Hack’n’Slash

Gang Beasts

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Punch, kick and jump your way across hilariously violent rounds of fighting.

PC Release: Q1 2017 (Early Access)

By Ian Coppock

Friendships can be built or broken in the crucible of multiplayer video games. This is potentially true of any title but only particularly true of a select few. Anyone who played Mario Party back in the day will remember that friend who stole a Star from them using a Boo. Perhaps you, reading this right now, were that friend, and your relationship was forever altered the day one player stole the other person’s victory out from under them. In the years since Mario Party was really big, there have been few video games that offer a comparably visceral multiplayer experience. Gang Beasts is one of those few. Perhaps the best of those few.

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Gang Beasts is a chaotic multiplayer fighting game being developed by the immortally named indie studio Boneloaf. Players can create their own character from a selection of gelatinous humanoid fighters and compete in what can only be described as a drunken free-for-all. The word “drunken” is no hyperbole the characters (or pugilists) in Gang Beasts have intentionally slippery controls that make piloting one feel like stumbling home from the bar. Players can compete in matches of up to 8 fighters; whoever can throw everyone else off a ledge, shove them into obstacles, or simply survive all of these things wins the match.

Matches in Gang Beasts are usually short, violent, and hilarious. Because of the clunky controls, players are in as much danger of putting themselves in harm’s way as another character. The hilarity comes from seeing these jelly men square off in ludicrous environments (like two trucks speeding down a highway together) and their inevitable, violent demises.

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Get ’em! F*** ’em up!

Before jumping into the arena, players can customize their Gang Beast using an impressive palette of color and accessory options. Players can craft an amusing caricature of almost anything, from a drunken Santa Claus to a naughty office worker. They can also kit out their characters with trench coats, dinosaur suits and other eyebrow-raising wardrobe choices. The amount of character customization in Gang Beasts is impressive, and players can access all of these accessories from the get-go. No need to grind for a toupee.

Once they’ve created their character, players can jump into an online or local multiplayer match and compete for the title of World’s Silliest Pugilist. Each match arranges the players in a random order before the battle begins. The game uses a single Super Smash Bros.-style panoramic camera to capture the action, even on local mode. Gang Beasts has a thriving online multiplayer community and its local beat-em-ups work flawlessly, so finding a match is little challenge.

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We’ll make you BLACK and blue, sum’b*tch!

As previously mentioned, controlling a pugilist in Gang Beasts is made intentionally challenging by the game’s lurching controls. Characters veer wildly from side to side even as they run, and their punches and kicks can easily miss the mark. The point of this system is not to make Gang Beasts difficult, but to provoke laughter, and holy cow does it succeed in that regard. Players can’t defeat an enemy through sheer punching and kicking, though—they have to force players to either plunge off a ledge or into a conveniently placed deathtrap, such as a pit of lava or that nuclear chimney in the screenshot.

As one might imagine, a gang of 4-8 drunken little jelly men trying to beat the crap out of each other can be absolutely hysterical. The controls also level the playing field, making it difficult for the most experienced players to maintain an edge over new arrivals. In so doing, Gang Beasts‘ gameplay both allows for humor and fairness, since only so much can be done to keep these creatures from bumbling into danger. As one might expect, Gang Beasts is best enjoyed in local multiplayer, where friends can laugh and swear at each other’s ludicrous fighting antics. To that end, this game has full controller support.

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Who will win? Bear-man? Or dinosaur-man?

The overwhelming majority of Gang Beasts‘ maps bring those aforementioned deathtraps to each match’s forefront. From a precariously placed exterior elevator to the top of a damn blimp, these creatures seem to have no inhibitions when it comes to picking fight club locations (oh crap, I talked about Fight Club). This further levels Gang Beasts‘ playing field by making it remarkably easy to kill other characters—maybe not at first, especially for players new to the scene, but soon.

It’s also worth noting that each map is colorful, with big, bubbly environments for the characters to tussle around in. The lighting and colors in each environment are exceeded only by the riot of colors in which the titular Gang Beasts can be painted. To top all of this off, the game also has a minimalist techno soundtrack that provides solid audio background without drowning out the dumb chuckles each character emits from time to time. The sound of landing a hit on another character is also satisfying: a quick, crunchy thud that can sometimes cause a knockout.

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NOW I KILL YOU! Wait… what is that stuff?

Although Gang Beasts is arguably the penultimate party fighting game at the moment, there are a few caveats to bear in mind for any aspiring cage fighters rushing to Steam with credit card in hand. For a start, local multiplayer is really the only way to play Gang Beasts with friends, as the game’s online matchmaking is essentially nonfunctional. Boneloaf has disclaimed that in Gang Beasts‘ description box, to be fair, but it’s perplexing that this mode hasn’t been built yet. The lack of online matchmaking with friends has certainly become reviled in the Steam forums, probably more than strictly necessary, but not without some merit.

The reason Gang Beasts might not have this multiplayer mode in place yet is because, well… the game’s in Early Access. Early Access games are rarely reviewed here because only about 20% of them actually see completion—given the amount of skeletal indie garbage drowning Steam these days, that percentage now seems way too high. However, Gang Beasts is one of maybe three Early Access games on Steam (along with Besiege and The Long Dark) that has enough polish and content in its current state to warrant a buy. Boneloaf has also announced that the game’s full release is right around the corner. Sure, they wouldn’t be the first Early Access developer to promise a full release and then delay on it, but the studio’s done a good job of responding to the community and being consistent with their updates, which is more than about 99% of Early Access devs can say.

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I see a “Draw” in both of our immediate futures.

The other factor that makes Gang Beasts challenging to review is its physics bugs, which the game has in abundance. At any given moment, players can expect to see their characters shoot off into space or have their bodies stretched between a fast-moving train and the platform their lower half was just standing on. Bugs are ostensibly a problem in any video game, but in the case of Gang Beasts, they’re actually more of a benefit. They add another layer of hilarity onto the game’s already-chaotic fighting, and it’s difficult to fault them when they provoke so much laughter. As Forrest Ross, my co-host on Ian Lost in The Forrest once memorably said, “I will refund Gang Beasts the day it works properly.”

It’s rare to say that physics bugs are a positive for a game rather than a negative, but it’s also rare to find a video game where physics bugs add to the experience rather than detract from it. For anything that’s implied by the presence of bugs in the game, they sure do make Gang Beasts even funnier. The game’s stated goal is to provoke hilarity through fighting, and since the bugs are in line with that goal, it’s difficult to fault Boneloaf for them.

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It feels weird to say that bugs are a good thing, but these are weird times we live in…

Luckily for Gang Beasts, physics bugs are where the buck stops for the game’s potential performance issues. The game could run on a potato, and it comes with a decent, though not amazing, options menu for tweaking performance hiccups. Although it goes unstated on the game’s main page, Gang Beasts is best played with a controller, but that comes as little surprise for a game that bills itself as a local couch’em’up.

Gang Beasts has surprisingly few peers. It stands out in a genre overrun by games that focus on realism; and, in avoiding it,is much more fun than 90% of those titles. It’s also one of a tiny handful of games whose physics bugs actually contribute to what it’s going for (fun) for instead of detracting from it. Even though it’s in Early Access, it offers up enough content and enjoyment to warrant a buy despite not technically being finished yet. Given its outstanding reception by fans and other reviewers, it’s doubtful that the game will be shaken up too much before its official release. The only piece missing is online matchmaking.

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Don’t let go, Jack! Actually, no, let go. Right now. LEGGO!

Friendships are built and broken on the field of battle. Some travesties, like team kills, are relatively forgettable, but what about stealing a star in Mario Party? Or leaving a friend to hang over a pit of lava in Gang Beasts? It is these visceral, hilarious multiplayer experiences that make Gang Beasts stand out, and make it one of the very, very, very few Early Access games on Steam worth buying before its completion. Take a break from serious narratives and super-high production values for a tourney in Gang Beasts. It doesn’t tell an amazing story, but its drunken brawls provoke more laughter than even gamedom’s best comedy writing.

True to the feel of its controls, Gang Beasts also pairs well with alcohol.

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You can buy Gang Beasts 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.

For Honor

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Hack and slash your way through a gritty medieval battlefield.

PC Release: February 14, 2017

By Ian Coppock

It’ll come as a complete shock, but most geeks are drawn to the medieval period by the arms and armaments. What a plot twist, huh? Who’d have guessed that the notion of dudes killing each other with swords is more interesting than herding sheep or researching crop rotation. The politics can be interesting, to be fair, but how often are matters settled at the negotiating table instead of by the sword? Settling disputes with swords is what drives everyone from toddlers wearing cardboard armor to the choreographers on Game of Thrones. It’s also what drove the development of For Honor, Ubisoft’s new slashing epic and the subject of this evening’s review.

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For Honor is a third-person medieval hack’n’slasher developed by Ubisoft’s Montreal studio, who developed such hits as Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag and such non-hits as Assassin’s Creed Unity. The game was widely anticipated following its first unveiling and represents new territory for Ubisoft. Indeed, the studio has committed the rarest of triple-A gaming stunts by being willing to both foray into a new genre and even develop a new IP! Who knew that experimentation with new stories and the willingness to take risks were still alive in the big-budget industry?

Anyway, For Honor is set in a fictional medieval world that puts the cultures of heroic knights, bloodthirsty Vikings, and vicious samurai in very close proximity with each other. What could possibly go wrong with that arrangement? Well, quite a bit. As the game’s prologue explains, the world of For Honor is torn apart by constant conflict. It’s kind of a given that three highly militaristic cultures placed across narrow seas from each other would break out into fisticuffs every so often, but that idea of ceaseless warfare is the central motif of For Honor. It certainly translates into more literal multiplayer action.

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War. War never changes. Oh wait, wrong series.

For Honor is a class-based game that focuses heavily on multiplayer battles. Each of the game’s three civilizations has its army broken up into four classes, varying from lightweight assassins like the Knights’ Peacekeeper to the Samurai’s ultra-heavy Shugoki infantry. Each class’s weapons and armor correspond roughly to a lightweight-heavyweight scale, though some warriors, like the Kensei, are somewhat specialized. The variety this system affords is somewhat hamstrung by most of the classes being functionally identical across multiple civilizations. The Vikings’ Raider and the Knights’ Lawbringer, for example, have roughly the same heavy-weapon gameplay.

For Honor‘s combat is doled out through the Art of Battle, a melee system that combines the Free-Flow combat system from the Batman: Arkham series with some of the free-hitting freedom in Chivalry: Medieval Warfare. Using their mouse, players can control the direction that their warrior defends attacks from, choosing either flank or above the head. Likewise, attackers use this tri-directional system to attack their opponent. It should go without saying, but if an attacker hits the same side their opponent is defending against, the strike is blocked. Attackers can pick between light or heavy swings and can employ some good ole button combos for unique and powerful attacks.

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Staying alive in For Honor means anticipating your opponents’ attacks… and responding in kind.

Though the Art of Battle is a neat little system that simplifies the complexities of sword fighting pretty well, the system is essentially a game of rock paper scissors. Hitting where the opponent is not facing and vice-versa gets stale alarmingly quickly. Even throwing in the game’s admittedly fluid dodge system does little to alleviate the tedium. It’s unfortunate, but For Honor‘s hedged combat system feels underwhelming after a few hours in the game. That’s a bit of a problem for a game that billed itself as a melee slasher.

As with many multiplayer games, players can advance themselves over a career of fighting in the field. Experience is gained from killing enemies and capturing objectives, and then spent on new duds, perks and items. For Honor‘s customization isn’t exactly a deal-un-breaker after its so-so combat, but it is impressively deep. Players can pick all sorts of clothing for their character and design their own insignia (about 90% of which are penises, but let’s be fair, that’s par for the course in the Internet age).

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Ser Ian, of the House Coppock. My words are “Anyone not stabbing at what I’m stabbing at BECOMES what I’m stabbing at!”

After kitting out their character with the appropriate weapons and phallic regalia, players can take to the battlefield in For Honor‘s persistent war zones. The game is set up as a series of battlefronts, where the three factions duke it out for control of the land. Ubisoft has instituted a season system for this setup, meaning that at the end of one season, the lines will be drawn to reflect how each faction did, and that will serve as the basis for the next season. It’s cool that each season leaves a permanent mark on subsequent matches.

Players can pick any of these battles to engage in. They can also pick whichever character they want even if that character’s civ isn’t represented in the coming battle, so players can still be a Samurai in a Knight-Viking match. For Honor gives players a wide range of modes, from a full-scale battle to the more intimate setting of a one-on-one duel. Each mode impacts the wider battlefront no matter the scale of conflict, which is a nice touch.

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Alrighty. Let’s go ahead and conquer Gondor, the Seven Kingdoms, and then march into Vizima for lunch.

Although For Honor‘s duels and four-versus-four skirmishes are fun, Dominion mode is where the game really comes alive. This mode puts a squad of four players at the head of hundreds of NPC troops. If ever there was a game for fulfilling that fantasy of charging into battle at the head of an army, For Honor is it. In Dominion, players have to seize as much territory in a full-scale battlefield as possible, pushing back against enemy forces while also watching out for enemy players. For Honor‘s gameplay can get stale, but the scale and ferocity of these matches goes a long way toward prolonging that staleness.

All of the fun to be had in For Honor comes with one small caveat: overcoming the game’s numerous server issues. As of the first few days of launch, For Honor has an unfortunate tendency to somehow not find Ubisoft’s servers, leaving many players stranded without a match or being able to even access the game. For Honor is able to almost always hold at 60 fps and has an in-depth options menu to help players having performance issues, but the constant server errors are embarrassing coming from a major developer. Ubisoft has pledged fixes, and has learned its lesson on delaying those after Assassin’s Creed Unity, but players itching to buy this game immediately should be aware of this problem.

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Thanks player, but the battle is in another castle!

As previously mentioned, though, For Honor runs well when a server can be found. Expect a bit of a frame drop when the screen is packed with warriors, but For Honor can chug some of the biggest matches and still present everything at a great visual fidelity. It’s nice to see that Ubisoft is taking its PC ports seriously; sure, For Honor hasn’t been without some performance complaints, but this ain’t no Unity. It and other recent successful PC ports, like Watch Dogs 2, point to Ubisoft actually receiving and implementing feedback from customers. Ya done good, Ubisoft. Ya done good.

Anyway, to return to visual fidelity for a moment, For Honor also looks great. The environments are richly detailed with sharp textures and bright colors. Character animations are silky smooth (lag errors don’t count) and the battlefield environments are a sight to behold. Great flaming castles and Japanese swamp temples add that compelling element to For Honor that its gameplay fumbles a bit. From the color of characters’ armor to the breadth and depth of the environments, players won’t be hurting for things to look at in this game. For Honor‘s decent sound design also helps — the roar of a player’s army and the sickening crunch of blade against head are tremendously satisfying.

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Absolutely astonishing.

For Honor‘s multiplayer experience isn’t groundbreaking, but damn if it isn’t fun to crest a column of troops and jump in ax swinging. The game has another mode that was little marketed and no one really asked for: a painfully obligatory Story Mode that tries to add some lore and color to Ubisoft’s epic new world. Again, this was a mode that few For Honor players asked for, and one that Ubisoft developed with a comparable level of disinterest.

Story Mode is split into three short campaigns that each follow the game’s three civilizations. Players are given a cadre of shallow, forgettable characters that each correspond to that civ’s classes, rounded out with some painfully awkward dialogue and forced (really, really forced) attempts at humor. Basically, the three factions are manipulated into fighting each other by an evil warlord named Apollyon, who believes mankind is at its best when people are… always… fighting? That’s literally the plot’s driving force. For Honor‘s Story Mode isn’t the worst big-budget narrative ever penned, and its missions can be fun, but do not buy this game for its “story.”

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Story Mode is a glorified tutorial. Better to stick to multiplayer.

Even though For Honor doesn’t reinvent the wheel or hit every note with its gameplay and as-yet-unfixed server errors, the game is still quite absorbing. It scratches that epic fantasy itch of leading an army into battle and killing everything in sight with a big sword. Despite its flaws, it largely succeeds in presenting the aforementioned motif of persistent combat. Hopefully Ubisoft rounds out its world with more lore to make it more compelling to fight for, but the Dominion matches are quite compelling on their own. Pick the game up and lead an army into battle. Maybe don’t draw a dick as the battle sigil though…

…Oh who am I kidding.

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You can buy For Honor 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.

Spore

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Create your own creature and guide it from single-celled organism to ultimate space tyrant.

PC Release: September 7, 2008

By Ian Coppock

2016 has been a pretty rough year. Not “just” because of the vitriolic American presidential election, or the proliferation of war and disease, but because we’ve lost a massive slate of mankind’s most talented creators. From David Bowie to Prince, and Edward Albee to Leonard Cohen, humanity’s gallery of artists took a big dent this year. Therefore, perhaps it’s time to skip over to a video game that celebrates creativity above all else. No gritty set pieces, no visceral gameplay, just wild abandon in a literal galaxy of possibilities. The only game that this intro could possibly fit is Spore.

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Released in 2008 by an EA subsidiary called Maxis, Spore is a creature creator game that challenges players to, well, create their own creature. At least for starters. The game actually entices players to do a lot more; to not only create an alien beastie, but to guide it through five stages of “evolution”. Each stage encompasses a different type of gameplay and different challenges for players to overcome. In the end, what starts out as a tiny cell in a primordial pool could very well be the galaxy’s next alien overlord. Players are free to explore their species’ pool, then planet, then galaxy, ad nauseum.

Spore starts things off by presenting players with a slate of possible home planets to pick from. Each one has its own terrain and exists concurrently within an entire galaxy, allowing players to have a few species at once. After picking one, players start out as a tiny cellular organism in a pond somewhere. This stage of the game is pretty simple; just eat plants (or other cells) and grow over several generations. It’s a top-down game mode that revolves around eating things smaller than the player, and avoiding the things larger than the player.

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Aw, it’s so cute!

After eating their way to a more substantial size, players can add limbs to their creature and emerge onto dry land. This is one of Spore‘s more substantial game modes; players control their creature from a third-person perspective and wander the landscape in search of animal parts. These parts can be acquired through exploration and befriending (or murdering) the other animals around the player’s creature. Players can then add these parts, be they extra limbs or a longer tail, to each successive generation of creature.

The creature creation and modification mechanic is by far Spore‘s most iconic feature. While upgrading their beastie, players are taken to a special studio screen where they can make thousands of possible modifications to their creature. Players can add everything from wings for flying to poison spitters for fighting, and modify their creature’s body shape by toggling its vertebrae. Creatures can also be brightened up with dozens of paint and pattern options. Players can even test their beastie’s animations or make them perform funny dance moves. Though the number of possible combinations for creature design is practically limitless, players can only put so much stuff on their animal at one time.

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Spore is one of the most open-ended creation games ever made.

Gathering parts serves a more subtle purpose than creature modification; it’s also the primary means by which the player’s animal can advance. Spore has been called an evolution game by some critics, but it’s anything but. Sure, the creature develops new features, but those are according to the whim of a god-like player, not to better adapt to an environment. Regardless, gathering parts and modifying the creature is how it becomes more sophisticated. With better parts, players can become more adept at befriending other animals or slaying them for food. As with the cellular mode, Spore‘s animal mode is fairly simplistic: run around and either fight or befriend other creatures. That’s about it.

After sufficient time spent adding parts, the creature will gain sentience, and the third stage of Spore kicks in. The game shifts from a third-person adventure to an isometric real-time strategy game, in which players manage a primitive tribe of their newly sapient creation. In this mode, players can conquer or ally with other villages of their species, as well as hunt for food and build up settlements. This mode is stripped down to the point of being simplistic, but after all the other tribes have been conquered or befriended, players can move on to building cities.

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ME WANT PIZZA (pounds chest)

Spore‘s fourth stage again shifts gears, this time toward a city sim game with light combat elements. Players can built shining metropolises and vehicles with which to wage war against other city-states. The creation mechanic is largely abandoned in the tribal stage, but comes back in the city stage in the form of vehicle creation. Just like with their animal, players can craft an endless assortment of tanks, airplanes, and other vehicles in pursuit of world conquest. Similarly to tribal mode, these technologies are acquired via befriending or conquering other cities. Players will be expected to manage diplomacy, and their negotiation preferences as a tribe directly affects the industry of their city. For example, if the player’s creature was a complete dick to its neighbors in tribal, its city-state will feature a strong military.

Finally, after the world has been conquered by a combination of planes, trains and automobiles, the player’s creature can develop spaceflight and depart to conquer other worlds. This is where Spore really opens up; at stage five, players are given an entire galaxy to play with. This time the gameplay sports a mix of space economy management and third-person space combat, as players expand their empires and defend its borders from hostile species. Because this portion of the game is a literal galaxy in size, there’s little chance of running out of things to shoot, explore, conquer, or terraform anytime soon.

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Change the world. Change the galaxy.

There’s a lot to unpack with all those paragraphs of gameplay description, but Spore‘s chief takeaway is its potential for creativity. The game’s open-ended creature, building and vehicle design is nothing short of spectacular, and it’s so easy to pick up. With just a few simple tools, players can craft almost anything they want, from an eight-eyed sociopath to a tank with wings. Players can do this as part of upgrading their creature, or add as many creations as they want to the in-game library. In case all of that wasn’t enough, Maxis also enclosed a massive library of their own creations, encompassing hundreds of pre-made creatures, vehicles and buildings that are all ready to use.

The helpful factor about character and vehicle creation is how bubbly Spore looks. The entire game is decked out in bright pastel colors and lots of big, bubbly objects. Character animations can get a bit wonky (especially when lots of body parts are involved) but the game’s ability to animate creatures almost no matter their composition is impressive. Spore launched with some DRM that was ruthless even by EA standards, but it’s been absent from the Steam copy of the game for years. The game runs well on modern machines and, sans a couple of desktop crashes, is bug-free.

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Spore is a bright, colorful adventure.

The problem with Spore is that its penchant for creativity is only skin-deep. As countless critics have noted before now, this game’s gameplay is extremely shallow. In trying to be five different games at once, Spore stretches a handful of simplistic mechanics far too thinly. The result is a game that, while aesthetically pleasing and fun to toy around in, is exceptionally clunky and comprised of only 2-3 game mechanics per stage.

For example, the cellular stage can be completed in under 10 minutes by just swimming around and eating things. The animal stage’s only gameplay mechanic is diplomacy toward other animals, to say nothing of its clunky movement controls, tiresome cooldown-based combat, or limited exploration area. The tribal stage is similarly hollow, with players only able to attack or befriend neighbors, and tame certain animals. The city stage affords more variety in gameplay approach, but a lot of that is determined by how the player behaved in the tribal stage. As previously mentioned, a belligerent tribe results in a belligerent city-state, and gameplay options for diplomacy or trade are hamstrung for an entire stage of gameplay.

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…Please stop staring at me like that.

The one stage of Spore that has some depth to it is the space stage. Players can conquer worlds, wage war upon alien species, and gather valuable spices from across their empires. However, the fact that this stage of Spore has more content in it than the previous four stages combined makes the game feel dreadfully unbalanced. It doesn’t help that spice-gathering, the primary means by which players make money, is barely explained at all. Neither is terraforming, or exploring more advanced galactic formations, such as wormholes.

Spore also has an unfortunate tendency to punish players for exploring its galaxy. There are literally thousands if not millions of planets players can conquer, but do they have a mighty space fleet with which to defend these holdings? Nope. Just the one ship. Having a large empire is not worth the time spent fending off space pirates, especially if the player’s species is at war with several rivals. Like a certain recent space exploration game that will remain nameless, players can also race to the center of the galaxy. The issue with that, however, is that the entire main body of the galaxy is inhabited by the Grox. These ruthless cyborgs will, upon discovering the player’s species, try to pound it into space dust with their much more powerful ships. Players in the mood for something more pensive are therefore best off exploring around their worlds and avoiding the endgame. Don’t worry; the item one gets for reaching the galactic core isn’t all that great anyway.

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Oh God, not THESE guys again…

As previously stated, the most fun to be had in Spore is in the game’s creation studios. Its gameplay may not be all that impressive, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in creating entire fleets of spaceships, or a massive carnivore that has swords for testicles. Less fun is actually putting these creations through the paces of Spore‘s shallow gameplay. It can be fun to expand creatures’ space empires, but even this funnest part of Spore is wracked with tedium.

Hilariously, Spore also features two standalone DLC packs that appear as their own items in the Steam library. Each one is twenty dollars; the former adds a few dozen extra animal parts, and the latter makes it possible for space explorers to beam down onto a planet. The exploration pack adds some value to the main game, but asking $20 for it is a little on the nose, especially after eight years on the market. Electronic Arts might want to double-check their older games’ pricing.

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A perfect 10, huh? Feels too generous.

In the end, Spore feels less like a cell-to-space odyssey and more like an asset creation workshop with some floppy gameplay appendages stapled to it. The gameplay is clunky in too many places and shallow across the board. It’s a great way to express some creativity on screen, but actually taking that creativity and molding it into something more tangible is beyond Spore‘s ability. Spore will entertain kids, though, and sometimes there’s nothing more amusing than making a scary monster do the disco point. It’s just a shame that Maxis didn’t put that same amount of fun and creativity into the rest of the game.

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You can buy Spore 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 Witcher: Enhanced Edition

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Investigate an attack on your home, slaying schemers and monsters along the way.

PC Release: September 16, 2008

By Ian Coppock

With the delay of Watch Dogs 2, the 2016 season of new holiday releases is pretty much over. As implied if not outright stated in previous articles, this year’s crop of big-budget titles was by and large a disappointment. Battlefield 1 was pretty good and so, apparently, was Titanfall 2, but every other major release from Deus Ex: Mankind Divided on down to Dishonored 2 was not all that great. This state of affairs will not do for a cheerful Christmas spirit, and so it’s time to keep going back to an age when video games worked on day one, and their narratives were unafraid to tackle complicated subject matter. The Witcher has all of this, as well as the opportunity to slay lots of monsters.

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The Witcher is the first in a trilogy of third-person fantasy RPGs that have been released over about a decade, beginning with this game in 2007 and ending with last year’s The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. The games feature characters and worlds from the The Witcher novels written by Polish author Andrzej Sapkowski. Contrary to popular belief, the video games are not adaptations of the novels, but instead entirely new stories starring characters from Sapkowski’s books. Sapkowski does not consider the video games canon, but that certainly hasn’t stopped the series’ following from growing wildly in the past 10 years.

Like the books, The Witcher takes place in a medieval fantasy world simply called The Continent. Unlike most epics that western audiences are familiar with, the world of The Witcher is inspired primary by eastern European folklore and traditions, giving it a different flavor than, say, The Elder Scrolls. Players assume the role of Geralt of Rivia, a Witcher, who hunts and slays monsters all over The Continent… for a price. Witchers’ aptitude for monster-hunting runs far deeper than swords and spells. As part of their training, each Witcher undergoes dramatic genetic mutations that grant them superhuman speed and strength, sore necessities for fighting monsters. Those Witchers who survive this process are unparalleled in their combat abilities, and Geralt is one of the deadliest.

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As a Witcher, Geralt is one of the few humans strong enough and quick enough to stand up to a monster.

The Witcher begins with Geralt waking up in the middle of a field, suffering amnesia. He’s escorted by his fellow Witchers back to their stronghold of Kaer Morhen, but can’t remember anything of his life prior to waking up. Not long after Geralt’s revival, the fortress is attacked by a cult of assassins called the Salamandra, led by the powerful sorcerer Azar Javed. Despite putting up a valiant defense, the Witchers are overrun by the Salamandra’s superior numbers, and the cult steals the top-secret mutagens used to transform men into Witchers. Fearing what might be unleashed with the mutagens in the wrong hands, each of the four Witchers agrees to head in a different direction to find a trace of their new foe. Geralt decides to head south, toward the rest of the Northern Kingdoms, to see if he has any luck tracking the Salamandra.

Geralt has a considerable amount against him in his hunt. Despite being a dire necessity, Witchers are hated and feared by the human populace for their superhuman abilities. The Salamandra know how to hide in plain sight. Worst of all, the nobles of the Northern Kingdoms might be complicit in the conspiracy. Geralt has to become as much a politician as a warrior to find his prey, as he embarks upon the greatest adventure he’s ever faced.

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The Salamandra are a much more devious foe than anticipated.

Geralt’s adventure through the Northern Kingdoms is, in many ways, a classic third-person RPG. Players control Geralt using an over-the-shoulder camera, and can level up their character by completing quests and slaying monsters. Geralt is proficient with both swords and magic, and players can upgrade each tree of abilities in a spiraling array of menus. The enemies of The Witcher demand some amount of specialization; Geralt carries a steel sword to make quick work of human foes, and a silver sword for dealing with monsters.

The Witcher is fueled by a combination of wicked fast turn-based combat and deep choice-based gameplay. By night, Geralt engages entire groups of foes with his swords and his array of devastating spells. By day, he’s hobnobbing with the Northern Kingdoms’ royalty and trying to gain their trust via extensive conversations. As with Mass Effect, the blend of action and conversation-based gameplay is apt, but The Witcher takes it even further than that venerated RPG.

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Hey! I think we found a monster!

The combat in The Witcher is versatile, if dated. Geralt can draw his sword and attack enemy creatures at player command, or use his spells for more advanced combat. Combat in The Witcher is, unfortunately, somewhat turn-based, as each combatant deals their blows against a bewildering mess of weapon and proficiency modifiers. It’s nothing that players new to the series won’t get used to, but boy is it clunky. It feels like a slightly freer variation of the combat in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Because the combat in this game is turn-based, it makes no sense for players to try to dodge or skip past enemies. The only way forward in The Witcher is for Geralt to be a tank.

Hand-in-hand with the clunkiness of the combat is the game’s slew of menus, an un-intuitive and overenthusiastic mess of numbers, letters and colors that takes far longer to understand than it should. It’s a given that a deep RPG will have lots of menus, but The Witcher compounds its overabundance of menus with threadbare gameplay tutorials. The alchemy system, which is vital to finishing the game, is poorly explained, as is the fact that certain powers will be necessary (not just handy, but necessary) to finish the game at all. Make no mistake, the world of The Witcher is fascinating, but its underpinnings are all over the place.

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Area-effect spells are a must, but the game won’t tell you that.

Leaps and bounds better than The Witcher‘s combat is its deeply meaningful dialogue, whose nuances and conversation choices remain the most impactful of any video game ever made. Even more than in Mass Effect, conversation choices in The Witcher have far-reaching and often unforeseen effects. Whereas the conversation choices in Mass Effect usually bear immediate consequences, it can take the entirety of The Witcher for a conversation’s outcome to become clear. Geralt can talk to someone in the game’s first act and experience a consequence all the way at the very end, and that’s a fantastic design element. To further obfuscate the game’s world, most conversations do not enclose neat right-or-wrong decisions. Instead, players have to essentially gamble on two or more ambiguous choices and hope that things pan out okay. It goes without saying that this system has a profound impact on the game’s overall narrative.

Finally, this cog of game design informs the delightfully complicated political world of The Witcher. It’s not enough for Geralt to barge in and kill everyone; he has to sniff out the Salamandra’s leaders and sympathizers from among the Northern Kingdoms’ aristocracy. That means being extremely careful with conversation choices and manually inferring loyalty or treachery from each group of people Geralt encounters. Unlike so many games where the politics are pure backstory, the politics in The Witcher run to a depth comparable to A Game of Thrones. And like the characters in George R.R. Martin’s Westeros, Geralt finds himself in a very complicated game indeed.

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Killing monsters is all well and good, but finding friends in the nobility may bear greater rewards.

Despite bearing themes endemic to many fantasy RPGs, The Witcher stands apart in its crowded field for a few important reasons. For starters, as previously mentioned, the game takes inspiration from Eastern European rather than Western European culture. Places and NPCs have Slavic names and the game’s folklore is drawn from Polish, Russian and Ukrainian traditions instead of the more traditional British or German sources. This change in inspiration is subtle, but very important, as it presents concepts that are novel to western audiences and ideas that are rarely encountered in fantasy works from North America and Western Europe.

Additionally, like A Saga of Ice and FireThe Witcher dirties its high fantasy setting with problems and flaws endemic to the real world. The Continent’s elvish and dwarven populations are heavily discriminated against, as one might expect of real-life human beings, and the kingdoms are rife with pollution of every stripe. Additionally, almost every character that Geralt encounters is quite multi-faceted, with their own fears, prejudices and secrets to hide. Geralt can rely on a small cadre of old friends for help, but beyond this, he is alone. Players have to decide for themselves what an NPC is hiding, and it can be surprisingly difficult to do so (even when playing a white-haired superhuman armed with two swords). All of this gives The Witcher a pretty bleak atmosphere, as even at the best of times, players can’t be sure they aren’t in terrible danger.

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Most NPCs are quite ambiguous in their intentions. These two, not so much.

The narrative that all of this is built upon takes Geralt on a winding journey, mostly in and around the capital city of Vizima. The game is split up into chapters that each take place in one new area. While each of these areas is quite open, Geralt can’t always go back once he’s finished up his investigation. Most regions get progressively bigger as Geralt unlocks them, and give him lots of questing opportunities. The main story quests, from lighting lamps for an old priest to putting down the ghost of a murdered bride, rarely disappoint. The side quests, however, are pretty mediocre. Almost all of them comprise killing five monsters, or gathering five flowers, really just five instances of any menial task. Money is not hard to come by thanks to the dice gambling minigame, but the extra XP can be helpful.

The Witcher‘s central story is as rich and complicated as its dialogue system. Geralt’s quest to retrieve the Witchers’ mutagens becomes bigger and bigger as he pierces into Vizima’s dark heart. As he progresses further, Geralt also gets spectral visits from the King of the Wild Hunt, a wraith who promises to bring a savage end to the world. This and other subplots are woven deep into The Witcher‘s story, presenting one of the most satisfying, far-reaching narrative experiences of any game. Characters evolve and change along with the plot, constantly keeping the player guessing as to who’s on their side. With its unclear choice-and-consequence system, decent writing, and elongated plot, The Witcher bears a narrative that was years ahead of its time. It’s certainly head-and-shoulders over the stories that came out this year.

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The Witcher is comparable to the works of Tolkien and George R.R. Martin.

There’s a lot of good to be said about The Witcher; it brings out the best of the video game medium. Contrary-wise, though, it also represents some of game design’s less admirable tendencies. The Witcher‘s aforementioned combat design represents the game’s struggle between letting players run free and hemming them in with knowledge. Ultimately, it chooses the former, at an annoying price. There are powers and abilities that are absolutely necessary for finishing The Witcher, but the game does a poor job of hinting that to players. As a result, players might end up stuck with a Geralt who is too weak or unequipped to see the game through. Hardcore RPG fans might find this an unsurprising fact of RPG life, but no one should have to start a game over just because the game withheld helpful information. Players interested in tackling The Witcher would do well to consult a game guide first, as there’s really none to be found in The Witcher itself.

Additionally, for all its accomplishments in writing, atmosphere, and character development, The Witcher is one of the most sexist video games to be released this century. As a Witcher, Geralt has an unnaturally high sex drive, which the game uses as a convenient plot device for contriving some pretty messed up sexual encounters. Not just being able to solicit whores, but giving Geralt sexual entitlement that would make no sense in the real world. Some characters, especially the female elf rebel commander, just offer themselves to Geralt for no apparent reason. Creepily enough, The Witcher gives the player a special card with a painting of Geralt’s latest romantic “conquest” every time he successfully gets into someone’s pantaloons. Treating female NPCs like baseball cards is not only condescending; it devalues the oftentimes meaningful dialogue they bring to the game.

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The Witcher’s treatment of sex is pretty cringe-worthy. Whores were around in medieval times, sure, but collectible whore cards? Ew.

A fair few gamers and medieval fantasy enthusiasts might be turned off by The Witcher‘s bare-bones approach to adventuring and its disturbingly deep sexism. Fair enough. But, this still leaves the game’s engrossing fantasy world and some of gaming’s most impacting dialogue choices. The Enhanced Edition also includes a few tweaks to the base game, and it runs very well on PC. In the end, though, the legacy of The Witcher is much the same as that of Geralt of Rivia. Just as he represents some of the very best and very worst of humanity, so too does The Witcher represent the very best and very worst of modern game design. It’s up to the players to decide which one outweighs the other, which warrants at least giving The Witcher a shot.

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You can buy The Witcher 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.

Dishonored 2

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Fight to reclaim your throne from a ruthless, shadowy foe.

PC Release: November 11, 2016

By Ian Coppock

The 2016 video game holiday gala continues this month, as more and more big-budget studios contend for Christmas cash. Activison and Electronic Arts punched in with their yearly dose of shooters, while other major studios like 2K have climbed into the ring with heavy-hitting sequels. Now it’s Bethesda’s turn as they usher Dishonored 2 into the fray. The sequel to Arkane Studios’ 2012 electropunk stealth’em’up, Dishonored 2 is the latest in an unusually crowded field of sequels to fight for the wallets of holiday shoppers. What effort does Dishonored 2 make to stand above, or sneak past, the rest?

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When Dishonored hit shelves in 2012, it was acclaimed for its electropunk setting and stealthy gameplay. Corvo Attano’s mission to rescue a young heiress was not new narrative material, but Dishonored‘s grim atmosphere and apt blend of Victorian and Orwellian themes helped make it a standout game. Arkane Studios fell silent as their creation grew louder, and it was only at E3 2016 that Dishonored 2 was revealed, four years in the making. Like its predecessor, Dishonored 2 espouses an electropunk setting and a narrative that blends redemption with vengeance.

Dishonored 2 takes place fifteen years after the events of Dishonored, in which royal bodyguard Corvo Attano avenged the death of his empress and rescued their daughter Emily from traitorous conspirators. Only a little girl during the events of Dishonored, Emily Kaldwin is now in her early 20’s, and administers the Empire of the Isles with her father’s help. Corvo has also spent the 15 years since Dishonored training Emily in the same arts of assassination and combat that made him such a menace in the first game, fearing that though the empire is secure for now, new threats will appear on the horizon. Emily herself is fearful that she’ll never be the empress her mother was, despite Corvo’s advice and encouragement.

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Emily has taken her late mother’s place as empress, while Corvo advises her on matters of state and keeps her enemies at bay.

Dishonored 2‘s story kicks off as Emily marks the 15th anniversary of her mother’s death, an event attended by dignitaries from all over the isles. Anticipating a long, hot day, Emily is shocked when a mysterious woman named Delilah arrives to her throne room, claiming to be her aunt and the rightful empress. It’s at this point that the player chooses to play Dishonored 2 as either Emily or Corvo; whomever the player does not choose is imprisoned by Delilah as her men capture Dunwall. The character who escapes makes their way to the Dreadful Wale, a ship captained by Corvo’s old friend Meagan Foster, and escapes.

Clues from Delilah’s coup prompts Emily/Corvo to travel to Karnaca, the capital city of the empire’s southernmost island. Karnaca serves as the principle setting of Dishonored 2; Corvo was born and raised there and remembers it well, while Emily is a complete stranger to it. Not long after fleeing Dunwall, Emily/Corvo receives a visit from the Outsider, the same black-eyed wraith that bestowed his dark powers upon Corvo in the original Dishonored. The Outsider speculates that Delilah has much darker schemes than “merely” taking over the Empire, and either restores his Mark to Corvo or gives it to Emily for the first time. Interestingly, players can choose to reject the Outsider’s mark and play Dishonored 2 powers-free. It’s insanely difficult, but hardcore stealth fanatics will be sated.

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The player is given new powers with which to fight Delilah.

Like its predecessor, Dishonored 2 is a first-person stealth game set in Hitman-esque open levels. Players are given a target to assassinate and a variety of possible paths to that objective. Just like in Dishonored, players can choose to non-lethally remove big-name targets from the picture, and can directly influence the game’s final outcome by how many people they kill. Killing few to no people will result in a, shall we say, “calmer” ending, while leaving a trail of corpses wherever the player goes will destabilize Karnaca.

Players have a diverse arsenal of tools with which to effect stealth, assassination, or all-out war. Corvo and Emily can dispatch enemies directly with a wickedly sharp blade, or from afar with an array of pistols and crossbows. Each character also receives an array of powers from the Outsider; Emily gets a whole new set of abilities, while Corvo gets retooled and reworked versions of the powers he had in Dishonored. Most abilities in Dishonored 2 revolve around the environment; specifically, getting around it easier or being more aware of enemies. Emily and Corvo can upgrade their powers with special Outsider runes found around Karnaca.

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The dark arts give players an unbeatable edge in Dishonored.

For  better and for worse, Dishonored 2‘s gameplay is difficult to distinguish from that of Dishonored. Some fans will see this as a positive, as the original game is a genuinely good stealth title, but players hoping to find a uniquely Dishonored 2 experience will be sorely disappointed. Dishonored 2 offers few innovations for the series’s stealth formula, choosing instead to be in lockstep with the original Dishonored. Just like in that game, players are delivered to the mission area by a battle-scarred mariner in a little boat, given a bunch of different possible paths to a target, sneak past guards, eliminate the target, and then escape out the back door. Emily and Corvo will avoid guards, climb up ledges, disarm traps, and pass by electrical barriers just like Corvo did in Dishonored. None of this is objectively bad, but it does make Dishonored 2’s gameplay feel derivative.

Luckily, Dishonored 2‘s gameplay is not a complete carbon copy of it’s predecessors, at least if players choose Emily Kaldwin. Some of her powers, like the Shadow Grapple ability, are little different from Corvo’s powers in the original game, but others are entirely new. The domino effect power that unleashes one guard’s fate upon others in the area offers interesting, if seldom, new gameplay activities. Dishonored 2‘s guards return little smarter than those of Dishonored, though they now notice when their comrades are missing, which represents an added challenge. Dishonored 2 also introduces new enemies like witches and clockwork robots, but their appearances in the game are disappointingly rare.

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Dishonored 2 is perhaps too similar to its predecessor.

Dishonored 2‘s reluctance to innovate extends beyond its gameplay. As Dishonored fans might have inferred from the introduction to this review, Dishonored 2‘s plot is virtually identical to that of the first game. Sure, fifteen years have passed and Emily is now a playable character, but take a look at the plot points. Some shady aristocrats conspire, they attack the throne, their leader becomes the new ruler, Emily disappears, and now a whole bunch of conspirators have to die so that she can be restored to her rightful place. That is the exact storyline of Dishonored. Even if the game introduces a new setting and a few new characters, the underlying narrative structure is every iota the same as that of Dishonored.

That said, Dishonored 2 does manage to raise the stakes higher than in the narrative of Dishonored. Delilah is no ordinary conspirator, and unlike the conspirators in Dishonored, possesses some shadowy powers of her own. Though Dishonored 2‘s narrative is not that innovative, it adds a lot of exposition on the Outsider and other underpinnings of the Dishonored universe. Most of this exposition is woven into the narrative; it doesn’t save the story from feeling stale, but it will offer hardcore series fans more tidbits of lore to enjoy.

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Dishonored 2 spends more time fleshing out the universe than treading new narrative paths.

Speaking of the world of Dishonored 2, how’s the level design? Well, it’s… about the same as that of Dishonored. Karnaca’s sunny avenues and Greco-Italian architecture make for a welcome change from the dour Victorian visage of Dunwall, and yet the two cities’ levels are nigh congruent. Corvo/Emily is dumped off at the limits of a city district filled with guards and hidden paths, and needs to sneak their way to a target. It’s nice that Dishonored 2 has preserved the original game’s sense of freedom, but anyone who was hoping for a change from infiltrating police stations and sneaking through abandoned apartments is in for a disappointment. The one exception to this rule is the Clockwork Mansion, a house whose rooms shift and transform with the press of a button and mark an impressive feat of level design. It’s just a shame that not all of Dishonored 2‘s levels received the same amount of attention.

Arkane Studios also introduces the exact same slate of woes to Karnaca that it did to Dunwall, inadvertently quashing this new setting’s uniqueness. A plague is ravaging the streets of the city (although this time it’s spread by giant mosquitoes instead of rats), the plague creates zombies that are the spitting image of Dishonored‘s weepers, and the city guard has set up Wall of Light checkpoints everywhere. Just in case it wasn’t enough for Dishonored 2 to copy its predecessor’s plot, gameplay and level design, it also replicates the original game’s socioeconomic situations. With Dishonored 2, the apple hasn’t fallen that far from the tree so much as gone right back up the tree and ossified into its very bark.

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Haven’t we covered this already?

The icing on the cake with Dishonored 2 is the same icing that’s affected almost every big-budget release this year: bugs! Lots and lots of them. Like Far Cry PrimalDeus Ex: Mankind Divided, No Man’s Sky, and Mafia III before it, Dishonored 2 was delivered glitchy on arrival. The prevailing issue for the PC version is a dramatic framerate drop, which no amount of graphics and visual effects lowering seems to fix. Arkane Studios has pledged a patch, but for the moment, only a tiny handful of PC gamers have been lucky to hit even 60 fps. The game has a nasty tendency to slow down to the 10-15 FPS range, especially in crowded areas and, worse, during combat. It can take upwards of five minutes merely for the game to load its main menu.

Furthermore, Arkane Studios did a poor job of rendering distant objects. From far away, the environs of Karnaca and indeed every distant landmark look like they’re covered in glitter. Reducing the draw distance only amplifies the problem, obfuscating everything from miles away to across the street with bright sparkles and really bad shadow striping. This devalues the novelty of Dishonored 2‘s new setting, while the constant system crashes make gamers forsake it altogether. The game boasts improved textures and lens flare effects over its predecessor, but only under ideal conditions.

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What are you guys doing, Arkane?

The tragedy with Dishonored 2, as with all mediocre sequels, is the chance that it missed. With Dishonored 2, the developers had an opportunity to spring into an entirely new story, with improved mechanics that do more to advance what the original game introduced. Half-Life 2 and BioShock Infinite are perhaps the best examples of games that took what their predecessors did and undertook the hard work to meaningfully advance it.

Instead, even more than the other big-budget sequels that have been released this year, Dishonored 2 just replicates what the original game already did. It’s difficult to believe that Arkane still has the same confidence and sense of adventure that it did when making Dishonored, because all that can be inferred from this game’s overwhelming fealty to the original is a sense of fear. A fear of doing something different. A fear of innovation.

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System failure

Dishonored 2 is not a bad game, but it feels more like a DLC for Dishonored than its own title. Dishonored 2‘s reluctance to deviate from the path that Dishonored already blazed is deeply disappointing. Sure, the game introduces a handful of new enemies and backstories, but these aren’t enough to save the game from feeling stale. Even if Emily has a few new powers and the world of Dishonored has some robots, the story that all of this informs is functionally identical to the first game’s. No one should pay sixty dollars for a game that feels like a DLC and that’s loaded with bugs. As such, new arrivals to the series and core fans are both better off just playing the first game until Arkane introduces a big patch and an even bigger price discount. Meanwhile, the search for a well-running and truly innovative big-budget game this holiday season will have to continue elsewhere.

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You can buy Dishonored 2 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.

Shadow Warrior 2

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Slash and shoot your way through a post-demonic world.

PC Release: October 13, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Sometimes, the state of the gaming industry inspires a lot of frustration. A lot of anger. Between broken PC ports that barely function and a waterfall of skeletal Early Access garbage on Steam, gamers really have to put on their waders and dig deep to find the good stuff. Sometimes, though, being willing to dig isn’t enough. Sometimes gamers just want to get a little crazy- a little wild- to take the edge off and regain composure in time for the autumn gaming season. Luckily, Shadow Warrior 2 is here to help with just that, as it too is a little wild… and more than a little crazy.

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Now that No Man’s Sky has crashed and burned into more pieces than it has planets, it’s safe to say that Shadow Warrior 2 is 2016’s most anticipated indie game. Shadow Warrior 2 is, of course, the sequel to 2013’s Shadow Warrior, itself a reboot of a chaotic ninja game from the 90’s. Shadow Warrior 2 is a continuation of what the 2013 reboot started: namely, an ample mix of shooting and hack-and-slash insanity that was developed by a Polish studio called Flying Wild Hog, and is captained by a snarky ninja with no regard for personal safety or hurt feelings. Yes indeed, it’s time for more Wang.

(ahem)

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Yeah buddy!

Shadow Warrior 2 is set five years after the events of Shadow Warrior, five years after the lords of the Shadow Realm invaded the world with overwhelming numbers of demons. Players once again assume the role of Lo Wang, who journeyed across modern-day Japan in search of a sword that could beat back the demon menace. Wang’s quest ultimately turned out to be a mixed bag. He’s still alive, but the world as we know it is now a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Demons left over from the Shadow Realm’s invasion aimlessly wander the landscape in search of human prey. Earth’s wildlife has also become corrupted by the demons’ energies, leaving such monstrosities as cow-sized fleas and twin-tailed scorpions to overrun the wilds.

Oh, but there’s more. Orochi Zilla, a powerful Japanese businessman and Lo Wang’s former boss, has used stolen demonic technology to declare himself lord and master of the world, ruling over what’s left of humanity from massive cyber-cities. In Japan, the few humans chancing it out in the demon-infested countryside are ruled over by the Yakuza, who have transitioned from a crime syndicate to full-blown feudal kings.

So… yeah. All is not well in Shadow Warrior 2.

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Not exactly a peaceful time in human history.

Lo Wang has spent the five years since Shadow Warrior out in the wilds, hiding from Zilla’s forces and taking mercenary jobs from the local Yakuza. Shadow Warrior 2 begins when Lo Wang’s called in by Mamushi Heika, an immensely powerful crime boss, who charges the sarcastic ninja with rescuing a young scientist named Kamiko. Kamiko’s been working undercover in Zilla’s metropolis as a scientist, but she hasn’t called, and Mamushi wants Wang to spring her out. He complies, albeit with no shortage of snarky remarks and dick jokes.

However, Wang’s rescue mission quickly turns into much more than search and rescue, as Zilla has shot up the woman he’s out to save with a mysterious substance called Shade. To save her life, Wang’s buddy Master Smith has to extract her soul from her body, preserving her sanity but leaving her inside Lo Wang’s mind. Just like Hoji in Shadow Warrior, Kamiko rides shotgun in Lo Wang’s consciousness, serving as Shadow Warrior 2‘s smart, if unwilling, deuteragonist. Meanwhile, her seemingly possessed body gets up and runs away all on its own, prompting the pair to get out after it and descend down another rabbit hole of demonic intrigue and bleak, bleak humor.

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Kamiko bears not-so-silent witness to Lo Wang’s exploits in Shadow Warrior 2.

Just like its predecessor, Shadow Warrior 2 is a first-person arcade shooter, the term “arcade” denoting a much higher focus on pickups, loot, and waves of enemies than a more conventional FPS. As a highly trained assassin, Lo Wang is proficient with a deadly sharp katana and all manner of firearms. He’s also retained the chi powers that Hoji gave him in Shadow Warrior, enabling him to heal himself and unleash devastating dark power. Just like in the last game, Lo Wang levels up with each enemy he slaughters, and players can unlock all kinds of perks, from faster healing to new sword moves to gory shadow powers. These skill trees are extremely polished and streamlined within their own menu.

As Lo Wang, players can slash and shoot their way through hordes of enemies, be they demons roaming in the forest, Yakuza spoiling for a fight, or Orochi Zilla’s legions of cyber-soldiers. Shadow Warrior 2 aptly turns up Shadow Warrior‘s already fun gameplay by massively expanding the arsenal of weapons and adding an upgrade system. Lo Wang can find upwards of 70 different swords, pistols, shotguns, rifles, and other weapons throughout the game and customize them with Diablo III-esque power gems retrieved from enemy corpses. This gives players much more leeway than did the system in Shadow Warrior, which consisted of about 10 weapons and a small upgrade tree powered by money.

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YEEEEAHHH! GET SOME! GET SOOMMMMMMME!!!!!

This implementation of powerful yet simple mechanics makes Shadow Warrior 2 even more of a thrill ride than its 2013 predecessor. Most levels are an exercise in utter chaos, with dozens of foes advancing upon Lo Wang from all directions. Fighting these enemies is an absolute joy, as Lo Wang can draw his sword or guns and mindlessly carve through legions of foes. Jumping into a melee has never felt so fun as in Shadow Warrior 2, and the glorious gruesomeness of its melee kills are comparable to this year’s reboot of DOOM.

The only real issue to be had with Shadow Warrior 2‘s gameplay is the same issue that plagued the last game, in that it’s oftentimes too easy. Lo Wang’s ability to run away and heal himself before jumping back into the fray neuters the challenge quite a bit, even if he has to gather energy to use it first. Players will only rarely be in true danger of dying, and that can be an issue for arcade enthusiasts seeking a challenge. This isn’t to say that Shadow Warrior 2 isn’t still wildly fun, but a rebalance of its health system could’ve made it a lot better.

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Ain’t no self-healing that can cure a foot-wide hole through your body.

One of Shadow Warrior 2‘s biggest selling points for multiplayer enthusiasts is its addition of four-player co-op. Players can team up into four-man squads to take the demon menace down as a team. Each player sees themselves as Lo Wang and their buddies as other ninjas out to party with the king of swordplay. As of writing, the feature still has a few bugs, but Flying Wild Hog has been proactive about addressing them and driving a sword through them. The game is still just as fun solo, but multiplayer enthusiasts should be excited to try it out.

Shadow Warrior 2 introduces another major change in its gameplay, throwing out the linear missions of its predecessor in favor of a hub-based model. Lo Wang can retreat to the Wang Cave to buy weapons and gems, and it’s from this cavern of manliness that he teleports into missions all over Japan. Adding a hub isn’t reinventing the wheel, but gives players a chance to take stock of Lo Wang’s powers and all the loot he picks up out on missions.

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No one breaks into the Wang Cave. Not even a beastie with swords for fingers.

Indeed, the levels in Shadow Warrior 2 undergo all sorts of changes that extend beyond a hub. One of the problems with Shadow Warrior was that its levels, while beautiful, were rigidly linear affairs with the same pattern of terrain over and over again. Shadow Warrior 2‘s levels, by contrast, are circular and open, with objectives scattered throughout the terrain instead of at the end of a fixed path. Refreshingly, Shadow Warrior 2 also added changes in elevation. Lo Wang can now climb up and down ledges and onto buildings in order to get around, adding some much-needed variety to the level design. These changes are most welcome in Shadow Warrior 2, and they make the world feel more organic.

Additionally, for better and for worse, many of the levels in Shadow Warrior 2 are procedurally generated. The levels crucial to the plot are fixed, but Lo Wang can embark upon side missions where the terrain is switched up. The good news is that this makes it so players will never have to tromp through the same area twice. The bad news is that there’s not a whole lot of variety in how they’re switched up, so it doesn’t really matter. Sure, the level will be different, but only marginally so. Additionally, there are only maybe half a dozen different terrain palettes for the environments that Lo Wang travels to. They’re beautiful, but the small variety combined with the limited procedural generation can make Shadow Warrior 2‘s levels feel the same even if they’re technically not.

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Haven’t I already been here? Yes, and no.

All of that said, there is no disputing the artistic power of Shadow Warrior 2. Flying Wild Hog’s proprietary Road Hog engine has been put to fantastic use, and Shadow Warrior 2 is perhaps the most visually impressive game released so far this year. The game’s worlds are awash in dozens of different lighting effects, and each environment pops with thousands of colors. Everything from the tallest Zilla skyscraper to the lowliest pagoda has been painstakingly detailed with hundreds of objects. Banners sway in the breeze, leaves fall in torrents from cherry blossom trees, and light glints menacingly off the armor of demons and cyborgs. Shadow Warrior 2‘s ability to draw the eye cannot be overstated. Some of its character animations can be a bit stiff, but the attention to detail on each one, from rivulets of sweat to wrinkles on clothing, is excellent.

It’s great that this game is so pretty, but how badly does it tank system performance? Well, to be honest, it doesn’t. Not really. Shadow Warrior 2 was built from the ground up to run on PC, and it’s glorious. The game will present a smooth framerate and run like butter from beginning to end. These days, that’s a treasured rarity. Additionally, Shadow Warrior 2‘s options menu is one of the most comprehensive ever seen, with dozens of options allowing players to fine-tune each and every facet of their Shadow Warrior 2 experience. So even if, by some chance, the game doesn’t run perfectly the first time around, Shadow Warrior 2 provides gamers an unprecedented amount of agency in allowing them to get it there. PC gamers everywhere can breathe a sigh of relief; this is no shoddy production nor broken port.

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Note the awesomeness.

To top all of this off, Shadow Warrior 2 arrives with a new storyline and dialogue that builds upon that of the first Shadow Warrior. Lo Wang is able to find humor even in the end of the world, and keeps players’ smiles aloft with a 10-hour-long stream of wisecracks. There is nothing that this guy doesn’t lampoon, and he lets off his one-liners with far more regularity than in the last game. There’s also a lot of humor to be found in Lo Wang’s relationship with Kamiko. Unlike Hoji, who was Lo Wang’s equal when it came to wit and sarcasm, Kamiko tries to serve as Lo Wang’s conscious, almost like an ingenious Jiminy Cricket. The moment-by-moment banter isn’t quite as funny, but Kamiko quickly becomes adept at picking Lo Wang’s many moral failings apart, shooting back at his sarcasm with heavy doses of irony.

Unfortunately, Shadow Warrior 2 stumbles a bit in the structure of its core narrative. The first game’s story wasn’t anything revolutionary, but it was surprisingly poignant, and it worked well for a linear game. This time, Lo Wang’s goal of finding Kamiko’s body gets lost in a haze of convoluted lore and lots and lots of side missions. Sure, the narrative still has a bit of poignancy, but it’s considerably shorter than that of Shadow Warrior and ends on a pretty abrupt note. The developers didn’t get lazy with the narrative’s potency, per se, they just focused much more on pure humor. And sure, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Side quests are usually pretty hilarious, especially the ones where Wang has to cook drugs and retrieve a demon’s sex tape (in that order) but players who enjoyed the unexpected drama Shadow Warrior built up to will be left wanting.

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What is this “subtlety” word you speak of?

Even though Shadow Warrior 2 fails to continue the poignancy that its predecessor unexpectedly delivered, that’s really the game’s only true sin. The length is reasonable for the price, it runs smoother than any other mid-to-large budget production put out this year, and the gameplay is absolutely phenomenal. Indeed, if this fall’s slate of big-budget releases is as much of a disaster as this summer’s, Shadow Warrior 2 just might be Art as Games’s game of the year. Buy it. Play it. Love it. Right now.

Seriously, right now. Thanks for reading, though.

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You can buy Shadow Warrior 2 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.

Shadow Warrior

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Slay hordes of demons on your quest to recover an ancient sword.

PC Release: September 26, 2013

By Ian Coppock

Video games are like any other medium; specific genres will come and go with the times. Open-world collect-athons began disappearing in the early 2000’s, but look to be making a roaring comeback with next year’s Yooka-Laylee. By the same token, a large number of gamers are tired of sci-fi first-person shooters, as evidenced by the negative reaction to Call of Duty: Infinite Wafares trailer. Though these genres rise and fall, the genre of first-person arcade shooter doesn’t seem to have skipped a beat since its inception. From before the original Doom until now, the idea of shooting endless waves of monsters in the face remains one of gaming’s most popular opportunities. Shadow Warrior, the subject of today’s review, offers a similar opportunity, but it also adds a great deal of twists and tweaks that few would expect of an arcade shooter.

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Shadow Warrior was originally released in 1997, but the focus of today’s review is the 2013 reboot developed by Flying Wild Hog, a Polish indie studio. Like the 1997 original, Shadow Warrior espouses visceral first-person combat in a spectacular Japanese setting. The 2013 version of Shadow Warrior is the rarest of reboots, in that it preserves the soul of the original game without losing it in shallow special effects. Indeed, it can be argued that Shadow Warrior not only preserves the essence of the 1997 game, but improves upon it in more ways than merely the graphics.

Shadow Warrior is set in modern-day Japan and follows the life and times of Lo Wang, a potty-mouthed, self-absorbed mercenary who is an admittedly highly skilled ninja. Wang is in the employ of Orochi Zilla, a cutthroat industrialist and the most powerful man in Japan. The game begins as Zilla orders Wang to drive to a remote Japanese temple to purchase an ancient sword from a reclusive collector named Mizayaki. Wang, assuming this to be like any other recovery job, sets out to collect the sword on his boss’s behalf.

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I’m a delivery boy… OF LACERATIONS!

Wang finds the ancient temple easily enough, but Mizayaki refuses to sell the sword and instead orders his bodyguards to kill him. Wang wins the ensuing sword battle and manages to retrieve the sword, but not before a legion of demons teleports in and begins ravaging the ancient compound. As the hellish horde lays waste to the temple, Wang picks up his sword and his gun to fight his way out.

On the way out of the compound, Wang meets up with a demon named Hoji, a masked creature who deals out magic and sarcasm in equal measure. Hoji informs Wang that the sword he’d been sent to collect is actually the Nobitsura Kage, an ancient blade with the ability to kill the immortal rulers of the afterlife. Hoji also tells Wang that the Nobitsura Kage was split into three separate swords centuries ago to weaken its power, and that it can only be restored by reuniting the blades. As demons begin pouring forth all over Japan, Wang and Hoji form an uneasy alliance and set out to complete the sword. Wang’s happy enough to try to complete his job for Zilla, but what does Hoji stand to gain from finding a sword that kills his own kind?

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Geez, dude. Who’s your dentist? A blacksmith?

 As previously stated, Shadow Warrior is a first-person arcade shooter. In the grand style of DoomSerious Sam and other games, Shadow Warrior pits the player alone against hundreds, if not thousands, of enemies. Most levels are quite a slog, requiring players to shrug through literal legions of enemies to reach the end. Unlike its upcoming sequel, Shadow Warrior is an entirely linear game, with Lo Wang fighting through sequential formations of demons before reaching the gates out and going to the next level.

Even though the levels in Shadow Warrior are linear, they’re quite expansive and beautifully designed. Lo Wang can find many paths through the same area by exploring the buildings and wilderness around him. There’s not one set way to reach the gate at the end of the level; sure, players will have to traverse one or two areas to get to the next one, but Shadow Warrior is surprisingly open for an arcade shooter. Even the constricting streets of Japanese villages contain a lot of secrets for the aspiring private eye. There’s decent variety in level size, elevation and terrain, as Wang travels through burning cities, huge forests, and the underworld itself to find the Nobitsura Kage.

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Shadow Warrior’s levels don’t lack for scenery.

Even though Shadow Warrior‘s levels are beautiful, they can get a bit repetitive. Most of them have an unfortunate tendency to copy/paste the same arrangement of buildings and wilderness over and over. Lo Wang’s tourney through the compound at the beginning of the game is a shining example, because while the buildings on the temple grounds are beautiful, they’re all almost identical inside and out. Similarly, a mountain temple sequence toward the end of the game contains a seemingly endless series of rooms that all look identical. This also makes it easy for players to get turned around and waste time backtracking.

The repetition wouldn’t be much of an issue by itself, but some of Shadow Warrior‘s levels are quite long. There’s one level aboard a Zilla ship that lasts the better part of three hours. Hardcore arcade enthusiasts will find little to complain about with this arrangement, but it can be tiresome to endure a three-hour slog when the levels repeat their terrain. Further complicating matters is that while some levels are overly long, others are overly short. It’s most likely an attempt to shake up Shadow Warrior‘s pacing, but all it really does is make the game feel a bit uneven.

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Wasn’t I just here?

If some of Shadow Warrior‘s levels are repetitive, at least they’re pretty to look at. The Road Hog engine used to build the game produces some of the prettiest visuals in recent years. Every environment is overflowing with detail, from cherry blossom leaves in a pond to artwork strewn about a temple. Each of these locales is hand-decorated to provide an immersive Japanese environment, which reinforces the game’s atmosphere. The visuals and textures in every level are quite sharp. Some of the environments can look a little too clean, which is a tendency best-known in Call of Duty games, but it’s hardly a deal-breaker. If anything, it helps Shadow Warrior‘s impressive lighting and atmospheric effects.

Despite its high-end graphics, Shadow Warrior runs exceptionally smoothly on PC. The options menu is in-depth and provides a great deal of customizations for the ideal experience. Sans a single desktop crash experienced at the very beginning of the game, Shadow Warrior is refreshingly bug-free, and will continue to provide a decent framerate even when dozens of demons are crowding the screen. Make no mistake, Shadow Warrior was built for PC.

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Hi birdie!

The actual gameplay that this level design facilitates is not hard to understand. Lo Wang starts at one end of the level, the gate out is at the other end, and players have to brutally murder every living thing between them and the aforementioned gate. Lo Wang’s signature weapon is the katana, which allows him to dispatch demons with style and provides some of the funnest hack’n’slash gameplay in years. It’s ridiculously entertaining to hack one’s way through a conga line of demons, with gore and dismemberment whose level of spectacle went unmatched until the release of Doom earlier this year. Wang can also wield a more conventional arsenal of pistols, submachine guns and the like to fight the demons from further away.

Shadow Warrior‘s upgrade system is about as simple as its gameplay, with two branches of upgrades reserved for Wang’s weapons and ninja powers, respectively. Wang can upgrade his guns and katana with money found throughout the levels, purchasing things like laser sights and alternate fire modes for each weapon. Because of his alliance with Hoji, Wang is also provided superpowers like health regeneration and special sword moves. These powers can be purchased with karma, which is gained by skillfully defeating foes. The more elaborate the combo, the more karma gained. Both upgrade trees are easy to use and accessible at any time.

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The akimbo upgrade is a must-have.

Shadow Warrior‘s gameplay is a lot of fun, but not even swinging at things with a magic sword is without a few issues. The most pressing concern for gamers seeking a challenge is Lo Wang’s ability to heal himself. He can use magical demon powers to restore lost health pretty quickly. He can’t get it back up to 100%, but even 45-50% can make all the difference in a close-quarters swordfight. While the mechanic is great for keeping the action moving, it also causes Shadow Warrior to inadvertently neuter its own challenge factor. A horde of demons doesn’t scare for crap if Lo Wang can get in, slash, heal himself, and keep slashing.

Similarly, Lo Wang will go up against some of the immortal demons ruling the Shadow Realm, but these boss fights are way too easy even without Lo Wang’s healing skill. The monsters themselves are gargantuan and fun to look at, but there’s little to no challenge in beating them even on higher difficulties. Easy bosses are not consistent with traditional arcade design.

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Don’t be fooled. This thing’s more fragile than a tissue.

Another, more positive inconsistency that Shadow Warrior has with arcade games is its writing and narrative. With a name like Lo Wang, our resident ninja hero has no shortage of dick jokes and crude humor. Things only get funnier when Hoji joins the mercenary. The sarcastic, casually antagonistic banter between ninja and demon is some of the funniest video game dialogue ever written. Even in the thickest of firefights, the two find time to crack brutal jokes at each other’s expense. Hoji in particular has some hilarious theories about the human world, like that anyone who enjoys comic books and video games must also have a crippling pornography addiction. This buddy-comedy humor is a natural fit for an arcade shooter.

At the same time, Shadow Warrior‘s narrative has some unexpected emotional brevity. The game’s core story has plenty of humor, but it also offers up a few threads of tragedy that tug the heartstrings more than expected. Hoji’s presence on earth is revealed to not be a coincidence, and his reasons for wanting the Nobitsura Kage are tied up in a heartbreaking forbidden love. Lo Wang realizes that there’s no way his boss couldn’t know what the sword really is, and begins to have second thoughts about turning it in to Zilla. Shadow Warrior is apt at weaving neatly arranged lore into the foreground, and the game concludes on a note much more poignant than these screenshots of disemboweled demons would imply. This focus on a deep narrative is rare in the world of arcade shooters, then and now. It gives story seekers something to munch on while mowing down hordes of demons, and deepens the game’s murky, intoxicating atmosphere.

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Best bromance ever.

In short, Shadow Warrior is an outstanding arcade shooter. Its fast-paced, gory gameplay is some of the best that the genre has to offer. Its writing is deeply touching in some areas and laugh-out-loud hilarious in others. Shadow Warrior is apt at weaving heart, humor and hellfire into a journey through the motions of Japanese mythology, making this game a must-own for shooter and story fans alike. Get the game and experience the visceral blood and humor firsthand, before Shadow Warrior 2 drops on October 13th. As for Shadow Warrior, this game is one of the greatest shooter adventures produced so far this decade.

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You can buy Shadow Warrior 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.