Since we first saw it at Gamescom, the quirky action-RPG Biomutant has quickly become one of the most anticipated games of this year for us. Yesterday, PC Gamer talked with the developer Experiment 101 on a livestream that showcased the character creator in action.
You can watch the livestream segment below if you want to see it in action. The character creator lets you choose mutants for your rodent hero as well as their fur type and color. It's weirdly enthralling to watch the fur shift as the player scrolls through options:
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For more on Biomutant, check out our impressions from Gamescom.
The new Secret of Mana is billed as a remake, but "reconstruction" is probably more accurate. If not for the updated graphics, it could almost be considered a port of the SNES game. Combat, magic, and movement are much the same. The new mini-map—one of the scant few quality-of-life tweaks--is the original SNES bitmap of each stage. It also ports over every mechanical flaw and obtuse element from the 1993 original. It's a strange game to assess, then; it simultaneously shows how far ahead of the curve Secret of Mana was 25 years ago, while also making its problems all the more pronounced under a modern lens.
Secret of Mana tells the tale of a spiky-haired boy named Randi who frees a mystical sword stuck in a stone. Instead of his home village giving him the King Arthur treatment, Randi is admonished for accidentally undoing the balance of the magical forces in the world. Monsters, an evil empire, and a world-ending dragon threaten to ruin the world as they know it, unless Randi can find the mystical Mana seeds and use his sword to restore order.
It's a fairly rudimentary tale of swords and sorcery, but one that's easy to see through to the end thanks to the cast's charming personalities. Newly written dialogue for the remake smooths out the original translation's rough edges, and introduces a few completely new scenes, where Randi and his cohorts--Primm and Popoi--hang out and talk over dinner every time you book a night at an inn. The remake sees our characters learn to know and love each other in new ways, and it makes a big difference in the long run.
The biggest change, of course, is the complete graphical overhaul, putting it on par with I Am Setsuna and some of the better Final Fantasy mobile ports. It maintains the original game's striking color palette, bathing the world in vibrant greens, blues and pinks. Most environments look delightful, but particularly dazzling locales like the Sprite Forest and Ice Country are breathtaking. Character models are a step up from Square Enix's previous remakes as well, though the decision to introduce voice actors yet not let characters' lips move is a jarring one. The fact that the voice acting is played so campy and cheesy--in both English and Japanese--doesn't help.
The remixed score is the same two-steps-forward one-step-back situation. For the most part, the expanded instrumentation works well. Some areas, like Matango and its '70s prog-rock theme, introduce surprisingly catchy tunes. The score keeps the original freewheeling approach as the world design, with no limits on what a particular dungeon or area might be accompanied by. But this occasionally leads to one too many strange, dissonant moments, with many of the village themes defined by the heavy use of bagpipes and accordions.
Secret of Mana's "anything goes" approach extends to gameplay as well. You can swap control between the three characters at any time, and they are each capable of wielding any of the game's eight weapon types. Each strike during combat initiates a recharge time where the chances of actually landing your next attack or doing decent damage improve as your character regathers their energy. This system forces you to move around the playing field as much as possible to avoid getting hit by enemies while you wait. Magic attacks can hit from anywhere, as long as your enemy is in range, but magic points are limited, and items that refill the meter are expensive. There aren't many console RPGs from the early '90s that forced you to consider so many things at once, but in 2018, it actually feels right at home.
There are, however, quite a few aspects that are less welcome by modern standards, and despite a golden opportunity to do so, nothing has been done to address them. The Ring system--the game's quick menu--is serviceable, but the color-coding used to indicate whose options, weapons, and magic you're accessing is too subtle for its own good; it gets worse as your repertoire grows over the course of the game.
It's also still extremely easy for your crew to get surrounded by lesser enemies during combat, getting smacked around from all directions with nowhere to go. Yet if you walk into another room where huge, dangerous enemies are lurking, you can often stroll right past them without raising alarm. Sometimes, the NPC A.I. being oblivious is a good thing. When that same obliviousness applies to the CPU controlled characters in your crew during a major battle, and your offensive spell caster is stuck behind a doorway, it's an unforgivable annoyance.
The original game's Grid System, where you could adjust how aggressive/passive you wanted your A.I. characters to be, is gone. In its place is a much more simplified system of dictating basic behavior, but there's not an effective way to instruct your allies to favor self preservation. Granted, that's a problem easily solved with the game's local multiplayer, where two friends can jump in at any point and control the other two characters in your crew--another area where Secret of Mana was way ahead of its time--but it's still no excuse for the issues experienced while playing solo.
Altogether, the new Secret of Mana exists in a weird nexus of being a forward-thinking RPG that occasionally shows its age, or a very modern RPG with some baffling design decisions and sub-standard A.I..
Other problems the original game didn't have, however, stem from the lack of general information. The Super Nintendo release came with a full-fledged world map and a manual which explained what store items were meant to do, and where certain cities were located in reference to major landmarks. The latter is critical once Flammie, a friendly dragon, comes into play, allowing you to travel anywhere in the world at will. None of that is included here, which could very well create a problem for newcomers since there's no place in-game that explains what anything does. That disconnect extends to weapons and armor, where there's no way to know whether a piece of equipment is better or worse than what a character is already wearing aside from buying it anyway and praying.
Altogether, the new Secret of Mana exists in a weird nexus of being a forward-thinking RPG that occasionally shows its age, or a very modern RPG with some baffling design decisions and sub-standard A.I.. Its ambitions, coupled with the outright charm of the world, are certainly more than many RPGs offer, and very few as visually dazzling as this. Secret of Mana remains an adventure worth taking, as long as you're prepared for a bumpy ride.
It's hard not to have your interest piqued by Rust. Few other games strive to make you feel as helpless, vulnerable, and lost as its startling opening and outwardly confusing mechanics do. Rust wants you to think it's about survival, but it never uses the tools at its disposal to realize that. Instead it becomes a playground limited not by your understanding of its inner workings, but instead by how much time you want to spend slogging away at its tedium.
Starting stark naked on a beach with nothing more than a rock and torch on your person, Rust doesn't waste time letting you know that you're in danger. Health, hydration, and hunger bars make it immediately clear that your time on its massive island is borrowed. Without food and water (and later shelter, light, and warmth), you can slowly watch your life seep away with every passing minute. Rust attempts to guide new players with an often less-than-helpful tutorial to keep you alive longer than a handful of minutes, but it does nothing to prepare you for the real dangers its world holds.
Rust's facade is its survival mechanics, and its menagerie of crafting options and resources for you to gather up keep the illusion alive at first. You can use your otherwise useless rock to chop down trees or hammer away at different types of ore, and eventually you might gather enough to make a hatchet or pickaxe to increase your bountiful gains and speed up the process. This process quickly ramps up into more meaningful items, with the allure of modern weapons and robust armor only at the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
It's a nightmare of menus and item wheels that really slow things down to a halt. Rust might be out of Early Access, but it has so many elements that indicate otherwise. You can easily search for a building foundation in one menu, watch its building timer somewhere else on the screen, and then have it pop into your inventory, which is an entirely different menu at this point. Equip it and you have a relatively flat surface in front of you (Rust absolutely doesn't like any gradient variations and refuses to allow you to place items on them), and you're good to go. But what about moving it? You'll need an entirely separate tool for that, as well as another trip into a separate equipment wheel with options to rotate, move or otherwise dismantle one of your creations.
The cycle of gathering, crafting, and building up something to be proud of never feels rewarding. Rust doesn't have the tools you need to be creative, nor does it care about practicality when it comes to redesigning a small dwelling you might have crafted for that first chilly night out in the wilderness. Teases meant to entice you to brave Rust's other dangers fall flat fast, giving you few reasons to stick around for the tedious slog of dismantling greater weapons and gear to hopefully have the means to build them down the line.
You don't know these items exist because you see them on a list, but rather because they're probably what's being used to endlessly kill you. The island in Rust is inhabited by many other players, capping out at 250 per server. And despite only being alive for a few minutes and having nothing really of worth on your person, they will (often) waste no time in showing you how far down the food chain you really are.
In this way, Rust's true enemy shows its face: its other players. That's somewhat fascinating to ponder on for a moment. Rust has been the subject of many a think piece during its long time in Early Access, often centering around discussions of human nature and the tendencies towards violence when other options clearly present themselves. But while that makes for a neat article to read or interesting mechanic to discuss, it detracts from another vital part of the game: what it feels like to play.
Playing Rust is a frustrating experience even with a friend or two in tow and feels downright impossible to go at alone. Wandering players will attack you at a moment's notice, with their time spent in the server used to build up an arsenal that no amount of skilled play can overcome. Rust's ceiling has nothing to do with how well you understand its survival mechanics or get to grips with its clunky movement and cumbersome first-person action. It's a game that rewards those who put the most time into it first: giving them the boots to step on the ants that are any other players that might dare join after a server wipe.
Design is partly to blame for this, with Rust's server wipes a clear indicator of how little depth its survival elements hold. Some servers might routinely reset after a week of play, while all are forced to this measure within a month. The idea is to re-level the playing field--just a day or two into a fresh server is enough for towering fortresses and high-level weaponry to be crafted by those incredibly dedicated few--so that the process can start again. This wouldn't need to be a feature if Rust had any semblance of balance to it. But because time is the only commodity it rewards, it pushes itself into a corner where this is the only viable solution.
Without a skill ceiling of any kind, Rust demands that you dedicate every waking moment you have to it if you're planning to have any sort of fun. Logging off leaves you vulnerable to attack from other players, while your shelters slowly decay should you not top them up with the right resources. And a momentary slip up means certain doom. Death means your corpse and anything you've gathered to that point is ripe for pillaging, leaving you to respawn on that same beach with just a rock, a torch, and questions about what you've actually achieved.
Rust's community might sometimes offer glimmers of hope, but it's fleeting. Every so often you can witness players making amicable agreements to trade or stumble upon a shop that needs to be both stocked and protected by players. I once ran into another survivor that handed me a hatchet and bandages to make my early game easier; a simple, memorable moment to dull the pain of the frequent deaths in the hours preceding it. Rust's mixture of trigger-happy players and often toxic in-game chats make the entire experience profusely unwelcoming and unpleasant.
Technical issues only add to the unpleasantries. Rust routinely runs into periods of incredible slowdown, tearing the game from an unlocked framerate (its options menus riddled with spelling mistakes couldn't lead me to a lock of any sort) to single digits at the most inopportune times. Animations look stiff and unnatural. Character models look ugly and dull. And both stand in stark contrast to an often-gorgeous backdrop. Rust's island is serene and pleasant to look at, with its saturated blue skies and purple haze sunsets inviting you to take pause. There's beauty to mask the repetitive models used for resources and the inconsistent textures, but not enough to make them truly go unnoticed.
Rust is also disappointing because of just how long it took to realize its own inescapable faults. Its lack of survival depth and inclination to only reward time served instead of clever play saps whatever life it might have had to give. Its survival systems show their age, while its community does its best to chase off those who might dare try surviving a new night on the island. Rust might make for an interesting discussion on what it brings out of its players, but it's not one you need to experience firsthand.
The premise of Attack of the Earthlings is the flip of a well-worn trope: Instead of being faced with an impending alien invasion, humans are the intergalactic terror. And (even worse, depending on your own views) the invading terrans are hopelessly incompetent capitalists, who are out to make a quick buck. As the matriarch of a race of insect-like extraterrestrials, your only goal is to wipe out the humans and stop them from plundering your home to fill up their coffers.
Structurally, Attack of the Earthlings takes nods from the likes of XCOM and other turn-based tactical games. Instead of starting with a squad, though, you're generally alone. As you consume the bodies of your enemies (an essential part of hiding corpses, of course), you can spit out smaller, weaker creatures. Play revolves around your carapaced corps and guiding the spawnlings through each level. And, as a system for expanding play and tactical options, it works well. As you go, you'll unlock new abilities to torment the colonizers as well as more varied drone types that require careful coordination. In effect, this turns Attack of the Earthlings into a satisfying, single-player team-based stealth game.
Most maps revolve around a simple form of this dynamic. You--the misunderstood, scary alien hellbeast--are understandably terrifying to the weak, squishy humans, but they have guns that punch plenty of holes in your otherwise sturdy exoskeleton. You both kill (and can be killed) with little effort, meaning that you'll need to carefully measure your approach to battle.
The high lethality leads to a few exciting moments, but more often than not, those moments are defused by the tract of humor that runs throughout. After the first few missions, though, that's not much of a problem; once you regularly have drones to control, it becomes a lot clearer that Attack of the Earthlings is plenty content with letting you be an '80s horror flick villain. This goes double because, again, you are the hulking leader of your species. With your massive claws, the ability to eat whole people, and a legion of spawned followers, it quickly becomes clear that the Earthlings have no chance. You're here for the ride... and to see what kind of gory trail you can leave behind.
Where this really fits into that classic screamer vibe is how you'll need to make your approach. You can't fit into vents, nor is it easy for you to hide. Mission pacing varies, then, based on proximal goals. Inch the queen forward, kill a few dudes, create spawn, explore more of the area, and then bring your spawn slowly back to you as you complete objectives and unlock the exit. It can get a little monotonous, but the feeling of domination that you get from leading lots of little critters through the nooks and crannies of an interstellar planetary drill meshes perfectly with the tongue-in-cheek tone of the writing.
Attack of the Earthlings takes a different, absurd tack, dropping the severe consequences of mission failure and the emergent narrative for what is essentially a sketch comedy in space.
The connective tissue and guiding mission centers on a drill that the humans have brought to your stellar doorstep. Progress starts with infiltrating the drill and climbing upward, moving away from the blue-collar employees that maintain the drill bit and toward the posh execs at the top. Not too far-flung from the tongue-in-cheek brand of humor of Futurama or The IT Crowd, the most common thread in Attack of the Earthlings' writing is the silly, incompetent nature of your would-be invaders. They are threatening, yes--but not fundamentally so.
Your first victim, a lowly guard pausing for a pee break mid-patrol, sets the tone well. You are the horrific, unholy monster from the nightmares of these poor folks; at the same time, they are so hopeless and ignorant of the threat you pose that jumping a dude as he's taking a whiz (so that you can spawn more of your demonic children) doesn't ever come off as mean-spirited. They are hapless victims--stooges who get a little bit of humanity before they are playfully yanked offscreen, leaving a bloody mess behind.
Individually, the humans aren't concerning; they aren't even really a threat, unless they have weapons. Instead, the fear they instill comes from their ability to cooperate against you--clumsy and silly though they are. Countering that, much of the game has you pulling off simultaneous kills with one or more of your minions (and you) at the same time. This helps even the field--particularly down the line, when you can bring one of three specialized drones into combat.
Each specialization is an insectoid riff on the standard trinity of character classes: warrior, mage, and rogue. Goliaths are beefy brawlers, stalkers are sneaky trap-masters, and disruptors help to control foes--opening them up to attack or allowing you to slip by. The drones themselves aren't complex or novel, but playing their strengths off of each other and using their skills to complement your abilities is a joy, especially if you can conduct them in one massive assault. Unfortunately, there aren't enough of these orchestrations to make them consistently engaging.
Attack of the Earthlings is short-lived, and the levels don't showcase its strengths as well as they could. Much of that comes from each area's heavily scripted nature; the game has a story to tell, and you can't do much to muddle with the plan. Because of that, the game doesn't feel like an organic stealth adventure. Enemies move in rote patterns, with little in the way of surprises to shake up play. This is especially true when it comes to cross-level play: Where XCOM and its contemporaries bill themselves on persistent consequences for mission choices, Attack of the Earthlings takes a different, absurd tack, dropping the severe consequences of mission failure and the emergent narrative for what is essentially a sketch comedy in space. Despite that, the game is often funny enough to warrant a rather broad recommendation.
As long as you aren't thirsty for a deep tactical foray into the great unknown, Attack of the Earthlings is a competent (and occasionally great) jab at the corporate world, and the ludicrous lengths that people will go to in order to make a buck.
When Shaq Fu launched on Genesis and SNES in 1994, it was not the most well-received brawler of all time, to say the least. In fact, many consider it to be one of the worst games of all time – the recent trailer released by the development team acknowledges as much.
Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn stars the now-retired NBA legend as he "fights his way through the hordes of hell and Hollywood." Players face off against celebrity bosses using weapons like katanas, shurikens, and baseball bats, as well as Shaq's alter egos Big Daddy O and Big Diesel.
Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn hits PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, and PC this spring. Anybody who purchased a copy of NBA Playgrounds for Switch prior to June 10, 2017 will receive a free copy of Shaq Fu: A Legend Reborn when it releases.
In the meantime, you can check out some new screens of the game in action below.
In combining a tower defense game with a platformer, Aegis Defenders carries an ingenious idea at its core. The problem is, that idea is never fully reallized: the game's surface-layer tower defense is serviceable but unbalanced, while the platformer underneath is unimaginative and frustrating, leaving very little to actually enjoy.
Each level is separated into two sections: you'll explore and puzzle-solve your way through a linear side-scrolling section for 10-20 minutes, before stumbling upon a MacGuffin that, for a number of contrived reasons, needs to be defended. You must then place various items around the enclosed area of the level to fight off enemies during a series of waves, each preceded by a preparation phase. Those enemies are varied enough in design and appearance to keep things interesting; importantly, they come in four colors, each corresponding to one of your squad.
Your team is comprised of main protagonist Clu, her grandfather Bart, a traveler named Kaiim, and his old flame Zula, and each character's attacks are most powerful against enemies of the same color. Placing one character's item on top of another's can create combination towers that have more powerful effects, and doing so makes the tower defense half of the game more active than the genre's standard. For example, place one of Clu's bombs in the same position as one of Bart's defense blocks, and you'll make a trishot turret that's powerful against both blue and yellow critters.
The idea is to create an extra layer of strategy--not only do you have to think about where you place your items, you must also consider which additional items you place in combination with your original. However, the discrepancy between damage dealt to an enemy by the corresponding color hero and an opposite-color hero is barely noticeable: Clu's bow is almost always the most effective weapon, so I ended up using her the majority of the time regardless of what color enemy I was faced with, rendering the color-matching and combination mechanic inconsequential. That said, combining items and seeing more powerful combinations taking down enemies quicker is satisfying--as is dealing damage with your active weapon--even if most waves just end as a scramble to deploy as many towers as possible, regardless of color.
Most frustrating is that playing by yourself, rather than using the game's local co-op option, becomes nigh-on impossible around the game's middle third; the number and strength of your opposition increases, and the teammate AI fails to keep pace, meaning you eventually find yourself doing all four fighters' jobs yourself. Bart is capable of repairing broken defenses, for example, but he'll only do so if positioned directly next to one. You can have him follow your active character, but then he won't attempt to fix or fight anything. So, inevitably, you must manually position every character in the exact spot you want at the start of a round before coming back and taking them out of harm's way when necessary. But doing so means you leave your other fighters in the incompetent hands of the AI, meaning they'll each deal far less damage than if you were controlling them. Micromanaging your squad becomes essential to progress, and regardless of whether this was the developer's intention, doing so is a frustrating experience, especially when I always felt disadvantaged by not having a human partner to help.
Most frustrating is that playing by yourself, rather than using the game's local co-op option, becomes nigh-on impossible around the game's middle third...
Exploration sections forego the tower defense in favor of basic platforming. There are switch-activated doors, warp panels, and yet more technicolor enemies. But the platforming within is trite: we've seen all this before, with more precise controls and more imaginative puzzles. There are a handful of standout puzzles in the late game--one memorable example sees all four characters spread out across the area, needing to cooperate in order to move a critter through some laser beams and utilize its own power to melt a barrier--but most are simplistic cases of merely unlocking a door or blowing up a cracked wall. More interesting mechanics, such as the warp panels and air bubbles you can use to move across gaps, are introduced far too late and rarely used in compelling ways, while even the basic concept of a moving platform doesn't crop up until halfway through. Worse still, while the sensation of jumping is fine, the art style makes it difficult to see exactly where a platform ends, resulting in far too many failed jumps that feel like they weren't your fault.
At least in these sections checkpoints are frequent enough that death isn't too much of a hindrance. However, this is not the case in the tower defense areas, where death rarely teaches you anything and always sends you back to the very first wave. Death will be frequent, too: enemies are powerful and plentiful, and many are bigger and possess greater agility than any playable character. The difficulty curve is all over the place, with the campaign remaining relatively easy before a sudden spike during a ridiculously tough third quarter, later tapering off again as it approaches its conclusion. Finishing the game took me around 20 hours, despite the in-game clock--which doesn't appear to track failed attempts--saying I only played for two and a half.
During each mission, the game's narrative is told through dialogue scenes--some of which you can choose responses within, though I never felt like my decisions affected anything of note--while cutscenes at each stage's opening serve you exposition pertaining to a disaster that struck humanity thousands of years ago. I struggled to stay invested in that exposition, however, since it remains irrelevant to what's happening in the present-day plot until the story's conclusion, so I simply got bored. You're bombarded with so many gobbledygook names and phrases--The Clarent, The Deathless, Manasa, Hozai, Shem, Sen, Ichor, Vaara, and Aegis itself, to name a few--that I was confused about who was who and what their motivations were from the very outset, and this robs the story of any emotional impact it attempts to have. Why would I care that Shreya has been captured when I'm not really sure who she is and why she matters?
It's marred by a plethora of tiny issues: repetitive voice samples, inaccurate hitboxes, inconsistent framerate, poor AI, and overuse of music, among others bugs and glitches. And these all amount to an experience that is not enjoyable.
It doesn't help that your camp--a base where you can buy upgrades and talk to other characters between levels--will suddenly be inhabited by never-before-seen characters at seemingly random points in the story. Why is there a strange man hanging out near my home, and why are none of the other characters acknowledging him? One character, named Nick, appears about one-third of the way in and is the subject of an intriguing romance subplot--but that subplot never amounts to anything before Nick disappears as suddenly as he turns up. Some interesting character interactions and story revelations happen towards the end, but by this point I'd long since given up caring about any of the characters involved.
Defenders does at least offer a comforting sense of rhythm: you go off and explore, defend a base, come back to camp to acquire upgrades, then go and do it all again. However, even at this surface level, the game has too many small issues to ever really enjoy. It's marred by a plethora of tiny issues: repetitive voice samples, inaccurate hitboxes, inconsistent framerate, poor AI, and overuse of music, among others bugs and glitches. And these all amount to an experience that is not enjoyable.
Aegis Defenders is disappointing because it had potential, and I still think that potential exists. There is satisfaction to be found in setting up its towers and combining them in interesting ways to make bigger and better turrets. And its loop of exploring, defending, and upgrading is alluring. But the game never meets your expectations. Whether it's the nonsensical narrative, the frustrating combat, the numerous bugs, or the simplistic platforming, Aegis Defenders stumbles more often than it excels.
Editor's note: Bayonetta 2 arrives on Switch with everything intact from the Wii U version, but with the added convenience of portability and a more consistent frame rate, making it the definitive version of the game. Thanks to the confident execution of seemingly unbridled creativity, Bayonetta 2 remains a game that shouldn’t be missed, just as it was when we first reviewed the game on Wii U. The original review has been updated to reflect the new version of the game. - Peter Brown, Feb. 14, 6:00 AM PT
Bayonetta 2 never strives to be anything less than the purest, rarest kind of action-game experience, one that values skill, reaction times, and sheer spectacle over all else--realism and storytelling be damned. Sure, you can feel the influence of the likes of Devil May Cry and Ninja Gaiden in Bayonetta 2's combat, and see it in its wonderfully outlandish visuals. But neither of those games, nor the many that followed in their footsteps, come close to the brilliance of Bayonetta 2. It is a masterclass in pure, unadulterated action-game design, where its insane eye-popping visuals meld effortlessly with some of the sharpest, most joyful combat to have ever graced a video game.
There's no delay in getting you to the good stuff either, no scene-setting preamble to keep you from the action; I can think of few games where the opening moments are as outrageously bombastic as the last. Within minutes you'll have travelled through space atop a crumbling building, sliced golden angels into gooey chunks of meat, and even hopped inside a machine-gun-mech to take on gargantuan holy beasts. Newcomers may well button bash their way though these opening moments, but the sheer spectacle of it all makes them no less fun or exciting.
The basics are explained briefly--press Y to fire your guns, press X to punch things--but Bayonetta doesn't hold your hand via convoluted tutorials or training sequences. All it gives you are the absolute essentials you need to survive its early stages; it's up to you to learn more complex moves by experimenting or perusing the command list. Your proficiency with the titular Bayonetta's combat skills evolves at a natural pace. Nothing seems forced or faked, and--with a couple of minor exceptions--nor are you suddenly gifted some newfangled ability that results in a huge boost of power.
It's the design of the levels themselves, and the enemies that populate them, that encourage you to learn new combos and improve your skills. While there's not much in the way of exploration, levels like the beautiful, European-like Noatun, with its detailed stone pillar walls and glistening canals, hide secret battles and challenges for you to find. Most, however, funnel you as quickly as possibly from one hypersonic set piece to next. One moment you're happily chopping away at angelic guardians atop a fighter jet, and the next you're battling a giant golden snake that's guarding the glittering gates of heaven. Death comes quickly to those who fail to adapt to the timings and speeds of these wildly different encounters, but it's in this learning by doing that you're rewarded with a real sense of accomplishment, one that you don't get from simply being told what to do.
The mechanics of Bayonetta 2's combat don't differ that all that much from those of its predecessor. But when that predecessor is one of the greatest action games ever made, this is no bad thing. Everything from the way punches and kicks connect with your enemies, to the detailed, pixel-perfect animations that accompany them, showcases a stunning combat system that values skill and reaction times while looking gorgeous in the process. Even minor frame rate issues during the game's more complex scenes do little to detract from it. What is new in Bayonetta 2 is Umbran Climax, a powerful combat technique that lets you unleash powered-up punches and kicks, and a devastating demon summon. While you need a full magic gauge to perform an Umbran Climax--preventing you from using one of Bayonetta's gruesome torture attacks--the increased range of each hit, and the small amount of health you reclaim while using it, makes it a far more useful in combat.
But it would all be for nothing without Witch Time, a dodging mechanic that rewards last-second escapes by temporarily slowing down time, allowing you to unleash a barrage of attacks, or circumvent defences like shields and rotating spikes. It's a mechanic that's often mimicked, but never bettered; Witch Time transforms the already impressive combat into a sweeping ballet of guts and gunfire, culminating in the furious button mashing and blood-splattering of a dazzling Climax finish.
Timing, of course, is crucial to these moments, but even if you aren't that adept at unleashing a killer combo, the simplicity of Witch Time's single-button manoeuvring makes impressive displays of combat accessible to all. Bayonetta 2 ably strikes that balance between intuitiveness and depth, and does so without resorting to built-in handicaps or convoluted training missions. With just a few simple combos and well-timed flicks of the trigger to engage Witch Time, Bayonetta effortlessly twirls and kicks through the air, unleashing calamitous blows that are overwhelmingly satisfying to perform. Before long, you feel like a master of the form, even if, in reality, you've barely scratched the surface. The smooth, seamless flow of gratuitous gore and eye-popping visuals that follows the most dramatic of your encounters make for a wild ride almost impossible to put down.
It helps that Bayonetta 2 rarely lets the action drop. Unlike its predecessor, the game rarely allows the pace to dip as you explore larger towns, and it's not long before you're thrown back into another spectacular battle against the forces of heaven and hell (Paradiso and Inferno, in Bayonetta speak). Cutscenes are briefer this time around, which keeps the focus squarely on the combat, but they are just as tongue-in-cheek as before. You get your fair share of cheesy characters and sight gags, particularly in the humorous opening moments where bumbling Italian gangster Enzo is mercilessly teased by Bayonetta, and then has his more delicate parts almost run over by a motorbike-riding Jeanne. Things get a little more tense as the battle to save the earth rolls on, but the game never takes itself too seriously, punctuating its deeper moments with sarcastic quips from Bayonetta, who--despite suffering crotch shots and blatant innuendos--remains one of the most charismatic and powerful heroines in the medium. There are none of the sleazy moments that peppered the likes of Lollipop Chainsaw and Killer Is Dead; the sexualisation here serves to empower, not to belittle.
The story stitching it all together is utter nonsense, but fittingly so, because its absurdity serves as way to push you into ever more outlandish battles. By the time you reach the latter half of the game, the action rapidly escalates into multiple "Whoa! Did that really just happen?!" moments--a rock 'em sock 'em battle between two giants of Paradiso and Inferno, and an underwater clash with a sword slicing mega-knight being particular highlights--before climaxing into some of the most absurdly weird and wonderful boss battles to have graced an action game. But making it to the end credits barely scratches the surface of Bayonetta 2. There are hidden battles to find in each chapter, different accessories and weapons to buy and pick up from fallen enemies that give you access to new combos and powers, and challenges that have you trying to defeat enemies without taking a single hit, or by only being able to deal damage in Witch Time.
Then there are the medals doled out after every battle (awarded to you depending on the length of your combos and how much damage you take) that encourage you to keep going back and trying to perfect your performance--and when you've done that, there are the harder difficulties to try and master too. You can spend hours hunting down Nintendo-based Easter eggs and costumes, and--judging by my own squeals of delight when I found them--it's well worth the effort.
If you manage to work your way through all that, there's Tag Climax's two-player online co-op to master too. Not only does Tag Climax let you do battle with enemies not in the main game, it's actually also one of the best ways to acquire halos (Bayonetta 2's in-game currency), if you've got the chops for it. You can wager halos against your online partner as to who will get the highest score, with larger wagers upping the difficulty as well as the potential reward. Then, at the end of six rounds of furious battling, a winner is declared. Shared abilities like Witch Time and Umbran Climax ensure that there's an element of teamwork to these cooperative battles, and on higher wagers, they can get incredibly challenging.
But it's a challenge you'll want to experience again as soon as you put down the controller. Bayonetta 2's combat is so expertly constructed, and its presentation so joyously insane, that you'd have to try so very hard to get bored of it all. In a year filled with the promise of ever more elaborate experiences on all the shiny new hardware, that Bayonetta 2--a homage to classic game design and escapism--should be the most fun I've had playing a game all year is unexpected. But maybe it shouldn't have been. After all, its predecessor still stands as one of the finest games of its genre. To have surpassed that with Bayonetta 2, and to have created a game that will be remembered as an absolute classic, is nothing short of astonishing.
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Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom may lack the direct involvement of Studio Ghibli, which it had for the first game, but it does have composer Joe Hisaishi.
Hisaishi composed music for all of Ghibli's major films, like Princess Mononoke, Howl's Moving Castle, and Spirited Away among others, and he is composing the music for Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom. In the video below, Hisaishi speaks about his work for the game, and you get to see what it looks like to record the soundtrack.
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For more on Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom, head here to watch us play the game.
By their very nature, retro-inspired games are fighting an uphill battle against the nostalgia they aim to invoke. How can they form their own identity when they're partly designed to make you remember other games? After finishing Owlboy, it seems D-Pad Studio might have the answer.
For almost a decade, Owlboy has lurked behind the curtain of mainstream releases with a small-but-devout following. Looking at screenshots and videos over the years, it was always apparent that Owlboy would look and sound great, but there's so much more to love about the final product: the humor, the varied cast, the disasters that befall its otherwise bright and uplifting world, and the incredible action set-pieces that punctuate the calm found elsewhere. It's not until you break through the surface that you're blinded by Owlboy's artistic brilliance and swayed by its heartfelt story.
It begins with Otus--our mute protagonist and the runt of his village--during a stressful dream where his professor and dark figments criticize his inadequacies and chastise his inability to speak. It's a powerful setup that endears our hero to you. Trouble brews shortly after he wakes up and concerns of pirate sightings explode into panic as a nearby metropolis comes under attack. Otus teams up with a military mechanic, Geddy, to put a stop to the pirates before their home is destroyed.
Owlboy is old-school, not just in its presentation, but also in its storytelling--there’s no voice acting, and events are set in stone with nary a major decision-making opportunity in sight. The plot manages to avoid predictability, however, not only through a handful of twists, but by allowing characters to evolve throughout the course of the game. Sad moments aren't swept under the rug by unreasonable optimism--they stay with your squad and fundamentally alter their outlook on the mission and their own identity in surprising ways. There's great attention to detail in the cast's animations, which are often tailored for a specific scene, as opposed to falling back on routine reactions. Coupled with a script that's rife with emotion and nuance, Owlboy's characters feel real in your heart despite their cartoonish look.
Owlboy tackles multiple artistic themes and subjects with consistently impressive execution.
It may be a throwback of sorts, but Owlboy's visuals aren't tailored to specifically ape 8- or 16-bit graphics; it doesn't have a limited color palette, and its pixel resolution changes based on the scene at hand. When you enter wide-open spaces, the camera zooms out, chunky details shrink, and meticulously designed structures and environments take shape. In tight spaces, you're brought closer into the scene for more intimate inspection. From subterranean creatures to ancient structures, Owlboy tackles several artistic themes and subjects with consistently impressive execution. And if you have a soft spot for 2D games with multiple layers of parallax scrolling--where the background moves slower than the foreground to simulate depth--you're in for a treat.
When you first take control of Otus, darting around floating islands and chatting with other creatures makes for a pleasant experience, and while the open air and bright colors deserve some credit, it's the orchestrated soundtrack that solidifies Owlboy's shifting atmosphere and tone. Violas and flutes instill merriment at first, but this innocence is short lived; when the pirates invade, oboes drone and cellos growl to the slow beat of a heavy drum. When the dust settles and the second half of your journey kicks off, sprightly piano compositions provide a much-needed respite from the stress of a society under attack.
Your trek to the pirate's den takes you through expansive spaces and into the heart of sprawling cave systems where buccaneers and wildlife alike lie in wait. They typically bombard you with rocks and other projectiles, rarely engaging in close-quarters combat. On his own, Otus can only dash into enemies, stunning them at best. However, with the help of a handy teleportation device, he can summon one of three partners into his claws mid-flight to utilize their long-range blaster, shotgun, or webbing that can ensnare enemies and be used as a grappling hook to escape dangerous situations.
Otus is unfortunately a tad slow by default, which causes you to spam his dash move repeatedly to keep things moving along outside of combat. There’s a modest upgrade system driven by collecting and turning in coins found in chests, but you're upgrading health reserves--in the form of soup canisters--and your team's weapons, not physical traits. Still, a keen eye and fast reflexes are more critical to success than any upgrades purchased during your adventure. Knowing that success comes from a show of skill rather than your ability to collect upgrades is gratifying, but you walk away from Owlboy with the sinking feeling that the equipment and upgrades in the game have unrealized potential.
Owlboy is consistently charming and surprising, and when its final act doubles down on every front, it's bittersweet to see it end.
Standard combat isn't anything special, but it never wears out its welcome thanks to deft pacing. Owlboy steadily mixes combat and exploration with measured stealth challenges, fast-paced escape sequences, and entertaining exchanges between characters. The chase/escape sequences in particular are some of the most impressive moments in the game, throwing you into a harrowing race against time in the face of tightly choreographed hazards. These scenes are challenging and filled with visual effects that add to the sense of danger, and they're overwhelming at first, but should you die, not to worry: Owlboy never truly punishes you for failure, allowing you to restart from the last room you entered.
Owlboy is consistently charming and surprising, and when its final act doubles down on every front, it's bittersweet to see it end. As you relish the outcome of the final battle and watch the closing cutscene, you can't help but reflect on the beginning of your adventure and how far the world and its inhabitants have come. You'll never be able to play Owlboy for the first time again, but the memories of its magic moments stick with you. This is more than a treat for fans of old-school games; Owlboy is a heartfelt experience that will touch anyone with an affinity for great art and storytelling.
Editor's note: After further testing, GameSpot has updated the score to reflect the Nintendo Switch version of Owlboy. - Feb. 13, 2018, 9:00 AM PT
The premise of The Longest Five Minutes is one that immediately grabs your attention. You’re thrust into the climactic final battle of an old-school Japanese RPG, only you--playing as the main hero--have been afflicted by the sort of amnesia that usually hits at the beginning of those games. You’ve forgotten everything: your name, where you are, who your companions are, and why you’re currently being stared down by a fierce demon lord. As a five-minute climactic battle with the final boss ensues, you must pause time and dive deep into your subconscious, rediscovering and reliving your memories to rekindle your fighting spirit. Because of this, the proposed five minutes extends to hours of gameplay outside of your main objective.
It’s an interesting concept that turns the normal flow of RPG final battles on its head, and made me eager to piece together a story built from fragmented memories presented in classic turn-based RPG style. After seeing the lively character sprite animations and silly dialogue, I was eager for a sendup of RPG conventions in the vein of the excellent Half-Minute Hero games. Sadly, The Longest Five Minutes never realizes its full potential.
When our hero, Flash, has an elaborate flashback, scenes from his past play out as typical moments from 8- or 16-bit JRPGs: exploring towns and dungeons, conversing with NPCs and party members, and fighting parties of low-level enemies. These flashbacks are somewhat non-linear, letting you piece together a story from the disjointed bits that the hero remembers.
While you can blow through and recover each disjointed memory by completing its central objectives, there are usually a few side quests you can also embark on. Completing these quests and fleshing out the memories yields rewards in the form of “re-experience points” that increase your power in the ongoing fight against the Demon King. And depending on the choices you make both in the memory sections and during your climactic fight, the story can follow one of a few different branches, resulting in multiple endings.
It’s intriguing to go back to events like the hero's first-ever date with a would-be love interest or the time when everyone faces their fears and decides to risk their lives by vowing to confront an otherworldly threat. Most of the time, however, you’re going to be stuck revisiting dungeons and completing fetch quests. That wouldn’t be so bad if your objectives were more surprising, but they tend to be bog-standard quests with bland dungeon design and simplistic puzzles. The optional side quests aren’t much better, ranging from lost-and-found errands to mini-games like a slot machine that will have completionists cursing.
One interesting side effect of the game’s disjointed nature is that every memory is essentially a self-contained adventure, making it quite easy to digest in small chunks. Even your money and items revert to presets every time you enter a memory, so there’s no need for time-consuming grinding or item/equipment management. This makes the game feel very breezy, and it’s possible to complete a single playthrough within eight to 12 hours, making it less of a serious time commitment than your typical RPG.
However, with items, equipment, and EXP never carrying over from memory to memory, exploring and fighting beyond what you're required to do feels completely unnecessary. Even if you acquire cool stuff in a dungeon or get a lot of money off of enemies, it’s all going to vanish pretty quickly. This, in turn, makes meandering through uninspired mazes and quashing foes in extremely simplistic turn-based combat (which you’ll auto-battle through 99% of the time) a hassle rather than an enjoyable challenge. At least the towns are fun to romp through, and some cute NPC and party member dialogue adds a lot of charm to the game. Ultimately, though, it feels like a there’s a good amount of unnecessary, laborious fluff despite The Longest Five Minutes being quite lean.
The concept of The Longest Five Minutes is undeniably intriguing, and its retro-styled visuals, quirky personalities and dialogue, and moments of inspired, emotional storytelling give it a lot of inherent charm. But charm can only go so far to make up for a game’s flaws, and far too often, The Longest Five Minutes falls victim to stereotypical old-school JRPG drudgery like endless random encounters and annoying dungeons--the exact sort of thing it wants to deconstruct. Though its ambition is admirable, it ultimately doesn’t live up to the promise of its clever premise.