Tag Archives: Indie Gaming

Bloodstained: Curse Of The Moon Review

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Ah, Konami. These days it’s become fashionable to belittle their games with good reason. But that’s partly because they used to be one of the kings of game publishing. From Pooyan to Gyruss. From Gradius to Contra. From Crime Fighters to Metal Gear. From Quarth to Super Cobra, this giant has scores of legendary games under its umbrella. But over the last decade there has been a shift in its focus. One that has led many of its best known talent to leave the company. Most know about Hideo Kojima’s departure. But less known is Koji Igarashi, the man behind many of Konami’s better Castlevania games. In 2014 however he would leave the company as he felt his console roots weren’t a good fit for the company’s shift toward mobile phone, and tablet games.

Taking some inspiration from what Keji Inafune had done after leaving Capcom, Igarashi, also took to Kickstarter to raise money for a new project. Bloodstained: Ritual Of The Night. This was a successful enough endeavor that today’s game, Bloodstained: Curse Of The Moon came out of it as a stretch goal for backers. For the rest of us, it’s an indie game inspired by the classic game series its producer worked on. It may sound like a familiar story. But is it one of the ones that ends as a success?

PROS: A nearly 1:1 representation of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse’s look, and feel.

CONS: It’s almost too similar. Minor bugs.

CASTLEVANIA VETERANS: Will wish you could start with Miriam.

Bloodstained, truly does take many of Castlevania’s mechanics, tone, and visual flair to heart. In fact, this game plays nearly identically to Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. That game had you playing as the protagonists ancestor, with the mechanics set up in the original NES version of Castlevania as a baseline. From there it added other characters you could choose to join you, and depending on which path you took through the game each had specific roles. This was to give you an incentive to go back through it multiple times.

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This game is very similar in its approach. Except that to set itself apart, you aren’t a vampire slayer. You’re a demon hunter named Zangetsu. You’ve been cursed by a powerful demon, and so you’re on a mission to find, and kill him in order to break the curse over you. You also don’t use a whip. Zangetsu is armed with a sword. So unlike Castlevania, you won’t have the range you’re likely accustomed to. What you will have however is the same walking speed, and knock back from the NES Trilogy of old. You’ll also find yourself facing very similar attack patterns as in those old games. Sure, the bats, and Gorgon heads may have been replaced with new faces. But you can still expect those wavy patterns over pits, and other traps that will make traversing a trial.

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You may not see two dragon heads stacked, spitting fire. But there will be an equivalent. There may not be a chain of skeleton bones, and a lizard skull coming out from a wall. But here will be something similar. The list goes on, and on, and on. As the story, and stages progress you’ll meet other characters whom you can choose to add to your party. Miriam is the Simon Belmont clone you’ll wish you started the game with. She has a whip that works very much the same way, as Simon’s. This gives you that sweet balance of ranged, and melee attack power, and familiar gravity when jumping or walking off of ledges.

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Later on you’ll meet Gebel, this game’s take on Alucard. He’s also a vampire, and you can also turn into a bat as him. Finally, there’s Alfred who is a magician. He’s also elderly, slow, and has a fairly small health meter. He attacks with a small cane at essentially point-blank range. As in the Castlevania games, there are candles, and other hanging objects you can destroy for items. Some of these are ammo for special weapons, while others are weapons themselves. What sets this one apart a little bit is just how different each character’s weapons are. No special weapon is represented twice. There are a set exclusive to each character. For instance, Miriam can have a spinning disc attack that goes back, and forth. Alfred on the other hand can get a weapon that lets him turn enemies into ice blocks he can then jump on, or have another character jump on.

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There are all sorts of possibilities. The other thing is that each stage, even the earliest ones all have branching paths in them that only specific characters can go to. You may need to switch to Gebel so you can turn into a bat, and fly through a small gap for one path. You may need to slide under something for another, and so you’ll have to switch to Miriam. This sort of mechanic gives the game a lot of replay value, as in order to see everything each stage has to offer you’ll need to try each of them with the applicable characters.

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The thing is you have more options with them than you do with the ones in Castlevania III. What I mean by that is, you don’t drop one when you meet the next. If you choose to take one along for the ride, they stay with you the entire game. The game can be quite a challenge too, especially near the end of the game. So having all of the characters working together makes defeating Gremory, the leader of the Demons, more manageable. However, what makes the game worth playing over again even more are the multiple endings. Depending on which characters you take along, or leave behind you’ll get different outcomes if you clear the game.

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And beyond that there are a few difficulty settings. You can play the easiest setting if you just want to go through the game at your leisure. It reduces the knock back so it isn’t as cruel as the NES Castlevania trilogy could be. It also gives you unlimited lives, so you also won’t see the continue screen. But the veteran mode is the hardcore NES game difficulty you remember. Or if you’re too young to remember, but want to experience anyway. Getting knocked back into pits, crumbling bricks, rotating trap floor tiles. It’s all here. Clearing this will unlock an even harder mode though. So the absolute biggest Castlevania transplants will want to check it out, as it makes an already tough job more challenging.

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Visually the game also follows the Castlevania III mold. It has a very similar color palette, and a very similar pixel art style. This isn’t to say everything is exactly the same. There are background animations, and graphics based puzzles the old Konami games don’t have, and a slew of special effects the old 8-bit 6502 chip variants, and accompanying graphics chips simply can not do on display. The music in it, and synchronization with the cinema screen animations are spot on too. It sounds very much like a Famicom console game through, and through. Inti Creates has done a phenomenal job in the graphics, and sound department with this game.

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But all of this success might be a little too successful. In being so close to the Castlevania NES fill in so many wanted, it doesn’t retain its own identity as much as it needs to. Other than Alfred, the main characters are very much your Simon, Sypha, and Alucard stand-ins. As detailed, and beautifully laid out as the stages are, they could easily be mistaken for an NES Castlevania outing. The mini bosses, and bosses are where the game really begins to turn the tide on this a bit though. These are great multi part affairs that don’t look they would necessarily be in one of Konami’s games, but fit this spiritual successor at the same time. The game also has a handful of minor bugs in it. Mostly collision based bugs. There were a few sections with crumbling blocks designed to make you lose a life if you fail at navigation. At one point I fell, but landed safely in an area where I had to jump to my doom anyway. There was nowhere else to go. Some of these seem to be helping in speed runs. But for the rest of us, they’re the rare inconvenience.

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Still, beyond these observations I really enjoyed playing through the game’s many stages. Anybody who loves the old school Castlevania games probably owns this by now. But if for some reason you don’t, it’s an absolute blast. It’s a truly great action-platformer with some great obstacles to overcome, and some of the best boss fights I’ve been in. I only wish the game did a little bit more to make it feel unique. Sure the main protagonist doesn’t use a whip, but before long another character does. Sure, you’re fighting an army led by a demon, rather than Dracula. But that army still has a lot of skeletons, and zombies in it. Hopefully the upcoming Ritual Of The Night will address this while continuing to do everything else as well as this game does. Be that as it may, Curse Of The Moon is still a keeper.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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One Strike Review

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Every now, and again a game comes along with the idea of simplifying things. Many look to the Super Smash Bros. games, Nidhogg, and even Divekick as primary examples. All of which take different approaches to doing so. Smash simplifies inputs, and goes for ring outs. Nidhogg goes for a fencing theme, while Divekick reduces everything down to one button. One Strike doesn’t quite go that far, but it does try to be interesting in its mission.

PROS: An interesting take on simplifying the fighter.

CONS: It doesn’t take long to notice a formula.

CLASH: Of the art styles.

One Strike is a one on one fighter that tries to be different by living up to its namesake. You simply lose a round (or a match!) by suffering one hit. It takes a page from Soul Calibur by making each character a master of a specific weapon. There are sword masters. Dagger masters. Staff masters. They have you covered. And controlling your fighter is pretty straightforward. You can move left or right, block, strike, or dodge. That’s pretty much it.

The game has a really nice art style considering that it’s a bite-sized fighter. There are really great painted portraits of each of the fighters. But the characters themselves are done in a sprite art style somewhere between the look of an Atari 800 computer, and an NES. This isn’t bad by any means. There are all kinds of cool, little details in the backgrounds, as well as animations in them you wouldn’t likely see on these retro platforms. The drawback of course is that these art styles clash somewhat. Seeing the 8-bit inspired sprites represented by icons that could have made it into a late 90’s arcade cabinet can be a little bit jarring.

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Still, while that may be jarring, and the character select screen is a little anemic, One Strike has a really cool look to it. Unfortunately there’s one major thing that kills the whole game that I’ll get to shortly. One Strike gives you an arcade ladder for some single player content. You can choose to play it on a five lives per match setting, or you can play it as a gauntlet match that provides you but one life. And these modes aren’t too bad. They’ll take the average person a fair number of attempts to clear. The concept is simple. Stab the other person once to win the round or match. Kill everybody, and you win the entire tournament. There is also a Team Battle where you can pick three characters, each with one life, and go on either an arcade ladder by yourself, or you can play in a head to head versus battle. One nice feature the game also has is the ability to set up a tournament bracket. It’s something small, but it is nice for any venue looking to have another tournament for, as your brackets are already set up in it.

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But like all fighting games, the head to head fighting is what keeps you coming back. The challenge of trying to outwit, or outmaneuver them. Or to learn how to properly defend yourself. There are no combos here because it’s a one hit, and you’re dead affair. But you can still overpower your opponent in theory. Unfortunately, there is one tactic that most will discover in a couple of hours, and that is how to utilize hit stun. All fighting games have a tiny window of time when you can make an opponent unable to react. Usually a second or less. In this game you can do this with a successful block. Blocking at just the right time will employ hit stun on your opponent. They’ll have a split second where they can’t block in time or move backward. So if you’re the least bit quick enough you can bait them into swinging, you can get the block, and immediately stab them for the win. And the reverse is true.

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So matches often boil down to a Swing/Block/Stab/Match Over formula. Which can get really tiresome really quick. Now to alleviate this to some degree, block windows are very small. You can’t sit in a blocking position forever. After a moment your character will go back to their standard animation. Some characters also have the ability to cancel a move by creating stances. For instance, Oni requires you to press attack twice. Pressing it the first time gets you into a combat stance. Pressing it again swings his club. So you can dodge backward after the first button press if you don’t think it’s safe. With advanced strategies like this, the aforementioned formula isn’t always going to be the way a match goes down. Be that as it may, it does happen often enough that many people may grow bored with things quickly.

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It’s a shame because this hinders strategies. I’m sure someone far better at One Strike may see this, and have a difference of opinion. But as far as my experience has been playing with both people who are adept at competitive games, and others who are not, matches often result in either predictable fast matches, or (once both players have become more adept at blocking) drawn out matches reliant on turtling, or being overly defensive. All in all, One Strike isn’t a terrible game though. It functions very well, it has likable characters, and a really cool concept. But in practice, there isn’t enough here to keep most fighting fans playing it days on end. Nor are there enough characters to draw more average players into playing it for long. You could easily play this over some of the other stuff out there it’s true. But then you could also go back, and play the classics. In spite of its shortcomings I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel though. There’s a decent foundation here. You’ll likely really enjoy it initially. But after some time with it, that excitement may wane. If it had a couple of other options in the combat to keep things interesting, a few more characters, and internet matches it would be a better game worth checking out. If you don’t mind a fighting game you’ll play for an hour at a party with friends every few months you’ll have some fun with it. But for others, unless you’re really starved for newer fighting game concepts you might just want to go back to something else. Your mileage may vary with this one.

Final Score: 6 out of 10

Battle Princess Madelyn Review

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Ghosts N’ Goblins is one of the classics that is often imitated these days. It isn’t hard to see why, as it’s pretty much a winning formula. A hero that can only take two points of damage before dying, must go on an action platforming adventure of quarter-munching proportions. Some of these games simply take that essence, and try to provide a carbon copy. Others take the idea, and try to build upon it.

PROS: The brutal, unforgiving, and yet somehow addictive fun you love.

CONS: Bugs, minor collision detection issues. Inconsistencies.

GHOST PUPPIES: May haunt your dreams, but they can also help you.

Battle Princess Madelyn is one such game. It uses the combat of Capcom’s classic series as a foundation, and puts a large skyscraper of ideas upon it. For the most part it works because it does something substantial. It has not one, but two campaigns to play through. The first of which combines the tried, and true combat with adventure game, and JRPG conventions.

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The primary campaign is a Story mode. It opens with a little girl named Madelyn lying in bed playing a Minecraft clone on her tablet. Her Grandfather comes in, and in true The Princess Bride fashion proceeds to read her a bedtime story. He tells her the tale of a warrior, coincidentally also named Madelyn in a European kingdom in what is presumably during the Medieval period. This Madelyn has a tiny lap dog named Fritzy. With the castle overrun by monsters, the little canine sacrifices his life to save the Royal Guard.

After some dialogue with her Grandfather, it turns out that Fritzy’s soul isn’t content to go to the afterlife just yet. As a spirit, he decides to follow Madelyn into glorious battle. Over the course of the game Fritzy goes from being a merely cute avatar that follows you around, to being a very useful back up character that will help you immensely. While the initial area looks like it will be another Ghosts N’ Goblins clone, (Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts to be specific), That is quickly proven not to be the case, as a fellow warrior sends you into town.

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Once in the town you begin to do things that are more akin to an Adventure or JRPG. You have to talk to townspeople, whom give you vague clues, or demand you go on fetch quests. You eventually find your way to the castle where key members will send you on the adventure. The castle is also home to two major spots. A toy room, and another room that becomes important much later.

Over the course of the game you’ll find dolls of low-level enemies, major characters, and bosses. Collecting every one of these gets you the best possible outcome, so its something you just might want to invest in. The other room becomes important later in the storyline, and involves warping you around to various areas.

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The game’s many stages are interconnected though not as intricately as something like Metroid. Be that as it may, you’ll still want to map it out, because you’re going to spend a large part of the campaign going sector to sector on foot. Why? Well remember the villagers I mentioned before? Many of the fetch quests they send you upon involve finding, and rescuing their friends from zombies. Aside from that there are also ghosts that can lead you to other secrets. And there are many hidden paths, shortcuts, and items that you’ll have to destroy parts of environments to even find. Basically, if you want to get the best possible finish you’ll need to do a lot of rescuing, and a lot of discovering. The rewards for many (but not nearly all) of these feats are the aforementioned dolls. Each of these dolls gets you one step closer to unlocking the door in the toy room, and the resulting end game.

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Not only that, but the only way to open up the game’s shop to buy power ups is tied to one of these fetch quests. Many of the villagers throughout the game want you to find one of the items they’ve foolishly lost. Each of the game’s areas has a village of their own, and many of their citizens lost these items in other areas. So you’ll be warping around a lot too.

Throughout it all though, the game has that classic Capcom arcade game play down to a science. Well mostly. The majority of the time you’ll feel like you’re playing the unofficial sequel to Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts. Zombies rise from the Earth in much the same way. There are all sorts of monsters, and demons that show up out of nowhere, and you’ll have to master your jumping, and shooting pretty quickly. Where things falter a bit is in the hit detection.

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Unfortunately, there will be a few times where you’ll have your foot stand near, but not on a hazard. But the game will say “Nope. You touched it.” which leads to a cheap death. Other times you’ll suffer cheap deaths when enemies spawn on you, or shoot a projectile that gets stuck in a part of the environment. Thus making hitting it unavoidable. These aren’t heavily widespread moments, but it can be enough to get frustrating. In the case of the story mode, this is mitigated by having pretty decent checkpoints, you’ll automatically start in when you run out of lives. When you die, you’ll start right where you died too, so at least you won’t have to start an entire section over.

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Eventually you’ll find your way to boss rooms. Throughout the game you’ll need to find keys to the boss rooms, so again, keep exploring. Boss fights are quite frankly the highlight of the game. All of them can hang with the best fights in some of the best Super NES, and Sega Genesis games of yesteryear. They’re very inventive. Even when one of them might seem generic, like the Spider bosses, or the Skeleton, they do things that throw that impression out the window. Either through the environments they take place in, or through their attack patterns, or even character mannerisms.

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When you defeat a boss, and move to the next area you’ll almost always find yourself near a town, and in that town you’ll find a fast travel artifact. Late in the game you’ll need to collect items to be reassembled in that second room I mentioned earlier. Here you’ll feel like you’ve reached the end. But you’re still far from it. It opens up all new areas that can only be accessed in the room, and you’ll also find your dog’s soul will now become even more useful. Over the course of the game you’ll acquire the expected knives, spears, lances, and such. All of which you can cycle through using the left shoulder button. But you’ll also start finding puppy soul powers you can use. These can help immensely, especially on bosses. Do keep in mind however, that these have limited supplies shared with your lives. So you’ll want to save these for key moments.

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Upon beating the story mode, you’ll find you won’t be done. You can go back, and find all of the dolls you missed. But beyond that you can play the Arcade mode. This mode is very much a Ghosts N’ Goblins experience with stages feeling more linear, and with the brutal challenge fans of that series would expect. You’ll have to start a stage over when you’re out of lives. Lives are really tied to Fritzy’s meter more so here, as when it becomes depleted completely you know you’re going to start the level over. Thankfully, you’ll still start where you last died. At least until the meter is depleted. You also get to use Fritzy’s powers in this mode as you find them by holding the attack button until it’s charged. Keep in mind as in the Story mode this will deplete the meter, so it reduces the number of lives you can use. Over time you can refill the meter the better you do. Getting to the end is a lot more streamlined as a result. Stages don’t feel exactly the same, as large chunks are completely different. Though you’ll still go up against the same bosses. Be that as it may, it’s still quite a tough game that will take all but the most devoted players a while to get through. Mostly due to the overall challenge of it. But some of the problems from the Story mode do rear their head here. So while the stages are shorter, and in a specific order, they add their own challenges, and sometimes the technical issues can make them even tougher. You can basically keep continuing, but each time means you’ll start the current stage over again, through all of its phases.

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The most striking thing about the game is just how good it looks, and sounds. This game is a wonderful send up of Super Ghouls N’ Ghosts. It has an amazing portfolio of sprite graphics, and animation that look like it could have appeared on Nintendo’s 16-bit juggernaut or even Commodore’s Amiga line of computers. The game even has a soundtrack that will evoke memories of the Commodore Amiga, early MS-DOS Adlib sound, and even a dash of the Sega Genesis for good measure. But even beyond that, you can have a more modern, CD quality orchestrated soundtrack if you choose. The game also has an optional scan line filter if you prefer a slightly blurred look to everything rather than have everything looking crisp.

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Still, on the whole it’s hard not to recommend this one. There may be some inconsistency in the FMV sequences, and the rest of the graphics. There may be some hit detection issues, and you’ll suffer a few cheap deaths here or there. But when the game is at its best it works so well it just has to be experienced. With two primary modes to play, it’s almost like having two games in one. Of course the main attraction is the Story mode. The variety of missions, and side quests while similar, will appeal to a lot of people who might normally skip it out of fears of the high difficulty, as it is a bit more forgiving. Be that as it may, the Arcade mode is something any fan of Capcom’s classic arcade game might want to play. The combat, while not perfect, is noticeably better than many of its peers. If not for the handful of technical issues you’ll likely run into, this would be a must own. But just because it falls a few notches away from perfection doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be played. It is true that it can feel, cheap, relentless, and unfair at times. But it’s also a lot of fun the other 90% of the time, with its solid action, loveable characters, and the fact it makes you want to spite it by beating it. It isn’t going to be for everyone. But for fans of adventure games with an old school twist, or Ghosts N’ Goblins fans yearning for the day when Capcom will finally take their money, it’s worth recommending. If this sounds like you Battle Princess Madelyn is still worth firing up on your computer, Xbox One, Switch, or PlayStation 4.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Insurgency Sandstorm Review

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Wow, two reviews this week? I really had to crunch to get this one done. It’s worth it though because like DUSK, this is a new FPS release that really ought to be on your radar. Insurgency Sandstorm, like its predecessor is here to give you a blend of arcade run speed, with late 90’s tactical subgenre features. But does it reach the lofty goals set forth by the original?

PROS: It’s an Insurgency sequel on a much newer engine!

CONS: Not every promised feature is here (yet.) Minor issues.

GIBS: A common 90’s FPS feature returns.

The original Insurgency set that bar rather high. What had started out as a mod became a full-fledged game that pushed Valve’s Source engine to its limit. It bridged the gap between Tactical FPS games like Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield, and large-scale objective Military Team FPS games like Battlefield. In doing so, it offered a great alternative to some of the titles in the AAA space. While it didn’t run on the latest tech, it did give players a unique experience. Insurgency did well for itself, cutting out a nice niche for itself, and becoming one of the most beloved competitive games on Steam for some time.

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So what does this newer version bring to the table? Does it improve on the foundation set by the original? Should you play this over something else in the subgenre? All of these are questions you might have going into this one, and they’re all valid ones to ask. When the game was announced it was touting a robust single-player campaign in addition to the multiplayer goodness fans of the first game came for. It showed off some vehicle play, and all in a vast uptick in visual fidelity.

Well let’s get the one major point of contention some will have out-of-the-way. There is no one-player campaign. At least not yet. Now to be fair, those who followed the news around this game during its development, or played it while it was in Early Access were told it wasn’t going to make it in by launch. So a big chunk of the potential audience who were excited upon seeing it during E3 2017 already know this. But if you were one of those interested who saw the early trailers, put it on your “Look forward to seeing it when it comes out” list, and are just now looking at it? You’re going to be disappointed.

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But this is also not an “All is lost” moment, the studio has said it should be coming later, and that it should be included along with the other DLC. And that’s where the barometer may swing from disappointed to optimistic. Because the folks at New World Interactive will not be charging for DLC, nor implementing micro transactions or loot boxes. So everything that comes out for this game in the future will cost you nothing extra. New maps will be included. New weapons they decide to add will be included. Any new modes they cook up will also be included. So the lack of the campaign might sting, but they haven’t outright cancelled it either. If you only come to your army shooters for a campaign, and touch nothing else, you may want to wait. Or not, because there are things here you might still enjoy.

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Of course Insurgency, became a cult hit for a number of reasons. Its various modes. Its unique blend of styles. And that it pushed an aging technology pretty far in the process of delivering its fun. It didn’t look as good as the games EA, and Activision were putting out, but it stood in the same league when it came to game play. And that trend does indeed continue in Insurgency Sandstorm.

Think of Insurgency Sandstorm as an experiment in combining the best elements of various military themed shooters you’ve played over the years. All while implementing its own ideas into the monster before releasing it upon the world. What does it borrow? Well it gives you the vast conquest maps Battlefield fans would love. It also uses point capture as the primary goal of its competitive modes. Insurgency Sandstorm has three of them. (Though like the campaign, more may follow.)

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PUSH: This is the mode most like the Rush mode in the Battlefield games. It places one army as defenders, and one army as attackers. Attackers have a miniscule number of lives spread across its combatants. While Defenders have a much larger pool. However, if the attackers manage to take the first point on the map, they will gain more lives. They will also force the defensive team to fall back to their next point. This continues until either the defenders are made to fight their last stand, with no remaining lives to defend a cache. If the attackers blow it up, the defenders are defeated. The defenders will also be defeated if all of their lives are lost.

What makes this mode compelling is that there are a number of ways each side can approach their situation. When playing defense, you can do what I like to do. You can literally lie down on the objective (represented by a room with a giant flashing letter.), and attempt to kill any intruders. If enough of your team follows suit, it becomes nearly impossible to take the point. However, I said “nearly”. That’s because there are any number of ways a skilled attacking team can crack this. They can employ explosives to spook people to leave the point or die. They can send in their best stealth players to get inside. They can try to flank spawning defenders rushing to get back to the point. These are just some of the strategies you’ll see employed.

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FIREFIGHT: Is the next mode, and here all of the points on the map are preset with both armies having to take an attack position. One point is predetermined to be for one side. The second for the other side, and the third being unclaimed. The first team to capture all three of these wins. However, it isn’t easy because each player has only one life. The only way you get to come back into the battle is if your team captures a point while you’re dead. What people love about this mode is that there’s a tug of war going on with it. If you’ve got two points, but not the third, you’ll have to send people to take the third. But that means the opposing team will find less resistance, at one of your two points. If they take one, you’re at a disadvantage, and have to figure out which of their now two points is easier to take.

SKIRMISH: Takes the game play of Firefight, and adds the caches from the Push mode which gives each team multiple lives. So you’ll be going along in your back, and forth. But the twist comes when one of the caches is destroyed. Without a cache, your team will fall back to the stock Firefight rules, which makes it easier to become overrun. So you have to decide as a team whether you want to go all out, and take points. Or do you designate a few of your combatants to defend the cache while others go for points? Insurgency Sandstorm involves its own strategies into proven concepts.

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This is where the implementation of other ideas, along with NWI’s modern twists, and original features really begins to take shape. Insurgency Sandstorm may use some ideas you’ve seen elsewhere, but it isn’t a knock off. It isn’t just reskinning a popular game, and shouting “Ta-da!”. It’s transformative. It retools these ideas to work in ways that weren’t expected before. It again, also has original ideas too. That’s what made the first game so great, and that continues here in the combat system.

 

Like the original, it takes a page from the original Rainbow Six games, and goes for far more realistic damage. If you play Rainbow Six Siege, as fun as it is, you can still survive firefights if you get shot. Even if you go down a friend can revive you. But if you go way back, and play Rainbow Six 1,2, or 3, that is rarely the case. In those games a single hit was usually lethal. If you were hit in a limb, maybe you could take a second bullet to go down. Insurgency Sandstorm is tough like that. If you get shot, you’re probably dead. If you’re hit in the arm, perhaps you’ll find some cover to survive a little bit longer. But another hit, and you’re toast. Because while your vision comes back, your health does not.

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But Insurgency Sandstorm goes further. Because it eschews plenty of other ideas its competitors love. For instance, there is no mini map. There are no little lights on a square in the corner telling you where to go. You’ll see a flashing letter in the distance. But that’s it. Insurgency Sandstorm has no kill cam. You may be able to have the run speed of a soldier (provided you have no body armor) of a Call Of Duty entry. But when you get sniped running onto the point, and die you will not be watching the person who killed you as you wait to spawn. You can see your teammates, and communicate with them if you see a threat near them. But that is it.

Insurgency Sandstorm also adds a bit of realism in its movement. When you sprint you may not tire. However, you also can not shoot. You have to think about that when going about. If you think you can blast a nest of enemies while charging into a room, think again. At best you can kick doors down while running, and if it hits an enemy in the process you can kill them with the door. But you’ll also be wide open when the other campers see it. On the flip side, if you’re trying to snipe, and you’re too close to the banister, your arm will simply bend back toward you, as you struggle to find a spot where your gun isn’t going to go up against an object. It’s a small thing, but it adds a lot to the environment.

 

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Insurgency Sandstorm borrows an element from Arena shooters of yesteryear too: Gibs. In this game, getting hit in key parts of the body will cause limbs to fly off, heads to explode, and bodies to disintegrate. Since this game is going for a little bit more realism it doesn’t come off like it would in The Expendables. It comes off a little bit more like Glory. Rather it tries to. It doesn’t quite make that emotional transition, but it doesn’t elicit that same joyous surprise as it did back in DOOM, Duke 3D, or QUAKE. At least not for me. The point is, there is an element of its use in a contemporary setting that might remind some players of how horrific wars can be. Whether or not this is intentional is solely up to the artists to decide. They may have been going for the action movie vibe more so than the dramatic movie vibe. In which case I think it fell somewhere in between. But they do come off as impressive. The first time you see it, you really won’t be expecting it, and it honestly might just shock you even knowing about it going in.

The move to Unreal Engine 4 also means a big uptick in visual fidelity, and a jump in system requirements. However, New World Interactive deserves some praise in just how much they’ve done to ensure those like me, with aging video cards can still play their game with great performance. If you do happen to have the hardware that can run this at or near maximum settings, you’ll be pretty pleased with the end result. There are some very impressive lighting effects, Anti-Aliasing effects, Bump mapping effects, among others that UE4 can support. However, if you have a machine that’s five years old, you’re probably not going to be playing any game maxed out. The scalability this game provides is great, as are its customization options.

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All of the shots you’re seeing in this review were taken at the lowest settings. These can hang with a lot of other games despite the reduced image quality. Granted, you can’t expect miracles either. If you’ve got a ten-year old computer with barely any RAM to speak of by today’s standards,  you probably cannot run it. But If you have at least a fourth generation Intel i5 or AMD FX 6330 (around 5 years old now), a NVIDIA GTX 760 or AMD Radeon 7970 in there (also around 5 years old as of this writing), and a good 16GB of RAM in your system you likely can. And at better performance than you might expect. At the lowest settings, I’ve been able to play between 70, and 90 frames per second resulting in a relatively smooth, and responsive experience.

And with the game slated to hit the Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 next year, it does give those who prefer a console experience something to look forward to. As for the artistic side of the visuals, they’ve really gone out of their way here as well. Textures on buildings, look sharp, the costumes of the characters all fit the motif the game tries to present. Even on the lowest details, the backgrounds all still look great with some nice lights, and shadow effects going on.

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As in the original game, one side of the roster is composed of security forces. So when playing  as a security force member you’ll have a military themed character. The other side is composed of insurgents where you’re basically playing as a terrorist group of villains. One thing this game introduces over its predecessor is a cosmetic customization option. As you play the game you’ll earn in game currency. Much like Nintendo’s Splatoon series, you cannot buy this currency. These are points you use exclusively for this feature. Unlike Splatoon, these clothing options do nothing else. It’s strictly just to personalize your characters when playing online. No perk slots, no RPG elements, that is it. That being said, a lot of the costume selections are quite good, and go for something grounded. You won’t be running around on the security side wearing only pants, and bandoliers or rocking a Cobra Commander costume on the insurgent forces.

As in the first game, there are no unlockable weapons. When you start the game every one of your classes is given a certain number of points. Which you can use on your load out. So you have to use tactics even when deciding what to go onto the front lines in. You may not have to grind your way to that powerful machine gun you want to use. But if it costs a lot of points that doesn’t leave you a lot left over for attachments, or defensive items or a secondary item. Similarly, you can choose to go for a lot of body armor, and items. But this will actually affect your run speed by making you slower. You might be able to take a third or fourth bullet before dying though. So you need to approach every class situation differently.

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Also new to this game are new Commander, and Observer classes. These classes have to work together, and stay within a certain proximity to one another. Because these classes can work to call in air support. They can call in helicopters, or mortar storms to help them push when attacking, or to defend their position when being pressured. Every one of the classes is viable though, and if you couldn’t already tell, the best way to play is with friends who communicate. Insurgency Sandstorm is very much designed around teamwork. It has built-in chat, so you can easily talk to your team on the fly. For those who don’t have a headset, or a microphone, you can still type to your team members.

On the other hand, when playing with random strangers, there is always going to be a troll or two. It’s just the reality of online gaming. Fortunately this time around you can mute everybody wholesale if you have the misfortune of dropping to a match where everyone annoys you. Still, when playing with friends, the voice chat can be an accommodating feature. Especially for those with friends who don’t know how to set up their own chat alternatives like Discord.

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And if all of the heated PvP stuff sounds too tough for you, the cooperative mode included is something you may gravitate toward. Similar to the Terrorist Hunt mode of the Rainbow Six series, Insurgency Sandstorm’s cooperative experience pits you, and others up against a team of NPC bots. With frequently changing objectives. It basically blends some of its competitive elements into the mode. So at first you, and the other humans may be taking points. But then the game will decide you have to defend the one you just claimed against an onslaught, or destroy a cache. But all of it is done in, a fun, and entertaining way.  You’ll get a variety of enemy bot skill levels. Some will be pretty good at movement, others will be marksmen. But you’ll occasionally get that idiotic bot that just stands there after missing. Still, they employ some tactics one might not expect, making for some surprises. And of course for those who only want to go up against the best, Insurgency Sandstorm features a competitive option where you’ll be placed with other people on ranked servers, and modes to keep up your street cred.

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For those who absolutely must have something here for playing alone, there are a couple of minor options though. There are a couple of short tutorials that get you used to the game’s mechanics, and modes. These aren’t really necessary for those who have played FPS titles for years, though it can catch you up on the nuances here. The aforementioned cooperative mode is here however again as a single player option. Sadly this just isn’t going to be as fun as the cooperative experience. That’s because you’re paired with bots who aren’t as adept as the bots you’ll go up against, and you’re only given one life per objective. So if you die trying to get the first objective, the round ends, and you’ll move onto the next. This makes the one player option a lot more challenging too because without some competent bots, you’re basically going up against an entire army alone. Still you get five attempts, and winning alone is doable.

But there are also a load of options for you to tinker with. Not just the aforementioned graphics settings, and performance settings. Not just the look of your hero or villain. You can even tweak some of the marker settings, like changing the colors of the letter markers,  and names to something clearer to you than the default. You can also put on displays to show you the current frame rate, and ping. Things that have been in Unreal Engine games for years, but are often closed off in newer releases. It’s nice to see it here so that you can see the math when turning something on or off.

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There are a few problems I do have to point out though. While I imagine most people will get pretty good performance out of this game, there are a number of small visual glitches I’ve stumbled upon. In one game I noticed somebody’s weapon just flickering in the sky before the round began. Another round I noticed player models that hadn’t completely loaded in. So they were shooting at me, but the weapon they were using couldn’t be seen. These are rare occurrences. But the common issue I run into is texture pop in. Again, it loads in fast enough. It doesn’t affect the game play. But the 2 seconds between seeing a blue wall, and seeing a blue wall, with dents in it, and other details can sometimes distract from the experience. I suspect it could be an issue with older cards, that will eventually be fixed with patches, and drivers. But it is a minor problem.

When playing the cooperative mode, alone or with other players, there are a few minor nitpicks. Mainly with the inconsistent A.I. as I mentioned earlier, the bots you face can have a fair amount of variety in skill which is nice. But when you have to rely on them in your team, and a few decide to be idiots, you almost wish they weren’t there. The enemy bot spawns could have been obfuscated a little bit better too, as there were a couple of times in the single player cooperative I could go out a door of a point I had to defend, and see the game drop them in.

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In the grand scheme of things these issues don’t really amount to much of anything. The A.I. is still better than in many of the bots in other titles. The game rarely looks anything less than great aside from the 2-4 seconds of pop in you may experience. Leaving the bot spawn issues, which really breaks the immersion more than anything else. Back on the pvp end of things, there is far less to pick apart. The net code is generally very good. Unless you’re connecting to a server half the world away, you don’t see a lot of rubber banding, or players warping around like Mr. Game & Watch.

All of the online modes are generally quite fun. The studio kept them to the best maintained modes of the first game to ensure that you can always find someone to play against, and this strategy has worked. Yes, you can get into situations where there are people trying to spawn camp, or situations where you’ll have people on your team who refuse to run to the giant flashing “A” along with everyone else. But these aren’t issues with the game, these are the same issues you’ll run into with certain individuals in any multiplayer game. Fortunately, the game does offer the ability for you to mute individual people, or even everyone wholesale.

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The gun play is fantastic. Every weapon has a nice heft to it, and there are options here for every type of player. If you prefer to cover your team, there are many sniping options. If you want to go stealth, there are a slew of close range rifles, shotguns, SMGs, and other options, and attachments. The sounds of gunfire, and explosions are phenomenal too, which adds to that feeling of weight. You also have to hold your breath to steady your aim. Not only with the long-range weapons, but every weapon. Hip firing will just go wherever the gun is aimed. So panic shooting is going to be a crap shoot. These are all seemingly tiny things. But they add so much depth to the combat.

The maps are also mostly really good. Save for an exception or two, just about every map is built around each mode, and objectives are set that put either an attacker or defender into a tough situation at any given time. There are choke points defenders can use to their advantage. There are multiple paths attackers can take at any given time. The inclusion of vehicles in the Push mode also adds a new dynamic. I would have liked to have seen more of them. But between the drivable trucks with mounted guns, and the air strikes the two new classes can call in, there are new strategies that have to be employed to deal with them. And some maps actually make using these things harder. On the refinery stage enemies can just go inside buildings to escape the wrath of a Blackhawk helicopter. Similarly someone can put out roadside bombs in key locations that might deter someone from racing to the point in a pickup.

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In spite of its faults, Insurgency Sandstorm is a phenomenal game. It offers a real alternative to those who have felt disenfranchised with Electronic Arts’, and Activision’s annualized offerings. While it might not have quite the same level of visual fidelity of Battlefield or Call Of Duty, it also doesn’t require the purchase of season passes or micro transactions to have access to everything included in it down the line. The game play in it is also unique thanks to reintroducing an audience to hardcore simulation elements while retaining the run speed of something more twitchy. Absolute simulation purists may still want to go to the excellent ARMA games. And while this game may not be as recognized by the wider audience, the potential is there for that to change.  Especially if the game’s smaller issues are cleared, and the promised campaign shows up before it sees a port to consoles next year.

Whether you loved the original Insurgency, and poured hundreds of hours into it, or you’re a military FPS veteran looking for something new, this is pretty much a game you’ll enjoy diving into. This is also an excellent option for those who want something competitive to play, but without the pressure to spend more money. It’s also a great game for the casual military FPS fan who doesn’t have thousands of hours to devote to unlocking things. Insurgency was also supported for many years after it came out, and there’s no indication New World Interactive won’t do the same for the sequel. People who were interested solely in a campaign story mode will want to wait for its arrival. But for anyone looking for a unique take on the modern military multiplayer shooter? Insurgency Sandstorm should be on their wish list.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

DUSK Review

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Man, I’m late again, I know. But I’m not late to the proverbial party. Because DUSK has officially launched, and I can tell you it’s really freaking cool. Where a lot of games have been tugging at our nostalgic platformer strings, DUSK tugs away at your nostalgic FPS strings. And while it isn’t the first to do so, it is one of the first to do it this well. It clearly takes inspiration from late 90’s shooters like Quake, Unreal, and SIN.

PROS: Classic visuals. Intricate maps. Fantastic characters. Gun play.

CONS: Minor bugs. One particular puzzle isn’t very intuitive.

DELIVERANCE: Some of these enemies will make you squeal like Ned Beatty.

But not only does it take that inspiration, it runs with it clearly into the end zone. This is noticeable before you even get to playing. Booting the game displays those familiar text parsers to anyone who played DOOM, ROTT, DUKE 3D, or QUAKE for MS-DOS back in the mid to late 90’s. Even after Windows 95 became an overnight sensation, it took a long time for video games to migrate to the environment as the de facto standard. Even in 1996, QUAKE was running on DOS. So this nod is going to make many old school PC game fans very nostalgic.

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But that’s just the beginning, because DUSK gives you a smorgasbord of visual settings, and sound options to choose from. You can run the game in resolutions set for 4K, HD, SD monitors. You can make things look grainy with a pixel filter. You can play with borders. You can screw around with the color scheme. You can have the game looking bright, and colorful. You can have the game looking near grayscale. You can make everything look Sepia if you want. The wealth of customization is great.

As in the FPS games of yore, you can bind nearly every key to your liking, and you can even turn off the vertical axis on your mouse. This is really cool because during the game you can do somersaults, and backflips in the air! It’s just one of many innovations you’ll find this game has added atop the classic shooter. You can also map everything to a controller if you prefer to play with a game pad over a keyboard, and mouse. Ideally, you’ll get much better control with the latter. However with the game getting a release on the Nintendo Switch next year, the controller support is a welcome addition.

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Once you’ve gotten your bindings, and other settings configured to your liking you’ll be able to start the game. As in the Apogee, and iD games from back in the day, DUSK is broken up into three episodic campaigns. It follows a three act structure, and the story is told through a combination of audio voiceover, level design, and paragraphs of exposition upon clearing each of the first two episodes. So many players who remember spending countless hours trying to find every last bit of environmental lore in DOOM, and QUAKE will feel right at home here. Of course this game doesn’t spell everything out right away for you in terms of its story. You’ll start out the first episode in a dingy, and dark dungeon armed only with two sickles.  You’ll immediately be attacked by three guys right out of Deliverance, armed with chain saws while sporting burlap sacks for masks.

It is here where you’ll notice that the game has an aesthetic direction that brings back the look of old FPS stalwarts in addition to the classic game play. Everything looks like it was released in 1997. Even if you opt to put on the fancier visual options, to make it look more modern, it will still look decidedly old school. This is really cool because it isn’t something that has been really done much. The closest thing to it would be Strafe, and that game unfortunately doesn’t come close to this game in terms of level design or gameplay. That’s because this game eschews the trend of randomly generated stages. Instead it builds its experience around some excellent level design, and atmosphere.

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DUSK may look old, and blocky on its surface. But it uses its employment of simplified graphics to its advantage. There are enemies in the roster that are truly unsettling. In fact, they may be more so because of the low detail, blocky designs. DUSK uses its retro chic very, very well. At the same time it takes the motif much further than you might find possible. It reminds me a little bit of American McGee’s Alice in this regard. That game was incredibly eerie for its time, and echoed feelings of a Tim Burton vehicle. But DUSK doesn’t feel like something out of The Nightmare On Christmas. It feels more like a perfect blend of psychological thriller, horror show, and action film. Because it takes elements from all of these things. Episode One will introduce you to a seemingly backwater group of occultists. Occultists with supernatural powers, brainwashed masses, and some horrific monsters to boot. Episode Two begins to show you just how deep their grasp on society in this world really goes. You’ll fight a combination of military, and industrial enemies. But as you go down the rabbit hole of stages, you’ll begin to see things get more, and more intricate. More, and more inventive too. You’ll start out in military installations. But by the end you’ll be dealing with laboratories of mad scientists, and machinations of twisted designs. There’s even a wonderfully crafted, and eerie level designed around M.C. Esher’s iconic Relativity drawing.

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By the third episode things begin to start coming together, and some of the more obvious questions are answered. There are a number of call backs, and the level designs become even more involved.  A lot of these may very well be some of the most memorable stages I’ve ever played through. All of the stages have a bevy of secrets to be found, and many of these even include old school secret exits that lead to secret stages. This is another splendid reference to those games of yesteryear. Many of those titles also employed secret exits to secret stages. But again, DUSK performs this trick in its own way. Really there isn’t a lot to complain about in terms of the game’s campaign. It gives you hours, upon hours of content. As I’ve said before, all of the stages have fantastic designs that will require not only reflexes, but your thinking cap. There are a plethora of puzzles you’ll need to solve in order to find all of the required colored keys to get through the corresponding colored doors, and to the exits. If I were to complain about anything it would be that one of the boss fights in particular isn’t very fair. I won’t spoil it for you, but you’ll likely know exactly which one I’m referring to when you get there. And it isn’t the final confrontation. That one is fantastic. There is also one gigantic horde mode of a moment near the end of the game where things turn into something out of a Serious Sam game. Which goes to show just how little that series really had to do with the old games many thought it did. It isn’t a bad moment per se. But if you’re not prepared for it you’ll find yourself very low on supplies, which will make getting through it a lot harder than it needs to be.

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Fortunately quick saving mitigates this a lot, and you’ll probably find yourself save scumming a lot during your initial play through. After that you’ll have a pretty good idea of when major hurdles are coming up. So during subsequent play throughs, you’ll have to save far less often. I should probably mention another cool thing about DUSK is just how funny it can be at times. In spite of the fact that things are played so seriously, and that it combines a vintage look with such a dark, anxious tone it will throw in comic relief. But like the best horror movies, these moments don’t make the experience feel campy. Again, it will likely remind you of the goofy stuff hidden in classic iD, and Apogee releases. You’ll be startled by invisible death reindeer one moment, and laughing at a Schwarzenegger impression the next.

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Andrew Hulshult (who did the excellent soundtrack to the Rise Of The Triad reboot in 2013) brings his talents to this game. He brings his love of Metal along with him here, but there are also some phenomenal moments of symphonic industrial sound, and a lot of ambient tracks too. There are even a few tracks involving some eerie pipe organs. One of the hallmarks of a great soundtrack is how it works with the setting of the game it is used in. Everything here melds along perfectly. It rocks out when there’s an ambush or a larger than life boss fight. It feels desperate, and fearful when there are moments of isolation or the prospect of deadly enemies around a corner. The sound effects are also top-notch. They make the weapon feedback feel great. They make the creepier enemies ever so more likely to freak you out. They make the environment feel like the universe the game takes place in feel all the more real.

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Not only does DUSK give you a compelling thirty stage (or more) campaign to battle through, it also includes multiplayer. DUSKWORLD is this game’s competitive death match offering. Now admittedly this isn’t going to be the reason you’re getting a ticket to this carnival. But it is a genuinely fun, and customizable experience. You can choose to play as many of the game’s enemy roster, and you can alter the color scheme of any character you choose. As with the main campaign, you can alter the key bindings, crosshairs, and various visual, and performance settings. The game also supports a multitude of multiplayer server options, and it has a respectable number of maps. The game will also have mod support, so if enough players enjoy it, there could potentially be a fair amount of content added to the game by the community. As for what is here, you’re getting a really good death match mode that can hang with SIN, and QUAKE II. You can rocket jump, strafe jump, and zip along at 100 mph. It’s a lot of fun, and fills a gap for those who miss the arena shooters in the vein of Q3A or UT.

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Again, like the main campaign, the shooting, and movement here is amazingly well done. Everything is not only fast, but responsive. Aiming feels smooth. Projectile weapons feel accurate, requiring a mastery of leading. Hit scan weapons work as they should, requiring you to get the cursor right on the enemy. The visual feedback goes along with everything well, as you’ll see red blood pixels with every hit, along with an audio feedback. You’ll hear a familiar tone when hitting opponents in the arenas. You can expect a full server to result in some spam techniques in smaller maps. But that’s merely a staple of the subgenre. All of the multiplayer maps feature multiple paths through to key power ups, and weapons. These are all either designed for the ground up for death match, or campaign maps that have been properly retooled for competitive play. Net code is pretty good. Finding a server in your area rarely results in rubber banding, or warping enemies. The action in multiplayer is a very fun experience. One can only hope enough people enjoy it to retain a decent player base. But even if it doesn’t carve out a niche for itself, it is possible to play privately with friends. Which is welcome as this is a rather well made death match effort.

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The game also offers a horde mode. It isn’t something most people will choose as their primary way to play the game. But it is here. There are three maps to choose from, and you’re given a limited number of supplies to survive each onslaught of enemies. You keep going until you lose. Basically it gives the game an arcade style Hi-Score flair. There are point multipliers for rapidly killing bad guys in a row too, so if you do enjoy this game mode, do take advantage of that.

Ultimately, DUSK is a must-buy. It retains what made the original two QUAKE games, and its contemporaries so good. At the same time it does so much the those games couldn’t do thanks to running on a modern Unity engine. If you’re an older player, you’ll love all of the pulls at your nostalgic heart-strings. If you’re a newcomer you may find that old can feel new to you. While there are some games that have tried to bring back that classic feel of the past, this game goes all in. Even as excellent as it was, iD’s own DOOM reboot didn’t fully bring back the level of exploration of its original game. But even the old FPS guard will find this game does plenty of new things with a proven concept. I might even recommend this one to some who might not typically be drawn to the FPS genre. It has so much personality, and creativity, those who are looking for something new to try out may find themselves pleasantly surprised. Plus for people who want even more lore there is a digital comic one can pick up with the soundtrack on Steam.

In short; DUSK is freaking cool.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

No Thing Review

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Imagine the surprise I was given when Nintendo reminded fans on Twitter that they may have a few unredeemed coins on the eshop set to expire. I had a scant handful, and so I figured, “Why not give it a shot?” and looked to see if there was anything that cheap. Well I stumbled upon this little game. A game about travelling along a path, in a Orwellian future that would actually lead me down quite the rabbit hole.

PROS: Simple, yet compelling game play.

CONS: Fairly short for anyone adept at it.

SUDA51: Your first look at the game will almost certainly remind you of No More Heroes.

Apparently I’ve been living under a rock, because after playing it for a couple of hours, (Yes, hours.) I just had to do some research. No Thing started life on phones, and tablets during the craze of endless runners. Except that it set itself apart in, many, many ways. The most obvious is the art style. This game looks like something Suda51 would have made for a No More Heroes mini game. Blocky minimalist geometry? Check. Low color palette? Check. Regular images that somehow come off as surreal or even creepy? Check. It has a very similar art style.

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But that isn’t to say it’s a stereotypical endless runner dressed up in edgy shock value. Far from it. For starters, it isn’t endless. There are ten stages. That’s it. Many of the stages are pretty long though. Even in the early goings. The stages are also not made via procedural generation. Every time you play, they’ll be the same. So this game is much more conducive to speed runs. It also isn’t a 2D side-scroller. This one uses a First-Person perspective.

No Thing also has a story that seems simplistic at first, but uses its stage layouts, and bizarre imagery to tell it. In this regard it reminded me an awful lot of games like Portal, and Deadcore, despite the fact it plays nothing like them. And through it all, it just became something I had to keep playing to see more of. The setup is that it’s the dystopian future of 1994. You’re an office worker who has to send a message to the Queen Of Ice. That’s it. Walk to her, and give her the message. Except it isn’t that easy.

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No Thing’s stages are essentially long tracks, and walkways. You use two buttons. One turns you ninety degrees left. The other ninety degrees right. At first you’ll go along fairly easily. Left turns. Right turns. You’re probably thinking to yourself “So? That sounds pretty boring. What’s so special about that?” Well before long the game puts gaps up in the path. Going over them makes a minor jump. The better you do, the faster you begin to go. So it doesn’t take much to have you running. Eventually, the game throws in ramps, branching paths, and mazes. Keep in mind all the while if you go off the path, you fall to your death as this is Super Mario Cyborg in that all of these stages hover over a chasm.

Over the course of the game’s stages, a voice that sounds like it came from early speech synthesis technology narrates instructions, and vague words that also tie into the storyline. Of course you won’t have time to read it as things become faster, and faster. Take your eyes off of the task for even a second, and you’ll fall to your doom. Throughout all of it  you’ll die a bunch of times, but you’ll keep playing it. It’s strangely addicting.

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The stages themselves have a pretty wide variety. Which you might not assume considering the length of the game, and the simple control scheme. But some of these work like tracks you lap. Others are long trails. Others place a lot of ramps in places which speed you up, and have you catching air. There are other stages that throw you curveballs by waiting to give you a turn at the last moment. And that’s part of why you’ll keep giving this one a go. You’ll just want to see what comes next.

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This isn’t to say, it’s a perfect experiment of course. Sometimes you’ll catch air, won’t be able to see below you, and you’ll have to estimate your landing. Also, while many of the filters in the game go along well with it, they can get in the way. When you’re about to make a crucial decision, and the distortion filter comes on, it could lead to you missing a turn. That means starting the stage all over again. The storyline may also a little too vague for some. You’ll get some references through the visuals, and cryptic speech. But chances are you still won’t get exactly what’s going on. On the other hand that could be the point; everyone can take something different away from the experience.

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One thing that certainly stands out is the soundtrack. Coincidentally if you get this one on PC via Steam you can buy the OST as DLC. Many would throw it under the Synth Wave genre, which pays homage to the New Wave, and Synthpop genres, particularly of the early 1980’s. Most of the compositions here are pretty catchy, and make great use of simulated analog synthesized sounds, and percussion.

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No Thing may have come out alongside much of what fans would cast under the shovelware category. But it isn’t. The aesthetics aren’t for everybody. But the underlying gameplay is honestly pretty good. And in spite of some of the cheap deaths due to the eventual jumps, it’s still a pretty fun game. Persistence is the key in No Thing. Every time you screw up, you just have to play again until you beat the level at hand. I enjoy going back to it fairly regularly. It even has a handful of achievements you can receive for beating stages, and scoring exceptionally well. With it being on Steam, and the Switch, I can see it being something speed runners may look into. Again, an acquired taste to be sure, but it might just be a game you want to check out. Especially if you want a game that stands out on your phone, or just something different from the genres you might normally buy on your computer or console.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Retro World Expo 2018 Recap

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It seems like only yesterday I attended Retro World Expo 2017, and here I am talking about the fourth iteration of this convention. RWE 2017 was an absolute blast, and RWE 2018 was also an absolute blast. I made my way to the Hartford Convention Center Saturday morning to find that this year’s entry was different. Instead of going up the center’s escalator, and lining up, this year used the ticket booth section of the lower floor. This was an improvement, as it made figuring out where to go much more seamless. There was however one piece of confusion that a convention center employee had to solve, and that was the front door. Some guests inadvertently cut the line by going right to the booth before it was made clear they had to go to the rear entrance of the lobby to enter a line.

That said, everything moved smoothly, and even though I’d arrived behind a few hundred people, I was getting my bands in less than ten minutes. For whatever reason the QR code did not display on my pre-registration form when printed. But the ticket attendant was easily able to find my info, see I had prepaid, and give me my wristbands for the weekend, and after party. Once inside, I went upstairs to find not one, but two amazing custom vehicles.

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The first was a really cool Jurassic Park themed vehicle. The paint job was right out of the films. Impeccable. The pattern was spot on, and had a nice gloss finish. There was also a plastic triceratops near by to finish off the movie vibe. Great stuff. Next to that vehicle was none other than Russ Lyman’s Super Mario Kart 2.0. Sadly, earlier this year he lost his original Super Mario Kart in an accident. Fortunately he was able to replace his vehicle, and over time modify it. The end result is an even better design than before, sporting a beautiful multicolored design, and a breathtaking Super Mario Bros. pit crew portrait by Tom Ryan Studio. Both vehicles were parked out in front of the convention floor so that attendees could take photos.

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Some of the earliest guests I met were Daniel Pesina, Rich Divizio, and Anthony Marquez who were character actors in the original three Mortal Kombat games. All of them were super cool, and down to Earth folks. I talked with them about how big a part of my teenage years that the MK games, and Street Fighter were for me. As well as pretty much everybody else. I ended up buying a promotional poster style photo, and all three of them were kind enough to sign it for me. If you ever have the opportunity to see them at a show, you ought to take it.

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As I wandered the floor, I veered into the arcade area where I saw something both wondrous, and disappointing. The KRULL arcade cabinet. Based upon the cult 1983 Sci-Fi Fantasy film; you’re sent through a number of action sequences loosely based on those found in the movie. It uses a twin-stick setup similar to the one in Robotron 2084, and it is a lot of fun to play. Sadly, the machine was out-of-order, so I couldn’t actually play it. I did however get a few photos of it, since actually laying your eyes on one these days is a rarity. Should you find one in working order at a barcade, amusement park, convention, or other situation, do play it. It’s pretty cool.

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Around this time Russ Lyman bumped into me, and we began catching up. Around this time I spotted the Imaginary Monsters booth, so we walked over, and I introduced him to the developers. (Full disclosure, I know two of them personally.) The team is working on a new Metroidvania style game called Abyxsis: The Demon Reborn. They brought a demo version to the show, and what they showed was pretty good! It obviously has a way to go before completion, but I liked what I saw. In it, you appear to play as a winged monster who has to traverse dark labyrinths to find NPCs, power ups, and other items. Like Metroid, there’s a sense of exploration. But at the same time, your character has the ability to do some really fun aerial moves. This looks to be one of the themes of navigation. What they showed was also pretty tough. Enemies take a lot of damage, and can put you down quickly. Again this is all subject to change being a fairly early demo. But the tight controls, wonderful pixel art, and map design are promising.

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Imaginary Monsters wasn’t the only indie studio to attend though! Adjacent to their booth was a studio called Jumpmen Gaming. They had two games they were showing off. The first was Project Myriad, a hexadecimal tower defense game with puzzle elements. I didn’t get much time with it so I certainly can’t review it here. That said, it might be something worth looking into if you’re a fan of the genre. I’m not fond of using the phrase “Fan of the genre” as it tends to be overused. But in this case I think it’s applicable. It clearly looks to do something different with the concept by going with a hex display, something usually geared toward a special niche of war games. The puzzle elements seem to add some flair as well. If any of that sounds like something you would like to try, it was recently released on Steam, and isn’t too expensive.

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The other game they showed was Sentinel Zero. This game was in its very early stages. This upcoming release is a horizontal shoot ’em up game in the vein of R-Type. What sets it apart are its cartoon vector graphics. The presentation reminded me a lot of early Newgrounds games written in Flash. Think Alien Hominid. But the little that was shown was pretty fun. You earn power shots by filling a meter. You fill the meter by shooting everything. The hook seems to be quickly filling the meter, and unleashing charged shots as fast as possible. They also had two bosses to show, one of which was a giant spider. Again, it has a long way to go before being ready for prime time. But it looked like good start for a project by a two-person upstart.

Another interesting looking indie game demo was Depths Of Sanity by a studio called Bomb Shelter Studios. I didn’t get any real footage or screens of this one as I didn’t get the chance to try it myself. But it was intriguing. It appears to be an underwater action, and exploration game where you’ll pilot a submarine, and find all kinds of upgrades for it that allow you into previously inaccessible areas. Like a Metroidvania with elements of Blaster Master thrown in for good measure. Again, another early build. It does have a store page on Steam with a release date of Q4 2019.

Finally, Giant Evil Robot was back with the recently released full version of Mecha-Tokyo Rush. This is a combination of endless runner, and Mega Man clone. Things seemed a bit better than the build I saw last year. I didn’t have time to really play it though, so I can’t really say much in terms of its final state. The game does have a free to play model however, so you really don’t have anything to lose if you want to check it out.

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After taking my initial walk around the floor, I went to the first of the panels I attended. The Connecticut YouTube panel. This panel featured Ryan Alexander (RAXTheGreat1), Mike Levy (Dongled), Sam Hatch (Culture Dog), John Delia (The Video Game Years), Paul Barnas (Retro Gaming Arts), and Russ Lyman (Russ Lyman). For those who don’t know, Retro World Expo has roots in Retroware TV, one of the earliest video hosts before YouTube became the de facto delivery model video content creators use today. Many don’t realize Retroware has its own roots in Connecticut. So it only makes sense to have a panel dedicated to some of the online content creators who are local to the area.

But while the panelists are natives of the State, the information delivered in the panel is applicable to anybody getting into video content on the internet. I would even go onto say a lot of it is applicable to any creative endeavor online or off. A lot of the questions posed to the panelists revealed some insightful answers. When asked about the motivation behind creating content everyone unanimously agreed one has to do it first, and foremost out of a love of it. Few, if many creators of any medium become overnight success stories. One shouldn’t make a video expecting to be the next James Rolfe. If it happens, fine, but going in with that expectation is a recipe for disaster. More than likely, you’re not going to garner a massive flood of views, and subscriptions when you start out. Even the creators who are big names today, often took months or years of work to become those big names.

Continuing from there, Mike Levy brought up the importance of making content you, as a creator want to make. Chasing trends isn’t going to work because it isn’t genuine. Others pointed out that potential fans may be able to sense that as well. When the subject of potential collaborations between creators came up, Mike, and Russ also pointed out the need to have a fleshed out idea to present. It isn’t enough to simply ask another creator to do a crossover project. Especially since they’re often pressed for time for their own projects, jobs, and lives. Instead one has to have a project idea ready to go, ideally with what role the person has in mind for them. The creator may still decline depending on the given situation. But they’ll be more likely to at least listen to what it is you have to propose.

Other panelists also drove home the importance of consistency. Trying to keep content coming out for the audience to experience. At the same time though, they did acknowledge there were times where a legitimate break is needed. Commitments, responsibilities, and other things may eat into time normally allotted toward creative endeavors. Sam, Paul, and John also talked about the guilt creators often feel for missing self-imposed deadlines, but acknowledged sometimes it’s unavoidable. Another topic was the importance of lighting, and audio in videos. Even a high quality camera can’t compensate for a lack of light, or bad audio. If the audience can’t see you, or your audio is too distorted or too light or too loud it can turn them off. Even if the content is good. Russ pointed out an episode he made on this very subject.

There was also a discussion about the recent controversy over former IGN writer Filip Miucin’s theft of YouTuber Boomstick Gaming’s Dead Cells review, which led into a wider discussion of online content theft. While some felt Miucin likely felt pressured by deadlines, everyone agreed that plagiarism was despicable behavior. Some of the panelists were rather shocked when they found their own content re-uploaded by other people without permission.

On the lighter side of things, there were some humorous moments where the panelists discussed changing trends in online video. At one time, many preferred long form content. But these days some viewers complain if it isn’t quick, and digestible in a few moments. One particularly funny point was when the crew talked about the trend of unboxing videos being popular. The joke that stood out centered around an unboxing video where the box would house smaller boxes within boxes like a set of nesting dolls. It was also in this panel that Ryan would point out some new YouTube creators were in the crowd.  Nerdy, and Squirdy are YouTube newcomers, and after checking them out I think Ryan may be onto something. These two have a nice variety of different gaming content you just may want to look into.

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After the panel I walked back down to the main floor, where I got in some arcade gaming in. Every year Retro World Expo has a respectable number of arcade machines set up, as well as console set ups where attendees can play without quarters or tokens. Every machine is set to Free Play mode. Some of the machines I saw this year that I don’t remember seeing last year aside from KRULL, were a Star Wars: Return Of The Jedi machine, The Simpsons Arcade Game, and a Dig Dug cocktail table. Over the course of my time at the show, I played a fair amount of Street Fighter II: Champion Edition, Final Fight, Shinobi, Ms. Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Dig Dug. There was also a Ghouls n’ Ghosts machine, but it was always in use. One of the guys in my local trade group managed to find some time on it though, and even cleared it on only a few lives! Impressive.

I also wandered the floor this year looking for some Atari 2600, and Commodore 64 game deals. On the first day, I managed to track down a boxed copy of Gravitar, and a loose copy of Cruise Missile. The latter of which I had never seen before. Apparently it was released in 1987, and is a shmup involving above ground combat, and subterranean combat in the vein of MagMax. I also saw many of the guys from RF Generation were back, as well as Steven Christina Jr, and Karly Kingsley from Super Retro Throwback Reviews. I sat down with them for a short interview they should be airing in the coming weeks. SRTR was also raffling off a bunch of cool PS4 releases, as well as an NES Classic, and a Super NES Classic so I bought a couple of tickets to try my luck.

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At around 4 o’clock or so I attended the Mortal Kombat panel with  Daniel Pesina, Rich Divizio, and Anthony Marquez. They were joined by Sal Divita. Sal was instrumental in bringing the NBA Jam series, and its spinoffs to arcades, and consoles. But he also had involvement as Nightwolf in Mortal Kombat 3. In addition to that, he still saw a lot of the development process on all of the early Mortal Kombat games. Daniel, Rich, and Anthony brought a lot of insight into the world of game development as they talked about the creation of Mortal Kombat. It was an idea that almost didn’t come to fruition, as Midway was hoping for a licensed project with Jean-Claude Van Damme. But when that fell through, Midway allowed Ed Boon, and John Tobias to move ahead with their ideas.

As it turns out, there was a great deal of painstaking work involved in the original games. Every video taped action the actors made, had to be cut down to 8 frames of animation due to memory constraints. Not only that, but many of the characters’ moves had to be shot multiple times when it was discovered that being even the slightest bit too close or far from the camera would make sprite sizes inconsistent. Midway also had a very low-budget for the early games so the crew had to use make shift lighting using office desk lamps, and some sessions were filmed using a camera owned by John Tobias’ father.

As for the controversy surrounding the game’s violence level, when it came to politicians, Midway’s stance was to ignore it. But the actors were contract players, not official Midway employees, so they were unabashed in defense of their work. All in all, a very informative panel not only for fans of Mortal Kombat, and fighting games, but for anybody interested in video game development, and history.

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After that panel I wandered the floor some more, stopping to talk to friends, and acquaintances whom were either shopping, gaming, or vending. I also finally met The Gamescape Artist in person. My first contact with him was during a fellow blogger, hungrygoriya’s live streams (If you love old school JRPGs, check out her blog, or channel. It’s great!). He’s a friendly guy, and quite the painter! He has a wide range of paintings of iconic video game scenes to choose from, and he also does commissions. They’re high quality, highly detailed pieces, so if you’re looking for something to spruce up your game room consider giving him a shout out.

I also ran into the makers of an independent games’ magazine. Old School Gamer Magazine is just what it sounds like. It’s a new publication with articles covering retro games, as well as modern stuff inspired by retro games. The format is a little bit different from what I’d expected. It reminded me a bit of 1980’s computer magazines like Compute!, Ahoy!, and Commodore RUN, minus the program code you could type in, and save to a floppy for free software. The issue they gave me was the fifth one, and it came with a cool poster of the cover art. The representative informed me that they give away the digital version for free via email, but for a fairly low price you can have the physical magazines mailed to you every month. If you miss the days of getting Nintendo Power, GamePro, EGM, and Computer Gaming World at the newsstand, go check it out to see if it’s right for you.

I also met a group of Video bloggers who do VLOG articles, and live streams. The Geeky Panda covers convention cosplays, as well as games, and have an active Twitch page you can check out if so inclined. They play a bunch of stuff including Resident Evil VII, and Fallout IV. If you’re looking for a new variety streaming channel to follow, they may be your ticket.

After the show floor closed I walked over to the adjacent Hartford Marriott’s hotel bar. Normally I would have paid a visit to the City Steam Brewery, but the after party started an hour after the main show ended. I felt I wouldn’t make it back in time. Fortunately the hotel bar did have City Steam Naughty Nurse, so I pre-gamed with the delicious Amber Ale. After that, I went back to the convention center for the after party event which was a lot of fun.

There were a number of things to check out over the course of two hours. You could play arcade cabs that were set up in one of the rooms. Big Bucks Entertainment ran a special edition of Press Your Luck, where contestants who landed on a Whammy had to take a shot. Host Davira Kuy was also doing so in a rather impressive Quan Chi (Mortal Kombat 4) cosplay. The Imaginary Monsters developers were there, so I introduced them to my friends, and acquaintances, as everybody mingled. There was also a fun Drink, and Draw event going on. It was a nice way to end the first part of the convention.

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I commuted back home after that, put away the first day’s pick ups, and got some rest. Day two was a Sunday, so after services, I headed back to Hartford to catch what I could. I did manage to get into Pat Contri’s panel which had some updates on projects he has in the pipeline. He, and his team are working feverishly on the follow-up to his excellent NES collecting guide. This one will be centered on the Super NES, and will be in a similar format. There will also be an alternate cover for the PAL readership. He is also looking into updating the original NES book with some improved screenshots. So future print runs may include these. But the biggest news is that he is working with some other creators on a documentary video about the video game industry’s shift away from physical media. The project will talk about both the pros of such decisions, and the cons of such decisions. The teaser he revealed does look quite promising.

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At the end of the panel he brought back the NES Challenge, and I was able to be a contestant in the second bout! In a cut throat match of Donkey Kong Jr. Math, I barely managed to squeak out a victory! The first round pitted two fans against one another in Balloon Fight, while the third round pitted a couple against one another in an Abobo Vs. Abobo match in Double Dragon. The winners were granted a download key for a digital edition of his NES guide, while the losers were granted shoe string budget games for the Atari 2600, and Sega Genesis. A great panel overall.

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I also got to see Norman Caruso’s Gaming Historian panel again this year. This time he did a live episode centered around a certain Nintendo made boxing franchise. I won’t say anything else about it, but like all of his episodes, you can expect to be amazed as there will be some revelations you won’t believe. This year he also changed game shows. Instead of video game history themed Jeopardy, he did video game history themed Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? This year’s contestant won last year’s Jeopardy game only to discover he won a T-shirt that didn’t fit, so this year he was attempting to win the appropriate size.

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The last panel at the show I caught was a special panel centered around the history of Castlevania, and the Metroidvania formula used in modern independent games. Mike Levy was joined by Marc Duddleson (My Life In Gaming), Mike Desiderio (Rewind Mike), and Pam Dzwonek (Cannot Be Tamed.). Throughout the panel they went over many of the games in the series, and talked about the transition from action platformer to the Metroidvania style most think of today. But they also brought up the fact that there were times where the series hasn’t simply abandoned one style for the other. Marc, brought up the fact that the Nintendo 64’s entries in the series have many similarities to the NES trilogy with a focus on platforming, and combat. Pam, and Mike talked a bit about how even Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest had RPG elements that in some ways can be seen as a forebear to the labyrinthine designs seen in later games.

But they also discussed many newer games like Axiom Verge, Hollow Knight, and Mystik Belle. Here, Rewind Mike pointed out that some of these games veer more toward Metroid, while others veer more toward Symphony Of The Night in terms of design. He also mentioned Abyxsis after seeing it on the floor earlier in the day, and having liked what he had seen. Things closed out with some Castlevania trivia, with the winning attendee getting a Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest Game Pak signed by James Rolfe, and many of the online personalities who attended the show. From Mike Levy’s personal collection no less. And no, I did not win. My Castlevania knowledge is rudimentary. Although I do surprise people when I point out Konami did port the game to many 80’s era computer platforms. Also they’re expensive. If you thought the NES cartridge is steep, try getting the Commodore 64 floppy disk. Anyway, it was a great panel.

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I spent most of my final moments of the show on the floor again. I found a few great deals over that time. The crown jewel was the copy of Bubble Bobble for the Commodore 64 a friend of mine had at his booth. Most people remember the NES release, but the C64 version was pretty much on par, and you don’t see it as often. Another vendor had a slew of boxed, and unboxed games, so I looked through the vast selection where I found a copy of Pengo for the Atari 2600. It’s not a release that you see very often at all. It had no tag on it so I asked for a price. When they replied “It has a ripped label so ten dollars.” I just said “Done.”, and picked it up.

I was demoed a party card game called Cheer Up. It plays similarly to Cards Against Humanity, but with its own twist. It goes through rounds in three steps while also simplifying it with a three-letter system. This opens things up by having three card answer types, but also color coding them to make things easier to follow. It wasn’t something I got into, but that’s probably me not being as drawn to board games as other people. I can see the appeal though for those whom have guests over often. Basically, the person asking a question gets every other player to submit answers from their hand, with the funniest one getting points. If you have people over for regular game nights, you might want to see if it’s for you. They have a free digital download version on their site which is nice, because then you can try it to see if you’ll enjoy it before buying a copy.

I also spotted a booth hosted by another YouTube up, and comer GothamLounge who does Long plays with commentary. If you’re stumped on a game, you may want to see if it’s something he’s played through. He seems like a nice fellow, so I wish him luck on his online endeavors. As I was catching up with friends, and acquaintances before the show closed I was tracked down by the Super Retro Throwback team to discover I had won the Super NES Classic Edition raffle! So I guess this was my “steal” of the show as I ultimately got one of these ridiculously cheap. A special thanks to them for interviewing me, and hosting the raffles. I also nabbed some sweet Splatoon themed stickers, and buttons from the always great Elijah Taylor, and JustM3hStudios booths. If you see them at a con near you check them out sometime.

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All in all, I had another great year seeing some great panels, scoring some deals, and meeting up with friends like The Best Spuds. But there was so much going on it was impossible to get to everything. I didn’t get a chance to talk to a number of guests. I didn’t get to say “Hello” to The Gaming Historian, RGT85, Game Dave, or Bob Backlund. (Yes, the great wrestling legend Bob Backlund was at the show.). There were a ton of interesting people there this year, and I’ve undoubtedly missed some of them. I apologize in advance.

But even if you weren’t interested in any of the guests there were a lot of other things happening. The Arcade games, and console games were set up to go all day. There were pinball machines to play. There were tabletop miniature games to play. There were live musical acts to jam out to. There were several tournaments going on as well. The ever popular Fortnite had a singles, and doubles competition, there was a Mario Kart 64 competition, a Goldeneye tournament, even a Nintendo World Championships tournament.

There was also a cosplay contest going on this year, and the massive auction made a return. Unfortunately for me I missed it. I was told somebody won a complete Commodore 64 setup (including a vintage monitor) for well below value. Some years the auction can actually lead to deals for some con goers. And even if none of that appeals to you, there are always a lot of vendors to check out. You may not get insane deals, but you can almost bet at least someone will have something you never see when you go hunting locally.

Congrats to everyone at the convention for putting on another great show this year. I hope to be able to make it out again next year. And thanks to all readers who made it this far. As you can see, I had a lot of ground to cover, and I still didn’t get to everything. If you’re in New England next year when it rolls around, check it out. It’s well-organized, entertaining, and they squeeze a lot into it.

The Messenger Review

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Sometimes a game comes out with a ton of fanfare, but ultimately lets everybody down. This is not one of those games. The Messenger earns every ounce of excitement, and praise preemptively thrown its way. Nearly everything about this one is so on point you can stop reading, and buy the game. In the words of Triple H, it is “That damn good.”

PROS: Sprite work. Controls. Music. Story. Humor. Nearly everything really.

CONS: A bug that makes a certain section of the game nearly impossible to solve.

NINJA GAIDEN: The original NES designers were invited to play it, and loved it.

The Messenger was largely advertised as a love letter to the trilogy of NES Ninja Gaiden games. Upon booting up the game it’s easy to see why. The action, cinema screens, wall climbing, and secondary weapon throwing are obviously influenced by those classics. Devolver Digital even had the two lead designers of Ninja Gaiden play their demo before release as they couldn’t wait to see their reaction.

But while The Messenger would have likely done well enough as a mere homage, that wasn’t good enough for the team at Sabotage. The Messenger does so much more than mimic one of gaming’s best action platform games. It uses that formula as one small piece in a much, much larger puzzle. A puzzle that will likely take you hours to solve.

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The Messenger centers around a Ninja clan that gets attacked by monsters. As one of the Ninjas, you’re chastised by your sensei for not taking your training seriously. You’re told a super warrior is supposed to save the day, but unfortunately for everyone this person doesn’t show up in time. The monsters wipe out the village, and you’re about to be destroyed when they show up just in time. The enemies retreat, and this warrior gives you a scroll. You’re told to deliver the scroll to the top of a mountain, and so you go on your way.

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I won’t go into the rest of the surprisingly deep, and convoluted storyline here. But rest assured it is quite good. Filled with twists, turns, and even a lot of sardonic humor. I laughed a lot at the various jokes throughout my time with the campaign. But at the same time, I was pleasantly surprised at just how invested in the overall story I became. Plus the gameplay ties into everything very nicely. When the game begins, it truly will remind you of the NES Ninja Gaiden games. You have a similar run speed. You have similar jumping physics. You’ll even have a sense of familiarity as you can climb certain walls.

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But The Messenger throws in its own entirely new mechanics that set it decidedly apart from Ninja Gaiden. Most notably the extra jump you can get by killing enemies, or hitting specific targets. If you get the timing right, you can jump, hit a target, and jump immediately after to get extra air. You can also gain momentum by repeating the process on subsequent targets. This allows you to kind of hop distances between targets, and get through areas faster.  As you progress, the game makes mastering this technique essential, as it begins throwing in jumping puzzles, as well as highly challenging platforming sections where you’re surrounded by bottomless pits, spikes, or other death traps.

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The game goes along much like those old NES action games. You’ll battle your way through a stage, then fight a boss, watch some dialogue boxes, or cinema screens, and move on. However each stage has a few checkpoints after every few gauntlets. Some of these gauntlets are shops, where you can spend the diamond shards you find on upgrades for your ninja. Some of these give you more resistance to damage. Some of these give you more attack power.

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Over time you’ll also acquire new abilities like a wind suit, and grappling hook. And later in the game you’ll need them because stages are built around their use. It’s crafted so well, and so engrossing you’ll want to keep playing until you get to the final showdown with the demon army, and win the day. Throughout it all, you’ll be blown away at the NES inspired sprite work, and Famicom-esque chip tunes. It’s nothing short of amazing, and you’ll love every minute of it.

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Another interesting mechanic is that while old school, this is another game that ditches lives. Instead of dying a set number of times, or having a limited set of continues, you simply keep playing. Now the original first two Ninja Gaiden games on the NES had unlimited continues. However this game does something a bit different. When you die, a little red bookie monster shows up. He steals any money you make until his debt for respawning you is paid. So while the game becomes more forgiving, at the same time you do well for not dying. Because not dying means more money, and more money means getting all of the items, and upgrades sooner.

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When you finally defeat the Demon army’s second in command you’ll probably do what I did. Think there’s one last stage where your endurance, and cunning are pushed to the proverbial limit. Then one grandiose boss fight, and a satisfying finish. Well this is one part of the game I have to spoil in order to talk about the entire package. I’m not giving away details, just know that nothing could be further from the truth. The game basically comes out, and yells “Surprise! Now you’re going to play a Metroid clone!” The game really opens up at this point, and connects every stage you’ve played together. This makes one overarching world, and you’ll be sent throughout it.

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However, The Messenger does not go sending you on power up fetch quests, in order access the new areas. Rather, you have to go find items that act as keys, and find NPCs to further the story. You can buy map markers in the shops, but even then, getting to those places is going to be very intimidating when you first attempt it. These new areas are filled with new traps, and puzzles. There are also challenge rooms where you can try to get these green tokens. If you find every one of them in the game there’s a surprise waiting for you. But that’s not even the best part.

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The Messenger also adds a dash of stage morphing. It may just remind you of Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, although it isn’t done in the same way. The storyline adds an element of time travel, where you go through portals that send you 500 years into the future. And then other ones send you back. When you go into the future, the 8-bit NES aesthetics change to 16-bit Super NES aesthetics! The music also goes from sounding like the Famicom, to sounding like the Super Famicom, and Mega Drive decided to go on tour together. The soundtrack in this game immediately skyrockets from a pretty great one, to an absolutely stellar one. Not only that, but the game uses the time travel mechanic in some pretty intricate ways. Like Metroid Prime 2: Echoes did, The Messenger will make you go to one area of the map in the present, go through a portal to the future, so that you’ll come out in the right place in a different section of the map. Then you’ll go through a portal there to come back in the present where you’ll meet an NPC, or find a room with a green token challenge. Or something else entirely.

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The story also begins to get both more interesting, and more cryptic when you discover a hub section, and you’re discovering entirely new areas that were never part of a previous linear stage from the first act of the game. They’ve done a terrific job with all of this, and that’s before you even get to the impressive boss encounters that follow. They make the early bosses you may have found difficult seem like you were lifting feathers before. But it does this by easing you over time without you even realizing it. It’s an action game, that becomes an adventure game, that implements a feeling you get when playing an RPG.

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And I think that’s probably the best thing about The Messenger. It’s like you’re playing two completely different games back to back. You played Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword Of Chaos. But instead of credits, a dying Jaquio goes “It’s not over. You have to defeat Mother Brain now, or the world will end! Ha. Ha. Ha.” The fact that it makes you feel elated, rather than angry is quite the feat.

So with all of that said, is this a 10 out of 10 game that will forever be the title future indie games are held to as a standard? Not quite. Though it is very impressive, and should be something you should buy I had one major problem with it. At one point in the game there is a section where you have to navigate an area by listening for sound. Well for whatever reason, the game would not play the sound properly. It made finding my way through a complete crapshoot. I had to guess my way through as if I were playing the final stage of Super Mario Bros. And while this isn’t something that breaks the game, as you can still get through it. It does ruin the intended experience of hearing what you need to hear in the place you need to hear it in order to follow the right path. I’m sure in time they may fix it with a patch. But as it stands it’s just enough to keep me from calling it near flawless.

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Still, if you were hoping for a wonderful homage to Ninja Gaiden, you’ll get it. If you were hoping for something more than a wonderful homage to Ninja Gaiden you’ll get it. The Messenger truly is one of the best games to come out this year, and is something you really ought to check out. It’s one of the most engrossing games you’ll play this year. As impressive as the trailers may be, it’s still the kind of game you have to see to believe. Go buy The Messenger now. Even if you’re just stumbling upon this review 500 years from now.

Final Score: 9.5 out of 10

Owlboy Review

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The Super NES is known for many great things. Obviously Nintendo’s own wonderful games, and some of the most memorable efforts from names like Capcom, Konami, Square, and Natsume. These efforts often resulted in excellent adventure games, action RPGs, and action platformers. In recent  years a number of new games have shown up paying homage to these titles. But not all of them have done it as well as Owlboy.

PROS: Beautiful visuals. Tight controls. Engrossing story.

CONS: A few annoying bugs. Objectives aren’t always clear.

PIXEL ART: This game really does raise the bar for the art form.

Owlboy is easily one of the best modern platformers done in a style that resembles the 16-bit titles of yesteryear. Immediately you’ll be blown away by the insane amount of detail in the pixel art. The shading of the grass, the gradients in the clouds, and the plethora of tiles that make every background, and object stand out. Not only is there a great amount of detail, but so much of it is animated. Animated so well, in fact, that it matches the characters with their text balloons almost flawlessly.

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Speaking of facial sprite animation, and text balloons, Owlboy has a story on par with many coming-of-age animated Disney films. When the game begins you take control of an owl named Otus. Otus isn’t well liked by most of the inhabitants of Ville. He’s mocked, teased, bullied by many of the other owls his age (often because of his muteness), and he’s ostracized by adults. He gets blamed for things he has little to nothing to do with. He has one friend named Geddy who works defense for the town. Things change drastically one day, when a mysterious troublemaker distracts the two, and allows an invasion of pirates to occur.  From here, our pariah has to go on a three arc adventure to become the hero.

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Along the course of the story new characters get introduced, and this is where the game’s mechanics start to really take shape. Owlboy combines the Platformer with Adventure, and Action RPG elements to create something pretty special. You’ll explore different towns, and talk to NPCs the way you might in a game like Ys, or Faxanadu. You’ll explore areas the way you do in Metroidvanias. You’ll get into boss fights on par with those of the Classic Mega Man series. The developers at D-Pad even went the extra mile to make the shop one of the most entertaining moments in the game.

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Otus can run, jump, fly, and do a couple of  roll attacks as you go through the game. But he can also pick up some of the NPC characters you’ll meet, some items, and even some enemies. All of which are needed to solve puzzles, and get to a lot of areas. Most of the puzzles are fairly challenging to solve, involving every possible thing you can lift. Throughout the campaign you’ll also find fruits, and vegetables that replenish health too. Around halfway through the game you’ll find a shop. It works a little bit differently than the typical shops in most RPGs, and Adventure games.

Rather than simply buy items with the money you have, the shop keep sends out employees to just give them to you once you have enough coins. They don’t take the coins from you though. So it’s almost like a level up progress bar accented with comedy. These moments are quite hilarious too. The game makes excellent use of its characters, and animation to deliver laughs. Rather than simply give you the normal mundane experience of grinding money until you can buy the best kit, it’s gives entertainment. And these funny moments fit right in with the rest of the story.

 

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The story is great, the characters, are great, and everything else for the most part is as well. Not only do you get a bunch of interesting challenges to solve, but you’ll also do your fair share of platforming. Any good platformer requires excellent, and responsive controls. Owlboy has them. As you jump, fly, and switch characters around, things feel natural. So while things may look insurmountable at times, with enough practice you’ll get through them. The game utilizes the Adventure feel of checkpoints rather than the life system many retro-platformers do. These are fairly numerous, so there aren’t very many times you’ll find yourself re-doing long stretches of hurdles upon a mistake. That isn’t to say things will be easy. There were a few parts of the game that I found myself spending thirty to forty minutes on because I didn’t do just the right move. Or because I didn’t kill an enemy quite fast enough. But again, perseverance pays off. If you don’t give up, you’ll get through it.

The game is a lot of fun too. It scratches the itch of just about any old-school experience you can think of, and it’s engrossing. It makes you feel accomplished when you do something grand, and it doesn’t feel discouraging when you fall down. There are also plenty of moments that will just wow you. From riding rock dragons, to infiltrating bases, to the tremendous boss fights, there is a lot to love. Boss fights bring back the era of memorizing patterns. Much like the Mega Man, Castlevania, and Contra games of old, each fight makes you watch for openings. Eventually you’ll realize the boss is doing the same thing, and you’ll learn where to move, or which character to utilize, at what time. Most of them have several forms though, and with each form, a new pattern to learn. But through it all, you’ll have a great time. Whether you were in that era or not.

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As I’ve stated before, Owlboy looks astonishing. But the soundtrack goes along with it all so beautifully. The game has a wonderful orchestral score that flows from scene to scene, and area to area. It’s as if a Metroid game were filled with symphonic songs inspired by classical composers. None of it really comes off as cliché either. It’s almost expected in any fantasy setting to hear strings, and woodwind instruments. But here again, it feels like an animated Disney film. There are up tempo notes of optimism when things are looking up for our characters, and there are bombastic yet somber moments when it looks like all is lost. It probably isn’t the sort of thing you’ll listen to on a work commute, but it does accent the story, and gameplay very well.

It would be easy to write the game off as some niche experience for geezers like me who jammed on Ys III, Mega Man X, and ActRaiser on the Super NES back in the day. But it really isn’t, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you skip it because of that impression. Yes, indeed, there are plenty of things to like for those who were around for the 16-bit console wars of the 1990’s. But the new twists on gameplay, identifiable characters, and well told story, are things anybody who likes video games can experience. Owlboy joins the ranks of well-crafted, memorable indie releases like Axiom Verge, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, Undertale, and VVVVVV.

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It isn’t without its faults, as even the best games have some issues. In the case of Owlboy it seems to be bugs. Minor bugs, but annoying nevertheless. One of which seems to screw up your controls at random. Loading from the last checkpoint seems to fix it. This only happened to me once, near the end of the game. But it’s still worth mentioning. Another is how, at least on PC, the game still runs in memory even after exiting to the desktop. Pulling up the Task Manager in Windows allows you to shut it down, but it’s still 30 seconds of annoyance. There are also a couple of times in the campaign where it isn’t always clear where you’re supposed to go next. But this is really a minor nitpick since you’ll be spending a good portion of time just exploring anyway.

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Overall though, Owlboy comes highly recommended. It’s fun, engrossing, and has something for just about anyone. It’s a game that will likely garner an emotional response from you, thanks in part to the excellent animation. It’s a game you’ll likely cherish in part because of the story, and characters on display. But it’s also a game you’ll likely enjoy going through due to the top-notch play control, and well crafted gameplay. Owlboy is a must play addition to any collection.

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

Road Redemption Review

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Often times it seems there are a number of massive franchises, that suddenly go dormant. No warning, no announcement. It’s just decided that there will not be another entry in a given line up, and it slowly fades away. Sometimes even becoming relatively obscure. Sure, it’s unlikely anyone will forget about Half-Life in the not too distant future. But how about Mail Order Monsters? On that note, Electronic Arts actually has several franchises, and IPs they seem to have forgotten about. One of which is Road Rash.

PROS: Everything great about Road Rash 64. Rogue like elements used very effectively.

CONS: Dated visuals. Minor bugs.

EASTER EGG: There is a really great surprise for people who complete the campaign.

Road Rash was a long running arcade style racing game. In it you drove motorcycles, and attacked all of the opposing racers in the hopes you could take them out of commission. This made races a little bit more manageable as taking out competitors made it more likely you’d place. But there was still a great challenge in juggling attacking, defending, and watching the road. The series started on the Sega Genesis, but would appear on Windows, the 3D0, Saturn, PlayStation, Nintendo 64, and Game Boy Advance.

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The last game came out in 2003. So with that in mind, Ian Fisch, Pixel Dash Studios, and EQ Games began work on a spiritual successor. Road Redemption takes a lot of the elements of Road Rash, and retrofits them with some contemporary features. Interestingly, the game seems to take a lot of cues from Road Rash 64, the one game in the series EA licensed out entirely to another developer (Pacific Coast Power & Light), and publisher (THQ).

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Road Redemption was also an Early Access game for a few years, first landing on Steam’s Early Access service back in 2014. It went through many updates, and was pushed back a number of times before finally seeing release (as of this writing) a few days ago on October 4th 2017 when I bought it.

With the long development cycle, one wouldn’t be faulted for thinking the game could end up like the nefarious Ride To Hell. The game’s graphics might not inspire much confidence in some people either. They’re not terrible. But in an age where even many indie games are blowing people away (most recently, Cuphead), Road Redemption squeezes by. A lot of the geometry on display looks simple, yet the textures on much of that geometry is pretty good. It also has some respectable lighting effects going on. All in all, it kind of reminds me of an early Xbox 360 game in terms of looks.

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That isn’t to say there isn’t anything fun, or cool to look at though. Character designs are really engrossing. The racers take influence from all kinds of stuff. Mad Max almost immediately comes to mind when you first start playing. A lot of the bikers you see in the earlier parts of the game could have come out of the movies with a lot of the post apocalyptic motif in their costumes. You drive a lot in the desert in the early goings too, so this lends itself to that influence. But as you progress you’ll race along abandoned roof tops, mountains in a nuclear winter, and even completely obliterated cityscapes. The visuals may not hold up to things like Project Cars, or Forza Motorsport 7. But there is a lot of variety.

In many ways the game reminds me a lot of Road Rash 64. That game was also behind the curve in how it looked against other games on its respective platform. That game also had floaty, arcade handling, and so does Road Redemption. Again, the handling on the bikes isn’t going to be tight, and grounded. You have a gas pedal, an e-brake, and a jump button you can use with a certain power up. Combat works almost exactly the same as in Road Rash. You have a left punch, right punch, and a kick. You can also cycle between your weapons using the D-pad.

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Road Redemption does make a number of contemporary revisions to the game play though. The first, and most obvious one is the inclusion of Rogue like elements. The game takes a page from things like Rogue Stormers, Risk Of Rain, and Rogue Legacy. You’ll have one life to clear the campaign. In between races you can buy power ups for your character, and motorcycle like in the Road Rash games. But you’ll also get experience points to spend on permanent perks when you lose.

The storyline in Road Redemption loosely keeps the order of the scenery together. The Apocalypse has come, and gone. There is an assassin with a bounty on his head, and as a member of the Jackals, you have to go find him, kill him, and collect the money. To do this you’ll go through a series of races, each set of which are divided by gang territory. The first few races are in the desert where you’ll go up against the Reapers. Then onto rooftops, and mountains against the Sigmas. Then in dilapidated, war-torn cities against the Phantoms. There are a number of different track sections that can come up in any given race, and win conditions. Sometimes you’ll be told to get to the end before a timer runs out. Other times you’ll be told to kill a certain number of specific drivers. Still other times you’re just told to place in the top three of a race. As I alluded to before, in between the races you’ll use money to spend on items for that specific play through, and gain experience to spend on permanent items for repeat attempts after you lose. These items can be new bikes, level skips, or just things to help boost your starting stats.

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At the end of each gang territory, you’ll have to kill a gang leader in a boss fight. They’re not usually too difficult on their own. But the bosses call in many of their henchmen to kill you. When you catch up to the boss, you’ll probably be pretty softened up. Fortunately this game really expands on the weapon selection here. You’ll have the stuff you’ve come to expect. Pipes, wrenches, shovels, pool cues, and such. But they’ve also added swords, clubs, and other melee weapons, along with explosives. They’ve even added a variety of guns into the mix. When I first saw guns, and explosives I couldn’t help but wonder if things would feel too different from everything else they seemed to be going for. But they don’t. It feels like an extension. Guns especially, are balanced out by ensuring your target has to be in the reticule to be hit. Plus they have to be within a certain range. You can’t shoot blindly, and kill five riders a mile down the road from you. Also if you get too close, you’ll fire over their heads. Something handy to keep in mind for those boss fights. You’ll also feel like a T-800 when rocking a shotgun.

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Also handy is the nitro boosting. You’ll want to double tap the gas Cruisin’ USA style to engage it on straightaways. One really neat thing the game does is placing icons over the heads of certain characters. You’ll have the targets for well, targets on those specific missions. You’ll have a boss icon over the boss in boss stages too. But in every stage, you’ll run into some enemies with health logos, dollar signs, and nitro cans. Killing these enemies will get you the respective reward. You’ll also get short amounts of nitro, and sometimes weapons by killing any bad guys. Some enemies will have pipe bombs over their heads, which just reveals that they’re the ones randomly dropping explosives. All of this gives you all the more reason to take out other drivers.

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The results are a very fun, if sometimes frustrating campaign. It’s a blast jumping off of a ramp, sticking C4 to an enemy mid-air, and speeding by while they explode. The minor track changes, and randomized items, and objectives also helps keep the game from feeling too repetitive when you lose, and have to start over. A ton of games are borrowing these elements with varying results. But Road Redemption is one of the better games when implementing them. The campaign also features old school four-player split-screen play. This makes the game an excellent party game like the Road Rash games were. And even the crashes are great. When you get too focused on taking down another racer, and get hit by a car because you weren’t paying attention you’ll laugh. Why? Because the physics in the game allow for some really over the top scenes. When your racer flies off of his bike 500 feet in the air, then gets hit by an armored truck on his way down, and has actual health left you won’t believe it.  Witnessing the crazy wipe outs, decapitation, and pile ups alone is worth looking into. The game’s audio goes a long way toward making it come together. The sounds of dueling melee during combat, car horns, motors, all going on while a thumping metal soundtrack plays. It all melds nicely.

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Of course Road Redemption isn’t all roses. There are a number of strange bugs I’ve run into. I’ve had my racer crash into things, and get stuck instead of exploding, and falling headfirst onto the asphalt. When this happens I’m forced to go into the pause menu, and select the option to put my character back on the road. Which is another annoyance. One wonders why this couldn’t be mapped to another button on the keyboard or controller. Other times I’ve clipped through objects that should have been solid. Like the giant antennae on a rooftop during a race. Then there are the occasions where some of the craziness leads to a cheap death. Like the time the “Demolished cars fall from the heavens because you’re hallucinating” condition loaded, and without warning, a blown up taxi landed on me mid-jump. This got me a Game Over screen right as I was about to win the race.

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The only other issue really is the online multiplayer. It isn’t bad, but it is anemic. You can only really play a team mode. So when you, and friends go to play, you’ll likely be placed on opposite teams. Because of there only being the one mode, and the lack of an offline LAN mode things can become mundane quickly.  So if you’re coming into this game solely for online multiplayer you may want to reconsider it.

But for the campaign, and local co-op split-screen multiplayer, this is a solid choice. If you happen to have the computer hooked up to the TV in the living room, or you own a Steam Link device to stream the signal to the TV you’ll love playing this game in a living room environment. It’s a lot of fun to play. And that’s really what makes it a solid recommendation. The problems it does have are annoying when they happen. But they don’t come up chronically, and plague the experience. Most of the time the game runs the way its supposed to, and aside from having to pause to reset your character you’re probably going to be fine. Considering how much fun you’ll have the other 98% of the time, Road Redemption is definitely worth looking into.

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Plus there are a lot of cool secrets, and characters in it as well. Unlocking them means beating the game multiple times. Beyond that, when you do beat the game, you’ll unlock a mode called Campaign Plus. This mode is a harder version of the campaign where the tracks are even more randomized, and enemies are tougher to take down. Beating this mode a number of times will unlock even more things.

 

With all of the content, and local co-op on hand, Road Redemption succeeds in its mission to bring back motorcycle combat racing. The contemporary additions are done well, and I can’t emphasize just how entertaining it really is. It isn’t the best looking game you’ll play this year. It’s a bit rough around the edges. But if you miss Road Rash, or just want to play something that fully commits to post-apocalyptic B action movie cheese, pick this one up. It’s simply a joy to enjoy.

Final Score: 8 out of 10