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Valfaris Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Cave Story + Review

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

PROS: An excellent Metroidvania with a few new enhancements.

CONS: Subsequent releases added costs.

SWITCH: Between the original and enhanced content.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9 out of 10

Razer Phone 2 Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

ION FURY Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

Black Jewel Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10

GATO ROBOTO Review

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Like the term or not, Metroidvania games have seen something of a resurgence in the world of independently made games. Large maps where you have to slowly discover and uncover areas through exploration have been around for years. But the best games with this design philosophy have had their own little hooks that make them stand out from the crowd. Axiom Verge, VVVVVV, and The Messenger all had unique takes on the idea. And Gato Roboto also has its own things it brings to the table.

PROS: It’s Metroid, The Nodes Of Yesod, Blaster Master, and Mega Man. With KITTIES!

CONS: Short. Veterans may find their way through even faster.

HUMOR: This game will get some laughs out of you.

Let’s get this out of the way. Gato Roboto is an excellent game. I think most people who buy it will enjoy it immensely. You’ll enjoy the gameplay, laugh at the jokes, and the Undertale inspired character designs are pretty good too. Aesthetically, Gato Roboto also wears the clothes of games played on our IBM PC Compatibles, Apple II’s, Commodore 64’s, Atari 800’s, and ZX Spectrums back in 1984. Outside of a handful of other mentions, most games that take the retro look take inspiration from the NES. So Gato Roboto stands out from the crowd a tad bit more in this regard.

It also helps that everything about this game is so darn cute. It’s like the folks at Doinksoft pretty much knew this was going to have to resonate with the Hallmark Card crowd, and it really does. You play the role of a cat who is on a military vessel with its owner. You, being a seemingly oblivious pet step on a keyboard which causes the navigation system to go off course. This results in a crash getting you and your owner marooned on an alien world. Your owner can’t escape the wrecked ship, so you agree to go do the job they cannot. Fortunately, they know a little bit about the planet and give you some clues.

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Before long, you’ll discover a lab that looks suspiciously like the save stations in Super Metroid. You’ll also find a vehicle that looks suspiciously like the vehicle from Blaster Master. And like the latter, throughout your adventure, there will be times you’ll need to get out of it. The difference is in Gato Roboto you’re entirely defenseless when roaming on foot. These moments have an element of stealth gameplay, where you have to sneak around or approach a situation like a puzzle. When riding around in your vehicle you convert into a tiny kitten themed mech. And much like the Metroid games, you’ll have to find items to give you more powerful weapons, longer health bars, and the ability to go places you previously could not.

It also has a bit of the pre-Metroid exploration games like The Nodes Of Yesod, and The Arc Of Yesod. Those games also had you rolling around a large map for items. But they didn’t scroll. Gato Roboto has some areas like this, where the screen just flips to the next one. And with the art style used, it really fits the motif. Even if it can be jarring with the spots that do have four-way scrolling.

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If Undertale made you laugh, it will be apparent to you that Toby Fox was an inspiration here. There is a lot of similar humor here. Characters balk at certain interactions. They’ll make references that are just vague enough that the intended audience gets them. And there are a few spots where they go the opposite direction with reference humor to make sure everyone gets the gag. They also throw in some stuff that only pet owners or the friends or relatives of pet owners will get.

Through it all, everything feels pretty tight. There aren’t too many moments where you’ll die and wonder why. That said, things do feel different when exploring the world on foot than they do when you’re piloting a vehicle. You have a little bit more momentum when scrambling around on four legs. You have a different arc and sense of gravity when jumping. There are also places you can go on foot that you can’t when piloting your mech. It all feels really good.

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Boss fights usually feel right out of the Metroid games. Though there are a few that will hearken back to the NES Mega Man games. One fight, in particular, reminded me of a very specific Sonic The Hedgehog fight. While another reminded me of playing Super R-Type. So there are a number of old-school references geezers like me can enjoy along with the contemporary ones those I have a decade on will love as well.

Throughout it all, the audio soundtrack complements it well. If I had any complaints about it, there isn’t any particular tune that really stood out to me. Nothing that I know will make me go “I know this was from Gato Roboto!” years from now. But there’s nothing here that will feel out of place.

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The only thing I feel that some people won’t like is just how short it can feel. My first playthrough was done in less than four hours. I found nearly 75% of all of the items in the process. By contrast, I probably put a good 20 hours into The Messenger, and Axiom Verge each. Be that as it may, Gato Roboto’s vehicle mechanic and collectibles do feel unique from other exploration games. It’s also a good candidate for speed running. In fact, one of its achievements on Steam is centered around it. As for the collectibles, you can find up to 14 hidden cartridges in the game’s map. If you manage to get them, they’ll allow you to change the color scheme from black and white graphics to other two-toned visual solutions. But more importantly, finding them all will allow an NPC to give you better equipment. If you go for a 100% completion run this might extend that playtime a bit. Especially if you decide to do that before trying to speed run the game or getting through it without going for the better items.

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In conclusion, Gato Roboto does do enough to set itself apart from other Metroidvania style games. It’s very funny, has some challenging bosses, and some of the items can be pretty tough to get. I just wish it could have been just a little bit longer. On the other hand, a good game should leave you wanting more. Gato Roboto is a good game. One you ought to check out. Especially if you’ve already played some of its acclaimed contemporaries. And even if you haven’t, you’ll still likely enjoy it a lot. Especially if you like to get legitimate moments of comic relief in your games. Gato Roboto is one stray worth taking in.

Final Score: 8 out of 10.

AMID EVIL Review

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New Blood Interactive is quickly becoming known for the publisher keeping 1990’s FPS design alive. One of their top guys Dave Oshry helped bring Interceptor’s reboot of Rise Of The Triad to market when he worked with them. As did composer Andrew Hulshult. Since then, both have been involved with New Blood. The company published the excellent DUSK last year, and recently Indefatigable’s AMID EVIL finally released.

With DUSK the concept seemed to be a celebration of Resident Evil, Deliverance, and the original QUAKE. All rolled into a mind-blowingly creatively designed shooter wrapped in retrospective trappings and design. AMID EVIL too, is an old school shooter at heart. But with a wistfulness for the old Heretic and Hexen games. But is this new game just a new coat of paint or is there something else going on?

PROS: Visual design. Level design. Responsive controls. Scalable experience.

CONS: Enemies sometimes blend into backgrounds. Inconsistent A.I.

EARTH: Will be blown up tens of thousands of times.

While it’s true AMID EVIL (I can’t help that they wrote their title screen with the Caps Lock key turned on.) does evoke memories of those classics ID produced with Raven way back in 1994, it doesn’t give you the whole picture.  Fighting monsters with magic-themed weapons are only one small part of the game. This game gives you a lot of elements that come from a number of places. In most cases, these elements work surprisingly well together.

The storyline in AMID EVIL isn’t really its strong suit. Most of it is buried in the game’s menu system where you’ll get a cliff notes version. The gist of it is you’re called by a mysterious voice to be the Grand Champion of the universe. There’s been an evil being referenced only as an “Evil Force.” So much like the Avatar in the Ultima series of RPGs, you leave the comfort of your life to take up a magical Battle Axe and become a slayer of evildoers.

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From here you start out in what look like ancient ruins whereupon further inspection reveals a few paths. Depending on the one you take, you’ll find each is tied to a difficulty level. All of the paths ultimately take you to the same physical place. But the harder paths will give enemies greater strengths and numbers. Once you’ve chosen your path you’re off on your quest.

When you begin your quest, you’ll find it actually starts in a hub world. At first, the game will make you play the episodes in order. But after you clear the first two episodes of levels, the hub world changes. Several walls come down, and you can play the following episodes in any order you wish. Once you play through all of them, the final episode opens up for you to embark upon.

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This is why I said there is a multitude of elements earlier. This is the sort of thing often seen in platformers like Super Mario 64. It’s less common in FPS games. But in this case, it’s done rather well. You’ll find that each episode also follows a strain of Super Mario logic: giving each place you visit a distinct motif. AMID EVIL never repeats a theme. Each of these lands is themed after a different rogue gallery of villains. So every episode has a completely new area to explore. Don’t get me wrong, there are still some common settings here. There’s a volcanic area filled with tombs. There’s a space-age area where you may be reminded of games like The Conduit. But the overall, point is that aesthetically, each set of stages is set apart from one another.

Tying into this, are the enemies you’ll face. Each set has its own group of villains. Some of them may share a strategy or two, but their behaviors are still just different enough to keep you on your toes. For instance, one world pits you against flying enemies that feel somewhere between the Angels Bayonetta fights, and the Harpies Serious Sam has been shooting since 2001. But you can’t assume you know how to fight them off. They still have their own attack patterns going on. Even within this game’s worlds, going into the volcanic temple regions throws forth a floating rock with a face on it. A face that breathes fire. A fire breathing face you can’t attack the same way as the sun-worshipping winged guys you fought five stages ago.

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That’s what makes things feel different in each area. The fact that while you still may have enemies that charge you, enemies, that fly, or enemies with a great arm in each region, they have nuance. It’s never a 1:1 feeling across the board. As such, AMID EVIL has a lot of personality other games do not. It keeps you going because you always want to see what else is in store for you. Pairing along with all of this is fantastic level design. The fact that Indefatigable cut their teeth making mods for those classic ID and Apogee titles really shows. Each of these levels has a lot of emphasis on exploration. Partly because you’ll need those keys to get those color-coded doors open. But also because it incentivizes you to go off the beaten path for secrets.

Often the secrets will get you more powerful weapons earlier, or get you big boosts of health orbs and mana. The weapons in this game are about what you’d expect. You’ll have your starting ax and you’ll find magic wands early. As well as a sword. Most of the weapons in the game still operate as guns. However, there are a few really creative ones here. The morningstar is really fun to use. It shoots spikes at enemies, and if you get that critical hit with it, it will actually nail them to the wall! Another one is a wand that shoots planets like rockets. It may sound silly, but this game finds a way to make the silly plausible. Each of these weapons uses a different color of mana. Much like the weapons in the old Heretic/Hexen games. You’ll need to keep an eye on levels for each of these especially later in the game where they become more scarce. Resource management is a much bigger deal in these types of games than one might think. There’s nothing worse than an opening monster closet when you have 5% health and only 30 magic bullets for your wand.

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The stage layouts are terrific even if you’re not planning on 100%ing all of them. Many of them have some very challenging puzzles in between taking out squads of monsters. Sometimes you’ll have to go to a previous area to find a room you couldn’t enter before and have forgotten about. Then you’ll find something in there leads to that latest room you had left, only now you’ll have an item you need. Other times it’s less complicated than that, but might expect you to think vertically as opposed to horizontally.

At the end of each set of levels, you’ll fight a boss. A lot of these are your standard GamePro Cyberdemon “Shoot it until it dies.” meme. But a number of them involve puzzles. One fight, in particular, stood out to me because it involved forcing the boss to walk into a trap in order to make it vulnerable. Obviously, the final boss encounter is something of a grand challenge. Thankfully, the game has a slew of power-ups to help you out. You have an invisibility power up to keep enemies from seeing you for a short time. There’s an invulnerability power-up to make you temporarily invincible. There’s also one that allows you to fly like the one from Rise Of The Triad. Beyond all of that, if you collect enough souls from fallen enemies, you can also temporarily boost the power of your weapons with a right mouse click!

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AMID EVIL is a glorious game. Like DUSK before it, it keeps this style of shooter alive. Yes, it involves a lot of twitch gameplay as you’re blasting anything that moves. But there’s a sense of exploration modern games often don’t have as the focus is putting you through a linear set of areas to evoke a sense of being involved in a story. There’s definitely nothing wrong with this, but bringing back the classic formulas from the genre’s infancy is going to feel fresh to those who’ve missed it, as well as those who never experienced it. The important thing is AMID EVIL does it very well. The character designs, level designs, and unique themes for each area all go toward making this game a compelling one.

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Be that as it may, some might notice some of the blocky N64 era models, and wonder about them. This game was made using Unreal Engine 4, and so it does a lot of modern effects many newer games would have. And yet, the characters are much less complicated looking than nearly anything else you’ve seen from other games using the engine. AMID EVIL doesn’t go with contemporary trends. It goes with a retro look with contemporary touches instead. This makes the game look not quite contemporary, but not quite retro either. It beats to its own drum, and it works to its benefit.

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Andrew Hulshult comes back from DUSK to do the OST to AMID EVIL, and it’s far from the typical hard rock sound he’s known for. There’s a slew of ambient tracks that suit the mood of the visuals in any situation. Occasionally the music does pick up the tempo and begins to rock a little bit harder during firefights. But when you’re not killing things, you’re getting some very eerie sound effects, and tones. Especially during the final episode where the audio marries the visuals again leading to some of the strangest stuff you may have seen in a game. Stuff that can hang with the likes of American McGee’s Alice, or Disney’s Epic Mickey. When you clear the mainline game you can go back and play it again on a higher difficulty. But there’s also a horde mode included here to keep you a little busier for a little longer.

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AMID EVIL is pretty amazing. Whether you loved the era of early DOOM games or not. It has a great blend of action and puzzle-solving. It has a great soundtrack. It does, of course, have a couple of tiny issues I have to nitpick a bit. First off, some of the enemies have the same color schemes as some of the backgrounds. So occasionally, you’ll be hit by something, and won’t realize what it is until you’re just about to die. Second of all, some of the enemies aren’t always consistent in their behavior. Sometimes you’ll be getting hit from a mile away, but other times enemies may not see you even after you’ve snuck upon them. I also wish the story could have been told more through the gameplay, instead of just throwing it into a submenu. Because there are some cool things in there that could make for a better storyline. Still, it all takes a backseat to the action anyway, so it’s a minor thing to pick at. Overall though, I highly recommend checking this game out. If you love the classics, you might have looked into this already anyway. But if you’re looking to try something out of your comfort zone, this is also a solid choice. Take up the call! Pick up that ax.

Final Score: 9 out of 10.

Mordhau Review

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Every so often a piece of media comes out and becomes so inspiring it makes a group of fans attempt to improve upon it. Back in 2012, a scrappy upstart indie developer composed of modders created Chivalry: Medieval Warfare. Built off of what they had done with their Age Of Chivalry mod they had made with Half-Life 2‘s Source Engine, it was a cult hit. It gave Team Objective based FPS multiplayer fans a new setting. It was the modes Battlefield style fans loved in a Medieval setting where two fictional kingdoms waged war. What really set it apart was an innovative sword fighting control scheme. It went on to make Torn Banner Studios a noteworthy small business.

PROS: Improves on Torn Banner Studios’ idea in many ways.

CONS: Some of the new ideas could use some fine-tuning.

FOR THE ORDER: How shall Triternion compete with their inspiration?

But Torn Banner Studios had their own steps and missteps with their new I.P. It was frequently updated, but some of the patches introduced minor glitches or competitive imbalances that would have to be worked out with follow-up patches. Their expansion pack project with the folks behind The Deadliest Warrior improved the combat but was light on modes. Then their last game Mirage: Arcane Warfare went in a completely different direction. While it was an excellent game, the built-in Chivalry audience didn’t gravitate toward it, not enough newcomers became interested in it and it sadly went the way of the dodo within a year.

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During this time, a group of European Chivalry fans quietly worked on their own project between classes and jobs. Initially, called Project Slasher, it evolved into the game we have today. Mordhau builds on nearly everything Chivalry was known for while bringing in some elements of its own.

As in Chivalry, there is a big emphasis on melee combat. Just like that game, you’ll have an overhead swing, a horizontal swing, and a stabbing motion. Unlike Chivalry, there are no alternate swing buttons. Instead of pressing a different button to swing left instead of right you have to pay attention to a cursor. Depending on where exactly you’re facing there will be a line next to the dot. This indicates the direction of your swing. The swing always goes toward the dot. If you’re a long time Chivalry player coming into this, it will take a little while to get used to. But it is an improvement over what Torn Banner Studios’ cult classic started out on.

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In addition to this, there are other additions and alterations. In Mordhau you’ll find a new mechanic called Chambering, where if you time the same attack just at the right time you’ll actually get a prolonged parry effect allowing you to potentially get a combo attack going. You’ll also find if you can get the right angles and connections going in your swings it’s possible to disarm your opponent. Don’t be the least bit surprised if after a chain of blocks, and parries you drop your bow or melee weapon.

Speaking of bows, even the archery has had some improvements over what was introduced in Chivalry. For starters, drawing the string can’t be held quite as long. So you’ll really have to get better at leading targets. If you do hold it too long not only will your arms need to rest, but just before that happens you’ll see your arms wither and shake leading to very inaccurate targeting. Fortunately, you can still cancel the draw and start again. Also, bows, are projectile based again, while crossbows are hit scan again. Meaning bows move like rockets while crossbows fire like lasers wherever the crosshair is aimed.

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What is different now is that skilled opponents can now swat arrows away. If you can get the timing down, you can actually hit arrows with your sword like a baseball. Archers also have to take arrow drop into account. So for long distances, you’ll have to figure out what the angular curve is. And while that might not seem so bad for stationary targets, it’s much tougher to master when they’re on the run. On top of that, you don’t want to stay in one place too long because in any mode you can be flanked at any given moment.

One significant change Mordhau makes is the inclusion of added classes. Not only can you roll with equivalents to Chivalry’s four classes, but there are also entirely new ones. Most notably, the new Engineer class. This class allows you to build structures to help your team and hinder your enemies. You can build arrowslits for your archers or block chokepoints. You can build a ballista for your teammates to defend your line with or to cover your attackers with. This class also has very low health though so you have to be pretty stealthy to use it effectively.

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But speaking of classes, one of the coolest things about this game is the ability to create your own custom classes. Here you can spend the gold you earn in battles on customizing characters for your own specific play styles. You can unlock cosmetic items, armor, weapons and more with your gold to build some fearsome warriors. You may want to have a tank-like character with a lot of armor and a mighty billhook. Or you may want a nimble assassin armed with knives and a crossbow. Or you may want to make a class that lies somewhere in between. The game can even get pretty zany with comedic weapons, and improvised weapons too. You’ll see people swinging pans around. You’ll see people playing the lute before smashing someone over the head with it like a Medieval Honky Tonk Man or (for you more contemporary fans) Elias.

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Mordhau has the modes you would expect from a Chivalry inspired game. You’ll have servers set up for 1 on 1 dueling. These are a great way to get a handle on the mechanics of the game’s basics. The thing is, in other modes, you’ll be attacked from all sides so you’ll want to at least try the more traditional Deathmatch, and Team Deathmatch servers in order to get used to facing two or three enemies at once. These work like you think they do, with the former being a Free-For-All you’ve experienced since the original DOOM. But as you improve in these fights you’ll be better prepared for the game’s main attraction.

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There’s also a fairly robust tutorial in the game as well. This will give you a respectable handle on the basics of the aforementioned combat. The tutorial also covers some basic archery to give you some experience using a bow. The third major part of it goes over how to fight while riding on horseback. It then ends after briefly showing you how to use battlefield weapons like catapults. Overall, not too bad. While it doesn’t go over all of the nuances, it does go over the core concepts well. It also explains some of the more complex mechanics even if they’re something you’ll still have to learn by playing in matches online.

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The main mode in Mordhau is a mode called Frontline which is the objective mode of the game. To its credit, it really does a lot right. It adds a new vehicle to the formula: horses. You can take control of a steed and ride into battle, lancing people and flanking enemies using catapults or ballista structures. The mode works an awful lot like the conquest modes in the Battlefield games. You want to take control of points on the map by holding them which in turn drains enemy tickets. While in control of certain points the game then assigns your army objectives. You might have to go destroy a specific target or push a cart to a certain part of the map. If you can pull that off you’ll win the day. But if you lose the control point in the process you’ll also face a major setback in that you have to take it back to continue.

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This is really the one thing Chivalry did a little bit better. In the older game, the Team Objective mode took these mini-missions and worked them into something more akin to Battlefield’s Rush modes instead. This made it feel more centered around the missions themselves and made you feel more accomplished if you pulled it off. And it felt multi-tiered. First, you might have gotten dead bodies into the aquifer. But then you had to go break into a camp to find the enemy monarchs in hiding and assassinate them. But that part of the mission would prove far harder due to the tactical advantage the enemy team had. That sort of emotional ride isn’t here quite as much. It’s an absolute blast to play, make no mistake. The new mechanics, classes, and steed combat really mix things up in a good way. But knowing your progress can be completely shelved if you lose a control point takes a lot of the emphasis away from the missions. So in some rounds, you’ll find neither army goes for the objectives in a significant way, playing heavy defense on both sides in a war of attrition. It’s a bit disappointing since performing objectives can be so much fun.

That said, the developers have said they plan to continually support the game so something more akin to the Rush style of an objective mode could show up at some point. And again, what is here is a lot of fun especially with the tweaks on the combat. Plus the aforementioned create-a-character feature adds a lot of personality to the entire experience.

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Obviously, Unreal Engine 4 means better graphics and sound technology. Mordhau looks like a significant leap over the game that inspired it. The texture quality is highly detailed. Even on the lowest settings (which you’re seeing in these screenshots), the game looks great. Lighting effects, shadows, and pretty much every environmental effect are wonderful. And while the models themselves could look a little more realistic, it ultimately won’t matter to you because the action is non-stop. You won’t have time to analyze facial animation when you’re trying not to get stabbed.

The sound effects are right on par with those in Chivalry’too. The clanking of clashing weapons, the screams of anguish, the taunts all create a sense of immersion. The music is very good too, though not many of the tracks really leaped out to me. They just kind of felt like the sort of thing that fit the motif. I would have liked something a little bit more distinctive. Be that as it may, it really does fit the castle siege movie motif everything else in the game is going for.

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Ultimately, I’ve absolutely loved playing Mordhau, but I do have a few minor points of contention with it. First, I wish the time between switching weapons was a smidge shorter. If you’re using a bow, for example, you may hear those footsteps sneaking up behind you. You need to defend yourself! You quickly go to grab that dagger and your head gets chopped off. If you only had a split second more, you could have gotten in a parry. Assuming you’re good at steering the block. Again, this game does allow you to steer your swings and blocks so if the opponent is more skilled in this example you’d still be decapitated.

Another thing that I wish was executed a bit better were player counts in some maps on some modes. Deathmatch is probably the worst offender in this regard. It’s an excellent and fun mode overall but some of the maps are too small for a full server. It ends up making for a spammy match where blindly attacking will get you at least a kill or two. Again, not the end of the world and many games suffer from this. But it is a minor quibble.

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Frankly, Mordhau is an absolutely astonishing first effort from a rookie team. It succeeds in its mission to build upon the foundation their heroes at Torn Banner Studios started. The expanded melee combat truly does make the sword fighting more compelling while also cutting back on some of the unforeseen weirdness of Chivalry: Medieval Warfare’s exploitable mechanics. That doesn’t mean everything here is perfect. But you won’t be seeing people kill you with their backs to your eyes in Mordhau. Steed combat is a lot of fun too.  It’s just so great being able to lance enemies or shoot arrows from horseback. And even some of the stuff that’s detrimental to you is still entertaining. Getting knocked on the ground from a door then eating a claymore will make you laugh at yourself. Falling off of a horse from taking an arrow, or getting slashed in the leg feels out of a film. The added immersion really does deserve some worthy praise here. Really, the main thing holding it back slightly is the disjointed feeling in Frontline. Hopefully, that will be remedied in an update in the not too distant future. As it stands though, Mordhau is still a keeper. It will be interesting to see how the fans of Chivalry: Medieval Warfare do against their inspirations next year when Torn Banner releases Chivalry II. But whether you’re a huge Chivalry fan looking for something new, or a big multiplayer shooter fan who would like a different take on the idea Mordhau may just be the game you’re looking for.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

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

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