Adventure

The Deadly Tower of Monsters

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Make your way to the top of a monster-infested space tower.

PC Release: January 19, 2016

By Ian Coppock

There’s a certain type of movie that thrives on being terrible. These include corny slapstick films like FDR: American Badass! and most every film that SyFy has ever produced. Even though these movies have slapdash production values, ludicrous plots, and terrible acting, something about the garishness of that formula keeps audiences coming back for more. It’s the tried-and-true idea of a movie being so bad that it’s actually good. The Deadly Tower of Monsters is a video game homage to those movies, so grab some popcorn and a licensed Sharknado beverage; this game’s a doozy.

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If ever there was a video game that attempted to transplant B-movie camp from the big screen, it’s The Deadly Tower of Monsters. Created by ACE Team, the fine Chilean folks behind such hits as Zeno Clash and Rock of AgesThe Deadly Tower of Monsters is an isometric adventure game that lovingly challenges players’ suspension of disbelief. The game is portrayed as being a movie also called The Deadly Tower of Monsters, with fictional director Dan Smith providing DVD commentary that guides (and amuses) players.

The story of The Deadly Tower of Monsters stars—brace yourself—Dick Starspeed, intergalactic space explorer extraordinaire! Starspeed (or “Master Dick” as he’s known by his faithful robot sidekick Robot) crash-lands on a hostile alien planet full of dinosaurs, aliens, evil bug-men, and all kinds of other weird stuff. He teams up with the lovely Scarlet Nova to help take down her father, an evil space emperor, and free the planet from his tyrannical grasp. All they have to do is ascend the titular Deadly Tower of Monsters! Dun dun dunnn!

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Shoestring budget. Literally.

Players can pick between Dick, Robot, and Scarlet (those sound like naughty code words) for their ascent up the Tower of Monsters. Each character has his or her own skills that can be upgraded over the course of the game. Some characters can plant mines and others can teleport short distances. The world of The Deadly Tower of Monsters is also rife with ray guns, energy swords, and other useful killing implements. Using all of them is as simple as mousing over an enemy and clicking.

True to B-movie form, The Deadly Tower of Monsters is overrun with kooky critters. Indeed, it’s worth wondering if there’s an enemy type that this game doesn’t have; stop-motion dinosaurs? Check. Flea/human hybrids? Check. Giant mechanical lizards? Check. UFOs? Triple check. The enemy variety in The Deadly Tower of Monsters is both a loving tribute to the golden era of B-movies and a great way to ensure gameplay variety. Few other games can offer players the chance to battle vacuum pugs.

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Oh look, it’s not-King-Kong!

The Deadly Tower of Monsters’ art is an eclectic mishmash of styles that one might expect to find in an early 70’s sci-fi flick. Players start their adventure in the jungles at the foot of the tower but quickly go on to explore gaudily colored space palaces and, of course, the token pool of lava. Each environment is drowning in a riot of bright colors that would look too random if that wasn’t the motif that The Deadly Tower of Monsters wasn’t going for. The Deadly Tower of Monsters‘ textures could stand to be a little sharper but its attention to object placement is excellent.

The game features other art elements tying the game to the B-movie films it emulates. Flying creatures are suspended by puppeteers’ strings, and the stop-motion dinosaurs are actually stop motion. Characters wear and use The Jetsons-esque space equipment complete with pew-pew sound effects. These and other design elements comprise a constant reminder of where The Deadly Tower of Monsters gets its ideas from and help the game stand out in the isometric adventure genre.

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Ohhhhh mah God.

Apart from The Deadly Tower of Monsters‘ visual design, the other element informing the game’s campy atmosphere is its fast-paced music. The game has that corny series of fast-paced horns that all great terrible movies have, mixed together with some old-school electronic sounds and an over-dramatic drum kit. The music speeds up during combat and slows down when characters are just trying to make their way up the tower, but no matter its tempo, it succeeds in bringing a small smile (or an eyeroll) to players’ faces.

The characters’ voice acting is the piece de resistance of The Deadly Tower of Monsters‘ sound design. Dick Starspeed sounds like the stereotypical space hero douchebag, channeling an Ed Sullivan-like tone in his observations of the world and condescension toward his allies. Scarlet Nova sounds similarly typical of the era, with a few ironic observations about how female protagonists were always relegated to tier two in the 70’s B-movie era. Robot just sounds really depressed, which is weird. Being stuck on a planet full of toy dinosaurs and ray guns is hardly cause for sadness.

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It’s the dream team.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters‘ plot is just as derivative of those old movies’ narratives as one might expect. The objective of the game is simply to climb the tower, dethrone the evil space emperor, and complete a few other objectives as they crop up. The protagonists remain firmly in their niches as they go up against a mwhaha’ing space tyrant and his mad scientist sidekick, both of whom are also unapologetic call-outs to B-movie sci-fi. The dialogue is a lighthearted mix of heroic speeches about standing up to tyranny and little jokes that mostly center on Dick Starspeed’s clueless-ness.

The best writing to be found in The Deadly Tower of Monsters comes from its fictional director, Dan Smith. As previously stated, Smith comes into the studio to record DVD commentary over this “movie”, providing inadvertent tutorials and hints for players as they ascend the tower. Smith spends most of his time, though, demonstrating hilarious ineptitude about cinema and satirizing movie-making conventions of the 1970’s, which make for plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. As an example, Smith will often tell a humorous story about how a monster in the game came about as a movie character, only for his assistant to point out that putting a dwarf into a trash can and calling it a robot probably violates OSHA regulations. “Regulations?” Smith might say. “What are those?”

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I wasn’t kidding about the little person in a trash can.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters‘ shoutout to campy sci-fi is spot-on, but the title’s actual gameplay could stand to be more exciting. It’s isometric gameplay at its most basic: equip a weapon and an ability, mouse over an enemy, repeat until enemy is dead. The game doesn’t take creative liberties with this setup, preferring to wrap pedestrian gameplay inside an otherwise engaging world. What’s more, the three characters aren’t all that different. Sometimes one or the other will be needed to get past a certain part of the tower, but they’re otherwise functionally identical.

Luckily, The Deadly Tower of Monsters runs well, and it has a decent options menu for adjusting potential performance issues. The game looks great but isn’t packing millions of polygons in each character model, so it shouldn’t force rigs to chug. A few players have commented that they get low framerates when running The Deadly Tower of Monsters, but ACE Team was proactive in immediately setting up a guide to navigate that issue. Making sure the game is running on the GPU should solve the problem.

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I also wasn’t kidding about the vacuum pugs.

Players should pick up The Deadly Tower of Monsters not for its gameplay, but because it lovingly satirizes the best and worst of so-good-it’s-bad movies. The game’s humor and writing are spot-on, even if the gameplay is a little stale. The world is a riot of random design elements held together only by the ironic mentions of how random they are, which makes the game’s world all the more alive. Give The Deadly Tower of Monsters a go and that mean old space emperor a run for his money. Or just listen to a crazy director rail against safety laws. Whichever works.

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You can buy The Deadly Tower of Monsters here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Transistor

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Reclaim your voice and your home from a mysterious enemy.

PC Release: May 21, 2014

By Ian Coppock

On the surface, a game about a woman who kills evil robots with a sword that’s bigger than she is might sound like a Final Fantasy fanfic or the fever dream of a Square Enix executive, but Transistor is neither of those things. Released by Supergiant Games three years after its debut title, BastionTransistor is a game that preserves its predecessor’s themes and storytelling style in a whole new world. It’s a rare thing for a studio to maintain that kind of consistency, but it’s only one of the things that makes Transistor special.

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Like BastionTransistor is an isometric adventure game that lets players take down bad guys with a variety of stylish weapons and moves. It also embodies its predecessor’s penchant for focusing on raw emotion in its storytelling rather than mere exposition. Transistor has its own narrative and visual identity though, shedding Bastion‘s fairy apocalypse world in favor of cyberpunk art deco. Transistor also goes deeper than a new aesthetic and toys with a few conventions of adventure gaming.

Transistor is set in the gorgeous city of Cloudbank and begins when a soulful singer named Red is attacked by forces unknown. Red only survives the attempt on her life because a mysterious man stepped in to take the blow meant for her. Heartbroken, Red takes up the glowing sword—the titular Transistor—used to end the man’s life and decides to set off after the people who tried to kill her. The Transistor contains the consciousness of the slain man, who serves as Red’s guide.

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Red’s tale has tragic beginnings.

Red quickly realizes that assassination attempts are the least of her problems. A mysterious army of robots called the Process begins teleporting into Cloudbank and deleting chunks of the city from existence. They serve as the bulk of Transistor‘s enemies and stand between Red and her search for the truth. Red takes these foes on as well, all while determined to know what, if anything, their appearance has to do with the attempt on her life.

Transistor allows players to take these foes on with a variety of melee and ranged attacks. Red can clobber foes with the Transistor or use ranged attacks like laser beams. Players can do this in real time or in Turn() mode, which pauses the game and lets Red stack up however many attacks her energy bar will allow. Turn() allows Red to attack much faster and deal greater damage, so taking the time to plan out attacks does way more than just pause the game.

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Giant swords work wonders against robotic would-be muggers.

As Red travels deeper into Cloudbank, she can find new abilities and absorb them into the Transistor. These include attacks like the aforementioned laser beams and defensive moves like dodging out of the way.  Killing enemies grants experience points, which can be used to unlock new perks that make Red’s moves stronger. Red can also find tools called Limiters() which, like the idols in Bastion, make the game more difficult but allow her to gain more experience points.

A novel change Transistor makes to the isometric RPG formula is the ability to tack abilities onto other abilities. In other words, Red can take the techniques she learns and use them as main abilities, or install them on other powers to create something entirely new. Players can use a laser beam attack and Red’s dodge roll as separate moves, or they can tack dodge roll onto the laser beam to make the laser beam ricochet off of enemies. It’s a cool system that allows for a wide range of playstyle customization.

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For my next attack, I will combine spaghetti… WITH MEATBALLS!!!

Beating up foes with a laser-shooting sword is well and good, but Transistor fumbles on managing these abilities behind the scenes. The game’s combat and ability menus are a jumbled mess that fail to adequately explain how abilities work or even how to combine them. Transistor gives players its terms (Functions() and Limiters()) without much of an explanation and seemingly expects players to know how to combine them well. It’s also difficult to switch over to other menu functions like reading about characters in Cloudbank.

At least the Turn() user interface is easy to understand. It’s easy for players to pause the game and plan out Red’s attacks and moves… certainly much easier than actually planning those things behind the scenes. Though Transistor can be played in real time, using the Turn() function does grant a significant strategic advantage. Players looking for a challenge can have a go at the game without using that function. Gamers who dislike turn-based combat (ahem) needn’t worry that Turn() is anything like that, as it doesn’t allow enemies to plan out counter-attacks.

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Right now my only move is run run run awaaaay…

Transistor‘s gameplay is only a little smoother than Bastion‘s, but this game might have substantially better artwork. Transistor continues Supergiant Games’ proud tradition of stunningly beautiful artwork, with delicate paintings in the background and sharply rendered foregrounds. Cloudbank bursts with color and detail; each district Red visits has a distinct visual identity and atmosphere. These districts are jam-packed with thousands of delicately drawn objects and surfaces, leaving players with no shortage of things to gawk at. Transistor‘s character animations are an improvement over those of Bastion‘s, being more smoothly animated ‘n such.

Transistor also benefits handsomely from the use of strong contrast. Whether it’s the red-and-white colors of the Process or the cityscape of Cloudbank, all of the game’s environments stand out thanks to these bright, powerful colors being placed right next to each other. It helps lend the game another layer of visual novelty on top of its cyberpunk-deco style. Come to think of it, Transistor‘s use of contrast goes beyond color, fusing elements of old and new design together into single novelties. All of these styles blend together without the resultant visual design feeling random.

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New York and L.A. ain’t got nothin’ on Cloudbank.

Even better than Transistor‘s visual design is its soundtrack, which is a must-have even for gamers who don’t typically purchase the OST. The game’s score is a stylish selection of tunes that alternate between slow lounge sounds when Red’s just out exploring and jazzier music during combat and adventuring. Most songs are accompanied by the smooth, gorgeous voice of Ashley Lynn Barrett, who returned after also working on Bastion‘s soundtrack to record both singing and hums.

Like BastionTransistor‘s world is also full of rich sound effects that help it come alive. Logan Cunningham returned from voicing the narrator in Bastion to do the same again in Transistor, but the two voices sound quite different. The former was an acid-tongued old man; the latter is an earnest younger guy who cares deeply about Red. That each performance sounds so different is a testament to Cunningham’s skill. Transistor‘s other vocal performers, particularly Sunkrish Bala, are also excellent.

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CHRISTMAS LIGHTS ATTACK!

Transistor‘s story packs the same vague storytelling and show-don’t-tell style of Bastion, but its narrative is quite a bit darker than even that fairy apocalypse. Maybe it has something to do with being set during an apocalyptic event instead of immediately after it. Red’s race through Cloudbank begins with questions about why someone tried to kill her, but that goal quickly turns into saving the entire city from being swallowed by the Process. The game’s writing is quite good; Red doesn’t talk, but the Transistor provides plenty of concisely written observations about what’s happening around them.

Like Bastion, Transistor also chooses to leave out most of the details about its world in place of subtle implications. What is Cloudbank? Why is the Process attacking it? Most of these questions can only be answered by paying close attention to the tone of the dialogue instead of actual words, much like Half-Life 2 did with much of its own exposition. Players who don’t pick up on or ignore tone might feel a bit cheated of this information by the end of Transistor, but the game’s main narrative still packs enough emotional weight to leave them smitten by the time the curtains fall.

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A (stylish) search for answers.

With the exception of its poorly laid out ability menus, Transistor succeeds in both being a gorgeous adventure game and lovingly improving upon everything that Bastion brought to the table. It runs well, has a good options menu, and it wraps a dark tale of love and loss in one of gaming’s most beautiful aesthetics. Everyone should try Transistor, especially with Supergiant’s next project, Pyre, hitting storefronts in just a few weeks. Transistor manages to preserve the enthusiasm that made Bastion a great game while establishing its own magical identity that’s just as worthy of exploration.

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You can buy Transistor here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Bastion

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The world has been shattered. Find a way to put it back together.

PC Release: July 20, 2011

By Ian Coppock

A good fairy tale has poignancy bubbling beneath its colorful aesthetic, and Bastion is no exception. When Supergiant Games’ debut title shipped in 2011, it received acclaim for aptly combining colorful illustrations with a surprisingly deep narrative. Traditional fables and fairy tales that accomplish that combination are often remembered long after publication, and Bastion‘s enduring popularity is probably due to it having accomplished that goal as well. What else, if anything, does this beloved game have going for it?

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Bastion is an isometric adventure game set in the magical world of Caelondia. The Kid, Bastion‘s star and player character, wakes up in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event called the Calamity. The once shining and prosperous Caelondia has been shattered into a thousand floating pieces, and the Kid needs to find his way out of the ruins and to safety. No one’s to say what or who caused the Calamity, but before long the Kid stumbles upon the game’s titular Bastion. According to legend, the Bastion has the ability to rewind time… provided that the Kid can find its missing power cores.

The Kid decides to set out in search of the cores so that he can rewind time and undo the Calamity. He’s aided in his quest by Rucks, an old man who also serves as the game’s gravelly voiced narrator, and a handful of other survivors secreted throughout the post-apocalyptic landscape. Finding the cores isn’t as simple as traveling from island to island, though; each level in Bastion is crawling with strange ghouls and legendary beasts. The Kid will have to fight through all of them to snatch the cores and power up the Bastion.

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Ooooooo

Players can engage these foes with a wide variety of melee and ranged weapons found throughout the ruins of Caelondia. The Kid starts the party out with a large hammer and a repeater rifle, but players can also find swords, bows, pistols, and other killing implements later on in the game. Combat in Bastion is pretty simple, just hit or shoot at the enemy until their health expires and they vanish into the ether. It’s usually easy to tease an attack out of an enemy and then counter-strike. The Kid can drink health tonics if he gets too roughed up and black tonics to charge up special attacks.

The Kid has a few other options for rounding out his combat abilities. Players can find chunks of material out in the wilds useful for upgrading weapons and can drink buff-granting alcoholic beverages at the local watering hole. Players who are feeling extra adventurous can activate strange idols that make the game harder but that also grant extra experience points. The Kid can access all of this stuff by using cores to upgrade the Bastion’s facilities and pay for it using crystal fragments dropped by enemies. It’s fun to come back to the Bastion after a hard level’s adventuring and rebuild it piece by piece.

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Oh we’re putting in the distillery. No question.

Bastion‘s gameplay is fun, if a bit simplistic. Despite the game’s admirable variety in level design, the Kid’s penchant for combat remains relatively unexplored beyond just slicing and shooting at foes. The Kid can level up, but the benefits of doing so are limited just to carrying more health potions and picking a few added benefits from each of the Bastion’s buildings. There was definitely some potential for Supergiant to add more depth to the Kid; having class-esque warrior or mage skill trees would’ve been a perfect fit for this fairy apocalypse.

All of that said, Bastion does a good job keeping its levels wild and its enemies unpredictable. The Kid will find a random assortment of enemies, bosses, and environmental hazards in each level, so even if the combat is a bit shallow, the rhythm of in-game battles changes constantly. One level might have its boss fight at the very beginning followed by a slog through smaller foes afterward. Another might end up being a very short level in which the Kid has to run along a falling island. Each level is different, which helps keep players wondering what excitement is around the corner.

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A wild gasbag appeared! It used chili farts! It hurt itself in its confusion!

Varied level design and enemy assortments aren’t all that Bastion‘s world has going for it. The game is one of the most beautifully illustrated titles of the decade. Each level is bursting with color and delicately drawn object details that range from crumbling masonry to thousand-color pockets of wilderness. Bastion is packed with thousands of objects and decorations in its levels, while paintings of forests and valleys make for beautiful backdrops. It’s a beautiful game that renders notions of the apocalypse always being bleak incorrect.

Bastion‘s mastery with color is accompanied by fluid character animations. Though the Kid could stand to move a little faster, his and the other characters’ animations are sound. Enemies are drawn in a similar fashion, looking more like living paintings than anything else. These animations aptly combine with the aforementioned visuals to make Bastion‘s world glow with life. Even if players somehow tire of Bastion‘s gameplay, they won’t be hurting for pretty things to look at.

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(creepy drooling noises)

Bastion doesn’t stop the buck at producing amazing visual art, as its soundtrack is also quite lovely. In many ways the game’s OST is reminiscent of Braid, with lots of quick little violins and thoughtful acoustic guitars. Occasionally the game includes more somber music, particularly toward the end. Bastion also brings high-quality sound design to the table; everything, even the Kid’s footsteps on gravel, were recorded with rich detail. Bastion‘s acute attention to good sound design makes the game come alive that much more (just listening to the Kid sort through booze bottles is relaxing. Clink, clink, clink).

Bastion‘s single voice acting performance comes from Logan Cunningham, who channels a Sam Elliott-esque air in narrating the Kid’s journey. The narrator chips in at a regular clip throughout nearly all of Bastion’s levels, providing backstory on the regions the Kid visits and insights into what the silent protagonist is thinking. Cunningham’s performance is up there with Kevan Brighting’s narration in The Stanley Parable as one of the most masterful game narrator performances in recent years. He’s instantly likable in Bastion as a character who ponders (and dispenses barbed wit) like an old man.

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Tranquil in destruction.

Bastion‘s narrative relies on a time-old, show-don’t-tell setup that prefers to focus on the Kid and his companions; Caelondia already has plenty of screentime through its beautiful visuals. The narrator dispenses details about the Calamity in crisp, concise sound bites that focus on what the world used to be instead of just what it’s become post-disaster. Because the Kid doesn’t talk, the narrator’s guidance through the world of Caelondia is usually the player’s only direct source of information. Players interested in more exposition can learn about characters’ pasts by partaking in combat challenges. Kind of a random way to learn more story, but it’s interesting stuff.

Bastion, like the best old fairy tales mentioned earlier, aptly shifts between warm and dark tones in its storytelling. It delivers humor and heart in all the right places, but as the Kid gets closer to restoring the Bastion, he learns some uncomfortable truths about the Calamity that grind his efforts to a halt. Players have to make some tough choices in finishing the Bastion and deciding what to do with it once the mythical fortress is restored. The game resonates with heartfelt emotions that, much like a good fable, climax with just a touch of somberness.

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How did this happen?

Bastion‘s story is also comparable to a Pixar film in that it can be appreciated by players of all ages. The game’s worth considering for gamers who have children, as it’s relatively simple to pick up and play through together. Bastion has the outer sense of adventure that young gamers love, but its narrative has mature undertones that older players will appreciate. That versatility is surprisingly absent in game media these days, but it underscores Bastion‘s visual and narrative charm.

Bastion‘s limited options menu is less charming than it is, well, limited, but at least the game runs well. Despite not leaving players with that many options in the event of a performance issue, the game’s hand-drawn visuals are not taxing. Bastion runs as well on a monster rig as it does an old Microsoft laptop, and it also pairs well with a gamepad. Between being almost six years old and doing away with attempts at hyper-polygonal realism, Bastion is a safe bet for players who are anxious about performance problems.

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Go forth and be awesome.

Bastion is one of the best isometric adventure games ever made. The game masterfully combines stunning artwork and quality writing with fun gameplay. Even if that gameplay runs the risk of being simplistic, this is compensated for by Bastion‘s varied level and enemy design. This is a game that fans of every genre should buy and try as soon as possible, especially with Supergiant’s latest project, Pyre, just around the corner. Bastion is one of those games whose emotions and world will stick with gamers years after the fact… just like a good fairy tale.

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You can buy Bastion here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

I Am Alive

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Search for your family amid the ruins of civilization.

PC Release: September 6, 2012

By Ian Coppock

Horror games tend to focus on sci-fi or fantasy instead of realism. Why not? It’s relatively easy to conjure up a terrifying monster or a horde of zombies. To spook up something more realistic, like a human, requires context and attention to detail that many horror games don’t have the patience to lay out. It requires that the player know or fear something about that person that isn’t always an obvious visual detail. I Am Alive is such a game, preferring to focus not on the horror of a bloodthirsty monster, but on the horrors that everyday people can commit in desperate situations.

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If that morose introduction wasn’t enough of a hint, I Am Alive is a survival horror game. The title was made by Ubisoft’s Shanghai studio and released in 2011 after spending half a decade in development hell. About a year later, I Am Alive was ported to PC, where it enjoyed a much more lukewarm response than its console counterparts. Though I Am Alive‘s horror is an important component, the game is also a gritty survival challenge. It’s hardly alone in being a post-apocalyptic game, but it’s unique in that it presents a post-apocalyptic world without zombies or mutants.

I Am Alive takes place one year after the Event, an apocalyptic earthquake that destroys countless cities worldwide and brings about the end of civilization. The nameless protagonist of I Am Alive is a survivor who has spent the last 12 months walking back to his home city of Haventon, where he hopes to find his wife and daughter. The game begins as he approaches the outskirts of Haventon, intent on making his way into the felled metropolis and finding his family.

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Don’t look down.

I Am Alive is played from a third-person perspective and incorporates elements of climbing, shooter, and hack’n’slash gameplay. The survivor can scuttle up surfaces like an insect thanks to his handy dandy climbing harness, but he has only so much stamina with which to do so. This ain’t no Assassin’s Creed; players have very finite climbing energy and will fall to their death if they can’t reach a horizontal surface in time. Players who are quick can regain lost stamina, but spend too much time monkeying around and the stamina bar begins to permanently shorten. The only way to restore its length is with precious food and water.

I Am Alive‘s climbing challenges make for some of the game’s most tense moments. As the survivor takes longer to reach the nearest surface, an itchy little violin starts rubbing against players’ eardrums like a mosquito. Compound this with the game’s frequent use of unclear paths upward, and climbing can feel like disarming a ticking time bomb. It’s a brilliant mix of sound and level design where both elements can make even the most seasoned survivalist feel anxious with every passing second. Even planning a climbing route can only do so much to preempt that alarming violin. Risky climbing maneuvers cause the music to crescendo.

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Oh God oh God oh God go go GO!

Even more tense than I Am Alive‘s free-climbing is its combat. The survivor has a pistol and machete with which to defend himself against Haventon’s many bandits, but ammo for the gun is scarce. The survivor can trick enemies into thinking the gun is loaded, but pull the trigger on an empty clip and they’ll see the ruse for what it is. Players will often be outnumbered by foes, so figuring out who to shoot and who to tell to back up can be dreadfully tense. Players can also trick enemies into thinking they’re unarmed and cut them with the machete when the bandits get too close.

I Am Alive‘s concept of pre-combat being more terrifying than combat is fascinating, but the execution suffers from clunky controls. Players have to manage shifting between multiple enemies (some of whom will try to jump the survivor if he’s not looking) and the controls for doing so are pretty un-intuitive. Indeed, players are just as likely to die from not shifting the mouse quickly enough as they are from a bullet to the head. Fortunately, picking up on the rhythm of managing enemies is not that hard. Killing the mouthy bandit first is Post-Apocalypse 101.

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Alright everyone, back up! Back. The f***. Up.

I Am Alive‘s controls suffer in other departments as well. The character has to take wide turns and the camera feels janky. Sometimes the controls just flat-out don’t respond, which can be a problem when the player is trying to shoot a bandit or climb up a building. There’s more than one segment in this game where the survivor is within arm’s reach of a horizontal surface but can’t reach it, and not because of invisible walls. Similarly, shooting and looking controls may sometimes not respond.

I Am Alive‘s user interface also needed a bit more cooking time before Ubisoft pulled it out of the oven. Ridiculous as it may sound, it can be difficult to tell what types of supplies restore the health or stamina bars, and by how much. Does that can of beans restore the stamina bar to its proper length, or just replenish the amount of stamina that can currently fit in it? These issues could’ve been easily avoided with some simple UI fixes; hell, Ubisoft Shanghai makes the Far Cry games, and those have simple enough UIs. No such luck for I Am Alive.

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Y’all got any extra beans?

The story in I Am Alive is more impressive than its controls, even if it ends up taking a game-long detour. The survivor gets back to his old home in downtown Haventon, and finds a note his wife left behind nearly a year earlier. That’s about as far as his search for his family goes, as he quickly gets roped into rescuing another wife-and-daughter pair who are on the run from a particularly sadistic bandit clan. The survivor also teams up with Henry, a cagey local who seems to know every nook and cranny in the city.

Despite a valiant voice acting effort from Elias Toufexis as Henry, none of these characters are particularly memorable. The survivor is a pretty blank slate, offering rote observations of how bad things have gotten since the apocalypse but coming up with few original ideas. Most missions are helmed by Henry, who yells at the survivor to get going up this skyscraper or down that subway tunnel. The entire point of a nameless character is to get players wondering who they are, but the survivor is not that compelling. More’s the pity; there’s plenty of room for emotions of anxiety and longing that go unexplored in I Am Alive.

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Where are we going?

Despite the main narrative being, well… not that great (and ending on a huge cliffhanger that will likely never be followed up) players on the hunt for post-apocalyptic fiction can find it from a few other survivors throughout the city. Not everyone will shoot the survivor on sight but some are armed, so be careful about testing their patience. Unscrupulous players can kill “good guy” survivors and take their stuff, but these hardened individuals won’t go down without a fight. Still others are people in need of certain supplies. Usually they have nothing to offer in return, but do provide backstory on the Event.

I Am Alive offers a small open world that has just as much vertical space as horizontal. Though players can spend as much time as they want creeping through gas stations and exploring subway tunnels, very little of this space has anything of value in it. There’s no impetus for exploration except the sake of exploration. Given how many bandits are roaming around, the chance to look at the environment is something most players will likely find too risky. Some areas can’t be revisited, so pick them clean.

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Just kickin’ it.

The other problem precluding exploration in I Am Alive is how ugly the game is. It’s a given that a post-apocalyptic game probably doesn’t burst with bright colors, but I Am Alive is done out almost exclusively in dull shades of gray. The textures and character models look atrocious, having more in common with a game that came out in 2004 than 2011. The objects in I Am Alive have no sharpness to them at all, looking more like smudgy polygons than anything else. Though the survivor’s climbing animations are decent, they’re about the only decent visual element I Am Alive has to offer.

I Am Alive‘s sound design is a bit better. The aforementioned climbing violin is a great way to ratchet up the tension, and the game also comes with some beautiful music driven by mournful piano chords. The voice acting’s pretty good; not great, but definitely serviceable. Guns go off with startling force, and players are constantly hounded by the sounds of groundquakes and distant cries for help. It’s a functioning stew of unsettling noises that does a better job of giving I Am Alive its haunting atmosphere than the graphics.

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HI BUDDY

Despite I Am Alive‘s many failings, the game’s biggest success is its portrayal of the lows desperate people can sink to. The game pulls no punches in its graphic depictions of violence, however poorly rendered they may be. I Am Alive also contains some of gaming’s most visceral depictions of sexual assault, which, while heavy to witness, reinforce the game’s hopeless atmosphere. The violence makes the player feel alone and afraid in a city full of monsters; not zombies, mutants or the creatures present in dozens of other titles, but the monsters inside of people—the creatures that even the best people can devolve into under the worst circumstances.

Video games that do these sorts of exposés on humanity are surprisingly few and far between. Gaming presents a unique opportunity for humanity studies, because players engage more directly with them than with books, movies, and television. I Am Alive is almost shocking in its portrayal of callous survivalism. Even though its enemies are just dudes with machetes, that context can make them more terrifying than even the most disturbing creatures in Amnesia: The Dark Descent or Soma. Humans are complicated, and though I Am Alive spends most of its time showing them at their worst, it also shows them at their best.

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In its own way, this is one of the darkest games ever made.

It’s a shame that the one thing I Am Alive does well is outweighed by all of its poor design decisions. Even players who are excited after reading about this game should know that its PC port is awful. Seriously, it’s garbage, and don’t even bother trying it out on an AMD card. In fact, I Am Alive‘s PC port is probably the worst such port Ubisoft has ever released; yes, even worse than Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed Unity. Crestfallen PC gamers interested in this types of horror game should take heart that others like it might be on the horizon. If I Am Alive can’t get props for being a functioning or well-designed game, it gets credit for being a horror game about the monsters inside of each of us.

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You can buy I Am Alive here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

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Stop the forces of Oblivion from destroying the mortal plane.

PC Release: March 20, 2006

By Ian Coppock

Whether it’s spending time outdoors or getting into a big video game, summer is usually a time for grand adventure. It’s no coincidence that fantasy RPGs like The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt are usually released during the summer months, and with that time of year right around the corner, this is a great opportunity to take a look back at the high fantasy epics of yore. The best adventure stories are still enjoyable years after they’ve been told, and though The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion‘s status as the best of those games is up for debate, its legacy is still felt over a decade after its release.

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The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is the fourth title in Bethesda’s venerable Elder Scrolls series and, like the other games in that lineup, is a high fantasy RPG with all the hallmarks of a magical adventure: a big world with lots of items and helpless non-player characters for whom you can run fetch quests. A few editions of Oblivion have been released over the years, but the best one to buy these days is the Game of the Year Deluxe edition available on Steam, which includes the base title and a ton of DLC all to the tune of $20.00 (or about $.01 per hour of entertainment).

Like the other Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion takes place in the magical world of Tamriel, a continent rife with magic, elves, orcs, all that good fantasy stuff. The game’s story is set 200 years before the events of Skyrim, and in classic Elder Scrolls fashion, begins with the player character having been imprisoned for an unspecified crime. Players can fashion their character from 10 playable races and a wide variety of cosmetic options. Each race also has its own perks and abilities: elves are great with magic, orcs are great with smashing skulls, etc. Players can also pick a class to suit their playstyle, making Oblivion a much more rigid RPG than most fantasy adventures released today.

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Wizards are great for burning things alive and for entertaining guests at parties.

The player character catches a big break from jail time when, of all people, emperor Uriel Septim shows up at their cell. Uriel’s being chased by assassins, and his secret escape route leads through the player’s cell. The emperor’s bodyguards allow the player to accompany their party into the tunnels below the prison, though their efforts are in vain, as Uriel gets killed by a cabal of red-robed assassins. Before dying, the emperor tells the player to find his secret son, and prevent the demonic forces of Oblivion (hey, name drop!) from overrunning Tamriel.

Even though the player’s been entrusted with saving the world, they can do whatever they want after this prologue ends. Like other Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion starts players out with the main story objective but gives them the freedom to go wherever they want. Players can join a faction, go find legendary items… hell, just sit there and relax by the lake, Oblivion doesn’t care. The Elder Scrolls has always been a big believer in player agency, and no less so than with Oblivion.

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This is an Elder Scrolls game, so expect plenty of caves.

In grand RPG tradition, players gain experience by using their class’s core skills, and can level up attributes like athletics and magic affinity. Unlike Skyrim and other modern RPGs that are more open-ended, Oblivion only lets players level up if they use their class’s pre-assigned skills. A player who picks a magic class, for example, won’t level up if they use something outside that skillset, like swords. This design philosophy is dated by contemporary standards but Oblivion has over a dozen classes that combine lots of different skills. The biggest danger is that players only have the prologue to see what skills they like before being forced to choose something, so pick carefully.

Oblivion can be played from a first- or third-person perspective and gives players a high degree of freedom in choosing how to navigate the world. Players can charge into battle sword in hand or sneak around assassinating foes from afar with a bow. Magic makes for the most audacious combat approach, while lockpicking lets players get a bit more creative in “borrowing” enemies’ possessions. Players can also become adept at schmoozing up to NPCs and haggling at stores. Whatever the skillset, Oblivion‘s core gameplay is classic Elder Scrolls: talk to NPCs, get quests, descend into dungeons, and fulfill a goal. It’s an inveterate quest design structure that gets saved from weary repetition by the hours of adventuring fun players have along the way to an objective.

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There are lots of baddies and treasures to find in Oblivion.

Oblivion‘s combat system is not difficult to understand: just use a sword, a spell or a bow to kill a foe before they can kill the player. Enemies will usually charge right at the player, but with a bit of practice, dodging the opponent’s attacks and going in for the kill become all but second-nature. As players level up, the world will start providing more advanced weapons and treasures. Of course, enemies will also level up, and more powerful monsters will start creeping along the realm’s roads. This combat system would eventually undergo little change in Skyrim, but weapons can degrade, so it pays to keep equipment nice and shiny.

Players can set out to complete Oblivion‘s main story, complete standalone side quests, or join a faction. Like Morrowind and SkyrimOblivion features entire quest arcs that are not only narratives in their own right, but also give players an opportunity to build their character and gain access to valuable resources. These factions’ quests can get pretty involved and almost always end with the player becoming the head of that organization. It turns out that when the world is ruled by swords and bloodshed, the promotion ladder becomes surprisingly flexible.

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The first meeting of the Creepy Cave Guild will now come to order…

Most of Oblivion is set in a verdant province called Cyrodiil, which, with its castles and rolling green hills, is the quintessential medieval fantasy setting. Of course, this also makes the game world difficult to distinguish from the dozens of other medieval fantasy games that thought it would be innovative to have a world of castles and rolling green hills (because that‘s never been done before). There’s a bit of jungle to the south and some mountains in the map’s western corner, but the rest of the world features samey medieval countryside that, while pretty, is extremely conventional for a fantasy RPG.

Players can also head to one of the region’s many cities to find quests or just get a drink at the inn. For all the visual sameness afforded by Oblivion‘s wilderness, the game does a good job of giving each of its cities a different visual theme. Each city features its own palette of building and landmark textures, though they all offer the same mix of inns, guild stops, and NPCs bursting with random exposition. Some of Oblivion‘s visual design, especially its environments, have aged well over the years, but its NPCs and wildlife look mannequin-esque by contemporary standards.

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The next person who talks about mudcrabs is getting a mace in the balls.

As it happens, Oblivion‘s NPCs are where most of the game’s weirdest design choices really shamble to life. For starters, the guards’ AI is omniscient, to the point where they can sometimes detect players burglarizing a house on the other side of town. The game’s friendship system is also one of the most bizarre minigames ever devised by man. Players who need to gain an NPC’s trust have to play a pie chart game that makes them alternate between telling jokes, making threats, and complimenting them on… what, exactly? No one knows; but it does allow players to forge lifelong friendships in the span of several minutes. It’s a wonky system that only gets funnier as years go by.

Even more hilarious than the instant buddy minigame is how Oblivion allots its voice actors. Rather than mix a bunch of voice actors together across the game’s numerous races, Bethesda decided it would be a good idea to give each race a single pair of male and female voice actors. In other words, a conversation between three male humans just sounds like one guy talking to his other two personalities. Because each NPC has its own canned dialogue, repeatedly pressing anyone from a suave nobleman to a dirty beggar for news will result in the same scuttlebutt, delivered in the exact same tone. Oblivion‘s voice acting is one of gaming’s most lovably bad design choices. Fortunately, the game does a lot better in other areas of sound design, especially its gorgeous soundtrack.

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Subtitles are the only way to tell who in a group of the same race is saying something.

Oblivion‘s voice acting kerfuffle becomes less entertaining when confronted with the game’s writing. Most NPCs spend an inordinate amount of time drowning the player in exposition, which isn’t that out of character for an Elder Scrolls game but is particularly common in Oblivion. The shopkeeper who wants help investigating a shady merchant will take four or five paragraphs to explain exactly why she wants the job done. Drowning the player in mission details does not substitute for storytelling, but it does make it harder to remember why the quest was taken in the first place.

The bulk of Oblivion‘s storytelling and voice acting efforts were put into the main questline, which features performances from such big names as Terrence Stamp, Sean Bean, and the immortal Sir Patrick Stewart. These actors’ thoughtful performances and much more concise writing save Oblivion‘s story from becoming as plodding as the farmer who spends thirty minutes explaining why her dirtbag husband ran off. The story also touches on themes that pop up in other games, like how the whole Dragonborn thing works. Oblivion‘s main story is arguably the most involved of the series, and the idea of the entire world being destroyed by demons gives Skyrim‘s dragons a run for their money.

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Oblivion’s main narrative is darkly beautiful.

The Elder Scrolls games are not known for deep character development, preferring to let their massive worlds be the meat of the game. There’s nothing wrong with that approach, but Oblivion features a modicum of character development that makes it stand out from its peers. The emperor’s bastard son, Martin Septim, is given a thoughtful demeanor and gradual character development arc by Sean Bean, who managed to channel his inner Ned Stark before ever having signed to HBO’s Game of Thrones. Mankar Camaron, the mortal bad guy voiced by Terrence Stamp, similarly provides some fascinating insights even if they are all squashed into the very end of the game.

Oblivion‘s staple of endearing characters continues in The Shivering Isles, an expansion pack that sends the player off to an island chain full of crazy people. The expansion is meant to be played after the main questline, but allows players to interact with kooky characters and gives the medieval fantasy trope a colorful twist of insanity. It’s one of those rare expansions that is both chock full of content and the clear product of lots of love; it remains one of the most memorable fantasy RPG expansions of all time. The Shivering Isles is rolled into the aforementioned Game of the Year Deluxe edition, along with the less memorable Knights of the Nine DLC and a variety of spell, house, and armor add-ons.

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Gasp! My own tomb!

So why should modern RPG enthusiasts consider giving Oblivion a try, what with its dated visuals and oftentimes tedious dialogue? Because like other Elder Scrolls games, Oblivion succeeds in handing players a robust world and telling them to go wild. It contains that same spirit of wild abandon and exploration that was captured by Morrowind, and later Skyrim. It’s a fantasy game that allows for open-world grand adventure, but has a central story that’s deeper and more involved than that of any other Elder Scrolls games, giving it an element of enjoyment not quite found in Skyrim. Medieval fantasy enthusiasts pining for the next great adventure may well find it in Oblivion. Even 11 years later, it’s one of gaming’s surest staples of satisfying adventure.

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You can buy The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion Game of the Year Edition Deluxe here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Yooka-Laylee

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Adventure through colorful worlds like it’s 1997.

PC Release: April 11, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Even for a medium as fluid as video games, the demise of the open-world platformer was breathtakingly fast. The 90’s were replete with titles like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, in which players were free to explore huge worlds littered with hidden treasure. Despite massive popularity, the genre largely died out at the turn of the century, and has remained quiet for the better part of two decades. With games like 2014’s The Last Tinker and last fall’s Unbox, though, it’s starting to creep back into the gaming scene. Yooka-Laylee, the subject of tonight’s review, is the strongest sign yet of the open-world platforming genre’s push into contemporary gaming.

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The title Yooka-Laylee is immediately reminiscent of 1998’s Banjo-Kazooie, and that’s no coincidence. Not only is this new game a spiritual successor to that legendary platformer… it’s made by the same team of former Rare developers, who reunited after nearly 20 years under the banner of Playtonic Games. The team’s stated goal with Yooka-Laylee is to bring back the open-world platforming genre that gaming has been sorely missing, and to create a title that they hoped would match the vibrancy and variety of one of the Rare era’s best platformers. Just like Banjo-KazooieYooka-Laylee sees a duo of cartoonish animals square off against an equally cartoonish evil, with plenty of platforming to boot.

Yooka-Laylee kicks off with the game’s titular characters, a chameleon named Yooka and a bat named Laylee, relaxing perilously close to the premises of the nefarious Hivory Towers. The adventure starts when the One Book, a golden-paged tome that Laylee found, gets stolen by the evil Capital B and his sidekick, Dr. Quack. The pair hope to use the tome to rewrite the universe, but not before stealing all the world’s books and turning them into money! That latter plot detail kinda falls to the wayside, but it doesn’t stop the heroic duo from breaking into Hivory Towers to stop Capital B and save the universe.

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Capital B and Dr. Quack’s scheme to rule the universe is as 90’s as such schemes get.

Yooka and Laylee manage to break into Hivory Towers (the door was open) but the One Book’s magical pages get scattered all over the place. Collecting “Pagies” is the main goal of the game; they are to Yooka and Laylee what Jiggies were to Banjo and Kazooie, and golden stars were to Mario. To find all the Pagies, Yooka and Laylee have to dive into huge worlds brimming with treasure. Collecting Pagies is not only the only way to confront Capital B, but also to open up new worlds for exploration. Yooka-Laylee contains five big worlds with themes similar to those of Banjo-Kazooie, while Hivory Towers serves as a hub world that binds it all together.

Like Banjo-KazooieYooka-Laylee is a third-person platformer that emphasizes scouring the aforementioned big worlds for hidden treasures. In addition to Pagies, players can also find a riot of other collectibles. Quills, for example, allow players to learn new moves useful for accessing new areas. There are also more conventional pickups, like health and power upgrades. Pagies are still the most important item for players to find; some are awarded to Yooka and Laylee for completing challenges, while others are hiding out there just waiting to be discovered.

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Everything is colorful and/or has eyeballs. We’re definitely back in the 90’s.

Yooka-Laylee‘s gameplay is pure Rare platformer. While out exploring the world, players can use different abilities to speed across terrain, jump to new heights, and break through physical barriers. Like Banjo and Kazooie, Yooka and Laylee execute these moves by working together as a team, with coordination that can only be described as symbiotic. Players start out running and jumping, but can learn how to blast through barriers, fly, and even absorb new abilities from the world around them. Provided they’ve found a certain squid-woman scientist, players can even transform into new creatures for taking on previously inaccessible challenges. Most monsters go down in one hit, but boss battles are a little more complicated.

Using these abilities is essential for collecting Pagies and advancing to new worlds, as well as finding the other useful pickups hidden around each level. Most challenges revolve around using these powers to destroy an obstacle or complete a task, sometimes with a time limit, and getting a Pagie as a reward. These tasks are usually performed at the behest of an NPC, who can’t be bothered to just hand the damn Pagie over even though the universe is in danger of being destroyed. No, no, there are rules, ways that these things have to be done. A quest to save the universe is moot, but jump through these hoops (literally) and somehow that’s way more impressive.

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The hoops have eyes…

Even though five worlds may not sound like a lot, each of Yooka-Laylee‘s treasure-filled realms is a sight to behold. The game’s textures could stand some sharpening, but its worlds are colorful and gorgeously detailed. Like Banjo-KazooieYooka-Laylee‘s worlds are expansive and each revolve around a singular theme, like a ruins-filled jungle, a winter wonderland, or a spooky swamp. The intergalactic pirate cove world is particularly beautiful. Each world varies visually but their basic layouts are all similar: a large ground area studded with obstacles and opportunities to jump high or swim low.

Though running around these worlds looking for treasure is fun and quite reminiscent of the best 90’s Rare games, there is quite a bit of pointless space packed into each one. Between each challenge and cluster of quills is a ton of open space that, while useful for establishing the world’s sense of scale, leaves players spending an inordinate amount of time running from place to place. Scale can be achieved without putting an empty space the size of a football field between Pagies, but Yooka-Laylee nixes compacting its levels a bit in favor of leaving them too big. As a result, each world has a lot of ground to cover but also ends up feeling empty.

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There’s a difference between levels feeling big and being big.

Although Yooka-Laylee runs well and suffers almost no bugs or in-game problems, some of its gameplay does feel rather dated. Embarrassingly, the game contains a few gameplay issues that were endemic to 90’s games but successfully omitted in other, more recent releases, including imprecise controls and occasionally tedious platforming. The fact that Playtonic has reintroduced these long-corrected issues with a 2017 title is embarrassing. It suggests that the team entered some sort of hibernation after developing Banjo-Kazooie and emerged from their slumber blissfully unaware of the advances that have been made in game design these last 20 years.

To be fair, though, some of the issues plaguing Yooka-Laylee have been greatly exaggerated. Critics at the bigger networks have taken this game to task for its camera controls, which, to hear them tell it, are the worst thing to befall mankind since the Bubonic Plague. The camera does struggle to provide decent angles on occasion, including during the first world’s boss fight and in a few puzzles, but it’s not anything that players will be fighting constantly. Usually it does a pretty fluid job of following the player, without necessitating constant push-back.

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Reports of a camera control apocalypse are premature.

The main concern to be had with Yooka-Laylee is how in lockstep it is with Banjo-Kazooie. It feels less like a spiritual successor and more like a reskinned Banjo-Kazooie that was ported to modern systems. Though Yooka-Laylee is visually superior to that venerated title, there’s almost nothing in the game that wasn’t also present in its predecessor. The characters do that Banjo-Kazooie thing where they repeat a few odd noises every time they talk, and virtually all of the collectibles are stand-ins for the items found in Banjo-Kazooie. Even Yooka-Laylee‘s fonts are nigh identical to those of Banjo-Kazooie.

None of these things are necessarily bad, but they do represent a missed opportunity to innovate the open-world collectathon. Playtonic did streamline a few things here and there, like how the player absorbs and uses different types of projectile weapons, but the otherwise rigid adherence to what Banjo-Kazooie already pioneered makes Yooka-Laylee feel cheap. The fun and nostalgia that its open-world gameplay brings back to the scene is compounded by a weary sense of repetition. It’s at once demonstrative of the genre’s resilience over time, but also leaves players wondering that they’ve already seen this exact game before.

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Don’t mind me, just burying the chance to do something different.

Yooka-Laylee is somewhat aware of how dated some of its design has become, as demonstrated by the game’s writing. The dialogue is rife with funny little fourth-wall breaks, as well as jabs at how the gaming industry has changed since the 90’s. Capital B in particular cracks a lot of jokes about microtransactions and DLC, which is cathartic for players who remember a time before such cancerous practices. Surprisingly, the dialogue contains a lot of innuendo, which makes it harder to characterize the game’s intended audience. Is it the adults who grew up with Banjo-Kazooie, or today’s crop of youngins?

For all the fun that Yooka-Laylee pokes at contemporary gaming, though, some of its writing remains little changed from that of Banjo-Kazooie. As characters, Yooka and Laylee are virtual clone-stamps of Banjo and Kazooie, with the former being a slow-witted but big-hearted warrior and the latter being an acid-tongued little prankster. The supporting cast of NPCs make for a colorful bunch, like the serpentine abilities salesman, but that the two main heroes are so similar to Banjo and Kazooie once again makes the game feel derivative. Like a lot of things about this game, Yooka-Laylee‘s characterization and writing are a mixed bag of amusing, yet dated.

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Dude, your nose is bigger than the rest of your body.

Yooka-Laylee has a lot of adventuring fun and amusing dialogue to offer, but it’s nothing that old-school platforming fans haven’t seen before. The game feels less like the triumphant return of open-world collectathons and more like a fun but clone-stamped fan service for people who grew up playing Banjo-Kazooie. Playtonic bet too hard on the game’s nostalgia factor, nixing innovation in the hope that the mere presence of an open-world platformer would be enough to catalyze the genre’s resurrection.

Unfortunately for Playtonic and for Yooka-Laylee, innovation is the only way the open-world collectathon genre will regain the prominence it once enjoyed. It’s not enough to simply derive from what was already done and expect the outcome of the genre to magically change. None of this stops Yooka-Laylee from being a fond love letter to the 90’s and to fans of Banjo-Kazooie, but it does stop the game from being the genre-reviving spark that Playtonic set out to make. Above all else, keep that divide in mind while deciding whether to purchase Yooka-Laylee.

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You can buy Yooka-Laylee here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Mass Effect: Andromeda

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Find a home for humanity in another galaxy.

PC Release: March 21, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Given the immense, well-deserved popularity of the original Mass Effect trilogy, it’s not hyperbolic to say that Mass Effect: Andromeda is one of the most anticipated games of the decade. Releasing nearly 10 years after the original Mass Effect, the game’s been the subject of a lot of hype from both core Mass Effect fans and sci-fi enthusiasts in general. Speculation abounded following the announcement of a new game after Mass Effect 3; would it continue the tale of Commander Shepard? Would it be set before the Mass Effect trilogy?

What Bioware actually produced is an entirely new tale set long after and far away from those games, but how does Mass Effect: Andromeda fare with the bar set so high? The answer, much like conversation options in Mass Effect, is anything but black-and-white.

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Like its predecessors, Mass Effect: Andromeda is an epic space adventure game that takes place in a highly original sci-fi setting. In a galaxy where humanity is not alone and everything is powered by an element that can adjust an object’s mass, a group of human and alien explorers found a program called the Andromeda Initiative. Not content with “merely” exploring their own well-trod galaxy, the Andromeda Initiative’s leaders resolve to cross all the way over to the Andromeda galaxy to study and find their fortune there.

The bulk of Andromeda is set long after the events of the Mass Effect trilogy, but the Andromeda Initiative departs the Milky Way during the events of Mass Effect 2. The Initiative’s participants are put into suspended animation for the 600-year crossing to Andromeda and wake up on the outskirts of a whole new galaxy centuries after the adventures of Commander Shepard. By transporting Mass Effect to an entirely new galaxy, Andromeda provides a new playground for its sci-fi concepts and sidesteps any mention of the infamous ending to Mass Effect 3.

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Time to explore.

With a new setting and time period afoot, Mass Effect passes the protagonist torch from Commander Shepard to Pathfinder Ryder, the new player character. As with Shepard, players can create their own Ryder from a variety of facial features, though the options for doing so are surprisingly limited in comparison to the original games. Ryder wakes up alongside his/her fellow humans 634 years after departing the Milky Way, and after a few snafus, ends up becoming the Pathfinder, the individual charged with finding a new home for humanity in Andromeda.

Ryder and the other new arrivals from the Milky Way soon discover that Andromeda isn’t as peaceful as they’d hoped. The planets that the pioneers had hoped to settle have degraded into hellish landscapes unfit for life, and the cosmos are choked with a bizarre coral-like growth called the Scourge, which snags spaceships like bugs in a spiderweb. To make matters even more complicated, a hostile race of aliens called the kett is on the prowl in Andromeda, and they seem much more interested in shooting the colonists than talking to them. Faced with all these and other obstacles, Ryder has their work cut out finding humanity’s place in Andromeda.

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Ryder’s default male setting (center) and a few squadmates flanking him.

Although the challenges facing the Initiative are many, Ryder is not alone. Similarly to Shepard, badass squadmates with remarkable abilities seem drawn to the Pathfinder, and players will have a team of dangerous, capable buddies at their side before long. To explore the galaxy in style, Ryder is also given command of the Tempest, a sleek frigate that, much like the Normandy in the Mass Effect trilogy, serves as a mobile home for Ryder and his team. Ryder also has access to the Nexus, a space station that functions as the headquarters for the Initiative and is basically to Andromeda what the Citadel was to Mass Effect.

As with the original trilogy, Mass Effect: Andromeda incorporates elements of third-person shooting in its design, but the game is much, much more like the first Mass Effect than the second or third installments. Delightfully, Andromeda returns Mass Effect to the first game’s open-ended RPG focus, with lots of skills to nab, environments to explore, and items to find. The game does away with the more linear environments of Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3 and reintroduces the open, explorable planets that made the first Mass Effect feel so big. Ryder can explore these worlds on foot or in the Nomad, a space-tank-buggy thing that handles quite a bit better than Mass Effect‘s Mako.

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Andromeda restores the magnificent sense of scale lost in Mass Effect 2 and Mass Effect 3.

Players can equip Ryder with a wide variety of arms and armor, and further customize those accessories to suit specific playstyles. The Andromeda galaxy is chock full of mods like scopes and reinforced plating, giving players lots of options for customizing their loadout. Players can also do the same for their squadmates. Additionally, because this is an RPG at heart, Ryder levels up and can assign points to different abilities. Mass Effect: Andromeda does away with the classes of the previous games in favor of a Skyrim-esque, open-ended system that lets players pick and choose pretty much whatever skills they want. Though players are now free to pick all sorts of combinations, the game comes with a “profile” system that takes the classes of the original games and assigns extra benefits for using their powers in battle.

Combat in Andromeda feels pretty similar to Mass Effect 3, though the focus on staying behind cover has been somewhat reduced in favor of using jump jets to fly around wreaking havoc from above. Staying in cover is still a good idea, as Andromeda’s beasties are dangerous, but it’s not the only recourse for dealing with this game’s smart, persistent enemies. Unlike the Mako in the first Mass Effect, the Nomad buggy doesn’t come equipped with weapons, reflecting this game’s greater emphasis on exploration. Because he’s part explorer himself, Ryder comes with a scanner that can pick up nifty items in the environment and net rewards for players.

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I spy with my little eye something beginning with… an s.

Even though Andromeda‘s gameplay does a great job of balancing between exploration and combat, the game suffers a few alarming problems that go beyond shooting and sightseeing. For a start, Andromeda seems much more interested in exploration than storytelling, which is a bit of a problem for a series that built itself up on compelling sci-fi narratives. It also translates into a game that is absolutely drowning in pointless little fetch quests. Setting up a colony? Go mark 20 dead bodies or hit 10 rocks or plant five survey stations. Some might say these are similar to the radiant quests in Skyrim, and fair enough—but, they comprise the majority of missions in Andromeda, which is disappointing.

Additionally, even the game’s main and side quests leave a lot to be desired insofar as mission structure. In transitioning to a starkly open environment, Andromeda made its missions a bit too uniform. Most times players simply land, go touch an object, and then either escape or get into a firefight. The lack of mission variety in Mass Effect: Andromeda is disheartening, and it almost feels like the game has transitioned the Mass Effect series from tight sci-fi narrative to a big but empty MMO. This setup is further hindered by the game’s cumbersome menus, which Andromeda throws at players en masse with little explanation of how best to use them. The squad management screen in particular is one of the most badly designed options menus since Assassin’s Creed III‘s Davenport economy tool.

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Calibrate THIS, you swine!

Even if Andromeda‘s planets feel empty and full of fetch quests, at least they’re pretty to look at. The Mass Effect saga has never shied away from creating impressive worlds, and Andromeda contains some of the most gorgeous vistas the series has ever offered. Even the relatively desolate worlds are full of things to look at, with top-notch lighting and atmospheric effects to make it feel like more than a painting. The natural environments are the best-detailed that Andromeda has to offer, with the colonists’ prefabricated structures feeling fuzzily detailed by comparison.

For all Andromeda‘s skill with a brush, though, the game’s environments and characters suffer from a ton of bugs. Andromeda got a lot of heat for its awkward facial animations (everyone having apparently forgotten that Mass Effect has always had awkward facial animations). But that’s nothing compared to watching characters suddenly teleport from one side of a room to another, sink into the floor up to their thighs, or have their limbs twitch unnaturally during conversations. Sometimes NPCs will just wander out of the shot when Ryder’s in the middle of talking with them. Objects that characters hold will frequently disappear from cutscenes, unless that beer mug Ryder was carrying a second ago can turn invisible. Much more serious bugs and crashes have been reported by many players on multiple platforms.

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Bugs can’t live in the cold. The more you know.

Environmental concepts and funny faces aren’t the only things that Mass Effect: Andromeda borrows from its predecessors. The story, the thing that’s supposed to be the meat and potatoes of any Mass Effect game, feels like a retread of the previous three games. To provide a few examples, the Andromeda galaxy is riddled with ancient ruins left behind by an ancient alien species that died out under mysterious circumstances (like Mass Effect‘s Protheans), everything is being invaded by a warlike new species not known for inhabiting this part of space (like Mass Effect‘s Geth), and the antagonist is a genocidal maniac who wants to harness the ruins’ power for himself (like Mass Effect‘s Saren). These and other examples make Andromeda feel way too derivative of past games.

It also doesn’t help that Ryder’s squadmates feel like clone-stamps of previous squadmates. Peebee, the Asari squadmate, was promised to be nothing like Mass Effect‘s Liara, but she’s an excitable scholar interested in extinct alien races. Sounds an awful lot like Liara. Drack, the Krogan squadmate, is a shameless copy/paste of the same cantankerous bloodthirst that made Mass Effect‘s Wrex so popular. Cora and Liam, the two human squadmates, are almost instantly forgettable. Vetra, the female Turian, is by far the most interesting squadmate in the mix.

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System failure.

The force that’s ultimately responsible for this mix of re-used concepts and uninteresting characters is sub-par writing. Mass Effect: Andromeda‘s writing isn’t terrible, but it’s not nearly as interesting as the sci-fi epics penned under the masterful hand of Drew Karpyshyn, Bioware’s original lead writer. Dialogue in Mass Effect games has never been natural, to be fair, but it’s taken to awkward new extremes in Mass Effect: Andromeda. No matter what personality traits the player picks, Ryder is a deeply unlikable protagonist, cracking forced, awkwardly written jokes at the worst possible moments. Players will have genuine difficulty understanding some of the conversations that happen in this game.

Of course, mediocre writing also makes for slipshod and inconsistent character development. Characters will throw mini tantrums and then calm down within a split-second. Some characters will express admiration for some traits only to admonish them a few hours later.  None of this is to say that some characters don’t have interesting moments, like the Irish scientist’s discussions of her faith or the Andromeda native’s take on Milky Way culture, but those moments are few and far between. It was interesting of Bioware to do away with the Paragon/Renegade conversation choices, but that formula change does little to ameliorate the situation. In the original Mass Effect, interesting conversations, despite their occasional awkwardness, were the rule, not the exception.

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Do you have anything interesting to say?

Between the plethora of fetch quests, the bewildering options menus, the derivative main story, and the mediocre writing, Mass Effect: Andromeda can’t help but feel like a step back for this beloved sci-fi franchise. All of these problems seem to have less to do with a specific design philosophy and more with not knowing what to do with the game’s composite parts. Mass Effect: Andromeda feels like somebody poured the Mass Effect trilogy’s various bits and pieces into a big bowl, slapped a label on that bowl, and shipped it off to be sold for $60 a pop. Everything is just so… messy. So unrefined. There are a ton of ideas screaming for attention in this game, but the production is so unorganized that they never quite come together.

Mass Effect: Andromeda will sate hardcore fans looking for any sort of sortie into one of gaming’s most beloved franchises, but newcomers are better off playing the original series and perhaps just staying there. Even the very first Mass Effect game, for all its admitted clunkyness, feels more streamlined than Andromeda. This game’s design issues run too deep for any patch to fix, and the emphasis on exploration, while welcome, is disappointingly unwieldy. In short, it’s by no means a must-have for fans of sci-fi RPGs, and at best is probably better off purchased during a sale.

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You can buy Mass Effect: Andromeda here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.