needs to be demolished first. It was fun to grab a sledge hammer or ride the bulldozer to tear it down.

Each house type really is built differently based on the region, era and materials. Hammering in wooden pegs for the traditional Japanese home was quite different then using my power screwdriver and nail gun to put up walls in more modern homes. You’ll even need to mix cement and pour it into the foundation or get a cement truck with a long hose to pour for your floor base.

There is a store were you can purchase any of the required materials needed, though the first handful of levels give you all the required materials needed or allows you to gather from them trees or create them by mixing other items together. Eventually though you will need to purchase new materials, so make sure you’ve been saving that money and not spending too much on the completely optional decorative items for around the home. While decorations will make the houses more desirable for when you want to sell them later, doing so means you’ll need to reply the levels again but can be used to earn more money. There’s really no real reason for money once you reach the final home though, as your bank roll will be more than large enough to purchase excess materials without having to worry.

A ton of effort has gone into the house building itself, which is of course obvious given the game title, but I was surprised with how there’s absolutely no detail given to the final steps of building a house, the paint, decorations and furnishing. Once you’ve built the house form a foundational standpoint with floors, walls, siding and a roof, you’re done and complete. No crafting a beautiful yard, choosing paint or even the house layout itself given the blueprints are automatically laid out for you.

As for the gameplay itself, it’s somewhat like Minecraft where you can hold a certain amount of items in your inventory, cycling through each type as you need to place down in the predetermined spots outlined in light blue shadows. You can also hold and carry items to move them around and place where you want, though expect some silly physics at times when items get stacked or bump into one another. There’s also plenty of tools you’ll utilize while building depending on the job site, from saws, measuring tape, chainsaw, shovels, moveable scaffolding, ladders, nail gun, wrench and more. Swapping between tools is a little clumsy at best, but you eventually get used to it, able to swap quickly when needed.

I was a little surprised that there’s no free build option, so you’re stuck with the predetermined layouts and placement of each house. Even when replaying levels it’s always the same, whereas maybe some random blueprints would have made for some replayability. There’s only so many times you can build the same house over and over before coming bored. This is where you can add those decorations I mentioned above, but there’s no real reason to other than wanting to try and decorate for your own enjoyment.

While House Builder is aiming to be more of a realistic sim-like experience, there’s also a skill tree that allows for more quality of life improvements, adding a more arcade feel. For example, when you begin you can only cut down one tree at a time, but do this enough times and you’ll get a new skill that allows you to cut down twice as many from a single tree. Keep doing so and you’ll eventually be able to get a dozen logs from a tree, carry more weight and a whole bunch of other improvements to help streamline the time requirements and tedious walking back and forth.

Gaining these new skills will allow you to create the houses much more quickly and efficiently, able to eventually place down blocks and planks multiples at a time instead of having to press the trigger for each time. Sure this might break the realistic immersion a bit if you’re looking for a core simulation style game, but carrying one plank of wood to the roof and coming back down for another repeatedly would grow tiresome quickly. Eventually you’ll be able to magically carry a pallet full of bricks and other materials without slowing down, placing them in mere seconds. This progression system made it much more bearable and I quite enjoyed being able to attach all of the insulation needed in the walls within seconds when I was on that step.

Small developers, FreeMind, have a number of sim-like games their portfolio on PC, so I’m curious if their others will eventually transition over to console as well. Not a knock on the developers, but you can tell that House Builder is made by a small team as the visuals are passable, but won’t impress by any means. There’s plenty of animations simply missing, physics are a bit wonky at times, controls aren’t optimized for a controller and there’s massive pop-in issues, even on an Xbox Series X. Audio is about the same, with basic sounds for all of the actions and tools you use with some light music in the background, but it will wear on you after a build or two. That said, it is quite satisfying to hear the ‘plunk’ sound of placing down some logs or tiles into place in quick succession.

There’s a laundry list of bugs I encountered along the way though, too many to ignore. One level had my wanting to place the foundation blocks, but somehow it poured the next step’s layer of cement, so I couldn’t see where to place them. I got stuck on corners and random objects more times than I can count, and don’t get me started on using the crane in the final stage, tossing pre-fab walls into space because they got stuck on something and launched god knows where. I found if I did certain steps too quickly it would sometimes bug out as well, like screws not lining up with the wood, or telling me I needed a certain amount of materials, so I order them exactly, yet end up needing more somehow. Lots of clipping issues and other random oddities was a constant.

Even with all the issues I had, even one forcing me to restart a build from the beginning, I still found it oddly relaxing and couldn’t put it down until I was done with my current house. Given that you’re not forced against a certain time limit or other factors, you can easily play this at your own pace and enjoy it while doing something else. Priced at just under $20 CAD, some may scoff at how ‘indie’ it may perform, but this is probably the most entertainment I’ve had building houses on my console, though I question its longevity and replayability long term.

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

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 FOBIA - St. Dinfna Hotel

Are you a fan of Resident Evil style games, specifically the latest Resident Evil 7 or Village era of the series? Are you yearning for a creepy game with plenty of puzzles and enjoy having to constantly deal with inventory management? FOBIA – St. Dinfna Hotel (FOBIA for short) is probably exactly what you’re looking for then. First person horror with dated mechanics, there’s some serious Resident Evil vibes as you explore an old and completely abandoned hotel, yet need to try and survive. Very puzzle and backtracking heavy, FOBIA certainly has its core rooted in some classic game design, but with that comes classic issues as well.

You are Roberto Lopes, a journalist that has come to the St. Dinfna Hotel after receiving a tip to investigate some mysterious disappearances and some paranormal occurrences. After getting checked in you rest for the night, awakening later you realize you’re somehow locked in your room and things seem to look drastically different. The hotel now seems to be in ruins, on fire and completely trashed. Where is everyone, what is that black hole-like thing you just saw, who was that child in a gas mask and what are those monstrous noises you hear in the hallway? You’ll need to do everything you can to survive and escape the hotel.

Early on you find an old classic camera, but of course in a game like this, this isn’t any typical camera. Looking through this lens not only shows you things you can’t see by the naked eye, but seems to show you a different timeline, looking direct into the past. You’re going to uncover an intriguing story that revolves around a cult, paranormal activities and it won’t be easy any step of the way with how many puzzles you’ll need to solve and amount of backtracking you’ll need to do.

While the overall story is quite interesting as a whole, it’s a very slow progression broken into three core chapters. You’d expect that the game would fully take place in this hotel given the title of the game, but there’s actually two other main sections which is where the experience starts to drag on and falter, taking anywhere from 6-12 hours to complete depending on your love and skill at the genre. Due to the narrative I’ll really only delve into the Hotel part of the game, leaving the rest as a surprise for you to uncover.

Because of the first person view, FOBIA can be quite creepy at times, as you’re never quite sure what’s around every corner. While there’s not very many cheap jump scares, there’s much more “what the hell was that?” moments or stuff that was creepy as opposed to outright scary. The camera mechanic is interesting, as it changes your view much like how you used to use it in Outlast as night vision, but here it can allow you to see in the past as well. You might be at a dead-end in a hallway or room, but utilize your camera and magically there’s a pathway that’s open because in the past there wasn’t a collapsed wall or fire in that spot. I thought this camera mechanic would be utilized more but there’s only a handful of times it’s actually needed, as some puzzles will require the camera use as well to solve. The camera will also uncover hidden messages only able to be seen in this view as well, so you’ll initially be switching back and forth to figure out what to do and where to go.

As I mentioned above about FOBIA being more creepy than scary, every now and then you’ll see that small girl with a gas mask walk by, unable to ever really catch up to her. Who is she? Why does your screen go completely black and dark for a moment and then it passes? These moments weren’t scary, but more annoying than anything else.

FOBIA is actually much more puzzle heavy than I initially expected. I was preparing myself to have a very combat heavy game, and while there is some combat included, exploration and puzzles definitely weigh heavier in the gameplay. Like classics in the genre, you’ll be searching for keys, keycards, tools and other objects so that you’re able to progress within the hotel. This of course means there’s a lot of backtracking, as you’ll have to go from one floor to the next, back down to a different one, take an elevator up, run back down another path and more. Making this challenging is that there’s no map at all, so I hope you have a great memory. Sure there’s some of those floor layout plans on the walls of the hotel, but remember you’ll also be trying to find hidden pathways and solve puzzles along the way as well, so expect to have a lot of wasted time simply trying to figure out how to get back to the fifth floor or where that locked door was that you now have the keycard for.

I made the mistake of taking a break for a day or so in between playing, and while your main objective is shown in text form, forget the pathways and you’re going to be struggling to remember the floor layouts. There’s also no checkpoints at all within FOBIA. Instead, you need to use particular clocks on the wall as your save points, something that wasn’t explained very well in the beginning. So when I had my first death you can imagine how upset I was when I realized I never saved for over an hour or two.

I can’t emphasize enough how puzzle and exploration heavy FOBIA really is. If you enjoy solving puzzles and have a great memory then I’m sure you’ll quite enjoy yourself, but if you struggle in this aspect, you might not nearly as much as you would expect. While the core game is quite linear, there are side areas you can explore and puzzles to solve for extra items and secrets. Problem is there’s some puzzle pieces you might not need until much later in the game, but you aren’t to know this, so you’re carrying certain objects in your very limited inventory space hoping it’s what you’ll need soon to progress so you can clear important inventory space.

Are you a fan of having to constantly manage your limited inventory like in classic Resident Evil games? If so you’re in for a treat, as you’ll have to use special chests that can be used to store items you don’t need at the moment, able to extract them from any other chest you find in the hotel. Are you like me though and absolutely hate this inventory management? Well, you’re going to struggle then, as you’re constantly going to have to figure out what you can or can’t pick up, unsure what puzzle pieces you’ll need until you finally find that red keycard door and realize you didn’t bring the key.

Along the way you’ll find backpack upgrades if you explore enough, opening drawers, closets and safes, but even then it’s hard to carry everything you want given that your core items like the Pistol, Shotgun, Flashlight, Keys and more take up an inventory spot or two each. It was a constant struggle to have to go back to the chest, dump in items I didn’t need and swap out the ones I did. Never knowing how many enemies I’d have to face, of course one of my slots was a health kit. Remember combining items to make better health kits in Resident Evil? Yup, you’ll do that here too. I always kept my Flashlight on me in case I got to a dark area, worried I’d not be able to see and then have to come back and get it again, but this wasn't very often. I get that FOBIA is recreating that classic gameplay, but it frustrated me more than anything else.

With all the paranormal activities that’s happening in the hotel you’ll of course have to deal with some enemies in combat. This is where your Pistol, Shotgun and other weapons will come handy once you find them. Even with the sensitivity cranked all the way up, you aim quite slowly, so the shooting mechanics themselves feel quite terrible and inaccurate on a controller. There are some upgrade cubes you can find along the way as you explore the hotel, able to increase certain aspects of your weapons, but even after increasing my accuracy, hitting the exposed heart from an enemy a few feet away from me was a challenge still.

The first enemy you encounter is a lurking skeleton-like creature that will only notice you once you get close, lunging at you directly if they get in range. These are creepy at first and with their exposed hearts it should only take a direct shot or two with your pistol, but because of the controller inaccuracy mentioned above, don’t be surprised if you waste a whole clip trying to put one down. You’ll then come across these little spider-like creatures that are more meant to annoy you, taking one of your health when they bite you. And by the time you see the credits rolls, those are the only enemies you’ll encounter your whole time within FOBIA aside from a handful of unique bosses and a Mr. X-like creature that only appears in specific segments of the story and areas. That’s right, two enemy types aside from bosses. Once you realize how braindead these skeletons are, you’ll probably just have then lunge to you so you can bypass and ignore them.

You have very limited bullets, and in the later section of the game you’ll have nowhere near the ammo to take on every enemy, so get used to avoiding them whenever possible. I was quite surprised that there were multiple boss fights throughout, and while none were particularly interesting or memorable, it at least changed things up from fighting the same skeleton type over and over. Enemy design is cool at first, but without any variety you’ll simply roll your eyes every time you see one.

FOBIA falters in some areas, but one of those isn’t its atmosphere. While not particularly scary, it does ooze creepiness around every corner. Areas can be quite dark. You might see things move in the distance and the St. Dinfna Hotel surely has been better days as it looks like it’s gone through something hellish. While its visuals may not impress, its atmosphere and aesthetic does a fantastic job at setting a certain mood and tone. Audio is a mixed bag. Hotel sounds always has you wonder “what the hell was that?” when you hear a monster through a doorway or some floorboards creaking, the soundtrack is subtle but sets the tone, but sadly the poor voice acting really took me out of the immersion during the phone calls and cutscenes.

It’s clear that developers Pulsatrix Studios was heavily inspired by classic Resident Evils and maybe Resident Evil 7, but it also brought over the poor gameplay portions like inventory management and backtracking. The camera mechanic had a lot of potential but generally gets forgotten in the later half. I’ve only talked about the hotel portion, but the other sections seem almost out of place, though it does make sense when you tie it into the overall narrative.

When I finished the hotel section I was ecstatic, thinking I was done, then it opened up to a completely different section. FOBIA certainly overstays its welcome though if you have a great memory or keep track of how to get back and forth from area to area without a map you might not have as much time wasted from constant backtracking as I did. Priced at just under $40 CAD, there’s certainly a decent amount of gameplay to be had, though you’ll need to be a fan of puzzles, inventory management, backtracking and fighting the same enemy repeatedly in FOBIA - St. Dinfna Hotel.

**FOBIA - St. Dinfna Hotel was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Matchpoint - Tennis Championships

It’s been quite some time since I’ve sunk a good amount of time into an addictive Tennis game, probably not since the Top Spin series and Virtua Tennis era of early 2000 to 2010’s sometime. I’ve tried a handful of Tennis game releases here and there, but none really ever felt like an Ace or has dethroned Top Spin 4 back in 2011. So I was interested to see how Matchpoint – Tennis Championships, developed by Torus Games and published by Kalypso Media, would serve up, especially since it looks as though this may be their first foray into the genre and they generally worked on kids titles.

It’s time to hit the court, lace up those shoes, grab your racket and aim to become the world’s best tennis star champion. Focusing on positioning and aiming, Matchpoint takes the generic controls we’ve become used to over the years and tweaks them for a more realistic approach to the sport. It definitely takes time to get accustomed to but ever since being able to nail those Ace serves, I’ve had a hard time putting it down, always wanting to go one more tournament and raise my world rankings.

There’s something very satisfying when it comes to nailing the shot you exactly intend to, seeing your strategy outsmart your opponent for the point and set. The majority of your time with Matchpoint will be most likely within its deep Career Mode where you’ll rise in the world rankings with each tournament placing and win.

Before you start your career though you need to create your aspiring Tennis star, male or female. While not the most robust character creator I’ve seen, it does the job well enough to get a player you’ll most likely be content with. You even choose right or left handed as well as single or doublehanded backhand. You’ll eventually unlock new gear, clothing, rackets, shoes and more as you progress from tournament to tournament and exhibitions. There’s even some officially licensed gear from YONEX, HEAD, Babolat and more for the hardcore Tennis crowd.

Career mode then plays out how you’d expect, starting out unranked, entering tournaments and events to earn points on a unique merit-based ranking system as you try to become the best in the world, also including a handful of licensed professional players. You can expect to play as Amanda Anismova, Andrey Rublev, Benoit Paire, Heather Watson, Kei Nishikori, Nick Kyrgios, Carlos Alcaraz, Casper Ruud, Victoria Azarenka, Taylor Fritz, Pablo Carreno Busta, Madison Keys, Hugo Gaston, Hubert Hurkacz, Garbine Muguruza and Daniil Medvedev. Should you opt to purchase the Legends Edition, you’ll also gain access to Tommy Haas and Tim Henman. You’ve probably already noticed the glaring omissions of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Agassi and the Williams’ for female players though.

There’s over 65 different events and tournaments to take part in, allowing you to choose what you want to do on a calendar view. While these aren’t official events, they vary in player count, rounds, locales and court settings. Certain weeks also offer the opportunity for exhibition matches or even training days if you want to work on slowly leveling up your player stats permanently. As you enter and hopefully win tournaments you accumulate points that raise your world ranking, aiming to be the best in the world against the competition.

So what makes Matchpoint stand out amongst plenty of other Tennis games? For starters, you have very smooth and realistic player animations. Regardless of how your player is positioned or want to move in a certain direction, it flows quite realistically. The ball physics also seem quite realistic and combined make for a realistic flow of a Tennis match. I quite enjoyed the controls once I figured best how to use them, but more on that shortly.

What was probably the most interesting mechanic is how there’s a strength/weakness system that you can learn about your opponents. Throughout matches you might learn that your opponent isn’t good when they are near the net, or that they become better the longer a rally continues. Maybe serving them an Ace hurts their stats, it’s a really interesting mechanic that made me alter my gameplay slightly when I unveiled their strength or weakness, forcing you to adapt.

While I could look past the disparity when it comes to women and men players, a Tennis game without Doubles seems like a glaring miss. That’s right, Matchpoint only caters to one on one matches and no inclusion of doubles in any way, even online. While I’m not sure this decision was made, here’s to hoping it’s added at some point in the future, but disappointing nonetheless.

Where Matchpoint differentiates itself the most is with its unique control scheme. I will admit, it took me a handful of matches to really get the hang of, but once I did it felt completely natural and smooth, save for a few minor issues. Each button is tied to a different shot type: Top Spin, Lob, Slice or Lob, there are also modifiers with the triggers and bumpers depending on how and where you want to drop the ball. You control your player with the Left Stick but you also aim with the same Stick. How is that possible you ask? That’s where the unique controls take some getting used to, but make sense once you don’t have to think about it.

You can freely move your player around the court and once you start to hold down one of the buttons it will start to ‘charge’ that shot in a way. This doesn’t completely stop your player dead in their tracks, but does make them not move as quickly, so you need to do this once you’re relatively near to where the ball is going to land on your side of the court or else your character won’t reach it once the button starts getting held down. Once you’re holding down your shot button your Left Stick changes from your character movement to the aiming reticule of where you want to have your shot land on your opponent’s side.

I’ll admit, this took a handful of matches to get the hang of, as moving your player to one side of the court but then instantly aiming to the other feels odd at first. I promise, it eventually starts to feel quite natural, as you can directly aim the ball anywhere you want as well as the shot type you’re pressing. Practice really does make perfect here. This setup also makes the animations smooth and realistic, as actual players need to start preparing their shot once they get in range of where the ball will land and can make for some lengthy rallies once you get skilled. The only issue I had with this mechanic is that your shots are essentially 'perfect' and will land wherever your aiming reticule is the majority of the time.

That said, there are a handful of times where it’s almost as if my player gets ‘stuck’ even though they should be in range of hitting the ball once I’m preparing my shot. This caused for a few Aces against me simply because my player didn’t want to move. I found simply having them move slightly before receiving fixed this the majority of the time though and doesn’t happen nearly as often now.

You’re able to test your skills online in Ranked or Unranked matches, though due to reviewing this before launch I was unable to find anyone to play against every time I left it searching, so unfortunately I can’t comment on how the online play and progression works. There is cross-play enabled should you want, so finding a match post launch hopefully won’t be an issue.

Great controls aside, the overall presentation of Matchpoint is pretty, well, on point. It may not be officially licensed but does come across quite professional. Replays after long rallies highlight the awesome action that took place and you can even have a quick replay whenever you like after scoring points. While a small nitpick, the ball boys and girls don’t react or move when a ball ‘hits’ them and goes right through them as if they weren’t really there. They also don’t actually move or get the balls as the camera simply resets after each scoring.

While I don’t think Matchpoint will dethrone Top Spin, it’s without a doubt the best Tennis game since with its unique control scheme that allows for some serious skill play. Smooth animations and ball physics feels great and authentic, though the lack of Doubles seems like a serious miss as does not having many of the top stars of the sport. Not quite an Ace, Matchpoint is far from giving Tennis Elbow as well and a great first showing from Torus Games.

**Matchpoint - Tennis Championships (Legends Edition) was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.7 / 10 MX vs ATV Legends

Starting out as a crossover game between two different brands back on PS2 in 2005, MX vs ATV over the years became its own brand and series as it offered a unique take on the sport(s). Over the years though the series has gone through some great highs thanks to MX vs ATV Reflex, and unfortunately, many lows. Having been a fan since its first iteration and playing almost every single one, I was quite excited to see a new MX vs ATV game releasing this year with Legends. Given that the last two games weren’t generally received very well, I had high hopes to see a massive improvement this time around, especially since we’re now in a new console generation.

As the title implies, you’re not only racing MX bikes but also four wheeled ATV’s as well. While the title doesn’t denote it, there’s also Utility Terrain Vehicles (UTV) that are now an option as well. UTV’s are generally meant for work duties, so why not slap some racing wheels, shocks and gear on them and have you barreling down the desert towards the finish line as well? With massive new environments, a robust career mode across all vehicle types and more, I had high hopes for a strong return to the series with MX vs ATV Legends. What we get though is something a little bit different.

After completing a tutorial that shows you the basics, you’re then dropped into your massive farm where you’re able to freely ride around as you please with no direction or real guidelines. Hitting the menu button is how you’ll choose Career, Online or any other options, but absolutely nothing else is shown to you, like how to upgrade your bike or more. The bulk of your time is likely going to be spent in Career mode, a much larger experience than I was expecting, which is a blessing and a curse.

You begin by racing your MX bike in an event that you’ll be lucky to finish somewhere middle of the pack, even on the easiest difficulty. I get it; you’re brand new to the game, don’t know how to control the bikes yet, haven’t learned the tracks and jumps and still figuring things out. Having you be lucky if you don’t place last though on your first race isn’t a great motivation to want to stick with it much further. You learn from this first race that the AI doesn’t play fair, nor do they care if you’re in their pathway. Not placing on the podium on the first race on the easiest difficulty? I knew something was off. We haven’t even begun to talk about the physics or jumps yet either.

I eventually progressed and unlocked ATV’s and UTV’s, so figured I’d give them a shot. Turns out that each vehicle type has its own separate career, so there’s basically 3 full career lengths here to spend time in, though if you can actually do so without become frustrated is another story. Given that controlling my MX bike was quite ‘slippery’, I figured that racing ATV’s would be better, you know, due to having twice as many wheels. Boy was I wrong.

Somehow the controls for ATV was much worse. If you don’t just tap the stick to steer you end up oversteering and basically spinning out. But doing this means actually making the turns near impossible at the same time. I did eventually get the hang of it but it never felt great, always guaranteed to mess up corners and spin out at least a few times a race.

Naturally, I had to try the UTV’s next, figuring since it’s more like a traditional vehicle it would control better. The best way I could describe how the UTV’s handle was this: Have you ever driven your car with bald tires? How about bald tires trying to take a corner on a sheet of ice? What about bald tires on ice and your steering wheel basically doesn’t work? You’re probably starting to understand what I’m getting at. I thought the MX and ATV controls were slippery, but UTV controls, even after completely upgrading them it got no better. It’s almost as though you’re constantly drifting and have to pre-steer before you actually get any traction. It’s simply 'off' and doesn’t feel good to use at all and I shouldn’t have to struggle to drive in a straight line without constantly fishtailing. I avoided using UTV’s as much as possible, that’s how infuriating it is.

I will say, once I upgraded my MX bike fully after saving up I was performing much better. Even with these upgrades the controls never really felt great, but I did manage to figure out how to deal with it slightly better. AI though is all over the place, as sometimes they are super aggressive and you’ll barely be able to even keep up with them since they don’t seem to always follow the same laws of physics or rules that you do, and other times you’ll beat them with over a minute to spare. There’s no consistency, so I’m not sure if there’s something off for the AI riders in general or that it’s tied to specific races.

I’ll give credit where it is due, and the track design overall is actually done quite well, regardless of which type of events you’re racing in, especially in the new Trails style races. Just a fancy name for Checkpoint races, Trails events were by far the highlight in a sea of frustration, even if they lasted a little longer than expected. These were huge unique maps racing from point A to B to C until you cross the finish line. These were at times much more ‘extreme’ maps, either jumping huge chasms or racing up or down a mountain, which was quite an experience in first person view. It seemed AI had a hard time keeping up on these types of races as opposed to more traditional supercross or nationals style for whatever reason though.

Here’s where things start to go downhill though. As noted above, the controls for all vehicles seem independent, but never feel great, even after fully upgrading. You’re constantly sliding, so when you do inevitably crash and bail, thankfully you can respawn instantly with a press of the button, usually. Your hub world that you have to jump back to after every few events seems like a huge waste of time. Sure, it gets upgraded as you progress through the campaign, but so what? The jumping mechanics also simply feel ‘off’, as you’re going to likely land short on the jump and bail or never be able to get back up to speed until the next set of ramps and jumps regardless how I tried to preload.

As you earn money by progressing through the career you can then spend that on new gear, colors, parts and upgrades. Focus on getting upgrades, as this is how you increase your base stats for your bike and vehicles. For each part there are three tiers of upgrades but also two different sets based on which stats you want to focus on. It seems one set is more geared towards off-road whereas the others are meant for supercross. With a few upgrades you’ll do much better with MX, but fully upgrading my ATV and UTV’s didn’t seem to make much of a difference at all.

You can purchase new parts as well, but it’s simply cosmetic, so there’s no point until you have nothing else to spend your money on. There’s no real world brands, so don’t get excited to see any of your favorite manufactures and part companies. Even changing colors on your gear costs money, every time, so you made a mistake and want to go back to the color you had previously? That’s right, you’re paying again.

The worst offender when it comes to bike upgrades though is that you’ll earn and unlock new bikes and vehicles as you progress in the game, or can purchase very expensive ones whenever you like, but there’s no reason to. Your beginning bike (there are 2 and 4 stroke bikes though) is statistically no different than the most expensive bike you can purchase. Yes, you read that right. Why spend money on a new bike, other than aesthetics, when it’s exactly the same as your previous? I don’t understand this at all, as it doesn’t even change the maximums your stats can reach with upgraded parts either.

There is multiplayer for those that want to play with siblings or friends, splitscreen (2 player only) or online (2-16 players), also able to group up as a squad. While there is online functionality, good luck finding a single person to race against. Even on launch day I wasn’t able to find anyone to race against, and since there’s no crossplay I don’t have high hopes for community longevity.

Now I normally don’t like to focus and point out so many negatives, but when I go through my notes when I’m reviewing and realize the vast majority is issues and bugs I ran into, it needs to be mentioned. There’s a laundry list, but in no particular order:

It’s as though there are animations missing. At the starting line when you and your opponents are twisting the throttle, there’s only an ‘on’ and ‘off’ position, so you get this jarring weird lack of animation at the start of every race. In quite a few races it’s as if the further away your opponents were, the less FPS they had. Kind of like how objects don’t look as good in the distance, it’s like they had to save memory or something by using less frames or animations on other racers in the distance.

Speaking of frames per second, they are simply missing in the cutscenes for new events in Career Mode. A video plays when you reach a new event or race series, but it plays at like 10 FPS and is insanely choppy like you’re watching a slideshow. There’s a massive amount of texture pop-in as well, not only in game, during loading and racing, but even in menus. Glitches happen so poorly in menus that it takes a good few seconds for vehicles and textures to load. It’s awful to the point where I thought a day one patch was missing. Oh you want to load into the menu or maybe pause your game? You better hope the game want to do the same thing. Sometimes it takes a few seconds for the pause menu to appear or be responsive. Load times for actually starting events is even worse, even when installed directly on the internal drive of a Series X.

First person view is absolutely exhilarating and quite an experience, but it’s also nauseating because of the camera shake and tilts. When racing in first person, it seems the level loads only what’s in front of you, but because of the loading issues described above, sometimes the track is literally ‘loading’ right in front of you as you race. This becomes very disorientating and gives a very odd effect. Equally as bad, the compass/minimap isn’t always fully loaded as well and updates at random times.

Crashing, hit detection and out of bounds is another constant struggle, one that isn’t anywhere near consistent as well. Hit a little cone or barrier and you might plow through it, the next time you might possibly get launched 10 feet into the air and bail. Cut a little corner and it might reset you back on the track instantly, other times you might be able to be Out of Bounds for 5 seconds or more without any repercussion. On one Trails race I somehow missed a jump but was able to continue going down a different trail to the end, skipping three of the checkpoints.

Lastly and the worst offender is the audio as a whole. It’s as though no mixing or checking was done to any part of the audio at all. There’s a soundtrack with licensed songs, but it’s not balanced or mixed properly, so one minute you think the music is gone or cut out, the next you realize your TV or headset volume is about to blow out your eardrums. Coupled with a terrible soundtrack aside from a song or two (objectively of course), there’s a wide variety of musical genres but this means you might tolerate one half and hate the other. Engine sounds even cut out after a certain RPM or speed, adding to a general inconsistency.

A lack of meaningful customization, slippery and borderline broken controls based on which vehicle you want to race, and PowerPoint slide deck animations was a constant disappointment and frustration. Yes there are three full Career Modes to sink time into and track designs were quite good with varying elevations and layouts, but the myriad of issues makes MX vs ATV Legends a low point for the series, even at its normally reasonable $40 CAD asking price. I normally wouldn’t recommend getting an older game in a series, but when MX vs ATV Reflex from 2009 is still the best in the series, that speaks volumes.

**MX vs ATV Legends was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 3.6 / 10 Redout 2

Do you miss the days of fast paced antigravity racers like F-Zero, Wipeout and Jet Moto? It seems back in the 90’s and 2000’s was when this sub-genre of racers peaked with only the odd title releasing lately that aims to put you behind the wheel (or is it cockpit?) of a vehicle that goes way faster than you’d probably be able to actually control. These racers usually also have insane tracks that could never really exist in real life due to the length, size, loops, massive jumps and more.

Self-marketed as “The fastest racing game in the universe”, it may not be too far off given the sheer speeds you can reach once you gain the skills to stop hitting and grinding against the wall at every corner, something that will take a good while to learn. Sequel to the original Redout, this sequel amps up nearly everything, from the graphics, audio, level design and of course, speed.

While most racers have a Career Mode of some sort, Redout 2 is no different, but I wasn’t prepared for just how lengthy and robust its Career Mode was. You can expect well over a hundred or two events, I actually lost track trying to count them all across 36 unique tracks, double that when you factor in that they can be played in reverse as well. More than just simple races, there’s also different types of events as well, from Boss Races, Time Attacks, Last Man Standing and more. Of course your main goal is to cross the finish line first and the fastest but doing so won’t be very easy in the beginning.

Advancing through a series of leagues, starting at ‘B’ League, ascending to ‘A’, ‘S’ and then finally the SRRL Invitational. But before you can even think about making progress in the campaign you’re going to need to go through the tutorials first. Why am I mentioning tutorials when talking about the campaign? Well, you’re most likely going to fail and have a hard time with them. Yes you read that right, the tutorials are so over tuned that you’re going to most likely struggle in the first race or two you partake in.

Tutorials are meant as a way to ease you into the gameplay, teaching you all of the mechanics and allowing you to move on once you’ve proven you’ve understood and can replicate the teachable moments. Great tutorials do this in a natural way, whereas others like in Redout 2 basically tell you how to turn left or right with the stick then completely forget to show you any of the other mechanics or set you up for success. I thought I was doing something wrong, as I was constantly crashing and couldn’t even make the par times for these opening races.

Eventually you’ll fuddle and make your way through these opening sections and then start the long hard road of the B League. You start with a default chassis yet can see the handful of others you don’t yet have access to, each of which have different starting specs, stats and appearance. Prepare to lose every race in the beginning though, as not only are the tutorials quite difficult, but it’s going to take a handful of hours before you start to get a feel for the racing and unique steering.

There are a handful of events, and while I enjoyed the standard races types the most, the Time Attack races are absolutely brutal to try and place third or higher in. These events having you racing to aim for a Gold, Silver or Bronze time, but I swear these are developer times, so good luck actually placing on the podium in the first handful. Even once I was in the A League, trying to get a Bronze placing was near impossible, so I tended to try and skip these events if I could. The Career Mode is going to take quite a while to finish and complete, so there’s plenty to enjoy if you end up figuring out Redout 2’s racing intricacies.

While there’s an Arcade Mode if you want to simply jump in and have a quick race, and a Multiplayer option to play and race alongside friends and strangers, the bulk of your playing is going to be tied into the Career Mode, not because the other modes aren’t as good, but every unlock and upgrade is tied to Career progression, which has issues of its own I’ll delve into shortly.

Like F-Zero and Wipeout before it, Redout 2 is all about its breakneck speeds while racing your antigravity vehicle across some crazy tracks. I’ll admit, I was extremely frustrated with my first two or three hours in Redout 2 due to barely winning any races and constantly grinding against the walls at almost every corner. There’s some difficulty options and settings toggles you can play with, and while I initially left the default settings on, I eventually turned it down and only then I was starting to find some mild success. Even on its easiest settings and assists on, a first place or even podium finish wasn’t always guaranteed.

There’s a super difficult learning curve when it comes to Redout 2’s controls, but once you understand it and get the hang of it, things change almost instantly. You see, instead of simply steering by moving your Left Stick to the sides for the direction you want, you’ll also need to use the Right Stick for strafing. That’s right, Redout 2 is a twin stick racer, something I can’t recall playing before. The strafing is how you’ll drift in the tight corners and you’ll need to learn to use both steering simultaneously and in harmony. The Right Stick is also what you’ll use to control your pitch when you’re in midair taking jumps and having to aim the nose of your vehicle up or down when it comes to steep inclines.

On top of having to learn how to corner and pre-steer with the Right Stick, you’re also going to have to keep an eye on your various gauges for boost and heat if you want any chance of winning races. You have your regular Boost which you can use at any time as long as you have some in the regenerating meter, but this comes with a caveat. Once you fully use your boost gauge you can continue to boost, but then it starts to deplete your vehicle health pool. That’s right, you can over-boost at the expense of using your health if you want just a bit more speed. This is a dangerous risk versus reward though, as you can deplete your whole shield bar, and if you haven’t mastered cornering yet like described above, you’re going to crash and burn. Once you’ve mastered the tricky steering after a handful of hours you can then rely on boosting an extra amount since your health also regenerates after a short while.

On top of your regular boost you can use whenever, you also need to keep an eye on your Super Boost (for lack of better term). This one is more powerful in its speed boost and lasts the full meter automatically. Slam into a wall and it will automatically shut off, eventually recharging for another use shortly afterwards. The goal is to eventually learn how to manage both Boost meters and the best time to use them to reach some breakneck speeds. The health gauge depletion mechanic is a really interesting way to reward those that have higher skill, able to play on the edge of being destroyed with a single mistimed corner when health is low. The goal is to be almost constantly boosting, something that takes some practice, skill and track memorization.

While the vehicle handling is very difficult to get the hang of, once it ‘clicks’, Redout 2 went from a frustrating last place finish in every race to an exciting and addictive antigravity racer. Combining the drifting and pre-steering with boosting at over 1000 km/h is magical when you’re actually starting to corner properly and not grind along walls every single turn. There are even boosters on the ground that give you a short speed increase when you ride over them.

Even after hours of racing though, I still struggle when taking jumps, as you need to control your pitch and rotation so you land properly. To rotate your ship you need to use the D-Pad while aiming your vehicle to hopefully the right lane with both sticks, holding the trigger for gas and probably a Bumper for boosting. Picture trying to do so at insane speeds and needing some quick thinking and dexterity in your fingers. You’re going to crash and burn plenty of times during these jump sections, as it’s not always clearly apparent where you’re supposed to land or to fix your orientation when the landing isn’t always a flat track. Thankfully there’s an option to auto rotate option for your vehicle landings, something that helped my racing immensely.

A mechanic I found out by accident because the tutorial simply forgot to teach me properly about is that there’s a rewind function like many racers have these days. Didn’t land that jump described above? Rewind time and try again. Overshot the landing spot and crashed into a wall? Try again. Simply knowing about being able to do so earlier on would have saved me a lot of frustration. Given the very high difficulty you can expect to make good use of this rewind now that you actually know about it.

As you progress through the campaign, each event will reward you with an unlock or upgrade. Unfortunately these are unlocked in a linear way, with each part, color scheme, livery and aesthetics tied to specific races. That means you’re going to need to not only play every single event in the campaign, but place well to unlock. Thankfully you only need to earn 1 star in an event to get its unlocked item, but doing so in some of the events were even getting Bronze is a struggle can be quite daunting.

Each event has a specific requirement for you to join, either unlocked via star count (meaning eventually only earning single stars won’t cut it) or your vehicle’s power level. This is raised by swapping out parts for the higher powered and tier ones you unlock from each event. I do like the unlock path for the most part, but given the lengthy Campaign, it’s going to be quite a journey to get all of the unlocks to raise your vehicle power to take on the harder races and leagues.

Redout 2 does have a Multiplayer mode but it almost feels like an afterthought. You can join some unranked races (Ranked is “Coming Soon”) but there’s absolutely no lobby system. That’s right, you’ll join a race online but put into a random lobby. Oh, you want to be competitive online? Well, you better have completed the campaign and have all of the upgrades, as you bring your Career vehicles into online. Racing your 300 power rank versus another’s 1100, you can probably guess the outcome.

Loading times are abundant and surprisingly lengthy, even on an Xbox Series X. Even when you crash and want to restart a race, you’re stuck with a loading screen. Yes, I know I’m spoiled with how quickly most games load these days, but even on the internal hard drive it was shockingly slow. When races load it takes a good few seconds for textures to pop in and load, and you can even tell some of the loading is done in the distance as you’re racing. Yes I was specifically looking for things like that during races, but I couldn’t unsee it once I noticed. The ‘flying’ sections when taking jumps just doesn’t feel great and seems unnecessarily difficult.

Speeding at over 1000 km/h feels great and frantic, especially when you start to corner properly and boost stack. The level designs themselves are impressive overall, though I definitely preferred the outside ‘sky’ races as opposed to the underground ones. The music though is fantastic, having a kick ass electronic soundtrack that keeps your head bopping with 42 original tracks and 9 licensed tracks that lasts over 3 hours. My only complaint for the audio is that you’re going to constantly be annoyed by the shield recharging and low health sound once you learn to start constantly boosting properly.

Redout 2 is absolutely fast as advertised, but it’s going to take some time and dedication to learn its unique twin stick steering and dual boosting mechanics. Even with the difficulty turned down, I can see the way over tuned challenge being a turn off for some, especially since you’re likely to fail the tutorial races. Redout 2 is not new player friendly, but put in the time and it eventually turns into an addictive antigrav racer.

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

Overall Score: 7.7 / 10 BROKEN MIND

If you’ve not played many indie games previously or know much about them, BROKEN MIND may be what you initially envision, a game with basic visuals and audio, possibly even from a single developer, just like this has. BROKEN MIND is the epitome of a true indie game, built as a passion project from a solo developer over the course of multiple years, so kudos to 2BAD Games, specifically Tony De Lucia, as while it may not be the most visually impressive or leave much of a lasting impression, you can sometimes tell that a developer puts their heart into their creation which come across in this action survival horror game.

You play agent Frank Morgan, a grizzled detective that is in a dark place after having to deal with a severe family tragedy. He’s broken to the point that he’s having nightmares and seems to be living some weird dream or illusions in his head, but when a young teenage girl gets abducted during a livestream, Frank feels compelled to do something about it, no matter the cost.

As you start your investigation, you’ll first need to find out what exactly happened by watching the recorded livestream of course. What was really interesting was that once you unlock this section, this livestream is actually a level you play through as the girl that’s kidnapped. This is where many of the gameplay elements are introduced, especially its light puzzle elements and stealth sections.

Everything seems normal until the power goes out, so as this young girl goes to investigate things of course seem weird. She hears noises and other sounds, people in her chat are asking what’s going on but to get the items you need to progress you’ll need to do a little investigating. As this scene culminates, the girl is abducted and Frank has what he needs to start searching for her. Her phone is sending a single from a forest a few miles away so Frank has to act quickly if he wants any chance at saving her.

Given the game only lasts around two to three hours I don’t want to spoil much else of the story, but it won’t unfold exactly as you might assume at first, especially when certain levels have some supernatural elements and play out in Frank’s head at times. The story is decent overall and kept me interested enough to want to find out its conclusion, and the whole inner-mind parts of Frank help keep an ominous tone, even if the gameplay is basic and rough.

BROKEN MIND has you solving puzzles in front of you, though this is quite light in nature. Essentially every puzzles boils down to needing an item, but to get that item you need a different item, and so on. Find item A to get B to get C, etc. Taking place mostly indoors, you’ll explore hallways with some minor branching, but fairly linear. If there’s a side hallway to take it usually ends up leading to one of the items you need like some bolt cutters, keys, clues or other lore items like newspapers or notes.

Being an action survivor horror game, there’s a portion of combat you’ll have to learn to handle given the very limited ammunition count for your pistol. If you run out of bullets you’ll have to fend for yourself with some melee attacks against your enemies. Music kicks in whenever there’s an enemy nearby so you’re not generally taken by surprise, though there’s only two types of enemies: people in some scary ‘fox-like’ masks or some otherworldly shadowy figures with sharp claws, so there isn’t much variety.

As for its core gameplay, you can expect a first person shooter akin to a classic DOOM, as it’s that same sort of aesthetic style with 3D environments but you and objects are 2D as you move through it. The more I think of it, BROKEN MIND’s level design is quite DOOM-like, as the items you need are essentially the different color keys cards you needed to progress in the classic. There’s even a boss fight at the end, though this felt so out of place given there was nothing else like this previously in the gameplay.

Ammo is quite scarce as you’ll only have a half dozen bullets at a time, so you need to make every shot count, so aim for the heads. You have a health and stamina meter as well. While there’s not many health kits you’ll find around, when you do, you generally will need it at some point. You can briefly run for a few moments before your stamina runs completely out, but it’s such a short distance that I’m unsure why it’s even included. This makes Frank seem like he’s completely out of shape, though he doesn’t look like it, as you’ll become winded and unable to run again after about three seconds of sprinting.

BROKEN MIND is completely handmade, down to the individual objects and characters being drawn, apparently numerous times over until De Lucia was happy with the final cel-shaded outcome. While the visuals aren’t going to impress by any means, again, you can tell that BROKEN MIND was a labor of love, so there’s a certain charm to it, even if it wouldn’t normally impress. The music is quite decent and fitting for the environment and backdrops, and while I commend the fact that every line is fully voice acted, the performances themselves are a bit left to be desired. For a small indie game from a solo developer and I can only assume a microscopic budget, it’s also hard to hold it against them. Completing BROKEN MIND’s story gives a brief but fascinating look behind the scenes from early concept to finished product.

I absolutely commend a small solo developer for actually being able to create a passion product to completion for others to enjoy, and while it may not appear visually impressive, you can feel it has some heart and passion to it despite its flaws. While there’s not really any replay value aside from trying the harder difficulties, the low price makes it more bearable of an experience.

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

Overall Score: 5.5 / 10 Pro Gymnast Simulator

Remember that weird and hilarious Flash based browser game QWOP? You know, the track and field running game where you had to move each leg and calf individually, usually having you end up flat on your back or face and the source of many early memes. Well, it seems that the next generation of ragdoll physics is here with Pro Gymnast Simulator, revolving around, well, gymnastics, instead of simply running. But to take things to a whole other level, imagine your gymnast had to compete in their sport but the sets were designed like a level from Wipeout or American Ninja Warrior.

Interestingly, Pro Gymnast Simulator was actually developed by a real life Pro Gymnast, so there’s obviously another level of thought and passion that went into this as it’s based on real life experience. While the game has “Simulator” in its title and it is advertised as having “realistic controls”, it’s going to take quite a while to get used to the awkward controls, physics and movement of your gymnast.

While there’s no ‘Career’ per-se, you take part in numerous levels in the hope of not only completing them for a medal, but to earn the extra medals based on time, score and a hidden collectable on each stage. First though you need to design your gymnast, though don’t expect more than a few basic choices. Each person in your household can design and create their own avatar if you want to keep progression separate as well.

To progress through the ‘Career’ you choose what area section you want to compete in, each with a handful of levels within. As you begin you’ll only have the first area available, with all the others opening at certain medal milestones. Levels begin easy, with the first few teaching you the core mechanics, though you can choose to play around in a test gym to hone your acrobatic skills should you wish.

Each level tasks you with getting from your starting point to the finish area, usually a landing mat or specific bar to grasp onto. The better you do the more medals you can earn. Finishing a level earns one medal, you gain others for beating the objective score by doing flips and tricks, completing the level under a specific time which is usually quite challenging, and a fourth if you can grab the secret collectable that resembles a chalk block, generally quite out of the way or in an awkward place. Earn enough of these medals and you’ll unlock new areas which have even more levels to challenge yourself with.

Before you can start to channel your inner gymnast and start to launch yourself in the air and do flips, you got to start with the basics. The early tutorials will show you the core basics, but even after a few hours of playing I still struggled at times trying to do exactly what I wanted. The tutorials explain how the Left Stick controls your shoulders and the Right your hips. Now that you know how to swing your arms and legs you need to factor in your momentum, gravity and speed. The ragdoll physics are always good for a laugh when you fall and crash each time you miss your grab or landing.

Tapping Right Bumper will have your gymnast let go of what they are holding onto, which is how you will let go of bars or ropes to launch into the air, grabbing onto anything in range provided you touch them with your hands which is going to be based on how your launch in the air was. Wish you could slow things down so you can figure out the best time and angle to let go and launch yourself? The Left Bumper will go into a slow-mo mode that when held that shows an arrow of the angle your body will travel based on speed and momentum. Now trying to press the bumpers while using the sticks in different motions on the fly can become confusing at first, and that’s not even factoring the Triggers which pulls in your arms or legs, allowing you to pull of some fast spins mid-air.

The controls are going to not make much sense in the beginning, mostly because the arms and legs move based on your body position, not your rotation in the air. This means that if you swing your legs back while hanging still, your body will slowly move that direction, but if you swing them forwards when traveling backwards you’ll simply kill all of your momentum. It’s very tricky to get the hang of, knowing when to move your legs, arms, tuck them in and letting go for launches.

Because of the ragdoll physics and the hundreds of failure you’ll have, there’s a few laughs to be had simply because of the floppy limbs and fails. This can in turn change into frustration when I’ve spent the last half hour failing the same level repeatedly. Thankfully you’re able to simply quit out of a level you can’t beat for whatever reason and move onto any other you’ve unlocked, coming back later when you have more practice and a better ‘feel’ for how to play properly. I’ve had to do this many times, especially in the last two areas where the levels seem almost impossible without a stroke of absolute luck on your side. When you do get the hang of the movement and are able to finally perform moves you actually intend, it can be fun to swing from one bar to the next, launching exactly like you meant to all along.

There’s a replay option if you want to watch your run back and see what you did well, or not, with a bunch of more camera angles, even in first person which is nauseating to watch. There’s even a level editor to create your own stages, and while it’s simple enough to figure out and use, there’s no sharing option, so unfortunately there’s no way to play anyone else’s creation. There’s actually no online component at all, not even leaderboards for stages to see how you rank, as I would have loved to see how I compared to other players or even see their ghosts.

As for its visuals, it’s not going to impress in any way, looking much like an old Flash game from years ago. Animations are stiff and awkward due to the limbs being controlled individually, but even the backdrops and everything else on screen is quite basic and bland. The audio isn’t anything to really mention either, with some slight music in the background, but that’s about it.

Rooted in reality, the gameplay blends simulation with arcade, though because of the wacky ragdoll physics and awkward controls, it takes some time to really grasp and perform the moves you want to. Think of Pro Gymnast Simulator as a simple sidescrolling platformer where you can perform gymnast moves as you launch yourself in the air from one swing and bar to the next in some crazy setups that would never happen in real life, failing hundreds of times before you finally land on the finish mat but becomes fun when you get the swing of things. 'Dumb Fun' really is the best way I can describe Pro Gymnast Simulator.

**Pro Gymnast Simulator was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 SpellForce III Reforced

RTS games generally don’t appear on console very often as they are generally difficult to convert to being the same experience with only a controller versus a mouse and keyboard. Spellforce III released back in 2017 on PC, blending an RPG and RTS experience together in an interesting way. Five years later and now Spellforce III has finally come to consoles. Blending gameplay that reminded me of a Baldur’s Gate mixed in with an RTS Experience, Spellforce III: Reforced, developed by Grimlore Games, has made the jump to console and controller, but RTS games generally are challenging to play on console due to the limited buttons. So how does Spellforce III feel on a controller you ask? Well, after a handful of hours of trial, error and frustration, eventually the awkward button combinations sink in and will become second nature.

The campaign tells the story of Tahar and a deadly plague spreading across the land simply known as ‘Bloodburn’. During the prologue you’ll meet the main cast of characters, but the stand out is Sentenza Noria who is voiced by none other than the legendary Doug Cockle (Geralt – The Witcher). Rondar Lacine, leader of The Purity of Light, blames mages for the source of all this misfortune, so it's up to you to find out what’s actually causing this deadly plague, but also how to solve it, though of course there’s more to be unearthed and revealed the deeper and closer you get to the truth.

A prequel to Spellforce: The Order of Dawn, you can expect a massive 30ish hour or so campaign, fully voiced which is impressive, there’s even a co-op campaign you can play alongside friends, though with some caveats I’ll delve into shortly. As for the story itself, I quite enjoyed it, as its writing was done quite well and the cast of main characters were distinct and memorable. The story kept me engaged and had enough twists to stay interesting along the way.

So what’s new in this Reforced edition if you’ve played the original PC version you ask? Well there’s a laundry list that you can look up, but here’s some of the main points other than the obvious now being available on console:

-Improved “Burning Blood” Campaign
-Improved RTS mechanics and reworked RTS faction (Humans, Orcs and Elves) designs, introduced in the expansions Fallen God & Soul Harvest
-Updated Skilltrees with new spell mechanics introduced in the expansions
-Improved Questflow
-Improved loot distribution for a smoother progression
-Added and improved unique artefact puzzles
-Visually and functionally enhanced user crafting
-RTS AI Balance overhaul
-Complete rework of the hub for minimizing downtimes
-Fixed all campaign and quest logic issues of the 40+ hours long campaign
-Improved Coop Mode
-Visually and functionally enhanced User Interface used in the expansions
-Full Gamepad Support for controls and UI
-New Game Modes:
-A new skirmish map “Bitter Canyon” set in a mountainous environment
-Journey Mode: An additional game mode similar to the original SpellForce’s “Free Game Mode”, providing more than 20 hours of unique content and a lot of replay value. Can be played in Coop!
-Journey Skirmish: Play PvP skirmish matches against other players with your Journey heroes
-Arena Mode: An additional endless game mode where you start with a fresh character, fight against waves of monsters, buy items and spells from merchants to compete with other players in the leaderboards including the possibility to play this mode in Coop.

You begin playing Tahar by first customizing and creating your character, choosing gender and skill trees, essentially building the exact class you want. Over the course of your journey you’ll meet a cast of characters, most written and voiced quite well where I actually started to care about them. You’ll need to manage yours and their inventories, from weapons, armor and more. This is where the RPG half of the gameplay comes in, managing inventories, skills and more, playing much like a Diablo or Baldur’s Gate while exploring the current map. Skill trees are simple, allowing you to put points into specific skills or passive bonuses, building your characters exactly how you want. Weapons and armor don’t come very quick though and the majority outside of a few special pieces or store bought are slight sidegrades instead of massive upgrades.

Where Spellforce III comes into its own, for better and worse, is when you reach certain missions where the RTS elements take over completely. Like many RTS, you’ll need to manage resources, construct buildings, make more troops, all while exploring and expanding the map while also defending your base. To even begin you’ll need to construct buildings and assign workers to find wood, stone and food. Thankfully they’ll automatically go find the nearest nodes within the area you’ve captured, slowly filling your banked resources. Of course building anything takes your precious resources, as does making new units for your army, and doing so well will require you to explore the map and capture other regions and nodes so you can expand and build even further.

As you progress in certain missions and maps you’ll find blueprints along the way, allowing you to build higher tier buildings, units and upgrades. While there have been a few RTS games that have transitioned to console decently, these sections were the most frustrating and longest time commitments. Not totally a fault of the PC to controller scheme shift, I think this is partly due to mechanics and design as well. You have the ability to select all units on screen, only choose your heroes, or even section off units into different groups as to switch between so you can divide and conquer, but this is cumbersome at best with the controller. I generally found it easiest to build my army as large as I could and simply steamroll to my objectives. Did this always work, no, but was less frustrating than trying to simultaneously give commands to different units while also having to retreat to defend my base. It felt at times as though he CPU was cheating, making units way faster than I could at an unlimited rate, making these RTS sections feel like a chore and slog to get through, killing my momentum and desire to continue at times.

Combat is simple, telling whatever units you have highlighted to go or attack somewhere with a button press. Want your units and heroes to attack a specific target though? Good luck. It’s as if they attack a general area of the unit you clicked, as I can’t tell you how many times I had my units slowly picked off one by one because they wouldn’t go and kill the rogue archer or mage firing from afar no matter how many times I clicked it. Instead they thought it was better to attack the building that was closer. Plus, trying to even try to target individual units is a pain in huge and chaotic battles, even while zoomed in.

Campaign is where you’ll most likely spend the majority of your time at first, maybe even the online co-op campaign, but there’s a handful of other modes too for those that want more. Journey Mode has you building a new character how you like, taking on numerous missions on specialty maps. This seems to add quite a bit of replayability as it’s not as linear as the campaign. Skirmish mode is what you’d expect, being able to go head to head against other players online that would be just like old classical PC gaming skirmishes. Arena mode is another inclusion where you fight against waves of monsters and buy items from merchants, essentially a bragging leaderboard.

This is where I would normally delve into how all the multiplayer and co-op works for each mode, but unfortunately at the time of this writing the online is completely broken and unusable. Servers were giving errors when you try to join someone’s game online, co-op or any mode, so unfortunately it launched in a broken state. From what I can gather though, it seems that the co-op campaign, the mode I wanted to play most with a fellow staff writer, has some caveats. For example, your campaign is a solo affair, so friends can’t simply join. You need to actually create a co-op campaign if you want to play alongside a friend, yet you can’t start this mode solo, so you can see where I wasn’t able to test this at all. From my understanding it seems as though that your friend joining is simply there to help you, not really making their own progress. That’s a tall ask for a 30+ hour campaign for someone to get nothing back other than gratitude.

Spellforce III: Reforced has some beautiful aesthetics and visuals you’d expect from a classic style RPG along the lines of Diablo and Baldur’s Gate. While the character models and up close details might not be all that impressive, zoomed out and taking in the environments and landscapes can be quite a treat. The music is fantastic on the other hand, completely fitting for the high fantasy setting, though hearing “base is under attack” a hundred times in the RTS missions can be quite an annoyance.

I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect from Spellforce III: Reforced simply due to a RPG/RTS hybrid coming to console has some serious hurdles when transitioning keyboard and mouse to a controller. Is it a perfect experience, no, it actually takes a good few hours of fighting the controls to get a natural hang of it, but it does eventually become easier to understand. Once you can get over the clumsy controller commands and figure the best way to complete the RTS sections, Spellforce III: Reforced can be a pleasant surprise that you’ll have a hard time putting down, probably even more so once the online components actually function.

**Spellforce III: Reforced was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.8 / 10 Diabolical Trilogy, The

While I don’t normally review bundles of previously released games unless there’s a substantial update or some sort of improvement, there’s always a first for everything. Truth be told, I saw the included games in The Diabolical Trilogy and remembered playing each one, so it was a great excuse to dive back in and get a refresher on some unique roguelikes from developer COWCAT.

This bundle includes Xenon Valkyrie+, Riddled Corpses EX and Demon’s Tier+, and while there’s no gameplay improvements or updates from their original launch, there’s a minor discount for purchasing The Diabolical Trilogy as opposed to each individually ($25.99 CAD for the bundle versus $32.77 buying separately). Given that we here at XboxAddict reviewed each of the three games, portions will be quoted from our original reviews, as after playing each again, I wasn’t able to discern any major changes from when I originally enjoyed them. I’ll also list what our original review scores were per game and then give a new overall for the value of The Diabolical Trilogy as a whole.

Xenon Valkyrie+

Originally a VITA game, Xenon Valkyrie+ isn’t for the faint at heart, as it’s a deeply challenging roguelite platformer, and if I’m being honest, was my least favorite of the three games by a large margin. I was curious as to how the game would translate from the small handheld screen to the large living room TV, but it appeared seamless. Your home planet is under attack from a mysterious moon, so you and your team are tasked with saving the world from imminent doom by stopping an evil witch buried deep within this moon. As you fight through randomly generated worlds each time you play, you’ll unlock new powerful weapons, meet new characters, bosses and enemies.

You begin by choosing one of three characters to play, each with their own visual style and special abilities. It’s been quite a while since I’ve played, so I was hoping there was some sort of reminder or tutorial to jump back in, but unfortunately there’s not. Reading back on my original review, I mentioned that the controls aren’t taught to you at all really, as it took me a while to figure out I even had a gun I could use for ranged attacks. Each character has a sword for up close kills, a gun, grenades and their special ability, so it’s a matter of finding the character that suits your playstyle as they have different stats like defense and vitality.

Being procedurally generated, every time you die and restart your journey you’ll notice that every level is completely randomized when you play. The goal, enemies and everything in between will change each time, so there’s plenty of replayability within. You begin at the top of the stage, aiming to reach the teleporter at the bottom of the stage somewhere. You need to kill enemies in your way, as this is how you level up, able to wall jump and back track when you reach dead ends. Bosses are challenging and huge, easily the highlight of the whole experience.

Multiple endings, hardcore permadeath, great retro pixel aesthetics and some decent chiptune music, there’s plenty to enjoy if you want a roguelite to sink your teeth into. We originally scored it 58% and I’ll still agree with that today, as I simply didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as the other two games in The Diabolical Trilogy.

Riddled Corpses EX

We go from my least favorite in the bundle to the best of the bunch with Riddled Corpses EX. A chaotic twin-stick shooter where you fight through hordes of zombies and monsters as you gather and collect gold to purchase new characters and upgrades. Travel through a handful of different stages culminating in a massive boss fight that will surely get you killed the first few attempts. Being a roguelike you’re going to die plenty of times, but you have some persistent progression that comes in the gold you keep when you die and the upgrades you purchase, so you’re constantly becoming more powerful, albeit slowly. While it turns into quite a grind to save up enough gold to make meaningful purchases, knowing that every few runs you get more powerful and make it a bit further each time becomes addictive.

You begin with a regular character with no special abilities, so you’ll need to keep playing to grind away, gather gold from defeated enemies and lasting as long as you can before you lose all your lives and have to start all over again, though you keep your earned gold to that point. Do you decide to save gold for the newer characters that have special abilities like 2X gold earned or acts like a magnet that sucks it in for you so you don’t need to risk running to pick it up? What about using all the gold you have to upgrade your weapons to be much more powerful? The longer you last and further you get, the more gold you’ll earn.

Eventually gold starts to flow more as you become better and can do levels on repeat to defeat the bosses, but some of the characters and upgrades cost 9999 gold which takes a handful of runs to save up for. You’ll become overwhelmed at times, as unlocking a new character means you’ll then need to save up and upgrade their weapons as well. See, I wasn’t kidding about the grind.

To help you from dying quickly you’ll randomly find clocks and dynamite from enemies when you defeat them, which I suggest figuring out the best time to use them. The clocks will stop time for a few moments, allowing you to shoot any enemies on screen as they and any projectiles are frozen in this short period of time. It’s a great way to ‘catch up’ when you’re becoming overwhelmed and need some breathing room. The dynamite does exactly what you’d expect, clearing the whole screen save for the larger enemies and bosses that have much more health.

For a top down retro twin-stick shooter, I quite enjoyed the visuals with each of the enemies looking distinct and no slowdown when your screen is practically overflowing with enemies. The chiptune music is equally as good, able to choose from classic MIDI style music without any processing applied, or a newer ‘smoother’ style of audio. We originally gave Riddled Corpses EX an 80% and even replying it all these years later, it holds up.

Demon's Tier+

The final game in The Diabolical Trilogy is Demon’s Tier+. While I didn’t enjoy this as much as Riddled Corpses EX, I’d choose to play this over Xenon Valkyrie+ if given the choice. Seemingly a blend of both of the games above, Demon’s Tier+ is a twin-stick dungeon crawler that has some persistent progression to always be working towards.

Set in underground dungeons, you move with the Left Stick and shoot with the Right as you fend off against skeletons, bats, wizards and more. There’s no dodge to avoid the onslaught of enemies, but you have a barrier you can sporadically use to block projectiles with the Right Bumper. You start out as a simple Knight, tossing your swords in all directions as needed, able to unlock other characters along the way that each have their own stats and abilities to suit different playstyles.

As you explore dungeons, defeat enemies, bosses and open chests, you’ll earn two types of currencies; gold and D-tokens. Gold is only used for your current playthrough in the dungeons to improve your stats. When you complete a dungeon level, before moving onto the next floor, you can spend your collected gold on upgrades to any of your stats. Do you get hit a lot? Maybe you’ll want to upgrade your health. Want to kill things quicker? Then increasing your damage may be the way to go. It’s completely up to you how you want to upgrade your character for each run.

D-tokens on the other hand are the main currency that you’ll want to be careful with. These can only be redeemed in the village and is the currency to purchase new characters, weapons (once you find their blueprints from bosses) and items like ropes, potions and keys. If you die in a dungeon you lose all your progress, gold and D-tokens. So to make use of what you’ve currently earned you need to use a rope to crawl out of the dungeon pit. These of course cost D-tokens to replenish, but as long as you escape before dying, you can spend your currency as you wish.

To pass a dungeon within its five minute timer you need to complete the objective given to you. This may be defeating all the enemies, blowing up all the explosive barrels, defeating a secret enemy, opening all the treasure chests or something else. You’re only given 5 minutes per dungeon to do so, as once the timer runs out the undefeatable Grim Reaper comes to take you away if you don’t escape in time. This makes for a frantic balance of wanting to spend as much time to kill and loot everything you see, but also being mindful of your remaining time and escaping before the Reaper comes. Just always keep in mind to use your rope to escape before dying and you’ll never have to worry about losing those hard earned D-tokens.

The pixel art is great overall, as enemies vary and are unique, my only problem is that sometimes action can become a little too frantic with so much going on at once. Also, because the dungeons are randomly generated, sometimes you’ll be surrounded right as you enter and can quickly die while you try and center yourself on your surroundings. The later dungeons, such as the lava filled ones, I found to be a little too chaotic, as it was hard to distinguish certain elements. Spike traps were notorious for me, as I died many times to do them since they are hard to see when trying to fight off a horde of enemies. The artistic style is retro pixel art, as is the quality soundtrack that consists of chiptune music. The music is decent overall, but because you’ll be in the same beginning dungeons numerous times, it can become a little tiresome over time. Our original score was 77%, and while I may have scored that slightly less today, Demon's Tier+ can be addictive once you figure out its intricacies and the best way to survive each run.

The Diabolical Trilogy packs three games that were decent when they originally released. While they all have some similarities, especially with their roguelike elements and twin-stick gameplay, each is unique enough that this bundle has just enough variety depending on what you are in the mood to play. Check out the three games included, and if two of them interest you at all, paying the extra buck or two for this trilogy collection is a no brainer.

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

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 REMOTE LIFE

Being such a big shmup fan (shoot-em-up), I always look forward to when there’s something new in the genre to play, as there doesn’t seem to be nearly as many releasing these days. REMOTE LIFE is a typical 2D side scrolling shmup but has a distinct artistic style that looks as though it came right out of some famous HR Giger artwork, best known for his ‘biomechanical’ style. This of course reminded me much of a classic R-Type game, so naturally I wanted to get into it right away.

While the gameplay and auto scrolling happens at a slow pace, you’re almost constantly moving, trying to shoot aliens and projectiles coming at every angle while navigating down narrow corridors, avoiding crashing into anything, as you’ll die instantly. With seventeen missions to play through, REMOTE LIFE has a decent length, but due to some design issues, doesn’t have all that much replayability. That said, for a complete game made by a single developer I can appreciate the countless hours that probably went into making a unique shmup like REMOTE LIFE.

Like most games in the genre, yes there’s an overarching narrative, but it’s not really the reason you’re going to purchase and play a game like this. Tell me if you’ve heard this before: There’s an alien race that has been discovered and threatening not only just our planet, but all of mankind. So of course you’ll need to pilot a space ship outfitted with an onslaught of weapons as you try and save our planet from these alien invaders. There are some more story tidbits you’ll uncover as you complete certain missions, but it’s a story that you’ll forget moments after you start playing.

With over a dozen levels, they may not take long individually, you should still be able to complete REMOTE LIFE in a single sitting or weekend without much problem. Levels vary in not only their aesthetics, but enemy types and bosses as well. The only issue I had to eye roll when it came to these story sections is that instead of being voiced by an actual person it was instead done via text-to-speech even though it’s supposed to be a human pilot speaking. It simply seemed 'off', yet was hilarious when trying to convey emotion unsuccessfully.

You begin by choosing one of multiple difficulties, from Easy all the way to Very Hard. I’m generally quite skilled at shmups, so I wanted to start out with Easy then ramp up to the higher difficulties to see the differences. While the first half of the levels posed no problems, the last handful were extremely challenging and frustrating, even on Easy, for a multitude of reasons. Start out on Easy and see how you fare in the first few levels before ramping up the challenge.

You’ll begin with only one of three ships available, with the other two unlocking at certain ranks, basically tied to mission progress. This only takes a few levels to unlock the other two and there’s apparently a speed difference in the ships, and you can also choose its color from just a few. It’s as if there was an idea for different ships to play drastically different but then never really did much with it after the fact. Most shmups generally have you piloting your ship as the screen slowly scrolls horizontally and you trying to shoot anything in your way. What makes REMOTE LIFE unique is that it also blends in twin-stick shooter elements, not something I can recall recently another shump attempting to do. This means you can maneuver your ship with the Left Stick, par the course, but you aim your blaster with the Right, able to shoot 360 degrees around you in any direction. With this mechanic you better believe enemies won’t simply be coming at you from the front, but from the rear, above, below and every other angle as well.

It takes a little getting used to, as your blaster is on the tip of your ship's nose instead of directly in the middle, so you have to be mindful as to your ship’s hitbox and where you’re shooting from, as they are different points. To make this even more challenging, a single touch of an enemy or obstacle will instantly kill you, as is normal with games in this genre. What’s challenging though is that enemies and their projectiles seem to not follow the same ruleset as you, so you’ll constantly have enemies flying through objects and shooting from afar with their bullets coming at you from every angle without anything to stop them. This of course seems quite unfair, but you’ll learn to deal with it knowing that you can’t touch anything yet enemies come straight for you through anything in their way.

Most missions are your typical 2D side scrolling shmup, but there are a few times where things change slightly to keep it interesting. The odd time you might have an escort mission, flying alongside a much larger ship trying to shoot any aliens and obstacles in its way that will deplete its shields. The longer the ship is alive the more it can help you. There’s a few portions as well where you attach your ship to this special large device, allowing you to play as a massive turret and blast anything in your way with ease for a few moments.

Then lastly were the ‘open world’ levels. There were only a couple of these different types of levels and sections, but the open world levels were the most frustrating portion of the whole experience. Still playing in 2D, the level is ‘open’ and you can fly around almost anywhere you want within its boundaries and paths. There’s a minimap in the top right with some glowing icons but you can’t really see the map properly and its pathways are not very clear with how small and jumbled up it appears. After trial and error, I figured out I needed to destroy all these energy orbs scattered throughout the level, but I was able to do it in any order I wanted. Since I can’t really use the map well, I was essentially guessing which path would take me where, causing some backtracking when I got to a dead end or further away from my objective. Once you destroy all these nodes the level completes, but the camera isn’t zoomed out very far, so it’s difficult to see what’s shooting you from off screen. These levels caused me the most deaths and simply wasn’t much fun when I had to guess what paths led to nodes and which were a waste of time.

You ship has unlimited ammo with three different weapon types you can switch between. Of course they aren’t very powerful but at least you always have a way to defend yourself from the nonstop alien invaders. There will be power-ups you find along the way which change your shots for each type of weapon with limited ammo. Pickup these power-ups and you can then choose to swap weapons depending on your current situation and enemy types coming at you. With eighteen different weapon types to find, there’s some variety you’ll pick up along the way but I tended to simply stick with my favorite default weapon and saving these better guns for when I needed them in a tight jam or bigger enemies and bosses. The ammo on these pickups get used within a few seconds, so it’s a shame you never get a more powerful upgrade that lasts permanently. There’s a bomb you get as well, though this isn’t always the screen clearing type you’re used to in the genre, as sometimes it’s a cluster bomb or a minefield that can protect you from certain directions.

Enemies come in a variety as you progress levels, and the end of each stage also has a massive boss you must face before completion. Most enemies only take a few shots to destroy, while some of the larger aliens will take a more concentrated effort. The majority of bullets they fire at you can be shot out of your way, but your aim will need to be incredibly accurate given how small your firepower is. After a handful of levels you’ll start to have more and more enemies and projectiles thrown at you, increased greatly if playing on the harder difficulties.

Where the problem comes into play and caused me countless deaths was when enemies or their shots would blend into the background given similar color schemes or how small they were. For example, there’s a few enemy bullets that are what I would guesstimate as one or two pixels wide. Trying to avoid or shoot those while watching everything else on screen is quite a challenge and simply felt unfair at times. I’ve died so many times to these one-pixel bullets and it was quite frustrating since they can come through walls and objects. The most frustrating enemy type are these spores that duplicate when shot. They cannot be destroyed, so continually fire at them and you’ll eventually become blocked by impassable spores that resemble a minefield. So not only do you want to fire at every enemy and projectile coming your way, but you need to watch for these damn spores that duplicate and can make areas impossible to pass without losing a heart.

You start out with a few hearts, so of course if you lose all these and it’s game over and you need to start the mission from the beginning again, even if you were at the boss. Hearts can be replenished if you see some to collect, but I found on the harder stages I was dying quite often quickly, so it was hard to keep up and complete some of these missions.

Off the top of my head, I couldn’t think of another shmup that doesn’t have a scoreboard or leaderboard of some sort. REMOTE LIFE chooses not to score your play. I’m guessing this is so that you can simply focus on the gameplay and what’s happening on screen, but the flip side is that there’s virtually no reason to continue playing once complete as you don’t have any score or able to compare to anyone else’s performance; an odd choice that I didn’t think would bother me, but once complete I couldn’t think of a reason to go back and play again other than testing myself on the harder difficulties, just because.

The 3D rendered graphics on a 2D playfield makes enemies and your ship ‘pop’ from the background with its smooth animations and contrast. The HR Giger inspired aesthetic is hard to not appreciate, as every background and enemy has a machine and organic blend while looking menacing. The aesthetic is quite decent but the main issue arises when enemies and projectiles blend into the background, especially when it’s chaotic on screen at times. If you’re playing on a small screen, good luck, as I barely saw many of the bullets on my 65” TV. You can choose some faux 8 and 16 bit graphic options in the menu if you want to put a more retro feel to the gameplay, though it simply appears to be a type of filter that changes contrast and color palette.

As for the soundtrack, there’s techno tracks that play in the background and fits the visual aesthetic, but is pretty forgettable overall. There doesn’t seem to be many tracks either, so you can hear similar tunes throughout but there’s also an awkward silence and gap between tracks as if it’s not totally ‘stitched’ together. Again, the ‘acting’ from the text-to-speech is awkward when it’s trying to convey emotions and surprise and simply seemed weird.

For a shump just under $19 CAD, I really found the blending of genres with a twin-stick shooter interesting, but with no real reason for replayability or even a scoreboard at all, I have to suggest waiting for a sale as you’ll complete it in a single sitting or two. I absolutely commend solo developer Mario Malagrino for creating a passion project into an actual game, and with word of a sequel in the works I hope the follow-up will address the issues I had for a more memorable and unique shmup in the future that can be scored.

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

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Dolmen

It’s no secret how popular Dark Souls has been the last few years with each new game, so much so that there’s no shortage of other games trying to replicate their success. While many try to emulate what makes Souls games so popular, very few actually pull it off or are memorable enough worth noting. There have been a few like The Surge (and its sequel), Hellpoint and Remnant: From the Ashes that take the genre and make it their own, of which I actually enjoyed Hellpoint. Developers Massive Work Studio has opted for a Dead Space meets Dark Souls kind of blend, making for a unique backdrop with some interesting design choices, but the question is the same: Will this Souls-like stand out for the right reasons, or be forgotten with the countless others in the genre? While there’s a few things I quite enjoyed from Dolmen, there was an equally amount of issues that frustrated along the way as well.

Taking place on the planet Revion Prime, you’re on a mission to find a substance called ‘Dolmen’ due to its power that it supposedly holds. This incredibly powerful material is going to be very sought after though, not just by you and your team, but alien hostiles as well. This Dolmen allows you to maneuver within different realities, so you can start to see why it is so sought after. There’s cutscenes here and there generally after the main bosses, and there’s a big bad guy, but much of the lore is told through logs and computers you find along the way, so I hope you enjoy searching and reading if you want to piece it all together.

You begin by choosing your class, each varying slightly in its stats and starting weapon, though you’re not locked to playing with that main weapon only by any means, but you’ll want to definitely play to your strengths as there’s no way to respec if you start putting points into the ‘wrong’ stats to change how you want to play later on. Aside from coloring the armor, there’s no character customization whatsoever as you begin. Granted, you don’t ever see your character out of armor, but it was a bit of a letdown to simply have a generic futuristic suit of armor, something you might see in Dead Space or Mass Effect.

As a Souls-like, Dolmen is not only is trying to be like its inspiration, it basically copies all of its mechanics almost exactly. You know when a friend in school wanted to copy your homework and you let them, but made sure they reworded it so it didn’t look like it was blatantly obvious? Think that. With a futuristic setting you can expect the same tried and true game loop that you’ve come to love from your Souls games. Explore levels, kill enemies, manage your stamina bar, earn experience points, use specific points as teleports, kill massive bosses and repeat.

Instead of bonfires you have these pods that act as your safe zones and teleport points. Using these refills all your health and energy, but also respawn every single enemy. Kill enemies for Nanites, the equivalent of Souls, your currency for leveling up a number of different stats based on how you want to spec your character. The challenge is tough, bosses on a whole other level, and you’re going to die repeatedly over and over. Dolmen does do a good job at creating an unsettling atmosphere with its opening environment that’s very organic in nature, eventually changing up some of the biomes and backdrops to more typical sci-fi scenes you’d come to expect.

While the above describes every Souls game ever, Dolmen does do a few unique things which I applaud them for, though I question some of the execution. While it has more of a horror type of setting with lots of hidden enemies and ambushes, Dolmen clearly wants you to play it as a melee type of game, hacking and slashing your way through enemies, but with a ranged weapon you can also shoot from afar as well. More than simply swapping magic using mana, Dolmen uses energy for ranged ‘ammo’, but this refills over time but is also used for a number of other things, such as healing. More on that shortly.

While you can switch between melee and ranged combat on whim (provided you have enough energy), you have your typical Light and Heavy attacks with a Block and Dodge. Block the moment you get attacked and you can parry many attacks and even ranged projectiles, provided they are not the unblockable attacks which seem to be the norm in the later stages. All of these attacks and dodges need to be managed by your green stamina bar, something you’ve become very adept at over the years in other Souls games. I did quite enjoy this dodge, as instead of a typical roll, your character also has this silhouette of themselves from their previous position. Does it add anything to the gameplay? No, but it looks cool. There’s no jumping in Dolmen, yet you’re able to do a jumping attack (running plus heavy attack), so how that makes sense I’m not sure.

Given Dolmen’s horror-like aesthetic, you can expect hidden enemies around every corner and some that even teleport into place just to scare and ambush you. You’re going to need to be aware of what could potentially be above or below you as well, especially in the opening area with plenty of bugs you’ll fight against. The biggest problem I found, even from the beginning, is that enemies are tuned a little high. Their health pool is huge, needing a good barrage of attacks to kill, and even when you start to level up and get new gear, bosses are just massive hit sponges that become a chore to fight against over and over after each death and restart. Melee weapons never feel weighty or do huge damage unless you want to use the giant two handed swords, but even then, that’s not how I wanted to play and I felt I suffered for it trying to dual wield some cool looking blades.

You have an Energy meter that can be used for a number of different things depending on what you need and your playstyle. More than simply a ‘mana’ bar, Energy is used as your ‘ammo’ for your pistols that refills over time and is also able to be used as an Energy Mode, allowing you to imbue your melee weapons with elemental properties and attacks. Lastly, Energy is also used to heal your health after getting attacked, a blend of ranged ammo and an Estus Flask.

So while you can freely simply use it for ammunition for your pistols, as soon as you use your Energy to heal you now have less to use for your shots. This unique approach has you constantly balancing what’s most important at the moment you need it. I tended to favor using my ranged weapons so I constantly relied on my Energy. As soon as I needed to heal and use my Energy, I then had much less ammo to use, forcing me to go back to melee attacks.

You can refill your energy with batteries but these are rare and you only ever get a few at a time. This is where I liked the idea, but the execution is left to be desired. So you’re full health and accidently hit the button to heal? Well, that’s clearly your fault and it uses the Energy regardless. Only missing a sliver of health and accidentally heal? You guessed it, half your Energy gone. It should scale but doesn’t, so you need to wait longer than you sometimes want to if you want to be efficient as possible as to not waste your coveted batteries. Even worse, it takes a full three seconds of standing still use use a battery, so imagine how impossible this is to do during boss fights or when being swarmed when you actually need to in the chaos.

You choose a core reactor for your suit that equates to different elements, from Fire, Ice and Poison. Using your special Energy Mode allows you to use these elements with your melee attacks, negating the stamina use, but uses the Energy instead. It’s a good way to get some extra hits in, useful for openings in boss fights, but again, you’ll drain your Energy almost instantly, so you need to know the best times to do so while you wait for it to refill slowly.

Gunplay plays a large and unique part of Dolmen’s combat. While you don’t need to rely on it heavily, and the game does want you to focus on melee the majority of the time, you can make a fully viable ranged build if you choose. While this sounded fun, as I could essentially play it like a third person shooter, this backfired when I started fighting bosses that essentially negated ranged attacks. You can lock onto enemies, though of course this gets dicey when in closed spaces and fighting multiple enemies at once.

While you’ll need to learn the best strategies for taking on every type of enemy, though there’s not too many, you can expect to be punished for the smallest mistake when you do inevitably make one. Even regular enemies can hit hard and take a ton of damage to kill, but the bosses are on a whole other level. Bosses are meant to be challenging, but when they have so much health and take well over fifteen to twenty minutes to kill, it becomes tiresome, especially attempting the same boss for well over an hour from constantly dying. Bosses start out with a decent challenge then spike in difficulty after a couple, eventually destroying the little enjoyment I was having as I slowly became more stronger and competent.

One of the other interesting things Dolmen does is how it handles crafting. Armor and weapons don’t actually drop from any enemies throughout your adventure. Instead, killing enemies will net you crafting materials and blueprints, with bosses obviously having the better and rarest materials you’ll want to seek out. This encourages farming, which is possible, but quite tedious. You see, when you defeat a boss, it’s dead for good. You can respawn them, but you need a special currency that doesn’t drop often, but this currency is also used for fighting bosses in multiplayer, something I’ll explain shortly.

You can craft melee weapons, ranged weapons and armor from helmets, arms, legs and chest, as well as shields. This is of course if you have the blueprints and enough materials to do so. The higher the tier of item you can actually add components to the item before crafting that will raise its stats in different ways depending on the catalyst you add. Using your special boss drops will greatly improve your items when crafting, but do you use them on lower gear to get a bigger boost early on, or save for later when you can add multiple components for higher tiered items? You’ll need to constantly back out and compare gear in a clumsy menu system though, so prepare to take notes before doing so.

While there is a multiplayer component to Dolmen, it’s so poorly implemented that you might as well pretend it doesn’t exist. If you’re expecting to play alongside a friend in co-op to get through the story and game as whole, you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Boss battles can be done in co-op, though to host or join a lobby you need a special currency that randomly drops from enemies. Yes, you need these fragments to play co-op every single time. Oh you’ve died? Yup, you’ve lost your Nanites and these special fragments that are on your corpse.

So while you could farm bosses for the materials, you’ll need to farm regular enemies and hope for these fragments so you can event attempt a boss with a co-op partner. Of course I tried this, hosting a lobby and had someone help me kill the first boss. We beat the boss, which I was grateful for, but then it instantly kicks out your partner and refreshes your game. I don’t know if I had a bug or not, but this co-op kill didn’t count for my story progression, so I had to do it solo afterwards for it to count anyways. You can also respawn bosses if you wish to farm, but then you’re using your shards for this instead of co-op kills. If I could have played alongside a friend for the whole game, Dolmen would have been much more bearable, but the way co-op is implemented here is mind boggling and an utter disappointment.

While I enjoyed Dolmen’s gritty aesthetic taking place on a planet that feels organic in some parts, it does look dated at best. While there’s two visual options, I chose Performance for seemingly better framerates over some slightly better reflections and lighting? The environments themselves look decent and varied when you go from area to area, but the majority of the indoor hallway sections without much to look at can become dull after a while, exasperated with the stiff animations of your character. The audio soundscape is done well in the sense that you constantly hear some creaking and monster noises through the doorways, putting you on notice, but aside from that and your attacks there’s really nothing else worth noting. There’s very little ambient sound, almost to the point of being silent, and while that may be what developers were going for to get the ‘deadness’ of the planet's mood across, having empty audio just feels off. There’s an oddly catchy little song that plays when you go back to your ship to level up and craft, but other than a song here and there with boss fights, don’t expect much else.

For being developer Massive Work Studio’s first major release, I have to appreciate what they’ve done with a small team. Trying to be a Souls game can be very difficult, as you’re going to always be compared to the best of the best in the genre, and about half way through and a handful of bosses in, I simply wanted it to be over. I never really felt more powerful by a large margin when I upgraded my gear and even standard enemies have way too much health. Bosses infuriated instead of making me feel dominant when I was finally able to defeat them, knowing that I’d be slogging through just to reach the next boss gate and preparing myself to die a dozen times.

For those that truly enjoy Souls games, even budget titles, Dolmen should give you a good twenty or so hours of content to get through, but at its current high price I can only suggest waiting for a massive sale for the rest of everyone else curious. While I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as say Hellpoint, I have to commend their bravery releasing this so shortly after Elden Ring. There’s some good ideas here, and with some more polish and refining I probably would have enjoyed my time with Dolmen much more than I did, but as it stands now I simply wanted it to end.

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

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 Loot River

If there’s two genres I’d never think I’d see combined into one, it probably would have been Tetris and a Souls-like. That’s right, somehow developers has managed to meld the challenging gameplay of a Souls-like with the piece moving that many of us grew up with playing Tetris. I know, it’s hard to imagine how they blend together, but it’s quite clever and actually works quite well once you get accustomed to the controls.

To make the game have much more replayabilty, it’s all procedurally generated, so no two runs will ever be the same. Also being a roguelike means you’re going to die, a lot, and every death means a new run with new strategies based on how the levels are laid out in front of you. Combined with decent pixel art and addictive combat once you figure it out, Loot River surprised me with its unique ideas and gameplay.

In most dungeon crawlers you need to explore pathways and kill enemies in your way, but here in Loot River, instead of exploring an underground dungeon on foot, you’re instead tasked with moving platforms across a flooded river filled with tons of challenging enemies from a top down viewpoint. I know that this brief description so far doesn’t really explain its main features and gameplay well, but it will all make sense shortly as you move your floating platforms around the river like they are pieces in Tetris.

I don’t want to say there’s not much of a story within Loot River, but it’s certainly not the primary focus of the overall experience, that’s where the gameplay comes in. You die early on in your adventure but get revived into some sort of other worldly place. You’re tasked with adventuring forth to somehow stop this loop you’re stuck in, as you reappear back in this unfamiliar place with just a handful of characters around after you awaken from each death.

There’s a few characters you’ll meet and talk to along the way, but don’t go in expecting some interesting narrative and simply focus on the unique gameplay. One of the most interesting of these is an alchemist named Soap. You’ll need your limited potions to refill your health when you get low to avoid a death and restart, but what happens when you finally start to get some skill and can dodge and parry when needed and don’t die so often? Well, you can opt to donate some potions to Soap who will double what you gave him after a successful run. So do you risk giving up some of your precious health potions for a chance at more after a successful level?

The most interesting aspect about Loot River is undoubtedly its platform moving mechanics that resemble playing Tetris. Keep in mind that platforms float on a river, so standing on one and using the Right Stick will move that platform in whatever of the four main directions you move the stick. Sliding these platform is really interesting and also has somewhat of a puzzle component to it. These platforms can be small square shaped, long rectangles, weird “C” shapes and others, which makes moving around the confined waterways difficult, sometimes having to move to other platforms to move them out of the way of the specific platform you might need to fit adjacent walkways.

While I generally enjoyed this core part of Loot River, it was also at times the most frustrating aspect as well. Because levels are procedurally generated, it’s randomized how levels are designed, so you won’t be able to look up any help if you get stuck. Making these platform sections even more difficult at times is that there’s sometimes higher platforms that you need stairs to reach up, as some platforms will have a small staircase to reach this upper level. Moving around to a platform you think you need only to realize you’re not using a higher tiered section means you might need to do some backtracking and moving a dozen different pieces around to get the specific platform you need to reach another area or fit within a small hallway. More than once I had to manually end a run prematurely because I simply couldn’t figure out these platform puzzle elements or had to do a ton of backtracking and figuring out to progress. Frustrating at times but cool ideas nonetheless.

While playing Tetris with moveable platforms may be half of the equation, the other half is the combat that tries to resemble something you’d experience in a Souls game. You start with two weapons, a sword and a pike, though both play quite differently. There’s a handful of different weapon types you’ll find and unlock along the way, but I always found my best runs were when I stuck with a basic sword for the majority. Eventually weapons will start to have powers and spells attached to them and usable as well and you can swap between two carried weapons when you want.

Combat itself feels quite clunky at first, and since you often get swarmed and have to deal with plenty of enemies it can be a little overwhelming at first. It wasn’t until I learned how to parry properly that I started to really have much more success. Enemies will give a quick telegraph of their attacks with a small icon above their head for a brief second, allowing you to parry or dodge out of the way. I highly suggest learning to parry properly, as dodging can be useful, but it’s not like what you’re used to in Souls games since there’s no invulnerability that allows you to avoid being hit if you time it right. Instead, it’s somewhat like a short distance teleport, simply moving you out of the range of an attack. This of course becomes confusing during chaotic battles, but you will eventually get used to it with enough practice. Parrying properly will allow you to get a much higher damage hit in for ‘free’, as you’re invulnerable during this animation, something you’ll need to master.

I was honestly expecting to be showered in loot given the game title 'Loot River'. While you will find some loot along the way randomly from weapons, rings and armor, there’s really not all that much given the randomness of enemies and drops. Since runs are reset in this roguelike every time you die, it doesn’t really matter in the end either aside from making you more powerful for that specific run. There was the odd really interesting and unique weapons from bosses and such, but not nearly as much as I expected.

You’ll want to spend the first good amount of runs trying to kill every enemy you can, not only to level up and give you a better chance to survive that run, but increasing your stats and earning skill points. These points can purchase you new weapon, magic and armor unlocks that can make subsequent runs that much easier. This is the persistent progression you’re constantly working towards, even when dying on runs over and over, though it is slow.

I quite enjoyed the retro aesthetic Loot River utilizes, as the animations are done quite well and the water simulation as you constantly move platforms is quite impressive, almost looking like pixelated waves. Where I found the visuals lacking though is the distinction between certain weapons. For example, I usually held two different swords, but had to constantly double check in the menus which one I was equipping because the icons for each were very similar without much distinction.

I normally tend to steer away from Souls-like as it’s not my genre of choice. Coupled with being a roguelike, I thought I wasn’t going to enjoy it in the slightest bit. Loot River surprised me though with its interesting and unique puzzle mechanics, and while not perfect by any means, “Souls Meets Tetris” is something I never thought I would write, but here we are. Factor in that Loot River is also currently available on Game Pass and it’s a hard title to pass up trying to see if it click with your genre preferences.

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

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 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 (, 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