Just a Taste: Denstiny 2: Forsaken

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Bungie released a new, gigantic expansion for Destiny 2. Forsaken has promised to change up Destiny’s formulaic play and mechanics, add a free-form campaign with a new territory, a new enemy race, and a new competitive play mode. Some may be sitting on the fence about it because of the beefy $40 price tag and the general disappointment garnered by the last two expansions, which I felt didn’t deliver enough variety. The hesitation is understandable, so I’m going to walk through what I’ve discovered about Forsaken in the first week of playing it.

If I could sum up Forsaken’s experience so far into one phrase, it would be “everything feels more important.” Gear, resources, and activities are all more impactful because there’s much more depth to them, and they have a wonderful feedback loop; resources and activities grant more diverse gear, and more diverse gear needs more resources to upgrade and allows you to tackle activities in different ways. I always felt Destiny 2’s defining weakness was a lack of depth, and I can say I’m happy with the new additions so far.

Finding new gear is far more exciting in Forsaken. Legendary (and the less-impressive rare) gear now comes with additional random perks, like quicker reloading for specific weapon types or explosive ammo, that impact the behavior of old favorites and new models. Now, instead of new gear leading to repetitive disassembly, each new find has the potential to be something great and unique, prompting further investigation. In addition, random traits, such as increased accuracy or handling, or resistance to an element, can be upgraded in 5 tiers, the highest creating a Masterwork. Some items are even already upgraded when found, increasing the excitement whenever a piece of gear with the Forsaken logo lands in your inventory. The feeling is similar to the effect in Gearbox’s Borderlands or Blizzard’s Diablo in that every item I pick up could easily replace a stalwart favorite. The end result is that Forsaken makes loot feel great again.

This also incentivizes deeper character build customization. Legendary armor comes with random traits like increased assault rifle reload speed, or a higher rate of basic, special, or heavy ammo drops. Combine that with equippable mods for weapons and armor that add effects like increased ability recharge, stat increases, higher damage to tougher enemies, or quicker radar recovery after aiming, and more interesting playstyles reveal themselves. Guardians have more options than ever to specialize or diversify their builds by mixing and matching all of these effects. The effects so far haven’t felt like simple wall dressing; each has impacted my play to a substantial degree. So using our loot feels good again too.

At the same time, this gear isn’t just dropping all over the place; Legendary gear is harder to attain randomly, motivating players to earn them through particular activities and redeeming various elements in the game like bounties, vanguard and crucible coins, and so forth. What’s more, absorbing a higher level piece of gear to increase the power of another is more expensive, requiring not just glimmer and legendary shards, but masterwork cores and various resources from the world environments like dusk shards. The economy of Destiny has changed in Forsaken in such a way that everything you can do and every item you can pick up has more impact on your entire experience.

This is great, because there’s more to experience, and all of the aforementioned new features make what was already there feel fresh. One thing I was looking forward to, in particular, is Gambit.

Gambit is a new mode that pits two teams of four players in a race to eliminate AI enemies and defeat a final boss before the other team does. These enemies drop a currency—motes—that teams turn into a central bank, filling it up until it summons a finals boss, the Primevil. Players also use motes at the bank to summon elite enemies to block the opposing team from using their bank. A player from each team may periodically jump to the other team’s arena to exact some vengeance and slow the other team down as well. Die while carrying a payload of motes, and they’re gone. It takes some getting used to—Gambit is different than anything Destiny has offered before—but after a few matches I fell in love with the tense rhythm. I tend to favor PvE content, so I enjoy the balance and strategy of Gambit.

In the week that I’ve played, I’ve barely scratched the surface of Forsaken. I still have the tail end of the campaign to get through, I’ve barely collected much new gear, and I’ve only unlocked one new subclass, so a full review will have to wait. One thing seems certain to me, however: This is the Destiny that I’ve been waiting for. It’s just a shame I had to wait at all.

 

Celeste

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At the 2018 Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco, I had the pleasure of sitting down to a short session of Celeste. This platformer, by independent developer Matt Makes Games, seemed cute at first glance, with its charmingly cartoonish character frames and beautiful, pixelated art style, and I had heard rumors about its ability to inspire positivity and perseverance in others, specifically the depressed and suicidal. That’s a tall order, I thought, and I love great narratives, so why not check it out? In my short half-hour with the game on the expo floor, I jammed through the first few levels, which I found intensely fun and reasonably challenging. I enjoyed it enough that I knew I needed to play it, so once back home in Hawai'i, I did.

Celeste is a precise platformer that requires surgical timing, lightning reflexes, and astute analysis and planning. It’s a type of game that I don’t really play anymore, because I’m an adult with a job and lots of hobbies. Writing’s hard enough, why torture myself with an ultra-precise challenge like Celeste? Learning to make pixel-perfect jumps over chasms and between obstacles doesn’t really appeal to me. I promised myself I’d finish it though, to discover what the deal is with this profound effect it has on its players. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Celeste indeed contains a meaningful narrative that is reinforced and informed by its gameplay, and though the experience taxed me in ways only my writing usually does, I was inspired to persevere. And that’s an experience that can inform our daily lives.

In Celeste, players jump from platform to platform, the general goal to reach point B from point A. The unique spin on that formula is that players can dash in any direction as well as grip walls for climbing. This changes how we perceive the landscape because there are far more possibilities. With this foundation, each level layers on more depth or challenge by adding moving or temporary platforms, movement-limiting winds, and additional midair dash mechanisms. Respawn points are frequent, so death is encouraged as a learning mechanism and even tracked by a counter for each level. This leads to plenty of exciting moments of discovery, followed by tons of failed attempts at precision, until you finally get that one move right. The game is challenging, but delivers its difficulty one snippet at a time, and this allows the deviously ingenious design to be incredibly fun and rewarding.

With that said, Celeste pushed me in ways many of the games I play don’t. After the first few levels, the precision the game requires ramps up, and I started to have a hard time. Towards the end of the game, that precision tested my ability, patience, and oftentimes, my civility. Expletives and middle fingers sprouted from me like rampant weeds until I could frustratingly admit to myself that I needed a break. This might sound bad, but I was always excited to get back to whatever section I was stuck on with a fresh perspective and positive attitude. The process of encountering a seemingly insurmountable challenge, succumbing to overwhelming failure, and then bouncing back with renewed zeal and persistence is the whole point of Celeste, and its well-written main character emphasizes this.

Threaded within all the jumps, spikes, and near-death landings is a narrative about a girl creating her own inner peace. The girl, who we discover early in the game is running from some heavy internal issues, is forced to deal with her baggage by the magical properties of the mountain Celeste. The mountain manifests these internal issues as external aggressors, like an “evil” version of the main character, demanding that our hero unpack those bags and take a closer look at what she’s lugging around. As I played, pushing myself to overcome the obstacles before me, I felt intense empathy; I could feel her overwhelming sense of defeat and the tantalizing desire to quit. It was easy to put myself in her shoes and reflect on my own obstacles, whether in the game or in my life. This is what good writing is supposed to do. I even renamed the character (a smart design decision), which made me feel like the game was speaking directly to me. I felt the girl’s crushing doubt and insecurity as well as her hopeful persistence and determination.

Matt Makes Games could have easily delivered Celeste without the narrative and character, and it would have been a fun, challenging, expertly crafted platforming experience. Celeste is more, with its writing and design meshed together in such a way that one cannot be divorced from the other, therefore exploring its subject matter sensitively, personally, and with depth. The experience lingers long after the credits roll. Even writing this article, as I got frustrated with a section or felt something wasn't good enough (and never would be), I'd remind myself to breathe for a moment, to take a short break or push through a block, that I'm not perfect and that's okay. Celeste reminds me that I'm a work in progress, that progress requires effort and patience, and that if I find something incredibly hard, I can overcome it.   

Marmoset's Brew: Peyote. It's a deep dive, you're going to see some stuff, and you're going to come out changed for the better. 

Inside

I played a game that haunts me. Not with gore, or a monstrous danger in the dark, or fear for my life, but a fear for that life’s possible reduced value, a fear of four walls, and wiggly mind-worms and mind-control hats. The game, this ludic poltergeist, invades my thoughts and begs me to come back, to continue to know it in every sense I can. After a couple playthroughs, I’m still mad with curiosity and obsessed with its beautifully eerie world and the powerless, little boy that mysteriously chooses to brave its terrors. I can’t stop thinking about Inside.

Inside is the second creation of Denmark-based Playdead, the independent developer responsible for the equally haunting and enigmatic Limbo (2010). Limbo is a monochromatic side-scrolling puzzle-platformer starring a little boy who journeys through a dangerous, surreal nightmare-scape. Inside also stars a little boy and plenty of puzzles, but is less figurative in both presentation and content, with full color and a more concrete narrative: a dystopic quest of curiosity. At the beginning of the game the little boy crawls through the brush of a dark forest to behold a large cargo truck, its carriage crowded with people standing in business attire. None of them stir as men with masks and flashlights shut the loading door and the truck slowly drives off. Then the boy follows the truck, avoiding the men and violent death by their bullets or dogs. Inside’s cryptic tale takes the child through forest, farmland, industrial ruins, and a city, revealing an ironhanded, cruel world. Every setting, object, and detail informs this world and expresses its depressing richness all the way up to its shocking end dripping with symbolism. When you get there, you may not not know exactly what to think; Inside holds no hands and offers no answers. It kept me up at night and made me jump right back into it the next opportunity I got.

At its core, Inside’s mechanics are enjoyable and a breeze to grasp; the boy can move and grab objects. The puzzles are fun and easily approachable, requiring just a bit of thought and experimentation without being exhausting or frustrating. This experimentation often leads to death, but smart checkpoint placements ensure players can jump right back into solving their current puzzle. Which is great, since you’ll die often, and these deaths are quietly disturbing, emphasizing the child’s innocence and powerlessness within the world’s merciless oppression. This is characteristic of Playdead’s game design, enabling them to generate a complex narrative within and through fun puzzles where death becomes a storytelling device rather than just a reset button. Solving Inside’s puzzles--and failing at them--feels great because the process itself illuminates the narrative and its themes; no moment, object, switch, or button is wasted.

Inside maintains a constant feeling of unease and wonder not only by its gameplay and images, but also through a stunning soundtrack that powerfully contributes to the game’s eerie nature. Composer Martin Stig Anderson fills Inside’s cavernous depth and mostly musical silence with a beautiful disquiet, using soft, undulating synthetic harmonies to beckon us forward into the frightful, mysterious, and terrifying. I felt Anderson’s music brought me closer to the child, to feeling his hope in rare, beautiful moments of freedom and his fear and panic in the face of tyranny and violence. It’s deceptively inviting, like an embrace with claws.

Inside is a short but memorable adventure, my first playthrough an engrossing two hours of blinkless awesomeness and unashamed mouth-breathing. This is a game that will stand the test of time as one of the greats, a deep expression of some horrors and hopes of the human experience. Not to mention that it’s simply one hell of a trip.


Marmoset’s Brew: Bourbon. It's bold, something you take your time with. And that flavor sticks around for days.

SOMA: What Does it Mean, Anyway?

SOMA is a game of introspection. What are you? What does it mean to be you? Is there a difference between you and your consciousness? Is the physical space you inhabit a part of “you?” What if there were suddenly multiple “yous,” all with the same memories, split off at one moment to experience largely different lives thereafter? How would they feel about one another? Which one would be the real “you?” Or are they all as real as the original? These are the questions Fractured Games’ SOMA poses to players in a science fiction horror adventure that frightens not nearly as much with its grotesque terrors and violation of life as it does by blurring the line between consciousness and simulation. Through plenty of monsters, puzzles, and enthralling atmosphere, SOMA asks an ancient question in the context of our lives’ increasingly digital existence; “What am I?”

SOMA takes place in a scientific installation at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean during a catastrophic apocalypse. Our protagonist Simon Jarett mysteriously awakens here and quickly sets out to uncover what is happening to the world, the facility, and himself. It doesn’t take long until he becomes the unwitting hero, risking his life and braving shambling horrors to save the denizens of the sub-surface domain and give humanity one last chance. SOMA’s solution to extinction isn’t typical and is more central to SOMA’s experience than the actual act of saving mankind.  SOMA ventures into deep, philosophical territory that demands reflection, and I found myself taking breaks from the game not because of tense scares but to ponder its more intense questions and conditions. Experiencing these queries into the definition of life and the self requires braving a host of unfriendly monsters.

Players hide from these enemies in SOMA; there is no combat. Enemies are freakish in many ways, from corrupted machines to increasingly grotesque and odd cybernetic amalgams of flesh and robotics. These monstrous beings hunt by hearing and sight, and they aren’t overly inquisitive, so avoiding them isn’t very difficult. Objects can be picked up and thrown to distract, but I rarely had to as a monster’s path was often clear and easy to track. Some beasties require a bit of thought as they teleport or have a better sense of hearing, but none ever feel particularly challenging. Thankfully, SOMA’s abundance of empty hallways and creepy atmosphere make these encounters feel tense, and discovering creatures and contemplating their nature was more exciting to me than sneaking by them. I really enjoyed how each creature felt tied into the game’s central ethos of existence and selfhood, and their scarcity maintained a chilling atmosphere and allowed the complex narrative to shine.

Most of the gameplay involves simple puzzles, audio recordings, and text logs. These often work in conjunction to give hints about how to interact with machines, locks, or passcodes. Puzzles were easy but fun, so they do a nice job of pacing the gameplay without bringing the adventure to an inconvenient halt. Recordings, logs, scraps of paper, and files are abundant and chock full of material, enough so that SOMA ends up feeling more like an interactive novel than a first-person horror. Seriously, if you don’t like reading, you probably won’t like SOMA; texts are front-and-center for providing context, even so much as revealing what crew members became each creature that chase you down derelict halls. I love reading, so I felt these texts only enriched the experience and helped it maintain an introspective and thoughtful vibe, but if players aren’t ready for the massive amount of information, I could see it turning them off. It would be a shame though, as SOMA’s narrative content is absolutely fascinating.

SOMA explores definitions of consciousness and the identity of the self in the context of a technology that negates the value of an “original,” and in this endeavor the game does well. Behind the cybernetics, mutilation, blood, and technology lies a simple question of what it means to be, a dilemma of selfhood in the 21st century. Jarett acts as the perfect vehicle for the player’s exploration of this theme, as he typically voices the questions and concerns players might have themselves; he and the player are both thrown into the same situation with the same knowledge. Every step of the way, Jarett expressed my own simultaneous trepidation and desire to know more, hallmarks of horror that drove us both to learn all we could about that cursed station and the unknown future of mankind.  

Some of the most meaningful moments force the player to make decisions that, though they don’t have much bearing on any other events, beg for reflection and relate directly to SOMA’s central theme around identity. When I “killed” a machine to harvest a part from its corpse, watching it first harmlessly float around, chatting to an invisible friend, the act challenged preconceptions about the definition of life and the “me”-ness that defines who and what I am. The robot cried out in pain as I struck it, and even the protagonist voices his own concerns as to whether what he just did was right, if it was in fact murder or just the dismantling of a machine. Moments like these really brought the cavernous narrative into focus and stuck with me throughout the adventure. 

Near the end of SOMA’s chilling tale, the protagonist asks himself “What am I?” and later exclaims, out of anger and desperation, “They aren’t us!” These two expositions sum up what SOMA is about, but I can’t delve into this without ruining the ride. SOMA is a voyage, albeit submerged, that asks players to lean over that precipice at the edge of the world and gaze into the terrifying unknown that rests within all of us. Who are we, really? As individuals? As a species? What is life? What is its value? When we redefine living, does that value change? For the inquisitive and brave, SOMA delivers a terrifying tale that borrows into the horror underneath these questions, and it is this digging that will keep you up long after the credits have rolled. You really might need to watch some cartoons after this one, folks.

Marmoset's Brew: Like too much of a really great tequila, it'll make you rethink your life. 

Horizon: Zero Dawn

I've never thought that the post-apocalypse or robots could be beautiful. The post-apocalypse usually presents a bleak world with constant reminders of a great time that was, and robots are usually either cool or scary. Cormack McCarthy's The Road, Bethesda's Fallout series, and Mad Max and Terminator fiction depict terrifying, bleak worlds wrought by man's folly, sometimes with militant, sleek, or utilitarian robots. Horizon: Zero Dawn (HZD) is a new entry into this mythos, but it depicts a picturesque post-apocalyptic wilderness populated by awe-inspiring, graceful robotic animals, a notion that immediately begs investigation. Developer Guerilla Games, most famous for their first-person shooter series Killzone, has artfully crafted this third-person open-world adventure for PS4, and though it is completely new territory for the veteran studio, they have crafted an experience that is deep, gorgeous, and an absolute blast to play. 

Horizon: Zero Dawn is about a great post-apocalyptic science-fiction mystery and a young woman’s journey of self-discovery and actualization. Not surprisingly, these adventures lead to revelations of cataclysmic circumstances, but it is Aloy’s own inquisitiveness and the lore of Horizon that really made the story enjoyable and personal. Aloy is an outcast of the Nora tribe from birth, off-limits to all social interaction by law, forced to be raised by another outcast. At an early age she decides to devote her life to finding out why she was outcast and who her mother is or was, which is directly related to the fate of the world. Passionate, determined, and empathetic, Aloy is a strong female lead that also feels vulnerable and alone. The game’s stellar introductory sequence immediately faces players with tons of questions about Aloy and the world that she herself knows very little about, and sets the stage for an engrossing, if grim, adventure with themes of conservation, religious extremism, discrimination, and scientific and industrial irresponsibility. Make no mistake, HZD is as much about human nature as it is about fighting robot animals.

I loved the heavy and grim main storyline, but HZD is also filled with many smaller stories through side quests that add even more depth and substance to the world. These auxiliary tales and explorations flesh out the populace of differing tribes, their cultures, religions, and their problems within the context of the greater conflict taking place. I really appreciated these finer touches: helping a sister find and save a mentally disabled brother, uncovering a vengeful plot to kill a monarch, tracking stolen medicinal herbs to ease the pain of a dying warrior. Better, none of these asides were as straightforward as they seemed at first; nothing ever felt like a simple fetch or enemy elimination quest, and they were never as simple as enemies attacking a settlement "just because." I was always happy to explore these extra narrative avenues

I was happily surprised by HZD's diversity in its population and the stories surrounding that diversity. There are more LGBT characters than I've ever seen in a game, and their stories of love, loss, or struggle lent the narrative intimacy. Their presence in the world, as text or audio logs or non-player characters (NPCs) enriches the experience, though I would have liked more depth in these instances. For example, a long dead traveler leaves a journal behind in memorial for his partner, or a female prison warden rises in a male-only system while demanding to be treated as a man, but these characters don't openly declare their identity as LGBT, nor is that nature (what it means to be who they are) really explored. It's a step in the right direction for diversity in games, but diversity is about more than just featuring different kinds of people. I applaud Guerilla for being one of the few games that have maturely approached these topics, and hope they can do so more meaningfully in the future. This topic deserves far more attention, but we'll have to explore it in depth in another article, so stay tuned for now.

 

HZD is a blast to explore and discover in large part due to its visuals. This game is breathtakingly beautiful. I caught myself admiring awe inspiring vistas, the light of the moon streaking through clouds and reflecting off lakes, the light of a setting sun bathing a towering, walking machine amidst shimmering rivers and red mesas. From woodland to snowy mountain, sandswept desert to jungle, I couldn't help but stop to appreciate the vibrant, gorgeous, and detailed world Guerilla constructed. In all this remnants of the old world sit like tombs, covered by overgrowth and neglected. Rusted and crumbling, mechanical wrecks and toppled buildings constantly hint at a past civilization, contrasting the technical and pastoral. Even unpredictable weather patterns like overcast skies, sand, snow, and rainstorms brought the world vividly to life. Every aspect of the various environments was a wonder to behold, and its fitting that what you can do within them is so much fun.  

Most of HZD’s experience is spent in combat, which is fortunate, since it is sharp, varied, and a truckload of fun. Robotic creatures are covered by removable armored plates, and have distinct parts that act as weakpoints. Remove parts and a robot loses certain functionalities and attacks, like belching flames or long-range strikes. Different damage types, elemental status effects, and weapons give a plethora of options for dealing with enemies that are much faster, stronger, and larger than Aloy. Creature designs are rendered beautifully and animations are remarkably fluid, so combat feels that much more engrossing and intense. Discovering each new creature is exciting in itself without even hunting them. Figuring out the best ways to bring down each creature is a load of fun, and it just helps that they're so darn pretty. 

Less could be said about human enemies. These encounters aren't as engaging as robotic melees because human targets feel less threatening on the whole; headshots take them down pretty quickly, they are easy to sneak around and take out without much fuss, and in combat they either take cover to trade shots or rush with reckless abandon. This isn't to say they aren't a threat, they can easily overwhelm, and elite humans with heavy weapons pack a serious punch, but humans just don't have the presence or require the thought that robotic enemies do. Many of these encounters involve liberating camps and their tied-up hostages, similar to other open world games like Crytek's Far Cry. If the player is detected, the enemies can set off an alarm that will call reinforcements, so sneaking in and taking out the alarm quietly is a priority. Like hunting robots, these segments require a bit of planning, but never felt too difficult. Thankfully, human encampments aren't numerous and don't require much time, so these sections feel like good changes of pace rather than detrimental slogs. Some combine human and robotic units in fun ways, and it was intriguing to mitigate the two sources of danger.

I learned early in the game that it doesn’t take much to die, and using the wrong weapons and ammunition can prolong a fight, if not make it impossible. Running into the fray without knowing the enemy’s weaknesses can make it much, much tougher. Thankfully, Aloy has a Focus, a device similar to a bluetooth that allows her to interact with machines in old ruins and, more importantly, scan her surroundings and mechanical enemies. I loved hiding in tall grass, sneakily scanning new machines to see where their vulnerable parts are, taking note of damage-type and elemental weaknesses, and then choosing the right weapons and planning my attack. Stealth is smooth and enjoyable, with just the right indicators to warn you of detection, and the Focus even allows players to tag enemies and display their patrolled pathways. Some robotic enemies can call other machines once they detect you, but they also tend to be weak enough for a stealth kill, so prioritizing targets is just as important as knowing their weaknesses. Some of my favorite moments were when I was detected and a herd of nearby enemies quickly crowded me, causing me to change my tactics on the fly. I appreciated the combination of intense action and flexible strategy that HZD offers. 

Like many open-world games, managing resources and collecting objects is fundamental. Those parts you removed from the backs and underbellies of robotic beasts? They can be picked up, and more supplies are harvested from robot bodies. Wildlife like boars and foxes can be hunted for bones and meat, and many plants can be picked and collected. All these resources are used to craft ammunition, potions, traps, pouches and bags for larger inventories, to trade for metal shards, the game’s currency, and better weapons and armor. Resources are abundant, so I never felt like I had to go out of my way to collect much-needed goods, and being able to craft ammunition from a weapon wheel with the touch of a few buttons kept me focused on the action when I really needed it.

Outside of the main storyline and side quests, there’s a great deal to do in HZD. Hunting grounds offer a series of timed challenges that help mix up the gameplay. For example, some require taking down specific robots with specific weapons, or dislodging or eliminating specific parts. Their limitations and timed nature made for welcomed intense, fun distractions in a game that is characterized by openness and freedom. Corrupted zones are infected with tougher bots waiting to be cleared out. I liked the additional challenge of these tougher enemies and their unique makeup. 

Finally, there are rarities to collect, often guarded by mechanical beasties or a high climb. Normally I find collectibles little more than time sinks, but I was determined to find them all because they enriched the fiction with personal stories and poetic musings. My favorites were vantage points, which, when activated with the Focus, project a hologram over a nearby landmark to show what it looked like pre-apocalypse. These are accompanied by a road-tripper’s journal, mourning both a personal loss and the end of the world. I was impressed by the extra content’s ability to enhance the experience in narratively meaningful ways. 

HZD is a masterpiece. I reveled in its visual beauty, the nuances of its different fictional cultures, its fun, frantic yet tactical gameplay, and in Aloy’s struggle to come to terms with her place in the world and the challenges to save and preserve it. I welcomed the diversity, the natural inclusion of LGBT characters, and Aloy’s resistance to the oppression of those peoples, but these moments lack the depth the topics and representations deserve. At its core, the game is extremely fun to play in and explore, and I already wish I could forget everything about its world so I could rediscover it all over again. 

Marmoset's Brew: like a pepper ale; bold flavor with a mighty kick, this is a brew you're always happy to indulge in all its depth, texture, and unforgetful tastiness. It's got that little something that will always make it stand out.

Just a Taste: For Honor

I've always had a love-hate relationship with fighting games. The feeling of mastering a fighter's moveset and the tension of a match, trading blows and counters, is intoxicating, but the hours it takes to memorize button inputs and fighting games' often complicated timing makes the experience tedious and frustrating. For Honor is a fighting game for people like me; it's intuitive, inviting, and fluid without being overly complicated, but still technical enough to reward mastery and experience. Stack a hefty amount of customization options on top of that, and I'm happy to jump into a melee anytime.

For Honor is easy to pick up. At the core of its combat system are stances which dictate where a hero is blocking or attacking. Simply tilt the right stick up, left, or right to block or attack from that direction. This alone feels unique, intuitive, and fun, and I had a blast learning how to quickly block and attack from different directions. If an opponent is putting up a particularly stalwart defense, a forceful shove can open him up for an additional attack or directional throw. Quick dodges help create space, and a well-timed button press during a block can open an opponent to deadly counters. Heavy and light attacks add variety and short combo strings for simple offensive tools. This bedrock creates a stable ground for all types of gamers with differing skill levels, making For Honor one of the most accessible fighting games I’ve ever played.

The brilliance of For Honor lies in its technical depth hidden beneath this graceful simplicity. The game’s twelve heroes have slight differences in reach, speed, damage per hit, blocking, and dodging, but also possess short combo chains which are typically similar between heroes of similar types, so picking them up is easy. Some require simply connecting attacks, others attacking after a successful shove or dodge, and then others something special. My favorite hero type thus far, assassins, can’t hold a block indefinitely like others can, but perform a parry when dodging into an opponent’s attack. This parry opens the opponent up to combos that inflict bleeding damage over time. I love dominating the battlefield with the assassin’s advanced mobility, moving in quickly, parrying attacks, causing bleed damage, and quickly rushing out of range. Even better, it didn't take me hours of practice to feel like I've mastered the class; I'm competitive and confident after just a few matches.

When players find they like a class, they can use steel, the game's currency, to unlock a plethora of customization and equipment options. Colors, paint patterns, material, engravings, and symbols can be applied to every piece of equipment independently, so making a warrior stand out is easy and fun. Find a piece of equipment that benefits the stat you want but its model looks aweful? You can change it to look like another piece of equipment you find particularly sexy.  I was surprised at the variety and freedom in altering the appearance of my fighters, and getting new equipment to alter stats adds a fun layer of strategy.

Game modes are fun, albeit limited. Duel and Brawl offer tense one-on-one and two-on-two matches, respectively, and four-on-four Deathmatch is a fun, if chaotic, slugfest. Domination shines as a unique addition for a fighting game, challenging two four player teams to control three control points. Weak AI soldiers from each side fight over a central point, drifting back and forth across the field as players destructively dive into the crowds and duel amongst the masses. The resulting tug-of-war is loads of fun without being overly complicated, and the action still focuses on tense duels within capture points. All these modes are fun, but might grow repetitive for some players, especially since the number of maps seems limited. More modes would bring some exciting variety to the table, like a multi-stage match of defenders versus attackers similar to Battlefield 1's Operations mode.

Performance in these matches contributes to an ongoing war between the three factions--Templar, Vikings, Samurai--represented by a map with three fronts. As players participate in matches, they earn war assets for their faction that can be contributed to defending or attacking territories along each front. The war progresses in rounds, which pass after several days, and the war's outcome is determined in ten weeks. The winning side is awarded gear and other prizes, then the war starts all over again. I like the Risk-esque look to the war, and it feels nice to contribute to something bigger between matches, though it's hard to come to any conclusions as I've not earned anything from it yet.

I've had a lot of fun with my relatively short time in For Honor so far, and I typically fail horribly with online fighting games. Controls and concepts are easy to grasp, different heroes are fun to master, and customization is creative. It'll take more time to see if the limited maps and modes grow stale, but for now, I'm loving the experience.

Habitica: The Fun Organizer

I’ve always had a fascination with planners. Neat lines stripe page after page in a book that looks almost the same from end to end, the only difference the numbers or days lying in a corner or header. We organize our lives on these pages, strategically planning our chores or pledging time to make dreaded—or celebrated—due dates. This is how we keep ourselves accountable, on task, and successful in lives populated with often overwhelming numbers of responsibilities, possibilities, and distractions. It’s a shame I was never very good at consistently using these invaluable pocket secretaries, as intriguing as I found them.

Enter Habitica. This app is a digital version of the paper-based organizer from the days of yore, but provides the immediate feedback-loop of a game. Habitica lets users—Habiticans—create an 8-bit character, level them up, and earn gear, just like in a role-playing game. Checking tasks off of Habitica’s various lists rewards the user with experience for leveling, gold for buying stuff, and magic points for using skills. It has a to-do list for those projects, a daily list for those repeated tasks, like going to the gym, and a habit list that rewards good behaviors and punishes bad ones. The latter is an excellent tool for things like getting out of bed instead of hitting snooze, or getting rid of a bad habit like biting your nails (I don’t anymore, by the way). Leaving dailies and to-dos undone or clicking a negative habit damages the user’s character, and death subtracts a level and strips the character of a valuable piece of gear. Like real life, leaving goals unfinished only holds us back, and Habitica emphasizes this point and encourages accountability, even on a social level.

Habiticans can help one another by gathering as a group and taking on quests. Each completed task contributes to finishing the quest, which requires the party collect enough of something or defeat a boss. The collection or “fight” takes place at the end of the day, each player contributing by completing their tasks. Boss quests are challenging as any unfinished task at the end of the day adds damage the scary beastie does to the entire party. This system heightens the sense of accountability, and I found fellow Habiticans will encourage one another to accomplish their goals to win as a group. Once characters reach level 10, Habiticans can choose a class, which will bestow skills that, when cast, benefit the user or the entire party in a myriad of ways, such as increasing gold gained or damage done per task.

The social aspects of Habitica include guilds, groups whose memberships offer specific challenges. I joined a graduate student guild that adds tasks to my lists tailored for academic writing and publishing, for instance. Guilds run a varied gamut, from losing weight to quitting or reducing alcohol consumption. The community is typically positive and supportive, and everyone shares the same great journey: improve their lives and be successful in their endeavors.

I love games; I love the way they make me feel and the way they present challenges. Habitica’s synergy between game and planner invokes those feelings, creating a fun and effective way to be organized and motivated. Many of my personal goals will take a long time to achieve, and, as I’m sure many people do, I forget to let myself feel good about the daily efforts I undertake towards those goals. Then I forget to appreciate my goals at all. Habitica’s gamified format is enjoyable, rewarding, and useful, and as I see my avatar become an impressive hero, I see all the challenges I’ve vanquished and my goals become clearer and more attainable. Then I become my own hero.

Final Fantasy XV: Not Much of a Fantasy

This was a challenging review for me to write. I’ve been a longtime fan of the Final Fantasy series, with faith in it wavering since the Square-Enix merger back in 2000. Final Fantasy XV (FFXV) is both a confirmation of my doubts and reaffirmation of my confidence in the series; for every facet of the game I liked, there were several things that disappointed me. What FFXV lacks is depth and nuance, in ways that weigh it down heavily, leaving a mildly fun game that stumbles and falters in its attempt to be great.

FFXV sends players on a road trip with Prince Noctis and his royal guard buddies, Prompto, Gladiolus, and Ignis, to marry a childhood friend and seal a peace treaty with her country. Events turn sour when Noctis’ home country is betrayed, and once the source of the war and ensuing mayhem is revealed, the fate of the world itself is on the line. Though this sounds exciting, the story stutters and spurts due to lack of information and poor delivery. I found I knew very little about the world and all of its characters twenty hours into the game. Most key characters outside of the main party have only fleeting appearances and leave just an ephemeral imprint and a big space full of disappointment behind. The writers’ attempts to give the four main characters their own personalities, motivations, inner turmoil, or any lasting opinions fall flat until it’s too late; only in the final chapters do Noctis’ friends show any kind of depth. These chapters add some much needed tension, but it feels too little too late. Climactic points that one would expect to offer challenging, thoughtful encounters end up in simple button prompts, sapping events of their drama and energy. What players are left with are typical archetypes and a shallow tale that barely try to be memorable. Outside of the abysmal storytelling lies a playable, moderately entertaining game.

FFXV’s combat system is fluid, but vapid, emphasizing positioning and action over strategy. Players control Noctis’ with just a few commands. Hold a button down and he’ll execute physical attacks, the speeds and combos of which depend on the type of weapon in use. Enemies are weak to different weapon types, and four can be switched to via directional presets. Noctis uses magic points for two central abilities, warp and phase. Warp transports Noctis to enemies for extra damage or to safe spots to restore health and magic points. Dodging requires a simple button press, but holding down this button executes phases, or automatic dodges. Some enemy attacks can be parried by holding this same button down when prompted, opening a counter attack with another prompt. The three AI controlled party members will often perform a powerful joint attack with a well-executed counter or rear attack, so looking out for these opportunities is important. Controlling Noctis is fun and easy, but left me wanting more as repetition quickly set in.

Your teammates mostly do their own thing, but the party’s attacks also fill a three-segment bar used to execute specific techniques. Each bro has several abilities that can be activated this way, doing large amounts of damage to single targets or groups or conferring a benefit like restoring the party’s health, shielding Noctis from damage, or weakening enemies. Different abilities require set amounts of the technique bar, so carefully choosing which to trigger and when is important. It’s a nice tool, but it too often comes down to doing damage rather than adding anything inspired to combat. One of the only elements that does is spellcasting.

Spells are built from a refillable stock of fire, ice, and lightning elements and can be customized with added effects like restoring Noctis’ health, applying poison, or casting multiple spells at once. This system is fun and powerful, though friendly fire applies, so timing is essential to make the most of a spell without utterly destroying the party. I liked the risk versus reward spells introduced, and customizing their effects is fun. It’s a shame that spells are easy to overlook as crafting a powerful one requires using most or all of an available stock, only a handful of uses are made per crafting, refilling the party’s element supply is a chore, and most fights are easy enough to warp and bash through. Altogether, the combat system works very well, but it disappointed me in its repetitive simplicity. Thankfully, combat isn’t all there is to FFXV.

Like most RPGs, preparations outside of combat are as important as the actions within it. The party defeats enemies and completes quests for experience, which is applied to gain levels when the party rests at camps, mobile homes, motels or hotels. Camps are free, but the other options have a price tag commensurate with a multiplier to experience earned. Leveling up increases stats and awards ability points, or AP, which unlock various bonuses to the party via branching skill trees. These trees allow players to customize the effectiveness of various tools, enable more sources for experience and AP, . AP takes some time to earn, so it makes a big difference what one chooses to unlock and when, especially since more impressive offerings are very expensive. These trees influence the party’s effectiveness dramatically, and I had fun planning out what was most important to me.

With a weak storyline and basic combat, I am thankful that the gameworld is gorgeous, so at the very least the game is fun to behold. Animations are well rendered, the landscape is varied and detailed, lighting is fantastic, and enemies are beautiful and frightening. It was fun discovering locales and the creatures that inhabit them, which is great, since most of the game’s experience revolves around travel. Noctis’ royal steed, the Regalia, is stylish, with many cosmetic customization options in the form of paints and decals. This is nice, because trips can take up to ten minutes to get to a location on preset pathways, so plan on bathroom breaks; otherwise take in the scenery or listen to Final Fantasy soundtracks for a dose of nostalgia. Discovered outposts and parking spots can be fast-travelled to, subverting long road trips for almost as equally tiring load times. I was surprised Square-Enix missed the opportunity for more party banter during long car rides, as that could have fleshed out the characters and their histories.

You’ll be travelling a lot, because there’s plenty to do in FFXV’s world. Side quests of the fetch and kill-that-monster variety litter the landscape, and ranked hunts for stronger, boss-like enemies or groups of enemies are plentiful and rewarding. Dungeons raise the stakes in the form of more challenging enemies, tighter spaces, and disabled manually saving, and were my favorite parts of the game. After beating the campaign, the toughest material is unlocked, finally introducing fights that require some thought, but again this feels late.

The end result is a decent experience that falls short of greatness. Combat is fun and fluid at first, but repetitive and shallow as the game crawls along. Noctis’ internal plight is heartfelt, but most characters are empty shells and archetypes with very little depth, their innermost feelings and conflicts hidden or reduced to a momentary glossing over. FFXV is a shallow wading pool compared to its predecessors’ varied seas, and I, for one, am happy to dry off and leave this one behind.

Brew: It's like a stout with a great, beautiful label, but it's missing that deep, rich texture and taste that makes it a stout. Still drinkable, though.

No Man's Sky: Some Man's Dream

No Man’s Sky is both a great game and a horrible game dependent on expectation and desire. The game has a unique feature; its entire universe, including planets, wildlife, plants, spaceships, and sentient species, are designed by several impressive algorithms. The concept itself is astounding. At least that was the thought rushing at me in the game’s early hours. Only one star system in, I felt the experience captured the spirit of the intrepid voyager; every pulse drive to a planet was exhilarating, every landing exciting, every animal a wonder. Then I warped to the next system, wide-eyed and hopeful. Then to the next, and the next, and the next. A rhythm set in, and though the wonder never completely faded, the activities surrounding it became somewhat rote. For some, NMS will deliver well enough, for others, it will deliver not much of anything.

No Man’s Sky begins with an astounding amount of potential. Players mount their journey marooned on a planet, their ship damaged. Using the multi-tool--a gun-like apparatus that can be switched between mining and combat modes--players gather materials like oxides from rocks and isotopes from flora and fauna, which can then be used to repair ship components. After fixing the ship, players are free to explore their first planet in earnest. In this introductory hour, some specific and immediate goals are given to the player, like finding the schematic for and building a pulse drive that will allow the ship to leave the atmosphere and “jump” to another planet, moon, starbase, or other location within a system. This is the only time a player’s time will be directed so specifically; the rest of the time, you do what you want.

With the ship fixed and a star system open for exploration, it’s easy to find something to do. Aliens inhabit colonial bases and trade centers, offering a small language-based puzzle for various rewards. Each of the three species has their own language to decipher, which figures heavily on solving these puzzles and knowing what any particular alien wants. Words in each language are discovered in alien ruins, monoliths, and from aliens themselves. Monoliths and ruins also relate each species’ history or offer a reward or punishment through another language-based puzzle. Animals, plants, and minerals can be scanned for small payments, and scanning all the species on a given planet nets players a large sum of credits, the game’s currency. This is used to buy materials, trade for a new ship at starbases or planetside outposts, or expand spacesuit inventory at drop-pods. If you're feeling brazen, you can attack resource stockpiles on planets or massive cargo ships in space to steal their resources, but beware counterattack by the Sentinels, the universe's enigmatic robotic-sentient police. Once you're carrying all that precious cargo, space pirates might warp in to attack in their own ships, or might attack those aforementioned cargo ships en masse, triggering a distress call asking for your help. So at the outset things can be pretty overwhelming, especially with nothing upgraded or built yet.

Players find schematics for additions to the spacesuit, multi-tool, and ship at trade centers, mysterious derelict settlements, Sentinel-protected manufacturing plants, and shelters. These additions either add functionality, such as making the multi-tool combat mode fire like a shotgun, or improve the stats of various devices. A layer of customization lies here, though building these additions takes up valuable inventory space, so it can be tough deciding between carrying more materials or having a shield against one of the various extreme conditions on planets. Finally building that new mod that adds a huge amount of damage to the multi-tool feels great, though it takes a lot of work if rare materials are required.

Building better mods is rewarding as you see your ship and equipment become more effective, but fighting isn't very interesting or nuanced. Most combat in NMS is against the Sentinels, who appear in larger force the bigger the crime and the more one resists. Combat is as simple as pointing and shooting, a very limited selection of mods changing firing modes and a grenade launcher the only bit of variation available. Using cover, the jetpack, and ensuring that your weapon and shields are buffed up enough is all one needs to master any planet. Space combat is even simpler, the ship’s mining laser and automatic cannon the only tools of destruction. Overzealous, oppressive peacekeepers are not the only threats, however.

Planets vary not only in appearance and life, but also in their weather. Some have dangerously cold nights or scorching days, toxic rains, or rampant radioactivity. The suit has an environmental shield that slowly drains, but these effects can be mitigated by finding shelter in buildings or caves and by building condition-specific shield modules in the suit. Some planets are impossible to explore on foot for very long without these modules, and like the multi-tool, engines, and other various devices, they must be “re-fueled” with material. There's a lot to keep track of, a lot to build and customize, and a lot to do, but I am unconvinced NMS is one of those games that are "more than just the sum of its parts."

The truth is, nothing you seem to do makes a difference. Nothing changes from one warp to another. Spare events like space pirate attacks and black holes liven up the action and wonder, and attacking huge capital ships for a prolonged time out in space can be downright suicidal, but for the most part gameplay doesn’t change from one star-system to the next. This is a problem for many because the few motivations to continue—find the center of the universe, discover each species’ histories, or figure out what in the world is going on with the Atlas—is not going to be enough for most. Repetition sets in. Worse, the only long-term sense of challenge comes from the insane amount of credits required to buy the better, high-end ships.

What we end up with is a humongous universe with a handful of tasks to do but no real center or motivator to them. It’s never even quite clear why reaching the center of the universe is important, though I haven’t plumbed that depth quite yet and am still curious as to what I’ll find. So herein lies the problem: I’ve maxed out my suit inventory, built some of the best mods, and now, with so far to go, I feel there’s no room for growth, and growth—that next level, that better piece of equipment, that one awesome ship—has been the chief motivators for my continued play. I still haven’t gotten that ship, but making money just isn’t fun enough.

No Man’s Sky is a great concept with some superb technology and a lot of spirit, but the design and narrative just aren’t motivating or deep enough to keep most players invested. It's a technological marvel and a good game, but it's lack of depth amidst so much breadth keeps it from being great.

Brew: Like an AMF; blew your mind that one time, but every time you have another you like it less and less.

The Evil Within the Evil Within

Welcome to Shinji Mikami’s wild ride. The Evil Within is an over-the shoulder, third person survival horror akin to Mikami’s famous previous title, Resident Evil 4. Rather than focusing on tight action and cut-scene commands, The Evil Within is a psychological gore-infested acid trip that demands smart resource and spacial management, planning and quick thinking, and a strong reserve.

The Evil Within begins with our main character--the detective Sebastian Castellanos--and two other gumshoes speeding towards a crime scene. Backup is needed at a mental hospital in Krimson City, and our heroes are on the case. Upon arrival, it’s easy to see the worst has happened, as the lobby is streaked with blood and the bodies of police officers and hospital staff are strewn about. A babbling doctor reveals that something sinister and possibly unnatural is going on, and a set of camera monitors reveals a hooded figure with a disfigured face popping out of thin air, killing more officers. Then, suddenly, he’s in the room with Sebastian, and our hero is flung to another space, hung upside down and surrounded by meathooks and hanging corpses. A large, grotesque figure cuts through human meat on a nearby table with a chainsaw. Now, figure out how to get out and what in the world is going on.

Players can expect this kind of incoherence between locations and events throughout most of the game as Mikami slowly regales a horror story of science, psychology, pain, and betrayal in the midst of the inexplicable and repulsive. This only adds to a pervasive sense of unease as each area dares players to connect it to other places and events, and the gameplay itself changes and demands different tactics and approaches at every juncture.

Sebastian’s personal tragic story involving the loss of his closest loved ones reveals a great deal about him, but does little else. The backstory is nice, and there is some parallel with villain Reuvik’s tale, but I feel there was a missed opportunity in that there is no relation made between the two. There are some holes in the story left to fill, which is true of the entire narrative, so perhaps this is the point. The player is left with questions and connections they must make on their own, many that just don’t have any answers, much like the connections between each space Sebastian is violently flung to and between. What is clear by the end of the game is what happened to Sebastian and Reuvik, respectively, and this is enough to make some sense of the insanity.

As stated earlier, The Evil Within's gameplay will be familiar to anyone who's played Resident Evil 4 . The latter title’s emphasis on action is apparent in The Evil Within, but survival aspects are much more pronounced. Ammunition is rare enough and stock maximums low enough that any missed shot feels like a stroke and using resources sparingly yet intelligently becomes even more important than quick-thinking and skill.

Weapon assortment is what one would expect, with typical strategies involved. The pistol is accurate but low damage, good for head shots, the shotgun can blast back a group of enemies and does decent damage, the sniper rifle is powerful but unwieldy, and the magnum is great for tough targets but ammunition is a rarity. Grenades help flesh out this basic armory, though a unique tool really gives the action some variety: the agony crossbow. This wicked thing can be loaded with a variety of bolts with invaluable effects. Normal bolts do incredible damage and can pin enemies to the wall, flash bolts blind groups of enemies and leave them open to instant-kill melee attacks, the freeze bolts stop enemies in their tracks and allow them to be shattered, and, to top it all off, you can launch proximity mines. The crossbow allows for more flexible mob management and incapacitating invincible or otherwise challenging enemies. Unlike other ammunition, bolts can be manufactured on the fly from scrap parts harvested by disarming traps and bombs. Saving even this ammo requires being smart on another level.

The environment is often Sebastian’s most potent weapon. Spikes can rise from the floor with the throw of a switch, explosive barrels immolate enemies, and pits and cliffs beg the use of gravity. Being smart with these resources saves ammunition for those tight spots when it’s really needed. In addition, Sebastian can collect matches to light prone or dead enemies alight, spreading the flames to nearby enemies if timed right. Fire is the most potent weapon in the game for a significant, symbolic reason, but let’s not ruin that surprise. This was a relationship between gameplay and narrative that I really appreciated.

Players can level up many aspects of Sebastian’s abilities and repertoire, customizing how they play the game to a certain degree. Weapons can be made more accurate, do more damage, have larger clips, and increase their percentage to automatically kill with a headshot. Sebastian can increase how long he can run, his health, melee damage, and how much health syringes restore. Each agony bolt’s effects can be improved, and the maximum stock for every type of ammunition or item can be increased. The currency for these upgrades is Green Gel (what I affectionately dubbed “brain juice"), which is hidden throughout levels and dropped by enemies. After one playthrough, I was unable to unlock more than half of the upgrades, but I harly doubt I missed plenty of secrets.

The Evil Within provides a balanced challenge on its default difficulty, not so much that I ever felt cheated or overly frustrated but not so little that I could just breeze through. Checkpoints were plentiful and placed at opportune junctures, so dying never set me back too far. I haven't tried playing on the harder difficulty unlocked after the first playthrough, but I imagine it's rough. New game plus, a second playthrough with all the unlocks from the first, is available for completionists.

This game is a great fun romp in a twisted wonderland of gore, cruel machinations, absurdity, and insanity. The gameplay is sharp, fun, and distressing, yet nuanced enough to stand out from the horror-action crowd. So if you're ready for Mikami's Wild Ride, strap in and hold on for dear life, 'cause it's a doozy.

Gone Home: Feel the House, Be the House

Kaitlin Greenbriar has just come home from being abroad for a year. She came home surprisingly, but she called ahead and left a message to let her family know. Standing on the porch, she can see her house is locked and seemingly empty. Strange. There’s a note on the front door from her younger sister Sam apologizing for not being home, asking her not to go poking around. Even stranger. This is the set up for Gone Home, and poking around is exactly what Kaitlin is going to do. Gone Home challenges players to thoroughly inspect the Greenbriar household, piecing together a tapestry of drama sown together by notes, printed emails, letters, journals, show tickets, and Sam’s amateur fiction. The result is a very mature exploration of identity, family, adventure, and love.

Gameplay is as simple as it gets. The player controls Kate from a first person perspective, looking and moving with the analog sticks. She can interact with objects, like opening doors and drawers, turning on lights, picking up items, and reading notes. Her vision can zoom in at any time, and she can crouch to look under furniture. A map can be consulted as Kate explores the house, outlining rooms and special notes, and an inventory and journal keeps track of keys, lock combinations, and important entries by Sam. There are no enemies to fight and no dangers to avoid, just a mystery that can only be solved by exploring every inch of the house. This might sound dull on paper, but the execution draws players through the abode in an irresistible way.

Uncovering the family’s inner drama and Sam’s personal thoughts and passions drive the entire game. Gone Home is a game of discovery, telling a touching and personal story. Finding particular items unlocks a voice-over of Sam reading from her journal. The actress  (Sam Grayson) does an excellent job of communicating emotion, and I found myself quickly drawn into her situation and dying to find out what happened to her. This drives the entire experience, pushing players throughout the house to discover just one more scrap of detail. By the end of the experience, I found myself despairing at her pain and cheering at her triumphs, and the conclusion was worth every moment being the detective.
To be clear, Gone Home is not for everyone, but it perfectly accomplishes telling the story it wants to tell in its own unique way. If you’re looking for a novel, exploratory, emotional experience, Gone Home delivers; a great big puzzle that reveals the heart of a home.

Brew: a rare, unique aged whisky. You wouldn't drink it all the time, but you haven't forgotten that one time you did, and its nuanced flavor still sticks with you.

The Division: Tactical Bullet Sponge

New York City has been evacuated, under siege by an incurable pandemic. Many,have been left behind, forced to fend for themselves in a lawless city. Across the United States, sleeper agents of the Division have been activated, assigned to help restore order and investigate the the cause of the outbreak, which may be man-made. If they can, Division agents must also uncover the whereabouts of the first wave of agents sent into the city, who have mysteriously gone silent.

This is the premise behind The Division, the newest game from Tom Clancy and Ubisoft that attempts to deliver a tactical online MMO shooter. Players explore the open-world New York, uncovering the plot that doomed the city and building up a base of operations in the process. Agents level up, find and create new gear, and are free to focus their skills however they want. The result is a very fun alternative to the famous (or infamous) Destiny that improves on many of the sci-fi shooter’s weaknesses, but also repeats some of its well-known mistakes.

The Division is split into two play zones, the PvE focused larger space that acts as an instance for any player or party, and the dreaded PvP Dark Zone walled off in the center of it all. In the PvE zone, players spend most of their time completing campaign missions, encounters, and side missions. Campaign missions advance the story and award players with points to upgrade the base of operations, which we’ll get into later. The Division tells a decent story of betrayal and survival, with an intriguing but inconclusive end, though I found the construction of the struggle as a whole more interesting than the narrative. Encounters award these points as well, but are much smaller in scope, typically tasking players with guarding supply drops from waves of enemies or destroying a small enemy stronghold. Side missions have similar goals, but award gear and weapon schematics instead of base-building resources. Campaign missions are exciting, and encounters are short and sweet enough to maintain their charm, but side missions tend to be repetitive, sometimes involving only the equivalent of flipping a few switches, but the schematics are helpful in filling equipment gaps while leveling up.

Building up the base of operations is how players gain new skills and abilities. The base is split into three wings—medical, security, and tech—that are upgraded by using points awarded from campaign missions and encounters. Upgrades have different point costs and can be chosen freely, so players can focus on unlocking the capabilities they’re most interested in. Each wing offers three activated abilities, each with three modifications that change how they function. They also unlock talents activated by certain events in combat—such as taking cover or lighting enemies on fire—and persistent perks that permanently upgrade things like inventory and consumable item effectiveness. Finally, each wing offers a signature skill that will give an offensive, restorative, or defensive bonus to the entire party, but requires a great amount of time to recharge. Any signature skill and any two activates abilities can be equipped, so players can change how their character functions on the fly or focus on any build they want.

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Players balance three stats that drastically alter how a character functions. Firepower increases the damage of weapons, stamina increases health, and electronics increases skillpower. Gear—bodyarmor, kneepads, backpacks, etc—increases these stats along with armor rating and gives various random effects. In this way, gear plays a major role in the capabilities of a character. Luckily, the base can be upgraded to allow the limited reassignment of gear abilities, like what stat they buff. The system is simple enough to grasp but deep enough to allow a lot of deep customization and flexibility.

Though the PvE zone is fun, particularly with party members, the Dark Zone is where the most excitement is found. This area features large groups of strong AI enemies, its own currency and leveling system, better weapons and gear, and a fantastic PvP system. These zones are occupied by other players as well, who may choose to help or kill on another. Killing AI enemies awards Dark Zone (DZ) currency, which can be used to purchase high quality equipment, and DZ experience, which contributes to a character’s DZ level, required to use DZ equipment. Equipment found in the Dark Zone is contaminated and can’t simply be carried out; players must call in an extraction helicopter at marked points, wait for its arrival, and then have their cache lifted, the items then added to their private stash. Calling an extraction draws AI enemies and all players in the zone are notified.

Should other players capitalize, they might attack an agent or agents waiting for an extraction (or at any other time, for that matter). Players can open fire on one another at any time. Killing a player causes them to drop whatever contaminated items they were carrying as well as awarding currency and experience. Attacking other players and killing them immediately puts a player in rogue status, which levels up to a maximum of five as they kill more agents. This status places a bounty on the player (or party’s) head as well as indicates them on every player’s minimap with a red skull. The higher the rogue status, the more the miscreants are worth. If the rogue player or party survives a timer, which increases as more agents are killed, they are rewarded with their bounty: experience and currency. If other players are successful in hunting them down, then those justice seekers are rewarded the bounty. It’s a fantastic risk-reward system, though a player finding themselves alone in the Dark Zone is extremely vulnerable, so someone who would prefer to hunt by themselves might not like the system. The Dark Zone is challenging, unpredictable, and unforgiving, so it may not appeal to everyone.

Players max out their regular level at 30, easily reached by the end of the campaign. Once there, a player’s level is replaced by their gear score, a number achieved by equipping endgame gear with their own gear score ratings. This number indicates to other players an agent’s capabilities, to an extent, and is also a requirement for raids, of which there is just one right now.

The Division is a fantastic game which currently needs more endgame content to keep players motivated and interested. The game is strongest when played with others, and thankfully hooking up with a party is simple, easy, and quick. The cover-and-shoot mechanic works well, and the action requires tactics and teamwork to survive successfully. Fans of more typical Tom Clancy titles will find The Division to be quite unlike those stealth-heavy, realistic titles, but all the strategy, teamwork, and depth is still there.

Go for a Swim in flOw

Everybody dreams of the day they can swim about peacefully in strange fluid and devour all in their path. This independent game from thatgamecompany was originally the master’s thesis of Jenova Chen released as a flash game in 2006 and was then expanded upon and released as a Playstation 3 download. Players take control of a microorganism in a two-dimensional field, swimming about to eat other organisms and thereby grow larger. Players eat a specific red organism to move a level deeper into the visible background, and if they are preyed upon and eaten enough, they are pushed back up a field to feed and restore their body. Aside from simply swimming around using the sixaxis motion sensor, players can also execute a special action—typically faster movement of some sort—depending on the organism they control. Colors contrast from the brightly lit organisms to the deeply colored, misty backgrounds, and particles floating about in the foreground and background really give a sense of being in fluid. flOw is very pretty in a minimalistic sort of way. The concept of the game is extremely simple, but the execution is unique.

Those circles filled with light are like blips of health; lose them all, and you shrink into the foreground to eat smaller organisms. Eat all the blips on another, and you can devour its body.

Those circles filled with light are like blips of health; lose them all, and you shrink into the foreground to eat smaller organisms. Eat all the blips on another, and you can devour its body.

As players eat other organisms, their organism grows larger. A light blinks down the player’s body, singing out a melodic chime as it goes. These ring over a calming, enveloping atmospheric soundtrack by Austin Wintory that operates like the fluid around the player’s organism, submerging the player in the strange organic world. Every action—eating, being eaten, dashing forward—emits a musical noise that adds to the ambiance. The sonic environment coupled with the simplistic gameplay makes flOw a unique experience easy to lose oneself in.

The screen can get pretty busy with activity, but the experience remains soothing and hypnotic even in its most tense moments.

The screen can get pretty busy with activity, but the experience remains soothing and hypnotic even in its most tense moments.

The game’s moniker is taken from psychology. Flow is the concept of losing oneself in an activity by being entirely focused on it. Theorized by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, this complete absorption in one’s activity is comparable to immersion, the sense of acting and existing within a game and its parameters. The motion controls, simple gameplay, and aural landscape of flOw entices the player, drawing them into the strange single-celled pool of activity.

Beyond these standout qualities, however, the game is limited. Gameplay is rarely difficult, and even if a player comes up against a rough situation, the punishment for being eaten is simply being pushed back a level to feed and try again. The game has only a handful of creatures to control, and each playthrough might take up to just twenty minutes (and even less). flOw is a minimalistic, artistic experience that can be returned to every now and then for brief periods of play, but it lacks any depth of difficulty or skill that will keep players engaged for longer sessions. flOw inevitably feels like a fantastic novelty, but a novelty nonetheless.

Bottom line: A great experience for those looking for something different, quirky, and with an academic and artsy flare, but those looking for a deeper, more involved experience may be disappointed. A good game to have in the library to share with friends every now and then.

Remember Me is a Nifty Memory That Risks Being Forgotten

Imagine a world in which memories have become commodified into experiences that can be traded, sold, shared, and erased. The social network of status updates and constant photo uploads becomes a network of memories tied to a specific economy and company, Memoreyes. This monopoly of memory, of course, becomes problematic as governmental structures and notions of Memoreys’ hold on society begins shaping the world people live in. This is the basic idea behind the detailed dystopian world Dontnod constructs in Remember Me, and though it was a pure joy to discover and learn about, the experience of inhabiting it as the protagonist Nilin could have used some improvement and polish to make the experience truly memorable.

The game begins as Nilin wakes up in a prison with her memories wiped and no knowledge of who or where she is. Players are introduced to the world through her lost ramblings as she is lead down hallways that inevitably leads to what looks like death, a chair that permanently wipes brains. She is also lead by a voice, another main character that promises to rescue her and help her reclaim her memories. As he helps her escape the player is introduced to a terrifying world in which we can become just husks of consciousness. The player learns that Nilin used to work for a resistance group as a Memory Hunter, reconfiguring the memories of others to influence their actions in order to bring down the memory economy as a whole. Her weapon itself is a glove that attacks enemy’s memories, and the visual effect is quite impressive and creative. The world feels refreshing, original, and exciting right from the onset. Many of the characters themselves feel underdeveloped, however, and their roles and actions fall flat in the narrative. I personally loved the twist at the end, and the philosophical implications the final fight asks players to think about.

The third-person gameplay involves three different segments of play: exploration, combat, and memory remixing, which comes off as a sort of cinematic puzzle. Exploration is simple and reminiscent of Uncharted, with Nilin climbing walls, crates, cranes, and all manner of objects in the environment. There are some time-sensitive pursuit segments that, though exciting, can be frustrating and feel out of place next to the fun combat.

Combat is exciting, fluid, and reactive. It's focused on a familiar action system of combos, evasions, and special abilities, with a fresh twist in customization. Attacks that deal more damage, regenerate health, speed up ability refresh rates, and link to multiply any of those effects are placed in combo chains of varying lengths. Whatever attacks are placed in the chain become more effective the later they are placed in the sequence, creating a dynamic system of balancing damage, survivability, and ability usage. Enemies have different weaknesses that must be exploited, such that certain attacks may break blocks and so forth. Abilities play into this directly, triggering windows to attack hidden stealthy enemies, to hack mechanical enemies into being allies or kamikaze explosives, or to place an explosive on an enemy to deal area damage. Enemy, skill, and combo variations make every fight feel like a fast-paced puzzle. Unfortunately, the enemy variation and amount of combat sessions in the game ends up feeling limited. I felt myself growing tired of combat later in the game, wishing for more elements in the equation to mix things up.

Memory remixing puzzles shine through as great segments that also enhance awareness of the effect of the memory economy on people. Nilin invades a character’s brain to change how they remember a particular event, thereby influencing how that character acts afterwards. One remix has Nilin convincing a bounty hunter that her sick husband died in a hospital when he is, in fact, still alive. This motivates that character to seek vengeance on Memoreyes and help Nilin. These segments are interactive cinematics that may be rewound or fast-fowarded to find particular elements and items that may be interacted with. Being successful simply requires finding the right combination of changes. Exploring how these changes interact with each other is fun, and the puzzles themselves are not very difficult. I found myself wishing they were more challenging, but I enjoyed how these segments really emphasized the fictional world itself.

The music and audio is great, with exciting sound effects indicative of science-fiction. Combat music is high-energy techno-beat, and reacts to combat conditions. Whenever Nilin gets hit, the beat drops off, the layers of sound recede, and even the volume reduces, creating an under-water effect. Feeling the music skip a beat hurts and motivates players to keep up the rhythm of combat. When health gets low, higher energy layers move out from the music and darker tones move in, which helped me focus on a survival strategy and keep calm. The music interactivity was fantastic, and I wish more action games used this type of technique to communicate states in a more obvious and impactful way as Remember Me does.

In the end, the game feels great, but the missing elements of greater diversity in combat and stronger character development makes the game feel somewhat hollow.

Bottom Line: a great experience if you want to explore dystopian themes on memory, identity, and consumerism dressed in the clothes of a decent action game, but don’t expect any of the actual gameplay to blow you away in the long run.

Thomas Was Alone: A Charmingly Intelligent Adventure

Narrative and characterization has rarely been the strong suit of platformers. How often is it that gamers have been given the opportunity to empathize with Mario, Sonic, or Megaman? It's strange, but pleasing, to find such strong characterization in a 2D sidescrolling platformer featuring quadrilaterals as its protagonists in this generation of games.

Mike Bithell's Thomas Was Alone is a puzzle-platformer that tasks players with getting each quadrilateral to its own portal, an exit to the level in the shape of said quadrilateral. Players move the shapes left and right and by jumping or falling. The unique aspect of the gameplay itself is that players may control up to six rectangles of various widths, heights, and abilities such as jump height, the power to float on otherwise deadly toxic water, double-jumping, acting as a trampoline for others, and even opposite-gravity. Getting each shape to its respective exit, which is not always gathered together with the others, requires using each to help the others, creating stairways, elevating less-flighty rectangles, or hitting switches through narrow walkways or at great heights. Each shape has its own unique characteristics that players must figure out how to utilize within the makeup of the entire team. The puzzles rarely felt too challenging, but they were extremely fun to solve, though moving some pieces—like the tiniest square with a small jump to a higher platform—takes some patience and planning. Death by toxic water or pointy spikes is typically followed by a resurrection at a close-by spawn point. At a certain juncture in the gameplay, shapes can be imbued with and switch out these different characteristics one at a time by moving through properly-colored sections of a level, adding another layer of complexity to the gameplay. It rarely ever feels frustrating or very difficult, but still offers compelling challenges.

Thomas Was Alone is not just a simple puzzle game. The second unique aspect of its gameplay is the way in which a story of discovery, sacrifice, and the desire for freedom is told through variously colored and shaped quadrilaterals. The narrator, voiced by Danny Wallace, expresses the thoughts of each of the shapes in a charming English accent a-la Little Big Planet in each level, identifying them by name and sharing their fears, excitement, discoveries, feelings, and thoughts. This one element injects a great deal of humanity into the otherwise simple shapes, allowing players to empathize with them. I never thought I could care so much about the fate of rectangles, but while playing I found myself deeply invested in their fates and relationships.

The narrative material wanes philosophical as well. Each of the characters, particularly Thomas, are alarmingly aware that the environment and system that they live in is limited and changes only to guide them. This juxtaposes the player's position participating in the game, a participation that is also equally limited by the rules of the system. I was fascinated by this slight breach of the fourth-wall, and the game becomes somewhat of a discussion about what it means to play a game and exist in its system, and leaves the air open for thoughts to reflect on our own positions in life as well.

Adding to the enchanting narration is the stellar soundtrack by David Houston. The music is rich yet almost minimalistic, utilizing wonderfully clear and resonant piano melodies and chords, 8-bit crunchy melodic and rhythmic blips, strings, and guitar.  It comes off as alluring, emotional, and driving, adding even more to the personalities of the polygonal characters and the similarly minimalistic visuals. The music infuses a great deal of feeling and mood, effectively becoming an essential part of the game's character.

The quirky adventure runs about 12 hours long.

Bottom Line: I would highly recommend this title to anyone interested in a thoughtful, unique, and artful experience.

Sound Shapes: Make the Music as you Make the Game

I love videogames and music. There are only a handful of games that I’ve played that have successfully married the two into a cohesive, musically interactive experience. This is a top pick. The first time I played Sound Shapes by Queasy Games, I was blown away by its presentation and extremely novel approach to music interactivity that exists as a central facet to gameplay and the wonderful community.

In Sound Shapes, players take the role of a little round ball, the center of a record that rests at the end of a level. The game is essentially a simple platformer, tasking players with moving the little ball around, jumping through the environment and dodging obstacles. The little ball can even stick to certain-colored walls and objects to climb around hazards and navigate vertical terrain. Players can disable the stickiness for more speed to vault over larger expanses or avoid faster obstacles. Levels are separated into different frames that players navigate one at a time, similar to the old Megaman games. While traversing, players collect disc-like objects placed about the levels. The discs add sound effects like sampled instruments and melodies to the soundtrack, essentially building the music of a level as the player collects the discs. Enemies and obstacles in the environment typically add their own rhythmic and melodic sound effects as well. The result is an experience motivated by completing the musical piece as much as possible, and hearing all the sounds come together is a fantastic experience. The game comes with a set of levels created by Queasy Games, separated into albums with various artists and musicians featured (such as I am Robot and Proud and Beck).

That concept was great enough, and Queasy Games also included a terrific content creator, allowing users to create levels from scratch. All the enemies, obstacles, objects, decorations, and musical sounds in the main set of levels are available for use. Sound effects range from sampled banjo riffs, plenty of synthetic waves and 8-bit bleeps, and heavy bass and snare sounds for the construction of all sorts of musical pieces.  By navigating simple menus, users can choose objects and sounds, set color palettes, and even change tempo and whether a level uses a major, minor, pentatonic, or chromatic scale (which can also be transposed up and down). Users design each level a frame at a time, and any sound effects placed in one frame will continue up to three frames away. This sets up opportunities to construct song forms across a level. The sound disks are placed according to a grid; pitch and rhythmic sounds change according to how high or low a disk is placed. A column of light travels across each panel to act as a metronome, so it’s easy to tell where in the piece you are. Custom-made levels can be uploaded to the community so that others may play and rate it. Searching for levels is easy, with search categories that separate levels into shorter or longer adventures or rating. It was a breeze for me to find custom levels that I would like.

Bottom Line: Sound Shapes is a fantastic game for people that love creating content and sharing it in a community, especially if these people love music. The gameplay itself is simple and easy to approach, and it is pretty easy to create some grueling levels by fiddling around with enemy and obstacle placement. I highly recommend the game to everyone interested in a unique experience with artistic flair.

Additional philosophical noteSound Shapes creates a very stimulating situation. Music and game design work cohesively at the level of the community. In order to create a level, one must create a piece of music, and what they constitute goes hand in hand. As a user designs a level, the physical attributes of the environment itself must be considered as musical cues are also limited by this. Building a music track is simultaneously limited by the game’s physical environment. Ergo, one can approach building a level from either direction if there is a specific plan, or work on both elements simultaneously. It’s a chicken or the egg dilemma; what came first, the level design or the music? In my own creations, I found that I was more motivated to create a piece of music in a far-off panel, and then experiment with level layouts to bring that music in. It’s challenging, but I love how the music directly interacts with the game design when constructing a level, and there’s no other game that I've experienced that offers this.