Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice on PC (8/10)

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This game goes out of its way to let you know that it’s about mental illness; and that they hired doctors and experts to make sure that got it right; and if you are a bit touched this may trigger you because it’s scary, intense and realistic! Well, as realistic as any game about fighting mystical Norse demons and beasts with a glowing sword. Not to nitpick, but I was really distracted by Senua’s period-inaccurate pristine dental hygine. When she’s not hearing disembodied voices she must be regularly brushing and flossing.

It takes a while for the story to settle in, but when the pieces start to come together it’s pretty satisfying. The basics are that her man has been killed and Senua is on a spiritual journey to release his soul or something. All the while she is taunted by the voices in her head that feed her with doubt and guilt over having possibly caused his death. Thus follows a series of levels that slowly build on puzzle mechanics and are punctuated with the occasional sword fight. The combat is pretty simple: dodge then swing sword. The puzzles are mostly built around spatial perception and, if you’ve played The Witness, it will seem like old hat to you. The Steam package also includes the VR version of the game which seems very apropos to the mechanics.

I, however, wasn’t completely smitten by the experience. At times its linearity makes it feel borderline like a walking simulator. There’s a bunch of boring, filler backstory about Norse gods and myths which is triggered by interacting with runes. And, I hate to say it, but the schizoid voices start to become a bit much after a while. I get it. That’s part of the point, but I hear enough from kooky-brained people in real life on my Facebook feed.

Mirror’s Edge Catalyst on PC (6/10)

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The original Mirror’s Edge was one of only a handful of games that I had gone back and replayed almost immediately after completing it. It was an excellent game that had you puzzling through levels using parkour skills. This sequel does not hold up to the original at all.

First, it’s open-world. I’m really beginning to dislike this gaming format. It tends to make games longer than they should be by filling game-play with mindless item collection and dull side missions. Also, in Catalyst every place in the world has the same white minimalist design so there is no way to get your bearings. It’s cool art direction but it hinders game-play.

That brings me my second gripe. The first game was built upon well-designed levels. A single object would be colored red and that would guide the player’s eyes in the proper direction. There was just enough there to make the player feel like they were instinctually finding their way through the world when it was all a finely crafted race course. The new game does this dynamically and it just doesn’t work the same. You follow a ghost image which is referred to as your runner’s vision. This really just ends up feeling like following a standard RPG quest arrow.

Finally, the story here is just a dud. Turns out this is a reboot and has nothing to do with the first game (which wasn’t exactly Moby Dick either). It’s not just a grittier retelling or something like that. Faith’s backstory has been changed and now major characters that were good are now bad guys. And, of course, in this world corporations are evil and have no incentive to be good to their customers (let alone not kill them). Lazy, lazy, lazy.

At least the parkour aspects remain pretty solid. I don’t think there have been many new moves added to your repertoire except for maybe swinging around corners and a grappling hook attachment. Combat has improved. There is no shooting and it’s all just fists and kicks. This makes mastering parkour a more integral part of fighting.

In the end though, completing the main mission was about enough for me. I have no desire to test my skill in all the user-created races that pepper the world. Races in which the leaderboard is always topped by some player that managed to complete a two-minute race in twelve seconds. Hmm.

Wasteland 3 on PC (8/10)

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The Wasteland 2 sequel sorta came out of nowhere for me. The previous game was one of the first big Kickstarter success stories and the finished product was everything I could have imagined. I found it weird that Inxile eschewed Kickstarter and went to another platform for crowd founding. As a result, I had no idea this game was being developed.

When I finally heard about the game, I made it a point to be a release day buyer. This is something I rarely do. I generally avoid buying games for more than twenty bucks, but in this instance I really wanted to show my support. The game was a bit buggy on release. No showstoppers, but a little rough on the edges. As of this writing, there are still problems with the camera and interface, but nothing so bad as to make the game unplayable.

The game itself is a pretty good improvement over Wasteland 2 in terms of interface and graphics. As I mentioned above, the camera is wonky, but there have been many visual upgrades. I especially liked the face-to-face dialogues (alá Fallout 1 & 2):

Vic Buchanan

They really provide some emotion and power to the events that are unfolding. You don’t get that sort of engagement when you are listening to voice over that is supposedly coming out of tiny characters who are fighting for screen-space with the subtitled dialogue. But these close-up scenes are not used as much as I would have wanted.

Throughout the game you are faced with many tough choices. In my humble opinion too many of these were of the lesser of two evils variety. Tough choices can also be between to great alternatives and I would have like to have seen more of those. Not everything has to be, “Do you want the turd sandwich or the turd soup?”

As in the previous game, the turn-based combat is as great as ever. It’s nice to have a role playing game that has some modern context to the mechanics and items you wield. I’ve played 4 or 5 Infinity Engine D&D games and I still have no idea WTF the Color Spray spell does or what THAC0 means. I do, however, instantly know what a flamethrower does, and I actually felt like I was getting more powerful and better at combat as I progressed.

Some stronger writing and the cleaning up of some rough edges would have helped, but all-in-all Wasteland 3 was a worthy sequel and well-worth the 50+ hours I put in to it.

Tacoma on PC (6/10)

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Yet another walking simulator, but this time it’s in space! So, technically it’s a floating simulator. The gimmick here is that you can watch past events happen via holographic recordings. You follow the various characters as they walk around talking, and then meet other characters in conversation. Then you rewind and watch the other characters from their angle. It actually is very interesting way of telling a story. It’s just not a game.

Pillars of Eternity on PC (5/10)

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I think it’s time I finally accept the fact that I don’t really like Infinity Engine style games anymore. I really like the idea of them: controlling a party of adventurers, exploring richly detailed worlds, and freezable real-time strategy combat. But the last few I have played have been bogged down in convoluted fantasy storylines that never grab my attention. Pillars’ story isn’t that complicated, but it just lacks focus. I never cared why I was getting visions and the main villain is a dud. Because of Kickstarter funding, the world is riddled with insipid and unnecessary vignettes that were written by backers. I guess fantasy geeks like all the lore but it just makes my eyes glaze over. Take a gander at this bit of dialogue:

It’s just a litany of unpronounceable names and garbage. Now if you are the type of person who actually reads the tomes you find in RPGs you will love this but I was just longing for one normal sounding name.

I actually didn’t mind the first third of the game. But somewhere around then I realized that it’s not going to go anywhere interesting I began to lose interest. By the time I finished, I had just switched to easy mode so I could burn through it and get on with something I liked. Wasteland 3 take me away!

Fallout Tactics on PC (8/10)

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The third game in the Fallout series eschews much of its RPGness and concentrates on combat instead. I always liked the turn-based fights in the first two Fallout games, but there’s something off about the way the system was implemented here. I was having the hardest time getting through the early levels and eventually gave up at one point. I finally came back to the game after having read that the way to play is to ignore the turn-based system and instead use the real-time mode instead.

Apparently, the designers all along intended this to be a real-time combat game and never really tested the other system. It shows. The real-time combat is much faster and more forgiving. Managing your party can get a bit overwhelming, but it pays to set up hot key groupings and moving your team around as two or three squads rather than six independent characters. For the most part, I enjoyed the game once I made this shift. The only thing missing was the pause and order mechanic that Infinity Engine games used. That would have come in very handy in many of the intense fights near the end of the game. in which I ended up having to switch back to turn-based mechanism to win.

Despite the narrower focus, Fallout Tactics is a pretty huge game. It took me around fifty hours to get through it. This is a lot more than even most modern RPGs allocate, and that’s also a lot of time to spend playing with little to no narrative payoff. There is a story which slowly develops from mission to mission, but it lacks the depth and character of a real Fallout game. I’m glad I played it, but now I am much more excited to dig into the tactical battles of the forthcoming Wasteland 3. The modern Wasteland games are more Fallout than Fallout Tactics.

Saints Row 2 on PC (6/10)

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I vowed to avoid open world games but then GOG.com goes and makes Saints Row 2 free. This series has always been an answer to the growing seriousness of the GTA franchise (GTA V was just released for free on Epic, erg!). It’s unapologetically violent and filled with drugs and and mayhem. The fourth installment was able to get around the awkwardness of this by setting things in a virtual fantasy world. In this version, you are literally gunning down innocent people in a semi-realistic world and it just leaves a bad taste in the mouth. I’m no prude, but it not handled with the correct amount of satire or humor this sort of anti-hero gameplay just feels icky.

Hob on PC (8/10)

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Hob is from the same studio that created Torchlight and much of the same beautiful artistic style is on display here. This is pretty much a Zelda clone in which you keep clearing out dungeons in order to gain abilities that let you clear out harder dungeons. It even has nearly identical swordplay mechanics.

Like just about every “arty” indy game, Hob tries to tell its story in an obtuse way without dialogue. It works okay but the ending presents you with a hard choice. A choice which you can’t freakin’ understand because the entire game is spoken in Simlish. That means your final decision will be based on a random stick push rather than thought. Whatever. It was mostly fun and moved quickly, so I basically liked the game.

Legend of Grimrock on PC (8/10)

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Legend of Grimrock brings the real-time dungeon crawl formula of Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder to the modern age. Perhaps the best single improvement is auto-mapping. I know that filling out that sheet of graph paper was half the fun in the originals but I really didn’t miss it here. You are still exploring the layout and looking at your map to guess where secrets might be located. You can even jot down notes if you want to be thorough. But because I was not constantly having to look away from the screen, I was able to get a feel for the spaces much more quickly and look more carefully for secret buttons and loot. This is crucial because, in reality, Legend of Grimrock is a puzzle solving game at its core. The goal is to figure out the correct combination of levers, buttons, and pressure plates to trigger in order to open doors and make your way deeper into the dungeon.

The combat works the same as in the old games. You have four characters with a front and back row. Right-click a weapon to perform an attack and use the WASD keys to dodge and move around your enemies. The magic system is much improved too. Your mage will have a sub menu of nine tiles and the various spells are triggered by quickly clicking runes on the tiles. Weaker spells use a single rune, more complex ones have more complex patterns. Remember, all this is happening in real-time, so the combat feels much more like an action game than a tactical RPG.

As far a story goes, there is only the barest amount of narrative to follow. Most of the details are in various notes you find lying about and the occasional vision while you rest. Nothing fancy, but the final boss fight brings it all together into a satisfying finish. What the game lacks is a diversity of environments. There are only three wall tile types and when everything is laid out in a concise grid, lots of visual detail would have brought it up a notch. Thankfully, the game is just about the right length for the minimal amount of content in the game.

Transistor on PC (4/10)

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The only thing Transistor has going for it is a beautiful art style and high-quality voice acting. The rest is an exercise in tedium. Despite the artistic detail there is little interactivity to the world. The level designs are dull. The combat tries to be original but is just frustrating in that it lives uncomfortably between turn based and real-time. Plan your moves, take your actions, then run around. Boring. All this might be forgivable if not for the deliberately obtuse story telling. You’re a singer in a computer or something? With a talking sword that speaks in circles. It’s horrible.