Saturday, December 9, 2017

Shadow of War

Release date: October 10th, 2017
Developed by: Monolith Productions
Published by: Warner Bros. Interactive
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Reviewed by: TheyKeepOnRising
Estimated play time: 40 hours
Completion: Completed on "Normal" difficulty, full ending

The return of Talion the Gravewalker.

Although its controversy is currently being overshadowed by other more popular titles, Middle-earth: Shadow of War has been no stranger to discussion around its questionable business practices. This time, the commotion revolves around the introduction of loot boxes into a full-priced, singleplayer game that didn't have any in its previous installment. The reason I say "this time" is because some will remember that the first game in the series, Shadow of Mordor, was also surrounded by controversy up to its release. Prior to Shadow of Mordor's launch in 2014, the publisher Warner Bros. only provided early review copies to reviewers who agreed to a brand deal, which is a shady business practice that strongly encourages positive review scores from reviewers. This decision was puzzling since the first game was actually quite good, but impressions were now soured by Warner Bros. underhanded decision.

It seems this series is doomed to be controversial, which is a shame because Monolith Productions is the talented studio behind both titles. For those who aren't aware, Monolith is responsible for two of the most innovative games of their generation: F.E.A.R. and Condemned: Criminal Origins. F.E.A.R. is renown for its tense paranormal horror, fantastic enemy A.I., and brilliant visuals for the time. Condemned was similarly praised for its dark psychological horror and frantic melee combat. In fact, you could add the aforementioned Shadow of Mordor to the list, with its universally-praised "Nemesis System" that added depth and believable interactions from the orcs you encountered in the game. Monolith's ideas have raised the overall standard of games everywhere, and because of this, I'm always eager to support their work.

Monolith has a handful of great games that rightfully deserve praise, but they also have sequels to those same games that are often considered subpar by even diehard fans like myself. F.E.A.R. 2, for example, featured a story that contradicted the first game, lacked any gameplay innovation, and finished with an outrageous ending. Condemned 2 added a large focus on guns over melee combat, and tried to explain away the mysterious parts of the game as sonic voice magic (I'm not even kidding). With controversy and Monolith's track record for sequels in mind, there's plenty of reason to be worried about Shadow of War, but I cast all that aside to give the game the cleanest slate possible for this review. Will Shadow of War fall victim to the curse of Monolith sequels, or will it rise above and stand as yet another landmark game for the generation?

The intro seems rushed and highly questionable.

Taking place shortly after the end of first game (or so I assume because it's never clearly said) Shadow of War begins with Talion (the Gravewalker) and Celebrimbor (the probably evil elf ghost) forging a new ring of power in Mt. Doom. After the ring is complete, Celebrimbor is torn from Talion's body somehow, and then immediately captured by a dark force. Talion equips the ring of power, which keeps him from dying without Celebrimbor's possession, and tracks the ghost down to rescue him. He finds Celebrimbor is being held hostage by Shelob, the giant spider from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, who can now transform into a seductive elf form whenever she wants.

Shelob demands that Talion trades her the ring for the return of his elf companion, while Celebrimbor protests and seems he rather stay hostage than give anyone the ring. Talion agrees and the trade is made, with Celebrimbor pretty upset about the whole deal, but before anything can escalate, Shelob shows Talion a vision of the future. In the vision, Talion sees the human city of Minas Ithil falling to an orc invasion, so he rushes off to defend it and deal with Shelob later. The goal of the invasion seems to be for the forces of Sauron to acquire an artifact called the Palantir, which grants the wielder vision to see anything they want.

Everything I just explained happens within the first 10 minutes of the game, all with cutscenes and about a full minute of minor gameplay. We see Talion gets a ring of power and loses it almost immediately, Shelob is now an elf shapeshifter who can see the future and imprision ghosts, there's a human city ridiculously close to Sauron's legions that is under siege, and the Palantir from the Lord of the Rings trilogy is in possession of the humans that reside in said city. Why is a powerful artifact like the Palantir being kept in the city that is also the closest to the orcish hordes and therefore one of the least safe places it can be kept? This question is unfortunately never answered, and to me the intro seems rushed and highly questionable.

Abilities make you feel powerful and versatile.

Middle-earth: Shadow of War is a third-person action game that plays like equal parts Batman: Arkham Asylum and Assassin's Creed. While playing the game, you will be largely chasing markers on your map, fighting thousands of orcs, and completing a couple dozen quests. There is an ability early on you can unlock that will allow you to mind control orcs, and mind controlling an orc officer will add him to your army and allow you to give him specific orders. There are a handful of regions, and each region contains its own orc stronghold that has an Overlord at the top, Warchiefs in the middle, and dozens of officers at the bottom. Later in the game, your time will be spent managing strongholds and attempting to max the power of your orc forces.

Combat begins fairly basic, with Talion being capable of attacking and parrying with his sword, jumping over enemies, and firing his bow, but more abilities can be unlocked as you level up and spend skill points. Orcs come in different classes, and each class needs to be handled in a specific way or you will be immediately punished. Orc Berserkers need their attacks parried, orc Defenders need to be attacked from behind, and orc Spearthrowers need to have their attacks dodged. Using the wrong strategy against an orc can result in immediate punishment, such as trying to attack a Berserker directly, or trying to parry a Defender. There are a handful of different classes with different strategies required, and since you can be swarmed with dozens of orcs at once, it can be challenging to respond to each class correctly.

The longer Talion fights in combat without being hit, the more his Might meter will be charged. Once fully charged, Might can be used to unleash a powerful special ability, including an instant-kill attack against non-officer orcs, or even a drain attack that can mind control a non-officer orc instantly and heal Talion some. Successfully killing enemies will charge a second bar called "Elven Rage", which turns Talion invincible and allows for dozens of instant arrow attacks when used. There's also a third bar called focus, which charges automatically over time, and allows Talion to slow time when aiming his bow, and use other abilities like his ghost sprint or multi dominate. Having so many abilities can make you feel powerful and versatile, but keeping track of so many meters is exhausting.

Orc personalities range from ridiculous to bad ass.

Once again, the best part of the game by far is the Nemesis System, a term coined for the way orc officers will respond to you and remember encounters you have. For example, you may defeat an orc in combat by lighting him on fire, and the next time you see him he will be scarred from the burns and terrified of any fire he sees. Another example, an orc may remember if you jumped over him in combat, so he will adapt and counter your attempts to jump over him in the future. The system was fantastic in the previous Middle-earth game, and is even better in Shadow of War by having more ways the orcs can react and adapt from your actions.

The orc officers themselves have a fantastic variety of personalities and traits, ranging from ridiculous to bad ass. You can learn what strengths and weaknesses individual orcs have, and attack them with an orc from your army who will have an advantage over them. Additionally, orcs have levels and rarities, which should be considered when recruiting them to your forces. Orcs above Talion's level cannot be recruited, but can be publicly shamed to bring their level down and later controlled if you want them badly enough. "Epic" and "Legendary" orcs will have fewer weaknesses and more strengths, making them generally more valuable to have.

A significant change to the orc control system is that orcs can now break free from your control and betray you. This isn't really explained in the game as to why they can now sometimes break free, but it creates some great gameplay moments. I had a bodyguard named Black-Blade, an epic orc who wore a hood and carried a sword gushing with shadowy dark magic. He would quickly dispatch any orc foolish enough to oppose me, and was generally a cool bodyguard to have. What was meant to be a pretty standard encounter against an orc Warchief turned into chaos when Black-Blade showed up unexpectedly and turned on me, killing me and becoming my new nemesis.

Stopping to manage your inventory is extremely tedious.

For the purpose of this review, I made myself a goal to never open a loot box in Shadow of War, or visit the Market (where loot boxes can be bought or opened) even a single time. The interviews with the developers up to release claimed that the game was balanced to a point where the player will never be pressured to buy a loot box in order to progress, and I wanted to test this claim by removing it as an option as entirely as possible. With that in mind, I can honestly say that I never felt the need to purchase a loot box due to balance, but the game absolutely throws it in your face as much as possible. Every time you enter the menu, the Market button is flashing for attention, and almost everything in the game feels built in a manner so it will eventually lead to purchasing a loot box.

For example, one of the new mechanics implemented in the game is an equipment system, which consists of swords, daggers, bows, armors, cloaks, and rings. Each of these impact a certain attribute, and items found come with different item levels and rarities (much like the orcs). Additionally, each of these items can be augmented by gems, which also come in different tiers of power. Since you level up very quickly in this game, items become outdated fast, and you will find yourself looking to improve your gear so you can handle more difficult situations. Stopping to manage your inventory every few levels is extremely tedious and unfulfilling, especially since none of the items stood out as unique or beneficial for anything but the raw stats.

To make matters worse, almost every single system is connected to the new in-game currency called Mirian. To fully access your equipment's abilities, you need to spend Mirian to unlock it. To be able to equip the gems you have collected, you need to spend Mirian for each piece of equipment. If you want to bring special siege weapons or a squad of Spearthrowers while attacking or defending a stronghold, that cost Mirian as well. At first, the currency is fairly easy to acquire since it is rewarded by quests, but later on when you are regularly defending your strongholds, Mirian becomes a scarce resource. Although Mirian is not a currency you can directly purchase from the Market, you can find it in loot boxes, which can be purchased with gold bought with real money.

Run, climb, and jump should never be the same button.

While the new mechanics that encourage microtransactions may seem like they are the worst part of Shadow of War, I actually found them to be but minor annoyances compared to my major issues with the game. A disclaimer before I go any further: the complaints I have are (as usual) based entirely on my opinion, and you may or may not feel the same for some of these items. This list of complaints formed from my 40 or so hours playing Shadow of War, so your mileage will certainly vary depending on how much time you play the game for, and how thorough you are with completion. I also loved Shadow of Mordor (the previous entry), and earned the platinum trophy in that game, so it's not a matter of me disliking this genre.

This may be a surprise to some, but I found the combat to be unforgivably bad for the entirety of the game. While I had no issues with the previous game Shadow of Mordor, here I found my character blatantly ignoring my commands and performing suicidal actions. It was a struggle to get Talion to perform the correct attack, and often times he would use it on an ally or a minor enemy instead. Sometimes Talion would turn around and slide 15-20 feet in the opposite direction just to attack the wrong orc. This was extremely frustrating when trying to brand a fleeing orc officer, and Talion turns around to grab an offscreen enemy instead. Coupled with the punishing rock-paper-scissors combat with specific orc classes, I died dozens of times and ragequit more than I have in recent memory.

Most of your time outside of combat will be spent running around the map, which is made far worse by just how terrible I felt the climbing mechanics are. Talion would grab onto walls when I didn't want him to, and sit there awkwardly as I struggled to get him down. Certain statues can be destroyed while Talion is standing on them, and getting him to stand in the specific spot was always a trial of patience for me. While struggling in a fight against a horde of orcs, I tried to climb up a tower to escape the stunlocking attacks, and watched in horror as Talion performed a swan dive once he was nearly half way up the tower. This is a perfect example of why run, climb, and jump should never be mapped to the same button.

Conclusion: Is Middle-earth: Shadow of War worth the price of admission?

This review took me a lot longer than I was expecting, mostly because there were many days I simply could not bring myself to start up Shadow of War. Knowing I was about to endure what I felt was the most uninspired and frustrating game I have played this year was not a great motivator to pick up my controller. But to my surprise, after dozens of hours played and approaching the end of the game, I found myself blindsided by what I believe was one of the best an unexpected story twists this year. Suddenly it became clear to me: I understood what story the game was trying to tell, buried beneath hours and hours of padding and game mechanics practically designed around microtransactions. It was with this realization that I reached peak disappointment with Shadow of War, because with more time and less corporate influence, this would have been a great game.

If you've made it this far into the review, then you have probably anticipated my verdict for Shadow of War. I felt the story was bland, the gameplay was broken and repetitive, and everything I previously loved had been redesigned to orbit around loot boxes. Save for a single moment of brilliance towards the end, nothing about Shadow of War felt better than a mindless chore or a box to check from a list. Do yourself a favor and pass on this one, and pick up a game from a publisher that respects its playerbase. It might be worth buying once its 20$ for the GOYT edition, but certainly not before then. If you are looking for a game to play instead of Shadow of War, here's a quick list of good alternatives released this year:

  • Horizon: Zero Dawn
  • Nioh
  • Nier: Automata
  • Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice
  • Uncharted: The Lost Legacy
  • Assassin's Creed: Origins
  • Nemesis system
  • Moment of brilliance near the end

  • Boring, uninspired story
  • Tons and tons of padding
  • Equipment system is irritating
  • Frustrating combat and movement
  • Random punishing difficulty spikes
  • Everything designed around loot boxes

Verdict: Avoid

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Evil Within 2

Release date: October 13th, 2017
Developed by: Tango Gameworks
Published by: Bethesda Softworks
Reviewed on: PlayStation 4
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One

Reviewed by: TheyKeepOnRising
Estimated play time: 40 hours
Completion: New game plus completed on "Survivor" difficulty

To beat the devil, you better be stronger than hell.

When the original Evil Within was announced in 2013, fans were ecstatic for a spiritual successor to the legendary action-horror game: Resident Evil 4. Gameplay reveals of The Evil Within showed the combat and mechanics of its inspiration lovingly adapted, but without the baggage and often ridiculous nature that comes with the Resident Evil franchise. Even Shinji Mikami, the original director of Resident Evil 4, was once again leading the production, all but confirming this game was going to be the best thing ever. The Evil Within was released in October 2014, and contrary to all the signs of success, the game was met with a reception best described as "luke warm".

Despite having all the ingredients of a great game, The Evil Within failed to meet expectations for most of its fans. I personally loved my time with the game, and made the ridiculous effort to earn the platinum trophy on PlayStation 4, but even to me the flaws were obvious and plentiful. For starters, the game was marketed as a horror game, not an action-horror game, which resulted in many misinformed players being disappointed when the game simply wasn't scary. The story was disjointed and ambiguous, which made the game feel more like a theme park ride than a carefully constructed setting. Finally, the game was riddled with questionable design choices, including a forced resolution with "cinematic" black bars, and making the player rely heavily on a barebones stealth mechanic.

Which brings us now to The Evil Within 2; a sequel I hoped for but honestly never expected. The developer, Tango Gameworks, has made assurances that many of the complaints from the original have been addressed, including a more focused story and removing the "cinematic" black bars. Other significant features have been added as well, such as semi-open world playgrounds to explore, optional side quests to find, and a limited crafting mechanic. With the first game as a solid foundation to build upon, does The Evil Within 2 finally reach a level worthy of the Resident Evil 4 legacy, or will it fall short yet again?

Sebastian feels like an actual person with goals.

In the first game, Sebastian Castellanos was a police detective sent to investigate a disturbance at Beacon Hospital. While at Beacon, he and his two partners, Joseph Oda and Juli Kidman, were trapped inside of the STEM system; a device that connects unconscious minds together to create a nightmare world. Joseph disappears in the nightmare, and Kidman is discovered to be a double agent for Mobius; the shadowy organization that controls STEM. After defeating Ruvick (who is the host of the STEM nightmare), Sebastian is freed and returns to the real world, unable to find Joseph or Kidman. If the first game's story sounds needlessly convoluted, it's because it very much is.

With The Evil Within 2, Sebastian has left the police force and spends his days drinking his guilt away in a bar. He was already struggling with alcoholism in the first game due to the death of his daughter Lily, but now he's hit rock bottom thanks to the horrors he's endured. Kidman approaches Sebastian for the first time since Beacon, and tells him his daughter is alive and has been captive with Mobius in a new STEM system. Something has gone wrong in the new STEM, and Lily is in danger if Sebastian doesn't enter STEM again to save her. Sebastian begrudgingly agrees to help for Lily's sake, and enters STEM once again to face the horrors that await him.

The plot, although fairly simple, does a great job of setting the stakes and giving us a reason to be thrust back into the nightmare world that is STEM. Sebastian, despite being the main protagonist of the series, was practically ignored in the first game, and was mostly a vessel for the player to kill monsters with. Now Sebastian feels like an actual person with goals besides survival, and the occasional flashback even shows us a time when he was clean cut and optimistic. One of the major themes, particularly in the side quests, involves Sebastian coping with the trauma he's endured with both losing Lily and surviving Beacon Hospital.

There will never be enough ammo to shoot your way through.

The core gameplay of The Evil Within 2 is largely unchanged from the original, although the cinematic black bars are now optional, and there is a new control scheme that more closely matches conventional third-person shooting controls. While playing the game, you will be primarily sneaking around, scavenging for loot, and shooting handfuls of aggressive enemies with your dwindling supply of ammo. Sebastian now uses his knife in melee combat, but it still remains a poor choice in a direct fight, even with full upgrades. Thankfully enemies tend to drop axes more often now, which are single use weapons that will instantly kill weaker enemies and deal significant damage to larger ones.

Gunplay remains unchanged from the first game, which means hitting moving targets can be difficult, and hitting targets that are too close is dubious. Since it's easy to miss shots, you may find yourself firing frantically at fast-approaching enemies, and using a sizeable amount of ammo in the process. Although you can now craft ammo using materials found while exploring, there will never be enough ammo to shoot your way through every fight. Upgrading your favorite weapons can improve their damage and therefore reduce ammo spent in fights, but the most effective method of dispacting enemies will be through stealth takedowns.

Stealth was barebones in the first game, but thankfully the mechanic has received some much needed love in the sequel with it's own upgrade tree. You can now improve Sebastian's stealth abilities, such as increasing his movement speed, reducing noise made from movement, and even unlocking a short-range silent sprint for quick takedowns. Bottles can be tactically thrown to create distractions, allowing you to thin out enemies that stray from the group. This mechanic also meshes surprisingly well with the new semi-open world areas, allowing you to maneuver around enemies and choose when to approach.

Surprises can be found, some more dangerous than others.

Your resources will be constantly dwindling in The Evil Within 2, but thorough exploration can help alleviate this issue. New weapons, ammo, health, and crafting components can be found hidden in every nook and cranny, and locker keys can be found by observant players. Green gel also returns as a resource to improve Sebastian's stats, and can be found from exploring areas or defeating enemies. Resonances, which are like lingering snapshots from the past, can be found to learn more about what happened, and can sometimes lead into side quests. There are other surprises that can be found in your search for resources, and some are more dangerous than others.

As I said before, The Evil Within was not intended to be a straight up horror game, but more of an action-horror game, and the same can be said about its sequel. With that in mind, I was surprised to find a handful of moments in The Evil Within 2 that I felt were genuinely nerve-racking. While the standard enemies are pretty straight-forward without too many surprises, there's a selectively-used enemy type introduced early on that I found both challenging and frightening. There are also a couple of scripted moments I really enjoyed, some of which only triggered after returning to areas I had previously explored.

Perhaps one of the most significant changes from the first game is the setting, which differs drastically from the original game. Technically, both games take place in the STEM nightmare world, but the change is in the way the world manifests from within STEM. In the first Evil Within, you traversed through an insane asylum, a small village in the woods, a spooky mansion, and a few other disconnected horror settings. The majority of The Evil Within 2 takes place in a suburban town called Union, and while Union is fantastic on its own, the game lacks the variety of environments found in the first game as a result.

Every enemy can be shot repeatedly until it dies.

While The Evil Within 2 directly addressed a lot of the common complaints from the first game, there are still a couple of improvements I feel could positively impact the overall experience. All of these suggestions I have originate from previously successful games from the genre, including games from the Resident Evil franchise. Most (if not all) of these changes could be incorporated into The Evil Within 3; provided there is a third game in development. None of these items hurt my overall enjoyment while playing the game, so consider this more of a wish list for the future, and not as a specific commentary on the game.

The first suggestion, and perhaps the most important for gameplay longevity, is to increase the total number of weapon upgrades, and add ultimate upgrades for all weapons. Resident Evil 4 had a rewarding weapon upgrade system, where you could buy attachments for some weapons, and unlock a powerful bonus after maximizing all stats. Although some of the crossbow bolts in The Evil Within 2 have a benefit similar to an ultimate upgrade, there is no equivalent for any of the other guns. What I wanted was piercing damage for the pistol, a knockdown effect for the sniper rifle, or other significant rewards for my investment in a weapon.

The other addition I would like to see is much more enemy variety, with different strategies required to counter some enemies. There are only a handful of different enemy types in The Evil Within 2, and most of them only appear a couple times throughout the entire game. STEM is a literal nightmare world, which begs for an assortment of creatively-designed monsters to infest it. Unfortunately, the game relies far too much on the basic Haunted enemy type, and every enemy can be shot or stabbed repeatedly until it dies. Compared to the Resident Evil games for example, there are Lickers that can crawl on the ceiling, bugs that can fly, or enemies that can turn invisible.

Conclusion: Is The Evil Within 2 worth the price of admission?

Without going into spoilers, I found the story of The Evil Within 2 to be a vast improvement over its predecessor. Even so, I did miss the mystery aspect of the first game, and having a villain as threatening as Ruvick to focus on. Sebastian himself feels relatable due to the trauma he suffers from, and I appreciated how the game shows that the first game left a significant impression on him. I found the ending satisfying and thought it did a great job of neatly resolving many loose ends, while leaving a couple of unanswered questions for a DLC or third installment. There is also a sequence towards the end of the game that I won't spoil but I thoroughly enjoyed, you'll know it when you see it.

In my opinion, The Evil Within 2 is in many ways a natural progression from the first game, but there is still plenty of room for improvement. Regardless, I still really enjoyed exploring Union, carefully thinning out enemy groups with stealth, and fighting off hordes with my limited resources. I had a great time with my multiple playthroughs and am still playing it today attempting to complete the game on the challenging "Classic" difficulty. If you had significant issues with the first game, then I can't recommend you run out and buy its sequel, but if you played the first game and enjoyed it, then I can confidently recommend buying The Evil Within 2.

  • Challenging gameplay
  • Improved mechanics
  • Fun exploration and resource management
  • Improved plot cohesion
  • Sebastian much more developed
  • Satisfying ending

  • Melee combat still lackluster
  • Repetitve enemies
  • Lack of ultimate upgrades
  • Lack of variety in environment

Verdict: Buy with Caution

Friday, October 20, 2017

Hollow Knight

Release date: February 24th, 2017
Developed by: Team Cherry
Published by: Team Cherry
Reviewed on: PC
Available on: PC, iOS

Reviewed by: TheyKeepOnRising
Estimated play time: 25 hours
Completion: "Dream No More" ending

A beautiful adventure through a somber world.

Nearly eight months ago as of the time of this review, Hollow Knight was released on Steam, and somehow it managed to fly almost completely under my radar. Recently I found the game as a recommendation on the Steam store, and although I didn't know anything about the game, I decided to give it a try. Shortly after leaving the tutorial area of the game, I found myself enchanted by the world, and pushed myself to go everywhere and see everything. From start to finish, it took me nearly 20 hours to complete my first playthrough, much longer than I anticipated. To my surprise, I found Hollow Knight to be one of the most captivating gaming experiences I have played this year.

Hollow Knight takes place in a kingdom called Hallownest: a strange land where its residents are talking, friendly, bug-people. Most of the kingdom lies underground, and consists of huge sprawling cities reminiscent of Victorian-era London. Or at least that's how it used to be, until a devastating affliction ravaged the land, killing most of its inhabitants and reducing the rest to mindless husks. The cities have crumbled over time, and some have been consumed by the earth that surrounds them. It's here among the ruins and ominous darkness that the player, an unnamed knight of small stature, wanders into the town of Dirtmouth.

There are no flashing signs or waypoints to direct you.

Hollow Knight is a 2D, action-adventure platformer with an emphasis on exploration and atmosphere. While playing the game, you'll find yourself primarily running around, jumping between platforms, and fighting hundreds of enemies with your sword (which is called a "nail"). In true Metroidvania fashion, you will also find a large variety of blocked paths, which you can return to after learning the right ability to progress. There's a light equipment mechanic in the form of "charms", and a currency called "geo" that can be collected from defeating enemies and exploring. Lastly, there are boss fights, ranging from duels against other knights, to battles against monsters of great strength and size.

Combat is simple at the start, with your character being capable of only jumping and simple attacks, but becomes much more interesting as you encounter more versatile foes and learn new abilities. You start with 5 health, typically lose 1 health for each hit you take, and die when your health reaches 0. You also start with a soul meter that fills up with energy gathered from attacking foes. Soul gathered can be used to restore lost health or cast magic spells, and tends to refill quickly in combat. If you die, you will start over from your last checkpoint, suffer a penalty to your maximum soul capacity, and lose all your geo unless you can return to where you died and defeat your Shade.

There's a large number of boss fights in Hollow Knight, all of which serve to challenge your reflexes. These encounters are often found through exploration, as there are no flashing signs or waypoints to direct you to them. More often than not, you will stumble into a boss fight unprepared, resulting in a frantic and desperate fight. Bosses are typically aggressive with a variety of attacks, and will require careful attention to learn their patterns. Some will summon minions or spray projectile attacks, testing your ability to dodge and attack simultaneously. Others will attack with lightning speed, offering little-to-no warning for first time opponents. Your reward for victory will vary, but is always worth the effort, and can even be a powerful new ability that allows access to new areas.

I found myself unintentionally making the game harder.

Exploration is critical in Hollow Knight, and how thoroughly you explore can determine how powerful (or underpowered) you are when you encounter more challenging enemies or boss fights. From the beginning, there are many branching paths to traverse, with no clear indication of which path is the ideal course. As you travel further and further from familiar territory and find even more branching paths, you may begin to ask yourself if you've taken a wrong turn along the way. I managed to completely miss two powerful upgrades, and I found myself unintentionally making the game harder until I found them hours later. Backtracking is inevitable, and I frequently discovered entire new areas tucked away in spaces I never would have expected.

As you explore, you will come across a variety of different points of interest to help with your journey. The most common one is the bench, which you can sit at to recover health, swap charms, and respawn at if you should die. Stag Stations can be found on the rare occasion, which allow you to fast travel to any other discovered stations. Vendors can be found periodically, and a cartographer can be found in most areas to sell you a map of the immediate surroundings. Of course there are many other characters to be found scattered around Hallownest, and some are less friendly than others.

Charms are equippable items that can be bought or found throughout the game, offering passive bonuses or altering the effects of some spells. You start with 3 charm notches, which are slots used to equip charms, and can find more throughout the game. Each charm will require between 1 and 5 notches to equip, with the higher cost charms typically providing a more powerful effect. Health and soul can also be expanded in a similar fashion by finding mask shards and soul vessel fragments. After finding 4 mask shards or 3 soul vessel fragments, your maximum capacity will increase for the corresponding stat. Although charm notches, mask shards, and soul vessel fragments can be bought, these valuable items will be found primarily with exploration.

The gorgeous hand-drawn scenery is front and center.

While playing Hollow Knight, the story is not explicitly revealed to you, but is subtly told in the environments you explore, and the enemies you fight. There are a few friendly bugs you will encounter throughout the game, and one early on tells you of a sickness that turns creatures mad and robs travellers of their memories, but most seem unaware of or unable to comprehend their surroundings. Statues and signs offer cryptic phrases that feel like nondescript pieces in a kingdom-sized puzzle. Even the end goal of the game isn't revealed until about midway through, which is when more observant players will begin to piece together the lore.

The gorgeous hand-drawn scenery is front and center in Hollow Knight, and is (in my opinion) the best part of the game. I can't count how many times I entered a new area, and had to take a moment to appreciate what I was seeing. The silently looming cities, the overgrown heroic statues, and the peaceful rest areas invoked a feeling of nostalgia for what these fictional places were in their prime. On the other end of the spectrum, there are many areas with an oppressive and borderline hostile atmosphere. Even at times where I knew it was safe, I still felt the urgency to leave and return to the familiar. It's an accomplishment how many different emotions the environments can produce, and many more games should aim for equal levels of quality.

When it comes to soundtrack, Hollow Knight expertly delivers with a high-quality but selectively used musical score. Early level exploration is paired with a calm ambient theme to match the slower pace, while deeper levels will have a more tense ambient theme or none at all. Boss battles are paired with powerful and exciting music, which helps you switch gears and adds weight to the encounter. Dirtmouth, a village that functions as the safe hub for the game, has a somber tone and produces an expression of a world fading away. It's clear that the soundtrack was lovingly composed, and does a great job elevating the already fantastic atmosphere of the game.

The high-quality content eclipses any criticism I can muster.

Although Hollow Knight is far better than it has any right to be, there are some rough edges that I feel are the result of a couple questionable design choices. I didn't encounter any bugs, crashing, or graphical issues throughout my entire 25 hours of playtime, which is impressive and very uncommon from smaller studios. It's difficult to even mention the one nitpick and one actual complaint I have, only because the outrageous amount of high-quality content completely eclipses any criticism I can muster. There is only one example of an actual issue hurting my enjoyment of the game, and it's from an optional area near the end. These objections are entirely based on my opinion, and when it comes to opinions, your mileage may vary.

The one nitpick I had is regarding the Wayward Compass charm, which is absolutely essential for navigating the world. If you don't purchase a map of an area, you are unable to see a high level view of your surroundings. Even if you have a map, you can't see where your position is on the map without buying the Wayward Compass charm and equipping it, which occupies a charm notch. Since this is almost always necessary, it always uses up a charm slot, unless you swap it temporarily at a bench before a boss battle. The other map upgrades you can buy don't need to be equipped, so I don't understand why this one is different and disagree with this design choice.

My only actual complaint, and perhaps the only thing I can claim to hate in Hollow Knight, is regarding an optional area near the end of the game called the White Palace. This area is basically a chain of platforming trials that consist of circular saw blades and carefully timed jumping segments, with a failed jump setting your progress back by a frustrating amount. The circular saw blades, aside from being frustrating to deal with, look ridiculous and don't make any sense in the context of the White Palace. There are almost no enemies to fight, no boss at the end, and the entire area feels to me like it belongs in another game.

Conclusion: Is Hollow Knight worth the price of admission?

I went into Hollow Knight expecting a short game with cute characters, and ended up losing a week of my life and left hungry for more. Every time I thought I was near the end, the world kept growing and offering more challenges and discoveries, and I still haven't seen everything the game has to offer. I had to suppress the urge to keep exploring, find every secret, and defeat every boss, or else this review would never be finished. At the end of my first playthrough, I begrudgingly settled for a 93% completion score, reminding myself that I still have a sizeable backlog of games that yearn for my attention.

Hollow Knight is $14.99 on the Steam store right now, which is an absolute steal for the sheer amount of content packaged in a single game. Team Cherry has already released one free content update, which added two more optional bosses, and another free content update is planned for release this Halloween. Even though platformers are not games I typically enjoy, I loved (almost) every minute of my time playing Hollow Knight. After playing for approximately 25 hours, I had to force myself to finally finish the game, and not for lack of enjoyment. If that is not one hell of an endorsement, then I don't know what is.

  • Fantastic and immersive scenery
  • Beautiful soundtrack
  • Sprawling areas with tons of exploration
  • Expert environmental storytelling
  • Excellent character progression
  • Smooth difficulty curve
  • No hand holding

  • Easy to miss crucial upgrades
  • Some charms all but mandatory
  • White Palace can burn in hell

Verdict: Buy

Thursday, October 5, 2017


Release date: September 29th, 2017
Developed by: Studio MDHR
Published by: Studio MDHR
Reviewed on: PC
Available on: PC, Xbox One

Reviewed by: TheyKeepOnRising
Estimated play time: 7 hours
Completion: Completed on "Regular"

Cuphead and Mugman star in "Don't Deal with the Devil".

When Cuphead was announced during Microsoft's conference at E3 2014, it quickly became one of the most anticipated titles for the next few years. The game captivated audiences with its charming visual style, which was intended as a throwback to the classic MGM and Disney cartoons. Post announcement, Cuphead was stuck in development for quite some time, suffering from an uncertain release date and little press information to ease worried minds. Fans were concerned the game may never be released, or released half-cooked to an underwhelming reception. After years of waiting, Cuphead was launched just last week to the eager masses, but can the game deliver on the level of quality promised from the reveal over 3 years ago?

Cuphead begins with a brief introduction to our heroes, Cuphead (the character) and Mugman, playing a game of craps in a casino owned by the Devil himself. The young cups are on a winning streak, and draw the attention of the Devil. He then offers them a tempting bet: if they win the next roll, they will win the casino itself, but if they lose, the Devil will own their souls. Cuphead, blinded by his winning streak, takes the bet and loses, damning both their souls to the Devil. The Devil then offers them a deal: if the cups can collect the souls of everyone who owes the Devil, he will set them free. Cuphead and Mugman, fearing for their lives, set out to do the Devil's dirty work, while also searching for a way to escape his evil clutches.

Cuphead excels with tight and responsive controls.

Cuphead is perhaps best described as a 2D boss rush game with a handful of traditional platforming levels sprinkled in. After a brief tutorial teaching the basics of movement, shooting, and parrying, you are free to select a level from the map view. There are a total of 17 contracts, all of which are challenging boss fights with multiple stages. Inbetween the contracts are 6 run-and-gun levels, which are more traditional platforming segments with hundreds of enemies to shoot and coins to collect. Overall game length will vary greatly based on your skill and familiarity with the mechanics, with some encounters providing more challenge than others. The coins found in run-and-gun levels can be used at Porkrinder's Emporium, a familiar-looking pig shopkeeper who sells new attacks and passive abilities.

While Cuphead is visually unique from its peers, it plays functionally as a standard side-scrolling shooter, similar to classic titles like Contra and Metal Slug. Most of your time spent playing Cuphead will be running to the right, shooting your finger gun, jumping between platforms, and dashing through projectiles. You can also change the way your bullets behave, charge up a super meter for a powerful special ability, and parry some incoming attacks. Parries are done by performing a second jump in mid air right before you touch a pink-colored object, enemy, or projectile attack. Despite the fairly basic mechanics, Cuphead excels over its peers by just how air tight and responsive the controls feel. Although I played on PC, I used an Xbox One controller and would highly recommend playing with one or a PlayStation DS4 controller.

After completing a level, your performance is tallied up and graded to provide a letter grade score. The score is ranked based on time taken, HP remaining, parries performed, your super meter charge, and difficulty selected. Players can select to play on either "Simple" or "Regular" difficulty, and can unlock the "Expert" difficulty after completing the game. HP can be increased above the starting amount of 3, but taking more than 3 hits will cause the game to treat you with 0 HP remaining score-wise. The letter grade scores range from a low "D" to a high "S" based on all of the above, but there is a secret score that can be earned under the right circumstances as well.

Contracts are thankfully the best parts of the game.

When playing or watching someone play Cuphead, one of the first things you will notice is how often you will die. As mentioned before, you start with only 3 HP, and your HP goes down by 1 for each hit you take. Once you reach 0 HP, you will die and need to restart the entire level since there are no checkpoints in the game. When playing co-op, you have a brief opportunity to resurrect your deceased ally by performing a parry on their ascending ghost. Although you can increase your max HP, the trade-off is you will deal less damage from your attacks, thereby extending fights and nullifying the benefit of the extra HP. Fortunately, each level can be completed in around 1-2 minutes, so restarting never feels like a major loss.

The contracts are what fills the majority of Cuphead's gameplay, and thankfully they are the best parts of the game. In general, a contract places you against a single boss-sized opponent with a complex move set and a huge health pool. Each boss has multiple phases, and as the phases progress, the boss becomes more dangerous. This isn't always the case, as some bosses will have their most difficult phase in the middle of the fight, but the majority follow this pattern. Once the boss is drained of health, the game announces a satisfying "Knock out!" with a ringing bell.

One of the better features of Cuphead is the way the difficulty changes the contracts. On "Regular" difficulty, the boss will typically have anywhere between 3-5 phases, and in each phase, the boss will alternate between a set of attacks. For example, one boss will shoot projectiles at you for a few moments, offer a brief pause, and then summon minions to attack you. On "Expert" difficulty, that same phase is changed where the boss will now shoot projectiles and summon minions at the same time, testing your ability to dodge and attack simultaneously. On "Simple" difficulty, the boss will have more manageable attacks and may skip the final phase entirely, offering a shorter and easier fight.

Run-and-gun levels are heavily outnumbered by the contracts, but offer a nice change of pace from the stressful boss fights. The goal in a run-and-gun level is to keep moving to the right until you reach the end of the line, defeating or avoiding every enemy in the way. There are always platforming segments that require precise timing and landing difficult jumps, often while dodging enemies or projectiles. There is also a large density of infinitely-spawning enemies and projectile attacks throughout most of the level, and can overwhelm even experienced players. Run-and-gun levels also are the primary source of coins, as there are always 5 scattered along the way.

I loved the boss fights and hesistate to criticize them, but...

As a game critic, I would be remiss if I didn't point out where I felt Cuphead's gameplay was lacking or fell flat. Thankfully, Cuphead as a whole is a solid game with little room for improvement, and the few flaws I could find are more qualified as nitpicks than actual issues with the game. Also worth mentioning is that these nitpicks are strictly based on my personal opinion, so you may not feel the same way during your time playing Cuphead. None of these nitpicks made my overall experience any less enjoyable, but I am still obligated to mention where I feel there is room for improvement, and how these areas of the game could go from good to great.

To start, the run-and-gun levels never really worked for me, mostly because they felt very similar to each other and I found them generally uninteresting to play. Although one level in particular tries something different with having you alternate between walking on the floor and ceiling, the rest felt pretty much identical. What I would have liked added were branching paths the player could take, holes you could drop down for a verticle layer, and maybe backtracking to earn more coins. On researching these run-and-gun levels for my review, I discovered these were added late into Cuphead's development, and were not originally intended as part of the game. These levels are short in length and few in number, and certainly not bad by any means, but are heavily outshined by the much more interesting boss fights.

Another nitpick I had was what I felt was an over-reliance on trial and error in a few of the contracts. The boss fights are very diverse and the bosses have creative movesets, but many attacks are impossible to avoid until you've already been hit by it once. This is not a big deal due to the short length of the fights and how quickly you can restart after dying, but a couple of deaths had me flat out frustrated with my inability to defend myself. Overall, I loved all the boss fights and hesistate to criticize them even a little, but would appreciate a small change of better telegraphing the effects of the more unusual attacks.

My last nitpick is that many of the different shots you can buy are either inferior or extremely circumstantial compared to the starting peashooter. There's the short-range shotgun, the boomerang, the lobber, the guided, and the charge shot, all of which change your shot's behavior. While they are all unique in function and offer variances in damage, range, and spread, they also come with a trade-off that makes the weapon difficult to commit to. Meanwhile the peashooter is capable of handling every situation and deals enough damage to overcome any boss, and ended up being the only weapon I used until the end of my first playthrough. The guided shot does have a brief advantage as a secondary weapon in situations where aiming is hazardous, such as dodging a flurry of attacks. I'm conflicted because I like that you can beat the entire game using the starting weapon, but the other shots seem less appealing as a result.

Cuphead will be considered an artistic landmark in videogames.

Let's face it, the biggest reason to play Cuphead is for its absolutely gorgeous and unique art style (and by unique I mean to videogames specifically). The art team at Studio MDHR spent a ridiculous amount of time and effort to replicate the rounded shapes and water color appearance of the classic cartoons. In fact, it's strongly suggested this commitment to quality was largely responsible for the delay of the game's release. Jake Clark, one of the artistic talents at Studio MDHR, goes into detail about their time-consuming design process in a GDC video found here, which is worth watching if you want to learn more. For me, the appeal of playing Cuphead was to see what the next boss will look like, and how his phases will progress and change him into a wacky new form. I was charmed by the visuals and animation for the entirety of the game, and fully suspect Cuphead will be considered an artistic landmark in videogames for years to come.

Finally we get to the music and sound effects, both of which have been stylized to be appropriate for the era. The music in Cuphead was live recorded by a large jazz band, and contains all the fantastic energy and emotion found in the 1930's music. Although I found myself stuck on some of the harder contracts for a long while, I never found the music repetitive or grating, which is quite the accomplishment. The sound effects all seem like they're household objects being rattled and banged, much like how the classic sounds were made. These effects can sometimes be quiet and understated, which in turn is drowned out by the powerful music. As a whole, the sound and music package is nearly perfect, and reaches the same levels of quality that the visuals do.

Conclusion: Is Cuphead worth the price of admission?

Cuphead is a short game, and although everyone will commit a different amount of time on it, I would say your average gamer would take no longer than 10 hours for the first playthrough. That is assuming those same players don't give up after being faced with challenging boss fights, and constantly dying and starting over. Even with a "Simple" mode, the game offers a level of challenge that currently only appeals to a small number of players. But the whole presentation and quality of Cuphead offers an experience where you don't have to win to enjoy, and will charm and entertain players of all skill levels. Also there is couch co-op that I unfortunately didn't get a chance to experience, but getting destroyed with a friend is always better than getting destroyed alone.

I said before that Cuphead was best described as a boss rush game, but an even better description would be calling it an experience foremost with an excellent game attached. You aren't going to find another game like Cuphead (at least not until it's success spawns copycats) and that is worth the full price alone. Presentation aside, there is a satisfying thrill to defeating a boss after much effort, and pushing on to see what ridiculous encounter is next. With the different letter grade scores, difficulty modes, and cooperative gameplay, there's a ton of replayability to be had for casuals and hardcore gamers alike. I would recommend Cuphead to anyone who thinks it looks interesting, especially for a low price tag of $19.99, and am eagerly awaiting to see what Studio MDHR will do next.

  • Unique and fantastic art style
  • Excellent music and sound effects
  • Air tight controls and gameplay
  • Thrilling and challenging boss encounters
  • Simple but charming story and characters
  • Couch co-op gameplay

  • Run-and-gun levels are lacking
  • Circumstantial weapons
  • Over-reliance on trial and error in some boss fights

Verdict: Buy

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Darkest Dungeon

Release date: January 19th, 2016
Developed by: Red Hook Studios
Published by: Red Hook Studios
Reviewed on: PC
Available on: PC, iOS, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita

Reviewed by: TheyKeepOnRising
Estimated play time: 50-60 hours
Completion: Defeated 5 bosses

"There can be no hope in this hell... no hope at all."

Lovecraftian horror is a genre that requires a deep understanding and delicate presentation to accomplish. While traditional horror tends to promote fear and quick scares, Lovecraftian horror uses nuances in storytelling and world-building to convey a lingering and more powerful emotion: dread. In the world of videogames, we have seen the rise of a handful of titles that deliver a faithful homage to the genre, such as Bloodborne, Amnesia: the Dark Descent, and Eternal Darkness. These games typically focus on a handful of the many themes presented in Lovecratian stories, but Darkest Dungeon takes the plunge and attempts to incorporate dozens of genre elements into a single gameplay experience.

Our story begins when you (the player) receive a letter from your ancestor, urging you to defend your heritage. Your family's ancient estate and nearby lands have fallen victim to a horrible curse, and are being consumed by an ever-growing darkness. The ancenstor states that his quest for knowledge led him to accidentally unleash a great evil, and begs you to correct his mistakes. Unable to cope with what he has done, the ancestor ends his life, shortly after sending the letter. More details about the areas and bosses are provided as you progress through the game, but in terms of story, this is the extent of it.

"The cost of preparedness - measured now in gold, later in blood."

Darkest Dungeon, in essence, is a dungeon-crawling, roleplaying game that aims to be combination unpredictable and unforgiving towards the player. The themes of hostility and madness are persistent in the story, in every gameplay mechanic, and in the various settings your heroes will drudge through. There is also a small town-management portion of the game, which exists as the permanence of the player's progress. The goal of the game is to grow a team of heroes strong enough to traverse where the source of all the evil lies: the Darkest Dungeon. At the heart of most of the gameplay mechanics is a system of randomness, meant to simulate the chaos and the uncertainty of the world.

After a couple brief introductory levels, you are free to assemble your own assortment of would-be heroes. You will always start with a full party of more traditional heroes, and will quickly expand your team for additional compositions. At the stage coach in town, you can recruit two additional heroes (before upgrades) per day to bolster your selection. The heroes provided by the stage coach are randomly assigned a character class, four class-specific abilities, and at least two quirks. Since there are fifteen total different character classes (each with several different abilities) there is a large variance from what type of party you will have early on. The personality quirks come in both good and bad flavors, and can range from powerful bonuses, to crippling weaknesses.

"Those who covet injury find it in no short supply."

Once your party is assembled, you will select a quest from one of four different areas: the ruins, the weald, the warrens, or the cove. Each area consists of a different assortment of enemies, traps, and rewards, and some heroes will have an advantage or disadvantage based on this. For example, a hero with a bleed attack will struggle against the skeleton soldiers of the ruins, but will deal high damage against the pig beasts infesting the warrens. These strategies are formed over time as the player completes several quests and gains a better understanding of each area. Unfortunately, the quests themselves offer very little variety, and most of them will be accomplished in the same manner: going room to room, fighting all monsters in your way.

Combat is turn-based and straight forward, but there are two mechanics that stand out when compared to similar games: positioning and stress. Stress is essentially a second health bar for your heroes that starts at zero and goes up when anything remotely negative happens. It goes up when your party steps on traps, when enemies cast an evil spell, if a party member says something that makes everyone uncomfortable, and many other triggers. Since it has so many triggers, stress can climb surprisingly quick, and can often be more difficult to manage than your party's health.

If a hero's stress reaches 100, they have a high chance of gaining an affliction, which causes them to act erractically, and stress out other heroes. When afflicted, a hero may intentionally hurt themselves, refuse healing, attack allies, or waste items. It's a very slippery slope, and once you have one afflicted hero, the others will follow suit shortly. If a hero's stress reaches 200, they will have a heart attack and possibly die. Basically this serves as a ticking clock to get out of the dungeon as fast as possible, because aside from a few brief remedies, stress can only be relieved back in the safety of town.

Your party is arranged into four positions your heroes can stand in: the front, the back, the front-middle, and the back-middle. The enemies also mirror this positioning as well, although some larger enemies can be in two positions at once. Each ability your heroes can use requires them to be in a specific position, and can only target specific positions on the opponents side. As an example, for the Crusader to use his melee attack, he needs to be in the front position, and can only target an enemy in the front or front-middle space. At first this mechanic seems reasonable, but enemies can use abilities to shuffle your team around, making some heroes unusable until they can be correctly arranged again. This same restriction is rarely useable against opponents, causing a one-sided and frustrating hindrance in combat.

"Suffer not the lame horse... nor the broken man."

As mentioned before, Lovecraftian horror requires a delicate presentation, and Darkest Dungeon succeeds in many ways to encapsulate the genre. The game features a narrator, the voice of your deceased ancestor from the introduction, who shares depressing but expertly crafted remarks throughout the entire game. The voice actor, Wayne June, speaks his lines with such powerful delivery that it raises Darkest Dungeon's level of quality as a whole. Fans of the narrator will notice that I used quotes from the game as my subtitles for this review.

Visually, the games 2D art style was the perfect choice for the depressing nature of its setting. Characters have no visible eyes, only dark shadows where eyes should be, which is a nod to the Lovecraftian theme of blindness to the horrible truth of existence. The environments are detailed and succumbing to entropy, while the monsters are grotesque abominations of many shapes and sizes. The distinct style of each area feels fresh when you alternate between areas, but individual rooms begin to repeat too much the more you progress. The musical score ranges from tense and dramatic in combat, to dreary and depressing in the village. Overall, the most successful feature of Darkest Dungeon is in its carefully constructed setting, and only gripes found here are minor.

Perhaps the largest reason I chose to stop playing Darkest Dungeon is how the game randomly and harshly punishes you. I am a huge fan of both Firaxis XCOM games, which similarly punish players for mistakes. In both those games I know my move was a mistake with a better alternative, and therefore I learn and grow as a player. In Darkest Dungeon, I have frequently had heroes killed or my party wiped becaused the enemies scored five critical hits in a row, causing my heroes to become afflicted from stress, and begin killing each other or themselves. There was no better way to approach the fight or compose my team, the only mistake I learned from was trusting the game to treat its player with respect.

- Excellent art style
- Great soundtrack and sound effects
- Fantastic narrator
- Challenging gameplay
- Many unique character classes
- Interesting stress mechanic

- Overabundance of mechanics
- Extreme difficulty spikes
- Many unfair deaths
- Random unpreventable punishment
- Tons of grinding required
- Repetitive gameplay

Verdict: Buy with Caution