Tag Archive: PC


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8.5

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

The Good

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

The Bad

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

The Ugly

The obsession that developed over making sure each citizen of Evermore had their happily ever after.
Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is available on PS4 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Bandai Namco for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.
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As an Indie developer, it’s hard sometimes to advance through the stages of game development, especially when compared to the pace of the AAA and AA powerhouses on the gaming scene. So, even though the alpha version of Outer Wilds was able to take home the 2015 Seumas McNally Grand Prize at the Independent Games Festival at GDC 2015, it’s not really surprising that its developers decided to go quiet for a while in order to focus on building towards an inevitable release. Well, just about three years after that landmark win for Team Outer Wilds—now a part of developer Mobius Digital—and on the heels of a publishing deal with another relatively fresh face on the scene in Annapurna Interactive (What Remains of Edith Finch, Gorogoa), Outer Wilds was ready to be shown off again. Thus, I happily headed down to Mobius Digital’s LA-based studio to go hands-on with Outer Wilds and see first hand just how far it had come.

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

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

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

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

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

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.

When it comes to game development nowadays, a lot of time and thought are put into not only making a great game, but often times making it a social success. Speed runs, let’s plays, and shoutcasting are just some of the ways that games have exploded across streaming services and video providers. It has now gotten to the point where some developers first approach the idea of making an experience around these social elements and bringing people together before they even know what kind of game they want to make. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not necessarily a bad thing when done well—and the folks at Outpost Games look to be one of those social-focused developers with their new game SOS.

SOS is what you would get if you crossed TV’s Survivor with the old Nickelodeon show Legends of the Hidden Temple and a Battle Royale mechanic. Sixteen players are airdropped onto the fictional La Cuna Island where they must search for one of several scattered relics. These relics are guarded by Monster Men called Hupia that populate the island. Using whatever weapons and gear you can scrounge up, from old WWII-era pistols to knives, axes, or even blunt weapons like old skulls, you’ll need to earn your relic by defeating a Hupia as best you can. Once you have a relic, you’ll need to fire off a flare gun to signal for a helicopter to take you off the island.

Where things get most interesting is that there are only three chairs on the escape helicopter, five to seven relics on the island, and again, sixteen players. Only by escaping on the helicopter do you win the game. You can team up with as many players as you want by soliciting a high five from them. But even should you team up with every other “contestant” and collect all the relics on the island before the timer runs out, there are only so many seats available, leading to some fun Mexican standoff scenarios or some well-planned betrayals along the way.

What SOS’s devs really think will help this game stand out from other last-man-standing style games is that while you start alone, by using your microphone, you can communicate with other players and really try to win them over to your side. That’s not to say a smart lone wolf can’t just bide their time and pounce on a relic carrier when the helicopter arrives—I saw it happen a half-dozen times over the several matches I got to play. But, if you can put together a team of people bent on working as a group, your odds of survival and winning go through the roof.

Communication amongst players isn’t the only way SOS takes advantage of modern tech. SOS is banking on people watching players play the game, and have built their own system called Hero.tv. This tech will act as a sort of Twitch overlay, and allow viewers to vote on their favorite players and personalities, send them airdrops, and generally root them on. It leads to two very distinct leaderboards within the game: one for wins—how many times did you survive La Cuna Island—and one for fame, tabulated by people sending emoticons to your players over the course of a game as they watch you. It makes it so that players who might not be great at killing people can still make a name for themselves based on their personality.

As well and good as this seems, there are still a couple of question marks for me with SOS, the first of which is that there is obviously going to be a bit of a tech hurdle for some. While more and more gamers than ever have their own webcam and microphone just for these purposes, I’m sure there are still some people out there who would probably rather not talk at all—and thus, this game likely won’t appeal to them from a player standpoint. I suppose they can always just watch and cheer folks on, though, through Hero.tv.

There is also the fact that I think a lot more features need to be added to the game for it to truly have the social appeal Outpost Games is looking for, most notably director features. The lack of options to shoutcast a game that so clearly lends itself to that is disappointing. Then again, the game also just only entered Early Access on Steam on PC last week, so the hope that those tools will be added at some point is high.

SOS could be the start of an interesting new trend in games, a more interactive sort of game show, where personalities and prizes are as important as gameplay. I know that in my limited time with SOS, I enjoyed watching it more than even playing it, especially as I started to recognize players in the small pool available to us as people who shouldn’t be trusted. In just a few sessions, I had started to assign myself people to root for and against, just by watching how they played. It’s this aspect that could make SOS more than just another Battle Royale game, and I’m curious to see how well it does in its time in Early Access.

Need for Speed once led the pack in terms of the arcade racing scene. In recent years, though, it has lost what made it special while simultaneously being eclipsed by other racers in the genre. A reboot two years ago was supposed to pave the way for the series to once again find traction within the racing world, but whatever hopes EA had have likely been dashed with Need for Speed Payback, which serves as evidence that the series may just be too far off course to comeback at this point.  

Need for Speed Payback follows a small racing crew in Fortune Valley, a fictionalized version of Las Vegas built on sin and street racing. Tyler specializes in drag and traditional races, Mac in off-road and drifting, and Jess is their runner, great for getting away from the 5-0 when they crack down on the trio’s driving antics. The game starts with Tyler’s crew getting an offer from an old friend named Lina that they can’t refuse: help steal a supercar and get a payday that could set them up for life. The only ones being set-up, though, are Tyler and gang. Now, they’re out for revenge against Lina and her boss (the mysterious Collector), but will have to work their way up through Fortune Valley’s 10 car gangs to even have a shot at Lina—and maybe getting that big payday after all.

Looking to their contemporaries and racing movies for inspiration, Need for Speed Payback tries to tell a revenge story we’ve seen almost a half-dozen times already—it’s just missing Vin Diesel giving some stupid speech about family. That said, its major story beats, which mark the conclusion of each of the narrative’s five acts, are actually a lot of fun and keep things moving in an entertaining direction. Ridiculous car chases, sudden perspective switches, and Michael Bay-worthy explosions will have you slowly inch forward in your chair. And, of course, everything looks gorgeous as usual in the Frostbite engine. The cinematic approach to a lot of the scenes worked, and the only times they didn’t—when you forced other cars to wreck—is now an option that can be thankfully turned off if you’re like me and hate taking your eyes off the action. Unfortunately, it’s everything around those major beats that really let this game down.

From a story standpoint, the hardest part to get behind is the cast of characters. The bad guys were infinitely more interesting than the good guys, and I’m not sure if the voice over sessions for this were done during the recent voice actor strike, but I think you could’ve walked down Hollywood Blvd and randomly asked people to audition for this game and gotten better performances. What’s worse is it sounds like several of the actors had to perform numerous roles (which is more common than you might think), but none of them even tried to do a different voice, resulting in long conversations where it almost seems like characters are talking to themselves.

And speaking of talking to oneself, the writing in-between the major story beats is the worst kind of filler, trying desperately to distract you from the grind of the gameplay. Some of the banter between Tyler’s crew is entertaining, but most of the time you just get a desperate attempt at filling time in the quiet moments driving from mission to mission, with each character at random times seemingly breaking the fourth wall and talking to the player for no good reason. It only further illustrated from a narrative standpoint that all Ghost Games really had here was an interesting skeletal structure and not much more.

A weak narrative could’ve been overcome had the gameplay been good, but yet again, Need for Speed Payback falters almost right from the get go. Fortune Valley feels comparable in size to other Need for Speed games, but when compared to its competition in the genre like the Forza Horizon series or The Crew, things feel small. Although the world does have a nice bit of diversity with the urban downtown area, and some evergreen mountainous paths, it all feels artificially segmented at times, with so much desert serving as an unusual border for it all.

There is a lot to do in this world, though. Blatantly borrowing from Forza Horizon, Payback adds Derelicts (barn finds without the barn basically) that can be found throughout the world, built up, and customized in your garage. There are now also speed traps, drift challenges, and jumps all around the world for a way to earn “Rep,” Need for Speed’s take on an in-game leveling system that rewards you each time your status increases. You can also earn Rep points—similarly to Forza Horizon—simply by performing tricks in the world or smashing things up.

Still, the core for Payback tries to remain the racing, and moving up in Fortune Valley and knocking off the 10 gangs isn’t easy when each gang specializes in something different. Drag, drift, traditional racing, and off-road serve as the core of the story experience, with additional runner challenges available with Jess that try desperately to set up a backstory for the world—what with EA already (sadly) talking about bringing many of these characters back for a sequel.

In order to be able to compete with these racers, you need to have the right car—but complicating your attempts is the fact that those cars handle a little too loosely, especially compared to other games currently within the arcade racing genre. So, it can require a lot of time to get used to each car because of this. However, the stock cars themselves won’t do you much good for long. Your first three cars are given to you, but after that, you need to either get parts to increase your cars’ ranking (100 is the minimum, 399 is the maximum) or buy new cars outright, with many of the best ones in each category only unlockable by winning races to begin with. So, finding new parts is the way to go, but actually getting those parts is where Payback’s most frustrating feature becomes prominent.

There are tune-up stores scattered around Fortune Valley, and in these stores you can buy and equip different parts for your cars in the form of Speed Cards. As you win races, you’ll earn a random Speed Card, which you hope will offer a better part than something you already have, thus raise the ranking. If that doesn’t work—and it usually doesn’t—you can also take in-game money you earn from winning races and buy new parts at the tune-up stores. Unfortunately, these also rarely offer you anything much better than what you currently have, and if they do, they’re exorbitantly expensive compared to your usual race winnings. This leads you to one of two routes.

The first is that any race you beat, you can re-race for more money and more random Speed Cards, and this becomes an obvious grind. It’s such a grind that what should’ve been a 10-12 hour experience ballooned to almost 20 hours for me by the time I reached the game’s end. It’s a horribly cheap way to force you to keep playing a game, especially with all the side content crammed into Payback that you might rather spend your attention on. It’s such a grind that there’s even an achievement/trophy for “grinding” through another race.

Of course, there’s also a way around that grind. That’s right, it wouldn’t be an EA-published game if it wasn’t polluted with microtransactions, and these might be some of the worst yet. When you get a Speed Card you don’t want, you can either sell it for in-game currency, or exchange it for what is called a Part Token. Three Part Tokens will allow you to spin a slot machine (yes, the mechanic is literally a slot machine) with you locking in one of the three spinners—car part (engine block, gearbox, etc.), manufacturer, or boost (nitrous, braking, acceleration, etc.)—and then crossing your fingers. With luck, you’ll get just the part you need and it’ll be a higher level than what is currently available to you in either the store or through races.

Payback does offer myriad ways to earn Speed Cards and Part Tokens. Leveling up your Rep or finishing Daily Challenges that are available will earn you Shipments, which usually carry a vanity piece for your car (colored smoke for when you burn out, novelty horns, etc), some in-game currency, and a few Part Tokens. Three Tokens per spin, though, can see you burn through Tokens quickly. So, there are also Premium Shipments that you can acquire by spending real world cash. If you don’t do this, you’ll end up like me, grinding for extra hours in a system that is purposely balanced to tempt you into those microtransactions. Oh, and to add insult to injury, when you reach the halfway point of the game, you need to buy brand new cars and do the entire building process all over again if you aren’t using a Derelict.

It’s a broken system and it’s offensive that they didn’t even try to hide the fact that it’s all one big slot machine. The Speed Card/Part Token system is by far the worst part of this game—it makes the game almost unplayable—and the alternative grind is so frustrating that I literally started to grind my teeth so badly while playing this I needed to put in a mouth guard.

What’s really sad is once you do raise your car’s level, the races themselves aren’t that difficult. They’re only challenging if you’re not at a level equal to what is recommended; I tried avoiding the grind and absolutely could not win. You also develop a familiarity with the tracks due to the aforementioned smaller world, where by the end of the game almost all the locations repeat. So, you’ll learn the best ways through a particular track, but likely end up a little bored racing through it over and over again.

Also, I found the AI to be sorely lacking. I played the game on Medium, but as long as I had a car worthy of the race, I saw the AI go haywire more often than actually try to give me a competitive challenge, almost giving me the win. Sometimes my opponents would even take themselves out of the race by making weird turns and drive themselves off cliffs; other times I saw them so focused on trying to just ram me off the road that I could easily pass them and cruise to the finish. Of course, in the runner missions against the cops, this was their primary directive, and sometimes it would be frustrating to get rammed through a barricade that was supposed to be impenetrable, leaving me unable to get back on the right side of things to finish my getaway.

All of that leads me to the glitches. Even with a day-one patch that seems to have smoothed a few things out and added some nice UI enhancements, there were still plenty of glitches to be seen. Whether the aforementioned pushing me through a barricade I wasn’t supposed to go through, or cop cars randomly spawning right in front of me, there were some moments where I wrecked and there was simply nothing I could do. I once even saw two cop cars literally spawn right on top of each other, riding each other like some horrific nature documentary.

The worst glitches came when respawning after a wreck, however. One thing Need for Speed didn’t borrow from Forza Horizon was the rewind feature; instead, when you wreck, the game puts you back on the road, usually at a speed close to what you were going before your crashed. Unfortunately, when this occurs on tight turns, sometimes you’ll spawn going at top speed right next to the wall or oddly-placed rock you initially crashed into, and then keep crashing into it. Repeatedly. So much so that you have to restart the race because there’s simply nothing else you can do to escape this infinite loop.

If you do make it through all of this, one of the few decent things about Need for Speed Payback is the multiplayer. If you’ve done enough grinding to earn yourself a top-tier car (ranked matches require cars 300 or above, casual matches can be any level), you can join the online Speedlists, a popular returning feature from 2015’s Need for Speed’s final update. This was actually a lot of fun, because it was just four to eight players going through a series of five races from the main campaign, with points being dished out a la Mario Kart at the end.

At the end of a five-race circuit comprised of either off-road or regular races (each race is voted on beforehand), the winner gets a currency and Rep prize that can be carried back to the single-player campaign. (So, this could be another way to grind, too.) The online was entirely stable in my time playing it today during the game’s launch, and the races against people were fun because actual humans performed way better than the AI did. As great as the online competition was, however, considering the narrative revolves around three best friends, it sure does feel like campaign co-op not being included was a missed opportunity.

Need for Speed Payback feels like a haphazard mess. The core of this tire fire is the progression system that tries to funnel you into microtransactions—at best, it’s a cheap way to inflate the playtime required to beat the game, and at its worst, it’s a desperate cash grab from a floundering franchise. The world is littered with glitches, the characters created are uninteresting, and the racing itself still needs work when compared to the contemporaries in the genre. The only saving grace is the major story beats at least provide a cheap adrenaline rush to wake you up from the lull the rest of the game will settle you into, and the multiplayer—if you can get a good enough car—works well, and racing human players is way more fun than grinding against this AI for 20 hours. As I crossed the finish line for the final time, though, Payback was nothing but another disappointing chapter from a once great franchise.

Publisher: Electronic Arts • Developer: Ghost Games • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 11.10.17
4.0
Need for Speed Payback might be a new low point for the franchise. A horrendous progression system compounded by uninteresting characters and terrible AI only illustrates how far behind this series has fallen compared to the other arcade racers out there. The multiplayer is solid, but that’s like saying at least the car wreck didn’t cause a fire, too.
The Good Speedlists work great for multiplayer.
The Bad Small world, weak characters, and the progression system is an awful grind.
The Ugly When you accidentally drift into oncoming traffic.
Need for Speed Payback is available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Electronic Arts for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

After seven years of annual releases, the Assassin’s Creed series seemed to hit a wall creatively and technically. What had once been one of the more groundbreaking IPs of the last generation of consoles instead become formulaic, and even the most hardcore members of its fanbase were beginning to feel a bit fatigued. So, Ubisoft did something we don’t expect companies to do once their series goes annual: they took a year off. Now, I can’t definitively say how much that extra year of development helped the team that worked on Assassin’s Creed Origins. I can happily say, however, that it worked, and that Assassin’s Creed is back—not just in the literal sense, but in the sense that it’s again pushing the envelope of open-world action-adventure games like it did when it first debuted a decade ago.

Assassin’s Creed Origins takes fans of the series back farther than any other game has with its primary setting, as you’ll play as an Egyptian man named Bayek towards the end of the Ptolemaic Era (47 BCE to be exact). Bayek is the last of a breed of Egyptian protectors known as Medjay, but when he fails to protect his own son from a sinister threat lurking in the shadows of the country’s highest ranks of government and society, Bayek’s mission goes from one of protection to one of vengeance. With the help of his wife, Aya (who you also play as in certain missions), and other key allies, Bayek will slowly uncover the puppet masters—known only as The Order of Ancients—that have been manipulating Egypt from behind the scenes, while also potentially finding peace over what he has lost.

The story of Assassin’s Creed Origins is one of the most personal tales of the series, and Bayek’s journey (and subsequent transformation as a character over the course of the game) is easily the most complete since Edward Kenway in Black Flag. What drives Bayek is a visceral and easily-justified emotion, but his evolution as he explores the world, meets new characters, and ultimately comes to grips with his internal struggle while dealing with the obviously outward conflict against the Order is a beautiful thing to play and see unfold.

Bayek’s tale also succeeds in another pleasantly surprising way: it’s unpredictable. We know going in that Origins is a prequel to the rest of the series, that the game’s events will lead to the creation of the Brotherhood of Assassins, and of course you’re going to kill some people at some point. It could have easily drawn a straight line from the catalyst of Bayek’s rage—the death of his innocent son—to the formation of the Creed. Instead, how we get to that formation, and then what happens after we actually get there, was both shocking and tremendous fun to play. Seriously, it kept me on the edge of my seat for the entirety of my 30-hour playthrough.

The narrative also does a great job of referencing past games in subtle ways. These nods won’t detract from the experience if you’re new or have only played a couple of Assassin’s Creed games in the past, but definitely up the enjoyment factor if you’re someone like me who has played every main game up to this point. And, if you pay close attention, you’ll be rewarded by seeing how Origins fits perfectly into the chronology the series had established up so far, whether referencing the first assassin, Xerxes, or laying the groundwork for Altair, Ezio, and all the other assassins that would come after.

Origins isn’t just a return to the roots of the Brotherhood, however—it also brings back a key element from previous games that had slowly been phased out in recent iterations. Basically, you’ll get to play around in the modern era. Early in your adventure, you’ll step out of the latest version of the Animus and take control of Layla Hassan, an Abstergo employee with an axe to grind. In a real throwback, you control these segments from the same third-person viewpoint always used when inside the Animus. Layla’s story is unique in its own right, but just like Bayek’s, finds a way to fit perfectly into the Assassin’s Creed overarching narrative—it even makes that Michael Fassbender movie somehow make sense! In a way, Layla’s adventure might even be more important than Bayek’s, because it lays the groundwork for where the series can go from here.

While it’s great that this new Assassin’s Creed tale really seems to have righted the ship in terms of the narrative element of the game, what will really suck you in is all the brand new gameplay. Sure, you’re still going to skulk around in the shadows and use your hidden blade to assassinate people, and even some of the naval gameplay that really hooked people in Black Flag returns in designated sections (it’s really awesome sailing a trireme). But, I admit that I was very worried when we were first shown all the RPG elements being added to the game, with recommended levels for enemies and areas of the world, random loot drops, and potential grinds for resources to upgrade gear. After having played the story from beginning to end, though—and being allowed to craft my own Bayek through his three skill trees and adapt him to my personal playstyle—I think Origins strikes a brilliant balance between the action from the series we love and this new layer of RPG gameplay that has been introduced.

The biggest worry I think I had was the potential of being surrounded by enemies who were way higher levels than me and not being able to really advance through the game. Although the game does give you the freedom (after it takes you through your first assassination) to basically go wherever you want in the world, if you follow the main story, and then do all the side quests in each subsequent region, you should never have to worry about where your level will be. By the time you’re ready to move on, you should be right within that perfect range recommended on the world map.

Of course, this brings up the quality of the side quests. I will say that a fair amount of them do a good job of grabbing your attention while fleshing out the world and the characters. In fact, there are some side missions that are even more heart-wrenching than Bayek’s personal tragedy. It’s really easy to see an exclamation point on your HUD, learn the plight of the NPC, and then find yourself following a thread that’s several missions long, guiding you around the entire region before coming to a conclusion with a fat XP bonus, maybe a rare item, and a feeling of satisfaction.

However, in an attempt to fill the world with content and make sure you have enough opportunities to level Bayek up so as not to hit a wall in combat, there are a fair amount that felt like copy/paste fetch quests, too. This is an issue with a lot of RPGs, and not just Assassin’s Creed, and so I understand why they have to be there. Still, I could see some players getting frustrated by this fact and trying to stick to the main story, only to find they might have to do those quests for XP—and that’s when it might feel like a grind.

There’s a lot of content here in Assassin’s Creed Origins, though. Whether racing chariots, fighting in the arena, or completing side quests and main quests, Ancient Egypt is a busy place. Another way to avoid that potential XP grind is that everything in Origins gives you XP. Kill an enemy, find a new area, synchronize the world from a high point, clear an enemy barracks, finish one of the aforementioned missions, and so on, and Bayek is going to get stronger. In theory, if you really wanted, you could just run around and kill bandits to level up. Clearing a fort only nets an XP bonus once, but those soldiers will respawn at some point—or you can manually light a brazier in the fort to purposely call for reinforcements and more enemies to fight—and you can kill them again if you’d like. I also mentioned earlier that I beat the game in 30 hours, but there were still dozens of side quests for me to finish. And, after I finished the story, I was able to go back into the world and keep playing. In those 30 hours, I completed 93 total side and main quests and reached level 37, which was plenty for me to beat the main story.

So, even if some of those fetch quests leave a bad taste in your mouth, there’s plenty of other things to do in Origins—which leads me to the world itself. Ubisoft has crafted what is probably its most beautiful world here in Ancient Egypt, but it’s also easily the most massive. Every couple of regions feel like they could be the size of entire older Assassin’s Creed game, and the major hub cities Alexandria and Memphis, and even lesser cities like Philadelphia or Cyrene, are absolutely breathtaking. Whether it was the swamps around Krokodilopolis, the swirling sands around the pyramids of Giza (grave robbing the Pyramids might’ve been my favorite side activity), or even Bayek’s rural home region of Siwa, it never got old to just take a moment and look around at the world created here. And, if you want to get fancy, you can even take a picture in photo mode, then upload it for everyone to see.

Another worry some might have is spending a ton of time in your inventory now that a lot of enemies will drop gear for you to potentially equip. Luckily, I found the menu UI to be crystal clear, and comparing two items was as easy as just hovering over something in your inventory. Scrapping unwanted gear was also a great way to get crafting items like bronze and iron, and that made sure I was rarely lacking in the resources I needed to improve the strength of my hidden blade or increase my health by reinforcing my armor. I never felt like I was wasting time navigating the menus, and wish more RPGs had a system as straightforward as Origins.

Moving around in the world has also seen some changes this go around—although the improvements here are subtler than everything else I’ve talked about at this point. Bayek will still occasionally get caught on a rough patch of geometry in the world, but for the most part, it feels smoother than ever when climbing or parkouring around. In particular, more of the hand and footholds in the world are cleverly hidden this time, but in a way that makes it look like Bayek is accurately climbing a rock face instead of looking for conveniently-placed rocks jutting out of the side. It’s a tiny detail, but one that helps with immersion.

For combat, a lot of the buttons have been changed around. The default is now to assign your light and heavy attacks to the right shoulder buttons, and your new bow and arrows to the left shoulder. I ended up switching to the alternate control with those right shoulder button attacks being reassigned to the face buttons, because the right trigger for me will forever be how to climb in AC. Still, it’s nice to see the team trying different things, and the options are there to go back to something more comfortable if you feel the need to.

There’s also a new parry system, but I struggled to find the proper timing because it was never really clear when I was supposed to parry. I’m not saying we need symbols above an enemy’s head like in the Batman: Arkham games, but clearer tells could’ve helped here. I found it easy enough to get through the game on normal without having to parry almost the entire game, though, so that might be a system that needs to go back to the drawing board entirely.

As great as Assassin’s Creed Origins is, there are a few issues with the game, and although I’ve nitpicked here or there over the course of this review, there’s no getting around the fact that the game has some rough bugs. Sometimes the animation breaks, and you’ll end up with something that looks like a breakdancing flamingo in the middle of a pond. Or, Bayek will get caught on something he shouldn’t get caught on. Nothing crazy, mostly comical, but they’re there. Also, Alexandria is the biggest city in the game, with the most NPCs out and about at a given time, and occasionally there were some framerate drops while running through that particular city’s streets. Ubisoft had a review event for some folks to play the game on an Xbox One X (that I did not attend), and I wonder if that issue is remedied thanks to the system’s higher power, or even the PS4 Pro’s, as compared to my regular PS4.

Something that I don’t think can be fixed with more powerful hardware is some of the glitches on quests. There were easily half a dozen moments throughout the game where an NPC glitched so badly that I needed to restart the checkpoint. A lot of times they just wouldn’t go anywhere when I was told to follow them, or they wouldn’t follow me when I was asked to escort them. There was also a couple of times when the game wouldn’t recognize when I had achieved the condition to trigger the next part of the mission. The worst was when I died mid-mission on a late-game side quest where I was asked to undermine war efforts by stealing the formula for Roman fire from a nearby fort. Even still, no matter how many times I select it and try to restart the checkpoint, or even restart the game, Origins refuses to let me advance the quest—even when I achieve the objective I died on, which was to destroy some barrels full of the Roman fire. This was the only instance of this, but it’s frustrating nonetheless.

Now, considering again that I did 93 different missions, that means something went wrong often enough to be a notable nuisance for sure. Most of them were just inconvenient, and none of them experience-breaking to the point I couldn’t actually beat the game—still, I felt they needed to be pointed out, and hopefully there is a patch in the future that will smooth things out.

Despite these rough edges, Assassin’s Creed Origins has already cemented itself as one of my favorite games in the series. The world is gorgeous, there are a ton of things to do—so much so that had I not been reviewing this game, I could’ve easily sank another 10-15 hours in before touching the final missions—and the story is amongst the best told over the series’ history. Yeah, there’s some bugs, but it was impressive how the series was able to bust out of its slump and find a new way to evolve, making all those RPG elements their own in a way that feels fun and exciting. This was an epic adventure that was more than fitting for what serves as the starting point of the Assassin’s Creed storyline.

Publisher: Ubisoft • Developer: Ubisoft Montreal • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 10.27.17
9.0
Assassin’s Creed: Origins delivers a robust experience that mixes up the traditional Assassin’s Creed formula in a way that’s fresh and fun to play—but which also harkens back to the series’ roots in some welcome ways, too. It marks an evolution fans might not have even known they were waiting for, delivering one of the best overall experiences we’ve seen yet from the series.
The Good A return to form in a game that explains so much about the series’ past while laying the groundwork for its future.
The Bad There are a lot of bugs, and I’m not talking about all the beetles and scarabs in the tombs Bayek can explore.
The Ugly That beard Bayek was sporting at the beginning of the game.
Assassin’s Creed Origins is available on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Ubisoft for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

When South Park: The Fractured But Whole was announced at E3 2015, it was easily one of the biggest surprises of the show. Rumors had long persisted that Matt Stone and Trey Parker had become disenchanted with the video game-making process after South Park: The Stick of Truth (the first game they had directly worked on) spent too long in development hell for guys who were used to cranking out a new TV episode every six days. It left many wondering if Stick of Truth would be the last time the two brilliant minds would ever directly be involved with a video game again. However, the temptation to give it another go—especially after Stick of Truth’s overwhelmingly positive response from fans and critics alike, must’ve been too great. And it is only now, after calming down from laughing my butt off, that I can tell you we are all the better for them deciding to give making games a second chance—because Fractured But Whole may actually surpass its predecessor in many ways.

The story takes place shortly after the events of the first game. Your character, The New Kid—aka Butthole, aka Douchebag—has been named king for his mighty acts of flatulence. But now Cartman wants to play superheroes, and says the fate of the town—and his get rich quick superhero movie franchise—is at stake with a rash of cat-nappings happening. So, in a twisted turn of fate, New Kid is back at the bottom of the pecking order, having to work his way into everyone’s good graces in order to play with them again. Begrudgingly, Cartman allows you to join his team “Coon and Friends,” and as you fight crime alongside them, you begin to uncover a plot far more sinister than missing cats—including finding out the true origins of the New Kid and the reason his family came to South Park.

Fractured But Whole plays out like one super-long episode from the TV series. The game starts off innocent enough, but it isn’t long before events start to escalate, sticking the boys in more improbable and ultimately insane situations. Fractured But Whole also takes its time, clocking in at around a 20-hour experience, easily double that of its predecessor. All the while, it pokes fun at anything and everything it feels like from long-standing social issues like police brutality and pedophilia in the Catholic church, to less serious matters like the game industry and game development—and of course, super-hero movies and franchises. As usual, nothing is off the table for South Park, and if you love the humor of the series, then you’ll have a great idea what you’re getting into (and will likely enjoy this even more than you might some episodes just because there is so much that’s tackled here).

While taking its shots at a variety of subjects, Fractured But Whole also serves as a tribute to the over 20 years of South Park television we’ve had. Whether its cameos by characters like Mr. Hanky or Towelie, to acknowledging more recent additions to the series’ canon (like collecting Member Berries for experience points), your knowledge as a fan might be tested with references to situations from all across the South Park timeline. And as well crafted as the main story may be, the real enjoyment from the game for me came in a lot of the side quests, which really up the comedy even more. For example, one of these missions sends you to rescue Mosquito from Raisin girls, while another has you try to mend the broken hearts of Craig and Tweek after a lover’s spat. With each subsequent mission (main or side), the only constant I found was that I couldn’t stop laughing at the hilarity that ensues from each situation the game throws at you.

From an aesthetic standpoint, Fractured But Whole delivers exactly what you would expect from a South Park game. Similar to Stick of Truth, the game looks like an actual episode of the show, with character and location designs ripped right from the series. Unlike Stick of Truth, though, there’s a lot more nooks and crannies to discover, with more locations within South Park having been fully developed. On top of that, the world from the last game has expanded in parallel with the series, so locations like the ruins of SoDoSoPa from Season 19 can be explored for the first time.

Audio-wise, Matt and Trey provide most of the voices (just like in the TV show), reprising the roles you’d expect them to. Musically, everything is also taken from the show, and whenever you walk into a store or shop, music from the show’s history can be heard like muzak in an elevator. Go to Tweek Bros. coffee and “Gay Fish” might be playing, or stop by the bank and “Jacking It in San Diego” could be piped over the speakers—it’s another way the game pays tribute to everything South Park.

It’s no surprise that a lot of Fractured But Whole really just follows the blueprint that was laid out by Stick of Truth while upping the ante by taking a few more risks with its writing and going bigger and better in a lot of scenarios (as you would expect from any sequel). Where Fractured But Whole really differentiates itself from its predecessor, though, is in the gameplay. While still an RPG, the basic turn-based system of the last game has been eschewed. Instead, it has been replaced with an amalgamation of an active-time battle system with an order of attack, and a grid-based tactical RPG system that reminded me of the early Mega Man Battle Network games or even a really truncated Fire Emblem. The New Kid and his team of three other South Park kids—the pool of which you’ll get to choose from will grow to almost a dozen by game’s end—will be forced to take on everything from Old People to Ninjas to Sixth Graders and more.

I found the grid system really increased the necessity to use strategy to overcome a lot of obstacles, but similar to the first game, I found most battles—at least on normal—to be relatively easy once you get used to the nuances of the system. For example, it was common early on for me to accidentally block the path of some of my fighters, since no two characters can end up occupying the same space. As you learn the abilities of each character and how best to utilize the New Kid’s super powers, these issues will naturally fade away, much like one of the New Kid’s farts in the wind.

As the game moves on and you become more accustomed to combat, not only will you have more characters to mix and match on your team, but the New Kid will learn additional powers as well. Some are based on what class you choose—such as being a Blaster like Cyclops from the X-Men or a Brutalist like the Thing from the Fantastic Four—while others revolve around the New Kid’s amazing arse. Finding the right mix of powers, and when to employ your special farting abilities, adds surprising depth to combat. You can also unlock a cornucopia of cheap knockoff hero and villain costumes to make your New Kid look exactly how you want him or her to, going along with the idea that you can truly make your own superhero to fight alongside the children of South Park with.

Farting isn’t just an offensive tool, however—it’s also critical to exploring South Park. I’m kind of chuckling to myself even as I write this as I realize how much Fractured But Whole really doubled down on your irritable bowels, but only by passing gas can you hope to fully unlock all of South Park’s secrets. One way this works is that New Kid can perform Fart-kour in the world with Human Kite to reach high rooftops, or fart in Scott Malkinson’s (Captain Diabetes) face to send him into a diabetic rage that will have him open up new paths by busting down certain walls and barriers in the world. It adds another layer of depth to the gameplay by promoting exploration probably even more so than combat.

Sadly, there are a few things that stink with Fractured But Whole’s gameplay. There’s a loose leveling system where your character doesn’t gain strength directly from leveling, but that higher levels allow you to equip more gear called Artifacts. Artifacts will boost various aspects of your character, including what sort of attacks do more damage, your general health and movement speed, or even extra health for your allies in battle. Once you reach a certain level, however, you won’t get any more Artifact slots, and the leveling system becomes sort of pointless for the last quarter of the game. The Artifact system is also somewhat arbitrary once you reach a certain level, with each new Artifact offering little to no difference to any other Artifact you might have in your possession.

Fractured But Whole also has a fair amount of glitches—mostly in combat, but also a few in the world. There were several instances where one character would be occupying multiple spots, like there were two Mrs. Cartman in Cartman’s kitchen, and I could talk to each one as if they were different NPCs. It wasn’t game-breaking, but it did hurt my immersion. In combat, there’s a worse glitch where a character’s turn may not end in a timely manner. It was never so bad that I had to restart a battle, but there were many different occasions—particularly in boss battles—where my character would perform their action, and then I’d be waiting for several minutes before I could take control of the next character. This seems like something that could be easily patched down the line, but was worrisome in the moment.

South Park: The Fractured But Whole is an absolutely hysterical game that combines truckloads of fan service with an RPG experience more realized than its predecessor. There may be a few technical hiccups along the way, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a more complete experience that makes you laugh the way this one does. If you love South Park, this game is a must play.

Publisher: Ubisoft • Developer: Ubisoft San Francisco • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 10.17.17
9.0
The new combat mechanics add tons of depth and strategy to the experience, and new exploration abilities really give Fractured But Whole an overall deeper RPG feel. The game is also absolutely hysterical; if you love the humor of South Park in general, then Fractured But Whole is a must have.
The Good Some legitimate laugh out loud moments, a more developed South Park to explore, and a deeper combat system.
The Bad There are some rough glitches in combat, and the Artifact system could use some work.
The Ugly Craaaaab people. Craaaaab people.
South Park: The Fractured But Whole is available on Xbox One, PS4, and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Ubisoft for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds developer Bluehole recently sat down with IGN and shared some of the mind-numbing numbers behind what players have accomplished in the game since it hit Early Access on March 23rd. All the data compiled and shared only goes to July 19th, but if anything that only makes the epic magnitude of these statistics all the more impressive, and shows off how popular the game has quickly become.

Many of the numbers revolve around the game’s guns, and they are nothing to shake a boomstick at. The game’s gun class of choice seemed to be the assault rifles, which combined for just short of 400 million kills, with the AKM being the top death-dealer in the group at 114 million kills. Shotguns accounted for 109.4 million kills in the game, but not to be outdone, the SMG group came in at 96.77 million kills. The difficult to master sniper rifles were up next with 56.33 million kills. Pistols sat at 36.34 million kills, while all the other guns, with a combined 3.6 million kills, brought up the rear guard.

Guns accounted for 72.7 percent of the 965.83 million deaths tabulated over the given time period. Vehicles were the next biggest death dealer, with 138 million people being run over, and another 9.33 million coming from vehicle explosions. Speaking of explosions, frag grenades kill at a rate of 3 to 1 when compared to Molotov cocktails, with 70.7 million compared to 23.3 million.

The game’s longest kill was measured at 6,766 meters. Meanwhile, players have traveled over 2.3 trillion meters in the game, or the distance equivalent of traveling to Saturn from Earth and back again. Surprisingly, the distance between foot and vehicle travel is almost dead even, with foot traveling accounting for 52 percent of that total distance.

These stats were compiled across over 10 million games. Only 1 in 6,000 players win chicken dinners on their first game played. All told, players have accumulated 25,815 years worth of game time.

If you want to join the phenomenon, PlayerUnknown’s Battleground is available now on Steam Early Access, and is coming to Xbox One by the end of the calendar year, and PlayStation 4 sometime after that.

I imagine when the folks from Wargaming met with Creative Assembly it went something like this:

Wargaming: “I love strategy and war.”

Creative Assembly: “I love strategy and war, too!”

Wargaming: “Did we just become best friends?!”

And thus the partnership that’s led to Total War: Arena started. (Okay, not really.)

The Total War series isn’t known really for its multiplayer options. It’s single-player has always shined, of course, with players reliving the campaigns of history’s greatest conflicts against the computer. On the multiplayer front, though, all you had were two human players standing at the heads of their respective armies in a one-on-one setting, or more recent iterations maxed out with a four-on-four offering.

Total War: Arena changes this by offering a full, 10-on-10, free-to-play showdown, with each player allowed to select their own legendary general from the annals of history, like Rome’s Julius Caesar or the English barbarian queen Boudica. Players can then bring into battle three different unit squads appropriate to their general, like foot soldiers, cavalry, siege weapons, or even war dogs. Each general also features a bevy of passive buffs and abilities you can activate in order to better assist your army.

Those three units are all that is available to players, though. Your three units and general will need to coordinate with the units other players on your team is bringing into battle in order to hopefully rout your opponents, or capture their base and ensure victory. It can lead to glorious multi-front chaos only available in a large player setting like this, but still relies heavily on the classic tenants of real-time strategy games in terms of how your units move and attack. It even touts the classic Total War morale system, where if you break an opponent unit’s spirit, they may just start a hasty retreat and give you the victory.

With any free-to-play offering, the question always comes up about how a game will monetize itself. There are some limited customization options you can pick up for each of your generals, but Total War: Arena leans more heavily on the highly successful World of Tanks model. This allows players to spend real world money to expedite levels, which in turn unlocks new and more powerful units for each of your respective generals.

Even though you’re in control of a legendary general, you’re really just one piece of a much larger army in each match you play, and in that regard Total War: Arena looks to capitalize on the greatest strategic endeavor there is: working as a team. If players can successfully come together, not only will you have a variety of legendary generals working together for a common goal, but also the strategic possibilities are endless. From blitzkriegs to pincer maneuvers, the 10-on-10 scenario feels like it is bringing true war to Total War, and is shaping up to be an excellent alternative for people looking for competitive multiplayer without the need for twitch reflexes.

Total War: Arena is currently in closed alpha on PC and is moving to closed beta later this year.

After a series of lackluster releases, the fortunes of Telltale changed for the better when its landmark first season of The Walking Dead dropped. It was a gritty, moving story that redefined narrative in video games, and it seemed for a time after that, Telltale could do no wrong. There have definitely been more successes than not when taking licensed properties and crafting original tales around their episodic, choice-driven formula since then—the Walking Dead, however, appeared immune to the occasional misstep seen in other series. This leads us to The Walking Dead: A New Frontier, the third full season of the saga which just released its final episode. Although it is still one Telltale’s stronger efforts, it pales in comparison to the previous two seasons.

The character of Clementine, the common thread through the first two seasons, is still present here to keep us connected, but takes a noticeable backseat as players control new character Javier “Javi” Garcia. Javi’s family has a close encounter with a walker early in the outbreak, which proves to be a turning point for him as a person. He takes it upon himself to care for his sister-in-law, niece, and nephew for the next several years as the walker threat spreads. When Javi—with family in tow somewhere between Baltimore, Maryland, and Richmond, Virginia—come across the wrong set of humans in a junkyard, however, they quickly realize the living is just as dangerous as the undead.

Unsurprisingly, the narrative across A New Frontier’s five episodes provides a lot of highs and lows for our characters. Keeping in line with previous Walking Dead games, there are a bevy of heart-wrenching moments, difficult decisions, and surprises to be had as you try to guide Javi and his family to some sort of safe haven. The limited time you have to make decisions ramps up the tension more than ever before, as Javi will often have to think quickly in terms of what to say (or what not to say) and where to go.

The only issue with this system in A New Frontier—and this is something that has crept into Telltale games before—is that sometimes some of the descriptions of what you want to say will cause you to make a choice, but then your character will say something you did not expect at all. If I choose “tell [insert character] off” then I’m expecting a few sentences laced with expletives, not for my character to suddenly reveal private information meant to hurt that individual on a deeper level. The result then may lead to something truly unexpected, but it’s frustrating when it stems from a choice you feel you really didn’t make.

Thankfully, those instances, at least in my playthrough of the season, were relatively few and far between. Something that plagued the narrative far more was the inconsistency of the writing quality as a whole. Each episode, even the double-long two-parter that kicks the season off, had plenty of those great moments I mentioned earlier—but unlike previous Walking Dead games, it felt like there were dramatic tonal shifts between episodes and writing teams. Nowhere was this more evident than in the final episode, which only had one lead writer instead of a full team. This episode had humor pop up in the weirdest places, which seemed to really undercut everything that had happened up until that point. The narrative for this season also relied more heavily on plot devices than in previous games. For example, each episode usually featured a couple of flashbacks. Some were used to fill in the nearly two-year gap for Clementine between Seasons Two and Three; others were trying desperately to add depth to the new cast of characters, who still ended up being far less interesting than any group we’ve previously played as. The device was neat early on, but already felt overplayed by the time episode four rolled around.

Speaking of devices, poor Clementine was relegated to deus ex machina this go around instead of the powerful, beloved heroine she was becoming after Season Two. She would come and go as she pleased during each episode, and it felt like whenever Javi had gotten himself into the most trouble, Clem would show up to find a way to bail him and his bumbling family out before continuing her own agenda elsewhere (which we almost never see). Admittedly, this could be a sore spot for me due to the attachment many of us have developed with this character over the years, but it felt like one of the better characters in video games was being underutilized.

That said, one new device the game added that I enjoyed was that those limited interactions with Clem played heavily into how much she helps you later on in the game. In fact, after seeing how all my decisions affected my playthrough, I was shocked that half of the audience alienated Clem by the end of the game, leading to many questions for potential new seasons that will hopefully switch the focus back to our darling Clementine. This added some much needed weight to the largest decisions you have in the game early on, and was a pleasant surprise.

The rest of the gameplay in A New Frontier was rather by the book otherwise. Telltale has gotten away from the puzzles of point-and-click adventures of the past, relying far more heavily on quick time events now. Although this helps greatly with the pace of the story, it removes almost any challenge from the game, making it feel less like you’re playing a game at all. Depending on how much you’ve invested in the narrative, this could be a potential turn-off if you’re looking to test your brainpower more than your reflexes. It also needs to be said that Telltale’s proprietary Telltale Tool game engine continues to show its age in the worst ways. There is nothing more immersion breaking than when someone is hurt in the game and the animation jumps when the blood splatters. I understand that Telltale has become a well-oiled machine in terms of being able to crank out episodes at a breakneck pace compared to just a few years ago, but it’s clear the game engine can no longer support the creative engine.

The Walking Dead: A New Frontier isn’t the best season we’ve gotten of Telltale’s The Walking Dead—it’s strong narrative, although inconsistent at times, is still one of the more compelling and well-thought stories Telltale has produced, however. It took some chances with new plot devices, many of which I felt did not work, but this will hopefully provide opportunities to try other ideas that might work better instead. If you’re a big fan of these Walking Dead games, you’ll be happy you’ve played this, but like me, it’ll probably only make you want a new season as soon as possible where the focus shifts back to Clementine.

Publisher: Telltale Games • Developer: Telltale Games • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 05.30.17
7.5
It’s a solid third season for The Walking Dead, but we’ve seen so much better. Cheap plot devices and inconsistent tones in the writing hurt the overall quality of the narrative, and the Telltale Tool continues to show its age in the worst ways. And, for diehard fans, Clementine will still find a way to steal the show from the new cast.
The Good A New Frontier continues to show why The Walking Dead is Telltale’s most compelling property.
The Bad The Telltale Tool continues to show its age; writing inconsistency between episodes.
The Ugly My crying face—Telltale is too good at making you care about a character and then killing them off.
The Walking Dead: A New Frontier – The Complete Third Season is available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, iOS, and Android. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Telltale Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.