It's been obvious for a very long time that Lego games iterate more than innovate. If you pick up a Lego title, you are guaranteed a wholesome romp in whichever licensed universe is at hand. Everything is breakable and spits out glittery, golden collectibles when destroyed. Beloved characters are Lego-fied and reenact their famous antics with an extra dollop of cartoon absurdity. Those qualities remain appealing, but every so often, developer Traveller's Tales stumbles onto an idea that requires an extra bit of creativity to really make it sing. Sometimes TT steps up to the plate, like it did for Lego City Undercover and Lego Dimensions. Other times, well, it doesn't. It's a little sad to see Lego DC Super-Villains fall into the latter category.
The issue here really comes down to the premise. The idea of subverting the Lego Batman playbook and making a game that's all about DC Comics villains is a great one in theory. However, opening up the game to the entire roster of DC villains has the unfortunate side effect of highlighting just how weak DC's broad slate of evil is. Sure, you're doing fine when you've got The Joker using Lex Luthor as a straight man, or when big, unique baddies like Sinestro and Gorilla Grodd start showing up, but much of the game's story mode has you saddled with third-string riff-raff like Heat Wave and Malcolm Merlyn for extended stretches. Somehow, both Captain Cold and Killer Frost figure heavily into the main story, but the far more compelling Mr. Freeze doesn't.
There's a fertile concept in the idea of the loser villains hatching a plan to head up to the big leagues, but the actual plot takes a far less interesting course: The Justice League gets captured and replaced by the Justice Syndicate, who comic fans probably know as the Crime Syndicate of America, a super-powered group from alternate dimension Earth-3. On the surface, it looks like the Syndicate is doing a great job cleaning up crime, but the Syndicate's going a lot harder on the bad guys than the League ever would, leading the Legion of Doom to gather up a slew of recruits and take the fight to the Syndicate.
The wild card would appear, at first glance, to be you. At the outset, you get to create your own custom villain who ends up joining the Legion. It's an impressive slew of options you get at the start of the game, and an even more extensive selection is available as you play, earn more powers, and unlock more parts. Everything from your villain’s haircut, to their weapon of choice, which arm they use to shoot energy at their enemies, to even what that energy looks like can be customized. It’s an extensive collection of options from the moment you start the game, and almost intimidatingly vast by the end. My first villain took maybe an hour to create and be happy with, after which I watched as my lovingly crafted superhero was sidelined for most of the story.
Unfortunately, your custom villain is not the star of the game--they don't even have a voice--and no matter how badass you make yourself, all the other villains simply refer to you as Rookie (except for Harley Quinn, who calls you Dr. Doesn't-Talk-Much). You're occasionally called upon to use your technical skills to open a specific door, and you are able to absorb new powers along the way, but for the most part your budding baddie has almost no impact or meaningful presence in the story. Instead, most of the game's levels boil down to a formula: A group of one or two big-ticket villains and one or two small-timers go to a familiar locale--Gotham, Metropolis, Smallville, Belle Reve prison--to free some more of their criminal friends, and run into some of the remaining small-time heroes in the process, e.g. the Teen Titans or Nightwing.
The moment-to-moment gameplay remains as simple and accessible as ever; combat boils down to spamming a single attack button, with the safety net of infinite lives, and there's some very rudimentary platforming. Finding secrets usually just means running around breaking everything until a shiny new toy pops out. There's nothing really wrong with that by itself, given the Lego games’ appeal to a younger audience, and watching Lego structures explode into a million pieces really hasn’t lost much of its innate joy, even after all this time. The problem is, only a few esoteric sliding tile puzzles differentiate the game mechanically from things the Lego Batman games were doing 10 years ago.
The level design in particular is a major strike against the game. It attempts to evoke a sense of chaos and disorder for the villains to feel at home in, but everything is so cluttered and elaborate, it's hard to know what's breakable and what's not, which character you're controlling, and what you can actually interact with. The wanton destruction that’s kind of Lego’s bread-and-butter loses something when the area being destroyed looks like a mess to begin with.
The villains themselves are well-animated, and great care has gone into differentiating the hundreds of playable baddies from each other, be it all of the Joker's attacks ending with theatrical flourishes, Killer Frost's ballerina moves, or Gorilla Grodd being able to literally leap over tall buildings in a single bound. There's a ton of overlap from the small-timers, though, and the alternative choices don't provide you with a reason to want to use them. Even the relatively easy attention grab that comes from having much of the voice cast from both the Superman and Batman Animated Series from the '90s show up--including Mark Hamill's iconic Joker, and a delightfully up-for-anything Michael Ironside reprising his role as Darkseid--doesn't quite land due to the more interesting villains taking a backseat.
Playing as all villains, you'd think there'd be more opportunity to wreak havoc on Metropolis or Gotham City, even if it's in an E-for-Everyone kind of way, but there isn't. The best part of the game is once the main story is over and you can just roam around the rather expansive open areas at will. Any and all villains unlocked during the game are accessible, and there's tons of little sidequests and races to take on. This is always the best part about the Lego games, though.
Ultimately, Lego DC Super-Villains goes down as another cookie-cutter Lego game, and while there's still plenty of merry mayhem to unleash, it's the same kind of mayhem we've seen before. What should be as wild and riotous as the Clown Prince of Crime comes off as just another mild-mannered reporter.
When it comes to delivering a memorable and tense experience, not many games can match up to the original Dark Souls. Many fans swear by the approach From Software takes with its stoic and uncompromisingly bleak action-RPG series where one wrong move can cost you dearly, and it's become one of the most challenging and anxiety-inducing franchises in recent memory. Coming off the recent release of Dark Souls Remastered on PC, PS4, and Xbox One, the Souls series now brings its particular style of high-pressure gameplay to the Switch--marking its first appearance on a Nintendo console.
While this new release isn't as visually and technically impressive as the other current-gen versions, it is an admirable port that reinforces what makes Dark Souls memorable. It effectively makes use of the Switch's capabilities as a portable console, which in turn offers a slightly different feel to the Souls experience that's surprisingly refreshing.
As a recap, Dark Souls Remastered is an enhanced port of the original 2011 game. On PC, PS4, and Xbox One, the remaster runs at 4K and at 60 FPS and features a much sharper visual look, along with a suite of quality-of-life improvements--such as improved matchmaking with dedicated servers and a variety of gameplay tweaks. The Switch version is very much in line with what came before. However, due to the limitations of the system's hardware, it's seen some clear downgrades compared to the previous Remastered releases.
While playing through the Switch version, it felt closer to the original PS3 and Xbox 360 releases, albeit far more stable. Running at a consistent 30 FPS, the docked version of Dark Souls on Switch displays at 1080p, with the handheld mode set to 720p (the same resolution as the original game). Aside from the drop in resolution, general frame-rate between docked and handheld is largely consistent, which is great when swapping between the two modes during a session.
If you're used to Dark Souls Remastered running at 60 FPS on the other platforms, the Switch version will take some time adjusting to. In addition to some fairly short draw-distances on environmental details, the audio quality sounds far more subdued and quiet compared to other releases. While this doesn't happen often--and most times isn't that noticeable--it can create odd moments where some sound effects get drowned out by others, or when there's a slight delay in hearing a sound effect. Moreover, playing in docked mode with the Joy-Cons can often induce some lag with the camera controls, which can be a dire issue during careful platforming or an intense combat encounter. Fortunately, the Day One patch does work to address these issues to success, but some of the technical hiccups still linger.
Despite these rough edges, Dark Souls on Switch is an impressive port that manages to keep the Souls experience intact for its new platform. In a surprisingly neat feature, it's possible to pause the game when playing in the offline mode by backing out to the Home menu or setting the system to sleep. If you're planning to take Dark Souls mobile, then you'll more than likely make use of the offline mode often, and the Switch feels much more suited to.
To properly put this version through its paces, we journeyed to one of Dark Souls' most notorious levels, which frustrated and unnerved many players upon its original release. Blighttown, the derelict shanty town full of diseased creatures, was a nerve-wracking descent into a grotesque atmosphere filled with narrow walkways and an infamously unstable frame-rate. Many years later, it's still among one of the most game's most memorable and feared areas. The Switch version is fortunately able to keep a stable 30 FPS throughout, which includes the depths of Blighttown.
While there are noticeable dips during some encounters, particularly during bosses and set-pieces that have lots of action, the Switch handles the true Dark Souls experience quite well. The most notable success that Dark Souls Remastered has on the Switch--aside from the sheer fact that it runs properly on the hardware--is how it can feel like more of an involved journey. This is mostly due to how it works in handheld mode, allowing you to play Dark Souls on the go. As a returning player, it often felt like I was bundling up with an engrossing book, voraciously exploring and unearthing the game's many locations.
In an interesting way, playing in handheld mode can make for a more personal experience with Dark Souls, which is something that's entirely exclusive to the Switch release. While the portability feature of the console can often feel overstated for other games, it truly does amplify the core of what Dark Souls is all about. Over the course of your personal story in-game--which is on a road paved by defeat, small victories, and occasional humiliation--you'll eventually come to a major win, making the challenging journey feel worthwhile.
While Dark Souls Remastered on Switch possesses some odd quirks and isn't as technically impressive as its current-gen counterparts, it still retains the heart of what the original game is all about. To this day, Dark Souls remains a watershed moment for the action-RPG genre. Getting to re-experience many of the game's most nerve-wracking and iconic moments can be satisfying in its own right, but coupled with the Switch's flexible playstyle, this equally haunting and triumphant game becomes an even more involved journey.
With the Witcher trilogy, developer CD Projekt Red established that it's capable of making compelling role-playing games with tough decisions, hearty combat, and engrossing lore. In Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales, all but one of these aspects has persisted. This prequel is as captivating narratively as some of the Witcher series' best tales, filled with gut-wrenching decisions that have far-reaching consequences. The only difference is that instead of fighting with a sword, you battle with cards. Thronebreaker is an intelligent spin on the collectible card game Gwent and manages to transform its simple premise into an enthralling tale of family, loyalty, and hardship.
You play as Queen Meve, ruler of the lands known as Lyria and Rivia, on the eve of the great Nilfgaardian invasion. These ruthless imperials sweep across the land like a plague, decimating villages and their citizens and using underhanded tactics to wrestle control of kingdoms away from their rulers. Meve and her forces, returning home after another lengthy war, get caught in the middle of the invasion. With traitors around every corner and spies lurking in the shadows, you'll have to make difficult decisions about who to let into your party and who to cut ties with permanently as you rally together a guerrilla army to snuff out the Nilfgaardian invasion and rally support for a full-blown counterattack.
Thronebreaker's tale involves an entirely new cast of characters (with some notable cameos here and there) which is fully voiced throughout the 25-hour campaign. The interplay between Queen Meve and her trusted subjects is notably strong, with exceptional writing bringing each character's motivations and principles to life. Meve isn't as blank a slate for you to project upon as Geralt is, but Thronebreaker gives you room to work in her decision-making. The choices you make are painted with the same grey brush that The Witcher is known for, with no one choice promising a better outcome than the rest. Leading a dwindling army into battles with impossible odds puts an incredible amount of responsibly on your shoulders, and choosing when to be empathetic and when to be ruthless has some fascinating repercussions--both immediately and far further into the story.
You command Meve through multiple large open areas, each bearing a distinctive visual aesthetic and characters to interact with. These areas look like pages ripped from a concept art book, with stunning watercolors and brush strokes bringing sun-kissed pastures and bubbling swamps to life with impressive detail. The cel-shading on Meve and supporting characters helps define them against the background while giving them all distinctive appearances, but it can be slightly jarring when brought into focus during serious conversations. Thronebreaker is a tour around some of The Witcher's most engrossing landscapes, and it's a treat to see them from a different view.
Each area plays host to the many story battles you'll need to undertake to progress, but also numerous side missions and collectible content. Side quests can be as simple as making decisions to solve petty quarrels or as involved as hunting down dragons in dark caverns at the request of terrified villagers. Each quest has a story to tell, which can either affect the mood of your troops, bestow you with important rewards such as gold and wood, or introduce new special characters into your ranks. Skipping them can have consequences too, with characters reacting to the people you help and the bounties you choose to take. It makes Thronebreaker's world feel incredibly reactive to your choices, compelling you to take care with how you handle each of them.
You'll also need to gather resources in the vein of gold, wood, and requisitioned troops to better establish your fighting force. Constructing new attachments for your base camp can help you grow your deck of Gwent cards with new characters and abilities, ranging from simple Lyrian forces to noble dwarves and stealthy elves. Thronebreaker doesn't make you feel the need to scour each corner of the map for resources, instead giving you more than enough on the critical path alone. But seeing your small army grow with each passing area is rewarding, as are the effects it has on your abilities to fight with your chosen cards.
Thronebreaker interweaves Gwent into its story in smart ways that keep it from feeling like an intrusive method for resolving combat situations, helping you learn its intricate systems while engaging in unique quests and rulesets.
Units have a variety of abilities that can be triggered in a number of ways, many of which can be chained up with other units to create devastating combos during a single turn. Since Gwent isn't just about dolling out damage and more about field control, striking a balance between cards that damage your opponent and ones more adept at raising your personal score is paramount. Thronebreaker's shifting priorities in combat prevent the flurry of battles from wearing thin, with only a few resting on the basic rules of Gwent alone. Some standout fights had me chipping away at individual cards that made up the body of a dragon, with each piece having its own attributes that either damaged my cards or healed others. Thronebreaker contextualizes the rules of each of its encounters to fit the purpose of the story in clever ways. This makes playing Gwent consistently rewarding and helps avoid the potentially deflating transition from a rousing ride into battle to a simple game of cards on a table.
Playing Gwent in Thronebreaker can often feel like a reintroduction to the game with its new rules and stipulations, and that comes with the cost of some quests that feel too easy. On the default difficulty, most core quests won't trouble you enough to make meaningful decisions about the composition of your deck, which saps some life out of the overarching metagame of having to use resources to acquire better cards. Optional puzzle encounters make up for this though, giving you a specific deck to work with in uniquely tailored challenges. These encounters are the best learning tools Thronebreaker has to offer, exposing you to complex card combinations as a requirement to win. Often these challenges lead to card unlocks for Gwent's online component, so you're encouraged to take them up as often as they present themselves.
Don't be tricked into thinking Thronebreaker is simply a lengthy tutorial for what is to come when Gwent opens its multiplayer. Its tale is mandatory if you're looking for more Witcher lore to chew on and manages to engage you with a strong cast of well-written characters and a suitably dark plot that challenges your morals every chance it can. Thronebreaker interweaves Gwent into its story in smart ways that keep it from feeling like an intrusive method for resolving combat situations, helping you learn its intricate systems while engaging in unique quests and rulesets. Gwent was a side attraction in The Witcher 3, but through Thronebreaker, it's blossomed into something new that stands on its own as a proud member of the Witcher family.
After nearly a decade, the end of the Game of Thrones TV show is in sight. Fortunately, fans of the series have new things to look forward to, but even for those with faith in George RR Martin, the prospect of a new Song of Ice and Fire novel looks increasingly unlikely. Similarly, what the future holds for video game adaptations of the franchise is unclear. Telltale is all but dead, and for a series that has proven to be such a phenomenal success in other mediums, it's surprising that there haven't been more game adaptations. Reigns: Game of Thrones may not be the Elder Scrolls-style RPG you're hoping for, but it does nonetheless offer a welcome use of the license--even if it does occasionally stumble with repetition.
Reigns: GoT has you take on the role of king or queen of Westeros. You're faced with a series of situations, and you respond to each card that pops up with a binary choice by swiping left or right. Your decisions impact four different meters you must constantly balance: military, religion, citizens, and money. It sounds simple, but you have to prevent all of these meters not just from emptying, but also from filling all the way up. Becoming overwhelmingly popular with the people sounds great, but it's a one-way ticket to losing your throne thanks to jealous lords who launch a coup. You're able to preview the impact of any decision, but you're only told which meters will be affected and whether it'll be a minor and major effect, not whether it will increase or decrease.
This results in a certain amount of guesswork when you're initially presented with any scenario, which can lead to a swift death--I've had runs end with my very first swipe. In time you'll develop an understanding for how to approach situations, and the challenge comes in being prepared for anything. You're never sure what opportunity or obstacle lies around the next corner, and deftly handling whatever is thrown at you is the key to success.
As is appropriate for Game of Thrones, no character is untouchable, and that's true for each of the rulers you can play as. Like in the previous Reigns games, your death is the very likely outcome of any run, but it comes in many forms, and discovering them all (whether it's contracting greyscale, getting lost in the tunnels of the Red Keep, or being burned to death by wildfire) is one of the most entertaining aspects of the game. It's a rarity that death is a legitimately enjoyable moment in a game, but that's undoubtedly the case here.
That's thanks in large part to the excellent writing. Despite each card consisting of a few sentences at most, characters are colorful, distinct, and full of personality. And although the subject matter is often serious, and the world brutal, the game manages to maintain an air of lightheartedness throughout. Some part of that is due to the apparent decision to leave out the sexual assault and rape that is a common element of Martin's novels and the TV show. The game is better off by not trivializing these things by having you respond to them with a Tinder-style swipe, and their absence makes you feel no less like you're inhabiting the world of the books and show.
The use of well-established characters is thankfully not heavily reliant on quotes or wink-wink references to the show, like you might expect. While it makes sense that your own ruler's personality is dictated by your choices, there are the occasional moments where characters feel less like themselves and more like generic individuals who share the name and look of their book/show counterparts, but these instances are few and far between.
Reigns: GoT embraces its non-canonical status, building loosely on the state of the world from Seasons 6 and 7 and allowing it to expand in many different directions. You're able to make decisions that run contradictory to what we know about these characters; there's nothing stopping you from making Cersei into a benevolent leader or Jon Snow into a materialistic jerk. You will face resistance where you'd expect; Winterfell is not inclined to take kindly to Cersei's attempts at diplomacy. This helps to deepen the sense that you are occupying this world, and not one that just happens to have characters whose names you recognize.
The game is well suited to mobile, where you can quickly knock out a brief run. It's designed to be replayed over and over as you take different paths and try different rulers and approaches. In time, you recognize patterns and scenarios that emerge repeatedly, and playing begins to feel like exploring an elaborate maze. You can't save your progress during any run, so you're unable to do the old choose-your-adventure book trick of peeking ahead to see if you're making the "wrong" choice. While there were times that I wished I could place a bookmark I could return to in order to see how differently things could have played out, the absence of such a feature provides a weight to each of your decisions. You'll just have to live (or, well, die) with your decisions, whether or not you like the outcome.
As with discovering the many deaths that await you, much of the fun comes from finding every corner of the maze, rather than successfully navigating your way out of it. The threat of the White Walkers is constantly looming in the background, and some runs do prove to be repetitive and dull, offering nothing new to see or do. But more often, you'll be faced with some well-written scenario to see through, be it a war with Dorne, the threat of the Greyjoys, or experiments with wildfire. While this could have felt directionless, vaguely described optional objectives--win a tavern brawl, make Dothraki pie, and so on--provide you with a loose path to pursue as you seek to check everything off your list.
While the Game of Thrones license is the headlining feature, there are some advancements here that provide welcome variety and iterate on the formula established in Reigns and Reigns: Her Majesty. You'll periodically have the opportunity to pick from a handful of branches of a decision tree (though these still lead to swipe left or right choices). Slightly more elaborate sequences have you making a series of decisions that, rather than directly affect your four reputation meters, determine whether you successfully complete a long trip or win a battle. In the latter case, you'll have to make tactical decisions about which of your forces to use against specific opponents. StarCraft this is not, but these sequences help to break up the action and make these moments feel like the significant events that they should.
Reigns: GoT is by no means perfect. It doesn't lend itself to long play sessions thanks to the potential for repetition, which can make the action feel tedious. But that's ultimately a minor quibble for what's a genuinely fun experience: a choose-your-own adventure where you're faced with non-stop decisions and a seemingly endless combination of ways for things to play out.
As a continuation of the Black Ops subseries, Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 both benefits from and is limited by its past. All three of its major modes--multiplayer, Zombies, and the new battle royale mode Blackout--pull from and build upon previous games. Multiplayer is largely successful in its mix of old and new, while Zombies struggles more with dated elements. Blackout, though, strikes an excellent balance, putting a clever Call of Duty spin on a genre entirely new to the series.
While Black Ops 4 doesn't have a traditional single-player campaign, it does have a helpful set of character-focused tutorial missions. Called Specialist HQ, it introduces you to each of the 10 multiplayer Specialists one by one, taking you through their unique abilities and a practice multiplayer match. It does have a bit of a story and some gorgeous (and gory) cutscenes threading each mission together, but it's all in service of getting you acquainted with the new Specialist mechanics--which is well worth the three or so hours it takes, since some of those mechanics appear in Blackout as well. One mission even weaves in a bit of general Zombies training, an unexpected but welcome touch that helps make the largely separate modes feel a little more cohesive.
Multiplayer is the most straightforward of the modes, and Black Ops 4 attempts to be more tactical than previous entries. The wall-running and thrust-jumping of Black Ops 3 is gone, replaced with weighty, grounded movement, and healing is now manual and on a cooldown timer. The combination forces you to be more thoughtful about your positioning, since you can't just jet and dodge enemy fire until your health regenerates--you need to make sure you have adequate cover and time to heal yourself in your immediate vicinity. This encourages a slightly slower, more cautious pace on an individual level, and it's refreshing to play it smart instead of just fast. But time-to-kill is still low and respawning still near-instant, ensuring that matches don't stagnate.
The more tactical feel extends to the Specialists, which build upon those introduced in Black Ops 3. Each has a unique weapon and equipment with a specific combat focus, like area control or high damage output. Each Specialist's weapon is tied to a longer cooldown and functions as a superpowered attack (or defensive ability, in some cases), while their equipment varies from a special grenade to trip mines and other gear with a clear strategic purpose. This includes roles other than offensive ones--there's even a pseudo-healer Specialist, Crash--and it's a change that gives multiplayer more variety.
Certain Specialists and strategies are more useful in some game types than others, though. Area control is best for objective-based modes like Domination, for example, and far less effective in the more scattered Team Deathmatch. Generally, your choice of Specialist and your team's composition won't matter in any mode if you aren't skilled in basic shooting and positioning, even if you're in a more defensive or supporting role. This means you can play selfishly and still emerge victorious, which works well for those of us who often solo queue and would rather not risk trying to communicate with randoms. But it can also make playing support-focused Specialists less rewarding if you aren't working as a team, since your efforts are useless if your teammates don't take advantage of them. It's a surprisingly good balance overall, though, giving you the flexibility to be only as tactical as you want or are able to be and enjoy the match regardless.
The map design, too, facilitates that flexibility. Each map has areas perfect for different Specialists to take advantage of, like blind corners where Nomad's trip mines can take enemies by surprise or high ceilings where Recon can shoot and hide his Sensor Dart that reveals enemies on your radar. But the long and narrow three-lane structure each map is built on is a strong foundation for more traditional shooting as well, with both long sightlines good for sniper and tactical rifles and tight spaces for close-range automatic weapons.
The Specialist strategies are best showcased in the new Control, an objective-based mode in which each team, one attacking and one defending, shares 25 lives. You win by either exhausting all of the enemy team's lives or gaining or maintaining control of the two objectives. A defensive Specialist like Torque, who has Razor Wire perfect for placement under windows and a Barricade "weapon" for extra cover, is a great option if you're trying to hold an objective, for example. An offensive Specialist, on the other hand, can aim to wipe out the enemy team.
Black Ops 4's Zombies is as broad as it is deep, with two separate storylines across three maps (or four if you have the Black Ops pass included in the game's special editions). The first two, IX and Voyage of Despair, are part of the brand-new Chaos story, while Blood of the Dead and Classified round out the selection of maps to make up the returning Aether story. All of them follow the familiar Zombies formula--fighting waves of the undead, saving money to access better weapons and new areas, and uncovering wacky secrets and puzzles along the way--but each has its own quirks that take time and effort to discover.
The Chaos maps are strong aesthetically, with rich level design and clever puzzles to match--draining water that has seeped into the Titanic's depths so you don't drown while searching for other secrets, for example. Like previous Zombies maps, a lot of the fun comes from figuring out how the map ticks while also trying not to die, and both IX and Voyage of Despair have the complex layouts that lend themselves to thorough yet hectic exploration. Voyage is a personal favorite, with narrow, creepy hallways and presumably drowned zombies that have water gushing from their heads.
On the Aether side, Blood of the Dead is based on Black Ops 2's Mob of the Dead, while Classified is a reimagination of Black Ops' Five. Although they're definitely familiar, there are still surprises to entertain returning players--some puzzles don't unlock what you expect them to unlock, for example. However, the Ultimus crew hasn't aged particularly well, even considering that each of them is stereotyped to the extreme. The jokes just don't land anymore, especially Takeo's overdone Japanese accent where Ls are replaced with Rs at every opportunity. In Blood of the Dead it's distracting, but in Classified, lines about the Emperor and eating sushi are just plain offensive. You'll also hear these same lines every time you start a new run, which doesn't help.
On top of the already hefty amount of Zombies content, Black Ops 4 introduces a new mode of fighting the undead, Rush. It's a much faster-paced version of Zombies where you don't have to do any thinking or puzzle-solving; you're just there to kill them horde-style. There's no money, so you don't need to save up to buy a weapon or unlock a door. You're instead told which area will have the next Rush wave, and you're directed from room to room as you go. It's too intense to be a tutorial, per se, but it's a great way to familiarize yourself with the map, test weapons, and plan where to go next if you get stuck in Classic mode.
The third and most exciting of Black Ops 4's three main sections is, of course, Blackout. Like other battle royale games, Call of Duty's take puts 100 players on one map with the goal of being the last person or squad standing, and a collapsing circle of death forces you in closer and closer proximity. It's unlike anything Call of Duty has done before, and slight alterations to its mechanics, like the addition of bullet drop on some weapons, help it adapt to the very different gameplay style.
Brilliantly, experience in both multiplayer and Zombies benefits you in Blackout. Perks and Specialist equipment can be looted during a match, and knowing how to both use and counter them can give you an advantage. There are also zombie-infested areas that offer powerful loot at the risk of attracting human players to your position, and that PvE twist in particular helps distinguish Blackout from the likes of PUBG. A successful Blackout round can last over 20 minutes, so if you're impatient or more used to Call of Duty's shorter multiplayer formats, seeking out zombies and causing a ruckus mid-match is a great way to see more action.
The map itself is also distinctly Call of Duty, filled with references to previous games, including the fan favorite Nuketown. Vibrant and varied design makes each region stand out from the next, and the map as a whole is easy to navigate as a result. That in turn facilitates the strategic movement and positioning necessary to succeed; it's easy to pivot if a lot of other people are nearby, for example, if you know where you are in relation to the next-best loot area.
The combination of Call of Duty-specific mechanics with PUBG-style health, loot, and shooting systems is executed well, with quality-of-life improvements to UI--notably, you can quick-equip weapon attachments without going into your menu. The twists are balanced, too, and the Specialist equipment in particular doesn't make things feel unfair. Like in multiplayer, you can ignore anything you don't want to bother with, and survival ultimately comes down to your situational awareness, your skill with various weapons, and a bit of luck with looting and the circle. That makes victory feel earned and, as a result, immensely gratifying--Blackout definitely captures the tense, shaky excitement that makes battle royale such a popular genre.
Black Ops 4 isn't short on content, and its three main modes are substantial. Multiplayer introduces more tactical mechanics without forcing you into them, and it largely strikes a good balance. Zombies has multiple deep, secret-filled maps to explore, though its returning characters don't hold up and prove distracting. Finally, Blackout pushes Call of Duty in an entirely new direction, making use of aspects from both multiplayer and Zombies for a take on the battle royale genre that stands on its own. Sure, there isn't a traditional single-player campaign, but with the depth and breadth of what is there, Black Ops 4 doesn't need it.
What truly distinguishes SoulCalibur from its genre contemporaries is a pervading sense of adventure. It tells a grand tale of knights and ninjas, axe-wielding goliaths and pirate warriors, all struggling over mythical weapons of good and evil. It accents this with a rousing orchestral score and grandiose narrations about entwined destinies and inescapable fates. Sure, deep and rewarding mechanics are at the heart of every good fighting game--and SoulCalibur VI certainly has that--but for this series, adventure has always been the soul.
That spirit of adventure is most evident in SoulCalibur VI's two story modes. Libra of Souls is the meatier of the two and takes inspiration from SoulCalibur II's beloved Weapon Master Mode. It's part fighting game, part role-playing game, part Dungeons & Dragons campaign; you create your own unique fighter using a creator that, while serviceable, isn't nearly as robust as the one in Bandai Namco's other fighter, Tekken 7. From there you embark on a journey that will take you across the world, and along the way you'll cross paths--and swords--with both named characters and generically named bit-parters.
Libra of Souls tells its story primarily through text, but it's all surprisingly engaging, with dialogue and descriptions setting the stage for the inevitable fight and giving even its throwaway opponents a bit of flavour. The story's conceit for making you travel around the world is that you're "malfested" with an evil energy and must absorb Astral Fissures to stay alive. Although you're ushered between main quest missions, various side-quests pop up around you, with NPCs asking for a hand solving their problems. Naturally, the solution each time is a sword-swinging contest, but the game does a valiant job of world building along the way to give texture to its fantasy universe. You'll learn that Ceylon is a major producer of cinnamon, which is favoured by royalty and thus very precious, and that hamlets are being decimated by a rampaging Azure Knight with a thirst for souls. You'll meet a would-be entrepreneur who, while affable, is mostly after handouts; a weaponsmith who is looking to impress the royal family to win a contract; and a priestess who doubts her abilities, among others.
Completing these missions rewards you with experience that levels you up, and this is where the RPG hooks are strongest. As you grow, you'll be able to use stronger weapons that have different visual styles and properties. Enemies also become hardier and, on top of that, special battle conditions spice up fights. These may make one type of attack more effective while decreasing the strength of others, thus forcing you to diversify your skillset within the battle system. Another wrinkle to the RPG mechanics is the ability to select a food item to take into battle. These bestow bonuses such as increased counter damage, a boost to health at the start of a new round, or extra experience for a win, to name a few. If you’d rather let someone else do the dirty work, you can visit the Mercenaries Guild and hire a fighter, outfit them with a weapon and food, then send them into battle. At best the AI will secure a victory; at worst they’ll knock off some health from the enemy before you step in.
There are also little touches in Libra of Souls that reinforce the idea that you're a wandering warrior on an epic journey. One of them is an indicator at the top of the world map that ticks down the years as you progress, establishing a passage of time as you bounce between locations and fights in rapid succession. Another is the decision-making moments, some of which will simply dictate how you act towards a character, while others will weigh your soul towards good or evil, impact the story, and decide how the ending battle plays out. The eventual consequence of your actions is small, but it's a neat way to give you a tiny bit of authorship in the story.
The main issue with Libra of Souls is the ratio of storytelling to actual gameplay. The mode is very text-heavy, which would be less of a problem if its battles weren't so quick. In the hands of a capable fighting game player, many enemies can be dispatched within as little as 10 seconds, which means time spent in Libra of Souls is heavily skewed toward reading over fighting. And although the loading screens before and after battles are quite short, they can become increasingly tedious. The mode is also lacking in variety, so beyond the occasional battle condition, it does very little to keep you on your toes. For the most part, applying an aggressive strategy will see you emerge victorious.
The second mode, Soul Chronicles, is a more typical take on a fighting game story but is still expansive and has an interesting approach to laying out its narrative. It features a main story that chronicles what happens with the legendary Soul Edge but supplements this with 19 character-specific campaigns, drilling down on what they're doing while the broader story takes place. Although they're heavily reliant on static artwork, they're fully voiced and the artwork itself has an eye-catching, sketch-like style. There's a microcosm of Libra of Souls' issues here too, though, as battles can be over in the blink of an eye, and that means more hitting buttons to advance text.
Nevertheless, Libra of Souls and Soul Chronicle make for a satisfying single-player offering, with the former lasting upwards of eight hours and the latter taking around four. Idiosyncrasies aside, both give you plenty to do and provide a comprehensive, engrossing story throughout. By the time it's over, you'll have travelled the world, met a variety of colorful characters, and fought all manner of strange creatures. Quite the adventure.
SoulCalibur VI doesn't demand hours of study and experimentation ... you can pick up a controller and feel like you're competent in no time
The beauty of SoulCalibur's gameplay is its simplicity, and in that respect SoulCalibur VI is a bit like rock-paper-scissors. At its most superficial, the rules of engagement are simple and the pace of battles means decision-making is based on instinct as much as considered tactics and being reactive. Admittedly, the same can be said of most fighting games, but unlike them SoulCalibur VI doesn't demand hours of study and experimentation to do this; you can pick up a controller and feel like you're competent in no time. Although there are complicated systems and techniques to consider, an inability to interact with them doesn't loom over you. Before long vertical attacks will reveal themselves as powerful but slow, you'll quickly realise that horizontal attacks interrupt sidesteps and are a safe way to apply pressure, and kicks are a nice balance of the two but with limited range. It takes little time to internalize those fundamentals, and so their intricacies become apparent quicker than in most fighting games. Throw in blocking and movement, both of which are intuitive, and the pick-up-and-play factor becomes a key strength of SoulCalibur VI.
The surface simplicity belies more complex systems beneath, and SoulCalibur VI is mechanically dense. It layers systems from throughout the series on top of each other so even veterans will need to examine the individual pieces and figure out how they fit together. Although each character has a relatively limited range of attacks, the eight-way run movement lets you modify them. Attacks also land at different heights--high, mid, and low--and in turn blocking becomes a three-tiered system. More confident players can react to an attack by executing a last-second Guard Impact to repel and leave their opponent open, but a staggered player can retaliate with a Reversal Impact--a reversal reversal.
From there it only gets more complicated. Reversal Edge is a special stance that will counter incoming attacks at any height. It's executed with a single button and the longer it's held the more attacks it can absorb. This makes defending against an onslaught of attacks really easy, but the ease of execution means it also steps on the toes of the more skill-based Guard Impact. Reversal Edge seems to be aimed at casual players as, while a successful Guard Impact places the initiator in a more advantageous position, Reversal Edge establishes a neutral playfield by initiating a clash. Here the action slows, the camera swoops in close, and the two fighters effectively bet on what the other player will do and counter it. This is a useful way to create some breathing room when being smothered, but the guessing game leads to a feeling of randomness that can be frustrating. The workaround here is to land an unblockable break attack to stop a Reversal Edge.
Beyond that there are Critical Edges, which are the game's equivalent of super moves. These are governed by the Soul Gauge, which is built up by attacking, defending, and taking damage. Once one level is attained, it can be spent on executing an incredibly powerful and outlandish cinematic attack. A Soul Gauge can also be spent on a Soul Charge, a comeback state of sorts that opens a separate set of moves up for a character to use, powers up normal attacks, and makes them cause damage to blocking opponents for a brief period.
Those are just a few of the systems in SoulCalibur VI, so for those that want to become students of the game, it offers plenty to learn. However, at times it can also feel needlessly complex. This is likely a symptom of creating a collection of systems that give the hardcore fighting game players the depth they crave while also enabling casual players to stand their ground against them. On paper that might seem like a good approach, but the end result is a construction that is at odds with itself, as if built out of both K-Nex and Lego--the simpler parts undermine the complex ones, and although it works, it's inelegant. A good player with an understanding of all the systems will almost always triumph over someone only making use of the basic ones, so the biggest issue this superfluousness presents is that it makes the path from casual to expert a little less appealing to walk. That complexity is overwhelming when it doesn't need to be, and if there are simpler and easier options there's less incentive to dig beneath the surface.
SoulCalibur VI is a fighting game that's easy to recommend. Like all the best titles in the genre, it has a low barrier to entry and high skill ceiling. For those looking to get in a few games with friends it's welcoming and immediately enjoyable. For those committed to ploughing the depths of its systems to get tournament ready, it has plenty to unpack and understand. Better still, those that want to play alone will find SoulCalibur VI has some of the most substantial single-player content in any fighting game today.
At the time of writing, SoulCalibur VI's online servers aren't live. GameSpot will test the game post-release and update this review with an assessment of its online performance.
[Editor's Note: We have updated this review to reflect our experiences with Armello's Nintendo Switch version]
Armello's hybrid of tactics, dice-rolling, and political intrigue has aged better than expected in the three years since its release, and on Nintendo Switch, the game is almost as formidable as it is on PC. Its charming blend of animal kingdom hijinks and turn-based strategy gameplay has yet to be replicated by a newer, flashier title; Armello has definitely held up well, and its uniqueness is undeniable. However, there are a few major differences between PC version and Switch releases, and not all of them are positive.
The most important distinction is the fact that the Switch version includes all of Armello's DLC content. The Complete Edition of the game includes a bunch of morally-grey heroes, seasonal effects, and a whole new clan to contend with. While the base game has a fair amount of material to keep you occupied, a criticism of the launch content was that particular victory styles were incentivized over others. At their core, the DLC packs attempt to address that by expanding your potential champion pool with heroes that operate very differently from the original ones in the base game.
Luckily, the champion pool increase is more than just a numbers game. The Usurpers DLC in particular has heroes which are brimming with devilish personality, along with playstyles that revolve around more than the just original victory avenues of skirmishing and keeping a death grip on the King's coffers. The Bandit Clan DLC adds around 50 new quests specific to this charismatic new faction, along with a thematically-appropriate follower that gives risk-taking players a second chance when taking up arms against their competition. The other DLC packs focus on mostly aesthetic and minor upgrades to dice variety, but they're still notable improvements on the range of material that was initially available.
The unfortunate change to the Switch version is the performance. Unlike the DLC additions that are, on the balance of things, a net positive, Armello doesn't run as nicely on Nintendo's console as it does on other platforms. It's not the sort of frame rate drop that makes the game unplayable by any means, but there's a clear disruption in the smoothness and timeliness of actions and animations that play out on the screen when you're in-game. This isn't something that you can attribute to online connection troubles either; some graphical degradation was experienced in playing against the AI in the Prologue segments, which in itself contained condensed elements of the game's mechanics. If you can put that to one side, then Armello's unique blend of strategy makes it a worthy pick-up on Switch. -- Ginny Woo, 10/16/2018
[Original review text follows below]
When you don't have three friends and some reasonably good beer to keep you engaged, a board game--especially a virtual recreation of one--has to work a lot harder to hold your attention. Armello accomplishes this and then some, and while it could use some fine tuning, it remains one of the best virtual board game experiences available.
At first glance, Armello can feel like a tangle of things--dice and cards and boards and coins and stats--but the quick four-part prologue does a good job of making sense of these pieces. Your primary actions include moving a character around the board to complete quests and avoid hazards. There are eight playable characters, and each character has different strengths, weaknesses, and abilities in addition to items they can equip to skew their stats in a slightly different direction. They also each have great-looking combat animations. Ever wish Disney's Robin Hood had 40% more bears punching each other senseless? Well, this game is for you!
To win in Armello, you have to either kill the king or have the highest prestige when the monarch dies due to a disease called the rot. Every full day--one turn for day and one turn for night--the King's health dwindles lower while his rot creeps higher, so no matter how things shake out, there are a finite number of turns that can be taken before the King will keel over on his own. It's also possible to defeat the King in combat, either by gathering four spirit stones from quests or tiles, or gaining a higher rot level than him. If a would-be assassin fails, the victory will automatically be handed to the prestige leader. Unless you're playing against clever friends, a prestige victory is almost always the easiest way to win. This can make the game feel unbalanced, especially when playing against AI opponents that frequently make ill-advised assassination attempts. That said, if you can resist the siren song of an easy victory or have other players wanting to spoil your plans, the varied win conditions provide enough variety to accommodate different play styles and keep things spicy through multiple sessions of playing with friends.
You also have a hand of cards--which are as well-animated as the characters themselves--that can be anything from equippable items and followers to spells and tricks that can be applied to yourself, other actors on the board, or specific tiles. Imagine if you could slam your Hearthstone deck down on a Clue board and swarm Professor Plum with Murlocs, and you have an accurate idea of just how neat this is in practice. Cards all have different costs to play, and crucially, they can be played regardless of whose turn it is. This allows for some tense moments and sharp twists in matches with other human players. On the other hand, when it comes to the A.I. opponents, the game tends to jump around a bit too fast to take full advantage of that ability unless you're particularly quick on the draw.
What Armello suffers from most is a lack of customization options, something it could have stood to learn from more-traditional strategy games. There's no way to define whether you want a quick or a long game, A.I. skill levels are static, and when you're playing with friends, you're bound to a move timer whether you like it or not. Graphics controls are also somewhat limited, which means that you won't be able to turn off the haze of clouds in the sky, which would be dlightful if you didn't have to look down through them when you zoom out to see the full board.
Armello picks and chooses a variety of elements from board, card, 4X, and role-playing games without demanding either a familiarity with or a fondness for any genre. It also leaves a lot of room to engage as deeply as you want with the game's guts without feeling like you're floundering if you don't. Whether you're bumbling your way to the top or playing all your cards right, Armello makes regicide ridiculously entertaining.
Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a game about flying through space, exploring new planets, and shooting a lot of aliens. Set in a seamless open-world galaxy, it sees you pushing back occupying forces by battling enemies, setting up outposts, and completing simple tasks set by your allies. For better and worse, it's a distinctly Ubisoft game, from the huge spaces (seven separate planets and the vast depths of space that separate them) to the maps overloaded with activities. But thankfully, Starlink is not quite so full that it feels bloated--just full enough so that there's always something for you to be working towards.
Starlink is also Ubisoft's entry into the toys-to-life market--you're able to buy physical packs of pilots, weapons, and ships, all of which are interchangeable and have their own unique attributes and abilities. Constructing and attaching these models to your controller using a specialized mounting device will give you access to those characters and tools in-game, and while swapping between all these components isn't necessary, doing so brings distinct advantages.
Starlink's combat is fun thanks to simple controls and the two weapon system--different enemies are weak against or impervious to different weapon types, and swapping the two weapons mounted on your ship will change your methods of attack and the kinds of elemental combos you can perform. Using a stasis missile on an enemy so that they float helplessly in mid-air, then setting them alight with a flaming minigun, never gets old. Every weapon can be leveled up individually and augmented with mods that you collect, so by the end of the game, your most-used guns will likely be able to absolutely rip through certain enemies, provided you have the foresight to equip them.
When you're grounded on a planet, you'll be doing a lot of strafing and aiming for big glowing weak points, whereas fights in space are more freewheeling, with dogfights often pitting you against swarms of enemy fighters. These feel like all-range mode battles from Star Fox, and swinging around to land a precision assault on an enemy (often thanks to the game's rather generous auto-aim) is satisfying every time. The controls for each ship are the same, but there are minor differences between them; a light ship is better for maneuvering through a delicate situation on the ground, for instance, while a heavier ship can take more hits during battles.
Like weapons, each pilot has their own upgrade tree and unique special ability, and they even get their own unique script during missions, which is a great touch. There are only a few big story-driven missions, and in the back half of the game, you're given some freedom as to how you go about weakening the enemy forces. There's an order of operations in each sector of space--clear out mining sites guarded by enemies to weaken 'Primes,' which are big robot monsters on each planet. Killing Primes on planets that are near each other will weaken a related Dreadnaught, a giant spaceship that will, in turn, produce more Primes if you don't take it out too.
The one drawback to this structure, though, is that you're essentially taking on the same kinds of fights with occasional difficulty spikes. Taking out the game's three Dreadnaughts will make the final boss easier, and you can theoretically take on a Dreadnaught at its maximum strength regardless of how under-leveled you are. It's repetitive, but you also get a good sense of your progression, and the feedback loop of loot and rewards hits a good balance where you rarely feel like you're stuck grinding. The battles might repeat a lot, but they're consistently entertaining, and figuring out the best way to take down a huge enemy with the tools you have on hand is a satisfying challenge. The Dreadnaughts are particularly fun to take down--every time you take out one of their mounted guns a swarm of enemy ships will attack, leading to the game’s most intense dogfighting, and each encounter ends with a Star Wars-inspired "fly into the center and destroy the core" sequence.
If you're playing on Nintendo Switch, you'll have access to Fox McCloud and his Arwing. He can call in one of the other members of Star Fox, complete with the Corneria theme from the original game, and if you're a fan it's very tempting to play as him the entire time. The Switch version consistently runs smoothly, although there's a visual trade-off. The planets are not particularly detailed, everything's a little fuzzier in handheld mode, and there's a lot of pop-in--it's weird to have an asteroid belt suddenly appear in front of you when you're flying towards a planet.
But the Star Fox fan service throughout the game is a great bonus, especially in the mini five-mission campaign in which the team hunts down long-time antagonist Wolf O'Donnell. Wolf is a much more interesting enemy than Andross, as it turns out, and while this campaign is short it feels true to the spirit of the series. Fox and his team get integrated into the rest of the game, too, popping up in cutscenes with the rest of the Starlink crew.
Unfortunately, the game's primary plot--which concerns a crew of adventurers trying to save their captured captain and take down the "Forgotten Legion" forces led by an alien named Grax--is much less exciting. Strangely, despite Battle For Atlas being the first and only existing game in the Starlink series, the script feels as though it's written for players who have a pre-existing relationship with these characters and their situation, meaning that there's not much in the way of pathos or catharsis to be found. Some of the characters are interesting, but even though the game is keen to throw lore at you there's little sense of who these characters are, what sort of universe they exist in, or even what their fundamental role is beyond needing to take down this enemy force.
Despite this, it's always clear what your overarching objectives are and how you need to work towards them. There's a lot that you can be doing at any given point--even in the vastness of outer space, there are wrecks to salvage gear from and enemy outposts to take down. Wrecks can be identified from their flashing beacons and usually contain loot, while outposts are added to your map as you chase outlaws from planets. Exploring the depths of space reveals plenty of neat loot and fun encounters and the thrill of taking off from one planet, seamlessly flying into space, and landing on another never gets old.
But Starlink's proposition as a toys-to-life product is hampered somewhat by the comparative financial value of the digital alternative. The physical starter pack varies in content between consoles, but they each give you far less than both the starter and deluxe digital versions, which unlock multiple ships, pilots, and weapons from the get-go. If you get the physical starter pack and don't want to buy additional toys you can still finish the game, but you'll be at an enormous disadvantage.
Having multiple ships in Starlink essentially operates as having extra lives--if you get wrecked during a battle you can choose to either quit or replace the ship immediately. If you don't have a replacement, certain battles are going to be a real struggle, and progress doesn't carry over when you come back to them. It's easy to lose a ship, too, especially since your defensive options during fights are often limited--you can summon a shield or barrel roll, but both eat into your limited energy supply, which takes a while to recharge. The digital starter pack gives you four ships (five on Switch), which feels fairer and lets you worry less during big battles. Between ships and weapons (pilots are less vital), you'd have to buy quite a few toys if you wanted a varied and balanced experience.
The ship models themselves look great, though, and while switching loadouts via the menus is always going to be the more convenient option, physically swapping out the components will pause the game the until your ship is completely decked out again. Changing pilots will require you to remove the entire ship first, but that's only a minor pain--the only real impediment is being able to remember which weapon does what by sight, but their designs are distinctive enough that this isn't an issue once you get accustomed to it to them.
Starlink is an interesting and enjoyable open-world game, one that fully understands the appeal of exploring new planets and dogfighting in the cold depths of space. With a small fleet of ships at your disposal, it can be a lot of fun to progressively assault and weaken the Forgotten Legion's hold on the galaxy. It's just a shame that if you're interested in the physical models, you'll have to spend more to get the same experience as the digital version.
There are times I want to be sad, when I'd rather be all alone, quietly thinking about my life, or hugging a loved one to forget about the day's trouble. Child of Light embraces that melancholy beautifully and its various elements cultivate a doleful mood. From the overgrown foliage threatening to overtake the neglected environments to the tired inhabitants wasting away their days, there's a somber tone that permeates this storybook adventure. I was struck by that desperation in the whimsical poetry of the dialogue; conversations are constructed with overtly meticulous rhymes that betray the bewilderment building below the surface. And the docile piano melody made my heart all the heavier. Child of Light is a lovely adventure, a journey as remarkable as it is uncommon, that left me grappling with my own sadness.
I wasn't so accepting of Child of Light at first. The delicate artistic style is so immediately inviting that I had imagined a world opening before me that I would want to exist in. That's because I had mistaken color for happiness. Child of Light is not about fleeting joy, and so, when the sorrowful tone endured as I ventured on, I struggled to find my bearings. I waited for a lightheartedness that never arrived, so I fought against the energy that Child of Light was putting forth. But as I pushed deeper inside of this dreamlike world, I stopped resisting and opened up to the game. Child of Light is difficult in ways that I hadn't expected, and is incredibly effective if you allow it to work its magic.
It's in the earliest moments that the game reveals its true nature. A story told through stained-glass imagery shows the protagonist Aurora's inseparable relationship with her father, and tells of how their bond was torn asunder. One night, she rested her head upon a pillow, and never awakened when a new day dawned. Her father, the once proud king, was beside himself with grief, choosing to spend his days awash in tears rather than care for his kingdom and the wants of his populace. He was a lost man. Lost, too, was Aurora, who awakened not in her own bed, but in a place she did not recognize. It's a story about fear and betrayal, hopelessness and fortitude, in which every citizen you meet seeks shelter in Aurora's loving arms. Her plight to fight for both her own freedom and her companions' is one we've seen before, though that doesn't detract from the feelings it conjures.
Child of Light is a lovely adventure, a journey as remarkable as it is uncommon, that left me grappling with my own sadness.
Aurora joins up with a jester who has lost touch with her brother, a rodent who craves monetary wealth, and a gnome whose people have been cursed with an avian disease. But it's a firefly who proves to be the steadiest friend. Igniculus floats alongside you as you explore the creaking trees and abandoned homes you drift past on your way to free this land from the misery that it's drowning in. Always with advice on his lips, he can also light the passageway through dark caves and collect treasure that your human hands can't wrest open.
When Aurora sets out into this foreign world--barefoot, weaponless, and utterly alone--she clambers upon rocky outcrops as she winds her way through labyrinthine caverns. Slowly but determinedly, Aurora uses ingenuity to scavenge for scraps of treasure, and I felt at one with the environment as I charted a course onward. After reaching her first destination, Aurora was imbued with flight, and the tactile pleasure of forging unknown paths vanished. Once airborne, you can no longer run and jump as you once could, instead floating dreamily through air thick with fog and rain. The kinetic freedom of flight rises and quickly falls away as you continually find your path barred. Thorns rein you in, waterfalls and gales push you away, and those restrictions echo the themes of imprisonment. You're not free; you're trapped and scared and desperate to return home, and those aerial barriers further those feelings.
Enjoy flight when you can. There are treasure chests and hidden passages for those with an inquisitive disposition, and when you're able to break free from the chains corralling you in place, the landscape is too beautiful to not admire. But such appreciation is fleeting. There are enemies lurking--creatures that should have no qualms about your presence cut you down if you drift too close to them. They patrol in the open, marching from side to side along high plateaus or hovering menacingly in dark caverns. You can avoid them if you wish--fly down another path or wait until they turn their backs on you--but Aurora is not one to walk away from a confrontation. She wields a sword almost too heavy for her to carry, and has her heart set only on her freedom, so she doesn't run away from the monsters that stand before her. She longs to fight, relishes in it, and her friends readily join her, eager to damage the foul beasts who roam about their home.
It's a story about fear and betrayal, hopelessness and fortitude, in which every citizen you meet seeks shelter in Aurora's loving arms.
It's in the combat that the sadness that permeates the rest of Child of Light is momentarily halted. The music loses its solemnity as it suddenly becomes fierce, and the characters forget their aching problems for a moment while they focus on the threats that stand before them. Wolves and boars growl their displeasure, flaming birds and ethereal horses bar your path, and you stare them down like only a true warrior can. Although your party balloons as you trudge deeper into this desperate land, only two can fight at one time, while the others swap in when their fists are needed and back out once their energy is spent. It's a frenetic system in which you're continually juggling your party, tapping a healer when you need a boost, matching elemental attacks against your shifty opponents, and finding ways for everyone to contribute.
The energy of these encounters carries a fast-paced excitement that's lacking from the rest of the adventure. That's not to downplay how affecting the quiet moments are, but rather to show how sharp the contrast is. When you're fighting, you're so invested in an immediate threat that you're no longer saddened by the dire world around you. And it's a freeing feeling that exists only because of how different it is from the rest of the adventure. Part of that rush comes from how smartly time is used. Though fights play out in a turn-based manner, you and your opponents race to perform attacks as quickly as you can. Cast haste to get a boost, or hover Igniculus over an enemy to slow it down. Interrupt an attack, and you can infuriate an enemy, cause it to retaliate with anger or cower from frustration. If you're inattentive, your hard work can blow up in your face, so you have to act with exactitude and think on your toes.
The challenge of these encounters is expertly balanced. Against tougher foes, I always felt out of my element. Would this be the fight where I finally met my end? I would scrape and claw, desperately casting spells while fending off the unceasing threat. My attacks would be interrupted, my characters infected by curses, and yet I pressed on. I would drown enemies in water, blind them with sunlight, and never relent for even a second. I never did lose a battle. Child of Light did a wonderful job of pushing me hard, forcing me to fight with speed and precision, without ever becoming overwhelming. When I won, I would pause for a few moments to take in what I had accomplished. It's a great feeling to come out on top. And though I would invariably level up from such victories, I wasn't drawn to better stats or new powers. It was winning that was infectious. It was embracing the moments of respite amid a sea of sorrow and despair.
Child of Light is a remarkable adventure. I wouldn't have thought that was true during the first couple of hours given that my expectations of what kind of game this was shattered when reality showed its face. But once I accepted the sadness that is so intertwined with every element, I grew so much closer to Child of Light. It's easy to heap praise on the combat because it's so interesting and engaging, and it's certainly a high point in this adventure. That's not what makes Child of Light stand out, though. Rather, it's how confident it is in its own feelings of woe. There are so few games willing to explore that dull ache that I became mesmerized by Aurora's journey, even when I needed to step away from her plight while I regained my composure. Child of Light is a wonderfully realized, somber adventure, and I couldn't be happier that such a game exists.
Editor's note: It has been more than four years since Child of Light first hit consoles. The somber tone that permeates the adventure still resonates deeply, using its delicate visuals and wistful music to capture a feeling of melancholy that still feels incredibly rare. The passage of time hasn’t undermined the sadness that makes this game so welcoming because there is still nothing quite like Child of Light. The transition to the Switch hasn’t hurt the experience in the slightest. Whether docked or in handheld mode, the beautiful artistic design shines through and the controls are smooth regardless of which controller you use.
Because this is the Ultimate Edition, there are bonus features that weren’t included in the original release. A couple of alternate skins for the protagonist are available from the onset along with a few items, one additional skill, and a new mission. It’s still the quiet adventure that is the main draw, though, and whether you’ve never before experienced Princess Aurora’s adventure or simply want to revisit this dreamlike world, Child of Light is just as great as it was years ago. -- October 11, 2018, 10:30 AM PT
The games of Hidetaka Suehiro (better known as Swery) impart a distinctly identifiable creative vision. He revels in grounding you in the mundane before throwing you off balance with a moment of absurd humor or plunging you into a sequence of fantastical horror. Before you know it, that ground has opened up and swallowed you whole. The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories feels smaller and less ambitious than his most recent works, Deadly Premonition or D4, but it could not be mistaken for anything other than a Swery game. At heart, it is a 2D platformer akin to Limbo or Inside that alternates between ambiguous narrative beats with frequently macabre puzzles, wrapped in a creeping sense of dread. As a puzzle-platformer, it succeeds in testing your timing and your wits despite a couple of overly finicky sections. As a story, it deftly explores themes of teen sexuality and identity with a rare tenderness, though it would ultimately be better served by a guiding hand that wasn't quite so determined to have a big late-game reveal.
You play as J.J. Macfield, a first-year college student living away from both home and the prying eyes of a loving yet conservative mother. On a holiday break, J.J. goes on a camping trip with best friend Emily, who goes missing during the night, spurring J.J. to set off and find her. J.J.'s search takes place on the small Memoria Island off the coast of Maine, whose indigenous name translates, appropriately enough, as "the place to find the lost." Even though it is set on the opposite side of the continent to Deadly Premonition, The Missing sees Swery return to quaint, semi-rural American landscapes where J.J. will travel through fields dotted with windmills, a sawmill, a lonely diner in the middle of nowhere, a bowling alley on a small-town strip mall, a dilapidated church, a highly exaggerated clock tower, and so on.
Early on, J.J. inherits the ability to survive incidents that would otherwise kill you. Fall too far, for example, and you'll land with a sickening crunch. But you won't die--you'll get back up and continue on as a dark, shadow version of J.J., only with, say, a broken neck leaving you dazed and staggering. Lose a leg and J.J. resorts to hopping around and inevitably falling over, severely restricting your movement. Lose your arms and J.J. can no longer pick up objects or climb.
This grotesque mechanic informs a number of the game's puzzles--fail to crouch under a spinning buzzsaw and J.J. might be decapitated. You'll control J.J.'s head, rolling along the ground, and now able to squeeze into otherwise inaccessible crevices. Certain high impact "deaths" result not only in such injuries but flip the entire world upside down, sending J.J. tumbling to the ceiling along with any other objects affected by gravity. At any time, though, you can return this shadow version of J.J. back to original human form--limbs fully re-attached, neck un-snapped, world no longer upside down--thus ending the thematic body horror show and, more prosaically, allowing you to quickly retry that jump you missed or puzzle you mishandled. It is possible to actually die--hurling your decapitated head onto yet another spike trap will do it. But this simply resets you back to the last checkpoint, typically only a few minutes away at the start of the current puzzle section.
The Missing extracts a lot of mileage from this not-really-death mechanic. Together with the physicality of the platforming and the introduction of fire-, electricity- and water-based environmental interactions, puzzles are rarely too obvious and mostly satisfying to piece together. There were only two occasions when progress was halted by what felt like unfair means, where seemingly feasible puzzle solutions were overlooked by pedantic design, but these only make up a small number of the game's challenges overall.
As J.J.'s search continues, key milestones are greeted by the buzz of a mobile phone. Over the course of the game, J.J. exchanges a series of text messages with F.K. (no, not the chap from Deadly Premonition), a childhood plushie toy apparently come to life, and is also able to unlock past conversations with Emily and with her mother. These messages, along with additional conversations with friends unlocked via collectibles, serve to sketch out J.J.'s backstory and gradually, but elusively, relate the events leading up to the beginning of the game.
The buzz of the mobile phone right on the tail of a stressful bit of platforming can feel jarring, puncturing the moment in what feels like a typically Swery way. Tonally, the conversations are all over the place, too, veering from stonewalling a concerned parent to arranging a study session with a classmate, or shrugging at career advice from a professor to telling your plushie to shut up. But they do a terrific job of painting a portrait of J.J.'s life before it was upended by a camping trip. Reminiscent of the audio diaries in Gone Home, these text messages are a heartfelt window into the insecurities and vulnerabilities of a teenager struggling to process the ways in which they don't conform to the expectations of so-called normal society.
The Missing opens with the message: "This game was made with the belief that nobody is wrong for being what they are." It's a sentiment supported throughout, and particularly in its portrayal of the relationship between J.J. and Emily, except for one thing. The way the story structure withholds information--drip-feeding details to maintain suspense, in order to construct a surprise reveal at the end--ultimately feels like it undermines some, but crucially, not all of the good work it does along the way. The game wants to embrace diversity while at the same time treating a part of someone's identity as something of a 'gotcha' moment. It doesn't feel cynical--there are no bad intentions detected here--but its execution comes off as clumsy and its impact is diminished.
The faltering plot twist doesn't detract from the overall experience. The Missing is smaller and more mechanically conventional than Deadly Premonition or D4, but its components remain focused on distinctly a Swery game: a dark, idiosyncratic experience that tells a deeply personal story that's as confronting as it is sincere. It is absolutely not for everyone, but as the game reminds us, there is nothing wrong with that.