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When Knack II was announced at PSX 2016, I admit that I was probably one of the loudest groans in the auditorium. Knack had left a bad taste in many people’s mouths, coming across more as a tech demo for the newly-launched PS4 than an action game any of us wanted to play—and definitely didn’t feel worthy of a sequel. Yet here I am, ready to eat my words, because Knack II has made me a believer. It’s not without issues, but for the most part, it’s a fun romp for gamers of all ages.

Knack II takes place three years after the original game. It kicks off in medias res, with the capital city of New Haven being attacked by giant killer robots, and our plucky protagonist Knack needing to again save the day. Just before Knack takes on the biggest of all the robots, we flashback to six months prior to find out how we got to that point, facing off against foes old and new as we start an adventure that will take us across a variety of locales in Knack’s world.

It needs to be said that the self-contained plot here is an improvement over the first game’s story. It’s twists, turns, and bombastic moments—although somewhat predictable—elicited a Saturday morning cartoon vibe at times that I enjoyed. If there should ever be a third Knack game, this is a direction the series might want to lean into more, considering our colorful hero and his perceived target audience. Even with help from God of War writer Marianne Krawczyk, however, a lot of the characters in Knack’s universe still feel very one note, especially the titular hero.

In the first Knack, the goblin boss, Gundahar, called Knack a tool—and in many ways, that single line of dialogue was telling of many of the problems Knack still has now as a hero. Previously, Knack was always being bossed around by Dr. Vargas (his creator), and although the good doctor has thankfully taken more of a backseat this go around, his assistant, Lucas, has taken up the role of barking orders, telling our hero exactly what to do and when to do it. This depicts a feeling of subservience that isn’t fun to play. I understand that Knack isn’t exactly Kratos when it comes to backstory, but him having a bit more say in the adventure—and feeling like he’s on the same level as the characters around him (it is his game after all)—would go a long way to making our protagonist a more likeable hero that people would want to play as.

Of course, I also understand that Knack II is first and foremost an action-platformer and is primarily gameplay driven. In that regard, Knack II is light years ahead of its predecessor, and would stand on its own as an impressive action game even without the first Knack to compare it to. One of the biggest—and most important—changes comes in the form of Knack’s original gimmick: the ability to change his size.

In the first game, Knack would constantly be forced down into “small Knack” size, typically around the size of a child with a diminutive health bar to match. Almost every level started with Knack at this size, and it was often frustrating to go through all the work of building him up only to be broken down again at every story beat. In Knack II, Knack usually starts around “normal Knack” size, somewhere in the five to six foot range, and many new gameplay mechanics branch out from this single decision. As a side note, we can tell exactly how big he is with the new size counter next to Knack’s health bar, which initially seems like a minor addition but really adds a nice sense of scope to things.

This starting size allows Knack to control like most action game heroes. Knack now has elaborate punching and kicking combos that weren’t present in the first game; he can parry projectile attacks, or just block in general; he has new moves like block-breaking strong punches, stunning boomerang attacks, a gap-closing hookshot, and even a “secret technique” that looks a whole lot like a short-range hadouken. We’ll forgive Knack for borrowing some of these moves from other franchises, because it adds so much in terms of both how you attack enemies and the variety of said enemies the game can throw at you. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery after all.

There is still a use for “small Knack,” though, and with a tap of the R1 button, Knack can shrink almost instantaneously. There are many obstacles and hidden paths in Knack’s world that only a smaller-sized Knack can navigate. With another tap of R1, Knack can use the magical abilities that allow him to control relics (the particles that make up his body) to call those pieces back, so he can return to whatever size he was before. Even when Knack grows to his giant sizes—he maxes out at 32 feet tall—he can still instantly shrink to just under three feet when he needs to. This was a critical gameplay component the original Knack lacked, and it offers chances to explore an otherwise linear world while still showing off the game’s powerful particle effects.

Even with all this, there’s still a lot more gameplay variety to Knack II. There’s a new experience meter, which you can spend your accumulated experience on four different branches of a RPG-inspired skill tree where Knack can upgrade his speed, power, and other stats. There are tank-driving levels, plane-piloting segments, platforming puzzles, puzzles based on Knack’s weight, and quicktime events. All of those except for the last one were a ton of fun. The QTEs were used too heavily, especially when Knack would learn new moves and they would weirdly happen before tutorials. They were also too frequently used as level transitions, but understandably tried to give a more cinematic flair to some of the action that Knack wouldn’t be able to do otherwise.

And if you’re looking for replayability, Knack II has it in spades. Sure, there are 100 new secret chests to find, much like the first game, but there are also 143 different secondary challenges across the campaign—like beating a level in a certain amount of time or smashing all of a particular kind of crate to earn bonus points (those bonus points are great for trying to get the best online high score for each level). There is also a time trial mode with online leaderboards for speed runs, and an arena mode where you can fight wave after wave of enemies. Knack II even added drop-in, drop-out co-op where a second player can take control of a blue-tinted clone of Knack, and the difficulty scales appropriately when there are two players versus only one.

It may seem like I just rattled off a bunch of stuff there—and I sort of did—but the point is that in the four years between Knack and Knack II, Sony’s Japan Studio obviously took a lot of time to look at what people wanted from an action game, and what many of their contemporaries were doing, and tried to accommodate that. I believe they not only succeeded, but also far exceeded expectations, not only putting their own entertaining twist on familiar things, but actually turning Knack into a viable action franchise that could be fun for the whole family.

Knack II doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but it is a very solid, very sturdy wheel if you’re looking for an action fix—while with its predecessor, many of us were tempted to throw out the entire cart. Whereas the first Knack often had me asking myself “when will it ever end,” Knack II held my attention throughout, and I was happy to play it all the way through. The story and universe of Knack could still use some work (and some much-needed fleshing out), but the gameplay has come so far from its predecessor that I won’t be groaning the next time I hear that Knack is back.

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment • Developer: SIE Japan Studio • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 09.05.17
8.0
Knack II fixes many of the problems of its predecessor, delivering a fun action-platformer worthy of giving this series a second chance. The story is still a bit bare-boned, but the gameplay alone will be enough to keep you going until you see the end credits.
The Good A large variety of gameplay and Knack’s expanded moveset allows you to tackle bad guys in a plethora of ways.
The Bad Too many QTEs; all of the characters in terms of their personalities, especially Knack, still feel very one-dimensional.
The Ugly I feel like there’s been some retconning between Knack games that none of us were made aware of.
Knack II is a PS4 exclusive. A retail copy was provided by Sony 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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There is no more ubiquitous character in video games than Nintendo’s mascot, Mario. He’s raced go-karts, he’s played baseball and soccer, he’s taught kids how to type, and yes, there’s that whole saving the Mushroom Kingdom from Bowser a couple dozen times, too. So, the thought of Mario doing something new once again isn’t really that new at all. When it was revealed that his latest activity would be teaming up with Ubisoft’s anti-mascot the Rabbids in a tactical-RPG, however, I admit that seemed as random as the Rabbids themselves. But as is often the case, Mario can do no wrong, and with the Rabbids wreaking their usual brand of havoc, Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle sees each group of characters play well off the strengths of the other to deliver one of the most fun tactical RPGs you’re likely to play.

The game begins in the real world, where a genius girl has invented a device called the SupaMerge. Just by looking at two items through a pair of fancy goggles, she can merge their molecules together into something useful, like looking at a flower and a lamp to produce a plant whose flowers are actual lightbulbs. The device is littered with bugs, though, and after packing it in after another night of troubleshooting, the girl goes to bed. It’s at this moment, riding in their iconic time-traveling washing machine, that the Rabbids randomly appear, and instantly start wreaking havoc in the girl’s workshop. It’s not long before one finds the SupaMerge, merges with it himself, and then can’t stop looking around at everything around him, including various Mario Bros. memorabilia. Soon, the Rabbids and their washing machine are catapulted into the Mushroom Kingdom, where the panicked Rabbid with the goggles (later dubbed Spawny) continues to merge things he shouldn’t—leaving Mario and friends having to team up with several Rabbids dressed in familiar Mario gear to try to restore a semblance of order.

There are two major parts to Mario + Rabbids gameplay: world exploration and battles. Each of the game’s four worlds is broken down into eight chapters, with a ninth if you count the boss at the end of each one. It may not sound like a lot of worlds, but the number actually works out pretty well in terms of providing legitimate length to the game (considering my first playthough pushed the 20-hour mark), and falls in with the Mario theme of eight stages per level. During most chapters, there will be sections of the world ravaged in some way by Spawny’s goggles that will require some puzzle solving in order to progress. Usually these consisted of having to press switches to move massive sections of the world, or place pipes to try to build a way forward, but the puzzles fit well in the vein of the Mario series and offered a nice break from the one to three battles in each chapter.

Battles break down in a way very similar to what you might see in a game series like XCOM, and you can see them coming as the camera shifts from a more cinematic one during exploration to a more tactical-driven isometric cam. Mario and two allies will take the field and be given one of four tasks: escort a fourth, unarmed character to a safe zone; get one of their own teammates to a safe zone; kill all enemies; or kill a certain number of enemies. I could’ve used a little more variety in my mission objectives, but there was enough to keep things from being monotonous at least.

Each character is able to move a certain number of spaces per turn, and can actually tackle enemies during this phase, or jump off of teammates to move farther than normal on the battlefield. However you move, or wherever you land, it’s recommended that you take cover, with shield icons representing how much protection your characters actually have at the moment (since cover can also be destroyed by enemy or friendly fire). You can then activate one offensive attack and one power per character; what’s impressive about this is many powers and attacks will have special effects when they crit, and if you smartly set your team up, you can stack these for some truly chaotic effects.

In one instance, I fired Rabbid Luigi’s Bworb weapon (it’s an energy orb projectile thing) and set an enemy on fire. This enemy then proceeded to run all over the battlefield until his behind cooled off, but while doing so, triggered Mario’s Hero Sight power (basically, Overwatch in XCOM, which allows players to shoot enemies that cross the player’s line of sight, even when it’s not that character’s turn). That attack’s crit caused bounce—which launched the enemy high into the air—and then activated Peach’s Royal Gaze—her version of Hero Sight/Overwatch—and she shotgunned the enemy and froze them. Let’s just say that particular enemy didn’t know what hit them, and was no longer a threat.

Once completed, each battle is given a grade based on how many characters of yours were knocked out and how many turns it took you to beat the battle. Better outcomes in battle leads to greater rewards upon successfully completing each chapter, with the team then being bestowed with coins to purchase new weapons and XP in order to power up some surprisingly deep skill trees of each character.

Speaking of characters, though, one of my few issues with the game is that there are only eight characters total here, you can only choose three at a time, and you don’t even get the last character for your party until only a couple of stages before the game actually comes to an end. You also must always have Mario in your party, and there must always be at least one Rabbid. This was all really limiting on the strategy front because, particularly towards the end of the game, I felt I was being forced to put out a team that wasn’t necessarily my best. It might be a way to create artificial challenge, and I get the hesitation to allow Mario to be put on the bench, but the characters should then really have been better balanced, or should have offered up some greater variety between their abilities.

I think the general lack of powers for each character, no matter how strong your characters might get, was also a bit of a limiting factor. Each character only gets two weapons and two powers, and although they can earn stronger versions of everything as the game progresses, I would really have loved it had each character had more abilities they could learn instead of just powering up what they already had. It would offer more strategic nuance—especially when you’re so limited on how you can create your team—as well as give you something more tangible to work towards, considering you’ll at least have the base version for everything unlocked for each character by world two.

The set-up is clearly there for a classic adventure fitting of both these franchises. The story finds a way to incorporate the humor of the Rabbids, yet still deliver an adventure worthy of Mario. When it came to gameplay, admittedly Mario + Rabbids had to strike a difficult balance. Typically, Mario and Rabbids games are easy to pick up and play for gamers of all ages—tactical RPGs, however, are usually far more involved, and boast an intricate set of rules that only grow more so as the game progresses. Marrying these two concepts would not be easy, and unsurprisingly, Ubisoft erred on the side of accessibility over complexity. This isn’t to say Mario + Rabbids is a pushover if you’re looking for intense strategy sessions. It’s quite the opposite actually, especially in the game’s later stages, and you’ll be tempted at times to turn on the game’s easy mode (which gives your characters a 50% health boost). Still, I felt like the game only scratched the surface of some concepts, not willing to dig too deeply for fear of isolating certain audiences. If anything, my complaints for wanting more from these systems only hammers home the fact that there is a solid core strategy game here, which I would love to see evolve and grow stronger in the future.

It also needs to be said that Mario + Rabbids offers up some fantastic replayability. There are dozens of collectibles to be found, many of which can only be acquired by returning to worlds previously visited after your guide throughout the adventure—the detached user-interface for Spawny’s goggles named Beep-0—powers up after each boss battle. Each world also gains an additional 10 challenge battles when you beat it, and there’s an extra four challenges to be found in the game’s central hub of Peach’s Castle, too. There’s also Amiibo support, but not nearly as much as in many other Nintendo games; only Mario, Luigi, Peach, and Yoshi amiibos are necessary here and using them once will net each character an extra weapon and that’s it.

Finally, there’s also a 2-player local co-op campaign separate from the main story to be tackled. Here, players can each choose two characters, and must work together by taking turns to overcome the heightened challenge thrown at them. Careful teamwork is required here, because it’s very easy for each player to try to do their own thing, only to be ambushed by enemies and see your game end in a quick and humiliating defeat.

Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle is a game that none of us knew we wanted, but should be happy is here. It again shows that you can stick Mario into any multitude of situations and he’ll deliver a high-quality experience that everyone can enjoy. As a tactical RPG, Mario + Rabbids does leave a little bit to be desired in terms of depth of gameplay, but overall provides a fun experience that will have you racking your brain as you try to overcome the scenarios before you—and belly-laughing at the hijinx Mario’s unlikely new sidekicks, the Rabbids, bring to the Mushroom Kingdom.

Publisher: Ubisoft • Developer: Ubisoft Paris/Milan • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 08.29.17
8.5
Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle may not be the deepest tactical RPG, but it delivers a solid all-around experience that takes advantage of the strengths of both Mario and the Rabbids—making for one of the most surprisingly enjoyable game experiences you’re likely to have this year.
The Good An odd team-up on paper turns into one of the better tactical RPG experiences out there.
The Bad I wish that some of the great ideas here had been given a little more depth.
The Ugly The constant fight against the want to turn on easy mode when facing off against some late-game bosses.
Mario+Rabbids Kingdom Battle is a Nintendo Switch exclusive. 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 I first started playing Madden NFL 18, I was pleasantly surprised. For the first time in several years, the legendary coach, commentator, and namesake for the franchise, John Madden, lent his voice back to the game. It was only the opening title screen animation, but he briefly waxes poetic—as much as anything John Madden says could be considered poetry—about the greatness of cover athlete Tom Brady, just like he was back in the broadcast booth.

Hearing his voice again brought back a lot of good memories for me, because when Madden was at his best, there were few better at conveying football to the masses. It also brought back some rough ones too, however, because when Madden was at his worst, he was a bit of a laughing stock that distracted from the games he broadcast. It’s somewhat apropos then that his voice is there at the start of this year’s Madden entry, because in many ways, this is a perfect symbol for Madden NFL 18. Some things about the game are very good; some just had me shaking my head.

Easily one of the brightest spots of the game was also the most surprising. Partially made possible by the Madden team switching to the Frostbite engine, and partially because FIFA’s “The Journey” mode was so well received and helped pave a path, Madden added its own story-driven mode this year called Longshot—and it’s one of the freshest and most enjoyable things the Madden series has ever done.

Longshot could best be described as one part Madden, one part Friday Night Lights, and maybe two parts Telltale storytelling. You play as Devin Wade, a one time blue-chip QB prospect who hung up his cleats shortly after beginning his college career and took a couple of years to find himself after personal tragedy left him shaken as a young man. Working through the regional combine and taking advantage of a unique opportunity that comes his way, Wade is the very definition of a longshot, with one last chance to make it in the NFL. Alongside his best buddy and number one wide receiver, Colt Cruise, Wade’s determination will be tested just as much as his athletic ability.

The story that Longshot tells could be placed alongside all the best football stories we’ve seen, from Rudy to Remember the Titans to the aforementioned Friday Night Lights. Not only do you see his story unfold, but often times you’ll be asked to step in and choose Devin’s words or actions in various situations that will guide him down dozens of different branching paths (a la a Telltale game). Depending on those choices—and how you perform on the football field—Devin could be drafted, Colt could be drafted, neither could be drafted, or both could be drafted.

Besides dialogue choices, Devin will also suit up. You’ll get to relive some of Devin’s glory days in high school, as well as be put to the test in combines and game scrimmages. Your performance here has a direct effect on what makes Longshot truly unique, and that’s Devin’s draft grade page. Every major event you partake in can affect Devin’s grade, football IQ, how his personality is perceived, and more. Even bigger, every NFL team is watching, and you can instantly see how every one of these events affects the score directly.

Longshot could truly change what draws people to Madden, and might even appeal to those not typically interested in a football sim. There are a couple of drawbacks to what should otherwise be a highly-celebrated new mode, though. It’s not bad that Longshot should only take you three to five hours to beat, and it’s damn impressive that there are no load times whatsoever once you jump in—you can play the entire thing straight through if you so choose. I just personally wished there was a better balance between those critical gameplay moments that affect your score, and the sometimes long cutscenes that take place in-between to drive the story forward. Also, it was jarring how the biggest moments of Devin’s on-field life at times get boiled down to quicktime events. It heightened the drama, but definitely not the gameplay.

Also, even if you should get your grade to be extremely high (I ended up with a 9.7/10 score), you won’t be drafted where you should be as a player of that caliber. I think a couple more endings would’ve been warranted, because even with all the drama surrounding Devin, if you score that highly, one NFL team would take a flyer on you early. Considering how often teams take risks—like the Bucs wasting a second-round draft pick on a kicker, or the Broncos when they took Tim Tebow of all people with a first-round pick—somebody should snatch up Devin if you end up turning him into a true superstar. Otherwise, I absolutely loved this mode, and hope to have more adventures with Devin next year.

As good as Longshot is, there are some misses on other fronts this year in Madden. The past several years saw major gameplay overhauls, focusing on offensive/defensive line play, the running game, and the passing game. Now that such major components of football have been looked at, EA Tiburon seemingly wanted to use this year to start focusing a bit more after such broad endeavors.

The first (and worst) of these new mechanics is something called Target Passing. It has to be said that Target Passing is completely optional, but after trying to use it several dozen times, I chose to never use it again, and hope it goes the way of QB Vision a decade ago—as in it never comes back. Target Passing borrows a little bit from some of the drills in Longshot, where you can bring up a targeting reticule on the field and move it into position. By pressing the corresponding button while holding the trigger, you can throw the ball not where the computer wants to throw it, but to where the reticule specifically is, and the receiver will break their route to best try to catch the ball.

The idea was to offer the kind of precision we see on any given Sunday in an NFL game—for example, aiming for a receiver’s outside shoulder to guard against a corner, or to aim for the corner of an endzone that only your tight end can get to. What it ends up doing is adding an overly complex layer to Madden’s passing game, and throws even more information at you to process in the brief amount of time you have to get rid of the ball. I’m sure there are some pro-Madden players out there who will jump for joy over this mechanic, and I admit the idea was a sound one, making perfect sense on paper. But QB Vision was also a sound idea that was poorly implemented, and I believe that’s the case here again. Target Passing’s not fun to use, and will take far longer to figure out than it is worth for most players.

Of course, no matter how you end up throwing the ball, you always need someone to throw to, and so wide receiver versus cornerback play has also fallen into EA Tiburon’s crosshairs this year. Here, however, I found the new controls to definitely add something to the experience. Now, it’s easier than ever to jam wide receivers if you play with corners by using the right joystick and simply pressing against the receiver, trying to guess correctly which way they’ll try to run. Conversely, receivers can also use the sticks and shoulder buttons to roll around from potential jamming, and can more easily break their routes off or make sharp cuts to get to the inside or outside of the numbers depending on what the situation may call for, adding a welcome layer of realism to one of the most important battles on a football field.

This new gameplay in particular comes in handy within a new wrinkle in one of Madden’s most popular modes, Madden Ultimate Team. Yes, the card collectible game that allows you to buy packs of players and create your own fantasy team is unsurprisingly back, but with it comes a lot of changes. For example, there are now special fantasy packs that allow you to see an entire selection of amazing players, and then choose the best one of that group (while forcing you to discard the rest of the pack). There is also the brand new MUT Squads, bringing big time online co-op to Madden.

MUT Squads allows for 3-on-3 online matchups to take place, with one player serving as the offensive coordinator and providing the offense, one player doing the same for the defense, and another acting as head coach, who basically controls the timeouts (a role potentially great for less-experienced Madden players). MUT Squads is a bit of a double-edged sword for Madden, however. It is great that Madden can support larger groups online, and that buddies who have always wanted to play together now can. One player can be the QB throwing to a receiver who, using the new controls to get away from receivers, is fighting to get open for his team.

The downside to MUT Squads is that it’s very hard to get on the same page in Madden. Much like real life football, it will require a lot of time to get in sync with someone, especially when most folks at this point are used to playing Madden alone, where the entire team works together as an extension of the player. Another disappointment is that the 3-on-3 co-op is only in MUT Squads, when I know there are many out there who would probably rather just play as their favorite team with their buddies without having to rely on the randomness of MUT to provide them with good players in order to be competitive.

And that’s the real rub of MUT and a lot of Madden NFL 18 in general: It feels like all of the game outside of Franchise is just trying to funnel players into MUT, where you either need to grind for the best players, or be forced to spend real world money on microtransactions. (Even Longshot will “reward” you with MUT items if you beat it.) The microtransactions are all optional, of course, but the more times you put temptation in front of someone, the more likely they are to bite.

Even Draft Champions—an inclusion we first got back in Madden NFL 16 that has been a tremendous addition to the series—is now locked behind a level wall in MUT, and you need MUT tickets to play against people online.

Admittedly, you only need to put around 20 to 30 minutes of time into MUT challenges to unlock access to MUT Draft (the new name for Draft Champions), but the fact that one of the most popular aspects of Madden has been absorbed under MUT and put behind a wall of any kind is frustrating. The worst of this is that the balance of the randomness from previous years feels lost, because not only are the players you can choose from in each round of MUT Draft random, but so are their overalls, since MUT can feature the same player with different stats each time. Frustratingly, it feels like EA Tiburon ruined Draft Champions by turning it into another way to try to keep you around longer in a mode that tempts you into spending more real money.

And of all the things that aren’t linked to MUT—Franchise mode—there’s a part of it which could be. In that mode, you can train with your team before each game as part of a scouting report against that week’s opponent. Meanwhile, there’s also the Skills Trainer option on the main menu, which is where all the scouting report drills are pulled from. Completing tasks in Skills Trailer rewards free MUT packs; completing those tasks in Franchise does nothing for MUT. Why those two things aren’t linked makes no sense, aside from the fact that Madden loves making you grind. It’s the digital equivalent of two-a-days.

While speaking of Franchise, there have at least been some minor improvements to it outside of the drills. The user interface was cleaned up some, particularly when it comes to scouting and drafting college players. As well, animations are better than ever now that they’re powered by Frostbite. Using the hit stick and making open-field tackles has never looked cleaner, and you can almost feel the impact in your favorite gaming chair. There’s still the occasional rag doll glitch, but the visuals at least seem to be the most polished Madden has had in a long time. That said, some member of the team must’ve had a brain fart, because they messed up the New York Giants’ and Los Angeles Chargers’ schedules, giving the Giants nine road games and only seven home games and the Chargers the inverse—in real life, the Chargers are going to Metlife, the Giants aren’t going to StubHub—and hopefully that is fixed immediately in an upcoming patch. These were the only two teams I saw with incorrect schedules, but the fact I even had to check this was irritating to say the least.

Unintentional errors bring me to my final point of Madden NFL 18: the online servers. I played several online games literally just a few hours before this review went live. Several thousand people were supposedly already online and finding a game wasn’t an issue. Neither, for the most part, was maintaining a connection. That said, there were a couple of random disconnects from the EA servers, which could be a sign of instability—and if that’s the case here in this limited pre-launch scenario, that worries me. Of course, the game doesn’t release worldwide for another week even though we were told the servers should be good to go, so there is always hope that this was simply a last second hiccup, rather than a portent for worse things to come. Considering how critical online play is to Madden, it’d be surprising to see any real long-term issues, but we’ll see when the servers ramp up to some real strain in the coming days.

This year, it seems Madden NFL 18 is all about taking the good with the bad. There is more good than bad for sure (highlighted by the new Longshot mode), but things like putting Draft Champions into MUT and the new Target Passing mechanics should make a lot of folks at least a little bit wary. We’re not quite back to the “annual roster update” days, but after the roll Madden has been on in recent years, if you’re looking to take a break, this might be the year to do so.

Publisher: EA Sports • Developer: EA Tiburon • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 08.25.17
7.0
Although the new Longshot mode shines, Madden misses the mark with a few of its gameplay additions this year—so if you don’t immediately take a liking to them and choose to ignore them, the experience will feel a lot like last year’s. Meanwhile, the additions to MUT feel unnecessary, and like a desperate attempt to get more people playing—and potentially investing in microtransactions.
The Good I think Longshot hits its mark for the most part in trying to add a compelling football narrative to Madden.
The Bad I believe new target-passing controls are going to go the way of QB vision; the ever-increasing focus on MUT.
The Ugly Tom Brady is admittedly the G.O.A.T. after last year, but let’s remember that along with those five Super Bowl wins, he has two GIANT losses. Let’s go G-Men.
Madden NFL 18 is available on Xbox One and PS4. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by EA Sports for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

Developer Housemarque has cultivated some of the best action-packed arcade-inspired experiences of this console generation. Fans of old-school bullet hells and chasing high scores have been exposed to treat after treat in this genre by the team, so when I found out at E3 that they were making a side-scrolling platform shooter called Matterfall, I was on board before I even tried it out. And—after actually dashing, jumping, and blasting my way through the game at this point—I can say that this is another solid experience dying for you to try reaching the top of its leaderboards.

In Matterfall, players assume control of Avalon Darrow, a soldier-for-hire type that is dropped into the worst situations mankind can cook up and asked to fix them for the right price. In this case, Avalon finds herself on a human colony on the outer reaches of space, where a sprawling megalopolis has cropped up around the red matter mines. Red matter is a highly volatile substance that has become a source of energy in this space sector, not to mention a key driving factor of the area’s economy. Once red matter starts being used to power war machines to protect the colony, however, things take a drastic turn. The machines powered by the substance begin to gain a semblance of sentience, and soon start trying to eradicate all of the humans living there. So, while the colony is in the midst of the largest evacuation in history, Avalon is running into the fray with her trusty hand cannon, looking for the source of the epic disaster so that she can put an end to it.

Like many of Housemarque’s games, Matterfall is simple enough on the surface: Run and gun with Avalon through the game’s 12 different stages, with an end boss waiting in every fourth stage. One of the negatives of Matterfall is 12 stages is definitely not a lot, and you can probably get through the entire experience on normal difficulty in less than five hours. How you get through those 12 stages will be entirely up to you, though, as Avalon will unlock a variety of weapons that change how you may approach a situation. Of course, your score will also be important, so along the way you’ll constantly be trying to keep your multiplier at max, gain bonuses based on how fast you complete a stage and whether you died or not, and find the three or four humans who have been trapped in every non-boss stage.

In that regard, Matterfall offers up a ton of replayability if you’re as fanatical about high scores as I am. With none of the stages really needing more than 20 minutes to complete, you can quickly jump in, customize your loadout beforehand, and really try to plot out the best run possible in order to maximize your score. Upping the difficulty also increases multiplyer potential, meaning mastering harder difficulties will be crucial to maintaining a top spot on the leaderboards. Everything might start to feel a bit repetitive due to the overall lack of stages and enemy types, but finding the best path is usually enough of a distraction to both keep you on your toes and take your mind off that 50th wave of missiles that have appeared overhead, raining down in an attempt to destroy your multiplyer.

Where Matterfall really tries to differentiate itself is in its gameplay. The controls are locked in to try to optimize moving and shooting at the same time; thus, shooting is done with the right stick, and jumping and dashing are done with the shoulder buttons. Admittedly, it took a little while to get used to not having to press “X” to jump on a PlayStation controller, but the risk paid off. The second stick allows you to keep firing Avalon’s hand cannon with pinpoint accuracy as you use the left stick and triggers to move through enemy-infested hallways, duck behind cover, dash over enemies, or even float around in the game’s unique zero-gravity sections. In those areas, you’ll drift around in a full 360-degree radius, giving the game brief moments of feeling like some of the space shooters Housemarque has done in the past while still serving that fast and frantic arcade feel that is critical in games like this.

Matterfall’s dashing mechanic is also vital to completing the game. Not only does it let you pass through certain walls, but you’ll also let off a shockwave upon completion that can stun nearby enemies with blue matter (in this world, blue matter beats red matter). Destroying stunned enemies leads to score bonuses, while the shockwave can negate bullets that are heading for Avalon—a lifesaver in the midst of firefights that you simply can’t shoot your way out of. Matterfall offers up a bevy of gameplay styles that appeal to both risk/reward players or those who play more cautiously that want to destroy every single enemy on screen (like yours truly) before moving on.

There’s also a cornucopia of secondary weapons and abilities for you to choose from in Matterfall. While you can unlock four secondary weapons and eight passive powers, you can only choose three from the entire list to be active at any given time. Grenade launchers and homing missiles can be great when dealing with singular foes with a lot of health, but a bigger health bar, faster weapon recharge rates, and more passive abilities could mean the difference between life and death in the long run.

Between the weapon choices and the dashing mechanic, Avalon gives off the sense of a homogenized Samus Aran (the hand cannon-wielding bounty hunter) crossed with Beck from Mighty No. 9 (the hero with a dash maneuver critical to defeating enemies big and small). It’s an interesting take on the genre, but it works. I only wish that we could get to know Avalon a lot more than what we get in the game’s opening and ending cutscenes (the only ones in the entire game), but we know that’s not necessarily Housemarque’s forte.

Matterfall’s action and gameplay is a throwback in many senses. It’s focus on speed and scoring will have you coming back to it again and again as you try to climb higher on the global leaderboards, yet I wish that the levels offered more variety (as well as there being more of them period). If you’re looking to see if your twitch reflexes are still up to snuff, or simply need a quick experience that doesn’t require a major time commitment, Matterfall is more than deserving of a look.

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment • Developer: Housemarque • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 08.15.17
8.0
Although a bit short and repetitive at times, the fast and frantic action of Matterfall is a delight if you prefer your gameplay more arcade-y and your goals to be focused on high scores and conquering leaderboards rather than saving the world.
The Good Fast-paced, side-scrolling shooter action that will test your reflexes and force you to break from gaming conventions (or die).
The Bad Not a lot of content, and levels outside of boss battles can feel repetitive.
The Ugly I’m sure there’s a message about natural resource wastefulness in here somewhere.
Matterfall is a PS4 exclusive. Review code was provided by Sony Interactive Entertainment for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

I look down, and I can’t see my legs. There’s nothing but an empty seat with what feels like my consciousness floating above it. It’s an unnerving and uncomfortable feeling, because from the second I become cognizant of it, I know this isn’t real. I’m not talking about a nightmare, however—I’m talking about far too many VR games that don’t bother creating an avatar for you in their virtual reality. You fail to see anything, and you’re immediately disconnected from the experience, even while NPCs talk and interact with you. And, as irritating as this is, it’s the least of the many problems that plagued Archangel, the first VR offering from studio Skydance Interactive.

Archangel is set towards the end of the 21st century. The world we know is gone as many of the Earth’s countries—including the US and most of Europe, although the game makes a point of letting us know Canada did not fall for some reason—are united under the totalitarian rule of one faction bent on maintaining their own version of order. A resistance force hiding in the American Midwest, however, is trying to even the odds with a secret weapon, working toward finally overthrowing the dictatorship that has left most of the world in ruins. You play as the pilot of that secret weapon: a 60-foot tall mechsuit with an adaptable AI program that gives you every edge you could ever want in battle. It’s your job to get this prototype mechsuit from the research installation it was built in to resistance homebase to be mass-produced, but there’s just the little issue of an entire army standing in your way.

In my mind, it’s games like this that are holding virtual reality back. Archangel is built around a great idea which the team then took absolutely no chances whatsoever with, resulting in what comes off as nothing more than a glorified tech demo. I loved the idea of piloting a giant mech suit and blowing up everything around me, but by the time I was done, I couldn’t wait to delete Archangel from my harddrive. There are really only seven levels in the game (nine if you count the opening and end scenes where you just sit there and are talked at for five minutes each), and I beat the entire experience in less than four hours—yet I was never more relieved to take my VR headset off then after playing Archangel due to how it drags on.

All of the gameplay takes place on rails, and your mech lumbers along like a six-story tortoise instead of a feared killing machine. Despite being the “pilot,” the only aspects of your mech that you really control are the left and right arms, each outfitted with a pair of weapons and shields. With these tools at your disposal, you can shred the enemy army apart like paper blowing into a hurricane. Tanks, planes, turrets, and even giant robo-dogs are no match for you, even when the screen becomes filled with foes.

While using PS Move controllers, you can set one up for each arm, and get the feel of at least directly controlling that aspect of the mech with satisfying accuracy. If you’re like most people, however, you’ll probably end up using a PS4 controller instead. Under that control scheme, the firing mechanisms are predictably set for each appropriate trigger button, but you need to swing the controller around—far more wildly and more inaccurately than when using Move controllers—in order to switch from arm to arm and have each arm independently do what you need them to do, especially when on the defensive. It can quickly turn a competent rail-shooter experience into an extremely frustrating one.

Archangel is also an ugly game. Many VR games haven’t really wowed in the visuals department yet, especially as there are some limitations with the tech still, but Archangel is a pretty low bar in terms of animation and graphics. Most of the buildings in the ruined cities you walk through look like geometry from two generations ago, with no reflection and minimal complexity. Enemy tanks and planes also look far too simplistic compared to what we expect from this generation of consoles. As well, the character models look so cartoonish that I couldn’t figure out if this game was even trying to convey realism—not to mention that half the time when you talk to your three squadmates, their lips don’t match up with the words they’re saying. (Or worse, many times, I’d be hearing characters talk, but their lips weren’t even moving.)

Of course, these are the few times you actually see other characters at all. There are no cutscenes in Archangel, which could be construed as someone at Skydance wanting to make an effort at immersion. Instead, however, you can talk to your squadmates, or the mech AI, between levels to try to flesh out the world. Unfortunately, all you get is a computer screen that pops up in your cockpit, and some of the most long-winded and horribly overacted banter that I’ve heard in a video game in a long time. It’s the obviously poor fix for someone who wants desperately to flesh out this world they’ve created, but have no real idea how to do it in a video game. By the end of the game, I wanted every character to fall off a cliff (including my own). Archangel’s world could’ve been an interesting one, and there are hints of it if you look closely enough. Overall, though, it’s just full of sad, ham-fisted attempts at character development and world building, which utterly fail at trying to cover up the monotony of shooting the same enemies with the same weapons at the same slow pace for four hours.

Looking at Archangel, there is no doubt there was an intriguing idea here. But with every passing moment, every enemy shot down, and after every terrible delivery of a new line of dialogue, I lost hope that the game would ever reach its potential until I finally got to the credits and my suffering ended. There are great VR games and experiences out there, but Archangel does not come even close to sniffing them and should be avoided at all costs.

Publisher: Skydance Interactive • Developer: Skydance Interactive • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 07.18.17
3.0
While there’s really nothing broken in Archangel, the game suffers from a clear lack of follow-through on any of the interesting ideas it tries to bring to the table. Its slow, plodding pace stands out even more against the backdrop of mediocre gameplay and one-note characters that made me thankful when the game came to its abrupt end.
The Good The idea of piloting a six-story mech is an exciting one, even when not pulled off properly.
The Bad Ugly visuals, slow pace, an overall lack of control, and a story that fails to captivate until the very end.
The Ugly The feeling of being trapped inside my PS VR headset and being forced to continue playing this game.
Archangel is available on PS4 for PS VR, and PC for Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Primary version reviewed was for PS4/PS VR. Review code was provided by Skydance Interactive for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher: Supergiant Games • Developer: Supergiant Games • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 07.25.17
9.0
Pyre mashes up point-and-click adventures, RPGs, and sports games—and comes out the other end with one of the more memorable stories we’ve seen in some time. It’s a tale of freedom, sacrifice, and rising against the odds, even when they seem to be in your favor. While it can be a bit repetitive gameplay-wise, the colorful world and even more colorful characters should be more than enough to motivate you to fight for the exiles of the Downside.
The Good A larger than life cast of characters and unique gameplay that stems from an unusual mash-up of genres.
The Bad No online multiplayer.
The Ugly How much I paced in my living room while contemplating the game’s biggest decisions,
Pyre is available on PS4 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Supergiant Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

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.

We’ve been waiting for that one killer game to really help virtual reality take off since the technology hit the market last year. Sure, there have been some good experiences, and some okay games, but nothing that really grabs you and makes it seem like you need to run out and buy any of the three major headsets immediately. Farpoint was hoping that maybe it would have what it takes to help launch one of them (PS VR) into the stratosphere, while also bolstering VR in general. Unfortunately, we’re going to have keep on waiting at least a little while longer.

Farpoint takes place in a far-off future during a routine mission to a space station orbiting Jupiter. Everything is normal as you are piloting your ship, the Wanderer, to one of the station’s docking bays. As you begin your approach, however, a massive wormhole randomly opens up just outside the station, sucking it, your ship, and a pair of space-walking scientists into its gaping maw. After coming out on the other side, you crash land onto an alien planet’s surface, unsure of where exactly you are. There is one thing that you do know for sure: you must try to explore and survive the strange world while trying to figure out what exactly happened.

The hook for Farpoint is evident from the second you’re able to take control as the Wanderer’s pilot, stepping foot into the desert sands of this barren world. The appeal of exploring the unknown fits perfectly with the space theme, and when combined with the natural drive to find out what exactly happened in the opening scene, you have more than enough narrative gravitas to carry you through the first half of the game. Furthermore, breadcrumbs are provided in the form of holographic messages left by those space-walking scientists who also survived the ride through the wormhole somehow, fleshing out all the characters in the story except the most important one: yours. Although it’s not the first time a FPS game forgot to make the player’s character interesting, matters only worsen when the mystery is solved at about the game’s halfway point—in a couple of quick cutscenes that spell everything out for you far too neatly no less. When the window dressing of the story fades away, Farpoint reveals itself as nothing more than a dressed-up shooting gallery.

The first red flag with the gameplay is that your character is initially set to a locked forward position. You can move around with the left stick, and easily strafe like this, but you’re constantly looking forward and can’t do anything with the right stick. I imagine this is for people who easily get motion sickness, because there is an option in the menu to unlock the right stick to then aim and move like a more traditional first-person shooter. It’s disappointing, however, that the AI doesn’t respond to what options you choose.

Every enemy you fight against comes at you from your front facing direction, defeating the purpose of occupying a 3D-space like this. In fact, if an enemy should somehow end up behind you, it’ll go out of its way to not attack you until it gets back into your line of sight. A perfect example of this came with the first enemy type you encounter—knee-high spider-like creatures—that likes to leap at you. If I were reloading, I’d duck out of the way. As soon as they got behind me, though, they would skitter back in front of me before making their leaping attack again; the AI was programmed as if you never change the options to spin around. Farpoint isn’t on rails, but that locked forward feature, combined with the fact you can’t jump up ledges, or fall very far without dying, sure makes it feel like an on-rails experience, which really took the wind out of the sails of my deep space adventure.

In a lot of instances, it felt like the developers were trying to keep you in the PS VR headset for as long as possible. The entire campaign is only five to six hours long, and many of the design choices seem as if they were spent worrying about combating motion sickness so players could experience the story all at once (like a really long movie). It would also explain why there are so many infrequent saves. Sure, the game has a pretty solid checkpoint system if you die—but if you want to turn the game off? If you haven’t just beaten one of the game’s arbitrary markers for what it constitutes a level, you might lose a lot of progress—like I did when, after two hours, I needed to get out of the headset. Usually, these are marked by long, drawn out cutscenes, but there’s never any telling when they’re coming, especially with only one real boss in the game. Most sections end with just more and more regular enemies coming after you.

Farpoint also constantly goes back and forth between looking great and looking like a game from two console generations ago. Enemies quickly fade from view after dying, and some will explode into comically large polygonal chunks, or ragdoll ridiculously around in the environment after you kill them; others will spill blood that unnaturally puddles into a matte lump. Or, characters talking with you look like they’re looking just past you, and never right at you. But then, you look at some of the environments, the planet’s indigenous hostile arachnid/crustacean hybrid creatures (before they die), or turn upwards and look at the starry sky of unfamiliar space, and there are moments where you can’t help but be impressed.

At the very least, the gunplay in the game actually felt really good, even if it was little more than glorified target practice. Aiming down my sights to pick off enemies, or running around as waves of spider creatures moved towards me and I had to blast them back with my shotgun, felt as good as any other experience I’ve had from a FPS game in VR. I played the beginning of the game with a standard PS4 controller, and once I unlocked the options, it felt like just playing another FPS. But then I switched to the Aim Wireless controller, and that took the experience to another level.

The Aim Wireless VR controller is actually one of the best-designed peripherals I’ve ever used, and succeeds in adding a sense of realism to the experience. Bringing the gun to your face to actually look down the sights and snipe hostile targets is fantastic, and the peripheral is light enough to use for long periods of time but still feels natural in your hands. Excellent button and joystick placement only seal the deal, and makes it a far smoother experience than you might expect. You can buy Farpoint on its own for fifty dollars, but without the Aim Wireless controller, it feels like you’re missing one of the more important elements of the experience. But—since it’s not being sold separately yet—if you really want just the controller, you’ll be dropping eighty dollars on a mediocre game and a toy that we’re not even sure what other games might use it yet.

Should you be looking to Farpoint to be your excuse to put your PS VR headset back on, it does at least offer a few replayability options. Besides the campaign, there’s a challenge mode that pushes you to get through levels of the game as quickly as possible, with an arcade-style scoring system for every enemy you kill along the way. There’s even a high score leaderboard you can etch your PSN handle onto if you rack up enough points. You can also play the game in co-op with a friend online, which ups the intensity, but also lets you be a bit more reckless since your buddy can revive you if you focus on just running in guns blazing.

Farpoint is like so many other early VR games that came before it. There are some solid ideas being kicked around here, and even a couple of gameplay aspects that might wow you, but not enough comes together into a cohesive package to make it a truly compelling experience. The gunplay is good, and the new Aim Wireless controller is great, but beyond that, Farpoint quickly comes undone. All we’re left with in the end is an excuse to try some target practice with Sony’s newest peripheral—and that’s only if you choose to spend the extra thirty dollars on that bundle. As it is, Farpoint is just another experience that can be chalked up to the growing pains of new technology, and should be looked at warily because of it.

Publisher: Sony Interactive Entertainment • Developer: Impulse Gear • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 05.16.17
6.0
Farpoint is another perfect example of a VR game with solid ideas and spotty execution. There is a core of good gunplay and decent story, but the game quickly becomes one-dimensional in its approach, and finds a way to feel like a grind despite its short campaign.
The Good Strong narrative start, solid gunplay.
The Bad Gameplay quickly devolves into a cheap shooting gallery.
The Ugly That moment when I realized I could move around on the menu screen and smash everything around me, which led to me accidentally doing just that with a nearby glass of water in real life after I wildly swung the Aim Wireless controller around.
Farpoint is a PS4/PS VR exclusive. Review copy was provided by Sony for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

There are more than a half-dozen Fire Emblem games that never came to our shores, but in 2008, Nintendo released Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon for the DS—a remake of the very first Fire Emblem game—here in North America. That decision gave me hope that we would start to see more of the Fire Emblem games we never received finally cross the Pacific in some form or another. Flash forward almost a full decade later, and I had all but given up on the idea. Naturally, then, Nintendo releases Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia—a remake of the second-ever Fire Emblem game, Fire Emblem Gaiden—rekindling my hopes. And—if Shadows of Valentia is any indicator—the idea of continuing to bring over old games in the series remains as sound as I thought it did almost 10 years ago.

Shadows of Valentia takes place at the same time as Shadow Dragon in Fire Emblem chronology. While Marth is freeing the continent of Archanea in the east, the continent of Valentia to the west is war-torn for different reasons. The dragon gods—Duma from the north and Mila to the south—have withdrawn their boons to the people, and the respective nations that fell under each god’s purview are crumbling because of it. Two children who bear a special brand on their hands, Alm and Celica, are unexpectedly thrust into the center of it all. Each will try to bring peace to Valentia in their own way, not realizing how connected they truly are. It’s your typical Fire Emblem tale of kings, queens, dragons, and magic.

Because Fire Emblem Gaiden never made its way to the West, it’s hard for me to compare this remake to the source material beyond obvious differences. For example, following in the footsteps of more modern games in the series, every major character has their lines fully voiced (and fantastically so). There are also fully-animated cutscenes, while each character has had a more modern redesign given to them that pops off the screens of the 3DS.

Doing some research, though, led me to find that Fire Emblem Gaiden was often described as the “Zelda II of Fire Emblem.” This is because the game introduced some drastically different gameplay like dungeons and town exploration, and even side quests from NPCs that were quickly abandoned by the series as a whole after poor reactions. All of that radically different gameplay returns here in Shadows of Valentia, but what’s interesting is that since this is a first for Westerners to experience this in Fire Emblem—with features like “My Castle” in Fire Emblem Fates helping to pave the way—it actually feels like a natural progression for the series that I surprisingly enjoyed and quickly adapted to. It may have been far-reaching in 1992; in 2017, it feels like Fire Emblem is just growing in new and wonderful ways.

Getting to towns and dungeons is done via utilizing a limited overworld map with paths laid out before you, and you can see ahead to where most of the battles that mark major chapters in your adventure will occur. While Shadow Dragon displayed a linear overworld map at times, you use Shadows of Valentia’s to actually plan your next move. It is larger, has branching paths, and allows you to bounce back and forth between Alm and Celica’s different bands of characters, each traversing their own course and occasionally interacting with the other at certain points. The overworld map helps get across the idea of the duo actually fighting a war, moving the frontlines and themselves closer to their goals with each victory, and being able to see how far they’ve come in such a simplistic way gives a sense of scale that we don’t often get in Fire Emblem games.

Once you do visit a town or dungeon, you get very different experiences from anything we’ve seen before from the series. Towns are made up of a few different locations (taverns, homes, blacksmiths, etc.) and you select where you want to go from another map. From a first-person perspective, you then can look around the room with a targeting reticule to pick up items or talk with the various townsfolk to shop, learn about the world, or potentially unlock a small sidequest. Unfortunately, the sidequests are a bit dull, and are always of the “if you get me item x I’ll give you item y” variety. Often times I wouldn’t even bother with them unless I already had the item in my possession, but they do give you something else to do beyond fighting all the time.

Dungeons, meanwhile, are explored from a third-person view as you walk around in them much more like traditional RPGs. There are often exclusive treasures to be found and secrets to be uncovered in dungeons, whether they’re abandoned caves, ancient ruins, or enemy forts. If you come across an enemy in a dungeon, you can potentially avoid it; if you touch the enemy, however, the world shifts to a more traditional Fire Emblem grid where Alm or Celica and a small contingent of their allies will have to fight a tactical-RPG battle. It took some getting used to, but I found the rewards within dungeons made them definitely worth exploring.

Dungeons are also where you now can change classes for your party members. Many dungeons have statues that, when prayed to, will bestow new classes (and higher stats) on your most experienced party members. I loved this feature, because no longer did I have to spend all my coin or search desperately on battlefields for the right items (which would trigger the all-important class increase in previous games). Certain characters listed as “villagers” also have the added benefit of changing their class to whatever you wish. If your group is mage-heavy, you can force a villager to take up a sword or lance, or vice versa. Or, you can make more mages or more soldiers, and try to dominate the landscape with one offensive dimension.

Not all the changes Shadows of Valentia introduces were welcome, though. In an attempt to keep the combat process streamlined, every unit has a default weapon that will never break. Whether it’s a lance, sword, or magic tome, the traditional Fire Emblem weapon durability remains gone like it was in Fire Emblem Fates. Also removed, however, is the ability to carry multiple weapons, so no longer can you carry a variety of gear to defend yourself with depending on the scenario. You can carry a special weapon to replace the default that will never break—like a silver lance, brave sword, or a blessed bow—but you are stuck with that weapon for the entirety of a battle no matter what gets thrown at you.

This lack of improvisation was disappointing from Shadows of Valentia, and the only thing worse than this is when certain classes do get two weapons to carry—like magic and a sword, or a bow and a sword—they will always default to their original. I prefer the old way where the last thing I attacked with is what I would now defend with. This way, if my bow-carrying soldier was attacked by a mage from a distance, they could still defend themselves (had I used the bow previously), instead of being helplessly pelted by dark magic while holding their default sword every time.

That’s not the only issue with weapons in Shadows of Valentia. One of the pillars of Fire Emblem combat has been the rock-paper-scissors, axe-sword-lance weapon triangle that has always been present in Western releases of the series—yet it is noticeably absent here. Your enemies have axes, you can acquire axes (for sidequests), but none of your units can actually use them. All that your non-magic units can use are swords, bows, and lances, and a larger focus was put on black and white magic with your mages. White heals units, black is offensive, and all magic requires some sort of HP sacrifice now. The HP sacrifice was an interesting twist that added some difficulty to the game, but the balance that came with the weapons triangle and the more simplistic use of magic in previous games is sorely missed here. Even by the time I beat the game 30-35 hours after I had started it, I was still unsure of what units did well against which others.

Speaking of how long I played this game, that’s a long time to do the same objective over and over again, and not until the last couple of battles does your objective change. It is always just obliterating your opponents—no lasting so many turns, defending objectives, or capturing objectives. I miss the variety from previous Fire Emblem games that required me to change my thinking somewhere along the line beyond “strongest units on the front lines will run roughshod over my enemies”.

If you still want a more traditional Fire Emblem experience, however, fear not. There’s nothing we can do about the missing weapons triangle—which will always perplex me about this game—but exploring towns and dungeons are optional for the most part. Although I found they added a lot of depth to the experience and the world (and characters and classes to my party), I imagine some purists out there might recoil at the dramatic shifts in gameplay. It’ll make the experience even more difficult if you avoid them, but if all you want is classic Fire Emblem grid-based tactical-RPG and unit management, then don’t worry: outside of a couple of mandatory sections, you can just move from battle to battle to battle on the overworld map.

And, in that regard, Shadows of Valentia is still very much a Fire Emblem game. The main game is broken down into five acts, and while I will say the first act was a bit of a pushover, there was a huge spike back up to what we expect from this series in terms of difficulty from there. In fact, it may be one of the hardest Fire Emblem games I’ve ever played, and the Classic mode touting permadeath will still plague you and your party if you’re not precise and careful with each move you make on the grid. Casual mode—which definitely wasn’t around in Gaiden—at least also returns from more recent iterations of the series, allowing deceased party members to return after every battle. Should Alm or Celica fall in either mode, however, it’s an instant game over.

Another new feature to help with the difficulty is the Turnwheel. Both Alm and Celica get these new artifacts early on in the adventure, and they have two purposes. The first is by inserting items called Cogs into the Turnwheel, you can rewind the game three full turns; it’s a great way to save allies who you would otherwise lose to permadeath. Turnwheels are also how you utilize Amiibo in the game.

Yes, Nintendo’s cute little figurines are compatible with Shadows of Valentia, but depending on what Amiibo you use on the Turnwheel, you’ll have different effects. The brand new Alm/Celica two-pack adds character specific dungeons and battles to the world map. Meanwhile, non-Shadows of Valentia Fire Emblem Amiibo, like Lucina, can be summoned as allies in particularly difficult battles. Finally, Amiibo not related to Fire Emblem, like Mario, will summon monster creatures to your aid. It’s a nice way for Amiibo to be used in the game without really breaking it.

Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is a game more than deserving of a second chance from the East, and a first chance here in the West. It was ahead of its time when it first released as Fire Emblem Gaiden, but now comes across more as a natural evolution of the series with an audience that should be more open to the ideas it pushes in regards to Fire Emblem gameplay. Not everything is perfect—like the noticeable absence of the weapons triangle—but it is a more-than-worthy culmination of the tactical-RPG series’ life on the 3DS.

Publisher: Nintendo • Developer: Intelligent Systems • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 05.19.17
8.5
It’s funny how a remake of a game that never originally hit the West can feel like such a step forward. There are a couple questionable choices, like the removal of the weapons triangle, and series purists might grumble over some other changes like dungeon exploration, but overall Shadows of Valentia feels like the next great step in Fire Emblem.
The Good New features like dungeon exploration, navigating an overworld map, and new ways to change character classes feel like the natural evolution of the series.
The Bad Lack of objective variety, and removal of the classic weapons triangle and weapon choices.
The Ugly How much HP you get from consuming raw ingredients like butter and flour. Desperate times call for desperate measures, I suppose.
Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia is a Nintendo 3DS exclusive. A review copy, as well as Alm/Celica Amiibo, were provided by Nintendo for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

My last review left a bad taste in my mouth, as I had been dying for a puzzle-driven adventure yet had been sorely disappointed. I needed something fast to help forget about that experience and move on—and then a voice started whispering in my ear that I should play Pinstripe. After doing a little research I was willing to give it a shot, and boy, was I glad I did.

Pinstripe puts players in the shoes of a disgraced ex-minister named Ted. When Ted’s three-year-old daughter, Bo, is kidnapped by a shady figure named Mr. Pinstripe, Ted will literally have to travel to hell and back to save her. And, maybe he’ll redeem himself in the process.

I’m amazed at how often one-man Indie devs blow me away, and Thomas Brush should be commended for being the latest to do so. Serving as designer, programmer, artist, writer, and composer, Brush has crafted a beautiful world with a touching story about life and loss, guilt and grief, repercussions and redemptions. Ted’s story is a moving one, because even in Brush’s fantastical version of hell, he finds a way to tell a relatable story about one man’s mistakes and how they have come back to haunt him in a quite literal way. It’s poignant in its simplicity, but maintains just enough mystery revolving around Ted and his past to keep you pushing forward to the end.

Part of what helps that story is the world Ted finds himself in. From the moment you start playing Pinstripe, you’ll be amazed how it visually blends gloom with serenity, begging you to explore its world, but also providing a creeping sense of dread as you never know what new obstacle Ted will have to overcome next. The only thing that tops the arresting art style used here is the voice acting of all the characters. Although the world is sparsely populated, each new inhabitant you come across reflects the dichotomy of the world around Ted, with many toeing a line between being chipper yet sad, hopeful yet defeated.

Where Pinstripe falters a bit, however, is in its gameplay. Many of the puzzles are really quite simple; while some will provide that satisfying “a-ha!” moment when you solve them, most are relatively straightforward, and shouldn’t require a lot of brainpower. There’s also the issue that some late-game obstacles will force you to backtrack to the beginning of the game just for the sake of gathering collectibles that were unobtainable at the start. Although the hell Ted finds himself in isn’t a very large world, this retracing of steps felt forced, like Brush was trying to cram in some sort of metroidvania element that really wasn’t necessary. Instead, it made it feel like he was trying to forcibly lengthen an experience that still only amounted to about a three-hour romp in the end.

Also, for an ex-minister, Ted sure gets around well. Although there isn’t a ton of platforming to be had, there are some occasions where you’ll have to use momentum to swing platforms around and Ted will have to perform some quick, crafty jumps to get to where he needs to go on his quest to save Bo. There’s even the occasional enemy that Ted will have to bop on the head with a jump in order to progress. Enemies that can’t be jumped on can be taken out by Bo’s slingshot, an item Ted finds very early on his journey, but combat as a whole is limited to only a few sections of the game—and the slingshot is mostly another tool to overcome the game’s puzzles. Combat was clearly not a major focus for Pinstripe, which makes sense given our protagonist’s religious background; this is primarily a puzzle-adventure game through and through.

This all seems pretty straightforward for this type of game, but Pinstripe had one more surprise for me at the end of my initial playthrough, and that was a shot of replayability rarely found in this genre. Typically, once you beat the puzzles in a game like this, there’s little to draw you back to it again. Pinstripe, however, makes new items and secrets available for you to collect and find only after your first playthrough of the game. This was a nice way to get me to repeat an adventure I had moved pretty quickly through the first time, and added a nice extra layer of depth to the experience.

Pinstripe was a Herculean effort by one man, and it provided one of the more interesting worlds and better stories I’ve played in quite some time. The drawback it seems of this passion project, however, comes in its length and its simplicity. Even though everything wrapped up neatly in the end, and I think the story was perfectly told, I would’ve loved if the world of Pinstripe had even more depth and characters to it, and if the complexity of the puzzles were greater. That said, you would be missing out if you passed up this narrative experience, even if the game lacks any real challenge for anyone familiar with this genre.

Publisher: Atmos Games • Developer: Atmos Games • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 04.25.17
7.5
What it lacks in length and complexity, Pinstripe makes up for in narrative. It’s a compelling story set in a beautiful world full of interesting characters, and that alone should be worth a look for most—even if there’s really not much challenge to this puzzle-adventure game.
The Good An interesting world driven by a moving story.
The Bad A bit on the short and simple side.
The Ugly The thought that hell doesn’t have to be all fire and brimstone in order to be torturous to someone.
Pinstripe is a Steam exclusive, available on PC, Mac, and Linux. Primary version reviewed was for Mac. Review code was provided by Atmos Games for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.