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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8.5

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

The Good

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

The Bad

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

The Ugly

The obsession that developed over making sure each citizen of Evermore had their happily ever after.
Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom is available on PS4 and PC. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Bandai Namco for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.
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It’s hard to go wrong with a Kirby game. Everyone’s favorite little pink puffball is as consistent as any of the other major Nintendo characters, and just like Mario or Link, Kirby keeps finding new ways to breathe life into old tricks. This holds true once more in his first adventure on the Switch, Kirby Star Allies, which puts a new spin on some classic gimmicks that make this latest adventure one of Kirby’s best.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Since EA Sports took over video game rights to the UFC, they’ve had issues trying to find that perfect balance between making a fun fighting game and simulating the actual action that takes place within the Octagon. In the past, with two fighters standing, trading fists and feet, the series has done a bang-up job of representing MMA. Everything outside of that, however, has been varying levels of disappointment, and I’m here to tell you not much has changed with EA Sports UFC 3. Some new bells and whistles add depth to the things that worked before, but there is still a fair amount fundamentally wrong with the game—and not all of the changes introduced this year have been for the best.

Building on one of the strengths of previous games is the striking. A larger, more customizable moveset for any created fighter helps you craft the type of combatant you want to be. And, when you step into the Octagon to deliver those blows, it looks like an actual fight in some instances, with incredibly fluid movement, startling realistic body contortion, and accurate impact (that is reflected by both your fighter and his health bars). Keeping an eye on these health bars, which pop up upon proper impact, are also critical to your strategy.

If you notice your opponent has weak legs, you might try to TKO them by focusing on—and potentially breaking—the limb. Or, you might focus on blows to the head if they have a particularly weak “chin,” a new stat added this year to more accurately assess damage your noggin can take. You can also see how close you are to potentially “rocking” an opponent, an event that is triggered when you or your opponent are at particularly low health for a body part, and thus more susceptible to KO. Knowing what parts of the body to focus on (and when) are a critical part to any MMA fight, and the feedback in UFC 3 does a stellar job of telling you what is going on moment to moment.

You also can’t spam moves, even if your opponent seems susceptible to one or another. The stamina bar for your fighter, looming overhead at the top of the screen, might be the single most important factor in each fight; if you become gassed, there’s almost nowhere to run in the cage. The seconds it takes to recover feel like an eternity when in the ring with Conor McGregor, Jon Jones, Minotouro Noguiera, or Daniel Cormier, who will press that advantage.

As realistic as this aspect of the game is, there are also moments where the game tries too hard to be realistic, which can shake you loose from the immersion you may have experienced. Two of the first moves I unlocked for my fighter were the spinning back fist and the Superman punch. Suffice to say, they became staples of my repertoire, even after adding some leaping Muay Thai knees and leading uppercuts. Playing on PS4, performing these moves required a combination of a shoulder button and square for the back fist, or triangle for the Superman punch. Often times, however, the game would over-contextualize based on my position in the Octagon, and instead perform a different move despite my very obvious button presses—or simply be slow to respond to my inputs.

It may have been the game’s way of trying to say “a back fist would be better here than a Superman punch because of how close you are to your opponent,” but I didn’t care. Yes, it may not have been proper because it left me open, but at the end of the day, I’m the one with the controller in my hand. I wanted my guy to leap into the air and try to clock my opponent, distance be damned. Don’t change the move; don’t slow down my momentum like a cable-service provider throttling my internet. This happened frequently in each fight, and with other moves as well. It may have made for a better-looking match, but it definitely soured my experience some.

These delays didn’t occur just in the striking. Half of MMA can be boiled down to the “ground game,” where you tackle or throw your opponent to the mat and attempt to beat them senseless and/or submit them with any number of maneuvers (like triangle holds and armbars). For the uninitiated, though, it can often times just look like two guys rolling around, trying to get a better position on the other. Once again, when trying to desperately to adjust my fighter into half guard, full guard, north-south, or just get the heck up, the controls felt sluggish.

Of course, to make matters worse, the ground game and submissions remain a minigame fest, making the drag feel even worse. Desperation quickly sets in when you find yourself in an unenviable position on the ground as you try to rotate the right stick the right way to slip out of a submission, lock one in, or just adjust position. The game does tell you in still all-too-brief tutorial screens that you can block your opponents’ moves when you find yourself in that situation, but it still feels like there is information missing—and whether playing career or online, everything has a long trial and error sense to it in terms of “mastering” the ground game. I still don’t know how I escape holds half the time, and I retired with a 29-2 record in career and 3-0 in online matches.

Now, there is supposed to be a more in-depth tutorial section—it’s a tile on the main menu—but it was completely empty when I tried reviewing the game over the past week, again forcing me to rely on the game’s random prompts mid-fight. A true tutorial mode, one that goes over every single aspect and lets you actually get a feel for things with the controller, giving players something more than just text on a screen, would serve this franchise a lot better.

There are three difficulty modes when you start, with a fourth—Legendary—unlocking after completing the Career. If you’re familiar with the series, Normal is a good place to start and refresh your memory, as you’ll still be punished for being overly aggressive or cautious, and developing a strategy is a must as you fight. If you think bumping the difficulty down would be a good way to learn the game to work around the trial-and-error feel of everything, however, you’d be sorely mistaken. Easy mode is basically asking for the game to just roll over for you, and the few fights I admittedly tried on Easy to speed up my playthrough (and see if I couldn’t get a better grasp of the ground game) all ended in 45 seconds or less. It felt like a really huge drop-off, and it wasn’t long before I went back to Normal mode in order to feel some satisfaction when I won (but again, this all stems from the fact that game does a pretty poor job of teaching you how it all works).

If you can make sense of all this and become a competent competitor in the Octagon, there is a fair amount of things to do in UFC 3. The new career mode, called G.O.A.T. mode, tasks you with 12 arbitrary goals, and if you complete eight of them over your career, you’ll be dubbed the “Greatest of All Time,” someone who changed the game of MMA forever that will live on in songs and such. After picking your weight class—I went light-heavyweight—you’ll be asked to create your fighter. There aren’t as many options as I personally would like for create-a-fighter (you can’t even make your own last name, instead choosing from a list of predetermined choices), and ended up using the EA’s Game Face feature again. That jaundice-looking fellow at the top of the review is my guy. If you want, however, you can also import a current UFC fighter’s look from easily the largest roster the series has featured to date, and build up your favorite fighter instead.

As you win and move up in UFC, you’ll be tasked with trading barbs with pre-determined rivals on social media, gaming with fans on streaming services (so meta, eh?), and training your character at one of a dozen possible gyms to learn new moves and get in better fighting shape. All of this is done on menus and at most you’ll get a pre-recorded Megan Olivi-hosted UFC Minute where she talks about the fact you changed gyms. (Considering how often you’ll have to change gyms as you move up to learn better moves and get stronger, it gets old fast.) The only interesting aspect of training before your actual fights is when you spar with someone who has a similar moveset to your opponent. After a minute of this, you’ll learn a secret as to how best to defeat them, like they’re susceptible to ground and pound, or can’t ever escape a rear-naked choke.

If career isn’t your thing, there are also some offline options like the new Tournament mode, which anyone who used to watch old-school Bellator might appreciate, as you try to advance in an offline bracket of your creation. There’s also options in offline fights like Stand and Bang, where you basically have to trade strikes and try to knock the opponent out, or the opposite Submission Showdown where you have to wrestle your opponent to the ground and make them tap.

Finally, there’s the online suite of modes. You can play ranked or unranked matches online and try to earn online championship belts if you can succeed enough against various opponents. It was difficult finding people to play with online due to the pre-launch state of the game, but when I did, the game was stable and I never experienced a drop or lag in my limited time playing. I’d have like to have spent more time testing the online, but again, opponent availability was sparse, so it’ll be interesting to see how the servers hold up once players actually start to populate them.

The biggest piece of UFC 3’s online suite, though, is Ultimate Team. Since MMA is a one-on-one sport, instead of building a full team here, you have a sort of stable here, much like in wrestling. You have four fighters—three men and one woman—from different weight classes, and you can try to advance each in their respective divisions to online glory, fighting with one at a time. Just like in other EA Ultimate Team modes, this is a clear cash grab, attempting to get you hooked to the mode in the hopes you’ll spend real-world money on card packs to more quickly advance your fighter’s stats, or get a rare or legendary fighter to bolster your stable. Even some relatively common moves require special cards to unlock, leaving your fighter predictable in their offense if you don’t either grind in offline Ultimate Team challenge or drop actual cash, and it’s nothing short of infuriating.

EA Sports UFC 3 looks good on the surface, but has far too many flaws buried underneath. Sure, every fighter looks great, and how they move in the Octagon is the most realistic we’ve seen yet in any game. Striking feels good, but the ground game remains a mess, career mode has no heart, and Ultimate Team feels shoehorned in. If you really love MMA, it’s frustrating that it seems that EA Sports still can’t seem to create a game that is a true simulation while also being fun—and I think it might be time for UFC to just tap out.

Publisher: EA Sports • Developer: EA Canada • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 02.02.18
5.0
EA Sports UFC 3 feels like one step forward and two steps back. Striking is more realistic than ever, but submissions and the ground game remain convoluted. The new G.O.A.T. Career mode has flashes of brilliance, but bogs you down in menus while losing the human side of fights. As well, Ultimate Team just feels like yet another cash grab. There is a decent core in UFC 3, but it needs a lot more time in the gym to become champion material.
The Good Striking is more realistic than ever.
The Bad Ground game remains a mess, sluggish controls.
The Ugly My created character’s face looks like it’s been through a fight before the first round even starts.
EA Sports UFC 3 is available on PS4 and Xbox One. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. 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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Publisher: Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment • Developer: TT Games • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 11.14.17
7.5
Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 is easily the largest undertaking, outside of Dimensions, for a Lego game yet. More characters and more worlds to explore are punctuated by a humorous story that’s enjoyable for gamers of all ages. Increasing the scope of the Lego games has opened the door for some less than enjoyable bugs to sneak their way at times, though.
The Good Tons of content to keep you busy in Lego Chronopolis for hours on end. The story is fun, and the local versus multiplayer mode was a pleasant surprise.
The Bad Some AI glitches for characters you don’t control, and then trying to switch to those characters, belie some uncharacteristic tech issues from TT.
The Ugly I’ve played way too many Marvel property games this year without the X-Men in them now.
Lego Marvel Super Heroes 2 is available on PS4, Xbox One, PC, and Nintendo Switch. Primary version reviewed was for PS4. Review code was provided by Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

Telltale’s latest interactive story marks their first foray with a Marvel property, and it’s somewhat fitting that it would be Guardians of the Galaxy. After all, Telltale is becoming so adept at collecting licensed properties to make games about maybe they should change their name to Taneleer Tivan. This new tale offers up some pleasant surprises by smartly blending elements from both Marvel’s movies and comics featuring the Guardians, while returning to Telltale’s own roots some when it comes to gameplay and weighty decisions. It still carries many of the issues seen in more recent Telltale games, though, as Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is plagued with bugs, glitches, and inconsistent writing.

The first episode begins with the Nova Corps once again begging the Guardians for help. Thanos, the Mad Titan, isn’t hunting for Infinity Gems this go around, but instead is after a Kree artifact called the Eternity Forge. No one knows what power the Forge would bestow, exactly, but the fact that Thanos is after it means it is definitely something that should be kept away from him at all costs. Thanos isn’t the only one who has eyes on the Forge, however, as one of the last remaining Kree in the galaxy, Hala the Accuser, sees it as a way to enact revenge on Thanos for pushing her people to brink of extinction.

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy is an interesting venture. Similar to its Batman series, Telltale has decided to step outside what is perceived as canon in either Marvel’s comic or movie universes with this property and tries to forge its own iteration of these characters. In doing so, the team throws off some of the potential creative shackles from pre-established canon, like how they use characters and organizations like the Nova Corps, Yondu, The Collector, Hala, and Thanos. For even a casual Guardians fan, this had all the parts needed for an epic space adventure, and it was a mostly fun one, too. Telltale was able to capture much of the humor and light-heartedness of the Guardians successfully, and utilized each character pulled from Marvel lore to their fullest.

There was a cost for this creative freedom, however, and it came up quickly. Operating outside of known canon meant this adventure couldn’t stand as well on its own, adding problems like having to lengthily explain a lot of the universe since pre-established backstories and encounters no longer necessarily apply. Constant flashbacks into character histories, and even a section that explores how the Guardians first got together, often derailed the pacing of the adventure. Just when it felt like you were going to hit an interesting payoff for whatever “B” or “C” plots that particular episode of the series had introduced, you were derailed by yet another scene of Star-Lord camping with his mom.

These flashbacks also felt like desperate attempts at fleshing out characters who border on being somewhat flat to begin with, since the Guardians’ dynamic and appeal relies so heavily on the group as a whole being polar opposites of one another. Telltale’s writing was at its finest when the group was together and arguing like lunatics. When they inevitably were separated at various points in each episode, the lengthy exposition that would soon follow came off as weak—a problem that is often seen in other Guardians of the Galaxy related-media as well.

The writing also suffers from a lack of consistency, an issue that has become more and more evident as Telltale’s games have become more popular. This has resulted in the company attempting to keep up a breakneck pace to meet a once-high demand. Part of the solution to this is multiple writers working on different episodes. What ends up happening is drastic shifts in tone from episode to episode that can be jarring, particularly when you marathon the episodes once the entire season has been released like I do. Other examples of this include callbacks to previous episodes, which often feel tacked on and out of place. It gives the sense they were added in late, shoehorned into an episode that might’ve been being worked on at the exact same time as the one before it.

What Guardians of the Galaxy does well, though, is help Telltale return to its puzzle-solving roots. Many of its more recent games have shied away from allowing players to actually move around a lot in the world, and instead all the action has been increasingly  heavy on quicktime events. While there are still a fair amount of QTEs here, you also get some time in Star-Lord’s jet boots and get to walk around ancient Kree temples and other places in the universe as you try to figure out some puzzles. There’s even an elevation element, where Star-Lord has to fly in certain rooms to reach potential clues.

The other major gameplay aspect of Telltale games is, of course, making choices. At this point, everyone knows each choice you make can potentially affect gameplay, and I think Guardians did a stellar job at providing branching paths, particularly from episode three onward. There, you have one major decision that causes a drastic shift and can lead directly to many different characters living or dying. In fact, I triggered an ending that only 5.9% of other players received based on my choices. And no, that doesn’t mean just that 94.1% of other players got a different ending. There are multiple endings and results based on whom you befriend and how each situation becomes resolved. This was the first time in quite some time where it felt like my choices really had some weight with a Telltale game.

Of course, this was when the game was working properly. I feel like I’m beating a dead horse each time I review a Telltale game now, but their engine, the Telltale Tool, has not aged well. And because of it, it feels like each subsequent game the company tries to make has more and more technical issues with it. Some are comical, like Star-Lord’s weird speed-walking animation. Why not just let him break out into a run? Others are annoying, but far from game-breaking, like NPCs at the Knowhere bar blinking in and out of existence in the background of a scene with characters talking. But then there are others that are unforgivable.

One glitch nearly made it so I couldn’t finish the game. In chapter four of episode three, right before you make that aforementioned big branching decision, all the Guardians meet with a new friend to discuss how they’ll proceed going forward. No matter what choices you make, the game will glitch here and you won’t be able to talk to the people you need in order to trigger a cutscene that moves the game along. You’ll be stuck, forever, unable to talk to anyone, waiting for a scene that will never happen. I reloaded the checkpoint half-a-dozen times, even going back through all my conversations right before that moment hoping a different path would resolve the glitch, but to no avail.

This is a bug that Telltale is well aware of, is present in both PC and console versions of the game according to some digging, and that still hasn’t been patched even since episode three’s release at the end of August. Luckily, during my digging on the internet, I was able to find that completely quitting out of the game and then starting back up from the last checkpoint should resolve the issue and it did. Anytime a bug requires you to restart your game or your system, though, there’s clearly some technical shortcomings that need to be dealt with, and hopefully, what with all the changes going on currently at Telltale, that ends up happening in future games.

Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series is not Telltale’s best work. Like most of its other recent projects, its engine is really showing its age, and it’s getting to where the games are almost unplayable at points. The writing for Guardians is also clearly handcuffed by wanting to do something different with an established property, instead of working in pre-determined boundaries, and ended up causing more creative problems than solutions in the long run. That said, there are a lot of touching and even humorous moments in this particular series, showing Telltale’s writers had a strong grasp of the material. Being able to explore the world and walk around as Star-Lord was also a nice throwback to earlier Telltale games, instead of the more quicktime driven ones from recent times. Still, you’d have to be a pretty big fan of Guardians of the Galaxy to occupy your gaming time with this one.

Publisher: Telltale Games • Developer: Telltale Games • ESRB: T – Teen • Release Date: 11.07.17
6.5
There are points where Guardians of the Galaxy is barely playable because of how terrible the engine is. Yes, the story at least has some heart to it, and at key points your decisions feel like they matter. But it mostly feels like Telltale was creatively backed into a corner with this property full of oddball characters, and the end result is far from the studio’s best work.
The Good More gameplay directly in the hands of the player; a decent story that borrows successfully from both Marvel’s comics and movies.
The Bad Game-breaking glitches that really detract from the experience.
The Ugly My spontaneous dancing a la Star-Lord when some amazing songs started playing.
Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy: The Telltale Series is available on Xbox One, PS4, PC, iOS, Android, and Switch. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by xxx for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whether it’s a game that has platforming elements like Cuphead, or the standard bearer for the genre making a triumphant return like Super Mario Odyssey, we’ve had a great run recently with platformers. Of course, having these stellar examples also allows for easy contrast when we come across one that does not live up to expectations, and unfortunately, Super Lucky’s Tale is a pretty pathetic example of a platformer.

Like most platformers, Super Lucky’s Tale’s story is a simple one. You play as the titular Lucky, a brave little fox whose dream is to one day become guardian of the Book of Ages. The Book is said to contain tremendous power, and so it’s no surprise that a nefarious group of felines known as the Kitty Litter want it for themselves. Lucky’s sister is typically protector of the book, but while she is away, Lucky is the de facto protector-in-training—a perfect time for the Litter to strike. While working in his sister’s stead, Lucky accidentally knocks the book open when the Litter surprise attacks, and soon they are all sucked within its pages. Now, Lucky must navigate the worlds described in the book if he hopes to stop the Litter’s leader, Jinx, and prove himself worthy of being a true protector of the book.

At the very least, Super Lucky’s Tale does put together a series of fun little worlds to explore. Each represents a chapter in the Book of Ages, and is broken down into a series of stages that can be accessed from that respective world’s hub. Both the stages and hub are full of colorful characters that want to help Lucky, ranging from the worms of Veggie Village to the golems of the Sky Castle. Even the enemies Lucky faces off against seem like they popped out of a children’s story book, including rotund little bumble bees that fire their stingers at you or carnivorous flowers with cartoonish jaws that try to chomp on our foxy friend’s fluffy tail. There are also plenty of nooks to explore in each world that can lead to coins (for one-ups) or four-leaf clovers, which are used to unlock each subsequent world in much the same way stars or moons are used in Mario’s 3D adventures.

There isn’t much beyond this going in the fox’s favor, however. While the worlds are fun, there are just too few of them to really constitute much of an adventure. The game only has four to explore, with about 25 four-leaf clovers to be found in each (there are 99 clovers total in the game). This makes Super Lucky’s Tale feel surprisingly short—even for a $30 budget title—as it clocks in at about four hours to finish.

What’s really puzzling, though, is how the game tries to shoehorn in replayability by instituting some ridiculous barriers between worlds. While the first world only requires 10 clovers to advance, the subsequent worlds need 30, 60, and finally 80 total before the final boss—meaning that you need to snag nearly ever clover in the game before you can complete it. The problem is, collecting them can often be boring, running you through the same tasks over and over such as simply finishing the stage, finding tokens that spell L-U-C-K-Y, collecting 300 coins, or finding a particular secret in each stage. It’s natural that many players will pass up getting all of the clovers on their first time through stages, but that means that, once they hit a certain point, there will be no choice but to go back and grind a little. Fortunately, I was able to find 84 of the 99 clovers in the game on my initial playthrough, but if this is indeed a game intended for younger audiences, I don’t expect those players to have nearly as much patience.

Speaking of the final boss, there’s also a sharp spike in difficulty at this particular point in the game. I personally found Super Lucky’s Tale to be a breeze to get through, so actually being slightly challenged by the end boss was a pleasant surprise for me. The problem is, it’s so inconsistent with the rest of the game that if a younger gamer were to be playing this, I wouldn’t be surprised if they found this frustrating because of how unnatural a bump it was.

Where Super Lucky’s Tale really falls apart is with its gameplay. Movement in a platformer is vital to the experience, and Lucky is one of the worst-handling protagonists I’ve ever played as. His jumps feels extremely floaty, while on the ground he’s plodding and tank-like. This leads to an inability to tell when he’s getting enough momentum for a jump or if he’ll fall short, even with his mediocre double jump. One unique element to Lucky is that he can also burrow under the ground, which is great for solving puzzles or collecting coins. However, as he burrows, you feel like you’re fighting the controller, trying to make Lucky go the direction you want him to while the game seems to have other ideas, leading to an inaccurate zig-zag across the landscape. All these things combined makes Super Lucky’s Tale feel more difficult to play that it actually is given its simplistic puzzles and basic moving platforms. When the controller itself feels like your greatest enemy, you know a game has failed as a platformer.

The other aspect where the gameplay doesn’t stand up is in its camera. Most of the game takes place in a 3D world, but you rarely can adjust to camera for better angles to make critical jumps. These kinds of issues feel like something that was remedied 20 years ago, when game developers were still learning how to operate in a 3D space; it’s absolutely inexcusable at this point to not give the player full control of the camera to line up jumps.

At times, at least, Super Lucky’s Tale seems like it did try to make an effort to be entertaining. The game occasionally mixes up its primary 3D stages with 2.5D side-scrolling sections, and there are even some mini games that were a lot of fun—including an endless runner, and some Marble Madness-inspired sections where you have to roll Lucky around in a ball. These sections were probably so enjoyable, however, because Lucky’s movement was boiled down to the bare minimum in each, with little to no jumping involved.

Finally, Super Lucky’s Tale has a surprising amount of glitches. The most prominent one would be audio cutting out after a load screen, requiring me to restart the game. It only happened a couple of times, but even the uninspired soundtrack of this game is better than listening to nothing at all. Lucky is also poorly animated, leading to moments such as when he seems as if he he’s standing still for a couple of seconds while simultaneously sliding across the landscape as I was moving him with the joystick (until he finally broke into his running animation). There’s also your typical problems such as occasionally getting stuck on the environment, or phasing through what should otherwise be solid objects. Issues like these just seemed like the final bit of evidence of a lack of polish that this game desperately needed.

Super Lucky’s Tale is nothing short of a disappointment. It pales in comparison to contemporaries in the genre and feels like it might’ve been a decent effort decades ago from developers who were just starting to experiment in the 3D space. The world and characters are cute and provide a fitting “fun for the whole family” sort of motif that was clearly a goal with this game, but all the style in the world can’t save something with such little substance. Floaty controls, poor camera angles, and repetitive gameplay all spell doom for Lucky, who becomes just the latest in a long line of failed platforming heroes.

Publisher: Microsoft Studios • Developer: Playful • ESRB: E – Everyone • Release Date: 11.07.17
4.0
Lucky is unrealized potential. There is always space for a new kid-friendly platformer, and Lucky’s cute and colorful world could’ve served as a great entry point for a new franchise. Sadly, poor controls, a terrible camera, and just overall lackluster gameplay leave Super Lucky’s Tale being a subpar effort not worthy of your time.
The Good A cute, colorful world fit for gamers of all ages.
The Bad Lucky controls terribly, glitches galore, and the game is awfully short.
The Ugly The hope I legitimately had for this game before playing it.
Super Lucky’s Tale is available on Xbox One and PC. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Microsoft for the benefit of this review. EGM reviews games on a scale of 1 to 10, with a 5.0 being average.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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