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Games Mundaun’s greatest achievement is the Swiss Alps setting that’s brought to life with tangible vigor. Published 1 week agoon March 17, 2021 Photo: MWM InteractiveAt a glance, the most distinctive quality to Mundaun is its black-and-white art. The hand-penciled textures lend a haunting gravitas to the inherent imperfections of this Swiss horror game’s lo-fi style, from the jagged and foreboding environments to the people who move like jerky marionettes. Whenever you pass over paintings or other important objects, the camera starts to zoom in, casting a bleary, swimmy haze over the world.Mundaun’s greatest achievement, though, may be its setting, a settlement in the Swiss Alps that’s brought to life with tangible vigor by the developers at Hidden Fields. As a young man named Curdin, you return home after receiving news of your grandfather’s death in a barn fire, despite the local priest’s odd insistence that there’s no need for you to attend the burial. His reason for keeping you away immediately becomes clear—in strange weather patterns, paintings capable of changing the world, and humanoid monsters draped in hay. At the center of it all is a creepy old man with a blackened visage who deforms Curdin’s left hand.Mundaun’s world is populated with the eccentric locks and hidden keys that are familiar from so many horror games, but it stands apart from its cheaper fellows with its focus on unassuming details and everyday processes. The primary method of transport here, for one, is an old hay baler that requires you, once you’re seated in it, to look around the dashboard for the things you can interact with: the ignition key to turn, the button that lets you turn on the headlights, and the dial that lets you fiddle with the radio as you drive. And the tools at your disposal are rarely more complex than an easily splintered pitchfork, the pair of binoculars hanging around your neck, and whatever fits into your conspicuously large backpack.You can even brew coffee, and it’s a bit of a process, given that you have to fill a pot with water at an outside pump, put it on an old stove, dump the coffee in, shove a block of wood into the stove, light a fire, and wait until it’s ready to pour into a cup from your backpack. But there’s also a more practical application to the coffee-making, as it functions as a kind of upgrade to steel Curdin’s nerves, which are worked raw from the unnatural entities that roam the mountains. Whenever a monster sights you, it begins a ranged attack and paralyzes you with fear, slowing your movements so that it’s as difficult to flee as it is to close the distance for a well-placed pitchfork jab. But your fear will become less debilitating with each cup of coffee.Mundaun’s combat system largely works the way that it’s supposed to, in that its clunky and, as such, unsatisfying qualities discourage you from seeking out a fight. You’re usually better off sneaking around or lighting patches of hay aflame, hoping the fire leaps to one of the monsters. But the game goes a little too far in letting you largely avoid combat, in the process sapping your exploration of much dreadful anticipation, as threats are easily spotted from a distance even within your monochromatic field of vision—and, for good feature, Curdin’s cursed hand begins to writhe and glow whenever monsters target him.Throughout, you’re engaging or avoiding monsters predominantly on your own terms rather than being forced to adapt to unexpected threats. And because you always know how and when to react, and you’re never really worried about wasting resources you might need later on, the game wants for a messier sense of uncertainty. Only in its traversal does Mundaun break from this rigidity, as you have multiple angles of approach when, say, it comes to going down the region’s mountainous landscape, as well as multiple ways to first acquire an important item.Mundaun ends up more moody and strange than outright unsettling, particularly since its horrible sights come perilously close to someone’s idea of a joke for why the setting would be decidedly not scary, only capable of supplying things like evil beekeepers, walking hay, and a spooky cabin on a chairlift. But the power of the game’s art and atmosphere draw you in regardless, creating a sense of eerie wrongness that’s much creepier than any of the physical creatures you’re meant to fear. If Mundaun doesn’t totally work as a traditional horror game, it nevertheless proves that a vivid sense of place can be the most engrossing thing of all.The game was reviewed using a review code provided by fortyseven communications. Developer: Hidden Fields Publisher: MWM Interactive Platform: PC Release Date: March 16, 2021 Buy: GameWe’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.Games Loop Hero functions as a statement of persistence in the face of the seemingly insurmountable. Published 2 weeks agoon March 8, 2021 Photo: Four QuartersThe world is all but gone in Loop Hero. It’s a featureless black void except for one solitary path for your nameless hero to tread. One day bleeds into the next, each near-indistinguishable dawn spawning mindless slime creatures to claw at his heels. From the game’s zoomed-out view, you can see that the path is circular, inevitably snaking back to the starting campfire with not a single branching route in between.As if to underscore the recursive futility of surviving in this uniquely emptied post-apocalypse, of pushing forward while knowing full well that you’re not going anywhere, the game’s hero moves independently on this path with no input from the player. He already knows the way, because there is, after all, only one way. The battles against things like the slime, too, are reminiscent of a turn-based RPG where the turns are automatically taken for you as progress bars fill up for fighters to perform their only available action: attack.The ingenious hook behind this RPG from Russian developer Four Quarters instead asks us to manage what the hero accumulates through his automatic journey, from the expected rewards of better equipment to cards that represent memories of the world that once was. Placing a mountain card on the blank map will create one from the ether and boost the hero’s health. Placing a grove on his path will let him harvest wood on each pass, one of many resources to be used in the slow rebuilding process when he returns to camp and the world beyond once again darkens and empties of everything you’ve built. By mingling the familiar setting of the fantasy roguelike with mechanics that emphasize a detachment and repetition, Loop Hero functions as a statement of persistence in the face of the seemingly insurmountable.Of course, it also helps that the game is craftily addictive. It nudges you to keep playing cards because, with every one that you throw down and every new location that you add into the mix, the greater the hero’s potential resource haul upon his return to camp, either by conscious retreat or by force when creatures overwhelm him. Because the process of remaking the world also means resurrecting its potential dangers: A grove spawns a vicious rat-wolf every few days, while swamps are laden with huge mosquitoes and cemeteries are prone to raising skeleton warriors. Likewise, each card slowly fills the bar that triggers a difficult boss battle that allows you to progress further into Loop Hero, but the penalty for death is quite steep, nixing a full 70% of the resources you gathered. And while it’s possible to retreat from any map square, the home campfire is the only space that allows players to leave with all of their resources rather than forfeiting a smaller yet still painful 40%.In this way, Loop Hero becomes something of a management game in the guise of a pixelated RPG, where you carefully weigh the accumulated danger of playing certain cards and taking care to space out the really difficult spots to give the hero the best possible chance. You have to constantly consider whether an immediate retreat is necessary or if it’s worth risk to push for either the boss battle or a consequence-free exit all the way on your base camp.Loop Hero does fall prey to some of the frustrations endemic to the roguelike genre, and in some cases those problems are exacerbated by its own twists on the template. Like anything built on randomization, sometimes you’ll simply be dealt a bad hand. But where a lot of roguelikes let you squeak by based on strategy or reflexive mastery of its systems, Loop Hero’s largely automated nature might leave you with little choice but to grit your teeth through a dreary run that sticks you with lousy gear and none of the cards you need. Worse, the severe resource penalties can make the game quite a grind, particularly as it nears the end.And yet, so much of what makes Loop Hero great comes from its harshest edges, the palpable sense of danger that the hero might not make it back and that, after all options have been exhausted, you can’t do much more than sit back and fret. This is a game where you fumble for answers in the dark, where the rules are never neatly laid out because you’re meant to organically discover them. Many cards have unexpected, unadvertised interactions with one another, like how placing mountain cards close together will form a mountain peak that provides a health boost but also spawns harpies that can fly to any part of the hero’s path, potentially upending whatever careful balance you’ve cultivated. Through repeated trials, you experiment and intuitively figure out some way to manage an ever-evolving situation. Loop Hero is a curiously hopeful game of adaptation and reaction, where you struggle to optimize a thing that rebels at the very concept of optimization: the world itself.This game was reviewed using a review code provided by Tinsley PR. Developer: Four Quarters Publisher: Devolver Digital Platform: PC Release Date: March 4, 2021 Buy: GameWe’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.Games Cyber Shadow is every bit as challenging as its pedigree suggests, but the game takes care to space out its most demanding segments. Published 3 weeks agoon March 3, 2021 Photo: Yacht Club GamesAs the cyborg ninja at the center of Aarne Hunziker’s Cyber Shadow (Yacht Club Games), your goal is to slice through robotic foes across 11 chapters, all while contending with various obstacles, such as spike-filled pits. This action platformer, then, owes a sizable debt to Ninja Gaiden, as well as to other 8-bit sidescrollers of yore. But to commend the game purely in terms of retro fealty risks glossing over the considerable precision and craft that Hunziker, the sole member of Mechanical Head Studios, has put into each gorgeously pixelated gauntlet. The game is set in an exaggerated cyberpunk future, and each of its levels presents you with new mechanics, from enemies that send electric bolts between one another to a sky laser that targets you the moment you step out from under a roof’s cover.Cyber Shadow is every bit as challenging as its pedigree suggests, but the game takes care to space out its most demanding segments. The really punishing stretches (beyond, perhaps, a really irritating second chapter) train you well enough to breeze through the parts that follow and, mercifully, checkpoints arrive much sooner than you might initially expect.The game is at its most thoughtful when tempering the infamous difficulty of its forerunners without diluting it. There are no real penalties for death, with each checkpoint allowing you to purchase health or a temporary item in preparation for the path ahead. And the piecemeal approach to your growing ninja arsenal lets the game subtly tutorialize, allowing you to hone each new skill that’s handed to you until it’s time for them all to come together as the game kicks into high gear. Perhaps inevitably, the opening levels are a little rudimentary, but the game’s virtuosic brio is such that you will find yourself instantly hooked. ScaifeGreed is the end-all, be-all of Curse of the Dead Gods (Focus Home Interactive). It pervades every inch of this rogue-like action game from developer Passtech Games: It’s the treasure-hunting motivation for each of your runs through a series of Mesoamerican temples, a necessity in combat, and an ever-present curse that will stop an expedition cold if you can’t mitigate the corruption that you’re dealt every time you take a reward.What sets Curse of the Dead Gods apart is the way in which it requires players to be greedy while also punishing them for it. The game rewards you for staying in the light, where you take less damage and can see traps, but urges you to rush into the darkness, swapping out your weak torch for a powerful weapon, and killing enemies in quick succession to fill your gold-multiplying “greed meter.” Getting hit breaks that combo, and yet the only way to restore your stamina in combat is by making last-second dodges and parries. Without enough gold, you’ll have to essentially mortgage your soul to purchase upgrades, making blood offerings that fill your corruption meter, activating random, game-altering curses. It sounds manageable, which is how the game gets you, for even if you dodge every spike trap, electrical landmine, poison fountain, and skeletal attack, simply progressing to the next chamber causes corruption.The developers at Passtech Games hide a critique of greed in plain sight by easing players into the game, making us think that we can recklessly accumulate corruption without consequence. Instead of one long dungeon to overcome, there are three distinct temples: the blood-soaked stone sacrificial halls of the Jaguar, the blue storm-powered corridors of the Eagle, and the toxic green caverns of the Serpent. Mimicking the same predatory practices as a credit-card company, the introductory tiers of each temple give players a sense of comfort, enough to coax them into accruing more corruption (or debt) than they should, but not so much to bog them down in curses (or bankruptcy). As the temples get longer and filled with elite enemies, players have to unlearn those habits and resist the siren call of that greed, lest they succumb to the almost-certain death sentence of the game’s fifth and final curse. RiccioThe highly metaphorical Maquette (Annapurna Interactive) derives its name from an artist’s scale-model rendering of a larger project they’re working on. In this case, that project is the relationship between artists Michael (Seth Gabel) and Kenzie (Bryce Dallas Howard). The game’s first-person gameplay puts you within a series of nested, recursive memory-palace maquettes in which you can manipulate the scale of objects by moving their corresponding pieces. A cube, for example, that’s too large to lift at its normal size can easily be moved to a new position by adjusting its smaller, dioramic representation, but while this well serves the unique blend of puzzling, it often seems stretched to fit the game’s romance.Despite being centered around the concept of shifting perspectives, Maquette fixates entirely on Michael’s recollections, and the puzzles do little to reflect on the artists’ relationship, or turn introspection into action. (You may wish that the developers at Graceful Decay had taken a page from Braid, which built its story and mechanics upon turning back time, such that both elements fed off one another.) The rare exceptions hint at the more immersive game that could’ve been, as when one of Michael’s observations (“I asked myself whether we were ever a good fit”) is put to the test alongside a key that players can endlessly attempt to resize before resigning themselves to the conclusion that it will simply never open the nearby lock.Thankfully, Maquette’s puzzles compellingly pick up the story’s slack. Most solutions require you to use objects in different contexts, like resizing a wedge shoe as a ramp, or maneuvering gems through the various scale models so that they can open gateways of corresponding colors. That’s a far more creative enterprise than the one offered by the flimsy plotting, which introduces objects into the game less as an occasion for emotional resonance than to serve up more superficial pleasures, such as one egregiously underlined double entendre: “That shoe’s a wedge, get it? Like the wedge driving these two apart?” The game’s narrative just can’t match the depth of the recursive gameplay. In that sense, then, Maquette models the very antithesis of the plot, as the only way to grow is to leave a stifling relationship behind. RiccioWe’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.Games Strikers is still a well-earned vacation for our heroes, an emphatic, energetic punctuation mark to a much larger experience. Published 3 weeks agoon March 1, 2021 Photo: AtlusThe opening hours of Persona 5 Strikers feel like a family reunion. The series’s tightlipped protagonist, Joker, returns to the Leblanc coffee shop and to all his favorite people, the Phantom Thieves, a tiny bit older, a tiny bit wiser, and with an entire golden summer ahead. Regardless of whether or not you see the light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, it’s going to hit you hard to see these friends together and know that the world is open to them, but this one scene would be meaningless if the remainder of the game didn’t sustain the stellar character development and world building previously established by Persona 5.That success wasn’t expected, considering that Strikers is, on paper, another familiar Omega Force musou game—not exactly the gold standard when it comes to storytelling. But in action, this is a glorious outlier in the arena of games that take more than a few pages from the Dynasty Warriors playbook, as this isn’t a Dynasty Warriors game with Persona 5 characters, but a full-fledged Persona 5 sequel whose combat system just happens to bear a mild resemblance to that of a Dynasty Warriors hack-and-slash-athon.For that reason, Strikers is also slightly less accessible than other musou games. Having played Persona 5 all the way through is a necessity going in, in ways that reading Romance of the Three Kingdoms or playing Breath of the Wild isn’t necessary before taking on, respectively, Dynasty Warriors or Hyrule Warriors. Strikers takes place six months after the original ending to Persona 5 (aside from Showtime attacks, there’s a dearth of callbacks to Persona 5 Royal), and many of the rules of combat—in terms of how collecting and leveling up Personas, magic, weaknesses, technical hits, and stealth work—are virtually unchanged. The difference is having to execute all of this in real time, against legions of cannon-fodder Shadows, and dozens of tiny smart decisions have been made to not only make facing those hordes feel fast, fluid, and gratifying, but to ensure that each Phantom Thief is distinctly unique in their own way.While prepping to hit the road to enjoy an idyllic summer, the gang hits a few supernatural roadblocks, discovering a wave of incidents in which seemingly normal folks are upending their entire lives in service of certain cults of personality: a pop idol, a famous manga creator, a city’s beloved mayor, among other influencers. The Metaverse—the psychedelic nightmare world ostensibly demolished at the end of Persona 5—looms large again over our heroes, not just playing host to each influencer’s warped psychedelic prison, where each has crowned themselves Monarch, but to the crystallized stolen hearts of everyone under their thrall. The only clear connection between the Monarchs has to do with the release of EMMA, a new virtual assistant/social networking tool run by a shady new tech company.In case you thought that Atlus would follow in the footsteps of other developers wanting to make clear that they’re not intent on making political statements, rest assured that Strikers exudes the same mean, anti-authoritarian streak as Persona 5. It’s upfront about it, starting with its fundamental contempt for police, personified by Zenkichi, who helps the Thieves along the way but never fully earns their trust, and for good reason: He’s a snake playing both sides, planning right from the start to find an excuse to take the Thieves down.There’s a slightly different mood, though, to the rebellion at the heart of Strikers, as the story takes its time to not so much hate the players but hate the game. The villains this time around are still twisted manifestations of cardinal sins, but we’re consistently shown the engine behind their evil, and the root of it all largely comes down to a few detestable old men. The payoff is enormously rewarding, especially as it homes in on EMMA’s creators—glad-handing caricatures of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey, and any number of nameless hedge fund types and private equity stooges who are selling humanity as their product. The only real issue with the game arises when it shifts focus away from that allegory in the final act, the game stretching on two dungeons too long to say what it needs to say. You feel that a little more given how much shorter Strikers is compared to Persona 5.Mind you, “shorter” is a relative term here. Strikers easily stretches into the 60-hour range. However, the half of the game that you don’t spend in the Metaverse strikes a nice balance between high- and low-stakes thrills. The cases popping up all over Japan give the Thieves the perfect opportunity to turn business into pleasure, road-tripping all over the country, taking in sights, sounds, and ever so much incredible-sounding food. More importantly, the company is wonderful, especially given how much the Thieves have grown up as people since Persona 5, approaching the world with an eye for the future and without regret.The game’s other half does involve slipping into the Metaverse to steal hearts and slay anything that stands in the Thieves’s way, but it’s a rather nicely streamlined experience compared to Persona 5. The ticking-clock mechanics are gone, meaning you can dip in and out of the Metaverse at any time to rest up, buy provisions, and upgrade weapons all in the same in-game calendar day. The gameplay loop is designed to allow all the time you want to explore either world at your leisure. The price, though, is that the slightly truncated experience doesn’t leave a whole lot of room for building new relationships, or jobs, or seeing movies, or any of the other random activities that are the mainstays of the Persona series.And yet, it’s easy to forget just how much all of that started to feel like work in the original version of Persona 5, especially the longer that its campaign stretched on. Despite all the fighting you will do here, and despite all the room that the developers have made for sociopolitical theater, Strikers is still a well-earned vacation for our heroes, an emphatic, energetic punctuation mark to a much larger experience. The newfound real-time chaos of its combat is just one more avenue granting these kids the ability to revel in their freedom, in a way that not a lot of real-life kids—or adults, really—can at this moment in time.This game was reviewed using a retail copy purchased by the reviewer. Developer: Atlus, Omega Force, P Studio Publisher: Atlus Platform: PlayStation 4 Release Date: February 20, 2021 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Partial Nudity, Sexual Themes, Strong Language, Violence Buy: GameWe’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.Games Bowser’s Fury finds Nintendo again pushing the envelope of Super Mario Bros. in exciting directions. Published 1 month agoon February 18, 2021 Photo: NintendoWhen it launched on the WiiU back in 2013, Super Mario 3D World felt like a revelation, for indicating that Nintendo was beginning to seriously chart a new path forward for its bread-and-butter platforming franchise. The game is a veritable amusement park of novel ideas and mechanics wrapped into kinetic puzzle solving, and more than one subsequent Super Mario Bros. release carries the trace of its influence. Perhaps inevitably, Super Mario 3D World feels all the more at home on the Switch alongside Super Mario Odyssey, which all but perfected its already winning formula back in 2017 before taking it to the stratosphere. The icing on the cake? The inclusion of a new game, Bowser’s Fury, that finds Nintendo again pushing the envelope of Super Mario Bros. in exciting directions.Running, jumping, collecting coins and stars, bouncing on enemy heads—these have been the foundational mechanics of the series since the release of the original game in 1985. But there were major shakeups along the way, none more seismic than 1996’s Super Mario 64, from which Super Mario 3D World took more than a few pages. True innovation is often doled out in small doses across Nintendo’s flagship series. Typically, a Super Mario Bros. game hinges on one main gimmick for an entire campaign. By contrast, Super Mario 3D World is a game of gimmicks. Instead of dropping players into an expansive open world, it has you scale stage after stage of self-contained wonder, bursting with clever delights that rarely repeat themselves, and more importantly never outstay their welcome.Walking into any given stage, you never know exactly what needs to be done to get to the goal. A straightforward romp through a meadow could shoot you into a cloud and have you running for your life at full speed across the heavens. (As such, the only major upgrade offered by this Switch port—a noticeable improvement in movement speed, addressing a long-held complaint about the WiiU version—will feel like a mercy to returning players.) A disco-themed stage has platforms that disappear and reappear on beat, then throw a curveball with a cherry item that lets Mario replicate himself up to four times, with enemies doing the same, and puzzles requiring a set of Marios to work together in tandem. A Japanese pagoda stage requires using the touchscreen to open doors, hit gongs, and smack enemies—and stealthily so, if you want to successfully gather all the stars after putting on your Goomba costume.Super Mario 3D World introduced a new power-up, the Super Bell, that allows players to turn into a cat, one of the bigger—and most hilariously endearing—shake-ups to ever grow out of the series. With the suit, players are granted the power to vertically scale surfaces, and as high as possible. Not just an invitation to players to go exploring to their hearts’ content, the suit’s power works to fully obscure just how linear the stage designs actually are.These are largely the sorts of seed ideas that would fully bloom in Super Mario Odyssey and ones that Bowser’s Fury takes in ambitious new directions. Set in a tropical paradise overrun by cats—lovingly influenced by Japan’s famous real-life “Cat Island”—a toxic sludge has turned Bowser into a massive, unholy kaiju terror who rains fire across every inch of the landscape, and it’s up to Mario and Bowser’s own son to figure out how to cut him down to size. Doing so involves gathering up Cat Shines—basically, Super Mario Sunshine’s collectables but with cat ears—and using them to power lighthouses scattered across an island chain.That will sound familiar to anyone who’s played Super Mario Odyssey, but there are no extra lives here. Dying costs coins, thus finally giving them an actual purpose for the first time in the series in decades. Every island is connected and wide-open, which makes the experience of playing the game less about raising the flag at the end of a course than anticipating Bowser’s approach, forcing you to gather resources fast enough to escape his barrage of fire, rain, and lightning. And it’s a more nerve-wracking experience than one might expect.Across Bowser’s Fury’s three-to-four-hour campaign, Mario isn’t beholden to the rules of each stage, but rather the world is beholden to him, and the player by proxy. By removing the boundaries between levels and pitting you against an ever-present threat, the game forces you to look at its world as an interconnected network of challenges. Even an aimless traipse around the island never feels without purpose. Whether you find yourself making a beeline for the nearest Cat Shine or simply hanging out with the family of cats who live on an impossible ledge, the island paradise of Bowser’s Fury is a joyous invitation to wander.Which isn’t to say that Nintendo crammed each stage with collectables and meager sidequests. Bowser’s Fury really breathes with a sense of freedom and spontaneity, letting you approach the Bowser problem in whatever way you see fit. The goals for each quest may follow the typical Mario rules, but failing at it never feels like a bottleneck. When things get hairy, you’ll find yourself, yes, farming power-ups or simply looking for areas of safe harbor, but you don’t feel the game pulling you toward a flag or star nearly as much as past titles in the series.This game was reviewed using a retail copy purchased by the reviewer. Developer: Nintendo Publisher: Nintendo Platform: Switch Release Date: February 12, 2021 ESRB: E ESRB Descriptions: Mild Cartoon Violence Buy: GameWe’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.Games At its best, the game sustains an effectively ominous atmosphere as it channels recognizable childhood fears. Published 1 month agoon February 11, 2021 Bandai Namco EntertainmentFew games have so effectively captured the disempowerment of being small as the original Little Nightmares across its singular setting: the Maw, an enormous vessel where kidnapped children are feasted upon by disgusting corpulent beasts that feel sprung from the imagination of Edward Gorey, by way of claymation anti-surrealist Jan Svankmajer. The Maw imposes on players an unmooring sense of the unknown that, coupled with the wordless narrative full of intricate, ambiguous details and the experience of playing as a diminutive, raincoat-wearing little girl, makes traversing the vessel uniquely thrilling.At its start, Little Nightmares II promisingly exudes the fairy-tale aura of the original as the player takes control of Mono, a barefooted boy with a paper bag over his head who’s trapped in a forest where an enormous hunter captures and disfigures his prey. After a terrifying escape from the hunter’s house alongside Six, who returns here as your AI companion, the children find themselves lost in a derelict water-logged town called the Pale City, where all the adults have seemingly disappeared and the only remaining residents are hideous monsters.As with the bestiary from the original game, Little Nightmare II’s enemies, monstrously exaggerated versions of adult authority figures, channel recognizable childhood fears. The School, the game’s first area, is home to a deformed grinning Teacher with a horrifying extending neck that reaches around corners to find troublemakers. Her captured students seemingly become the vicious Bullies who patrol the school, their porcelain craniums caved in, suggesting the kind of vicious actions they’ll take if they apprehend Mono or Six.At its best, Little Nightmares II sustains an effectively ominous atmosphere for long stretches. In a sequence where the camera zooms in close on Mono, slowly creeping underneath the legs of twisted mannequin things that can spring to life and attack him, the sense of menace is palpable. This is a graphically stunning game, not only for its disturbing menagerie of Brobdingnagian terrors and creepy derelict wastelands, but also for the way that developer Tarsier Studios treats the vulnerability of being a small, defenseless child as the campaign’s emotional engine. In a particularly unnerving sequence, Mono withdraws into himself as he creeps past a looming menace, and you may find yourself shaking in lockstep with him.Despite its memorable antagonists and their threatening behaviors, both Little Nightmares games aren’t particularly violent. More so than Playdead’s Limbo and Inside, which often find their child protagonists dying in drawn-out, gratuitously cruel fashion, Tarsier Studios’s titles are fixated on deriving tension from the suggestion of violence, cutting away from Mono and Six whenever they’re caught by a predator, leaving their demise to our imaginations.Of course, this game’s too-loose controls could also use some of the tightness and precision of Playdead’s titles, especially during combat sequences where Mono must time the swings of a melee weapon to an audio cue in order to attack enemies before they can maim him. The controls also frustrate during certain sections that demand careful trial and error to get the boy to sneak past or escape from a particular fiend. Unlike its predecessor, this game makes less room for error, and after you’ve had to restart a section more than a few times, you may find that the game has undercut its aura of fear, as well as its sense of fun.Little Nightmares II finds creative ways of making its locations feel fresh, namely through its foregrounding of a child’s point of view and the eerie ambience of its unique imagery, such as a hollowed-out ward where patients’ beds are suspended over a pitch-black void and a crematorium that resembles the witch’s house from Hansel and Gretel and is ultimately used for the same purpose. And that creativity goes a long way toward quelling the impression that no setting here—from the school to the hospital to an apartment block—is as memorable as the Maw from original Little Nightmares, and that the gameplay is treading a well-worn path.One of the most unnerving sequences in the original game finds Six being pursued by bloated cannibals foisting themselves all over each other to get to her—an intense chase that makes a show of the girl’s size as she flees from her attackers’ gruesome buffet. A version of this chase happens at least five times in Little Nightmares II. And while Six is a handy and memorable AI companion, capable of being utilized as a guide or for support, it’s unfortunate to see her so often forced into a position of helplessness here given how perfectly capable she is at other times. A frustrating inconsistency, for sure, but it’s one that only barely compromises the experience of playing a game that, as it reaches its provocative conclusion with an abundance of savage shocks and twists, reminds us that some fairy tales don’t have happy endings. Developer: Tarsier Studios Publisher: Bandai Namco Entertainment Platform: Xbox One Release Date: February 11, 2021 ESRB: T ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Violence Buy: GameWe’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.Games The gameplay throughout isn’t freighted with moral urgency, which is disappointing given the game’s eco-terrorist themes. Published 2 months agoon February 4, 2021 Photo: NaconCahal, the jacked-up protagonist of Werewolf: The Apocalypse – Earthblood, channels his rage into a righteous crusade to save the environment—a show of eco-terrorism that will feel more than justified. Indeed, if the unsubtly named Endrom weren’t dangerous enough with its reckless oil drilling, it’s also injecting its biofuel—the titular Earthblood—into its employees, transforming them into demons. For good measure, the corporation fridges Cahal’s wife in the game’s prologue and later kidnaps his daughter.That’d be enough to drive an ordinary man to violence, but Cahal is also a werewolf. Once he transforms into his two-legged, half-wolf Crinos form, and to the beat of a heavy metal soundtrack that’s as loud as his roar, he knocks foes and objects alike into oblivion in a blur of rushing, swiping ultraviolence. Earthblood, then, has the essential components to be a righteous, fast-paced action game. Which makes it all the more unfortunate that it undermines itself with cumbersome stealth mechanics, especially on higher difficulty levels.Earthblood suffers from an identity crisis, one that doesn’t stem from the differences between Cahal’s human and four-legged Lupus forms, but from Paris-based developer Cyanide’s failure to give players more than one way to proceed through a level and never making that linearity feel particularly purposeful. There’s a level here, in which Cahal has to find a way to kill two prison inmates without being detected, that may have you wishing you were in the terrain of Hitman, where you can infiltrate a locale and assassinate your targets in a variety of ways.Worse, your choices here aren’t freighted with moral urgency, which is disappointing given the game’s eco-terrorist themes. For example, whether you’re gathering information on a paramilitary training site or attempting to sabotage a dam, the only consequence of getting caught is that Cahal must activate his rage and murder every guard in the area before proceeding to the next area, with the next batch of patrollers you encounter none the wiser.Perhaps the development of the stealth came at the expense of the combat, or vice versa, but the result is a game where almost every encounter feels like an unthinking chore. Either Cahal is surrounded by spongy foes who can consistently interrupt his attacks and dodges, killing him rather quickly, or, if he gets a little bit of breathing room, he’s unleashing skill after skill, decimating everything around him. No room has been made here by Cyanide to discourage players from adopting such a violent, head-on approach, or punishing them for it.As for the stealth sequences, they’re even more agonizing. The only gadget that Cahal gets is a crossbow that he can’t seem to aim correctly, resulting in area after area of you doing the exact same routine: waiting behind a fence until a guard comes close enough for you to instantly kill him, hoping all the while that your takedown doesn’t give away your position. Earthblood does inadvertently nail the way in which rage triggers combat—that is, the game’s sloppily designed stealth is bound to lead frustrated players to just brute-force their way through the campaign.The strongest part of Earthblood is its lore, which is pulled from the tabletop role-playing series The World of Darkness that includes both Werewolf: The Apocalypse and Vampire: The Masquerade. Cyanide has done a compelling job of lacing the war between a triune of spiritual forces—the Wyld, Wyrm, and Weaver—with ecological concerns. Advancing the cause of the Wyld are the werewolves, who help their Guardian Spirits protect nature from those who would pollute it, while corporations like Endron act as proxies for the Wyrm as they seek to destroy the planet, and humans sit in the middle like the Weaver, playing both sides.For how rooted it is in real-life ecological concerns, this lore feels purposeful, even as the story becomes increasingly cliché. Earthblood also offers glimpses of the better, richer game that could have been in between missions, when Cahal is free to roam through portions of Washington State Forest and the Nevada desert, chatting up his clanmates, human collaborators, and various lesser spirits. It’s here that he can find objectives on his own by using his Penumbral Vision and starts to move with agency—a sense of freedom that’s washed away in blood whenever you’re handed yet another checklist of tasks to complete and sent down yet another identical-looking corridor leading to by-now repetitious combat.The game was reviewed using a code provided by HomeRun PR. Developer: Cyanide Publisher: Nacon Platform: PlayStation 5 Release Date: February 4, 2021 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Drug Reference, Strong Language, ViolenceWe’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.Games Nuclear Jenga, anyone? Published 2 months agoon January 28, 2021 Photo: Studio GauntletSome games are cute because they want to be, while others are cute because they have to be. Bonkies (Studio Gauntlet), a maddening but engrossing couch co-op game, falls squarely in the latter camp. The reason why your block-toting astronauts are all jetpack-wearing monkeys—and dogs, koalas, and pandas—is because if they were anything less than adorable then you’d probably murder them. The same is likely true of your couchmates: Only play with those you love, because the game will test your relationship to them.Bonkies is a bit like Tetris, but played through a clumsy intermediary. Instead of simply having to place blocks in an orderly fashion, players must retrieve them from conveyor belts, fly them to a designated area, and then carefully rotate and stack them within outlines, sometimes using wireframe pieces or hover blocks to scaffold the increasingly unstable structure. And while there’s a single-player mode designed to teach players the ins and outs of the various block types, from rocket ones that help to thrust heavier objects to glass ones that will shatter if placed too roughly, the vast majority of the game is based upon players working together to move these blocks, as they’re too unwieldy to single-pawedly carry across a level.The physics and time constraints are perhaps a little too precise given how insane and elaborate some of the later levels get. The frustrations of similar games like Overcooked were manageable because they came in short, frenzied bursts of gameplay, as you could still complete a level if you messed up an order or two, and if you had to restart, you’d only be losing a few minutes. By contrast, a mission in Bonkies only has one objective to complete, and any mistake can send minutes of work down the drain with no hope of recovery. Your chimps, being programmed the way they are, have no choice but to remain cheerful as their thrusters overheat and their spacesuits shatter. Except it’s far more difficult for the players to remain calm as a fragile green fusion block gets jostled ever so slightly, causing it to explode and take your whole elaborate building down with it: nuclear Jenga, anyone?Early on in Olija (Devolver Digital), a retro pixel adventure game, your shipwrecked playable character, Faraday, stumbles upon a mystical harpoon that, once thrown, he can instantly teleport to. It’s a liberating mechanic, both in the context of the game’s lightning-fast combat, which has Faraday warping between enemies, and the aerial platforming, which often requires Faraday to use the momentum of his hurled weapon to traverse spiked pits. Sadly, all of this freedom feels imprisoned within the game’s all-too linear structure.The Terraphage archipelago has various infested creeks, desolate beaches, and creepy shrines to explore, though not freely. Faraday can only direct his boatman to docks shown on his map, like the Royal Domain, Fallen Town, and Old Archives. The map fragment that reveals additional locations is found in that latter area, but to make any progress there you’ll have to retrieve a key from each of the other two locations. The levels themselves are even more straightforward: There’s the occasional hidden collectible, but it’s never more than a single screen removed from the main path. And because Faraday never gains any abilities beyond teleportation, you’ll never have to return to a cleared region to reach a formerly inaccessible secret—not that there’s any reason to, given that the only reward for freeing Faraday’s imprisoned crewmates is, at best, a line of thanks back in your hub “town” of Oaktide.On the positive side, the disconnected nature of Olija’s structure allows the game to showcase entirely different environments on each island, and for the player to experiment with varied gameplay elements. The best of those experiences center around Faraday’s wordless flirtations with Olija, Terraphage’s ruler. In one area, Faraday must stealthily procure and then place a rose on Olija’s balcony; in another, a playful duel with the queen is frequently interrupted by slow, passionate gazes. Olija also does a fine job finding different horrific notes to hit, whether you’re fleeing a churning mass of shadows, scrabbling up a mountain of corpses, descending a tunnel that’s punctuated by hanging skeletons, or just traveling through a mine of soulless wretches who shuffle aimlessly and harmlessly after you. Ultimately, Olija is more of a guided tour than a free-roaming expedition, but at least some of the sights are memorable.Once, Professor Nina Scholz of the Viago Institute meticulously documented the local squirrel population of Melmoth Forest, stymying the efforts of the Panorama corporation to build on that protected land. NUTS (Noodlecake Studios) begins in earnest 15 years later, as players take on the role of Nina’s research assistant, doing the grunt work required to help her to recreate her scientific study and once more stop Panorama from exterminating the flora and fauna of the region. Those are understandable stakes, so rather than render the forest in detail, the game’s developers instead use a stylish minimalist approach that keeps the focus on your squirrel subjects, contrasting their standout white or grey fur against a vivid palette of warm orange and cool blue outlines, depending on the time of day.Each chapter here takes you to a different region of the forest, and more or less maintains the same feedback loop. During the day, players use their GPS tracker to locate a designated site, mount a camera there to observe it, and then, at night, play back the footage in order to look for squirrel signs. The actual surveillance of these animals is the meat of the game, gradually growing in complexity from a single camera/monitor to having three at once—which is useful, as you may need to track multiple squirrels, or locate a squirrel at specific timestamps.If the trial and error of planting cameras in an attempt to predict and trail a squirrel’s path feels somewhat repetitive and laborious, that’s the point. NUTS wants you to understand how difficult and time-consuming it can be to do a scientific study, to see how stacked the odds are against those who would dare to protect wildlife from corporations. Rest assured that the cataloguing efforts are still gamified enough to keep things from getting too onerous. The constant repetition and readjusting of cameras also serves to attune your perspective to that of a squirrel’s, helping you to see tree hollows that might serve as useful stashes, or which trees might be scaled to offer you a new path forward. Alas, NUTS goes a little too far afield in the end, following so much in the tiny footsteps of these loveable scamps that it loses sight of the corporate malfeasance. Then again, there are worse things than getting lost in nature.We’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.Games The Medium is at its best whenever the player gets to lives up to the game’s title. Published 2 months agoon January 27, 2021 Photo: Bloober TeamBloober Team’s The Medium has the prestige of being the first Series X exclusive, yet it feels like it’s two generations old, a time capsule escapee trying to stand out in a world where even stubborn old buzzard franchises like Resident Evil have found a way to get their groove back. The game clings tightly to the old ways—static third-person perspectives, wonky character animations, stilted voice acting—and is quaint in its approach. The setting and premise are doing a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of horror, as the game takes place in an abandoned hospital, which has given many a developer an easy slam dunk to deliver the goods. The power of the Series X is most certainly being harnessed to render this derelict monstrosity in painstaking, filthy detail, but it’s got no backup on the gameplay front.The most forward-thinking thing that The Medium has going for it is that the developers had the good sense to hire Silent Hill series’s ace composer, Akira Yamaoka, to co-write the score. He brings a richly eerie and unique aural dimension to The Medium that compliments the grim, unsettling atmosphere on display throughout, moments where you’ll find yourself constantly on guard. Of course, it isn’t long before it becomes clear that most of the time there’s no threat to be afraid of. What passes for gameplay here is pure exploration and illogical puzzle-solving. Every time the game gets a full head of steam, building up fear and dread to a fever pitch, it’s broken up by collectathon mechanics or far-too-forgiving stealth against easily avoided enemies straight out of every 14-year-old edgelord’s notebook. That doesn’t necessarily make for a bad game, but it does make for an unengaging one.Set in Krakow in 1999, The Medium does slightly better on the narrative front, placing you in the shoes of a woman, Marianne, who has the ability to not just see and talk to the dead, but also traverse their world, a hellishly forbidding mirror image of our own. After her adoptive father passes away, Marianne receives a panicked call from a man who runs Niwa, a long-term care facility, begging her to come and help. The trail to her mystery caller leads Marianne to the facility’s deep, dark, violent secrets, which are relayed to us through psychic echoes that only Marianne can revisit by tuning into these memories via everyday objects.The Medium is at its best whenever Marianne lives up to the game’s title. The campaign is dotted with small little stories within which she plays the role of supernatural usher, guiding ghosts down the right path. These are the tales of dead people trapped in the rooms of their terrible ends, haunted by unfinished business, grudges needing to be put to bed, anger and sorrow yearning for catharsis. And these stories are often executed with a subtlety of detail and empathy for the broken and beaten that’s absent almost everywhere else in the game.A case in point is the game’s big and scarcely impactful hook. At certain points, Marianne can exist simultaneously in the land of the living and the realm of the dead, with both worlds visible on screen at the same time, and while there’s certainly technical wizardry at work making the effect possible, and the realm of the dead is a well-imagined bit of dark artistry, we’ve also seen smarter and more compelling iterations of the same idea in recent years (Titanfall 2 immediately comes to mind). Here, it feels very much like the gimmick that it is, and in no small part because it barely bolsters the story that the game is trying to tell about the place that traps the dead, and the atrocities that put them there.The game was reviewed using a review code provided by One PR Studio. Developer: Bloober Team Publisher: Bloober Team Platform: Xbox Series X Release Date: January 28, 2021 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Violence, Blood, Sexual Themes, Use of Tobacco, Strong Language Buy: GameWe’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.Games Hitman 3, for better and worse, splits the difference between player freedom and focused storytelling. Published 2 months agoon January 24, 2021 Photo: IO InteractiveThe best Hitman missions are big and open, set in a picturesque place where bald assassin Agent 47 can go about murdering his targets in a variety of elaborate ways. Most of those options involve impersonating other people by wearing their clothes. But every so often, the series tries linearity on for size. Its worst levels constrain your sense of freedom as you try to off an architect of some illicit criminal operation, funneling you into a more rigid style of play that restricts 47’s movements. With the exception of 2012’s Hitman: Absolution, where they’re the main focus, these levels tend to come late in the games, when developers ratchet up the tension by guiding players through increasingly flashy, bombastic sequences where being able to deviate from the script would ruin the drama.Starting in 2016, Hitman reclaimed its mojo with the release of the sixth mainline entry in the series, simply titled Hitman, which features some of the most complex, freeform levels ever devised by the development team at IO Interactive. While Hitman 3 still follows that same blueprint, the series’s restrictive instincts again rear their head just as they have in the climaxes of the pre-Absolution games. And that was perhaps inevitable, given that this game is the dramatic conclusion to what IO has called the World of Assassination trilogy and dramatic conclusions have never been Hitman’s strong suit. Hitman 3 is another attempt, for better and worse, to split the difference between player freedom and focused storytelling.Some levels now, for example, begin or end on set paths made to dole out plot details. The first mission finds 47 scaling the outside of a Dubai skyscraper, nudging you toward a mission story that shepherds your two targets into one room so another character may confront them with a dull monologue on a TV screen. In Chongqing, you must eliminate two targets in order to access a computer terminal, which then triggers a lousy escape sequence that throws squads of guards toting automatic weapons into your path. The game doesn’t, at least, force you to complete these sections again on any further playthroughs, which is important for a series built on replay value, but creating shortcuts to bypass them feels like a begrudging admission of how extraneous the story segments are compared to the meat of the game.Lest there be any mistake, the familiar rhythms of the latter-day Hitman games are intact here, as the open levels are filled with amusingly convoluted assassinations and “accidents” to set up, as well as disguises that let you access areas otherwise off limits to civilians. Levels from 2016’s Hitman and 2018’s Hitman 2 also slot neatly into this game’s menu, accessible to anyone who owns the prior titles or paid for an access pass. Hitman 3 visibly has the bones of two of the greatest stealth games ever made, which is a tough thing to ruin in one fell swoop. For one, it’s wickedly inventive, from a hilarious drug dealer outfit that 47 can use to lead victims off into secluded corners, to deaths involving things like an industrial grape crusher and an experimental mind-meld. And your deadpan avatar still cracks ominous little jokes to himself across storylines that intersect in bizarre, surprising ways.But not all of the game’s tweaks to the series’s winning formula are successful. One much-touted mission drops 47 inside a British mansion, where a murder mystery that doesn’t involve him is in progress. While there are various ways of killing your target, the level seems primarily designed around one path where you impersonate a detective character and search the mansion for clues, in the process showing off the new camera gadget that hacks certain locks and scans objects for information. And beyond the disappointing dearth of possibilities outside the central detective story, the camera feels extraneous at best and harmful to the flow of Hitman 3 at worst, requiring you to repeatedly select it from the inventory screen and look around in first person for something to scan. Combined with the occasional need to search an environment for fuses or keypad codes, the game slows itself down at odd times, encumbering an elegant design with extraneous layers that culminate in a terrible, if mercifully brief, epilogue that strands 47 in the most narrow space that this series has imagined to date.One of the game’s best levels, set at a Berlin rave, finds 47 roaming a crowded factory in an attempt to identify and eliminate enemy agents, able to pick and choose targets based on who you think you can get to. Compared to the more story-heavy flourishes, this level finds Hitman 3 going back to the basics of having 47 simply hunt down targets in a large area, sans any guided mission stories. Compared to the convoluted cartoon heights of the best assassinations from prior games in the series, the factory level may sound disappointingly simple. But in the context of this particular game, it marks a momentarily invigorating shift for a series that, while still quite enjoyable, seems in danger of once again losing the plot.The game was reviewed using a review code provided by Tara Bruno PR. Developer: IO Interactive Publisher: IO Interactive Platform: PC Release Date: January 20, 2021 ESRB: M ESRB Descriptions: Blood, Drug Reference, Intense Violence, Strong LanguageWe’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees—so if you like what we do, consider becoming a SLANT patron, or making a PayPal donation.
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