Hack’n’Slash

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.

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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.

Pirates, Vikings, and Knights II

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Slash your way to victory in three-sided multiplayer battles.

PC Release: January 1, 2007

By Ian Coppock

Back in the olden days, vikings would send their loved ones out with a bang. When an old viking finally keeled over and bit the mead horn, his corpse was sometimes placed on a burning ship as a dramatic sendoff to Valhalla. This month’s series of Source multiplayer mod reviews is set to go out in a similar fashion: with a huge, chaotic fire that consumes everything in its path and leaves players stranded on the shoreline, wondering what just happened. That unconquerable flame is none other than Pirates, Vikings, and Knights II.

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Pirates, Vikings, and Knights II (let’s just called it PVK II, that full name is… long) is a game that pits its three titular factions against each other in fierce melee battles. The title’s been floating around the web in one form or another for a little over a decade, but calls the Steam store its main port of call. Even though it’s over a decade old, PVK II has enjoyed a consistent fanbase and continued attention from its developers at Octoshark Studios. The title is generally regarded as one of the most popular multiplayer hack’n’slash games on PC, second only to Chivalry: Medieval Warfare.

PVK II was built in the Source engine, leveraging that software’s power to build medieval and Caribbean landscapes of impressive visual quality. Thanks to continued updates from Octoshark, the game features sharp textures, rich object detail, and masterfully implemented lighting. PVK II also has seventeen maps for players to battle across, giving them no shortage of beautiful environments in which to brutally kill each other. PVK II‘s Source engine construction means that it has that lovely Source multiplayer options menu, which leaves no stone un-turned in terms of what players can tweak.

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Glorious.

Like a few of the other Source multiplayer games being reviewed this month, PVK II has excellent map design. Each map is fairly large and features 4-5 levels of elevation for players to run around in, from dark rum cellars up to the tops of knightly towers. It’s lucky that the maps are expansive, because PVK II features three concurrent teams of players fighting against one another. It’d be interesting to see such chaos confined to a much smaller area, but PVK II‘s level design means that there’s more room for the blood to spill.

PVK II retains this consistency in level design even though its maps are set all over the world. At any point players can expect to be fighting in a lawless Caribbean town, only for the next match to start in a Viking hamlet or an English cathedral. Each level has the same penchant for alternating between different elevations as well as between wide and constricted areas. This level variety helps keep gameplay fresh and allows players to find creative new opportunities for combat.

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HAVE AT THEE!

PVK II divides its players between pirate, viking and knight factions, each with its own classes of ranged and melee fighters. Pirates come to battle packing cutlass-wielding buccaneers and drunken sharpshooters, while vikings use lots of big melee weapons and the occasional throwing ax. The knights are arguably the most conventional of the three factions, but that doesn’t stop their armored swordsmen from being true terrors on the battlefield or their longbowmen from being deadly snipers. Each faction is pretty well-balanced; just suspend the disbelief that drunk pirates could face off against knights.

Once players pick their warriors, it’s time to take to the battlefield and defeat the two other factions that are also vying for glory. Each match in PVK II is three-sided, which guarantees at least 33% more chaos than more conventional multiplayer games can. PVK II currently has three multiplayer modes: Booty, a game that has less to do with posteriors and more with taking treasure chests to a home base; Territory, a King of the Hill-style mode all about capturing command points; and Deathmatch, a good old-fashioned team-based sword mauling.

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Booty acquired.

The actual hand-to-hand swordplay in PVK II is an uncomplicated mix of slashing and blocking. Just approach an enemy player and proceed to swing until they’re an eviscerated pile of meat on the ground. Each class of warrior has a few weapons to pick from and most can choose between a heavy two-handed killing implement and a smaller, quicker weapon. Switching between weapons on the fly is pretty simple, but the key to victory in PVK II is anticipating an opening in the enemy’s defense. Strike too soon or too late and the enemy will likely have their way with the player’s small intestines.

Ranged weapons are less common in PVK II, but they can be quite powerful. Classes like the Pirates’ sharpshooter come with a long-range weapon as their primary, but it’s usually pretty slow to reload. Some classes have what could almost be considered joke weapons that, while funny-looking, are lethally effective on the battlefield. Word to the wise: any player who spots a parrot flying toward them should run far, far away. That’s not a friendly local bird. That’s Polly, the Captain class’s avian killing machine.

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Who’s a good boy?

Although PVK II‘s various classes are pretty well-balanced overall, a few can become pretty OP under certain conditions. The Captain’s parrot is essentially a guided missile that can reload faster than most other ranged weapons, giving that class a distinct advantage over other warriors with ranged weapons. The Vikings’ Berserker can be an overpowered killer in the right hands, as players can simply run around while holding down his slash attack button. Because he attacks with two melee weapons, the Berserker can make short work of any foe by simply holding down mouse 1.

That said, PVK II‘s classes have been carefully tweaked over the years to give resourceful players an edge on the battlefield. Players are given a fair amount of health at the start of each round and can maintain that vitality with a hearty plate of Thanksgiving turkey. Some classes also come with armor, which is great for prolonging longevity on a battlefield full of piss-drunk pirates, even drunker vikings, and knights armed with seven-foot swords.

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I KNIGHT THEE SIR DINNERLOT!

PVK II‘s community is alive and kicking despite the game being over 10 years old. Part of that is due in no small part to the game being free, which also means that the community is an eclectic mix of seasoned veterans and new kids on the block who have an afternoon to blow. Despite a lack of matchmaking, PVK II‘s community is usually pretty civil. There’s always that one guy who takes the match far too seriously and barks out orders like a true armchair general, but most players are just there to have fun. A game called Pirates, Vikings, and Knights II shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

Because the title is free, PVK II makes for an easy party night with friends. Get some buddies, divide them up into teams of three, and see which ones are better at grabbing treasure and taking names (in other words, who the real friends are). Either way, most players can expect the Deathmatch mode to be the most common order of battle in PVK II. Honestly, who wouldn’t want to witness a mashup between knights, vikings, and pirates?

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Yarr, where be the booze and wenches?

In all reality, PVK II has a lot of good things going for it. The community is lively and usually forgiving of noobs, the game looks great and runs well, and its three-sided matches are a lot of fun. Octoshark Studios continues to update the game on a regular basis and does a good job of interacting with the community. Even though PVK II is technically still in beta, it provides a solid, visceral multiplayer experience for the low, low price of zero dollars and zero cents.

So… why are you still here? Get the game, get on a pirate ship or viking longboat, and get to raiding the enemy’s stash of treasure. Even the most chivalrous of knights have a greedy streak a mile long (and pirates’ and vikings’ are much longer), so charge into battle and defy not one, but two groups of foes in one of Source multiplayer’s greatest adventures. At the very least, it provides a fun hack’n’slash alternative to players who’ve had their fill of Chivalry: Medieval Warfare or of waiting for For Honor to work properly.

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You can buy Pirates, Vikings and Knights II 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.

Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy

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Become a Padawan learner at Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Academy.

PC Release: September 17, 2003

By Ian Coppock

Well folks, we’re coming up on the end of Star Wars Month. How fitting that tonight’s game is the fourth and final chapter of the Kyle Katarn saga. It’s a bittersweet moment, because Kyle Katarn’s adventures are regarded as some of LucasArts’ best work before their eventual shutdown years later. At the same time, Jedi Academy shares a contentious rivalry with its predecessor, Jedi Outcast, so part of tonight’s review will also settle the question of which game is better. For now, though, get ready for blastoff into Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy.

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Some old-school fans might take issue with calling Jedi Academy a Kyle Katarn game… and that’s because he’s actually not the player character this time. Players instead assume the role of Jaden Korr, a Jedi initiate who’s admitted to Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Academy after building a lightsaber with no prior instruction. Though Kyle is not the star of the show, he takes Jaden on as his Padawan and appears in many missions as an allied NPC. Jedi Academy can still be considered part of the Kyle Katarn series because it was built in the same engine as Jedi Outcast, features much of the same gameplay, and picks up from a few narrative threads left behind in Outcast.

Anyway, Jedi Academy is set 10 years after the Battle of Endor and two years after Jedi Outcast. Following his battle against Desann, Kyle decides to become a full-time Jedi again and takes a teaching job at the Jedi Academy on Yavin 4. Jaden Korr, the player character, can be customized from the ground up to be male or female. The character can also be human or one of several alien races, some of which are restricted to one gender or the other (of course the Twi’lek can only be female, and comes with some pretty risque clothing options). Players can also create their own lightsaber from a broad selection of blade colors and hilts.

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Players create their own Padawan in Jedi Academy.

After creating their Jaden, players arrive to Luke’s academy and are taken on as Kyle’s apprentice. Players learn a few basic abilities in the tutorial before selecting from a wide variety of missions set all over the galaxy. Some missions have to do with investigating a mysterious Sith cult that’s suddenly cropping up everywhere, but others are the type of benevolent superhero work that the Jedi have always been known for. Jedi Academy presents its missions to players in batches of five (playable in any order) followed by a story mission that closes off that act of the game and opens another. There are about 20 missions in total.

Jaden is not alone in his/her journey to become a Jedi. Kyle features prominently in the game as Jaden’s Jedi Master, and when he’s not giving orders over a comlink, he’s there fighting alongside the player. Rosh Penin, a fellow student, quickly becomes a passive-aggressive rival to the player and is the only other named student character encountered in the game. Jedi Academy also features cameos from Luke Skywalker, C-3PO, Chewbacca, Wedge Antilles, and other iconic characters from the Star Wars films. To further establish its place in the Star Wars universe, Jedi Academy uses a mix of iconic songs and sound effects from the films.

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Oh my God, that’s HIM! Can I get your autograph when you’re done barbecuing me?

On the surface, Jedi Academy‘s gameplay is nigh identical to that of Jedi Outcast. Players can use their lightsaber to deflect blaster bolts and cut down foes, but they can also use ranged weapons to keep the action at a distance. Jaden can use grenades (excuse me, thermal detonators) to blow s*** up, which, while not a very Jedi-like thing to do, is a great way to give a stormtrooper a spontaneous skydiving lesson. Players can also use the Force to jump higher, run faster, and get around the environment much easier than their non-Force-sensitive foes. Just don’t careen into a wall or over any cliffs.

Though all of that gameplay is borrowed from Jedi OutcastJedi Academy makes some hefty retrofits to it. Lightsaber combat has been refined and smoothed out to give players more control of their blade, which is especially important considering all of the Sith cultists running around. Jedi Academy also introduces new Force-powered acrobatics that allow players to wall-jump, cartwheel, and perform other elaborate gymnastics at the touch of a button. Not only does this make the combat far superior to that of Jedi Outcast, it also gives players much more freedom in navigating the battlefield. Outcast let players decapitate enemies. Academy lets players decapitate enemies by wall-running and then front-flipping over them.

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Academy’s gameplay is a huge improvement over Outcast’s.

Just as Academy gives players more physical freedom than Outcast, it also gives players more freedom in shaping their characters. Whereas Outcast dropped players off with a random assortment of weapons and Force powers, Academy allows players to pick their loadout of guns and grenades before each mission. Even better, Academy lets players select which Force powers they want to upgrade instead of upgrading predetermined powers a la Outcast. Some core powers only improve with each set of completed missions, but players are still free to upgrade powers like Force Lightning and Force Healing as they will. It’s a great way to let players shape their ideal Jedi.

Finally, and most awesomely, Jedi Academy eventually lets players trade in their lightsaber for a double-bladed one (like Darth Maul’s) or learn how to use two lightsabers at once. Want to recreate the final fight scene in the Phantom Menace with two unlucky Sith, or just chop everything up with dual blades? Jedi Academy lets players have at it. Each style of lightsaber combat comes with its own moves, which are further diversified with a selection of strong, medium, and fast fighting stances. Not only is this system versatile, it feels fluid and badass, and it remains one of the most fun melee combat systems in gaming despite being 14 years old.

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…Not quite sure what’s happening in this shot, but she has two lightsabers so it’s automatically fine.

Jedi Academy also dramatically overhauls one of Jedi Outcast‘s less admirable features: the level design. Academy replaces the maze-like, confusing level design of Outcast with much more intuitive set pieces. Despite being more linear, these levels are far easier to navigate and still allow for lots of fierce combat. It’s far easier in Jedi Academy to know where to go and what to do, especially when combined with a plethora of environmental hints that point the way. Most of Academy‘s levels still allow for some exploration off the beaten path, but finding the beaten path again is easy once the player’s ready to move on.

All of that said, Jedi Academy was built on the exact same engine as Jedi Outcast, so it shares its predecessor’s awkward character animations and muddled textures. Even the new animations added for using a new kind of lightsaber remain a bit stiff. It’s not a huge surprise that Academy had little time to innovate, since it was released only 18 months after Outcast, but players hoping for an improvement over Outcast‘s stilted designs will find no such thing in Academy. This isn’t a deal-breaker, but players won’t have to look at the packaging to see that this game came out in 2003.

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Seriously, wtf is she doing?

It might seem like Jedi Academy has Jedi Outcast beat at this point, what with its overhauled gameplay and far superior level design, but that’s not quite the case. For while Jedi Academy does gameplay and level design better than its predecessor, it comes up short on storytelling. Sure, Academy has a central plot, but it has less to do with evolving a character and more to do with tying up a few narrative loose ends from Outcast. At least half of the game is also spent on one-shot missions that have less to do with stopping a Sith cult and more to do with the Star Wars equivalent of helping an old lady get her cat out of a tree.

As a character, Jaden Korr is far less interesting than Kyle Katarn. He/she is little more than a blank canvas with a few token sentiments about bravery and selflessness to boot. Sure, the character cracks the occasional joke, but it’s usually in response to the far more jokey Kyle, who retains the gruff likability that made him a star in previous Jedi Knight games. Jaden’s remarks are propelled entirely by observations of the world around them, and both the male and female voice acting for the character is… uninspired, to put it politely. Funnily enough, the character retains human voice acting even if they’re, say, a Rodian.

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Jaden is a bit of a bore.

So yes, while Jedi Academy provides fun gameplay and level design, it does so at the expense of the narrative grit that put its predecessors on the map. Even though Outcast‘s game design had some problems, the game still presented a compelling story with an acute sense of character development. Jedi Academy lacks that narrative cohesion, preferring instead to be more of a Skywalker-era Padawan concept piece. The game’s central story isn’t bad, but it’s certainly several steps down from the deeply personal storytelling that characterized Jedi Knight and Jedi Outcast.

As with many video game disputes, it’s not that Jedi Outcast is better than Jedi Academy or vice-versa; they each do some things well and some things not so well. Jedi Outcast has a great story but confusing level design and alright gameplay. Jedi Academy has great gameplay and level design, but a much less interesting story and main character. Games are like that sometimes; developers see what made their first game popular or unpopular and compensate for it in the next title. Jedi Academy is a clear-cut case of a studio that did a great job of fixing what was wrong with the previous game, but at the expense of what made the previous game decent despite those problems.

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Did I mention that you get to drive a speeder?

The main takeaway from all of this is that Jedi Outcast and Jedi Academy are both good games, for different reasons. One has a great story, the other has some of the most fun Star Wars gameplay ever devised. Because of that, Jedi Academy is worth any Star Wars fan’s time, and still provides a hearty conclusion to the Kyle Katarn saga even if he’s not the star of the show. The star of the show is able to take on a horde of stormtroopers with a double-bladed blue lightsaber and lots of Force Lightning while wall-running over a waterfall. If that doesn’t sound fun, then nothing will.

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You can buy Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy 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.

Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast

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Re-learn the Jedi way… while seeking revenge.

PC Release: March 26, 2002

By Ian Coppock

The Jedi are portrayed as humanity at its best, always being mature and relying on positive emotions without getting angry or sad. This caricature is pretty uniform across the Star Wars universe, but it can make Jedi characters seem emotionless and difficult to relate to. Sith characters, like Darth Vader and Clone Wars-era Darth Maul, are easier to empathize with because they both try to seek justice while battling personal demons, which is something most of us endure every day. Trying to do the right thing without resorting to baser instincts is a common character arc in Star Wars, but no Star Wars video game does it better than Jedi Outcast.

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Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast is the third title in the Kyle Katarn saga. The mercenary who took down an evil army in Dark Forces and learned the ways of the Force in Jedi Knight returns for a third bout of action in Jedi Outcast, which was originally released back in 2002. Like all the other Star Wars games being reviewed here this month, Jedi Outcast is no longer considered canon, but Star Wars fans ignore expanded universe narratives at their peril.

Anyway, Jedi Outcast is set eight years after the Battle of Endor. Even though he became a Jedi in the last game, Kyle becomes afraid of falling to the dark side and severs his connection to the Force, trading in his lightsaber for his old collection of guns. Kyle runs missions for the New Republic against the remnants of the Empire, accompanied by his longtime partner Jan. Jedi Outcast begins when Kyle’s asked to investigate a seemingly abandoned Imperial outpost, and if video games have one rule, it’s that “seemingly abandoned” means “filled with bad guys”.

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It’s back to guns and grenades for Kyle.

Kyle discovers that there’s much more to the outpost than meets the eye and eventually encounters Desann, a fallen Jedi who is intent on conquering the galaxy. Without the Force, Kyle is easily defeated by Desann, who murders his beloved Jan right in front of him. Enraged, Kyle is left for dead but vows to kill Desann, and enlists Luke Skywalker’s help in reconnecting with the Force. Luke reluctantly gives Kyle his lightsaber back, but fears that in his quest for revenge, Kyle might end up falling to the dark side after all.

Kyle’s journey to avenge Jan and stop Desann can be played from first- or third-person. As in Jedi Knight, Kyle wields a wide arsenal of blasters and other weaponry against his enemies. The lightsaber is the star of the show, of course, able to deflect blaster bolts and turn enemies into chop suey. As players progress through the game, Kyle’s Force powers reawaken, and he’ll start out each level with new and improved abilities. These will be critical to stopping Desann, as well as the underworld criminals and stormtroopers he’s lined up against Kyle.

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Kyle is not a flashy about his abilities.

Players embark upon a series of linear missions to stop Desann, set in locales both new and old across the Star Wars universe. Gameplay involves exploring levels for clues and dicing up enemies who get in the way. Kyle can protect himself with personal shields but will need medkits if he gets hurt (eventually he learns how to heal himself through the Force, but not before players will have gone through enough medkits to necessitate a repurposed drinking hat). Players can also access better and more effective powers as the game progresses, including Force lightning. It’s a decent mix of gameplay that remains surprisingly fluid after 15 years.

Kyle’s high-stakes journey of personal growth is not dissimilar to Jedi Knight. In that game, Kyle was becoming aware of a higher state of being while avenging a murder long committed. In this game, he’s reluctantly returning to that higher state while being driven by much fresher wounds. He’s a character who’s had it pretty rough in that galaxy far, far away, but that doesn’t stop him from cracking a few jokes and making glib comments about his odds of success. Jedi Outcast also features an appearance from Lando Calrissian, who serves as Kyle’s companion for a good chunk of the game and responds to Kyle’s bleak sarcasm with his own stylish wit.

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Lando’s optimism is a foil to Kyle’s anger.

Jedi Outcast‘s narrative is cut from the same gritty cloth as Jedi Knight. Like that game, the story is a very personal tale that focuses less on ramifications for the Star Wars galaxy and more on how Kyle Katarn evolves as a character. His thirst for revenge gradually evolves as he learns more about Desann’s plans, and as he lets more friends in to help him through his grief. The character is written and voice-acted well enough to present believable evolution; he’s a hard-boiled mercenary learning to open himself back up to the galaxy that gave him so much pain. This character study is the focus of Jedi Outcast, and though the dialogue writing is awkward in places, it makes for a compelling story.

Kyle receives the most writing and attention throughout the narrative, but Desann is not far behind. A product of tragic circumstances himself, Desann is a character who teeters between being a careful planner and a maelstrom of rage. His backstory is tied up in Luke Skywalker’s first attempt at a Jedi Academy, and he approaches galactic conquest in a manner fundamentally different from Emperor Palpatine and other scheming bad guys. He’s arguably the most tragic villain of any Star Wars game, and his story bears much resemblance to a certain ex-Jedi who appeared in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

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Jedi Outcast’s storytelling is deep.

The Star Wars universe always makes for a great storytelling backdrop… but Jedi Outcast‘s visuals look dated by contemporary standards. The awkward character animations look like ghosts posing mannequins rather than natural human movement. Similarly, the game’s clone-stamped textures are pretty soft. The lighting effects are decent, and the environments are pretty, but Jedi Outcast‘s looks were only cutting edge in 2002. The game’s soundtrack benefits from borrowing John Williams’ classic songs from the Star Wars films, and the sound design similarly makes use of the films’ weapon and starship sound effects.

Jedi Outcast‘s level design also leaves a lot to be desired and is by far the most regrettable facet of the game. Kyle starts out missions with an objective, but the game doesn’t do jack to point the player in the right direction. Oftentimes players will be left scouring dizzying mazes in search of where to go or what to do next. Rather than casually hinting at the next area with, say, an open door or a well-lit doorway, the game simply drops players into a large area with a vague objective and says “have fun”. Jedi Outcast is content to let Kyle hop around aimlessly. It’s a great way to practice those Force-aided jumps, but not a great way to keep the game moving.

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Surely someone in the Star Wars galaxy invented Google Maps…

It’s lucky for Jedi Outcast that a good story doesn’t require cutting-edge visuals. The level design kerfuffle may be more of a deal breaker, but Star Wars fans who are confident about their sense of direction should consider Jedi Outcast. It has the grand scale of a Star Wars narrative, but its intimate focus on a single character makes it a much more personal tale. Kyle Katarn’s inner battle between doing the right thing and resorting to baser instincts may not make him a perfect Jedi, but it makes him the most human one, and makes Jedi Outcast a pivotal installment in his story.

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You can buy Star Wars Jedi Knight II: Jedi Outcast 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.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

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Stop the Sith from wiping out the last Jedi.

PC Release: December 6, 2004

By Ian Coppock

For anything that can be said about the Star Wars prequels, that sequence in Revenge of the Sith in which countless Jedi are getting murdered is a real gut-punch. It’s arguably the most pivotal scene of the entire prequel trilogy, where the Star Wars universe violently changes hands from Jedi to Sith. Tragic as that scene is, though, it’s not the first time that the Jedi were driven to the brink of extinction. If the old Star Wars canon is to be believed, there was an even darker, grittier period for the Jedi that began with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords.

Take a seat, young Skywalker. This game makes for quite a tale.

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Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (let’s just call it Sith Lords, that title’s one hell of a mouthful) is a third-person RPG set in the Star Wars universe, and the direct sequel to BioWare’s wildly popular Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Unlike the first KOTORSith Lords was actually developed by Obsidian, a studio that makes bank developing sequels and spinoffs on behalf of other devs. Like KOTORSith Lords comprises a mix of quick turn-based combat and open-world exploration across a variety of planets. The game allows players to create their own character, pick a class, and recruit squadmates to fight alongside them.

Sith Lords takes place five years after the events of KOTOR, which is itself set an eye-popping 4,000 years before the Star Wars films. Neither game is considered canon anymore, but that doesn’t stop them from being good Star Wars stories. KOTOR detailed a galaxy-wide war between the ancient Republic and an entire empire of Sith warriors led by a cyborg with a chip on his shoulder (or is it his jaw?). Anyway, even though the Republic eventually won out over the Sith, the galaxy was left a pile of smoldering wreckage. Most of the Jedi were wiped out in the conflict, leaving only a small handful still standing when the dust settled.

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The Jedi victory over the Sith came at an awful price.

To make matters worse, the remaining Sith simply fled underground and spent the next few years ambushing and assassinating the remaining Jedi from the shadows. A new generation of Sith Lords is now but a few steps away from galactic domination, and only one more Jedi stands in their way: the player character. Sith Lords begins as the titular baddies ambush the protagonist, and the unlucky Jedi wakes up dazed and confused in a derelict mining colony.

Like KOTORSith Lords allows players to create their own male or female character, and choose from a couple of different cosmetic options. Unlike in KOTORSith Lords’ character starts out as a Jedi, so players nix picking a soldier class and can start leveling up Force abilities from the get-go. Canonically, the character is actually a female Jedi named Meetra Surik, a name that Star Wars: The Old Republic players might recognize. To the game and most NPCs, though, the character is known simply as “the Exile.”

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The Exile! (jazz hands)

After wandering out of the colony’s medical bay, the Exile encounters a strange old woman named Kreia, who claims that the two share a bond through the Force. The Exile finds a few more characters strewn throughout the colony, but the group is forced to make a quick escape when the Sith show up to finish their dirty work. Kreia believes that the Exile is the galaxy’s best chance for stopping the Sith, though stops short of endorsing such a mission herself. Indeed, the old woman’s motivations remain delightfully vague for most of the game.

As the Exile travels around space running missions and picking up more oddball squadmates, he/she notices a few particular Force abilities. For a start, the Exile can form bonds with squadmates through the Force, strengthening their trust in him/her and even influencing their sense of morality. The Exile also learns that these abilities may or may not be tied up in why they were, well, exiled from the Jedi Order so many years ago. The Exile decides to try to seek out the Jedi Masters who oversaw his/her banishing — not just to learn why it happened, but to enlist their aid in stopping the Sith.

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Yay, they brought back this sarcastic clunker!

The Exile’s journey around the galaxy plays out a lot like the main character’s quest in KOTOR. Players have a ship (the same ship from KOTOR, in fact) that they can use to putz around the galaxy and visit a few planets. Those planets are chock full of story missions, side quests, and lots of money and items. Combat is third-person and turn-based, but as with KOTOR‘s combat, the turns move quickly enough to keep the fight interesting. Attacks do only have a chance to hit, though, so be sure to level up that accuracy and critical hit damage as much as possible.

Each squadmate in the Exile’s party has his, her, or its own combat specialty and unique abilities. Some squadmates have latent Force powers and can eventually become Jedi apprentices (though lightsabers are rarer than gold dust in this game). Others are trigger-happy shootists that would rather put a blaster bolt between someone’s eyes than give them the time of day. Still others are more specialized in their abilities, adept at hacking into places they shouldn’t. Regardless of their specialties, the Exile’s team has that Mass Effect 2 ultimate badasses vibe to it. Who knows? Maybe a Sith ends up joining the team! That’d be crazy, right?

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Right.

The changes that Sith Lords makes to KOTOR‘s gameplay are relatively few. Players can now craft their own components for their armor and weapons, rather than having to find them out in the field. The Exile can also make a few basic guns and battle drugs, given the proper materials. Sith Lords‘ range of hand-to-hand combat moves is expanded for some reason, and the conversation system is a bit more dynamic, giving players more freedom to persuade the weak-minded through the Force or just be a really good debater. Players can also access a palette of new and interesting Force powers. Force Scream, for example, is logistically similar to Force lighting but lets players flatten people like that little kid in Linkin Park’s music video for From the Inside.

Anything else? Not really. Money is a lot easier to come by, that’s for damn sure. KOTOR had an approximate game-wide limit on its money, and players had to be really choosy about where to drop that coin. Sith Lords makes it far easier to pick up some extra cash, and it’s not like there aren’t tons of weapons and armor to buy anyway, right? That’s pretty much all there is to be said about the changes Sith Lords makes to the KOTOR formula. That is to say… not many.

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Punch him in the lightsaber! That’ll show him!

The changes that Sith Lords makes to the KOTOR aesthetic are also few in number. This game was only released a year after KOTOR, so there wasn’t time for Obsidian to get to work developing new assets or visuals. There are plenty of new character models, which is neat, but the game retains KOTOR‘s awkward character animations and not-so-well-aged object details. Textures remain blurry, colors are still a bit blotchy… fights have a few new animations, but they’re mostly restricted to the fisticuffs. Still not sure what the purpose of that skill tree is when the player can use a lightsaber.

Sith Lords has a few original creations, though, that outshine everything the game borrowed from KOTOR and even give its beloved predecessor a run for its money. The first is the game’s sound design. Guns, lightsabers and spaceships return in rip-roaring audio glory, and they still come through cleanly despite being over a decade old. Far better even than that, though, is Sith Lords‘ soundtrack, which is one of the greatest Star Wars soundtracks of all time. Alternating between quietly haunting melodies and dramatic, triumphant strings, Sith Lords‘ score is an audio masterpiece. The music is so good that LucasArts was using it for videos and promotional material up to the very last second before the Disney acquisition. Seriously, it’s damn good music.

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I find your lack of musical taste disturbing…

The final and grandest piece of Sith Lords is the game’s narrative. With the game’s war-torn set pieces and the bleak notion of being the very last Jedi, Sith Lords is the closest that Star Wars has ever been to having a post-apocalyptic setting. Some aspects of the game, like invisible Sith assassins that crawl around like animals, even give off a horror vibe. Sith Lords‘ atmosphere is impressively dark, and that bleakness is carefully arranged in every war-torn city, every battle-weary NPC. The Exile cannot trust anyone; even the Force is arrayed against them. Players are as hunted by these grim signs as they are by in-game Sith assassins and bounty hunters.

More than just the apocalyptic vibe, Sith Lords benefits from having some of the best writing of any Star Wars game, far superior even to that of KOTOR. The writing results in some truly memorable characters with believable development arcs and heart-wrenching motivations. Kreia, the aforementioned old woman, is one of the most interesting video game characters ever written, Star Wars or otherwise. Her reserved character and constant criticism of the player no matter what they do smack of a depth rarely seen in RPGs anymore. Similar things can be said about the bounty hunter who’s secretly afraid, and the Mandalorian getting too old for this s***. It all makes for a batch of believable characters… characters that become very dear to the player very quickly.

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That Kreia is a mysterious one…

It’s impressive that Sith Lords manages to tell a great story despite not being a finished game. It’s true; an entire planet and a few other side quests were left out of production so that Obsidian could meet a deadline. While it’s unfortunate that some content was left out of the game, the studio did a good job at covering those loose ends up (not sure if that’s commendable or unfortunate) and the rest of the game doesn’t feel short, clocking in at a few hours longer than KOTOR. A few mods are floating around that add bits and pieces of that content to the base game, but finding and downloading them is another story.

Sith Lords also deserves some leniency for the creative risks it took in penning its narrative. Rather than merely giving staple Star Wars concepts a new face, it twists those staple concepts around in interesting and terrifying ways. The idea of the Force undergoing a metamorphosis is an exotic concept, and the game’s portrayal of the Sith as hungry animals rather than cunning tacticians makes for a refreshing change. The point is that Sith Lords isn’t afraid to bend some of Star Wars‘ rules or tinker around with concepts enshrined as untouchable, and that’s what makes it such a great game. Perhaps even better than KOTOR.

Sith9

Just another day in space-pocalypse.

Sith Lords isn’t the most well-known Star Wars game ever made, but it is one of the best. Its dark, rich story introduces bold new ideas to the Star Wars universe, rounded out with terrific music and some of the best writing of any Star Wars media. Don’t let Sith Lords‘ aged aesthetic or its relegation to non-canon status by Disney stop a playthrough. Pick up a copy (the Steam version’s nice and updated) and delve into some of the darkest, grittiest Star Wars storytelling ever penned.

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You can buy Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords 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.