Category: EGM (Electronic Gaming Monthly)


I know it’s passé to say this, but 2020 will be a year none of us will soon forget. I don’t need to explain why, but on the gaming front it saw countless remakes and remasters, triple-A delays, and the last generation of consoles sort of limp across the finish line before welcoming in the new—which had really no major exclusive titles at launch. It was a changing of the guard with little to no fanfare on that front, but through it all a handful of games rose to the top. Here are my top five games for an unforgettable year outside of gaming.

#5Paper Mario: The Origami King
Publisher: Nintendo ▪︎ Developer: Intelligent Systems ▪︎ Platforms: Switch

Simply put, The Origami King is the best Paper Mario game since Thousand Year Door. Although not a true RPG like those early games, it makes up for this by providing one of the most intriguing battle systems we’ve seen to date. Transitioning to a ring-based arena to battle, and moving your enemies around to line up attacks based on Mario’s iconic hammer swings and jumps, harks back to grid-based action-RPG hybrids like Mega Man Battle Network. Throw in origami-based powers that you acquire as you progress, and few battles ever play out the same. And I can’t forget it features the best and most humorous writing yet in a Paper Mario game. The Origami King was one of the more refreshing titles I played this year.

#4Watch Dogs: Legion
Publisher: Ubisoft ▪︎ Developer: Ubisoft Toronto ▪︎ Platforms: PS5, Xbox Series X/S, PS4, Xbox One, PC

Watch Dogs: Legion rolled the dice in a fascinating way: having an open-world game without a true central protagonist. And Ubisoft pulled it off. Able to recruit a roster of up to 45 NPCs from the thousands that populate Ubisoft’s digital London, I collected them like Pokémon, playing different ones in different scenarios to get the job done. Sure, favorites would arise, but being able to switch to a doctor to sneak into a hospital or a cop for a police station, and then a getaway driver to escape the scene in style, made for fun and inventive ways to tackle each scenario and objective. Plus, flying across London on the construction worker’s drone is the only way to travel in the future.

#3Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Publisher: Xbox Game Studios ▪︎ Developer: Moon Studios ▪︎ Platforms: Xbox One, Switch, PC

This was one of my most anticipated titles for 2020, and it delivered in spades. After Ori and the Blind Forest took home my personal 2015 Game of the Year, I was ready to explore and bring life back to a world plagued by decay and corruption as our favorite guardian spirit. Will of the Wisps again delivers tight platforming in a sprawling map that will have you exploring for hours. Streamlined systems like an autosave and easier upgrading keeps the pace fast, and new enemies and massive bosses keep the action frantic. And the art, music, and story all come together with these other elements to make a top-notch sequel.

#2Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment ▪︎ Developer: Insomniac Games ▪︎ Platforms: PS5, PS4

I’m a sucker for a good superhero game, and Insomniac’s Spider-Man on PS4 was one of the best. So, being able to take on even a brief adventure back in that world this holiday season was a welcome way to warm up my PS5. Yes, the world is the same with just a winter wonderland skin, but Miles Morales brings a whole new set of abilities and villains to the story, and a special flair all his own,  while Peter Parker is galavanting around Europe. Sometimes you just want more of a good thing, and that’s exactly what Spider-Man: Miles Morales is—making everyone who played it feel like we made Santa’s nice list this year.

#1Ghost of Tsushima
Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment ▪︎ Developer: Sucker Punch Productions ▪︎ Platforms: PS4

As I danced around the field, avoiding my opponent’s sword, and chrysanthemum petals twirled around us, I knew this was my game of the year. This, and other duels on sandy inlets as water splashed the shore, or as fog enveloped us near a monument to fallen warriors, left an unforgettable impression on me like no other game in 2020. Ghost of Tsushima is a Kurosawa film come to life in the best ways possible, and a terrific story all its own. Jin’s struggle as he willingly casts himself out from the only family he knows in order to stop an outside invader was amazingly told, and made you feel the weight of every decision. There was no world I loved exploring, and no adventure I enjoyed more, than Ghost of Tsushima. It strikes a perfect blend of gameplay, graphics, sound, and story, like a samurai delivering the final blow to a rival.

The “Best Replacement for Real Sports in a Pandemic” Award
MLB The Show 20

While most gamers got through the early days of the pandemic with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, I dove deep into another game released around the same time: MLB The Show 20. I always loved the series, but hadn’t picked up an entry in the franchise in a couple years, and there was no better time as it served the dual purpose of being entertaining and the only sports I really had for four months. It prompted me to start my own Twitch channel and dust off my play-by-play skills, and it was easily my saving grace during a tough time for everyone.

The “Best Wind Through My Hair Simulation” Award
Iron Man VR

I look back at where VR was even just two or three years ago to where we are now, and its growth is promising. One of the better games to come out this year showing that growth is Iron Man VR. The PSVR really made it feel like I was playing as ol’ Shellhead when I put the headset on. Being able to use my two gauntlets independently of each other to fire rockets, repulsors, or control my flight, gave a sense of control I’ve felt in few other VR games. And it only got better when I turned my living room A/C towards me so it really felt like I was flying through the skies while fighting great reimaginings of supervillains Ghost and Living Laser.

The “What’s Old is New Again” Award
Resident Evil 3

I gave this award last year to Resident Evil 2, but in a year defined by remakes and remasters more than anything else (Tony Hawk Pro SkaterCrysisMafiaDemon’s SoulsFFVIIDestroy All Humans, etc.)it felt fitting to bring it back and give it to my favorite of the bunch. Resident Evil 3 takes a lot from the original, but the redesign of Nemesis and how he stalks you, some new sections that play terrifically, and a graphical and control overhaul made me thrilled to revisit Raccoon City once again. And, if you splurged for the $60 version, Resident Evil: Resistance was a fun multiplayer add-on, too.

As we near the end of this console generation, it’s understandable that we’re starting to see, in my opinion, more very good games and less great games. Publishers are saving their best games to help launch new boxes, and developers are focusing on the new toys they have to make the best games possible with their dev kits for this new hardware. Developers are also extremely proficient at this generation of hardware now, creating a more level playing field overall. But, even so, there remain a few titles that will always rise to the top of any given year, and I feel these five deserve to be played more than any others from 2019. 

#5Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
Publisher: EA ▪︎ Developer: Respawn Entertainment ▪︎ Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC

I admit that part of why I may be ranking this on my list is the fact it has been so long since we’ve had a good Star Wars game. But Fallen Order is a good game even if it didn’t have the Star Wars brand, and that deserves recognition. It gives us a more in-depth look at how Order 66 decimated the Jedi, especially those not around the central action of the films. It introduces us to new worlds and lets us explore them in fun and inventive ways. And its combat is satisfying in how you balance your saber techniques along with your force powers. Combine this with great performances from everyone involved and you have an extremely solid adventure that shows story-driven Star Wars content can still be done and done well.

#4Indivisible
Publisher: 505 Games ▪︎ Developer: Lab Zero Games ▪︎ Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC

Indivisible’s story about bucking destiny and finding redemption is one of the more original, and enjoyable, tales you’re likely to encounter this year. It has an absolutely massive roster for a modern RPG, and each character has a story to tell and their own unique advantages in combat, affording each player the chance to build a roster that best suits their playstyle.The timing element for attacks adds a unique challenge to your traditional turn-based RPG combat, and when you combine all this with a gorgeous hand-drawn art style, it’s hard not to see why Indivisible is a must-play indie darling.

#3Mortal Kombat 11
Publisher: Warner Bros. ▪︎ Developer: NetherRealm Studios ▪︎ Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC

So often fighting games don’t get as much love as they deserve on these lists, but Mortal Kombat 11 is the genre’s best game in years. An expansive Krypt, engaging story mode, and a roster of all your favorite fighters from the series all culminates in a pinnacle for the iconic fighting franchise. It’s expertly balanced, the tower system provides endless replayability, and the new fighters added to the roster this go around perfectly complement the return of many long-time favorites. So whether you like to zone, get up close and personal, or just spam those damn sweep kicks, Mortal Kombat 11 is a fighting game that should not be soon forgotten.

#2Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Publisher: Nintendo ▪︎ Developer: Intelligent Systems, Koei Tecmo ▪︎ Platforms: Switch

I’ve been a Fire Emblem fan for decades now, and it’s a series known for its hard decisions and brutal tactical gameplay. No other entry, though, requires you to make so many hard choices as frequently as this one does. From the near-impossible decision of what house you’ll become a teacher in, to what allies will join you on your crusade to save the world, Three Houses tests your mettle (and how well you keep track of your save files before branching paths) like no other game in the series before it. For fans of strategy games, none greater were released this year.

#1Control
Publisher: 505 Games ▪︎ Developer: Remedy Entertainment ▪︎ Platforms: PS4, Xbox One, PC

For a game that came onto my radar so late (literally just a couple weeks before its release), I was blown away by what it was able to do.I’ve always been a fan of Remedy (yes, even Quantum Break), but this is easily its best effort yet. It’s all the studio’s strengths cranked up to maximum. It’s just the right amount of weird, with good gunplay, wacky characters, amazing performances, and some cool superpowers that make Jesse the most badass new game heroine we’ve seen in a long time. And when the Alan Wake Expansion drops next year I’ll be first up to return to the Federal Bureau of Control.

The “Not All Russians Are Terrible” Award
Metro Exodus

For a long time this year Metro Exodus was in my top five, so I figured it deserved at least some recognition as the best entry yet in a trilogy that made leaps and bounds between chapters. The struggle of Artyom and his comrades sucks me in each time I start a new Metro game. The scope of this one is unmatched, culminating in one of the most satisfying endings you could expect from a series centered on the nuclear apocalypse. It still gives players the welcome option of being able to stealth through dynamic environments, or go in guns blazing if you think your ammo will hold out. It’s a shooter-survival game not for the faint of heart—and an adventure that will stick with me for a long while.

The “Best Metroidvania” Award
Blasphemous

If you’re making an indie game nowadays, there’s a good chance you’re making a Metroidvania. Heck, even the original creator of Castlevania threw his hat back into the ring with Bloodstained. As good as that game was, though, I found one even better in Blasphemous. Steeped in ancient Christian ideology, the sprawling world you play through is a twisted nightmare of holy relics and torture. For example, you slaughter cherubs for collectibles, and get health increase bonuses from a woman impaled on six swords (each time you find her, she gives you a sword and thus more health). It’s gruesome, gory, and the most glorious Metroidvania of the year. If you love the genre, go serve your penance and play this game.

The “What’s Old Is New Again” Award
Resident Evil 2

Normally I remove remakes from being eligible in my game of the year awards, but Resident Evil 2 being rebuilt from the ground-up in the way that it was means I’d be remiss to at least not shine a light on it. And yes, it’s not just a remake, it’s really a reimagining. Sure, there are weird puzzles still being solved in a police station of all places as Leon and Claire uncover what Umbrella was really up to in Raccoon City, but it’s never looked so good or been so fun. Between this and the launch of Resident Evil VII a couple years ago (my personal 2017 GOTY), it really feels like Capcom knows what to do with its landmark survival horror series after years of floundering. And it’s only made me all the more excited for next year’s Resident Evil 3 remake.

Pokémon has been nothing short of a phenomenon since it first debuted over 20 years ago on the Nintendo Game Boy. Whether you’ve been there since the very start, like yours truly, or came along later, the series has been a constant in the popular zeitgeist since it appeared. And yet, it’s always been on handheld systems. Sure, we’ve had Pokémon Stadium and Pokémon Snap and even Let’s Go, Pikachu/Eevee that reimagined the original Pokémon Red/Blue games for the Switch. But we’ve never had a brand-new generation that debuted on a home console—until now, that is, with Generation VIII’s Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield.

Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield start off like most any other Pokémon game. You are tasked with becoming the very best, like no one ever was. You quickly meet your best friend and rival, Hop, and his brother Leon, who is the Pokémon Champion for the Galar region and is famous for being undefeated. So, you and Hop set off to do the impossible in a race to be the first to beat Leon and become the new champ. Leon is intrigued by this ambitious mission, and unlike Pokémon games in the past, it is he who offers you your starter Pokémon. From there, you’ll have to take down eight unique gyms across the Galar region, each with a special challenge.

Credit: Nintendo / Creatures Inc. / GAME FREAK inc.

I chose Scorbunny as my starter, marking only the second time I haven’t chosen the water type in my personal history. Interestingly, Hop takes the Pokémon your starter is strongest against (in my case, the grass type Grookey) and the champion takes the Pokemon you’re weakest against (Sobble, the water type for me). Typically, your rival takes the Pokémon yours is weakest against, and the third stays with a Professor. It’s a small detail in regards to the overall game, but it makes so much sense you wonder why it wasn’t done sooner.

From a very high-level view, Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield then play like most other Pokémon games from here on out. You’ll hear tales of the legendary Pokémon Zacien and Zamazenta that protect Galar (foreshadowing an inevitable meetup), you’ll catch Pokémon in the wild to build a balanced party to take down gym leaders and collect badges to prove you’re worthy to combat the champion, and you’ll quell some inevitable trouble that arises from those who would use Pokémon for nefarious means. The core of Pokémon remains both relatively unchanged and tremendously fun. Where this latest generation of Pokémon both excels and falters, however, is in the differences that the games introduce when compared more directly with their predecessors.

One major upgrade is the look. Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield look absolutely stunning, taking full advantage of the Switch hardware and being on a proper home console. Every location you visit is incredibly detailed, and the world feels more lived in than most other Pokémon games with many more people and homes to explore. The British influence on the game is also evident everywhere you look, with some regions and towns modeled after popular tourist attractions like Stonehenge or the Roman Baths. There’s even a proper Underground that can shuttle you to places around Galar.

Credit: Nintendo / Creatures Inc. / GAME FREAK inc.

But the Underground is the first, and admittedly most minor, of several elements in Pokémon Swordand Pokémon Shield where it doesn’t feel like developer Game Freak leaned into an idea far enough. It isn’t long after your first Underground ride that Flying Taxis are introduced, representing the game’s true fast travel system and replacing Fly from previous games. In one fell swoop, they make the Underground needless window dressing.

Early in the game, well before you face your first gym, you have to cross an extensive expanse called the Wild Area, a massive field that connects to two key towns in Galar. The field features a bevy of new and old Pokémon alike, and is one of the best places to put together a balanced team for combat. Random encounters of the past are gone, and you can actually see Pokémon floating, flying, walking, or bouncing all around the field. There are still “surprise encounters” occasionally, marked by an exclamation point before the battle begins that are triggered by staying in tall grass for too long. But, for the most part, you’ll know exactly what wild Pokémon you’re trying to capture—and I, for one, am thrilled random encounters are all but gone now.

The Pokémon in the field are also consistently around certain levels in certain parts, offering up a makeshift barrier in the game to let you know to come back to particular parts of the field later on. For example, trying to capture a level 25 Butterfree when you’re only level 12 isn’t going to work most of the time.

The Wild Area also introduces two new gameplay components, the first of which is camping. Camping may not sound like much, but here you can play with your Pokémon and cook curry with them in fun little minigames that also have a benefit in battle. You can earn easy XP to help level up your Pokémon when you make camp, and developing a better relationship with your Pokémon while relaxing could lead to in-battle bonuses like shaking off paralysis or delivering critical hits more frequently. It serves as a nice distraction from constant battling, and I admit it’s pretty fun to play catch with your favorite Pokémon. Camping can be done in other areas later on, too.

Credit: Nintendo / Creatures Inc. / GAME FREAK inc.

The other new feature is the highly talked about the Dynamax/Gigantamax feature. Dynamaxing a Pokémon is similar to the Mega Evolutions from Pokémon X/Y and Pokémon Sun/Moon, but far better balanced and far more critical to the story. Dynamaxing only lasts for three turns, whereas Mega Evolutions continued until a battle was over. Only one Pokémon per battle per trainer can be Dynamaxed and doing so replaces the moves of your Pokémon with Max moves based on type. For example, fire moves turn into Max Flare when Dynamaxed, whereas water moves turns into Max Geyser. This helps prompt players to ensure their Pokémon have a variety of different moves, not just always play to type. After all, a Pokémon with four fire-type moves would then only have one move while Dynamaxed. The only difference, besides appearance, with a Pokémon that can Gigantamax when they Dynamax, is they have an exclusive G-Max move that’s even more powerful, but the Pokémon capable of doing this are few and far between.

In the Wild Area, you’ll encounter your first Pokémon dens. These are powerful hot spots that cause energy to course through them. Any wild Pokémon that has made a home in these dens will automatically Dynamax. If you can defeat a wild Dynamaxed Pokémon, you’re guaranteed to catch it in its original, de-Dynamaxed form. It’s a great way to quickly build a powerful party to take on the eight gym leaders.

As great as all this was, and as much fun as I had exploring the Wild Area, there’s only one Wild Area in the entire game. If you’re like me and put a priority on becoming champion and taking on all the gyms as quickly as possible, you’ll only need to go through the Wild Area twice in the entire game. Sure, you can go back and visit whenever you want. But it was very disappointing that instead of filling Galar with these Pokémon havens, most of the rest of the game relies on routes and caves that harken back to the original Pokémon games. You can still catch wild Pokémon on these routes, but only the Wild Area has wild Dynamax Pokémon.

Credit: Nintendo / Creatures Inc. / GAME FREAK inc.

This leads into another issue with Pokemon Sword and Shield: inconsistent pacing. It wasn’t until hour seven of my playthrough that I got to my first gym, which made the game feel like it was going to be a slow burn. Once you get through the Wild Area that first time, however, the pace of the game quickens dramatically. Even with each gym offering a fun mini challenge (like herding Wooloo for Milo), you’ll roll through gym battles at a pretty breakneck pace; I was taking down gyms almost hourly. Just walk down a path, catch a couple more Pokémon for the Pokédex, and snag another badge. Other Pokémon games spread their gyms out more evenly, offering you challenges, puzzles, and sometimes even towns that might not have a Pokémon gym, but which offered other distractions in-between. Had the pacing been more consistent the whole way through, the linearity might’ve been less noticeable and less problematic.

That inbalance may have been less noticeable because, as the titles might suggest, Pokémon Swordand Pokémon Shield is focused more on battling than any previous Pokémon game. It’s not just celebrated in the Galar region—it’s their entire way of life. The goal of completing your Pokédex is a distant second to becoming champion now. This has also led to some user interface and gameplay innovations that I didn’t realize we needed so badly until we got them here. Like, for example, clearly telling players moves that are effective or not effective against Pokémon before you use them as long as you have Pokédex data on your opponent; no longer having to go to a Pokémon Center to adjust your team, instead now being able to just switch Pokémon out of your party with a box on the fly; and even a new feature called Poké Jobs that allow Pokémon not in your party to do missions and gain XP on their own. These were all nice little conveniences that went a long way towards my enjoyment of the game.

And, of course, we need to talk about the Pokédex. Not a second of my game was less enjoyable because the Galar region doesn’t have access to all of the hundreds of Pokémon previously introduced. Instead, I found joy in finding all of the regional exclusive variants the game offers, as well as dozens of brand new Pokémon including Drednaw and Corviknight, who were anchors in my party alongside Scorbunny from almost the beginning of the game. There are still plenty of Pokémon to play around with, and the idea that another region wouldn’t have access to all the Pokémon in the world makes perfect sense. Think of them like the region exclusives in Pokémon GO.

Credit: Nintendo / Creatures Inc. / GAME FREAK inc.

Finally, I wasn’t able to put the online play for Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield through its proper paces, as the servers still aren’t up. That said, I was able to do a local link battle with Mike from the EGM main office. Similar to how you can make a code for private groups in Pokémon GO raids, you can make a number that you share for local battling, which worked without a hitch when we tested it out. That said, there was still a bit of a balancing issue. After the game reset all our Pokémon to level 50—as is standard—since Mike was using early game moves, and all my Pokémon were touting end game abilities, even when matchups would normally favor him like his grass-type Grookey against my water/rock-type Drednaw, I pummeled him. Of course, most people won’t even try battling until they get later in the game, but Mike did me a solid by taking his lumps to test out the link battles.

There’s also features like surprise trades now, where you put a random Pokémon up for grabs and get a random Pokémon in return. And, similar to Pokémon GO’sraids, those Wild Area Dynamax battles can be fought together with up to three friends. Even though Mike joined me for one despite not being anywhere near my level, the game balance battles so that, when you catch the Pokémon, it’s close to the level of each trainer. So, the Pokémon Mike could capture after the battle was a level 20, while for me, it was a level 50. We both get a Pokémon, and at least here the game remained balanced.

Pokémon Sword and Pokémon Shield are among the best games the series has ever offered. The Galar region is fun to explore, the new Pokémon it offers up are some of the most interesting the series has seen yet, and the Dynamax system adds a new wrinkle that freshens things up like never before. The adventure can be a little linear—and maybe even tedious at times—but it features everything that makes Pokémon great. Hopefully next time, Game Freak will push their new ideas to the limits and really deliver something special.

Credit: Nintendo / Creatures Inc. / GAME FREAK inc.
★★★★☆

The first new-generation Pokémon game to release on a proper home console does not disappoint. New features like Dynamaxing and the Wild Area are fun additions that make the experience of becoming a Pokémon champion still feel fresh. It’s just a shame that Game Freak didn’t lean into the new features more than they did.

Developer
Game Freak Inc≥
Publisher
Nintendo
ESRB
E – Everyone
Release Date
11.15.2019

I’ve reviewed a lot of games over the years, but I realized recently that I had never taken pen-to-paper (so to say) when it comes to JRPGs. Sure, I had written about them as a “secondary” reviewer when EGM print went back to old-school multi-person reviews a few years ago, but I had never been the primary reviewer. And, admittedly, the genre is a bit hit-or-miss for me. While I’m not a big Final Fantasy person, I do love the Tales series, and I also really enjoyed Ni No Kuni: Wrath of the White Witch a few years ago. So, in order to fill in that blank spot on my reviewing career—and also get my hands on the much anticipated sequel early—I was more than happy to take a crack at Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom. And, I can attest that it did not disappoint.

Players take charge of an elder statesman named Roland who is mysteriously teleported to a new world when a cataclysmic event befalls his. Roland is shocked to find his youth restored, and that he now sits in the royal bedroom of a newly-crowned king in a medieval world. Roland’s timing could not be more fortuitous for this would-be king named Evan, as a coup by Evan’s chancellor has just begun. Bewildering situation put aside, the two resolve to escape the castle, and thus begin an adventure that will leave both their worlds feeling the ramifications for generations.

It should be said right off the bat that you could jump right into Ni No Kuni II without having played the first one, as there is almost no connection between them given each is a stand-alone story. The only similarities between the two games is the fact that they each share a significant artifact called the Mornstar—similar to how the Sorcerer’s Ring can be found in many of publisher Bandai Namco’s Tales games—and the kingdom of Ding Dong Dell returns. It could make you wonder if this game takes place in the far-flung future of the first game, but there are few other similarities present except one: that people in one world sometimes have a doppelganger in the other with which they are inextricably linked. This point is far more muted here, though, as unlike the first Ni No Kuni—where main character Oliver would bounce back and forth between the two realms—we remain in Evan’s world for the entirety of this game, with only passing references by Roland to his previous life.

No matter whether you played the first game or not, it’s easy to appreciate the stellar storytelling present in Ni No Kuni II. Evan soon composes himself after his escape, and steels himself for the trials ahead. He doesn’t just wish to regain his kingdom, but also create an entirely new one called Evermore than shall unite the world under a single banner to the betterment of all peoples. It’s the kind of wish that a child would make, but the fact that Evan doggedly sets off to do so continues the storybook theme the game takes on from its very beginning, as it empowers a child to do amazing things for both his world and himself.

Evan’s undying optimism and youthful exuberance gives this adventure a tone that gamers of all age groups can enjoy, as he is a refreshing change of pace when it comes to most protagonists in modern games. Continuing the enjoyable-for-all-age-groups aspect is that—as much as I didn’t want it to end as I absolutely adored exploring the world—Ni No Kuni II should clock in for most gamers around the 50-hour mark, a far cry from the norm in the JRPG genre. But, there’s an efficiency and natural fluidity to the storytelling here that games in this genre typically lack, and this, too, was refreshing. Sure, there are a few fetch quests, but none of them felt like they were forcibly bloating the game, instead continuing to serve Evan, Roland, and the rest of the party in their character development.

Another aspect of Ni No Kuni II that gives it a fantastical feel is its art style and music. Although Studio Ghibli did not collaborate with developer Level-5 on this game like they did on the first Ni No Kuni, character designer Yoshiyuki Momose does return in the same role here. His art style clearly permeated every character in the game, giving them all a distinct feel, but also a familiarity to those in tune with his work. Composer Joe Hisaishi also returned for Ni No Kuni II after his work on the first game, and whether it was trumpets triumphantly announcing another success for Evan or the individual themes of each new kingdom I visited—feeding into the character of each of these worlds within the world—the music breathed a special kind of life into Ni No Kuni II that kept a smile plastered on my face.

As much as the style has stayed the same between Ni No Kuni games, the substance—or in this case the gameplay—has seen some major overhauls. The first and possibly biggest change is the removal of Familiars. These friendly sidekicks would fight alongside Oliver and his crew in the first game, where leveling them up was a critical element to finding yourself victorious in battle. However, many labeled the idea a knock-off Pokémon-esque mechanic that required you to keep catching more of those Familiars as the game went on. In Ni No Kuni II, they’ve been replaced by sprite-like beings called Higgledies. These cute critters aren’t nearly as prevalent in the world as Familiars were; you can only take four into battle at once, and although they may offer some nice buffs, a little extra AI controlled offense, or even some elemental firepower, they take a huge backseat in combat, as they’re very much a “set ‘em and forget ‘em” element that simplifies combat tremendously.

There are other changes to the combat besides the removal of Familiars, however. The real-time combat system where players control a single character (out of the three you can set to your party at a time), hacking away with that character’s weapon of choice or magic, does remain reminiscent of the first game. One extra little nuance, though, is that you can carry a projectile weapon into these mini-arenas to fire at enemies who get out of range, or switch between three different melee weapons on the fly. This allows you to carry weapons with different element abilities or buffs into battle in order to keep your strategies fluent, as you rotate them at a moment’s notice with a tap of one of the shoulder buttons. There’s also a charge system which you build through consecutive attacks. You can perform more powerful magic if your melee weapons have a one-hundred-percent charge, meaning swapping between weapons of different charges is another strategy to be mindful of. It may sound complicated here, but after only a battle or two, it became second nature to rotate Roland’s three swords, and helped keep the hack ‘n’ slash aspects of combat from becoming monotonous.

There are also a few changes to how Evan and company are represented in the world. When in dungeons or villages, you’ll see either Evan or your chosen party member (depending on the scenario) from a third-person behind-the-back view. When you go into the overworld when traveling between all these places, however, your party takes on a chibi-fied look, almost like little Pop! Vinyl figures of themselves moving around. When you come across enemies in dungeons, a circle surrounding the conflict will appear, and you’ll brawl right there; alternatively, when in the overworld, you’ll be transported to an impromptu arena to do combat. It’s a curious way of doing things, having these two distinctly different ways to represent your characters, and it kind of reminded me of The Legend of Zelda II: Adventure of Link in how that game’s camera and representation would change based on where you were. It was a bit jarring at first, but I realized later on why there is this distinction between how the characters are portrayed on a micro versus macro level.

And that leads to possibly the most intriguing gameplay element of Ni No Kuni II. In order for Evan to build his own kingdom—a major crux of the story laid out to us—the game introduces real-time strategy mechanics such as collecting resources, building your kingdom up, assigning villagers to different tasks, and even waging war against bandits, thieves, or even other nations. You can watch as your chibi-fied people mill about on the world stage as they work in lumber yards, research new magic, build armor and weapons, or just relax at your inn (after you build all these things, of course).

This element of Ni No Kuni II was both one of my most- and least-favorite elements to the game. When this weird RTS aspect was introduced, I loved working towards growing my population by doing the bevy of side quests that were introduced. Sometimes I’d have to bring someone an item, kill a monster, or just build my kingdom’s renown enough to have those people join my burgeoning population as I tried to become a world power on Ni No Kuni II’s stage. As Evan grew into the role of a king and I got more resources and followers, my kingdom grew along with it, opening up even more potential side activities. And the more I did for my kingdom, the more my subjects could in turn do for me in combat and travel.

Of course, trying to bring the world together leads to inevitable conflict, and it was here—especially as a way to introduce some of the game’s more important chapters or as a precursor to some major conflicts—that Evan would have to lead his armies against other armies. I could pick up to four different unit types and then have to meet a series of objectives to overcome the opposing armies, and it was at this point that this RTS experiment fell apart.

You see, combat in a typical RTS requires precision and knowing exactly what your units will do and when. In Ni No Kuni II, this element felt far too haphazard to be fun. Evan’s units would never attack at a consistent pace, and they would never leave the commander’s side on the field. I’d be stuck moving Evan around the world with these four mini-commanders basically attached to his hip like I was driving around in Mario Kart with a trio of green turtle shells around me, running into enemy forces and hoping they would hold out longer than the AI does—because if they don’t, Evan is awfully vulnerable all by his lonesome.

My units could level up, but one of the other few problems with Ni No Kuni II in general is just that the game doesn’t do a very good job of letting you know exactly when this would happen. Sure, both your armies and your party on the micro level have numbers for attack, defense, magic, and so on. But the armies themselves don’t have any sort of indicator as to when they would level up (leading to some late-game grinding, let me tell you), and my party only had a vague XP bar next to their names, which would’ve been far better served with some actual numbers to let me know how many more wyverns or whatever I need to bash to hit the next level. In the grand scheme of things it’s a minor annoyance, but a little more clarity could’ve gone a long way here.

Ni No Kuni II may not have many direct links to its predecessor, but it is indeed an improvement in many ways. There is a ton of side content that feeds into the main story in a natural and engaging way, while the world, characters, music, and the journey the story takes you on are all beautiful. Combat has also seen some sharp improvements, both via addition and subtraction. The only thing holding it back were a few questionable decisions with those RTS elements, but thankfully those skirmishes are few and far between and they do not mar what is otherwise a stellar Japanese RPG.

Publisher: Bandai Namco • Developer: Level-5 • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 03.23.18

8.5

Ni No Kuni II is full of some tremendously creative decisions that make this unlike many other Japanese RPGs, as well as a clear step above an already good game in the original Ni No Kuni. However, some additions like the RTS elements left me scratching my head. Despite this, Ni No Kuni II tells a beautiful story that’s set in an even more beautiful world, and should be enjoyed by most JRPG fans.

The Good

Beautiful world, music, and story that all other JRPGs should aspire to.

The Bad

RTS-like combat scenarios to mimic large-scale nation-vs-nation battles that sounds great on paper but were poorly executed.

The Ugly

The obsession that developed over making sure each citizen of Evermore had their happily ever after.
Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is available on PS4 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Bandai Namco for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

As an Indie developer, it’s hard sometimes to advance through the stages of game development, especially when compared to the pace of the AAA and AA powerhouses on the gaming scene. So, even though the alpha version of Outer Wilds was able to take home the 2015 Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the Independent Games Festival at GDC 2015, it’s not really surprising that its developers decided to go quiet for a while in order to focus on building towards an inevitable release. Well, just about three years after that landmark win for Team Outer Wilds—now a part of developer Mobius Digital—and on the heels of a publishing deal with another relatively fresh face on the scene in Annapurna Interactive (What Remains of Edith Finch, Gorogoa), Outer Wilds was ready to be shown off again. Thus, I happily headed down to Mobius Digital’s LA-based studio to go hands-on with Outer Wilds and see first hand just how far it had come.

Outer Wilds is a stellar space mystery with a Majora’s Mask time-repetition mechanic that will have you racing against the clock as you try to piece together various conundrums around your solar system before the day resets. You start off as a humanoid creature on your home planet, the latest brave astronaut in the early days of your species’ space program. Everything has a fitting cobbled together feel—like a cross between the Wright Brothers and NASA—but it’s more than enough to get your little one-man ship hopping around the solar system in pursuits of knowledge. As you visit each new planet, you’ll uncover relics from a lost civilization, as well as converse with the handful of other astronauts in your program as you try to better understand your little slice of the universe and what caused the extinction of those that came before you.

All this happens while also trying to figure out what triggered a time loop that only you and a couple other astronauts are remotely even aware of. Fortunately, because of this, every clue you find is recorded on your ship’s computer, and you can begin connecting the dots in the galaxy’s biggest mysteries in hopes of finding a way out of this Groundhog Day in space.

Although it sounds simple enough on the surface, Outer Wilds has so many moving pieces that it might be hard to wrap your head around where to start at first. Abandoned space stations and moons orbit around the system’s several planets, which themselves are explorable right from the get go and filled full of secrets to uncover. They’re also extremely diverse, ranging from your Earth-like home to sandy desert worlds, barren rocky landscapes, and even a gas giant with a liquid core that you can splash around in. (Oh, and pro-tip: be sure not to forget your spacesuit before you try any of those moonwalks—atmosphere is important, kids.) Playing the role of part-astronaut, part-detective allows you to approach everything with a patient methodology as you take on each new challenge, testing your analytical skills as you uncover more clues and begin to realize how small you really are even in this fictitious slice of cosmos.

Though I only got to play through a couple of “days” in Outer Wilds, it already started to suck me in. After fiddling with the controls and getting a grasp for how my one-man ship maneuvered in space, each new discovery filled me with a childlike wonderment I haven’t felt in puzzle games since maybe the original Myst way back when. Adding in the ticking clock before the galaxy reset also instituted a sense of urgency at first, but I learned quickly how to use it to my advantage (along with how not to panic). After all, everything would end up just where I originally found it—and the knowledge I had accrued would stay with me.

My brief time with Outer Wilds only reaffirmed why this game was an award winner back in its alpha phase. If you love mysteries, exploration, and have an affinity for time loops, this is looking like it might be a game for you. I can’t wait to hop back in my spaceship again when Outer Wilds finally launches onto our PCs sometime later this year.

It’s hard to go wrong with a Kirby game. Everyone’s favorite little pink puffball is as consistent as any of the other major Nintendo characters, and just like Mario or Link, Kirby keeps finding new ways to breathe life into old tricks. This holds true once more in his first adventure on the Switch, Kirby Star Allies, which puts a new spin on some classic gimmicks that make this latest adventure one of Kirby’s best.

Kirby Star Allies kicks off like many of Kirby’s adventures, with him lazily sleeping under a tree in Dream Land. Unbeknownst to him, there are dark forces at work as a black, heart-shaped rock is destroyed, sending fragments of itself across the land. When these pebbles become embedded in familiar Kirby foes, their malice grows. Luckily for Kirby, a pure pink heart from the same rock has found its way to him, giving him not only the ability to battle the black hearts but also a few new tricks as well.

The biggest mechanic that Kirby Star Allies revolves around is using this pink heart power to convert enemies old and new to our hero’s cause. While Kirby turning enemies into friends has been around since the Kirby Super Star days, the fact that he can now have up to three friends in tow—and control any of them directly by riding piggyback on them—gives Kirby a bevy of new options at any given moment. It’s a rotation of abilities that he’s never really had before, and this opens up a variety of new gameplay elements and puzzles that help keep Star Allies feeling fresh across the entire experience.

Having all these frenemies alongside Kirby also allows Star Allies to introduce 4-player local co-op to the series. It’s not quite as hectic or as competitive as, say, when it was introduced back in New Super Mario Bros. Wii for that franchise, but it can still cause some fun chaos on screen as four characters bounce around in different directions. However, Kirby is still top banana, so whenever he starts moving, the other players will warp to him. Kirby can also change his friends at any time with a fickle flick of another pink heart for whatever may suit his puzzle-solving needs at the moment.

The other advantage to having a variety of friends in your entourage is that the Mix ability also returns in Star Allies. This allows Kirby—or even some of the other friends—to have new elemental abilities added to their weapons, unlocking special moves that can open up new areas of stages. For example, if Kirby has a Chilly or Burning Leo in his party after absorbing the ability of a Sir Kibble, he can get the apropos abilities of Ice or Fire Cutter respectively. If Kirby also has a Rocky in his group with that Chilly, though, he can have them work together to create a Curling ability that smashes through weak walls and flattens lesser enemies. And, with brand new powers added to the Kirby-verse like Staff and Spider on top of all the classics you’d expect, the possibilities are near endless.

If regular enemies aren’t doing it for you in Star Allies, Kirby can also unlock something called a Dream Palace in each world by finding branching paths in select levels. In each Dream Palace, Kirby can spin a wheel, and wherever it lands, Kirby will get a special ally. There are plans for some very special characters to come via free DLC post-launch, but I was able to mess around with the three Kirby icons included in the game at launch to receive Bandana Dee, King Dedede, and Meta Knight, who of course wield spear, hammer, and sword abilities respectively. While filling your party with these characters could limit your elemental options, having one or two fighting alongside Kirby at a time is a nice little nod to Kirby’s past—and it’s just fun seeing them in action here.

What might be the most impressive thing about your friendly characters in Star Allies is how easy it is to control the entire party even when just playing single player. Calling on allies to mix their powers is a cinch, and the AI-controlled characters will take it upon themselves to attack enemies or assist Kirby with puzzles that require all four characters to be working in unison in a way that feels natural and never frustrating. I was afraid that I might have to end up babysitting Kirby’s AI allies when I wasn’t playing with friends, but that was never the case. My teammates always more than held their own while never overstepping their bounds to where it felt like the game was solving puzzles or beating enemies for me. It’s a precarious balance to get right, and Star Allies does it well.

Having three friends alongside Kirby also unlocks a brand new mechanic in Star Allies when you come across special Friend Action pads. These pads provide a fun change of pace in the action, allowing your party to transform into a variety of shapes that can be used to solve puzzles. For example, maybe you’ll become a Friend Bridge to help guide Key Dees across gaps to open doors, or instead utilize the Friend Train, where Kirby throws on a conductor’s hat and you run roughshod over everything in your path.

All of these mechanics come together to really deliver one of the more complete Kirby packages. Sure, there’s not much to the story, but there rarely is. Star Allies even liberally borrows a lot of elements from past Kirby games in terms of stages and enemies, making it feel like a walk down memory lane as much as a brand new adventure at times. It’s also a bit shorter than we’re used to, not to mention a bit simple—I finished the game with more than 100 lives in the bank. Still, Star Allies excels in its gameplay, which doesn’t let up for a second and continues to deliver new mechanics right on up until the final credits roll.

The only real knock against Kirby Star Allies I have is that if you should turn the game off, whatever friends you have with you will be lost. You won’t lose your lives or anything like that, but if you’re like me, it’ll break you out of the habit of completely powering down your Switch when you’re done playing, and instead leave everything in sleep mode. So, it’s really not that big a deal in the end anyway.

And even when the credits do roll, the adventure is far from over. Like a lot of other Kirby games over the years, there are smaller game modes outside the main story that add a little extra pop to this platformer which are just as fun in 4-player co-op. Chop Champs is a wood-chopping mini-game that can be played with motion controls if you so choose to, you guessed it, chop wood faster than the other Kirbys while avoiding enemies hanging in the trees. Star Slam Heroes is a home run derby-style timing mini-game, while Ultimate Choice is a boss rush that you can choose the difficulty for before tackling it. And, finally, there’s Guest Star, where you play the main game over with different power-ups, racing against the clock, and without Kirby, putting one of the many enemies you absorb over the course of the story into the leading role.

Kirby Star Allies delivers exactly what you expect from a new Kirby game. There’s some fun puzzle solving and platforming, a collection of cute new characters to push the story along, and a new twist on some old mechanics to make everything feel fresh. It’s probably one of the more complete Kirby games I’ve played in a long time, and the addition of 4-player local co-op adds a whole new layer of fun with friends. If you’ve been a fan of the pink puffball for as long as I have, then it should be an easy decision to add this to your Switch library.

Publisher: Nintendo • Developer: HAL Laboratory • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 03.16.18
9.0
Kirby Star Allies hits all the perfect nostalgia notes you expect from a full-blown Kirby adventure, and adds just enough new twists to make something so familiar at this point feel fresh and fun again. The pink puffball has never played so well (particularly with others) before.
The Good Gameplay stays fresh, as there always seems to be a surprise for Kirby and friends around every corner.
The Bad A little short, a little simple, and you lose all your buddies if you shut the game off.
The Ugly King Dedede ‘roided out on that dark-heart magic.
Kirby Star Allies is a Nintendo Switch exclusive. Review code was provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

If you look at today’s racing game landscape, it’s clear that simulations rule the roost, with franchises like Forza, Gran Turismo, and Project CARS at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Sure, Mario Kart or an old-school tribute to more twitchy arcade racers like Fast RMX still dot the landscape and do well when they emerge, but games like those have become the exception and not the rule. However, developer Supergonk believes that arcade racers are just laying dormant, and is ready to usher in a new age of fast, frantic fun with their unique twist on the genre that gave us games like F-Zero back in the day.

Trailblazers is set in a futuristic world dominated by hover cars piloted by up-and-coming racers looking to soar to the front of the pack. Winning won’t come from just memorizing the best racing lines across the game’s 10 tracks (each with four possible layouts), though, as Trailblazers is unique in that players can change the course by painting on it.

Yes, painting—as if Supergonk crossed Wipeout with Splatoon. Each racer has a meter that fills up over time, and by dropping your team color’s paint on the track, you can create your own boost zones—and from this comes myriad emergent strategies. Do you sacrifice some speed early in the race to paint as much as possible and boost to the finish on the final lap? Should you paint a less-traveled route to minimize the risk of an opponent painting over and nullifying your paint on a more apropos racing line? How about utilizing your paint meter’s offensive capabilities, and fire forward to spin out a nearby opponent but paint less of the course in the process? When playing co-op with friends, will you try to perform some Talladega Nights Shake ‘n’ Bake and have one person paint the path the rest of the team will follow, in order to slingshot into first?

All of these possibilities and more are viable across the variety of game modes in Trailblazers. You can learn a lot of basic strategies in the single-player campaign mode, where you start off as a fresh racer named Jetstream. From there, you’ll meet the eight racers in the game, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and over-the-top personalities while getting the chance to try them out to see who best suits your needs. Campaign also offers challenges in each race that could be as simple as getting in first place, or might be more involved like beating a time trial or painting a certain percentage of the track. There’s also a local split-screen Custom Race option outside the campaign if you want to play Trailblazers with a friend, where you can tweak a cornucopia of options to make the race of your dreams.

The single-player campaign is also a great way to learn the other major difference between Trailblazers and all the other racing games out there: its scoring system. Players earn points for how much they paint or boost on a track, for taking out opponents with offensive maneuvers, for how well they drift around some of the ridiculous hairpin corners the game offers (which work doubly to keep you on your toes while racing!), as well as where they place when the race finishes.

The scoring system particularly becomes important in team play modes, and can usually see lower-ranked racers flip-flop as time goes on. You get so many points for winning the race that it’ll be pretty hard for second place to overtake first on points alone, but in several of the races that I played during my hands-on time, I saw fourth place and fifth place swap, for example, based on painting versus finishing bonuses.

Once you’ve learned the ins-and-outs of the game offline, the real meat of Trailblazers appears in its online modes. There’s the 3-on-3 Team Racing mode that I alluded to earlier, where you’re not only trying to work as a team to earn the best spots on that racing podium, but the team score at the end will determine which trio comes out on top. There’s also Partner Battle where it’s three teams of two competing, and an All-versus-All mode where six racers are all in it for themselves. There’s also a unique mode to Trailblazers called Gate Chase, where players can only paint the course by hitting special gates on each track, and for the less competitive players out there, there’s an online Time Trial mode where you and up to two friends can work together to try to set the fastest times.

As fun as my time playing with Trailblazers was, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that the game is also absolutely gorgeous. You’d expect a game revolving around futuristic racing and painting to blow you away with its visuals—and it absolutely does. With art direction from BAFTA winning animator Will Milton, Trailblazers is a beautiful mix of neon skylines and primary color paint-covered tracks that absolutely jump off the TV. Each track also has a unique song, licensed from indie artists on Spotify that only cement the fun, future vibe Trailblazers is going for.

Although my time with Trailblazers was short, it channeled a lot of the strengths of old-school arcade racers, blending them perfectly with the game’s own unique twists on the genre. It punished mistakes on the track, but never stopped being fun even when I ended up bringing up the rear of the pack. Because of this, I’m looking forward to seeing what Trailblazers can deliver on the whole when it drops sometime in May for Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, PC, Mac, and Linux.

Update: We added the latest gameplay trailer to this preview. You can see it right here:

I’m sure I’ve said this before in some other reviews, but side-scrolling beat ‘em ups were my bread and butter growing up in Jersey. Whether it was X-Men or Turtles in Time, I would spend the majority of my quarters at the Electric Circuit arcade on those machines (and still fall into the trap at some of LA’s finer barcades that feature those cabinets now). So, it was with a childlike fervor that I jumped into Way of the Passive Fist, a love letter to those old-school brawlers that also offers a few unique twists that help solve the problems those classic beat ‘em ups faced.

Players take on the role of The Wanderer, a product of the volatile but mineral-rich planet of Zircon V who stalks its nearly uninhabitable wastes. Those minerals have lured in many from across the galaxy looking to get rich quick off the planet’s resources, but few are prepared for what the wastes hold quite like our protagonist. You see, The Wanderer has mastered the Art of the Passive Fist—a defensive fighting style that allows him to absorb and channel the energy expelled towards him to wear his opponents down. However, the balance is shifted when foes stronger than any he has seen before arrive on Zircon V—foes which wield enhancements similar to The Wanderer’s own mechanical gauntlet.

Way of the Passive Fist gets right to the point when it comes to what it’s about. Like the cartoons a lot of those late ‘80s/early ‘90s beat ‘em ups were based on, there isn’t a lot of story in this game—beyond telling you right away that you’re an anti-hero of sorts who is forced to save his hellish world because it’s all he’s got. Of course, older games had cartoons and comic books to help flesh out the story for potential players, so filling in narrative gaps wasn’t always a necessary task for the game. We don’t have that here with The Wanderer, and it’s sad, because it feels like a terrific world that would be ripe for further development if it wasn’t so focused on tapping into nostalgia. I could easily see the Wanderer as the star of a Saturday morning cartoon with his own action figure line, or even teaming up with other popular heroes in weird crossovers. As is—and without all the benefit of transmedia—I would’ve loved if Way of the Passive Fist could’ve given me just a tad more than it does in terms of The Wanderer’s tale.

The main reason why I want to know more about The Wanderer and Zircon V is because the rest of Way of the Passive Fist is so good. The bright, bold colors, variety of locations across the game’s 10 stages, zany henchmen that cross The Wanderer’s path, and surprising amount of enemy variety (even with the prerequisite palette swaps to signify a harder variation on each) gave Way of the Passive Fist an authentic cartoon vibe that was a feast for these older eyes. It emulates that early 90s aesthetic perfectly, as does the music, which features a tubular tempo that will get your foot tapping while the Wanderer dispatches the brightly-colored foes in his path.

What’s most impressive, though, is beyond these surface aesthetics. As hinted at in the game’s title, The Wanderer is a passive hero—instead of throwing a flurry of punches, kicks, or offensive special moves at his opponents, he lets the fight come to him. Every time an enemy tries to punch you, your job is to parry it. A successful parry will drain the stamina of the enemy, and if they run out of stamina, they will hunch over exhausted, meaning The Wanderer only has to tap them to knock them out. Some enemies will try to grab you, requiring you to dodge; others will throw things at you, which you can either parry or dodge (though a successful dodge on most of these items will let you throw them back for massive damage). Every enemy (and palette swap) has a different pattern to their attacks, so learning these patterns and how to react accordingly is necessary for success. This idea provides a fresh challenge on what is otherwise an always-straightforward genre.

While you parry your way through the adventure, you’ll also build up a combo counter. Longer combo chains will power up The Wanderer’s power gauntlet, allowing him to unleash rare offensive moves to expedite your fights. For example, a Power Punch is great for taking out a single enemy, whereas the harder-to-charge Super Slam is effective at crowd control. And, later in the game, you can unlock the Gravity Well, a screen-clearing super move that requires a combo of 25 or higher which is best reserved for dire straits. Of course, if you miss even a single parry or dodge, the counter resets, and so does the power meter—making that pattern recognition all the more important and raising the stakes for when exactly to use your special abilities.

What might be the most impressive thing about this parry-only system, however, is that it solves long-time issues found in those old-school beat ‘em ups. There is nothing more frustrating in these types of games than to think you have an opponent lined up for an attack, only to whiff because your character is slightly out of alignment with your opponent, with poor hit detection meaning your attack was for naught. Instead, enemies always having to attack you means the AI takes care of this as the enemy is always going to be aimed right at you, and all you have to do is time your button presses properly. And, even if you break that line, most times the enemy will reset, or a different, closer enemy will move in to attack. It’s a simple solution to a problem that has plagued beat ‘em ups for as far back as I can remember, and it was welcome because it really allowed me to focus on my timing more than anything.

There were a couple of hiccups with the system, however. When looking to go on the attack myself with a super move that wasn’t Gravity Well, I’d still occasionally miss if I didn’t wait for the enemy to come to me. Also, when you get later in the game and start dealing with enemies with more complex patterns, you might be tempted to position yourself so that weaker enemies with easier patterns can be used to build that combo meter again. Sometimes multiple enemies would activate, however, and two enemies would attack me simultaneously. While The Wanderer is very adept with Passive Fist, it does have the drawback that you have to always be facing your opponent to properly parry, and can only parry one move at a time. It’s a small glitch, and it didn’t happen often—but when it did, it was frustrating.

Way of the Passive Fist also solves another problem those old-school quarter munchers have had in recent years: replayability. When ­X-Men and Turtles in Time were recently re-released on home consoles with unlimited continues as an option, the charm and replayability that came about due to a lack of lives went by the wayside, leaving their lack of depth to become startling apparent. There’s already a lot more depth of gameplay in Way of the Passive Fist to start with, but it goes so far as to also offer four special sliders that can change the way you play each and every time.

I beat the game on “Way of the Warrior”, which is basically as “Medium” as you can get in Way of the Passive Fist. But, if I wanted, I could’ve cranked the Enemy Strength and Enemy Encounters number way up and turned it into “Way of the Bold Eternal Warrior” where each chapter would have extra scenes (each chapter’s smaller sections) and enemies with stronger stamina bars. I could also have made achieving combos easier by turning down Combo Mastery, so that even late parries add to my combo meter, or turned down Resourcefulness, which would have given me more health items and checkpoints. There’s any number of combinations between these four meters that make each time you play Way of the Passive Fist different than the last. And, once you beat the 10 chapters in Story (including the somewhat disappointing final boss fight), you also unlock Arcade Mode, which channels those quarter-munching days of old by giving you only a certain number of lives to try to complete the game, adding more challenge and replayability to the experience for us arcade veterans.

Way of the Passive Fist is a beautiful ode to a genre whose glory days are behind it. It’s inventive solutions to problems that have been around for generations should be appreciated, and it’s a terrific opportunity for those of us who grew up in arcades to experience something new that would’ve fit right in three decades ago. I’m not sure if the new generation of gamers will be as into it, but it made me crave a slice of greasy pizza and a soda while basking in a sense of nostalgia like few games have been able to give me recently. So, if you love beat ‘em ups like I do, Way of the Passive Fist is a unique challenge that you should definitely check out.

Publisher: Household Games • Developer: Household Games • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 03.06.18
9.0
Way of the Passive Fist is a game out of time (in a good way). It feels like it would’ve fit right in alongside arcade cabinets from 30-years ago, with its cartoon color scheme and over-the-top soundtrack. But it’s got a modern twist that solves a lot of old-school beat ‘em ups’ biggest problems and delivers a terrific overall experience with a cornucopia of options to keep you coming back for more.
The Good Interesting twist on the classic beat ‘em ups of the early ‘90s with some surprising replayability.
The Bad Some technical hiccups, especially in later stages when the enemies really start to ramp up in difficulty.
The Ugly How easily this would have gotten a 13-episode order from DiC Entertainment—if only they were still around.
Way of the Passive Fist is available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Household Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

Following the initial excitement that VR brought to the gaming world a couple of years ago, the peripheral gaming technology has hit a bit of a lull in recent months. While new and inventive software continues to be made for the headsets on the market, many still have that “tech demo” feel, leaving gamers waiting for fully fleshed out experiences that will bring the immersion potential of games to an entirely new level. So, admittedly, it had been some time since I had used my PS VR headset, and after dusting it off, I began playing one of the more anticipated titles for the hardware since its launch. Moss falls into some traps and gameplay difficulties we’ve seen from other early VR games, but it also pulls the player into the story in such an effective way that it’s easily become my favorite non-shooter game for any VR headset.

In a sense, you play as two characters in Moss. One is Quill, our mouse heroine who emerges from the titular magical holloway of Moss on a quest to save her uncle from an ancient evil; the other is known as “The Reader”. Represented by a masked being who is briefly seen as a direct representation of the player in watery reflections and whatnot, The Reader must guide Quill while turning the pages of a storybook not yet written. As those pages turn, Quill’s adventure continues, and The Reader literally creates her story in the magical tome.

It’s a little detail that goes a long way towards your immersion as an onlooker and overseer in Quill’s world. The fact that your bond is talked about as legendary, and that you and Quill have become “Twofold”—where a Reader and a Hero have bonded to move as one—resonated with me, helping suck me into Moss. Quill even turns to you and cheers you on when you influence her world in positive ways, sometimes even demanding a high-five from your ethereal presence in her world when you complete major story beats. Each section of Moss, otherwise just another room in any other puzzle-driven game, thus feels like you’re actually turning pages as each chapter progresses, the sound of flicking paper each time the screen fades to black further enhancing the fantasy.

This relationship extends to Moss’s gameplay as well. Not only can players peer around the world—looking for some of the game’s limited collectibles or for a hidden path past an obstacle, using your unique vantage point to guide Quill where she must go—but you can “reach in” with your energy and move boxes, pull levers, or even control any of the three kinds of enemies that will try to impede the path ahead. Sometimes, I’d just grab the last enemy so Quill could effortlessly hack away with her sword. You also heal Quill by picking her up and petting her. By using the bumpers to grab, and the control stick to move Quill, you can even have multiple parts of the world moving at once—which will be necessary for some late game puzzles—to help bypass or expedite your progress.

Of course, as novel a mechanic as this can be, there are also times where you’ll be focusing more on the controls themselves instead of the puzzle or the story, as balancing several moving pieces can be difficult. There are also some larger set pieces that are harder to manipulate with the DualShock controller, as you attempt to spin or pull them with larger movements that it seems are harder to detect. It’s also easy to get pulled out of virtual reality when, if you’re like me, you get up to start looking more closely at an occasionally complex scenario, or more likely trying to better line up a couple of the game’s more difficult jumps, only for your headset to remind you that you’re out of the play area. It’s in those instances where you remember the limitations of the hardware and slink back into the chair.

Those moments are few and far between, however, because for the most part, Moss is a very limited and linear puzzle-game. There are very few instances where your objectives differ from defeating every enemy in the room or making it from the left side of the screen to the right. Sure, there are those aforementioned moving pieces I talked about earlier, but many times all I wanted to do was have Quill enter one of the many locked doors along a corridor that are obviously only there for show instead of focusing solely on the task at hand.

Moss hints at a much, much larger world with other fantastical creatures that come out of the woodwork, including fairy-like creatures called Starlings, nymph-like warriors hiding in the Mire, or the villainous serpent Sarrfogg. The landscape is littered with human-sized armor and weapons, hinting at a society long since forgotten, relics whose origins are barely touched upon in the opening cinematic and never again. I fell in love with Moss, but I wanted to know so much more about it by the time the game came to a much too abrupt and quick finish.

And this is where VR might have hurt Moss the most. The entire game only took about three hours to complete, which is about average for a VR game, but is very short comparing to games as a whole. Even with its budget price tag, and the promise of “future adventures” (this was only “Book 1” of Moss), I was left feeling unsatisfied. The game tries to play it off at the end that you came a long way on your journey, but as a veteran gamer—especially in the puzzle and adventure genres—I felt like I was just getting warmed up when the credits started to populate the last pages of my book.

Moss is a beautiful effort in VR. It’s an immersive world that finds a way to fit the player in seamlessly while not dominating the world they inhabit. It may be a bit short and simple, but its sweet story more than makes up for that. Moss isn’t reason enough alone to go out and get a PS VR headset if you’ve been on the fence, but if you already took the plunge and you’ve been looking for a high-quality VR game that’s fun for gamers of all ages, look no further than Moss.

Publisher: Polyarc • Developer: Polyarc • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 02.27.18
8.0
The wonderful relationship between a brave little mouse and the player character will ring as a bright spot in early VR development. Although the adventure is short-lived, and those looking for a challenge will be left wanting, Moss still serves as a great excuse to dust off your PS VR headsets if you haven’t done so in a while.
The Good A touching story and beautiful world that’s easy to get wrapped up in.
The Bad Linear and short, there’s so much more of the world of Moss I wanted to see.
The Ugly I learned the hard way that Quill couldn’t swim.
Moss is a PS4 exclusive that requires PS VR to play. Review code was provided by Polyarc for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

The Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences held its 21st annual D.I.C.E. Awards at the Mandalay Bay in Las Vegas, celebrating the tremendous year in gaming that was 2017. The D.I.C.E. Awards are the only peer-voted award ceremony in video games, where developers from around the industry cast ballots on 24 different categories that recognize the best of the best in gaming.

Not surprisingly, Nintendo had a huge night, which mirrors the success they had with the launch of the Switch in 2017. With games nominated in 14 of the 24 categories, Nintendo-published games won in a whopping 10 categories (Mario+Rabbids also won an award but is technically a Ubisoft game). The bulk of Nintendo’s success was due to The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild‘s four awards, the most for any game this year, and which includes the coveted Game of the Year Award. The next most awarded game was Cuphead, winning in three categories. Horizon Zero Dawn, whose 10 nominations were the most of any game at the show, walked away with two awards.

“Every year, the D.I.C.E. Awards brings the global interactive entertainment industry under one roof to recognize and honor the very best in video games – the games that captivated and inspired us, and kept us entertained for hours on end,” said Meggan Scavio, president, Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences.  “On behalf of the Academy, I am thrilled to congratulate this year’s winners of the 21st D.I.C.E. Awards.”

Considering Nintendo’s success, it was only fitting that the D.I.C.E. Awards would also recognize Genyo Takeda of Nintendo with only their seventh ever Lifetime Achievement Award. Takeda was a critical figure at Nintendo for decades. One of his first major accomplishments included creating the save-system in the original The Legend of Zelda that would revolutionize games on the NES. From there he helped design the N64’s analog stick on its controller, worked on peripherals with the Gamecube, and was a key architect of the Wii.

The winners of this year’s D.I.C.E. Awards categories are below. Nominees are listed in alphabetical order, with winners in bold.

Outstanding Achievement in Animation

  • Cuphead
  • For Honor
  • Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
  • Horizon Zero Dawn
  • Uncharted: The Lost Legacy

Outstanding Achievement in Art Direction

  • Cuphead
  • Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
  • Horizon Zero Dawn
  • Little Nightmares
  • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Outstanding Achievement in Character

  • Bayek – Assassin’s Creed Origins
  • Senua – Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
  • Aloy – Horizon Zero Dawn
  • Iden Versio – Star Wars Battlefront II
  • Chloe Frazer – Uncharted: The Lost Legacy

Outstanding Achievement in Original Music Composition

  • Call of Duty: WWII
  • Cuphead
  • Horizon Zero Dawn
  • RiME
  • Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

Outstanding Achievement in Sound Design

  • Destiny 2
  • Injustice 2
  • Star Wars Battlefront II
  • Super Mario Odyssey
  • Uncharted: The Lost Legacy

Outstanding Achievement in Story

  • Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
  • Horizon Zero Dawn
  • Night in the Woods
  • What Remains of Edith Finch
  • Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

Outstanding Technical Achievement

  • Assassin’s Creed Origins
  • Hellblade: Senua’ Sacrifice
  • Horizon Zero Dawn
  • Lone Echo
  • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Action Game of the Year

  • Call of Duty: WWII
  • Cuphead
  • Destiny
  • PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds
  • Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus

Adventure Game of the Year

  • Assassin’s Creed Origins
  • Horizon Zero Dawn
  • Super Mario Odyssey
  • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
  • Uncharted: The Lost Legacy

Family Game of the Year

  • DropMix
  • GNOG
  • Just Dance 2018
  • SingStar Celebration
  • Snipperclips

Fighting Game of the Year

  • Arms
  • Injustice 2
  • Marvel vs. Capcom Infinite
  • Nidhogg 2
  • Tekken 7

Racing Game of the Year

  • DiRT 4
  • Forza Motorsport 7
  • Gran Turismo Sport
  • Mario Kart 8 Deluxe
  • Project CARS 2

RPG of the Year

  • Divinity: Original Sin 2
  • Middle-earth: Shadow of War
  • NiER: Automata
  • Persona 5
  • Torment: Tides of Numenera

Sports Game of the Year

  • Everybody’s Golf
  • FIFA 18
  • Golf Clash
  • Madden NFL 18
  • MLB The Show 17

Strategy/Simulation Game of the Year

  • Endless Space 2
  • Halo Wars 2
  • Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle
  • Total War: Warhammer II
  • XCOM 2: War of the Chosen

Immersive Reality Technical Achievement

  • Lone Echo/Echo Arena
  • Robo Recall
  • Star Trek Bridge Crew
  • The Invisible Hours
  • Wilson’s Heart

Immersive Reality Game of the Year

  • Lone Echo/Echo Arena
  • Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin
  • Robo Recall
  • Space Pirate Trainer
  • Wilson’s Heart

D.I.C.E. Sprite Award

  • Everything
  • Gorogoa
  • Night in the Woods
  • Pyre
  • Snipperclips

Handheld Game of the Year

  • Dragon Quest VIII: Journey of the Cursed King
  • Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth
  • Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia
  • Metroid: Samus Returns
  • Monster Hunter Stories

Mobile Game of the Year

  • Cat Quest
  • Fire Emblem Heroes
  • Gorogoa
  • Monument Valley 2
  • Splitter Critters

Outstanding Achievement in Online Gameplay

  • Call of Duty: WWII
  • Destiny 2
  • Fortnite
  • PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds
  • Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon: Wildlands

Outstanding Achievement in Game Design

  • Gorogoa
  • Horizon Zero Dawn
  • PlayerUnknwon’s Battlegrounds
  • Super Mario Odyssey
  • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild

Outstanding Achievement in Game Direction

  • Gorogoa
  • Horizon Zero Dawn
  • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
  • Uncharted: The Lost Legacy
  • What Remains of Edith Finch

Game of the Year

  • Cuphead
  • Horizon Zero Dawn
  • PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds
  • Super Mario Odyssey
  • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild