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Out of the Shadow

Shadow Complex was sort of a game out of time when it released back on the Xbox 360 via Xbox Live Arcade in 2009. A side-scrolling action-adventure reminiscent of metroidvanias from years past, Shadow Complex put players in control of Jason Flemming, an ordinary man put in extraordinary circumstances.

When Jason’s girlfriend goes missing while they’re camping in the wilderness, he has to track her down. What he finds instead is a secret military installation run by an anarchist group called the Progressive Restoration that wants to overthrow the government en route to world domination. As he explores the facility, Jason will use a variety of super-powered armaments he finds inside to save his girl and possibly the world.

Now, with a remastered edition of the game on its way for Xbox One, PS4, and PC almost seven years after the release of the original, we sat down with ChAIR Entertainment co-founder and creative director Donald Mustard to discuss why now was the time to bring Shadow Complex back to gamers.

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EGM: Why bring Shadow Complex to current gen, and why do it now specifically?

Donald Mustard: It’s always been one of our goals at ChAIR to bring Shadow Complex to as wide of an audience as possible. When we first finished Shadow Complex, we started working on and moving on to a sequel, but then the opportunity to make a game with Apple for their budding game platform presented itself to us. And we thought that would be a really great use of Unreal Engine technology and so we paused development on Shadow Complex 2 and started work on this iOS thing that ended up becoming Infinity Blade, which then became this huge thing and that we didn’t anticipate happening.

Then led to some sequels and once we finished work on Infinity Blade III, we started work on this new original IP with J.J. Abrams that we announced a few weeks ago called Spyjinx. But while doing that, enough stuff kind of finally aligned where we had the time and resources and could take the original Shadow Complex and it get it converted over to our most recent code base and get it prepped in a way that we could bring it to PC, Xbox One, and PS4 and man, I’m so excited. I’ve been wanting this to happen forever. I know it’s taken a while, but this was literally the first opportunity that we could do it, and so we did it.

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EGM: Originally Shadow Complex was an Xbox 360 exclusive. Was it difficult to bring Remastered to current gen consoles and PC?

DM: Well, we have a couple of awesome things going for us. One is being part of Epic Games and we use Unreal Engine technology, which is super-versatile and is already very good at cross-platform performance. So, it’s been a relatively painless process to take the original Shadow Complex code and bring it up to date with our current version of Unreal Engine. And we’ve had a great partner in Hardsuit Labs that has helped us in doing that.

So we got everything moved over code-wise, and then luckily when we first developed Shadow Complex, we authored all of the art and textures at a higher resolution, and then turned and scaled down the textures and art to fit what the Xbox 360 could do. But modern consoles are a lot faster now, PCs are a lot faster now, and that allowed us to go back into the original source art and use it at its highest resolution settings, which is awesome because now all the art is in its original authored state. And everything looks amazing while still playing super-tight. So it hasn’t been that crazy of a process. Lots of work to make sure everything still looks and plays well, but it’s ready and we’re excited.

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EGM: The original game ran on Unreal Engine 3. Is Remastered still running on Unreal 3 or did you switch over to Unreal 4?

DM: No, Remastered is running on Unreal 3 still, but it’s interesting because the engine has evolved a lot over the years. Unreal Engine 3 from 2009 is very different from Unreal Engine 3 in 2015. In fact, a lot of current gen games still use Unreal 3, like Batman: Arkham Knight. And there’s a lot of really awesome stuff we’ve done engine-wise. What we did do was move the entire code base to our most current version of Unreal 3.

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EGM: You mentioned earlier that you had to “pause” production on Shadow Complex 2. If Remastered does well enough, do you think you’ll start production back up on the sequel?

DM: That’s certainly a distinct possibility. One of the reasons why I’ve been so excited to bring Shadow Complex to a wider audience is for the express purpose to open the door and pave the way for more opportunities to do more in the Shadow Complex universe. We loved working with Peter David so much and writing the game with us. He’s always been one of my favorite comic book writers and we loved working with him and he wrote the first game. So one of the first things we did for pre-production on the sequel was for him to write a script for that sequel. So we’ve got this really awesome Peter David script for the sequel along with some other things. I mean, we’ve got some really awesome stuff that we’d love to do if there’s interest. So yeah, our hope is that if people are interested and they love the game and they want more of it across multiple platforms that this will open the path for us to do more. Nothing would make me happier.

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EGM: So, what new things can we expect from Shadow Complex Remastered besides the improved upon graphics?

DM: One of the things when we sat down and said we were going to do this was that it was very important to us that we keep the core gameplay experience as close to the original as possible because it is such a beloved game. People really loved Shadow Complex and we love Shadow Complex. So while we were willing to allow ourselves to turn up the resolution and put in some of the original high-res art, we very deliberately didn’t change any of the core gameplay. The game is the original game in terms of how it feels and how it plays and the layout of the world and where all the power-ups are and what they do. That said, we did allow a few little things, a few tweaks here or there and a few little things we’ve hidden for people to find.

And we allowed one other cool thing. Early on in the development of Shadow Complex, we had created this melee system where if you got up near enemies, you could take them down and do this quick, cool, little cinematic takedown like snapping someone’s neck, or punching them, or kicking a bomb guy or whatever. And that was the like the 1.0 implementation of that system. So, one of the first things we were changing for Shadow Complex 2 was a more contextual melee takedown system. Like if you had ran up to a guy and jumped in the air and then hit the melee button, you’d do this flying jump kick. Or if you were hanging on a ladder above a guy and hit melee, you’d reach out with your legs and snap his neck or pull people off ledges. And that system was so cool and was pretty much finished, so we had all that and put all that into this as well. So that’s a cool new thing we added to the game and there’s a couple things like that, but for the most part we didn’t want to alter the game beyond what it is because we think it is so great as is and didn’t want people to not experience the same thing people experienced six years ago.

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EGM: Back in 2009, old-school side-scrolling metroidvanias like Shadow Complex weren’t really being made at that time. Since then, particularly through the Indie scene, the genre has seen resurgence. Do you think that might help Shadow Complex Remastered hit a larger audience this go around?

DM: I agree and that is something we had hoped would happen because yeah, in 2009 not only were people not making non-linear exploration-based side-scrollers, people really weren’t making side-scrollers period. When we were talking to people about making this 3D-looking, but strictly 2D playing game, people thought we were crazy. And we said it wasn’t crazy and thought people were going to love it and decided to build it on our own. Then we said we’d make a Metroid-esque non-linear side-scroller.

To me, Super Metroid in 1994 was the pinnacle of 2D game design. Then all these 3D systems like the PlayStation and the N64 came out and we moved away from some of those design lessons. To me it was crazy. It would be like Grand Theft Auto came out and then no one made an open-world GTA style game for 15 years. So I felt we had to do this and we made the game and people loved it and we loved it.

Since then, I agree there has been this resurgence of non-linear side-scrollers, which was half the reason I even wanted to make Shadow Complex. Because I love playing those types of games and I love all those games that have come out over the last couple of years in the style I used to play. I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to be able to talk to the creators and teams behind some of those games and share our experiences making those games and it’s been really cool.

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EGM: There appears to be some heavy subject matter throughout the story of Shadow Complex, with topics like terrorism and the NSA, among others coming up. What was the inspiration behind that when making Shadow Complex?

DM: When we sat down to make the game, we wanted to do two things. We wanted to explore our love of Metroid-style games and we also wanted to explore our love of G.I. Joe. We all grew up in the 80s and we loved G.I. Joe. I always loved the dichotomy between G.I. Joe and Cobra and the idea that there was this hi-tech enigmatic bad guy that had all these resources versus more low-tech military people. And we thought it’d be really cool if we could make our version of that and that was really our idea behind the Progressive Restoration. To make these hi-tech bad guys versus this lone hiker who had no technology, and then stealing their tech and using it against them. That was really our aim and goal.

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During E3 2015, I had a chance to talk to Madden NFL 16 creative director Rex Dickson for Walmart Game Center about the game’s new modes, and new passing system!

Switching sides

If you told me back in August, when Assassin’s Creed Rogue was first announced, that it would be the superior Assassin’s Creed game coming out this year—even though it’s a last-gen exclusive—I’d have said you went and lost your mind. But, here we are, several months later, and after having played both games to completion, I can attest that this is indeed the case, with Rogue serving as a perfect conclusion to the series’ time spent exploring Europe’s North American colonies in the 18th century.

Assassin’s Creed Rogue takes place between Assassin’s Creed III and IV, set against the backdrop of the Seven Years’ War (known as the French and Indian War here in the U.S.) during the 1750s and tells the story of Shay Cormac, a bright trainee of the Assassin Order whose first solo mission ends in horrific disaster. Furious at the Assassin Mentor, Achilles (yes, the same one who, in his later years, would train Connor Kenway in Assassin’s Creed III), Shay tries to undermine the Order’s future plans. Gunned down by his former associates when he’s caught in the act of stealing key precursor-race documents, Shay is left for dead in a snow bank just off Achilles’ Homestead in Massachusetts, where he’s found by a group of Templars and nursed back to health. Thus his conversion begins: From great Assassin prospect to one of the most effective Templars who ever lived.

I was originally afraid that Rogue would feel boring and would be nothing more than a complete copy-and-paste job with elements from the two games with which it links narratively. Instead, Rogue feels like coming back to an old friend. Familiar but changed in the time since last I saw it, full of new tales, but keeping the same mannerisms that makes it uniquely Assassin’s Creed.

For example, the game’s one proper city, New York, is completely different from what we remember in Assassin’s Creed III, since Rogue is set before the Great Fire of 1776. Buildings that were smoldering husks during Connor’s adventure are now mansions and monuments perfect for climbing. You can also undertake plenty of new side missions here, as well as in the outposts scattered about the brand-new Hudson River Valley region.

One instance of these side missions comes in the form of gangs led by Assassins that plague different areas. By removing the threat of these ruffians, you can increase the wealth of the area they formerly inhabited. Shay then gets a cut of that new wealth via the game’s economy, similar to the system seen in Assassin’s Creed II and Unity. As he helps the colonists prosper, he prospers as well, getting a steady flow of income to his bank account. He can also increase an area’s wealth by using materials collected during ship battles to rebuild important buildings that have seen better days.

Rogue also features Assassination Interceptions. Before, you’d go to a pigeon coop and get a side assassination mission. Now, you’re trying to catch pigeons to prevent assassinations, throwing a wrench into the Assassins’ plans. These defense missions provide a fresh twist on an old formula, since you have a time limit to hunt down would-be killers in a crowd and take them out before the target falls to a hidden blade or a pistol shot.

Also, the waterways that you sail on are new here. While the aforementioned Hudson River Valley and North Atlantic regions provide a topography that looks similar to what you saw in Black Flag, it brings its own set of challenges, such as clearing out French colonies in order to claim them for the glory of the British Empire or discovering a variety of collectibles like war journals and Native American totems.

Besides new outposts and colonies to explore, just the act of sailing itself is fraught with new dangers. Due to the freezing waters, icebergs are a constant threat—but they’re also a lot of fun to destroy as your crew gives a rousing “Huzzah!” with each one that breaks apart. You’ll also often find and recover building materials that were frozen inside the ice, giving you some additional economic motivation in bringing about their destruction. What’s more, sinking icebergs can cause huge waves in the surrounding waters, and by timing your shots right, you can sink nearby enemy gunboats and toss about other small ships to turn the tide of a battle more in your favor by adding that extra element of chaos.

Naval battles also see an upgrade. Not only does Shay have different weapons than Black Flag’s Edward had at his disposal (like flaming oil barrels that do massive damage if you can get an enemy ship to sail into them), but enemy ships are also more willing to go on the offensive now. Several times, it looked like I was going to have my enemy ready for boarding—but they rammed my ship and tried to board me instead. The results were the same, though, with me killing a dozen or so of their crew and stealing their cargo, and privateering as Shay felt a lot more invigorating than pirating with Edward.

Combat hasn’t just changed at sea, though. Shay has some special new weapons that come as a result of crossing paths with some of history’s most influential figures, like Ben Franklin, who bestows upon you a grenade launcher. I know—it sounds ridiculous that a grenade launcher would exist in the 1750s, but documents prove that Franklin had been working on a grenade back then. If you should happen to pilfer the prototype, and combine it with another new weapon in your Air Rifle, then history would be none the wiser. Admittedly, the grenade launcher is a bit overpowered and quickly able to whittle down crowds of enemy forces with just a few well-placed shots, but it’s also a lot of fun—I ended up using it more as an ace in the hole than something I’d frequently carry into battle.

Beyond the pleasant gameplay tweaks, Shay’s story is easily one of the most enjoyable we’ve seen from the series. With the large gap in history between Assassin’s Creed III and IV, Rogue avoids being backed into the corner that most interquels have to deal with, where the game has to start and end—no matter what—at a certain point in order to keep continuity in place. It also neatly ties up a few loose ends, especially in regards to a huge chunk of Haytham Kenway’s story.

Shay also proves himself as one of the strongest characters in Assassin’s Creed lore, and he almost instantly became a personal favorite for me. His constant struggles with his conscience—he’s often racked with guilt for leaving his former friends—shows a doubtful, remorseful side we rarely see from any series protagonist. The strong supporting cast of both Assassins and Templars only makes Shay a more well-rounded character, since he interacts with each in different ways—whether it’s the Templar George Munro, to whom Shay feels he owes his life (and he kind of does) or the contempt he shows the stuck-up French-Canadian Assassin Louis-Joseph Gaultier. In fact, I enjoyed Shay’s tale so much, and it offered such an intriguing glimpse into the other side of the Assassin-Templar war, that I was more than happy to pledge allegiance to the Templars when all was said and done.

It wasn’t just Shay’s point of view that told the Templar side of the story, however. The real-world sequences return in Rogue, once again having you play the role of an Abstergo Entertainment employee in Montreal. When you first access Shay’s story, it unleashes a virus that slams the building into lockdown. Only by bringing the computers back online, little by little, can you access more of Shay’s tale, and as you hack your way through a brand-new series of inventive and fun puzzles, you’ll learn more about the history of the Templars and what they think of the Assassins.

Even with these gameplay tweaks and the enjoyability of Shay’s story, it needs to be said that Rogue is a far from a perfect experience. In terms of narrative, Shay’s story is the shortest adventure in Assassin’s Creed, lasting only six Sequences. This puts a huge crimp on pacing—by the end of the game, Shay’s just chasing down all his former associates, one mission right after another, with little to no buildup. His dialogue’s also hit-or-miss: At some points, he’ll provide memorable, poignant lines, but in other spots, he’ll deliver cheesy catchphrases over and over again like a 1980s B-movie action star (I swear, if he said, “I make my own luck” one more time…).

Also, some glitches forced me to restart several main story and side missions. Often, assassination targets would spawn in (or behind) a wall, so I couldn’t reach them. I’d have to kill myself to desynchronize and then pick the mission back up from a checkpoint. Doing this once or twice always did the trick, but it was just the idea that I had to start entire sections of a mission over because the game became unplayable at points. Long load times and the occasional bit of lag also had me in constant fear that the game would crash at any moment. Unlike Unity, which did crash half a dozen times while I played it and also required several mission restarts, Rogue never completely locked up, at least.

Rogue also lacks a lot of the replayability we’ve seen in more recent Assassin’s Creed titles. There’s no multiplayer to speak of, competitive or cooperative, so once you collect all the items and complete all the side missions, there’s really not much else to do. As unpopular as it proved to be (I personally liked it, but I admit to being in a minority), at least the competitive multiplayer of previous last-gen entries offered something to bring you back for more.

Despite the rushed nature of the narrative and the semi-frequent technical glitches, I still found Rogue to be a far more pleasurable experience than I anticipated. It does just enough to put its own stamp on the franchise while also giving us critical story details in order to tie up loose ends between Assassin’s Creed III and IV. It acts as the perfect swan song for the franchise on the last generation of consoles, putting a neat-and-tidy bow on the Colonial Era Trilogy.

Developer: Ubisoft Sofia • Publisher: Ubisoft • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 11.11.14
8.5
The perfect Assassin’s Creed swan song on last-gen, Rogue offers perhaps the best protagonist the series has ever seen—even if the gameplay will be too familiar for the liking of some.
The Good Shay’s adventure is a perfect conclusion to Assassin’s Creed’s time in Colonial America.
The Bad Crams a lot of story into a short time, which hurts narrative pacing terribly.
The Ugly The shaggy, porno-esque goatee Shay sports before turning Templar.
Assassin’s Creed Rogue is available on Xbox 360 and PS3 and is coming to PC in 2015. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox 360. A retail copy was provided by Ubisoft for the benefit of this review.

Composer of the cosmos

When you think about the library of Kinect games for the Xbox 360 and Xbox One, it’s a rather sad state of affairs. One developer, however, has consistently put their peripheral expertise to good use and taken advantage of what’s otherwise been a disappointing piece of hardware. Of course, I’m speaking about Harmonix.

Dance Central provided the group fun of Rock Band—but without the expensive plastic-toy inputs. Wanting to continue this trend but offer fans a bit of changeup from their bootyshake-prompting staple, they teamed up with Disney to explore the classic combination of animation and music: Fantasia.

Fantasia: Music Evolved is one of those few Kinect games that you can actually play comfortably from your favorite chair, because it only requires your arms. You play as Yen Sid’s—the wizard from Fantasia whose name is conveniently “Disney” spelled backward—newest apprentice, and must prove you’re worthy of wearing his magic hat in the hopes of responsibly conducting the cosmos with your rhythm-infused fingertips. As your mastery improves, new worlds full of music and sound will come alive as you play 33 classical and contemporary songs, along with unique minigames, like beatboxing with talking vegetables or harmonizing with a yeti, to add your own special tracks to each world.

Along the way, you’ll also encounter Yen Sid’s former apprentice, Scout. This is where Music Evolved differs from most other Harmonix titles, since it actually provides a story. Once you’ve grasped the gameplay basics, Scout will come along and accidentally unleash “The Noise,” a cacophony of offbeat, ear-splitting rhythms that you must vanquish from the game’s 10 worlds by playing through the soundtrack and unlocking a pair of remixes for each song. Some remixes, for example, might see a classical piece from Dvorak and give it the old 8-bit treatment or take a contemporary artist like CeeLo Green and give “Forget You” a dubstep drubbing.

This is where I found a bit of fault with Music Evolved, however. With only 33 songs at launch (more coming via DLC, of course) you can blow through the whole thing pretty quickly—and disappointingly, for a $60 title. In order to force a second playthrough, though, you can’t unlock the second remix for each song, and therefore can’t 100-percent the game unless you play each song again after beating the story mode.

While it was still fun, I felt limited by not being able to just unlock each remix and minigame on my first run and hated having to go back and play many songs that I didn’t particularly care for a second or third time seemingly just to push the game from a three-hour experience to a six-hour endeavor.

Also, 33 songs isn’t a lot at all, but I was also disappointed by the fact that a game with the word “Disney”—a company known for its fantastic cinematic music—didn’t use any iconic songs from their films to flesh out the soundtrack. One could argue that the original Fantasia only used classical compositions, and the couple of original pieces that composer Inon Zur (best known for contributing to game soundtracks such as Fallout 3, Dragon Age: Origins, and Soul Calibur V) adds are great, but then why do we have to deal with Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj? I’d much rather have had any number of songs from The Lion King, Aladdin, Mary Poppins, Cinderella, or The Jungle Book to really hammer home the Disney feel and flesh out what quickly feels like a paltry playlist.

That said—and musical tastes aside—I couldn’t deny how much fun I had during the short time Music Evolved lasted. Each of the game’s worlds is beautifully designed in regards to the cartoonish art style, and being able to interact with each one in weird, wonderful ways filled me with a surprising, childlike glee. The Kinect picked up my motions rather seamlessly, even in my tiny living space, and as I swept my arms around and saw the bright flashes of light and color onscreen, I felt like I was indeed moving the heavens to music like Mickey back in the 1940 film. Unlike Mickey, though, it’s much harder to fail in Music Evolved, and I found myself racking up huge multipliers and nailing at least 80 percent of the moves in every given song. There’s also no option to bump up the difficulty—songs are simply rated on a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 being the hardest.

Beyond the core gameplay, though, the minigames might the brightest star in your orchestral sky. An assortment of different situations actually task you to think a little with pattern recognition and even require hopping about your living room as you charge up musical solar panels or realign the displaced pieces of a voice synthesizer. These elements aren’t limited to outside the songs, either. Five different games called “Composition Spells,” which also play an integral part to Scout’s story, allow you to mix notes while in the middle of playing a song and add a track unique to that particular playthrough.

With the ability to record game clips, you can also upload your best or most original performances to the Music Evolved YouTube channel, providing an interesting social wrinkle to what, by nature, is probably one of the least social of Harmonix’s games to date. There’s a local multiplayer component to Music Evolved, but it’s only for two people, and it can be a bit hard to track whose cues are whose when various swipes, punches, and traces start filling the screen.

Fantasia: Music Evolved may not be the deepest game, but it’s definitely a memorable one. It blends Harmonix’s ability to utilize music in interesting, dynamic ways with Disney’s uncanny knack to make most anyone feel like a kid provides a fun—albeit short—romp that once again provides that rare good Kinect experience.

Developer: Harmonix • Publisher: Disney Interactive Studios • ESRB: E10+ – Everyone 10 and up • Release Date: 10.21.14
7.5
Waving your arms in front of your TV like you’re conducting some kind of cosmic orchestra is a surprising amount of fun, but the lack of content leaves the experience feeling a bit bare.
The Good Simple, fun gameplay; looking around Yen Sid’s workshop; Inon Zur’s original compositions.
The Bad Lack of songs on disc, repeat playthroughs required to unlock all songs/remixes.
The Ugly Harmonix is still the only developer who knows how to make a fun Kinect game.
Fantasia: Music Evolved is available on Xbox One and Xbox 360. Primary version reviewed was for Xbox One. Review code was provided by Harmonix for the benefit of this review.

A new Assassin’s Creed, which bundles the last three console titles in the series together, was announced by Ubisoft this morning.

Officially titled Assassin’s Creed: Birth of a New World – The American Saga, the three games in the bundle are Assassin’s Creed III, Assassin’s Creed: Liberation HD, and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.

The collection has a release date of October 28, which means that with Assassin’s Creed Unity and Assassin’s Creed Rogue coming out on November 11, that there will be three Assassin’s Creed games coming out within a three-week period.

Assassin’s Creed: Birth of a New World – The American Saga will be available on Xbox 360 and PS3.

A monster mash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carving out a niche

The big project on everyone’s mind during this year’s GDC was, of course, Sony’s Project Morpheus. Because of this, another work-in-progress at the show might have flown under a lot of people’s radar, but I went hands-on with it before the week was through—and it’s finally ready to be revealed.

Project Totem is the latest Microsoft exclusive from developer Press Play, the folks behind Max: The Curse of Brotherhood. It’s a puzzle-platformer that, like many games in the genre, has a simple premise. You play as a pair of blocks that normally would sit in a totem pole. Each block is sent down a path that often has a similar, yet not exactly identical, layout to their counterpart.  Your objective? Get both blocks to the end of the course in order to unlock larger and more intricate carvings for the ultimate totem pole.

Where puzzle-platformers shine isn’t why you’re running these courses, but in how you traverse them. Gameplay is the driving force in this genre, and fortunately, even in the six pre-alpha-build single-player stages I was able to test, there seems to be enough easy-to-learn-yet-difficult-to-master mechanics to give Project Totem the addictiveness to compete against similar games.

The first, most critical element that I needed to learn was that the totem pieces are always linked. When one jumps, so does the other. When the other runs right, so does the other. Run left, and…hopefully you get the picture. The puzzle aspects quickly become evident from this mechanic when the courses stop being as identical as the totem pieces. Some pathways can only open when one of the totems steps on a particular switch. Other pathways can only be walked through by pieces of a certain color. And sometimes the lower totem block will have to serve as a stepping-stone for the upper one to reach the next platform.

As the courses become more intricate, the totem blocks also begin to acquire special powers. The first of these makes it so the two blocks can flip-flop positions at any time, even in mid-air, to move through color-coded barriers. Meanwhile, certain powers allow you to change the gravity of a single piece so one can be walking on the ceiling while another is on the floor.

Just as I began to get comfortable with these abilities, though, I had to start using them in unison. For example, in one instance I had to swap totems while simultaneously having one of them use its gravity powers. As more powers become unlocked, it was easy to imagine how crazy it might be to use three or four powers quickly in succession or different powers for each individual piece.

Besides this single-player mode, there’s also a time-trial mode to see how fast a player can beat each stage. The game also offers local co-op, which has completely different stages from single-player. Also, instead of each player controlling an individual totem (that would probably be a bit too easy), they control two totems for a total of four totems onscreen at once. When obstacles start becoming three and four blocks high, the emphasis on teamwork quickly becomes clear.

Even though Project Totem is still in its pre-alpha phase, Press Play is confident they can have the game available for download on Xbox 360 and Xbox One sometime in Q3 2014. And from what I was able to play of it at GDC, I’m fairly confident they can hit that mark, since the seven total stages each had a layer of polish you don’t normally see from games still labeled as pre-alpha. The controls were tight, the obstacles were creative, and there was a nice feeling of accomplishment every time I overcame a new challenge. If that’s any sign of what’s to come, puzzle-platformer fans should definitely keep an eye out for this one.

Chasing the chicken, for old time’s sake

It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since the first Fable. Like many who played it the first time around, Lionhead’s fantasy RPG has always held a special place in my heart. I loved the idea that your interactions with the world around you could affect your character’s quests and their physical appearance (good characters received a “holy glow,” while bad players would sprout demonic horns) gave the sensation that your choices actually carried some weight—a rarity back then.

The combat was deeply satisfying, and finding the balance between Strength (melee), Skill (ranged), and Will (magic) to fit your playstyle delivered an instant gratification you rarely see in RPGs even today. Plus, the game featured a charming story that may not have been all that original (boy’s parents are murdered, boy becomes hero, boy enacts vengeance on those who wronged him…kind of like Batman), but it was still entertaining, especially since it was garnished with some classic British humor.

So, even though it didn’t redefine the genre (no matter what Peter Molyneux may say) and has been surpassed many times over at this point, Fable still remained a personal favorite of mine. It didn’t do anything spectacularly, but everything it did back in 2004, it did well. But I must admit after all this time that my memory may have been looking at things through Briar Rose–colored glasses.

Fable Anniversary builds off the content of the expanded 2005 re-release, Fable: The Lost Chapters on the original Xbox, providing a much-needed facelift by updating every asset with Xbox 360-caliber graphics. Along with this, Achievements have been added, and a brand-new user interface has been integrated into the game, one that not only allows players to save wherever they want, but also makes navigating store and inventory menus far easier. There’s even some interesting loading screens depicting an ever-growing map of Albion as you explore.

Besides the look, however, Fable Anniversary fails to offer anything new to the game. That’s not to say the game doesn’t benefit from the graphical update, but seeing Fable’s roots—especially with Legends on the horizon and Fable II, III, and Journey all in the rear-view mirror—makes Anniversary reek of a cash-in on the admitted nostalgia gamers like myself feel toward older franchises.

I’m here to warn you that time hasn’t been kind to this one. Compared to everything that’s come since then—even within the Fable series itself, let alone other RPGs—these roots seem shockingly bare. The stark realization that things aren’t as good as you may remember could leave a decidedly sour taste in your mouth. It left me quite sad, actually.

In one way, it’s an interesting exercise in seeing how far the industry has come. Now, you can choose to be a female protagonist in many RPGs. You still can’t make that choice in this Fable, nor can you customize your character to any reasonable extent. If the developers were going to take the time to update the entire look of the game, couldn’t they have afforded a few more in-depth customization options?

And would it have killed Lionhead to add a couple of extra missions and lengthen the game a little bit? Couldn’t they offer players an experience a little different from the one we had back in 2005? My Xbox 360 still plays Fable: The Lost Chapters (remember when systems had backward compatibility?), so there’s really very little incentive for me to go out and buy a whole new game—even with a $39.99 budget price—unless I’m an Achievement hunter or an OCD collector.

Anniversary lacks many of the features we’ve come to expect in modern RPGs, and the passage of time has dulled the punch of those few that the game did tout. The only value now lies in showing players who came to the franchise late the beginnings of this ongoing tale. It still works from a technical point of view, but only the combat remains rewarding—the one element not ravaged by time over these past 10 years.

What hurts Anniversary most of all, though, is coming to the realization that when Fable first came out, it was very good, even if it really didn’t break new ground. Now, it’s borderline irrelevant, since so little work has been done on this re-release to make the experience stand with contemporary RPGs. It was depressing to trudge through an Albion that looked so very different to me, not only due to the new graphics, but because of my sweet memories being shattered and replaced by a harsher reality. The tagline for Fable used to be “For every choice, a consequence.” Well, the consequence of Fable Anniversary is one disappointed reviewer—and the newfound understanding that, sometimes, it’s better to just leave your memories in the past.

Developer: Lionhead Studios • Publisher: Microsoft Studios • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 02.04.14
6.0
Fable still has some charming elements that have stood the test of time and survive in Fable Anniversary. But most of the game shows its age, so if you played Fable or Fable: The Lost Chapters the first time around, there’s little here to bring you back for more.
The Good Friendlier user interface and a graphical facelift; combat system holds up.
The Bad Everything else is starting to show its age.
The Ugly How entertaining I thought the fart feature once was.
Fable Anniversary is a Xbox 360 exclusive. 

Introduction

There were a lot of good games in 2013. For me, however, there weren’t a lot of great games, ones that were clearly head and shoulders above the pack and got me excited every time I talked about them.Aside from some Nintendo titles, the end of the year was surprisingly dull, due to the less-than-stellar launch lineups of the PS4 and Xbox One. Because of that, half my list is comprised of games that surprisingly came from the first six months of 2013. But when I look back, these are the five games I’d sit down and play again more than any others. Enjoy!

Ray’s Top Five Games for 2013

#05: Fire Emblem: Awakening

Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Intelligent Systems
Platforms: 3DS

Ray’s Take

Until Marth and Roy made their appearance in Super Smash Bros. Melee, I’d never heard of Fire Emblem, since it had only been released in Japan at that point. I personally didn’t get into the series until Path of Radiance a few years later, but since then, I’ve been hooked. The story and strategy is everything I could ever want from a game, and Awakening miraculously finds a way to raise what was already a high bar. Elements like character customization are also introduced to the States for the first time here, and pairing units adds another nuance that can’t be ignored when playing.

#04: Remember Me

Publisher: Capcom
Developer: Dontnod Entertainment
Platforms: Xbox 360, PS3, PC

Ray’s Take

Some games take you by surprise so much that you can’t help but fall in love with them. Remember Me is one of those games for me. From futuristic high rises that pierce the clouds to the seedy sewers comprising Neo-Paris’ underbelly, Nilin’s world pulled me in, with no small effort from our dear protagonist herself. The unique memory remixes and combo-creation gameplay elements stoked my fire as I spent way too much time exploring every second of people’s pasts or playing with my Pressens in the Combo Lab.

#03: Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Publisher: Ubisoft
Developer: Ubisoft Montreal
Platforms: Xbox One, PS4, Wii U, Xbox 360, PS3, PC

Ray’s Take

Few games were able to just straight up impress me more than Assassin’s Creed IV did this year. The amount of freedom I felt on the open sea was unparalleled, and I’d lose hours on end just boarding enemy ships or diving beneath the waves to unearth some long-sunken treasure. I’m genuinely amazed at the progress made between this and Assassin’s Creed III, and I’m of the opinion that Black Flag is the best Assassin’s Creed since we first met Ezio back in Assassin’s Creed II.

#02: Injustice: Gods Among Us

Publisher:Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment
Developer: NetherRealm Studios
Platforms: PS4, Wii U, Xbox 360, PS3, PS Vita, PC

Ray’s Take

I have to play a lot of games over the course of a given year. I’m not complaining, but the only bad thing about this is that I rarely can find the time to go back to the games I truly enjoy. The one game I constantly found myself coming back to when I did find the time, however, was Injustice. I loved the story, I loved the mechanics, and I even loved playing online with other people—an activity that usually has me smashing controllers and living-room furniture left and right.

#01: The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Nintendo
Platforms: 3DS

Ray’s Take

A Link Between Worlds is simply the best handheld Zelda game ever. Sorry, Link’s Awakening, but your 20-year title reign is at an end. The subtle changes to the classic Zelda formula, like having all the items at the beginning of the game, admittedly took some getting used to. But in the end, none of those changes stopped me from enjoying the game—and I couldn’t put my 3DS down until the adventure was over. In regards to the greatest Zelda games ever conversation, I wouldn’t put A Link Between Worlds past A Link to the Past or Ocarina of Time, but it’s not far off either.

Ray’s Off-Topic Awards for 2013

The Razor Ramon Award for Best Bad Guy
Jacob Danik
A lot of games this year tried to offer up some shades of gray to the black-and-white conflicts we normally expect. And while plot twists and grandiose questions about morality are fun, sometimes you just want someone you can hate. A bad guy you love because he’s bad. This year had a few candidates, but in the end, I chose Jacob Danik from Dead Space 3. He was a religious zealot willing to sacrifice the entire human race for what he believed to be salvation, and Simon Templeman played him brilliantly, projecting a cold ruthlessness akin to space itself.
Popsicle’s “The Colors, Duke! The Colors!” Award for Most Colorful Game
Super Mario 3D World
This one’s become sort of a tradition, so I figured I should continue it. It was a close call between several games this year, but I had to go with Super Mario 3D World. This particular Mario outing may have been a bit too easy and a bit too short for my tastes, but there’s no denying how gorgeous it was because of the variety of levels Mario was able to traverse for the first time in full HD. From purple ponds of poison and snowcapped summits down to the shine on the buttons of Mario’s overalls, a Mario game has never looked so good.
The Best Co-Op Gaming with Your Girlfriend Award
BattleBlock Theater
I play a fair amount of games with my girlfriend, but she only ends up happy that she joined in on a few of them. So, I figured I’d give a little recognition to the game she had the most fun co-op marathoning this year: BattleBlock Theater. She still talks about that game to this day, and it remains the only game where it’s OK to tell your significant other to go kill themselves, as we’d often sacrifice one another on floor spikes to serve as makeshift platforms to get across gaps.

Oh my darling, Clementine

EDITOR’S NOTE: THIS REVIEW MAY MAKE REFERENCE TO EVENTS THAT TOOK PLACE DURING SEASON ONE OF TELLTALE’S THE WALKING DEAD. IF YOU DON’T WANT IT SPOILED, I IMPLORE YOU TO GO PLAY IT AND THEN COME BACK. ALSO, WHAT TOOK YOU SO LONG? IT’S BEEN OUT FOR A YEAR ALREADY. WELL, WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR?! GO! THEN COME BACK.

Last year, Telltale captivated gamers everywhere by capturing the essence of what makes The Walking Dead comics great: human drama that just happens to take place during the zombie apocalypse. In the process, we got to know—and fall in love with—protagonists Lee and Clementine. Their unique dynamic is what kept many players going to the very end, when Lee finally succumbed to his infection. Clementine’s story was far from over, though, and now in Season Two, instead of serving as her protector, we get to play as Clem herself and see just how the world around her begins to take its toll during some of her formative years.

It’s been a little over 12 months since we played the end of Season One (the first time, anyway) and six since 400 Days, so in order to get players back into the groove of surviving the end of modern civilization, the episode starts off by punching you in the gut several times with some sequences you will not see coming. If you thought you might coast for a while and get your bearings playing as Clem, you’d best think again.

This sink-or-swim approach is a brilliant move by the gang at Telltale, as it serves two purposes. Not only does it prepare you for what’s to come over the rest of the episode—both in terms of point-and-click gameplay and dramatic tone—but it also forces you into Clem’s shoes faster, preventing you from “meta-gaming” scenarios as though you were still protecting Clem (a possible side effect of your role in Season One). This habit would be harder to break later on if you became used to that idea, and the game would be less immersive as a result.

I admit that, going into this first episode, I was afraid I’d fall into that mindset myself—and that there’d be a disconnect between me and playing as Clem because of it. Due to the nature of the first few scenarios in the episode, however, I quickly found myself playing out conversations as though I were actually Clem. I was still “protecting” her, but mostly because I was protecting a part of myself. I didn’t have the time to think on a meta-scale. Thus, when things finally did slow down, I was already in the mindset of thinking as Clem and continued on that route.

I also thoroughly enjoyed many of Clem’s conversation choices. If I wanted to maintain her innocence—since she still isn’t even a teenager—the game offered options for that path. If I wanted to wear some of Clem’s emotional scars on her sleeve a bit more, I could do that, too. Other times, Clem displayed more adultlike logic, showing off her accelerated maturity due to her past experiences. I personally chose this path, and was pleasantly rewarded when it led to a particularly entertaining conversation between Clem and a sassy older woman. My Clem doesn’t take s*** from anybody!

For all the good Telltale does in this opening episode’s story, they did make a couple of questionable design choices. The most notable—and disappointing—is the lack of ramifications from the decisions you made in Season One and 400 Days. While the “next episode” teaser at the end of All That Remains does seem to hint at this situation being rectified, I would’ve loved something more than a couple of dialogue choices reflecting back on what happened down in Savannah.

Part of this could be the idea that new players may be coming on board, much like how some people start watching the second season of a TV series after hearing how popular it is. The problem is that by trying to cater to a new audience, Telltale might be ostracizing their returning fanbase with this more generic entry point for the series.

If anything, making a lot of references to prior events could compel people to go back and buy and play Season One. Even if players don’t have a Season One save, this episode has a scenario generator at the beginning that plays out the major choices so that players can experience Season Two without fear of punishment or missing out on content. So, why not reward your loyalists a bit more and throw them a bigger bone?

I also felt like the episode ended at an odd point. In Season One, every episode had a very natural conclusion. All That Remains’ end comes out of nowhere, and it’s incredibly jarring. While it works as a cliffhanger—and I understand that the next episode will begin with some major conflict—there was an earlier sequence that would’ve made much more sense as a “natural” ending. But ending there would’ve made this experience a bit too short, and as it stands now, the episode’s only 90 minutes long, so it seems that Telltale wants to make sure players are still getting their money’s worth.

Despite these couple of questionable choices by Telltale, their Walking Dead series continues to be a narrative powerhouse. Even though there’s only an hour and a half of content here, there were several instances that I had to pause the game, walk away, get a drink, and then come back. I simply couldn’t power through and ignore the events of this episode, and I found myself frantically worrying about Clem now—just as much as when I was protecting her as Lee.  Fans of Season One have no excuse not to go out on and get this first episode of Season Two, and while I think newcomers should still play Season One first, they’ll be OK using this as a jumping-off point as well.

Developer: Telltale Games • Publisher: Telltale Games • ESRB: M – Mature • Release Date: 12.17.13
8.0
All That Remains is a fine way to kick off the second season of The Walking Dead. Telltale made some interesting design decisions putting players in the role of Clementine, and most of their choices—but not all—work out nicely.
The Good The story immerses players from the get-go.
The Bad Lack of ramifications from previous episodes.
The Ugly How easy I found it to play as a little girl.
The Walking Dead: Season 2: Episode 1 – All That Remains is available on Steam (PC/Mac), XBLA (Xbox 360), PSN (PS3), and iOS. Primary version reviewed was for Steam (PC).