Tag Archive: adventure

Lego games are nothing if not consistent, and in today’s gaming world that’s an accomplishment. Here is a series that typically has multiple releases a year and yet still finds a way to maintain a certain level of quality in terms of its gameplay and its humor. Sure, there’s a really simple base to work from, and it’s not like the graphics will push modern hardware to the brink, but the Lego games always deliver an experience the whole family can enjoy from beginning to end. The latest game, Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2, once again maintains the course for the series, and although it also adds a few new bells and whistles, there are a few new issues that crop up along the way, too.

Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 revolves around classic Marvel villain Kang the Conqueror. Kang has decided to stitch together a world from across both time and the multiverse and dub the resulting mishmash Chronopolis, with all the worst characters from across the timeline pledging fealty to him. Of course, in all these worlds happen to be heroes, too. Now, Marvel’s finest (minus the X-Men, Fantastic Four, and all their related characters) must find a way to band together to stop Kang and his army, and send each part of Chronopolis back to their respective place in the multiverse.

Similar to the previous Lego Marvel game, the story unfolds chapter by chapter from a hub world, in this case the aforementioned Chronopolis. Kang’s powers served as the perfect opportunity to stitch together some favorite alternate Marvel universes like Spider-Man 2099’s Nueva York, Spider-Man Noir’s Noir Universe, Captain America’s Hydra Empire, and current Marvel locales like the Inhumans’ Attilan, the Guardians of the Galaxy’s Knowhere, and an Asgard on the brink of Ragnarok. Each world has its own dedicated story chapter and is full of the kind of childish humor that’s always punctuated the series, with the heroes constantly bumbling over themselves. Throwing in the different universes only adds to the topical humor—fourth-wall breaking references to the Noir world’s sepia tone palette, for instance, and the obligatory mummy jokes in Ancient Egypt. Plus, with 18 different worlds across 20 story chapters this is easily the longest standalone Lego game yet crafted.

Chronopolis is also the largest hub world TT Games has ever created for a standalone Lego game. It’s chock full of hours of content, including racing in the streets, stopping crime—petty criminals as well as villains ranging from well known rogues like Electro to relative unknowns like Sentry-459—taking quizzes about the game, and more. Succeeding at these bonus challenges serve as extra ways to earn classic gold bricks, which can then be used to unlock even more content in the game like bonus levels, and more of the heroes on what is easily the largest roster shipped with any Lego game.

To be fair, though, due to Disney and Marvel’s recent push against promoting the X-Men and other movie properties they don’t control, the roster is a bit artificially bloated with multiple versions of Iron Man, Captain America, Spider-Man, and the like as well as some really obscure heroes and villains from Marvel’s history. As a long time fan of Marvel’s properties, these other characters are sorely missed at times. You can give me as many superhero versions of Gwen Stacy as you want, but I’d still much rather have Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, or Cyclops.

Of course, the lack of X-Men is more a matter of personal preference than something that seriously detracts from the gameplay. As in many of the previous games, there are few differences between a lot of the characters besides aesthetic or personal appeal and maybe a different voice actor. Gameplay-wise most characters fall into only a few categories. The different Captain Americas are somewhat unique because there are switches only their shields can hit, but other characters like Dr. Strange can also reflect energy when the situation calls for it. The family of Hulks are usually fine for whenever you need to smash a wall. And you have your pick of characters that can blast or blow things up with energy: Iron Man, Captain Marvel, Thor, and even Rocket Raccoon. And with the new Ms. Marvel replacing the likes of Mr. Fantastic, and Wasp and Ant-Man’s shrinking abilities, there’s very little from the original Lego Marvel that hasn’t been replicated with different heroes here.

There are a few new gameplay mechanics at least to also take advantage of new heroes, though. There are special mazes that only Ms. Marvel can stretch through, Dr. Strange can use his magic to open up special portals with a line-tracing mechanic, and Lockjaw can teleport to normally unseen parts of a level. This comes on top of the classic Lego mechanics of smashing anything and everything in sight, occasionally rebuilding some of the stuff you’ve destroyed into something new and useful, and collecting the in-game currency, studs, to purchase more heroes and vehicles. Collecting minikits and saving Stan Lee from obvious peril also return as extra ways to earn those precious gold bricks.

Besides the massive scope of Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2’s world and its predictably large roster of characters, the game also introduces levels where as many as five characters can be in your party at once. There are several levels where you’ll be working with the entire Guardians of the Galaxy team, or the entire family of Inhumans. This allows for more complex levels and puzzles with more elements than we’ve seen before. Each character in your party can bring something new to the team to help you progress through a level. For example, Star-Lord can fly, Drax has super-strength, Rocket has beam weapons, Gamora can use her swords, and Groot could turn into a ball and roll on certain switches. By switching back and forth between them, you have different characters interacting with different parts of a stage at different times more than ever before.

There’s a downside to this, however. Back when there were only ever two characters to your team, you knew exactly whom you were switching with when playing the game solo. With five characters on a team, even when you’re facing whom you want to control, you may bounce to entirely the wrong character. This only gets worse when, after leaving a character you were just controlling, the AI decides to run off away from where you left them, or worse yet, get stuck somewhere in the environment that you can’t get them out of without restarting the level. While the added complexity to the levels that the larger teams bring is an obvious way to up the ante from prior games, it’s clear that more bugs have made it through as a result. If TT wants to keep these bigger partiers for the next major Lego adventure, it needs to iron out some of these issues first.

The AI also bugs out with the villains on occasion, with cutscenes either being slow to trigger or boss battles not entering their next stage at all for some reason. With most levels being relatively short—few should take more than 20-30 minutes to complete offering up the game in nice bite-sized chunks for those strapped for time—there are few mid-level checkpoints. Although these bugs were few and far between, they were present enough to warrant a warning here. Having to restart large portions of a level because the game glitched is always frustrating.

The Lego games aren’t just solo experiences, though. Local two-player co-op has been with the series for as far back as I can remember and it returns here and is as solid as ever. When you get too far from your partner, the awkward split-screen returns, compounding the issue of a sometimes already too static camera, but it’s nothing some solid communication can’t correct. Depending on the age of who you’re playing with, though, good luck with that.

There’s also a new addition this go around with a four-player competitive mode for multiplayer. You can now communicate with the Grandmaster at Avengers Mansion in the game, and he will welcome you into one of two games. The first is a take on your standard Deathmatch, but with the added bonus of Infinity Gems falling occasionally from the sky and boosting a player or team. The second requires players to try to paint the ground in their color by walking over blank spots. It loosely resembles something from Splatoon, but quickly can devolve into confusing chaos as players desperately try to score in the tiny arenas. Each mode has four arenas to them as well, and although this isn’t the deepest multiplayer, it makes for a nice addition to the formula. It also raises the question, however, as to why there is still no online functionality in the Lego games.

Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 is easily the largest and most entertaining standalone project the series has produced yet. There are literally hours upon hours of fun Marvel-themed content to keep games of all ages occupied for long periods of time. Some of the drastic expansion of the gameplay and world size, however, has led to some bugs that can become frustrating at times. If you can look past some of these new technical issues added on top of some pre-existing ones, Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 should still be a fun action-adventure that the an entire family of Marvel Merry Marching Society members can enjoy.

Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment • Developer: TT Games • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 11.14.17
Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 is easily the largest undertaking, outside of Dimensions, for a Lego game yet. More characters and more worlds to explore are punctuated by a humorous story that’s enjoyable for gamers of all ages. Increasing the scope of the Lego games has opened the door for some less than enjoyable bugs to sneak their way at times, though.
The Good Tons of content to keep you busy in Lego Chronopolis for hours on end. The story is fun, and the local versus multiplayer mode was a pleasant surprise.
The Bad Some AI glitches for characters you don’t control, and then trying to switch to those characters, belie some uncharacteristic tech issues from TT.
The Ugly I’ve played way too many Marvel property games this year without the X-Men in them now.
Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 is available on PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

Supergiant Games is starting to develop a reputation for delivering quality RPGs highlighted by quality stories and unconventional gameplay mechanics for the genre. Its third effort, Pyre, continues this trend by blending yet another compelling experience with the unexpected point of conflict boiling down to what translates as an otherworldly take on three-on-three basketball. Just like with Transistor and Bastion, however, Pyre will surprise you with how well everything comes together in an unforgettable game full of twists and turns.

Pyre begins with your character being cast into the Downside, a wasteland of sorts where all exiles are sent for breaking the law in the Commonwealth, civilization’s shining city on a hill. There, starving and injured from the perilous journey from the Commonwealth, you are found by three fellow exiles. It seems you are just the person these exiles have been looking for, as you are one known as a “Reader.” Literacy is banned in the Commonwealth, but those who break this rule are held in high regard in the Downside, as they can interpret ancient texts that can lead exiles back to the Commonwealth—and freedom—in a ceremony called The Rites. With no other choice but to join your would-be saviors, you agree to work together in order to reclaim what you’ve lost. Unfortunately, it won’t be long before you realize that freedom always comes at a price.

What’s interesting about Pyre is that while the player character’s Reader fills an integral role to the entire story, you never actually see your character, and customization ends at choosing whether to be male, female, or neither (for the sake of conversational pronouns). The entire game plays out from a first-person perspective, with your roster of exiles speaking directly to you the entire game. Over the course of these conversations, you’ll have to make integral decisions on how you and your team will progress towards your freedom, directly influencing what path you take, and which other exiles you will fight in The Rites. When combined with a world map that consists of you just telling your wagon where to go next, this gave Pyre a distinct point-and-click adventure feel when it comes to how its story actually plays out. However, it also offered welcome nuance to how I could shape my own individual tale, and made sure my adventure was unlikely to be exactly the same as anyone else’s.

Your decisions can also affect who ends up joining or leaving your party over the course of the game, growing your stable of exiles to over half-a-dozen capable beings if you so choose. I say “beings” because the world of Pyre is a rich one full of more than just humans. There are the dog-like Curs, the living tree Saps, the monstrous Demons, and more. Each race can participate in The Rites, and each one offers unique skills to be taken advantage of. For example, the Wyrms (aptly named worm-like creatures) may be small in stature, but their slime trail lets them move lightning quick on the field. Leveling up exiles after each battle—or, as the game puts it, “moving closer to enlightenment”—will open up new abilities that further enhance each race’s specific strengths.

Pyre also has an astonishing amount of lore to it. Each race has its own history, and each exile their own tale to tell if you can befriend them enough during your down time in the wagon. As the Reader, you can also look at holy books that fill in the background of the universe you find yourself in; from how The Rites were started to those who participated in them before you, it’s all at your fingertips should you allow yourself to fall down Pyre’s extremely deep rabbit hole.

Once The Rites commence, however, the real fun begins. The Reader almost takes on the role of a coach, watching from the sidelines, but in reality as the player, assuming control of your three-exile team.  As your party expands, you’ll be able to choose what three exiles will comprise your team to go against others in the Downside, as well as analyze opposing teams for weaknesses to better stack your lineup in your favor. Once teams are chosen and talisman bought from nearby shops to boost your stats assigned, a celestial orb is placed in the middle of the field. From there, players will attempt to pass, shoot, or even carry the orb into an opposing team’s burning pyre. By doing so, you’ll remove a numbers of points from the pyre (different characters can do more or less damage to the pyre), and whittling down the enemy pyre to zero before the computer does the same to yours ensures victory.

I was pleasantly surprised by how deep the strategy element of The Rites is in Pyre. Sometimes speed is the way to go, and taking small chunks away from your enemy’s pyre at a time is the key. Other times, it’s best to hang back and play defensively, using your aura—a mythical barrier that protects all players—to knock back or even remove foes from the field for a time. Balancing your team up with a variety of light and heavy characters, or leaning more heavily on a particular statistic, will be up to you and your analysis of each situation.

As you progress in the game, you’ll come to find that your band of exiles—known as the Nightwings amongst those in the Downside—are in an unusual position for a game of this nature: they’re the best team at conducting The Rites, at least historically. As the stakes continue to climb, and a leaderboard with standings unlocks to show off your position at the top, every other team of exiles in the Downside is looking to take you down. In fact, sometimes they’re even ready to bend the rules a little to try to take away whatever edge you may think you have. It’s one of several clever twists Pyre’s story will throw at you in order to help distract from what can sometimes become repetitive gameplay.

This didn’t stop me, however, from marching to a 26-0 record and the game’s best ending. There were only a few times (on normal difficulty mind you) that I felt challenged, and once I reached a certain level with my characters, even that fell by the wayside. If you should fail, however, the game merely continues pressing on, like any sports game would. Faltering in key, story-heavy match-ups could affect your ending, however, and that helps increase the pressure you might put on yourself, serving as a driving factor to keep going while staying on your toes.

Even if the gameplay starts to feel a little grind-y, one thing that Pyre takes away from its Supergiant predecessors is some slick art direction. Visually, the game’s color burst off the screen like a stained glass window, with vibrant shades used for every climate the Downside offers—from freezing snow capped peaks or blistering white hot deserts, to the turbulent seas off its coasts or lush jungles of its interior. Every climate also features a fallen Titan, a massive creature from Downside lore that sticks out of the expanse more than any crag or outcropping and provides far more character to the world.

The audio also doesn’t disappoint. While your exiles don’t really talk (they only make gibberish sounds when their words appear on screen as text), the conductor of The Rites—the one being higher than you in the Downside—speaks with a voice. His spoken word helps fill in the gaps of the narrative, while also taunting you like the most malicious of fans, hurling insults from the safety of a ballpark’s bleachers as The Rites take place. The music is simply top-notch as well, with Darren Korb again knowing exactly what strings to pluck (or chords to play) in order to add that extra bit of emotional gravitas to the game’s heavier scenes, or to get your blood pumping as the action begins to pick up.

Although the bulk of Pyre is the 10-hour or so campaign—easily the longest single-player experience Supergiant has made to date—considering the nature of its team versus team gameplay, it would’ve been surprising had the game not featured a multiplayer. Pyre does tout a local versus option that allows you and a friend to choose from any of the game’s 10 color schemes and over 20 of its most important characters, both from the Nightwings and your enemies’ sidelines. You can customize the hit points your pyres have, items you can use, and what field you can play on as well. My only knock against it is that there is no online option; it’s understandable given Supergiant’s small size as an indie developer that online multiplayer wasn’t likely doable simply from a logistics standpoint, but it would’ve been nice, and could’ve added some extra replayability.

Pyre is yet another surprise from the folks at Supergiant Games. Its story is full of twists and turns, yet still finds a way to be accommodating and customizable to every player who picks it up. It also features gameplay you would never otherwise find in an RPG or adventure game of this ilk, and uses it to create a lush, vibrant world with depth and beauty. It can get a tad repetitive at times, and replayability might be an issue if you’re like me and get the best ending right off the bat, but it’s still an adventure well worth having at least once—and shows once again how mixing up a formula can provide fantastic results.

Publisher: Supergiant Games • Developer: Supergiant Games • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 07.25.17
Pyre mashes up point-and-click adventures, RPGs, and sports games—and comes out the other end with one of the more memorable stories we’ve seen in some time. It’s a tale of freedom, sacrifice, and rising against the odds, even when they seem to be in your favor. While it can be a bit repetitive gameplay-wise, the colorful world and even more colorful characters should be more than enough to motivate you to fight for the exiles of the Downside.
The Good A larger than life cast of characters and unique gameplay that stems from an unusual mash-up of genres.
The Bad No online multiplayer.
The Ugly How much I paced in my living room while contemplating the game’s biggest decisions,
Pyre is available on PS4 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Supergiant Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

People are always trying to combine things to make better and more interesting things: Peanut butter and chocolate; Batman with Superman—in comics, not in the movies; pineapple on pizza. Okay, the jury’s still out on that last one. In the case of Agents of Mayhem, though, all the best action of the 80s is being slammed together with the over-the-top humor and situations the Saints Row series was known for in a spin-off that takes place in the same universe. I recently got to go hands-on with Volition’s latest open-world foray, and it’s shaping up to be a love letter to everything great from GI Joe to Knight Rider.

In our demo, we got to play as nine of the 12 members of an elite super fighting force called Mayhem who, simply put, could care less about being heroes—the fact they’re saving the world from people even worse than them is a side bonus. They’re in it to win it for sure, but mostly just for themselves. It’s sort of like the enemy of enemy is my friend; they’re our friends just because they hate the really evil guys from a group called Legion a lot more than all of us. Each character fills a role on the team, offering up weapons and powers that make them great for different situations.


Hollywood, for example, is the team’s pretty boy who loves nothing more than, well, himself. He wields an assault rifle for great medium range damage, and can fire a grenade from his groin—don’t ask. Then there’s Hardtack, who immediately comes across as a more narcissistic Shipwreck from GI Joe. Hardtack is a shotgunner who can take a licking and keep on…errr…shotgunning. What’s great about Agents of Mayhem is that before most missions you take on, you can choose three of the 12 characters on the roster, then switching between them on the fly. Finding a balance is often the best strategy, but depending on your style, you can specialize and go heavy offense, defense, or the like.

The game takes place primarily in Seoul, South Korea. Exploring the open world to find collectibles and side missions is critical to leveling your characters, which leads to better skills and stronger survivability stats like higher defense or health. Even moving about the world provides options, as you can utilize your powers, every character’s built-in triple jump, commandeer a car from the world, or call in one of your nitrous-outfitted Mayhem cruisers (including some with Kitt-like robot voice) should you so choose to.


During our demo, we were able to check out five different missions. Two helped forward the story of the game as we took down high-ranking lieutenants inside Legion by blowing up basically everything in sight. Two other missions, meanwhile, were solo objectives that introduced us to new characters like Daisy, the roller derby girl with a Gatling gun and an alcohol problem (who ended up my favorite). Beating those solo missions unlocked new characters and gave us some critical backstory beats about the world and the team itself.

The last mission might’ve been the most interesting, because it was easily the most open-ended and tasked us with capturing a tower in the middle of Seoul. Capturing towers is great for experience, while also freeing areas of Seoul from Legion control. It’s a common video game activity at this point, but it definitely gave us a lot more reasons to explore the world. The mission also showed off some of the verticality of the game, as we had to climb several buildings to get to the capture point. It also highlighted the fast & frantic pace of combat, especially when swapping teammates as swarms of Legion soldiers attacked our position.


My time with Agents of Mayhem might’ve only been a small cross section of the variety of scenarios the game promises to throw players into, but it was enough to pique my interest for sure. Its cutscenes and interstitials look like they could’ve aired as part of a Saturday morning cartoon block—with more adult themes, mind you—while the action felt like a cross between what we’ve seen before in Saints Row and something like Crackdown. There’s not as much customization as some would expect from Volition, with each character having a limited number of skins for themselves, cars, and their weapons—but that’s because the cast fits more carefully into a story that pays homage in its own weird way to a bygone era. If you ever wanted to see what might happen if GI Joe took a turn for the adult, then maybe got spliced with Archer or something along those lines, Agents of Mayhem looks like it’s ready to deliver just that in the package of a fun, open-world action game.

Agents of Mayhem is dropping on August 15 for Xbox One, PS4, and PC.

One of the benefits of attending gaming conventions is that, sometimes, tucked away behind the AAA-behemoths always on display, you come across games that you’ve never heard of but which might pique your interest. That was the case at last year’s PlayStation Experience when I came across Divide. The folks from Exploding Tuba were trying to take a classic twin-stick shooter control scheme and marry it to an isometric adventure combined with a heavy sci-fi narrative element. Unfortunately, beyond the narrative aspirations they had, not much else really goes right with Divide.

In Divide you play as David, a single father who lost his wife in a lab accident at her work. Some time after her passing, you’re contacted by one of her old co-workers, Alton. He tells you all may not be as it seems, and gives you a briefcase. After playing at home with your daughter, you crack the case open to find a pair of special contact lenses that let you see the world in an entirely new light. Hidden documents, concealed buttons, and more all become visible to David, who realizes his very home was a testing ground for his deceased wife. Also in the case is a strange orb that explodes upon touching it, knocking David out. When he comes to, the world he knows is gone. In its place is a nightmarish future where the corporation that his wife worked for now rules. David now must find a way back to his own time—and his daughter.

The narrative is the lone bright spot for Divide. The dystopian world David wakes up in feels like it’s been inspired by the very best sci-fi one might read or see in a movie. They’re all familiar themes—corporations taking over the world, technology gone wrong or misused by malicious people, and a man out of time—but Divide does a nice job of using dialogue and context clues to give you reasons to care about the characters you meet, even despite the at times cringe-worthy voice acting.


But that’s it. After you have the plot laid out before you, getting David just from point A to point B becomes one of the worst gaming slogs I’ve had to wade through for a review in a long time. A large part of this has to do with the level design. Besides its monotonous aesthetic of white walls and holographic monitors everywhere, the pathways David must cross feel like a M.C. Escher painting in terms of how convoluted they are. Walkways that needlessly weave over and under each other not only take away from the futuristic theme thanks to their blatant inefficiency, but also serve as a constant thorn in your side due to the fixed isometric camera preventing you from seeing obstacles that might bar your path.

This fact is only compounded when the game requires you to backtrack. Navigation in Divide is a flat-out nightmare; never before have I begged so badly for more linearity. The map given to you is barely legible, providing no sense of direction or location. And, with no objective markers and almost no real landmarks to speak of, you’ll feel like Divide was actually intended as a walking-in-circles simulator instead of a sci-fi adventure.

When combat is introduced, it’s just another layer of ineptitude placed onto this cake of failure. David can use his special lenses to see menus and control panels not otherwise visible in the world, while sneaking up on the patrolling security robots—who grow to become more and more of a nuisance as the game goes on—will sometimes reveal a shut-off switch that can render them inert without having to fire a shot. The issues with all of this is that David can’t pull up his lenses while running, which is particularly a pain as you try to escape when things inevitably go awry, and you can only shoot his gun with the lenses activated, making overall combat maneuverability in already small spaces a constant nuisance.


The worst part about needing to activate your lenses to pull up your gun, though, is the fact that your laser sight is blue. Can you guess what the primary color is for most of the overlays that appear in the world when the lenses are on? A red laser sight would’ve stood out against the blue and white backdrops and not made aiming impossible. Considering how long it then takes your gun to charge up before each shot—which is why hacking security drones is actually preferred—there’s nothing like missing a charged up shot just barely because aiming is overly difficult. Not to mention, in a game with twin-stick mechanics, the reason why you can usually shoot quickly in those games is because bullets often act like tracers, allowing for easier correction. Having one blast every 30 seconds, not so much. I appreciate that Exploding Tuba wanted to try something different with a mechanic that hasn’t changed much over the years, but this was not the way to go.

Divide doesn’t just let players down from a design standpoint, though. From a technical point of view, it’s also a complete mess. David would get stuck on walls and furniture all the time, and I came out of several conversations with NPCs completely unable to move. As well, the game lacks a manual save system, but auto-saves infrequently—so when you have to reload after encountering one of these instant game-ending glitches, you’ll usually be losing anywhere between 10-15 minutes of progress.

Oh, but it doesn’t end there. It’s bad enough that this game doesn’t offer manual save points or frequent autosaves; my data also became corrupted somehow. Twice. There are four autosave slots if you try to manually load your game from the title screen, and all of them were unable to load. The only thing I can think of that happened in between those two playthroughs was the game was patched between them. I was told the first patch was specifically to fix this issue, which is even more mind-boggling that the game launched with such a major problem in the first place. How it happened again, I have no idea, but part of the reason this review took so long was I had to restart from the beginning and drag David’s sorry ass through time twice more before just marathoning through until the end. Nothing is more frustrating to me when playing a game than lost save data. Nothing.


Divide should be renamed “disaster,” because that’s what this game is. From a technical and gameplay standpoint, there are few worse experiences that come to mind. The developers would’ve been better off taking the story—which, again, was the lone bright spot—turning it into a 90-page movie script, and selling that off to Hollywood. As a game, this is as bad as it gets.

Publisher: Exploding Tuba Studios • Developer: Exploding Tuba Studios • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 01.31.17
I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen such a mess of a game. There’s a decent story here, but it’s buried under so much technical and design shortcomings that it’s not worth your time digging to try to find it.
The Good There’s a decent sci-fi story buried underneath everything here.
The Bad Awful level design, bugs everywhere, bad voice acting, and a repetitive aesthetic that gets boring quickly.
The Ugly That I ever thought this might’ve been good after PSX 2016.
Divide is a PS4 exclusive. Review code was provided by Exploding Tuba Studios for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

Where’s your head at?

There was a period when the metroidvania was a forgotten category of game, with few developers wanting to take on projects in the vein of two of gaming’s more classic franchises. But times have changed, and with the rise of indies and small teams following through on big ideas, the genre has seen a resurgence in recent years—to the point where we’re getting multiple games in the category a month. So, I was tasked with looking at my second metroidvania of July in as many weeks when a game called Headlander rolled into my office. The genre doesn’t get old for me, though, especially when the game is done well—and Headlander is proof of a metroidvania done well.


In a far off future, humanity as we know it is extinct. In a bid to live forever, people have transferred their personalities into robots, and anytime something happens to their metallic body, their personality is simply shifted to another bot. But Methuselah, the computer program tasked with maintaining this process, has taken things a step further. Methuselah suppresses people’s personalities with special chips, making humanity trapped in a prison of its own design. So, what happens when a lone human head, still feeling and made of flesh, wakes up in a self-sustaining thruster-propelled space helmet? It becomes the Headlander, and must find out why humanity fell so far while trying to fix this haywire program once and for all.

Developed by Double Fine, Headlander carries all the trademark humor and insanity their games are known for. Starting with the visual design, I imagine Headlander is what would happen if Tim Burton decided to make a retro-futuristic film in the 1970s. Neon lights, groovy dancing robots, and twisted security bots with laser beams called “Shepherds” flood many of the rooms you’ll explore on your outer space journey. Even the sideburns on the Headlander—unless you choose the female head—made me flash back several times to Logan’s Run.


The real joy in Headlander comes from its gameplay. Set up as a side-scrolling shooter, the Headlander’s greatest ability is that he can use a small suction device on his helmet to remove the head of any given robot and screw himself onto the remaining body to move through the world. Citizen robots have access to general areas, but removing the heads of a rainbow-assortment of Shepherd security bots (thus taking them over) provides offense with their respective laser cannons, along with access to different parts of the world depending on their color. Red robots can only access red rooms, but purple robots can access all rooms because of where they sit on the color spectrum. You can also detach your head at any given moment to access air ducts or hidden passageways, sometimes finding power-ups, other times finding recordings that fill in holes of the story, and the Headlander’s missing memory.

Finding the right robot body to advance past the world’s various traps, puzzles, and locked doors plays right into the best parts of most metroidvanias: the exploration. Backtracking with new robots or the Headlander’s floating dome (after some upgrades) to get new power-ups or complete the game’s handful of side quests allows you to both become familiar with the game’s world, and bolster that sense of accomplishment when you clear an area of every secret. One of my favorite moments came when a side quest had me take over the body of a robot dog, having to work my way back to its owner without any of the special abilities that come from humanoid robot bodies. Moments like those highlight some of the Double Fine humor we’ve come to expect, and some of the interesting challenges the game posed on a regular basis.


Of course, as fun as exploring the world in Headlander is, and how ingenious a lot of the puzzles are, it does become a bit stale after a while. Part of this, I think, is because even though the Headlander has a massive upgrades tree with four separate paths that you can max out by game’s end, you’ll rarely find yourself ever needing to do more than the mechanic given to you at the beginning of the game—popping robot heads off bodies and putting your own in their place. Some upgrades for the Headlander’s helmet do come in handy later—and are even required to collect all the items in the game—but when it comes to combat, really all you ever need is to just jump onto a Shepherd’s body and start blasting away with its laser. And, considering you won’t die if the robot body dies, evading laser fire via cover or rolling (I’d say jumping, too, but oddly enough you can’t do that in the game) you can just snatch another body and continue to mow down Methuselah’s mindless minions.

Headlander is a prime example of the greatness that can come from metroidvanias done right. It’s zany setting, retro-futuristic design, and tight gameplay come together in a nice package that should please all fans of the genre. It might lack the replayability of some games after you one-hundred percent it, and the gameplay can get a tad tiresome when you start approaching the endgame about six to eight hours in, but Headlander is a great summer pick-up if you love exploration or old-school side-scrolling shooters. Just don’t lose your head over it.


Developer: Double Fine Productions • Publisher: Adult Swim Games • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 07.26.16
Headlander is a great metroidvania whose retro-future style, humorous story, and tremendous exploration come together in one of the summer’s most complete experiences.
The Good Clever puzzles, tons of exploration, and a retro-future world that is nothing short of groovy.
The Bad Lots of powers, but not much need for them.
The Ugly The Headlander’s sideburns don’t belong in any decade.
Headlander is available on PS4 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Adult Swim Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

Bending over backwards for Fru

It’s hard to argue the fact that the Kinect is the latest in a long line of failed gaming peripherals. We could be here all day talking about why, but one of the main reasons is that in the nearly six years since it released, I can barely name a handful of good games for it. Most were too gimmicky, too unresponsive, or just simply weren’t fun. Although the Xbox One’s second generation Kinect was better equipped to deal with these shortcomings, it couldn’t do enough to warrant the system’s higher price tag, helping to turn away many would-be early adopters. Even those of us who took the plunge with Kinect 2.0 have either packed it away or simply use it as a quick way to sign-in and enter download codes. So, I was downright flabbergasted to find one developer still working on a Kinect game (even though we hadn’t seen it since E3 2014), and even more so when that game turned out to be pretty damn enjoyable.

Fru is a puzzle-platformer that tasks players with guiding a small, masked girl through a mysterious world. Over the course of the game’s 110 stages, you’ll come to learn what happened to this world, what the girl is trying to reach, and why you, the player, have the ability to help her through this adventure.

There’s really not a lot to Fru’s story, which is definitely one of its drawbacks as it tries to differentiate itself from the failed, gimmick-driven games of the Kinect’s past. All told, there are only eight sentences of narrative in the entire game, and a few short scenes that string together the simple story. But for what the story lacks in depth, the gameplay makes up for in spades.


There are only two controls in Fru: running and jumping. You can run with either joystick on the Xbox One controller, and jump with either trigger. The reason for this is it allows you to play the game one handed, which is not only a great test of coordination (since many of us will have to fight hard against our gaming muscle memory), but also a necessity, as in all of Fru’s stages, your body will act as the catalyst that allows the little girl to advance.

You see, your silhouette—as detected by the Kinect—will activate switches, reveal hidden platforms and collectibles, block hazards, and even at times serve as a pool of water the girl can swim through. Each of the game’s four chapters adds more complexity to your responsibilities as the girl’s shadowy guardian, which also adds to the fun. In many instances, I found myself contorting in ways I didn’t know I could to help the girl advance. Whether literally rolling on the floor to adjust my position, arching my back to cut a wall in half and create makeshift stairs, doing squats to hit multiple switches at once, or even (almost) doing splits to fill up most of the bottom of the screen, I was ready to do whatever it took to create the perfect position for each puzzle. And as gimmicky as it may seem on the surface, I was hooked, not to mention impressed by the amount of depth Through Games was able to concoct to never make any of the game’s 110 stages feel cookie cutter or boring.

Unfortunately, what might be Fru’s fatal flaw is that it won’t last longer than a few hours for most players, even with all those aforementioned stages. Once you get past the ingenious interaction with the Kinect and solve all the puzzles, there’s really little reason to come back to Fru—a problem that hurts puzzle-platformers that already aren’t fighting the Kinect stigma.


There are 24 collectibles scattered in the game, which do up the difficulty a tad, but I was able to collect them all on my first run through. There’s also a bonus mode that was spawned out of Fru’s tech demo, which offers a two-player option. Giving a friend a chance to play side-by-side with you is nice, but the mode is really only a short offering due to the tech demo nature, and not nearly as deep or as polished as the main game.

I did find some replayability in the game when showing it to friends at least. If it was fun rolling around trying to solve the puzzles by myself, it was just as entertaining to watch someone else do it. We even passed the control around to others, offering up some unintentional multiplayer and impromptu teamwork as one player would pose while the other would use the controller to guide the girl across the screen. It still remained a short affair, however, thus torpedoing its party-game possibilities as well.

Even with its lack of depth, Fru succeeds in showing us that the Kinect may have never reached its full potential. The puzzle-platform genre adapted for the device worked well, adding a pleasant surprise to the lineup of dance, music, and workout games that seemed to work the best with the peripheral. The sad fact of the matter is that Fru still has a couple of issues, and as fun as it is, it’s not something that can lift the Kinect back up to a state of relevancy. If you have a Kinect, Fru is a good way to get a couple more hours out of it. Otherwise, we all can just lament over what could’ve been.


Developer: Through Games • Publisher: Through Games • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 07.13.16
It’s sad that Fru came out so long after the Kinect was a viable gaming peripheral. Had it released closer to the Xbox One’s launch, we might’ve been able to laud it as a reason to own a Kinect. As is, it’s a solid little puzzle-platformer that might be worth a look if you haven’t packed your Kinect away—assuming you ever got one in the first place.
The Good Inventive take on the puzzle-platformer that keeps finding new ways to test you.
The Bad A little on the short side, and not much really in terms of story or replayability.
The Ugly This is the game the Kinect needed all along. It’s a shame it’s probably about two years too late.
Fru is a Xbox One exclusive (Kinect required). Review code was provided by Through Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

Nowhere to run

When Limbo appeared on the gaming scene six years ago, it was a revelation for many. It’s minimalistic visual style combined with its tight gameplay and open-ended finale left fans pointing to it as a shining example of why games are art—with some still arguing the finer points of its potential message today—and the viability of the gaming Indie scene. So, it’s no wonder the industry has been abuzz since we found out about Inside, the second effort from Limbo developer Playdead. Inside may be a bit more colorful than its grayscale predecessor, but it still delivers a powerful experience.

Inside has players in the role of a small boy who finds himself running from forces who wish to restrain and capture him, bringing him back to one of any number of facilities where inhuman experiments have been carried out on less fortunate souls. Over the course of his adventure, the boy will move through factories, forests, farms, train yards, and even sunken labs via a one-man submarine. What compels him to continue on, though, is the core of a mystery that will keep you playing well past the ending, searching for secrets that hope to help fill in the blanks to another one of Playdead’s purposely vague worlds.


It is in this familiar-yet-strange setting that we find the true star of the game. Although visually simplistic, with the gameplay never leaving the 2D-plane and much of the world painted in muted tones, the 3D backgrounds paint a macabre picture of forces at play that are beyond our understanding. It is this moody, atmospheric backdrop that shines more brightly than any potential narrative device could, and is at the core of what makes you want to keep playing Inside. It begs you to ask the question “what happened here?” and there is no greater force that makes you want to keep pushing right on your joystick to find out.

The scenery is simply the foundation for the macabre environment, however. A tale within a tale is told through the NPCs, puzzles, and death traps we are forced to navigate while playing. The gameplay is simplistic on the surface, with only three inputs needed on the controller: jump, grab, and run. Our young hero’s ability to interact with the environment around him then empowers players in a way games with more complicated control schemes often fail to do. Whether carrying and moving all sorts of items around, pressing switches to change the landscape of a room, blending in with the faceless crowd, or even using some of the facility’s still active experiments to your advantage, a beautiful layer of complexity quickly evolves from these humble mechanics.


The evolution of said mechanics in the environment is also done at a perfect pace. Although the difficulty never reaches anywhere near Limbo’s levels, since Inside seems to want to tell a story by having players move more slowly and carefully through the world instead of testing them via trial and error, the puzzles do advance and teach players at a natural rate so you never feel overburdened. If you replay certain sections like I did searching for secrets—and yes, Inside has its fair share of secrets—the stark difference between the start and end of the game in terms of how intricate the puzzle solutions are will quickly become evident at that point.

What might be most impressive about Inside, though, is how your thinking might change as you play the game—not just in terms of puzzle-solving, but in terms of your character’s purpose. Even with over a dozen special secrets to find in Inside, everyone gets what appears to be a rather finite, closed-book sort of ending, a definite departure from the interpretations Limbo afforded. Where things changed for me with Inside was what the motivation of the boy was. I stopped thinking of him as running from something, and more possibly running to something. And this is where Inside’s value truly lies. There is so much that can be left open to analysis, that can be played and replayed, and every person can experience things in a different way, bringing something new to the conversation.


Inside can be looked at as a mirror-image to Limbo. Whereas Limbo focused more on punishing puzzles, Inside deals more with meticulous movement. While Limbo’s simple graphics made it easy for players to focus on the task at hand, Inside distracts them with a world that is as much a character as the protagonist. And as Limbo left its conclusion up in the air, Inside might have you questioning the purpose of your journey when you reach the fixed ending. They share a common thread, however. You are told almost nothing at the start, but will come to explore a brilliantly designed, but dangerous world that will suck you in from the beginning and never let go as you fall down another expertly crafted rabbit hole from Playdead.

Developer: Playdead • Publisher: Playdead • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 06.29.16
Inside is a brilliantly crafted game that will keep you talking about it long after you’ve finished playing. Its moody, atmospheric world and terrific puzzle-platforming are simply the hooks to first draw you in.
The Good Moody, atmospheric puzzle-platformer that digs its hooks into you from the second it starts.
The Bad Puzzles never pose any real challenge.
The Ugly My desire to discuss this with other people, but I’m the only one in the office to have played it thus far.
Inside is available on Xbox One and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Playdead for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.


Ashes to ashes

Games often subject us to the same experiences over and over, usually with a one-size-fits-all ending we can’t change: rescuing a princess, killing a terrorist, saving the world. But there’s a grain of truth in the way that approach appeals to us, and why it works. Partly why games may be so effective emotionally is that, similarly, life is about the journey, not the destination. It is how we overcome the challenges laid out before us, where we find our enjoyment and potential enlightenment. Also, the ability for people to interact with games allows the medium to simulate emotions at an intensity that other methods often struggle to convey. Most often, they are emotions of empowerment or fantasy fulfillment. When games are at their most remarkable, though, is when they illustrate the emotions we’d rather not face.

Firewatch bravely chooses to buck trends and explores the grief and pain that comes with a sense of loss. It does so in a way that provides a rare, realistic jolt when you are brought to understand how deeply one person cared for another, and find yourself caring about them, too. So, when the game starts with you finding out the wife of our protagonist, Henry, has developed early onset dementia, it is a punch to the gut that feels all too real—especially if, like myself, you’ve had any sort of family member suffer from a mental health issue.

Henry’s immediate relatability has to do with how Firewatch begins. The game does not start by introducing players to the situation through a dynamic, visual bombardment of information. Instead, you are given lines of text explaining who Henry is, but like a “choose your own adventure book” you are given simple choices that allow you to insert yourself into the scenario. They are choices many of us will likely make over the course of our lives, or can at least relate to, and which prove to be completely inconsequential to the main story. These choices help paint a picture of Henry for when the game truly starts, though. Is Henry more crass than charismatic? The game gives you a chance to decide who Henry is to an extent, priming you to be more inclined towards certain dialogue decisions later in the game—even if they have no bearing on the narrative’s eventual outcome. It is not as deep as character customization in an RPG per say, but it helps with immersion once you do take full control. And it is enough so that when you are blindsided by the news of Henry’s wife, you find yourself just as shaken as he would be, the sense of loss transcending the game.


When Firewatch proper starts, you’ve just arrived in Wyoming’s Shoshone National Forest, nominally to work a summer job as a firewatch patrolman, but with the underlying hope that a chance to commune with nature—and the quiet time to focus on writing the Great American Novel—will serve as a distraction or otherwise help soften the grief. Then, we meet Delilah, Henry’s supervisor at another tower and his only link to the outside world. Somewhat isolated, the two of you can only communicate via a handheld two-way radio.

Delilah will walk you through the entire game, evolving from a motherly wilderness guide to a friend and confidant. You will also learn about Delilah and other people in the forest who have dealt with losses of their own as you perform humdrum tasks, before stumbling upon a mystery that has been growing in the forest for years.

Even with that small twist, the bulk of Firewatch boils down to Henry running around while he and Delilah get to know one another, swapping stories, and lending each other strength in times of need. That probably doesn’t sound exciting, especially with the choices you make in conversations with Delilah having no bearing on the end game, much like the opening text. Well, it’s not, really, but that shouldn’t (and doesn’t) mean it’s automatically bad, either. Excitement does not make or break an experience. The illusion of choice—expertly maintained thanks to Campo Santo co-founder Sean Vanaman’s Telltale pedigree, no doubt—builds up the liveliness of the world and lends a quieter sort of allure: that of building a new relationship.


From a more practical standpoint, the surface of Firewatch bares scars akin to a forest after a careless spark ignited some kindling on a dry, summer afternoon. Although its message is poignant and powerful, some might miss it when the fantasy shatters due to jarring and frequent framerate drops in the second half of the game. Yes, the visuals are gorgeous—courtesy of artist Olly Moss—highlighted by bright colors spread across the landscape in wide ribbons that dominate your first-person sightlines. But they are also simple, making the technical issues both surprising and disappointing.

Also, even if you adjust to the lower stakes of Firewatch, you may still find yourself cursing the glacial rhythm at a few points. When the mystery deepens and tensions begins to rise, Henry’s slow plodding across the Wyoming wilderness hurts pacing, turning what should’ve been a three- or four-hour experience into the five- to six-hour one we ended up with.

There are also likely some who will be left unsatisfied by the game’s resolution and ending. To this I say, that’s sort of the point. There’s a streak running through Firewatch that you might call “realistic” or “naturalistic” that would be ruined by something more conventionally crowd-pleasing. Any story, fictional or otherwise, can wrap everything up with a happily ever after and then pretend time stopped forever. Opting for something less naive serves as a reminder there’s another, more nuanced approach.

I’ll admit, I don’t typically enjoy games like this very much. Brothers and Gone Home are among the many critically acclaimed tearjerkers that left me unaffected and unimpressed. But Firewatch—technical issues be damned—actually moved me. I slipped into Henry’s persona as easily as feet do worn loafers. Part of this I feel was due to its audacious intro, with the game being only the aftermath of a devastating life moment that would rattle any person to their core; the rebuilding of a soul after it was burnt to the ground. That said, Firewatch’s subject matter may be too much for some, and those more superficial players will likely be unable to see past the game’s surface flaws, but those who are willing to make the trek with Henry will be rewarded. With a bit of patience and perseverance, the journey through Firewatch reveals a well-written adventure with an artful dedication to exploring themes and emotions that are rarely tackled in gaming, but so often essential to how we define ourselves as humans.


Developer: Campo Santo • Publisher: Panic Inc. • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 02.09.16
Through the grounded reality it portrays and simple jobs players are tasked with, Firewatch sneaks up and surprises you when it zeroes in on a powerful message about the human condition.
The Good A heartfelt, well-told tale that should resonate with everyone on some level.
The Bad Routine framerate drops throughout the later stages of the game.
The Ugly We’re all headed for the same destination.
Firewatch is available on PS4 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Campo Santo for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

A dose of déjà vu

Like many gamers my age, I grew up with a bevy of great and quirky titles developed by Rare. What I didn’t realize until I sat down with Rare Replay—a celebratory compilation of 30 games developed by the company since its inception in the mid-80s—though, was how much they grew up right alongside me. From thumb-numbing affairs like R.C. Pro-Am for the NES to more refined efforts for the Xbox 360 like Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts, Rare Replay is a magnificent showcase of one of gaming’s more beloved developers and how they’ve evolved over the years.

At its core, something like Rare Replay is admittedly nostalgia driven. While reviewing the collection, hours flew by in the blink of an eye as I rediscovered titles like Cobra Triangle (my personal first Rare game from 1989) and Battletoads. And in many cases, the games played just as well now as they did back in the day, with muscle memory taking over after only a few moments—which wasn’t really all that hard considering I only had to remember two buttons usually.

Rare Replay even touts an awesome “behind-the-scenes” series of never-before-seen interviews and features that are unlocked the more you play. These fun “Rare Revealed” unlockables give you insight into your favorite titles and how they came to be, and why certain creative decisions were made—like how Conker became the foul-mouthed squirrel we now know and love, or what the genesis of Battletoads really was.

Of course, even while being swept up in the memories of my childhood and teens, it quickly became evident that not every game in the compilation stood the test of time. My rose-colored glasses cracked a bit in particular when playing Killer Instinct Gold or Snake Rattle ‘n’ Roll, but that’s also to be expected to a degree when covering such a large swath of gaming history.

Where Rare Replay shines brightest, however, isn’t just in how it lets you take a stroll down memory lane. Since it’s unlikely most people have played every title in this compilation, the best moments are really when you discover a game you might’ve missed the first time around. Suddenly, you have another favorite in your gaming library, even if it’s coming from a game older than you are. In my case, that game was 1983’s Jetpac—technically developed by Rare’s eventual founders Tim and Chris Stamper and not the studio itself—that kicks off the collection with some classic early-80s arcade action.

Now, it would’ve been easy enough for Rare to just pull these games together and call it a day, but Rare Replay tries to offer up a slice of originality, too, in the form of the game’s “Snapshots.” All of Rare’s older titles come with five Snapshots—mini-challenges from a specific slice of each game—that will put a player’s skills to the test. Whether it’s defeating a boss without losing a life, earning a high score in less than a minute, or cumulatively playing a game for a certain amount of time over your career, the Snapshots try to offer up something new to pull you back into the NES era if you need some prompting.

While an interesting idea, I would’ve loved for Snapshots to be more varied. You’ll always have a cumulative one, a high score one, a combat challenge, and then maybe a couple that are more specific towards the given game. The most curious decision with Snapshots comes from the fact that not every game has them, though, and they stop altogether once you reach the N64 generation of Rare’s library. If Rare was going to try to implement something new, they should’ve done so uniformly throughout Rare Replay.

And the same goes for a special “Replay” feature in those older games. Similar to the “Rewind” option you see in games like Forza, by pressing the LT button you can actually replay the last few seconds of your game to avoid losing a life and keep going for that high score. A novel idea—even if it somewhat defeats the purpose of those older arcade games—but it’s only available in the older Rare titles.

As fun and as nostalgia-driven as this collection may be, Rare Replay is actually about a lot more than just Rare’s history. A more subtle benefit of the collection may be how it helps pave the way for the highly anticipated backwards compatibility for Xbox One. While you’re downloading and installing the bulk of the collection, separate downloads then start for games that were on the Xbox 360 like Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark Zero, Kameo: Elements of Power, and more. It ends up being nine separate Xbox 360 downloads, plus the Rare Replay collection of the remaining 21 games for 10 downloads total.

The one downside to this is, for the time being, you can only access the Xbox 360 games via Rare Replay, which acts as a sort of emulator launcher—even though each game takes up space separately on your hard drive (close to 50GB for all 10 downloads). That’s supposed to change when backwards compatibility fully comes to Xbox One sometime this fall, and in the meantime, if there are Xbox 360 games you don’t want, you can delete them apart from the main collection. At the very least, the transition between Xbox One and Xbox 360 is quick and relatively smooth after the first time you try it, and by simply holding the menu button, you can switch back to Rare Replay and the Xbox One whenever you want.

Rare Replay is a tremendous collection of great games that show how integral Rare has been to game development for the past 30 years. It may not offer up a lot that’s new gaming-wise, and it may lack some of the company’s biggest hits due to licensing issues (most notably Goldeneye 007 and the Donkey Kong Country series), but there’s plenty here that should still be celebrated. If you’re a Rare fan, there’s no better way to do so than with this compilation.

Developer: Rare Ltd. • Publisher: Microsoft • ESRB: E – Everyone to M – Mature (varies by game) • Release Date: 08.04.15
A great collection of classic games. Whether you’ve been a fan of Rare for three years or for thirty, there’s something here for everyone, with plenty of gems waiting to be discovered for the first time.
The Good Whether a Rare game junkie or a relative newcomer to their brand, everyone should find something to enjoy.
The Bad Snapshots don’t provide a lot of variety and aren’t available for all titles. Not every game stands the test of time.
The Ugly Even after nearly 25 years, I still can’t beat the Clinger-Winger stage in Battletoads. Damn you, Hypno-Ball!
Rare Replay is a Xbox One exclusive. Review code was provided by Microsoft for the benefit of this review.

Dostoyevsky would be proud

Even before his recent upswing in popularity due to Benedict Cumberbatch’s modern portrayal, Sherlock Holmes has been one of the world’s most beloved fictional characters ever since Arthur Conan Doyle penned his first adventure more than 125 years ago. Given his penchant for puzzle-solving and dealings with quirky characters, Sherlock Holmes seems like a perfect fit for the world of gaming.

Unfortunately, most of his gaming efforts haven’t really moved the needle. But developer Frogwares decided to give it another go by infusing this latest effort, their eighth with the deerstalker-capped man from Baker Street, with some elements we’ve seen from the modern TV shows.

Crimes & Punishments keeps the traditional setting of late-19th-century London, where you control Holmes over the course of several months as he’s confronted with six unrelated cases that deal with that most primal of crimes: murder. Taking a page from Cumberbatch and company, however (aside from the integral notebook, where you can easily reference facts for recalling later), this Holmes iteration has what can only be described as his own personal “mind palace.”

When key clues come up via witness testimony, examining the evidence, or some inventive re-enactments between Holmes and his trusted companion, Dr. Watson, the world’s most famous detective can piece together related facts to draw conclusions that appear as nerve endings in his mind. When enough conclusions can be clustered together, Holmes will have the ability to convict a potential felon.

Aside from how the ability to piece clues together in his mind, Holmes also has the ability to instantly analyze a suspect, looking them up and down and drawing conclusions—sometimes key ones like noticing particular tattoos or dirt under the fingernails. This “instant profiling” draws another parallel to the modern Holmes incarnation, and it’s another welcome addition in making players feel more like the great detective.

Something else new, though, is that Holmes can actually be wrong. Most cases will provide evidence that could allow Sherlock to convict multiple suspects, and while the game will move forward even with an incorrect conviction, you’ll always know that you sent the wrong man or woman to face the hangman. Though I thoroughly enjoyed the extra challenge that multiple suspects provided, since it really did make me pay closer attention to everything involved with a case, I wish there’d been more of a penalty for coming to a wrong conclusion and that some real weight had been provided to this branch of the morality system.

Even when you do solve the case, you don’t have to convict the culprit of anything, since Holmes uncovers crimes of passion or long-unpunished abuse finally facing karmic retribution. But, again, no matter what you choose—whether it means sending the criminal to jail or finding a shred of humanity within Holmes and absolving those responsible—there seem to be no real consequence to your actions beyond how they affect that single character.

Another disappointment was one of my own making, but I still felt cheated a bit while playing the game. If you should look at the Trophy or Achievement descriptions, the culprits for all six cases will be spoiled for you, since special actions involving those characters are tied directly to proper convictions. I know that may seem minor, but you’d think that something like this wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by the developers, and it took away some of the challenge the game would’ve otherwise offered.

Despite the fact that the final verdicts were somewhat spoiled, I was surprised at how much fun I still had working out the process to find enough proof to convict someone. While most puzzles are unintuitive in regards to their controls, they offer enough of a mental challenge to practically make the game worth playing in and of themselves. And the variety was welcome, with only the lockpicking puzzles repeating frequently throughout all six cases. Whether it was controlling both Holmes and Watson to work a series of switches or using Toby, Holmes’ trusted Basset Hound, to sniff for clues, my only complaint is that I wish some of the puzzles had been reused more often because they were so fun.

Unfortunately, a few glaring flaws persist. The graphics aren’t the prettiest, even on the new generation of consoles, and though the voice acting for the major characters will grow on you, these actors aren’t going to win any awards for their distant, disconnected performances. At least Holmes being distant and disconnected fits the character, but not with anyone else.

Despite these cut corners, Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments does a fine job of teasing your brain into coming up with the right conclusions. I wish the new morality system was more fleshed out, but the other additions help make this 19th-century stalwart character appeal to a modern audience, and I can’t wait to see what adventures Frogwares has planned next for Holmes and Watson.

Developer: Frogwares • Publisher: Focus Home Interactive • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 09.30.14
Fun puzzles, inventive murders, and new crime-solving features help make up for a morality system that needed far more fleshing out to be effective.
The Good Strong emphasis on puzzle-solving; open-ended solutions for each case.
The Bad Unintuitive puzzle controls; lack of moral weight to choices.
The Ugly The Trophies and Achievements spoil the end of each case if you look at them beforehand.
Sherlock Holmes: Crimes & Punishments is available on PS4, Xbox One, PS3, Xbox 360, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Focus Home Interactive for the benefit of this review.