Tag Archive: indie


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.
Advertisements

This is my appearance on Machinima’s Spacebar back in October 2016. We talk about wrestling.

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.

DivideIntro1160

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.

DivideLenses1160

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.

DivideRunning1160

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
2.0
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.

Rise & Shine is one of those games that almost slipped under my radar, but I’m glad it didn’t. Releasing in early-mid January is a risk sometimes, as gamers are usually still working on their holiday hauls, and reviewers like myself take the typically slow time of the year to catch up on our mountainous backlogs. Luckily for me, though, I actually eliminated my backlog early this year, and had to go searching for something else to play—leading me to this enjoyable little action-platformer.

Rise & Shine takes place on the world of Gamearth. Here, many of the great video game characters we’ve come to know and love over the years live in peace, and maintain the safety of the planet’s less-famous denizens. When the hyper-violent armies of planet Nexgen decide it’s time to invade, the forces of Gamearth are no match. Thus, a new hero must rise, and the magical gun Shine—which bestows infinite respawns—must be taken up by a new champion. In this case, it’s a young boy named Rise. Now, Rise and Shine must travel across Gamearth looking for the means to stop Nexgen’s invasion and save their world.

RiseShineCrashedShip1160

While the story of Rise & Shine is pretty straightforward no matter how you look at it—kill all the bad guys, save the world—where it excels is in its unique setting, which allows the writing to both poke fun at and celebrate gaming. Rise complaining about how much it hurts each time he dies and respawns, the king’s throne being made of SNES consoles, and even the stereotypical leader of the Nexgen army offer some fun tongue-in-cheek humor that makes you want to keep pushing forward.

And there will be times you need that something to keep pushing forward, because Rise & Shine’s gameplay can be punishing. Although there are a fair amount of puzzles that bar your progress forward, none are as testing of your patience as the moments when your screen will fill with enemies and you’re forced to duck behind cover and pray. Being a child, Rise has very limited health, and will often fall after only a direct hit or two—whereas the force he is facing can fill the screen with projectiles almost like a bullet hell. It requires some trial and error before patterns become evident, and even then, Shine’s limited ammo before having to reload (you have infinite bullets, but you start with only being able to have 10 in the chamber at a time) can come back to bite you at the worst times. I personally didn’t mind that it harkens back in many ways to the early days of gaming, but the degree of difficulty will surely be an acquired taste for some.

At the very least, you’ll always look good while dying. One of Rise & Shine’s most impressive aspects is definitely its colorful, cartoony art style that pops off the screen, featuring comic book panel-style cutscenes tying everything together. The cute, rounded features of all the characters give it the aesthetic of a Saturday morning cartoon aimed at younger audiences. The stark contrast against the blood and gore from killing enemies or being killed, and the dark undertone of a planetary invasion, then made this design choice all the more striking.

RiseShineFirstLevel1160

I only wish the game’s mechanics had grabbed me as forcefully as the art style did. Whether you find the gameplay difficult or not, it quickly tends to become rather one dimensional either way. Using the right stick to aim and right trigger to fire worked well enough within the parameters of an action-platformer—even one as punishing as this—but Shine only gets a couple of forced upgrades over the course of the game to go along with optional clip upgrades. These upgrades—an electric bullet to power terminals in puzzles, guided bullets to hit buttons down narrow passageways, and a grenade launcher to arc shots over barricades—are extremely situational in most cases. Sure, the electric bullets can also be effective against robots, but I found myself defaulting back to my original bullets most of the time. And, with no real powers in regards to Rise, dodging and shooting the same handful of enemies became tiresome after awhile, especially when failing in those trial-and-error shooting scenarios.

Rise & Shine also has the unfortunate distinction of being another Indie game that just feels like it ends abruptly. Three hours into the game, it felt like the bottom fell out, and that I was only scratching the surface of what Gamearth had to offer. It also made certain sections of the adventure, like the barrage of mini-games on “NPC Island,” feel all the more random and out of place. Sure, it could be going back to that overarching commentary on games of this ilk in general, but it didn’t change the fact that because of the compact nature of the game, elements like this felt like they came out of left field.

Even with these rough edges, though, I found I enjoyed most of my time with Rise & Shine. I would’ve loved a longer, more thorough visit to Gamearth, but its strong writing, attractive art style, and solid—if not shallow—gameplay were more than enough to keep me going until I had turned Rise into a hero worthy of carrying Shine. Now, excuse me as I try to go figure out how to build my own throne out of SNES consoles.

RiseShineFirstBoss1160

Publisher: Adult Swim Games • Developer: Super Awesome Hyper Dimensional Mega Team • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 01.13.17
7.0
Rise & Shine isn’t the deepest action-platformer you’ll ever play, but the tongue-in-cheek nods to the gaming industry at large, along with its stunning art style, will push you to the finish line even when the gameplay starts to let you down.
The Good Visually arresting and smartly written.
The Bad Mechanics wear thin after some time; ending feels abrupt.
The Ugly I think I died less in Dark Souls.
Rise & Shine is available on Xbox One and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. 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.

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.

SearchParty1160

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.

Processing1160

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.

Submarine1160

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
9.5
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.

StoriesHeader

Choose your fate

Immersion has always been a big factor for me enjoying not just games, but a lot of the media I’ve consumed over the years. So, it shouldn’t come as a shock to find out I was a fan of those “Choose Your Own Adventure” books while growing up. I found it particularly easy to insert myself directly into their stories, and it could take hours to repeatedly work my way through them, finding all the different endings. It’s no wonder then that I immediately fell in love with Stories: The Path of Destinies.

Stories follows a clever fox rogue named Reynardo who, through a series of unfortunate events, has found himself smack dab in the middle of a civil war between an evil king and his kingdom’s upstart rebellion. The events that led to Reynardo’s involvement in the war also saw a magical book find its way into his possession. This book allows him to see his potential fate based on decisions he has yet to make, and only by overcoming countless trials and errors will Reynardo discover the truth behind the war and discern what will be the one path he can take to victory.

While the story sounds simple enough, much of the charm of Stories comes due to its lone voice actor. The storyteller/narrator acts similarly to the one in Bastion, dynamically and amusingly calling out many of Reynardo’s actions, from the epic (fighting off a dozen enemies and not taking a hit) to the mundane (yes, smashing all those pots is necessary). Some of the writing misses the mark, but most of its mistakes can be forgiven considering the tone of the entire adventure. Plus, it should be commended as a whole, considering how everything interconnects.

Storybook640

You see, just like those Choose Your Own Adventure books of my youth, Stories features 25 different endings for our hero, and only one of them can be considered “good”: the good guys live, the bad guys don’t, and the world is saved. The fun, though, is in collecting the clues to learn how to get to that good ending.

Each playthrough of Stories only takes about an hour total as you work your way through five chapters. Each chapter has a decision at the end of it, which branches the story off in different directions before culminating in one of the endings. With each “bad” ending you receive (Reynaldo dies, world is destroyed, etc.) one of four universal truths is potentially revealed. These are facts that never change, no matter what path Reynaldo takes, and which contain knowledge he can then use when he flips back to the front of his magical, fate-revealing book. The truths also unlock additional choice paths when you replay certain scenarios due to the new information our protagonist has gained.

Once you learn all four truths, you should have the pieces necessary to figure out how Reynaldo must navigate the book—like a magnificent meta-puzzle—in order to emerge a true hero. Of course, with 24 bad endings, there’s no guarantee that each ending will reveal a truth, but the fun is in course-correcting each time around, changing one decision—or many—in an attempt to uncover the information you need. So, at minimum, you’ll need five playthroughs (I admittedly stumbled and needed a sixth) to unlock the hero’s best path.

CloseUpCombat640

My only gripe with how this was done comes from the fact that unlike a true Choose Your Own Adventure, you have to replay full storylines just to get to the one decision you want to change. For completionists out there who want to see all 25 endings, this will be particularly frustrating, because instead of being able to bounce back to a decision in chapter four, you have to go all the way back to chapter one each time and start all over, forcibly lengthening the game.

This becomes particularly bothersome when you realize there are only around eight different levels rotating in and out of the five chapters, so playing the game over and over again causes you to see a lot of the same areas repeatedly. Each level has a couple of alternate paths that you can unlock on subsequent playthroughs, but when you’re traipsing through the desert for the tenth time, the levels lose their luster.

One aspect that helps keep this repetition from bogging the game down too much is the gameplay. Stories plays like a relatively straight-forward action-RPG, but there is some surprising depth to the combat when you mix in the four swords Reynardo can acquire and level up, the hookshot that allows him to quickly close the distance to enemies, and counter attacks reminiscent of the “exclamation mark above the enemy’s head” system from super hero games.

Combat640

There’s also a deep leveling system, with perks that carry over from playthrough to playthrough. This way, by the time you’re trying to make a speed run for the good ending, Reynardo will be almost tank-like in his ability to mow down enemies and keep pushing the story forward.

There is a shortcoming with the gameplay, in that there are a fair amount of glitches in the game. I found myself stuck to certain walls, or half-submerged in the ground like it was quicksand, on several occasions, requiring me to restart the chapter. While no chapter is more than 15 minutes long depending on how much you explore, it quickly got bothersome after it happened more than a couple of times.

Stories: The Path of Destinies is a love letter to the Choose Your Own Adventure books of my childhood. It’s multiple paths and endings will keep you coming back for at least a few playthroughs as you attempt to unlock the best ending possible. It also acts as a solid action-RPG, with a surprising amount of depth to keep you engaged for at least as long as it should take you to uncover all the hidden truths. If you’re looking for a narrative-driven game that you can come back to again and again, then Stories: The Path of Destinies is a game you should probably choose.

Narration640

Developer: Spearhead Games • Publisher: Spearhead Games • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 04.12.16
8.5
Solid action-RPG gameplay is elevated by the meta-puzzle that is the game’s branching storylines. The entertaining trial and error of trying to find the one “good” ending channels Choose Your Own Adventure books, and lends itself to a story that you’ll love playing again and again.
The Good Choose your own adventure-style narrative with over two-dozen endings for tons of replayability.
The Bad Level repetition can lead to fatigue, especially when needing to restart due to a collision glitch.
The Ugly Thinking too hard about a fox falling in love with a cat.
Stories: The Path of Destinies is available on PS4 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Spearhead Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

FirewatchHeader

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.

Sunset640

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.

Map640

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.

ControlledBurn640

Developer: Campo Santo • Publisher: Panic Inc. • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 02.09.16
8.0
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.

No school like the old school

When compared to some of the EGM Crew, I’m admittedly kind of slow on the Indie uptake. Something that helps motivate me to take notice of the latest Indie darling that’s burning up the popular forums, though, is when it’s dripping with nostalgia from my 2D-game upbringing. The latest offering that fits that bill is a result of the one-man development wrecking crew that is Thomas Happ and Axiom Verge.

The action-adventure shooter puts players in the lab coat of a scientist named Trace. When one of his experiments accidentally triggers an explosion in the lab, Trace is knocked unconscious. Upon waking up, he finds himself on an alien world that proves to be quite hostile—and he has no recollection of what happened after the blast. Trace must now explore this unfamiliar landscape in the hopes to not only piece together his fractured memory but also find a way back home.

Trace’s story isn’t the centerpiece of Axiom Verge, though. In fact, it’s far from it. I only ever got small nibbles of the carrot that is solving the issue of Trace’s mysterious appearance on this alien planet, and many questions remained unanswered in the process of my playthrough. Normally, this would have me pulling my hair out. I’d be ready to come up with any number of loose connections to fit together what little plot I came across, filling in the blanks and creating a coherent timeline in my mind as best I could. Instead, Axiom Verge reminded me time and again, through its novel twists on stereotypical gaming devices and old-fashioned design, that the story is never the focus here—it’s always on the gameplay.

Axiom Verge is like a love letter to the original Metroid. It’s exploration tempered by a healthy dose of shooting all kinds of alien life-forms with a pinch of platforming, a wide assortment of weapons, and just enough narrative hooks to keep pushing you forward. Collecting a cornucopia of items that would open up more of the ever-expanding map, lengthening Trace’s health bar, or beefing up the various bioweapon blasters he comes across was a thrill as I watched my completion percentage climb. Deducing the patterns of gargantuan bosses with pixel precision became more and more of an obsession as I played, flashing me back to my childhood and the great gun battles of my gaming glory days. This is as solid a gameplay base as it gets.

In some aspects, however, Axiom Verge tries too hard to stay true to its gaming roots, and it could’ve take a page from other modern games in the genre to deliver a more pleasant overall experience. A prime example? The map system. The game would’ve been well served to include some sort of marker feature that I could’ve used to remind me the location of items I missed or areas I wanted to explore so that I could more efficiently plan my paths—especially considering the sheer size of the world.

A fast-travel system would’ve been welcome as well, because once I reached the 12-hour mark and collected around 80 percent of the items, I got really tired of schlepping back and forth across a map that features more than 700 unique rooms, gunning down the same enemies over and over. In fact, I pushed forth with the endgame sequence before hitting that magical 100-percent mark to prevent what had been a wonderful adventure up to that point from starting to feel like too much of a grind.

To that end, I realized that Axiom Verge truly shines when it breaks away from the restraints of the past it emulates and instead builds on top of those gameplay foundations. For instance, one of the most powerful weapons you get early on in your adventure is best described as a “glitch gun.” Firing its waves of distinctive radiation at walls comprised entirely of blocks of retro texture glitches from games of yesteryear will reveal new paths or items. Lambasting enemies with this gun, though, can have a wide array of effects—they might turn friendly toward Trace or simply become easier to defeat. When under the influence of the glitch gun, some enemies even open up new pathways; unwitting foes barrel through obstacles that would be indestructible by any other means. Taking an unwelcome by-product of past hardware limitations and development issues and turning it into a critical game component only encouraged more experimentation with each new room I entered, and it was a welcome twist on traditional 2D exploration.

The gameplay twists don’t end with just the weapons, though. You can use many items to bypass barriers—years of gaming experience has ingrained in us the need to hit a switch or acquire a key to make areas accessible, but that’s not the case here. Axiom Verge goes out of its way to remind you of the multitude of tools that open up the paths before you.

While on the subject of all those tools, though, Happ may have gone a little overboard in regards to how many items he crammed into Axiom Verge. One of the other reasons I gave up on that 100-percent run was that it dawned on me about halfway through my playthrough that a lot of weapons and items are useless. I’d say three-quarters of the guns are style over substance and offer little to no value in terms of furthering your exploration or combat proficiency.

And if you get stuck at any point—like I did toward the end of the game before finally figuring out one particular obstacle—and start doing literal laps around the world trying to figure out where to go next, it’s pretty damn frustrating when you stumble upon a secret room that you think may finally push things forward. Instead, you get a completely useless gun. It makes the otherwise tight design come off a bit haphazard, whereas the best Metroid-like games have a laser focus and no real overabundance of anything, especially when it comes to the weapons.

Working in the shadow of something as massive as Metroid and other games of that ilk is no easy task, though, and Axiom Verge does more than enough to earn its place among them. It manages to work within its limitations and still innovate in subtle-but-effective ways. Even with its classic motif, a little modern polish would’ve gone a long way, but it’s hard for me to be anything but immensely satisfied and impressed with Axiom Verge as a whole.

Developer: Tom Happ • Publisher: Tom Happ • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 03.31.15
8.0
A wonderful throwback to a bygone era, Axiom Verge’s focus on classic gameplay provides a welcome change of pace, even if it could’ve benefitted from a hint of modern design.
The Good Old-school side-scrolling shooter action and exploration that could give Samus Aran a run for her money.
The Bad Too many useless weapons; the desperate need for a fast-travel system.
The Ugly Uruku, the giant, gun-toting slug boss.
Axiom Verge is available on PS4, with PS Vita and PC versions coming later. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Sony for the benefit of this review.

A monster mash

With all the power of PCs and new-gen hardware, it’s easy to get lost in the allure of modern amenities when it comes to videogames. But what really matters, and what keeps us coming back for more, has always been the gameplay itself. So, for me, it’s always a joy when someone decides to buck the trend and bring us a 2D platformer, hearkening back to a genre that served as a cornerstone of the industry for so long. The latest title that wants to remind us of the importance of substance over style? An indie game called Blood of the Werewolf.

Selena is one of the last living werewolves in existence. She and her husband have done their best to hide their bestial natures from the world around them and raise their son, the last hope for the werewolves, in seclusion. Some friends from the old country named Dracula and Dr. Frankenstein aren’t too keen on that idea, however, and they slay Selena’s husband when she’s not home and kidnap their child. Unfortunately for them, they decided to do this on the night of the full moon. Unleashing the monster within, Selena’s now in a race against time to get her son back and taste vengeance for her slain husband.

After playing through only a couple of levels as Selena, you’ll immediately flash back to the “good old days” of platforming where each stage is chock-full of pummeling pistons, crumbling shelves, and some purposefully placed bad guys as you work your way through the game’s 10 stages and five boss fights in the form of classic monsters Mr. Hyde, Dracula, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Mummy, and Frankenstein’s Monster.

One instance in particular that screamed “old-school” for me was when I had to jump down a shaft that seemed to go on forever while automated pistons fired just above my head as I fell. If I adjusted the wrong way in mid-air, I was turned into a bloody paste. After what felt like several agonizing minutes (it was probably only a few seconds in reality), and a few heart (and body) crushing deaths later, I successfully made it to the bottom of the chasm and the end of the stage. However, Blood of the Werewolf does adjust a tad for modern audiences. While difficult traps like the one described above are present throughout, there’s no limit on lives, and generous checkpoints are scattered throughout each stage.

Coupled with the tight platforming is some solid action. Since Selena’s a werewolf, you’d be right in thinking she’d have all the powers of one—and then some. The twist here, though, is she can only use her wolf form when she’s directly touched by the moonlight. This means that for a lot of the game’s interior levels, Selena has to use other means, specifically a crossbow, to work her way closer to her lost son.

Each form has its own benefits. Selena’s attack range in human form reaches across the screen with the crossbow. She can also burn opponents when she unlocks fire arrows and when you consider many of her enemies are undead, fire can be a huge boon. Her werewolf form, however, has a double-jump, which has obvious benefits in a platformer. While the range of her claws is very limited, they can often kill most enemies in one hit.

Though I enjoyed the idea of not being in wolf form all the time and appreciate that both the crossbow and wolf forms can be upgraded by finding hidden relics scattered throughout each world, I wish I would’ve had a choice over whether or not I could enact the change in Selena, instead of having it dictated by the a level’s design or motif. The wolf is far more powerful than Selena’s human form—understandably so—and it made me miss those abilities when I was forced to remain as a human for long stretches of the game. A meter of some kind would’ve satisfied my longing for better balance between the two forms.

Speaking of better balance, the stages themselves can be brutally difficult at times, but that makes it feel invigorating when you finish each one. The boss battles, on the other hand, feel more like a break from the rest of the game instead of continuing the pulse-pounding action that builds up to the confrontation with these classic horror characters. Their patterns are easy to recognize and even easier to avoid. That’s a bit of a letdown, even if it’s fun to see each character was reimagined here.

Now, when this game was first released on PC last year, a major issue some folks had was the replayability. While the campaign’s enjoyable enough and lasts about six hours depending upon your skill level, there’s not a lot to bring you back to it. The Xbox 360 version (as well as an upgraded PC release) solves this issue with two additional gameplay options.

The first is Endless mode, which sees how far Selena can go in a single life as she takes on 100 different rooms not seen in the main game. Thankfully, your upgrades from the campaign carry over here, giving you a reason to go back to the story mode and find collectibles you might’ve missed the first time around. The second inclusion is Score Attack mode, which features a timer that counts down to test how fast you can work your way through each non-boss stage, earning points and extra seconds for collecting items and killing enemies. Plus, each mode has a global leaderboard, to help appeal to your competitive side.

Blood of the Werewolf exudes a vintage charm that cannot be denied. With its spot-on controls and interesting premise, there’s more than enough content here to warrant the cheap price of $6.99 on XBLA. Because of this, it begs gamers to test their skills and see just how much they can get done before the full moon sets and the sun rises.

Developer: Scientifically Proven • Publisher: Midnight City • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 06.11.14
8.0
Blood of the Werewolf is a solid 2D platformer that hearkens back to a bygone era. Tight controls and decent action make up for somewhat bland aesthetics, while the extra modes seen in this version offer more than enough replayability to garner a look from most gamers.
The Good Crisp platforming and tight controls reminiscent of classics in the genre.
The Bad Needs better balance between wolf form and human form; boss battles are a breeze compared to the levels.
The Ugly How many bodies did Dr. Frankenstein dig up to make a 50-feet-tall monster?
Blood of the Werewolf is available on Xbox 360 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360. Review code was provided by Midnight City for the benefit of this review.