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Insurgency Sandstorm Review

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

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

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

GIBS: A common 90’s FPS feature returns.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10

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DUSK Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In short; DUSK is freaking cool.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

No Thing Review

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

PROS: Simple, yet compelling game play.

CONS: Fairly short for anyone adept at it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Mega Man 11 Review

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After Mega Man 10 came out nearly a decade ago, Capcom slowly went silent on the Blue Bomber. One of their most prolific franchises, Mega Man has always been known for its excellent action platforming, wonderful characters, and excellent soundtracks. Other than perhaps Street Fighter,  the series is synonymous with the company name. After Keiji Inafune (the most recognized name attached to the character) left Capcom, however We rarely ever saw a mention of Capcom’s most recognizable series, or any of its spinoffs. For years many wondered why. Leading up to the release of Mega Man 11 here, the game’s director Kazuhiro Tsuchiya was interviewed by Game Informer. He reasoned that after Inafune left Capcom, the company wasn’t certain they could do an entry on the same level of the previous ten games.

PROS: Great visuals. Level design. Gear System is an excellent new mechanic.

CONS: The soundtrack, while good, doesn’t reach the lofty heights of older games.

NICE: The little touches you’ll notice throughout the adventure.

Well thank God the people behind this iteration decided to step up, and take a risk. Because Mega Man 11 is pretty great. It gives long time fans the challenging action-platforming they’ve come to expect. But it also builds upon the foundation that was solidified way back in 1987. In a way, they could have come out screaming “THIS AIN’T YOUR DADDY’S MEGA MAN!”, and they would be accurate. But before some of you worry, that proverbial Father will still find a lot to love about Mega Man 11.

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The storyline is tied to the game’s fancy new mechanic; The Double Gear System. Basically, Mega Man has two new powers he can use temporarily for a few seconds by pressing the corresponding shoulder button. Pressing the left shoulder button increases his attack power immensely. Pressing the right shoulder button temporarily allows Mega Man to go into a bullet time state like in the Max Payne games. Everything will go into slow motion, allowing you to quickly move around obstacles, and attacks.

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The emphasis however is on that word; temporary. You’ll only have a few seconds to use these powers. If you go beyond that, you’ll overcharge the move, and you won’t be able to use it again for several moments. So you really can’t rely solely on this feature to get through the entire game. But throughout the many stages you will reach sections where you may just find them helpful enough that you don’t lose a life.  In any event when you start the game you’ll find like most of the series, there’s an opening run of cinema screens that set up the arc. This time around Dr. Wily remembers back in his youth he created the Double Gear System. A device that accelerates the speed, and power of robots. But his research was barred when most of the other scientists in the community including Dr. Light feared (with good reason) the horrors that could arise from its abuse. Being the quintessential evil mad scientist, he decides all of these decades later to implement it. He kidnaps the latest run of Dr. Light’s robots, programs them for evil purposes, and installs the tech in them.

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Par the course, Rock begs Dr. Light to install the technology in himself when it is brought to his attention that he likely wouldn’t be able to stop Dr. Wily without it. So Dr. Light reluctantly does so, thus setting up the campaign’s backdrop. As is the case with the rest of the series, you’re going to go up against each of the Robot Masters. Then move onto Dr. Wily’s latest castle stronghold. Unlike some of the older games like Mega Man 3,4,5, or 6 Capcom doesn’t try to fake you out here. There are no Wily stand in castles to go through before Dr. Wily’s inevitable castle run. However that doesn’t mean that Mega Man 11 is particularly short. Even though it is one of the cut, and dry entries (think Mega Man, Mega Man 2, or Mega Man 7) the stages here are quite long. Every stage in the game now has three checkpoint rooms, and have a fair amount of obstacles to get through. Many of the Robot Masters employ mini boss rooms along the way as well. Sometimes twice.

 

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For those who have not played a classic Mega Man game before, you’re able to choose to play the stages in whichever order you choose. The hook is the Rock/Paper/Scissors mechanic that pertains to the Robot Masters you face at the end of every stage. When you defeat the Robot Master, you acquire their signature attack. Each one of the Robot Masters is weak against one of the other Robot Masters’ attacks. Not only do you need to beat all of the stages, but figuring out which boss is weakest against which attacks makes them more manageable. It’s also useful in determining which order will get you through the game the fastest.

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But even if you don’t figure that out on your initial run there are tools to help you. Returning is Auto’s shop. He’s the giant green robot who crafts items for you to buy with screws. As you collect them from fallen enemies, you can spend them on extra tanks to replenish your weapon ammo, and health meter. You can buy upgrades to your primary weapon, and even some items to negate some of the environmental hazards.  And even seasoned veterans may find themselves picking up lives, and E-Tanks because Mega Man 11 can get pretty difficult at times. Not only are there the expected Mega Man tropes, like robots jumping out of pits you’re trying to jump across, or crumbling structures you’re going across, but many new pitfalls too.

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Mega Man 11 is also very creative. Every Robot Master has a terrific design, and like all Mega Man games, their stages are built around their themes. Acid Man’s stage has many pools in which enemies will throw in chemicals. Each of which makes the pH level more lethal. Torch Man’s stage sends a column of fire after you, disintegrating everything in its path. Bounce Man’s has a deceptively deadly layout. It’s layered with cute looking enemies, bright pastels, and more. But upon further analysis you’ll find it one of the most challenging stages in the entire game. Block Man’s stage has a lot of falling boulders, and even some maze structures you need to get through as quickly as possible. Tundra Man’s stage is the quintessential ice level. But with plenty of wind gusts to make things difficult. Impact Man reminds me a lot of Optimus Prime. But with blades. But his stage feels like a continuation of the Guts Man stage in the original Mega Man. Of course with far more trick jumping, and a dash of Quick Man’s Mega Man II stage. Then there is Fuse Man’s stage. One of the highlights of the game, it involves a lot of puzzles centered around time. Rounding things out is Blast Man’s stage, which involves an evil theme park motif. You could almost place it in a Batman match against the Joker. The little henchmen robots throughout the level are cool because while they’re a nuisance, they’re also necessary. It’s a lot of fun.

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But as hard as the game may be, Mega Man 11 is always fair. When you fail you’ll know the onus is on you. Maybe you panicked, and jumped into something. Maybe you were hit by a laser, and fell down a chasm. Maybe the Robot Master shattered your dreams when you got to them on your last life. In all of these cases you won’t be able to blame anybody else. And yet, there’s something compelling about that. The sort of thing that always makes you want to attempt it again, and chip away until you come out on top.

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But Capcom has also put in multiple difficulty settings this time. The original NES outings usually had but one setting. Mega Man 10 had an easy, and hard setting. Mega Man 11 has four of them. Newcomer sets things up for those of you who have never played a Mega Man title before. Up from that is the Casual setting, which is geared for those who may be lapsed Mega Man fans. Then there’s the Normal setting which is the one geared toward seasoned veterans. But the game also has a Super Hero setting. This setting goes beyond the Normal setting by removing most of the pickups in every level, and increasing the damage enemy attacks do to you. Honestly, the four settings are pretty close to reaching about each player type. If you honestly have never touched a Mega Man game, you may want to get your feet wet with the first one.  Veterans may want to just dive into the Normal setting. But whichever way you decide to go, you’ll have a pretty good time with it. Although there is a sense of pride if you can clear it on one of the higher settings.

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With the well crafted level designs, and bright, colorful visuals that bring it all together one has to wonder if there’s anything wrong with this one. And to be honest, not that much. Again, the characters look like the evolution of Mega Man 8 (PS1/Saturn). The game looks beautiful. The backdrops are high quality, crisp blends of 2D art, and 3D models. Everything looks like it belongs in the Classic series though which is one that mostly appeared on the NES. Even 9, and 10 recreated that 8-bit aesthetic, and sound. But Mega Man 7 (Super NES), and Mega Man 8 took that same style, but updated it for their 16-bit, and 32-bit platforms. So this looks like an extension of those styles. If you ever wished more of the games looked like the artwork in the manuals, and other media you’ll be more than pleased here.

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And again, it isn’t just about how good it looks. It’s that the great visuals fit the narrative of each of the Robot Masters the way it has in all of the mainline games. This is also the first game in the classic series since Mega Man 8 to involve voice acting. It isn’t bad, but your mileage will vary. Some of it veers toward what was done in the PS1/Saturn classic. Bounce Man seems to really elicit memories of fighting Clown Man as the voice work goes for the high-pitched cuteness of an anime archetype. Some of the other actors went in other directions with their respective characters. And all of it works. But you’ll probably enjoy some more than others. As for Mega Man himself, again, he sounds perfectly fine. But if you’re coming into it after Mega Man 8, it’s a completely different take, and delivery. So how much you’ll like it may depend on whether or not you love the way he was portrayed in the eighth installment. As far as the soundtrack goes, it isn’t bad by any means. The electronica goes well with the action, and there are distinctive themes for each of the stages. However, it doesn’t stand out the way the rocking chip tunes of 1-6, 7, 9,and 10 do. The songs in Mega Man 8 also felt more memorable than these do. Be that as it may, I really wouldn’t call any of it bad. Just different, and depending on what you prefer, you may agree or disagree. Which is fine.

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Once you do complete the game though there are a few things here to make you want to play it again. The first being the challenges. As in the last two games, you can try to run a battery of missions with the goal of reaching achievements. Some of these can be done in the main game, but the majority are found here. You can also go to a gallery where you can read bios of all of the major, and minor enemies in the game. They even have the voice samples here so you can listen to them all. There’s not too much else in the way of extras, though on the Switch there is a surprise if you play the demo before playing the full game.

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Overall, I quite liked Mega Man 11. I played through it on Normal, and found that this time out the Robot Masters’ respective stages were as challenging as Dr. Wily’s Castle stages, which isn’t always the case in these games. Even still, I had a fun time. I yelled at myself for messing up at times. But I had fun rising to the challenge, and overcoming the obstacles it threw in my way. Which is the joy that all of these games deliver. All while delivering a new tool for you to use. Which you don’t have to. It is possible to get through the game without touching the Double Gear System. Though you’ll probably want to. At least on some of the tougher bosses. Still, this is a great entry in the long running series, and I can easily recommend it to not only fans, but to almost anyone who is remotely interested in it. It won’t be a cakewalk. But it does have that addictive “One more match.” feeling the series is known for. Don the mantle of the Blue Bomber, and save the world. If only the music could have been *that* much better it would have been perfect. As it stands, it’s still a highly recommended Mega Man game. Or Rock Man if you prefer.

Final Score: 9 out of 10

The Messenger Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Score: 9.5 out of 10

Raging Justice Review

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Double Dragon. Streets Of Rage. Final Fight. Crime Fighters. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Battletoads. Ninja Combat. Sengoku. PIT-FIGHTER. The list goes, on, and on. The 1980’s, and 1990’s were filled with many entertaining games in which you took control of characters out to rid the world of criminals one by one. Armed with your fists, and the occasional melee weapon. Beat ’em ups were a big deal, and while some of them ran together, most of them were a lot of fun. They were about as close to an action movie a game could be at the time. While they haven’t had the resurgence other genres have had, they still sprout up from time to time. And when they’re done as well as this game is, you really ought to pay attention.

PROS: Unique art style. B+ Movie action. Good Cop/Bad Cop mechanics.

CONS: Tacky title screen. Some choppy animations. Minor bugs.

WWE: There’s a moment that seems like it was placed by wrestling show bookers.

Raging Justice is a title that elicits thoughts of a 1990’s Direct-To-Video B Action movie starring Dolph Lundgren. Which is actually pretty fitting because this game is a complete homage to many of the aforementioned games of old. The storyline is about as easy to follow as one of those old movies. The Mayor of your city has been abducted by violent street gangs, and our heroes have to rescue him. When you fire up the game you’ll have a handful of options on hand. There’s the primary campaign, a survival mode, an options menu, and the credits.  The credits are pretty self-explanatory, and the options menu is rather anemic. You can change volume levels, and you can turn friendly fire on or off.

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So you’re more than likely going to begin by playing through the campaign. When you begin you’ll be able to select one of three characters to choose from. This follows the character archetypes set up in Final Fight, and Streets Of Rage. Rick Justice is the loose cannon of the force who doesn’t play by the rules. He’s basically the power class of the three. He moves slower, but his attacks do a lot of damage. Then there’s Nikki Rage who is the opposite of Rick. She prefers to properly get arrests, and warrants. She is the more well-rounded class. She moves faster than Rick does, and can attack faster while doing a little bit less damage to opponents. Finally there’s Ashley King. A teenage explorer with the fastest, and flashiest style. Ashley is by far the fastest all around character, but does the least damage so you really need to master getting combos to use them.

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Once you’ve selected your character it’s onto the cut scenes that set up the plot of the game, before thrusting you into the action. Immediately Raging Justice begins showing you how it sets itself apart from the games that inspired it. You’re greeted with a screen overlay with some important information. Each stage features certain enemies who have a warrant out for their arrest. If you manage to arrest them you’ll get a health bonus, and if you manage to arrest all of them you can get 1-Ups too. There are also secondary objectives you can shoot for. If you’re successful you’ll score big points, and garner achievements.

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As you play you’ll notice certain enemies will have a red outline around them. These are the criminals with a warrant out for their arrest. This is also where the game begins to implement a virtue system not typically seen in games like this. If you do the right thing consistently (arresting perps rather than killing them), you’ll get the aforementioned perks. If you go the bad cop route, and knock their teeth in you don’t. However, if you’re enough of a loose cannon DTV character you can get help in other ways. Arresting people sounds easy enough. You fill up their dizzy meter by slamming them to the ground or using particular attacks. Then when it’s full, they will be dazed in one spot allowing you to grab them, and cuff them. But this is also much easier said, than done. Because they’ll never be alone. Raging Justice sends hordes of criminal waves at you. So it’s going to be tough isolating them long enough to pull this off. Even when you do, another bad guy can interrupt the process by knocking you down, or even knocking them down. Thus resulting in a resist of arrest. Sometimes you’ll be able to arrest someone. Other times you may find it safer to simply take them out.

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It’s a pleasant surprise to see a mechanic like this in Raging Justice, as it makes the game feel a little bit more unique. Few arcade genre entries have done this, the most notable one being classic Run n’ Gun NARC. For the most part it is implemented fairly well, though there are a few times when a warrant will be dazed next to a weapon or other item, and the game makes you grab the item rather than cuff the criminal at hand. Still, it’s pretty neat, and you can actually arrest most characters. Not just the ones with a warrant out for their arrest.

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The one thing in the game that may be a little bit divisive is the style of the artwork. The backgrounds are honestly quite good by any measure. They have a wonderful mix between pre-rendered models, and airbrushed matte paintings. At least that’s how they appear. The texture quality on all of it is very nice. There are also a host of homages you can spot throughout the game’s backgrounds to other games. Particularly to the original Final Fight’s latter stages. But there are others like Sega’s Streets Of Rage series, and Atari’s PIT-FIGHTER. One especially can’t help of think of that game near the end of the second stage where you’re met by a crowd of enemies in very much the same way that game set up bouts. The comparison continues with the character sprites, and this is why I think some will love the look, while others may not get behind it as much.

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The characters seem to have a similar style. The difference being they aren’t motion captured actors. Instead they appear to be pre-rendered models that were condensed down to sprites. Similar to how the characters in Donkey Kong Country, and Killer Instinct were created. However, the animation quality, while fairly good sometimes results in things looking a little choppy due to some of the wild movements in the characters’ positions in some sprites. Granted this is speculation on my part as I was never in the studio where this was made. But the end result resembles something to that effect.

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Nevertheless, it runs fairly brisk, and I can’t say I’ve even seen much in the way of slowdown in my playtime with it. It’s generally responsive, and there’s little to really complain about here. That said, if you’re not into the art style they were going for, that may disappoint you a little bit. One thing that I think should have been improved is the title screen. Mainly because it is used to sell the game on every digital store it’s stocked on, and sadly it looks woefully generic. Perhaps I’m being too harsh, but it gives the impression the title is something you’d find on the rack of shovelware at an office supply store. Not the incredibly fun, if silly homage to B movies, and brawlers that it is.

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And Raging Justice is incredibly fun. There are a wide variety of criminals to take down in the brawls. You have the archetypical street punks, gang members, street-walker, morbidly obese guys who stampede you, and knife throwers you’d expect. There are also 80’s movie drug dealers who throw dynamite from their trench coats, bikers, Rottweilers, and more. There are a lot of weapons, and background details that can be destroyed on display here as well. Barbed wire bats, knives, swords, clubs, hammers, crates, phone booths, and a slew of other things I’m likely forgetting. All of which can take down some of these enemies with ease. There’s even drivable vehicles at a few key points!

The bosses are also a lot of fun due to a combination of silliness, and nostalgia. There’s the typical brute characters, but then the game decides to have you fight a 10 foot super pimp. There’s a security guard who looks suspiciously close to Final Fight’s Edi. E. But not long after that fight you’ll be facing an abomination that may just remind you of PIT-FIGHTER’s Chainman Eddie. I won’t spoil every boss for you, but suffice it to say, you’ll come away from them both challenged, and entertained.

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Throughout all of it, the audio keeps up with everything. The clanging of knives, screaming of enemies, the bold announcements, all sync up. The ambient synth-pop goes along with the action well, again, bringing along memories of those obscure films you may have rented from the video store back in the day. Or perhaps one of the more recent ones you caught at 2am on HBO or saw in a Red box at the local grocery store. In any event, it’s pretty good. Musically, it might not be something you’d want to hear on the morning commute, but it does get the job done. The sound effects however, are superb.

There are a couple of things that hinder the fun. Namely a few small bugs. There were a couple of times the game hanged after I got a “Game Over”, and so I had to exit to my main menu on my Switch to close the game, and then reopen it. This wasn’t horrible, or something game-breaking. But it was annoying, as minimal as the occurrence was. Another weird bug I experienced, was upon losing my last life as I killed the third boss. Unfortunately, because of this it wouldn’t let me continue. The counter just kept going down regardless of my jamming on the “YES! I want to continue!” button. So I had to restart the stage.

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I will say one other novel thing about Raging Justice is its continue system. You get three lives, and a set number of continues. when you run out of continues, the game ends. Par for the course, right? Well, the cool thing the game does is allow you to select any stage played up to that point. The flip side of this is you’ll start in the condition you did when you initially played it. So if you make it to the final stage with one continue left, and lose when you select it later, you’ll begin with however many lives you had, and the one continue. You won’t start with a full set of continues. This really gives you incentive to go back, and do better at the earlier stages so that you’ll have enough continues to clear the game.

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Finally, there is the survival mode I mentioned earlier. There really isn’t too much to write about here. It’s what it sounds like. You start the game with the character, and difficulty setting of your choosing. Then you try to beat up as many waves of enemies as you can until you lose your sole life. It can be fun in short bursts but the main course is where you’ll get the most fun in my opinion.

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Raging Justice may not be the best game you’ll play all year. But it just might be one of the more fun ones. It’s silly. It’s over the top. It doesn’t have a deep narrative. But it has a lot of personality. It also does what a beat ’em up game should: make you feel like a bad ass. Between the moves, weapons, and everything else, you’ll honestly feel like you’re playing a Dolph Lundgren or Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicle. It’s just a fun game. And in the end isn’t that why most of us play games? Don’t let the tacky title card fool you. Raging Justice is a pretty awesome (if sometimes cheesy) brawler.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

Slam Land Review

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(Full Disclosure: I know one person that is attached to the creation of this game. Be that as it may, I paid for my own digital download of the retail release on Steam with my own money, and have not been endorsed by the studio, publisher or any creator. All thoughts are my own.)

Super Smash Bros. is one of Nintendo’s most beloved franchises of all time. It started out humbly enough on the Nintendo 64. Then it became a massive success on the Nintendo Gamecube, being one of the console’s top drivers. Every sequel since, has done gangbusters. Even iterations that weren’t as well liked, have all sold well, and have been enjoyed by the general audience. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is one of the most hyped upcoming entries yet.

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So it should be no surprise, that over the years many games large, and small have experimented with Nintendo’s formula. From Cartoon Network Punch Time Explosion XL to PlayStation All Stars Battle Royale, other developers have tried making platformer fighting games. Some of them have been solid. Some have been pretty good. Some have been outright terrible. But Slam Land has to be one of the better takes on the formula I’ve purchased, and played.

PROS: Great visuals, audio, and a compelling twist on a proven formula.

CONS: No online multiplayer. Small character roster.

MISSED OPPORTUNITY: The announcer never shouts “BOOMSHAKALAKA!”

Why is this? Well, because it has a really simple mechanic that really changes the dynamics of the game. Instead of the game focusing on knocking every player out of the arena, it adds a proverbial basket to each of the game’s arenas. The object is instead, centered around throwing or punching your opponents into the goal like a basketball. But it doesn’t end there. You can stack multiple opponents together for major point bonuses when you dunk them. You can “Steal” the ball so to speak, by knocking an opponent out of the hands of another opponent, and catching them for yourself. This one simple change also keeps people running to the goal. So you don’t find yourself falling off of the stage, at the last second, unable to see yourself in the mayhem. At least not as often as you might have in some of the Super Smash Bros. games.

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Slam Land also makes a few adjustments to keep things from getting monotonous. Namely by adding a few different modes. There’s a Trash mode, where instead of throwing each other, you, and opponents collect garbage bags to throw into a goal. As is the case with the main mode, you can knock bags away from people or throw them off the stage to buy yourself some time. You can also, again, stack up multiple bags to dunk at the same time for big points. But the more you carry, the slower you move, allowing an enemy to knock you down, and take them away.

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Another variation is the game of Horse, where you spell the word “Horse” by getting baskets as in the basketball game. However, it does this by dropping Knight pieces with the corresponding letters into the map. And once you get one letter into the basket, you can’t score with the same letter again. So the four of you will be trying to balance getting letters you need, and throwing the ones you don’t need out of the map. This way you can keep opponents from catching up to you.

The other mode you can play is Peanut. This mode drops a peanut into the stage. Again, you’ll all want the peanut so you can shoot a basket for points. However, the longer you hold the peanut before dunking it, the more points you will get for doing so. So if you can hold it for several seconds you can be scoring 8 points or 12 points instead of only one. Of course, as in the other modes, enemies can knock you down. Thus claiming the peanut for themselves for a massive point boost.

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Every one of these variations is a lot of fun because they all feature a great sense of risk versus reward. Do you go for more bags for the big points, or do you just throw one to retain the speed to get away from everyone? Do you hold the peanut or go for a shot before someone can steal it? Do you throw your opponent now or wait until they’re distracted by someone else?

All of the modes go for three rounds too. So you might dominate one round, only to find you’ve been triple teamed faster than Braun Strowman in a fatal four-way. Even so, you’ll find all of them quite engaging. You can also play the primary mode with either time or stock rules. These work the way they do in Smash Bros. Where you’re either trying to get the highest score in a duration, or trying to be the last person with any lives left. The difference however is that stock mode in Slam Land, means you’re still going for points by eliminating opponents. Unlike Smash, you can be the last one standing, and still lose. So you can’t expect to turtle your way to victory.

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There is also a pseudo-campaign mode here, but really it just puts you in five games involving a mix of the pre-existing modes. I recommend playing through it initially because you’ll get acquainted with the modes right away to see which you enjoy the most. After that though, you can really roll with whichever modes you, and your group of friends like most. Rounding that out is a quick mode that just starts up a single game.

Audio-visually the game is really quite nice! Everything has a really crisp 2D look that resembles a sticker book. The characters all have a cute look infused with some pulp. It screams early 90’s Nickelodeon cartoons, and even some contemporary Adult Swim cartoons. One of the playable characters reminded me a bit of  The Ren & Stimpy Show, while the ominous blue character who shows up in some of the game’s stage backgrounds reminded me a lot of stuff like Superjail. But that isn’t to say any of this stuff feels like a copy of anything. Everything is wholly original, but these are just some of the things I was reminded of by the game’s art style. The bottom line is that it looks great. The light audio soundtrack, and booming announcer voice accent all of it very nicely too.

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There are a few things that I would have liked the game to have implemented though. While I love the look of the characters I would have liked to have had a bigger roster. Functionally every character works the same way of course. You move them, and then you have a jump button, a pickup button (which you also use to throw), and a punch button that makes your character throw an uppercut. A simple control scheme, that anyone can understand. But having more characters would have been a nice touch. The five characters you do get are pretty cool though, each with neat little details. The human walks around in his BVDs. The Skeleton has some great inking for wear, and tear. The bug animates nicely. The carrot has a giant grin, and the other garish figure is so weird you’ll just fall in love with it. I would have liked more of that.

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It’s also going to disappoint some of you that this game has no online multiplayer. So if you’re someone whose friends are mostly long distance, you’re stuck playing against bots. The bots have pretty good A.I. but there’s nothing quite like playing against other people. This is why the Switch version is also an attractive option. Because it’s exactly the short, and simple kind of game you can take to a family gathering, or play with strangers at a coffee shop or with your coworkers on a lunch break. The other versions are great if you do have people over regularly. But for those who don’t, but who do own a Switch, it’s something worth considering. If you pretty much only play by yourself though, it’s not as easy to recommend.

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All of that said though, this is a phenomenal multiplayer experience. It’s also a cut above many other Smash clones because it plays so much differently. There may be four of you, and an arena. But the basketball mechanics really make Slam Land stand out. In fact, if you’re looking for a party game, and you’re not a fan of Super Smash Bros., you may just find you’ll enjoy this because of that different goal. Bread Machine Games should really commend themselves on making such a simple, yet addictive spin on the platform fighter. It might not be as deep as Nintendo’s own game, but it is a super fun game that can complement it nicely. If you’ve got a Steam account, a PS4, or a Switch, and want something a little bit different pick up Slam Land.

Final Score: 8 out of 10

The Next Penelope Review

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Combinations. Sometimes they work really well. Most of us like peanut butter with chocolate, fluff, or jelly. In gaming, we often see developers experiment with different elements from one genre, and blending it with elements from another. The Next Penelope is one of many such games. But the components it assembles are far more removed from one another in comparison to other titles.

PROS: Minimalist art style works well.

CONS: Technical hitches. Lack of options. A.I.

HOMER: Expect Iliad, and Odyssey references.

The Next Penelope bills itself as a top-down racer in the vein of the old Codemasters Micro Machines games that appeared on the NES, and Sega Genesis. But in reality that’s only one part of the game. The Next Penelope utilizes these kinds of races, but attempts to cross-pollinate them with bits of F-Zero. You can boost, which drains the health of your vehicle, and you can drive over pit stop lanes to repair your vehicle.

But it doesn’t stop there. The game also includes elements of vertical, and horizontal shoot ’em up games like Raiden, and R-Type. As with the boost mechanic, using the weapons throughout the game will also drain your vehicle health meter. There are several great weapons to use throughout the campaign, and you’ll find that they’re almost always the key to victory.

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So how does the game work? The Next Penelope references Homer’s Odyssey. From the subtitle; Race To Odysseus, to names of characters, and places from the epic poem. In this game you play as Penelope who is trying to get to Ulysses. But in order to do so you’ll have to go to different star systems, and proceed to win different racing circuits. The reality is that each of these circuits has one race. Each circuit lists three races, but only the second race is actually a race. Your first race is usually a trial where you have to master one of the weapons or abilities. Complete that task, and then you’ll enter a race. A race you have to place first in. If you don’t win, you can’t advance. Winning the race will put you up against a boss for the third event. If you defeat the boss, you’ll get to take the weapon you gained in the first event with you through the rest of the game.

You can technically, go through the game in any order you want, a la Mega Man. But the game really wants you to go in a specific order. Because you’ll quickly find the races are almost impossible to win without the weapon or item required. Where as in Capcom’s games starring the Blue Bomber, you can get through an entire stage using only an arm cannon, here you can’t. You won’t even beat the course required to get to the boss to use your weapon on, without said weapon. That’s because the rubber band A.I. in this game is ridiculous. Even if you lead three laps because you’re good enough to do it, the last lap you will be bombarded with enemy racers’ firepower, and get overtaken.

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Over the course of the game you’ll get laser guns, a teleportation device, a grappling hook, and even a cloud that turns bullets into experience points. Win the races, and it’s off to fight a boss. Admittedly, the boss fights are some of the best parts of The Next Penelope. Most of them are pretty creative, and involve some level of puzzle solving skills on your part. There are a few that are disappointing though, because they boil down to trial, and error gameplay as opposed to the puzzle solving twitch action of the better ones. Still, these are where most of the fun times happen.

That isn’t to say the racing is terrible. Most of the tracks have some pretty cool designs, and you’ll have to get your turns just right, to drift around a corner or make a jump over a gap safely. Tracks have some interesting hazards too, like flooded streets, blockades that require specific items to avoid, and even have shortcuts that require expert timing, and speed to use. What kills the fun a bit is the aforementioned A.I. if you thought some of the old Mario Kart, Need For Speed, or Cruisin‘ games had cheap CPU racers, you’ll have flashbacks when playing this. The pain is doubled when you realize this game has the same steering scheme as games like Super Sprint. Your space car also moves automatically, so you can’t brake around corners, or to avoid hitting something.

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Thankfully the controls are responsive, and if you don’t want to use the classic D-Pad controls, you can use the triggers on your controller to steer left, or right. Once you have a handle on them, and you get a few circuits in, it will become a lot more manageable as the items, and weapons will help keep you in the lead a lot. Once you’ve gotten through a set of races you can move along a star map to the next set you want to attempt. There are also extra courses you can attempt. But these won’t be playable until you’ve completed the campaign for the first time. You’ll also earn XP throughout the game, and there is a store on the star map where you can spend your XP on upgrades. In my time with the game, I found it best to wait until near the end to do this, but you can also go into the shop whenever you want between circuits.

Once you beat all of the main circuits, you’ll be able to enter the final showdown. This is a two boss rush. Here the game ceases to be a top-down racer, and becomes a horizontal shmup. What makes these fights challenging is that the game continues to use the F-Zero drain mechanics from the races. So as you shoot at the bosses you’ll drain your health. Beating these guys will take careful resource management, and all of your cunning.

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The story here isn’t particularly great. It references Homer’s poems a number of ways, but it doesn’t do anything interesting with them. It’s really just there to set up each of the circuits so that the boss encounters make more sense. On the plus side, the artwork is very nice. It could easily pass for one of the late 90’s action shows that aired on Cartoon Network with minimalist designs that are accented with a wonderful use of color. This moves into the mainline game graphics too, which use an interesting blend of background tile art, and shaded shapes for the vehicles, and characters. It reminded me a bit of Another World’s look. vehicles appear to be almost like models when in actuality they’re an animated series of sprites. It’s pretty impressive for a such a small game.

 

The Next Penelope isn’t a bad game, by any means. But it isn’t going to be for everyone. The worst part of the experience is the brutal A.I., and there are a number of technical hitches in it that don’t help. Sometimes the game will hiccup for no apparent reason. I played the game on both my gaming desktop that far exceeds the requirements, and an old laptop. In both cases they came up at arbitrary times. It didn’t matter if I had the settings maxed or set to minimum. The game also has a CRT filter you can enable. Again, sometimes this would happen with or without simulated scan lines. In my case I had been playing for a few hours before it would happen. But when it did it was awful, as it would cause me to drive off course, or crash into an obstacle. I don’t know if this happens on any of the console versions as I haven’t played those. There was also the strange omission of any kind of volume controls in the game. This makes it a tough game to stream as you can’t just go in, and lower the sound if it drowns out your voice. Instead you’ll have to go tweak your system’s microphone, and sound settings. Which isn’t always a simple task depending on your configuration.

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That said, it’s worth experiencing if you’re looking for something a little bit different to play. It looks nice, controls fine, and there are some truly fun moments in it. But only the truly devoted will go through the bonus missions, or care to accomplish all of the game’s achievement milestones. It’s not a terrible game, but don’t expect the moon either. If you come into it looking for something on par with an F-Zero or Wipeout game, you’ll want to look elsewhere. But if you’re open-minded, and want to try something new, you might be surprised.

Final Score: 6.5 out of 10

Holiday gaming gifting for the frugal.

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Man, what a crazy couple of weeks. I’ve been insanely busy with deliveries at my paid gig. Between this, and Thanksgiving week I haven’t had much in the way of *me* time. But I did find a few morsels of time finally this evening, so I’m trying something a little bit different. If you’re like me, the holiday weeks are not only very time-consuming, they’re wallet busting. Not only do you want to get the people closest to you something off of their list, you may want to do a little something for your friends. Or even Pete in accounting. But after getting that Nintendo Switch for your kids, that Gibson guitar your wife has been eyeing, and that new 4K TV for your aging parents, there isn’t much left in the tank.

Fear not! These are some pretty cool gifts you can pick up, that won’t break the bank. At least not too much. Some of these will be games, others trinkets. But hopefully they’ll give you some ideas. Some of these have deals that are ending soon, but I’ve tried to find some that aren’t too expensive at full price either. And some of these I’ve reviewed a while ago, but now can be had for less due to their age. But just because something is older than 6 months doesn’t mean it isn’t fun. It’s still new if the person hasn’t played it.

So let’s have at it!

Digital Games

Digital Downloads can be a great way to save some money, and still give someone in your life an entertaining gift. I do this a lot every year, and I’m sharing that tactic with you. Steam, and GoG have amazing sales every year. As I type this there are two days left to their respective autumn sales, and Steam will likely follow it up with their annual Winter sale. But even some of the console manufacturers have thrown in some discounts. So do look into Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft’s digital store fronts in case of any promotions they may happen to put up. Some games I recommend:

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Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams

Anyone who knows me, or has been reading awhile knows I’m a huge fan of this game. It’s one of my favorite titles ever. But even if I weren’t, the quality is obvious. It has wonderful graphics, an amazing soundtrack, and a cool morphing mechanic. It twists you between parallel worlds. One a whimsical dream, the other a horrifying nightmare. But you’ll have to use this to solve puzzles, collect gems, and succeed in general. It’s also got a plethora of secrets, and unlockable modes. It’s a scant $3.59 with it’s expansion on Steam until 11/28. PS4, and Wii U owners can track down the disc version for around $20 on Amazon.

 

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Ultionus: A Tale Of Petty Revenge

This one is a great choice for the friend who loves challenging action games, and shmups. Just know it is inspired by old computer games where movement was more calculated than it was brisk. That said, this one is a fun game for anyone who can get past that caveat, and it’s even better for one who grew up on the ZX Spectrum, Commodore 64, and Amiga. It has great pixel art, a great sense of humor, and a lot of love for Phantis. It’s just shy of $5 on Steam until the sale ends. Then it goes back to the regular low price of $7.

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Undertale

If you have a friend who still hasn’t tried this one out, it’s a meager $5 right now rather than the usual $10. At least on Steam. But even if you spend the full ten dollars, that’s about what you’d spend treating them to lunch at their fast food staple of choice. Undertale is pretty cool too. While I’m not the hardcore fan many people are, I can attest to the fact that it is a fun RPG with some great humor, swerves, and a love of 8-bit computers. It also implements some bullet hell shmup mechanics in a creative way. It also has multiple endings, giving it a good sense of replay value. It’s also on consoles, so you’re not limited to the computer, though you’ll likely pay less for the PC version.

Ikaruga 

You may not realize Treasure’s classic is on Steam, and that like the previous game on the list it’s $5. $10 normally. Here’s the thing. A lot of retro fans obsess over getting the Japanese Dreamcast version or the Nintendo Gamecube release. These can easily exceed $40 for a used copy, and well beyond that if they have their case, and manual inside. If you have a collector friend, who also has a PC, you may want to get this one for them digitally. They can enjoy it legitimately, and you can save a lot of money.

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The entire run of Ultima can be had on GoG fairly cheap. They have their own sale running alongside Valve’s, and have made these games even cheaper. For a mere $3.58 you can get the best of the series via two bundles. Ultima is one of the most important RPG series in the genre. Many of the conventions you see in RPGs, and even some JRPGs were inspired by Richard Garriott’s seminal series. It starts out simple, but eventually gives you a compelling overall story, and an open world to get immersed in. It may not look like The Witcher, but you should probably play these if you love RPGs. And while it might not elicit the same joy cloth maps, and trinkets do being digital, the GoG release means you don’t need to know how to use DOSBox. GoG releases have DOS emulation wrappers built around them, so all you have to do is click *play*. Later Ultimas didn’t have the core elements these did, so you may want to pass. But if you’re still interested, those are also on GoG’s sale. A great gift for the Retro RPG fan in your life.

The Witcher Series

Speaking of The Witcher, the entire series can be found digitally for very affordable prices right now. And with Steam’s winter sale coming up, you can remind yourself to nab them if you miss the current offers. If you didn’t already know this, these games offer vast worlds to explore, tons of missions, and all of the levelling up you could possibly want. CDProjektRed has made a trilogy of excellent RPGs that would please about anybody. These sales aren’t as deep as some of the other games I’m mentioning, but they’re still worth looking into.

Rocket League

Rocket League may not be the newest game anymore, but it’s as fun, and as compelling as ever. Plus with the recent release on Nintendo Switch, and cross-play, there’s never been a better time to check this game out. The PC version is only $10 in this current Steam sale. If you’re uninitiated with it, it’s like a mash-up of Super Mario Strikers, and RC Pro-Am. If RC Pro-Am could jump with hydraulics, and do bicycle kicks. It’s one of the most fun arcade soccer games ever made. Even if your friend doesn’t usually gravitate toward sports games, they’ll probably really enjoy this on whatever platform they have.

Insurgency

This is one modern military shooter worth playing, and the fact that it’s less than $2 during Steam, and Humble Bundle sales makes it even better. It’s a few years old now, but it still has a sizable community, and you can still get into a full game. It eschews just some annoyances other modern military shooters have. No grinding away for guns. No micro-transactions. Here every player gets points to use every round on their layout. Every weapon is available, and attachments, as well as side gear. The catch is you won’t have enough to equip everything so it balances out nicely. Too much fire power you’ll have no protection. Too much protection you’ll be slow, and low on ammo. It also encourages team work, and objectives over kills. Though you’ll still have players who care about kills, ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Also there are no kill cams, and barely any HUDs to speak of. It’s a wonderful blend of Rainbow Six 3’s realistic damage, and movement, with modes popularized by games like Battlefield. If you have a friend looking for something different from the typical Activision or EA annual release, get them this one. If they like it tell them to keep their eyes out for the sequel. If it’s half as good as this one, it should be quite the game indeed.

Guilty Gear XX Accent Core Plus R/Guilty Gear Xrd Revelator

This may not be the latest, and greatest Guilty Gear game around. But it is the definitive version of the XX line. All of the Guilty Gear games have some astonishing animation in them, and a wealth of great characters to choose from. If you get this during the Steam sale, it’s a meager $3, and will give a fighting game fan who missed it, hours upon hours of fun.  If you do want to get that friend Guilty Gear Xrd Revelator instead, being that it’s newer, it will set you back $15. This one is more advanced, looks slicker (Runs on the Unreal Engine), and is also a blast. The fighting system also has refinements over the older series so it doesn’t play exactly the same. But either game makes an excellent gift.

Ys series (Most of it)

Ys Origin, the re-mastered Ys 1&2, Oath In Felghana (Ys III), Ark Of Napishtim (Ys VI), and Ys VII, all have huge discounts, with the oldest games coming in for under $5 in most cases. This is a wonderful series of action RPGs dating back to the NEC PC-8801 computer in Japan. In recent years XSEED, managed to get the re-mastered editions localized, and on Steam. Their tireless work is your gain, as these titles are worth every penny. If you have a friend who loves JRPGs, and hasn’t played this series, all of these are great options, though I may start them with Ys Origin. It’s a prequel that kicks everything off, and explains a lot of back story the original games only touched on.

Cities Skylines

If you have a friend who can’t get enough of old school management games, and they’ve blown through Civilization 5, Sim City 4, and the Tropico series like a hot knife through butter, they’ll probably dig this one. And with the current sale price of $7.49 it’s a steal. I recently watched my buddy Xonticus stream it for Extra Life. It’s easily as deep as any Sim City title, and it has a lot of its own cool little details, and world animations.

 

Physical Games

You can often times find pleasant surprises in the used, and clearance bins at traditional retailers. Here are some really good ones I’ve found over the past year. Of course your mileage may vary as stock, and prices change. But that said, keep an eye out anyway. You may just find one of these.

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Axiom Verge PC Game Trust Steel Book Edition (And other games in this format.)

Game Trust is a label GameStop created for some exclusive physical indie game releases. They partnered with indiebox to produce a few special editions of some of these games. For whatever reason, the company decided to put these titles on clearance. All of these are worth picking up if you see them in your local GameStop. Axiom Verge is probably the best of them. But they also did Steel Books for Guacamelee, Rogue Legacy, Punch Club, Nuclear Throne, Chariot, Thomas Was Alone, Stories: The Path Of Destinies, Awesomenauts, and Jotun. These editions not only include the digital key for Steam, but a physical disc with the game on it, as well as the game’s particular soundtrack album on a studio CD. The cases are made of aluminum, and are a sight to behold. I only paid about $5 for my copies of Axiom Verge, and Rogue Legacy. Hit up your local store’s clearance bins. You just might get lucky.

Bloodborne, The Last Of Us Remastered (Best Buy)

While I was out shopping for Christmas gifts, I noticed two pretty good games, are now at a budget price point. And even cheaper for the week of Cyber Monday this year at Best Buy. Bloodborne, and The Last Of Us on PS4, are only $20. But with this year’s sale, you can shave off another $5. If you have a pal with a PS4 who hasn’t picked up either of them, it’s a pretty good deal.

A plethora of PS4 Deals on Newegg.

I generally go to Newegg for parts. But a quick glance at their Cyber Monday deals tells me, to tell you, to go look at their store for PS4 game deals. A lot of games are ridiculously cheap.  Doom (2016), Dishonored 2, Ratchet & Clank, and Until Dawn are $15. Not bad at all for those on your list with a PS4.

“What if my friends have an XBOX One?”

Microsoft’s store has a TON of XB1 stuff at cutthroat prices. Injustice 2, Super Lucky’s Tale, Gears Of War 4, Fallout 4 (Standard), Prey, Watch Dogs 2 all were severed down to $20. Dishonored 2 is $12.

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Gaming Tchotchkes 

Sometimes you may go through a thousand awesome bargains, but realize your friend probably won’t be into any of them, because they’re not in their genre of choice. Or because they have them already. Or they’re on a platform they don’t own. Not to worry! You can still find something affordable, and fun to accent their favorite hobby in a different way.

Pint Glasses.

Maybe they drink beer. Maybe they drink soda. Maybe they only stick to water. Whatever the case, when you’re playing through a 140 hour RPG, mastering a fighting game character, or just enjoying some Pac-Man here are some great, stylish glasses to gulp down a beverage while doing so.

Obviously you can get some decent game-themed glasses at GameStop or Think Geek as they’re the same company. Often times if you catch a closeout you can get a pretty cool Pokémon, Zelda, Mario, or Pac-Man glass for a few bucks. And who doesn’t like to jazz up their glassware with a nice print. But you have some other options too. I’ve had some luck at Spencer’s Gifts. Last year I got my co-workers some Nintendo themed glassware, but also one in particular an excellent Cyberdemon glass from Doom.

Sometimes you can even find them in an unexpected place. Wandering through a Kohl’s I’ve even found a few Pac-Man glasses. But also don’t discount the idea of helping out one of your favorite internet personalities. As most readers know I’m a big fan of Classic Game Room. As luck would have it, the show has a wealth of show themed Beer Steins, Pint Glasses, and Coffee mugs along with the usual things you might expect. Some of them may even go on sale before the holidays arrive.

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T-Shirts, and Discs

Continuing on from that, if there is a game focused blog, or YouTube show your friend or relative follows, see if it has any merchandise. Many of them do put out DVD’s Blu Ray’s, and T-Shirts. Purchasing one of them not only gets your pal an awesome piece of swag, but supports a small biz, or labor of love in the process. Plus you know that nobody else thought to give the person an awesome Heyzoos The Coked-Up Chicken Stein. I know the focus here was to stay affordable, but some of these items are worth the extra money if you can get a few other people to go in on it with you. Pat Contri’s NES Guide Book isn’t cheap. But it’s also something one would definitely want to go with their game collection.

Individual Artists

A ton of really talented artists out there make some great gaming themed art. Like the YouTubers, and bloggers above a lot of the merchandise is similar. But when you get a print from Tom Ryan’s Studio, for example you’re getting quality. There are also a few great shops you can get stuff featuring independent artists work on. NeatoShop, and Teepublic have some terrific prints you can get from these artists, and they often have sales. Neatoshop’s print quality is a bit better, though Teepublic has a wider range of artists. In either case, you can get some memorable prints that won’t break the bank.

Action figures, and other knickknacks 

I’m not talking about the stuff from NECA that costs $30 (Though that Atari 2600 Texas Chainsaw Massacre Leather Face figure is pretty bitching). But hit up those clearance aisles, and you may be surprised with some cheap, but cool finds. Does your friend dig Funko’s POP vinyls? Often times some nice game themed ones will be closed out to make way for new ones. Why not get that co-worker a DOOM guy for a few bucks that they don’t already have? Another great option are the World Of Nintendo 6 inch figures from Jakks Pacific. These usually sell for $10 or less, and dress up any Nintendo fan’s shelf, desk, or cubicle nicely. And of course, The Amiibo figurines are another nice gesture, as the details on them are great. Even if they aren’t going to use them with a Wii U, 3DS, or Switch game.

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Retro

Of course if they’re into collecting old games, we instantly think of $170 copies of Mega Man 7 or $1,000 copies of Little Samson. But there are still a lot of great bargains on old games out there. I won’t list a ton of examples as I’m running long. But things like MagMax, Abadox, or Blaster Master on the NES can all be had for a few dollars. And these are really fun games that not everybody has. You just have to do some research to find some of these titles, and of course figure out if the person you’d give them to already has them.

Hopefully this has given someone out there with a shoestring budget some ideas. You can really find some good stuff out there without maxing out your card, or depleting your accounts. Obviously presents aren’t the focal point of the holidays. Appreciating those in your life, and helping those you can afford to should be. But we all have those people we want to do something nice for in our hobby. So look into these deals while they’re up for the next day or so. I apologize in getting to this so late, but such is the way of a busy week.

Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back Review

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Every now, and again there will be a remake, or a reboot that just makes you ask yourself “Why?” Sometimes it’s a property that is universally reviled. Other times it’s something that wasn’t so bad it could make a Worst Of list, but not particularly good either. But to the surprise of everyone, someone, somewhere, decided to do it anyway.

PROS: It’s good. Seriously! It’s good!

CONS: Unbelievably short. Recycles a lot from a much more noteworthy game.

RETURN: The game promises Bubsy will.

Bubsy is one such franchise that falls under this scenario. Back in the days of the Super NES, and Sega Genesis, Accolade brought out their own mascot. The hope was they would have a game that could rival the two biggest franchises in the platformer genre. But while Bubsy wasn’t the horror show some folks make it out to be, it wasn’t great either. There were some problems on its quest to out-Sonic Sonic The Hedgehog. It had collision issues at times. It relied a lot on blind jumps that often led to cheap deaths. Every stage had multiple paths, but these paths could be confusing, and sometimes even malicious. Some would take you to traps, others would even go to the beginning of a stage!

A lot of the folks who complain about Bubsy, forget it did well enough to warrant, a sequel, a spinoff for the Atari Jaguar, and another sequel on the PlayStation in the form of Bubsy 3D. Hell, there was even a short-lived cartoon pilot, and a comic book series. But then, the series went dormant. Over time, popular opinion on these games soured, and these days it’s rare to hear anyone heralding any of them as an essential game in the genre. Still, when compared with some of the other Sonic, and Mario clones of the time, the first three Bubsy games weren’t all bad.

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So now around two decades later we have Bubsy: The Woolies Strike Back, and; it’s honestly not that bad. In some ways, it’s actually quite good! The new Accolade, (which owns some of the original Accolade’s IPs) hired Black Forest Games to give us this new game. For those who don’t know, Black Forest Games is the studio that gave us the excellent Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, and its expansion pack a few years ago. So Accolade chose a studio wisely.

Bubsy is a 2.5D platformer that runs on the same engine Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams did. In fact, it has a lot of the same hallmarks, and mechanics. No more blind jumps, or awful hit detection. In this new Bubsy, you’ll know your mistakes are on your end. Stages are straightforward, but they do retain the idea of different paths. However there is no longer the brisk running of the old 16-bit games. Bubsy runs along at a slower pace these days. But this isn’t a crawl either. The camera is much better in this game too. No longer do you have to worry about blindly falling into a chasm, or bumping into an enemy.

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As in first game, the Woolies return. Obsessed with yarn, they steal the world’s supply, including Bubsy’s private reserve. So you’ll go across three worlds, each with five stages on your mission to stop them. When you fire up the game you’ll get a brief storybook segment explaining the simplistic story arc. From here you’ll start the game. You’ll see a map with a path through it. Each of the regular stages marked by a red ball of yarn, and boss stages marked by a purple one. Defeating a boss opens the next world, and you’ll repeat the process.

Each stage will give you achievements for meeting three metrics. Not losing any lives, entering a yarn room, and finding every T-shirt. When you’re in any given stage you’ll go around trying to get as many yarn balls, and T-Shirts as possible. You’ll also need to find a certain number of keys, if you want to be able to open the yarn room. The T-shirt mechanic is a little bit different from the way it was in the old games. Instead of having several types, here your first acquired shirt will allow you to take a second hit before dying. Any shirt you find while you’re able to take a second hit, will net you a 1-Up.

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So you’ll go along trying to find the end of any given stage while accomplishing these metrics. You don’t have to meet any of them to complete a given level, but it can help by boosting your score, and the number of lives you have in reserve. Each of the stages will have a variety of Wooly threats. Some of them will appear on foot, others will hover around on jetpacks. Sometimes you’ll find one in a small saucer shooting at you. In addition to the Woolies themselves, you’ll contend with spike traps, water hazards, and even killer sand sharks. A lot of sections with these dangerous environments employ many of the obstacles introduced in Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams. There are fans that can push Bubsy up if he’s floating above them. There are sections with falling boulders. Near the end of the game, there is even a section where a room fills with lava, before draining it, and filling it again. Even one of the enemy types cribs an attack pattern from the knights in Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams.

That isn’t to say the game is nothing more than a re-skin. There are plenty of differences. For instance, the deep, world shifting, and puzzle mechanics are exclusive to Giana Sisters. There aren’t many super secret areas, in the extent of that game. And the focus in that game was a lot more on challenging areas, and secrets than in Bubsy. Bubsy still tries to go more toward the 16-bit games’ feel. You’re going to try to find the fastest route possible unless you want to hunt down every last ball of yarn, and T-shirt, all without dying. Still, after playing Black Forest Games’ flagship franchise, you will definitely notice when one of its mechanics makes an appearance here.

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Visually, Bubsy looks quite nice. The game hits the Saturday morning cartoon look even the old games tried to go for. There are all kinds of nice visual touches throughout the backgrounds. There are even a few clever sight gags if you take the time to try to find them. The same dry comedy, and corny wordplay humor also return from the old games. Every now, and again you’ll see the character break the fourth wall (sometimes literally) with a joke. They even reference some of the criticism laid at the feet of the old games. One example is when the hero excitedly reminds the audience about how falling from beyond a certain height in the old games would kill him. There are also the expected cat themed pun titles for each stage. Boss fights are pretty fun encounters too. You’ll have to learn some intricate patterns in the later fights, but all in all they’re pretty fun.

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The audio is easily the strongest part of the game. They contracted the great Chris Huelsbeck to compose the game soundtrack, and it’s wonderful. Every stage has some catchy, bouncy New Wave, Synth-Wave, and Synth-Pop tracks that stick with you long after you’ve stopped playing. The sound effects are very nice with high quality explosions, splashes, and Saturday morning cartoon effects. The presentation is just great. Honestly, over the course of the game, you’ll have a good time.

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Unfortunately this iteration of Bubsy does have one major issue, and that’s its relatively short length. Part of this is due to the small sizes of the earlier stages. If you don’t make too many mistakes, and you’re not out for every last collectible they don’t take long to finish. The difficulty level is also very, very easy. For most players anyway. If you’re someone who has played a lot of platformers, you can probably clear the game in under two hours time. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, are the large number of lives you can stock up. You start with nine (because you’re a cat.), and if you don’t make a lot of mistakes by the end of a given stage you can have nearly twenty.

The other is in the boss fights. When you die, you don’t start the boss fight over again. You’ll re-enter the chamber, and the boss will have the amount of health it had when you died last. For most people, if you have more than five or six lives, you’ll get through these fights with little issue. Players obsessed with completion may squeeze out a bit more time. If you’re looking to collect every last trinket, maybe you can pull it off in three hours. Ultimately, some people won’t mind this. But most people likely will. If you’re someone in the latter camp, you may want to pick up another platformer you haven’t played yet instead. For example, Black Forest Games’ own Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams is one of the best platformers to be released in recent years, and as good as this game is, Giana Sisters is still leagues better overall.

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But if you’re a big fan of the Bubsy games in general there’s nothing really bad here. It’s short, and it borrows heavily from a better game. But it’s still pretty good. Just know you’ll have to spend a lot of time re-playing it in speed runs to maximize your enjoyment out of it. The best audience for this game is probably younger children who are just getting into platformers. It’s got enough challenge for them, with plenty of charm, and atmosphere. Upon completing the game there is a hint that there will be another game in the series. If, and when Accolade brings it out, hopefully they’ll address the short length, and commission some more unique ideas. Bubsy’s latest endeavor isn’t a bad game, but there are a lot of better options in terms of the amount of content, and challenge.

Final Score: 7 out of 10