Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice Review (PS4) – “Enter Madness”

Developed by Ninja Theory (Devil May Cry 2013, Heavenly Sword), Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice tells the tale of a young Pict (think Celtic) warrior who travels into Norse Hell to beg for her deceased lover’s soul back. His head, strung around her waist and wrapped in burlap, is a constant reminder of her loss and motivation. From the beginning this literal symbol sets the tone of the journey as we witness this round bag begin to take form of a skull and “breathe”. You see, Senua is not a normal warrior, due to the trauma she has undergone, she is forced to live with symptoms of severe psychosis. Ninja Theory uses this story as an attempt to de-stigmatize the culture surrounding psychosis and shed some light on what people who suffer from this ailment have to live with. So, does Hellblade deliver the innovative and delicate package in an enjoyable game, while simultaneously educating its player base? Or will it make you go mad just attempting to comprehend the complexity of it?

Story: 4/5

Luckily for us, Ninja Theory has indeed accomplished their quest to not only provide us with an incredible game, but properly portray mental health issues in a medium that has not really been utilized before. Hellblade puts you inside of Senua’s mind from the beginning. You start by cautiously rowing down a dark, eerie river and though you can see no one besides Senua, you hear voices – many voices. Some are encouraging, some are scared, and some mock you. This goes on for a good few minutes until you finally reach your destination. By the time you disembark your hand-crafted boat, the voices are already permeating into your own personal thoughts and you become quickly emerged into Senua’s way of thinking. She is scared but determined, and as one of the voices tells you to turn back, you push the boat away, out of reach, and you know that you are now fully committed to the task.

Senua’s journey starts her at the gates of Hellheim, Norse mythology’s depiction of Hell. They are locked and therefore you must travel to the two gatekeeper’s lands in order to defeat them and unlock the gate. Before you can advance too far, you are rushed by a number of demons who would thwart your efforts to enter the land of the dead. During this, you are presented with a very interesting mechanic. Considering Senua’s mental state and the strain of the tasks that fall before her, Ninja Theory has given the player a way of monitoring her mental degradation in a visual way by creating what is simply called “the Rot”. A grotesque depiction of her ailment is emblazed on her right arm. Brown and oozing, as flesh melts away it slowly eats at her, growing up her forearm to her neck and eventually her head. The game specifically and blatantly states what will happen if you let the Rot devour Senua by dying too many times: Senua will be consumed by it, perish, and your entire progress will be lost (or will it?). This instantly creates a feeling of anxiety in the player to match that of Senua’s. The constant reminder that too many mistakes will cost you everything is all too real and intense, and instills an incredible ongoing experience.

Upon venturing to the first gatekeeper’s land, your host of voices are joined by another, Druth, who helps guide you and keeps you moving forward. He acts as Senua’s reasoning and persistence by helping her make sense of the world. Senua’s entire journey is symbolic in many ways and the gatekeepers are a fantastic way to display this. One represents Senua’s physical suffering. As you traverse the scorched, scarred and barren wastelands of this region you are reminded of not only her own anguish, but of those around her; those she lived with and watched die. The atmosphere of this adventure evokes a feeling of helplessness, guilt and pain.

The other keeper represents Senua’s mental suffering. Illusions and hallucinations fill this area to give you a paranoid feeling that at any time, from any place, something is going to come after you. By the end of this section, you feel you can no longer trust anything you see, perfectly embodying what Senua herself would be seeing.

Upon opening the gate and venturing into Hellheim, you are presented with a feeling of accomplishment and assurance that you may actually be able to do this. You are then knocked down a few pegs and a new voice emerges to cast doubt upon your every action. “The Shadow” as he is called, has a terrifying air about him and will take any chance to demoralize you and berate you. Senua must learn to press forward with all of these conflicting voices in her head as she struggles not only to physically continue, but to build up the courage to do so as well. The journey becomes more difficult as she progresses and with every gripping cutscene you experience, you become more and more attached to her until her story becomes yours.

Laid out along your path in the story are objects called “lorestones”. They are treated like collectibles, but only a few are truly difficult to miss. They give insight to Senua’s Norse religion and world; how things are explained by her people and why certain beings are present, as well as any lessons we can learn from them. They may not all relate directly to the story, but many give background and are at the very least intriguing to hear about, it would also be wise to collect all of them, as this is the only miss-able trophy for a one playthrough platinum.

Throughout the story we get glimpses at Senua’s life before the incident. Most of the tales are not happy ones, but they all give way to pieces of information that help explain why Senua is in her current state. Her story is rarely laid out plainly in front of you; it takes a little bit of critical thinking to truly grasp what has just unfolded at times. There are flashbacks and dramatic changes in environment that cannot often be explained right away. Normally, this would be too confusing to follow in a game. However, Ninja Theory repeatedly introduces you to this concept of seeing through Senua’s eyes and you begin to understand that perhaps not everything she sees or experiences is 100% truth. This is not a story that should be played only once to fully grasp what has happened. Even at the end, I still had to take a minute to grasp what had transpired and what it meant for our beloved character.

While it doesn’t dive into the entire story, Ninja Theory has provided a bonus excerpt that should be watched once you complete the game. Due to the game’s dealings with psychosis, Ninja Theory thought it would be wise and helpful to include a 25 minute video explaining their creative process and the reasoning behind so many decisions. In this video, there are a few explanations to some of Senua’s experiences and background that help shed light on what has transpired if you have difficulty grasping it from the story.  This video was highly enjoyable and informative. My wife, a social worker who has studied psychosis and other mental illnesses, watched it with me and agreed that what they were showing and explaining was quite impressive. It was very comforting to know how and why they approached the game the way they did, and what they were trying to convey about psychosis. If you are to play this game, you should watch it (after completing it once of course).

Gameplay: 4/5

Hellblade splits gameplay into two successful sections: puzzles and combat. The former takes precedent, while the latter is treated as more of a break, until you reach the end of the story. The puzzles in Hellblade range from simple to moderate, and rarely frustrating. In an attempt to better showcase the effects psychosis might have on someone and their actions, most of the puzzles provide a demonstration of how Senua would try to make sense of her world. For instance, many locked doors have runes on them that appear to be random arrangements of lines. However, spend enough time looking at the world and you can find those exact lines somewhere hidden in say, the formation of a few downed trees. Once you locate the symbols, you can focus on them and the doors will open. Of course, the entire time you’re solving these puzzles you are constantly being led astray or doubted by the voices in your head. Other puzzles include seeing through illusions and altering your perspective of the world to drastic levels. While many of the puzzles won’t keep you hung up for long, they do a very nice job of helping you understand Senua’s mind, which in a game about psychosis is a very smart and tactful experience.

The combat in Hellblade is tremendously satisfying and rewarding. You can view the controls from the main menu, but outside of that there is hardly a tutorial on how to survive when up against demons. The game kind of throws you into the fray rather quickly, which aids in its quest to make you feel outnumbered, underprepared, scared and cautious – but capable. You can attack with quick, heavy or melee attacks (kicks/shoves to throw off balance); as well as dodge and block. Different hits and combos can be strategically used depending on the enemy, and this adds a nice layer of complexity and variation to the battles. Each hit you land on an enemy has a substantial weight to it, really solidifying your connection. Of course each hit the enemy lands on you puts you close to dying and subsequently allowing the Rot to grow. Senua is also able to build up a focus meter during combat which will allow her to slow time down and deal more damage faster to enemies. This mechanic saved me time and time again in the late game!

Combat is typically handled in a slow, standoff fashion as anywhere from 1 to… many… enemies dauntingly take their time advancing upon you. You can lock-on to a single enemy and take them on one-on-one, but you’ll need to be cautious about the other encroaching threats. Thankfully, the voices in your head will warn you if you are about to be attacked, or when you should dodge, block, or finish an enemy off. In a world all by yourself, it’s good to have some backup. Boss fights tend to be a little faster-paced, but that doesn’t mean they will only last a short while. A particular boss fight took me 20+ minutes to defeat even with constant attacks on my part (this may be patched out in a recent update). Each fight you are presented with is a tense battle, and though I never failed a fight sequence, there were many times when I had to take a minute because I thought there would be no way out of this – that surely, I was meant to die to progress the story instead of defeat everything the game had thrown at me. This terrible feeling of unavoidable failure is paramount in delivering Senua’s experience to the player. You are not a one woman army. You will struggle. You will doubt yourself. But you will persevere.

There were times when I was frustrated by the combat however. A few sequences pit you against seemingly endless enemies in small quarters, and to navigate around to avoid them is difficult when you have to stay locked-on to one at all times. You find yourself dodging repeatedly just to move faster and it kind of takes you out of the experience – not to mention get you killed easily.

The game is quite linear with very little actual exploration, though some is necessary to find all of the lorestones. Advancing through the story, the gameplay is a fantastic way to exhibit Senua’s evolving emotions and really helps pull the player in more.

Graphics: 5/5

From the beginning, Hellblade is a gorgeous game. Textures, lighting and physics all play well together to form a complete package that surrounds the player and plunges them into the world. With the game focused on Senua in third-person, it is reassuring to see her dreadlocks, matted and torn, in such great detail. Her face shows life throughout the game and easily shifts from emotion to emotion. Her clothes are worn and get progressively worse as you tread through the underworld. The environments are clean and detailed, to the point where simply walking around is a pleasure.

While the game is primarily set in dark tones (considering it IS Hell after all), the game does offer a few glimpses into a lighter, warmer atmosphere that is equally as detailed and enjoyable.  Due to the consistent darkness of the world, these breaks into a more joyous environment really pop and provide a feeling of being at ease, if only for a moment.

Enemies are just as detailed as Senua, and will show injuring and scarring as you damage them. The interesting thing is how the developers handled cutscenes and other characters. The times when Senua is alone and featured in an important scene, Ninja Theory uses their new technology to achieve incredible precision in facial feature tracking. At one point, my wife walked in during a scene and was taken back by how she thought Melina Juergens herself was being shown. These moments are breathtaking in their graphical fidelity and accuracy in facial expressions. Other cutscenes take a less impressive, but still effective, route of delivery. Senua is portrayed closely to how she is in gameplay, which is still very well done, however the main voices she hears in her head are shown as distorted renders of live-action actors. At first this contrast was a bit jarring, however upon thinking on it for a few minutes it makes complete sense. Everyone Senua talks to is not actually there. The stark difference in illustration of the characters is a clear portrayal of Senua’s suffering: that she knows, on some level, that these voices she is hearing and these people she is talking to do not exist. This visual aid for the player may seem a bit unpolished at first (also considering this was potentially done in part to save on costs), but it works with the theme of the game and yet again delivers an amazing experience to the player to keep them in Senua’s world.

There were only two instances in the game where physics seemed to overrule the laws of the game and constant pieces of enemies began to convulse rapidly, becoming very distracting and off-putting but not persistent. With a simple, yet satisfactory photo mode active during almost the entire game, you can capture some truly beautiful or haunting moments. The graphics also seemed to hold consistently with no noticeable drops in framerate.

Sound: 5/5

The perfect bow to wrap up the gift of Senua’s journey is how Hellblade handles the game’s audio. Upon starting up the game, you are notified that it is best enjoyed with a headset. I was using a 7.1 virtual surround sound headset, as well as listening to the game straight from the TV for comparison. There is a stark difference and I highly recommend playing this game with a headset, even if it isn’t virtual surround sound. This is because (as detailed in the bonus “Hellblade Experience” video) Ninja Theory captured their audio tracks in 4D, so the voices that Senua hears were literally coming from certain directions. Considering the voices are omnipresent, they need to feel like they surround you and it is pulled off near perfectly. This feeling of being unable to escape the influences of your own thoughts is essential to the experience.

Hellblade not only uses these voices to create an atmosphere for the player, it also chooses when they are most frequent or in the most eerie of times, not present at all. This careful balance of voices, music, environment, and ambience audio tracks are so meticulously crafted you won’t even notice them changing. The audio alone captures the entire motif of Senua’s adventure. Not only was the background exceptional, Melina’s, and the other actors’, performances were among some of the best acting in video games in the past few years. They were able to draw you in and create the emotions they needed to portray with ease and consistency.

The game also had a very natural flow to it. Using the audio in parallel with the story, the game was able to control the player’s feelings to help smoothen out the more “intense” events of the game, as well as build you up with self-assurance when it needed too! Hellblade would not have been half the game if it slacked on the audio aspect, and thankfully for all of us it truly delivered a flawless experience.

Overall Score: 18/20 = 9.0 out of 10

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is much more than a warrior’s journey of love. It is about overcoming, as well as accepting, aspects of one’s self that were previously holding you back. It marvelously ensnares the player into the emotions and state of Senua, and effectively ensures that you are right there with her the entire time. Through a clever system of puzzles, overwhelming combat, as well as audio and visual trickery, Ninja Theory created a game that simulates aspects of psychosis in an effort to better destigmatize the illness. Acting in Hellblade is impeccable, and while it can at times feel like a slower-paced game, it is thoroughly enjoyable and challenging. The story can be a bit confusing at times, so multiple playthroughs are recommended (only about 6-8 hrs per playthrough). This $30 game should not be passed on by anyone who wants an experience different from any other game.

Pros:

+ Only $30

+ Satisfying and challenging combat

+ Complex story

Cons:

– Somewhat repetitive puzzles

– Never ending feeling of doubt

– You may start to hear voices…

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice was purchased by the reviewer and tested for the PlayStation 4 system.

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Phantom Trigger Review (Switch/PC) – “Worlds Collide”

Phantom Trigger is the latest indie to hit the Nintendo Switch courtesy of TinyBuild and Bread Games. This pixelart, top-down hack-and-slash, or “neon slasher” as the developer calls it, has you slashing, whipping and punching vile creatures through various environments. Is this hack-and-slash worth the experience?

Phantom Trigger has you start off playing as Stan, an ordinary human being who is married and trying to get through life. Things take a turn for the worse very quickly though, as Stan collapses on the kitchen floor in front of his wife. Suddenly, you will play as a different character known as the “Traveler” in a fictitious world that has zero semblance of reality. This distorted world has you meeting outlandish characters, each of which help hint at what is going on. As you progress, the game will instantly switch from gameplay in the distorted world, to seeing what is happening with Stan in the real world. There are times when you will choose the dialogue for both characters to carry a tone and weight to the story. Certain items you collect and how you utilize them will also affect the ending. While it doesn’t take long to realize what is really going on here, the premise is really intriguing. Phantom Trigger’s story is by far its main highlight. It’s a very engaging story that tackles a fairly important struggle in reality.

The game is a hack-and-slash at its core with some RPG elements in place. Playing as the Traveler, you will wield three weapons in hand: an ice sword, energy whip, and fire gauntlets. You can do three-hit combos, and each hit will garner XP for the weapon used. Each weapon is mapped to the face buttons and accessible at all times. As you level up your weapons, you will unlock various mix-and-match combos that will help when dealing with groups of foes. Certain combos may provide an elemental attack that can freeze enemies in place, burn them gradually, or even draw enemies in upon a small blast. Also, the Traveler has the ability to teleport dash, whether for dodging during combat or simply to move around faster. As you progress through the game, enemies will ramp up in numbers and variety. You will feel the combat intensifying the further you progress. If things get too hectic for you, you can always grab a buddy to play local co-op together. There are times when you can breeze past combat, but several segments where the environment will be sealed around you, forcing you to defeat everyone before advancing.

When you’re not fighting for your survival, you will be scouring the environment finding obscure items and solving puzzles. This does help break up the combat a bit. The items collected will seem odd or even out-of-place, but by the end, they are there for a reason. There are occasionally shrines you will come across as well that will boost your XP for specific weapons. Each weapon can reach up to level 7, which is the max. By the end of the game, you will have maxed out all three wielded weapons without any issue or unnecessary grind (unless of course you didn’t mix up your combat). Certain areas will require some minor puzzle-solving to open locked doors. This can consist of playing essentially “Simon Says” by hitting totems in a right order with the right colored ability, or moving a mine cart around a maze of tracks to collect a specific item. It does help break up the pacing of the game. Also, the end of each level has you facing a boss. These boss battles will require your wits and thinking outside the box to solve. The bosses are actually well-done for the most part, but one particular boss will really have you scratching your head that resulted in pure luck to figure out. Upon beating the game, there’s an Arena mode to unlock, which is basically an endurance mode.

Phantom Trigger does have some issues unfortunately that do hurt the overall package. First off, the game’s initial load time takes almost one minute just to get to the main menu. That is a very lengthy loading time, especially where it’s just a single image to look at that would make you think the game froze. Second, there are several times during dialogue sequences where some of the words are misspelled. Third, the framerate takes quite a hit during combat, specifically in the second half of the game where there are significantly more enemies on-screen. Third, there are some collision detection glitches that occurred. There were two times when I was able to run through a wall. There was a combat sequence where I was closed off from escaping, yet I was able to run right through the barrier. This segment I tested a few times and it was always the same spot and barrier I could run through. There’s a segment with a mine-cart that shows the cart continuing off the track and out of the level entirely. What’s strange is if you run in the opposite direction and then run back to where the mine-cart should’ve stopped, it will magically appear there. Thankfully this is a glitch that fixes itself, but happened almost every other time the mine-cart hit a corner it was supposed to stop at. Now the game features four different endings, which means you’ll need to replay the game a few times to see each ending (should you make the right choices). Unfortunately, there is no New Game + mode to make it easier to return to. Combat is neat and all, but it does get repetitive after a short while. Also, the game’s checkpoint system is a bit flawed. I’m all for challenging games, but checkpoints are very easy to bypass here, and dying can set you back upwards to ten minutes of progress. May not sound like a lot, but it adds up when you keep dying in the same spot. Lastly, the level designs can be maze-like, and there is no map system what-so-ever. While checkpoints usually direct you on where to go, it’s very easy to find yourself going in circles or getting lost.

Visually, Phantom Trigger is a nicely detailed pixel-art title. Animations are pretty smooth for all the characters, and the environments all have a specific style to them. The game runs at 60 fps…well, it tries to but ends up dropping closer to 30 fps most of the time. It doesn’t make the game unplayable by any means, but the drops were very noticeable and consistent. Audio wise, the soundtrack that is here accompanies the game decently, but nothing that stood out. Honestly, the music takes a backseat for most of the experience. Sound effects on the other hand do a great job of distinguishing the combat. Each attack from the weapons have a distinct, almost musical, tone to them. Even the audio that plays when you get closed off in an encounter just sounds very cool. I just wish the soundtrack stood out more during the game.

Overall, Phantom Trigger is a neat game that tells a gripping plot. The story alone was the driving factor to see where it was going next. In terms of gameplay, what is here is solid, but certainly repetitive. Couple that with some technical issues and odd game design decisions, and it just feels like a little more time was needed to polish it up. It’s a good game that’s worth your time for its story, but it was hard to return to upon completing it.

Overall Score: 6.5 out of 10 = Wait for a price drop…

A special thank you to the publisher for providing us a review copy for Phantom Trigger! Copy reviewed on Nintendo Switch.

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Mr. Shifty Review (Switch/PC) – “Shiftastic”

Mr. Shifty is a unique indie that’s part Hotline Miami, part Matrix, and part the opening scene of the X2 movie with Nightcrawler. Developed by Team Shifty and published by tinyBuild, Mr. Shifty has hit both Steam and Switch. Should Mr. Shifty shift his way to your library, or is it best to shift away?

During my time with Mr. Shifty, I can easily say that this is one immensely engaging game that was extremely difficult to put down. The game is played from a top-down view and is reminiscent to Hotline Miami (as I mentioned earlier). Mr. Shifty is a thief trying to break into Olympus Tower that contains the powerful Mega Plutonium being weaponized. His handler, Nyx, provides updates via comms (all text-based) with intel on where to go, as well as some background info. The main antagonist, Chairman Stone, becomes aware of Mr. Shifty’s presence and will stop at nothing to ensure his demise. The story in place here is just the right amount for the type of game it is. There’s enough dialogue exchange and never too much to bog down the pacing.

Gameplay wise, think Hotline Miami but without the dual-stick control or gratuitous amounts of blood. Instead, Mr. Shifty relies on his unique teleportation ability. Simply pressing the B button, you can teleport a few feet in front of you. Whether it be open area, through objects, or through walls, this mechanic is absolutely essential to survival. All it takes is a single hit for Mr. Shifty to meet his doom. This actually helps make the game so much more intense, and keeps you sitting at the edge-of-your-seat when caught in battles. You do need to be careful on your teleporting though, as Mr. Shifty can exhaust the ability. On the HUD, there are blue boxes that serve as your teleport stamina. You can teleport up to five times consecutively until you have to wait for him to cool down. However, if you space out the teleporting, you shouldn’t have this issue, as simply teleporting and waiting a second will replenish the stamina. Use it all up and it’ll take him much longer to regenerate (and this will definitely leave you vulnerable in battles).

Mr. Shifty does not resort to guns as a way to deal with his foes. Instead, he has his trusty fists, and can also utilize melee weapons in the environment. Make no mistakes, his fists pack a punch and will send enemies flying across the screen. When fists aren’t enough though, he can wield sticks, brooms, keyboards, wads of money, swords, shields, proximity mines, and much more. The weapons are all immensely gratifying to use, especially when you take out multiple enemies with a single swipe. However, it’s truly the game’s masterful design that makes combat clever. You can go into an area and take enemies out head on, teleporting between them and evading gunfire. However, if you go the more creative route, the game allows you to mess with the AI and trick them a bit. For example, there were times when enemies were chasing me and I’d teleport into a room, grab an active proximity mine, teleport back out, throw it and stick it on an enemy, and teleport into another room to watch the group of guards explode. Another time would be picking up a shield and throwing it like Captain America, taking out all the enemies in direct line of sight. You can even punch doors completely off their hinges into enemies, killing them instantly. When you take out enough enemies in a quick timeframe, you fill up a meter. Once the meter is full, you will have the ability to slow down time that automatically initiates before a bullet hits you. This gives you a few seconds to clear away from the bullet and get the upper hand on some enemies. The overall combat is creative and superb, and cannot stress enough how gratifying it is.

While doors will usually be locked until you take out the enemies in each area, the game has its share of environmental puzzles. You may need to find switches that shutdown lasers in an area, or you may need to find a way to get through a room with a switch that is in a field that doesn’t allow you to teleport (just to name a few examples). This sounds rudimentary, but I assure you, it’s done in very clever ways. The thing with Mr. Shifty is that throughout the game’s campaign, each level provides something unique to the mix, whether it be new enemies, new obstacles, or new traps. It really makes the game flow very smoothly and gives you that “just one more level” feel.

The main thing that hurts Mr. Shifty is that once you beat it (which took me just under three hours), there’s not much left to do. You can do a stage select to better your times and number of deaths, but that’s about it. There are no unlockables to be found. It would’ve been nice if there was a ranking system in place so that each level would grade you on performance. This would’ve definitely added longevity to keep replaying levels. Again, you can go for faster times and try to go for as little deaths as possible, so it is something.

Visually, Mr. Shifty is a cel-shaded game that uses the style brilliantly. Nice lighting effects and spectacular animations make this a game that’s very appealing to the eyes. Enemies all have equal attention to animation detail, and deaths are all handled with rag-doll physics that look great. Also, the environments are quite destructible, whether it be walls you break down, windows that shatter, statues that crumble, or desks that break. Almost everything is breakable and animates very well. The framerate stays at 30 fps, but there were times when too many enemies on-screen caused it to drop. There were even instances where the game would freeze for a split-second during heavy action sequences. The crazy part is that while this can certainly be fixed with a patch, the slow-down and split-second frame freeze actually helped me breathe for a second to carefully teleport out of harm’s way. 

Audio wise, Mr. Shifty has excellent sound effects that really draw you into the experience. Enemy guns sound crisp and powerful, melee attacks sound like they pack a punch, and explosions are nice and loud. Knocking enemies into walls sounds painful, and knocking them out of window to hear them yell to their doom are great touches. Music fits the game really well and keeps the game’s pace moving nicely. It has that right amount of heist tone to it, and then elevates to very fast-paced tunes when either escaping or caught in a trap full of enemies to combat. While I do wish there were more songs, the tunes were really catchy and I found myself thinking about the music outside of gameplay. Even the stage complete tune is incredibly catchy.

Mr. Shifty is a great game that was almost impossible to put down once started. Each of the 18 levels provide something new to tackle, and keeps you wanting to see what’s next. The sleek visuals, strong audio, and enticing gameplay make Mr. Shifty a game that cannot be recommended enough. While the game’s short length, framerate drops and lack of replay value hurt it a bit, the overall experience is a heart-pounding, adrenaline-fueled great time.

Overall Score: 8.0 out of 10 = BUY IT!

A special thank you to the publisher for providing us a review copy for Mr. Shifty! Copy reviewed on Nintendo Switch.

Enjoy our review? Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter: @GamersXTREME for the latest in gaming news and reviews.

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Yooka-Laylee Review (PS4/X1) – “Return to a Golden Era of Platformers”

Yooka-Laylee is a three-dimensional platform game developed by Playtonic Games and published by Team 17. It’s essentially the spiritual successor to a popular Nintendo 64 game called Banjo-Kazooie, since it shares many elements from its audio and gameplay. In fact, a few of the original members from Rare who helped design Banjo are reprising their roles to bring Yooka-Laylee to a new generation of gamers. The title of Yooka-Laylee is a word play with the ukulele instrument, in much the same way as Banjo-Kazooie was a play from the musical instruments of a Banjo and Kazoo. If you were a fan of N64 titles such as Banjo, or even Super Mario 64, then you’re going to really enjoy what Yooka-Laylee has to offer. That’s not to say that today’s gamers won’t have plenty to enjoy as well, but Yooka-Laylee is a nostalgic trip down memory lane when open-world collectibles such as this were very popular back in the 90’s.

The story of Yooka-Laylee begins when a businessman known as Capital B, and his first-hand scientist, Dr. Quack, search for a rare magical book that will bring about total destruction and aid them in their global corporate takeover. They unleash a giant device that sucks up all types of literature in order to find the magical book, which so happens to be in the possession of our heroes, Yooka and Laylee. As the magical book begins to get sucked through the air however, pages from the book, called ‘Pagies’, begin to rip free from the book and scatter around the vast area that incorporates Yooka-Laylee’s world. Yooka and Laylee now venture out from their Shipwreck Creek home and enter Hivory Towers to locate the missing golden ‘Pagies’ before they fall into the hands of Capital B.

Gameplay: 4/5

There is much to do in Yooka-Laylee, but you’ll quickly learn that not everything is available to you from the start. Many of the Hivory Tower areas are locked away, and much of your move sets are unavailable at the beginning. As you progress though the campaign however (which took me approximately 20 hours), you’ll find that there is much to explore and unlock during your playtime. There are five separate worlds located within Hivory Towers: Tribalstack Tropics, Glitterglaze Glacier, MoodyMaze Marsh, Capital Cashino, and Galleon Galaxy. Each one focuses on a specific theme, and can be entered by locating a Grand Tome hidden somewhere within Hivory Towers, which is the hub portion of the game.

Once you locate the Grand Tome, you’ll need to unlock it by having a certain number of Pagies.  As you reach newer Tomes (worlds), the amount needed to enter the world increases. What’s interesting in Yooka-Laylee is that there are two modes to each world. For instance, you can unlock the first world with only three Pagies, which opens a small portion of the level. If you spend 7 additional Pagies, you expand the world to its full extent, giving you every option to explore and locate each collectible item. I normally would expand each world from the start, but towards the end only had enough to unlock the basic fifth world. What was nice about this was that it slowly introduced you to the world without it being overwhelming, as the expanded version felt too large at times. These worlds are huge, so having a small portion to peruse actually helped me to understand the level structure a bit more and make it feel more manageable in the long run.

The main goal of each world is to locate and collect Pagies, which range from easy to obtain, to incredibly challenging at times. Still, this gives players a nice balance of how they’d like to achieve their goal, as there are 145 Pagies in all. However, you only need 100 Pagies to reach the final boss. One of the gripes I had with the game, is actually about the boss encounters in each level. Unlike traditional video game bosses, the bosses in Yooka-Laylee can be found at any point during your play time. The five world bosses are all hidden at different locations, and as you search for ways to free the Pagies, you sometimes come across a boss battle. While I didn’t mind the bosses, I didn’t like how all you received from them was another Pagie. After feeling as if the boss of each world was a big deal, I thought that the reward of just getting one Pagie felt ungratifying. After all, you can acquire Pagies in numerous ways throughout your adventure, so getting another one after a boss was kind of a letdown. I would have preferred if the boss gave you something else of importance in return. But this is a minor gripe I had regarding boss battles. There is also a minor boss battle that appears three times in the Hub world of Hivory towers as well, as Dr. Quack makes you play a Quiz game before you can proceed. Very similar to Banjo-Kazooie, you’ll need to answer 10 questions correctly before you can win, so pay extra attention to the levels and characters within the game. If you answer correctly, you actually move up two spaces so you can shorten your Quiz, but you can only have three incorrect answers before being sent back to the beginning of the Quiz. Originally I thought this would be annoying, but it was an enjoyable break in-between levels. I will say though, that the final boss is quite challenging, so make sure to collect as many items and moves as possible before reaching Capital B.

There are many other items in Yooka-Laylee to collect in addition to Pagies. Quills are a basic feathery item that are scattered all around each location. The more you collect, the better the chance you’ll have at acquiring each upgraded move ability, which are needed to progress further throughout the game. The move sets can be purchased by a slithery character known as Trowzer, who can be found in each world. There are 200 Quills in each world. There are also five ghosts known as Ghost Writers in each world as well. Each one has a unique way to capture them, such as feeding them with some of the various projectiles, or using your sonar move to make them visible after hearing their laugh. The Ghost Writers are hidden very well around each world, so you’ll definitely need to keep your eyes and ears open. If you collect all five, you’ll receive a Pagie in return. Another interesting collectable in Yooka-Laylee is the Mollycool. If you locate this item (one in each world), you can then bring it to Dr. Puzz who uses her D.N. Ray to transform you into different vehicles, such as a snowplow, helicopter, or ship. This opens up the gameplay in a diverse way to offer you new ways to explore areas. One other item you can find are Play Coins, which after locating them, are handed to an 8-bit inspired character named Rextro, who then lets you play various arcade style mini-games to earn more Pagies. Finally, there are Play Tonics, which are game modifiers that help you enhance certain stats or abilities, such as giving you an extra Butterfly icon (which is the health item for Yooka and Laylee) or the ability to warn you when you are close to an item. Only one Tonic can be selected at a time, so you need to choose wisely.

As I stated earlier, there is much to do in Yooka-Laylee, and I found myself easily playing for hours without realizing how much time passed by, or wanting to come back to the game when I was away from it. But while I enjoyed the various exploration objectives of the game, there were some problematic areas as well. The camera for instance would fight you for control at times. It’s as if you had free reign of the camera but then if you neared a certain corner or obstacle, the camera would adjust itself to a fixed position. This became frustrating at times as I couldn’t see where I was going, and would get harmed or lose a Pagie challenge unnecessarily. More freedom from the camera would have been nice. I also found myself lost in the large worlds without knowing where to go, or how to reach a certain location I had found earlier. I know that Yooka-Laylee is supposed to be a throwback to earlier 90’s open-world games, but having a map of some sort would have definitely helped. Still, these are minor issues that can hopefully be ironed out if there were ever a sequel, and won’t deter you from enjoying the game itself.

Graphics: 3/5

For a Kickstarter game such as this, I’m actually impressed with the graphics. Each world is well designed, and the lighting effects definitely create the mood that each world calls for. Yooka-Laylee is a colorful and vibrant looking game, and the character designs all look great. There are some areas that affect it from achieving a higher score however. I noticed some areas with draw distance issues, and in today’s gaming world, that’s not something you see much of anymore. From far away, it was difficult to see where I was headed or which items were visible. This made collecting a bit more challenging. The water effects also looked a bit last gen as well, as they didn’t display much movement and seemed flat. At times, I couldn’t tell if something was water, or actual land. Again, this didn’t keep me from enjoying the game, but there were some graphical areas that could have been improved.

Sound: 5/5

The sound design in Yooka-Laylee really excels. It has the same charm as Banjo-Kazooie did, and I found myself humming to some of the melodies in the game even when I wasn’t playing. The soundtrack is catchy and the sound effects are perfect for this type of game. You can easily tell that Grant Kirkhope, the composer of Banjo, tried his best to mimic the same orchestral score that they had achieved with their previous iteration on the N64. The characters themselves don’t speak, but instead have a strange mumbling sound during their conversations. This was popular with Banjo and they continued that sound design option here as well. While some may find it annoying, you can skip most of it by pressing X and just read what the characters are saying instead, which are often humorous. Overall though, I really enjoyed the various music styles of each world. Each level has a fitting musical theme that matches the environment, and sound effects for each item and character are distinguishable from each other.

Replay Value: 5/5

Yooka-Laylee is a game that you’ll think about even when you’re not playing it, and you’ll look forward to visiting the world once more to see if you can find that collectable you were looking for, or realizing you may have found a way to collect that Pagie you couldn’t originally get to. There are so many collectibles to find and areas to explore that you’ll want to come back again and again. The game can sometimes be challenging, but I appreciate the fact that Yooka-Laylee didn’t hold your hand as many games today do. You need to learn how to complete objectives on your own, explore locations by visiting every possible area, and solve puzzles with little help from any on-screen tips. There’s also a hidden character from another indie game that shows up to lend you a hand, but I’ll leave that to you to find (if you haven’t already read about it online, that is).

Overall Score: 17/20 = 8.5/10

Overall, Yooka-Laylee is a great game, and despite some minor flaws, I really enjoyed playing an original IP that reminded me of games like Banjo-Kazooie or Conker’s Bad Fur Day from the Nintendo 64 days. Games like Yooka Laylee are few and far between, so I’m hopeful that there’ll be a Yooka-Tooie one day in the future!

Pros:

+ Nails the Banjo vibe

+ Outstanding soundtrack

+ Addictive gameplay

Cons:

– Camera takes control at times

– Graphics, while nice, could be more refined

A special thank you to the publisher for providing us a review copy for Yooka-Laylee! Copy reviewed on PlayStation 4.

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Snow Moto Racing Freedom Review (PS4/PC) – “Stuck on Ice”

Zordix certainly has a labor of love when it comes to jet-ski and snowmobile games. Known for their Aqua Moto Racing and Snow Moto Racing series, Zordix has released the latest in their snowmobile series, Snow Moto Racing Freedom. When their previous title released a few months ago (Aqua Moto Racing Utopia), we found it to be a great title that was easy to get into. Does Snow Moto Racing Freedom have an equivalent hook that Aqua Moto Racing Utopia had, or is this snowmobile racer stuck on ice?

Snow Moto Racing Freedom is, as the title insinuates, a snowmobile racing game at its heart. There are three types of Championships to partake in: Sprint League, Snocross, and Freedom League. Sprint League has you racing opponents in vast open environments to hit checkpoints that link to the finish line. Snocross is a more traditional method of racing, doing laps on actual tracks. Freedom League is a mix of both Sprint League and Snocross races together in a Championship. Each league has about eight championships to tackle, each containing three to five races roughly.

Sprint League is an open-ended race style, approaching checkpoints that is reminiscent to something like Smuggler’s Run or Midnight Club. Checkpoints need to be approached in specific directions. However, the checkpoints are handled a bit poorly. Each checkpoint is a fairly large object that requires you to turn into it just right, and go through the gate. Worse yet, certain checkpoints have you approaching it head on, and require you to have to do 180 degree turns into these cumbersome gates. It wouldn’t be so bad if the checkpoint design was more liberating or didn’t have this massive object to maneuver around just to get into the gate. It honestly just ruins the flow of races. Some of the game’s physics are also wonky (more on that below), so colliding into the object once inside can lead to easily flipping over. When respawning on the track, the game automatically points you in the right direction to the gate. However, if you pass the gate, you may as well restart the race, because there’s no way you’ll be able to turn around, go through the gate, and catch back up to the AI. There’s no manual respawn button to get you back on track quicker either, which could’ve rectified this issue. Snocross races are more straightforward, but to be honest were definitely not as enjoyable as Sprint League races. The biggest issue here is the lack of memorable tracks to race on. Each one here feels appropriate, yet generic.

Snow Moto Racing Freedom’s physics engine works decently enough, but there are some odd instances that are hard to avoid. First off, rocks serve more as a ramp than actually colliding with them. It’s a bit comical and while I wouldn’t normally complain about something that doesn’t ruin the flow of gameplay, it actually does mess you up more than help. There were also numerous times I’d land upside-down off a jump, but I’d still drive for a second upside-down and the rider would shoot out of the ground. Again, comical but wonky. Also, the game’s control are a tad on the sensitive side. This is more noticeable during Snocross than Sprint League races, but it makes for some very difficult times with Snocross events. There were even times when the snowmobile would do an almost 180 degree turn when landing from a jump because the vehicle’s tracks were slightly off-center (and I mean slightly). It just felt like if I lost a race that I was holding the lead in, it was usually due to inconsistent physics.

Aside from the game’s Championship events, there are also Single Events you can do like Time Trials, Freestyle, and Leisure events. Time Trials have you going for either a bronze, silver, or gold medal to get the fastest track times. Freestyle has you competing for medals by pulling off as many tricks as possible on specifically designed levels. Tricks are handled exactly like the developer’s previous game, Aqua Moto Racing Utopia. You pull off tricks using the right analog stick, and can use the L1 button as a modifier for more complex tricks. Leisure lets you ride on three of the game’s open-environments: Scandinavia, Rocky Mountains, and the Alps. You have plenty of terrain to freely ride around and explore. However, unlike AMRU where there were easter eggs and items to collect while free roaming, this game has zero of that. Nothing to collect, nothing hidden to find. It’s just a basic free roam in environments devoid of personality. It wouldn’t be so dull if there was more to the environment, but there’s ultimately not much.

The game does have both local and online multiplayer. While we were not able to test out the online multiplayer due to servers being empty at the time of review, we did test the local multiplayer. Similar to Aqua Moto Racing Utopia, the game supports four-player split-screen multiplayer. You can do any of the race types, freestyle events and even free roam in Leisure mode. Unfortunately, you cannot choose your vehicle, nor can your buddies customize their character. You just drop right into the game. That’s the thing too. You can customize your character…but only their gear color. There’s only one outfit and one helmet, so the only difference from everyone is color variation. Lastly, the game is lacking any mini-game modes that Aqua Moto Racing Utopia had. Overall, it just lacks the personality and identity that AMRU had.

Visually, the game looks pretty solid for the most part. The most impressive thing visually is that it runs at 60 fps, which is always a huge plus. Riders animate pretty well, as do the vehicles. The cool feature that returns from AMR Utopia is the first-person view, and the detail put into that to really simulate the feeling of riding these beasts. The sense of speed is also very well done. On the flip side though, there is a good amount of screen-tearing happening. It’s not immensely distracting, but it’s certainly very noticeable. Weather effects are in play and all looks good, including the lighting for night races. It would’ve been nice to see some wind effects though. This would’ve helped breathe some life into the environments in an otherwise lifeless world. The other issue was the gamma in the visuals. Many times I found determining the depth and level formation to be difficult due to washed out snow detail. Funny enough, if you pause the game, the screen dims slightly and then I can actually see the snow terrain better. There’s no gamma option to tweak either so this just made some races difficult to determine the terrain. In terms of audio, snowmobiles sound as they should and the music here, if a bit generic, accompanies the game pretty well. Nothing overly memorable, but gets the job done.

There may be a lot of comparisons made here with the developer’s previous game, Aqua Moto Racing Utopia, but it was very difficult not to compare the two. While AMRU was a game we rather enjoyed, Snow Moto Racing Freedom feels devoid of what made AMRU great. The gameplay is mediocre, the environments are lifeless and the game just lacks personality. The overall package doesn’t seem as energetic and creative as AMRU. If you’re looking for a snowmobile game, there’s some enjoyment to be had here, but not enough to fully recommend it.

Overall Score: 5.5 out of 10 = Wait for a Price Drop…

A special thank you to the publisher for providing us a review copy for Snow Moto Racing Freedom! Copy reviewed on PlayStation 4.

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Aqua Moto Racing Utopia Review (PS4/PC) – “Refreshing Ride”

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Extreme sports racing games are a dime a dozen nowadays, but there are some developers trying to rekindle relatable experiences, while also aiming for a new market. Swedish developer Zordix has been establishing themselves with a series that started on the iOS/Android called Aqua Moto Racing. In years to come, they brought their series to the 3DS, and now, they’re bringing the series to home consoles for the first time ever. Aqua Moto Racing Utopia is the latest installment in the series, available on Steam and PS4 (with a Wii U release in the near future). Is this worth braving the waves of the ocean, or is it stuck in open-waters?

Aqua Moto Racing Utopia is essentially a racing game that most closely resembles Nintendo’s “Wave Race” series. You will race through a series of championship events, each with different CC engine speeds, as well as jet-ski types (sit-down and stand-up models). The sit-down jet-skis are much more speed-focused, whereas the stand-up ones excel in stunt flexibility. Before hitting the waters though, you will start off by creating your own character. This is a nice way to kick things off by giving the player a bit of customization. There are a decent amount of options to tinker with to ensure not everyone looks similar out on the waters.

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Races rely on racing alongside the buoys in place on each track. You’ll be bobbing-and-weaving your way on the water to ensure you’re on the right side of the buoy you need to pass. If you miss three of these in a race, you’re disqualified. As you progress, you will earn cash based on your placement (as well as some to earn out on the track). This can be used to purchase newer and better jet-skis, with multiple attributes that are affected. Each jet-ski can be customized with a variety of colors, whether it’s the body or decals.

Each environment has a distinct feel, with multiple variation tracks to tackle throughout the game’s championship mode. Whether it’s the lush jungles, a water filled town in China, the open-ocean around tanker ships and oil rigs, or tropical paradises (to name a few), all of these locales are as fun to ride as they are unique. Another cool aspect is the option to race in first-person mode. The way the camera handles in this really adds to the immersion, whether you’re whipping around turns or doing flips in the air.

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Any game revolving around water is reliant on its physics, and honestly, the physics in place are quite good. The jet-skis handle more or less like they should on both calm and intense waves, with an arcade-style feel to it. It may be a little less interactive than Wave Race’s water physics, but what’s in place here works great. When going off of jumps and high waves, you’ll be able to pull off tricks as well. Doing so will allow you to gain boost. You can also pull off specific tricks while on water. The tricks are fairly simple to pull off, with some more advanced ones that take some time to master. There were some instances though (more evident during trick events) when the trick inputs didn’t respond, or the trick name was displayed but the animation kicked in after releasing the buttons. It worked well enough for the most part, but this particular instance is something that could be patched.

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There are plenty of modes to explore as well. Aside from the game’s core championship mode, there are time trial and free roam modes. Time trial is standard fare, except you’re provided times to beat to go for a gold medal in each track (aside from beating your own times). Free roam has you go around any of the game’s environments, but with a twist. There are “Z Balls” to collect in each environment, as well as a hidden collectible to find. Also, there are interactive events that can be triggered in each area, which is a great little feature to incorporate here. Then there’s the multiplayer modes. The game supports both local and online multiplayer. Local multiplayer has 4-player split-screen action, whether you’re racing against each other or tackling the party games together. The party games are a blast, whether it be Aqua Moto Hockey, King of the Hill, Capture the Flag, or our personal favorite here, Duckling Mama (think Super Rub-a-Dub from the PS3 launch days…if you ever played that). The online multiplayer strangely only consists of racing against others, with no party games to be found. While the party games are tailored more for the couch multiplayer, it would be nice to get friends together online to do this as well. That being said though, we were able to test out the online amongst staff members here and can say it ran quite smooth. Oh, and there’s a fairly attainable Platinum trophy to be found in this game as well.

I think we're going to need a bigger jet-ski...

I think we’re going to need a bigger jet-ski…

Visually, Aqua Moto Racing Utopia is an incredibly clean and vibrant looking game. Environments look great, with some nice texture work and immensely inviting water. The objects and jet-skis are also well-detailed and appropriately scaled. Characters on the other hand are a bit lacking detail-wise, and have some stilted animations. There’s one odd animation too when landing from a trick. If you’re not fully complete with the trick, the animation doesn’t finish and goes right to the rider and his jet-ski being perfectly leveled with the water. Is it immersion-breaking? Not entirely, but it’s noticeable. On the flip-side, the game runs at a smooth 60 frames-per-second, which is a huge feat. The audio in AMRU is also right-on. Each environment has music that matches the locale very well, and the audio effects do a good job capturing the arcade-style feel to the game. The announcer on the other hand sounds mundane and unnecessary. Honestly, just going to the options and shutting him off makes it better.

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All-in-all, Aqua Moto Racing Utopia is a great game that can easily be recommended to fans of arcade-style racers, and more so, fans of Nintendo’s Wave Race series (since Nintendo still has yet to return to the series within the past 15 years). Zordix has really evolved this series since its conception on iOS, and continues to get better each time. While the $30 price tag may be a bit steep for those on the fence, it’s certainly a worthy game to add to your collection. Between its vibrant visuals, addictive gameplay, and strong local party games, Aqua Moto Racing Utopia is one wave you’ll want to ride.

Overall Score: 8.0 out of 10

A special thank you to the publisher for providing us a review copy for Aqua Moto Racing Utopia! Copy reviewed on PS4.

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Cloudberry Kingdom Review (PS3/360/Wii U): “The Most Sadistically Awesome Platformer”

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Over the course of gaming history, 2D platformers have really become a staple genre that gamers of all kinds can enjoy. Ever since the days of Super Mario Bros. gracing the NES and Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis, we’ve seen a plethora of platformers impact the industry. Within the last half-decade, we’ve seen some stellar 2D platformers made by indie developers, such as Braid, Limbo and Outland. Pwnee Studios, an indie developer created by childhood friends Jordan Fisher and TJ Lutz, have worked together to bring about a 2D platformer that’s for the masochist called Cloudberry Kingdom. Is this a kingdom worth venturing?

When you start off the game’s story, you’ll be treated to a cutscene of the hero, Bob, trying to rescue the princess (where have we heard this before). However, instead of the cheery tone we’re accustomed to in Super Mario, we’re seeing that Bob is a tired, frustrated hero and that the Princess could care less that she’s being rescued from the evil king. Naturally, things aren’t so simple for Bob, as he’s thrown off a cliff by the evil king and forced to continue his tireless journey of rescuing the princess. From here, the game’s story mode begins. Cloudberry Kingdom plays precisely like you would expect a 2D platformer, with a few twists. You’ll have to traverse your way through deadly obstacles to reach the next level, with each ramping up in difficulty obstacle-wise, and each level takes only 15-40 seconds to complete. Controls are standard fare and nothing complicated by any means, with the A button used for jumping and Y button to use the exit door at the end of a level. Sounds pretty simple and straightforward enough, right? Well, here’s the thing. Bob dies in a single hit and has no weaponry to defend himself. If any obstacle or enemy hits Bob, he’s dead and it’s either back to the beginning or checkpoint. Levels are all cleverly designed to have a specific line that you can do that avoids death entirely, but I’ll touch more on that in a bit.

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Over the game’s eight chapters, there will be 40 levels of hardcore platforming action in each chapter (320 levels total). The obstacles all range from spinning fireballs, swinging spike balls, spikes that pop from the ground, lasers, etc. You’ll start off simple, just acclimating to the controls and feel of the game. However, things will quickly spin out of control when you play as various phases of Bob that change the mechanics and physics entirely. Every set of 10 levels, you’ll play as a new phase of Bob, such as Wheelie, Double Jump, Jetpack, Phase Bob, Tiny Bob, Fat Bob, Gravity Bob or even a Spaceship! For example, playing as Wheelie has Bob strapped to a stone wheel and will have the physics of a heavy wheel. Tiny Bob will make Bob gain more height, while Fat Bob makes him get less height than normal and is more prone to getting hit by an obstacle. Phase Bob will actually have Bob constantly morphing from Fat to Tiny, making traversing through levels a true challenge of timing. Playing as a Spaceship is really cool too, bringing back that feeling of playing something like R-Type or Gradius (granted you can’t shoot anything, but maneuvering it is fun).

As you traverse each level, you’ll notice there are blue crystals that can be collected. If you collect all of them in a level, you’ll get a “Perfect” status and earn an additional 10 crystals on top of what you collected. So what are the purpose of crystals you ask? Well, by pressing the X button, you’ll open up a Powerup Menu, which allows you to purchase a specific item to help you out with completing a level. The first item, which looks like “Terminator” Bob has you watch a video of the level to see the perfect path and timing you need to complete the level. The second item (which costs the most amount of crystals) will actually show you the exact path you need to take, as well as a dark object that goes along it to show you the exact timing of the path you should take. This item proved to be immensely helpful, especially with the precision required in later levels. The last item is a time clock that enables slow-motion, making everything except Bob move at a crawl. These items definitely help in their own respects and I never felt the need to be stingy with cashing in crystals for them since you keep collecting them.

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Aside from the game’s Story Mode, you will have access to Arcade and Free Play modes as well. In Arcade, you can choose between four different modes: Escalation, Time Crisis, Hero Rush, and Hybrid Rush. Escalation is essentially endurance, where you’re given 15 lives to start with and must get through as many levels as possible. You can get extra lives by collecting set amounts of crystals during the run. Time Crisis starts you off with 15 seconds to last before Bob explodes. As you race to the exit of each level (which are much shorter than usual), you must collect crystals to add precious time to the clock. Hero Rush and Hybrid Rush are much like Time Crisis mode, but both with distinct ways to play. Hero Rush has Bob changing his phase type in every level, while Hybrid Rush has Bob shifting into a combination of phases per level (such as being Wheelie and Phase Bob at the same time).

Free Play has a more customizable aspect to it. You’ll be able to choose a location, game type, hero style, difficulty, length of the level and how many checkpoints you’d like. The difficulty can not only be adjusted for players of any level, but can be completely customized to your liking. Want an incredibly simple level that has not a single obstacle? You can do it. Want a level that has more objects on screen that seems like there’s almost no room to move through? You can most certainly have that as well. The game’s AI has been designed to randomly generate a level that’s 100% beatable, which is incredibly impressive. Another customizable feature that’s really fun to play around with is Hero Factory. Here, you will actually customize the base, jump type and shape of Bob, while also tweaking every attribute to a tee, such as the acceleration, max speed, size, gravity, falling speed, jump length, number of jumps, etc. You can even fine tune your settings by testing it before going into the actual level. The options are simply endless.

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Cloudberry Kingdom is a vicious game in terms of difficulty, but why play it alone? You can have up to 4 people playing at once, all racing their way to the exit of these challenging stages. Each player can even customize Bob the way they want him to look. Whether they change the color of his suit, what kind of beard he has, his cape color (or no cape at all), and even the lining of his cape, there’s a solid amount to customize. I came across someone’s screenshot on the Miiverse where they practically replicated the look of Dr. Robotnik (sorry, his name is not Dr. Eggman in my book) from Sonic the Hedgehog. Playing in multiplayer makes this already chaotic game even more chaotic, but is an absolute blast. There’s even a co-op mode in Free Play where all the players are tethered together and must coordinate with each other to reach the end of the level. This alone will provide plenty of good laughs amongst friends.

Visually, Cloudberry Kingdom has a “flash” look to it, with very clean and vivid colors, as well as fluid animations. Environments and characters are nicely designed and the game itself runs incredibly smooth, never dropping the frame rate at all. The only odd animation that seems unpolished was Bob’s double jump, which had zero animation to it and was simply a “standing” animation while moving up. Cutscenes have a different visual style, representing a paper mache look. It’s actually pretty cool and works quite well for the visual aesthetic. Audio wise, this game has a bumpin’ soundtrack that’ll definitely engage the player further into the game. The soundtrack was composed by Blind Digital and Peacemaker…and damn is it a sweet soundtrack. They provide techno tunes that really get you pumped for wanting to complete a level. As I type this review, I’m listening to “Evidence” by Blind Digital (my favorite track in the game)…it’s that’s good. Although, I wish there was a way to change the song with a simple button press. On the flipside, the sound effects are pretty generic, but nothing bad by any means. Oh, and voice acting wise, Kevin Sorbo plays Bob…yes, the dude from the live-action Hercules TV show back from the 90s.

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Cloudberry Kingdom is an excellent 2D platformer that’s so sadistic, it makes the hacked Mario games look easy at points. However, the game’s stages are all designed to be 100% beatable thanks to the AI designed for the game. It’s an endless platformer alright, and one that you’ll be endlessly returning to, whether by yourself or with friends. The clean visuals, bumpin’ soundtrack and just downright addictive gameplay make Cloudberry Kingdom a must-own for any platformer fan.

Overall Score: 9.0 out of 10 = BUY IT!

Copy purchased by author for review purposes. Game tested on the Wii U.

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Rush Bros Review (PC/Mac): “Thumping Beats with Some Static”

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Platformers have come a long way since the early days of Super Mario Bros, essentially the grand-daddy of all platformers created since its inception. Many platformers have tried new things to extend this experience for the modern age, and Rush Bros, from indie developer XYLA, aims to add a musical twist to the platformer formula. Bumping tunes do more than just add ambiance, playing a central role to the gameplay. However, is it enough to keep Rush Bros from being considered a Mario clone? Let’s find out.

The premise of Rush Bros is pretty simple – you play as one of two unnamed DJs who try to race their way through each of the game’s 40+ levels within the shortest time period possible. The thing that sets Rush Bros apart from other platformer games isn’t so much because of new mechanics as it is the effect music has on the level you’re playing. Rush Bros’ levels are full of contrast and color, and pulse to the beat of the music track currently playing. Even more importantly, however, the various traps and obstacles present in each stage will move and shift along with the beat. This is an interesting, fresh addition to the action platformer formula, and theoretically adds a lot of gameplay value to the game. Portions of the stage require significantly more coordination and strategy when a row of razor-sharp swords blocks your path while moving erratically, or when a series of pegs pop out and launch you backwards, hindering your progress. You can use the game’s excellent built-in soundtrack, or even import your own music files to play to. The only issue with this is that the result is somewhat inconsistent – at times, the traps won’t follow the beat of the music, instead seeming to speed up and slow down whenever they feel like it – even when the default soundtrack is playing. Hopefully this is something XYLA will be able to fix down the road, because at present it causes the game’s core element to sometimes take away from the experience.

You’ll have no shortage of hazards to dodge in the games’ 40+ levels.

Rush Bros features slick, intuitive – if otherwise unremarkable – controls. The game supports USB controllers, and even goes so far as to recommend it, and for good reason – it really seems to be the way the game was meant to be played. Running and jumping is standard fare for platformers, but Rush Bros. also borrows from established games like Super Mario Bros 2 and Mega Man, allowing you to high jump (by holding down until you flash, then pressing jump) and slide to gain a quick burst of speed. You can even climb sheer vertical walls Mega Man X-style by moving against them and pressing jump. The game certainly gives you plenty of tools to beat each stage, though you’ll usually find the high jump unnecessary unless you get hit with a slow power-up in multiplayer – more on that below. Whether you’re playing solo or competitive multiplayer, there are several power-ups scattered throughout each level that can greatly help your progress, from increased speed and the ability to double-jump to low gravity, and even slow, screen flip, and inverted controls to hinder your opponent. Slow proves to be almost game-breaking at times, as some parts of the stage require a running leap to get over and will be unassailable until the power-up wears off – unless you’re lucky and can use a high jump to best the obstacle.

As previously mentioned, Rush Bros includes over 40 levels to play through, which is more than enough to keep you occupied for some time. There is a clear progression in difficulty as you try out each new level, and you’ll need to navigate increasingly winding paths and more dangerous traps to reach the finish line. Keys will appear in later levels that will be essential to opening certain doors, and these serve to introduce a back-tracking element to the game as you’ll need to retrieve a color-coded key to open its corresponding door found earlier in a level. The traps present in each level will kill you if you come into contact with them, but you’ll harmlessly respawn at a checkpoint and can continue play, unless you’re playing Survival mode, in which you need to make it through the entire level without dying. All in all, Rush Bros’ level design is nice, if a bit simplistic, and each level sports a unique, vibrant theme that helps set them apart from each other. You’ll even find an homage to the original Super Mario Bros. if you advance far enough. However, Rush Bros suffers from a big problem in its scale of difficulty; some of the game’s later levels go from being challenging to downright frustrating as certain traps require pinpoint precision to make it through, and some springboards, normally placed to help you advance in a level, are present only to undermine your progress and shoot you backwards. It’s not an exaggeration to say that by the last few levels or so, you will be extremely distrustful of most jump pads as you won’t be able to tell if they’ll advance you or shoot you straight into a spike trap without trial and error. Worst of all, you’ll occasionally be sent back to the beginning of a long, difficult puzzle section if you die even once. There were a handful of times this became so frustrating that I almost wanted to quit back to the main menu. It’s not enough to take away from the game’s overall quality of gameplay, but it’s something you’ll definitely have to face at least some points in your play-through.

The action really ramps up in Rush Bros’ multiplayer mode.

Rush Bros features a single-player component, allowing you to play through any of the game’s levels to try to beat your best time with the fewest deaths, and also offers Survival and Fast Forward modes on tap. However, you’ll have significantly more fun playing the game’s competitive multiplayer mode, pitting you against an opponent through split-screen or internet multiplayer to see who can cross the finish line first. The game supports cross-platform play between PC and Mac, ensuring you’ll have no end of opponents to play against. The intensity ramps up tremendously when you can see your opponent keeping up with you, or even surpassing you – and the addition of negative power-ups like slow and screen flipping add a whole new dimension of play. Sure you can take the straight path and keep your speed up, but it just might pay to take a small detour to grab a power-up that flips your opponent’s controls around. Beating a stage gives you the chance to hit the switch on a massive trap to humiliate your opponent, making victory all the sweeter. There’s just no denying that Rush Bros is significantly more fun when played with a friend.

Music is definitely the name of the game in Rush Bros, and it’s certainly not lacking; the game’s soundtrack is padded with bumpin’ hits from Israeli trance band Infected Mushroom, and it not only compliments the gameplay extremely well, but stands on its own as a rockin’ soundtrack to listen to when out and about. The game sports a tantalizing art style that harkens to the roots of its music – sharp angles, dark shadows and neon lighting evoke images of techno clubs at night, and these images pulse and distort with the bassline of whatever music’s playing, adding even more intensity to the experience. The game looks good overall, but there’s a certain lack of polish that’s present at times as well. Specifically, when the game’s camera zooms out, a few jagged edges will appear on previously-smooth sprites, and it’s fairly noticeable. The keys you’ll find in levels are also drawn with a lower level of quality than its surroundings, and it’s definitely a bit jarring, though not to such a huge degree that the game becomes unpleasant to look at. With a little more polish and attention to detail, Rush Bros’ aesthetics could definitely graduate to the next level.

Rising Lava. Made out of spikes. Your worst nightmare.

Rush Bros is a fresh new take on the platformer genre with just a few polish issues. The central gameplay mechanic is fun and interesting but somewhat inconsistent; the graphics are vibrant and beautiful but appear jagged and incomplete at times; and the single-player game is competent but simply can’t stand up to its multiplayer version. All of that being said, Rush Bros is a decidedly entertaining game, and at its indie price is definitely a good amount of fun for money invested. XYLA is on to something here – and with a little post-release love, Rush Bros could become one of the bigger Indie hits of this year.

Rush Bros is available on Steam for PC and Mac for $9.99.

Final Score: 7.5 out of 10 = BUY IT!

Special thanks to Plan of Attack for providing us with review copies of Rush Bros!

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Cubemen 2 Review (PC): “Thinking Outside the Blocks”

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Developer 3 Sprockets released an awesome sleeper indie hit last year with their RTS / TD hybrid Cubemen. After giving the game a try and writing my review (which you can read here – if you want all the details on which Cubemen 2 was built on, give it a read!), I knew that 3 Sprockets was on to something big. Cubemen was a fresh take on the TD genre, replacing static towers with movable soldiers that can be placed around a 3D map. Cubemen also included a multitude of play modes, limiting the number of resources or soldiers you could have at a time, or even a crazy rockets vs. crossbows mode. Cubemen is great, so here we have another case of 3 Sprockets having to out-do itself with Cubemen 2. Do they succeed? Read on and find out.

Cubemen 2’s gameplay doesn’t deviate terribly from the first when it comes down to it – you and your opponents have a base from which you can spend credits – called “cubes” – to spawn soldiers to attack your enemy’s units. Depending on the game type you’re playing, you may also spawn AI-controlled mobs from your base, making their way to your enemies and taking off a life if they reach their base. Cubemen set itself apart from other TD games in several ways; first, instead of planting static towers, you purchase and deploy units with unique weapons, with the option of moving them to different locations as the situation changes. Players battle it out in fully-3D environments, and weapons obey full line of sight physics, opening up new strategies, like placing flamethrowers behind corners and perching snipers on high ground for superior offensive and defensive positioning.

All of the core gameplay has made its way into Cubemen 2, with some added tweaks and improvements. First and foremost, the list of units has been modified to replace some under-used or under-powered soldiers with more useful ones. Both games feature Grill, a speedy pistolero with low health, Flint, a short-ranged flamethrower, Moty, a fire-support unit with a long-ranged AoE attack, Ricky, armed with a heat-seeking rocket launcher, Lazlo, a laser-firing death machine, and Sid, a sniper armed with a powerful long-ranged rifle, perfect for picking off units at a distance. Two units from the original were removed – Fred, an ice-based version of Flint who deals less damage but slows units hit by its attack, and Mike, a medic who can restore the health of your units. Fred was replaced with Larry, a low-cost unit that can slow enemies in an area around him with ice lightning. Mike is no longer a unit in Cubemen 2, but his function was brought over as regen squares present on the map, which players on either side can move their units onto to heal. Cubemen 2 also sees the introduction of two new units that completely change the gameplay dynamic. Milo turns into a mine when he reaches his destination, exploding for huge damage when an enemy passes near it. Waly brings a traditional TD element to Cubemen 2, turning into an impassable wall when he reaches his destination to close off paths or create choke points. Both of these new units are single-use and will disappear when they reach their destination, but are also extremely tough to kill and cannot be removed by any means once they reach their destination. All of these units can be upgraded for a variable Cube cost, upping their damage, range, and fire rate, as well as fully restoring their health. 3 Sprockets has done a great job of streamlining the unit selection in Cubemen 2, making every purchase purposeful and allowing for a lot of strategic options.

Finally, the long-standing feud between Knights and Luchadores is settled.

Finally, the long-standing feud between Knights and Luchadores is settled.

Players can get acclimated to the game through the included Defensive Campaign, which sees the player go through traditional tower defense scenarios on 15 unique maps. Each stage records your score on a playthrough, allowing you to go back and play the campaign again if you want to try to improve on your score. However, there’s plenty of alternative content included in Cubemen 2 to keep you busy. The game comes with an additional 20 maps which can be played on a multitude of game modes. The single-player offerings include Defense (your traditional TD game type) and Rescue, which has your AI mobs trying to rescue allied NPCs from enemy bases, requiring you to build units to protect them. Three additional modes can be played single-player against bots, in multi-player against other human players, or any mix of the two, and include: Skirmish, which is similar to Defense mode but requires players to attack as well as defend, sending out units to destroy their enemies and guard their mobs toward their bases; Territories, a spin on King of the Hill which requires players to send out units to capture most of the stage for their side; and a traditional Capture the Flag mode. Skirmish and CTF are tons of fun, but Territories is definitely the most exciting addition to the game with a ton of depth. The winner is only declared once the timer runs down, so players can either expand outward early and blitz the board, or bide their time, build up their forces, and steamroll their opponents closer to the timer. All game modes are highly configurable with options such as time limit, number of waves and opponents, solo or team options, and more.

The game’s AI is certainly competent and will put up a fair fight, but even on the highest difficulty, players will eventually find their skills are no longer up to snuff, so eventually you’ll want to spend more time in Cubemen 2’s multiplayer mode. Up to six players can face off solo or in teams on any of the 3 multiplayer modes. This is truly the way the game is meant to be played, and other players will put up a nice challenge and use tactics that the AI simply can’t do. Glacier928 and I had an awesome time facing off against each other and in teams, and even though I’m more of the strategy buff (while he goes more for action games), he found Cubemen 2 to be a beginner-friendly yet exciting game. Latency wasn’t an issue and our games ran smooth as butter, even with six players throwing down in intense battles with cubes flying everywhere.

Just like in the original, Cubemen 2 features a simple yet robust level editor, though this time it’s included out of the box at launch. The editor gives players a lot of freedom to design the level of their dreams, allowing for multiple cube heights, walls, free-floating tiles, base location, and teleporter and regenerator placement. There are some constraints that the player needs to follow, such as a maximum of 1,500 tiles, placing all six bases on the map with at least 10 spaces between each other, as well as ensuring there is a path to and from each base. There’s still a lot of flexibility to be had while playing by these rules, and once finished, maps can be saved privately for testing or published to the internet on 3 Sprockets’ user map directory, where other players can download, play, and rate your map. Every map needs to be run through a rigorous test before publishing, so you can be sure that it will play in every game mode with any amount of human and bot participants. It’s pretty hard to get bored of Cubemen 2 with an endless supply of maps to play on, and you’d be surprised by some of the crazy ideas that can be had when the editor is fully-utilized.

The level editor gives players a lot of freedom, even allowing for the remake of this N64 classic.

The level editor gives players a lot of freedom and creativity, allowing for the remake of this N64 classic.

Cubemen 2 has taken cues from the original in terms of visual and sound design, and while there haven’t been any major leaps forward in the game’s engine, it still runs at a brisk pace even on more modest computers and features plenty of pleasing, block-based visual effects, including ambient lighting around players’ bases and light flashes when weapons are fired which help to spice up the action a bit. 3 Sprockets has greatly expanded on the options presented to the user to customize the game their way as well; while players could originally choose a color for the levels and Cubemen, as well as a basic skin for the latter, Cubemen 2 has greatly expanded on this, offering all of the classic color options as well as full-fledged skins for units and levels. There’s a pretty expansive offering here – from soldiers, orcs, and ninjas for Cubemen, to Minecraft, lunar, Egyptian, and a Tron Grid-like look for levels (just to name a few), it’s easy to customize the look of the game to your liking. There are many more skins to choose from through downloadable content, and 3 Sprockets intends to add even more to the game over time. The game also features a more varied soundtrack compared to the original score, sporting a different theme for the title screen and most of your units. These songs are essentially different takes on the same basic melody, but with different tonality and feel to suit each character they’re named after. Ricky’s Theme is a personal favorite of mine, but you may choose not to use it everywhere like I did and instead take advantage of the game’s sound options, letting you play a separate theme for the title screen and each gameplay mode. These songs have taken a step up since the first game too, sounding a bit more grand and dramatic, which really helps the immersion factor during a game. It’s nice to see 3 Sprockets listening to their fans and incorporating some of their suggestions into Cubemen 2’s initial release.

So, is there anywhere Cubemen 2 falls flat? Honestly, not in a lot of places. You can’t pick campaign stages to play on, requiring you to replay the whole thing if you want to get to a specific stage. The game does have a couple of minor bugs and kinks to work out as well, such as incorrect information in some in-game menus, and very rare occasions in the campaign where the next wave won’t start after finishing the current one, requiring you to restart the stage. Since most of these levels only take a few minutes to beat, it’s not a deal-breaker. It would have also been nice to be able to re-name or delete maps you’ve published online. There’s also no voice- or text-based chat in multiplayer, though this is something 3 Sprockets has said they’ll address in a future update. And of course, they’ll be looking into keeping the game balanced so that cheap strategies don’t reign supreme.

A friendly game of Territory in the medieval countryside.

A friendly game of Territory in the medieval countryside.

Cubemen 2 is another strong release for 3 Sprockets, and shows what a great developer can really do with a sequel. Cubemen 2 doesn’t do anything radical to change the formula, but instead makes the game fresh through a tweak in the gameplay dynamics, improvements to user customization, and by featuring an excellent online mode and level editor. With plenty of updates and patches in the pipe, Cubemen 2 will only get better over time, and is sure to be a long-standing member of your Steam Library’s Favorites section.

Cubemen 2 is currently available for PC on the Steam platform for $7.99, with Mac and iPad apps on the way.

Final Score: 9.0 out of 10 = BUY IT!

Special thanks to 3 Sprockets for providing us with a review copy of Cubemen 2!