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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Infinite Minigolf Review (PS4/X1/Switch) – “Minigolf Times Infinity”

Zen Studios has certainly acquired quite the reputation with their excellent Zen Pinball titles, which are available on almost every platform to date. Since then though, the team has only worked on a few titles outside of their big pinball hit, such as Punisher: No Mercy and Planet Minigolf (both of which were PS3 exclusive titles). After some time, they’ve decided to take a break from their pinball roots and return to a familiar field, minigolf. Infinite Minigolf has now released for PC, PS4, X1, and Switch, and is a sequel to Planet Minigolf. Is this minigolf game worth the putt or is it a complete bogey?

Minigolf has always been about varied, fun locales brimming with imaginative set pieces and scenery. With Infinite Minigolf, the wacky locales are here, but as are some unique twists. This isn’t your typical minigolf game, but rather a more fast-paced, over-the-top game of putt-putt. You will enter tournaments across three different locales: Giant Home, Nightmare Mansion, and Santa’s Workshop. Giant Home is kind of like Andy’s Room from Toy Story, with plenty of toys and games that fill up the environment. Nightmare Mansion is your Halloween-themed environment full of bats, spiders, swinging spike pendulums and tombstones. Lastly, Santa’s Workshop is your snow-filled, Christmas-themed environment filled with elves, candy canes, presents and plenty of ice. Each locale feels very unique and provides their own identity (and challenges) to each course.

Infinite Minigolf is not about getting the ball sunk into the hole with the least amount of hits. Well, it is, but the game revolves around who can get the highest amount of points within nine holes. Throughout each of the courses, there are blue orbs littered around to collect, as well as a purple diamond. Getting these will bump up your score quite a bit, especially the purple diamond. Additionally, the real curve ball mechanic are the power-ups that are attainable at each hole. These power-ups range from rocketing a ball forward, getting full control of where the ball rolls (within the momentum the ball has from the hit), stopping a ball in place, blasting items away from your ball, magnetizing the ball into the hole, etc. These really change the dynamic of the game and really help push the fast-paced flow of gameplay. Controls also help with the game’s flow, and are quite simple for anyone to grasp. You can turn the character with the left analog stick, and then control the power of the hit by pulling back on the right analog stick. You can control the power meter by slowly maneuvering the right analog stick from its centered position and all-the-way back, and vice versa. Any other buttons to use are highlighted on the game’s HUD. It’s simple and intuitive, making it accessible for anyone to play.

The game’s core mode is the Tournament mode. You go up against three AI opponents and compete to have the highest score by the end of the nine holes. There are four tournaments in each of the three locales, with three difficulties to work your way up through. However, the game’s highlight is by far its Course Editor mode. The Course Editor mode gives you an unprecedented amount of freedom creating the course that hits all the right notes. You can choose which of the locales you want to build a course on, then cycle through an abundant amount of pieces to put everything together. Straightaways, curves, spiral loops, upside-down loops, speed boosts, interactive pieces, power-ups, orbs, diamonds…the options are tremendous. You can choose the height of the course and even place objects on and off the course to further add life to the course. Now, it should be noted that there is no tutorial in place to learn the Course Editor. However, there’s nothing here that can’t be figured out by spending 10-20 minutes playing around with the tools provided. You can test out your course, and then go back to editing seamlessly, tweaking each element to your liking. Once done, you will have to test the course and finish it to validate that it’s ready for uploading. When all is said and done, you will then name your course and once uploaded, it will be available for all Infinite Minigolf players. So if you make a course on the Switch version, PS4, X1 and PC players will be able to play your course as well. This universal connection for user-created content is outstanding and removes any restrictions of trying courses that all Infinite Minigolf players create.

Infinite Minigolf gives you a range of characters to play as, each with their own personality. Each character reacts differently to how they sink the ball in the hole with unique winning poses and one-liners. However, you can also create your own character. As you win tournaments and also level up throughout the game, you will earn cards pertaining to each set of clothing and gear. You will use these cards to unlock the clothing and gear you’d like equipped for your custom character. Hairstyles, shirts, pants, belts, shoes, clubs and golf balls are all customizable. This method of unlocking content is a bit of a grind though since you get randomized cards for tournament wins. There are even challenges you can complete that will earn your gold coins, which can be used to buy a pack of cards. It’s almost like having currency, to buy currency, to then buy items. Thankfully, there are no micro-transactions for this, otherwise there would be some serious currency-ception.

When not playing solo, Infinite Minigolf features both local and online multiplayer with support for up to eight players. You can take turns passing the controller around or have multiple controllers connected (as much as the console supports). What is really neat is that there are a variety of modifiers to tweak for a match. You can choose to play with Classic minigolf rules, unlimited ball jumping, the number of strokes allowed for per course, etc. You can even make things really wild by changing the ball type as an egg, pyramid, puck, cube, and more! This really makes things interesting, and downright hysterical. When playing online, the game has lobby support. Simply open your friends list, send an invite and they’ll jump right into your lobby. Like local play, you can fully customize your matches (should you play a Private Match) or jump into a public match with others. What’s interesting is that unlike local’s turn-based play style, everyone here putts at the same time. Once sinking the ball in, you can watch the remaining players finish the course. If it’s a custom course, you can even rate the course while waiting. The simultaneous play makes things frenetic, but you can make it more so by turning on the ball collision modifier. The overall online experience was quite smooth, especially on Switch.

There are a few issues to be found in Infinite Minigolf. First off is the grind mentioned above when unlocking gear. Second, when controlling the power meter with the right analog stick, there seems to occasionally be a delay in the meter correlating with the control stick sensitivity. You can adjust the sensitivity in the game’s options, but it seemed to still have a split-second delay somewhat. It’s not game-breaking by any means, but could be just a tad smoother. Third (and this is entirely dependent on user-created courses), there are times when people will place speed boosts next to a ramp. However, if the ball doesn’t go up the ramp fully and rolls back down into the speed boost, it’ll never be enough power to get it up the ramp. This leads to the ball being stuck in limbo and leaving you at the mercy of the game, praying that the ball will move enough to eventually stop and let you putt again. There’s an option to skip the hole, and that seems to be the best solution, but you’re penalized with getting zero points for the course. Now this is more of an issue if it’s an online match, whereas a local match you could easily restart the hole. Fourth, on the Switch, there is no voice chat support at the moment. Here’s hoping Zen Studios provides voice chat support through the Nintendo Online app (despite its choppy start).

Visually, Infinite Minigolf is a very vibrant looking game, with clean texture work. Characters have smooth animations, as do the objects on course and the ball itself. As mentioned earlier, the environments themselves are very well done and are great to look at. The game runs at a locked 30 fps and never dips below that, which is nice. In terms of audio, there is a variety of sound effects. Whether you are using a power-up, simply hitting the ball, collision with the various objects…it’s all fitting for sure. The music also does a great job of capturing the environments you will be putting in, as does the main menu track. The odd thing though is that when creating courses, the music will play once, and then never repeat…just sound effects play at that point. This also seems to occur when playing online and waiting for the player(s) to finish, the song will not loop until you’re back in-game for the next course. It seems to be a glitch that could use some patching. Outside of that though, the audio is very catchy.

Infinite Minigolf is a great minigolf game that should not be overlooked. It’s highly accessible mechanics really make the game an easy to pick up-and-play game of putt-putt. There’s more than enough in-game content here to keep players busy for sure, but the in-depth Course Editor is the main highlight without question. Couple that with the ability to play and share courses that are accessible on all platforms and you really have “infinite minigolf”. Despite some gripes, Infinite Minigolf cannot be recommended enough (especially Switch owners since it’s perfect for on-the-go gaming). It was very difficult to put the game down. Even when taking a break, I wanted to keep returning to play a few more rounds and create more courses.

Overall Score: 8.5 out of 10 = BUY IT!

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

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Danger Zone Review (PS4): “It’s Crashin’ Time”

Cars, explosions and mayhem are a recipe for disaster in the best way possible when it comes to entertainment. Danger Zone, a spiritual successor to Burnout’s Crash Mode, has just released for the PS4 courtesy of Three Fields Entertainment (comprised of creators from the Burnout series). This downloadable title is a return to what they know how to do best: Create a game about causing the most amount of destruction possible with your car. Is this downloadable spiritual successor a worthy return?

Danger Zone is designed to heavily resemble Burnout’s Crash Mode. For those who never experienced this phenomenal mode in the racing series, Crash Mode was about driving into a heavily congested traffic environment to cause the biggest accident possible. Danger Zone literally creates the same premise for the new generation. However, opposed to driving in living environments and cityscapes, you are driving in a virtually simulated environment.

When starting an event, you will see an overview of the simulated roads and traffic to give you an idea of how to plan your big crash. Taking control of the car, fans of Burnout will be right at home, with the tight controls and physics. Once ramming into another car, you can still control your totaled vehicle with the left analog stick and sway it in the desired direction. However, you can only do this for as long as there is momentum in the wrecked vehicle. This is essential to trying to nudge a car into another lane, or even trying to collect items like bonus cash and Smashbreakers. Smashbreakers are exactly like Burnout’s Crashbreakers. This will allow you to explode your vehicle and any other cars within the radius, while giving you control again to push your vehicle elsewhere. Trying to grab Smashbreaker icons along the course is key to stringing together some crazy combos. Also, you need to try and be careful not to fall off the track. Falling off will derezz your car and your run will be over immediately. You will have to earn a certain amount of money in an event to score either a bronze, silver, gold, or platinum medal for the run. You can simply progress to the next event by at least obtaining a bronze. Gradually, the game’s events will become more intricate. This will require further creative ways to cause mayhem in order to advance. Each run though takes no more than a minute or two to see fully unfold, which makes this great for pickup-and-play aspects. 

Now as fun as this all is, Danger Zone comes with some issues. First off, the biggest issue is the lack of personality. While the game is supposed to have a “test facility” setting, it just feels devoid of personality. The fact that this is the only environment you will see in the game is lackluster. Also, you only get to use the one test car the whole game. There are no local or online multiplayer modes what-so-ever either. It does have leaderboard support, but a game like this would certainly gather friends together to try and compete to who can cause the craziest crash. Lastly, not that this affects the overall score, but the lack of a platinum trophy is a bit of a bummer.

Danger Zone runs on Unreal Engine 4, and everything looks very well detailed. Cars have details to them when crashing, whether some scrapes on the side or the cars themselves actually charred up from fire. There’s nice shading and lighting, as well as sharp texture work. The animations and physics are very appropriate and have a good weight to the carnage happening on-screen. Interestingly, the game runs at 30 fps, while the game’s main menu runs at 60 fps. While it’s intense seeing all the crashing occur, the Burnout games were able to maintain 60 fps during gameplay, with more happening in the environment. This has a lifeless environment with not much happening to prevent 60 fps. Does it affect the overall gameplay? Not necessarily…but it’s noticeable. The audio effects are crisp, with the engine echoing in the opening tunnels, cars crunching into each other, tires screeching, car alarms going off, and explosions going on. The audio is great without question…but there’s not an ounce of music to be found in the game. I can understand no music playing during the crash event itself, but zero music for the main menu or results screen feels lacking.

Danger Zone is a fun title that brings back Burnout’s glorious Crash Mode, but isn’t without its shortcomings. The gameplay is crazy fun and it’s great for pickup-and-play sessions. Unfortunately, the issues mentioned do detract from the overall package, with the worst being the game’s lifeless simulated environment. Despite its shortcomings though, Danger Zone is a title that still is worth a shot and very reasonable for $12, especially if you’re a big fan of Burnout’s Crash Mode.

Overall Score: 7.0 out of 10 = BUY IT!

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

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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NBA Playgrounds Review (Switch/PS4/X1): “Frazzle Dazzle”

NBA Playgrounds is an homage to the basketball games of yesteryear. In a time where games were not aiming to be ultra-realistic simulations, we had awesome arcade-style basketball games like NBA Jam, NBA Hang Time, and NBA Street (the second game being this reviewer’s favorite). Saber Interactive has now decided to revitalize this lost take on the genre with their latest title, NBA Playgrounds. Is this title a “razzle dazzle”?

NBA Playgrounds is a 2v2 style basketball game that aims for the pickup-and-play zaniness of NBA Jam, but with its own modern twists. You start off the game opening up card packs. Each card pack contains five basketball players to add to your accessible roster. You get a few packs to start with and can earn more by playing through the game’s Tournament mode. You get to mix and match your players to form the dynamic duo team of your liking, and can mix this up any time before a matchup begins. The tournament will take you to varied locales like New York City, Paris, Shanghai and Hong Kong to name a few. Each of the outdoor courts do a very good job of capturing the locale you’re playing at. There are six locations around the world where you will partake in tournaments, each with four matches. Each match even has a bonus objective to tackle to help net you more XP for your active players (more on that later).

The game’s mechanics are fairly easy to pickup-and-play, much like that of NBA Jam. You’ve got your simple pass, shoot, steal, block, and turbo buttons in place. Even each of the players have stats that resemble the style of NBA Jam, whether it be the 3-point, Dunk, Block, Steal, and Rebound skills to name a few. When holding the turbo button, you can move the right analog stick to pull off tricks. The more tricks you pull off while connecting it with a dunk, the more your special meter will fill up. This system is interesting, as it runs a lottery pick for a power up that could help change the odds of a match. For example, you may be able to get double points for dunks for a short time, get a single 100% accurate shot no matter where on the court you are, unlimited turbo, etc. Each time you complete a locale in the Tournament mode, you also earn a new lottery pick powerup.

At the end of each match, you will get XP for both your player profile and the players on your team. You will earn new card packs to unlock more players each time you level up, and your players will level up from bronze, to silver, to then gold status the more you use them. It’s also very commendable that the developers didn’t fall into the microtransaction route with unlocking more players or “buying” card packs. You will get duplicates in the packs occasionally, but this converts into XP for that particular player should you have them already. Also, you can earn Epic and Legend cards, which consist of classic basketball players.

Sounds promising so far, right? However, this is unfortunately where things get a bit dicey. Unlike NBA Jam or NBA Street, the mechanics here never feel fluid, and a lot of that has to do with the useless teammate AI. So let’s get this out of the way, if you’re planning on playing this solo, you are going to have a frustrating time due to your teammate AI. Unfortunately, there’s no way to play the Tournament mode with a friend, which is the main method of unlocking content. Your teammate will literally do nothing but run around following an opposing teammate, but that’s it. He will not try to block shots. He will not try to steal the ball. He will not go for rebounds. He will not even listen to your command to set up an alley-oop when you press the button for it. Additionally, taking shots at the basket also feels very inconsistent. You have to time your button press and let go of the shot button at a certain animation frame to better your accuracy. The problem is that the animation is in such a precise window that is almost impossible to master, or even pull off on a regular basis. Even the dunks require letting go of the shot button…and good luck even figuring out what animation frame point to let go on this one. There is apparently an update in the works to provide a shot meter which should help dramatically, but in the meantime, this is what we have.

Lastly, the game does have its Exhibition and Online modes. Exhibition allows you to fully customize the rules, as well as even change the ball being used for the match. This is definitely where the game will shine, in particular when playing with a friend here. However, the Online mode is interesting. The developers stated that the Switch version would have online running shortly after launch and it’s been roughly three weeks since launch…still nothing. So unfortunately, there’s not much to report on this end and frankly, this could’ve helped the overall score considering the dumb AI in Tournament mode makes for a frustrating single-player experience.

Visually, NBA Playgrounds has a neat art style that nails the over-the-top nature of the game, giving an arcade-like feel to it. Dunk animations look great, and characters animate fairly smooth. The environments have character to them and it’s great seeing outdoor locations that take place around the world. On the flipside, the big problem that rear its ugly head quick is when you see the game running on the Switch docked, and then you undock it. While the game looks solid on the TV, the undocked mode has the game running well below the 720p capabilities, giving the players a very blurry and practically standard-definition appearance. Hopefully this gets patched as well. It makes playing it on-the-go fairly ugly. The game does run at 60 fps most of the time, but the start of each match has the framerate running erratically for about five seconds or so. It’s not game-breaking, but it is jarring and happens regardless if it’s docked or undocked. In terms of audio, the announcers are entertaining to listen to. While nowhere near the classic nature of NBA Jam’s announcer, they do provide some chuckle worthy commentary. The soundtrack is comprised of hip-hop beats, and it fits the game pretty well. Sound effects also do a good job capturing the powerful dunks, dribbling and squeaks of the sneakers on the street courts.

NBA Playgrounds is game that screams pickup-and-play. The problems here though lie within its poor teammate AI, sub-HD undocked visuals, inconsistent shot mechanics, and lack of functional online mode (despite the option being in the main menu, sitting there locked). Even despite all these gripes, I did find myself coming back more and more for a round here and there. What is here is still playable and somewhat enjoyable playing solo. However, there’s no denying the game needs some updating, as it needed a bit more time for a “boomshaklaka”.

Overall Score: 6.0 out of 10 = Wait for a Price Drop (or Patch Update)

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

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Has-Been Heroes Review (Switch/PS4/X1/PC): “Still-Are Heroes”

Has-Been Heroes is the latest title from developer Frozenbyte, known for their Trine series. This new title is a unique strategy RPG in the market with rogue-like elements. Are these heroes worth joining?

Gameplay: 3/5

Has-Been Heroes is unlike any other game in the genre. You start off the game with a bit of exposition, laying out the ground work of who these heroes are, and what has become of them. These old, tired heroes are tasked with one last quest: to escort the king’s daughters to school…and man, what a treacherous path it is to this school! That’s as much exposition as you’ll get, and that’s honestly fine since it’s enough to get the game going.

Has-Been Heroes is not your typical RPG, and thankfully provides you with a proper tutorial to have you understand the intricate mechanics. When starting an area, you will use the right analog stick to choose a location to go to from the map. Highlighting the area next to you will show if it contains a battle, has a merchant to buy things from, has treasure chests, or may be empty so you can just safely pass by.

Battle mechanics are very engaging. When in battle, your characters are always moving, as are the enemies. You will have to press the button that corresponds with the character you’d like to attack with (X, Y, or B), and once chosen, you will attack with the A button. Each character will have to wait before attacking again, and they each vary with cooldown timers. More integral to survival is understanding the stamina mechanics. Enemies not only have health (indicated by the red bar next to them), but stamina boxes as well (indicated as green boxes next to their health). Stamina basically works as a shield before you can chip away at their health bar. If you chip away their stamina enough to stun them, and then give them a quick attack afterwards, you will knock down their stamina capacity, making it easier to stun them the next time you attack them. Stamina does build back for enemies after attacking them, so knocking down their stamina gauge is absolutely pivotal to victory.

The same applies for your characters as well. They each have a specific amount of stamina and health that you’ll need to keep an eye on. Naturally, the knight is like a tank and can withstand the most damage. The elder monk is fairly weak, but is utilized more as a knockback character. The young rogue character has speed in her attacks and can dish out more hits in a combo. On top of this, each character has a spell that can be summoned. Spells all vary on whether they’re elemental or not, passive or aggressive, and ultimately can change the course of battle if utilized right. Combat can (and will) get very overwhelming and thankfully you can pause the time so you can carefully plot your attacks across the three lanes of battle.

So here is the thing about Has-Been Heroes: It’s difficult…insanely difficult actually. Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, Bloodborne, Nioh…you’ve heard of those games by now for their high difficulty (all of which I’ve beaten for the record). Has-Been Heroes’ difficulty is a whole new breed though. This is where gameplay experiences will vary among players. If you like your games to be easy and a walk-in-the-park, well this may not be your cup of tea. If you welcome a challenge, then Has-Been Heroes will certainly do so. All it takes is for you to get frazzled and overwhelmed in combat to quickly fall to your demise. If a single hero dies, it’s game over. No continues, no checkpoints. After all, this is a rogue-like game.

Now, Has-Been Heroes has some issues that hurt the gameplay a bit. First off, the game has a feature where the camera zooms in with certain attacks. This is nice and all, but the problem I had was that the game would glitch and the zoomed-in camera would be stuck, leaving me with no view of the battle. This happened twice during boss battles and resorted to my characters dying. Thankfully, this camera feature can be shut off in the options menu, but it’s still something that needs to be addressed. Secondly, the game’s difficulty, while more than welcome for this reviewer, feels unbalanced at times. There were times where I was able to blast through both regular battles and boss battles, and there were other times where I would falter at the first regular battle due to an absurd amount of enemies randomly generated. Boss battles are also an exercise in frustration, as some of them throw far too many enemies into the mix, making it inevitable for your characters to meet their doom. Also, it would’ve been a great feature to be able to choose a spell loadout based on the spells acquired in each playthrough. Instead, you will have to randomly come across spells at each merchant and hope for the best. Ultimately, it just feels like there are numerous times where the game relies on luck, regardless of how skilled you are at it.

Issues aside though, there’s no denying the amount of enjoyment I had playing this game. The gameplay was addictive, and no matter how many times I died, I always found myself coming back for more.

Graphics: 4/5

Visually, Has-Been Heroes is a more simplistic approach from the developer’s previous Trine series. At first glance it may appear like a mobile title, but don’t let that dismiss you. What we are treated with here are nicely drawn environments and characters, each with their own unique animations. The game does run at a solid 60 fps and the overall aesthetic is very crisp. The main gripe is the text font when playing on the TV. While on the Switch screen it’s easy to read, it’s pretty tiny on the TV. Despite that though, the overall game is easy on the eyes and quite vibrant (which is expected from the team that made the visually stunning Trine games).

Sound: 4/5

The audio design is incredibly well done in Has-Been Heroes. Outside of the narrator, characters have minimal voice acting, but what is here is completely fine. Sound effects are strong and capture the intensity of battles. When entering a level, the narrator actually sounds almost reminiscent of that from the Gauntlet games. The majestic score is great here as well. Whether advancing through the land, in combat, at merchants, or the spell gambler, the tunes all fit the setting superbly. I found myself really getting into the soundtrack and humming it outside of playing the game.

Replay Value: 5/5

For the $20 price tag, there is an insane amount of content and unlockables to be found here. Has-Been Heroes contains 10 different endings, a ton of additional characters to unlock and play as, and countless spells and enemies to discover. As mentioned in the gameplay segment, this is a game that was very addictive no matter how difficult it was. The Switch version in particular really shines in this department, as it is a perfectly suited game to have on-the-go. There’s a lot of bang for your buck here and it will keep you coming back for a long time.

Overall Score: 16/20 = 8.0 out of 10

Has-Been Heroes may seem like a simple, mobile style game from first glance, but what’s here is an incredibly difficult, yet very rewarding game. The engaging combat system, crisp visual art style, strong audio and plethora of content makes Has-Been Heroes a great package for the asking price. Again, this game may not be for everyone. Even with its unbalanced difficulty curves, it never discouraged me from trying again repeatedly. For those who do appreciate the challenge and invest the time into it, there’s a very deep game overall that will have you coming back for quite some time.

Second Opinion
Written By Karl Upman

From the developers of the Trine series comes a very different, very new experience. Has-Been Heroes tells the tale of old, retired heroes who really shouldn’t be put in charge of guarding anything but their own front lawns. But nonetheless here we are, guiding our time-worn travelers through treacherous terrains. Accompanied by a third member of the group, an aspiring heroine, the unlikely lot set out to deliver the king’s two daughters to…school. If that doesn’t set the precedent for the game, I don’t know what will. Has-Been Heroes is set up to be funny, and in many cases it succeeds! However, the amount of laughter quickly died out for me because I kept…well…dying.

Has-Been Heroes is a rouge-like, strategy, dark souls-esque game where you have a starting and end point, and in between are procedurally generated pathways and “rooms”. I tend to like this set up; give me a dungeon with areas to explore and I’ll be content for hours. But this is a different formula and the key to enjoying it comes down to one thing – luck. In my first two hours of the game, I couldn’t beat a single enemy encounter. It was only after playing for a bit longer and really understanding the mechanics that I realized I had been totally getting screwed over! I was getting loads of enemies thrown at me when I had no clue what was going on and I was expected to just learn. After a few frustrating attempts at making progress, I finally faced a relatively easy mob, only two handfuls of enemies compared to the waves upon waves I had faced before. This allowed me to finally learn the mechanics and progress… until of course I was overwhelmed time-after-time again.

I don’t mind the mechanics of battling in Has-Been Heroes, it’s unique, clever and requires a lot of planning – which the developers clearly recognized since you can pause the game to think of your next move at almost any time. What it comes down to is the consistent “enjoy-ability” of it. From the start, you’re incredibly overwhelmed with just the system alone, but you’re treated as though you’ve been playing it for weeks right when you jump in! It also would have been nice to get some recognition for making any progress at all, but the unlocks you get are seemingly useless other than to learn what you may or may not pick up in a future adventure. This was partially beneficial however, because the text is incredibly small and smooshed together, I could barely read anything during a playthrough. I did manage to defeat the first world boss once, and naturally was thrown into an impossibly difficult first battle in the next playthrough – so back to square one! Personally, I don’t get much out of games where your only goal is to see how well you can make it through an ever-changing labyrinth of suffering and frustration, only to walk it out with some new text to read.

That being said, I did take a few things away from Has-Been Heroes. The art style was playful and stimulating, and the music was a great balance of intense and out-of-the-way, allowing you to really focus on what was going on. When I could read the dialogue (playing in handheld mode on the Switch), I found the humor quite enjoyable. Although after dying so many times, it did tend to get repetitive.

I think some people will find satisfaction in Has-Been Heroes, but it’s definitely not just a game you can jump into and expect to enjoy – you’ll need to work at it and appreciate it for what it is: a rouge-like dungeon crawler that hands out dull consolation prizes and wants you to die…a lot.

Second Opinion Final Score: 6.5/10

 

 

A special thank you to the publisher for providing us a review copy for Has-Been Heroes! Copy reviewed on Nintendo Switch.

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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.

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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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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Exile’s End Review (PS4/Vita): “Average Jameson”

There’s no question that while gaming technology advances, there’s still a soft-spot for old-school style games. Enter Exile’s End: a 16-bit, 2D Metroidvania game where players take controls of Jameson. Add in the fact that Keiji Yamagishi (the famous composer known for his work on the Ninja Gaiden and Tecmo Bowl soundtracks during the NES era) is on board to compose this game’s soundtrack and we’ve got a sure fire bet, right? Well, let’s see how this indie fares.

As mentioned, players assume the control of Jameson, an older, yet much more experienced worker of a mining crew. Contact was lost with a crew set out at a planet and a new crew is sent in to discover their whereabouts. However, things go wrong really quickly, leaving Jameson trying to find any survivors from his crew, as well as the ones already missing. Upon landing, Jameson’s equipment is damaged and will need to find comparable equipment to go about his search. As you explore, you start to uncover a conspiracy that was occurring at the installation on the planet, and things tend to develop more. It’s a standard fare storyline that’s ultimately forgettable, but still passable.

Now, Metroidvania style gameplay is a great start to the idea of the game. But here is where things are not as great as it sounds. Exile’s End does its best to replicate games of its stature, whether it be Metroid, Flashback, Another World, etc. The problem is the game’s slow-pacing. Upon starting the game, Jameson has no weapon other than rocks. Unfortunately, just throwing these to take out worms on the planet is a chore. You have to guestimate the distance Jameson throws the rock, and seems to have a much more overarching throw than expected. Later on, you finally acquire a handgun. However, the gun controls feel really stiff. As a matter of fact, the combat in general is just plain dull and uninspired.

The game is a bit punishing on difficulty as well, and for the wrong reason. The game constantly saves your progress every time you enter a room or area. So should you enter an area with the slightest sliver of health and then die, you will continue the game from the beginning of that room, with that exact health amount. Even ammo or any items all remain exactly as is. While I’m all for a good challenge, this issue could’ve been rectified by just having save rooms so that you’re not forced to stick with your current status in case you screwed up. Also, enemy placements will leave you firing off the screen constantly to ensure they don’t fire at you first.

Throughout the game’s 3-5 hour story, you will explore a variety of environments. Exile’s End does a great job utilizing its old-school presentation and conveying a really great atmospheric feel. Backdrops and foregrounds look really good, where some nice attention is indicated from planet life showcasing in the backgrounds. Whether you’re in the jungle, a research facility or caves, they each have very moody tones to them. Animations are a little on the stiff-end, but completely serviceable. Cutscene art looks quite good though, having a bit of a Ninja Gaiden look to them.

The game does really push atmosphere, and composer Keiji Yamagishi does a superb job lending to a dark soundtrack. No matter the location, the soundtrack really nails each area. It’s great to see such an iconic composer return and still produce some amazing stuff. It’s honestly the strongest aspect the game has going for it. Even if the tunes get a little repetitive due the game’s pacing, they’re still very memorable. Sound effects are also well done. Firearms, creatures’ audio cues, and ambiance, are all appropriate and sounds like a 16-bit era game.

Exile’s End is a solid effort at tackling the Metroidvania concept. The thing is that it’s not all that engaging to keep sticking with. Outside of the great art style and soundtrack, the gameplay itself is just serviceable at best. Die-hard Metroidvania fans may be interested in giving it a go, and fans of Yamagishi-san’s soundtrack will want to experience his work, but players will have to endure the slow-pacing and odd design choices.

Overall Score: 6.0 out of 10

A special thank you to the publisher for providing us a review copy for Exile’s End! Copy reviewed on PS4.

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Aragami Review (PS4/X1): “Embrace the Shadows”


Lince Works takes us back a step in the stealth genre with Aragami. With many so-called stealth games to dilute the pool (Dishonored, Thief, Styx), it would have appeared as though the formula was set in place. Luckily for us, that’s where Aragami comes in and shakes things up a bit. By forcing the player to use their wits and plan accordingly, Aragami takes a well-needed step back. So does it succeed? Or does Aragami sulk in the shadows? 

Story: 4/5

You play as Aragami, a vengeful spirit summoned by a sorceress, Yamiko, who is being held captive by the pillaging “Warriors of Light”, Kaiho, who have been at war with the “Shadow Warriors”. Beyond what you are, Aragami starts off as a mystery that slowly unfolds as you meticulously make your way through the game’s 8 chapters, for a total completion time of around 12-15 hours. You are told that in order to free the sorceress and allow her clan to take vengeance upon Kaiho, you need to collect 6 talismans, each of which are heavily guarded. As you reclaim the talismans, you are reunited with lost memories; some of which belong to the sorceress, while some belong to the person you were before your death, and consequently your resurrection. Uncovering these memories is key to the story of Aragami, but so is paying careful attention throughout each chapter. Enemies talk amongst one another and provide valuable information that can sway your perspective as to what is going on with the mysterious sorceress and where you come in as the deadly assassin (or ghostly shadow depending on your preference). 

After paying attention to enemy NPC’s conversations, I was sure I had the story figured out way before I thought I was supposed to. And then Aragami did something… mischievous. It kept me guessing. Not enough to definitively change my mind, but just enough to ensure I wasn’t sure. This was achieved by playing with the child-parent-like bond between Yamiko and Aragami in the main cutscenes. Aragami, really not sure of anything, knows he can only trust one person – Yamiko, who gave him life. However, as Aragami discovered more memories of both himself and Yamiko, he begins to become troubled and confused. Nonetheless, his faith in his creator and the knowledge of his only living purpose, revenge, keeps him moving forward. While Aragami did end how I anticipated, I thoroughly enjoyed the character development and the slight toying with my emotions throughout the story. Through the main cutscenes and small gems riddled in the gameplay through AI conversations, you are able to see all sides of this feud and you come to an understanding of how everyone got to where they are. It was almost poetic how at the last scene unfolds. And just when you think you know how it all will end, the developers throw one line – two words – to make you sit back and truly understand the struggles of these warring factions.

Gameplay: 5/5

Aragami is not like the stealth games we’ve come to know. In fact, after playing Aragami it is difficult to consider most other games as actual “stealth games”. Aragami himself has actually no combat capabilities, meaning once you are discovered you must run and hide, or carefully remove your opponents with finesse. This sort of limitation is not seen in many stealth games, as many of them offer you a chance to fight back and then flee if necessary. You are however given a small set of skills that are carefully designed for different scenarios.

You start out with the basics: shadow teleportation. It’s a simple concept to start, you can only move quickly between shadows, using up a small amount of shadow power that is displayed on your cape. This shadow power is the basis for all of your abilities. It restores in shadows and gets quickly removed when standing in light sources. You soon gain the ability to create shadows to teleport into, albeit at the hefty cost of shadow power. After this however, you are on your own to develop Aragami as you see fit. You discover cleverly (and frustratingly) placed scrolls which offer skill points that can be spent on different shadow powers. There are six of these powers in total, three are deemed as defensive, while the other three are offensive. It is an interesting classification as I personally would not consider many of them offensive (save for the kunai, which when thrown instantly kills a single opponent). A better nomenclature for all of the skills would simply be “strategic”, and that is definitely the theme of the game and I believe what the developers were trying to drive home. Almost any of the abilities can be used in a number of different ways, something that was truly a pleasure to explore and trial! My personal favorite was a shadow vortex trap, that when placed could be triggered from any location and instantly (and silently) move any number of nearby enemies into another realm. I found that in order to progress through certain situations, some skills were more useful than others. By the last chapter, I discovered uses for all skills that I hadn’t thought of before and was using each of them frequently! Some might consider these abilities overpowered but luckily there is a limitation to them. You are allowed only two uses per ability. However, shrines that restore all abilities are located throughout each level, and a particularly badass stealth kill skill can restore one use to the equipped ability. 

Like most stealth games, you are provided the option of killing everyone, no one, or somewhere in the morally unsound grey area. Unlike most stealth games, you are given natural tools to aid you in your endeavors as well. The first two talismans you acquire offer you a marking ability, which upon upgrading can track enemies through walls, and something I feel every true stealth game should have: a noise maker. Previous games we’ve seen whistling or banging your sword on objects to distract nearby guards, in this game it is a simple bangle. This small tool is revolutionary in stealth games and has a huge impact on gameplay, so I was thrilled to see it included. 

Aragami gets something else right that honestly was completely unanticipated: boss fights. Besides a rather fast-paced technical section, there were in fact three distinct boss fights and each of them were expertly handled and impressively varied. Considering the limited nature of most stealth games, it is often difficult to incorporate mechanics outside of the normal gameplay. However, Aragami’s clever abilities payed off well here. By thinking outside of the box, I was able to use my abilities in ways I didn’t even think of before in order to overcome a more challenging threat. This was truly a unique experience as many previous games that attempt this often result in an awkward encounter for the player.

Boss fights aren’t the only thing Aragami does different than its “not-so-stealthy-anymore” predecessors; it also does co-op. You can play through the entire campaign with a friend on a separate console and vanquish your enemies (or not) in all-new and exciting ways! Tag teaming using different abilities in conjunction actually works very well, and having two sets of eyes on the playing field can result in a much smoother run – so long as you’re both on the same page!

Completion of the main story allows your character’s progression to persist so there is plenty of replay value in Aragami. Whether it’s going back to collect all of the scrolls; completing missions with different objectives; or simply going through it cooperatively, this is by far not a single playthrough game.

Graphics: 3/5

Aragami’s simple nature of shadow-versus-light is an easy contrast to play with, and the developers at Lince Works executed it very well. Aragami himself takes on a very satisfying form, changing from tones of black, grey and vibrant red when in the light, to a terrifying all-black when in shadows to let you know when you’re in better hiding. Environments are well decorated but sometimes can feel un-blended depending on the level. There were frequent instances when upon moving the camera, the point of view would jump out of bounds and then suddenly back in; and quite frequently the framerate would drop massively. This led to experiences of stuttering or input lag that in more than one instance resulted in death. Unfortunately, all the careful timing and planning in the world cannot hold up to random spikes and dips in framerate, and in a game where timing can be everything, this can be quite an issue. Luckily the game didn’t seem to suffer any additional consquences of playing online and most deaths are easily recoverable. The animations of various abilities were well thoughtout, smooth and satisfying. I could watch Aragami’s shadow snake coil an enemy and bring him to the shadow realm over and over again and never tire! There was only a handful of clipping cases and overall I felt it was a smooth experience playing through each of the levels, save for a few light intensive ones.

Sound: 4/5

Not only do you have to watch your surroundings and enemies’ movements, you also need to listen to them and the environment. Something that can be overlooked at times in stealth games is carefully handled in Aragami and that is the ambience of the game. The soft and delicate soundtrack plays lightly in the background of each mission. If you didn’t focus on it, you wouldn’t know it was there – and that is exactly how it needs to be to allow your complete, undivided attention to the matter at hand. Only when you are discovered does the music quickly escalate to the heart-pumping chase track that will ensure you’re filled with panic as you realize your mistakes. Footsteps from all sources project well; small light fire sources glisten in your ear and conversations from enemies are clearly heard. Interestingly, the main characters are not completely voiced, relying on text to comprehend any dialogue, but the emotion is there. Regardless, Aragami succeeds in the delicate addition of important sound balancing.

Overall Score: 16/20 = 8.0 out of 10

Aragami is a unique and enjoyable stealth game that succeeds in the minimalistic inclusion of its core elements. Its story was somewhat predictable, but it did a decent job of keeping me interested through a carefully crafted relationship, along with addicting skill and planning-based gameplay. While some graphical issues would occasionally remove me from the full experience, I was pleasantly surprised by the addition of actual boss fights and a well-functioning co-operative mode. With great replay value for those who enjoy proving themselves, it is well worth at least a single playthrough for those who enjoy taking their time in a game.

Pros:

+ Simplistic stealth mechanics that create a true stealth game
+ Creative abilities to aid in problem solving
+ Clever and original boss fights
+ Functioning co-operative mode

Cons:

– Some graphical issues
– Story shows its hand very soon

A special thank you to the publisher for providing us a review copy for Aragami! Copy reviewed on PS4.

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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