So much of the appeal of the original Professor Layton games on Nintendo DS comes from the sheer warmth. It's a mahogany-toned warm blanket of a series of detective games. The puzzles might be non-sequitur brain-busters, but when it's all over, you're welcomed back into the game's world with all the comfort of a cup of tea. Come now, chin up, don't worry about how annoying that last one was, here's another bad pun to soothe what ails you.
Layton's Mystery Journey: Katrielle and the Millionaires' Conspiracy walks the series back to that original warmth of its humble roots in the visual mystery novel genre. It's a game that revels in its relative simplicity the way the series hasn't in some time. Dig in deep enough, though, and you'll find a game that conceals more than a couple of devious surprises under its sunny exterior.
The latest entry in the Layton's Mystery Journey series once again takes place in a sort of Studio Ghibli-fied version of turn-of-the-century London. The hero detective this time around is the good professor's cheery, aloof, and persistently hungry daughter, Katrielle. She's joined by Ernest Grieves, a straight-laced and faithful assistant if there ever was one, and a basset hound who Kat names, in the game's single laziest pun, Sherl O.C. Kholmes. As it turns out, Sherl is actually suffering from Detective Pikachu Syndrome: He's able to talk to a select few humans, but he also has amnesia so he has no idea how exactly he got into this mess. Unfortunately, poor Sherl has to stick it out for a while longer, since the intro is the last time the game addresses his whole predicament in any meaningful way.
The game's lack of an all-encompassing narrative is par for the course, however, and for most of the play time, it's not necessarily to its detriment. The usual Layton series storytelling returns: It's a visual novel at its core, with long stretches of dialogue with various characters broken up by point-and-click puzzles. As opposed to the earlier games' overarching mysteries, however, Katrielle's first outing is actually an episodic affair, where each case is its own self-contained little tale of low-stakes peril, ranging from the minute hand going missing from Big Ben to a wealthy madam's missing cat, disconnected from any larger character development for the main protagonists until the literal final hour. What the game lacks in straightforward character arcs that build over the entire playtime, it makes up for in building an enormous and eclectic cast of oddballs and weirdos with hilariously punny names and peculiar quirks. Katrielle's relationship with each character may only last for a single case, but each case is structured in such a way that the broad strokes--the frequent clapbacks, one-off zingers, friendly jabs at everyone's expense--are allowed to make an impression. As far as the narrative is concerned, each new character is made to be memorable, not practical. And the episodic format makes it easy to enjoy the game in short bursts. Even if you only have a few minutes to spare, you can meet someone new, push the story forward, or finish a crucial puzzle.
Well, you can try to finish a crucial puzzle at the very least, but not all of them are pushovers. In lieu of any legitimate detective work, most of what you'll be doing to help take a bite out of English crime is solving a vast series of one-off puzzles of various sorts for whoever asks. Some are just basic spatial problems, such as having a vat that holds five gallons of liquid and another that holds three, and trying to figure out how to get four gallons. Others are quirky little mini-games more akin to what you may find in WarioWare, just with a tricky twist like having a limit on how many moves you can make to finish the game. Some, however, are just flat out riddles, and these tend to be the ones that may leave you white-knuckle frustrated.
The game fires its first warning shot early on, with a riddle about the minimum number of times you need to touch a clock to get it to display properly. It's a problem that's very easy to overthink, not because the solution is simple, but because the description of the problem begs additional questions that the game does not answer.
Thankfully, for the vast majority of puzzles, sheer persistence is enough to power through and guess correctly. There are also tokens you can find scattered around every environment that allow you to unlock hints. However, even in cases where the hint walks you right up to the solution, the answer and its explanation can defy common sense in a truly underwhelming way that leaves you less with an "aha!" feeling of brilliance and more of an "oh, come on" feeling of disappointment.
That flaw is even more mind-boggling considering just how well localized and executed the game is otherwise. Each character is charming in their own right, rife with British affectations and deep-cut historical references--the Mayor's name is a play on London's original name from centuries ago. And when the game slips into its all-too-short and oddly placed stretches of voice acting or fully animated cutscenes, it's chock-full of naturalistic and pleasant performances across the board, from Katrielle's gentle lilt to Sherl's stiff-upper-lip aristocratic grumble. No small effort has gone into truly realizing this world, causing the lack of clarity when it really matters to sting all the more.
But, perhaps more than any other game in the series, there's plenty here allowing you to step back from the source of your aggravation and recharge. Exploring each environment turns up special coins that allow you to unlock new outfits for Kat and new furniture for her office. As you progress, you also unlock mini-games that are completely disconnected from the main quest--you can help a local chef cook a perfect meal for the residents of Kat's neighborhood, you can run a maze where you have only a limited number of moves, or, you can play any of the dozens of additional puzzles that aren't connected to progress in any of the actual cases. On mobile, this content was parsed out, piecemeal, over time after release. On the Switch, the game is overwhelmingly generous with content within an hour of starting, and most of it is just as charming and endlessly replayable as the rest of the game.
If there's any one thing truly getting in the way of your joy, it's the Switch itself. The Professor Layton games were staples of the Nintendo DS, taking full advantage of the added screen real estate so whatever you did on one screen didn't block what was happening on the other. The Switch, however, has limitations the DS didn't. Playing in docked mode means using the Joy-Cons to move your cursor around like a mouse, which is nice, but also a bit too fast and twitchy for many of the puzzles. In handheld, you have the option of using the analog sticks to move your cursor, which has the same problem with even less precision. You can also use the Switch's touchscreen, but your fingers are too often in the way of the rest of the screen. This is a game that simply begs for a stylus.
In Katrielle Layton's London, it's a season of golden leaves, stiff breezes, and sun that provides light but less warmth. It's the perfect atmosphere for a game that provides such quaint joys for hours on end, cackling at its next pun, zippy one-liner, or absurd new scenario while putting creaky parts of the brain to good use. Sometimes the breeze is a bit too cold, or there's rain, or, oh, you know, the solution to a logic problem you've been staring at for 45 minutes might be “air” and you hate everything for a few minutes, but it doesn't last, and the next pleasant moment is never too far away.
Star Wars games often feel estranged from the franchise that spawned them. Video games have gotten very good at capturing the aesthetic of Star Wars--the cold metallic angles of Imperial architecture, the powerful hum of a lightsaber, the electric snap of a blaster bolt hitting home--but can struggle to get beneath the surface. It's the rare Star Wars game that reaches beyond how Star Wars looks to explore what Star Wars is really about.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, the latest game in the canon, is one of the better offerings specifically because it tries to look beyond the trappings of Star Wars. It's not just another Jedi power fantasy, although wielding the Force with skill and resolve will certainly make you feel powerful. Like the best Star Wars games, it's one that adds to the ideas of the films and other material, exploring new corners of the galaxy while focusing on the core themes of the franchise: knowing yourself, fighting your own darkness, and braving adversity with the help of friends.
Friendship has always been one of the main drives of Star Wars, especially in the original film trilogy, and it's the core of what makes Jedi: Fallen Order work in both story and gameplay. The primary relationship of the game is between Cal Kestis, a Jedi padawan in hiding in the aftermath of the Jedi Purge that took place in Revenge of the Sith, and BD-1, a droid entrusted with a secret mission by the Jedi Master that previously owned it. Once Cal and BD-1 meet, they become inseparable, working together as partners to solve puzzles in forgotten ruins, navigate alien environments, and beat back the Empire.
The pair work throughout the game to complete a scavenger hunt created by BD's last companion, Master Cordova. Before he vanished, Cordova locked away a list of Force-sensitive children throughout the galaxy that could be used to resuscitate the destroyed Jedi Order and challenge the Empire. He left clues to how to retrieve that list hidden in BD, requiring Cal and the droid to travel to various worlds, following in Cordova's footsteps to free up BD's encrypted memories.
Functionally, BD is Cal's constant companion as he rides around on the Jedi's back, and Cal regularly talks with the droid as they explore Fallen Order's planets. BD also serves several support functions in gameplay. Most importantly, BD provides Cal with "stims" that allow him to heal himself in the middle of Fallen Order's often-oppressive combat. He can also function as a zipline, unlock doors, and hack certain droid enemies to turn the tides of battle. BD is just enough a part of any given fight or puzzle that you're always aware of his presence and his help, but it's Cal's constant interactions with the little droid that really build out their relationship.
You definitely need BD's help and the upgrades you find for him throughout your journey, because Fallen Order can be punishing. It lifts a number of gameplay ideas directly from the Soulsborne genre; enemies are often tough-as-nails and can deal big damage if you're complacent, whether they're Imperial stormtroopers taking potshots or two-foot rats leaping out of burrows to snap at Cal's throat. Fighting isn't just about wailing on everyone with your lightsaber, but rather relies heavily on blocking and carefully timed parries if you mean to stay alive against even the most run-of-the-mill foes. You and your enemies also have a stamina meter to manage, which dictates how many blows you can defend against before you stagger, and adds a strategic element to duels. To win a battle, you need to whittle down an enemy's stamina while blocking, parrying, and dodging to manage your own. Since every blow you sustain can be devastating, combat becomes an exciting, cerebral exercise in pretty much every case. You'll spend a lot of time not only honing your parrying skills, but also making quick battlefield decisions about how you can isolate dangerous enemies or use your Force powers to even up the odds.
You can only heal from a limited number of stims or by resting at periodic meditation points, similar to Dark Souls' bonfires, and using them respawns all the enemies in the area, which makes being a smart combatant even more critical. Killing enemies and finding collectibles nets you experience, which accumulates into Skill Points you can spend on new abilities for Cal. But dying costs all the experience you earned since your last Skill Point unless you can find and damage the enemy who bested you.
Though the elements of Fallen Order are Souls-like--it's probably most closely comparable to Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice, in fact--on most difficulty settings, it's far less brutal than From Software's games. Fallen Order might be considered Soulsborne-lite, making use of the same elements but to a different effect. It's tough, even occasionally frustrating, but not nearly so much as the games from which it draws its inspirations. That balance achieves something that feels essential to Fallen Order's identity: It makes you a powerful Jedi Knight, without turning you into an unstoppable Force-wielding superhero. Ratcheting back on the Jedi powers (and forcing you to unlock them as you work through the story and deal with Cal's past) helps Fallen Order's take on the Star Wars universe feel grounded and believable--a place where people could actually live.
Your lack of overwhelming power also helps make the ever-looming Empire a frightening threat, even as individual soldiers comedically call out their own ineptitude in pretty much every battle. Cal spends the entire game hunted by the Inquisition, a subset of the Empire's forces specifically tasked with exterminating Jedi. Because every fight is potentially deadly, running into the game's specially trained Purge Troopers is always an event, and you're forced not only test your lightsaber skills and timing, but to consider all the abilities at your disposal to make it out alive.
The rest of the game often has to do with clambering around the environment and solving puzzles, not unlike Tomb Raider, God of War, or Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Navigating the world is as much about using observation and problem-solving skills as your Force tools. Respawn's Souls-inspired map design allows you to explore off the beaten path without ever really getting lost, and each planet is richly realized and fascinating to explore. The intricate pathways encourage you to wander off and visit each planet's varied environments to see what you might uncover, and Fallen Order always make sure you're rewarded with a bit of story, a cosmetic item, or even an optional miniboss fight.
When you're between missions on planets, you're spending time with Fallen Order's two other major characters, Cere and Greez. They're the pair who manage to save Cal in the early hours of the game when his Jedi nature is discovered by the Empire, and they put him on the quest to find the list of Force-sensitives before the Inquisitors can get their hands on it. Though the story is a little rough in the early going as Cal is thrown directly into the quest with little lead-up or explanation, Fallen Order's story starts to excel around the halfway point as his relationships with BD, Cere, and Greez really start to develop. Once Fallen Order starts to invest in the interpersonal dynamics and deepening friendships of its cast, it really hits a stride--and its quest feels less like an elaborate series of tasks to fetch a MacGuffin, and more like an essential addition to the ongoing Star Wars saga.
It does take Fallen Order a while to get there, though. The first few planets are a bit on the dull side, rushing to get Cal on his quest through the galaxy without really establishing why you should really care. Until it starts to click later in the game as you unlock more Force powers, combat can be a hassle, especially at certain boss battles or chokepoints, when your last meditation point is some distance away and you have to navigate through the same chunks of the map over and over. And while parrying is an essential part of the game, at higher difficulties, the timing can feel finicky and unreliable.
The game also loves to throw handfuls of enemies at you all at once, which can be overwhelming, and combat against lower-tier enemies is built to lock you into finisher animations in a lot of cases. Instead of making you feel like a cool, well-trained warrior, these usually just leave you open to some Imperial dork wandering up with an electrobaton and clocking you in the head. It's only after you get enough Force powers to effectively control the crowds that these moments become more exciting than irritating. But throughout the game, there are always times when an enemy you couldn't see because of the game's tight targeting lock system gets in a cheap hit, forcing you to replay a fair stretch of its large, interweaving maps.
But especially as it wears on, Fallen Order becomes perhaps the strongest conception of what playing as a Jedi Knight ought to really be like. It's true that Fallen Order borrows liberally from other action games, but those elements work together with Respawn's combat and environment design, and a story that finds humanity in the Force and in its characters, to hone in on what makes the world of Star Wars worthy of revisiting again and again. Even with some rough edges, Fallen Order represents one of the most compelling game additions to the Star Wars franchise in years.
Racing in Palm City--the fictional street racing capital of the world--is all about earning money and building a reputation. During the day there are sanctioned races on closed streets, with safety barriers, an adoring crowd, and substantial cash prizes awaiting those who cross the finish line. At night, illegal street racing engulfs the city's neon-soaked roads, and the police respond in kind, blanketing the star-lit sky in the sound of thunderous V12s and whirring sirens. This dichotomy between day and night sets Need for Speed Heat apart from its contemporaries, and makes for Ghost Games' best entry to date, stripping away a lot of the series' needless baggage to get to the heart of what Need for Speed is all about.
There's still a hackneyed story about crooked cops and racing crews that take themselves far too seriously; it's full of corny dialogue, farfetched stakes, and irritating characters that wouldn't make the cut in earlier Fast and Furious movies. Story missions occasionally crop up, too, forcing you to follow a character while they talk at you, and there's even one instance of a dire tailing mission. Aside from this, however, the narrative is mostly relegated to background noise that's easy to ignore, especially if you opt to skip any of its cutscenes. Need for Speed Heat is mostly focused on getting you behind the wheel of a car you've customized yourself, altering everything from the ludicrously oversized spoiler on the back, right down to the distinct sound of the engine.
Each aspect of the game's design is built around the core dynamic between day and night. Official circuit races dominate the faux-Miami streets when the sun is beaming, rewarding you with cash that can be spent on new cars, parts, and visual customization options. The autoparts companies and car salesmen in Palm City are a peculiar bunch, though. They won't sell to just anyone--such is their love of cars. They have to know that you're "cool" enough and are going to put their parts to good use, so the dead of night is spent competing in illegal street races to earn rep and convince them of your pedigree. This creates a clear divide between day and night that gradually cultivates this enjoyable flow, as you switch back and forth between the two time frames depending on whether you need money or rep.
The duality of this concept establishes an unmistakable vibe to each time of day--almost like they're two completely different worlds. The sunlit streets feel relatively safe, with sanctioned events emanating a casual, crowd-pleasing atmosphere. Courses are clearly marked with barricades, there's room to drift your car sideways around most corners, and the only thing you have to worry about is beating the other competitors to the finish line. By contrast, Palm City's nightlife is risky and fraught with danger. Rain that was previously casting a gloomy shadow over the day's races has now settled onto the surface of the road, as visually-striking puddles absorb the city's neon haze and reflect it back. Traffic clogs the streets, making races feel more claustrophobic, and the threat of the police getting involved is a perpetual source of concern.
Cops in Need for Speed Heat introduce a unique sense of dread because of the way they're intrinsically linked to your rep. As you win races and accumulate more and more rep during a night's work, your Heat level will steadily rise. Catching the attention of the boys in blue will expedite your Heat's ascension, with cops becoming more aggressive and plentiful the higher it climbs. There's an element of risk and reward here, as a higher Heat level means a larger multiplier for all of the rep you've accrued in a single night. The only way to bank that rep is by escaping the police and reaching a safe house, but this is easier said than done when the police are on your tail like a bad rash. You can play it safe and store what rep you have, or extend the night by antagonizing the police in the hope that you'll be able to shake them when your multiplier is higher. Need for Speed Heat's best moments come when you've led the fuzz on a jolly merry-go-round and manage to ditch them by the skin of your teeth to bank a considerable amount of rep.
Although the police do have a tendency to feel unfair. If they get close enough and bring your car to a sudden halt, a "busting" timer appears, automatically signaling an end to your escapades if it ticks all the way down. The problem with this, aside from how fast it runs out, is that it will continue to count away the seconds even after you've accelerated away from the police. It should be difficult to escape the cop's clutches, but since you can get arrested if they total your car, ending up in cuffs because an arbitrary timer counts down when you're not even penned in is frustrating. There are also very obvious moments when police cars will spawn directly in front of you to prolong a chase. Sure, they might be crooked cops, but that doesn't stop their blatant cheating from dulling the pulse-quickening thrill of each hot pursuit.
These scenarios can be thrilling, however, especially when you push your car into top gear. There's a fantastic sense of speed in Need for Speed Heat, as cars and lights blur past your wing mirrors at what feels like 300 miles per hour. A noticeable lag on your steering inputs does make each car feel slightly heavier than they otherwise should, though. The handling model also doesn't have the malleability to alter the handling from one car to the next, so they all end up feeling relatively similar to drive aside from variations in speed and acceleration. Drifting is also a tad iffy, borrowing its mechanics from the likes of Ridge Racer as opposed to Need for Speed's past. Rather than feathering the brakes to get your car sideways, Need for Speed Heat asks you to let go of the accelerator and then pump it again in order to achieve a successful drift. It's a realistic approach, boiling drifting down to deft throttle control, but it can be difficult to get a handle on at first, namely because pumping the brakes feels much more intuitive due to the past 15 or so years of racing games adopting this method. Thankfully you can alter the control scheme, and drifting is generally quite fun regardless. It feels a lot slower than it has in the past, but you have much more control over angles and potentially extending the length of your car's rubber-burning slide.
There are dedicated drift events, too, which require you to purchase the appropriate parts if you want to come out on top, and it's here where Need for Speed Heat significantly improves upon its immediate predecessor, Payback. There are no luck-based Speed Cards needed to improve your car, nor are you limited to using specific vehicles in designated events. Instead, the upgrade system in Need for Speed Heat gives you the freedom to take a Nissan Skyline and mix and match parts such as the suspension, tires, and differential, until you have a car that can compete in road races, off-road races, and drift events--it's just a shame there aren't a few more event types to partake in. On top of that, there are also myriad parts available if you want to fully upgrade each car's performance, along with a veritable bucketload of customization options, just in case you've ever wanted to control how much fiery overrun spurts out of the exhaust pipes. Each part is moderately priced so money is never much of an issue, and better parts are unlocked simply by increasing your reputation.
With only a select few events, no discernible difference between each car's handling, and a simplistic driving model, Need for Speed Heat does stumble into repetition during its final few hours. It's not quite a rip-roaring return to form, then, but this latest entry puts the Need for Speed series back on the right track. The duality of its day and night events props up what would otherwise be a fairly run-of-the-mill racing game, but the renewed focus on hurtling around the track, racing wheel-to-wheel, and customizing each car in numerous ways, taps into the essence of what Need for Speed used to be about. Need for Speed Heat may not revolutionize racing games, but it's the best the series has been in a long, long time.
Obsidian Entertainment is best known for its work on RPGs like Pillars of Eternity, Fallout: New Vegas, and The Outer Worlds, but the team has recently been hard at work on something entirely new: a survival game where you are the size of a bug. We spent a day at Obsidian checking out the game and walked away with this list of 10 reasons you should be excited about this offbeat project.
See the world from a different perspective
Grounded is set in an Earth-like environment, but you are bug-sized, so everything looks incredibly different from the ground. Tiny bugs become fearsome beasts, and little pieces of garbage become potential shelters.
Build new tech
Like most survival games, you begin the game with meager supplies, but as you gather twigs and pebbles you can construct makeshift weapons, huts, and other useful tools. For example, sap can be combined with twigs to create torches, and insect exoskeletons can be used to craft armor.
As the game begins, you shrink down to the size of an ant to conduct a few science experiments. But surprise! Things quickly go haywire and you are unable to grow back to your normal size. A zany robot walks you through the early hours and helps you survive the night, but we suspect there is more going on with this unnamed bot than it initially seems. Ultimately, Grounded looks to offer a lighthearted and fun story.
Grounded lets you choose from one of four different characters: Max, Willow, Pete, and Hoops. All four characters have the same skills and abilities, but players can invite their real-life friends into their game to help build camps and take down hostile creatures, such as spiders.
Grounded is a simulated world, meaning that the other insects and critters in your yard will continue to live their lives even when not in view. When they are around, you can watch the bugs hunt and fight each other. Also, as players hunt and scavenge they might create food shortages, which will cause ripples through the ecosystem.
Things grow over time
To compensate for greedy scavengers, all of the plants in Grounded slowly grow back over time, so if you return to an old area after a long hiatus, it might feel new again.
Play in first or third person
Is this really that exciting? I don’t know. You tell me? But I didn’t know where else to put this little fact.
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Light RPG elements
Obsidian didn’t go in-depth about the RPG systems, but it did promise that players will evolve and grow during their time with the game. As you level up you’ll unlock new tiers of the tech tree.
A variety of biomes
We only saw the starting zone during our preview, but Obsidian promises that there will be a wide variety of environments in the final game. The opening zone looks like a traditional grass-filled lawn, but there will be a wider variety of locals in the final game. This is just speculation, but the final game could have small puddles that act like lakes or sandboxes that feel like massive deserts.
Flexible evolving design
One neat aspect of Grounded is that Obsidian has kept its team size to around a dozen people. This has allowed the studio to experiment wildly with the game. Obsidian plans to keep the team size small so they can continue to experiment with the design over the early access period. Overall, this means that the Grounded team should be incredibly nimble and be able to quickly respond to player feedback as they implement new ideas.
Obsidian plans to launch Grounded into early access in the Spring on Xbox One and PC; the game will also be part of Microsoft’s Game Pass subscription, so you don’t have long to wait to check out this unique project.
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Mac
For Red Blue Games co-founders Edward and Lucas Rowe, developing games has always been intertwined with their indescribable bond as twin brothers.
“We’d make Paper Mario levels on spools of paper,” Lucas recalls with a smile.
“We would take those spools of paper and get on either end of it and draw until you met in the middle and you have a world,” Edward adds. “We would do battles with stick figures where we’d each draw a picture and you’d fill it in one at a time and sort of fight each other by adding to the drawing.”
Since they were kids, Edward and Lucas have always been making games together, whether it was on spools of paper, using the HyperCard program on a Mac Plus, or creating a Dungeons & Dragons game using little outside of a Lego set and their creativity. Games became a passion that they both knew needed to be a part of their future.
“The running theme of our childhood is just sort of entertaining ourselves by making games for each other,” Lucas says.
Games are what deepened their connection, but as the pair got older and their programming skills grew, the two put their passion for creating together on hold to pursue careers in programming and families. That was until 2013 when the brothers finally decided it was time to take the plunge and return to their love of making games.
“We reached a point where we were both ready, and I feel like there’s a window in your life when you can do something like this and that window was open,” Lucas says. “We knew it was going to close soon, so we took the chance to do it when we could.”
That brings us to Sparklite, the duo’s first major foray into the indie scene. The adventure game features gorgeous visuals and a unique soundtrack, a relevant story and protagonist, and a gameplay loop that will appeal to anyone familiar with the genre. The Rowe brothers are confident they can make a splash with Sparklite.
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The road hasn’t always been easy for the Rowe brothers, but whether it's design challenges or working with family, they’ve never doubted their decision to branch out on their own. With Sparklite’s imminent release, the brothers will finally achieve a dream that all started with a simple roll of paper.
“We’re launching across the world, so there’s going to be someone in Brazil that plays our game and it’s just really cool to think about,” Lucas says. “I’m really glad we did it. There are just no regrets right now, because there’s just no way this could have happened a few years ago.”
Sparklite launches on November 14 for Nintendo Switch, PS4, Xbox One, Mac, and PC.
With each new Pokemon game comes a new set of Pokemon, mechanics, and a region to discover, and Sword and Shield are no exception. The vibrant Galar region is a consistent delight to explore, incentivizing and rewarding collecting and battling in equal measure, and grandiose battles add an exciting dimension to the familiar Gym formula to deliver an engaging adventure beginning to end. But most notably, Sword and Shield cut down on the tedious and protracted elements from previous games in favor of amplifying what makes Pokemon great in the first place. This is the most balanced a Pokemon game has felt in a long time, and with that, Sword and Shield mark the best new generation of Pokemon games in years.
The games waste no time in getting you a starter Pokemon and off on your way to becoming the Champion. You can even skip some of the hand-holding you'd get in previous games, including the "how to catch Pokemon" tutorial, which hasn't been done since 2001's Pokemon Crystal; if you simply catch some Pokemon right away, the character who would have taught you acknowledges that you're already good to go instead. You can reach the new Wild Area, an open-world expanse filled with all kinds of Pokemon of all levels, within an hour or so of starting your adventure.
And the Wild Area is the show-stopping feature of this generation. Pokemon roam the fields and lakes, changing with the day's weather. They pop up as you walk by, and you can even identify Pokemon out of your direct line of vision by their cries. It's all too easy to set out for one destination only to be distracted by a Pokemon you haven't caught yet, an item glittering on the ground in the distance, or even an evolved form of a Pokemon that you didn't realize you could catch in the wild. There's constantly something new to do or discover, and it's there to engage you right out of the gate.
Both in the Wild Area and outside of it, the Galar region is stunning. Locales from industrial city centers to rolling hills in shades of green and gold are vivid and beautiful, and small details, like Wooloo playing in a field, add a lot of charm. The United Kingdom-inspired motif includes both crumbling medieval castles and booming football-inspired stadiums, punk musicians and posh snobs--though Galar is still surprising to explore, not adhering so close to theme as to be totally predictable. I even found myself pushing ahead to the next town hoping to find a boutique with new clothes and accessories, on top of everything else waiting to be discovered in each locale, because the UK-inspired plaids and streetwear looks are cute.
You're given much more freedom to explore than in previous generations. Sword and Shield go even further than Sun and Moon did in banishing HMs for good; you can fast travel to locations you've visited before from anywhere outside starting quite early in the game, and you have a bike that can later convert to a water vehicle to replace Surf. All other roadblocks, like trees in your path you need to Cut or large stones you need to move with Strength, are relics of the past. There are still hooligans that will artificially block your path at certain points in the story, but the actual hurdles to movement are completely gone.
Random encounters are also gone, and instead, you see Pokemon roaming all of Galar--even in the traditional routes and caves--which helps distinguish one area from the next. There are some Pokemon that remain hidden in the tall grass, denoted by an exclamation point, but you have to run toward the rustling grass to actually initiate the fight, so you're never caught totally by surprise. Some Pokemon can only be found this way; this further encourages you to explore each locale thoroughly while making return trips painless, free of constant interruptions by wild Pokemon or stopping to use Repels to keep them away.
For wild Pokemon, battles are true to the established formula, but for big battles, Sword and Shield strip out Mega Evolution and Z-moves in favor of a new battle mechanic, Dynamaxing, which is sort of a combination of the two and can only be activated in certain locations. A Dynamaxed Pokemon grows to a massive size and is stronger overall, and its moves convert to superpowered ones based on type. It's much more bombastic than Mega Evolution or even Z-moves, but functionally, it's simpler--and that's refreshing. After years of using both Mega Evolution and Z-moves in high-level battles, Dynamaxing is a welcome reset that also feels like a natural evolution of the increasingly high-octane battle mechanics of recent games. Any Pokemon can Dynamax, too; you're just limited by location rather than an item, so it's a more flexible way to battle that works for relaxed and competitive battles alike.
Dynamaxing is a fixture of the new Max Raids, in which you and three other people or NPCs take on a giant Pokemon at certain locations in the Wild Area. Raid Pokemon can vary from run-of-the-mill, easy-to-catch Pokemon to ones that are incredibly hard to find in the wild, but regardless, the rewards are fantastic; completing a raid, even if the Pokemon escapes and you fail to catch it, nets you tons of rare and important items. Plus, the Pokemon you get from raids are guaranteed to have some perfect stats, so even duplicate Pokemon are worth catching again.
At the lower levels, the raids are pretty easy, and you'll likely have no trouble taking them on with only NPCs in tow. But the four- and five-star raids are challenging to the point where I couldn't even complete some of them without the help of other human players. This is a welcome level of difficulty in the post-game, and communicating locally to get a raid group together is seamless--all you have to do is put out a call for raid partners (or people to trade or battle with in general), and nearby players will get a notification and have the option to join you from the social menu. It's a great alternative to traditional competitive play after you've beaten the game, and while it does feed into competitive battling in both the item rewards and the caliber of Pokemon you're catching, it's satisfying just to overcome the challenge with friends.
The new Pokemon themselves are fantastic as a set. Quite a few of them seem geared for competitive play, with abilities and moves that inspire interesting strategies. Galarian Weezing, for example, has an ability that neutralizes opponents' abilities; because many battle strategies involve use of abilities like Intimidate or Sand Stream to set up the battlefield to your advantage, Weezing could be a serious threat. There are also the aesthetically-inclined Pokemon, like the incredibly goth Corviknight or the adorable electric corgi Yamper, to inspire collectors. Throughout my journey, I was consistently delighted to discover each new Gen 8 Pokemon and the Galarian forms of older ones.
The starters, sadly, are among the worst of the new Pokemon; while they're cute at first, their final evolutions are all not great. Each fits the British theme in a clever way and has a unique move to go with it, but on a purely visual level, all three are awkward with no clear winner among them. I still feel guilty confining my starter to the Pokemon Box, but it at least freed up a spot in my party to try out the new Pokemon I do like.
The Pokedex features a healthy mix of old Pokemon from each previous generation as well. There are certainly surprising omissions, but like with the new Pokemon, the list includes both fun Pokemon and competitive ones, plus an even spread of types. Sword and Shield might not have every Pokemon in existence, but what's here is balanced exquisitely for battle, cuteness factor, and type. And because there are items that give Pokemon experience points now--and because you can access your Pokemon boxes almost anywhere--you can easily change up your team on the fly without having to stop and grind just to get a new Pokemon caught up in level. I experimented with different Pokemon more during Shield's main story than I ever did in a previous Pokemon game, and it made me appreciate the Gen 8 Pokemon even more.
It also makes for a more digestible experience. The Wild Area is expansive, and because the available Pokemon change with the weather, it can look very different from one day to the next. There are enough Pokemon to keep things dynamic and surprising as you explore each day, but with some consistency across each biome so you know at least what kinds of Pokemon to expect. Even after 55 hours, there are still Pokemon I have no idea how to find, and uncovering the Wild Area's secrets bit by bit has been a treat.
If anything, the constant draw of the Wild Area made the pacing of the story a bit choppy. I wandered and explored for five hours before challenging my first Gym, then defeated the next two in quick succession before breaking again to revisit the Wild Area. That said, I also was never too over- or underpowered for each Gym, and I was eager to explore in between them regardless. You can also do more in the Wild Area than just battle and catch Pokemon--you can camp out and make curry with your Pokemon, and that ended up being a lovely distraction. Making curry and playing with my Pokemon was a great way to break up longer excursions, plus a convenient way to heal everybody at once, and it's really just an adorable way to spend a few minutes.
The Gyms themselves are a refinement on the longstanding formula in which you would have to go through a maze or solve a little puzzle to reach the Gym Leader. Similarly, each has a Gym Challenge, but they vary from herding Wooloo to competing with NPC trainers to catch a Pokemon, and this keeps things from getting stale. Dynamaxing combines with anime-style drama to make the Gym battles themselves appropriately exciting, too, as your opponents tend to put on quite the show when they enter the stadium. While the Gym and other story battles are largely pretty simple, some of the later ones do take more thought (and a few revives, in my case).
For competitive battles, small but significant quality-of-life tweaks greatly reduce the remaining barriers to entry. There are now items that allow you to change a Pokemon's nature, which was the main missing piece in getting Pokemon battle-ready without hours and hours of tedious breeding and soft-resetting. You can also leave two Pokemon of the same species in the Daycare together, and one can pass Egg Moves to the other, meaning you don't have to re-breed a Pokemon just because you forgot to put one Egg Move on it or changed your strategy a bit. The post-game Battle Tower also includes rental teams right off the bat to introduce you to some basic strategies, which also means you can start climbing the ranks without scrambling to prepare a slipshod team of your own first. All of this gets you battling at a competitive level much more quickly than was possible before, which is the whole point.
In collecting, battling, and exploring, Sword and Shield cut out the bloat and focus on what makes these pillars of the Pokemon games so captivating in the first place. You're not held back by overly complicated back-end systems or hoops to jump through; from the outset, you can start wandering the Galar region, seeing its new Pokemon, and trying out its new battle strategies with very little in your way. This leaves you free to enjoy what Pokemon is all about, and that makes for an incredibly strong showing for the series' proper debut on Switch.
After 12 years and five games, Mario and Sonic competing together at the Olympics is no longer shocking. The animosity of the Sega/Nintendo '90s console war has long subsided; Mario and Sonic have faced off across three generations of Smash Bros games, and the blue blur has starred in numerous Nintendo console exclusives. Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 seems to recognize this, and does not lean in too hard on the gimmick; in the series' first story mode, for instance, the characters from the Mario and Sonic universes chat and mingle without much fuss or fanfare about their worlds colliding. Instead of relying on brand recognition, Tokyo 2020 succeeds by being the most fully-featured and content-rich game in the series, serving up a lot of enjoyable, accessible minigames.
The game features 34 distinct events (including 10 rendered in a retro style to commemorate the 1964 Tokyo Olympics), 10 bonus minigames, a story mode, and online play. Events range from athletic button-mashers like the 100m and swimming races to sports like boxing, equestrian, and archery, all of which are easy to pick up and understand. The controls for every sport are extremely simple, occasionally to the point of being reductive--you're not actually in control of your character's movement in badminton and table tennis, for instance, only controlling where and when you hit the shuttlecock and ball. But some events feel more fleshed out, like soccer and rugby sevens; they won't give FIFA or Madden a run for their money, but they're a nice representation of the sports with all the edges and requirements of expertise sanded off, and make for an enjoyable casual take on the sports they represent. There are no absolute duds in the package, which makes for an unusually high hit rate for a game of this type.
Every event has a "buttons only" option and can be played with any controller (including a single Joy-Con) without issue, but several also allow for motion controls. It's good that motion controls are completely optional, because their implementation is inconsistent. Any mini-game that requires accuracy, or returning the controller repeatedly to a central point, is better off with a controller in hand. Simulating a sprint by pumping your hands is entertaining, as is manipulating a Joy-Con like a skateboard. But strangely, sports that require the use of hands, like sports climbing and boxing, can feel messy and imprecise. The motion controls aren't exact enough that they'd be my preference in any event, but thankfully you can avoid them entirely if you want.
Every event also features a bit of video game flourish, allowing you to pull off special moves to score more points or overwhelm your opponents. Each 2020 event has some sort of "Super" mechanic that kicks in if you press R at a certain point or perform an action perfectly. Depending on the event this can mean you get a burst of speed, extra power, or double scoring. Curiously, beyond this, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 often feels quite straight-laced and sincere in its approach to these sports. The exception to this is in the three "Dream Events"--a hoverboard race, a competitive motion-controlled shooter event where players shoot targets and kites as they pop up around a castle, and a karate variant that transforms the dignified martial art into something more akin to Power Stone, as four players fight simultaneously in a 3D arena. The race is by far the most enjoyable, riffing on the old Sonic Riders series, although it's limited to a single course; the other two do not make much of an impression.
Some events are unlikely to hold your attention for long or bring you back often to try for a high score. Surfing feels good thanks to some strong animations, but there's not enough variation between waves to hold your interest long term; skateboarding looks great, but the simplicity of the control scheme becomes stifling after a few rounds; the kayak event is controlled by rotating the stick, which is tedious. But most games hold up well in local multiplayer, as the simple controls (most only use two or three buttons) mean that they're easy to pick up and learn. Mastering the exact timing on the 100m sprint and relay races, or working to get your best distance in long jump or javelin throw, makes for an enjoyable experience--especially if other players are involved.
It's a shame that the multiplayer options are so limited--you're limited to simply going through the events in "quick play" and going through them one by one. There's no opportunity to arrange multi-event tournaments, for instance; it's just a matter of picking which events to play, and then playing them. Casual and ranked online play is included as well, but I did not have much success finding lag-free games, and it's not the sort of experience that translates well to online play. It's much more enjoyable when your opponents are in the room with you, all desperately trying to bash the 'A' button or master an equestrian course.
The major exciting addition in Tokyo 2020 are the new "Tokyo 1964" events, which render the action in a manner fitting somewhere between 8- and 16-bit graphics. They're designed as though they were NES games, confined to two buttons, and super moves have been excised. You can turn on a CRT filter for these events to replicate the NES era better, and the minigames pay homage to the button-mashers of the time, albeit with less punishing controls (even if, yes, you'll be asked to mash A as fast as possible). The highlight is a tremendously strange take on running a marathon, where you need to gauge your stamina, grab water cups from tables, ride the wakes of other runners, and aim for boost pads to reach the front of the pack.
Tokyo 1964 is a fun bonus, and it's surprisingly integral to the Story Mode. The plot concerns Mario, Sonic, Bowser, and Eggman being sucked into an old game console to compete in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, and they have to run around to win medals that will ultimately restore them to the present. This mode is a big bogged down by lots of text-only conversations of little consequence, but the overarching plot is appealing goofy, at least. The highlight is seeing game's take on various iconic Tokyo locations, like Shibuya Crossing and Tokyo Skytree, lovingly rendered and filled with Mario and Sonic characters. They're beautifully realised, and I found myself getting unexpectedly invested in the upcoming Olympics as I played through, visiting each venue and reading the collectable chunks of Olympic trivia that pop up in each environment.
The story is largely an excuse to run through most of the events in the game, and the difficulty is turned all the way down: if you fail an event three times you can skip it. You also unlock a handful of new playable guest characters for Quick Play (who are only playable in certain specific events, strangely) and a further 10 minigames by playing through the short campaign. Some of these minigames are amusingly bizarre--I certainly didn't expect a retro-styled stealth game in the middle of my Olympics experience.
Mario & Sonic at the Tokyo Olympic Games 2020 is an entertaining take on the sports-event genre that has, by and large, disappeared in the modern-day. The game aims for accessibility at every opportunity, and while nothing about it is particularly exceptional, it still has plenty of unique flourishes to offer, and the wealth of different events and simple controls make for an appealing casual multiplayer title. Thanks to a generous selection of events and a few neat gimmicks, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is the best entry in this series.
Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Mac
After years as a cult favorite film, The Dark Crystal franchise has recently experienced a well-deserved resurgence, thanks to the Age of Resistance prequel show on Netflix. The 10-episode project earned broad acclaim upon its release a few months ago, thanks to its rich fantasy storytelling communicated through technical and artistic mastery. The series gains a companion project, in the form of a tactics game that helps to fill in some of the gaps in the show. And while the project looks to borrow from the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics and Fire Emblem, there’s plenty of originality at play.
“The game takes place concurrent to the events of the series and will briefly recap the major events of the series while also delving into some new territory,” says Chris Lee, director of games at Netflix. “This means that, narratively, the game can stand on its own and be enjoyed by players who haven’t necessarily seen the series.”
The plan is to let the game tackle some of the important events only hinted at in the cinematic show. For instance, at one point the game follows the characters Gurjin, Naia, and Kylan as they set out to unite the Gelfling clans, an essential plot event that was nonetheless handled off-screen within the series.
The developers are trying to walk the often-tricky line inherent to narratively complex properties. Exposition and world-building is essential, but can’t bog down the gameplay. “It’s been a terrific collaboration with The Jim Henson Company to make sure we were being as authentic to the universe as possible with the story in the game,” Lee says. “Some gamers opt to skip long sequences of dialogue, so we do our best to convey critical story pieces concisely and dynamically.”
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The strategy-focused gameplay is about building and smartly deploying a customized party of characters. Players eventually have access to 15 playable characters, drawn both from the familiar heroes fans will recognize – like Rian and Deet – and newly created characters for the game, like a potion master named Pombo the Podling. Each hero comes with an iconic job that matches the nature of that character as they appear in the show, but you’re free to adjust that role as you see fit, and give them a new job (and accompanying costume) as you see fit.
“We don’t have a full list of jobs finalized just yet, but we’re aiming to have over 15 in the full game,” says BonusXP CEO Dave Pottinger. “You’ll be able to swap out the primary and secondary job for your party members to mix and match to your heart’s content.” Primary jobs relay the bulk of your abilities and stats, while a secondary job lets you carry over an ability that a character wouldn’t normally have. “This leads to hundreds of potential combinations of primary job, secondary job, and ability loadouts,” Pottinger says. Customization options are further accentuated by the presence of nearly 200 unique gear pieces that can be acquired over the course of the game.
I’ve yet to get hands-on with the Age of Resistance Tactics myself, but I’m hopeful that the game manages to capture some of what made the recent series so entrancing. What I have seen reveals a focus on varied battlefields, environmental effects like sandstorms, and smart use of a varied party line-up, adding up to a solid if familiar dynamic. Publisher En Masse is promising the game before the end of the year, so we shouldn’t have long to wait to see if this video game incarnation can find some measure of the same success enjoyed by the recent Netflix series.
Memories can be painful. Recalling them can result in feelings of regret, anger, shame, embarrassment, and worse. Much, much worse. In Disco Elysium, a mesmerising, hilarious and at times harrowing narrative-heavy RPG, recollecting a memory can prove fatal. For an amnesiac, alcoholic cop struggling with a new murder case with elusive details, and the world's worst hangover, remembering the person he was offers a path to redemption for the person he might become. After all, memories that don't kill you make you stronger.
Disco Elysium presents as an RPG in the mold of Baldur's Gate or Divinity: Original Sin. Indeed, it opens with a nod to Planescape Torment with a semi-naked figure lying on a cold, hard slab before slowly rising to his feet--only the slab isn't in a mortuary, it's in a cheap motel room, and the figure wasn't recently dead, he's just still drunk. Very, very drunk. It proceeds with the traditional top-down view of the world, your party members traversing beautiful, hand-painted 2D environments, pausing to inspect objects and talk to people. There are quests to initiate, experience to gain, levels to up, dialogue trees to climb, and skill checks to fail. Yet in all kinds of other ways--thematically and mechanically--Disco Elysium is very unlike other RPGs.
On the one hand, it's a detective game. Your amnesiac cop quickly discovers he's been assigned to investigate a murder--what appears to be a lynching--in a small, seaside town. You and your new partner, the unflappable and eternally patient Kim Kitsuragi, at first inspect the body, interview potential witnesses and generally gather clues to identify the victim and track down the perpetrator. Played straight, there's a meticulous satisfaction in assuming the role of by-the-book cop. You can grill suspects about their movements on the night of the murder and look for holes in their stories about what they saw. You can call in to the police station and request they retrieve further information about leads you've uncovered and, if there's anything your booze-frazzled brain has forgotten, Kim is always there with a gentle reminder of the finer details of effective police work.
Of course, you don't have to play it straight. Disco Elysium provides a staggering amount of options, letting you choose and role-play the type of cop--indeed, the type of person--your amnesiac detective is going to remember himself to be. As such, you're welcome to walk out of your shitty motel room with just one shoe on, and you're able to tell the manager you're not paying for the room, nor the damage you caused, and he can frankly go screw himself. In his impeccably dry way, Kim will suggest this is not exactly appropriate behaviour, but he's also not going to stop you from reinventing yourself as a cocky superstar cop, a rude asshole cop, a wretched nihilistic cop, a bungling apologetic cop, a mortified repentant cop, or some tempered combination thereof.
Even during what could be considered rote casework, Disco Elysium provides so much opportunity to express yourself. There's a scene in which you and Kim are conducting an autopsy; while Kim got his hands dirty, I opted for the paperwork. It's a very lengthy back-and-forth between the two cops, you prompting him through a dialogue tree of step-by-step instructions and filling out the proper sections of the form, and Kim voicing his observations as he examines the body. This scene, which should be aggressively dry, is instead wonderfully written, creative and entertaining, every new selection of dialogue options presenting you with little decisions about how to play things--do you agree with Kim's assessment or try to argue with him, or do you just crack a joke instead? And every detail you read about Kim's actions--his muttered asides, his matter-of-fact commentary on the decaying corpse, his raised brow in response to your nonsense--paints a vivid, indelible portrait of a man you've known for less than a day.
The full range of the game's tonal spectrum is on display in this one scene. There are flashes of surprising camaraderie as you and Kim nod respectfully at each other's insights. There's playful humour as you make fun of the bureaucracy that requires such convoluted autopsy forms, and crude gags as you request Kim double-checks if he's missed anything inside the dead man's underwear. There's the more sombre tone struck by the at times repulsive descriptions of the body's state of decomposition, and threaded throughout is the satisfying accumulation of clues, the central mystery contracting and expanding as new information answers questions and asks further ones.
But Disco Elysium is not just a commendable detective game. It is a deeply political game that tackles issues of ideology, privilege, racism, and class in a thoughtful and provocative fashion. The small, seaside town you've been summoned to is in fact the neglected working class district of Revachol, a city built to "resolve history" in the wake of a failed communist revolution that now sees it governed by a coalition of foreign nations.
The murder you're investigating at first seems tied to a months-long labor dispute. Negotiations between union and corporate leaders are at a stalemate, striking workers have shut down the harbor, scab laborers are picketing in the streets, and road transport in and out of town is at a standstill. More deeply ingrained are the painful memories of the wars that first beheaded the Revachol monarchy and then quashed the revolution, and the lingering darkness of centuries-old racial resentments fuelled by the "economic anxieties" of industrial change. It's a remarkable, nuanced circumstance--tensions are high, violence feels inevitable, and the future of Revachol has never felt more uncertain.
...in all kinds of other ways--thematically and mechanically--Disco Elysium is very unlike other RPGs.
The case you're working intersects with the political arguments of the town. Navigating such intricacies can be tricky, though the amnesia conceit gives you a good excuse to ask what might otherwise seem like basic questions. You're given openings to sympathize with or reject various political views, and your character stats do in fact track how much of a communist, fascist, ultraliberal, or moralist you are. There's a tongue-in-cheek approach here, as when you're given the option in favour of your preferred ideology it's, without exception, an utterly extreme version of it. Moderate paths don't exist--there's no room for a "public option," the communists are all about jumping straight to the "eat the rich" stage.
Indeed, Disco Elysium isn't especially interested in the typical binary ideologies explored in most RPGs. It pokes fun at extremism and at the same time chides you for any attempt to retreat into non-committal centrism, and it's even less interested in trying to dodge politics. Instead it wants you to focus on the dynamics of power that structure society and the systemic changes required to repair the inequities of those relationships. This is a game with a specific, if complex, point of view and it's not afraid to remind you of it even when it's leaving room for you to explore other ideas.
At the centre of all this ideology is the matter of your privilege. Disco Elysium remains very much aware that you are playing a middle-aged, heterosexual, white man--a policeman, no less--and that fact grants him a heightened degree of privilege to express himself. You're able to reinvent yourself, to choose to be this or that type of person, without much in the way of repercussions, save the odd disapproving glance from Kim. Meanwhile, many of the characters you meet aren’t possessed of the same privilege; they’re the downtrodden, exploited by authority, trapped in systemic poverty, or just desperately trying to escape their circumstances. The contrast makes this point with piercing clarity.
Yet Disco Elysium isn't just a formidable game of politics and detective work. It also jettisons a bunch of standard tropes of RPG interaction and replaces them with new systems that delve deep into your character's psyche. There is no combat to speak of--at least not in the conventional sense. There are moments where you can suffer damage to your health and morale, the two stats that determine whether or not you remain alive. For example, one early incident saw me discover that reading a book can cause actual physical pain. And there are certain, shall we say, encounters that play out like combat analogues, except you're not choosing to attack or defend. Instead you're picking from a selection of actions and lines of dialogue, where success or failure depends on the skills you've prioritised and the luck of the dice.
During character creation you cannot alter the physical appearance of your nameless cop. You can, however, drop points into a bunch of entertainingly unusual and evocative skills, 24 in total across four broad categories. Among them, Drama allows you to lie convincingly while also detecting the lies of others, while Inland Empire, refers to your gut instinct by way of David Lynch; Savoir Faire assesses your expertise with the intersection of grace and style; while Shivers--my favourite skill--to "raise the hair on your neck" and, in essence, gain a greater awareness of the physical environment, both immediate and occasionally miles and miles away.
Disco Elysium’s skill system is refreshingly original. The entire fascinating suite it posits serves as a captivating exploration to your character's inner life and echoes his journey of self-rediscovery. Skill checks are being rolled all the time to see if there's something you should know. It could be as simple as checking whether your Perception means you notice a particular object. Maybe you see or hear a word you don't recognize and your Encyclopedia skill interrupts to provide a definition. Perhaps you're walking down the street and, Shivering, gain a deeper, more poetic understanding of your place in the world. These pop up like typical dialogue boxes on the right edge of the screen and you're often able to conduct conversations with your skills, digging for more information or telling them to pipe down, a little chorus in your head filling the gaps and prodding you into action. These competing, often uncalled-for, voices add up to a remarkably successful simulation of how the mind works.
Skills intrude during conversations with other characters, too. Reaction Speed might let you pick up on an unusual turn of phrase and give you an additional response to pursue, letting you uncover a clue. Sometimes your skills offer conflicting approaches. Drama might be urging you to make a big scene right now--"This is your moment!" it's yelling in your ear--but Composure is pushing back, coolly arguing for restraint. The specific voices that you decide to listen to may be influenced by your strength in each skill or the type of person you want to become. They also connect back to how the game wears its politics, as many of the unpleasant things you can say are the result of failed skill checks. It can feel weird to have your character do something you didn't quite intend, or to have your dialogue choices restricted to three equally offensive alternatives, but there's something pleasingly authentic in the way things don't always go according to plan.
Supporting the skill system is what the game describes as your Thought Cabinet, a kind of mind map that charts your collected understanding of the world. Critical moments of awareness will enable you to access a particular thought, which you can then research to unlock a range of benefits. An early realization that you are in fact homeless triggered the "Hobocop" thought. While mulling over the very strong possibility than I was more hobo than cop, I suffered a penalty to all Composure checks; once my research was complete and I had decided I was now committed to the hobo life, I regained my Composure and took my dumpster-diving abilities to another level. More than a seamlessly integrated perk system, the Thought Cabinet manages to successfully reposition character development as a kind of intellectual deconstruction. It's incredibly satisfying to look back on the completed cabinet at the end of the game and see it as a neat summary of your character's defining moments, the points at which you learned something about yourself and were able to grow.
Learning to read Disco Elysium, through what can initially feel like a mad jumble of competing voices, is the essential first step of attuning yourself to the type of experience it wants to deliver. This is a game with, let's be honest, an absolute shit-ton of words to read. Literally everything you do, save walking from one place to another, is conveyed and accomplished through text. There are item descriptions, branching dialogue trees where it's not unusual to have a large handful of options at any one time, skills interjecting with new thoughts and random asides, and even books to read. I cannot verify the developer's claim that there are one million words in the game, but I can attest that I spent the overwhelming majority of my 50-odd hours with Disco Elysium utterly enraptured by the words it sent my way.
And what beautiful, bonkers, bold words they are. Disco Elysium is easily one of the best-written games I've ever played. There's a swagger and a confidence here that's rarely seen. There's a masterful ability to transition from drama and intrigue to absurdist comedy and pointed political commentary in the space of a few sentences. One moment you're elbow deep in the grim details of police procedure, the next you're contemplating some metaphysical wonder; later, some hilariously grotesque joke is followed by a spell of genuinely moving emotional vulnerability. It might sound all over the shop, but it works because it all rings true to the fascinating, multi-faceted central character.
Your nameless cop can be charming, offensive, understandably confused, brimming with completely unearned optimism, flustered, unguarded, or simply sick of everything he's had to endure. Your skill selections and dialogue choices nudge him in these directions, but of course the reality is that he's always all of them. The man whose "armpits are lakes, a scythe of booze" preceding him, as he's first introduced, is the same man who licks congealed rum off the counter of the bar, is the same man who, locked in a tender embrace with a strange woman, vows to spread peaceful communist revolution one hug at a time, is the same man who passes the time sitting on a playground swing, whistling a tune with his detective partner. A writhing mass of contradictory impulses and behaviour, as human as the rest of us.
Disco Elysium is a mad, sprawling detective story where the real case you've got to crack isn't who killed the man strung up on a tree in the middle of town--though that in itself, replete with dozens of unexpected yet intertwined mysteries and wild excursions into the ridiculous, is engrossing enough to sustain the game. Rather, it’s an investigation of ideas, of the way we think, of power and privilege, and of how all of us are shaped, with varying degrees of autonomy, by the society we find ourselves in.
While celebrating the 15-year anniversary of World of Warcraft today at BlizzCon 2019, the company also unveiled World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, an expansion coming in 2020 (the game can be pre-purchased now).
Dead souls are no longer going to their appropriate resting place in the Shadowlands, but are instead being fed into The Maw thanks to Sylvanas Windrunner, who has breached the veil separating Azeroth and the realm.
The Shadowlands features five zones: Bastion, Maldraxxus, Ardenweald, Revendreth, and the Maw. The first four are overseen by Covenants corresponding to specific kinds of souls. The Kyrian (Bastian) watch over souls from the mortal realm. The Night Fae (Ardenweald) defend nature spirits. The Venthyr are gothic masters. The Necrolords forge undead warriors for the Shadowlands. Players will create a bond with one of the Covenants, completing their campaign and getting class-specific abilities and more.
The Shadowlands' Maw also features the Tower of the Damned – an otherwordly prison where the "wickedest souls in the universe" are kept, and which contains trials for extraordinary treasure.
The expansion also includes a new leveling system (up to 60), new appearance options, the return of legends such as Uther the Lightbringer and Kael'thas, and the ability for pandaren and all allied races to become Death Knights.
For a quick overview of Shadowlands, be sure to check out the video above.