Hand of Fate Review

Hand of Fate may not be a Dungeons & Dragons game, but it captures the imagination in a similar way: by abstracting exploration and encouraging your mind to create exactly what the forests, dungeons, and villages you encounter might look like. The game’s mysterious and melodramatic card dealer takes the role of dungeon master, uncovering cards that represent star-crossed lovers looking for a friendly face, or raging riverbeds that must be crossed. Meanwhile, you sit across from the enigma holding the cards, choosing whether to help the lovers, or to alert their parents; you navigate that river, hoping to traverse it unscathed, rather than to draw the ire of nearby lizardpeople. You never see these lovers: they exist only as a few words and a card. Hand of Fate invites you to look beyond its abstractions and picture such moments with your mind’s eye. When the game tells you of a surreal circus that dissipates on the wind once you make your exit, the writing is just clear enough to let you paint within the outlines drawn for you.

It’s tempting to call Hand of Fate a cross between a collectible card game and an action role-playing game, and while you can customize your deck, that comparison doesn’t seem quite right. A typical CCG is competitive, having players attack and counter using cards that represent creatures, heroes, statistics, and so forth. In Hand of Fate, those cards act in tandem as a tabletop game board in which you move your token one square at a time, uncovering events with each turn. The enigmatic dealer places his cards face down in a linear or non-linear arrangement, and with each move, you lose a single ration of food, which is one of three primary resources–along with gold and health–that you must track. That card might represent a simple bandit ambush, a bard asking for coin in return for a song, or a magic portal that takes you to the next adventuring area–which means navigating a new arrangement of cards.The gods will not always smile upon you. Drawing a card often leads to more choices, many of which are determined solely by luck. You are running from a giant tentacled behemoth, and your destiny belongs to the whims of four cards, only one of which represents success, while the others represent various degrees of failure. The four cards are shuffled, and with a shaky hand, you choose the one you hope leads to safety. Some events are stacked in your favor–the hand may consist of three success cards and one failure card, for example–while others punish you with several randomized draws in a row, each of which possesses only a single chance of success. Victory often means drawing from a stack of equipment cards from your own deck (Ooh, look: a flaming sword!). Failure, on the other hand, usually means drawing loss cards that diminish your maximum health, or even curse you with negative effects that last until the game is over–unless, that is, you draw a card for a mage that sells curse removals, and you actually have the 75 gold necessary to buy his services.Encounter cards lead you into battles that are not left to your imagination, but occur in real time. Combat ushers you into a small map within a forest, or within a ruined temple, and you swing your axe or sword at rats and mages until they fall–or until you do. Skirmishes have a Batman: Arkham vibe, in the sense that prompts appear over your head, and you must press the proper button to counter a melee attack, or to deflect an incoming projectile. Early battles are easy enough to survive, but as the story mode wears on, you face difficult situations made even more challenging by bear traps hidden in bushes, and giant golems that pound the ground, forcing you to tumble away lest you lose a giant chunk of health.What a clusterjam! Hand of Fate’s brilliance lies in how its abstract components inform very real battles. Should you run out of food, for instance, each turn slashes ten health points away from your total supply. If you are nearing death when the next battle begins, you are all that more anxious about timing your swings perfectly, and avoiding traps at all costs, knowing that being hit by a single dart is enough to change the tide of battle. Back and forth you move, from battle arenas to the cards in front of you. When you draw near death during battle, you return to the cards hoping the next move might bring you nearer a priest who might heal you, rather than draw a curse that siphons away your last remaining spirit. When you leave the cards for battle, you wish you hadn’t sold shield for the food you were so desperate for. Tensions rise as the pendulum swings back and forth, and all you can do is pray the hand of fate provides cards that favor and bless you. It’s a satisfying tug of war, unusual in the way it marries the conceptual with the physical.It is in the details that Hand of Fate suffers, occasionally allowing the frustrations to outweigh the fun. On the battlefield, the small maps and fixed camera don’t play nice, too often limiting your point of view when you most need situational awareness. I often longed for breathing room, such as when close to a dozen rats swarmed me on a sea vessel so small that neither I nor my enemies could properly move about. And I often wished for a better camera, particularly during the occasional trap mazes, when I couldn’t quite tell if a map square was trapped because a wall was in my way, and the camera had yet to pull closer. Off the battlefield, the element of chance also proves vexing. What is an adventurer to do when a series of curses has reduced your maximum health pool to one point of health before you have ever entered battle? You might play several story matches over and over again, pining for triumph, only to throw the controller and move on to something less cruel, like Spelunky or Dark Souls.Health and food are even more valuable than gold–but boy does gold come in handy! Technical troubles hinder the game in and out of combat. The frame rate in particular is habitually unstable; the single-digit jitters that typically occur when the dealer performs his mystical shuffles may not affect gameplay, but it certainly diminishes the magic of the moment. I also encountered numerous bugs; there was a period during which I had to start up the game multiple times before it would run, and another stretch during which the lava golem would immediately die when he performed his first attack, as if he was taking damage from his own wallops. (Note that I have only played on the Xbox One; these problems may or may not occur on PlayStation 4 or PC.)Yet Hand of Fate has a way of drawing you back into its fold, even after you have completed its story and have taken to Endless Mode, which challenges you to stay alive as long as you can before your luck runs out. The game absorbs you in three ways at once, by invoking both the loot-gathering vibe of an action RPG, the deck-fiddling fun of a CCG, and the “I’m feeling lucky this time!” aspirations of games of chance. It’s a powerful one-two-three punch, though you need to be prepared: sometimes those punches land with unexpected pain.

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The Legend of Candlewind: Nights & Candles Review

The Legend of Candlewind: Nights and Candles had me at “Eye of the Beholder”–and lost me about five minutes after I finished the install process. You may be willing to try any role-playing game promising to evoke the feel of the classic D&D first-person adventures, but developer Atmosphere Entertainment Studios’ dismal and pointless exercise in nostalgia is unlikely to win your admiration. Mindless action, stupid difficulty, a needlessly convoluted interface, and filmstrip production values combine to turn off even the most forgiving player looking for a blast from the past.

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In many ways, Legend of Candlewind is even more primitive than games like Eye of the Beholder and other late 1980s and early 1990s dungeon crawls like Dungeon Master, which sold a whole lot of Atari STs in their day. The game opens with a lengthy text blurb about the fantasy realm around the town of Candlewind and the need to venture off to ominous Blackwood Forest to deal with some rogues. So, no cutscenes or animations here, though the font looks kind of nice and Tolkien-esque, at least. From there, you get dumped right into a dungeon labyrinth (uh, what happened to that forest?) with four adventurers ready to go. This gang consists of the standard tanks up front and mages in the back. There are no options to create your own characters or do any sort of customizing.

The Legend of Candlewind lures you in with promises of Eye of the Beholder-styled role-playing, but turns you off with, well, everything it really is. I generally don’t mind being stuck with pre-rolled heroes. Nevertheless, I have to admit to being annoyed here, if only because of ridiculous names like Garrison Hiffs and Shailee Frostflower. Even worse, all the character profile pics are of the same scraggly haired guy who looks like he might have been hauling gear for Deep Purple circa 1973. All are given minor alterations with the less-than-creative application of facial hair and a helmet, although the attempt to make the members of this gang of four look different from one another is so half-hearted that it’s laughable. And yes, even poor Shailee gets this treatment, which leaves her looking more like a third-rate groupie hanging out with the roadies backstage than “the daughter of a forest witch.”Game mechanics are even more irritating. There are no frills here–absolutely none. The game doesn’t have keyboard shortcuts, which leaves you doing everything with the mouse. There are no proper tool-tips, even for the usual items, like spells. The developers also seem to have gone out of their way to create the most cumbersome interface possible. You need to hold down the left mouse button and open up a menu just to select and move objects in your inventory. The whole system is ridiculously obtuse. It took me 10 minutes to figure out how to shoot an arrow, because you have to actually pick arrows, divide them, and then manually load one onto a bow.Hope you like stone walls and text boxes. Adventuring is boring and repetitive. All you do is trudge through the stone-walled chambers of a labyrinth, stopping only to kill the same handful of unconvincing monsters in exhausting turn-based battles. Creatures like goblins, rogues, and, uh, goblins and rogues are static models that simply blink their way closer and closer to your position. Actual combat is depicted by these models leaping up in the air, in an effect akin to somebody waving a paper cutout at you. Only single creatures are shown. Attacks by groups of goons happen, but their numbers are depicted via icons at the bottom of the screen, as they line up and go at you single file.Successful attacks in Legend of Candlewind aren’t shown by any sort of swinging sword, but by the enemy in question flashing red and occasionally spitting out a few drops of blood. Spells come with rudimentary pyrotechnics: I’ve thrown cherry bombs more impressive than the game’s Fireball. The only sort-of presentation plus is the musical score, which features enough flute to sound like Jethro Tull on a bad day. That said, this score is a single looping song, and it vanishes completely after just a couple of minutes of play, never to return. Oh, and the sound effects consist of thuds and louder thuds.
All you do is trudge through the stone-walled chambers of a labyrinth, stopping only to kill the same handful of unconvincing monsters in exhausting turn-based battles.

As for combat strategizing, there isn’t any. Once an enemy appears, everything gets locked down. You can’t access your inventory during scraps at all, so forget about swapping weapons, taking a potion, or using some sort of magical gizmo. The lack of access to cool gear doesn’t mean much, though, because the dungeon isn’t exactly rich with treasure. Vanquished monsters don’t leave behind loot drops. You’re about as likely to walk out your front door right now and spot Bigfoot as you are to find a treasure chest in this game. Even when you do spot one, it’s always stuffed with useless items like apples, loaves of bread, arrows, a rare gold coin or two, and the odd potion of healing or magic. Weapons and armor are virtually impossible to find. I spent most of the game with the same pathetic gear (the lead fighter is equipped with nothing but torches and a shield) that I received at the start of the game. These clowns come off more like wandering vagrants than the usual RPG heroes swinging swords and rocking plate mail.Difficulty almost immediately soars off the charts. If you push ahead into the labyrinth, you quickly run into murderous opponents who simply cannot be slain. You can’t rest, either. Your only option when it comes to restoring health or mana is to quaff potions or cast spells, although the former is in short supply and mana points can be quickly exhausted by throwing around just a few incantations. The only way to get anywhere is by grinding out levels, courtesy of the game’s handy “Wait for Monster” button that summons up random encounters. This is as exciting as it sounds. And very slow. Just a handful of experience points are earned in each battle. Arriving at last at the second level is cause to pop some corks.Didn’t I just kill that thing? Doors with obvious locks are scattered throughout the dungeon. Click on them, and you get a message about the door being opened with a key. Only there aren’t any keys, and most of the doors are actually unlocked. It took me an hour to figure this out, and that was only because I accidentally clicked to move forward one too many times and wound up going right through a door. Even without these fake-out doors, nothing about the dungeon seems real. Encounters with friendly characters are not shown on-screen. Wandering traders, folks who need a hand, and other characters are shown solely with text descriptions and boxes you click to select actions.No matter how starved you might be for old-timey role-playing, give The Legend of Candlewind a wide berth. This is a terrible, aggravating experience bound to disappoint you no matter how much you might want to relive the glory days of Eye of the Beholder.

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Raven’s Cry Review

Gather ’round, ye sons and daughters of landlubbers. Draw up a pint, and listen to a tale. A tale of single-digit frame-rates and computer crashes that will make you want to shove yer hook through yer monitor. It’s a tale of deeply unsettling gendered violence and racist slaughter played for casual drama. The tale’s written in the language of cheap misogyny and homophobia, and if yer willing to see this story through to its conclusion, ye’ve more patience than I (and a magical copy of the game free of the bug that makes completion literally impossible at the time of this writing).

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That stylistic introduction is honestly more than Raven’s Cry, the pirate-themed adventure role-playing game from Two Worlds developer Reality Pumps Studio, could ever deserve. In an age where shaky launches have become a sad norm, Raven’s Cry makes most buggy games seem as polished as the floors of Versailles. The game is playable in the barest sense of the word in those moments where it’s not hard-crashing your computer, and the game’s writing is so tone-deaf and offensive and mean-spirited that playing the game for more than a couple of hours at a time can begin to take an emotional toll. It’s the type of game where the only moments that you don’t hate yourself for continuing to play it are those where it’s merely tedious instead of utterly broken.

Maria sounds more like a creepy eye-monster than a madame, based on this line. In Raven’s Cry, you take the reins of Christopher Raven, a sneering and loathsome pirate in the 1700s. Christopher’s story begins when a job turns sour, and the Spanish navy nearly burns down an entire Caribbean town to get to him. Christopher sets out to get revenge against the Spaniard who betrayed him, but it isn’t long in your adventure before you come across the wreckage of a ship left by Christopher’s arch-nemesis, a man who raped and murdered Christopher’s mother when he was a boy. And, thus, Christopher begins to sail across the breadth of the Caribbean in search of that man’s former crew so he can murder one of the few people in this game’s universe who is more horrible than he is.If that story seems like the traditional revenge fare that has become increasingly popular in recent years, “stale” is an adjective that Raven’s Cry wishes could be used to describe itself. Out of the gates, Raven’s Cry gives the impression that large chunks of story and writing were left on the cutting-room floor. Characters, motivations, and places appear without context or explanation but with a strange assumption that the player can follow who these figures are. And bland incomprehensibility is the game’s strong suit. When Raven’s Cry writing is memorable, it becomes so for all the wrong reasons. Though it has seemingly been patched out since launch, the “barks” of your ship’s crew mostly consist of gendered and homophobic slurs. I haven’t heard the male iteration of the “c” word this often since Deadwood (and with none of David Milch’s redemptive style). And don’t worry. The female “c” word pops up just as often as well. Christopher openly insults black people in the face of his black first mate–who disappears for seemingly no reason early in the game. And, also early in the game, Christopher physically assaults a sex worker to gain information for a quest. Villains casually joke about rape. Tribal natives are treated as mindless cannibal savages that you slaughter in high numbers. The game has the cultural sensitivity of Birth of a Nation, and I needed a bath to wash away the grime of this game’s world every time I stopped playing.
“Stale” is an adjective that Raven’s Cry wishes could be used to describe itself.

The actual gameplay is broken into two primary segments: ship-to-ship combat and on-foot exploration/combat. Neither works well, although the ship combat is the least broken of the two. Ship combat plays out similarly to that of Assassin’s Creed III (specifically before Black Flag updated those systems), where you line up broadside to systematically take out enemy ship hulls and sails (and the crew if you wish to board). Precision is relegated to set increments for the height of your shots, so if a ship is in a frustrating grey area between two shot levels, you’re out of luck.At the beginning of Raven’s Cry, it’s not uncommon to think that ship combat is simply impossible. Raven’s Cry opens up the entire world map almost right out of the gates, it gives you little information about which combat engagements you have any hope of surviving, and it never informs you that fleeing from a ship battle is a potential option–and a necessity at the beginning of the game. The world of Raven’s Cry’s is enormous, and you may find yourself wanting to sail off–through an entirely abstracted menu experience–to the farthest isles of the Caribbean only to find your puny schooner up against frigates, galleons, and men of war. It took me literally hours to get even the most basic feel for the ship combat, and even then, one-on-one battles with another schooner mostly come down to luck and patience until you get your first couple of upgrades. Ship warfare becomes much more bearable after you get the second ship, but it’s never enjoyable.Ground combat is swordplay without much play. The game offers you ways to block and dodge and a meter that you can fill up to perform one-hit kills, but attempting to get fancy with your rapier is both a waste of time and a surefire way to end up dead. Raven’s Cry suffers from awful input delay when it isn’t just ignoring your button presses altogether. The simple act of opening a door requires multiple presses of the “X” button if you’re playing on a gamepad, and trying to block with that system will get you cut to shreds. It’s much more efficient to mindlessly mash the attack button until everyone around you is dead and–if necessary–open the menu to use a health potion. The game’s collision detection is impressively variable, failing to recognize some clear and direct hits while also occasionally letting you kill enemies when your blade is meters away from anything.Combat is both frustrating and boring. It’s the deadliest of combinations. Land exploration is as frustrating as land combat. Christopher can barely walk in a straight line because the camera swings around worse than a drunken sailor. That isn’t always a pain, but on the rare occasions when the game requires you to navigate a tight path without rails or sides, it’s too easy and too common to fall over the edge to your death or to water. Christopher can’t even walk over ankle-high obstacles that aren’t explicitly stairs–and occasionally he can’t even walk over those–without having to rely on his awkward and uncontrollable jumping skill. The towns and islands in the game offer an impressive scale and sense of verticality, but Christopher can jump about as well as the Monstars from Space Jam before they steal Charles Barkley’s powers, so don’t hold out any hope of climbing around these sometimes huge spaces.The presentation of Raven’s Cry is as shoddy as its writing and mechanics. You may have to turn every single graphical option to its lowest setting or off to get the frame rate of Raven’s Cry to a playable state. The frame rate still stuttered and chugged during sea battles or any time there was rain (which is often in this game), but it was usable. It did leave the environments in Raven’s Cry looking like something out of a late-period PlayStation 2 game, though, with character models that were only slightly better.There are elements of the presentation that aren’t broken simply because they aren’t finished. Large chunks of the dialogue in Raven’s Cry are missing. Characters will be having a voiced conversation when suddenly a character’s lips will keep moving but no sounds come out and subtitles appear at the bottom of the screen when they weren’t there before. The first time it happened, I was sure it was a strange glitch, but it happened again and again and again. Honestly, the game should have abandoned voice acting altogether because the performances that do exist consist of stilted and soporific line readings that make off-Broadway theater feel like Laurence Olivier doing Shakespeare at the Globe. There’s a pirate you meet early in the game that I’m still convinced recorded his lines while hung over or half asleep. Audio glitches abound in regular play, too, with sounds fading in and out of existence seemingly at random, giving Raven’s Cry the unintentional sound design of a nightmarish Lynch-ian fever dream.‘Twas a dark and stormy sea. All of the other complaints that can be levied against Raven’s Cry are legion, but you can force yourself to soldier through them if you really want to, although I pity anyone who voluntarily spends any time with this game. What truly puts Raven’s Cry in the pantheon of the worst games of all time is that story progression can easily become totally impossible. After slugging through 17 hours of the game, a bug in a story portion of the game–where there was only one way back to the overworld out of the labyrinthine temple I’d been exploring–crashed my computer over and over again at the same point. I turned the game off, came back a couple of hours later, and tried again. The game crashed again. And I’d had enough.

It’s not hard to say whether it’s worse that Raven’s Cry is so broken or that it’s full of so much offensive material; the offensive material is worse. But the fact is that either of these things is more than enough for a rational person to avoid playing it. The game is unfinished, a chore when you can play it, and full of disgusting vitriol aimed at women and people of color. Buy a ticket for a different ship.

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Aaru’s Awakening Review

Some say that there is no such thing as love at first sight–that initial attraction and infatuation appeal only to our aesthetic pleasures, and that true love only rises when passion no longer clouds our judgment. Romantics and idealists may dismiss the notion, but the deep-rooted frustrations of Aaru’s Awakening may drive them to reconsider their sentiment. This unusual game craves your affection, each of its radiant hand-drawn environments singing love songs until you’re entranced. You may initially fall for this superficial beauty, but the game soon reveals its true form as a vindictive suitor, grossly untrustworthy in its controls and devoid of the fundamental assets of any good platformer. I am sorry, Aaru’s Awakening, but I must cut this relationship short, and I am afraid it’s not me: it’s you.

I offer no insight into Aaru Awakening’s actual development process, but it’s easy to assume that visuals were prized over all other elements. Even the hub from which you access the game’s levels is ravishing. It exquisitely represents the passage of time from dawn to night, each quadrant of a central orb depicting an abstract landscape that looks drawn by colored pencil. Within the side-scrolling stages, cross-hatching and asymmetrical markings provide texture and depth, while moving elements like lava floes and falling rocks are drawn frame by frame. It is through these techniques that Aaru’s world comes to life underneath its unnatural magenta skies.What a phenemonal-looking boss. What a tedious level. The playable hero is Dawn’s champion Aaru, a bearlike creature with a mane that stretches from head to tail, and he, too, moves with a charming hand-drawn inelegance that befits his illustrated world. Alas, the gracelessness of movement that makes Aaru initially joyous to watch in action becomes the game’s most prominent failing. When a platformer requires finesse and quick response, as Aaru’s Awakening frequently does, fluid animations and controls are vital. Aaru is anything but fluid, however, changing positions mid-air with all the precision of a sloth that has been dropped from a fourth-floor window. Aaru would be a delightful hero in a meandering adventure, but Super Meat Boy he is most certainly not.As if to make up for his lack of leaping prowess, Aaru can rush ahead in a single whoosh, and can also propel an orb from his body that he can teleport to–and it is around these two mechanics that most of Aaru’s Awakening’s maddening puzzles are formulated. Navigating the game’s spaces is a trial in and of itself, due to a wholesale absence of genre basics–the kind of basics we take for granted in the best platformers because of their ubiquity and necessity. We expect to be able to quickly identify what objects are collidable and which are background art, for instance, particularly when we need to make snap mid-air decisions. Here, the foreground and background blend with the gameplay layer. Is that branch sticking outwards a platform, or just a visual detail? Will I pass in front of that barrier, or will I collide? That Aaru’s Awakening requires you to even ask such a question rather than for you to immediately know is a colossal problem.The writing is lovely, but the narrator slurs her words in odd ways. Without the fundamentals in place, any cleverness apparent in Aaru’s Awakening’s platforming challenges dissipate. What the challenges may even be is often a secret until you are dropping from a great height when the platform beneath you crumbles, or when a ramp has propelled you forward. You may not be able to tell whether you will fall to safety, or impale yourself on a bed of spiked rocks, until gravity makes the decision for you and the spikes rise into view, too late for you to do anything but succumb to death. Now you know for the next time–but when you bear the burden of this game’s inconsistent movement and clumsy animations, it’s difficult to build enthusiasm for a next time. And that’s an issue: Aaru’s Awakening is, by design, a trial-and-error platformer in which you shave off as many seconds from your completion time as possible. Your reward for success is the chance to show off your skill on the game’s online leaderboards. I might have enjoyed chasing the competition had the challenge been to overcome tricky puzzles and perform perilous leaps, rather than to wrestle with my controller.Putting down the controller is an option, though it’s natural to reach for a gamepad when playing a platformer. Aaru’s Awakening’s controller support is not ideal, however, assigning the default jump move to an analog stick rather than a button. You must also activate the controller in the menus before you can use it, and should you unplug it during play, the game may stop responding to any input, even if you plug the controller back in. Regardless of your control method, the maddening levels may drive you to smash your hardware. The Dusk boss fight, for instance, requires that you rush across a series of platforms, some of which crumble, and some of which drop and then rise towards the spiked ceiling. You must teleport into the globes that float in this stage as well as avoid the poisonous river that waits for you at the bottom of the screen. Aaru’s awkwardness turns what might have been an exciting sequence into a mess, during which you must perfectly execute your dashes and perfectly aim your teleport orbs at the proper angle within unimaginably narrow time gaps. There’s no fun in the trying, and thus no fun in the succeeding.Those are the kinds of goo-falls that don’t hurt you. Yet Aaru’s Awakening hints at fun. You fire your teleport orb past a beam of scorching light, teleport again by angling your orb into a thin, winding passage, and an arcing ramp flings you into the sky. What a rush this moment is–a rush then halted when you land in the pool of lava that didn’t appear until you were six inches above it. You destroy a hideous colossal housefly by teleporting inside of it–what a fantastic idea!–only to drown moments later because you must blindly teleport, not knowing what you might find until you’ve closed the deal. Aaru’s Awakening is a dreamy display of artistic imagination that yanks you back to waking life with every awkward leap and every ill-conceived level.

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Evolve Review

Like many children, I was afraid of the mythical monster under the bed, but in time, this nightmare fodder gained a face and a name. It was the Sasquatch, a creature I came to fear when watching a cheap television film late at night which demonized the fictitious (or is it?!) beast. I refused to go into the woods by myself for years afterwards, for fear a giant hairy fiend might grab me and abscond with my limp body, for Lord knows what reasons. By avoiding the woods, I could avoid the monster lurking there.

Evolve doesn’t let you hide. This unusual and entertaining team-focused shooter forces you to face a grotesque monster in each and every match, and should you find it, you cannot always flee. Here’s the setup: a four-person team of hunters, each touting very specific talents, is on the prowl. The quarry is a single creature with an appetite for flesh. Not just the flesh of the hunters, but indeed, for the flesh of anything that moves. By attacking the wildlife and chomping down on its meat, the monster evolves through three stages of being, each more powerful than the last. Clearly, the hunters would rather tear the monster down with the least resistance possible, and thus finding the creature quickly, and efficiently destroying it, is a good team’s opening goal.

Hurry it UP Parnell. Maybe you should have taken that “faster reloading” perk. Would that it were so easy. Should you join a team of hunters, you rely on a particular squadmate to lead you to the beast. That would be the trapper, and while you eventually unlock two other trappers to chose from, Evolve smartly taps Maggie as the initial leader. Maggie makes for a good guide through the ins and outs of pursuit, for she is not a lone ranger. Instead, she relies on her best friend Daisy, an animal called a trapjaw that you might think of as an ugly beagle, or perhaps the result of a hyena and a shark’s unholy coupling. In any case, Daisy is truly woman’s best friend: she follows the monster’s tracks, and leads you to its current location, should all the proper pieces fit in place.I describe the trapper first because she is the de facto team leader. Trappers Abe and Griffin have their own tracking tools–a pistol that shoots tracking darts, in Abe’s case, and sonic spikes that alert you to the monster’s whereabouts for Griffin. Yet Maggie and Daisy are crucial in those early learning hours, and if they join your team frequently, your first match without Daisy feels rather lonely, as if you’ve lost a buddy and have been forced to fend for yourself under duress. With or without her, this phase captures the essence of a true hunt: it’s tense, simmering with the possibility of a sighting at any moment, and, like a real-life hunting trip (or Sasquatch search, depending on your predilections), there might be stretches of boredom. A sneaky monster crouches to hide its tracks, or doubles back on its own path, thus leaving a befuddling set of paw prints. Even with a veteran crew, Evolve is occasionally the Blair Witch Project of online shooters, replete with creepy noises, signs of a deadly presence, and a whole lot of running around, hoping for something to happen, at least in its central Hunt mode. How long it takes Evolve as a whole to become stale is difficult to gauge, but after close to three dozen hours, I’m not yet ready to leave it behind. If anything, I’m eager to discover more ways to use the landscape as part of my strategy, though I find this world a fascinating enough place that time outside of battle still engages me. If you prefer to run your engine hot, the hunt may not satisfy you.In the right hands, the Wraith is a powerful damage-dealer. The hunters chat it up from time to time, trying to keep you invested in the chase, but the dialogue repeats quickly and often. Hunting with my grandfather was as much about telling stories as it was about bagging an eight-point buck (we thankfully never encountered the Sasquatch); if only Evolve had taken the opportunity to regale you with tall tales. Nevertheless, Evolve goes out of its way to mitigate any potential tedium, forcing the monster to attack a power generator, and the hunters to defend it, once the monster achieves the final stage of its evolution. In any case, hunts don’t usually hit the boredom breaking point. There is wildlife to contend with, for starters, though you’ll ignore most of the critters when possible. Yet you can’t always bypass them, either because killing one rewards you with a temporary (but still long-lasting) buff, or because a not-actually-a-rock comes to life and starts chomping on your tasty bits. The world of Shear isn’t hospitable, though humans have certainly tried to tame it, going so far as to build a verdant bird sanctuary on its most chilling map. There’s no story to speak of, but the poisonous creeks and carcasses left by the monster’s predations speak volumes. The visual design deserves some credit for the oppressive atmosphere, bringing to life a planet that clearly isn’t Earth, but is just enough like it to unsettle you–a biological uncanny valley, if you will. Audio wields the true power in Evolve, however, freaking you out with the chitter-chatter of Lord-knows-what, and the squishes and crunches of what-the-hell-made-that-noise…And then the moment arrives, and the foreshadowed attack occurs. Battles remain fresh and exciting due to an in-game conspiracy devised by Evolve’s many variables: rising plateaus that provide vantage points and break up the line of sight; the trapper’s vast dome, which traps the monster within its confines and creates corners and cul de sacs; nearby creatures that might enter the fray; and the hunters’ own weapons and skills, of course, which damage and limit the monster in various ways. Assault expert Hyde uses toxic grenades that poison the monster and help drive it to different areas; support-class robot Bucket drops floating turrets that pelt the monster with bullets; and tracker Abe slows down the target with stasis grenades.
Audio wields the true power in Evolve, however, freaking you out with the chitter-chatter of Lord-knows-what.

These battles are invariably intense. There are three monsters in total–the ground-pounding Goliath, the airborne Kraken, and the Wraith, master of the hit-and-run. A Goliath skirmish is the most straightforward, typically: the brute attacks head on, throwing boulders and breathing fire, wreaking havoc on your health bar while dramatically tossing you and your comrades through the air. A fight like this can be beautifully disorienting when you find yourself thrown into the underbrush and your visibility is limited, or fall into a nearby river, wholly impotent until you can crawl out. Should you catch the monster early in its evolution, it might take flight, potentially instigating a game of cat-and-mouse as you attempt to trap it before it escapes–which it most often does. That doesn’t mean, however, that Parnell’s rockets might not land a few good shots as it runs, and perhaps Goliath will frighten a flock of birds as it trudges away, alerting you to its current location.A battle with the Kraken plays out differently, as this peculiar beast rises above you and spits down lightning, a cryptozoological Zeus punishing every hunter with zaps of electricity. The downside of facing the Kraken is that some weapons simply won’t do; if I’m playing as Hyde, I may never get close enough to the thing for my flamethrower to be effective. (Thank goodness for Hyde’s minigun, which spews forth an enormous string of ammo before needing to be reloaded.) Well, there are other downsides, of course–the possibility of your medic getting cornered and annihilated, and the Kraken zapping anyone that should mindlessly rush into harm’s way to revive her. Situational awareness wins and loses matches. As you become more experienced, you learn how to exploit Shear’s vertical spaces, using a jetpack to float to better locations, and putting obstacles between you and your flesh-eating stalker. The game warns you to stick with your team should you wander off too far, and few warnings in video games are so meaningful. There is no room for a chest-thumping supersoldier: Playing hero means your charred corpse shall become monster food.

Developer Turtle Rock missed a fantastic opportunity to name one of the hunters “David.” After all, who else should be facing Goliath? If you’d rather be the feaster than the feast-ee, you’d best play as the monster yourself, and I confess there are few greater pleasures in Evolve than gulping down a fallen hunter as you would Shear’s grazing fauna. You can eat Daisy too, should she die during battle, though I have pangs of guilt when doing so. She’s such an innocent participant in the proceedings, and besides, she’s cute in her own disgusting way. On the other hand, she needs to die: not only does she lead the hunters directly to me, but she also revives her teammates by licking them to full health. Might as well fill my belly with some Daisy-meat when the opportunity presents itself.Indeed, playing as the monster is deliciously evil, particularly when choosing the Wraith, which can swoop in, grab a hunter, and rush away, depositing the target somewhere else in the vicinity. Presuming you buy only the basic Evolve release, and avoid collector’s editions, season passes, and the like, you need to unlock the Wraith by playing Goliath, and then Kraken, and leveling up your profile appropriately. Fortunately, doing so is not too time-consuming, though given the limited choices of monsters and hunters, these gates seem unnecessary and unfortunate. (And, of course, they remind you that Evolve has plans for downloadable hunters and monsters that will surely cost you some cash.)Defend mode is where the most consistent action is. Monstering it up is just as fulfilling as engaging in the hunt, though the pace is different. You spend the early minutes sniffing out the wildlife and satiating your hunger, which not only reinforces your armor, but also brings you that much closer to evolving. You might be a hulking beast, but you’re more vulnerable than you think, particularly at stages one and two. Smart play can yield victory even so, though you’re best bet is to avoid confrontation until you are the brawniest bully you always knew you could be. Just as good hunters are constantly in motion, so too is a good monster, and in this way, the tables turn: the hunted becomes the hunter, and it is the four-person squad that has most to fear.The tempo changes considerably when you abandon Hunt mode and experiment with other possibilities. There is Nest mode, for instance, in which the hunters must gun down a half-dozen monster eggs ready to be hatched before the monster annihilates the team. The monster, in turn, can hatch an egg to spawn a minion, which tears through the jungle en route to the pack of hunters. Even at stage one, following a minion into a warzone is incredibly tempting: not only does a duo do more damage, but the addition of another combatant can confuse the team. Rescue mode requires the hunters to revive fallen colonists and protect them while waiting for a dropship to appear and whisk the survivors away to safety, but it has something important in common with Nest mode: it uses specific objectives to keep both the hunters and the monster in motion, and brings them together early and often as a result.
A battle with the Kraken plays out differently, as this peculiar beast rises above you and spits down lightning.

Defend mode, meanwhile, takes its cues from battle arenas like League of Legends and Dota 2, tasking hunters with shielding generators while minions spawn onto the map at specified intervals and go on the attack. Taking the monster’s reigns is rather like playing a Dota 2 hero: your minions are creeps, automatically hammering on targets and distracting the opposition so you might pounce, damage your enemies’ health and resolve, and steal away in order to grab a snack and replenish your armor. It’s Evolve’s most action-packed mode, and as such, it is an appropriate finale for the game’s Evacuation mode, which combines five matches of varying modes into a single smorgasbord. The winner of each match gains a boon for the next–monster-targeting turrets might appear in various nooks, for instance, or a beam might occasionally appear from space, frying hunters that get caught within it.Evolve apparently rebalances matches even as it adds these map gimmicks so that winning the first match does not initiate a five-match steamroll. Even so, it’s hard to tell whether the behind-the-scenes rebalancing properly matches the gimmick. It’s profoundly irritating to deal with those turrets as a monster, for instance, because they might gun down wandering wildlife, and thus not only damage you if you creep too near, but overcomplicate the simple act of eating. Not every gameplay variant feels as fair as the last in any case, and while some map ploys usher in welcome diversity, others are mechanica non grata.You don’t always need to get up close to be effective at the assault class. It’s worth noting that Evolve supports bots, an all-too-uncommon feature, and while the AI reveals its imperfections as time goes on, it’s strong enough to make playing offline matches rewarding on its own terms, and bots will fill in for disconnected teammates, or will leap into action should you not be able to find a friend to take that particular role. As with Turtle Rock’s Left 4 Dead, Evolve is best when you play with buddies; getting matched with a novice can lead to ghastly results if your newfound friend constantly seeks out the nonexistent “I” in “team.” It doesn’t take long to whip a newcomer into shape, at least, meaning you can usually focus on Evolve’s unique brand of greatness: the suspense of the hunt, the exhilaration of battle, and the drive to dominate Shear. Even Sasquatch would shiver at the dangers.

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Grow Home Review

Grow Home took me by surprise–not least because it was announced only a few weeks ago. Grow Home, that announcement said, started as an internal experiment, and stars a charming little robot named BUD, who has to wobble and climb his way up a giant beanstalk and across a series of floating islands. With only this scrap of information, I went into Grow Home not knowing what to think. I came out with several distinctly different, hard to synthesize impressions.

To assess Grow Home in a vacuum is to trip over the compliments that spill forth. The game’s colorful island, cute creatures, and the planet’s ambient sounds are immediately charming. You explore this world as BUD, a robot on a quest to retrieve seeds for a plant that can re-oxygenate his home world. To do this, BUD climbs the giant “Star Plant” stalk, occasionally taking control of its quick-growing branches and driving them head first into the glowing islands in the sky. The Star Plant sucks out the green glow, and then grows a little bigger. It’s all very cute (and a little, uh, phallic).Make sure to imagine BUD’s worried chirps for the full effect. Grow Home is a strikingly beautiful game, especially in motion. Everything hums with bright, colorful life. Through its use of cel-shading, low-polygon models, and subtle environmental animation, Grow Home builds a gorgeous, minimalistic style. And then, as the stalk and its branches sprout up through the sky, Grow Home sets that minimalism against overwhelming scale. Beauty is everywhere: You can let your sight linger on the butterflies, or you can look upwards, to the towering Star Plant reaching into the upper atmosphere. While the environments shine, BUD is the real star attraction. His bobbing head, wide smile, and eager chirps make him lovable, but it’s the way he moves through the world that makes controlling him such a joy. BUD’s animation is procedural: instead of having the frames of his movement handcrafted by an animator, the developers programmed a system for BUD’s limbs to animate according to the player’s input. You direct BUD around the world with the left analog stick, using the left and right triggers to control his hands, which can grip anything they touch.As you try to deal with the quirks of BUD’s unpredictable movement, the result, at first, is a sort of comedic flailing. This was never frustrating for me, but I can see how it might be for others. Maybe you misjudge the amount of momentum BUD will have as he lands on one of the “branches” of the massive stalk, and wind up flinging him thousands of feet down to his demise. Or you might think you’ve got a firm grip on the cliff face, only to find that you’ve actually grabbed onto a loose boulder. Whoops. You can supplement your control of BUD with some environmental tools: springy plants give you a way to boost BUD’s jumping power, while flowers and leaves work as parachutes and hang gliders. But these often lead to other stumbles. Pro tip: if you crash into anything while floating around with that leaf, you lose hold of it and go into a headfirst dive. Whoops, again.For such a small game, Grow Home sure knows how to use scale. This is all reminiscent of games like Octodad and Sumotori Dreams, both of which leverage uncontrollable bodies for the sake of humor. But unlike these games, there comes a point in Grow Home where you attain a sense of control that feels both elegant and exuberant. BUD’s body never becomes Ezio Auditore’s–it always bounces and leans in unpredictable ways. But Grow Home isn’t a game about laughing at atypical bodies. Instead, it’s a game that lets you become familiar with limbs that don’t quite work like your own do, and it teaches you to take joy in using tools to augment your natural abilities.I invoked the name of Ezio because the second way I experienced Grow Home was in the context of Ubisoft’s recent offerings. For Ubisoft, 2014 was a year of too safe (and often too broken) output. Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed: Unity were technical disappointments, and, worse, failed to mix up the increasingly tired open-world formula common to Ubi’s tent-pole releases. The Crew tried to apply that formula to a whole new genre, and in doing so missed a chance to do something really special. And while Far Cry 4 was well received, the common refrain was “It’s more Far Cry 3.” It’s easy to imagine how Grow Home’s vision of climbing-and-collecting might fit into the familiar open-world Ubisoft blueprint. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a version of this new climbing model eventually finds its way into an Assassin’s Creed sequel. But Grow Home never falls into the design traps that show up in other recent Ubisoft titles. Yes, you do search for collectible crystals, but these aren’t carelessly scattered by the hundreds across the environment. They’re placed carefully, to encourage exploration and to challenge you to understand how BUD moves. And yes, these crystals unlock new abilities (such as a jetpack!), but these upgrades aren’t doled out along a carefully scheduled arc to maximize your attachment to the game.If you prefer the sensory overload of those aforementioned games, you might find yourself disappointed with Grow Home’s lack of density. Sometimes you spend a few minutes plotting a course across the sky to a hovering island in the distance, only to find it empty but for a hidden crystal and a small collection of plants. Grow Home does not provide you a screen filled with side objectives and a constant stream of narrative reinforcement: It is happy to let you take your time, to meander, to move at your own pace for the few hours it takes to finish it. And while you might see its “short” length as a negative, it’s Grow Home’s brevity that lets it shine.Night time is perfect for hunting down glowing crystals… or for gently gliding around in the moonlight. No game exists in a vacuum, and sometimes it’s hard to confront the contexts that color our experiences, especially when they make us second guess ourselves. Is Grow Home a charming game that’s worth your time? Yes. Do I believe this because Grow Home contrasts so sharply with Ubisoft’s recent output? Also yes. Yet no matter how prone to cynicism you may be, you shouldn’t let this surprising gem go unnoticed.

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Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate Review

Rejoice, for Capcom has seen fit to release a new Monster Hunter game in the West. It doesn’t always bother, see–that’s why we’ve skipped straight to Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate without stopping to try Monster Hunter 4 first. You can hardly blame Capcom, though. Over here, the series has never enjoyed the same popularity as it has closer to home, and even among its fans it has a reputation for being difficult to get into, thanks to its frankly ludicrous array of deep combat and resource management systems.

Sure enough, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate isn’t without its challenges, but there’s a fantastically compelling game at the heart of it all, if you can see past its steep learning curve. For those who don’t know, the Monster Hunter games are action-RPGs, where you do battle against dozens of giant monsters, take their body parts, and use them to fashion new weapons and armour with which to do battle against more giant monsters–except it is much more complicated than it sounds, which is why it’s such a brilliant series is so brilliant, and also why so many people struggle with it.

Clearly, this is something Capcom’s concerned with, too. Some of the previous games in the series threw you in at the deep end, but gave you separate, optional tutorials to play through, which was a little clumsy. Now the approach is more elegant; tutorials are extended and disguised as part of the main campaign. It’s an approach that might irritate veterans (though they are given the option to skip some of the tutorial text early on), but it makes things far easier for newcomers.That said, you still have to do some research outside of the game if you want to master its intricacies. Short tutorials for each of the game’s 14 weapon types are present and correct, but a full tutorial for any one of them could run to the same length as this entire review. Each weapon type not only features its own array of attacks, but also its own unique mechanics, giving you numerous options in how you approach combat. The new Insect Glaive, for example, is a bladed staff paired with a giant insect that lives on your arm. You throw the insect at monsters in order to extract juice from them. The insect then feeds the juice into the staff to improve your abilities in various ways, depending on the type of extract. Then there’s the Hunting Horn, a giant musical instrument that requires you to learn specific three-note sequences in order to provide your hunting party with status buffs.
Monsters are far from your typical video-game fodder. Each one is an incredibly intricate set of abilities, behaviours, and quirks that need to be observed and understood before you can reliably take them down.

It’s well worth studying up on your weapons, though. Enter a fight unprepared and what could have been an exciting yet efficient hunt quickly turns into a multi-hour showdown, with a very high chance of failure at the end. These monsters are far from your typical video-game fodder. Each one is an incredibly intricate set of abilities, behaviours, and quirks that need to be observed and understood before you can reliably take them down. With each deftly placed dodge, and with each eager swipe of your sword, you get a little wiser and a little closer to taking down the most imposing of beasts. These battles are Monster Hunter’s bread and butter, and they remain as enthralling as ever. Sure, everything the monsters do is predictable once you learn to spot the various hints that give away their next move–and you might well face off against the same monsters dozens of times–but it’s a testament to the game’s depth that this rarely gets stale. Until you’re deftly avoiding every single attack, there’s still something to learn.New players often complain that the combat feels stiff, and it’s not hard to see why. Certain attacks lock your character in place while he swishes his sword around in thin-air, making it all too easy for an adversary to come at you from the side and take a third of your health off. It’s a perfectly understandable frustration–every Monster Hunter player, from amateur to pro, will have been through the exact same thing at one point–but with some experience you begin to learn that the game simply wants you to take your movement and positioning seriously.Every single button press has a real weight to it, because if you don’t know how your next attack will make you move, where it will make you stand, and how long it’ll be before you can do something else, you’re likely to get your face torn off. The moment-to-moment thought processes and constant split-second decisions you’re forced to make will be more familiar to anyone well versed in beat-‘em-ups than your typical action-RPG, perhaps–and that’s a wonderful thing indeed in a game that demands so much of your time in battle. That said, those who’ve previously struggled with this aspect of the series will find little to convert them here. In addition to the two new weapon types, there are monsters you can mount in order to deal significant damage, or sometimes to break off rare parts. However, you can’t actually jump, but instead must rely on using the terrain to position yourself above the monster and then hop down onto it from above. It’s tricky to pull off–and certainly easier in multiplayer, where you can coordinate your aerial attack with your chums–but it’s satisfying as hell when it works. If you’re having trouble, there’s always the Insect Glaive’s ability to pole-vault around at will. Expect to see plenty of people using that online. That said, the mounting is a little disappointing when stacked up against the likes of Capcom stablemate Dragon’s Dogma, which allowed you to grab an enemy from any given point and climb around on it, Shadow of the Colossus-style. Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate, on the other hand, simply triggers a cutscene where you land on the monster’s back and then play a short minigame where you alternate between hacking it to death and holding on for dear life. It’s fun, but Capcom can clearly do better.There’s been some noise about Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate being released alongside the New 3DS, because it features sharper textures, faster loading times and, of course, proper camera control with the C-stick on the new handheld. But if you’re on a crusty old regular 3DS and don’t feel like upgrading, I wouldn’t worry–the game looks, runs, and plays well without any of these benefits. Even the camera control is less of an issue than it was in the past, thanks to the complete removal of Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate’s frustrating underwater combat. The standard lock-on camera is much more sufficient now that you don’t have do any scuba-diving, and the old ‘claw hand’ technique that many players adopted to play the game on PSP and 3DS mostly isn’t necessary here.An interesting addition is Expedition mode, a superb feature for players who feel a bit directionless and just want to get into a ruck with some prehistoric beasts. Upon starting an expedition, you’re left to explore a randomly picked series of pre-built areas, populated with random monsters that you’ve met elsewhere. You don’t have to kill them, but acquiring the proof that you’ve tussled with one of them (by cutting off its tail, for example) and bringing it to the end of the expedition yields rewards. It’s a really neat idea if you just fancy throwing yourself into a fight without the preparation that a typical hunt entails.The campaign itself is structured slightly differently from previous entries in the series. Rather than being one village’s designated hunter, instead you travel around with a caravan, solving the problems of the various towns you find yourself in. This gives the game a very welcome boost in pace compared with previous entries in the series. Another nice touch is that you now get quests by actually having conversations with people, rather than simply by picking them from a list, which gives the game’s brilliantly localised and genuinely funny dialogue more chance to shine. Those quests aren’t all terrifying battles with giant monsters, either. As a way of maintaining your supply of items, you spend a fair amount of time going on harvest tours–wandering around hunting grounds, picking flowers, or going fishing. Every consumable item, from healing items to poo-bombs that you throw at monsters to make them go away (not a joke), is made from stuff you can find lying around in the world. Sometimes it’s really nice to hunt a few defenceless herbivores, take their meaty flanks to the nearest scenic cliff, whip out a barbecue, and cook up a few stamina-replenishing steaks like some kind of genuine sociopath.

That said, it’s likely you’ll spend most of your time playing online, this time without first having to link your 3DS to a Wii U. As great as the single-player experience is, taking your skills and knowledge and using them when you’re part of a team is something else entirely. Progression through the multiplayer missions runs entirely separately from the single-player campaign, despite following a similar tier system where later missions are closed off until a certain number of earlier ones are cleared, and you use the same character throughout. However, the difficulty of multiplayer missions scales considerably to take extra players into account. Just because you’ve taken down a Great Jaggi in single-player without breaking a sweat doesn’t mean you can slack off when hunting one as a team.

Previous entries in the series also did this, but scaled the difficulty up for a full team of four at all times, making it incredibly difficult to hunt with just one or two friends. MH4 Ultimate, on the other hand, seems to scale depending on the number of players in the group. I’ve spent a good few evenings hunting with just one other player, and the difficulty level was spot-on. Finding your friends is also a breeze, because the game seamlessly hooks into your 3DS friends list and allows you to instantly join any of your contacts who are currently playing online. The drama of a good hunt is definitely best shared with friends, and hearing everyone roar in unison upon taking down a particularly ferocious beast is one of the finest experiences videogames have to offer. Unfortunately, to hear those roars you have to use a third-party service like Skype, due to the curious omission of voice chat.Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate manages to expand upon the things that people love about the series, while simultaneously making concessions to those getting involved for the first time. It’s an absolutely astonishing time-sink, but it rarely feels like a grind; when the game gets its hooks into you, you can expect to find yourself engrossed for at least 80 hours. Those who become truly invested can expect to find their in-game clock running into the hundreds of hours. Sure, Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate isn’t without some of the series’ time-honoured idiosyncrasies, but it’s the most streamlined and accessible game yet, and one that’s hard not to truly obsess over.

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The Escapists Review

I must have counted those 12 paces a dozen times, but once more I rattle them off in my head: one, two, three, four, five, six…. From the hole I dug in my cell, covered from sight the majority of the time by my storage desk, to under the prison wall and, at last–one, two, three, four, five, six, a dozen more times–to the fresh air, the singing birds. One, two, three, four…I can’t afford to this screw up, not again. That night, as the guards patrolled the darkened corridors, I reached the end of an underground tunnel I spent the last two weeks digging. I reached that twelfth step, just beyond that accursed concrete barrier, readied a shovel crafted from a sheet of metal and duct tape, looked up, and began to dig–one month to walk 12 steps, but it was worth the wait.

I am a prisoner no longer; I am an escapist.

If history and Hollywood have taught us anything, it’s that breaking out of prison isn’t exactly a cakewalk. And though it won’t take you 19 years of tunneling through a wall with a rock hammer, The Escapists, a game about escaping prison, doesn’t make the monumental task all that easy, either. Much like the bygone era of video games from which it derives its colorful, pixelated aesthetic, The Escapists is tough and refuses to hold your hand, leading to many hours of trial-and-error experiments as you test the walls of your confines. But like a beam of hope shining through the damp dirt of an escape tunnel, the tribulation is worth it in the end. The Escapists is challenging and tense, but also engaging and deeply enjoyable. It will take you hours to figure out how to escape your first prison, but if you’re tough enough and clever enough to breach the walls, the feeling of triumph accompanying your newfound freedom will completely wash away all the blood, sweat, and tears that paved the way.

The guards of HMP Irongate wield short tempers and electric prods.

In The Escapists, your task as an inmate is to plot an escape route, all while under the watchful eyes of ever-suspicious prison guards. You enter a life ruled by routine. From the moment the early morning sun touches the prison walls, until it leaves the sky, you are shuffled into your daily stations: roll call, breakfast, work, exercise block, shower, evening meal–all of which, save for roll calls and meals, vary between the game’s six prisons. Deviating from your rigid schedule, getting into fights, or getting caught snooping around another inmate’s cell quickly earns the ire of the guards. “Get to it, Cam!” they shouted at me the moment I was caught meandering through the halls. “Stations, Cam!” The more you push their buttons, the higher the on-screen heat meter rises. If it reaches 90 percent or more, guards rush you at first sight, batons swinging, rewarding your tangential behavior with some bruises and a swift visit to the infirmary. But investigate you must, as every historic breakout needs to start with a plan and a keen understanding of your new home.

Escaping requires cunning, strategy, and proper equipment, and staying at least five steps ahead of your pursuers is essential to securing your freedom. The beauty of The Escapists, however, is that there is no wrong way to go about it. You could swipe plastic spoons and forks from the canteen and use them to dig a tunnel out of your cell. Or perhaps, as you walk the grounds during your work station as a gardener, you notice that if you take the job of the tailor (another inmate), you will gain access to a room that shares a wall with an enclosed, empty space. Disrupting him on his way to work gets him fired, allowing you to take the job, bust down the wall, and replace it with a poster. And just like that, you have an area to store tools and other materials, or even to start a tunnel, safe and secure from prying eyes. Completing favors for inmates earns you some extra dough to line your pockets with, and–along with handing out gifts or cash—also raises their opinion of you. If they like you enough, you can recruit them and create your very own chain gang to terrorize both prisoners and guards alike. Gain enough followers, and it’s possible to take over a prison. I haven’t done it yet myself, but it can be accomplished, as the developer notes, with “a lot of rope.”

Taking favors earns you cash and puts you in a fellow inmate’s good graces.

And there are so many other possibilities. You can knock out guards and use a putty mold to copy a key, shimmy down walls with a grappling hook, or even impersonate a guard. Whatever steps you choose to take feel personal and never scripted. It’s a surprisingly deep and complex system that I didn’t expect but quickly fell in love with. It’s highly malleable and widely varied, allowing you to make every trip to the Big House a different experience, while staving off dull repetition.

Along the way you spend time developing the game’s light RPG attributes: strength, speed, and intellect. The former two go toward your proficiency in fights, with strength pulling double duty by adding to your overall health. Intellect, however, is the most paramount of the bunch, as it requires a level of smarts to craft certain items. In other words, you can be weak and slow, but it’s nigh unto improbable for a dumb criminal to manage a breakout. Skill progression requires that you spend some extra time sweating in an exercise area for strength and speed, while you gather more intellect by popping open a book in the library or browsing the Internet on a computer, though you will need to take a break during these activities to decrease your mounting fatigue. Points added to your abilities slowly decrease over time, making it necessary to boost them back up every so often.

It’s fortunate to have a cellmate who’s a deep sleeper.

At times, fellow inmates–indicated by a flashing gold bag above their head–will offer items to purchase. What goods are available is completely random, and their usefulness to you pivots on what you need to make your escape. Sometimes you’ll find hot items such as duct tape, (which is worth its weight in gold), a screwdriver, or nail files; but on other occasions, only soap or a packet of mints. The suppliers, as well as the items being sold, change randomly throughout a given day, so you need to stay on top of who is selling, and what. Rifling through the desks of other inmates, as well as the pockets of unconscious prisoners following one of the many prison fights, may also yield materials. But again, what you find is random.

Materials purchased or “borrowed” from your fellow inmates are used to craft tools and other items. Throughout the game, you gather an eclectic mishmash of components such as wires, a bottle of bleach, a piece of timber, a bar of chocolate, a plastic comb, and much more. All of which, believe it or not, can be vital pieces in your escape–yes, even the chocolate, but you’ll need to find a lighter and a small blue cup first. You can throw up to three items into the crafting menu and hope that you will create something of use, but you’re probably better off finding or purchasing crafting recipes as you go along. The best tools are those fit for the job, so if you’re keen on digging your way to freedom, creating a shovel is your best bet. Or, if you’re feeling sneaky, you can fashion a makeshift guard uniform using a tub of bleach, prison clothes, and some blue ink. There are dozens of craftable items, including a pickaxe, wire cutters, zip lines, and more, all of which play a role in many escape plans.

Prisons range from the standard fair to POW camps.

It is, however, equally important to remember that these items are contraband. Distinguishable by a red name, contraband is confiscated if you’re caught. Mistakes are costly, and one slip-up leaves you with nothing to show for your troubles other than bruised pride and a trip to solitary confinement. Failure in The Escapists can be downright heartbreaking. An error can be simple, such as forgetting to replace a vent cover or carelessly leaving tunnel dirt in a place where it can be discovered and traced back to you. Once, a tunnel filled with tools I had built and collected was discovered, and I lost everything, putting my progress back about six hours. More difficult prisons are dotted with contraband detectors, and if you pass through one with something prohibited in your pocket, the heat meter rises to 99 percent, causing any nearby guard to make a beeline straight to you.

Beyond getting caught, there are other things that can go wrong, but they’re mostly on a technical level. The game has bugs, the most innocent of which are times when you can see the name of an item hidden in a tunnel below by hovering your mouse pointer over an item one floor above. Worse, however, are issues that can hinder an escape, such as a bug that turned a fake fence I installed into a real one, and I didn’t notice the error until it was too late–this happened more than once. And then were the several times I couldn’t break through the dirt in order to leave a tunnel. Other problems are merely irritating, such as overlapping text when completing the same favor for two different people. At times, items disappear from the pockets of unconscious prisoners. I could never tell if it was the guards that found and took them, but I do recall moments when items would vanish into the ether without anyone else being close enough to touch the body. Also, I can’t understand the logic behind the heat meter refusing to decrease after I fall asleep. And I’m not a fan of the fact that the first thing I eat in the morning is a club sandwich (well, more like a “baton,” but the joke doesn’t work that way).

It’s hard to get some quiet time, even during breakfast.

Despite its foibles, The Escapists is a gratifying game that provides dozens of hours of entertainment. Planning an escape and watching it unfold is endlessly satisfying, and a successful breakout leaves you feeling jubilant. Even after you master the game’s six prisons, there are three extras waiting to be challenged. The Escapists will have even more to show as time goes on, according to the developer, which is currently working on a free standalone application that will allow you to create and share your own prisons. You might not want to live in one of The Escapists’ prisons, but you will definitely enjoy the visit.

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Resident Evil: Revelations 2 – Episode One Review

The premiere episode of Resident Evil: Revelations 2 kicks things off in a decent way, but it’s also an inconsistent experience that’s plagued by issues during the first half of the game. Dialogue is poorly written, and you feel like a chump when you tackle yet another fetch quest disguised as a puzzle. However, there are moments that leave you on edge, and the mysteries keep piling up until the very end, stoking your curiosity to want to know more. If you tend to loathe action sequences in Resident Evil games, you may be put off to know there are a few in Revelations 2, but rest assured they’re delivered with tact this time, sandwiched between foreboding moments of tension that set your pulse racing before you’re thrown into the fray.

Though Revelations 2 starts with a whimper, at least it doesn’t waste any time getting you into the game. Right as they were starting to enjoy a swanky company party, Resident Evil hall-of-famer Claire Redfield, and her co-worker, young Moira Burton, are kidnapped at gunpoint and shipped off to a wretched penal colony on a remote island. The game begins when Claire awakens in a damp cell, and the mystery kicks off when the door opens moments later, seemingly on its own. Their imprisonment is clearly the work of someone who fancies control as they’re taunted over the PA system by a mysterious overseer. She speaks in very vague terms, introducing more questions than answers. By and large, Revelations 2 likes to keep you guessing.It’s about to get ugly. Moira’s father, the ever memorable Barry Burton from the original Resident Evil, attempts to come to Moira and Claire’s rescue. With the help of a young companion, the mysterious Natalia, he searches the same prison, but the enemies he faces are quite different, acting more like classic zombies as they shuffle along, rather than the speedy juggernauts that hunt Claire and Moira. This setup affords you two points of view within the same nightmare, and slightly different gameplay experiences, but not all things are created equal. Barry’s act is far stronger than Claire’s, not only because it offers the best moments of tension, but because his companion is a far better compliment than Moira ever is to Claire.Working in tandem is at the heart of everything you do in Revelations 2, for better and for worse. You can switch between your two characters on the fly, and sometimes you must in order to solve simple environmental puzzles. Moira’s flashlight may uncover a hidden item that you need to proceed, and Natalia can go places that Barry can’t thanks to her small stature. Unfortunately for Claire, Moira’s not much use outside of a few strict scenarios that call upon her unique abilities. She looks capable of manning a gun, but a tragic event from her past conveniently prevents her from doing so here. She comes in handy when she pries open a rare door or blinds an occasional enemy, but she’s otherwise dead weight and a near constant source of bad dialog as she spouts vulgarity after vulgarity. It’s not hard to take in because it’s offensive; it’s obvious that she’s meant to sound young and brash. However, she comes off as an exaggerated caricature that sticks out like a sore thumb.You can always count on Clair to say what we’re all thinking. Outside of a few important plot points, the only helpful thing Moira brings to the table is a flashlight, but Natalia has a subtle personality that comes across as a breath of fresh air and she’s far more useful during tense situations. She can sneak by enemies undetected and crawl into tight spaces. If Barry is low on health, Natalia is a solid backup, trading head-on action for simple but effective stealth. Though she lacks the firepower, Natalia proves to be even more useful than her caretaker at times, so long as she remains undetected by the bad guys.Natalia and Barry’s stint is the best source of tension in the game by a long shot. For the most part, Claire and Moira are stuck inside their prison, which is predictable and boring. On the contrary, Barry and Natalia spend a lot of time outside, and in the middle of the night, with only a few light sources off in the distance, a sense of dread creeps in when you wander into the unknown. Natalia is the best candidate for the job given her ability to spot enemies from a distance, but you always know in the back of your mind that she’s practically incapable of defending herself apart from throwing a brick at an enemy, yet there you are, meters deep into a dark forest teeming with horrific abominations that want nothing more than to eat you alive. When an enemy takes multiple rounds from a gun to stagger, a brick offers little solace.Resident Evil: Revelations 2 shines when Barry and Natalia are at the helm. You can tackle the campaign via local co-op with a friend if you’re so inclined, but your teammate has to come to terms with the fact that they’re playing second fiddle. Teaming up is an effective means of getting through the campaign quickly because you aren’t reliant on AI to watch your back, and you have the ability to multitask, but the split screen view and real world chatter can dilute the tension. If you’re looking to get scared, playing solo is the only way to go.There are a few puzzles to solve during each scenario that are reminiscent of classic Resident Evil moments, but instead of having to consider all of your options and search for a solution, it’s given to you in the form of a simple task. Ultimately, these moments feel like chores rather than puzzle solving opportunities. Moira’s asked to point a flashlight around a room to find a key, for example, testing your patience rather than your intellect. If anything, these quandaries feel like justifications for having a sidekick. Perhaps it’s good that it’s not as obtuse as some games in the series’ past, but the formula has been simplified too much for its own good.Classic Claire! If you find your trigger finger itching after beating the first episode, you can hop into the optional and oddly enjoyable raid mode. This arcade-like experience pits you against small armies of enemies in various environments from this and future episodes, and you’re encouraged to take advantage of your firepower. The more enemies you kill and the more efficient you are at doing so, the better rewards you receive, often in the form of additional weapons. It’s a very different experience than the main game, especially with it’s initially jarring dance soundtrack, but it’s a fun diversion that gives you plenty to do once the rather short campaign comes to an end.Though you have to wade through mediocre puzzles and endure cringe-worthy dialogue and references to past games, episode one successfully entices you to look forward to the next episode. Just before you feel like its antics are wearing you down, it commands your attention by redeeming itself during the second half, just before sealing the deal with an impactful cliffhanger. With tastes of both classic and modern Resident Evil, Revelations 2 has something for everyone, but it would be served better if it was a little more focused and had a little less Moira.

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The Order: 1886 Review

The Order: 1886 is a torturer and a tease. It promises you a circuitous story populated with near-immortal knights, it promises you exciting encounters with snarling werewolves, it promises you clever weaponry the likes of which you rarely see in video games. It dangles these hopes in front of you and then yanks them away, reneging on one promise after another, letting you hold that precious toy in your hand and then denying you the chance to maintain the thrill. The Order is cruel in the way it plays with your expectations, taking a promising premise and then sucking out much of the energy with boring cutscenes, an ending wholly devoid of closure, and shooting-gallery action sequences.

“Boring” is the best word to describe The Order in general, actually. That this third-person action game turns a parade of steampunk imagery and Arthurian legends into a dull stew of modern games’ most tiresome cliches is quite a feat, though hardly one worth celebrating. It is (as you probably guessed) 1886, and you are Grayson, otherwise known as Galahad, one of the Knights of the Round Table. It is a time of trouble: common citizens have begun to rebel against the gentry, possibly allying with a race of werewolves the game alternately refers to as lycans and half-breeds. It’s a brilliant setup, ripe with possibilities. You look to the sky and see zeppelins hovering overhead; you look to the armory, and you find a young Nikola Tesla ready to introduce you to clever armaments. That such a world could be so lifeless is unfathomable.Ah yes, those black bars. The Order: 1886 really, really wants to be a movie. Yet The Order turns the mystical into the mundane. You face lycans early on, leaping out of the way and shooting them down before killing them off for good by plunging a knife into them. And then they are cast aside for hours until the half-breeds are barely a memory. The Order pulls them out of hiding a few more times, though the circumstances are highly controlled, and conclude with the kind of anticlimax that becomes the game’s calling card. The most dramatic of these few battles end with quick-time focused snoozes that betray the very idea of confronting such beasts. As for the nature of the lycans–where they come from, what their presence has meant for humanity, how humans could ally with such creatures–most of that is left to your imagination. Developer Ready at Dawn doesn’t address the most interesting aspects of its own ideas.Instead, the story focuses on its stale protagonists, who sit and argue at the round table every so often while getting to the bottom of the rebel plot. What a shame that interesting supernatural and social elements would be sidelined in favor of boardroom shenanigans, particularly given the light character development. I applaud the cast: the voice acting is brilliant, far better than the material deserved, and it is the acting talent alone that invested me in the characters’ fates. The soundtrack, thick with cellos and violas, also rises above the blandness, but by the time the finale and its predictable quick-time events arrive, it is too late to squeeze emotion from this dry turnip. The credits roll after the button press that serves as an ending, and vital story threads are left dangling in the wind. Perhaps the Order: 1886 means to hint at a sequel, but whether or not that was Ready at Dawn’s intention, it’s a disrespectful end to a plodding story. This may have been a fine close to the second act of a three-act story, but it’s a rude sendoff to anyone hoping for explanation or reason.The easiest way to identify the male Knights is by the style of facial hair. How bizarre, then, that The Order is so focused on its narrative. During the initial sequences, you may assume that it is more Heavy Rain than Uncharted: you respond to threats by pressing the right buttons when prompted. As it happens, The Order is divided more or less equally into four disparate pieces: cutscenes, QTEs, walking around, and shooting. In time, the game strings these features into poorly-paced sequences that have no sense of rhythm. It is the modern action game personified: This is the part where I walk for three minutes, and now comes the short bit where I have to pick a bunch of things up and look at them, and then comes the brief shooting part that practically ends before it begins.Walking, looking, and shooting aren’t bad on their own, of course. What makes such basic mechanics so predictable and rote in The Order is how they are used. When the game forces you to holster your weapon and walk at a snail’s pace, you may expect it to build tension or to develop its characters. Instead, The Order becomes an exposition machine, dropping basic plot points until you either open the door that leads to the next ultra-linear stage of the ultra-linear level, or another character does it for you.The sequences in which you examine your surroundings looking for clues are even more tedious. You trudge about a room, picking up objects and looking at them, perhaps even turning them over in your hands before setting them down. In a few instances, the game might identify a detail of interest, and you have to press a button to continue, though the overall goal is typically to pick up everything in the vicinity until you trigger the next event–and in at least one case, you aren’t even the one to discover the pertinent information, making all of that monotonous strolling aggravatingly pointless. A few weapons aside, you’re rarely looking at anything of interest: old photographs of characters you barely know (if at all), letters that provide the tiniest morsel of backstory, and so forth. That The Order is so in love with its own object models is almost laughable: You pick up minor knick-knacks and lovingly rotate them as if you have discovered the Holy Grail. Yes, this model ship is lovely, but was the self-congratulatory time-padder necessary?If you turn it around in your hand long enough, the game will eventually let you put it down. I presume that The Order: 1886 wishes to build its world by demanding you admire the details, but Ready at Dawn needn’t have tried so hard to point out how pretty their art is: it is simply pretty, full stop. The game has a few of the standard tricks up its sleeve to gloss over the occasional flaws: motion blur, a subtle film grain effect, overzealous depth-of-field effects, and the such. It’s difficult to overlook The Order’s tonally consistent aesthetics, however: It is fully committed to its style. From a bridge’s vantage point, you wield an electrically charged cannon while gazing upon a smoky Victorian London. The bridge is dotted with iron carriages, some still sturdy, and some ravaged by the ongoing firefight. Rococo flourishes adorn the Knights’ chamber: walls decorated with gold leaf, floors embellished with Latin script, flickering candles embedded within serpentine sconces. The Knights’ weathered faces aren’t quite beautiful, but they are remarkably human; Each of the Lord Chancellor’s grimaces and squints betray a soul-crushing history you wish you could have partaken in. The action is almost an afterthought, given all the talking, the walking, and the quick-time events, few of which complement onscreen motion in the manner of Telltale Games’ best QTEs. It’s a shame that The Order evokes Heavy Rain so early in its six-hour play time, because the comparison does not work in this game’s favor. The Order clearly has cinematic aspirations, regardless: The loose camera hews close behind you, to the point where you can not often see much of the battlefield once you have taken cover. The game is at its best when it allows itself to be a shooter, which is what makes its failings all the more disheartening. The thermite rifle is one of the most interesting weapons in recent memory, letting you fire a round of magnesium ammo and then ignite it with a rush of air. What a blast it is to mess with such a unique firearm–and what a heartbreaker to have such grossly limited use of it. The same is true of the previously mentioned cannon: It is ripped from your hands all too quickly and replaced with less-interesting pistols and carbine rifles.Too many levels have you trapped in sniping position. Too few levels give you the really good guns. Those weapons function just fine, at least. The level design is functional, too, but uninspired. You know a turkey shoot is about to begin as you enter an area and see all the obvious cover spots–and then the turkeys appear, right on schedule, ready to die at your hands. Expectedly, such predictability breeds apathy. Grenade-lobbing supersoldiers aside, it’s all too easy to mow down the opposition, making the blacksight mechanic, which allows you to temporarily slow down time and pelt foes with bullets, all but unnecessary on medium difficulty. There’s a system in place for recovering if you are downed in combat, but it, too, is superfluous: should you fall, a rebel soldier almost always lands a killing shot.All of these gameplay tropes are then shoved together into herky-jerky levels that end just when you think they might gain momentum. The only individual sequence lengthy enough to find a rhythm is a later stealth level, though it’s far too simple to inspire wishes for more sneaky sections. What, then, to make of The Order: 1886? It is, at best, perfectly playable, and lovely to look at and listen to. But it is also the face of mediocrity and missed opportunities. A bad game can make a case for itself. A boring one is harder to forgive.

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