Category Archives: Reviews

SENNHEISER GSP 500 Headset Review

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So it’s happened. Your gaming headset has finally worn out, or it’s gotten so much use it’s begun to fall apart. Perhaps you’ve always had a subpar set, and now you’re finally ready to invest in something that should last you a long time. Maybe you’re a big proponent of having the best audio quality you can afford for listening to music on your device. But you also want something you can use to communicate with your teammates.

PROS: Insane audio quality. Comfortable cups. Replacable cabling.

CONS: The absolutely most finicky people may need an accessory.

NICE TOUCH: The headset hanger that clamps onto any desk or entertainment center.

I was pretty much in that exact boat. I’ve had a number of headsets over the years. Of varying quality. Of course on the absolutely lowest end, I was pleasantly surprised by the YouUSE headset from Five Below.  A great option for those on a shoestring budget. But this is in the complete opposite end of the scale. My trusty Turtle Beach EarForce X12’s were finally falling apart. Quite literally. The material around the headband began flaking up, and the cabling began getting jumbled up. The microphone also began getting a lot of echo and feedback issues. I think it had a break in the wire somewhere. But for a long time, they were my flagship set, and even used USB power to give it some bass boost.

In any case, I had to start researching replacements. And when I began looking at the higher end of the scale, one company consistently seemed to get more praise than a lot of the more well known audio brand names. Sennheiser has been around since 1945, but here in the USA they’re not as well known except in enthusiast circles. You’re more prone to seeing the Beats ads on TV or the Turtle Beach range of products in a store. And of course, you will find PC Part vendors and peripheral makers’ names on stuff.

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Based out of Germany, Sennheiser has a storied history of highly regarded audio equipment. They make everything from microphones and speakers to industry equipment broadcasters, recording companies, and movie studios use. And since audio is their core business they put a great emphasis on getting it just so. Suffice to say, it isn’t cheap. But it is high-quality stuff you’re going to get for the price they’re asking.

I was fortunate in that while researching what I wanted, my family had done the same and chipped in at Christmas to get me today’s pair of headphones. Which are actually a tier above the set I was going to eventually purchase. The Sennheiser GSP 500 is a fantastic headset in the realm of boutique level options. You’ll find the level of presentation begins once you open the box. The inner packaging is molded to fit the headset nicely, keeping things from jostling around during shipping. Upon inspection, you’ll notice that there are no cables coming from the headset despite being billed as a wired connection.

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Well upon closer inspection you’ll see a hole near the left speaker cup. The cable on this headset is modular. And there are two cables included. The first is a Y cable for 3.5mm jacks. Basically, this is the one to use when you’re using the headset with your computer. One plug for the speaker jack on your computer, and one for the microphone. The other cable is for console setups like the Sony PlayStation 4.

The microphone is a broadcast-quality microphone. It sounds clean, it reduces background noise and in the time I’ve used it I find it rarely echoes unless I have the software settings on my computer really cranked. When playing online with other people I have yet to have anyone tell me they can’t hear me, or that the audio is too fuzzy or that I sound like I’m underwater. This has been a massive improvement over my faltering X12 set. Streaming also seems to have seen an improvement. People have yet to really complain about issues hearing my voice or not hearing my voice.

 

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On the audio front, I can’t complain about a single thing really. The first thing I noticed upon using them is just how many small details I was hearing that I seemed to miss with the other headsets I’ve owned. For example, when streaming Splatoon 2 a few days ago I could hear clanging steel beams in the distance of Sturgeon Shipyard Something that I never picked up on my X12s. During the gameplay, I even heard enemy players slowly swimming in their ink much more noticeably than I had in the past. On other headsets, I had to really try to focus my listening to find that small detail. With the GSP 500’s I didn’t really have to put that kind of effort in. The sound was clear. It was still lower than the music and weapons fire. But it was fairly obvious when people were trying to swim by slowly. That bubbling noise was much more easy to hear.

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When using the headphones for non-gaming media, the same praises can be thrown the GSP 500’s way. When watching videos, shows, and films the spatial sound quality was fantastic. The separation between characters and audio effects was very impressive, and listening to music was even better. And while this set doesn’t have anything powered or boosted by a USB cable, it doesn’t need to. The bass, treble, highs, lows come through with flying colors. It doesn’t matter what kind of music you’re into, it’s highly unlikely you’ll find anything to complain about here. In fact, it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever want to go back to the last set you’ve used.

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I also love the fact that Sennheiser had the foresight to put a volume knob on the headset itself. One of the annoyances I’ve had with other headsets I’ve owned is the placement of a volume dial on the cord. This has often resulted in the dial hitting the desk or getting stuck on the desk when I’ve moved, or have gone to get up from my chair for whatever reason. Another nice touch is that the microphone mute button is enabled when you fold up the microphone. If you need to mute yourself during a game, lift the mic back up, and you’re quiet. No flimsy switch to deal with. It’s nice and intuitive.

Of course, if you’re like me you may spend hours at the computer. If you’re using a headset instead of a set of speakers and a microphone comfort is going to be a concern. The GSP 500’s have an easily adjustable headband with a nice amount of padding. If you put them on very tightly I could see that resulting in some minor annoyances. But I’ve had no issues with comfort. These things feel great. The padding on the speaker cups is soft and very comfortable. The headset feels like a warm, inviting pair of the best earmuffs you’ve ever owned. Moreover, they’re removable. So if you plan on using them for many, years and you worry about them getting messed up and worn out from years of dirt or sweat you can replace them without having to replace the entire headset.

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My set also came with a nice plastic headset holder which nicely fits onto any desk or entertainment center. It’s a solid plastic build too. It doesn’t feel cheap, flimsy, or brittle in any way whatsoever. In fact, the headset has that same feel. None of the plastic parts feel subpar at all. The underlying construct of the hinges is a solid metal too so unless you’re just really rough on your equipment you can expect it to hold up fairly well.

The other bonus that came with mine was a desk mat sized mousepad. Not a major feature but it is a nice little inclusion that feels like a “Thank you for buying our peripheral.”. It isn’t the highest grade mousepad you’ll ever own. But it does save you from having to go buy another one down the line when the one you’re using gets too worn out to bother with anymore.

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In short; this is the best headset I’ve ever owned. As much as I loved my Turtle Beach set, this blows it out of the water. I can hear little details in games, films, shows, and songs that my last set barely picked up. The spatial qualities make everything sound much more immersive. The microphone quality is a massive jump over my previous one. The modular cables make worrying about tripping over something less anxious. (Not that you want to trip over a cable anyway.) The placement of the volume knob is a small thing, and yet something I wonder why isn’t far more commonplace.

If I wanted to really get nitpicky, I could complain, and whine about wanting even more spatial sound awareness or bass. If you buy these and find that you do in fact want more amplification Sennheiser does sell the GSX 1000 audio amplifier which is advertised in the documentation for the GSP 500. It’s a device that can better simulate a true 7.1 surround set up. But seeing how I don’t have one, I can’t tell you how much better your experience will be if you invest in one. As it stands, the GSP 500 is a winner on its own and I highly doubt you’ll have a complaint about the sound quality upon putting them on. Sennheiser also warranties the headset for two years so you can have them repaired if something does go awry at that time.

If you’re looking to invest in a high-end audio solution the GSP 500 is one of the best sounding and versatile headset options out there. I can easily recommend this one.

Final Score: 10 out of 10

Valfaris Review

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A couple of years ago now, a small independent action platformer got some attention. Slain had a brilliant art style that was combined with a soundtrack by Celtic Frost’s Curt Victor Bryant. If you wanted a video game that instantly made you think of Heavy Metal music, Slain could easily come to mind. It had a botched launch as there were a lot of technical problems. But the developers truly did overhaul everything to do customers who backed the game justice. And with Slain: Back From Hell they largely succeeded.

Valfaris is the new game from Steel Mantis. Much like Slain, it has a gristly, horrific art style. It too has a soundtrack by Curt Victor Bryant. But it seems to be advertised as more of a Contra inspired game rather than a Castlevania inspired one. Did the folks at Steel Mantis give us an exhilarating Run N’ Gun that old-school NES era Konami fans the experience they remember?

PROS: Builds on everything the developers learned when making Slain.

CONS: It’s a triumph! But it isn’t quite the Contra-like the trailer teases.

METAL: Everything you see and hear screams “Crank it to 11 & break off the knob!”

One thing you can absolutely tell if you’ve played Slain before playing this game is that Steel Mantis learned many good lessons from that process. Right on the title screen, you can notice some cool details. Just like Slain, it oozes Heavy Metal. Your character is dressed like a Warhammer 40k Chaos Marine. There are mountains of fossilized remains of people and creatures everywhere. And you can notice a faded 3D render of the face of the protagonist as if it were made for an early Windows 95, PlayStation, Saturn, or Nintendo 64 game. It brilliantly blends the eras of the 16-bit and early 32-bit and 64-bit processor powered consoles.

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Upon beginning the game you’ll see a cut scene setting up the story. As Therion, you’re off to a mysterious space station; Valfaris upon it reappearing near a red giant. It was once your home and with its discovery, you decide to investigate. Upon landing on the citadel world it immediately becomes apparent that evil forces have taken it over. So right out of the gate, you’ll be confronted with enemies.

Now while many might think of this game as a Run N’ Gun in the vein of Contra or Metal Slug, it really isn’t. You will be getting many cool weapons throughout the game, and you will be shooting a lot of stormtroopers, monsters, space insects, and more with them. But it doesn’t have that constant, “Go! Go! Go!” pace of a Run N’ Gun. Save for a couple of enemies that actually spawn enemies and a couple of auto scroller moments you can take moments to breathe. And while the game’s stages are linear, there are a number of hidden areas you’re going to want to seek out. In reality, it feels somewhere in between Konami’s two biggest franchises of that bygone era.

 

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Basically, it builds on the core gameplay introduced in Slain, and it does so beautifully. It feels very refined in the melee combat. Of course, all of the game’s enemies have an entirely different speed. So while you can indeed, expect to use parrying to your benefit you can’t expect it to be predictable. In Slain, knowing exactly when something was about to hit you was, strangely enough, easier than it is in Valfaris. Fortunately, parrying isn’t quite as necessary as it was in Slain, although there are definitely some moments where it is beneficial. So beneficial in fact, you’re going to want to get that timing down for when these moments come up.

So like Slain you have the ability to swing melee attacks, and you have a block button. The block can not only block attacks but as mentioned can also parry attacks if you hit one a split-second before it hits you. Underneath your health bar is a second bar that is tied to the blocks. Killing enemies with a melee attack can often refill it by dropping blue mana. This meter will deplete when you block attacks, and some enemies have powerful attacks that can take it to zero after one block! So there’s another reason to try to master parrying.

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Of course, the big addition to the gameplay here is the shooting. The game starts out by giving you a laser pistol and a lightsaber. But as you play through the game, you’ll discover newer weapons to use. Some of these are out in the open, but other ones will require you to find secret rooms or alternate paths in levels. Which is why the game never really hits the pace of a proper Contra game. You’ll need to take your time to look for these visual cues. It definitely is a bit peppier than Slain though. And while this game doesn’t have as many one-hit deathtraps in the background as Slain did, you still have to pay a lot of attention to the background. Some enemies really blend into the scenery and can knock you into pits, pools of acid, as well as other deadly places.

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Speaking of scenery, again, I have to point out the painstaking detail of the graphics here. There is a brilliant use of color shading and terrific palettes for every possible section. The environments are wide and varied in Valfaris. One moment you might be in a war-torn battle station. Another, you’ll be in a space bug-infested jungle where even the vines are sentient and lethal. Each stage has a multitude of bosses, most of which are insanely difficult while at the same time being completely fair. When you die in this game, 95% of the time you know it is your own fault. There are a handful of times where a Boss will pull a cheap trick at the last second or the rare platform that looks wider than it actually is. But on the whole, everything feels on the level. So the game fosters an environment where even though you’re going to die a ton, you’re also going to feel determined even if you find you’re getting mad at yourself for messing up.

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Obviously, the soundtrack goes along with everything perfectly, as Curt Victor Bryant returns from Slain to continue the shredding. Honestly, the music in this also feels a lot more varied than in Slain, as he touches on the many subgenres of Heavy Metal. There are orchestral moments that lead to a Symphonic Metal opus. There are classic Power Metal moments, Speed Metal tracks during some intense moments, and more. There isn’t much in the way of vocals here, but it’s totally fine. In fact, vocals might even distract from the action going on at any moment,

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And like Slain, you can expect to see a lot of intense, unsettling animations as enemies explode into gibs, get cut in half, smashed by parts of the scenery and more. Getting back to the gameplay, there are also Super Weapons you can use that also uses the mana the blocking function does. These do a lot of damage while consuming a lot of your meter so you may want to use it sparingly. In my playthrough, I tried to use them mostly for the more intense boss fights. Of which there are many. All of the weapons, the melee ones, guns, and super guns you find can also be upgraded at checkpoints. Throughout the game, you’ll find special items you can use to do so. Each of these can be leveled up to around four times and the cost to do so increases each time. As you play you’ll really want to think about what weapons to upgrade. Each weapon is effective on all of the enemies, but some are more beneficial on some than others. So there’s an element of Mega Man here for you to consider as well.

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When you do clear the game it will give you a pretty satisfying ending. Throughout the game, it definitely leaves some nods to Slain, but you don’t have to have played Slain to understand what is going on here. After the credits roll you’ll be given an end screen showing you how many times you died, how long it took you to beat the game as well as how many items you’ve found so that you’ll be inspired to play through the game again. It does try to get you to at least attempt a 100% completion run.

While as of this writing I didn’t see it on my physical Switch version of the game, the game’s Steam page does list a New Game + mode being added to the game. So if you want an even bigger incentive to go back to it once you’ve beaten it, you potentially have one. Ultimately though, even if you only play through it once you’ll feel very accomplished. This game pulls no punches. Even the most grizzled video game veteran will be challenged to the nth degree. But again, the whole thing generally feels fair. When you start to notice patterns and understand what you need to be doing things don’t feel so frustrating. They make you feel more determined. You can win the day, you really can. Valfaris is one game you should definitely look into. It’s gorgeous, sounds amazing and is filled with challenges. Just don’t come into it expecting a Contra-like. It is more of an Action-Platformer than Run N’ Gun. But still one of the best experiences you’ll have.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Cave Story + Review

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Cave Story probably doesn’t need much of an introduction. It was one of the earliest indie games to garner a cult following. A Metroid inspired adventure game, Studio Pixel’s effort was praised and landed on Steam, even the Nintendo Wii’s WiiWare service.

PROS: An excellent Metroidvania with a few new enhancements.

CONS: Subsequent releases added costs.

SWITCH: Between the original and enhanced content.

Released by Studio Pixel in 2004, Cave Story was originally a freeware game with some updates over time. It was continually praised in gaming magazines and sites of the time. Eventually, after being picked up by Nicalis, the game would finally see releases as a digital product in 2010, most notably on consoles.

The 3DS, in particular, has two versions of the game. There is the downloadable version off of the game which features a lot of the things represented in the + version here. The retail version, Cave Story 3D was rebuilt from the ground up in order to properly take advantage of the console’s 3D effects.

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Which takes us to Cave Story +. What makes this version of the game different than the original release or its other many ports? Well out of the gate there is a big one: Graphics. Cave Story + has an updated look. Things look much sharper and as a result, you can make out a lot of little details you might have missed if you’ve played one of the earlier releases. The soundtrack has also been overhauled with enhancements. The result is the same songs you know and love, just in a much more produced form. It feels a lot like when you hear the difference between a stock Sega Master System soundtrack and the same songs on an FM Sound Unit. Undoubtedly some will prefer the original sound or look of either the graphics or audio. So Cave Story + will allow you to choose the original release’s video and sound or these enhanced versions. They also add a famitracker version of the soundtrack so if you want more of an NES -esque sound that is also an option. Other than that, there are challenges you can unlock as well as characters to use in a two-player version of the campaign.

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Cave Story + is basically the same game as the original release with the minor tweaks outlined above. Though there is also a new Wind Fortress area here. If you’ve never played Cave Story, you play the role of a Robot named Quote. You start out in a cave (hence the title) but before long, you’ll find yourself in a village of creatures who resemble rabbits. These creatures are called Mimigas and are quickly terrorized by a mysterious mad scientist. He calls himself “The Doctor”, and employs a couple of traitorous Mimigas to do his evil bidding. They kidnap one of the key Mimigas from the village, and so it’s up to you to rescue them.

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And from here the game begins to open up in the way the classic Metroid games do, allowing you to explore new areas as well as finding new ways to enter previous ones. One of the big hooks in the game are teleporters that let you fast travel between these sections. Combat in the game is entirely different than in Metroid or Castlevania though. While this is often thrown in the hat of names when the word Metroidvania comes up, there isn’t any real melee combat to speak of. It’s much closer to Mega Man in some respects, as well as early Commodore 64 games like Turrican. You will need some pixel-perfect jumping skills. And you’ll also have to become accustomed to the floaty gravity of Eurocentric computer platformers of the 1980s. Quote has a little bit of slide momentum when landing so when you need to land on that one tiny brick, keep that in mind.

Most of the weapons in the game allow you to shoot horizontally in a line as well as vertically. Though it is much like their later game, Kero Blaster. So there are no arcs. It’s straight up and directly in front of you. There is also an interesting leveling system in Cave Story. You have health pickups. You can also find items to lengthen the health bar. But you also have a weapon upgrade system. You can fill the meter of any of your weapons by picking up chips that resemble Doritos. Eat enough of them and they’ll become more powerful. You can max them all out at level three where they will do an insane amount of damage. It’s imperative you do this when encountering bosses as most of them are proverbial tanks and you’ll need to take down their health quickly.

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But there is a twist. When you take damage, not only does your health meter go down, so does your weapon meter! That means your weapons can actually decrease in power and if you get swarmed by baddies not only will you be coughing up oil, you’ll also barely break their skin when you shoot them. Fortunately, as with Metroid, there are times you’ll be able to farm small enemies to fill up before you move onto a tough horde or a boss encounter.

One really nice thing Cave Story has going for itself is the wealth of secrets and multiple endings. Depending on your decisions and on your puzzle-solving skills you can find a slew of items to give you a competitive edge near the end of the campaign as well as end your quest with a few different ends to the story. The best of which has quite a bit of fanfare and pizazz going along with it. It also gives the speedrunner crowd a lot to shoot for as well as anyone who is obsessed with 100 percent completion of any game they play.

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As mentioned earlier the cleaner graphics are quite good. But the original game was no slouch either. No matter which aesthetic choice you decide to roll with, the character designs look great. And no matter which version of the OST you play it’s going to feel right at home with everything else. All of this said, Cave Story is a lot of fun, but it also isn’t something you’ll blow through on your first run. There are certainly some difficult challenges near the final areas of the game you’ll uncover and while it can feel cruel at times, it is fair about it. The game also gives you a few difficulty settings to choose from.

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Overall, there’s a reason why this game has been so lauded for over 15 years. While I don’t know you need to pick up the + version here if you’ve played an earlier version, those who have never played it would do well to pick up this one for the bonus content. And with the Switch version (That I played here) the added portability of being on a dockable tablet makes it versatile. But if you don’t have Nintendo’s hybrid, the game is equally viable on any platform it appears on. And with fairly low requirements nearly anyone with a computer can play it there. In short, whatever way you have to play it, you should play this one. The general greatness overshadows the minor problems. Sure, it doesn’t have the most original story, but the character dialogue and design are top-notch. You’ve explored in a ton of games, and yet many don’t do exploration as well as this does.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

The Legendary STARFY Review

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Nintendo has always been known for its platformers. Most would argue they’re the Kings. Super Mario Bros. Donkey Kong and Kirby are three of the most popular franchises the world over. Each of them involves going through a plethora of themed worlds on a quest with a playable mascot. And while that premise may sound similar the execution is different within each. Often to well deserved critical acclaim. It’s very rare to come away from one of their titles visibly upset with it. Other M notwithstanding, and even that game was far from the broken mess so many other games turn out to be.
But way back in 2009, another game was quietly released here in the United States featuring a new character that appeared to be a cuter Ristar.

Maybe it was the fascination with other games at the time. Maybe it was the mass market fascination with Nintendo’s Wii or the Call Of Duty sensation Activision struck proverbial oil with around that time. But in any case, this was probably a bad time for us to have crawled back under our rocks and gone back to whatever we thought was hip. Because in the process we missed a cool newish IP at the time.

PROS: Terrific graphics. Fun level design. Humor.

CONS: Probably takes more cues from other Nintendo platformers than it should.

HEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!: Everything Starfy says sounds like this.

I say “newish” because Starfy is actually a long-running series in Japan that started out on the Game Boy Advance. For whatever reason Nintendo didn’t think the series would translate to the North American market very well. But suddenly they changed their tune when the Nintendo DS was striking it big.
In this game, you take the Star Prince on an adventure (I forgot to mention Starfy is royalty.) when a mysterious rabbit in an astronaut costume crashes through his ceiling. The rabbit freaks out and runs away. So Starfy is sent on a quest to figure out just who the heck this bunny is and where he came from. A few stages in you’ll figure out that his name is Bunston and that the long-eared mascot has amnesia.

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The Legendary Starfy is in many ways its own animal, but it does borrow a couple of things from Nintendo’s better-known platformers. You’ll have the Super Mario Bros. 3 map structure. Each of the worlds you play through has an environmental theme and you’ll clear areas on the map to progress. Things on the maps often change when you clear a stage. But, it also will draw many comparisons to Kirby because of the cuteness factor of it all. Starfy looks like he could come from one of those HAL powered games. From the adorable smile to the cute “HEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!” he’ll exclaim. And there are secret rooms as well in many of the stages.

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Finding these rooms will often give you an arcade challenge to complete. If you can do so there are a number of rewards for your success. Sometimes it’s new cosmetic items to dress your Starfy in. Other times its chat logs that explain more of the backstory. And in other cases, they lead to secret exits that open up new hidden levels on the map, which have secrets of their own.
Over the course of the game’s worlds, you’ll find most of the stages feature a lot of underwater sections. That’s due to the fact that many of the game’s mechanics are centered around swimming. Starfy starts out with some light twirl attacks, and there’s even a bit of jumping you’ll need to do when you’re not submerged. Most of the stages are surprisingly large with a lot of health pellets to collect. There are also hidden gems you can find that extend the number of hearts on your life meter. A big chunk of the fun in this game is exploring stages to find these items and the aforementioned secrets.
The combat in it does open up over time though. You’ll get upgraded swimming attacks, jumping skills and more. Plus as time goes on you’ll find items that allow Bunston to merge with Starfy. These mergers turn the two characters into different creatures you’ll need to use in order to solve puzzles, defeat certain enemies, or even access secret areas.

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In fact, many early stages have sections you can’t access until much later in the game when you have collected all of Bunston’s merger items. This fosters a sense of replay value as on top of the secret stages, these areas are more content for you to go looking for on a second run. Adding to this replay value is Starly, Starfy’s Sister. Throughout the game, you can call on her for help, and there is a two-player mode you can access through the DS’ local wireless option where you each can use a character. But if you clear the game, there is a bonus world that opens up where you play as Starly. Starly also plays a little bit differently than her default Brother does. So you can have a largely different experience using her.

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The game doesn’t have the high challenge of the Super Mario Bros. tougher entries, nor does it have the lower bar set by the Kirby games. It’s pretty easy going although there are a few moments where the game does surprise you with a puzzle or a boss. And most of the bosses here are really cool. A few of them even take advantage of the Nintendo DS dual-screen setup to give you a little bit of added depth. The final confrontation at the end can actually be a bit cheap at times, but once you master the pattern it isn’t too much of a spike.

One thing The Legendary Starfy does exceptionally well is its visual style. It’s a blend of 2D sprite work and 3D backgrounds. In a way, it’s a lot like Falcom’s releases of Ys on Steam. But it’s even better here taking advantage of a lot of colors. Even when you’re in kind of dreary areas in the game it’s still very colorful. A lot of bright reds, blues, greens with terrific gradients. Sprites are crisp and feature a lot of great details as well as a simulated cel-shaded look. It’s a beautiful game. Even though the 3D graphics aren’t the most exciting or detailed models, they still fit the world well and don’t really clash with the sprite work.

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The game also has full-motion videos that resemble animated comic book panels. These push the story along as you meet up with certain characters, fight bosses, and discover key areas that trigger them. Fortunately, you can press Start to skip these if you do get stuck on a certain boss or puzzle so you don’t have to watch a 2-minute segment every time you have to continue. And while I can’t say there are a lot of songs that stay in your head long after you’re done playing, they are all something that fit in the environment well.

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When you get done with the main game’s campaign and the bonus world you still aren’t fully done because you can go back to replay old stages to find new areas you didn’t find previously. Among some of them are minigames you may not have already found during your campaign. There are five of them. Once you’ve found these you can play these separately from the main game alone or with friends using the DS’s wireless functions.

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Overall, Starfy is a rather fantastic platformer. It may borrow a little bit from Nintendo’s mainline platformers at times giving an impression it might be derivative. But it really is far from the case. The majority of the game’s water-themed levels leads to some unique gameplay. Plus the bright, cheery, optimism of the game’s environment is a change of pace. Even from something like Mario or Kirby. It’s too bad the earlier games were never localized because Starfy is pretty great. It’s lighthearted, it’s fun and genuinely funny. Tose’s little Star has an infectious charm about himself even if the only thing he ever says is “HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!”. The Legendary STARFY is one legend you’ll want to add to your Nintendo DS collection.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

The Art Of Splatoon Review

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For those who don’t know, I’m not someone who has the privilege of making any considerable income off of my online endeavors. Like most of you, I have another ongoing job while this is largely a hobby with the potential to become a side hustle. And to be frank, never go into a passion with the express purpose of being the main gig. If it happens, great. But you’ll more than likely make nothing, or worse, get paid in exposure and burnout faster than a cashier dealing with murderous hyenas on a Black Friday.

But fortunately, one perk in my pedestrian work is a paid week of time off. Usually, I use it during a convention week or to maybe, actually go somewhere. But with the need to replace my car, get a phone, and some unforeseen expenses cropping up I couldn’t really afford to see much of the world, or much beyond my State. So I went with what we call a “STAYcation”. A week where we stay up all night, sleep in or do nothing at all. And we LOVE it.

PROS: 320 pages of assets and artwork associated with Splatoon.

CONS: If you’re not a Splatoon fan you might appreciate it slightly less.

ASPIRING: Artists and developers may want to look into this book as well as fans.

Anyway, if you followed me at all online you would have seen I used a big part of my time moving the needle ahead, then behind, and then ahead again in Splatoon 2’s Ranked Modes. I streamed a large amount of it on my Twitch channel and had a blast most of the time. I even titled them “Staaaaying Fresh on STAYcation.” I thought it was rather clever. Although there was one point where I had a severely bad run and became more tilted than a five-year-old who wasn’t allowed to get an overpriced Superman figure at CVS. At least it wasn’t the breakdown GunstarHeroes had while playing through Battletoads on the Game Gear. Also, you should follow GunstarHeroes because he’s a really swell guy who runs a very entertaining stream whether he’s having a stellar run or not.

But it’s no secret I’m a big fan of Nintendo’s competitive shooter. It has a unique take on the idea and some great implementation of its ideas in more traditional modes. On top of a fantastic single-player campaign. It’s no wonder over two games the new IP has slowly been building a competitive as well as an involved community of fans of all stripes. This is especially true in Japan, where there are even physical releases of the games’ soundtracks. As well as live concerts, albums of those concerts and even a number of behind the scenes books of sorts.

Imagine my surprise when I found out Dark Horse Comics actually published an English translation of one of these books. I found a lone copy on one of my STAYcation days when I went from my area of Connecticut to the Shoreline for a change of scenery and pace. Frankly, it’s amazing. And I don’t only say that as a fan of these video games. Even if you don’t care about the franchise, this is a very insightful book because you can see the amount of love and talent the artists behind the game put into it. There are almost 400 pages of concept art, sketches, preproduction art, postproduction art, test renders, promotional art, animatic layouts, you name it.

Considering how many things go into a game these days the amount of stuff here is staggering. And this focuses solely on art assets. That’s before the soundtrack, sound effects, voice acting, or the coders or animators or the other load of things involved. Unfortunately, I can’t show off a lot of it here seeing how I don’t know how much would get me into hot water. But suffice it to say as a fan of videogames this is something you may consider picking up.

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I would also recommend it to anybody who is an aspiring artist because of the peek behind the curtain. You can get a glimpse into some of the techniques that were used for the game and again, you can really appreciate the amount of care and detail in every piece of it. Even seemingly small things like the billboard art and logos for fictional brands, or a texture used for the world’s streets, or a backdrop used for a skybox have an importance you don’t always get to appreciate when you’re busy trying not to get killed by an Octarian sniper as you’re playing a stage.

These are the kinds of hardcovers I wish there were more of, especially for games or other creative endeavors I become a big fan of. But many games don’t foster enough of an audience for publishers to see the return of investment on. While I wouldn’t be surprised in the least to see a multitude of things like this for Fortnite, or Final Fantasy or Grand Theft Auto or Overwatch see the light of day, even popular games like Splatoon have often been seen as not quite popular enough.

Thankfully, this one has done at least well enough that Dark Horse appears to be releasing a translated edition of The Art Of Splatoon 2 later this year. In any case, those who have been interested in seeing just how much goes into the average Nintendo game’s artwork would do well to give this book a look. Or anybody interested in making art assets for any video game for that matter. When we play a game it’s easy to miss a lot of this sort of thing because to take your eyes off of a goal can often lead to a fail state.

Likewise, I would recommend this to artists, or anybody who just appreciates great artwork in general. There are all sorts of styles, techniques and more to be seen here. Watercolors, acrylics, line work, T-poses, even a bit of the bubble method. And even as a novice one can see that any given piece of art in this book took hours, possibly even days to get the way the creators wanted or needed it to be. If this book does nothing else for you, it will make you appreciate the work that goes into games just a little bit more.

Obviously, for fans of Splatoon, this one really is a no brainer as you’ll get to see the artistic evolution of the character designs, world-building and many of the ideas born during the creation of the original Wii U title. Everything imaginable is here, even including the fonts and typefaces used in the Inkling and Octoling languages throughout the game.

The presentation is great too. Not only is this printed on a very high-quality paper stock but there are even little clear screen printed textures on the hardcover background that only show up in certain angles of light. The Art Of Splatoon may be the art book with SPLATtitude. But the book is one of the best of its kind even rivaling Tim Lapetino’s Art Of Atari which is another fantastic artbook fans of video games ought to check out. If you’re a video game fan interested in seeing the level of work that goes into a game these days, The Art Of Splatoon does indeed, stay fresh.

Final Score: 10 out of 10

Razer Phone 2 Review

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For years I’ve always gotten around with prepaid burner phones. I don’t generally spend much time on a phone. I’ve rarely used one for much more than emergencies, save for the odd trip or a convention visit. But my LG 305C Tracfone has finally gotten so long in the tooth it barely holds a charge. A battery costs more than the phone and when it does work it drops calls and gets texts sometimes days after they’ve been sent. Even the web browser support has been abandoned. It thinks all links are malicious. Good luck trying to look up directions on it if you get lost. At least the built-in Facebook app still works. Even if none of its basic features work properly anymore.

PROS: 120hz Screen. Powerful GPU. Cooling System. Gaming Performance. Funky light.

CONS: Slightly older CPU. Mid Tier cameras. Accessories are uncommon at retail.

GAMING: It’s still a phone, so you’ll have to search hard for games that aren’t freemium.

Why not get a smartphone a decade ago when they were commonplace? It was a combination of my limited need for one and having to be thrifty in some areas. I once worked in tech sales. I knew just how expensive contracts were back then. Many locked you into a device for two years, and they had caps on everything. Over the years prepaid solutions from carriers were cheaper. Yes, you still had to pay rates based upon what you did on the phone. But you only paid for what you used. If you were like me and mainly had it for a roadside emergency (or occasionally using it to check social media while getting coffee) paying close to $100 or more a month wouldn’t seem feasible.

Over the years though, the big carriers began offering their own no-contract alternatives which have only gotten less expensive. The smaller prepaid names have adopted better phones and even rent the lines from the big players. Ultimately, buying a phone unlocked and taking it to a carrier isn’t too much more of an expense. There’s also the fact that my friends and relatives have been haranguing me about getting a smartphone for what seems like forever.

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So these factors have finally led me to get a smartphone for myself. So I ended up rolling with the Razer 2 phone. It’s a phone many people have never heard of. It’s made by a company known for gaming keyboards, mice and respectable headphones. Somewhere along the line, they decided to make a phone. The original Razer was a cult hit. It competed well enough that many PC gamers picked it up and loved it. So a sequel went into production. So why rock the Razer 2 over one of the Apple or Samsung phones? Well, there are a few reasons. But first I’ll mention what may be obvious to some. If you already have an iPhone and love it,  some of those apps are First-Party. So you’re locked into that ecosystem. Coming over to this means there are some things on that phone that won’t carry over to this one or another phone powered by an Android OS.

The Razer 2 has some really cool things I noticed about it right away. Most notably the audio. The sound quality is excellent. If you put a lot of music on your phone and use it as a media player you will not be disappointed here. It has a clear, stereo audio with some nice bass and treble to boot. It also works with the SYNC software in my Ford Fiesta. So playing music in my car without having to plug in an Auxilary cable is great. It also means I can use the Google Maps GPS function on long trips and hear it through the car audio. But even if I was still driving my old car, the speakers on the phone are so good it doesn’t matter. You don’t even have to turn the volume up all that much.

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The screen is also the other major thing of note. With a 120hz refresh rate you really do notice it in movies and shows. While I don’t do that often on it, I can see watching YouTube videos and Twitch Livestreams on it if I go somewhere where there’s a public hotspot knowing I’ll be there a while. Both of which I tested out at the local Starbucks a mile away from home. They worked fantastically, especially Twitch. So much so that I was getting questions about it from employees and customers alike. The 1440 x 2560 resolution also ensures things look crisp.

Less important, but still fun is the customizable LED on the back of the phone. It comes with an app from Razer called Chroma where you can go in and tweak it. You can have it stay on a single color, fade between colors and patterns, or even tweak the frequency of time it stays on. You can even disable it entirely if you don’t care about it and want to save power consumption on your battery.

The phone also has something called Vapor Chamber Cooling. It’s basically an upper ended shield to displace heat evenly throughout the phone. More or less behaving like a heatsink. It’s something few users will ever open up to examine. But it does work toward improving performance a bit. All electronics heat up from intensive use. Ask any PC gamer with a water-cooled tower. Keeping them as close to room temperature as possible does help. Getting too hot can actually damage components. Which is why even my old Tracfone would shut off on its own if I forgot it in the car on a very humid summer day. Most devices will shut off in this case. But if they get hot enough during normal operation they can take performance hits. If you’re playing a game you don’t want random slowdown or drops due to heat.

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Can I say unequivocally that this one feature is going to give you a win over someone else? No. But it’s a small thing that shows they’ve tried to go the extra mile. Speaking of which, the packaging is over-the-top when it comes to trying to impress you. The box has a gatefold cover, similar to that of a high-end hardcover edition of a novel. You then get a screen printed greeting from Razer. Underneath that lie a few compartments for the included phone, USB C to mini cable, AC Adapter for said cable, and a USB C to audio cable if you want to use wired headphones or an auxiliary cable with it.

The phone itself has a great texture on it too. It’s smooth but with enough of a simple groove to keep hold of it. This allows for liquid to just run off of it. If it rains, the dog dries itself next to you, or you spill a soda in the car, there’s a very good chance the phone is still going to work. That said, I still recommend getting a good case and tempered glass screen protector for it. The Warranty is limited after all and won’t cover negligence or abuse. I obviously don’t recommend spilling things on the phone on purpose either.

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The phone also doesn’t come bloated with a ton of stuff in it. Other than Razer’s own utility you basically have the core features of Android OS and little else. That’s another thing you may want to consider when getting a phone. Much like an OEM computer from a company like Dell, for example, these come preloaded with a lot. Many apps run when the phone turns on, using up a big chunk of the memory. Some new phones run like a 4-year-old device out of the box as a result. In the time I’ve had this phone (a few days), I’ve only put on the Nintendo Online app, Steam app, Twitch app, Facebook app, tinkered with the Zedge app. and bought a game or two for performance testing.  None of this really impacted the performance of the phone that much.

I was able to move some stuff from my PC to it to personalize it fairly simply. It requires you pick up another USB C to USB cable of course. Do note you’ll want a good one that can also carry power. The cheap Dollar Store one I had knocking around wouldn’t work at all with it, so I had to buy something more substantial. Once I did, moving files was a breeze. Windows 10 just saw the phone as a storage device, and I was able to move pictures and music to the appropriate folders. Now I can customize my contacts to have different ringtones and images.

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The phone also supports wireless charging though I don’t have a dock to test that function out with. But the built-in wireless network card works very well. It works with every major 802.11 frequency and even has two Multi Input Multi Output antennas on it. The Bluetooth chipset worked like a charm in my car as noted earlier. The website shows the stock version of the phone comes with Android 8.1 but mine came with version 9 on it. So they likely haven’t updated the specs section of the page.

There are two small drawbacks with the phone though. The cameras in it are quite good, but if you’re into taking a ton of photos, and video you’ll find some of the Samsung solutions have better specs in the same range of phones. Mainly due to a more color-accurate image sensor. Be that as it may, I was still impressed with what I did get out of the Razer 2’s Sony cameras. I was still able to take a 4k video clip of my Sister’s Yorkie that looked impressive. And the regular photos are still so good all but the most discerning shutterbug who loves to nitpick won’t have anything to complain about.

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The other thing to be aware of is that while this does have a powerful Adreno 630 GPU for processing graphics, the Snapdragon 845 CPU in it is a little bit older than the SM8150 in the latest Samsung Galaxy line of phones. A couple of other things to be aware of is the fact that being a little more esoteric means the Razer 2 phone accessories you might want will have to be ordered online. It’s slim pickings at retail. I should also note that those looking for something lightweight might not be happy with the added heft some of the features add to the package.

Still, the phone has more than enough packed into it that it’s a fantastic option to consider. The phone has 8GB of RAM which can run multiple apps nicely and has a bit of headroom for some of the more demanding cell phone games. And it supports up to a 1TB microSD card. So if you are a bit of a power user who has gobs of apps, multimedia, and business files on your phone storage shouldn’t be much of an issue. It comes with 64GB internally.

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And while I am not a big fan of the practices of a lot of freemium games that are prevalent on tablets and phones, there are a few traditional games you can buy on a cell phone. So I nabbed a couple for the purpose of this review. VVVVVV (Which I reviewed forever ago on PC) and DOOM (1993) (A game that needs no introduction). Both games performed very well, with no real slowdown to speak of. VVVVVV’s amazing soundtrack continued to prove the Razer 2 has a winning sound. DOOM ran exceptionally smooth and was fairly responsive. One thing I will say is you’ll still probably want to find a compatible Bluetooth controller for traditional games like these. While the games ran wonderfully, using the touch screen gestures takes a lot of getting used to. In the case of DOOM even more so as Bethesda’s solution for controlling all of the various functions is kind of weird. You hold the phone sideways, as the case with most phone games. But the screen is broken up into three sections. On the left, you can swipe your WASD movements. On the right, you can swipe your thumb about for mouselook.

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You tap the upper center for activating switches or doors while the lower center pulls up a weapon wheel. If you want to toggle running you either have to double-tap the WASD section which it doesn’t always detect or go into a menu and set “Always Run” to “On”.  Double-tapping then holding down on the right shoots your weapons. This is a weird layout because you have to take your hand off of the right when you go to activate a switch or a door. Sometimes you may find you need to do this while firing which requires some contortion. This isn’t a problem with the phone, you’ll run into this on any phone that can run the game. But it’s something I’m mentioning here while it’s on my mind. That said, DOOM looks wonderful on the Razer 2. It does come up with the same log-in screen as the Switch version (You can tap “Later” instead of having to log into a Bethesda account) which tells me the Switch version is likely the same game as the Switch is essentially Android tablet tech inside.

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In any case, if you do play a lot of games on your phone, This one definitely has a leg up on other models out there as it plays them well. The graphics are sharp. The colors pop. The games can run at fairly high frame rates. The 120hz refresh rate even feels more responsive. It’s very noticeable on more demanding titles. If you’re looking for a phone that can play bigger budget experiences, it’s definitely one to consider. The thing is, I would still choose a phone based on the other things it can do over gaming at this point. Unless there’s a particular title you’re going to play a lot of as again, the vast majority of cell phone games are using some sort of free to start model, rather than a traditional experience you pay for once. Be that as it may If you want a phone that can handle that Fortnite itch without too many performance dips I think you’ll love the Razer 2. At the time of this writing, it’s also been halved in price by the manufacturer making it a very attractive alternative to some of the higher tier solutions by Apple and Samsung.

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

ASTRAL CHAIN Review

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PlatinumGames has always been known for its fast-paced action games. MadWorld took the brawler in an interesting comic book meets film noir direction while implementing a scoring system based on how brutal you could be. (A location People Can Fly arrived in when they made Bulletstorm as well it would seem.) Bayonetta made for a great action hack n’ slash game that implemented guns, swords, and interdimensional mechanics as well as themes. The sequel improved upon all of that stuff. Vanquish was a terrific third-person combat game with great cover shooting mechanics. The Wonderful 101 was a quirky action game that had elements of all of these all while doing things on the Wii U gamepad that couldn’t be done on other consoles of the time.

In short, this is a studio that has always had a knack for making fun, action games that seem to go a step beyond similar ones. It’s rare they put out something nobody likes. Every project also seems to have something special about it. Even if there are a million other games of a similar vein, there’s something that stands out about it.

PROS: Brisk, rewarding gameplay. Replayability. Storyline & characters. Co-op.

CONS: Menus lag. Inconsistency reading chain jumps.

COPS: Fighting crime in a future time.

Astral Chain continues that trend of great action gaming with visual flair. When you start the game you’re dropped into a character creation menu where you choose to either play through the game as a male or female police officer. Once you choose one and customize them the game begins. Whichever you didn’t choose appears in the storyline as your twin. Once the game starts it immediately begins to feel like a big-budget action movie in the vein of Timecop or Robocop.  You’ll find yourself riding a motorcycle in a tunnel when you answer a call. This immediately transitions to a rail shooter filled with the kinds of stuff you’d see in a Dolph Lundgren vehicle.

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When you get through it you’re off to fight off a tough challenge, and this is when the game’s storyline picks up. As new recruits, you and your twin sibling have been sent to fight crime for NEURON the police force for the bustling city of Ark. Without giving away too much, the gist is these aliens from another dimension begin crossing the Astral Plane and kidnapping people, giving them diseases or both it’s time for our heroes to investigate.

 

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And investigate you will. Because even though this game is in many ways the action game you’d expect from the people who brought out those other games it is also a police serial. Over time you’ll begin to see the pattern the game has to offer. You’ll have a combat section, and that will be followed many times by a detective section. In these parts of the game, you’ll have a primary objective to perform or complete, but before you can do so, you’ll need to interrogate people to get information.

You don’t need *all* of the information to move on, but if you do go ahead and get everything there are bonuses to be had. During any of the sections, there are also side missions you can do. Sometimes these will get you items like medicine to heal with or a booster to increase your attack damage. Other times they will be things that can actually affect the storyline to some degree.

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Another cool thing they’ve done in these investigative sections is sprinkling a dash of Batman: Arkham Asylum in here. In its own way of course. You’ll have some sections where you’ll have futuristic recordings of events where, much like Batman, you have to deduce what happened to get more evidence or track a character down.

And throughout the game, you’ll have side missions that take you into the Astral Plane for some enemy closets to open up on you. Surviving these, as with other side missions, can net you some bonuses. Some of these aren’t just out in the open you’ll need to find them. How do you find them? In many cases, you’ll have to employ the use of a Legion. What are Legions? Well, you’ll discover through the storyline that the aliens from the Astral Plane are known as Chimeras. Among these Chimeras are Legions. These are more powerful aliens that have specific abilities. In fact, NEURON uses them as Police animals after taking control of them and using them to fight crime, there is a point where they get loose and go rogue.

 

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Of course, yours (a Legion with swords for arms) doesn’t escape. So this leads back to the structure. You’ll do detective work, then go hacking n’ slashing. Eventually, you’ll get to a fantastic boss, and upon defeating it you’ll go to the police station. The police station is a preparatory area where you’ll talk to colleagues, use a training room, buy or upgrade weapons, maintain your Legions, buy medical supplies and even use the bathroom.

It is also where you’ll be introduced to the game’s comic relief character; Lappy. Lappy is a giant mascot meant to keep youngsters on the straight and narrow. But they also show you around the station through a series of jump scares. They also narrate the training exercises as well as become a part of the storyline.

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You’ll want to listen to Lappy though. While they sound suspiciously like Sandy Cheeks they do cover some of the more advanced techniques for solving puzzles and getting around traps. All while getting accustomed to using the various Legions. After you leave the police station you’ll continue the cycle of missions. But the thing is the game is so engrossing with its story, characters and combat you will barely notice it. Even if you do notice it you won’t care.

Throughout the campaign, you’ll come across the other Legions. When you do you’ll have a bit of a fight on your hands because you also have to take control of them again. When you do, you’ll be using them not only in a combative role, but to solve puzzles too. They also add a bunch of replay value, because you can go back to previous areas with them to find secrets or side missions you might not have been able to before. You’ll also find items over the course of the game that you can add RPG like buffs to each of your captured Legions. You can add moves, or unlock new abilities or simply make them deal out more damage.

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You also can’t leave out the Legion all game long. They have a meter that empties, and if it does there’s a cooldown period before you can use them again. There are of course items you can find to reduce the consumption but make a good habit of putting them away for a little bit mid-battle for a few seconds. In each stage, you can also try to collect a bunch of the red matter poisoning the world to make your way toward other goals.

As for the combat itself, it feels classic PlatinumGames. There is a slew of elements that you may have seen in other games they made. Notably Bayonetta. The RPG elements can also feel a little like the ones implemented in Bayonetta, although I’m reminded more of The Wonderful 101. Be that as it may, they are expanded here. On top of that, the use of the Legions really makes this game stand out a lot. You’re essentially controlling two characters. One hand is your Timecop and the other is your Legion. You can do a bunch of different attacks between both of the characters. Plus you’ll eventually reclaim all of the missing Legions. You can switch between them on the fly, which you’ll need to do as some enemies are weaker to certain Legions. Plus as I alluded to before, some Legions can access some areas when exploring the others can’t. Or in some battles, you might need to switch between them depending on the form a certain boss may take.

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Among them is the Sword Legion you start with which fights with rather brisk sword swings, and can also be used for recon moments. There’s also the Arrow Legion which is a great option for airborne enemies or getting the jump on distant ones. The Armor Legion is basically a hulking beast of armor you can wear or send out to beat the tar out of bad guys. It can also be used to move things. Then there’s the K9 Legion which behaves like a dog. You can have it dig through things to find items or have it chase a scent. You can also ride it like a horse! And finally, the Axe Legion which can put out a forcefield, destroy key objects, or attack things with an ax.

If all of that wasn’t enough, you’ll want to use the IRIS system the game implements. This puts the visuals into a sort of wireframe mode which allows you to spot some objectives, items, or weak points easier. It’s also a handy way for you to use stealth tactics when necessary. It’s also a must if you want to measure that boss health. And it does all of this under some of the most appealing visuals on the Nintendo Switch. PlatinumGames has always had good looking games but they really push some great details in this highly stylized action game. There are some terrific vistas you’ll see. Some wonderful skylines. Some abstract art, and some unsettling yet minimalist sections as you visit parts of the city and Astral Plane.

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The characters are also splendid with a nice blend of modern, and futuristic themes. It shouldn’t be a surprise as they brought in Masakazu Katsura who is famous in Anime and Manga circles. He’s best known for Tiger & Bunny, but he’s been in those worlds for years. His character designs pop off of the screen here. And that isn’t to say everything in the game is top tier visually. There are some things in the background that are clearly enabling lower textures or details. Sometimes you may notice a certain wall or floor looks a little flat. But overall these decreases in visual fidelity are minor in the grand scheme of things. You’ll likely be too busy being mesmerized by flashy finishing moves, and trying to survive waves upon waves of enemies.

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And all of this is married to a storyline that is honestly quite good. It has characters you’ll get attached to. It has some swerves. Some you’ll see coming. Some you won’t. It has some terrific performances by the voice actors involved. And while the story does have some of the tropes you may expect to see in a tale like this, it still earns some genuine emotional responses. Going back and analyzing things in it is something you’ll likely find some depth in. It isn’t going to be as profound, and thought-provoking as some of the films or novels you’ve read. But it does go deeper than a simple “This is the antagonist. This is what they did. Stop them.” you might expect to get from most action games. And the fact your decisions impact how things play out a bit means you’ll want to go back to it for a second or third playthrough. And before I forget, the soundtrack is great too. There are some insanely good heavy metal tracks when the action heats up, and a few electronic pop tracks that fit the theme well when exploring, or sleuthing.

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There are a couple of problems I did have while playing the game though. Mainly with the chain jump mechanic, you’ll get to use at some point in the game. The problem with it is that in a couple of situations it isn’t clear where you’re going to land. Unfortunately, this means you may lose a ton of energy or even a life missing a jump that you (at least in your mind) should have made with no problems. These aren’t frequent moments. At least they weren’t when I played through it. But it is something to make a mental note of. The other thing is the game sometimes has inconsistent load times between areas. Again, nothing that makes you crazy, it’s just a strange minor annoyance.

Still, it’s a fantastic game overall. One I highly recommend picking up even if you think it might not be your cup of tea. There is a bevy of difficulty settings as well. There are your usual Easiest, Easy, Normal, Hard, scale. But there is also a separate option for using the Legions. You can either control them manually, or you can have the A.I. control them. Frankly, even though it might take you a level or two to get used to them (there’s a lot of functions you can do with any given one of them),  it’s far better than relying on the computer to do things. That said, it is a nice option for those who feel they need more time to figure out how their main character works.

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And if all of that isn’t enough for you it has a cooperative mode where one player controls the police officer and the second player controls the Legion whenever they’re needed. In an age where most any multiplayer option is online-focused, it’s nice to see a console game take the classic couch approach. That said, be prepared to have some classic arguments with your pals if they can’t keep up with you. Even on lower difficulty settings, Astral Chain is quite the challenge.

Ultimately though, Astral Chain is a must-play release. It’s classic PlatinumGames through and through. But it also improves on many of the features introduced in earlier games while giving you a bunch of new features and a wealth of content. This is a game you’ll complete and then want to replay to either find things you missed before or to see how different choices affect the story. There’s also the fun of turning up the difficulty as you replay it for an even bigger challenge. As contemporary action games go, Astral Chain is a keeper.

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

ION FURY Review

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In recent years we’ve had a few high-profile games that hearken back to the early days of the PC FPS. There was a pretty great Rise Of The Triad reboot, a few years ago. Bethesda brought back DOOM, and New Blood Interactive has hit it out of the park by publishing DUSK, and AMID EVIL. But where all of these games bring back the elements of old using modern technology, Voidpoint went for the new game in the 1990s mold a different way. They actually went with technology that was released in the 1990s.

PROS: An excellent use of the 1996 3DRealms Build Engine in an all-new game!

CONS: There isn’t much for you beyond a terrific single-player campaign.

JON ST. JOHN IS BACK: But not as the gun-toting action hero he made famous.

Ion Fury had a few swerves on the lead up to release. When I bought it in Early Access eons ago it was called Ion Maiden. And it was one bug-ridden demo level. Once the issues were hashed out, it was one excellent demo level. But it hit other speedbumps like a potential lawsuit from a major record label and Iron Maiden because of the letter “R”.

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But a lot has changed since then and now that the game is officially out we have a new name, full-fledged campaign, and some other bonus content for good measure. Voidpoint also built this entire game on the very same technology 3DRealms used itself for Duke Nukem 3D and Shadow Warrior.  The game runs in a modified version of Build Engine that works under the modern Windows 10 environment. No need to fire up DOSBox, or write a batch file. It runs natively.

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But they didn’t just reskin a bunch of Duke 3D content. Everything here is all new. A cast of wild and inventive new enemies. A bunch of fun and interesting new weapons. A plethora of crazy new enemies to turn into gibs. A slew of stages that will have you really thinking about how things work in between volleys of enemy waves and hellfire.  They did a lot to push 23-year-old video game engine technology beyond what was thought possible. It even simulates some room over room scenarios with some clever tricks as Build technically was never designed to do so. We wouldn’t see that until iD Software created Quake.

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So the game is technically impressive, but how is the gameplay? Honestly, it’s quite good. If not for a few things I’ll get to later on, this could be the game people wanted Duke Nukem Forever to have been. You play as Shelly Harrison, the protagonist of the little-known twin-stick shooter Bombshell. Ion Fury is technically a prequel to that game. In any case, Shelly is after a mad scientist Dr. Jadus Heskel. Like many fictional insane villains with a Ph.D. Heskel has an army of twisted designs and is bent on taking over the world. He also has many acolytes in his group. So you can expect to go up against every sci-fi, and Saturday Morning Cartoon enemy trope you can think of.

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There are the cultists, zombies, cyborg ninjas, terminators, demons, death bots you would expect to face in a game like this. But there are a lot of other hidden surprises. But the game also gets points for being a bit more original with the designs of most of its rogues’ gallery. You’ve seen these kinds of enemies in many games over the last four decades. But they do have terrific, original costumes most of the time. Though there are a number of them that do not differentiate themselves from the henchmen in the late-night B-movies that inspired them. Though the ankle-biting enemies in this game will likely infuriate you as it can be impossible to see these heads with spider legs when they’re clipping behind 2D scenery sprites like trash cans or trees.

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Regardless of that annoyance, the stages in this game are very well thought out. As you get further in the game they become pretty intricate, rivaling some of the biggest maps from DOOM, Duke Nukem 3D, and Shadow Warrior. In late-game stages, you’ll often find the familiar color-coded keys bring you back to earlier areas or open up previously inaccessible paths. Simply trying to complete some of these can take you close to an hour. Possibly more. Then there are the secret areas. Some of them are obvious. If you’re going down a hallway, and see an air vent you may as well shoot the cover off and climb into the air duct. But others can be rather obtuse.

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If you’re just looking to blow through the game without worrying about finding every last secret and Easter egg, it will still take you a considerable amount of time to do so. As I’ve mentioned before, these levels are quite large with intricate paths. Then there are the set-piece moments peppered in. These are the times where you’ll hear Dr. Heskel taunt Shelly while the game introduces a major puzzle, new enemy group, or a boss encounter. These are done exceptionally well by the actor who brought Duke Nukem to life in Duke3D; Jon St. John. Here, he does a fantastic job of portraying a stereotypical supervillain. Even if the rest of the game doesn’t do much to flesh out the character, Jon St. John makes up for it a bit with some great delivery.

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And while Jon St. John isn’t reprising his most famous video game role, there is someone bringing you the snarky one-liners. That’s Valerie Arem. She’s the voice behind Shelly Harrison and Harrison brings the B movie quips as well as Duke Nukem did. Whether she’s blowing up cyborgs with bowling bombs, discovering new weapons or interacting with things in the environment you’re going to hear some great line delivery. Sometimes the game may replay them a bit too much. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t good. It really does feel like you’re playing a Duke Nukem 3D spinoff.

Of course, the modern standards that have been added here also make the game much easier to play than the old Build Engine games in their vanilla forms.  But it won’t be an easy game. When you’re not facing hordes from recently opened monster closets, you’ll rack your brain trying to figure out which path to take in the maze you’re currently in. And again, the visuals are all new in spite of running on modified old tech. The gritty textures and sprites will feel both new and familiar. For younger players who never experienced Duke Nukem 3D or Blood or Shadow Warrior back in the day, it might just give you enough understanding of why those games are considered classics while giving you a fantastic new experience.

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All told you’ll spend anywhere between 7 to 20 hours clearing the campaign, and for the completionists out there you’ll spend even further trying to get every last secret. All while jamming to some pretty great Electronica by Jarkko Rotsten that hearkens back to those 90s DTV films that used to adorn the video rental store walls.

When you clear the campaign there is a horde mode to play, but honestly, it feels pretty weak compared to the main game. Even if it can’t compete with the massive player bases of things like Overwatch I think a Deathmatch or Capture The Flag mode would have been much more fun. Barring that, an actual Co-operative campaign option would have been even better, giving players more replay value as they could play with friends on a second or third playthrough.

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Still, for what it is, it is a fun ride that gives you what it advertises; a fun, modern shooter built to appeal to the classics on a classic engine. If that sounds like something you’d be interested in playing, you’ll undoubtedly enjoy your time with Ion Fury. It’s a very well-made game that does what it does well. It pushes old tech to the limit while providing FPS fans with a new game. You’ve seen a lot of what it does before, yes. But it somehow doesn’t feel derivative. It’s a fun game with a cool protagonist.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

Black Jewel Review

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Conan The Barbarian. The Beastmaster. He-Man, and The Masters Of The Universe. Swords and Sorcery were a staple of the 1980s  action genre in nearly every medium. Even in the realm of video games where we saw hits like Golden Axe and Rastan. The 8-bit powered computer scene had ports of these as well as games based on the aforementioned properties. The biggest being the Commodore 64.

PROS: Challenging. Recreates the look, and sound of a C64 Accurately.

CONS: Hit detection on traps could be a little more forgiving.

ONE LIFE TO LIVE: Like the title of a defunct soap opera, you have one life.

The Commodore 64 is one of the greatest platforms of all time. There were thousands of games released on it. Some are even coming out on it today. Black Jewel is not a C64 game, but it is a terrific sendup. From the moment you start the game you’ll see the unmistakable BASIC screen load the game. If you didn’t know any better, you’d swear you were running an actual C64 image file in an emulator. But you’re not.

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The game’s developers were heavily inspired by the classic computer, and it shows. The game’s video introduction sequence mimics the classic loaders of the ’80s showing off flashing colors, a detailed splash screen for the title, and music. And immediately the soundtrack will enamor anyone who hears it. Gianluca Pappalardo is the name credited with the soundtrack and they succeed with flying colors here. The music not only fits the Barbarian action hero vibe the game goes for but accurately simulates the sound of the SID chip as well. Despite being a game for Windows, it sounds like it could have come from the Commodore 64’s Sound Interface Device.

So it’s been established this game accurately mimics the look and sound of a Commodore 64 computer. But how is the actual gameplay? Here, the game continues that Commodore 64 inspiration. Black Jewel is an action platformer that requires meticulous planning in order to get through each scenario. It’s got the exciting battles you’d expect from something like Rastan, yet you’ll need to treat each stage as if you were playing Another World. While there are no puzzles, you still kind of need to see each room as a puzzle.

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At the beginning of the game, you’re told the story. It isn’t very deep. But it doesn’t need to be. An evil warlord named Darkor has stolen a Black Jewel. A mystical artifact that has allowed him to terrorize the land and enslave its inhabitants. As Ryan, you take up arms and go on the quest to save the land by reclaiming the Black Jewel. Of course, this will involve killing Darkor.

This is all much easier said than done. Because Black Jewel is a tough game. As I’ve stated before this is heavily inspired by early computer games. The controls are simple enough. You move left or right with the arrow keys and press the *D* key to swing your sword. And you’ll be pressing up to jump because there were only one button joysticks in 1983. You can, of course, use a controller with the game, but you’ll still be pressing up for jumps.

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The game moves along at a perfectly fine speed. But keep in mind you’re a big, lumbering barbarian. So you’ll have floatier jumping than in something like Mega Man. The scenes are also modeled after the flip screen mechanics of early home computer games too. Remember, scrolling games didn’t become the standard until the latter half of the decade. The level design in Black Jewel is also built off of the history of the time as well as the appearance. And frankly, it’s very good.

Each stage is made up of several rooms, each taken up by a screen. Each of which will have an enemy to dispatch or an obstacle to overcome. When you’ve completed it, you can go to the next one. Some of these will be simple things like jumping over spikes. Other times you’ll be tasked with killing two bad guys while avoiding fireballs. This is the kind of stuff you would see even in adventure platform games in 1994. Black Jewel will not only test your action game skills but your puzzle-solving skills too. Again, despite not having what many would call puzzles.

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At the end of each stage, you’ll fight a boss. Each of them has to be dispatched in order for you to continue. Most of them can be pretty tough as they utilize a couple of attack patterns. They’ll sometimes throw you a swerve by switching them up when you least expect it, so you really have to be on your toes. Defeating them opens up the next stage. It’s here you’ll notice something. Stages do not get splash screens or other introductions. You will just see the scenery change. Also, it won’t take you long to notice something else. That giant sword at the bottom of the screen is getting shorter.

That sword is actually your health meter. When it’s gone, so are you. Game Over. You have exactly ONE LIFE to clear Black Jewel. When I said this game was tough, I wasn’t lying. Now that doesn’t mean that it is impossible. It can be beaten. It isn’t a long game. And it even has health potions to restore your meter to varying degrees. Some will fill it 25% others 60% and others will top it off. That said, one ought to pay very close attention to what is going on at any given time. Because you can take damage without realizing it.

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My one main problem with the game is it doesn’t quite go far enough in showing what is a background, or what is a deadly trap you shouldn’t step on. Oh sure, you’ll figure it out too late eventually. But that also means you’ll be back at the title screen. Now some things are obvious. Skulls and spikes usually mean trouble. But another object might seem innocuous until your sword starts draining. Also, you should keep in mind when something does hit you, to back away immediately. You do not get to take a hit, fly back, and get 3 frames of invincibility as in some of the classic action games you’re used to. If you’re standing on a spike, a pixel too deep into an enemy or a boss that sword will be a mere hilt in seconds. Fortunately, you’ll find you can skip over some of the bad guys instead of fighting them. But this does not work on bosses.

Still, considering that Oscar Celestini set out to make an homage to these early Commodore 64 action-adventure style games, Black Jewel is a success. The animation is phenomenal. The sprite work and backgrounds are amazingly detailed. Plus everything looks so true to the C64’s 16 color palette and aside from a full widescreen image, it’s almost 1:1 to the untrained eye. I won’t lie, at times the gameplay might feel a little rough around the edges for people used to faster-paced arcade slashers. But once you’ve died a few times, and gotten used to the mechanics it becomes a remarkable game.

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If you grew up gaming on a Commodore 64 this love letter will very likely appeal to you just from the look and sound alone. If you didn’t, it’s still a pretty fun game. The combination of action and adventure elements are great. There’s a balance between hacking up bad guys and planning out how to get through each room with as much health left as humanly possible. You can’t just rush into it like you would a Golden Axe machine set on Freeplay. And yet it isn’t so cerebral you’ll need to do math equations. It requires both approaches and a bit of patience.  It’s highly unlikely you’ll clear it on your first attempt or even four-hundredth attempt. But it doesn’t wear out its welcome by going on for hours either. Black Jewel may be tough, it may be esoteric. But to borrow a phrase from famous YouTube star Metal Jesus Rocks, it certainly is a “Hidden gem.” You can pick it up on Steam if you like what you see here. Overall, I can recommend you do.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Earth Defense Force 4.1 Review

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Sometimes you have a rather hectic day. When you get home you want to play a game. But you want to play a game that doesn’t require a lot of detective work or puzzle solving. You just want something fun. In many ways, that’s what this series really is. Starting way back on the PlayStation 2 with Monster Attack, and Global Defense Force this is a line of games that sees you shooting waves of creatures.

PROS: A lot of old-school arcade action. Camp.

CONS: It could become monotonous for some players.

EDF!: You will hear this war cry constantly.

Originally released as Earth Defense Force 2025 on the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360,  4.1 is an updated re-release for the PlayStation 4 that later came to Microsoft Windows via storefronts like Steam. It has everything EDF 2025 did, plus some bonus content. And on top of that, there were some DLC missions released one can buy if they wish. But there are a lot of stages in the base game to cut your teeth on.

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So what is the objective in EDF 4.1? As is the case in the rest of the series, you’ll be tasked with entering large maps and killing waves of monsters. Frankly, the game controls like a champ. Everything is pretty brisk, smooth, and responsive to boot. Especially on the Windows version which allows you to play it with a keyboard and mouse.

Over the course of 89 missions or so you’ll be tasked with gunning down, incinerating, and destroying thousands of giant insects, robots, and more. Generally, that’s what each mission boils down to. Going into one of the game’s 16 maps, and killing the biggest hordes you’ve seen this side of Serious Sam. But where Serious Sam has a path in each level with a horde/power-ups/horde cycle it also lets you spend hours hunting for secrets in any given level. EDF veers even more toward classic golden age arcade games in its play. It’s fast, and constantly throwing things at you like Robotron 2084, but then has a bunch of Role-Playing elements to keep things fresh.

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For instance, the game has three classes from the outset with one appearing later. You can be a Ranger, which plays a lot like the characters in most First, and Third-Person Shooters. On foot, blowing away monsters. There’s also the Wing Diver who gets a jetpack, and laser weapons. She can be very effective. However, it takes some time getting used to dashing around. She also has limited time she can fly around with the jetpack before having to land and recharge it.

From there you have the Fencer who is a heavy weapons expert. This class has a risk/reward element due to the expanded might, but complexity, and slower speed. Finally, you have the Air Raider who can call in pilotable vehicles, forcefields, and healing stations.

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Each class has several weapons to choose from in the fight against the threats. But here is where the game sinks its claws into you: You have to get the new weapons by finding them as drops when killing monsters. Moreover, the best weapons are more commonplace on higher difficulty settings. So to get the best gear for later missions you’ll want to play the first few on tougher settings. This way you have a leg up on the tougher ones.

But where the game really shines is in the multiplayer options. You can play the game in split-screen, or you can play the game online. The game was clearly meant for multiplayer as the different classes can complement each other when coming up with a strategy in any given level. The Wing Diver can be useful against the areal enemies while the other classes can deal with ground threats. It’s much easier to coordinate battle plans with friends than it is trying to get the NPC Allies to do their jobs.

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While EDF isn’t the best looking game out there, it does look really nice. The maps are large and relatively expansive. The textures are fairly sharp, and while the geometry may not match that of other contemporary titles it does allow for better performance. Even my aging computer ran the game maxed out, at a relatively high frame rate. The audio department is more of a mixed bag. Most of the music is standard fare, but the sound effects and voice samples are quite good. Some of it comes off a little hokey at times, but that just plays into the Kaiju theme.

Really this game can be quite a lot of fun. Especially when you have a few friends to play it with. It might not be the deepest experience as you’re going to do variations of the same thing most of the time. But it does mix it up quite a bit with the focus on multiple enemy types, and grinding away to better gear. That said, it isn’t going to be everyone’s cup of tea because it can get a little repetitive. Especially for those who choose to go it alone. Still, it is fun enough to recommend. If you’re easily distracted you’ll want to play it in short bursts. Nevertheless, as time goes on and you open up more content you’ll likely find yourself going back to it, shouting your war cry with your fellow brethren.

Final Score: 8 out of 10