Also available on Xbox 360, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, PlayStation 4, and Windows
Alan Wake has been sitting on my 360 shelf for years, but for some reason, I've never gotten around to playing it. When the remaster came out on PS5, I figured that was the ideal way to get into the game. I always thought it looked like a cool sort of Twilight Zone horror game, and I honestly didn't realize how right about that I was.
You play as the titular Alan Wake, a thriller writer who's hit a two year writer's block and has gone with his wife to take a relaxing vacation to Bright Falls, Washington. Alan is generally a pretty bright guy, for some reason, he doesn't think there's anything odd about a woman in a black dress with a black funeral veil standing in a dark corner by the bathrooms in a diner, so then spoopy things ensue. His wife vanishes, the feds try to kill him, and a geriatric Viking Metallica has to help him. It sounds dumb, and a lot of it is, but it's the best kind of dumb - out there enough to be funny but unobtrusive enough not to interfere with an otherwise serious and well-written story.
Since I never played Alan Wake on 360, I can't compare the two from first hand experience, but having seen video of the original release, it's clear that this remaster has gotten a well-deserved fresh coat of paint with more detailed textures and a much higher resolution, and the frame rate has been improved and stabilized dramatically. That said, some of the mechanics still show that this is still, at its core, just a spruced up 360 game. The movement and dodging mechanic, especially, don't feel new or fluid at all. Alan Wake moves like a chunky tank with no speed or real agility at all - a little like Leon from Resident Evil 4 but without the sex appeal. The dodge is also frustrating by which I mean it sometimes just doesn't work. Maybe there's some secret to the mechanic that I missed, but I'd be moving around shooting at enemies, and I'd try to dodge an attack coming from the side, and half the time, he'd just stand there. Even when the dodge does sometimes work, the enemies routinely stun-lock you into a three to five hit combo that will take you from full health to 10% health before you can even move. As fun as the combat could be at times, it's also definitely the weakest part of the game.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed Alan Wake, but it's far from perfect even with the remaster. The movement feels bumbling and clunky, the combat is fun at range but a pain up close, and the story, while a great blend of Stephen King, Twilight Zone, and Lovecraft, feels pretty mid-tier as far as horror game narratives go. Still, while it may not be a jaw-dropping masterpiece, it's a solid thriller-horror game, and I definitely recommend it. Heck, even if you've got a 360 copy lying around and don't want to buy the remaster, play that. It's not gonna look as nice or run as smoothly, but the game itself should be pretty much the same, and it's definitely worth experiencing for fans of all things spoopy.
My Rating - 3 Neps
Cruis'n USA and Cruis'n World are two of the most iconic arcade racers on the N64 (plus the mixed reception Cruis'n Exotica), and a lot of Nintendo fans have long awaited a return to the wacky racing that the Cruis'n games brought in the 90s. It took over 20 years (excluding the Game Boy Advance game; I'm just talking home console), but we finally have a new Cruis'n, and it's glorious.
Cruis'n Blast may not be the prettiest game out there - it honestly looks like one of the better PS3 games for the most part - but it's a TON of fun. It honestly doesn't look bad, either; it's just not quite as pretty as Mario Kart 8, for example. There are a few frame rate issues that I noticed here and there, but it never affected gameplay for me. Still, though, a racing game is where you want smooth gameplay at all times, so it's worth mentioning. The biggest disappointment here is that, while the game does support local multiplayer, there is no support whatsoever for online multiplayer. There have been teases that an update to add online multiplayer may be in the works, but it's still a bit odd and disappointing for a racing game released in late 2021 to exclude any online connectivity.
The main game modes here are, obviously, your classic arcade levels that you've played if you've had the fortune to play a Cruis'n Blast arcade machine (shoutout to Boxcar in Raleigh, North Carolina), time trials, and a handful of tours comprising four races each. Each of these tours have a theme; escaping the cops, extreme weather, etc. One disappointing thing is that you'll see the arcade tracks repeated over and over again just with variations rather than two dozen distinct tracks. It's not a deal breaker, but it is a bit of a bummer.
As is usually the case for me, my favorite part of the game was the unlocks. There are 23 cars in the game, but only five are available at the start, leaving 23 to unlock. Some of these are unlocked by clearing a certain tour and buying with money earned, but others are unlocked via keys found hidden throughout the game (three per stage). In addition to unlocking the vehicles themselves, using them earns you xp for that vehicle, and leveling up your vehicle unlocks the ability to purchase neon accent lights, some aesthetic body modification, and an engine upgrade. All in all, there's a lot to unlock which gives you ample reason to keep playing.
Cruis'n Blast isn't a perfect game, but it's a perfect "Nintendo" game if that makes sense. It's just "fun" in the purest sense. On paper, it should be a solidly mediocre game, but between the comfortable control mechanics, the rather "out there" vehicle selection, and the general wackiness of the game, it's just a goofy and extraordinarily enjoyable experience from start to finish. It may not be as refined a local multiplayer racer as Mario Kart, but Cruis'n Blast definitely deserves a place on any Switch owner's shelf (or SD card) because for those times when you want to just relax and shoot the shit without committing homicide over a blue shell, Cruis'n Blast is the perfect choice.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Everyone talks about game remakes - and rightly so - but what doesn't get enough attention are game demakes - when you take a game and make a dramatically scaled back version for older hardware. The most famous is probably the Chinese NES demake of Final Fantasy VII, but the most impressive as well as the most fun in my opinion is definitely Halo 2600, the aptly named Halo demake for Atari 2600.
2001's Xbox was the powerhouse console at the top of the spec lists of the 6th generation of console gaming, and 1977's Atari 2600 was the behemoth 2nd generation console that took the world (or at least America) by storm. What do these two have in common? Aside from being filled with Activision games of various quality, not much. Except for Halo. Created by Ed Fries, the guy who led the team that created the first Xbox and was key in acquiring studios like Rare and Bungie, Halo 2600 is a surprisingly good answer to the question "What if Halo had been created 20 years earlier?" It's obviously got no story told outside of the instruction manual (as was the case with pretty much all of the 2600's games) and very crude sprite graphics, but it's probably the best game ever to fit on a 4 KB cartridge, at least in my opinion.
When you start the game, you're greeted to a 2600 version of the Halo theme. The game itself plays a lot like a mix of Adventure and Berzerk. The combat is a lot like Berzerk in that you have to shoot enemies while avoiding getting shot yourself, and the game seamlessly progresses from screen to screen like Adventure. The enemies - really fantastically done sprites of Grunts and Elites - can shoot in any direction, but your pixel Master Chief can only shoot left or right, so it's important to get a feel for the controls and the timing of your attacks.
As you go through the game searching for keys to unlock the energy gates blocking your path, you'll get a gun upgrade (I like to imagine it's an upgrade from the assault rifle to the sniper rifle), a shield upgrade that lets you survive a single shot, and a boot upgrade that doubles your speed. While there's only so much detail the 2600 can cram into a landscape, you do see a variety of trees, rocks, and weird energy...things...as you progress. The culminating challenge is a final boss, a flying saucer-looking enemy, that you have to shoot several times to take out. If you manage to defeat the boss, congratulations! You beat the game! It immediately restarts but with a red title screen indicating that you've progressed to "hard mode" which really just has you play the game again but moving at like one-quarter speed.
Halo 2600 may not stand up to the likes of Halo Infinite for a deep and engaging narrative experience, but it's an extremely impressive demake that manages to cram the core "feel" of Halo into just four measly kilobytes. AtariAge, bless them, sold physical cartridges of this back in 2013 complete with box and instructional manual, although I imagine that most people played this on an emulator or a Harmony flash cartridge. Regardless of how you play it, it's one of the 2600 I most readily recommend, and it's a must for those of in the intersection of "Halo fan" and "retro gamer." It would be nice if there were a score counter or some enemy randomization for replay value, but it's a damn fun game nonetheless.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Ever since my buddy Pat convinced me to give Shin Megami Tensei IV a shot in college, I’ve been a massive fan of the series. Shin Megami Tensei IV Apocalypse routinely makes my Top 5 JRPGs when I’m asked to suggest games. When I first saw the trailer for Shin Megami Tensei V, then, I was unspeakably hyped. Then five long years passed with nothing until finally in November, 2021, Atlus graced the world with the newest entry in the Shin Megami Tensei series.
The premise of the game is that you’re a high school student who finds himself abruptly and unexplainably thrust into a ruined landscape full of angels and demons. You’re saved by a mysterious cyborg looking demon who fuses with you to become something called a Nahobino. You are thus not only given the ability to fight demons but to summon and lead them as well. From there, you learn that someone went and killed God (sorry, guys; God’s death was relegated to backstory in this entry) and thus threw the pandemonic order into chaos as various factions vie for control of the Empyrian throne that controls all of creation. There are, of course, different branching paths and endings depending on which of these factions you choose. In all, the game has four endings - three “main” ending and a hidden ending that’s a variation of one of the three main endings.
If you’ve played one Shin Megami Tensei game, you pretty much know how the gameplay works. You run around the overworld, fight demons, and recruit demons to fight alongside you and fill your demon compendium. As my friend Aaron called it, it’s basically “evil Pokemon.” It has a few different difficulty settings that can have the game range from balls hard to laughably easy, so no matter what kind of experience you want as far as difficulty goes, Shin Megami Tensei V has you covered. Personally, I didn’t find the overall story or characters to be quite as interesting as that in IV or IV Apocalypse, but it’s still an exceptionally good JRPG that stands out as a cut above the rest.
Being on the Switch, by far the weakest of the three current platforms, the game obviously is going to take some hits in the visuals and performance departments, but honestly, I was consistently impressed with the visuals. It looked like a mid-tier PS4 game in most cases, and the models for the demons were extremely well done. Environments looked nice, although it’s worth noting that performance took a pretty major hit to get the game looking this good. The frame rate targets 30 fps and usually hangs in the mid 20s. Thankfully, with a turn based game, this isn’t really a hindrance so much as a mild annoyance. In some places, the frame rate can very briefly drop to the low teens, and that’s a bummer, but the most frequent and glaring frame rate issue was actually an intentional one. In, I assume, an attempt to save system resources, demons on the overworld will move and perform their idle animations at like five frame per second until you get close to them at which point they speed up to the the normal “30.” Again, this does absolutely nothing to hinder the gameplay in the slightest, but it was something I found to be rather annoying even if I totally understand why Atlus would design the game like this and even support the decision.
The music is exactly what you’d expect from Shin Megami Tensei; not as catchy as Persona but fantastic in its own right. The main series has never been quite as solid as far as soundtracks go as the Persona sub-series, but I still love the music in mainline Shin Megami Tensei games. An epic rock feel mixed with some foreboding more orchestral sounds are the overarching feels for the music in this game, and it fits really well in addition to being generally well done. It’s a nice bow to tie together an overall fantastic package.
Shin Megami Tensei V is definitely pushing the Switch to its limits, and while there are some noticeable issues with frame rate, the game’s turn based nature makes that a fairly minor problem in practice, and the game’s graphics are fantastic for Nintendo’s little handheld that could. Some folks criticise the visuals for not standing up well against what Sony’s and Microsoft’s platforms offer, and that’s fair given how much more powerful even their last generation consoles are, but this is still the most graphically impressive original release for a mainline Shin Megami Tensei game to date, and I think it looks pretty comparable against even the PS4 release of Shin Megami Tensei III HD once you take the resolution difference into account. If you’re a fan of JRPGs or generally dark, apocalyptic stories, then this is definitely a game you need to play. Even with the frame rate issues, I have zero problem recommending this to any and all JRPG fans.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Also available on Switch
I can guarantee with absolute certainty that I'm the biggest Muv-Luv fan you've ever met. I am absolutely and utterly obsessed with the series and the universe it builds. It's an incredible visual novel series, but I always thought that there was untapped potential for games in other genres given the alien invasion war drama nature of the series. Well, apparently âge agreed with me because two months ago, we got Project MIKHAIL in early access on Steam, a mech combat game that goes through some of the major battles of Muv-Luv Alternative's story.
First thing to note here - at the time of writing, this game has been in early access for two months, and it is very much an early access game. There have been a lot of minor bugs and several massive bugs since it first hit the Steam storefront, although most of the major bugs seem to have been fixed. I still get a lot of crashes - I'd estimate one every three or four hours - but that's the only remaining major bug that I encountered. It's certainly better than when I had 23 hours of progress completely erased by a bug, but that bug has been fixed. I mention that to point out the dedication of the development team; pretty much as soon as reports starting coming in both to their official bug report system and on the game's Discord server, the dev team informed everyone that the bug was there, that they were aware of it, and advised folks not to play the story mode until they could pinpoint and fix the cause of the bug. They also kept in pretty good communication with those of us affected and tried to restore our data. While they weren't able to restore mine, they did create a new file for me and gave me back the equipment I told them I had and the resources I told them I had when my file was deleted. I still had to restart the actual game from the beginning, but at least I had the Shiranui I had spent hours grinding for. tl;dr there is that while the game is still very rough, the devs are working hard at fixing the bugs that get reported, and they're good about keeping in regular contact with the community about the state of the game, so I have full confidence that this will be a fine game by the time it gets a full release on Steam and on Switch.
As far the story goes - because that's why you play Muv-Luv - you play as a guy chosen by these two AI waifus to relive events from Shirogane Takeru's life fighting the BETA and try to make decisions that will lead to the best outcome. This directly plays into the lore's basis in the concepts of quantum causality and the multiverse theory; by making specific choices, you can lead Shirogane Takeru's world to the best possible outcome. That involves a lot of trial and error, though; if your choice gets Shirogane killed, then you've got to restart from a certain point (usually no more than five missions back) and make a different choice, and the point where your choice gets him killed isn't always immediate. It's also worth noting that this gives a VERY abridged version of the events of Alternative; as soon as you finish the training missions, your very first mission is Operation 21 at the Sadogashima Hive. Still, though, it gives a lot of detail to the three major battles that the game covers, and each of those gets 7 or 8 hours' worth of mission. It's no substitute for getting the story from the original VN, but it's a really cool way to re-experience it from a different perspective for those who've already played through Muv-Luv Alternative.
As I mentioned above, Project MIKHAIL breaks from the series' norm of visual novel format and is instead a mech combat game reminiscent of MechWarrior. You start in the craptastic Gekishin, a first gen Japanese TSF (tactical surface fighter for those not in the know), and it is a clunker. It's slow, it's not very maneuverable, and your combat options at the start are pretty limited. As you use the three main weapon types - sword, assault cannon, and knife - you'll earn skill points in the respective area. These skill points allow you to improve your stats and unlock new abilities like using two assault cannons, two swords, an assault cannon and a sword, etc. You also get to customize your TSF. You can equip up to four weapons at once as well as customize your TSF's head, body, legs, each arm, jump booster, OS, and comm system. If you wanted to have a bulky first gen body like a Gekishin and a super sleek third gen head like a Takemikazuchi, you can although it's worth noting that you get a bonus from having multiple second gen and/or third gen parts equipped. These parts can either be found from random drops from defeated enemies or manufactured using materials dropped by enemies. The parts also have different quality tiers like you'd expect to see in a game like The Division where each tier up has an additional special perk. Your base level grey items have no perks at all. Blue is a step up with one perk. Then it's green, yellow, and orange. The perks your equipment has can make or break the harder battles, so it's definitely worth it to keep your eye out for high quality drops and check your equipment for better parts after each fight.
You'll also want to be making sure to complete the optional missions that unlock new TSFs as these unlock them for both manufacturing and as possible drops, and each gen feels radically different from the others. The rule of thumb with TSFs is that the newer the TSF generation, the less armored but more maneuverable it is. A first gen TSF like the Gekishin, for example, can take some hits, but it moves like a brick; a third gen TSF like the Shiranui, on the other hand, is fairly glassy, but you can zip around the battlefield with ease, allowing you to close the distance with enemies or create distance from enemies with ease. That mobility becomes the key to survival in harder fights as sometimes BETA will spawn with a blue glow; these enemies are stronger, sturdier, and much more aggressive than the normal enemies, and if you can't maneuver out of their way, you're gonna have a bad time.
Visually, the game is okay. It doesn't look great for 2021 standards, but it looks fine for a budget game. The environments look pretty plain and empty, and the blood looks a bit silly as rather than truly spraying from sliced enemies, a splatter animation kind of sits in the air for a second, but it's not that jarring in my opinion. The BETA and TSF models look pretty good, and it's clear that's where most of the attention was focused with the visuals. That's what I would hope, too, as that's what you'll be looking at most of the time - the herd of enemies and your TSF. Unfortunately, while the visuals might be okay, the audio department is more of a disappointment. The English voice acting is rough ranging from passable to outright atrocious depending on the character, and there's no option to use Japanese voices. Most of the music is from the original VN, so that's rock solid as I've always loved the background music there, but some of it is either so average that I blocked it out of my memory or is painfully stock sounding background music. Outside of some dialogue narrative scenes, most of the music just doesn't feel epic enough to accompany the war that you're fighting.
Project MIKHAIL is definitely rough. A lot of that roughness will definitely get worked out before the full release, but some of it - the voice acting, the sub-par visual fidelity, and the meh music - are unfortunately probably not going anywhere. That's a shame, too, because there's a really fun game beneath that, but it's likely that only Muv-Luv fans will be able to look past the roughness and find that fun game, and this really could have been the series' chance to expand the fanbase in the West. I'm kind of torn on whether to recommend this one. For Muv-Luv fans, it's absolutely a must-play. For folks new to series, though, I'm torn because it would definitely spoil major plot points in Alternative and ruin the impact of that series, but it's also a genre much more approachable to most people than visual novels. If you're not totally turned off by the idea of visual novels, read the core trilogy before playing this, but if you're the type of gamer who is just never going to play a visual novel no matter what, then go ahead and give this game a shot. It's pretty inexpensive, and it's fun if you can get past the jank.
My Rating - 3 Neps
I absolutely love fishing games. It's a bit of a guilty pleasure of mine, honestly, but despite hating the actual act of fishing, I love fishing in video games. I especially love it when those fishing games are super arcade-y and have ridiculous or goofy fish to catch, and Ace Angler firmly checks both of those boxes.
Having its roots in the arcade, there are a couple of different game modes in Ace Angler, but the one I spent the most time with was obviously the adventure mode. The story is that you're a novice angler/treasure hunter setting out with the captain of a boat you chartered, someone from an oceanic research institute, and two only-barely-disguised kappa (mischievous water yokai said to bring good luck). You start off simple enough - catching regular fish near a reef. About a third of the way through the game, things get extreme. About halfway through the game, things get a bit ridiculous. By the end of the game, things are completely insane in a way that only the Japanese could manage in a fishing game. If any of that sounded like criticism, it wasn't; I loved every second.
Despite not being a AAA title, the game looks pretty good on the Switch. It definitely looks better handheld thanks to the smaller screen, but even blown up on a 65" 4K TV, the game looks quite good. The fish models all look nice, and the water effects when you're actually fishing look great. There are two ways to play - with the Joycons' motion control (which the game makes clear is how you're intended to play) casting with the left hand and reeling with the right or with button controls. Oddly, even with button controls as an option, the game does not allow use of the pro controller; despite this, putting the Joycons in the grip works just fine. Generally, I preferred playing with the motion controls as they were just more fun, but some of the boss battles (yes, this fishing game has legitimate boss battles) can get long and a bit tedious with motion controls, so I tended to use the button controls for those.
The game's sound design and soundtrack are great, but they're honestly pretty forgettable with everything else the game has going for it with the addicting gameplay and the gorgeous visuals. As you complete missions in each of the game's ten regions, you'll get rewarded with money and materials both of which are needed to craft and upgrade new rods with better stats. You've got three basic "types" of rods - red, blue, and green. Each fish has a color affinity, and a rod of that color will be most effective against that fish. You'll be alright using any rod against regular fish if you're not trying to get an S rating on each quest, but you'll definitely want to make sure you're using the right rod for the bosses as they can easily deplete your stamina and defeat you if you're not playing smart. The materials needed for upgrade bring me to my one main complaint with the game - you end up with WAY more money than you need but usually need a few key materials that can be obnoxious to go farm, so it would be nice if you had the option of buying materials at the shop. It would definitely take away some of the challenge, and I can absolutely understand why some might not like that, but when you're sitting on over a million yen you don't need and don't feel like farming for a great white tooth so you can upgrade your rod, it would be a nice feature to have.
Ace Angler may not have quite enough meat on its bones to be a game of the year contender for me, but it's absolutely a FANTASTIC game and just oozes wacky charm. It's a shame that this game never got released in the West (not even digitally), but fortunately the Asian physical release has full English menu and subtitle support. If you're into arcade games, fishing games, or just silly games in general and have $60 or $70 you don't need, check this one out. I wish Nintendo of America would at least release it digitally, but thankfully, the Switch is region free and easy to set up accounts able to access different regions eShops, so you've got options if this sounds like your cup of tea. I definitely recommend it.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Stadia, and Windows
Kaze and the Wild Masks is a game that I added to my Amazon wishlist on a whim months ago and the promptly forgot about until I unwrapped it Christmas morning (thanks, mom). I wasn't exactly sure what kind of game Kaze was when I added it to that wishlist aside from "platformer," but having finished the game, I'm extremely glad I had that whim to add it.
Kaze is a love letter to Donkey Kong Country. The core gameplay is very similar; you run forward and platform your way through levels, taking out enemies along the way by either jumping on them or attacking into them. There are various collectables you can get in each level; two secret areas which each unlock one half of that level's green emblem, red jewels which unlock the level's red emblem if you collect at least 100, and four golden letters that spell out K-A-Z-E exactly like the K-O-N-G letters in Donkey Kong Country. This game makes absolutely no effort to hide the fact that it's half DKC clone, and it's all the better for it because the parts that are distinct from DKC help to highlight the parts that are similar. The DKC inspiration and elements that are distinct work hand-in-hand to create an experience that's colorful, enjoyable, and perfectly walks that tightrope line between copy and homage.
For those who aren't as good at or patient with platformers as some, there are two difficult settings. The lower setting has more frequent checkpoints in levels (although they can still be several minutes apart) and allows you to take an extra hit before dying from full health. There is also, as has become fairly common in platformers these days, a mercy option that eventually triggers. After a certain number of deaths in a row, the game offers to let you skip the level. You don't keep any of your collectables from that level, and it won't have the level marked as complete, but it will allow you to proceed to the next level (you can always go back and replay older levels). This way, if there's a part that just gets more frustrating than fun for you, you can still see the rest of the game's admittedly fairly shallow story (bad guy curses friend, you go on journey to beat bad guy and saves friend) without pulling your hair out.
The visuals in this game are absolutely stunning. It's bright, it's colorful, and it's all the things we love and miss about 16-bit and 32-bit 2D platformers with all of the quality of life improvements that we've come to expect from modern games. The controls are also buttery smooth, as well. If you die in this game, it's always your fault; I didn't find one single instance where the controls got me killed or a level was outright unfair. Some of the bosses are merciless and truly challenging, but they're never unfair. The music is also delightful, although it can feel a little bit generic sometimes. Still, while the music may not live up to the standard Rare set with Donkey Kong Country, everything else in the game does. The movement mimics DKC, the collectibles mimic DKC, and even the animal helpers from DKC are mimicked in mechanics with the different masks that give you the ability of whatever animal the mask depicts (hence the "wild masks").
Kaze and the Wild Masks is truly a fantastic platformer. What Freedom Planet was to classic Sonic the Hedgehog, Kaze and the Wild Masks is to classic Donkey Kong Country. With that said, if you loved Donkey Kong Country on the SNES, you owe it to yourself and your sense of nostalgia to try Kaze and the Wild Masks. It may not have the nostalgic charm that Donkey Kong Country does, but it's absolutely standing toe to toe with classic DKC for gameplay, and that's not an accolade to be given lightly. The game isn't quite perfect - I would have liked to see the developers try a little bit harder to make it a bit more distinct from Donkey Kong Country or flesh out the characters' personalities and the story a bit more as Freedom Planet did - but it's a DAMN fine platformer and well worth playing.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Also available on PlayStation 3 and Windows
I am and always have been a huge Medal of Honor fan (at least while it stayed World War II; the modern set ones were crap), but the series definitely started to stumble once the HD era rolled in. Medal of Honor: Airborne is one of those HD games in the series, and while it's certainly not a bad game, it's clear from the start that this is no Rising Sun or Allied Assault.
You play as Boyd Travers, a fictional paratrooper in the US Army 82nd Airborne, ready to leap from a plane boldly into battle anywhere Nazis needed killing. Throughout the course of the game, you'll fight in Italy, France, and Germany as you help to push back the Nazi war machine. So basically the basic core plot of every Medal of Honor game worth mentioning. It's your standard first person shooter affair, although being from the mid 2000s, the controls are a bit awkward at first as the industry was still trying to settle on what "standard" was for the genre. The controls, while awkward by today's standards, aren't bad at all. Rather, they just take some getting used to. What's bad is the hit detection. You'd think I was hip firing a shotgun at range with how bad my accuracy was aiming down the signs with a Garand or a 1911. I'd have a guy square in my sights and miss four of my five shots. Meanwhile, if I so much as poke my head out from behind cover for a moment, it's being turned into Swiss cheese, and that's on the default difficulty. I ended up spending most of the game not even aiming, and while my accuracy was a little worse, it wasn't that much worse, and at least that, I didn't feel like the inaccuracy was BS.
Visually, the game looks fine for 2007. It's not as impressive as Call of Duty 4 was which released the same year, but it certainly doesn't look "bad." Aurally, it's about the same - good but not great. The voice acting is acceptable, although it's clear this cast isn't doing any work for Pixar. I quite liked the music, but it sounded like pretty standard World War II game music. The big letdown in the audio department is the weapon sound effects. They're certainly not the worst that I've ever heard, but they just sound weak and hollow compared to some more recent World War II shooters. They don't have as much "oomph" as I'd like. If you're not a gun enthusiast, then you'll probably be like me and think "That's disappointing. Oh well," but if you are into guns and know exactly how these guns should sound, it will probably be a bit more jarring.
Medal of Honor: Airborne is a good time if you just want an excuse to massacre Nazis (and really, who doesn't?), but it's a pretty mediocre game even by the standards of 2007. It is absolutely not a bad game once you figure out the wonky aiming, but it just doesn't stand out from the crowd. Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Call of Duty 2, and Call of Duty: World at War are all better choices if you just want a World War II shooter. Still, if you have Game Pass Ultimate, it's included thanks to EA Play, and while I haven't checked to confirm, I can't imagine it's all that expensive to buy used physically on Xbox 360, so it's worth giving a play.
My Rating - 3 Neps
Also available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, and Windows
2021 has been a big year for AAA shooters. Call of Duty: Vanguard saw the series return to a narrative-driven World War II game (although I seem to have been the only person not disappointed by that one), Halo Infinite saw 343 finally figure out how to tell a decent story, and now Battlefield 2042 has come to remind everyone why Electronic Arts is the worst company in the entire industry. All jokes aside, though, Battlefield 2042 is a dumpster fire, but in fairness, it's a dumpster fire that I have been thoroughly enjoy despite the flaming refuse.
Before anything else, I have to extend a MASSIVE and heart-felt thank you to my best friend and husband (joking but only a little), Grant, because I wouldn't have this game if he hadn't been so desperate to play it with me that the lovable dumbass bought it and gifted it to me on Xbox because I was refusing to buy it, and that actually leads me into my first major and irreconcilable complaint with the game; I refused to buy it myself because there's no single player whatsoever. While you can have massive 128 player games filled entirely with bots, there's no actual single player campaign here. There's absolutely no story, and there's no way to play offline even with just bots. That right there is inexcusable in my book; the late 1990s and early 2000s proved that FPS games can be AMAZING experiences with bots, and if you could do it on a Nintendo 64, you can sure as hell do it offline on an Xbox Series X. While we're on the subject of massive content droughts, there's only like half a dozen or so maps, and they cut the amount of weapons by like 85% compared to Battlefield 4. Apparently, 2042 started life as yet another damn battle royale game before someone was like "Shit, maybe should do more than just that?" and you can tell that this didn't start life as a traditional Battlefield game based on how bare bones it is. There's no vaulting over objects, no diving, no explosion knockback, no rolling after a fall or jump, no melee weapons aside from "knife when pressing melee button," no boats, very minimal vehicle customization, no headshot bonus, and no assist bonus. Even for a multiplayer-only game, it's skimpy. There's no server browser, no traditional game types, no persistent lobbies, no traditional class system (although the operator system they have is kind of neat), no real customization options for your character, no stat tracker, no leaderboards, no clans, minimal faction variety, no kind of squad field upgrades, no infantry-focused maps, bad spawns, no real balance between infantry and vehicles, hardly anything destructible in the environment, and no spectator mode. The map selection is garbage, too; despite having every map added to the rotation, Grant and I played the same map four or five times in a row the other night. That just statistically should not happen.
Unfortunately, the complaints with this game don't stop with the PLETHORA of missing or truncated features; the game is also riddled with bugs. Even nearly a month after launch, there are still some pretty major bugs. One of the worst and most persistent is that the game will randomly not allow you to change anything about your loadout and force you to play with a crappy default loadout. Unfortunately, dying doesn't alleviate this; you have to leave the match completely. Another very common bug is being unable to revive downed teammates if they happened to die too close to a wall or box or something. Sometimes the game won't let you exit a vehicle that you spawn into. Sometimes it will say you self-destructed even if an enemy kills you. Sometimes you fall through the map and into the underworld. Sometimes your entire game just implodes for no reason. Sometimes your helicopter rotor gets stuck in a radio tower and your helicopter is stuck in a horrible sideways purgatory (although I blame Grant's infamous bad video game luck for that one). Fortunately, a lot of those bugs are fairly uncommon, but still, the fact that I've experienced all of those in less than a month with a moderate amount of play time is Ubisoft levels of unpolished.
Still, though, despite all of those problems, all of that failure, and all of those bugs, you'll recall that I said that I'm having a lot of fun with the game, and I absolutely am. The fact that you can play with just your friends and a hundred bots is fantastic, and I absolutely love the Portal. You can choose from stuff from Battlefield 2041, Battlefield 3, Battlefield Bad Company 2, and Battlefield 1942. Grant and I played a game where we were 1942 Germans fighting against 2042 Russians, and it's relatively balanced so that both sides have a fighting chance. The dynamic weather events are a lot of fun, too; we drove a German Tiger tank into a tornado in South Korea. While there aren't very many weapons in the game, you can swap out your scope or barrel attachment on the fly during a match without having to die or respawn or anything. While the game gets a lot more wrong than it gets right, I'd be remiss to omit mention of the fact that there are a few things that the game does in fact get very, very right. Don't get me wrong; this game is kind of a disaster. It's still a lot of fun, though, if you have a few friends to play with and can look past all of the missing content.
Battlefield 2042 is, from a content perspective, probably the weakest entry in the series. It's at least up there. There's just so much that's missing for absolutely no reason. Fortunately, the massive backlash against the game has sent prices plummeting - I've seen it sold on Amazon for less than $40 with no signs of selling out - so if you want to pick it up, it's not that expensive usually. It's also worth noting that I am absolutely having a fantastic time with it despite the fact that it's an objective train wreck of a release during this first month. I cannot, however, recommend that anyone buy it in good conscience as things currently stand. It's missing too many features and has far too many bugs for me to be able to recommend it. If you're a die hard Battlefield fan or just absolutely love objective-based online FPS, then maybe keep an eye out and see if you can find it for a price you think is reasonable, but I would absolutely never pay more than $40 max for this game as it is right now. It's a shame, too, because what little they got right is *really* good. Unfortunately, there's just so much that they screwed up than what they got right.
My Rating - 2 Neps
Also available on Xbox One and Windows
I've been a pretty big Halo fan pretty much since it came out in 2001. Even in middle school at the peak of my Nintendo fanboy-ism and general hatred of all things Xbox, I'd make exceptions when I would hang out with friends who had an Xbox and Halo. It's because I'm such a big Halo fan that I've been so disappointed with the main series entries since 343 took over. Halo 4 was just bad, and Halo 5 was even worse. Halo Infinite, therefore, was kind of their last chance with me, and I went into it with a lot of trepidation.
Halo Infinite is sort of a double edged sword for me. On the one hand, I absolutely love everything about the gameplay. On the other had, I absolutely hate everything about how they've gone about the release. They started by released the multiplayer a few weeks before releasing the single player. That's fine, whatever. They called it a "beta," but it really wasn't as it was monetized out the ass day one with overpriced microtransactions, but that isn't really what bothered me as that's to be expected with free-to-play which is what Halo Infinite's multiplayer is; you don't need Game Pass or even Xbox Live Gold to play it. On December 8, they released the single player, and that's where my issues started. First off, there's not ability to replay missions or play co-op, two things that are pretty much staples of Halo. They're both "coming in the future." Okay, stop right there. Those two features have always been core to the Halo experience. I would have MUCH preferred they delay the game another six months - they had already delayed it a year - to have those features in at launch. I then found out that the physical release of the game contains no playable data on the disc. The disc installs part of the campaign, but you have to download the rest to actually play anything; I get that we're in a mostly digital age now, but that completely defeats the purpose of a disc all together. Just don't do a physical release at all if that's how you're going to do it. Because I'm so big on physical media and game preservation, that's a MAJOR faux pas to me, and it made me glad that I cancelled my pre-order to wait for a sale and just played via Game Pass.
Fortunately, most of the actual game itself is really solid aside from a couple of grips with multiplayer and the bizarre omission of mission replay and co-op. The gunplay has never felt as smooth to me, and the addition of a grappleshot and thruster to move around make it feel almost like Spider-man with guns. The vehicles feel a bit odd to control at first as 343 made some big changes to the handling of them, but it's just different rather than bad; once you play for a while, you get used to it pretty quickly, and that's a good thing as the open world is massive. Even flying in a wasp, it'll probably take you a solid ten minutes to fly from one end of the map to the other, and with all of the mountains and caves and whatnot littering the landscape, there's a ton to do on foot. That's honestly my favorite part - just driving around in a Razorback full of marines and finding a little Banished outpost to attack. As one would expect with an open world game, there are also a TON of collectibles to find. There are Spartan cores which let you upgrade abilities, Mjolnir armories that unlock multiplayer cosmetics, forward operating bases that let you fast travel and serve as UNSC bases, propaganda towers that award valor (the more valor you have, the more weapons and vehicles you can call in at FOBs), Banished outposts to attack, high value targets which unlock powerful weapon variants, and three different kinds of audio logs to find (UNSC, Spartan, and Banished) as well as the usual Halo skulls. Just running the main missions will probably take 10 to 15 hours; doing a 100% collectible run will probably take 40 or more.
Anyone who knows me knows that multiplayer isn't something I usually put a lot of time into, but I have to admit that Halo Infinite has some of the most fun multiplayer I've ever played even if it is pretty bare bones currently. You've got two main options - quick play and big team battle. Quick play is 4v4 and cycles between Slayer, Oddball, Stronghold, One Flag, and Capture the Flag. Unfortunately there's currently no Fiesta even though that was the first week long event, and there are no playlists although that function as well as a couple new game modes are coming in an update this month. Big team battle is 12v12 battles and cycles between Slayer, Oddball, Stronghold, Total Control, Capture the Flag, and Stockpile. Stockpile sucks. It sucks less when you have a team that actually plays the objective, but it still sucks. I absolutely love Halo Infinite's multiplayer, but it's not without its issues. The biggest issue is progression; initially, you only got battle pass experience from completing weekly challenges (things like "Kill 10 enemies with a battle rifle" or "Win 3 Stronghold matches"). You got no points for completing or even winning a game, no points for kills, no points for playing the objective. The outcry was immediate, so they changed it so that you go 50 xp for completing a match. Well, that still sucked because it meant you had to play 20 games to go up one level, and a match can take anywhere from five to thirty minutes. They've said more changes to progression are coming, but the current iteration of this is a scaling system where you get 300 xp for your first game, then 200 for a couple, then 100 for a few, and then 50 for each one after that. All of that is, of course, in addition to your weekly challenges, and those are actually my next complaint. Because of how the weekly challenges are set up and still the best way to get experience points, you have a ton of people who completely ignore the objectives in favor of focusing on those challenges. Got a stockpile match? Get ready to deal with people just killing the enemy players with a needler for a challenge and not even trying to bring power seeds back to the base. I'm sure that, within a few months, they'll have a better system worked out and implemented, but it really makes you wonder "Who the hell at 343 possibly could have thought this was actually a good system?" Despite all that, though, the gameplay itself is amazing and feels absolutely sublime. I can honestly say that I've never enjoyed PvP Halo multiplayer even close to as much as I do here. Now if we can just get a remake of the Blood Gulch map in Quick Play...
Now that I've outlined my likes and dislikes for the single player and the multiplayer, I'll take a minute and talk about some of my observations about the more technical side of things. I played on Series X, so I can't speak for One, One X, or Series S, so if you want a more side-by-side with those, you're better off going to Digital Foundry. On Series X, though, you're given a choice between a Performance mode and a Quality mode, and there's honestly no bad choice here. Performance gives you a frame rate of 120 fps and a usual resolution of 1440p whereas Quality gives you a frame rate of 60 fps and a resolution of 2160p. If you've got a TV that supports 120 hz, I'd say go for Performance to get that silky 120 fps, but the 60 fps of Quality is still fantastic, and the 4K resolution looks amazing. There does seem to be some awkward frame pacing, though, the facial animations just look a big janky in general. This was most noticeable to me during the fight with Escharum. It almost felt like his face was moving at 15 fps while the rest of the game moved at 120 fps. Most faces aren't as bad as that particular instance, but Echo-216's pilot has some odd looking facial animations. Fortunately, though, the Weapon's face looked fine to me. Still, though, for a game this otherwise impressive looking, it's jarring. I also can't help but wonder how amazing it would have looked it if it had been developed specifically with Series X hardware in mind and not made for Xbox One and just upgraded for Series X.
Overall, Halo Infinite is a great game. From a narrative perspective, I don't think it quite reaches the heights of the Covenant saga, but it's a HELL of a lot better than the garbage 343 gave us with the Forerunner arc. From a gameplay perspective, though, this is the best the series has ever been in my opinion. It's smooth, it's intuitive, and the control scheme is a lot less radically different than the "FPS standard," so it's less jarring to go from other FPS to Halo and back. As most have come to expect with Halo and Microsoft, it's a graphical showpiece on top of how much fun to play it is. The fact that it's on Game Pass (as one would expect from a first party Microsoft game) is fantastic, and add to that the fact that the multiplayer is totally free-to-play, and you've got a recipe for success here. Supposedly, this is going to be a sort of service-based game that gets continuous updates going forward, so I've got my fingers crossed from some solid story content in the future, but even if what we've currently got is all we get, it's a good time and well worth a playthrough.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Also available on Xbox 360
I’ve had Guardian Heroes downloaded on my Xbox 360 for a while. I’d played a little bit of the original Saturn release in the past, and I just finished one playthrough on Xbox 360 with my friend Colin, so I’m going to be doing a bit of a comparison between the original release and the remaster here. It’s a rather unique game that often feels like it doesn’t know exactly what it wants to be, but somehow that plays into making an extremely enjoyable co-op experience.
So the game starts out with a group of mercenaries who have just found some ancient magic sword after being hired by a group rebelling against an evil kingdom. The kingdom immediately attacks, and as the mercenaries are trying to escape, the magic sword summons a giant golden skeleton warriors who, despite looking like a super hard boss, ends up being a commendable ally who saves the group. From there, there are a ton of branching paths that you can take that affect some of the details of the story and character interactions that you see. There are several different endings which gives the otherwise roughly one-hour game a ton of replayability. The fact that you can play this co-op (and online if you have it on Xbox) makes this a fantastic feature.
The gameplay is like a bizarre amalgamation of beat ‘em up, RPG, and arcade games. The core gameplay is that of an arcade beat ‘em up like Turtles in Time or The Simpsons Arcade complete with a credit system at the top (despite having never been released in arcades), but as you defeat enemies, your chosen character gains levels, and after each segment, you get skill points that you can distribute to various stats to power up your character. Most games that don’t feel like they know what they want to be end up doing nothing well and just being mediocre at best, but for some reason, it works extremely well for Guardian Heroes, and the end product is extremely enjoyable.
The game plays and looks great, but it’s not perfect. The dialogue is painfully 90s, for example, and has aged extremely poorly. It might have seemed funny in a juvenile 1990s way, but in the 2020s, it’s just bad. The visuals, however, are top notch, and the pseudo-3D movement style of the game with distinct horizontal planes between which you can hop has an extremely fluid feel once you get a feel for the controls.
As Colin said during our playthrough, this is the kind of game that’s only obscure because it was on the Saturn; if this had been a Playstation game, it would be remembered extremely fondly. It’s fun solo, but it’s a truly great experience co-op. With its availability on Xbox 360 and, via Xbox backwards compatibility emulation, Xbox One and Series X, everyone with any fondness whatsoever for 90s beat ‘em ups should give this game a shot.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Also available on Xbox One and Windows
Anyone who knows me will tell you that I’m not a car guy. I want cars that are small and get as many miles per gallon as possible (or, ideally, an all-electric car). Despite that, I’ve tried Forza Motorsport; I have 4 on Xbox 360 and 5 on Xbox One. I could never get into them, though, so I never paid much mind to the series after that, and I never paid much attention to the Horizon sub-series. All of my Forza-playing friends kept telling me that I needed to try Horizon. “It’s not as focused on realistic simulation as Motorsport it,” they’d say. “You can just drive in an open world,” they’d say. Okay, I thought, that’s cool, but I’m not paying $60 for a game that I’m still not convinced I won’t hate; after all, obnoxiously realistic car stuff is still going to be as obnoxious in an open world.as it is on a closed circuit. Thanks to the incredible value of Xbox Game Pass, though, I have access to over 100 high quality games all for one low monthly price, many of which are available on day one, and one of those high quality games available on release day was Forza Horizon 5. So I pulled up Game Pass, downloaded the game, and decided to see for myself if Horizon justified the hype. In short, it does.
Having only placed Horizon 5, I can’t say how this compares to other Forza Horizon games, but it definitely shows off the power of the Series X pretty nicely. The game looks absolutely stunning - especially the reflections and water effects - and it runs totally smoothly. I have yet to encounter a single instance of lag or stutter, and that’s with online connectivity enabled. It also loads extremely fast thanks to the Series X’s internal SSD. The game takes place in Mexico, and you’re a superstar driver - apparently the same driver who starred in at least Horizon 4 - who’s travelled to Mexico to participate in the Horizon events. As you progress through the game and earn accolade points, you unlock different Horizon events to progress through the main game as well as side stories and loads of races, challenges, and events. There are also a TON of cars in the game; I have nearly 80 cars unlocked so far, and I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface.
My favorite part of the game is the massive amount of customization that it allows. My driver has blue hair, two blue prosthetic legs, two blue prosthetic arms, and everyone in the game calls me by my actual name; there’s a huge list of names and nicknames that you can choose from, and one of them is “Stephen” both spelled and pronounced correctly. That seems super minor, but it’s a VERY nice touch in my opinion. You also have an ENORMOUS - seemingly endless, really - amount of ways to customize your cars’ appearances thanks to the liveries. I have a Ferrari with Sunset Shimmer, my My Little Pony waifu, on it; a Porsche with Rikka from Love, Chunibyo, and Other Delusions; several cars with Hatsune Miku; several cars with various Pokemon; and, until I ran afoul of the game’s moderation and won myself a week in Forza jail, a boxy white Ford van that said “Cheap Candy” on the side (I knew “Free _____” was a ban, but I thought I was being cheeky and clever by saying “cheap” candy; I was just advertising discount confectionary! Allegedly).
The actual races can get monotonous after a while, but there’s such a variety that it’s not hard to switch up what you’re doing enough to keep things from feeling too stale. Some races are circuits that have you race in several laps whereas others are sprints that have you race from Point A to Point B. There are dirt races, outright off-road races, standard road races, street races (which are different from road races in that there’s other traffic to avoid), and a number of challenges that don’t involve racing against other people or AIs. Best of all for me, you can fully customize how realistic the game is. I turned off all of the simulation aspects and basically turned it into what almost felt like an arcade racer. You can also adjust the difficulty of the AI opponents to fit your preference. You get more credits from racing against harder opponents, but if you just want to relax and enjoy the driving like me, you can bump down the difficulty with no penalty aside from foregoing the credit bonus.
I’m pretty confident in my recommendation of Forza Horizon 5. I’m FAR from being a car guy, but it’s customizable enough that even I had a blast and easily sank probably 20 or 25 hours into the game. Even if all you ever do is just drive around and explore the game’s version of Mexico, it’s a blast to play, collect cars, and see how fast you can drive. You can switch between a first person driver’s seat view, a first person hood view, and a couple of different third person views; and there are loads of ramps both natural and man-made that you can jump your car off of. You can also invite Xbox Live friends to race against you which, admittedly, should be obvious for a racing game on Xbox, but I figured I’d mention it anyway. Given that it’s on Game Pass (which every Xbox gamer and, in my opinion, PC gamer needs), it’s definitely worth giving a try. With enough tweaking of the settings and difficulty, there’s something here for pretty much everyone.
My Rating - 4 Neps
I’m generally a huge fan of Pokemon, but Gen IV has a special place in my heart. I’ve been playing Pokemon since Red and Blue, but I skipped Gen III; that was when I went through my unfortunate “I’m too cool for Pokemon” phase in middle school. When I got over myself in my freshman year of high school, it was Pearl Version that got me back into Pokemon. When The Pokemon Company finally announced that Diamond and Pearl were getting remakes on Switch, I was pumped. Unfortunately, this is a somewhat flawed remake, but despite the bugs and issues, I’ve had a ton of fun with it.
One of the stylistic choices made for the game that’s been a point of contention with the Pokemon fandom is the shift back to a 2D perspective. Personally, I was somewhat disappointed that the developers opted for a 2D perspective rather than refining the 3D perspective from Sword and Shield, but just because I’m not personally fond of a stylistic choice doesn’t make it bad. Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl look fantastic. Personal preference doesn’t affect quality. It runs really well, too...for the most part. The ball decorations return allowing you add visual effects that trigger when you send your Pokemon out into battle. I managed to put enough smoke and flame effects on my Infernape’s PokeBall to make the frame rate plummet from an otherwise fairly stable 30 fps to a *maybe* 10 fps. Granted, I had to try intentionally to make the frame rate drop, but it’s worth mentioning. If you don’t try to crash the frame rate, it runs well; I didn’t notice any frame rate drops in normal gameplay, and I never had an instance of the game crashing.
It must be said, however, that this is, at least from my personal experience, the buggiest Pokemon game thus far. It must be noted first off that my experience is all after downloading and installing a 3 GB day one patch. Even after a patch this large, I encountered a lot of issues with randomly missing sound effects. Like, I’d be in the middle of a battle, and an attack would just be randomly silent; or I’d be in the Grand Underground, and all of my pickaxe swings would be randomly silent. It doesn’t ruin the gameplay or anything, but it’s definitely jarring and immersion-breaking, and it’s something that really shouldn’t have made it past QA. Most of it seems to have been fixed with a subsequent update, but I still encounter the occasional instance of it in the Underground. That’s the only major bug I’ve noticed in my gameplay, though, and I’ve put over 70 hours in thus far.
Some of the discontent I’ve seen in the community with the game is the lack of up-to-date national Pokedex. I can kind of see both sides. On the one hand, this is a remake of a Gen IV game, so of course it only goes up through Gen IV; on the other hand, the Gen I remakes on GBA, the Gen II remakes on DS, and the Gen III remakes on 3DS all had support for all Pokemon that had been released in games up to that date. The aspect of the game that I think is a legitimate criticism, however, isn’t about the Pokedex but about online features. The Global Trading Station - a major feature in the original release of Diamond and Pearl - isn’t going to be functional until a later date in 2022. Integration with Pokemon Home also isn’t coming until some undefined date in 2022, and that one especially big in my eyes since Home was touted as a central hub for your Pokemon across multiple games. The fact that they’re planning support but haven’t implemented that is just a pain for players who want to bring supported Pokemon over or fill in gaps in a living Pokedex. It’s not a game-breaker, but it’s definitely a massive disappointment. I would like to say that it’s because the Pokemon Company outsourced this remake (a mistake, in my opinion), but I know that it’s likely that there would have been a delay between the game’s release and the Home connectivity regardless.
There are a lot of People hating on Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl, and while it certainly has its issues, I absolutely think these are worthwhile games for Pokemon fans and great remakes. Sure, the difficulty is a little low, but the gym leader and Elite Four rematches are legitimately difficult battles. The Underground is fantastic now with a ton of Pokemon that aren’t in the Sinnoh dex appearing after you unlock the national Pokedex. In the same vein, most of the non-Sinnoh legendaries up through Gen IV are available after you unlock the national dex. It’s not a perfect Pokemon game, but it should fully satisfy any fan of Diamond and Pearl, and it’s an excellent entry for Switch that honestly addresses a lot of the complaints that people had about Sword and Shield. Between the casual Let’s Go games, the 3D Gen VIII games, and the 2D Gen IV remakes, there’s now a Pokemon game for everyone on Switch.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Also available on PlayStation 4, Stadia, and Windows
Years ago, I picked up The Division right when it came out solely based on how interesting the setting looked. Unfortunately, the game itself was, while not bad from an objective sense, very disappointing to me. As such, I avoided The Division 2 when it came out. I figured it would be more of the same, and I really wasn't interested in wasting time or money on that. My friend-slash-only-slightly-kidding-husband, Grant, however is a huge fan of the game and decided that he wanted to play it with me badly enough to buy a code online and give it to me to download. So here I am with The Division 2 downloaded on my Xbox.
The game takes place a little bit after the first one, but instead of New York City, the setting here is Washington DC. That's already something I like better. The set-up of the game is identical; first person shooter action RPG, you have to be online even if you're playing solo, and you've got a main quest line with a bunch of side quests that range from substantial and story-related to utterly pointless. If you played the first game, you know how this one is going to go. Unfortunately, the story isn't really any better. There are a handful of factions fighting over control of DC, and you're an agent with the crumbling federal government. None of the characters are particularly memorable, and the story is about as generic and uninspired as it gets. Still, though, the missions themselves are a lot better designed than they were in the previous game. The first game felt genuinely monotonous pretty much from start to finish; if you were playing with friends, it was downright boring at times. This game, however, is at least fun to play, and the mission environments are a lot more varied making the locations at least interesting even if what you're doing with respect to the narrative and world isn't.
Generally speaking, FPS RPGs are a hard sell for me. It just bothers me when I shoot someone directly in the fact with a sniper rifle, and it only takes away like a tenth of their health. I'll fully admit that this isn't exactly a consistent complaint as it's never bothered me in other RPGs when stabbing an enemy through the chest with a sword only takes away a tenth of their health, but for whatever reason, my disbelief is a lot harder to suspend with shooters, so this was never going to be a game "for me," so to speak. That said, I have to admit that I do enjoy playing this with Grant. It looks good for a last-gen game even if the faces and hair have some jank reminiscent of the Mass Effect trilogy, and it the gunplay is really solid feels great. There is, of course, your typical Ubisoft shenanigans with bugs here; I had missions not trigger properly, enemies just kind of float in the air, and menus bug out on occasion. Note the way my character is sitting "in the boat" in the screenshot below. Still, though, it was much less of a buggy mess than most of Ubisoft's games, so kudos for that, I guess. I did, however, play two years after launch, so I feel like that's kind of praising the bare minimum.
The Division 2 is a solid FPS RPG, and while the story and characters are still just as boring and bland-as-can-be as the first game, the actual gameplay and mission design have been significantly improved, and I feel like that's definitely the most important thing here. I, as a rule, despise games that require an internet connection despite being playable completely solo, but if you can find this on sale for $20 or less, I can't say that it's a bad purchase provided that you have friends to play with you; it's definitely fun if you've got a team.
My Rating - 3 Neps
Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X, and Windows
I'm one of the relatively few gamers who buys the new Call of Duty game most years almost exclusively for the campaign. It's the reason I didn't buy and will never buy Black Ops 4 (that and my eternal grudge against using Roman numerals but stupidly stylizing it "IIII" instead of the proper "IV"). That's not to say that I don't play and enjoy the multiplayer - in moderate doses, I quite enjoy Call of Duty's multiplayer - but my primary reason for buying them is always to play through the campaign and get a good power trip from experiencing a story from the perspective of a uncommonly skilled soldier. I also will go to my grave saying that World War II is the absolute supreme setting for a war game and that Nazis are the eternal perfect enemy; they're just damn killable. When Vanguard released not only with a superb looking story but also set once again in World War II, I was pretty immediately sold on it.
Vanguard's campaign has a "main" protagonist who serves as the narrator for the duration of the campaign, but the gameplay is split between several protagonists whose histories you see via flashback missions. Normally, I'm very picky about games with multiple protagonists because it often leaves me feeling interested in a number of characters but not satisfied with my time with any of them. As such, I was a bit skeptical when I first fired up Vanguard and realized that that was how this was going to play out. Fortunately, the writers went above and beyond here and not only kept the story firmly anchored to Arthur, the "main" protagonist, but they also went and created one of the most interesting and well-told stories Call of Duty has ever featured with a team of characters that mesh and flow together better than pretty much any game in the series. Whether you're seeing the Battle of Midway, the Battle of Stalingrad, or the Second Battle of El Alamein, Vanguard's campaign delivers an exceptional experience in both narrative and gameplay in a genre that normally does well with either one or the other but rarely both.
The multiplayer is, as usual, exactly what you expect. If you've played one Call of Duty multiplayer in the past decade and a half, you've pretty much played them all. Like every other Call of Duty you've played, the multiplayer is smooth, varied, and has a very well fleshed out loadout and perk system. I mean, seriously, what am I supposed to say? Activision prides itself on making this crap virtually identical from game to game save for the setting and weapon choices especially once Warzone came out. I've played a couple hours of the multiplayer, and it's a lot of fun. I though Cold War's multiplayer was more fun, personally, but that's just because I like more modern guns for multiplayer; World War II is the supreme setting because I like to kill Nazis and storm the beaches of Normandy, not because I'm attached to the MP40 or Sten. Still, though, if multiplayer FPS is your thing, Vanguard's is as solid and polished as every other Call of Duty game released during my students' lifetimes.
Now to disappoint every Call of Duty player reading this; I don't care for Call of Duty's zombies mode. Don't get me wrong; it's fun. I just think Sniper Elite did the concept of "Nazi zombies" infinitely better than Call of Duty ever could. The storyline they build around it is stupid, the zombies' designs and behavior don't feel as quintessentially "zombie" as Nazi Zombie Army, and if I want a fast-paced zombie shooter, Left 4 Dead is better in every way. As such, I only played a little of the zombies mode just to say I tried it out. It's fine. That's about all I have to say about it. What is worth mentioning, however, is the performance and visuals. Holy shit, this game looks gorgeous on PS5. The pre-rendered cutscenes especially look almost indistinguishable from live action video in some scenes. Unfortunately, I did run into a few performance hiccups where the game would seemingly get "stuck" for a second or two before jerking back on pace, and in one or two instances, this would put the cutscene's audio about half a second off from the video which was jarring. I assume this is just an optimization issue that will probably get smoothed out in a future patch, and it only happened two or three times during gameplay, but it's definitely something worth mentioning. I'm not sure if this happens on Series X and Windows or just on PlayStation 5.
Call of Duty: Vanguard is an exceptionally good shooter, and in my opinion, arguably the best World War II shooter in the series. I'm personally a bit more fond of the original Call of Duty, but if I'm being honest, I think that's probably just my nostalgia for early 2000s FPS talking. The multiplayer is as fun as ever, the zombies mode is cool if that's your cup of tea, but the campaign...dude, the campaign is fantastic. The characters are amazing, the story is great, and the battles and Nazi murdering are endlessly satisfying. If you're like me and enjoy the campaign of these games as well as the multiplayer, you absolutely need to pick up Vanguard. If you just play Call of Duty for the multiplayer, then it's going to depend a bit more on your preference of setting. Still, though, I was pretty impressed with Cold War's campaign, and I think Vanguard surpassed that one.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Also available on PlayStation 4 and Windows
Until Dawn is on of my favorite horror experiences specifically because of how it handled player agency and choice throughout the game. When I heard that the creators of Until Dawn were making a series of shorter horror games, then, I was super excited. I then promptly put off buying them for years until Man of Medan ended up on Game Pass. Now I'm probably to dive headfirst into the rest of the Dark Pictures Anthology series.
Like Until Dawn, The Man in Medan follows a series of protagonists - five in this case - shifting perspective repeatedly throughout the game. The game isn't long, but there is a TON of replay value here as your choices can have major impacts on the way the game plays out. You can have everyone survive to the end, or you can have no one survive to the end, and from what I've read online, there are over a dozen different endings when you include variations of who survives. Some choices are pretty minor whereas others are major game-changing decisions, and it's often not clear into which category any given decision will fall until after you've made your choice. There's also no reloading a save to fix a screw up here as the game is constantly saving; once you make a decision, you have to live with the consequences of that decision no matter what those consequences may be. That right there is what makes this game so intriguing for me. There's no real way to cheese the system; if you want to see everything this game has to offer, you've got to just buckle down and play through it repeatedly. Fortunately, this is a pretty short game - probably five hours total - so it's not an especially massive time investment if you're just going for the major endings rather than the minor variations.
The visual and auditory presentation is absolutely stunning here. This game doesn't even have a current gen optimization or upgrade, but it still looks breathtaking; my roommate walked in during one of The Curator's cut scenes, and he honestly thought it was a live action scene until I mentioned how good the graphics were and he realized it was CGI. The whole game looks absolutely incredible, and it's immediately apparent that Supermassive put all of their energy into making this as immersive a world as they could. The only thing that even slightly breaks my immersion is the somewhat awkward and clunky character movement, but the environments, character models, and story are all so well done that I hardly even noticed once I really got into the game. The basic premise of the game is that Alex, his younger brother Brad, his girlfriend Julia, and Julia's brother Conrad hire a woman named Fliss to take them to a specific spot in the Pacific Ocean to go diving where Alex is sure that there is a previously undiscovered plane wreckage from the WWII era. They eventually end up on the SS Ourang Medan (roughly translates to Man of Medan), a mysterious WWII era derelict freighter. Cue the spooky ghost stuff.
Atmosphere is the name of the game here as far as horror goes, and just like Until Dawn, Supermassive knocks it out of the park. You get a glimpse of what happened on the Ourang Medan in the game's prologue, but nothing is really explained; I was able to piece together a few things, but I was still left with more questions than answers when the main story set in the present day picked up. As you make your way through the decrepit ship, everything about the environment serves to build tension. You'll hear creaks and groans as the old ship sways in the waves. You'll near rats squeaking and scurrying. You'll eventually start to see slight movement or vague figures in the corner of the screen, but as the game progresses, you become less and less sure of what's real and what's your characters' imaginations. Parts of the game are absolutely and truly scary, but the entirety is tense and foreboding. Even when the fear is in a lull, the general feeling of dread is not.
Not everyone is going to dig the Man of Medan's gameplay style. It's not fast paced or supplemented by action like Resident Evil 8. It doesn't confront you with puzzles like Visage or Maid of Sker. It isn't making a grand point about society like Silent Hill or Outlast. It presents you with a story to participate in, and it lets you make of that story what you will through your choices and your own conclusions. There's something special in my opinion about the otherwise fairly pedestrian context the game's narrative as given since it's told as a frame story; you're sitting in The Curator's library as he tells you an unfinished story, and your choices determine how the conclusion plays out. If you're into choose your own adventure games or horror games in general, definitely make sure to check this one out, and if you enjoyed Until Dawn, this is an absolute must play. It's not a long game, but as is often the case with the games that impress me the most, it's not about the quantity of hours the game's playtime has but rather the quality of those hours, and the hours I spent on this game were top tier quality from start to finish.
My Rating - 5 Neps
Also available on PlayStation 4 and Windows
Seven years ago, a first-person horror teaser called PT dropped on PlayStation 4 and turned the horror world on its head. While the game it was supposed to tease was cancelled and PT itself subsequently pulled from the PlayStation Store, it sparked a horror renaissance that saw a plethora of copy-cat games emerge and try to recreate that specific feeling of dread that PT evoked. Some of these were laughable attempts - the pathetic Apartment 666 on Steam - while others were absolute masterpieces like the god-tier Resident Evil 7. None quite emulated and even enhanced the experience and the terror quite as masterfully as SadSquare Studio's Visage, though.
Visage follows a man name Dwayne Anderson. In the game's opening, you can see him shoot and kill his wife, son, and daughter before shooting himself. He then awakens, however, in a small and desolate room before exiting and finding himself back in his house. As he makes his way through the house, he starts to experience paranormal events that slowly chip away at his sanity. From there, the game is divided into four chapters. The first three chapters can be completed in any order and are initiated by interacting with a specific object that shows you the fate of the house's previous residents. The fourth chapter takes place through seven segments each of which are initiated by playing a VHS tape. These reveal elements of Dwayne's life, and going through each gives Dwayne a piece of a mask that triggers the ending cutscene. The game's story is deeply evocative, and the fact that it's told through glimpses into the lives of other people and other times gives players the feel that they're not experience the story of a person so much as the story and history of the home itself.
Visage is an absolute exemplar of horror done right. There are some minor nit picks that I have with the game upon which I'll expand in a moment, but as far as the atmosphere, the tone, the story, and the overall sense of dread and terror, this game does everything right. It's probably the scariest game I've ever played and is the only game that's taken that title away from Outlast. On four separate occasions during my playthrough, I screamed like a girl and threw my controller, and that in itself proves that SadSquare knows exactly how to do jump scares. All too often, jump scares are overdone and used too frequently as a cheap substitute for making a game genuinely scary, but Visage uses them sparing to enhance the experience rather than fake it. The jump scares in this game are infrequent enough that you never start to expect or predict them, and they're timed and placed so perfectly that they always get the desired effect. With all the horror games I've played in my life (and that's a pretty substantial number), I've never seen a game use jump scares this masterfully. It's also extremely difficult, and I don't mean difficulty staying alive; some of the puzzles are straight up Myst levels of obscure and hard to figure out. I feel zero shame in admitting that I had to google what to do on more than one occasion. I, personally, don't consider this a bad thing at all as the feeling of helplessness and confusion adds to the tension of the game, but it's definitely worth noting that Visage will put your deduction and reasoning skills to the test.
The only real issues I have with the game are extremely minor and are mostly proofreading issues. There are a number of places where the spacing is off in dialogue subtitles; a line will read something like "The doctors said therewas nothing they could dofor him." With only one or two exceptions, the sentence itself makes perfect sense and just in need of another pass of proofreading. There were a couple instances where either a translation was off, or the writer's brain just moved faster than their fingers and led to a nonsense sentence, but I only saw two or three instances of that in the entire game, and it was never in an important story piece. My only other criticism - and the only one that I think really matters - is that the game's physics can get a little wonky sometimes. There are a few instances where you have to carry a large object - a chair, a wooden plank, etc. - and walk through doors or narrow hallways. These objects can get stuck in the doorway or lodged into the wall of the walkway and just sort of stay behind. The game doesn't make you automatically drop them thankfully, but it can take some jiggling and finagling to get the object where it needs to be. Sometimes this even happens in very small tunnels and crawlspaces with objects like lighters (these are important since darkness lowers your sanity). It's not a major issue as it never caused me to die or become stuck or anything, but it definitely is an annoyance.
Visage is one of the most impressive horror games I've ever played, and that's especially true when you consider that this is an indie studio's first game, and it got its funding from Kickstarter. As great as those series are, no big budget horror game in the Resident Evil, Silent Hill, or Fatal Frame series has ever scared me the way Visage did. The timing and sparing use of the jump scares, the subtle touches with the atmosphere of the house, and the random occurrences of the paranormal events rather than pre-scripted events all combined to make a true horror masterpiece. I rarely give games with identifiable issues a perfect 5 out of 5, but between the issues' being pretty minor here and the absolute master class in video game horror that Visage represents, I couldn't not give this game a perfect score. This is, without a doubt, the finest example of video game horror that I've ever experienced.
My Rating - 5 Neps
Also available on PlayStation 3, PlayStation Portable, and PlayStation Vita
Parasite Eve is a game that I’d been meaning to play for a long time considering what a classic PlayStation game it is. It’s one of those games that just stayed on my backlog, though, for one reason or another. Another game that I was more excited about came out, or I got sucked into a book, or I got busy with work; it was just one of those games where life always seems to get in the way. My interest in the game spiked when Bring Me the Horizon’s god-tier song entitled Parasite Eve came out inspired by the game. Between how killer that song is and how sick the music video is, I knew I had put it off for too long. I finally got around to playing through it for Halloween 2021, and while I don’t think it was quite as good as its legacy suggests, it’s definitely a solid game, and I understand why it’s usually held as a PlayStation classic.
Parasite Eve is ostensibly a horror game, and I can see why it gets that label, but it’s definitely not horror in the same way that Silent Hill or Resident Evil is. It’s fairly consistently creepy, but it was only occasionally scary. The music and environments were, for the most part, not all scary. Still, though, the story definitely fits the bill. The game’s narrative blends actual science with science fiction. The basic premise is that the mitochondria, the cellular organelle responsible for cellular respiration and energy production, is actually an ancient organize that developed a symbiotic relationship with the host organism hence the difference between mitochondrial DNA and nuclear DNA; the host provides the mitochondria with food and protection, and the mitochondria provides the host with energy. The game opens with the lead actress in a play singing as the entire audience spontaneously combusts, and you get your first view of the power of the antagonist of the game, “Mitochondrial Eve.” In actual science, there is a “Mitochondrial Eve,” although she actually has nothing to do with magic parasites or anything; the term simply refers to the most recent common female ancestor of all currently living humans as determined by mitochondrial DNA as that’s inherited from the mother (although recent research has shown that mitochondrial DNA can possibly be inherited from the father as well, the game is more than 20 years older than that study, so we’ll ignore that).
The game’s progression is broken into six chapters to which the game refers as “days,” although since Day 6 is just the final boss, there’s really only five chapters’ worth of content. As far as gameplay mechanics goes, it’s sort of reminiscent of Final Fantasy VII in that the camera angles are fixed, but battles can occur randomly, and the battles are done in a sort of pseudo-real time setup where you and the enemies move around in real time, and you can attack whenever your action meter fills. Unlike Capcom’s and Konami’s PS1 horror classics, Parasite Eve takes an RPG approach here; as you defeat enemies, you gain experience. When you level up, your various stats - the most important of which are your hit points and parasite points - increase. You also get access to more parasite powers - basically the game’s magic spells - as your level increases. Combining these stat increases with upgrading or swapping out your equipment is the key to success.
Parasite Eve was a bit of a slow burn for me, and took me a little while to really get into the game, but once I did, I was fairly invested in the story. I never reached the level of hooked that had me salivating to get home and fire up my PS1, but I was definitely interested in the game and wanted to finish it. I’m not sure I’d call this a “must play” for all PS1 owners, but it’s definitely worth giving a shot if you’re into classic horror games. Just make sure that you go into the game knowing what it is and what it isn’t, and keep your expectations appropriately tempered. I was a bit let down when I first started because I didn’t know what type of gameplay I was going to get, so I had been expecting a tense horror game with overworld encounters like Resident Evil or Silent Hill. Parasite Eve is absolutely a good game, but it’s definitely not your typical horror experience.
My Rating - 3 Neps
For four years, we Metroid fans have waited for a new game (Federation Force definitely doesn't count). For eleven years, we've waited for a new game on a home console. Finally, Nintendo has seen fit to grace us with a new game, and considering that Mercury Steam - the folks who did Samus Returns on 3DS - developed Metroid Dread, my expectations were pretty high. Not only did Dread manage to meet my expectations, but it handily surpassed every single one.
Dread is the fifth entry in the main Metroid series following Metroid, Metroid II, Super Metroid, and Metroid Fusion; and it picks up shortly after the events of Fusion. Samus has received a video of an X parasite - the nemesis from Fusion that was thought to be extinct - and, after the Federation loses contact with the robots it sent to investigate, she must rush to the planet from which the video originated and investigate for herself this allegedly resurrected threat to galactic peace. Just like Bill Gates and vaccines, though, you should know never to trust a robot with which you mysteriously lost contact.
A lot of folks online have complained that as a 2D game, Metroid Dread isn't worth $60. These people have clearly never actually played the game. If you do, it becomes immediately apparent why the game commands a full retail premium (in addition to the fact that the Metroid IP carries a certain inherent value). Most immediately is the fact that the game looks absolutely gorgeous. Despite being a handheld system that outputs to the TV without any HDR support and often failing to hit a native 1080p, Metroid Dread looks phenomenal especially in the cutscenes. As you get into the game itself, you'll start to notice how smooth and precise the controls are. Nothing feels janky, and you'll never find yourself frustrated at bad enemy hit detection or missing jumps you definitely should have made; the game's mechanics are polished to near perfection here. The bosses, as well, are an absolute master class in game design. At no point does any boss ever feel unfair; they can be extremely difficult, and you'll probably die a lot when you first encounter a new boss, but it's always very clear that it's your fault and not due to a cheap attack or a BS hitbox.
With all that said, the game isn't quite perfect. The EMMIs, the robots that serve as your big scary enemy for most of the game, fail to deliver the scary impact reminiscent of Mr. X or Nemesis from Resident Evil like they feel as if they were designed to do. Instead, they just end up being frustrating. They're ridiculously annoying to navigate around without getting caught, and the last couple that you have to fight are an absolute pain in the ass to destroy. They never feel frightening, though. Just infuriating. Fortunately, that's the only real complaint I have with the game, but given how terrifying the trailer made them seem and the fact that it released in Spooptober, I was hoping for a bit of a horror-tinted Metroid.
Metroid Dread may not be a perfect game, and I don't think it quite lives up to the high bar that Metroid Fusion set, but it's definitely a SOLID game that an absolute must-play for Switch owners. Aside from the EMMIs, there's not a single aspect of this game that I thought was poorly designed. In a sea of indie games that, while good, often show their low budgets with off-putting hit boxes and shoddy platforming mechanics, it's really refreshing to see a superb AAA 2D game that reminds people that yes, 2D platformers can absolutely be good enough to justify a full retail price. If you've got a Switch, you need to play this game.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Also available on Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, Switch, and Windows
Maid of Sker is my third horror game for October 2021, and it's my favorite of the three (the other two being Blair Witch and The Medium). Based on Welsh folklore, Maid of Sker is like a love letter to and an amalgamation of some of some of my favorite horror games all wrapped up in a setting that doesn't get enough love in my opinion - Victorian Wales.
The game opens with the protagonist, a fellow named Thomas, riding a train to the Sker Hotel to meet up with his wife/betrothed/girlfriend/whatever following a concerning letter he received from her. He was asked to compose a "counter" song - one of four she had commissioned from four different composers - to a specific melody that she sent to him and to bring it to her in Sker. Complying with her request, he wrote the piece and raced to Sker, but when he gets there, he finds that something is off. The hotel is abandoned, and it's clear that some manner of malicious mishap has occurred. As he investigates the hotel, his wife communicates with him only through the system of phones in the hotel as she has locked herself in the attic for safety from the evidently mind-altered men roaming the hotel. Thomas must now brave the violent brutes as he searches for the other three pieces of the counter-melody and four golden cylinders that have the potential to alter the minds of a large number of people all at once. It's kind of a bizarre story, not gonna lie, but it's pretty interesting and definitely kept me wanting to know more.
I mentioned that Maid of Sker is clearly influenced by a number of other games, and I personally think that's its greatest strength. The setting of a run down hotel has some serious Resident Evil vibes not to mention that you save by interacting with gramophones in safe rooms spread throughout the game's world. The gameplay that sees you avoiding and hiding from enemies with almost no way to fight back screams Outlast. The general atmosphere of the game and the design of the enemies are clearly inspired by The Evil Within and Silent Hill. A lot of people online throw around the term "rip-off" these games to describe games that borrow elements of games that came before it, but I think Maid of Sker strikes the perfect balance of being influence by a number of its genre predecessors while still managing to feel like its own thing, and that's not always easy to do. The story, while well written, takes a backseat to the atmosphere here. Very few horror games nail the atmosphere quite as well as Maid of Sker, and it's solidly creepy from start to finish while frequently bolting straight into downright scary. I audibly screamed numerous times through the game, and for someone who plays as many horror games as I do to be made to scream is a testament to the game's design.
The music and overall visual design are fantastic, and while I enjoyed the story and the setting, the story is actually the weak point of the game; it gets pretty predictable pretty quickly, and never once makes you give a damn about the protagonist. The fact that the game still managed to impress me so much despite that given how story-focused a gamer I am, though, should speak volumes to how well-done the rest of the game is. The music nails that subtle "haunting" feel without making the mistake so many horror games do of trying to build tension through loud and often disorienting music; it's a lot harder to make a soundtrack haunting than intense, but if a composer can manage it, it will automatically elevate any horror game to the next level, and Maid of Sker is an exemplar of that.
If you look at the critical reception of the game, you'll see that I disagree with most of the big reviews pretty heavily. Maid of Sker's reviews from the big names like IGN, Gamespot, etc. as well as its Metacritic aggregate scores are all middling, but I gotta disagree; I'm a big fan of this game and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's definitely got its flaws especially where the story is concerned, but as a spooky horror experience, I found it to be great. Not amazing, mind you, but solidly great, and the Victorian setting and basis in Welsh folklore just check all the right boxes for me. It's not going to be for everyone, and most of the complaints that the big reviewers had are truthfully pretty valid, but I think the sum here leaves a much better product than those reviews give it credit for. If you're a fan of horror games, do yourself a favor and play Maid of Sker. It probably won't knock most people's socks off, but I'm confident that you'll enjoy it and have no regrets with the time invested in a playthrough; I absolutely loved it.
My Rating - 4 Neps
Also available on PlayStation 5 and Windows
When The Medium was announced, I was excited about it for a few of the right reasons and some of the wrong reasons. Obviously, I was excited for a new horror game because that's one of my favorite genres, but I was also excited that Xbox Series X would FINALLY have an exclusive game even if it took two months. No more of that cross-gen crap; this was a genuine only-on-Xbox-Series X exclusive. And then it got ported to PlayStation 5, so Series X is back, as far as I'm aware, to zero as far as exclusives go with everything either being Series X and Xbox One or Series X and PS5. Oh well, back to the matter at hand, The Medium would have been a pretty solid exclusive to system even if not a system seller.
The Medium, like most games, takes a lot of inspiration from its predecessors in the genre, but it does so to pretty good effect. The premise of the game is that you're a medium (in case the title didn't give it away) who is investigating a mysterious call she received from a mysterious man who is mysteriously located in a mysterious Polish resort that was abandoned abruptly under mysterious circumstances. As she is a medium, she can not only sense but at times communicate with the spirits of the dead, so when she gets to the old Niwa resort, she very quickly realizes that the urban legend about the "Niwa Massacre" wasn't such an urban legend after all as the property is teeming with residual pain, grief, and rage along with the trapped spirits of the dead. As she investigates, she begins to learn that not only do her powers extend farther than she'd realized but that the spirit world poses more danger than she'd realized as well as aspects of her past that she'd long since forgotten thanks to the good old fashioned protagonist staple of "trauma-induced amnesia."
The first thing that I noticed during the introductory hour or so is that, at least from a visual standpoint, there's no reason for this game not to be cross-gen. Don't get me wrong; I hate cross-gen games, so I'm thrilled that this is current gen only. I don't quite understand it, though; other than some fog effects, there's nothing here that looked like something the Xbox One couldn't do, and even with the fog effects, I've seen effects that look similar on Wii U and Switch, so I highly doubt those would have been beyond the Xbox One's capabilities, either. A few hours in, however, I realized what I think the reason is; the game is so badly optimized that it relies on the power of the Series X to brute force a decent performance. The frame rate would occasionally (although not frequently) dip, the game crashed to the dashboard a couple of times, and - most damning of all - there were numerous instances in which the textures would pop in a full ten seconds after the game loaded and I started moving and playing. Keep in mind, I'm playing nine months after release and with multiple gigabytes of update data installed. I can overlook the frame rate drops given how infrequent they were, and this is by no means the only Series X game that I've had crash to the dashboard, but the texture pop-in is just absolutely unacceptable especially when you consider how average the textures are; the Series X has more than enough system resources to handle it if the developers optimize the game properly. Of course, having to render everything twice for the split screen effect is a more likely explanation, but given that consoles have been doing split screen for 25 years, I'm skeptical that this too couldn't have been done on Xbox One with the right team.
As is now apparent, there was a lot of The Medium that I found lacking, but that's not to say that I dislike the game. On the contrary, I thoroughly enjoyed it for the most part. The atmosphere gave me more of a mystery vibe than a horror vibe for the most part, but when it leaned into the horror, it was definitely well done although I'd still call it more "creepy" than "scary." The whole split reality aspect was really interesting, too, and while it took me a while to get the hang of moving through the physical world and the spirit world simultaneously, once I got a feel for it, it definitely made for a unique gameplay experience. Despite how impressive the split screen aspect was, though, the highlight for me was the story and the setting. The story itself and visual design of the world was fairly standard and gave me some HEAVY Silent Hill vibes, but the fact that the game took place in Poland in the late 1990s in an abandoned resort that had been built the Polish Communist Party as a "workers' resort" was absolutely perfect for a history teacher like me and immediately hooked me. Going through the resort, investigating the letters and journals left behind, and getting a feel for the general zeitgeist of mid-to-late Cold War Poland was a perfect recipe for keeping me interested.
The Medium is neither a masterpiece of storytelling nor a marvel of technical game design, but it is an enjoyable horror game that's perfect for October. It's a real shame that the visuals are so standard and the performance disappointing because beneath the technical issues is a really solid game that horror buffs and fans of supernatural stories will eat up. Having been ported to PlayStation 5 along with its Series X and Windows releases means that everyone who's moved to the current generation can access this game, and I definitely recommend doing so. Just make sure that you keep your expectations in check and go in understanding that this isn't a AAA game.
My Rating - 3 Neps
Also available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Oculus Quest, and Windows
I'm a sucker for horror in general - movies, books, games, anime, everything - and I'm an absolute slut for the found footage subgenre of horror in cinema. As such, I absolutely adored Blair Witch Project despite the flaws. When I saw that there was a Blair Witch game on Switch, then, I immediately ordered a copy. Of course, I then put it on a shelf to sit untouched for nearly six months, but I finally got around to actually playing it. It's...well, it's not bad.
You play as this Army veteran turned disgraced sheriff's deputy named Ellis as he joins the search party for a lost kid in the woods. As you search for the kid with your dog, Bullet, you start to notice that something isn't quite right. Clues found in plain sight that the rest of the search party somehow missed. Landmarks that no one else on the search party can seem to find when you try to meet up. Camcorder tapes left throughout the woods. As the psychological horror element of the game begins to pick up, that's when the game's one real strength starts to shine - atmosphere. The game doesn't really have more than a couple of enemy encounters until the end, and the ones it does have before that are super short, so you don't have the kind of horror that you get from Resident Evil or Outlast. For most of the game, it feels like if Myst were a horror game; you're just walking around, solving (pretty light) puzzles, and picking up clues here and there about the world and its lore.
Unfortunately, the atmosphere is really all the game has going for it. The story is good, but it's not going to impress anyone as it's basically a non-Konami Silent Hill; the protagonist has some deep-seeded trauma and/or guilt, finds himself lost in a bizarre world of terror that doesn't play by the normal rules of physics, and he's forced to confront his inner demons. It's not bad, but it's not exactly reinventing the wheel here. What is bad are the visuals. Even the Xbox One footage I saw looked like a late-gen Xbox 360 game, and on Switch, it could pass for a PS3 launch title. I'm the poster child of "graphics aren't what matter in a game," but even I was playing this game while saying to my roommate, "Dude, look how ugly these textures are." It definitely looks a lot better on the more powerful platforms, but even there, it doesn't look good.
Overall, Blair Witch is an enjoyable horror romp, and it's a solid pick to play during October for a spoopy game (hence why I played it when I did), but it's certainly not an exemplar of the game design or a pillar of the genre. The story is pretty standard, but the execution is pretty good, and the end of the game really picks up the adrenaline and mixes it well with the horror atmosphere. I can't I'd recommend Blair Witch at the normal $30 price tag, but if you see it on sale for $20 or less and are a fan of horror games and don't mind a quasi-walking sim, I reckon it's worth it for that price. I enjoy my time with it, and I certainly don't regret paying to import a Japanese copy for Switch to have on my shelf, but it's a pretty mid-tier game all things considered.
My Rating - 3 Neps
Also available on PlayStation 4 and Windows
Earth Defense Force is one of my all-time favorite series. If you've played any of the games, then you know exactly what you're getting here - bad frame rate, sub-par visuals, gloriously horrible voice acting, and thousands upon thousands of giant insects to shoot. It's wonderful and the absolute epitome of "stupid, pointless fun." When I saw that one was coming to Switch, while I wasn't jazzed about the visual style chosen, I was VERY excited to have an entry in the series on my favorite of the current consoles.
As you can probably tell from the Minecraft-esque blocky art style, this is a very light-hearted and often tongue-in-cheek entry in the series. With the exceptions of Insect Armageddon and Iron Rain, none of the games took themselves too too seriously, but this one is pretty up front with the fact that it's not serious. You've got one character who routinely breaks the fourth wall and talks about the script and the game developers and even name drops other games in the series (think the archery contest scene from Robin Hood: Men in Tights); characters who run around in giant panda, koala, and bear costumes; a Twitch streamer character; and the fact that the Earth, sun, and moon are all cubes. No one's mistaking this for a serious game. That's part of the charm, though; the entire premise of the series is ridiculous, and instead of trying to make it more serious like they did to a certain extent with Iron Rain, they totally lean into the absurdity, and it totally works here.
The general premise is that the various aliens from the other games in the series have all invaded Earth again under the command of the mysterious Dark Tyrant, and this time, they've managed to physically tear the Earth apart. Rather than render the chunks of the planet utterly lifeless as would actually happen, it just means that the EDF has to fight across different pieces of the broken Earth, destroying the Motherships to magically reassemble the planet. You can assemble a team of up to four units between whom you can switch freely, and while you start off with just a few units, there are three randomly generated units that you can find and rescue in each mission. If the rescued unit is one that you haven't found before, they're added to your roster; if it's one that you have found before, they gain skill points and, upon leveling up, gain the ability to use a new weapon type. This gives you a strong incentive to hunt down all of the units in need of rescue before finishing the mission. Some of these units are pulled straight from other games and even say (EDF3) or (EDF:IR) beside their names to denote their game of origin. Other units are based on hilarious (and borderline offensive at times) caricatures of their home countries. For example, the representative unit of Mexico is Amigo Brother, and he wears a giant sombrero, a colorful serape, and a guitar on his back; and his special attack is to throw bottles of tequila that act as Molotov cocktails with a special ability that has him pull out a trumpet and start playing to boost nearby allies' attack and defense.
While I absolutely loved my time with it, I do have my complaints with the game. First off, I hate the visual style chosen, and I don't just mean the blocky look; there's this bizarre filter that they use that gives it a rather blurred look almost as if oil or something were smeared on the camera lens. I've seen gameplay of the PS4 and PC versions, and while the blur obviously isn't as severe with the higher resolutions on those platforms, the odd filter effect is still there. It's by no means a deal-breaker, and I was eventually able to look past it, but it's certainly not pleasing. I'm also not a fan of the not-infrequent performance hiccups. It never crashed on me, but it wasn't at all uncommon to see some pretty major (albeit thankfully momentary) frame rate dips at the start of missions and when the action got heavy. I'm also not a fan of the lack of any local multiplayer. I absolutely understand the limited system resources available, especially on Switch, but this type of game just seems perfect for some mindless Saturday afternoon couch co-op. Crack open a few beers (or, in my case, ciders), order a pizza, and slaughter some giant bugs. It does at least support local co-op via multiple Switch units, so that's something, but it's a shame that you can't do old-school split screen even if I understand that the Switch hardware probably would have made this a Herculean effort to pull off.
Earth Defense Force: World Brothers certainly isn't a masterpiece of a game, and it's not even the best of the series, but it's definitely an extremely fun entry and a must-play for fans of the series or fans of goofy games and third person shooters. As long as you don't go in expecting a game with the budget or polish of a AAA studio and are cool with a dumb, silly story, there's a lot of fun to be had here. I hate the visual style they went with, and I wish it supported local co-op, but if you either have other friends with the game or are cool just slaughtering giant insects solo, this is a very enjoyable experience, and it's great to see this series finally grace a Nintendo platform with a release (even if it's not a main series game).
My Rating - 3 Neps
Star Trek: Elite Force II is the visually impressive but otherwise rather disappointing follow-up to the incredible Star Trek: Voyager - Elite Force. It picks up for the prologue right at the end of season seven of Voyager during the events of the series finale, Endgame, and from there, jumps two years ahead. Despite dropping "Voyager" from the title, it's a true sequel and follows the same characters from the first game (well, those who made it out of the Delta Quadrant alive, anyway).
After an unwanted stint as a Starfleet Academy instructor, Alexander Munro (you don't have the ability to play as Alexandria Munro this time) is recruited by Captain Picard to join the crew of the USS Enterprise-E and start up a Hazard Team there. From there, you stumble onto a plot to create bioweapons that can destroy whole empires and, of course, must work with your team to stop it through both Rambo-esque overt assaults as well as Bond-esque covert missions. On paper, this game is an improvement over the original in every way. Unfortunately, the execution falls a little bit short.
The first thing you'll notice is how dramatically improved the graphics are. It's still nearly 20 years old, but it holds up well provided that you tweak the game files to force a 1920x1080 resolution (or higher if you prefer; I've read that it can go up to 1440p and still work well, but my monitor is 1080p, so that's what I forced). The array of weapons is pretty awesome, as well, with most being based on weapons from the first game but a couple being genuinely interesting new weapons. It's also cool to see more alien races to fight and environments in which to battle. Of course, the highlight of the game is the voice acting of the legendary and divine Sir Patrick Stewart as he reprises his immortal role as Captain Jean-luc Picard.
With everything the game has going for it, then, it's disappointing that it just doesn't perform as well as once might hope. The story is good, and it definitely feels like Star Trek, but it feels like Star Trek: Insurrection whereas the previous game felt like Star Trek: First Contact; it's good, but it's not great. Likewise, the combat just doesn't feel quite as fun. Weapons are nicer, and environments are more diverse, but it just doesn't feel as good, and I have no idea why. Both games used the Quake III engine, although Elite Force II did use some tweaks to the engine. I seem to be in the majority for that opinion, too, as even years after the release of Elite Force II, the first Elite Force was always far more popular online for both its single player and its multiplayer.
Star Trek: Elite Force II is a good Star Trek game and a good shooter, but it fails to live up to the standard set by its predecessor. It's definitely a lot of fun, and I thoroughly enjoyed my seven or eight hours with the game, but it just doesn't have that special feel to it that the first game did. It looks way better, has much better and more challenging boss battles, and should be the superior game, but it's just not quite as fun. Still, though, it's absolutely worth the $10 asking price on GOG, and I have absolutely no problem recommending it to Star Trek fans and fans of old school FPS alike.
My Rating - 3 Neps
Also available on PlayStation 2 and Mac OS
For literally my entire life, I've been a massive Star Trek fan, and when I first got into online PC gaming, it was through Star Trek games. One of the two Star Trek games that really got me into competitive multiplayer was a Quake 3 based game called Star Trek: Voyager - Elite Force. For pretty much my entire time in middle school and a good chunk of high school, I sank hundreds of hours into this game between the single player, the multiplayer, and the prolific modding community. When GOG added a ton of Star Trek games from the Activision golden age recently, I basically just offered up my credit card to them. While the game's now old enough to buy alcohol in the United States, it's surprising how well it still holds up minus the outdated resolution support.
Elite Force takes place sometime during Voyager's sixth season. Seven of Nine is already part of the crew, and most of the major Delta Quadrant species are either outright mentioned in the single player or at least playable skins in the multiplayer. You play as either Alexander or Alexandria Munro (depending on if you choose a male or female character) and are second-in-command of a special Hazard Team that Tuvok created to handle especially dangerous away missions. As Voyager is voyaging around the Delta Quadrant on its long journey home, a mysterious probe shows up, beats the hell out of the ship, and then transports it to some mysterious sector of space when it explodes. A dampening field pretty much knocks out all of their ship systems (except life support) and auxiliary power. From there, you play through a few dozen linear levels as you investigate where you are, what brought you there, what's keeping you there, and how to get out.
The game definitely shows its age visually, especially where supported resolutions are concerned, but thankfully, the modding community has stepped into alleviate some of that. While it's not perfect and can leave some of the models (most notably weapons) looking just a little wonky, I did find a mod that polishes the textures a bit and forces a pretty decent 1080p resolution. On top of performance mods like that, there are a veritable buttload of map, character, and weapon skin mods for the multiplayer. There are also mods that add an entirely new fan-made single player adventure as well as total conversion mods available.
The official servers are, unfortunately, all down for Elite Force, but there are a still a good number of player-run servers up. Of course, these are filled almost exclusively with bots, and if you're cool playing with bots, you're probably better off just setting up your own custom match offline, but still, it's nice to see that there's an option if you and a friend want to find the same bot-infested server and play together. The multiplayer is mostly your basic deathmatch, team deathmatch, or capture the flag; although there are a couple interesting ones like the one-life gladiator matches and the one-shot-kill disintegration matches. At one point, I was basically unbeatable at Elite Force online. Of course, this point was a solid 15 years ago, but still, the point stands that I was a virgin-tier badass at one point.
The story in the single player is surprisingly solid for a licensed game, and Raven really showed that they knew what they were doing here. I'm not gonna say that this is the best Star Trek game ever made, but it's definitely in the top 3. I'll admit that a lot of my fondness for this game probably is nostalgia, but I absolutely adore it. Even playing the multiplayer by myself with bots is immensely enjoyable for me, and going back through the single player was the best kind of trip down Memory Lane. The single player may only be five or six hours long, but it's a damn fun five or six hours. If you're a fan of late 90s/early 2000s PC shooters, I strongly recommend this game; if you're a fan of Star Trek: Voyager, this game is an absolute must-play. For only $10 on GOG, this game is absolutely worth it.
My Rating - 4 Neps
I'm a teacher.
And I like to play video games. I like to collect video games. I like to talk about video games, and I like to write about video games. During the day, I teach high school history; during the night, I spend my spare time gaming. Then I write about it.