Total Reviews: 33
Average Overall Score Given: 7.92727 / 10
Total Forum Posts: 3


Hi-Fi RUSH is a rhythm-based combat game that is a mix of Jet Set Radio Future, Sunset Overdrive and Devil May Cry. It was in development for nearly 5 years and according to interviews with developers at Tango Gameworks and was almost shown right about the time Covid started. But they decided to hold off, and eventually it was shadow dropped at the January 2023 Bethesda Developer Showcase. Looking at the Steam and Xbox sales it was the right choice, after a barren wasteland first party outing in 2022, Xbox is starting 2023 off with a surprise banger right out of the gate.

The first thing you’ll notice playing or watching videos of Hi-Fi RUSH is the cell shaded graphics with a colorful palette that stands out against an Xbox catalog of browns, grays and blacks. I haven’t played a game this colorful since Sunset Overdrive and it’s easy for me to say that Hi-Fi RUSH is the most beautiful game that I have ever played. There are times that you can pause the game, both in game and cutscenes, and it will look exactly like a panel in a comic book. It runs at a crystal clear 4K resolution with HDR, and at a silky smooth 60 frames (1440p 60fps on Series S) per second that during my 13 hours with the game I never saw a hiccup or dropped frame. It’s a flawless experience from beginning to end, even during the most hectic boss battles.

Comic book style "BOOM!", "BAM!" and "OUCH!" appear on screen at times when you inflict damage, but also rhythm and combo cues such as "PERFECT", "REST" and "REPEAT" appear on your screen to help you know how your timing and combo is going. They not only add to the comic book style the game is going for, but really help you keep your attacks on beat, or if you are off beat, it is a nice suggestion to alter your timing so you are. At times all the text, enemies, explosions and utter chaos fills up the screen, so things can sometimes be hard to see incoming attacks, especially ranged robots that shoot high powered beams that disrupt your combos. Hi-Fi RUSH has excellent voicework even down to the smallest robot sweeper that does not have anything to do with the story. Every character in the game is lovingly voice acted and it really helps bring this story to life. The main cast is amazing and sets a new bar for quality voice acting. I can easily see this game becoming a TV show in the future as more and more properties are going in that direction.

Positional audio works well as expected, helping you know where enemies are when they aren’t on screen in front of you. You can easily pick out enemies during their attacks so you can dodge or parry as you need, which is very helpful as I said above, things can get pretty hectic on screen, so any audio cues really help in these situations. I played Hi-Fi RUSH exclusively with headphones and I suggest you do too. Its foot tapping soundtrack and detailed positional audio is something that needs to be experienced in a controlled environment such as headphones. That’s not to say it can’t be enjoyed with TV speakers or a home theater setup, but it’s definitely better when cranked to 11 straight in your ear holes.

Hi-Fi RUSH’s 1990's and 2000's soundtrack is headlined by Nine Inch Nails, Prodigy, The Black Keys and a band I haven’t heard in nearly 20 years, Zwan. These songs are usually reserved for the larger boss fights and always fit in well with the mood of the game, but during normal fights and smaller cutscenes Hi-Fi RUSH has an original soundtrack that also slaps. It’s these songs that are also used for the streamer mode that allows you to exclusively listen to these songs during streams, so you aren’t nailed by the copyright police. Whatever mode you listen to while playing, you are for sure going to be tapping your foot to the beat and it really helps to know and like the songs you are listening to in a rhythm game.

You play as Chai; he has an undisclosed disability with his arm and signs up for a program with Vandelay Technologies where he gets a new one. Something goes wrong with the procedure and he’s labeled a defect, and then there is an order issued to eliminate him. During the failed procedure Chai is outfitted with a magnetic robot arm and a Zune (RIP Zune, gone too soon) in his chest. His chest Zune syncs with the natural rhythms of the city and soon everything around Chai taps, hums, blinks and hops to the beats of the music playing. It’s a magical sight that I stopped multiple times during my playthrough to just watch the scenery dance to the music. As Chai escapes the facility that deformed him, he is helped by a cat named 808 which is being controlled by a mysterious person on the inside trying to expose Vandelay Tech as the evil company they really are. During your 10+ hour journey you will meet new friends, unlock new abilities, and discover secrets about you, your team, and your main foe Kale, the man in charge at Vandelay.

As I said before Hi-Fi RUSH is a rhythm-based combat game, and when your hits are timed with the beat, they do more damage. You string together combos of 'X' (regular attack) 'Y' (heavy attack) and 'B' (parry) to the beat, and you can pull off some gnarly combos with a one button quick time event at the end to cap off a finisher for super damage. You can start a combo off beat, but after that you get a bonus score for keeping the combo on beat with the music. This works because that means you don’t have to wait for a beat to hit something, giving them a chance to attack you first. Be aggressive and start a fight, then listen to the beat to continue your combo. You will still do damage if you are off beat, but you’ll get bonus damage and score to keep on beat. Make sense? I’m terrible at explaining these sorts of things but luckily there is a very lengthy tutorial in the game which goes over every aspect of the combat multiple times. The first level is the tutorial and it’s nearly an hour long. You’ll be a pro before it’s over.

As you progress the story you are given more abilities such as a grappling hook (Left Bumper) from your mechanical arm, and a dash (Right Bumper) that works both in air and on the ground. I use the Elite controller and I mapped both of these actions to the paddles, and it works great not having to use the bumpers to perform these heavily used actions. In between missions you are in your base, a hub world where you can interact with your team, change your outfit, and purchase and apply upgrades. There are gears scattered around the world that you collect which can be spent on new attacks and combos. There are hidden parts and computer chips in some harder to reach areas of the game that you can turn into your team and upgrade your health bar and special bar.

Along with your moves, you have a whole arsenal of teammate abilities that you can use during platforming and combat sections. Each of the teammates you unlock during the story brings a handful of abilities to use, and once you start to unlock these the combat really starts to pick up. It may sound overwhelming at first, and it can be right away, but Hi-Fi RUSH introduces these abilities at the right time and slowly trickles them out during the story. I never felt like I was being thrown too much information at once. I am a button masher at the core and have never been very good at fighting games where I have to remember combos. I have vivid memories of being in an arcade when I was younger at a Mortal Kombat cabinet and having a bunch of kids around me watch as I failed to perform Scorpions super simple Fatality. Hi-Fi RUSH does not punish you for missing beats or repeating combos on the normal difficulty, and for me that was the sweet spot in my playthrough.

There are 3 more difficult options you can choose to play and with those difficulties come much tighter rules for landing combos, dealing damage, and even passing some boss fights. Luckily for us wussies there are lots of accessibility options that will let you customize your game to your skill level. You can even have the game auto combo and automatically use teammate attacks if you are having trouble with the difficulty, and you just want to experience the amazing visuals and entertaining story. Nothing wrong with that!

Hi-Fi RUSH is currently in GamePass, retails for $30, and also has a $40 deluxe version that comes with some outfits for Chai and 808. I think the $30 version is the way to go, as I don’t think the additional outfits are worth the extra $10. However, Hi-Fi RUSH is a game I would have easily spent $60 on if that was the price tag, but that’s the beauty of GamePass if you have it. Try it out for yourself and if it’s a game you adore (like me) then support the dev by upgrading to the deluxe version. Since it’s a first party game by an Xbox Studio then it will be in GamePass as long as GamePass exists. It’s playable on Xbox Series S, Xbox Series X, and the cloud via GamePass as well.

I had a smile on my face from beginning to end while playing Hi-Fi Rush. Its colorful graphics, loveable characters and positive story made it an absolute joy to play. Don’t let the rhythm-based combat scare you, just give it a try and you’ll be tapping your feet and buttons to the beat in no time.

**Hi-Fi RUSH was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 9.6 / 10 High on Life

High on Life was first shown off at the Xbox/Bethesda Games Showcase during the summer of 2022 and it immediately climbed to the top of my most anticipated list due to its colorful art style, shooter mechanics with talking guns, and of course, its raunchy humor. Right away I could tell that the humor would be a hit with me, and I knew this would be a divisive game with the media and the public. Because for some reason there are some people that just don’t find aliens with butthole faces playing the drums on the street very funny. I don’t want to know those people, I’m glad we don’t hang in the same circles.

High on Life was developed by Squanch Games, a studio led by Justin Roiland, the co-creator of Rick and Morty from Adult Swim/Cartoon Network. If you’re not familiar with his work, you are not alone. I’ve seen clips of Rick and Morty and have found what I’ve seen funny, but I’ve never watched a full show. Not everyone likes this kind of humor, and after watching a few gameplay videos, specifically the “Meet Knifey” trailer they released, you should have a good idea if this game's subject matter and humor will be your thing or not. I don’t want to talk about the humor too much because it’s subjective, and I’d rather focus on the core gameplay, story and graphics, which I don’t think are getting enough of the spotlight. Just know, if you don’t laugh when you find out there is an achievement to carry a gallon of 'alien cum' throughout the whole game for no reason then you probably should stop reading cause this game is not for you.

The story is a typical one if you strip away all the crude humor and talking guns. You are an average teenage human and get thrown into an intergalactic war to save the human race. You are teamed up with a veteran bounty hunter past his prime, and with his mentorship you take over where he left off and are on a mission to save the galaxy. If you add back in all the crude humor and talking guns you get a much crazier story. Humans are being used by aliens to get high. The G3 Cartel (the bad guys) have also discovered an alien race of talking guns and they are using them to expand their drug empire across the galaxy. You get Kenny, your first Gatling (the talking guns) and he immediately saves your life from the G3 invasion. Upon reaching the first alien you are recruited by a washed-up bounty hunter to take down the G3 Cartel’s high-ranking officers and eventually the main boss himself, and you do it all with a gallon of alien cum in your pocket.

As you progress through the 11 to 15 hour story you’ll unlock more guns, more abilities, and you’ll be leaving a trail of G3 Cartel in your path. I think if you were just to concentrate on the story you could probably finish it in under 10 hours, but you can easily spend double that just exploring, watching the videos, and listening to NPC's in the city. There are a lot of funny conversations and videos scattered about the levels and they are always worth interacting with. For instance, I came across an alien race that looked like a care bear and one of them was cut in half. He was dying and scared and didn't want to be alone. So, I stayed with him until he died. As I walk away, he yells at me for leaving, and shames me for being inconsiderate. I stay by his side for another death scene, and I go to leave only to be heckled again for leaving him during his dying breath. I don’t know how long you can keep this up, but I stopped after three deaths before I moved on. The whole time I was walking away he was yelling and swearing at me. I almost felt bad.

“Any glitches or bugs you encounter are intentional satirical references to other games with glitches or bugs”

That’s the opening warning as the game is booting up, but luckily my time with High on Life resulted in very few bugs or glitches. I played a bit of the game before the day one launch patch and the framerate was a jittery mess for a few days and I saw online that Squanch Games had announced a day one patching coming, so I briefly stopped. That patch came and from there on out it was smooth sailing for the most part. The framerate stays at a stable 60FPS until you get into a few of the boss fights and intense encounters with multiple enemies. Even then it’s barely noticeable for someone like me, but anyone that is more receptive to framerate drops you might take more notice than I did.

The lack of HDR is a bit of a bummer, and I really think that the colorful palette of the environments really would have benefited from it because that’s where the graphics shine, the environments. As you advance the story the first alien location you come across is a city with vibrant colored buildings and neon lights. You’ll travel to a few more locations as you take on the G3 Cartel. Jungles, deserts, busy cities, and empty slums are the main locations of the game. Oh, and a Space Applebee’s.

Even though the story revolves around the human player that you control, all of the dialog from your perspective is delivered through the Gatlings. Kenny, the first gun you come across (voiced by Justin Roiland himself) is the main character of the story and he carries most of the dialogue between you and your enemies. If a boss talks some trash before a fight, whichever Gatling you are holding is the one that fires back a comedic response, and all of the voices are fantastic and have very different personalities. Not only do they have different personalities, but they also have different shooting mechanics and special abilities that let you really switch up the gameplay. The alternate firing of the Gatlings is called the “Trick Hole” and they can be used for traversal and for dealing out additional damage to the G3. This is where High on Life kind of turns into a Metroidvania style game because early on there are some areas that you cannot access until you unlock a certain Gatling and use its Trick Hole.

Kenny is the starting gun you get, and he performs mostly like a pistol, and his Trick Hole is called the Glob Shot. The Glob Shot is a thick ball that you can use precise aiming to rotate platforms to access new areas, and you can shoot it at enemies to bounce them up in the air when they are behind cover to juggle them with more shots. The shotgun type Gatling is Gus, voiced by J.B. Smoove. He works like a typical shotgun for his primary firing ability, but his Trick Hole is shooting out a saw blade that bounces off enemies and sticks into walls to use as platforms. The third gun that you come across is Sweezy and she is a machine gun style that performs a lot like the Needler from the Halo games, but also has a Trick Hole that deals out an orb that causes enemies to move in slow motion. Once I unlocked Sweezy there was no going back to the other Gatlings unless I was stuck reloading at a bad time. I pretty much used Sweezy for the rest of the game.

There is a pawn shop in the main city where you can purchase upgrades for your Gatlings, but honestly, I forgot it even existed and barely upgraded my guns during my playthrough. In there you can buy more ammo capacity and small tweaks to the Trick Holes of the Gatlings, but they are very small changes and I don’t think they are necessary. I unintentionally skipped past 90% of these upgrades and I was able to play through and enjoy the story completely. I do plan on playing through again to mop up some miscellaneous achievements and maybe then I’ll experiment with the upgrades a bit more. To be honest I think I just forgot the pawn shop existed, maybe it would have been a better choice to be able to upgrade weapons in the bounty hunter portal in your house.

High on Life is a fantastic addition to the Xbox catalog. Even if it wasn’t in Xbox Gamepass I would be recommending you play this game for its story, Metroidvania exploration and Trick Holes. Since it’s included with Xbox Gamepass it’s a no-brainer to check out. If you are a fan of the Roiland style humor then you are in for a real treat. There were so many times I had to pause the game and set the controller down because I was so shocked by something that was said or done. It was a pleasant surprise to be caught off guard like that in a game and I really look forward to what Squanch Games does next. Hopefully it's a sequel to this must play game.

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

Overall Score: 9.5 / 10 Return to Monkey Island

Like many, I have been waiting for Ron Gilbert's Return to Monkey Island for a long time. Gilbert is the original creator and director of The Secret of Monkey Island, its sequel Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge, and a whole catalog of other favorite point and click adventure games from the 90's. While there have been other Monkey Island games since the sequel, this is the first one Ron has worked on since leaving Lucasarts after LeChuck's Revenge. I have fond memories of sitting in my parents' living room at their PC playing Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and the first Monkey Island trying to solve its pixelated puzzles, only to have my dad walk by and say “that’s not it” crushing my morale in a single sentence. Did he really know the answer to this skull puzzle? Has he secretly been playing it at night when I go to bed? Is the answer hidden away in the instruction manual? Should I have picked up that strip of leather that was in the jungle? Why was it even out there? These are the questions you start to ask yourself when you are stuck on a Gilbert puzzle. There’s always an answer, you just need to look harder.

Return to Monkey Island takes place shortly after the events of Monkey Island 2: LeChuck's Revenge. If you haven’t played any of the previous games, then you don’t know anything about its main character, Guybrush Threepwood. Guybrush is an underdog that everyone underestimates and is eager to cast aside, but with your help he’s always able to outwit the people in his way and solve any puzzle that may be blocking his goals. He leaves a path of chaos behind him everywhere he goes, and the characters in this game that have been wronged by him in the past do not hesitate to bring up the times Guybrush screwed them over, but in the end, they always help him anyway, because he’s just that lovable.

Guybrush ends up marrying Elaine, his love interest in the first game, and they have a son. The story is laid out by Guybrush telling his son about the time he finally found the secret of Monkey Island. New clues had surfaced and Guybrush was determined to discover them, but his nemesis LeChuck also heard the rumors and he’s assembling a crew to go find it before Guybrush. What happens next during its 11 hour story will have you laughing and maybe shedding a tear or two at the end.

The nostalgia factor is in full effect during this game with LOTS of throwbacks to previous characters and locations. But, if you are a newcomer to the series, they have you covered as well because all the characters from past games relive their encounters with Guybrush and you are brought up to speed during your dialog options. The writers do a really good job of making inside jokes outside ones and having everyone be a part of it. You do not need to play the previous games to enjoy this one, but I highly recommend you do because they are fantastic.

The Monkey Island series has always been about dialog and puzzles. It’s a point and click adventure game where you have set screens to fully explore and interact with objects and people within the screen limits. You’ll move the cursor around the screen where you can either select the object to have Guybrush talk about it or interact with it to perform an action. This action could be pulling, pushing, combining, stealing, it can be anything really as it depends on the item and context. You just need to move the cursor around to everything on screen to see if you can interact with it. If it’s something you can take, I recommend just taking it because you will need it later and there is no inventory maximum. I’ve had to backtrack so many times because I left an item thinking I didn’t need it, only to return to that spot an hour later stuck on a puzzle forgetting it was even there.

As you interact with characters on screen you are greeted with dialog options. Some characters need to be wooed and courted before they can offer up information, but a lot of them will need some sort of favor completed before they will help you. This is where the game turns into a constant fetch quest, but they are always interesting and usually take a few steps to solve. There are some real head scratchers in this one. Lucky for us there is a hint book in your inventory that offers up small clues as to what you need to do next. I only used it a few times, but the book does not offer spoilers on how to solve a puzzle, instead offering up tiny smidgens of information that nudge you along the right path.

For example, if you are stuck, the book might suggest you talk to someone, or look for an item, or sail to a different island to gently nudge you in the right direction rather than giving you the full answer. This method is welcome, because when you do eventually solve the puzzle, you still get that sense of reward of solving it yourself rather than having the feeling of shame of relying on a guide. I wish more games offered this nudge. Another welcome change is the “to-do” list. I still kept a notepad by my side during my playthrough, but only to jot down some notes for puzzles. Your actual objectives are kept on an in-game to-do list that places checks in the boxes next to the ones you’ve completed. Basically, it’s a quest log and is nothing new to videogames, but it’s new to the series and I was happy to see its addition.

Gone are the pixelated graphics of the Secret of Monkey Island. Gone are the Disney cartoon graphics of Monkey Island 2. The new art style of Return to Monkey Island reminds me of an abstract painting you’d see in a museum. Faces are almost Picasso like, and the environments look cel-shaded. It almost looks like a pop-up book in parts, and I think that it really works well with the game's environments and the fact that the story is being told by a father to his son. In classic Gilbert fashion, the characters even make mention of the new art style in dialog. Some tell Guybrush he looks better than before, and some mention his new art style. It’s all very silly and fits in with the theme of the game.

During the 10–12-hour story you’ll travel to islands familiar to fans of the series, both Melee Island and Monkey Island (duh) are explored extensively, but they’ve also added new islands like Terror Island, a creepy, scary place with living plants, spiders and bugs everywhere, and dark pits and caves that Guybrush hesitantly explores. You’ll also visit BRRR-Muda Island, which you’d think was a warm and cozy place, but instead is a winter ice island with harsh conditions and harsh inhabitants.

Fans of point and click puzzle games from the 90’s will love this new adventure. If you are a Monkey Island veteran, or a newcomer to the series, you will love this new adventure. It’s full of heart, full of humor, and full of puzzles that will sometimes make you scratch your head, and if my dad were still around, he’d walk by me and say, “That’s not it”. How did he know?

**Return to Monkey Island was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 9.5 / 10 Police Simulator: Patrol Officers

Woop! Woop! That’s the sound of da police! Police Simulator: Patrol Officers is sliding across the hood of your consoles and into your living rooms. Is it a game where you play as a shoot first, sprinkle some crack on the body, pay off forensics, and be home in time for a family dinner type of cop? Or do you play as a by-the-book meter maid that loves paperwork, has unlimited stamina, and a 1000-yard stare only a mother could love? Well, we’ll see how smart you are when the K-9 comes. I got 99 Problems but is this game one?

There’s no traditional story here with Police Simulator, you are a standard template officer that patrols the city of Brighton. You can choose male or female and there are very minimal choices of races and faces to pick from. You also don’t get to name your character; I was very bummed I wasn’t allowed to name my character Captain O’Malley from the Cypress Hill songs, so I settled on the name Frank Miller. You don’t get any backstory for the officer you chose, like, does he or she have a family to go home to like Carl Winslow? Or is he or she a loose cannon that lives the single life in a motorhome on a beach like Riggs? These are things I would have liked to know!

You start off in a small section of the city and you can unlock the next precinct by issuing parking tickets and arresting those despicable jaywalkers and litterers during your shift, filling up your experience bar. You get experience points for accurately issuing tickets and conducting yourself as a respectable officer. You lose points for issuing the wrong ticket, mischarging someone for an offense, and randomly tasing and shooting people (hey, I had to try it... you know, for the review). You move through the motions of your day-to-day life as a patrol officer with the dangling carrot of more features to unlock in front of you as you progress to new areas.

First, you’ll be on foot, and you’re on parking violation duty. You’ll run up and down the streets of your jurisdiction looking for cars parked on the curb, parked facing the wrong way, expired license plates, and parked in front of expired meters. You have an ability wheel that you can bring up when near one of these dastardly cars and you can pick the violation, or violations, to dish out. At first this was a blast; I actually had a good time ruining everyone’s day in the city of Brighton by issuing a lot of violations and fines with no verbal warnings. Hey, the city needs its money and I have a quota to fill.

As you finish off a few shifts you’ll unlock a patrol car, and I had visions of the cops from the Beastie Boys Sabotage video chasing perps and slamming them on car hoods all while wearing cool sunglasses. But the truth is this is no different than being on foot except the controls are worse. The controls are exactly like the hundreds of other games that feature driving, but the handling of your vehicle is pretty loose, and I found myself running into a lot of things trying to keep it on the road and in my lane. After a bit of practice, you do get the hang of the driving, but don’t expect Forza accurate controls here. What made driving worse was the extreme pop-in as you are driving down the street at even low speeds, and I had multiple people and cars appear within 5 feet in front of me while driving. Lucky for the people, you drive right through them as if they were ghosts, but when you hit a car, it affects your rating for your shift. If you get into too many accidents you are forced to start your shift over.

Searching the car, looking for the product, thinking every NPC is selling narcotics. Once you unlock the car it really opens up the game for traffic stops and responding to accidents. As you pull out of the precinct parking lot and make your way down the streets of Brighton, you’ll start getting pop-ups about cars in your vicinity breaking the law. The most common infractions are turning without a signal, failure to stop at a red light or stop sign, or driving with a faulty exhaust. Once you see these pop up, fire up those berries and cherries and start pursuit! Turning on your lights and siren will get all cars to pull to the side, but you won’t start the pull over process until you hit the Y button behind the car. From here you exit your squad car and begin the process of speaking to the driver and issuing the ticket.

As you are inspecting the situation with the driver and issuing the ticket you will get intuition pop-ups telling you about the driver's actions. Some drivers will act nervous, so these are your clues to investigate the situation further. If you smell alcohol on the driver, you can ask them to get out of the car and give them a DUI test. If they fail, you can arrest them and call for the paddy wagon to come get them. Some drivers that act suspicious have items on them or in the car that can get them in trouble. Once you get these intuition tips, you have reason to have them exit the car and begin your search. I’ve found a wide variety of items during my searches but the weirdest was human teeth and there were no further investigation options for this, and that is extremely wild to me. If I were a cop and I found some random human teeth hidden in a car that would be a huge red flag for me and I’d be asking more questions. I attempted to arrest this amateur dentist but there were no options for finding human remains in a car, so I was forced to let Dr. Issac Yankem go. Yes, that is an old school WWF reference, look it up!

Upon unlocking the squad car, you also unlock investigations at accidents. You’ll get blips on the screen notifying you of nearby accidents, so you’ll have to make your way to those locations and begin the process of filing the accident report. You’ll have to interview witnesses, interview the people in the accident, and take pictures of the crash site, and as you do so you will fill up the report meter. You’ll get a pop-up telling you when the report is complete and at this point you can issue tickets and call tow trucks if needed.

The graphics in Police Simulator are a mixed bag, but I have to be honest, I was pleasantly surprised with the environments. Lighting, in particular the way it bounces off shiny surfaces and shines through trees, is very accurate and really helps bring the city to life. One weird thing that happened to me, but I don’t know if it was a glitch in my particular game or not, the game never had me playing at night. It was always daylight out even when the time said 4AM. I’ve watched some gameplay videos online and saw plenty of people playing at night, but not once in the many hours I spent with the game did I have a shift in the dark, even though the time of day was at night. The character models in Police Simulator are very limited, as you’ll see the same face a million times and they all give the same lifeless 1000-yard stare. The random outfits that the citizens wear are wild and you’ll see some crazy combinations of hairdos and clothes on people walking the streets. A black woman with a blonde mohawk wearing a sundress with combat boots was among the weirdest ones, but hey, you do you lady!

The overall gameplay loop of Police Simulator is fun enough, but what really broke the game for me were the terrible glitches when it comes to the NPC's. I had many interactions go bad due to the poor AI. Honestly, it’s too many instances of glitches to mention in this review, but I can list a few as examples. Many times I called for backup to arrest someone and the van never showed up, or the van parked two blocks away and the backup officer got lost or stuck. Multiple times I approached an accident and started questioning the people at the scene, so when I approached the driver that caused the accident, he/she didn’t even respond to my options like they did anything wrong. In one case, a woman turned onto a street and ran over two pedestrians. I immediately questioned the two people lying on the ground, and when they didn’t respond I called an ambulance. I then went to the woman standing outside of the car that obviously hit these two poor people and she greeted me with a “Hello officer, what can I do for you?” and my option wheel made no mention of reckless driving or vehicular assault. I could only give her violations for failure to use a turn signal and running a red light. I went to ask some witnesses and they all said they didn’t see what happened and when I went to take pictures of the scene, none of the photos were logged into the case file or report. I failed the interaction and lost points for turning in an incomplete report even though the game bugged out and prevented me from completing it.

Sometimes the arbitrary limitations of the game are what gets in your way. I came across someone that littered and upon talking to them I got a pop-up saying this person was really nervous and smelled like pot. So, I searched him and found a switchblade in his pocket (no pot though). I was able to start to arrest him for a concealed weapon when he took off running. Now, my character has a messy history of shooting people with a taser. I've had many, many warnings on the subject so this time my plan was to chase them down and play things by the book. The criminal on the other hand had a different plan of action and immediately ran towards the border of my jurisdiction, and shortly after following him into this checkered area on the map I was kicked off my shift and forced to start the day over due to being out of the zone. This also happened to me when pulling over cars and they turned into the yellow checkered zone. I don’t see why you can’t follow them into another zone if you started the process of pulling them over or began pursuit on foot.

I had some fun with Police Simulator at first, but the bugs and glitches really hurt the experience. It’s fun enough running around for an hour or so issuing tickets for parking, littering, drinking in public and jaywalking, but when you really have to interact with the AI the game really breaks down. Having the game mechanics of investigations, arresting and calling for backup completely fail due to poor AI is really disappointing. There’s a decent core game here, but it trips over its own feet too much that it can be really frustrating to play at times. There is some fun to be had causing havoc and seeing what you can get away with before your shift is forcefully ended, but after an hour or so of that the novelty wears off and you’re left with getting back to work.

**Police Simulator: Patrol Officers was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 5.0 / 10 DEATHLOOP

Simply calling DEATHLOOP a Roguelike is an unfair labeling of one of the most original games I’ve ever played. Sure, it shares some DNA with Roguelikes, where you repeatedly play the same areas over and over while collecting weapons and upgrading them to carry to the next run. You learn from your mistakes, grow stronger and then use those tools on the next run, and that part of Roguelikes has always intrigued me. What always lost me was that I would constantly focus on upgrading and never progressing the story, and I would do 100 runs and then burn out of the game because I am playing the same thing over and over and over. It’s my own fault, I know, but it happened with Dead Cells, Rogue Legacy, Hades and many more. I would put a good five or so hours into them and then my interest fizzles out and I move to something else. I am glad I gave DEATHLOOP a chance and stuck with it because it quickly rose to the list of the top games I’ve played this year.

DEATHLOOP is full of collecting, upgrading and repeating, but it has a straightforward way of presenting the story path that really kept me focused on following the threads of the narrative until each of them ends. You play as Colt, the head of security for the company that has taken over the island of Blackreef, and that company and its scientists are responsible for the technology that lets these characters live forever repeating the same day over and over. You wake up on a beach and you have no recollection of how you got there. Shortly after waking you find a walkie-talkie and you receive a call from a cocky woman named Julianna, and it’s obvious off the bat that you have some history with this woman despite not remembering anything about her. It’s through this walkie-talkie that a lot of the story is delivered. The banter between Colt and Julianna is some of the best dialog I have ever heard in a story, and it kept me laughing and interested from beginning to end. You find out quickly through conversation that she knows you want to break the loop and end their immortal fun. In order to break the loop, you’ll have to kill all 7 Visionaries in a single day and it will not be an easy task. They are scattered across the island and only appear during select times of day. At first this was extremely overwhelming, and I was hit with a deep regret and began thinking about what I have gotten myself into. Thoughts started swirling through my head about having to replay these loops a million times trying to work out how to kill these 7 psychopaths in a single day all by myself. There are 4 times of day, and 4 districts where these Visionaries reside. I’m not very good at math, but I do know that’s a lot of options and I’m not lucky enough to find the solution by myself right away.

Luckily for me, the story paths in DEATHLOOP are so easily followed and tracked that it made it incredibly easy to stay focused on the tasks at hand and not stray too far from the main story path. Each visionary has a storyline and how you can force them to a certain place and time so that way they can be killed alongside another Visionary essentially giving you the chance to take out multiple targets at a time. Honestly, if the story was not presented and tracked in this way, I would have given up on it almost immediately. Each Visionary has a five or more step quest line that has you performing tasks to set them along a specific path. You might have to kill each Visionary multiple times to reveal that path, but you are rewarded every time you kill one. Each of the Visionaries carry with them what is called a Slab. It’s their special power and it’s what makes them essential to the loop that they are trying to protect so they can live forever.

Once you kill a Visionary you can pick up their slab and add it to your own arsenal. Slabs come in six flavors; telekinesis, teleport, and invisibility are the easy ones to describe. Nexus is another and it gives you the ability to link multiple enemies together, dishing out damage to a group of enemies with a single bullet. Havoc is a berserk mode where you dish out increased damage and can take more damage during its duration. The final Slab is exclusive to Colt since he is a Visionary, called Reprise, and its power grants you two additional deaths before the loop starts over. You can upgrade and swap out any of the Slabs except Reprise, giving you lots of options on how you can approach a level. If you are looking for more of a stealth approach you should equip the Aether (invisibility) and Shift (teleport) Slabs so you can easily move around undetected. If you are looking for more of a guns blazing approach you might want to equip Havoc (berserk) and Karnenis (telekinesis) so you can give yourself offense and defense boosts while being able to throw enemies around with telekinesis.

Another way to earn slabs is by killing Julianna when she invades your loop. If you take her out she will drop a random slab for you to collect. Julianna can invade your loop at any time, but I found that she mostly invades when an Eternalist spots you and sounds an alarm. Julianna will enter your loop, lock your tunnels (how you travel from district to district) so you can’t escape, forcing you to hack an antenna to open them. Julianna and the other Visionaries will also drop a hefty amount of Residuum when they are killed. Residuum is the currency that you will need to upgrade your slabs, guns, trinkets (more on those later) and it’s also how you can keep your guns and slabs across the many loops you will run.

Every time you die and restart the loop you lose all of the items you picked up during that loop, that is, unless you have infused them with Residuum between districts. I found a set of Akimbo pistols that I absolutely loved early on and infused them with Residuum to ensure that I start with them during every loop. Trinkets are small boosts and perks that can be applied to weapons and Colt. Weapon trinkets focus more on reloading, damage dealt and ammo amounts, while the Trinkets that Colt can equip focus more on traversal, health, and energy (slab power) consumption. You can swap trinkets, slabs, and guns out when you travel between districts and it’s also a good idea to spend all of your Residuum to infuse these good items just in case you die in the next district and have to start the loop over.

DEATHLOOP tells all of its story from the first person perspective, there is no cutscene aside from the small comic book-like storyboards that play out on screen as you unlock another clue to ending the loop. Much like Bioshock, the backstory is told through audio logs and sheets of paper on desks, and these are scattered everywhere on the island. It’s almost too much, and I am a collectible nut. But something about the way they are highlighted on the screen made them very easy to miss. There were multiple pieces of paper I found on a desk that I had not read, but I know I was in that location many times before, I just must have missed it. I wish there was a different color glow around the object, or that it would shimmer sporadically to draw your attention like other games do. These hidden clues scattered all over are what help you put the pieces together of how to guide the Visionaries to the specific locations needed to kill them all and break the loop so it really benefits you to read every note or listen to every audio log, it might just be the clue you are missing!

There aren’t just main story missions, there are also a lot of smaller side quests that you can find while exploring, and these can be delivered by the collectibles listed above, but also by listening to conversations between the Eternalists. There was one that I overheard some goons talking about a present for Colt in the middle of a town intersection. I just know it’s a trap, but I like presents, so why not? I sneak around and scope out the area and sure enough I see a sniper in a window camping the present, and I take him out. In that room was a map showing all of the ambush spots surrounding the present. Oh man, this should be something good if they are going through all this trouble to protect it, right? Once I clear out all of the ambush locations I go to the intersection to open my present getting ready for another high level gun, but nope it’s a low level gray trinket called Poison Chalice and it drains your health constantly in exchange for... 'jack shit'. Their words. You have to love the humor in this game.

The gameplay is another area that DEATHLOOP really shines. I was concerned about the shooting mechanics because their past game, Dishonored, felt kind of floaty with the aiming, but they really tightened it up in DEATHLOOP. It’s not as tight as Call of Duty or Destiny, but it’s a definite improvement over their previous games. You equip guns in your right hand, leaving your slab powers to be in your left hand. This gives you the ability to create a symphony of chaos and fun shooting and dishing out your abilities at the same time. There are so many fun combinations of powers and guns that you can approach any situation any way you want, and I’d often switch things up just for a different experience, and by the end of the game I had some great loadouts built for any situation. It’s a lot of fun using Karnesis to lift an enemy and hold them in the air watching them flail about in fear and then unload your machine gun into them as they float. Re-reading that sentence it makes me sound like a psychopath, but hey, that’s DEATHLOOP, it’s encouraged. One thing that I absolutely loved was that the game will not allow you to switch to a gun with zero ammo. When the shit hits the fan and you have a dozen Eternalists chasing you down it’s nice to know that you can’t accidentally switch to a gun and just hear the dreaded clicks of an empty clip and then see the death screen pop up. Things can get pretty hectic in DEATHLOOP, and that would have added another level of frustration, I wish more games did this.

The enemy AI can be very dumb in most cases. Sometimes they will spot you from two buildings over and will rush to your location to investigate, but then sometimes you can be standing 10 feet away in their peripheral area and they won’t spot you at all. Even worse, they are completely oblivious to sound at times. If you are walking or running, they will hear you and come running, but if you shoot a mine with a silence weapon, they won’t even notice the explosion and will continue just patrol as if nothing happened. Someone can drop dead from a silenced head shot right next to an Eternalist and they won’t react until they see the dead body. It’s a small gripe, but I definitely used this to my advantage as the game went on and I was trying to get to the end. Once you encounter enough of them, you’ll really know how to maneuver around them without having to engage them and the game gets a lot easier if you focus on stealth, almost too easy.

The more I played DEATHLOOP the more I noticed that something was off with the sound and the positioning of objects and people in relation to your character. I tried using both headphones and my home theater system and both had the same results. There were so many times while sneaking I would hear footsteps coming or an Eternalist talking close, so I’d stop, turn on my Aether (invisibility) and nobody would ever come. I’d slowly creep around ensuring not to make any noise or peek around anything too fast, but it turns out they were on the floor above me walking their normal routine completely oblivious of my presence. The sound of their footsteps, or their conversation with someone else, was so close in my ears I would have sworn they were in the room with me. Problems like this really take you out of the experience because you quickly learn that you cannot trust the audio in the game. No matter where you think the sound is coming from, it’s never correct, so you have to always be ready for someone to pop around the corner. Mix that in with the spotty AI and I ran into a lot of scenarios where I thought I killed everyone in a building after a loud gun fight and I was exploring for collectibles only to find some random enemy in a room nearby just hanging out. He should have heard the very large gunfight that just took place minutes ago, and I should have heard him walking back and forth, but neither happened and we were both startled when I opened the door. Its especially frustrating when you are tying a stealth run and because he gets alerted and shoots his loud gun all the other enemies come running and Julianna invades your game. Things can go downhill very fast.

The voice acting for Colt and Julianna is some of the best that I have ever experienced in a game. Their banter back and forth is absolutely hilarious and I looked forward to it between every loop or when traveling between districts. Their chemistry was a big reason that the story worked so well. They did a great job of being both friendly while also threatening each other to show that these characters had a long history together that was both good and bad. I was very eager to find out where the story was going all the way up until the end. I love how Colt talks to himself and it seems organic and not forced to advance the story. Colt just seems like a person who would talk to himself. He even gives himself some attitude when trying to pick up ammo and health when he doesn’t need it. He’ll spit out “Don’t get greedy, Colt” when full of ammo and when full of health he’ll say, “I’m fine, I don’t need it!” like a kid telling his mom he doesn't need a band-aid after scraping his knee. It’s all very funny, and fits in perfect for the character.

DEATHLOOP runs at 4K and a very solid 60 frames per second on the Xbox Series X, and there is a Ray Tracing mode with 30 frames if that tickles your fancy. I am an adult, so I chose the 60FPS option and I am very happy that I did, as it ran flawless. From a distance, DEATHLOOP is a very pretty game. The environments are lush and full of color and textures and you can see forever with the draw distance. Up close is where the game gets a bit muddy and textureless. It’s not a big deal when you’re running and gunning through the levels but when you stop to sneak around and get up close and personal with some of the scenery just seems flat and lifeless. Colt's arms, hands and the guns he’s holding clearly got all of the attention, rightfully so, and the folds on Colts jacket and metal of the guns all look stunning and real. But the enemies all have faceless masks or wear helmets with shields so the artists didn’t have to worry about modeling faces. It’s a great tactic here and fits the story because the eternalists are all no named villains whose sole purpose is to die and repeat their loop.

The environments of the four different districts all look very similar but different enough that you can tell them apart as you travel from location to location, and after a few hours I was running through the areas without being lost due to the easy to spot landmarks to keep your bearings. Throughout the environments you will notice some text overlay that appears everywhere like little notes from your subconscious. Make sure you pay attention to these notes, they give hints to enemies ahead and provide some details about the story as it progresses. I really like when games place objectives and plot devices on text as part of the scenery. It was a cool effect in Splinter Cell Conviction and it works really well here too. Colt constantly asks if he’s the only one that sees the words questioning his sanity throughout the game.

There’s a lot to love about DEATHLOOP, from the characters, the powers, and a story that is just asking to be made into a movie. There are some audio hiccups that hurt the experience, but they are easily overlooked because the rest of the package is extremely entertaining. I put just under 40 hours into DEATHLOOP before I rolled the credits and I plan on going back to knock out some achievements and side quests. I am very excited to see what the team at Arkane is putting together for us early next year with Redfall. DEATHLOOP is and will always be a part of Gamepass, the best value in gaming today and it should not be missed or passed up. Play this game!

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

Overall Score: 9.5 / 10 Trek To Yomi

I have been a pretty big fan of the games that Devolver Digital have brought to Xbox over the last few years. The Messenger, Katana Zero, Death's Door and Carrion have been some of my favorite games on the Xbox One and Xbox Series consoles. They have a real knack for picking quirky and fun, yet deep and compelling games to publish. Even though these games are in Gamepass, I have purchased every one of them to support their efforts, and I will be doing the same for Trek to Yomi.

Trek to Yomi is a samurai game, developed by Flying Wild Hog studio, with a fixed camera that reminds me a lot of the original Resident Evil games, but without the terrible tank controls. You take control of Hiroki, a samurai in training when something terrible happens to your village and your master. What follows is a tale of honor, revenge and redemption as Hiroki fights his way out of Yomi and finds out what it is like to be a real samurai in charge of protecting his village.

If you have seen any of the trailers, then you know the graphics are the real star of the show here with its black and white color palette and film grain effect to mimic the samurai and kung fu movies of the past. The camera is set in a fixed position for every scene you enter, but the location and angle of the camera changes depending on where the action is supposed to be focused. It’s a lot like the camera in the original Resident Evil game where some scenes would have you running right to left, others left to right, and some towards and away from the camera. It’s a really neat effect and it helps guide your focus towards your goals. There were very few times that I got lost on the screen not knowing where to go, and hidden areas were easily found by exploring each path as you come across forks in the road.

Collectibles and throwable ammo that you find throughout the game are highlighted by a shimmer of light that grabs your attention. Unfortunately, these can be hard to spot sometimes due to the lack of color and other flashes happening on screen. Especially during scenes with fire in the background, I found it really hard to spot collectibles and ammo in areas where lights are shining or reflections on water were prominent. There are a handful of collectibles in each level, listed in your journal making it easy to know if you missed any so you can go back and search for your completion. Trek to Yomi relies a lot on invisible walls to guide you along the path, keeping you on the dirt walkways of the village or forest, so if you come across a wall you can break through, or a side path you can take, it usually means a hidden area that includes one of those collectibles or an upgrade jar for health or stamina.

There aren’t many different areas in the game to explore, due to the story you are usually fighting in your village or a forest of some sort, but that did not limit the developers from mixing it up throughout the four-to-five-hour campaign. Some of the best scenes were in rooms within the village itself. You’d think one room is like every other, but when Hiroki steps behind the translucent room shades that were common in Japan, you get a really cool look in the scene where all you see are the shadows of you and your enemies, much like the dojo scene in Kill Bill. Blood will spray up on the ceiling and on the floor, but it’s all seen through the translucent panels between the characters and you. It’s a very cool effect that I never grew tired of.

Combat is straightforward and very easy to learn, but also very deep with the combo system as you progress through the game. You can block and parry if you can time it right, counterattack and attack as you see openings in your enemy’s guard, but it’s all limited by your stamina. Roll around, block and swing your katana too much and you’ll deplete your stamina bar and Hiroki will hunch over and take a few deep breaths giving your enemies a few seconds to launch attacks, and that can be deadly. You can increase your stamina and health bar by finding upgrade bottles scattered throughout the areas and those are very necessary to find because at times you will be fighting four or more enemies at once and if your stamina bar has a low cap, then you are in a world of hurt.

You will unlock longer combos as the game progresses, but while most of them are easy enough to pull off, I relied heavily on a simple X,X,X,Y combo that was multiple quick slashes and ended with a heavy attack that killed most enemies. The animations of your slashes, blocks and parries are top notch and always impress with their quick fluid motions and blood sprays. Sometimes when stunning a harder enemy after a combo you can perform a stylish finishing move that usually results in a dismembered head falling to the ground. This stylish finisher also replenishes your health a bit, so it’s very useful when fighting multiple enemies.

You will encounter a good handful of enemies throughout the story and can easily distinguish them from each other giving you enough time to prepare for their attacks with the proper block, counter, parry or offensive combo. Some enemies are heavy blockers, and if you go after them with a flourish of attacks all that will result is an empty stamina bar and eventual death. But some enemies are pushovers where you can dish out some quick slashes, sending them to Yomi with ease. The common enemy that gave me the most trouble was one where they would explode with light as you were hitting them and the light would deplete your stamina bar leaving you huffing and puffing for air while you are being attacked. But once I realized what was happening I learned to stay away from their light explosion and then roll back in close for some quick hits to send them to their grave.

There were also more than a few instances of enemy AI pinning me down and repeatedly attacking fast enough that my character animation wouldn’t complete long enough for me to get a block off. This resulted in a very frustrating thirty seconds or so where I could do nothing but watch Hiroki get hit over and over until my inevitable death. This only happened a handful of times, and the replay of that encounter never had the same results twice in a row, but it was extremely frustrating when it happened. There are only a handful of bosses in the game, and even those aren’t too hard to deal with until you get to the final boss, which in my personal opinion is one of the most frustrating experiences in the game, but I will let you experience him for yourself.

The Flying Wild Hogs team brings stylish hard action in Trek to Yomi and it’s a very fun game to play through for the story and art style. You will be challenged more than a few times throughout the four-to-five-hour story, and in the end you will feel accomplished by beating it. It has its frustrating times, times that I had to set my controller down and walk away, but I always wanted to go back for more and retry the scene to move forward. It launches into Gamepass, so you really have no reason not to give it a try. I am confident you’ll like it.

**Trek To Yomi was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Elden Ring

I am not a veteran “souls” guy. I played about 5 hours tops of Dark Souls 3 and never went back. Not because I disliked the game, but with a more than full time job, 2 kids in sports and a backlog of games that is well over 100 games deep, I usually tend to move on from a game if it doesn’t grab my attention, or more often than that, a new game comes out that does. I really hesitated to take this review because of my limited experience with Souls games. But our head editor has a way with words, and he convinced me to take it on, and boy oh boy am I happy I did. Because without being “forced” to play this game, I would have missed out on one of the best games I’ve ever played in my 30+ years of gaming.

Now that I’ve got my limited history with From Software games off my chest, I need to admit another thing. I have not, and probably will not ever beat this game completely. It’s not that I can’t because of the difficulty, or because I moved on to something else and I’ll never go back, but because I refuse to look up any information about what to do and where to go, and I refuse to take any shortcuts that will ruin the experience of the game for me. This isn’t a game to rush or main line, this is a game you are supposed to slow sip and savor because it’s a once in a generation experience. So, after a month of playing a few hours each night (again, 50+ hour a week job and 2 kids in sports) I have put over 100 hours into Elden Ring and I am nowhere near the end. I have not explored the entire map, and I have not killed every boss. Not even close, and I am not even the littlest bit sorry.

You start off as a lowly tarnished. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but as a tarnished you are able travel the Lands Between freely as you so desire. But since you are a Tarnished that is “touched by grace” this means you are guided by the golden rays of the Sites of Grace to your destiny. What is your destiny you ask? Well, it’s to re-forge the shards of the Elden Ring, become the Elden Lord, and to restore the Golden Order of course. The Elden ring is the source of all life in the Lands Between, and The Golden Order is the group that watches over it. Kind of like Infinity Watch, the group of superheroes that each took an Infinity Gem from the gauntlet after they defeated Thanos in the comics. You see, a while back there was an event called the shattering where the Elden Ring was destroyed, and it broke into a bunch of pieces. Some of the lords got a hold of those pieces and became Shard Bearers and were given great powers. Godrick the Grafted is the first Shard Bearer that you meet and after you defeat him you are given his shard. The Golden Order is there to protect the Elden Ring once it’s forged again, and make sure the shattering never happens again.

The first thing you do is choose your starter class and the look of your character. It’s important to pick a class that you like to play as here obviously, but do know that you can eventually re-spec your character to match whatever style you naturally transform into. I started with a bandit class because I tend to play more rogue style characters (I like to hit it from the back, hey-yo!) and no matter how many times I’ve restarted Skyrim, I always end up playing as a stealth archer. So why not just give in and start it off here. After many many hours I still use backstab a lot, but my combat is more roll in close, slash multiple times, then roll back out before the enemy attacks. So, I started to focus my stat points on dexterity, endurance and strength to help my attacks land heavy, but still gives me the agility to roll away from blows. This build has made me pretty squishy. I deal a hell of a lot of damage, but I tend to take a lot too, so I’ve had to learn to anticipate attacks to give myself enough time to roll away safely. That is one of the best aspects of Elden Ring, is that you can mold the game to fit any playstyle you desire, and if you don’t like a certain build you don’t have to roll a new character, just re-spec once you’ve unlocked it in the story.

As you first step out into Limgrave you are greeted with a beautiful sight of the open world you are about to explore. Just stop and look at it for a second and take in the beautifully crafted world developers created. It really is a perfect example of game world design as this scene alone tells you everything you need to know about the path ahead of you. Your first steps outside into the HUGE open world and you see your immediate destination, the warm glow of a Site of Grace (Elden Rings version of Bonfires). Beyond that you see a small church down the path a little bit and this is obviously your second destination after the safety of the bonfire, and here you will be able to spend and sell items for runs and upgrade your weapons. You’ll meet Melina who is your maiden. She’s tasked with helping you on your journey by showing you how to use runes to upgrade your stats at bonfires and by giving you a horse called Torrent. Further off in the distance you’ll see a large castle on a rocky cliff, and this is going to be your first major stop in the story. All of this is seen from the first two steps into the world, and it’s a very small fraction of the world you are about to set out upon.

With the freedom of an open world also comes restrictions. You have two choices here, either go left towards the castle, or go right into open lands. If you chose right, then you chose wrong because you are greeted by a knight on horseback called the Tree Sentinel. He’s the first real boss that the game throws at you, so he’s probably a pushover, right? I’m sure there is some sort of tutorial about how to approach these boss fights since they aren’t just going to throw you into an impossible fight right out of the cave right? I ran up to him like the knights in Monty Python running to the castle. Sword out and raised high, kicking up mud, shield at the ready, battle cry coming from my mouth and my spirits were at an all-time high cause I was confident the game developers wouldn’t be so evil. He instantly one-shot killed me and gave me my first of many YOU ARE DEAD screens across my TV. Befuddled, I respawn at the Site of Grace, and I look up and I notice something I didn’t see before, someone nailed to a cross nearly 10 feet above the bonfire and it was then I started to realize this place isn’t as welcoming as it looks.

I made my way to the left this time and towards the safety of the trees ahead. As I am walking towards the tree line, I notice something rolling on the ground towards me. It’s small and round and a dark brown color. I assumed it was some sort of animal at first and after my extreme failure during the battle with the Tree Sentinel I wasn’t going to take any chances; this could be another trap. I approach slowly, it stops, and I confirm that it wasn’t moving on its own. It was just a human skull randomly rolling down the pathway I was going. Nothing else was around, no enemies that could have kicked it by accident and it was definitely not a scripted event. I took it as a sign of things to come; this was a bad omen. In my mind, the beautiful world around me started to turn into a deadly hellscape of which dangers could come out from every corner. This feeling has not gone away after nearly 100 hours. The first time I come across a new cave, a cliffside, a beach, a meadow, it just gives me an uneasy feeling that something bad is about to happen, and in fairness it usually does, but it’s a true testament to the games design that it’s still happening this far into my journey.

When I mentioned restrictions above, I didn’t mean that the game restricts you in any way. You are absolutely free to be able to go anywhere in the map you want from the moment you exit that cave. What I mean is that the game is designed to guide you on a certain path by placing hard enemies to scare you into looking elsewhere to explore. When I got to the castle on the rocky ledge and met Margit the Fell Omen, and he wrecked me. So hard in fact that I was convinced that I was missing something, like a weapon, or an ability, or a companion to help me beat this insanely hard boss. Because again, I’m naive and I thought there was no way that they would throw someone this difficult at me if I couldn’t beat it at this level. So, I set off to find this missing item that would for sure help me kill this menace in a castle. What I found was the true purpose of this game, exploration. I am so used to other open world games holding your hand with tutorials, or heavily loading your map with quest marks or points of interest, that when none of that was present in Elden Ring, I really didn’t know what to do or where to go. There was no big green arrow on my map saying to check out this cave, there was no NPC outside of Margits keep that told me I needed to acquire the “Sword of Doom” to defeat him. I had nothing to go off of, and I had to progress in the game to work on this review.

So, I just started exploring. I found a dark cave near a bonfire, so I went inside and it was dark. I don’t know what I was expecting, it’s right there in my description, but I didn’t go in very far and I remembered that the vendor near the church bonfire sold torches. So, I spent some of my hard-earned Runes (currency you get from defeating enemies) on a torch so I could explore this expertly described dark cave. In it I found a few packs of wolves and eventually a yellow wall of mist that looked a lot like the mist wall that I crossed to fight Margit. So, “this is another boss fight” I thought to myself, and I traversed the mist to see what was waiting for me on the other side. It was a lower-level boss called Beastman of Farum Azula and I’m not going to lie, I still died a few times, but I noticed I was doing more damage to him than I was to Margit, so I kept at the fight. After multiple attempts I beat him and reaped the rewards from his corpse and the chest in his cave. I decided at this point I wasn’t going to follow the main path because I wasn’t ready for what was at the end, and instead I was going to focus on just looking at the areas I could reach around the starting area. I slowly started to explore every nook and cranny of the area, all while killing enemies and hoarding their runes to trade for stat points at the Sites of Grace slowly making my character strong enough to take on Margit.

The enemies you encounter in Elden Ring don’t scale with you as you level up. Enemies that you might find tough in the beginning or during your first trek into a new area, become easier like common enemies as you level up. It’s nice to go back and dish out some revenge on enemies that killed you a few times and it's a great reminder of your progress and how far you've come. As I said before, the enemies you slay drop runes that immediately go into your inventory by a gold swirl of light. The number of runes you receive depends on the difficulty of the enemy you are facing, and that amount never changes even as you level up. Meaning, kill a little pygmy guy in the north part of Caelid and you’ll receive 1000 runes if you are level 5 or 50. When you die, you drop the runes on the ground where your body fades away, and as you respawn at the nearest bonfire, you must make it back to where you died to reclaim the runes or they will be gone forever upon another death. This is where the level grind comes in, and talking with some veteran Souls guys this is a huge part of previous souls style games. If you can’t beat an area or a boss, spend some time killing a group of enemies and then rest at the bonfire to respawn them.

Resting at the bonfire serves multiple purposes. You can level up, sort your chest, mix elixirs, and you can rest to refill your health, but it comes at a cost. Any common enemy in the game that you have beaten will respawn. This doesn’t count for named enemies or bosses, so feel confident that once you are strong enough to take down that Tree Sentinel in the beginning, he won’t be coming back to haunt you. Grinding like this is a key mechanic in Souls style games and it’s extremely helpful to gain runes, but it’s also really helpful to practice your combat on weaker enemies and that helps in the long run against tougher foes and bosses. There are many different types of enemies that you will encounter in The Lands Between and they all have different fighting styles, so taking them on is almost like a puzzle each time. You need to watch their patterns and moves to know when the best time to strike is, and if you are wrong, they make sure you pay for it. Some of the enemies are far too aggressive with their attacks. I’m not talking about a dog or a rat constantly biting you, which is frustrating, but the mages in the Academy of Raya Lucaria are a better example that they just constantly fire spells at you even after you leave the room. You can hear them firing off shots at the wall you are behind, and they will not let up until you come out and deal with them. They’ll never give up firing spells at you or give you a clear opening to take a swipe at them without taking some damage of your own. This almost always resulted in death for me, and it’s a frustrating way to lose runes.

During combat you can press in the right analog stick to lock onto an enemy, then flick the right stick in any direction to cycle across the multiple enemies on your screen. Locking onto an enemy can be frustrating when you are managing multiple enemies because it doesn’t always lock on to the nearest enemy after you kill your target. Multiple times I was dodging in a panic (again, I’m squishy) only to either dodge off a cliff, or right into another cluster of enemies because my lock switched to an unintentional target, or no target at all and it changed the trajectory of my roll. Also, sometimes locking on to flying enemies or larger enemies is a bad idea because the camera follows the enemy too closely and you cannot see your surroundings. I’ve fallen off roofs and been killed by other enemies so many times because I am swatting at a bird and never hitting it. Sometimes it's better to fight those enemies without using the lock system at all. Enemies can attack from any angle at any time in this open world, and just riding on horseback can trigger an attack from a normal enemy, boss or countless other scarier things. If you are in a cave, a skeleton can jump from around any corner. If you are in a swamp, a large crab or lobster can pop out from the water and deal a huge amount of initial damage. Even if you are in a field picking flowers, and can see 360 degrees around you, that doesn't mean a dragon can’t swoop down at any second and torch you with fire. You always have to watch your back, and that feeling never goes away.

Everyone always says Souls games are about stamina management and timing your attacks with rolls and dodges, but with me playing a bandit build I have almost unlimited stamina. I can jump, dodge, and roll around enemies like a spider monkey and I’ll never see half of my stamina bar depleted. But that doesn't come without a price. I have to wear light armor, and my defense stats are pretty low by default. I’ve built some of those stats up by leveling but it pretty much means that bosses can drain one quarter to half my health with one heavy hit alone, so I have to rely on timing my dodges right. You can also parry the blow and respond with a Guard Counter where the enemy will be stunned long enough for you to land a critical blow to deal huge damage. The window for this Guard Counter is pretty small, but after some practice you’ll be repeating them with very little trouble and the hit is always satisfying.

Even though my bandit takes a beating I never once felt like Elden Ring cheated in any way. There have always been games with a steep difficulty, but they tend to use cheap tactics like huge health bars, or unlimited stamina to keep barraging you with heavy attacks. That is not the case with Elden Ring. Every death that I was dealt felt justified, that there was somewhere within that interaction that I screwed up and the game made me pay for it. Growing up with friends that played a lot of fighting games like Tony Hawk, SSX and other combo heavy games, we always used the phrase “I got greedy” when you’d try for one more move, or one more punch to end a combo, and then your opponent used that opportunity to thrash you or that last trick caused you to bail and lose the multiplier. I lost track of how many times I’ve died in Elden Ring and said out loud to myself “I got greedy” because I was trying to land one more hit with my katana and I should have known that the enemy was about to start his attacks. It’s perfect combat like this that just drives me nuts and wants me to better myself to stop making those mistakes, but I always do, and I always go back for more punishment.

As you kill enemies throughout The Lands Between you will loot many items off their corpses, and off the corpses scattered about from previous battles. Some of them are gold runes that you can sell for XP runes, and some of the items are spells, weapons and armor. Spells, armor, and weapons all scale up with your character as you add points into the various stat categories of your character, so there is no real need to heavily compare the stats of the items you find. If the base stats are better, then you should probably use the upgrade you find and sell the old item to a vendor. However, there are ways to upgrade the pieces to make them last longer if you like the way they feel, and all weapons truly feel different to swing. There are smithing stones you’ll find littered all over the land, and you can take them to the smithing bench near the church at the start of the game. Here you can upgrade your favorite weapons to +1 status all the way to +12. You can also add Ashes of War to standard weapons and that can add effects like blood loss, poison, lightning, holy and all sorts of other damage modifiers. You can equip and unequip Ashes of War at a bonfire at any time without penalty, so feel free to try any combination based on the enemies you are fighting by creating your own legendary weapons from common ones. It adds a lot of options to your combat style and adds a longer life to the weapons you start to feel comfortable with, meaning you can take the sword you start off with all the way to the end game and you won’t be limited by doing so.

From Software has crafted the best videogame worlds I have ever played in and there is no contest. I’ve played all the heavy hitters of open world RPGs and I have never seen a map this big with as many caves, castles, swamps, fields, forests, cliffs and beaches to explore. It’s staggering how big the map really is, and as you start to unlock more sections and the fog on the map dissipates, it starts to feel overwhelming. It’s best to just slow down, take a breath and digest the area you are in and try to uncover all of its secrets rather than rush forward and hunt down the next boss. While you are slowing down, make sure to take in the beautifully crafted castles and keeps that you can explore. As you walk Stormveil castle halls you see remnants of past battles. Holes in walls from ballistics or magic tell the story of a great battle that happened here a long time ago. Maybe after the shattering someone was trying to get the shard piece from Godrick. The game doesn’t tell you this, but that’s part of the mystique, and it really adds to the feeling of dread and uncertainty that is common throughout the whole experience.

Many games have used the phrase “if you see it, you can go there” in their marketing. I remember Zelda Breath of the Wild being one of the first games to actually deliver on that promise for me. Elden Ring is the perfect example of a game where if you see it on screen, you can go there and explore it. With its massive draw distance, you can see mountains and towering castles in the distance, and until you get really close, you have no clue how large they are. From the tallest castles to the deepest darkest caves of The Lands Between you’ll see the love and detail that the artists put into every location. You must just stop and look at all of the small details, and not just run past them on your way to the next enemy or chest. You will thank me if you do.

Elden Ring rewards your curiosity in many ways, be it items, runes or a pathway to another area, but mostly it’s a story to tell your friends when you are sharing tales around the bonfire. It does not force feed tutorials down your throat, but instead it leans far the opposite way by not telling you much at all and lets you explore and find things out on your own. There is no true quest log, no points of interest on a map or no arrows pointing you in the right direction, so there is a good chance you’ll miss some of the best caves and areas of the game. Because of all of this, Elden Ring is forcing me to find all of that out on my own and it is one of the most rewarding games I have ever played. I will continue to explore the Land Between for many hours to come. I’m just not in a hurry.

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

Overall Score: 10.0 / 10 OlliOlli World

OlliOlli World is developer Roll7’s follow up to the 2015 banger, OlliOlli 2. Welcome to Olliworld, and it’s the series’ first transition to a 3D engine while still staying true to the original 2D gameplay. Does this trip to Radlandia stick the landing, or does it bail with one leg on each side of the rail? Ouch! Well, read on and I’ll tell you!

If you’ve never played the series before, Olliolli has always been a 2D skating game focused on combos of tricks, grinds, wallrides and manuals at a very fast pace, and this newest entry to the series has all these mainstays but also adds some new twists. First off is the addition to depth to your runs. It’s no longer just left to right, but you can move closer and further from the screen depending on the route you take. Vert ramps and forks in the path are used to change lanes, and each change in lanes brings new challenges, obstacles and sometimes an increased difficulty. These separate lanes can increase your scores due to the extra challenge and extra trick locations, but also ensures that each run can be a bit different and multiple playthroughs are needed to complete all of the levels' optional objectives. Each level that you play through not only requires your completion, but also offers three optional objectives. Some are score related, some require no bails, and some have you performing a trick and knocking an animal off its perch. These optional challenges are fun and offer a great deal of replay trying to find them all.

Even though the OlliOlli’s series is known for its difficulty, newcomers will like that OlliOlli World is much more forgiving than the previous games. You’ll no longer bail if you land a trick sideways on the ground, rails or manuals, instead you’ll just get fewer points. You can also prepare for your jumps earlier by holding the Left Stick in the desired direction while still pumping your foot for speed as there is no penalty for starting the ollie too early. These are all very welcome changes because I was one of those players that had a hard time finishing levels due to its increasing difficulty. These old fingers just don’t have the reflexes that they used to. I really like knowing that I can see everything that the game has to offer, but also know that if I do want to return for a harder challenge I can try for high scores and optional objectives to complete.

There are a lot of things to learn as you progress through the story of OlliOlli World, and with each new land you travel to you are given a new trick to add to your arsenal. All of the tricks, grabs, grabs through crystals, wallrides, grinds, manuals and spins (to name a few) are unlocked organically within each land. You are given a tutorial level to learn the trick and then you are given plenty of time (usually 10-15 more levels) to master it before they throw a new one at you, so there’s plenty of time for it to sink in and be added to your muscle memory. Once a trick is added to your repertoire, you are free to use it as needed, but I suggest you start using it often because as you start to progress through the levels, that trick, whether it’s a grind, manual, or a grab through a crystal, will be necessary to use to complete the level. So, it’s best to force yourself to master it before you move too far forward. I said it’s more accessible for newcomers, I didn’t say it was easier. Your little fingers will be put through the motions in a frenzy of flicks of the sticks to complete each level.

Let’s face it, you are going to bail a lot in this game, but the good thing is that respawns are instant, so you are put right back into the action quickly. This makes my thumbs cry, but it’s always been a staple of the series and it’s good that quick respawns are here to stay, because like I said, I bail a lot. Sometimes I feel that the checkpoints are a bit too far apart, so bailing can sometimes result in having to repeat longer runs then you would want to, but that adds to the challenge and always brings a sigh of relief when you hit them. Checkpoints aren’t only used for respawns but also are used as points banks, meaning that any combo you have open, or points accrued since the last checkpoint will deposit into your score as you cross the checkpoint, and you’ll never lose those points once they enter your score no matter how many times you bail.

After you complete the story and every required level there are still a lot of things to do in OlliOlli World. I found it a lot of fun to go back to the early levels and crush my scores now that I had a greater understanding of how the game mechanics and scoring works. I also found a lot of Gnarly Routes and optional objectives that I didn’t spot in my first playthrough. Some of the level's high score challenges require you to complete the level in one combo, which takes a master skill, something I am not capable of, so I focused more on the hidden objectives. Beating the game also unlocks online challenge mode where your scores are put up against an online leaderboard, and secondly there is a random level generator that you can see how you stack up against the world’s best players being tossed into a level you’ve never played before and haven’t had the chance to master.

The graphics of OlliOlli World are a HUGE step above the previous games. OlliOlli had more of a pixel art style, OlliOlli 2 was a bit sharper, and OlliOlli World looks like it was taken straight from the Adventure Time cartoon. There are hundreds of character creation options, and you can switch them up at any time as you unlock more hats, shoes and dozens of other items throughout the levels. I must have changed my look at least 20 times throughout my time, and each time I liked what I came up with. One neat feature is during load screens, the characters of your friends and other OlliOlli players are shown on your screen. So, you can see what other characters looked like, randomly Xbox Live's Major Nelson (I think you legally must use his full name) showed up in my loading screen and it was neat to see what his style is like.

OlliOlli World is the perfect evolution of what is already a fantastic series, and it has plenty to do for both newcomers and veterans. It rides the line between hard and accessible, making it very welcoming to newcomers while still being true to the high difficulty that the series is known for. I really enjoyed my time with it and look forward to replaying the completed levels to go for high scores and completing all of the optional objectives.

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

Overall Score: 9.5 / 10 Cannibal Cuisine

Couch and online co-op games have seen a surge in popularity with the never-ending pandemic we seem to be in, and if you are familiar with the popular Overcooked series, you will feel right at home with Cannibal Cuisine. They tried to put their own spin on the popular title that it obviously borrows from, but did they succeed? Or is it a little... undercooked? Ha! Get it? No wait, please don’t leave, I promise won’t make any more jokes like that.

Cannibal Cuisine by Rocket Vulture is a single screen cooking game with a spin. You are controlling a single character from a cannibal tribe that worships their God Hoochooboo, and he’s HUNGRY for human flesh, but cooked to perfection of course, and paired with vegetables and fruits. But, instead of preparing food by chopping them up on chopping blocks and throwing them into cooking pans or pots, you must attack visiting tourists and then take the body parts that they drop and throw them on a fire spit with the requested side dishes.

Sometimes Hoochooboo likes ribs with sliced oranges, sometimes he likes an arm with grilled squash. He is a connoisseur of fine dining, and you never know what kind of combination you will have to serve him. Be careful though, the tourists fight back, and they will attack until they kill you, resulting in an inconvenient respawn timer. The tourists also hold a mean grudge and will follow you across the screen, so it’s best to take them out while you can so they don’t kill you while you are waiting for some food and then it burns while you are respawning.

Before starting a level, you get to choose the color, the head dress and a special power that your character has during the rounds. You can choose from a healing post, dash, and fire breathing, and these abilities can really make a difference in how well you do in each round and how well you work with your friends. It’s best to make sure everyone has a different ability and they know how to use them. The fire breathing ability for instance can be used in a few different ways. You can breathe fire directly on a fire spit to make the food cook faster, or you can take the food off early and breathe the fire on it while it’s on the ground to finish cooking it. During a few of the levels we found it was a good strategy to have the fire breather near Hoochooboo and others would grab half cooked meals off the spits and then have the fire breather finish them off and turn them in for points. The abilities really add a lot of options to how you play the game, and they can really help you maximize your time and increase those scores.

Scoring is based on speed of cooking, accuracy of orders and delivering fully cooked meals. Each round totals up your scores and you are rated 1-3 stars depending on the requirements of the level. You can play co-op or head-to-head with your friends both on the couch and online. There are boss battles and events that have nothing to do with cooking at the end of each group of levels and some of those can be really frustrating but are a good way to break up the game monotony level to level.

And... now for the bad. I think Cannibal Cuisine throws too much at you. I really enjoy these co-op games where you work together to complete objectives, and if you fail you can talk it out with your friends on how you can do better next time. Maybe have the less experienced person handle the cooking and delivering, or someone that can easily handle the narrow bridges or obstacles working on moving the food back and forth for your friends that prefer to stay in the same small area. I have played hours of Overcooked with my wife and we work surprisingly well together in stressful situations. But, with Cannibal Cuisine a lot of your failures will come from things you cannot control.

I died so much in Cannibal Cuisine by falling off platforms, impaled by spikes that I SWEAR MISSED ME, and beaten to death by tourists that are only alive because the game didn’t register the 3 hits I did on them, that it really just stopped being fun. My wife, who is not a gamer, played two levels of it and said she’ll never touch it again and she’s played both Overcooked and Overcooked 2 with me to completion. She cannot cross a bridge without falling off, she cannot remember which button places the food on the fire, and she never once used her ability, but those are her fault. We both expect those types of frustrations because we know she’s not a big-time gamer.

Cannibal Cuisine is just brutal with its difficulty, and what makes it worse, is that the controls aren’t really that precise so you are already at a disadvantage. There were many times that I felt I crossed a bridge safely only to fall in the water at the end resulting in a round crushing respawn timer. It’s always when you are delivering food, so you have to start cooking that order over again, and in most cases, it’s best to just reset the level because 3 Star scores demands perfection to attain.

I was pretty excited when I read about Cannibal Cuisine and the abilities that your characters have. Being able to cook the food away from the spit and heal yourself and teammates with totems adds another layer of co-op and planning that I love in these types of games. But it’s just not enough for me and my wife to enjoy it. We are fine with us failing a level due to bad communication or her lack of skill, but when we fail because I lost most of my health running through the unavoidable spikes, and just as I am about to throw a meal on the fire an angry tourist tracks me down and kills me with one hit, or I fall off a moving platform because there wasn’t enough room next to a fence, it just takes all the fun away.

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

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Chorus

I have fond memories as a kid sitting on my parents' living room floor playing Star Fox and Star Wars Rogue Squadron on my Nintendo 64, and then during the original Xbox generation I played and fell in love with the cult classic, Crimson Skies. I would restart or die on purpose over and over so I could replay the best missions of those games as many times as I could. Developers, DeepSilver Fishlabs, has created a game that comes as close to space combat perfection that you can find, but in order to experience that you are going to have to wade through a lot of lore, some frustrating tutorial style missions and a story that takes itself a bit too serious at times.

The story is an all too familiar one. The main character, Nara, is an ex-pilot for the evil church group called The Circle. She was the number Two in command next to The Prophet, was his death dealer and the most gifted pilot in his fleet. She was tasked with blowing up a planet and killed over a billion humans and began to feel extreme guilt for her actions. So she ditched the creepy church cult, along with her Circle issued powers and AI ship, and started a life as a pilot for hire until the solar system she was living in was being targeted by The Circle. As any hero would do, she stepped up to defend her home but soon found she was out gunned by The Circle pilots. The only thing she could do was reunite with her AI ship Forsaken and reclaim her powers to take on The Circle and save the galaxy.

There is so much lore and backstory in Chorus that it is easy to get lost during its 12–15 hour campaign. There are side missions to explore as you unlock new areas, each telling a small tale of someone affected by The Circle. The Circle is a group of a few religious groups much like The Covenant in the Halo games, and they are led by The Prophet (also like Halo) and their mission is to brainwash the galaxy and make everyone conform to their ways. Much like churches do here on planet Earth. The side missions vary in length and objectives, but most deal with protecting a cargo ship on its route, removing The Circles presence from a factory or refinery that is supplying the city with an important resource, or collecting a handful of hidden or lost items for a NPC. The side quests, once complete, will reward you with credits or small ship upgrades.

The story itself, even if it’s generic, is really good. I found myself caring about what happened to Nara and some of the other people she interacted with in her journey, but the execution of the story is where it loses me a bit. The dialog for every character outside of Forsaken is very generic and I found myself shaking my head a few times at the lines other pilots and key characters were saying. Forsaken, your ship AI who sounds like a mixture of Master Chief and Ultron has the best dialog in the game. He’s a vengeful AI and all he wants to do is take on The Circle and stop their brainwashing ways, even if it costs human lives in the process. Nara has a loyalty to humanity and their differences in objectives makes for an interesting back and forth between the two. I think the parts that really caused me to disconnect with the story had to do with Nara and the constant whispering she did to herself reminding her of her past and the things she did while she was part of The Circle. It just happens too much and it’s overdone. I can see her doing it a few times, but this is one of those cases where they went overboard and a “less is more” approach would have been better at a few key times.

There are many different solar systems to visit in Chorus as you progress through the story. You’ll visit asteroid fields, icy planets, large space cities covered in neon lights and mining planets to only name a few, and they all look drastically different with amazing lighting and easy to spot landmarks specific to that biome. Each solar system has a large map to explore with outposts, dangers and upgrades/credits to collect. The systems you travel to are connected via jump gates, so it’s easy to travel back to past systems to search for missions and credits if you are looking to upgrade Forsaken.

Nara and The Prophet are the only rendered characters in the very few cutscenes, so most of the story beats are told through memory flashes and communications chatter that shows up on your HUD while in the ship. I don’t mind this at all, as I’d much rather be flying the ship around looking for credits and side missions while someone is talking to me, than sitting with my controller on my lap during a lengthy cutscene. What can I say, I like to multitask. Chorus runs at a silky smooth 4K 60 frames per second, and I never saw any dips during gameplay, but I did notice some hitching during the cutscenes. I also had a glitch where the audio cuts completely out during cutscenes and booting up in Quick Resume, so I think both of those issues can be corrected with patches and do not affect the gameplay whatsoever.

Your AI ship, Forsaken, can be upgraded with better defenses, turrets, lasers, and rockets and these upgrades can be acquired from rewards by completing side missions, or by purchasing them with credits that you received by completing side missions. The lower tier of weapons do a great job of dealing with The Circle enemies early on in the game, but once the difficulty ramps up and you start to fight tougher enemies it’s necessary to upgrade Forsaken to his maximum. As you encounter more enemies, you’ll notice that certain enemies are killed faster with certain weapons. The smaller ships you encounter most in the game are easily dispensed with the gatling gun, and one of the harder enemies, The Vulture ships, have a shield they can encase themselves with but mostly hover in one spot firing a devastating red laser beam at you. It’s best to keep a distance and fire a barrage of missiles at them while barrel rolling away from their deadly lasers. You’ll find each of the enemies in Chorus have a weakness and an ideal weapon to use against them, and finding those combinations was really fun and rewarding.

Nara herself can be upgraded in a way with Rites. Rites are abilities that Nara had while part of The Circle that she gave up when she ditched the cult. As the story progresses, you’ll travel to Faceless temples to reclaim the Rites and you’ll use them in your combat and traversal. The first two Rites you unlock are the ones I used the most. Drift is the first you unlock, and let me tell you I was ready to rage quit trying to figure this one out. As soon as you unlock the Rites you are given a few small challenges that work as a tutorial of sorts. With the Drift Rite, I was tasked with having to drift down a narrow hallway turning left, right, and 180 degrees to shoot multiple switches on the walls to unlock doors. It took me FOREVER to do this, and even when I did complete it, it was by accident. I could not get my head wrapped around how to drift properly. It is mapped to the 'LB' button and ended up changing that to a paddle on my Elite controller as that felt a bit better, but I still wasn’t getting how the mechanic worked until I left the temple that I unlocked Drift in and got into combat. That is when the ability really clicked and soon, I became a drifting pro. I was soon zooming past enemies, and then drifting 180 degrees shooting at them until they exploded. It’s very satisfying to get this mechanic down and learning it is essential to your survival because some enemies have front facing shields and drifting past them to expose their weakened sides is the only way to defeat them.

The next Rite is called The Hunt and that instantly teleports you behind the enemy you are targeted. Hunt is ridiculously overpowered, and I am surprised that they give you this Rite so early in the game. When there are many enemies on the screen to take out, it’s a very handy tool to be teleported behind an enemy to put you in a good position to take them out fast. Rites are really useful in combat, and they are the reason that it can move so fast. I remember my days with Rogue Squadron and how I would spend lots of time turning slowly, or the times that combat would stop to a halt as my enemy and I were circling each other in space. I would be just turning to the left for minutes hoping to see my enemy appear on my screen long enough to get a few shots off. With Chorus you get the Rites and those help keep the combat moving at a very fast pace. You can teleport behind enemies with the press of a button, and then drift as they turn to keep your reticle aimed at them, giving you the ability to quickly take them out and move to the next. It’s essential later in the game when you are given dozens of smaller enemies, a handful of mid-sized bullet sponges, and a few massive enemies to take out all at the same time. I cannot stress enough how satisfying the combat is on Chorus. It easily has the best combat of any space shooter I have played.

Chorus is a fantastic space shooter that is woven together by a story that is great on paper but lacks proper execution. Its overall plot is very interesting, but the dialog and cutscenes didn’t do much to pull me in. That being said, Chorus is the most fun I’ve had in a very long time with a space shooter. With a packed holiday season, I found myself doing the impossible; I delayed playing more Halo Infinite and I died on purpose in Chorus to replay some sequences because they were that much fun. The abilities, the weapons, and the lightning-fast combat make it a joy to play. There is a lot to explore in the world, and I am hoping that this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Nara and Forsaken.

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

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Jackbox Party Pack 8, The

If you are not familiar with the past Jackbox Party Pack games and are looking into this series for the first time, then let me give you a small rundown of what the series is all about. Jackbox is a set of 5 party games that you can play either together in the same room, or remotely over a streaming service like Twitch or YouTube. You can even play entirely using the phone, but you won’t get that wholesome human interaction that is needed to maintain a healthy lifestyle. Seriously play live with friends. They miss you.

Only one copy of the game is needed, so it’s perfect to play with your non-gamer friends who want to come by, have a few adult beverages and have fun for a few hours. I own all eight Packs and its super fun to just cycle through our favorites on game nights. I really wish there was a way to combine all packs into one launcher, but if it were that easy I’m sure they would have done it by now. Controllers are not needed, except for the host who owns the game. Everyone that wants to play either needs a computer, phone or a tablet to join in on the fun. So again, it’s really accessible to the non-gamers. We had my friend's mom (non-gamer, not tech savvy) join us in a game of You Don’t Know Jack in one of the past Packs and it worked great. We had her on speaker so we could all talk, and she was able to play the trivia game completely over the phone. It was a fun night during the pandemic when she couldn’t be with us in person.

This is the 8th pack of the series, and each pack has had 5 to 6 games in them. So, doing the math (and trying not to use my toes in the process) that's at least 40 different party games in the series, so there is something for everyone. Jackbox always offers a variety in each pack with trivia, puzzle, drawing and usually they add an off the wall game where you work together or compete against your friends to complete funny tasks or puzzles. The humor that the Jackbox games always brings to the table is top notch and will always elicit a few laughs to you and your crew. There’s not much I can say about the graphics, sound or any of my normal talking points when reviewing games. So instead of concentrating on that I am going to talk a bit about each of the games included in Party Pack 8.

First up is Drawful Animate, if you’re new to Drawful then you are in for a real treat here. It’s one of our favorites as a group and I’m sure it will be for yours. There are different challenges within Drawful, but they all involve using your phone or tablet to draw pictures for your friends to caption or guess what they are. With this new version of Drawful Animate, each person is tasked with creating a 2-picture animation that best shows the topic they are given by the game. The artists are given 3 colors, one black and two random ones to complete their drawings. Oh, and there is no eraser, so you are stuck with whatever you draw. It makes for some very funny results and often ends in embarrassment for the artists. The animations are done in two separate doodles and when looped in a quick animation they can tell a small story. The goal of the artist here is to best draw what the caption is so your friends can correctly guess the caption, but the goal of your friends is to look at the artist's drawing and create their own caption to fool others into voting for that. Get the most votes, get the most points, and if others steal your votes, they also steal your points. Drawful has always been one of the tops games we’ve played in my group of friends and Animate will most definitely be a welcome addition to our standard rotation.

Job Job is a word puzzle game for 3 to 10 players. This one will take a few tries before everyone gets the hang of it, but once everyone gets what the game is about it can be a lot of fun. Everyone in your group is interviewing for the same job, and you start the interview by being given an icebreaker question that you have to type out a five word answer. The next round you are tasked with creating an answer to your first interview question, but you have only the pool of words someone else used as their icebreaker question. The first round is really the hardest because you don’t have many words to work with, but as the rounds go on, more words are added to the pool to craft your answers as more players are adding their answers in. You aren’t only limited by the words your friends submit, you can choose words from the question and shuffle the order to help you craft your responses. You are awarded points by others in the match voting for your responses to the interview questions, and the person with the most points at the end of the interview gets the job. I found that typing out the max words per response really added to the fun of the game because the more you type out, the bigger the pool of words you can use becomes. It doesn’t pay to be shy here, try and come up with responses using as many clever words as you can and try not to reuse more common words like “the” “and” “or” because those only take up spots in the pool. It’s also helpful to have more people playing this one because that also increases the number of words in the pool, giving you more options to be creative and funny.

The Poll Mine is a survey game that is completely unique, as I’ve never played a game like this in a Party Pack before. You are divided into teams, but you don’t have to be even, so any number of players can play and it won’t affect the fun. Each round you are given a list of items that you rank based on the hosts requirements. For example, you might be asked what is the stickiest, and you are given a list of sticky items and you rank them from most to least. From there you are supposed to talk it out with your friends which order they fall in based on who voted for what and in what order. The more guesses you get correct, the more points your team gets. It’s a lot of fun to see some of your friends' answers, and it sparks some debates about why one of your friends would think honey is stickier than glue. Not all of the rounds are just ranking best to worst, some task you with picking the bottom three, or even the middle three, so it’s not always as easy as debating the most or least from the list. You must talk out all the options with your team or you will lose. This is a good game to play if you really know your friends and you have no problem calling them out on being weird about some topics, but it’s also a great game to play with new friends as you will get to know them even better. It’s what party games are all about.

Weapons Drawn is easily the most complicated game in the pack, and probably of all Jackbox. It’s labeled as “A social deduction game where everyone is both a murderer and a detective”. First you are tasked with drawing two murder weapons based on the description cards you are given. In your drawing you are forced to use the provided letter from your name. In the example the game shows, the letter "A" is drawn inverted and into the handle of the sword that was the murder weapon. You should probably do your best to hide this letter as best as you can. As the game goes on you are tasked with not only solving who killed who, but also getting away with killing people yourself. If you are looking for a quick game, this isn’t it. It takes a lot to explain, and I think I would go over my word limit in this review trying to explain it. This definitely isn’t the type of game you’d invite your friend’s mom to join over the phone, and maybe not the game you play late into the night after you’ve had a few drinks, but it is a lot of fun to play if you have the right group of friends that are willing to invest some time to learn it and play it the right way. I’m afraid that my group of friends didn’t take it too seriously, and were voting at random, or even worse, using wrong logic to choose their votes and it ruined the plans of people trying to play the game right. It’s a very complicated game, but once you learn the ins and outs, it could be a lot of fun.

The Wheel of Enormous Proportions is Party Pack 8’s version of a trivia game with 2 to 8 players. Usually, this spot is taken by You Don’t Know Jack or Murder Mystery Party, but this time The Wheel takes it’s spot as a great stand in for those classics. You start the game off by answering a magic 8-Ball style question, so naturally I asked, “Will I get some tonight?” which my wife promptly answered “No!” and then everyone laughed at my expense. The host of the trivia game show is a magic wheel and the more questions you get right, the more spins you get at the end of each round. The rewards for spins are points and mixed on the wheel are some special slices that can award the spinners points to other players of the game. The person with the most points at the end of the game wins. The trivia questions usually consist of a question of which you get to pick multiple answers from a pool of about a dozen choices. So, for example you must pick the names of the seven dwarves, you’ll have the seven names on the screen mixed in with 5 fakes. Another question you get is to match two sets of lists together. So, fruits with their colors, or superheroes with their real names, stuff like that. Another is similar to past Jackbox games where they give you a mystery person or thing, and they fire clues at you to help you out. The longer it takes for you to guess, the less points you receive. It’s all pretty standard for trivia games, and that's for good reason. These types of questions are fun to have, and everyone knows how trivia games work, so they are easy to jump in and play even if you are not used to party games. The Wheel is the perfect game to start the night with, it’s fun for everyone and it gets that first game's nerves out of the way for newcomers.

You can tell that a lot of extra love and attention went into this pack. The animations of the menus and games have all received an upgrade, and every game has a special closing song that is a lot of fun to listen to. Stuff like that was usually only saved for one game in the pack but I am glad they had the extra time and money to do it for all the games this time. I think this pack has a good variety of games, and none of them missed the mark this time. If you have a group of 5 to 8 friends or like to stream online and have your viewers play along, then you’ll find there is a lot to do and a lot of fun to be had with The Jackbox Party Pack 8.

**The Jackbox Party Pack 8 was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Psychonauts 2

Psychonauts 2 is the sequel to the 2005 cult classic released on Xbox, PC and Playstation 2. Ten years after the release of the original, in December of 2015 it was announced on stage at The Game Awards that Psychonauts 2 was going into crowd funding. A few weeks later in early January it reached its goal and was given a tentative release year of 2018. After multiple delays which included its original publisher, Starbreeze, going out of business, and then being acquired by Microsoft in 2019, the team at Double Fine finally released their masterpiece. Was it worth the wait? Well, put on your red goggles, throw a Psycho-Portal door on my head and let’s see!

The story starts immediately after the VR game Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin which bridges the gap between Psychonauts 1 and Psychonauts 2. You are Razputin Aquato, a former acrobat turned Psychonaut but are quickly dismissed by the boss down to recruit level at the start of the game. You must prove yourself and rank up to be considered a full member of the Psychonauts and during its twenty or so hour campaign you will unravel a complex story that pulls from the first game, and the events that formed the Psychonauts agency.

A Psychonaut is a psychic that uses Psycho Portal doors on people's brains to enter them and sort out problems, or to get info needed for their missions. For instance, the opening mission finds you in the brain of the first game's villain Dr. Loboto. He’s a mad crazy dentist and his mental world is made up of gums, teeth, braces and pools of saliva. Your mission upon entering his mindscape is to look for clues that could help with the investigation focused on in the main story. As you piece together clues from this mad dentist's memories you see a shadowy figure that he is absolutely terrified of. This shadowy figure happens to be Psychonauts 2’s main villain, and as you enter more minds trying to unravel the story, you will learn about its origin and how to defeat it.

The ability to enter a vast array of minds is a genius way to design a video game because it creates an endless pool of level designs to pull from. There is a casino level, a psychedelic music festival, a library, a colorful swamp with stained glass windows everywhere, a rip-off “It's a Small World” amusement park ride and many more. Because you are entering people's minds, there is no deeper explanation needed to link them together in a story. Raz can just throw a door onto a character's mind and you are transported to a city designed to look like a bowling alley.

As I’ve said in other reviews, I’m a pretty straight forward person and I don’t always notice the hidden meaning of things in games and movies. I pretty much take things at face value, but Psychonauts 2 made me feel smart by making all the references very easy to spot. For instance, one of the collectibles is to find tags for the emotional baggage that is hidden in each level. You’ll come across a crying hat box that needs its tag, and that tag is hidden in the area. Match the correct tag with the baggage and you’ll get rewarded with an animation where the baggage stops crying and becomes happy that it’s been reunited with its tag. I understood that! There are also colorful figment sketches to locate, half-a-minds to assemble and Nuggets of Wisdom to find. There are hundreds of collectibles to find throughout the mindscapes of Psychonauts 2 and they are all very fun to search for. I was able to 100% complete the game with 1000/1000 achievement points after I crossed the 40-hour mark, so there is a lot to do if you are a collectible hound like me.

Once you complete a mindscape, you can return at any time to find collectibles. To help you even further, once you re-enter you will see a little yellow slime creature that will warp you to the different zones in each mind and you can check your book for the number of collectibles in each mind you have found. With so many collectibles in the game, this is a very necessary feature to 100% complete the game. I can’t imagine hunting over 100 figments per level without some sort of checklist and warp. Most of the collectibles are just that, for collecting, but if you find two half-a-mind’s then you will add one notch to your health bar. Each collectible you find also grants you XP to your overall level and as you level up you can buy higher ranked pins from the vending machine. So, there is a small reason to find these other than achievements, but honestly, it’s not a very hard game so leveling up Raz by upgrading your health bar isn’t a requirement.

I mentioned pins above and I wanted to dive a bit deeper into that. As you explore the main hubs in the game and the virus minds as part of the story, you will collect purple orbs from defeating enemies and interacting with objects. These purple orbs are called Psitanium and you can use this currency to upgrade abilities, upgrade your carry bag and also purchase candy that will refill your health from vending machines in the hub worlds. The pins that you purchase act as modifiers for the abilities you have unlocked through the story points. For instance, you can purchase a pin to alter your time ability to speed things up rather than slow, but you can also purchase a pin that will let you telepathically pet animals in the game, so not all pins are serious. These pins can be equipped and swapped at any time so you can use them to try all sorts of different combinations of moves. Some of the areas in the hubs and mindscapes are blocked off by doors or spinning objects that you will be able to access later with an ability you unlock further in the story.

As you progress in the story you will also unlock abilities to help you add to your arsenal to defeat the main boss. Psychonauts 2 does a great job of forcing you to use all the abilities you receive throughout the game. You’ll be using these abilities not only for combat, but also in the platforming sections of the game, which can be mapped to the bumpers and triggers of the controllers and can be swapped out at any time with an on-screen wheel selector. I mentioned the slow time ability above; you can use this to slow down speeding fans or platforms so you can time your jumps better, but also the slow time ability is necessary to defeat the Panic Attack enemy which is super-fast and impossible to beat without slowing him down. The levitation ability was one of my most used throughout the game. You can use it while falling to create a bubble to slow your descent, and when you are running around it will create a ball for you to roll on increasing your speed. It was very useful to get to hard-to-reach places while hunting collectibles, but also very useful during combat to avoid enemy attacks. Throughout the story you will also unlock fire, a quick laser shot, mind to mind connection (teleport) and you’ll be using all of these abilities regularly to platform and beat up enemies.

As you progress through the story you will be sent into many different mindscapes, and as I said above, this method of storytelling really opens the options of level design. Since each mind is different, the theme, color pallet, enemies and obstacles should all be different. Psychonauts 2 does this perfectly and as I sit here thinking of all the places I visited, I cannot pick a favorite. A standout level will be the Psi-King (voiced by Jack Black) level at the psychedelic music festival. The beauty of the colors and moving objects throughout the level cannot be described. It’s a trippy traversal into the mind of a musician in the 70’s where you can just tell he did some experimental drugs. There are eyeballs, noses, flapping tongues and ears all over the level and they are called The Feast of the Senses, all while the Psi-King narrates telling the story of the band. But I think my favorite level to just explore and look at the environment is Bob’s Bottles. It’s set in a dark and green swamp but hanging from the trees and structures are colored glass bottles and stained-glass windows, and as the light shines through them you see a rainbow of colors shining and flickering through the glass and reflecting off objects. As I was exploring the mindscape for collectibles for my 100% completion, I lost track of how many times I stopped moving around and just rotated the camera to watch the colors dance in the trees.

Speaking of collectibles, one thing that blew my mind with the graphics was the draw distance. I don’t think I’ve ever played a game where you can stand anywhere on the level and see the entire distance from one end to the other, it’s absolutely insane how clear the game is without any pop-in during play (on an Xbox Series X). Since this game has so many collectibles, it’s an absolute treat to be able to see them easily from any spot in the level. For as beautiful the environments are, I can say that the character models are hit and miss. The main characters like Raz, Lily and a few others really stand out with the detailed textures of their faces, but you can tell some of the other lesser seen characters in the game did not receive as much love as their faces and clothes lacked the texture and details of the main characters. I was able to play the game at 4K 120hz on my Series X and it ran buttery smooth without a hiccup or hitch, you can really tell a lot of time went into the game to ensure it ran smooth which is essential for platformers.

Psychonauts 1 is the perfect example of the term cult classic, and Psychonauts 2 has created another masterpiece that I am only assuming won’t receive the attention it deserves. They have perfected and expanded on their original idea in every way and created a world full of heart and fun. It’s been well documented that the last few years it took to bake were used to expand the boss battles, and finely polish the areas that were complete. It’s clear that the added funds from being a Microsoft studio were put to good use and the team at Double Fine should be very proud of what they have created. I cannot wait to see what they create next.

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

Overall Score: 9.7 / 10 art of rally

art of rally is a sim style racing game made and published by Absolute Drift developer Funselektor Labs Inc. It’s not your traditional racer, it focuses on being more artistic than realistic, and that’s a good thing. So, get in the car, buckle your safety belt, enter in your blood type... wait, what? Yeah, you read that right, for some reason this game asks you your blood type when you start the game and it’s never answered why. I am assuming my information has been submitted to a vampire database and I will be getting a knock on my door late one night.

As you start the game for the first time you aren’t put into a race right away, instead you start in an open area and are free to roam the countryside taking in all the scenery. You’ll notice as you drive down the streets that the low polygon style makes the cars look like toys and the environments look like a model train set. This works perfectly with the locked third person camera that flies above the car like a drone. Since the camera is locked high above the car, that means you can easily spot turns and obstacles ahead of you and there is no need for an on-screen map. At first, I thought this was a flaw, as I am used to constantly referencing the mini map of racing games to prepare for future turns. Without a mini map to reference, I found myself taking in the beautiful landscape and at times it seemed like I was out for a Sunday drive rather than in a race. It’s a great change from the standard racing template.

Don’t let the low polygon count graphics fool you though, there is a lot of detail that Funselektor put into art of rally. The stars of the show are the cars and the roads, and that is where all the attention to detail has been focused. The cars themselves remind me of Micro Machines if you are old enough to remember those. There’s not a lot of detail to the models of the cars, but there's enough to recognize they are modeled after popular rally cars in history. They get wet from the rain and the snow, get dirty when traveling on dirt roads and show some damage as you bounce off trees and rocks. Eventually if you bounce off enough of those trees and rocks you will see your car start to smoke and then catch fire.

During your travels in the story mode you’ll be taken to Norway, Germany, France, Japan and a few other locations, and each one brings with it different weather conditions. The weather, as expected, has an effect on the roads you are driving, and this changes how your tires react to the road. It’s science. Puddles splash and snow fluffs up as you drive over them, and if you are too heavy on the gas in these locations, you’ll find yourself in the ditch, or up against a tree or rock. Each course not only has the weather you can modify, but also the time of day. Choose a morning race to see the sun shining bright through the trees, casting realistic sun rays across the screen. Choose a night race and you’ll barely be able to see the trees in the distance, and the only things bright enough are what is illuminated by your headlight beams. In the distance you’ll see your headlight glow and dance between the trees as they fade into darkness.

The soundtrack of art of rally is mostly electronic and reminds me a lot of Daft Punk. It’s a good type of music to just kick back and relax with, so to pair it with a racing game is an odd choice. Usually when you think of music to race you think of fast beats and faster guitar riffs, but art of rally really pulls off the pairing and after a while I was able to drop the usual tense feeling while playing and just sit back and enjoy the ride. The engines of the cars are different enough from each other that you can tell, but they aren’t pushing for realism here either. You can tell the difference between an 80-horsepower and a 400-horsepower car and I think that is all that is needed. One thing that I noticed while playing was since there is no co-pilot calling out your turns like in other sim rally games, I was able to just focus on the car sounds and listen to the soundtrack which is another welcome departure from traditional racing games.

At the start of its 15 hour campaign you just appear in an open area free to roam and get the feel of the game. This was a neat way to start the game off, usually you are put right into a race and are forced to win before you can move on proving you can beat the AI and advance your career. art of rally really embraces its chill atmosphere and the first thing you do is just drive and go where you please. The free roam areas are based on the countries they represent and come with the grassy hills, snowy mountains and rainy marshes they are known for. Each country has a list of collectibles that you can find simply by driving on every road in the area. VHS tapes, letters spelling R-A-L-L-Y, photo spots litter the land and finding them all will score you an achievement for your troubles.

During the story you will progress through 50 years of a faux history of rally and as you finish events you will unlock fakes of the popular cars used during that time. You’ll start off with low horsepower rear wheel drive cars and by the end of the history lesson you will be driving supercharged 500+ horsepower all-wheel drive beasts. You only have to finish the races to progress to the next event, and it’s nice to play a game not focused on winning races or constantly repeating races to finish faster than a set time. During races you won’t know your place until the end when your time is compared to other times for that event. So, you never have a sense of urgency to win and it’s a nice change from the constant stress of standard racing games and having to restart the race when you take a bad turn, or someone passes you at the end.

art of rally is a relaxing experience and I think it’s one that both veterans and newbies of the racing genre can enjoy. There is a lot to accomplish with the 10–15 hour story, the collectibles in the free roam areas, and the daily and weekly challenges so it will keep you coming back even though there isn’t any multiplayer. It’s ease of play and progression makes it a joy to play and feels more like a Sunday drive than it does a cookie cutter racing game that focuses on times and placement. Slip on some headphones, sit back on your couch and just go drive for a little while, you’re going to love it.

**art of rally was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Death's Door

Some games just grab your attention from the moment you see a clip and you just know that you need to play it. Death’s Door by the small team at Acid Nerve was that game for me when the trailer debuted at E3 this year. I quickly fell in love with the art style; it showed a crow strolling around a black and white city with a bright red sword on his back. As the trailer continues you see him enter a door, and then you are introduced to the quick and snappy gameplay in colorful vibrant worlds. Immediately I knew how the visuals of the game were going to be highlighted. I knew that the black/white combo was going to be used to portray his boring life, and that once he entered doors it was going to be a colorful adventure. A lot of us gamers can relate to this, we live normal lives every day going to work or school but get us into a video game and we are whisked off into an endless possibility of adventures. Ok, so they hyped me up, but did they deliver?

In Death’s Door you play as a Reaper and your job is to collect the souls of those that are assigned to you. As the game starts you are entering your office, you interact with some co-workers and then you are given your next assignment. Sound familiar? This all feels normal, like an everyday occurrence. You can tell that this exact scenario happens every day in this little Reaper's life. Every day he shows up, every day he reaps souls. Except this time, as you are about to reap your first soul of the day, a shadowy figure intervenes, and your story really begins.

Over the course of the next 10-15 hours, you are going to unravel the mystery of why you and other crows are stuck doing the dirty work of reaping souls, and you can’t get back home until you complete your assignment. The assignment that was just stolen by the shadowy figure. You’ll meet allies, enemies and everything in between while exploring and slashing your way through dungeons. There are three main bosses that have been cheating death for years and their souls are the keys needed to unlock the truth behind what has been happening to the Reaper Agency and what secrets its shady boss, The Lord of Doors, is hiding behind his keyhole mask. Each boss has its own domain that it rules, and each of the domains have vastly different scenery, music, enemies and obstacles to overcome. For example, the first boss you go after is in a hidden mansion with ceramic pots everywhere. As you progress through the mansion, you’ll be busting pots left and right (which break with a very satisfying crash with the swing of your sword) solving puzzles and slicing up enemies. You’ll eventually make your way into the basement furnace.

The basement furnace is probably my favorite level of the game. The music in the area just slaps. Piston-like platforms move up and down to the beat of the tune, and conveyor belts move you across from platform to platform as you battle wave after wave of a variety of enemies. In the last room of the basement furnace you meet The Urn Witch, also referred to as Grandma. She greets you with “You little shit!” and then you battle for her soul. This type of humor is spread throughout the world of Death's Door, and it is refreshing to play a game that doesn't take itself too seriously. One small detail that caught me off guard was the signs that are all over the place pointing where to go. If you slash the sign in half and try to read the sign again, the top half of the words are all missing. Small details like this really add up to the whole experience. The next two domains that you explore are just as dense, funny, vibrant and full of enemies and secrets as the Urn Witch’s estate.

Combat in Death’s Door is super simple, but very very satisfying. You have a quick swipe, a heavy swipe and a jump swipe. As expected, there is a risk/reward with using the heavier attacks as they take a moment or two to set up and finish (exposing you to your enemies blows) but when landed they deal a significant amount of damage. In truth, I used the normal swipe attack the most and would only break out the heavy swipe in instances that I knew I was finishing off a foe. There are certain enemies, like Betty the rolling bag of dicks, that you do not have enough time to land those heavy blows. With her, you are better off rolling in, hitting a few small swipes, then dodging away to avoid her many attacks. But that is one of the best parts about Death’s Door, trying new methods to beat your enemies because the game does not punish you for dying, and every enemy feels beatable. You just need to use the experience of your death to learn how to do better next time.

You have 4 health bars to lose before you die, and when you die you respawn at the closest door. This is where the spectacular level design really shines. In a game like Dark Souls, you might have a long trek from the spawn point to the spot you died, but not in Death’s Door. In my many deaths, I never had to travel longer than 10 seconds to restart the fight and give it another go. It’s the perfect balance of punishment for dying, but also respecting your time enough that you aren’t fighting 20 enemies through 10 screens to get to the hard part that killed you in the first place. Only to have to repeat that 10-minute run with every respawn.

There are a handful of weapons that you will find hidden in the main open world of the Lost Cemetery, or within the smaller dungeons you traverse to find the bosses. You start out with the standard issue red Reaper Sword, and for the most part this was my go-to weapon of choice. There are smaller twin daggers which I found very useful against the enemies that were slow enough to let you chain 8 or so hits at a time. I just wish there was a way to quickly swap these weapons without having to pause the game and switch in the menus.

In addition to melee weapons, you are also given four spells to use freely. Fire, Bomb, Hookshot, and your standard issued Bow and Arrow you start the game with. Much like the health system you only have four bars to use, but you can refill those bars by performing melee attacks. You can use the D-Pad to switch spells on the fly but to cast a spell or launch an arrow, you must hold the Left Trigger and the 'B' button at the same time and the projectile launches when you release the buttons. I feel like the Left Trigger is not needed at all. Simply holding down 'B' would have been just fine.

You’ll not only use these spells to battle the many different enemies in the game, but you’ll be using them to access the insane number of hidden areas that the world has. You use the Bomb to blow up holes in walls, use the flame to light torches, and use the Hookshot to zip yourself to platforms out of reach. There are so many of these hidden spots that I had to bust out the old notepad to make notes. Since there is no in-game map (a choice I support) I had to resort to old-school tactics of pencil and paper to keep track of the areas I wanted to explore later as I unlocked new spells.

I did not want to mention the "Z" game until the very end of my review. I feel this will be the constant comparison when reviewing Death’s Door. It’s easy to say this game borrows a lot from the Zelda series, but what sets this apart for me from other Zelda clones is that for the first time in a very long time I felt like I was setting off on an adventure. Over the last week I have been taken back to the late 80's in my parents living room with a notepad and a cup of Kool-Aid running circles around the same screens over and over, looking for one more hidden secret.

Death’s Door is everything I love about gaming, and during my 15 hours or so with the game I struggled to find anything about it that I did not like. It has fantastic combat, great characters, an interesting story and the best level design that I have encountered in years. The small team at Acid Nerve has created an absolute must play, and Death’s Door tops my list of game of the year contenders in a year with some heavy hitters coming.

**Death's Door was provided by the publisher and reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 9.5 / 10 Journey of the Broken Circle

When I first saw videos of Journey of the Broken Circle I was expecting more of a puzzle platformer like Thomas was Alone, Limbo or Inside. A simple 2D platformer that was light on story but heavy on traversal and platforming puzzles to get to your destination. What I quickly found out was there is a lot more to the story, which is 4-5 hours long and a lot less in the gameplay than I was expecting.

Journey of the Broken Circle is pretty simple; You are a broken circle named... Circle, and you are missing a piece of yourself. Early in the game there is a line “If I were whole, I would move faster” and from that moment on Circle is on the hunt for someone to make him whole. It is not clear if Circle was at one point whole and is experiencing some sort of breakup and is looking to fill the void that breakup has caused, or if Circle has never felt whole and wants to know what it feels like. It's clear that Circle is not happy with the void in his life, and it's our job to help him find a suitable partner to fill that void.

During the 4–5-hour story, Circle will meet a handful of partners to try out and see if they are the perfect fit for him. Some of these partners will want to go on this journey, but some of them will take convincing and it becomes clear as you progress that they are not a perfect fit, but Circle will try to convince them to stay longer. He so desperately wants to be whole that he will endure the pain of a partner that constantly fights him. Sometimes verbally by constantly complaining, and other times they will fight you in your controls. One level you will find yourself around hot lava, jumping from one rock formation to the next to stay out of the heat. Your partner does not want to be here, and they are making it crystal clear by complaining a lot and fighting your every move, so your controls are flipped. Left becomes Right and Right becomes Left. This completely broke my brain while playing and it was awesome. I wish there were more gameplay elements like this during the journey.

You start the game by simply rolling and jumping with 'A'. There will be simple gaps to jump across and ramps to roll up and down to get you used to the controls. With each new partner that you meet and convince to join you comes a new gameplay mechanic to help you move forward on the path. First up you will meet Sticky, a red triangle that helps you stick to walls to climb to higher spaces. You’ll roll a bit slower because Sticky sticks out of Circle a bit, making you bounce a bit while rolling, but you’ll be able to use Sticky to get to places you just can’t reach by yourself. Later, you’ll come across Balloon who will help you ascend higher up the mountain by floating a bit and giving you the ability to bounce up clouds. But, as you get higher and higher up the mountain, Balloon will start to deflate, and it will be up to you to pull the Right Trigger to keep him inflated during those times. It was in the cloud level that I came across the most frustrating sequence of the game. Circle and Balloon are together floating from cloud to cloud, and you come across these magnetic objects that pull you into them. You must use this momentum to slingshot yourself to the next magnet or cloud to progress. I felt this whole sequence did not work correctly. I don’t know if it was my timing or if the mechanic was just completely broken, but I felt that making it to the next cloud or magnetic field was more on luck than it was control and it led to some very frustrating deaths.

During your 4-5 hours journey with Circle you will come across many beautifully colored landscapes of your typical game locations. You have the grassy forest area, the dangerous rock paths, the dark deep caves, the hot lava, the snow-covered mountain peaks and the cloudy skies. All of these settings have been done in games before, but the art style used really fits Journey of the Broken Circle nicely. At its core the game is a simple premise of being a 2D circle, so having a simple 2D landscape makes sense. If you were the same 2D circle but in a lush, colorful landscape like in Ori and the Blind forest with lots of depth and moving layers then it would not make sense and fit the overall package. There is some beauty in its simplicity, and I very much enjoyed the look of the game overall.

One downfall that I came across had to do with the dialog. At times it was nearly impossible to read the chatter that happens between Circle and its temporary partner. Sometimes Circle would say something and its partner would fire back with a quick reply with the speech bubble covering what Circle said. It was extremely difficult to follow the conversation because of this, and the fact that you are also trying to roll, jump and sometimes float past deadly obstacles made it even worse. At first I would take a break from moving forward to read the banter between Circle and its partner, but after a while I ended up just ignoring the dialog and just focused on moving forward down the path. That is not something I should be doing during a game with such a focus on the interactions between the characters on screen. I’m sure the developers would love to have voiced dialog in the game and in this case, it needs it. However, the music during Circles journey is fantastic, as it’s a great mix of meditative and relaxing during the calmer platforming moments, but really switches to hard hitting and stressful at the right times during the story. Sometimes I would just stop rolling and listen to the relaxing sounds coming from my headphones.

Journey of the Broken Circle was a tough game for me to review. A lot of the story went over my head because I haven’t felt a lot of what Circle felt throughout his journey. Sure we’ve all had partners like Circle's companions in this game. Companions that fight your every attempt to move forward even though they might not be doing it on purpose, or partners that just want to move on to the next adventure without stopping and smelling the roses to enjoy the moment. Those parts I connected with, but when it comes to Angst the big black cloud, and a lot of the dialog that I saw went in one ear and out the other because I just simply cannot relate. That’s not to say this game won’t speak to you, there are a lot of people out there that are going through exactly what Circle experienced throughout his journey. I think a lot of people can relate to the story that this game tells.

I did enjoy my time rolling with Circle during his journey to complete himself. The story was great, the graphics matched the simple premise of the game, and rolling through the game's beautiful scenes while listening to its relaxing music was a great experience. But with its high peaks, there are also low valleys that I just cannot get past. Tough to follow dialog bubbles really disconnected me from the story at times, and frustrating sequences like the magnetic fields and cloud hopping really hurt the entire experience overall.

**Journey of the Broken Circle was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 What The Dub?!

Any fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 growing up has thought about the day where they could show off their dubbing skills in front of their friends and get instant gratification from them with laughter and votes. Well, today is that day! What the Dub?!, developed and published by Wide Right Interactive, is a party game where you and 11 friends (and up to 6 audience members) can watch clips of old movies, TV shows and public service announcements and insert your own funny dialog and then get rewarded with votes and Xbox achievements.

First off, before I get into some of the details of the game, I suggest you head into the options and increase the round timer to the maximum limit. The default is 45 seconds and I just don’t think that is long enough. I think the max is 190 seconds or so, but the round moves on once all your friends have completed their Dub. So, you won’t have to wait the full 190 seconds each time, just the times when your friends have a lot to type which usually results in better Dubs. Nothing kills the momentum of a game and a fun time like someone having a cut off answer or failing to input due to time. Be patient and let your friends input, you will have more fun this way.

What the Dub?! is a party game where you are given a 30 second clip of an old B movie, TV show or public service announcement, and some of the clip has been muted for you to insert your own funny dialog, sound effects or both. Each player must have their own device like a tablet, phone, PC or laptop that can access the internet. Simply enter the room code and you are good to go. The clips will show up on the TV screen and when prompted you will have a timed limit to type out a funny dub on your device to insert into the muted part of the clip. Once all the dubs have been entered the clip is replayed with a text to voice audio clip of each dub for everyone to hear. After all of the dubs have been shown it’s time to vote for your favorite. Dubs with the most votes are the winners of that round and receive the most points, while other dubs receive points for the votes they get. At the end of the game (5-10 rounds depending on settings) the winner is crowned, and the loser is mocked. Typical party game stuff. It all works well and is a blast to play with a group of friends.

Unfortunately, during a global pandemic you cannot always get friends together in one place to play so we are lucky that games like this have options to still be able to socialize with friends who are in other houses miles away. With What the Dub?! you can have up to 6 audience members along with the 12 in the game itself. You can achieve this by loading up Twitch and stream your game to your friends. Once they find your game stream, they will see your room code and they will enter that into their devices. Like all games on Twitch, this will introduce some latency, usually about a 3-6 second delay in the audio and video, but this is not a real big problem with a game like What the Dub?! since you are not relying on timed inputs like other party games such as Scene It or Jackbox. This is another reason that you will need to increase the round timer in the settings before you start. You can also pause the game, so if someone asks for a bit more time to input their dub the host can easily do it. The game does focus a bit on the scoring, but we found it’s just a lot better to ignore the scores and concentrate on good Dubs and making each other laugh.

On the listing, the developer promises over 300 clips from B movies, TV shows and public service announcements, and without playing hundreds of games and keeping close track I am just going to have to take their word for it. We are all feeling the effects of quarantine, but I don’t have that much free time! I can say that over the course of my review we played over 20 games, that is over 100 rounds, and we never saw the same exact clip twice. We saw different clips from the same movie, or the same clip but with the dialog muted for another character, but never the same clip with the same spot for a dub. This is key to a party game where you can sometimes play 3-4 hours if the game is fun enough to keep going. We played for about 3 hours in one sitting and that was enough.

Unfortunately, with only one game type I can see how it could get repetitive after a few games. This was not a problem with my group in the one night we played, as a few mixed drinks kept this game fresh and fun, but I can see my friends wanting to turn to something else after another gaming session or two. I’m not sure how the developer can freshen this up and with DLC or content packs, but that’s for them to figure out!

What the Dub?! is a fun way to spend a night with your friends either in the same house or miles away. It is an easy party game for friends and family to pick up and non-gamers will be able to just jump in with their own devices and play. They really do have a lot of clips to work with and it has us looking forward to playing more with the same friends and introducing new ones. It’s a great addition to our party game rotation which includes Jackbox, Cards Against Humanity and Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. That is good company to be in.

**What The Dub?! was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Falconeer, The

The Falconeer is an open world air combat game made by the developer Tomas Sala. It’s remarkable that a game this pretty and enjoyable was made with one person at the helm. During its 10+ hour campaign you will jump on the back of a huge falcon and engage in dogfights with other falcons, warships from the ocean surface and huge airships that block out the moon at night. There are a lot of secrets to uncover in the world of The Great Ursee, so let's dive in and see what it’s all about.

The story of The Falconeer tells of a conflict between factions of The Great Ursee, which is a vast ocean that connects many different islands and locations to explore. Each chapter of the story is told from the perspective of the faction you have pledged and each of these warring factions have a different class of Warbird and pilot to use. The different islands of The Great Ursee are spread out pretty far, giving you plenty of time to take in the beauty of the world. Rolling waves, beautiful glowing orange sunrises and sunsets, and swirling blue and green skies at night that look a lot like the Aurora Borealis. With such a great distance between locations, it tends to make traversal a tad boring after you have made the trek a few times. Luckily, there is usually a “skip to location” or fast travel option when completing missions, or just exploring the open world. But sometimes after an intense battle, it’s nice to be able to peacefully fly to the final location objective to finish the mission.

You progress through the story by accepting missions while your Warbird is perched at the faction base. There are no cutscenes, and you are given mission directions from the faction leader as they walk you through the objectives. Usually, the mission consists of taking some supplies to an ally, or protecting some sort of ship containing precious cargo as it slowly meanders to an island. In either case, air pirates will always attack, and it’s up to you and your wingmen to protect the objective. Complete the mission and you earn some favor with that faction and some currency to spend on upgrades.

Unfortunately, I found the upgrades to be way too expensive and I barely upgraded my birds because of it. If you fail the mission, you must start over, which is a real bummer because, like I mentioned before, the islands are far apart and a good chunk of each mission is flying from location to location. It’s a real kick to the nuts to spend nearly 10 minutes flying around, escorting a slow-moving ship, only to die or fail during the last encounter and having to start it all over. A few of the many times this happened, I simply just shut off my Xbox and played something else before taking to the skies again later on.

When you are not flying across an open ocean, you’re dogfighting (or is it birdfighting?) with other warbirds and that is where the game really becomes challenging. At first, I really struggled with the controls, but after a few failed attempts and restarts it began to click and I was able to shoot down a few warbirds or destroy a few ships while my AI wingman mopped up everything else. You can use the D-Pad to issue orders to your wingman, either have them focus on enemy warbirds, or focus fire on the slow-moving air and water ships. The ships deal out a lot of damage, so I found success in having my wingman focus fire on those while I took care of the warbirds. Once my wingman was done with the ships, I’d have him shift focus to the rest of the warbirds and give me some support in the air.

Focusing on the nearest warbird can be a bit of a struggle. You can easily cycle through the various targets, but more often than I would like, it mostly would snap the lock on camera to an enemy far away instead of the enemy closest to me. This almost always resulted in me taking a bunch of damage from an enemy before I was able to outmaneuver them and then turn my guns on them. You can hover in place, barrel roll, boost, slow down and dive, and those are pretty easy to pull off one at a time, but in the harder dog fights I struggled to pull off these in combination to successfully evade my enemy’s shots. I failed a lot of missions at first, but practice makes perfect and once I started to get the controls down, I was able to beat those missions and move forward. It is a challenge that I wasn’t expecting but greatly appreciated.

Every move you perform drains a bit of your stamina meter. Your bird gets tired from all of the dogfighting maneuvers I mentioned above, so refilling this meter is essential if you want to succeed in your mission and live to fly another day. To refill this meter is simple; you dive. Even when flying at a constant elevation, your warbirds wings are flapping, but when you dive towards the ocean your bird can finally rest its wings. This adds a whole other element of strategy because you can only go so far down before you hit the ocean surface. This also exposes you to a few more problems you must deal with in combat. If you get closer to the ocean surface you now have to deal with any possible ships that have very heavy firepower, and it also gives the higher ground to any warbirds circling above you. It also creates an additional problem; to ascend back up to dogfighting altitude you are going to have to expel some energy from your stamina meter. It becomes an interesting and challenging seesaw of balance where if you spam maneuvers, you’ll quickly drain stamina and you’ll either get out maneuvered (because your Warbid is tired) or you’ll have to switch to a more defensive tact and head to the ocean to refill the meter which presents its own risks. If you are more conservative with your stamina meter and do not maneuver enough, your health meter will quickly drain from the enemies shooting the easy target. It’s done very well, and I welcomed the additional challenge of piloting a living creature rather than a spaceship with unlimited fuel.

I spoke a bit above about the colorful palette of the world of The Great Ursee and how you can easily be distracted by the visuals that the ocean and sky can bring. But my words, and even videos online will not do this game justice when describing how absolutely beautiful this game is. I played it using a 4K TV with the Xbox Series X and it played at a flawless 60 frames per second, I never once experienced a hitch or a hiccup. I do not have a 120hz television or monitor to test how that runs, but I have looked up other reviews and framerate tests and it seems to perform just as well in that mode if your TV is capable. It really is something you need to experience in order to appreciate. Music changes depending on your actions as well. This isn’t new to gaming, but when the action ramps up, you’ll hear the heavy bass of beating drums and deep chanting, but when you are flying high and peaceful, you’ll hear the beauty of some wind chimes and instruments. All the enemies, vendors, and allies that you encounter are fully voiced. Some of the accents are over the top, and the dialog is a bit standard, but when you consider that this was made by a very small team it is understandable.

The Falconeer has some smaller issues, but those are easily overlooked when you take into account this was made by one person. The story is pretty interesting even though the missions aren’t, and the voice acting can be a little annoying at times. But exploring The Great Ursee for new locations, dogfighting with challenging opponents and discovering that thin line of balance between offense and defense is all very rewarding. I was expecting the game to be beautiful, but I wasn’t expecting the combat to be so challenging and deep. It was a wonderful surprise.

**The Falconeer was reviewed on an Xbox Series X**

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Party Hard 2

When I saw the trailer for Party Hard 2 I have to admit I was expecting a game similar to the Hitman series, where each level is a puzzle that you have to figure out the best path to silently kill the targets and escape without a trace. The Hitman series is one of my favorites and I completely obsess over each level until I can almost walk through them blindfolded. I learned fast that Party Hard 2 is not the Hitman clone I was expecting, and once I learned to accept that, I had a lot of fun with the game.

On the surface Party Hard looks a lot like Hotline Miami. It is a pixelated isometric murder spree set to a techno soundtrack. The characters move on the screen in sometimes random patterns and your job is to take out all the targets (usually bad people like drug dealers and bikers) while trying not to be seen by the crowds of innocent people in the level. This can sometimes be frustrating because there is no on-screen indicator when an innocent can see you. Oftentimes you will think you are in the clear but then a random passerby will spot you through a window and they will immediately call the cops reporting your crime. This results in a very frustrating run from the cops that often ends with you being arrested and failing the level. The cops tend to know exactly where you are, even if you are hiding in a spot across the level from where you committed the murder. The way the cops just automatically hone in onto your character like a heat seeking missile is very frustrating and resulted in a few rage quits on my part. Many times, I committed a murder in one building, then as the cops were called I rushed to a different one, and the cops found me like a dog sniffing out a hidden cheeseburger.

This sort of AI behavior is what turned me off of Party Hard 2, now instead of trying to stealthily kill the targets with my knife, I turned to trying to take out all of the targets by triggering the environmental hazards. There are plenty of hazards that you can trigger to brutally kill your targets and the innocent people around them. No witnesses mean no cop calls, right? But this also kind of breaks the game as well. Now, instead of just slashing the targets you can do things like tip a shelf over onto your target, and the 15 people standing around do not notice you pushing it over. On the second level Bar, there is a taxicab parked on the busy street and you can start the taxi and it will rip down the street mowing over anyone in its path. I got 16 kills with it (one of them being a cop) and I triggered two achievements at once, but the innocent standing bystander two feet away from me while I started the taxi just continued to dance in the street like an idiot. There needs to be some sort of middle point with the AI, they are either entirely too observant or completely oblivious of your actions.

There are plenty of targets that are not standing near a hazard, but a well-placed Molotov cocktail or a frag grenade (which happens to be sitting in an alley for no reason) will take care of those stray targets. Scattered throughout the level are purple boxes that you can open for weapons or items that you can use at your disposal. This is where the game shines, as there is a wide variety of items you can find in the environment and you can use many of them in multiple ways. You can find a bottle of pills that you can either use to lure a target to a secluded spot, or you can drop them in the air vents to poison a whole room of people. All of these boxes and items spawns are completely random and can really change the path you chose on the level. With the items they have a small crafting system where you can combine two of them to create a superior item. For instance, you can combine a gasoline can and a bottle of booze to make a Molotov cocktail, or a frag grenade and a pager to craft a remote bomb. It is not too deep, and there is no list to show you the items you can create, but the useful ones are easy to remember.

You start off each level equipped with only a knife, and you can hold up to three other items. You will use the D-Pad to switch between the items you are holding, and when something can be crafted the two items you are holding will be highlighted on the screen. It is a very easy process that doesn’t take long or distract you from your targets. Another tool at your disposal is your special move, by holding the Right Bumper while in a crowd your character will do a spin move with the knife killing everyone close enough to be hit by the attack. This move is available at the start of the level and then refills as time passes. There is also an instinct button that shows your targets, environmental hazards and items around the level that you should check out. It is very useful when there is a big crowd of people and you cannot tell which character the red triangle is above.

As we have learned from shows like Dexter, serial killers never sleep and are kept awake at night by their demons, and your character is no different. You are the unnamed serial killer who, also like Dexter, preys on the evil scum of the city. After each of the 16 levels you are shown a newscast about your escapades the night before. They always describe them as a bloodbath and the next case of a serial killer, but I found it odd that it was labeled that way after I finished a level by murdering everyone with hazardous accidents. I guess it’s not a far stretch to assume their detectives are world class when they have cops who can see through walls to follow me around a level.

I had a decent enough time with Party Hard, and I look forward to replaying some of the levels to mop up the rest of the 1000 points in achievements. It is a pretty fun game to just pick up and play and have a laugh seeing what sort of ways you can interact with the environment and its characters. If you are looking for a stealth assassin game you might want to check out the Hitman series, or if you are looking for a crazy murder spree then you might be better off playing Hotline Miami. Poor AI of both the police and the innocent people tends to ruin the core gameplay loop, which is to get in, murder, get out and repeat. When the basic premise of a game is ruined by something that is outside of the players control it leads to a frustrating experience.

Overall Score: 6.5 / 10 Double Kick Heroes

Double Kick Heroes is a rhythm game by developer Headbang Club, published on Xbox by Plug-In Digital, and was recently announced to launch into Gamepass on both Xbox One and Windows 10 PC.

It is a rhythm game at its core, but with a bit of wave based defense mixed in to keep things interesting. If you’ve played music games of the past such as Rockband or Guitar Hero, then you’ll feel right at home. The bottom half of the screen is your music line, and like Rockband or Guitar Hero you are tasked with hitting buttons in rhythm with the on screen prompts and beats of the music. As you correctly match these beats on screen, your characters shoot guns and throw grenades at the zombie horde chasing you down a seemingly never ending street.

For the most part you’ll be using the face buttons to keep the zombies at bay. On the normal difficulty you’ll use 'A' button for the lower lane and 'B' for the upper. As the zombies start to creep towards your car, you’ll need to make sure you are hitting the right buttons to keep them back or they will start to deal damage to your vehicle. Focusing too much on the 'A' button means that the zombies chasing you in the top lane will start to gain ground and then you’ll have to start mashing the 'B' button to take them out. Your car is on rails and you do not need to control the speed or direction you are moving, but during some boss battles you have the freedom to switch lanes on the road and that helps you dodge some of the bosses attacks.

There are a few game types that you have the option of playing. Arcade mode lets you choose which song you want to play one at a time. Story mode tells the story of your band Double Kick Heroes and their escape from the city and their search for shelter, gas, food and safety. Fury Road gives you daily challenges and awards cosmetic unlocks for your band. Endless Rage is an almost endless road that the goal is to survive to the end and you play through multiple songs.

The story opens with a wide eyed politician on a broken TV saying “My fellow Americans, people of the world. Everything is fine. The situation is under control...” as fires blaze in the background and people are seen running for their lives. Does that sound familiar? All he has to do is wear a red hat and hold a bible upside down and it will quickly turn this crazy story into non-fiction. You play as a metal band called Double Kick Heroes and while you are playing a gig, the house lights turn on and the whole crowd has turned into zombies. You barely escape the arena, and hop into a convertible that has been outfitted with guns that are tied to your instruments. Now, it’s your destiny to rock out, and escape the zombie horde.

In the 2-3 hours it takes to complete the story you’ll run across some pretty well known rock legend look-alikes such as Marilyn Manson, Metallica and I think Danny Trejo, he’s not a rock legend that I know of but that chest tattoo is pretty hard to miss. You’ll fight off zombies, werewolves, vultures, football player zombies, cheerleader zombies, a giant shark, men in white hoods (maybe working for the president) and many, many more. Unfortunately, you’ll be looking at the music bar too much to really see them all. You can watch the horde from the corner of your eye to see how close they are getting, but you really won’t get a good look at the individual enemies until there is a break in the music. It’s a lot like the band playing on stage in the background of a Rockband song. You know they are doing their stage act, strumming on the guitar, banging the drums and strutting on stage like Axle Rose, but you never fully pay attention to it because you are too focused on the music bar. I noticed a lot more of the details of the characters and enemies when I sat back and watched someone else play.

There's not much to say about the graphics. It is your typical pixel art style with vibrant colors and a very smooth framerate. I did not experience any slow down or stuttering while playing. The soundtrack of the story is an original that was made for this game and it’s a nice mix of Nu Metal, death metal and an even heavier metal with a lot of double bass. If metal isn’t your thing then this might not be as enjoyable for you. A lot of the charm that this game has to offer is centered around the blazing soundtrack. It’s chaotic and crazy, just as a game about shooting zombies from the back of a convertible should be.

Double Kick Heroes a very fun add to the Game Pass library and it’s a blast to play with friends passing the controller back and forth while sipping on a few adult beverages. The soundtrack slaps and the story and dialog don’t get in the way while you’re trying to just chill and have a good time. Double Kick Heroes knows what it is, and it does it pretty well.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Moons of Madness

Moons of Madness is a first person story driven game that has small puzzle elements with a horror theme. It’s like Firewatch but set on Mars, but instead of a very engaging story that leaves you in the dark until the end, you get 3 different storylines that are never really the main focus, and in the end you are left wondering what happened. Let's find out if that mystery is a good or bad thing.

There’s not much to talk about when it comes to gameplay, you have to move your character from point A to point B and can hold the left trigger to get there faster by sprinting. There is no HUD to reference but you do have limited stamina and you’ll hear your character huff and puff when you run too long. Early on you will get a wrist computer that you can use to scan and hack equipment to solve puzzles. Some of the puzzles are pretty easy, one example is rotating solar panels to a certain power percentage to bring a remote base online. Some of the more complicated puzzles involve mixing chemicals by using a centrifuge to create a toxin for an early on enemy. The puzzles are pretty clever and deliver some of the more memorable moments of the game for me.

Developer Rock Pocket has crafted some great environments for Moons of Madness. There’s not much you can do with Mars as a setting. It’s red, it’s cold, it’s dusty and there are mountains everywhere, but they switch up the setting enough that you never feel any of the backdrops outstay their welcome. You’ll spend most of the game on the Mars surface and in the hallways of the space station, but later in the game you will be lurking in the shadows of the secret facility miles below the Mars surface. If you didn’t think that the Orochi Group was hiding a more sinister plan in a secret facility then you haven’t played many games. It’s a tried and true formula that has been redone countless times in movies and games, and its one aspect of the game that I wish was left out. There really is no payout for the storyline, and it seems more like filler to pad a short game.

One area where Moons of Madness shines are the animations of your character Shane. Throughout the six or so hours of the game you will perform countless menial tasks such as, filling a cup of coffee, turning a crank, pulling an energy cell in and out of an empty port, removing your helmet, and attaching a hose to an air tank to refill for a trek on the Mars surface. Most of these animations change slightly when Shane is in a tense situation. After being chased by an enemy my character fumbled with the push button to open the escape hatch, and then as he refilled his air tank, he fumbled with connecting the hoses together. This adds a lot of realism, and I really felt like the character was escaping for his life. I know if I was being chased by a tentacle monster on Mars I wouldn’t be calm, cool, and collected, I’d be swearing up a storm and then trying to connect two hoses together would be similar to fumbling with a USB port in the dark. After about the fifth flip of the cable and it still won’t fit, I would just stand there and accept my fate.

Speaking of air hoses, I did encounter one glitch in the game that almost broke it for me. Immediately after a chase sequence inside one of the space stations I was on the Mars surface trying to hurry to the rover. Before I left the space station, I filled up my oxygen tank and exited the hatch. After some traversal of the Mars surface, I ended up falling off a rather large cliff to my death and loaded at a checkpoint near the halfway point to the rover. Except, my oxygen level was at 9% when it still should have been near 70%. This actually happened to me twice throughout the game, where a checkpoint loaded me with barely enough oxygen to get me to my destination. When I finally reached the rover, my oxygen was at 0% and my character was gasping for air and the screen was completely red. I feel like any longer and I would have died. I wonder if I had died, would it have loaded me at the last checkpoint with the same amount of oxygen making it impossible to make the trek safely. Would that have caused a death loop that broke the game? I was pretty far into the game, I don’t know how I would have felt being forced to start over.

There are multiple storylines going on here and none of them really take center stage, which makes the overall story muddy and confusing. There is the first story you encounter, a woman scientist (who I suspected right away as a villain due to her thick Russian accent) that was doing experiments with plant life on Mars and came across an organism that takes control of the plants and spreads like a virus. Then there is the evil Orochi Group that you work for, and their hidden agenda with the research that is happening across the space stations. THEN, there is the family story line about your mother, and her ties to the Orochi group and how your character Shane seems destined to be at this location at this time as the moons of Mars align. It’s just all too much, and dropping one of these storylines and focusing on flushing out the other two would have been a better choice. There are some cut scenes, but most of the story is told through dialog while you are walking, or through emails and data logs you find as you log into scattered computers around the station. But none of it was very interesting to follow, so after an hour or so I stopped looking at the computers entirely and just concentrated on the objective at hand.

The achievements in Moons of Madness are story related except two that require you to perform a special task at a certain point. There is no chapter select so you’ll have to do a second play through to unlock these if you missed them in the story. The ending has two achievements tied to it for good and bad depending on your choice, but you can pause and revert to the last checkpoint to get them both without playing through a second time. I was able to get all the achievements in the game in one play through and it took me about six hours. If you used a guide to finish it you can probably knock it out a lot faster.

There are moments in Moons of Madness that are fun and interesting, but they are spread pretty far apart by backtracking, menial tasks and simple puzzles. The voice acting, the environments and your characters animations are great, but the story is all over the place and after its six hour campaign it is very easy to forget.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Sayonara Wild Hearts

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to listen to dream pop, ride on a motorcycle through the woods and dodge flaming skulls, all while shooting a laser gun at a three headed mechanical wolf? No? Me either, but I can now say that I have experienced it, and it was just as fun as it sounds. Through the one hour story you’ll do this and more, and then once you complete the story the game keeps going with a great set of achievements to unlock. Sayonara Wild Hearts is here to chew bubblegum and break hearts, and it’s all out of... wait, no... there’s plenty of bubblegum pop so that saying doesn’t work here. Let’s just get on with it.

Wild Hearts is a music game at heart. Everything that happens on screen and in the quick time events are synced to the beat of the dream pop music soundtrack. You’ll encounter many points of view while playing, but everything you do will be on rails. Whether it’s side scrolling, third person or first person you don’t have much control over where you go, and your job is to maneuver the hero up, down, left or right to collect the hearts and diamonds scattered all over the levels.

Throughout the levels are quick time events that you are prompted to press a button as a visual indicator helps you with the timing, and you’ll be granted “ok”, “good” or “perfect” ratings depending on how accurate your timing is. You’ll need to use both the visual indicators and the soundtrack to nail the “perfect” scores, however, I never failed the quick time events no matter how late I pressed. While this might make the game more accessible to the non-gamer, it will definitely make it less challenging for the more experienced. Collect hearts and hit “perfect” timing on the quick time events and you’ll be rewarded with a score multiplier as you can watch your score increase the further you progress in the level.

Sayonora Wild Hearts is not difficult at all to complete, but there are some sections of the game where there is mass chaos on your screen with flashing lights, high speed traversal and enemies shooting projectiles in your direction. The difficulty spikes in those areas making it harder to keep your multiplier going for a strong score, and at the end of each level you are given a bronze, silver or gold rating. Again, completing the levels isn’t difficult, but scoring gold can be, and you’re going to have to memorize the heart paths and get the bonus diamonds in each level to get gold. If you die or fail a level you will be able to continue, but your multiplier will be reset to zero and you will definitely not get a score high enough for gold.

The great thing about Wild Hearts is that the game play changes up multiple times per level. Once you start to get the hang of swerving in and out of trees in third person, the game switches things up and now you are driving the motorcycle in first person. Then, after 20 seconds of driving the motorcycle you are bumped off of it and are now surfing on a tarot card in third person scooping up hearts and dodging flaming skulls zooming at you. Then after that you are given a bow and arrow and you are able to lock onto the skulls Panzer Dragoon style, shooting them with arrows. It’s seamless and fun, and during your first play through you will never know what is coming next.

My favorite level is Parallel Universes where you are matched up against a pair of opponents that at a snap of each of their fingers the scenery changes, moving the obstacles to the location in that universe. This of course is done to the beat of the music but it’s mind bending trying to keep the path straight. With each snap, snap, clap, the obstacles in front of you are moved to the beat of the music and you will fail multiple times until you really start to see the pattern. Then, like I mentioned above, the game will change it up just a bit and throw another mechanic at you.

The music and graphics are where Sayonara Wild Hearts shines. The bubble gum dream pop music with female lead vocals will have you tapping your feet to help with the timing of your jumps and quick time events. Everything in the game is tied to the soundtrack, and you’re going to have to really feel the music and get into the rhythm to get the high scores. Along with the poppy soundtrack you are presented with a cartoonish graphic style that runs at a super solid smooth frame rate and I never once experienced a slow down. In the platforming areas you are tasked with hitting a button not only with the beat, but at the perfect moment on screen to keep your momentum going. This is represented on screen as a circle that begins to fill and at the perfect time you hit the button to keep going. If timed right, the circle will explode and the word “Perfect!” will appear and you’ll know you timed things right.

Wild Hearts is a story about heartbreak. The hero, a young woman that just had her heart broken, is near her low point and some astral beings begin their plot to destroy her universe. It’s a story that any person can relate to and she has the choice to either sit and mope, or move on and save herself and the universe. The story is told by narrator Queen Latifa, and is shown through small cut scenes that are seamlessly weaved in and out of the game play sections. It’s a great technique that really makes it feel like one experience rather than a bunch of tied together levels. In fact, once you finish the game you unlock Album Arcade mode that plays the entire game beginning to end without any score or stat interruptions.

I usually like to talk about achievements a bit in my reviews because they are a big part of my gaming style. I like doing extra things that the developer sets aside for achievements because a lot of the time they are things I normally wouldn’t try unless there was some sort of reward attached. Wild Hearts has maybe the best use of achievements that I’ve ever encountered in a game. You won’t unlock a single achievement playing through the story. No achievement is tied to level completion or beating the game and there is no multiplayer to battle for achievements. Instead, there are 24 Zodiac Riddles to solve.

The Xbox description of the achievements simply states the name of the Zodiac symbol and offers no clue how to unlock it. In the game menu there is a spot for Zodiac Riddles, and in there you will see 24 riddles to solve, each of which hints at a task to do in the game. Some of them are your normal tasks like completing all levels with a gold rank or collecting all the diamonds in the game, but others are more complex and these are my favorites. One riddle states “There is no place for me on the podium of a starway”, and this hints at not scoring above bronze on a certain level. Another riddle has you score 0 points in a level, and that might sound easy, but in fact it’s one of the hardest that I have tried so far. Avoiding all small hearts is no easy task especially since you have just spent hours following them. I suggest avoiding guides and tutorials on these achievements and trying some out for yourself.

Sayonara Wild Hearts is more of a hyperactive dream pop music video than it is a video game, and that’s a great thing when a lot of what is released these days is gritty post apocalyptic shooters. Sayonara Wild Hearts is a breath of fresh air, an absolute joy to play and has some of the most interesting achievements this achievement hunter has ever unlocked.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Ori and the Will of the Wisps

Full disclosure, this review is based on the pre-launch patches that were available for me to update two days before the game launched. I played a little bit of the game prior to the updates and experienced the frame rate, loading and map bugs that were reported to be in the review version of the game. I made the decision to stop playing the game at that point so I can wait for the patches and review the game in its best state. After the patches I experienced no save bugs, loading bugs or game breaking glitches. I experienced very few frame rate drops after the patches and I am confident that Moon Studios will continue these updates making it even better.

Some games just hook you in. You’re the little fish nibbling on a tasty worm and the developer yanks that line at the perfect moment and you’re done for. Ori and the Blind Forest was one of those games for me, and if you listened to our podcast, then you’ll know that it is in my top 3 games this generation. I’ve beaten it 4 times, and I am currently playing through it on the harder difficulty on the Switch. It’s been a bit of a wait for Moon Studios to deliver us Ori and the Will of the Wisps, as it has seen a few delays, but it’s finally here! Does it hold up? Does it do what sequels are expected to do and expand on the key elements of the game? If you scrolled down and took a peak at the score then you already know, but let’s dive in little fishy!!

Ori and the Will of the Wisps is a 2D platformer on the surface but a Metroidvania at heart. If you are unfamiliar with the term, Metroidvania is a sub-genre of action-adventure games where there is an expanding map to explore that has smaller portions of the map locked off, and as you progress through the game you gain abilities that allow you to access these locked off areas. For example, there may be a ledge just out of your reach with a standard jump, so you progress in the game and unlock the double jump and then can go back to use your new ability to reach the ledge. Ori nails this better than any other Metroidvania that I have played.

When you first open the map it is covered in darkness, and as you explore, the caves that you traverse will be filled in on the map. I found myself opening the map every minute or so to look for dark areas to explore, as it is super addicting to fill in the map and find all the collectibles. When I found a collectible, and there were a TON, I’d abandon the main story and went off to explore the area to see what I can find. There is a constant carrot on a stick of collectibles, power and health upgrades that I just can’t get enough of. I absolutely will not stop playing this game until I am at 100% completion, and then I will probably do it all over again on a harder difficulty.

One thing that is different with Ori 2 is the rate at which you get these abilities. The first game had you wait a bit and progress in the game to unlock the double jump and dash maneuvers. I remember there being a lot of locked off areas at the start, teasing me with unknown treasures. Ori 2 throws a lot of the necessary moves at you within the first two hours. You’ll be double jumping, running up walls and dashing across long crevasses in no time. At first I thought this might have been to dumb down the game a bit for the players that thought Ori and the Blind Forest was too hard. I was able to clear out 90% or more of the collectibles in the first two areas of the map in no time. I was starting to worry that I wouldn’t have to come back to these beautiful areas later to explore more because I was finding everything so quickly, and that is just not how I wanted to play this game. I want the backtracking, I want the closed off area at the end of a long dangerous cave, because I know I’ll have to travel that cave again, and it’s just so much fun to do. After a while it became pretty clear that they gave you those abilities so early by design because they built a more complex and bigger map, and added a bunch of new abilities that you get later in the game. So I was able to explore until my little fish heart was content and they very much kept the spirit of the genre intact.

Combat in Ori 2 has seen a complete overhaul. You are able to assign 12 different abilities to the X, B and Y face buttons and swap them out at any time to match your playstyle and the task at hand. The Spirit Edge sword that you get as soon as the opening cutscene and prologue are finished gives you the ability to slash forward and backwards, slash up launching enemies into the air, and slash down if you are jumping over enemies. It’s a light and quick attack that you can use to combat the faster enemies as you dodge their quick attacks. There is a hammer like weapon called Spirit Smash, and as expected, is better suited for slower or more protected enemies. There is a beetle that you constantly fight throughout the game that has an impenetrable shell and is only vulnerable when its back end is exposed. It’s a very satisfying feeling to land a revenge fueled heavy blow with that hammer to that beetle that has shrugged off your light attacks for the past few hours. There are ranged attacks as well; Spirit Arc is a bow and Spirit Star is a boomerang, both of which can be used to combat the flying enemies and ones that strategically keep their distance from you. I found a very effective combination of using the ranged attack to stun them for long enough to get closer where I can either dice them up with quick attacks from Spirit Edge, or a bash or two from Spirit Smash.

Along with the combat improvements Moon Studios has added Spirit Shards where you can add modifiers to your combat and traversal abilities. This is very similar to the game Hollow Knight as you can equip only a certain amount of these shards at a time, but the amount of slots you have can be upgraded as you complete Combat Shrines. You can swap out these shards at any time on the fly and you do not need to visit an NPC or pay any type of currency to change shards. This comes in handy during the many boss battles and groups of enemies that you encounter. To give you a few examples, the shards that I used most often are Overcharge, Resilience, Quick Shot and Sticky. Over charge is where you deal a lot more damage but your defense is lowered taking more damage in the process. Resilience is where you simply take 10% less damage from attacks. Quick Shot lets you launch arrows at a faster rate making you feel like Hawkeye from the Marvel movies. Sticky lets you automatically stick to the wall you are facing and this helps when traversing some of the deadlier caves that are outlined with spikes. Again, you can swap these shards at any time to focus more or combat or traversal, or a nice combination of both.

Throughout the game you’ll come across gold orbs called Spirit Light. Spirit Light in Ori and the Blind Forest used to work like XP and you’d eventually fill a meter and that would unlock a point to spend in the skill tree. Ori 2 does not work like that, there is no XP and no skill tree to unlock abilities. Instead they’ve decided to streamline the process a bit. Instead of XP, the Spirit Light is now a form of currency you can spend to have a NPC vendor train you in new abilities or upgrade abilities you have already purchased. You can also use Spirit Light to purchase maps that show you the Energy Cell and Life Cell locations on the map.

The story of Ori and the Will of the Wisps takes place a bit after the events that happened in Blind Forest. You play as Ori, a small bright white Spirit of the forest and you are with your family teaching a baby owlet how to fly. Bad things happen and you are separated from the owlet and your priority is to find it and bring it home safe. During this main story quest you learn that the new forest you are in has been corrupted by another evil and it is up to you to not only save your owlet friend, but also the forest and its creatures.

During your exploration of the Niwen forest, you’ll run into quite a few peaceful critters and animals that need your help. Simply talk to these critters and you’ll be given a side quest along with a handy marker on your map showing you where you should explore next. These quests aren’t in-depth and are usually no more than fetch quests, but they do offer some nice rewards. You can earn some Spirit Shards this way and usually some Spirit Light as well. There is one quest that will take you from one end of the map to the other trading trinkets from one stranded NPC to another, but the reward is very satisfying.

Along with the main story and side quests, Moon Studios has also added a few more things to do. First you can test your combat skills in 7 different Combat Shrines hidden throughout the game. Here you will fight wave after wave of enemies, and if you are successful, you’ll be rewarded with an extra Spirit Shard slot. They’ve also added Spirit Trials which are races through each of the different areas of the game. These races usually take 30 seconds to a minute to complete and they remove the enemies from the area to ensure a clean race. Your times will be put up on a leaderboard of both your friends and the global Xbox community. In order to complete the Spirit Trial, you’ll have to beat the preset par time. Neither of these activities are too difficult but they offer a fun challenge that kept me coming back until I completed them all.

The hand drawn animations and the beautiful score are truly the heart and soul of Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and they go hand in hand throughout the game. In the deep dark caves of Mouldwood Depths, where only the light from small torches and glowing plants light your way, there is a creepy and eerie tone to the wind instruments that bring a feeling of death and despair to the area. As the darkness closes in around Ori, the music shifts to a more panicked score that really enforces the feeling of being surrounded by darkness. Then as you find a light source to force away the dark, the music returns to the unnerving sounds of Mouldwood. The Luma Pools are the polar opposite and show off the most bright and beautiful colors I have ever seen in an area of a game before. This glowing pink and purple forest is so full of life and the music follows suit with an upbeat flow of wind instruments. I played this area after Mouldwood Depths and the contrast is so staggering going from one extreme to another. It’s almost hard to believe that these two areas exist in the same forest.

When you think of a 2D platformer/adventure you tend to think of the classics like Mario or Castlevania where there is a distinct foreground and background. Mario runs on the foreground and the castles and clouds occupy the background. Ori and the Will of the Wisps adds so much depth to the landscape of the forest you forget that you are actually playing a 2D game. There is not just one layer of trees and bushes to walk past, there are layers and layers of moving plants, scattering critters and trees swaying in the breeze that you can tell that the forest goes on for miles in all directions. Then to top it all off, as you move through the forest you will have trees, critters and bushes that pass between Ori and the camera that is an incredible technique that really makes this game come to life.

These incredible details come at a cost though. Ori 2 suffers from framerate drops when loading an area and they can be really distracting. I was falling from a very high spot at The Wellspring and mid-fall the game paused for nearly 5 seconds before it resumed. You can tell it was loading the area below, but a hiccup like that can really take you out of the experience. Collecting orbs, spirit and shards also result in a 2-5 second freeze at times. Not every time, but enough to make you shake your head when it happens. All of these issues can easily be addressed with more post launch patches, and Moon Studios is being pretty vocal about them coming sooner rather than later. Other than that I did not experience the widely reported map, loading or save bugs after my game was patched pre-release. Like I said in the first paragraph, I made a decision to wait for the patches to improve my experience and give our readers a better representation of what they’ll actually be playing, and I believe that was the best choice.

No game is perfect and I don’t believe giving a game a 10/10 means that it is perfect. However, I believe that Ori and the Will of the Wisps is a masterpiece that deserves the highest praise that I can give it. Moon Studios is a shining example that a small team working with a lot of heart and passion can create something beautiful, fun and challenging. It expands on the original in every way and you will not find a better game in the Metroidvania genre. I personally can’t wait to dive back into the game on a harder difficulty.

Overall Score: 10.0 / 10 Close to the Sun

Close to the Sun is a first person adventure by developers Storm in a Teacup, that leans heavily on atmosphere and story, while also providing some light puzzles and collectible hunting. From the second you board the Helios you’ll notice that things aren’t what they seem, and after around 10 hours exploring every nook and cranny of the 10 levels for collectibles, you’ll finish the game with more questions than answers. That’s not a bad thing.

“Come aboard the Helios, we’ll get together, have a few laughs.”.

The Helios is a massive ship in the ocean that is home to Nikola Tesla and his large research team. You are Rose, having received a message from your sister, Ada, a researcher aboard the Helios, that asks you to come as quick as possible. Not much information is given, but as a loyal sibling you are, you listen to her words and hop on the first boat to meet up with her on the Helios. Right off the bat, Close to the Sun gives off a Bioshock vibe. Not only in looks, but the backstory of the Helios is a lot like Rapture. A crazy genius builds a remote research facility away from people telling him that he is breaking rules, or crossing the lines of morality. What could go wrong when you are confined to a ship in the middle of the ocean and you start messing with the fabric of time? In the words of one of the people you will meet aboard the Helios, “We’re harvesting energy from time, this shit is complicated.”. So of course things have gone wrong, this would be a short game if it didn’t.

First, you are on a small auto boat that is approaching the Helios,and as you circle the massive ship and enter one of the access docks, you begin to realize how large this ship really is. With the fog and the dark sky you only see glimpses of the ship, never see the whole thing, but I think that really helps set the tone for the game. Right off the auto boat, you never have a good feeling about what you are getting into, and there is always more you don’t know about your situation than there is that you do. Having the Helios shrouded in mystery of fog and darkness is a great way to start the game with this tone.

The story unfolds with dialog as you are exploring and small cutscenes where you lose control of your character, but the viewpoint never leaves from Rose herself. Another tool they use to provide story is the many items littered about the Helios. There are magazines, newspaper articles, office memos and photos all over the place for you to pick up and read for more backstory. Apparently, they are so far advanced that they can manipulate time, but cannot figure out how to send voice recordings instead of wasting TONS of paper on department memos. One easily missable set of documents were in a regular room not far from the main path of the story. They had the notes and memos from Albert Einstein and his time aboard the Helios, and is a very cool detail about the importance of the research facility if you aren’t looking around closely. There are so many small details that can be missed if you are just playing through the game and hitting the main story beats. To truly get the most out of Close to the Sun, you need to search for every item and read them closely.

There is no combat, but there are enemies that you will need to run from during a handful of chase sequences. These chase sequences are incredibly intense and scary since you are limited to first person view you never get a good look at how close the enemy is behind you, leaving you to always assume they are right on your ass. You’ll navigate unfamiliar hallways and turn into dead ends bringing a brutal death scene at the hands of your pursuing enemy. This is where these sequences start to cross the line from intense to frustrating.

After five or six attempts of taking wrong turns, fumbling over obstacles or getting caught on objects on the floor, you will begin to notice that your pursuer isn’t as close as the hair on the back of your neck was telling you. It becomes more trial and error at this point just trying to find the right path to the end of the sequence. If you take a wrong turn you are forced to watch an incredibly long and graphic death scene that is not skippable. Fail multiple times in a sequence and that death scene starts to get frustrating when all you want to do is quick reset the checkpoint and make a left turn instead of right.

There aren’t many puzzles in the game, but the ones that do appear are pretty fun. Most of them involve unlocking a door to advance the story, but some go a few steps further and have you searching for a clue in a room that will unlock your next objective. One puzzle that sticks out was a safe that had symbols on the dials, and in that room was a poem written in a book, so you had to use that poem to solve the order of the dials. It was a very clever mechanic that I wish showed up more often in the game.

The story isn’t the only thing that lifts heavy inspiration from Bioshock, the graphics also reminded me of my days in Rapture. Abandoned hallways made of the most expensive wood, brass and gold are covered in blood streaks and littered with bodies and garbage that tell a tale of chaos and destruction that you are here to sort out. Lights flicker, sounds and shadows come and go in the distance and you are all alone not knowing what is around the corner. You can tell that a lot of thought and care went into the environmental design of the Helios as it is the true star of the game, much like I thought Rapture was the true star of Bioshock.

Throughout the story you will come across yellow glowing silhouettes that offer some details of the events that happened before you boarded. You’ll see people running from... something, and at times they will lead you where to go in your journey. They also offer some back story, as some of the yellow silhouettes are story related and can offer a hint to your objective. These glimpses of the past, and the fact that you never get up close and personal with another character (other than Ludwig... but you’ll need to meet him for yourself) hide the fact that they didn’t spend any time detailing character models or faces. I think this was a great decision, as all that time was better spent on the Helios and making sure the environment and atmosphere are at their best.

Bioshock is my favorite game of all time, and the Helios drew me into its environment and story very similar to how I was drawn into Rapture 12 years ago. The story telling and voice acting are all top notch and are backed up by an atmosphere that many Bioshock copies have tried to mimic, but I felt never got quite right. Close to the Sun is a joy to play through if you don’t get too frustrated at the chase sequences and as long as you like hunting for collectibles to fill out some backstory.

Overall Score: 8.8 / 10 Jackbox Party Pack 6, The

If you aren’t familiar with the Jackbox Party packs of the past, they are collections of 5 party games that you can play with your friends that involve trivia, drawing or using that creative part of your brain to create raps, jokes or stories to make your friends laugh. Gone are the days of having to give every one of your friends a controller to play, because with the Jackbox games you can use smartphones, tablets and computers as the controllers. At the start of each game you are given a code to punch into and this connects you to the session that is on your Xbox. Most games in this pack can be played with up to 8 people, but there is another option for audience members that can join at any time for some fun. These audience members can be in the same room, or playing along by watching you stream on Mixer or Twitch.

I’ve played trivia games before on console, and setting everyone up with controllers can be tough. First, you might not have 8 $60 controllers laying around your house, and second, controllers can be a little intimidating for people not used to them. I remember the look on my mother-in-laws face when I handed her a controller to play Scene-It back on the Xbox 360. She looked like I handed her a bomb to defuse. Everyone has a smartphone and everyone knows how to use them, so it’s easy to get that Debbie-Downer friend to join in when all she ever wants to do is just sit and watch. You’re going to need her, chances are she’s pretty dumb and she’ll be an easy target to steal points from. There are 5 new games in The Jackbox Party Pack 6; let’s get into them.

Trivia Murder Party 2 is exactly like it sounds, you and up to 7 friends are on a gameshow being hosted by the owner of a Murder Hotel. Answer the questions right and you get some points, but when you answer the host’s trivia questions wrong, you are sent to the killing floor where you compete against your opponents in mini-games of various kinds. Win the trivia, spin-the-wheel or press your luck style mini-game, and you escape the Killing Floor by the skin of your teeth and live to answer more questions for points. Fail the mini game and you are dead, not able to collect any points for future questions. Don’t fret! There is redemption. If another opponent fails a question and you are able to win the mini-game on the Killing Floor, you are able to bring yourself back to life and rack up points from future questions.

Make it through a few rounds of questions alive and you are given a chance to escape the Murder Hotel that you have been trapped in. You are positioned in order of points with the highest scorer being the closest to the exit. The final round is a quick fire of multiple choice questions that if you get right, you move one spot closer to the your escape. Get the answer wrong and you don’t move at all, giving the opponent behind you a chance to catch up or even pass you on the way to the exit. It’s everyone for themselves at this point and you have to be fast and accurate to survive. Trivia Murder Party 1 was my favorite of the games packed into The Jackbox Party Pack 3 and this one is no different. It is the most fun game to play in this pack.

Role Models is a personality test you play with your friends. While playing this game your friends will learn what you think about them, and more importantly, you will find out what your friends think about you. This game is playable with 3-6 players, and we quickly realized that this game would be a lot more fun with more players, we played with 3 and that just wasn’t enough. You are given a handful of categories to choose from, and from there you are to pick out which friend is the best of the choices given. For example, we were given the category of Friends characters. From the list provided, we were instructed to pick which of the players is the best example of each Friends character; Joey, Rachel, Monica and so on. You get points for each player that has the same answer as you, and there are bonus points that you can go for by putting the 100% sticker on the one choice you feel the most strong about. The more people that also chose the same answer as you, the more bonus points you get. It a really fun game to play with some good friends. Good and bad choices result in funny explanations from your friends, as we thought for sure that my wife would be mad that we picked her to be Monica because of her obsessive cleaning, but she accepted it with pride. When I chose her to be Chewbacca from Star Wars because that’s how she sounds when she snores... well that didn’t go over too well.

Joke Boat puts you on a boat cruise that you have to come up with some stand-up comedy on the spot after some word topics are chosen. It’s a lot like the rap battle game that was in Jackbox 5 in that you are given some choice of words to plug in, and from there you have to finish off the joke. The problem is that once you have chosen this plug in word, you are committed to finishing off the joke on that topic. I get that this is the point, and there is a challenge associated with having to write a joke that is based on an avocado, but to me a dud joke that nobody can build off of really kills the mood and flow of the game. You are forced to finish the joke about the avocado and then apologize to your friends for the lame joke that made no sense. Meanwhile, your opponent in the joke contest was given an easy topic of french kissing and his punchline of sucking up the extra spit off the other persons tongues get both laughs and cringes from your friends as he crushes you in the votes. If you had a bit more control of the topic of the joke, I think there would be a lot more fun for the whole group. It’s also better with a bigger group of people. We played with 3 players and the game filled up the extra spot with an opponent with computer written jokes that were incredibly lame. The game can be played with up to 8 players and, like the others, there is interaction with the audience members.

Dictionarium is pretty much Urban Dictionary the game. In it you are tasked to craft definitions for words or phrases given to the group. Everyone has the same words, and after you are done making up the definition, you vote on the best or funniest one. In the second round you are challenged to take the word or words given to you in round 1 and make up a synonym for it and repeat the voting process. The third and final round is the toughest. You are tasked with taking the same words used in rounds 1 and 2 and use them in a sentence. It’s a really fun game that feels like it’s over too quickly. We only had 3 people playing and it supports up to 8, so with more people it will go by slower and will probably feel like a better length. As we played it, it seemed like it was just getting fun when the game would be over. This was the game we played the most during our gaming night, and I would rank it right up there with Trivia Murder Party in terms of fun for the group.

Push the Button is a lot like the board game Secret Hitler, or even a murder mystery party, where there is one person that knows they are the enemy and the others are left to try and figure out who that is. In Push the Button you are on a spaceship, and on board with you and your crew is an alien in disguise that is trying to sabotage your ship. Each bay of the space ship presents you with a different mini-game to play that is supposed to provide a hint at the aliens identity, or if played right by the alien, could cause more confusion between the humans on who the alien really is. We played this the same game night that I played the other games so we only had 3 players (it plays up to 10), and after a few rounds it was super simple to pick out the alien. Mostly that was because one of the mini-games resulted in my friend (who was the alien) have his character admit they loved 80’s clothes, and he is not the type to be into 80’s fashion. So it was easy to pick him out as the alien. The mini games are all fun mixes of word puzzles and sequence games that are a lot of fun with friends. When you think you know who the alien is, you work with your group to get them on your side. Once the decision is unanimous, you press the button and that person is sucked out into space via the airlock and you are forced to live with your decision.

At this point my only complaint with the series is that we are 6 packs in (almost 30 different games) and they are all separate packs on the Xbox. It would be great if there was a way we could download a Jackbox app and have every game from each pack you own in one spot available to launch from there. When my friends get together for a game night we usually have a few adult drinks and play for 5+ hours. Not having to swap packs back and forth to try different games would really help keep the fun moving, and having 30 games to quickly pick and choose from would be a huge improvement. I realize that this probably isn’t possible, and if it was they would have done it by now, but I have to mention it as a drawback of the series. Playing Monday morning quarterback, I wish they would have released one Jackbox game, and then added 5 DLC packs to keep them all in the same launcher.

I think this year’s addition to the Jackbox series is a good one and it comes with a great variety of games. It’s not overloaded with trivia or drawing games and I think it’s a great overall balance that all of your friends will enjoy playing even if they aren’t gamers. Most of these games are best when played with a larger group that know each other pretty well, as games like Push the Button and Role Models are really dependent on how well you know your friends. The things that make us come back to the Jackbox games are the humor and accessibility. Every game will make you laugh and they are super easy to get your group playing with their phones.

Overall Score: 8.0 / 10 Monster Jam Steel Titans

What’s the first thing that you think of when you hear Monster Jam? Chances are you have a vision in your mind of a huge monster truck soaring through the air before landing on some cars with thousands of flashing cameras going off in the background. Perhaps you have been to one of these events live and have fond memories of your parents buying you tons of snacks as you watched these behemoth machines do their thing in the mud. For me, the first thing I think of is my son and his first event. He was so excited and Monster Jam definitely delivered. He had trucks on the brain for weeks after, and we even set up trick events in the basement with the trucks he has. When I heard that Monster Jam: Steel Titans was coming out, I jumped at the opportunity to review it with my son. Who better than to offer up their opinion on a monster truck game than a 7 year old boy obsessed with their product? For the purpose of this review I will call him Booger Eater. That sounds like a Monster Jam truck name, right? After hours with the game and the racing series complete, I am left wondering who this game is really for, because Booger Eater wants nothing to do with it, and I had my fill of it.

You start off with a quick tutorial mode that runs you through the basics, which Booger Eater completed before I got home from work. I told you he was excited for this. After you complete the acceleration, braking, steering, jumping and the other basic mechanics of the game, you are put into the open world freeride mode. This is the area that Booger Eater liked the most. It’s a pretty large desert map that has plenty of ramps and dirt mounds to jump off of and trails to explore to find higher ground to gain speed for those jumps. As you progress in the career mode you unlock other big areas to explore. One of those areas is an airplane graveyard that has a lot of jumps and planes to drive through, which was a huge hit with Booger Eater. Scattered throughout the freeride area are 50 Monster Jam logos to collect by having to jump super high, or super long gaps. Once the logo is collected, the count is displayed at the bottom of the screen so you know how many you have found, but the logo eventually reappears in the same location making it real hard to keep track of the logos you’ve already collected. This is going to really frustrate achievement hunters.

Booger Eater: “I like the dirt area the best because I get to do jumps and flips and I don’t get reset all the time”

The career mode starts off with a racing series made up of short routes through the open freeride area that you’ve already been exploring. You progress by placing 3rd place or better overall, and let me tell you, it will be a fight to place 3rd. At the start of the first race I found my first negative mark with the game; there is no timing indicator with the fast start. Your truck is parked at the starting line with the other trucks revving their engines, and a small street light appears on the screen with two lit red lights and a green light that is off. I was expecting the red lights to shut off and give an audio cue to help with the timing of the green light, but nope! The red lights just shines until the green light flashes and you’re expected to react immediately to start the race. Roughly fifty percent of the time I was hit with a “Late Start” which made my truck chug off the starting line with the same speed that I get out of bed in the morning. About forty eight percent of the time I hit the gas too fast and I was hit with “Early Start” penalty as I got to watch the other trucks shoot off the starting line while I slowly took off. The final two percent, the TWO TIMES in my hours of playing that I actually timed the start right, (by luck I’m sure) I was able to beat the pack out of the starting zone and grab a quick lead.

Grabbing a quick lead is key to the races in this game. The trucks are so big, that when they are side by side they tend to take up most of the track, and getting held behind slower trucks boxing you out of the race makes the first place racer pull that much farther out ahead of you. You’ll eventually be able to muscle past the three or four slower trucks, but that first place racer will have such a commanding lead that you will never catch up and you will be fighting for second or third place at best.

The second negative mark came when I was doing some of the trail racing events. You are racing on a narrow path with trees, rocks, dirt mounds and jumps galore. Sounds fun right? Well, it can be. If you’re in first and have a commanding lead you can lay off the gas a bit and take your turns a bit more careful, but if you make one mistake, you are doomed. The race resets your truck if you veer off course for too long. I believe it's 5 seconds. They don’t want you taking shortcuts, and they want to help you if you drive too far off by resetting you to the track. Fair enough, but the timing is way off. Multiple times, I was back on the track and the 5 second warning went away, only to be reset onto the track about fifty feet back in fifth place, or worse. I was back on track, the warning went away and I was still penalized and reset even though I had adjusted course and resumed the race. This is infuriating. One time Booger Eater veered off the small track and his truck was reset into a cluster of trees. No problem, he’s in a monster truck, he can just drive over the... nope, because running into the trees makes his truck flip over and he had to reset again. Where did it put him? Back in the trees. We had to exit out of the race and start the series over.

Now, I am a racing veteran. I’ve been playing racing games since Gran Turismo on the Playstation, so I’ve seen all the nasty tricks developers have used over the years to maintain difficulty or stretch the gameplay to provide a longer experience. Imagine how Booger Eater felt during the multiple times he was reset. He even questioned the reason he was reset at all. This is a monster truck game right? Isn’t the point of racing a huge monster truck that you can just drive through and over anything? Why are we being constrained to a small path being forced to make tight turns? Another nasty trick they pulled with this game happened to me twice at the same point of the same race, but on two different attempts.

On the final lap of the first series, my tire broke, which puts you into a tire changing mini game where you smash 'A' repeatedly. It’s pretty fun and a neat mechanic to deal with a broken tire that happens pretty often at Monster Jam events. This time the broken tire cost me the race, and losing this race pushed me below the third place requirement. I had to start all over. To be fair, I blew a few early races, so my point total was low, and tires breaking are a part of racing. So I dusted myself off, got behind the wheel of the massive truck and started over. Then again on the final lap of the final race I broke another tire. This time I had enough points built up that I did not fall below third overall, but it seemed pretty fishy that my tire broke on the same lap of the same race, twice. It just felt like a dirty trick to even the playing field. I’d be curious to see the percentage of people that had their tire break during that same lap.

Booger Eater during one of the races: “I just want to do flips and tricks, why do I have to race?”

After you complete the early races you start to do checkpoint ones that take you through the open freeride area. These races don’t have the restraints that the previous ones did. You are free to ride off the track and go as you please, but you need to hit the checkpoints in order to advance the race. These are a lot more fun, and my only complaint here is a small one with the checkpoints themselves. They are a glowing yellow making them easy to spot out in the green and brown environment, but the arrow inside the checkpoint pointing to the direction of the next one is almost impossible to distinguish from the glowing aura of checkpoint itself. You’re busy enough trying to stay on course, fighting off other trucks, dodging trees and trying not to flip, that by the time you see the arrow it’s too late. Your AI truck opponents of course, know right where to go and are already adjusting their direction to the next checkpoint. There is also no minimap that has become a staple of racing games. If there was a minimap that showed the checkpoint locations then it would make this a lot better.

Booger Eater: “I like the end when you can smash into the other trucks”. His favorite part of the race is the end. That tells you something.

If you managed to place third or better in the first series you unlock the stadium series which can be a lot more fun. I don’t know why they didn’t open with this, or even better leave the first one with the trails and small routes out. You travel across the United States visiting different cities and compete in races, freestyle and two wheel competitions. These can be super fun, it’s just too bad we are already 2 hours into the game and have had to deal with the frustrations of the first series. Don’t get me wrong, there are still frustrations with this series, but the fun of performing trick combos during freestyle outweighs the major complaints that I have.

Booger Eater (laughing): “Daddy, look Monster Mutts tail fell off!”. After that he made it a point to always flip enough to land on the roof and break the tail off of Monster Mutt. He laughed every time.

I feel after 8 paragraphs I need to write about something positive with Monster Jam, and easily the best part about this game are the trucks. They are the stars of the show, and the artists do not disappoint. The trucks themselves are gorgeous and you can see every small detail that went into the models. From the small messages on the bottom of the trucks you see when they flip over, to all of the sponsor logos featured on them, they spared no expense on the details. Lights shine off the bodies when you are in the arenas and they look clean and shiny as they are supposed to. Then as you work the track they get dirty and banged up showing great body damage specific to the location of the hit. Mud flies up from the tires as they grip into the dirt and as you drive over flowers and grass you’ll see those kick up too.

There are 26 trucks in the game that are locked behind a grind for currency that puts some pay to win phone games to shame. Oh dear, there I go being negative again, but come on guys. I played for nearly 2 hours before I saved up enough currency to buy my first truck. TWO HOURS. Do you know how long the attention span of the average kid is? I just Googled it and it’s 20 minutes for a 7 year old. I was barely able to keep Booger Eater focused long enough to give a few one sentence quotes for this review. The starter truck, Northern Exposure, is cool and all, but once Booger Eater found out that his favorite truck Monster Mutt wasn’t available to use it was hard to get him to play more.

This is a huge problem in a game where the trucks are the stars, and kids will always have their favorites. It’s not good to lock them all behind such a ridiculous grind. I just feel bad for the artists that put so much time into trucks that will never be seen. Once I got enough currency to unlock Monster Mutt, all of my money went into upgrading it. After another 3 hours or so of racing the next series, I almost had it fully upgraded. If you are keeping track of my hours I am close to 7 hours in, and I have earned enough to unlock one truck and almost max out the upgrades. There are 24 more trucks in the game that I will never drive.

Booger Eater: “Daddy look they have Megalodon, can we get it?”
Me: “no, I’m not going to do the work to unlock it”
Booger Eater: “why not?”
Me: “Do you want to do the races to unlock it?”
Booger Eater: “no”

The upgrade system is pretty bare bones and I can’t decide if that’s a good or bad thing. On one hand it’s nice to be able to spend your limited currency and be able to notice progress, but on the other hand, some added depth would be a welcome feature for some of us veteran racing players. Booger Eater isn’t going to spend any time messing with suspension settings, but I’m sure someone else out there would. The upgrades focus on tires, suspension, acceleration and top speed. The good thing is that you can upgrade between events without having to exit out or hit a garage. You just choose the upgrade you want to spend your money on and it’s applied to the next race. It’s very simple and clean and Booger Eater was eager to use all his money to upgrade the speed, as a seven year old would.

As he was upgrading the speed on Monster Mutt: “I’m going to make this the fastest Mutt ever. He’s going to go so fast he will jump over Mars.” He’s also kind of obsessed with space and planets right now.

I ran into some frame rate issues when racing with more than one truck on screen. I’m playing on an Xbox One X, and when there were 3-4 trucks on the screen you will see a pretty noticeable stutter and slow down until you are by yourself again. The audio is pretty standard for a racing game. While in third person view you can hear and feel the rumble of the trucks and it’s pretty impressive, but the real shining point for the audio is the first person cockpit view. If you have been to a Monster Jam event live then you know these beasts are loud. Playing the game in first person might not be the best visually, as the hood takes up 70% of the screen, but while playing I would suggest at least giving it a go for the audio. I can’t imagine how loud these things are when you are sitting 2 feet from the massive engine, but playing it in first person might give you a bit of an idea. The soundtrack features a generic rock score that fits this game well. I’ve heard that past games have had more of a hip hop theme to it, so this is a welcome change.

In 2019, online multiplayer is a standard, especially with racing games. A game like Monster Jam is BEGGING for online multiplayer where you can race some friends, trade some paint and break some tires on the same lap together. Unfortunately, it is missing from Monster Jam: Steel Titans and I just don’t understand it. Two other features that would make a huge difference are create a truck and create a course. Imagine the fun of creating your own massive monster truck and being able to take it out on a freestyle course that you made. Sharing it with your friends so you can compete online together would be a lot of fun and a huge missed opportunity to get more life out of this bare bones game. These missing features are a big miss in my opinion and drastically lower the value of the game.

There are a few things I really liked about Monster Jam: Steel Titans; the trucks themselves and the handling of the trucks are top notch and the stars of the show. It’s really fun to drive around and see what these beasts are capable of. You can run full speed into a ramp and see how many flips you can pull off before you slam into the ground. This is fun for about a half hour before you start to look into other modes to keep you busy. Unfortunately that is where the game falls extremely short.

No online multiplayer, the fun events being locked behind a hard single player race series and the slowest grind of in game currency that I can recall makes it really hard for me to recommend to even the veterans of the racing genre. What’s worse, is that I can’t recommend it to the REAL FANS of Monster Jam, the kids that drag their parents out on a work night to spend $100 on popcorn, a hot dog and a two pack toy truck set of Megalodon and Monster Mutt.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Darkwood

Ever have that feeling when you were a kid going up the basement steps that something was following you? You just shut off the light and you couldn’t get up the steps fast enough because something was hot on your heels ready to grab your legs. Well, that is a constant feeling in Darkwood, a top down survival horror game developed by the Polish crew of 3 at Acid Wizard Studios. The tag line for the studio on their website is “We make trippy games” and my time with Darkwood has proven this motto to be true.

“All roads lead deeper into the woods.”

I don’t want to spoil the story so I will talk mostly about the first set of woods you encounter in Darkwood. First you’ll play through a brief prologue showing the madness that consumes you in these woods, and that the decisions that you make can affect others. For example, when leaving your house you come across your dog laying on the ground whimpering. You are presented with a choice to leave it, or put it out of its misery. Me being an animal lover, I felt sorry for the pup, so I ended its suffering. If you chose to leave it however, then when you come back to the house the dog has gone mad and will try to attack you. After the prologue you take control of an unnamed character and set out on a trek to escape the woods. Travelers, traders and madmen tell you over and over that there is no escape, that “all roads lead deeper into the woods”. It’s a recurring theme throughout the game. You may progress into the next area, but you are told over and over that there is truly no way out.

As you set off away from your camp to explore, you will come across various locations scattered across your starter area, Dry Meadow. As you visit these locations they will be sketched into your journal on a crude map. This map doesn’t show your current location like typical modern games, but is only there to serve as a reference point to where key points are located. This adds a lot of tension to the game. If it had a true map that showed your current location and orientation it would be very easy to find your way to these key locations. I think that would take away from the chaos and panic that hits you when you realize you are far from your camp and night time is approaching. At night, your field of view shrinks around you, more deadly creatures spawn and a mysterious red cloud follows you around, draining your health. You need to be in your camp at night to be safe, and if you find yourself on the other side of the woods as night falls, it will mean certain death.

During your travels you will be followed by wild dogs that attack if you get too close, and some wild elk that will mess you up if you go near them. This is only in the starter area and only during the day. More threats are out there at night and in the later areas. Dead bodies, houses and random crates are waiting around for you to loot, clearing them out of any materials you can fit in your backpack. Cloth, wire, batteries, wood, nails and gasoline cans are must grabs. You can use those items to craft your survival tools to make it another day, or sell them to vendors for other needed items. As the sky gets darker and darker, you’ll start getting hints that you should be making your way back to the safety of your camp. Here is where you will need to put those newly acquired supplies to good use.

Barricade windows, set bear traps and make some bandages, because when the sun goes down all the crazies come out. Topping off the generator should be your number one priority because you will need to run it all night to keep the lights on inside the house. Please, please, if you remember one thing from this, you need to remember to shut off the generator in the morning. I wasted so much gas because I left it running all day because I was too eager to get out exploring and trading with the NPCs. Light keeps MOST of the night creatures at bay. If you happen to make it through the first night you’ve done well.

This is where you’ll meet a key NPC that will be an invaluable asset to survive. Every morning, you will have a visitor in your camp waiting for you to emerge from your barricaded room. He’s a trader that you can sell unwanted items, shiny rocks or gems in exchange for reputation that you can spend on items that you actually need. He sells building supplies and healing items while the Wolfman, another NPC that you meet, tends to sell more weapon related items. Each vendor has his own reputation currency, so make sure you are selling the right items to the right NPC for maximum profits. After your first day or so you will begin a quest line with Wolfman that will progress the story and take you to new locations.

“Respect the woods. Be Patient. Focus.”

Now that you have made it through the night and understand the basic principles of the game let’s talk a bit about the actual gameplay. As stated above, this is a top down view of the woods you are exploring. Your character control and field of view are two separate sticks, allowing you to run in one direction while facing another. This is very helpful when running from wild dogs or some of the bigger and nastier creatures you’ll encounter at night and later in the game. During the day you are able to see the trees and other objects in the woods around you, but your top down view is limited to seeing only the enemies and pathways in your field of vision. In other words, you actually have to be facing something in order to see it on your screen. This mechanic really intensifies the “thing chasing you up the stairs” feeling that I described earlier. It’s a mechanic that works really well at night, and lulls you into a false state of security during the day. But, the truth is, both can be extremely dangerous. You’ll have a hotbar on the upper left of the screen that can hold up to 3 items, and it can be upgraded to hold more. You can move items from your backpack to the hotbar for quick use, and I’d recommend equipping a weapon, some bandages and a light source in your first 3 slots. Those will serve you well in the early forest.

Your backpack and workbench at the house are also upgradeable, offering more storage slots and higher rated items to craft. While most crafting is done at the workbench, there is some crafting you can do in the field, such as bandages, lock picks and some weapons; a wood board and some nails makes a decent emergency weapon. As you upgrade your workbench further you can upgrade these lower end weapons into more efficient ones. Crafting on the fly takes a bit of time and strategy, and since it’s not instant, you are better off crafting all of your emergency items around the safety of your house before you set off exploring. If you are hunched over your bag crafting a set of bandages, a nearby dog WILL take this as an open invitation to attack you.

Healing works the same way, you have to pick your spots to heal so you can fill up your bar. If you’re interrupted mid-heal, the bandage you are using is wasted and the healing will stop. Combat is just as deliberate as the movement and crafting. Running, climbing over objects and weapon swings are tied to a stamina meter that drains while performing these actions. If you don’t monitor this meter while in combat or while running from a tougher enemy you will start to huff and puff as you are beaten to death. Only swing if you know you can make contact, and only run if you know what direction you want to go. As you progress, better weapons will become available to purchase or by finding the parts and pieces in the woods. You can then take those pieces and assemble them at the workbench at your camp.

“Better forget about the road home, Meat.”

The bumps, creaks, and footsteps will scare you as you throughout the game, but it’s the moments of silence that really start to creep you out. Because you KNOW that something was just right there... or was it? I played through this game with headphones and I can’t tell you how many times the hair on the back of my neck perked up as the sound of snapping twigs or footsteps filled my ears indicating that something was very close. Howling winds, dogs barking in the distance and just when the sounds get close enough that it feels like something is going to pop up on your screen... it doesn’t. Your heart is racing, you’re looking in every direction to catch a glimpse of something in the shadows to focus your field of vision on, but the house and woods around you have gone silent. Has morning come? Are you safe? Then the dresser you had propping the door closed starts to move and the door swings open. At this point it’s too late and you hope that the bear traps you laid down at least slows down whatever is coming in.

There are no cut scenes or voice acting in Darkwood. Just a barely animated image of the character you are talking to. Wolfman for instance is, well, a wolf-man trader that offers advice, will purchase and sell items and will present you with a pretty big quest line that has a few branching paths that you can choose from. His character model has great detail, even down to the bullet hole in his jacket. Was it from when someone shot him, or was it from when he shot the previous owner? This old school approach to storytelling really reminded me of some of the classic PC adventure games I’ve played in the past, like Lands of Lore and Kings Quest, where they don’t hold your hand on what to do next, but there are tips and tricks hidden in some of the dialog that can point you in the right direction.

Darkwood is a purposefully deliberate survival game that forces you to explore, but at the same time punishes you for spending too much time and effort searching one area. You don’t want to spend too many resources building up your camps, but you need to gather enough to be able to survive your stay there. It’s a delicate balance that is really well executed but not overly explained. The survival mechanics can be learned very quickly, and once you are two or three game days in you will start to find a groove. Just remember to turn the generator off in the morning.

Overall Score: 9.0 / 10 Gang Beasts

Gang Beasts is a beat ‘em up party game by developer Bone Loaf and published by Double Fine. Like drunken toddlers in a bounce house, your objective is to knock your opponent to the ground and push or throw them out of the arena to be the last one standing. You can punch, kick and head butt your way to victory, but do you ever really have full control of your character? Let’s find out!

What you see is what you get as far as graphics are concerned. Gang Beasts has a texture-less yet colorful look to it and I think it works well with the simple game design. The character models look and move like the Pillsbury Dough Boy and there are many customizable items (hair, hats, glasses, clothes) you can use to make a character you like, and more importantly, stand out from the others, because with up to 8 players on screen it can be confusing. The arenas are colorful and texture-less just like the characters, but there’s no mistaking what they are. In total, there are 19 arenas in Beef City to choose from, and most of them have some sort of interactive mechanic to it.

Containers is a fun one. You are standing on shipping containers being held up by 4 metal wires. Head butt or kick the wires enough and they break, and the shipping containers, along with any of your opponents on them, fall to their doom. Trucks is another favorite of mine that can be super hectic and fun. You are on two moving trucks speeding down a highway. You must jump back and forth between the trucks to avoid the road signs, all while trying to throw, punch and kick your opponents off the trucks. There are a lot of achievements tied to the interactive parts of the arenas, so make sure to take a look at those. Most of them can be completed while you are battling your buddies and don’t take too much extra work to complete. Some of them however, might take some cooperation and a truce from your opponents so you can complete the environment action for those coveted gamerscore increases.

Audio was something of a mixed bag, as I found that some of the sound effects worked, but at times it was hard to tell if my attacks landed based on sound cues. This gives you a sense of confusion as you are playing because you never get the feeling that you are doing any damage. Climbing on objects has the same problem; I heard no audio cue that my character was gripping a wall or cable, and since the camera is pulled back a bit to show all the action of the arena, it was hard to tell if my character was gripping the wall or if his hand was just hovering inches from it. The score is a fun mixture of pop beats that will have you humming along as you are dive kicking your opponents off of a buoy into the water in the Arctic arena. The title song refrain G-A-N-G BEA-S—T—S will get stuck in your head. I guarantee it.

There is no story or campaign and no rich history of Beef City to explore, just a pure brawler to play with your friends or online with people that have had relations with your mother or are blindly disapproving of your gender or ethnicity. There are four game types to play: “Melee”, which is a free for all where the last person standing is the winner, “Waves” is a co-op waved based mode that gets increasingly difficult as you progress, “Gang” is a team based melee mode and finally there is “Football”, or Soccer for us more dignified Americans.

Gang Beasts has a simple design and a premise. I would have thought that would carry over into a simple control scheme but that is not the case. As of this review, the controller layout screen did not show how to grip walls or hold and pick up opponents. It only shows the face buttons for kick, head butt and jump. I had to Google how to complete some of the most important actions of the game. The loading screen tells you that you should grip walls and pull yourself up, but it does not say how to do so. The game tells you to hold on to your opponent, knock them out, pick them up and throw them, but it does not tell you which buttons to push to complete these actions.

After some Googling and a YouTube video, I finally found out that the bumpers act as your hands and you can hold them independently or together to grip things. This works for walls and opponents. You can grab an opponent with your left hand and then punch or head butt them. With walls you can grip them with one or two hands and then hold 'A' to pull yourself up. This all sounds great, but it never feels right. As I said above, there is no audio cue to show that you are gripping, and with the simple character design, you have spheres for hands, so you're unable to see individual fingers gripping an opponent or wall. So most of the time you really have no clue if you are gripping or not unless you try to walk away from the object or person and your hand sticks to it. By then, the opponent you are trying to grab has punched you several times and is now trying to hold on to you and failing the same way you were. It becomes a back and forth of failures until one person gets lucky and is able to pick up the other and throw them off the arena, and at this point it is more of a game of luck than skill.

Adding to the tactile frustration, there no health bar showing how many hits you can take before you become concussed. With no health bar and random audio cues for hits, it becomes a spamfest of attacks until you see someone collapse seemingly randomly. From there it’s a frantic series of button presses to try and pick up or push that collapsed opponent off the arena floor.

Don’t get me wrong, Gang Beasts is frantic and fun, and there is enjoyment to be had. With 19 different arenas you won’t feel like you are having the same fight over and over, and the environmental hazards that most levels have add a unique spin that creates some memorable moments. Triggering a catwalk collapse on one of the tower levels and seeing my buddy panic and jump his way up the stairs and still fall to his death was one of the best moments I had with this game. Unfortunately, the combat and controls really hold back what would be a fun party game with your friends.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10 Hyper Jam

Hyper Jam is an arena brawler with quick snappy gameplay, crisp graphics with neon highlights and a fresh synthwave soundtrack that will have your head bobbing as you kill your friends, online opponents and AI bots. However, as you put some time into the game, you realize there’s not all that much content or much to keep you coming back for more. There’s no story, no tournament mode, and the progression system that unlocks taunts and cosmetics is nothing to write home about. It does have easy achievements, and that goes a long way for this reviewer.

The premise of Hyper Jam is pretty simple; kill the other characters on the screen before they kill you. They very much deliver on this premise, and the core gameplay is fun and rewarding. I played multiple games online, vs AI opponents and on the couch with a friend, and every match I had was intense and fun. But after a few rounds I found it very easy to want to move on. There was no hook to draw me in and keep me wanting to continue playing.

The combat is about as straightforward as you can get from a brawler. There are no combos to learn, so once you learn how each specific weapon works and how to parry attacks, you’ll be looking for more ways that the game can challenge you. Unfortunately it’s not there. Button mashers and casual gamers can find victory, and that’s not a bad thing when you’re looking to get some couch co-op in with some friends that may not be as into gaming as you are. I can see this being a lot of fun with some buddies and beers.

You use the Left Stick to move about the arena floor and the Right Stick to aim, so it operates a lot like a twin stick shooter. Left Trigger is dash (which leaves an awesome neon trail in your wake) and Right Trigger is attack, which you can hold for more charged damage. Use the Left Bumper to parry attacks, rockets and thrown weapons, and you use Right Bumper to unexpectedly throw your weapon at your opponent. This works great when you and your opponent each have next to no health and they are expecting you to rush with your hammer, but instead you throw it at them from a distance to deal the final blow.

The rounds operate a lot like a battle royale game. You appear in a random spot in the arena and the weapons spawn at random spots at random times. As the round progresses and time starts to wind down, a red circle will appear and close in on you and your opponents, bringing you closer together. Stay outside of the circle and you will take damage. You get points for every kill and the amount of damage you deal to your opponents. The first person to fill up their points bars (you chose the round limits) goes into survival mode where you have to live to win the match. These last minute “all or nothing” stakes at the end of each round make for real tense battles for victory, and every match that ends real close is a nail biter because anybody can win.

After the round is complete, the person in last place gets first choice of their perk that is applied for the rest of the match. The perks are a neat mechanic and can turn the tides of a match. There are perks for additional health, higher damage, faster movement, freeze attacks, fire attacks and a vampire perk that the damage you deal is added to your health meter. The perks stack, so selecting the right perks are vital to your success in the rest of the rounds. For instance, having an extra damage perk and the vampire perk means the additional damage you are dealing is sent right to your health meter. It’s a neat combo of perks that I found some great success with.

After each match you are awarded XP based on wins and damage dealt, and you are given skins and taunts for every time you level up. Unfortunately the taunts and skins are very forgettable and don’t scratch that loot box itch that other games are so successful at. There is no carrot on a stick here, as I didn’t care about the taunts or the skins, so leveling up was more of a hassle because it increased the time between rounds.

There aren’t many weapons in the game, and I think this is an area where the developer can definitely improve. I found that my “go-to” weapon was the katana and its quick slices with medium damage. The rocket launcher was fun as well, as the homing missiles it shoots are both easy and fun to watch as they circle around walls to hit your opponent. The hammer is fun to knock back opponents, and if timed right, you can knock them off a building, or onto some train tracks that triggers an instant kill. The grenade launcher is fun once you get the timing and bouncing down pat. Having a grenade bounce off a wall at an opponent that is behind cover is a great way to deal some damage.

Each weapon has a health or ammo meter that once depleted you'll be back to throwing punches until another weapon appears. It’s a great way to balance the game so the one friend (probably the one that would sweep in Mortal Kombat non-stop when you were younger) that is really good with the grenade launcher can’t just sit in the corner unstoppable. Another weapon at your disposal is the laser strike, if you are eliminated, you gain control of a red targeting system that shoots a high powered laser from up above, and if timed right, you can take out multiple opponents at once. It’s a very neat way to get some extra points after a death. The delay on the laser and the limited time make it tough to score hits on a regular basis, but I think that adds to the balance of the game. Any easier and it would be worse than the blue turtle shell in Mario Kart.

Whether it’s the neon lights of a rainy city rooftop or the sunny palm tree paradise straight from Miami Vice, Hyper Jam’s graphics and performance are outstanding. The frame rate is butter smooth and I did not experience any slowdown no matter how hectic the action got. The graphics are crisp and clean and the various arenas you compete in offer a wide variety of color pallets, so you’re not just fighting in dark dingy alleys or subways round after round. The synthwave soundtrack fits the glowing neon features of the menu and effects used throughout the rounds. I would really like to see some additional arenas added in the future with some more interactive environments like the subway train.

I enjoyed my time with Hyper Jam but I don’t see myself going back to it unless they add some new modes and weapons. The shallow unlock system and lack of weapons in particular really hurt the replay value. Once you clear out all of the achievements, which you can knock out in less than 3 hours, there’s little to return to unless you and your buddies are bored one night and want to punch each other until someone falls in front of a train.

Overall Score: 7.0 / 10 Donut County

Donut County started off as a tweet by a parody Peter Molyneux account that pitched crazy and eccentric ideas for video games. The 2012 tweet said “You play as a hole, you must move around an environment making certain elements fall into correct targets at the right time.” From this tweet, developer Ben Esposito (The Unfinished Swan) work-shopped this idea with other developers, and Donut County was born. It’s a charming and fun puzzle game with a surprisingly good story.

The story of Donut County is delivered mostly through text message conversations and flashbacks of characters that are trapped underground after they fell victim to the hole that swallowed their city. BK, a raccoon, and his human pal, Mira, are the main characters, and they both work at a donut shop in, you guessed it, Donut County. Like most teenagers, BK is addicted to a phone game and is focused on leveling up to 10 where he unlocks a shiny new quad-copter drone. He’s completely focused on this and ignores Mira’s warnings that the game he is playing is actually real life, and the donuts he thinks he’s delivering in game are actual holes popping up around their city swallowing up buildings and people.

The objective of Donut County’s levels is a lot like Katamari Damacy, where you start off as a small hole and you are able to swallow small items like flowers, bricks and cups. Then, the more you drop into the hole the bigger you get, eventually getting big enough to swallow buildings and sending them deep deep underground. Moving the hole around the level is simple, and its super satisfying to get big enough to drop the larger items into the hole. You can also use the hole to your advantage and place it under parts of bigger objects to make them tilt and flip, sending the smaller objects on top to the ground.

For example, there is a picnic table in one level, and on top of it there are cups, plates and some snacks. Place the hole underneath one of the pairs of legs, the table tilts and the objects on top of the table fall to the ground for easy pickings with the hole. It’s a very simple game mechanic that my 6 year old picked right up on. He actually played through the game himself and only needed help on the last scene. One scene in particular that my son loves is the bunnies. You drop multiple bunnies into the hole and hearts float above it for a few seconds, then more and more bunnies shoot out of the hole. Hey, rabbits do what rabbits do, but my son LOVES this part. He obviously doesn’t know what’s happening, he’s 6 and we haven’t had the talk. Maybe when he’s old enough I’ll boot up Donut County for an example.

Some of the levels have multiple areas, and clearing out the starting point will trigger a larger area and so on. It’s not all just dropping things into a hole though, as you progress you will unlock a catapult that attaches to the hole and you can shoot certain items back up into the air. You can use the catapult to launch these items to flip switches, break items high off the ground, or disturb the local wildlife. Once the level is clear of all the items on screen, you are brought back underground to hear the next tale of a citizen of Donut County and their encounter with the dreaded hole.

While Donut County is super fun to play, I didn’t find it challenging at all. I’ve played through the game twice and I have never failed a level, or got stuck on a puzzle longer than a few minutes. So it was disappointing when I reached the end in just under two hours each time. There is no scoring, no replaying the levels for time or leaderboard bragging rights to pull you back in for more. The only real reason to play through the game multiple times is to clean up achievements that you may have missed during the story.

The achievements are fun and tied to the story beats of the game, but some of them require you to do some odd things in the levels that you normally wouldn’t have tried. I like it when games use the achievements to get you to try oddball things, like let 35 eggs break when you should be catching them with the hole, or feed a bird a special recipe of soup. One thing that I can recommend is to take a peek at the achievement list beforehand. There are a few missable achievements, but you can easily go back to those levels after you completed the game via level select. It’s nice to have a game that doesn’t have all of the achievements tied to main story points and to me that adds a reason to replay some of the levels.

Donut County has a very distinct low polygon look to it and it works. It’s colorful, cute and an obvious nod to PS1 and N64 graphics that we all remember growing up. It looks and feels indy, and that’s where a lot of its charm comes from. The old school visual style mixed with the super smooth gameplay really makes for a fun experience as you swallow up everything on screen. The sounds of Donut County has your typical beeps and boops of puzzle games, and the characters have no voiced dialog, but one thing that stands out is the music. It’s a great mixture of soft guitar riffs with heavy beats of synthesized music. I often found myself nodding my head to the beat as I swallow up the city.

Donut County is a pretty simple puzzle game that has a lot of charming and fun puzzles, but won’t strain your brain to complete. While I had a great time with the under two hour story, I feel like there are a lot more places this game could have gone before it felt repetitive and tired. I find myself wanting more levels and characters to swallow. With a great visuals and sound, it’s pretty impressive that this was made by one person, I just wish he made more.

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Subnautica

Subnautica is a diving exploration game that’s heavy on atmosphere and survival, and as you dive deeper, you’ll find a story filled with mystery and suspense. I have to admit one thing right off the bat here, this game scared me so bad I nearly punched my 6 year old son. I don’t have many fears. I’m not saying things don’t scare me, but I don’t have any of your typical fears like heights, clowns, the dark or spiders. Now that I’ve spent some serious time with Subnautica, I can say that deep dark oceans, and the huge creatures that inhabit them, are a serious issue for me... I looked it up, it’s real, and it’s called Thalassophobia. I just wish it was easier to pronounce. Don’t worry, I’ll explain the story about my 6 year old below, and please discard the email to child services, I did not hit him. Let's dive in!

Subnautica starts as most games and movies based survival do; You are traveling along, minding your own business, and your FedEx plane (yes, that’s a Cast Away reference) is going down and your character is forced to escape to a strange and unknown place. From there you are mostly on your own to survive. What sets Subnautica apart from other survival games is that it actually has a story to follow, where others are more focused on the gathering of materials and crafting upgrades and tools. While those systems are featured heavily in the game, it’s nice to have a story that ties it all together and progresses while you are focusing on upgrading your tools, suits, base and vehicles. The story beats come in data logs found among other crash sites, radio transmissions from other emergency pods and potential rescue ships that are nearby. I won’t go into the story at all passed 'the crash', because even the smallest of details could spoil where it is going, and with a game like this that is so heavily focused on exploring, I don’t want to take any of those surprises away from you. Just know it is very much worth playing through the story.

I played though Subnautica on an Xbox One X and a 4K TV and using 7.1 headphones for sound. states that it is “X Enhanced”, but under 4K graphics and HDR it has the dreaded N/A. My TV did not receive a HDR signal, and while it did show 2160p displaying on my screen, that was most likely upconverting, so I don’t think this is a true 4K game either. That said, some of the visuals are absolutely stunning. As you emerge from your escape pod, you are greeted immediately with an intense scene of destruction as the Aurora (your FedEx ship) has crashed onto an ocean planet. Flames are high as parts of the ship fall into the water, and creaks and groans from the ship really drive home the reality that the Aurora isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. The visuals underwater are not as pretty, and since this game takes place 99% underwater, you start to see where this falls apart. The rocks and plants all lack detail, and as you get close, they never tighten up, showing muddy colors and textures that should be a lot crisper given the hardware they are running on.

Subnautica also suffers from serious pop-in and framerate drops. These issues show immediately, but in the beginning it’s just a small nuisance. Swimming around your starter area, you’ll notice some pop-in here and there. Some plants or fish will appear late, within 10 feet of your virtual self, and it’s a tad frustrating, especially when you are looking for the small limestone deposits that house the valuable materials you need to craft. You really need to get up close and personal with the floor and cave walls in order to see the possible materials scattered about. I spent a good hour just diving around the immediate vicinity of the pod, and I thought I cleared out a lot of the salvage, only to find more on the ocean floor that had not popped onto my screen the last time I passed.

Also, you will notice a huge framerate drop when emerging from a dive. As the sound swooshes and water trickles down your mask, the game literally stops for a second or two. It’s very noticeable and takes you out of the atmosphere that the game does so well to hold under the water surface. As you progress in the game and start to discover bigger plants, bigger fish and bigger caves, the pop-in and framerate troubles start to really become a game breaking issue rather than a small nuisance. There were times when I was deep into a cave only to have another cave entrance pop off of my screen, and then back in about 20 feet down the reef in a completely different location. When deep in a cave like that, it is hard enough to keep your bearings and know where your air source is, and you’ll soon find yourself lost and out of air.

Sound on the other hand is top notch in Subnautica. The “clack clack” sounds of the predator fish, and the deep groans that some of the bigger fish and predators make in the deep open waters, really increase that fear I was talking about before. It’s terrifying that one minute you think you are alone swimming in a dark open ocean looking for limestone deposits, hoping one of them breaks open and that last piece of silver pops out, and then the deepest groan ever fills your ears. You swing around with your flashlight expecting to see something right in your face, but you see nothing, just a black open ocean, and then the groan continues. Then, you see something a bit darker in the distance kind of move.

Oh sh** is that... is that a Reaper Leviathan? Or is that a... *TAP TAP* “DADDY I CAN’T SLEEP”, then you realize that your 6 year old son snuck downstairs at midnight like a goddamned cat and is right up in your face wanting a glass of water. He’s screaming because you have your headphones on and you couldn’t hear him when he was coming down the stairs. But knowing that doesn’t help the tension built up inside you, so you instinctively swing your arms up, and for the first time ever, you call your son a swear word. Moments like that are what makes this game so enjoyable. It does such a great job of setting a tense atmosphere that you almost forget that you are playing a game, that is until the framerate or pop-in issues hit. Another highlight of the sound is the voice acting on the audio logs that you find scattered about. They do a great job of advancing the story, but what really stood out to me was the quality of the voice acting itself. Their stories and emotions are very easy to believe, and this really helps set the atmosphere of the game.

The gameplay loop in Subnautica is very similar to other survival games. At the start you have nothing except some emergency rations and water that is stored in your escape pod. This forces you to jump into the water to begin your journey by collecting materials that will help you survive. The starter escape pod has some sort of Star Trek replicator in it, and once you get that up and running, you can craft anything that you find recipes for. After some time, the rations that your escape pod launched with will run out and you will be on your own for food, water and air as well. So your best bet is to get your scanner and just spend some time exploring the starter area, scanning everything that you can. This gets you an idea of what materials can be harvested from the close plants, rocks and fish, but also adds the recipes that you need to survive.

For instance, after scanning some coral you learn that if you put both seabed salt and coral into the fabricator, you will make bleach. With bleach you can make yourself two bottles of fresh filtered water. Sure it’s not the brand that all the celebrities drink, but it hits the spot and will keep you from dying. Food is another resource that you need to worry about, and that’s not as easy to get as picking up some coral and salt. You need to physically catch the fish, which using the standard Xbox controls can be maddening. To pick things up from the sea floor or catch fish you have to use the 'A' button, the problem is, your right thumb needs to be on the Right Thumbstick to control where your diver is going. Having to chase a fast moving fish and then quickly take your thumb off the stick to hit 'A' will be frustrating at first, but after the 50th time, that the little f'ing fish gets away, you’re going to want a better solution. Luckily I have an elite controller and I mapped the 'A' button to one of the paddles, and suddenly I was Bear Grylls catching fish with my bare hands LIKE A MAN. Standard Xbox controllers also have the ability to map the buttons as you see fit, so I highly suggest mapping the 'A' button to one of the triggers. Another suggestion I have is to jot down notes as you go, specifically of the items you’ll need at first to make water and some of the other survival items.

Opening up the PDA is easy, and you can spend a ton of time flipping through the pages reading the data logs and learning recipes. But the problem is, opening the PDA doesn’t pause the game, and if you’re dumb like me and opened it up on the sea floor, then you’ll run out of air because you spent too much time looking up that one mushroom that looks like a bright pink butthole. Having a quick reference list right next to you really helps out when looking for materials. As you gather more materials, scan more objects and upgrade your suits, you’ll be able to dive deeper and explore more of the secrets that this game has to offer. I was able to make a fully functioning base at the bottom of the sea, complete with fabricator, storage lockers, material scanners, camera drones and planters where I could grow my own food. It’s pretty neat how much you can build, and it’s essential to exploring the deeper areas. The pressure of the deep water is too much for your regular suit and prawn suit, so you’ll have to make some watercraft like the Seamoth and Cyclops. Once you build a cyclops (single man sub) and upgrade it, then the real deep areas start to open up and you can explore the areas that I am too afraid to go.

Subnautica is a fantastic exploring and survival game that I cannot wait to dive deeper into, but it is in desperate need of a patch that fixes the pop-in and framerate. I’ve completed a lot of what the game has to offer, but I know there is so much more of this ocean planet to explore. I learned of a fear I have that I didn’t know existed, and learning about that fear makes me respect guys like Jacques Cousteau and the guy in search of the blue diamond in Titanic so much more.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes

Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is a party game where you work together with others to defuse bombs before the timer runs out. It sounds pretty simple right? Well the idea is, but the difficulty ramps up pretty quickly, and I can see only the most dedicated groups defusing the advanced bombs. It will test your patience and intelligence, and if you can’t multitask worth a damn (I’m looking at you David) then you’re in for a long night of finger pointing and name calling.

Keep Talking is designed to play with one person looking at the screen with the bomb on it, and a team of nerds with the 23 page defusal manual split up between them. The nerds should not be able to see the screen, and the defuser doesn’t have access to the manual.

The defuser is looking at the bomb in first person and can rotate it completely, seeing every side with ease. The bomb will have two sides of modules to defuse and the difficulty will determine the amount and challenge of modules on each side. The bomb itself has a timer on it and you will detonate it if the timer runs out, or if you surpass the maximum amount of strikes allowed by making mistakes on a module.

Each bomb will include up to 11 modules that must be defused in any order before the timer runs out. Once the module you are working on has been defused, the indicator light will turn green and it’s time to work on the next. I don’t want to run through each of the modules, because I think a lot of the fun in this game is working out the modules yourself to find the best method that works for your group. One module that I will mention is wires, because what is a bomb without wires? There are 3, 4, 5, and 6 wire modules, each of which has its own set of rules on which wire to cut. Yellow, red, black, white and blue wires add to the confusion but overall this is the easiest module to complete.

Another fun one to play is called “Who’s on First?”. It’s named after the old Abbott and Costello bit and has you and a partner calling out words back and forth that are very similar, and can be very confusing. Some of the modules have instructions to get information from the bomb itself. For example, you may have to cut a yellow wire ONLY if the bomb has two batteries, or press and hold the button if the serial number on the bomb ends in a vowel. These are all things you need to remember when defusing. Hey, if bomb defusing was easy then kids would be doing it.

As you progress through the difficulty levels the bomb starts throwing more and more things at you. At first you may have 3 minutes to work through 3 modules, but in later levels you’ll have 5 minutes to work through 11 modules, and this is where it gets hectic. Along with the difficulty of the modules going up, the game introduces “needy” modules that need to be tended to as the timer counts down. Gas that needs to be vented, knobs to turn and capacitors that need to be discharged before their own timers run out or you’ll get a strike. It all adds to the tension.

As the name suggests, you are going to need to work together in order to make it through this game. I lucked out and was able to play this while out of town visiting some of my best friends who are also heavy into gaming. We were all in the same room and we all took it pretty serious, so we were able to get pretty far. I’m not saying your group has to be super serious to enjoy this game, but if you’ve got friends that just want to have fun and not play a serious puzzle game, then they may not have the best time. Also, while we played this game at the same location, we looked up some twitch streams of people playing over skype which looked fun as well. I think it works well in both cases, but it’s always nice to have your friends in the same room so they can see the look of disappointment on your face after they fail Morse Code for the fifth time (I’m looking at you Matt).

I had a BLAST (get it? A...blast...? I’ll see myself out) playing this with my gaming buddies and look forward to getting into some of the hardcore ones.

Overall Score: 8.5 / 10 Guts and Glory

Ever wonder what it would be like if Goat Simulator and Trials had a very ugly baby? Well, you can give Guts and Glory a try and see for yourself you sick freak...but you may want to read this before you spend your hard earned $15 on it.

I’ll start it off by saying Guts and Glory is stupid fun; it’s the type of game that you can turn your brain off and just goof around in. I LOVE games like this, a little more than I should. As we grow older our lives can be full of serious issues and stress, so it’s sometimes nice to jump into our favorite hobby and not have those same feelings.

You’re not going to be getting a serious experience here. There’s no multiplayer, no story, no leaderboard (that I could find), no collectibles and no reason to replay each level other than to show someone else how you can make this old man on a makeshift jet chair fly across the level and explode into a bloody mess on the ground. You simply do one challenge and move on to the next.

The main objective is to get from point A to point B, all the while pretty much everything on the course is trying to kill you. These hazards include spinning logs, glitches, arrows, cannon balls (both fired and rolling), glitches, the physics, saw blades (both on the end of sticks and shot as projectiles), glitches, mines... and did I mention glitches? It’s important that I explain here how the glitches are part of the experience and I honestly believe they do not hurt the game at all, in fact, in most cases they are pretty hilarious. Stay with me here.

I know as hardcore gamers we expect a level of polish when it comes to our games. We are spending our hard earned dollars on something and we expect it to be perfect. But when you’re screaming downhill on a bicycle dodging people, trees, arrows, saw blades and then a very large wrecking ball hits you so hard that your game freezes and you get booted to the xbox home page, you really have no other choice but to laugh it off. That’s an extreme example and it only happened once, but when stuff like that happens, you just treat it as a death or a failed attempt, because let’s face it, you were probably going to get hit by a saw blade 10 feet later if that wrecking ball missed you. There were many, many smaller glitches that happened during my play time and only a few actually resulted in a death, so really, no harm no foul.

There are 9 different challenge groups, and each one has about a dozen or so tracks within, and each track should take you a few minutes to complete if you make it through without dying (you won’t). There are so many things that can go wrong that YOU WILL DIE numerous times before completing it. Luckily the load times are only 5-8 seconds, so dying isn’t much of a hassle at all. Just hit up on the D-Pad at any time and you’ll start at the last checkpoint. In the easier more simple levels you can just blast full speed hoping to make it through to the end in one piece, but some of the harder levels, labeled meat grinder, take a bit of strategy to complete. You’ll have to brake, lean, or even adjust your angle mid-air to make it through some obstacles, and this is where the game admittedly starts to fall apart.

The controls just aren’t tight enough to be that precise with your movements. Small movements are almost impossible to perform because the controls are so loose, and that frustrated me more than any glitch. There’s one level I couldn’t complete and I blame it 100% on the controls. You are an older woman on a motorbike colored like Evil Knievel (USA! USA!) and you have a very narrow path to navigate. It’s a straight shot track and you’d think that would be simple, but there are boost spots on the ground like Mario Kart, causing you to accelerate to speeds above 200 mph. Oh, did I mention there are cacti all over the place? Sometimes there are 3-4 standing next to each other and you have a gap no bigger than your bike to fit through. I attempted it easily 50 times before I threw in the towel. It was fun at first to watch the old lady splatter against the wall, or lose an arm to a cactus, but when it’s the game that’s causing the death and not your skill, it starts to get old pretty fast.

I’m not going to focus much time on talking about graphics or sound because I don’t think the developers did either (ba-dum-tish!). Graphics are very simple and so is the audio. It looks and sounds like the early days of Goat Simulator. What I would rather focus on is the character models and physics when it comes to interacting with the obstacles.

I keep a gaming journal near me while I game most nights. I use it to jot down notes, keep a list of objectives, or I use it to remind myself of places to avoid or see in the games I play. On my list of notes for this game I had a lot about the deaths, some glitches and some of the humorous things that happened, but I had one line that simply read “Physics?”, and that pretty much sums it up for this game.

The physics in Guts and Glory are so hilariously inconsistent that it has to be intentional. You can bounce off a wall going 40 mph without a scratch, but fall from a ramp 5ft off the ground as you explode into a puddle of blood on the ground. There’s times when you’re just riding in an open grassy area and you’ll hit a small bump and fall off the bike having to reset the track. Then, in the next run, you’ll be pedaling along dodging arrows and a cannonball that hits you dead on, and you just shift over about 5 feet and keep going as if nothing happened. Physics are real hit or miss, but I think that’s part of what gives this game character.

Now, picture this; you are an adult male and you want to take your special girl on a bike ride in the city. Problem is, she doesn’t have her own bike. What do you do? Well the obvious answer is to get a small baby seat and strap it above the back wheel and have her sit in it right? Oh, there’s more. How about an old man pulling his special lady behind him in a wagon? A young man on a hoverboard? A redneck on an ATV with bottles of beer and a rifle in the back? A Spanish gentleman (his name is Pedro, don’t @ me) and his two associates riding in the bed of a pick-up filled with cocaine? Wait what? At first maybe I thought they were delivery men but then I saw the license plate “YEYO” and, now I’m no NARC, but they aren’t delivering for Amazon.

The point is, there are a ton of hilarious characters to choose from. They all have their own grunts, growls and howls as they get pelted with arrows and bump off objects in the game. The best part by far is when those characters get hit by saw blades. Limbs fly, blood shoots out like a sprinkler and... sometimes you keep going! I’m serious, I finished one track with one leg and one arm left. How do you peddle a bike uphill with one leg? I don’t f****** care, I made it to the end and nobody can take that away from me. That’s the best part of this game hands down, watching how the characters bounce and flop about as their arm gets chopped off by a saw and they just keep pedaling along to victory.

Guts and Glory is glitchy, it's ugly, the sound is bad, and the gameplay is pretty awful, but it’s fun to play and that was enough for me. If you can snag this game on sale, or as part of Gamepass, I fully recommend giving this game a try one night when you’re in the mood to sip a tasty beverage and show off a silly game to your friends. At its current price of $15 though, I just don’t think there’s enough reason to purchase it, unless you are Pedro with a pickup truck full of nose candy and money to burn.

Overall Score: 7.5 / 10 Long Reach, The

“The Long Reach is an adventure game filled with colorful characters, puzzles, and a shock of discovery”. That’s the official description on at least, and it’s pretty accurate, but they also have it listed as a role playing game, and something tells me that’s a mistake. The Long Reach is developer Painted Black Games’ first game that I could find, and you can tell they draw inspiration from classic adventure games like Monkey Island and Kings Quest with its pixel art, clever sarcastic characters and item based puzzles. Let’s get into it!!

For the most part, your time with The Long Reach will be spent playing as Stewart as he navigates the halls of his research facility on the day of the big Christmas party. The research facility’s motives are kept a secret, but the project Stewart is a part of has something to do with teaching its subjects new abilities subliminally. As the main story opens, you move Stewart to a piano where he begins to play. Later you find out that Stewart has never taken a piano lesson in his life. Surprise! The scientists are also the test subjects!

As any good horror/thriller movie or game has taught us, things tend to go wrong when manipulating the human brain. Stewart passes out playing the piano and awakens some time later to the research facility in shambles, and the story unfolds from there. Stewart is hilariously naive at this point, and as he passes by a broken vending machine covered in blood, he remarks “someone must have really wanted chocolate”. This is an example of the humor throughout this game and it lays it on thick to the end credits.

The story from here on out is moved forward by interacting with other members of the research team, and you are presented with small dialog options that have no influence on the story itself, aside from the final decision the game gives you. This doesn’t mean you should avoid talking to the other scientists during your play through, as all of them have been affected by the research in their own scary, and sometimes hilarious way. One of your colleagues thinks he’s a dog, and another, named Maxwell, thinks he’s his D&D character and leads you on a small quest to recover a very well know artifact in order for you to pass through his area.

As you pass through this area you notice that it’s more of a sacrifice room, and maybe Maxwell isn’t as playful and harmless as you once thought. Unfortunately, that’s where your interaction with Maxwell ends, and that formula is repeated for the rest of your interactions with the other scientists. They are few and far between, and I would have liked more interaction with Maxwell and some of the other test subjects, that way we could experience their side effects. There just isn’t enough character interaction, and one piece of advice I can give you to enjoy this game a bit more would be to read the emails, post-it notes and to interact with anything that the environment lets you. All of that not only provides you with hints at puzzles, but gives you some background information on the characters and events leading up to the accident.

At its core, The Long Reach is an adventure/puzzle game, and most of its puzzles are to retrieve a set of keys to gain access to a room or to use an item from your inventory to fix a problem. You can combine items in your inventory, and can also pick up items that aren’t involved with any puzzles, but I never reached a limit to what I could hold, so horde all of those small items! Chances are you will use them in a later puzzle, and this will prevent any unnecessary backtracking.

Most of the puzzles you encounter consist of 1-2 steps, or 1-2 items to solve, but there was one that took 4-5 steps, and that was easily the hardest of the puzzles in the game. Feel free to experiment with items you know will not work on certain objects, as Stewart will often chime in with his brand of sarcasm, often leading to a funny one liner. One item I tried by accident resulted in Stewart saying “that worked in the Youtube tutorial I saw” making fun of the walkthroughs that happen with these games.

There are a few enemies lurking the halls and they will kill you on contact, so there is some stealth needed when you know they are nearby. Since there is no combat in the game, you are forced to run and hide until the enemy has moved on. You can hide in shadows, crates and air ducts (there’s even a Die Hard reference) so you’ve got enough tools at your disposal to avoid the enemies.

The term Pixel Art Thriller is also used to describe this game, and I think that’s where this game shines. The pixel art is used in a way that there’s enough detail to understand that something bad happened (blood on the walls, Christmas decorations torn, dark abandoned hallways) but it still holds true to the Monkey Island and Kings Quest graphics that clearly inspired it.

The sound effects continue the trend and match the graphics with a familiar set of beeps, swishes, taps and clunks that were in adventure games of the past. The music is a little more modern and relies on eerie tones and synthesizers that almost always hint at a pop scare, but that scare never happens. There were a lot of times I was reading a note or some dialog and the music was pumping like I was being chased by one of the enemies. I’d quickly exit the menu back to the game only to find nothing happening.

A big part of my gaming style revolves around achievements. I find that they add a lot to the game and sometimes force you to play in a different manner that you normally would. The 15 achievements are tied to story events and collectibles. Fortunately, one of the collectible achievements is for reading all the emails on 8 computers. Like I mentioned above, this is a good way to get a bit of backstory on the characters and events leading up to the start of the game. There is one missable achievement that I got by accident when I selected a dead body to hear one of Stewart's sarcastic comments. Other than that, you can easily mop up all 1000 points in one play through. I was able to clear the game and its achievements in 3 hours.

I enjoyed my short time with The Long Reach, but I feel that there were some missed opportunities when it comes to the puzzles and character development. The story focuses on a failed experiment, and there are countless patient/scientist side effects that could have been explored, ranging from violent to funny. With more characters, comes more possibilities of puzzles that could focus on the hallucinations that Stewart experiences, and the hallucinations that the other subjects are having. Particularly, more interaction with Maxwell would have been great. He was the only character that really got some attention and it wasn’t nearly enough.

With the short story, limited characters, limited puzzles and no branching storylines designed for multiple playthroughs, I cannot fully recommend this game for the $15 USD that it is priced at. There’s just too many better options for your money at this price point, and this is a game best saved for a sale or if it gets added to Game Pass.

Overall Score: 6.0 / 10

Site Statistics

Registered Members: 79,018
Forum Posts: 725,965
Xbox One Titles: 5,960
Xbox 360 Titles: 1,086
Xbox 360 Kinect Titles: 95
Xbox 360 Arcade Titles: 586
Original Xbox Titles: 987
Staff Reviews: 2,537
Member Reviews: 10,339
News Articles: 16,531
Screenshots: 38,705
Xbox 360 Achievements: 45,112
Xbox 360 Faceplates: 2,016
Cheat Codes: 1,706

Latest News

See News Archives

Community Forum Activity

KeyWe Giveaway!
Post by Variation-XBA
0 Replies, 22435 Views

2021: XBA is still here
Post by shrew king
38 Replies, 183365 Views

Watch Dogs: Legion
Post by Nato King
0 Replies, 118418 Views

Xbox Series X or S
Post by Nato King
5 Replies, 136430 Views

Spellbreak Grand Magus Pack (3) and Starter Pack (7) Giveaway!
Post by Variation-XBA
0 Replies, 128008 Views

I pay $ 1000! I search the Element 54 Canadian launch Team signaturen Faceplate
Post by Smill
0 Replies, 148302 Views

Xbox one no signal
Post by debrartin
0 Replies, 138651 Views

do you remember?
Post by SnoochyBoochy
3 Replies, 198209 Views

i haz xbox
Post by SnoochyBoochy
0 Replies, 153475 Views

Claiming the first thread of 2020
Post by Kraft
7 Replies, 247767 Views

Important! I pay $ 1000! I search the Sweden launch and the Element 54 Faceplate
Post by Smill
3 Replies, 144701 Views

Squad Up
Post by samslophead
0 Replies, 247490 Views

TERA Skinned Xbox One X Giveaway!
Post by Variation-XBA
0 Replies, 175638 Views

Starfield Release expectations?
Post by DJ tx
4 Replies, 302530 Views

Issue with Xbox live on Xbox home
Post by rcmpayne
0 Replies, 163377 Views

© 2000-2024 - All rights reserved. All trademarks are properties of their respective owners.
Xbox is a registered trademark of Microsoft. is not affiliated with Microsoft.

Made in Canada
Site Design by Cameron Graphics