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Gears Tactics Review – Impressive Battles In A Quagmire War

With its cover-based shooting, varied enemy types, and bombastic tone, the Gears franchise is a great fit for the tactics genre. The world and the feel of combat both remain intact in this transition to turn-based warfare.

With a focus on characters and story, plus a sense of speed and flexibility in battle, Gears Tactics manage to outstrip most competitors in the genre. Despite some pacing issues that leave the content feeling stretched thin over too many hours, this is a challenging and rewarding experience.

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Gears Tactics jumps its storyline back to the beginning of the conflict between humans and the Locust Horde. The plot remains thankfully manageable and contained, following a ragtag team of soldiers and their quest to take down one particularly nasty baddie.

Within that framework, the slightly cliched characters and events are given life through attractive cinematics and emotionally engaged vocal leads. The narrative feels self-contained for newcomers but adds important new wrinkles to the lore for longtime fans.

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Battles play out as objective-focused affairs, in which one to four squadmates square off against a frequently overwhelming number of monstrous enemies, while also aiming to meet one or more goals. In many ways, this new twist on Gears takes its cues from the modern-day XCOM games, but with some meaningful twists.

With three actions, characters can flexibly move, attack, and use abilities in any combination, all in one turn, giving anyone soldier tremendous utility. Overwatch, where a character can set remaining actions to guard a line-of-sight area, plays a huge role in success, encouraging the focus on a defensive cover play that characterizes the broader franchise.

It also results in satisfying moments, like setting up devastating kill-boxes as the hordes charge into the grinder. In addition, an engaging mechanic allows players to execute downed enemies to give everyone on the team an extra action, which becomes an enormously fun risk/reward dynamic.

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The fully rotating 3D battlefields are intelligently designed, demanding careful observation and positioning. Verticality and degrading cover add more complexity and depth.

Even in this new isometric view, the characters and backgrounds maintain much of the detail and “ruined beauty” aesthetic of the franchise, and that visual crispness helps aid tactical decision-making. I only rarely encountered skewed views or perspectives that resulted in a deployment mistake.

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Between missions, the gradual squad leveling, cosmetic customization, and equipment modding lend an almost RPG quality to progression. I enjoyed the class variety, and how even within familiar roles like sniper or support, I had plenty of room to make each hero stand apart.

I also like the weapon and armor modding, but the task of managing all the acquired pieces eventually starts to feel like a chore.

In the early hours, I consistently enjoyed the mix of deadly combat and character improvement. However, the lengthy campaign increasingly rubbed me the wrong way. The introduction of required side missions needlessly extends the game’s length and ultimately halts any sense of momentum or pacing within the story.

These side missions, which are drawn from just a few different objective pools, feel repetitive and stale. And strangely, several of them offer dramatic bumps in difficulty, far outstripping the story missions in the same section.

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That sense of unnecessary time dilation begins to present itself in all the missions, with drawn-out battles that slip away from the series’ trademark burst of adrenaline. Nowhere is that truer than the three act-ending boss fights.

While each offers initially fearsome encounters against mammoth creatures, the high hit-point totals and endless waves of spawning minions are exhausting. That’s especially true in a gruelingly long final boss fight, which is a tiring endurance bout rather than a satisfying challenge that puts your skills to the test.

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Stilted pacing blunts some of the aggressive joy in Gears Tactics, but I still walked away impressed. At the heart of any engaging tactics games is the sense of emergent moments, where careful skill usage and planning leads to clutch wins.

Taking control of a squad of COG soldiers in this adventure, I repeatedly encountered those moments, along with the thrill of a narrow victory. This is a solid new front in the Gears theater of war, and one worthy of additional opportunities to grow.

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Review

Deliver Us The Moon Review – Love And Loss In Space

When we look to the moon, we see nothing but a glowing rock that lights up the night sky. But what if it were humanity’s last hope for survival? This is the basic premise in Deliver Us the Moon, a nicely penned story of isolation and loss that puts you in the role of an astronaut who travels to the moon to save the planet. While leaning heavily on walking simulator conventions like story progression coming from talking holograms and written documents, developer KeokeN Interactive doesn’t shy away putting you in exciting, do-or-die scenarios when things don’t go as planned.

Deliver Us the Moon’s writing is the driving force, but this sci-fi journey is also strong in its pacing and variety, which help build momentum, create tension, and make it seem like every second matter even though you mostly play at your own pace.

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The game tells the grim tale of Earth running out of natural resources, forcing humanity to the stars to find other solutions. As luck would have it, we don’t have to travel far, as the moon is rich in a powerful isotope called Helium-3 that could solve the energy crisis. The nations of the world unite and develop a revolutionary way of transmitting Helium-3 to Earth. Just when it seems we have a new beginning, the moon falls silent and the transmission ends. We have just enough energy to send a one-man rocket to the moon to figure out what went wrong, and hopefully, bring the Helium-3 feed online again.

Your first steps aren’t made on the moon and instead unfold on Earth’s surface, which looks eerily alien given the yellow sky and dust-filled air. Your mission is to power up the rocket and launch. This is an awesome moment since you manually need to bring the rocket’s systems online from within the cockpit. You are tasked to quickly throw the switches in the right order, a moment KeokeN cleverly achieves by highlighting your next interaction in a pink hue – making you look like a well-versed astronaut. You then get to experience the rocket launch from a first-person perspective, which beautifully illustrates the transition from Earth’s atmosphere to space.

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When you reach the lunar establishment, which is in ruin and not occupied by any life, exploration unfolds from both third- and first-person angles, often determined by the type of actions you must complete. Third-person view is used primarily for on-foot sections, which can be as tame as exploring living quarters for clues or as thrilling as darting dangerously past spinning blades in low gravity. These moments are backed by well-designed controls and sometimes stunning set pieces, like a tall tower crumbling with you on it. There isn’t any combat, but if you don’t move quickly enough in certain areas, you’re going to fail and have to retry.

The first-person camera is used sparingly but is effective for intense, intimate moments, zero-gravity flight, and controlling a floating droid tied to some of the game’s best puzzles. I was a little annoyed that almost every door you need to access requires a puzzle or keycode, and some of your actions feel repetitive and lose their electricity after doing the same thing two or three times. For instance, taking a lunar rover onto the surface is enthralling the first time, but feels like a chore the next time out.

Most of your effort is spent exploring and following the narrative threads of the people that once occupied this station. You see many of them as featureless holograms and get to know a few of them somewhat intimately. What you learn is that the heart can sometimes cloud one’s perspective. You see just how big of a problem that can be, but also how touching it can be. At the end of the journey, I found myself thinking about what I would do if I were in these characters’ shoes in these moments.

Deliver Us the Moon is an excellently made game that succeeds in story and atmosphere. The lunar settlement is a fascinating place to explore, and even though it’s just filled with holographic ghosts, you get a sense of how it was once thriving and what exactly went wrong. The experience starts out strong and ends strong; some of the middle ground is a bit repetitive, but the narrative is engaging throughout and makes the journey worth taking.

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Review

Sakura Wars review – heartfelt, over-the-top anime romp

Originally conceived back in 1996 as a way to offer an RPG franchise on the Sega Saturn, the original Sakura Wars series was a mix of the visual novel, dating sim, and round-based strategy combat. It follows an all-female theatre troupe based at Tokyo’s Imperial Theatre, putting on shows as the Flower Troupe to keep the spirits of the populace high, while also acting as the Imperial Combat Revue, a paramilitary operation tasked with defending the capital from monsters. To do so, they use mechs called Kobu, powered by the strength of their spirit.

With its anime stylings and a cast of lovable protagonists, the franchise became a wild hit in Japan before its fate was sealed along with the Dreamcast. The west only saw the localization of the last Sakura Wars game, Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love, it’s New York setting and all-new cast considered a good entry point into a series often deemed to be too Japanese.

This new Sakura Wars constitutes a soft reboot, set a decade after the events of the originals, and using established gameplay but featuring a completely new cast. You take the role of Navy ensign Seijuro Kamiyama, who becomes the Flower Troupe’s new captain. It’s your job to help restore the Imperial Theatre to glory and keep Tokyo safe. In order to make a gaggle of women into a real team, you need to get to know them, help them overcome personal struggles, and realize their true potential.

With its anime stylings and a cast of lovable protagonists, the franchise became a wild hit in Japan before its fate was sealed along with the Dreamcast. The west only saw the localization of the last Sakura Wars game, Sakura Wars: So Long, My Love, it’s New York setting and all-new cast considered a good entry point into a series often deemed to be too Japanese.

This new Sakura Wars constitutes a soft reboot, set a decade after the events of the originals, and using established gameplay but featuring a completely new cast. You take the role of Navy ensign Seijuro Kamiyama, who becomes the Flower Troupe’s new captain. It’s your job to help restore the Imperial Theatre to glory and keep Tokyo safe. In order to make a gaggle of women into a real team, you need to get to know them, help them overcome personal struggles, and realize their true potential.

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As Seijuro, you spend your time either talking to these women or fighting demons in Musou-style action combat. Sakura Wars’ dialogue is built around the series’ patented LIPS system: you get three dialogue choices, but only have a limited amount of time to pick an answer. The dialogue options themselves are recognizable if you’ve ever played another game with dialogue choice – you have a good option, a cautious option, and a sleazy, impulsive one. There’s also ‘analog LIPS’, a conversation option where what Sejiuro says is predetermined, and you only settle on the intensity with which you want to say it.

Just like in a visual novel, the answers you pick determine the other character’s opinion of you. Each of the women conforms to established personality types – the bookish one, the short-tempered one and so forth – and you get to know them better the more you talk to each of them. If you gain a character’s trust, you can trigger a ‘trust event’. In this event, which uses first-person POV, one of the women will have a personal chat with you that will end in some PG-13 touching. These situations can be deliberately naff – one character just wants to practice a romantic scene in a play – but they are, and this is important, fully consensual and does not reduce the young women only to their bodies, even while ogling is definitely going on. Context and nuance are very important here.

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Action combat is new for the series, and a step away from Sakura Wars’ more typical Fire Emblem-Esque turn-based strategy. You can freely move your Kobu around, use light and strong attacks, and unleash a special attack once a spirit point meter has filled. Both in combat and in conversation, your actions influence your team’s opinion of you. Fighting quickly without getting hit raises team morale, which in turn has an effect on attack and defense. Making the girls like you outside of combat also determines your starting morale.

The story of the new Sakura Wars is quickly told: the old Combat Revue, including teams from other countries that appeared in previous Sakura Wars entries, died in a grand battle to seal away the powerful Archdemon, saving the world from certain destruction. Of course, it turns out that the Archdemon threat is still very real and reveals itself just when the Flower Troupe is participating in the Combat Revue World Games, a public battle event determining the reputation of several international combat troupes because clearly saving the capital against monsters isn’t enough already.

Sakura Wars is firmly dating sim/visual novel first, combat second, as it belongs to a genre of games called ‘gal games’ – dating sims for heterosexual men. The player controls a male protagonist in a setting where they’re almost exclusively surrounded by young, beautiful women, and players may ‘pick’ their favorite. In Japan, gal games are part of the mainstream, so much so that dating sim elements are a natural part of many games you know – take the Fire Emblem or Persona franchises for example. While there are many gal games that take dating to misogynistic, demeaning extremes and borderline illegal territory (I drew the line at Tokyo Mirage Sessions, for advertising often misogynistic and borderline illegal practices in a real industry), Sakura Wars remains above board.

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Sakura Wars does regularly dip into bouts of panty humor, having you find women’s underwear or ‘ending up’ in a women’s bathroom for comedic effect. This sort of humor might be immature to western audiences, but it’s a result of a culture that treats bodies in a very different way. I can’t laugh about it, but I understand why it exists. I’m split into the borderline creepy dialogue options, which include asking for a kiss or making sexually ambiguous jokes.

It’s important that, unlike other games that paint you as the hero no matter what you say, these options are always penalized – you’re explicitly encouraged to be a good person, and that expectation entails giving players an option to be bad. I do however need to point out that the creepy options are always played off for laughs, which is pretty jarring considering the overall respectful tone.

Sakura Wars’ real strength lies in the passion with which it delivers its story. Designed like a TV anime, complete with episode previews and title cards for ‘ad breaks’, it focuses on a different member of your troupe with each chapter, while also driving the overall story forward.

The plot doesn’t even remotely make sense and I didn’t mind in the slightest. Nothing about the game is smart, it even spoils its own plot several times with ‘clever’ foreshadowing and likes to fix the problem using deus ex machina. “How is this possible?” a character says at one point about a surprising twist in their favor, only to receive the answer “I don’t know, but it is!”… Okay

The plot is silly and the combat’s simple, but I loved spending time with the main characters and seeing what they have to say and how they react to the increasingly high-stakes plot developments. And boy, do they react. There are life and death situations, fisticuffs, and battles set to the triumphant title theme while characters discover their true strength thanks to the power for friendship. The passion all but incinerates your screen. What’s not to love? It may not make sense, but each episode has a clear dramatic arc that resolves satisfyingly.

Also, Sakura Wars just looks consistently great: each scene is presented from multiple camera angles and almost-static images and anime sequences offer further visual variety. The different environments, while little more than pretty backgrounds for conversations are detailed and the design of each main character is memorable. I do miss the instantly recognizable style by Kosuke Fujishima, who has designed the characters for previous installments -here, mangaka Tite Kubo of Bleach fame takes over. The designs of the new mechs, however, is a new favorite of mine, each coming with their own specialties like a giant hammer or an ice pistol. The demons don’t really get a chance to stand out in battle – if you look closely you can see them stumble and fall overdramatically like kaiju in old Japanese monster films. Everything about Sakura Wars is as over the top like an old monster film, but it’s that very cheesiness that had me enraptured.

They don’t make ’em like Sakura Wars anymore, probably with good reason, but this new incarnation, like the old games, is earnest, unapologetic anime nonsense, and wish-fulfillment at its best.

 

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Chimera Squad Review – XCOM 3 Testing Ground

Announced mere weeks ago and launching with a hefty 50% discount, XCOM: Chimera Squad came out of nowhere. It’s a spin-off of the main franchise, one that quite probably acts as a testing ground for Firaxis as they craft the eagerly awaited XCOM 3. The brilliant turn-based tension of XCOM: Enemy Unknown is still at the core of Chimera Squad, but there are some brave new ideas thrown into the mix as well. So, with loads of turn-based tactical games suddenly appearing, does XCOM: Chimera Squad do enough to warrant a purchase?

Befitting the minimal price-tag (£16.99) the scale of XCOM: Chimera Squad has been pared back – you aren’t defending the entire planet against an alien invasion, instead you’re helping police a single city. Carrying on from the events of XCOM 2 and The Chosen War, aliens and humans are now trying to co-exist peacefully. Naturally, there are still dissidents who haven’t taken kindly to the new order of things, but for the most part, peace seems possible. The titular Chimera Squad itself is a mixture of aliens and humans who are called in after the mayor is assassinated. They need to find out who is behind the attack, and to do that they need to investigate three factions within the city, each having their own motivations and intriguing enemy types to shoot in the face.

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Gone are the generic soldiers you would recruit, name, customize, and become almost worryingly attached too. In their place, there’s now a roster of 11 agents who have predefined names and personalities. You can swap the color of their armor and outfit with them gear modifications but that’s it. The constant dread of losing long-serving and skilled soldiers is also gone because XCOM: Chimera Squad has tossed perma-death out of the window, perhaps losing one of the franchise’s most well-known elements. Your team members can’t die, they can only be downed and then replaced by a generic android for the rest of the mission. If a member of the team goes down and there’s not reinforcement to replace him or her with, the mission is over. If you chose hardcore, then the entire campaign is over.

The levels themselves are smaller, too, with a mission typically lasting somewhere around 10-15 minutes. I love XCOM 2, but sometimes the fights could drag on, and the faster pace of Chimera Squad is nice. Even the enemies go down a bit quicker, usually taking one, two, or maybe three shots to collapse. With the smaller encounters, it feels like you can afford to be more aggressive. Sure, Overwatch is still very useful at times, but you can often get more done by pushing forward or finding good ways to use special abilities.

Speaking of special abilities, your diverse cast of minions gets an equally diverse bunch of skills to use. Firaxis has done a good job of making each character feel unique and useful, except possibly for Cherub who I left out of the squad every single time. Snake-lady Torque is a good example as she can use her horrifyingly long tong to snag an enemy and drag it across the map, useful for opening up a target. Or she can take a dangerous target out of the fight by wrapping herself around her victim and squeezing hard, dishing out damage every turn. But more creatively you could also use Torque’s tongue to snatch a squad-mate out of danger. Meanwhile, someone like Zephyr is a purely melee-focused character who can run in, kick the enemy in the teeth, and then dive for cover.

You’ll quickly find favorites among the 11 available characters to pick from. Learning how best to combine abilities is satisfying work, and even a dozen hours into the game I was still finding little combos and nuances I hadn’t noticed before. And I particularly liked how knowing when and where to use abilities can turn the tide of a whole fight. Well-judged cooldown timers stop you from simply abusing abilities, but if you get it right you can occasionally push through a whole encounter without ever firing a shot. As rewarding as building your own roster of goons in XCOM 2 could be, the 11 pre-defined characters Firaxis came up with feel much more distinct on the battlefield.

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Sadly, as interesting, varied, and fun as they are in terms of abilities and their role in a fight, their personalities are a lot less enjoyable. Partly that’s because the story – told through static cartoon-style images that resemble a Saturday morning cartoon – isn’t very engaging, but mostly it’s because the aliens all talk like they’ve lived on Earth their entire lives and just graduated from college. Occasionally there’s a throwaway line designed to remind you that these are beings from another planet, but it’s hard not to think something horribly wrong when a giant snake sounds like an angsty teen.

The frustrating thing is that the premise of XCOM: Chimera Squad has so much potential for exciting squad dynamics. There’s the clashing of alien and human cultures to work with and the looming fact that several alien members of the squad actively fought in the invasion of Earth. That’s grounds for some real tension, but the writers never use it. This could have been a compelling, interesting group of characters with loads of room for cool story arcs. Maybe I’m just expecting too much from a budget game.

As soon as you head out to tackle a mission one of the game’s big new features comes to the fore: breaching. Each mission is usually made up of 1-3 encounters, and at the beginning of each encounter, you get to use the breaching mode. Here, one or more entrances will be presented to you, some requiring gear like breaching charges or a security keycard to access. Each entrance will tell you how much damage you might expect to take, and what bonuses or penalties will be applied, like the last person through getting a bonus action point. Then it’s up to you which entrances you’ll use and what order your soldiers will smash through the door, leap through the window or rappel from the rooftops, all while using any special breaching abilities they might have. Once you’re in you get a chance to take a free shot with each squad member, potentially killing several enemies in the process. But who to aim for? Maybe the Purifier since he wields a flamethrower that can burn multiple characters at the same time? Or perhaps the Necromancer is a better choice thanks to his pesky ability to raise the dead. It’s fun stuff, and to my surprise, I never got bored of smashing through a wall and deciding which enemies had to die first.

Once you’ve blown up someone’s wall or come tumbling in through their windows like the world’s worst window cleaners being chased by a wasp the action shifts to the familiar XCOM formula. Each member of your squad has two action points to spend on moving, shooting, and using abilities. But remember, shooting almost always ends your turn. The maps may be smaller but there are still opportunities to flank the enemy, and the quicker pace of the fights stops missions from becoming dull. It also means that you have to be extra careful in how you position your troops.

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Normally in an XCOM game, you and the A.I. take turns, and on a turn, you can use your entire squad before handing off to the enemy. Chimera Squad has done things differently, using a new timeline system. Now, individual units will have a turn. Sometimes that might even mean three or four enemies going one after the other, or it could just mean a single foe doing their thing before you get to jump in with a couple of units in a row. This new system is fantastic, forcing you to really take a look at the timeline before deciding how best to spend an agent’s actions. And the game gives you numerous ways to play with the timeline, too. Of course, just killing the next enemy on the timeline works, but you also get an ability that can be used once per mission which moves any of your soldiers into the next slot on the timeline. Various other skills and items let you tweak the order to your advantage.

The only thing that’s missing is the familiar sense of XCOM dread that would sink in when an enemy’s turn came and you have to sit and watch as every enemy unit proceeded to decimate your woefully positioned squad. In fact, on the whole XCOM: Chimera Squad isn’t quite as soul-destroying as XCOM 2 could be.

All in all, I really enjoyed the combat style of XCOM: Chimera Squad. While it isn’t as aggressive as something like Gears Tactics, it’s certainly more aggressive and faster than the prior XCOM games from Firaxis. There’s a healthy dose of unique abilities, and finding out what squad members work the best together is great fun. There are still some annoyances in how XCOM calculates your odds of hitting something, but that’s par for the course with the series by this point. If failing a shot with a 95% chance of succeeding has made you abandon XCOM in the past then Chimera Squad isn’t going to make things better now. But those thrilling, tense firefights that come down to a roll of the dice are still captivating if you can handle mind-melting frustration of someone with a shotgun failing to hit a target 2-FUCKING FEET AWAY! GOD DAMN!

While you might not be having to deal with government funding and running a worldwide operation to fend off alien invaders any more, there’s still so admin to do. The core of this is the city itself which is split into nine districts. Ignore a mission in a district and its unrest goes up. If unrest hits level five then the city’s Anarchy meter rises, making the game tougher and pushing you a step toward a total game over scenario. Thus the whole thing is a juggling act as you choose which missions to tackle and which to ignore

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On a given playthrough you can get a total of eight of the eleven agents, but only four can be taken on a mission, leaving you with a few idle hands around the base. They aren’t useless though since they can be assigned to do a few things. Assembly projects, for example, are where you research new tech that will unlock more gear for you to buy like better armor or grenades that hoist enemies into the air. Spec Ops acts as a way of gathering extra resources. Finally, training lets you heal scars which agents might have picked up, as well as improve core stats and unlock powerful abilities.

It might not be quite as deep as XCOM 2 and your decisions don’t have the same long-term sense of impact, but there’s a pleasing level of management on offer in Chimera Squad. Picking what to research next, which mission to hit, what gear to buy, who to train, and so on acts as a nice break from the combat. It does lack the visual flair of XCOM 2’s base though. Your little home-away-from-home is a static, unchanging place, and even sticking shiny new armor on your squad doesn’t change their appearance. Without the visual aids managing your squad and the city does feel more like number crunching at times.

Sadly the budget pricing of XCOM: Chimera Squad seems to have resulted in a janky game. The animations are a prime example – they’re clumsy and awkward, and there are no smooth transitions. Watching a character move to a point is almost physically painful, especially if they have to turn at any point. But you also have to suffer a lot of visual bugs, including people walking through closed doors, torsos rotating wildly, enemies literally walking out of a level through a wall and then back in so that they appear on the objective and heaps more. One of those most annoying involved half of a building’s roof losing its transparency, making seeing bloody hard.

For such a meager price XCOM: Chimera Squad packs somewhere in the realm of 20-hours of content into its slim frame. It almost feels unfair to compare it so frequently to XCOM 2 since it’s a small-scale spin-off. But Chimera Squad manages to find its own identity while still retaining the general feel of XCOM, even if the pre-defined characters and lack of perma-death might put veterans of the franchise off entirely. And that’s fair because making up your own squad and forming tales of their heroics and their demises have been core to XCOM since it returned from the dead in 2013. But if you can look past that there’s a lot to like in XCOM: Chimera Squad, and if you’re a lover of turn-based tactics games then this is well worth playing, though it has some incredibly tough competition in Gears Tactics at the moment.

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If you’ve moved (or helped people move) at any point during the past few decades, odds are you’ve heard someone make a joke about their Tetris skills paying off. There’s something satisfying about finding the perfect spot for a box or arranging things to fit into what seems like an impossibly small space. That sensation is part of what Moving Out promises; as a member of a furniture moving company, you and up to three co-op buddies are tasked with filling up the truck as quickly and efficiently as possible. Moves get more complicated and sillier over time, but ghosts, flamethrowers, and rising pools of guava juice prove to be far from the biggest obstacles to success.

You begin your career as a certified Furniture Arrangement and Relocation Technician with fairly mundane jobs. The first few homes allow you to get the hang of the basics, which include surveying the area for the objects you’re required to load into the truck and sizing up the trickier parts of each move. It might be tempting to grab the nearest boxes and lob them into the truck, but those smaller objects can quickly add up. Before you know it, it’s time to put a sectional couch inside and you don’t have any room. But first, you need to maneuver that couch through narrow hallways, around obstacles, and potentially out the front window.

It’s possible to schlep all this stuff around as a solo player, but that’s an option of last resort. You don’t have any A.I. companions, so you’re stuck dragging heavier objects around without the option of performing a handy co-op “heave ho” toss with a partner. That move is incredibly useful for making the most of the limited truck space, since objects like beds and tables can be stacked if you put enough of your back into it. Bringing a friend along for the ride via local co-op makes some aspects of the game much easier, but it comes with a warning: If you aren’t a patient person, or you’re prone to getting frustrated or lashing out at other people, avoid this game. I’m only kind of joking.

Even the early moves seem designed to be as maddening as possible. Doorways are just barely wide enough to accommodate larger pieces of furniture, making them a tight squeeze in ideal circumstances. Moving Out takes clear cues from Overcooked, but it adds a significant wrinkle: wacky physics. Overcooked is great because a group can fail, evaluate where they went wrong, and regroup with a better strategy in mind. Moving Out has that element of strategizing – such as figuring out what objects the team needs to move and how to prioritize those mini tasks – but success is unpredictable. Maybe you’ll get hung up on an invisible barrier around a doorway. Perhaps your throw will land weirdly short, dropping a fragile package in the pool. There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason for a lot of these goofs; even if you’re able to clearly call out what the team needs to do next, performing what should be simple actions feels like you’re rolling the dice.

As frustrating as it can be, I found myself drawn to a few standout levels. I enjoyed a Frogger-inspired section in particular, where the movers have to cross a busy street before making their way across logs and alligators. Some later levels, where players have to communicate and work out which switch-controlled doors to open and when, are similarly amusing. Players who find themselves getting into the game can look forward to completing secret objectives like breaking all the windows in a house or not stepping on rakes in a yard. These allow you to access arcade-style levels, which feature more abstract platforming/moving challenges. They’re good for a quick burst of fun, but I never felt compelled to stick around to set high scores.

Moving Out has a charming sense of humor and the developers clearly went out of their way to make the game as accessible as possible. You can adjust the difficulty in an impressively granular way, checking individual boxes to tweak the time you have to complete goals, make objects lighter, remove some obstacles, and more. That does make it easier to zoom past some of the trickier levels, but it doesn’t ultimately change the fact that moving furniture in the game is as fun as the real deal.

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Review

Darksiders: Genesis Review – All Strife

One thing you sure do get with the Darksiders series is variety: the first game took heavy inspiration from the Zelda franchise, whilst the second favored lots of loot and a bigger world. The third game had a little bit of Dark Souls floating around in it, as well as a dash of the Metroidvania genre. And now we’ve got Darksiders: Genesis, a prequel that pulls the camera way out into a top-down view and throws in a few dollops of Diablo for good measure. That’s four games and four very different styles. Talk about bang for your buck, eh?

Darksiders: Genesis has actually been out for a few months on PC, but I didn’t get a chance to review it at the time. Now though, it’s launching on consoles, so with Genesis becoming available to a whole new audience, it seemed like a good time to do a review.

In the previous three games, we’ve got to play as War, Death, and Fury, but the fourth and final Horseman (Not the classic wrestling faction) has only got mentions and a brief cameo in Darksiders III. Genesis marks the proper debut of Strife, the last of the Horsemen, and the most different in terms of personality and gameplay. War, Death, and Fury are all quite serious and focused, but Strife has a sarcastic streak as wide as War’s monstrous shoulders. He’s snarky, likes to crack wise, and therefore also tends to annoy the shit out of his brothers and sister.

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Playing the straight man to Strife’s snarky sarcasm and constant humor for this adventure is the hulking mountain of anger known as War, the star of the very first Darksiders who finally got to step back onto the stage. At one point Strife merrily tries to tell a knock, knock joke, before telling War that he’s meant to reply with, “Who’s there?” War calmly states that he would never give away his location like that, and would instead just smash the door down and assault whatever poor bastard was on the other side. That’s the kind of comedy to expect in Genesis. At first, it struggled to connect with me and I found the interaction between the two Horsemen a little stiff, but as the game went on I began to enjoy the way they bounced off of each other. Truthfully, they act like siblings: sometimes arguing, disagreeing, or downright hating each other, but always willing to back the other up. That’s the kind of strange relationship I want from the Horsemen, and it’s a pleasure to finally get to actually see more than just one on-screen other than just in a cutscene.

The actual story is pretty much a basic skeleton designed to give you a tour of various environments and let you beat the crap out of hundreds of enemies. Basically, War and Strife have been dispatched by the Charred Council to investigate Lucifer who seems intent on upsetting the all-important Balance. He’s been busy granting power to various other demons, and so the bulk of the story has War and Strife paying visits to these evil beings, aiding by Samael and Vulgrim, who continues his run of appearing in every Darksiders game to date.

If you’re new to the Darksiders franchise and its bonkers lore and love of huge armor then all of this might sound a bit naff. And it kind of is. Without prior knowledge of the series the first hour or two can be a bit confusing with strange terms like The Charred Council and The Balance being thrown around. It’s goofy stuff, but somehow it works. While it’s certainly not great storytelling in the traditional sense Genesis manages to deliver a plot that doesn’t get in the way, provides an excuse for the action, and is still enjoyable in a mindless, action-romp sort of way. It’s like a good action movie; enough plot to vaguely justify all the death and give you an excuse to drink a copious amount of fizzy drinks and eat a fucking tonne of sweets.

And if you happen to be a returning veteran of Darksiders who, like me, is bafflingly invested in Darksiders lore then there are some nice new nuggets of information to be gathered up and hoarded like some sort of demonic squirrel.

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But let’s get into the actual gameplay which is actually familiar top-down hack ‘n slasher fare but executed so well that you won’t care that it isn’t dripping in goopy creativity. Provided you’re playing solo you can swap between War and Strife on the fly, and Darksiders: Genesis does a nice job of making both characters feel unique. War is all about getting up close and intimate with his foes, his massive sword dealing big damage to anything unlucky enough to be on the same planet. Unlike Strife, War can block incoming attacks in order to remain nice and close to his victims, and can also launch heavy attacks. His special abilities include unleashing spikes that erupt out of the ground or turning his skin to stone in order to soak up damage like a boss.

As for Strife, he favors his twin guns which can be fired by aiming with the right stick and pulling the trigger. Some simple melee attacks help hold back the enemy if they do manage to get close, though. And while you dish out damage Strife’s special gauge builds up and when it actives it lets Strife fire faster and hit harder.

The various levels which make up the reasonably lengthy 10-15 hour campaign are nicely sized, offering extra space for exploring. You even get to summon up Strife and War’s horses to ride around, a concept I wish got used more. It’s fun to gallop around and smash some bad guys from the saddle, but there was a lot more that could have been done with the Horsemen’s equine companions.

By searching the maps for hidden chests both War and Strife can earn special selectable modifiers for their weapons. Strife, for example, can swap between several secondary ammo types such as arcing electric bullets or a powerful beam that can rip through numerous enemies at once. War, meanwhile, can imbue his giant blade with the ability to suck up health or to add some extra types of attack. These abilities can all be easily changed on the fly, too, by bringing up a radial menu. The fact that these skills are hidden around the levels, as are other items like health shards, gives you a good reason to explore every nook and cranny.

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The real key to what makes fighting the dozens of enemy types feel good is the audio and visual cues. Through the sounds of Strife’s guns and the weight of War’s sword swings combat is given a nice, meaty impact that keeps the slaughtering satisfying and fun. The gruesome execution moves are a nice touch too, even if the zoomed out camera makes them harder to appreciate. Plus, you even get to unleash massive firey demon versions of War and Strife every now and then. Who doesn’t like that?

But it isn’t all decapitations and ballets of death. The Darksider games like a bit of platforming and puzzle-solving, and Darksiders: Genesis is no different. Top-down views are often a little iffy for accurate platforming so it’s hardly surprising that you’ll fail the occasional leap because you couldn’t gauge distances right. However, for the most part, the platforming is quite fun, largely because it never requires you to be too precise.

As for the puzzles they’ve been kept nice and simple, possibly because neither Strife nor War seems like they have the patience for tricky brain-busters when there are monsters to be smashed. Mostly it boils down to hitting a few switches or maybe matching up some symbols. Simple, easy stuff that helps break up the action a little. But there are a few fun gadgets thrown into the mix, such as Strife’s portals that can be tossed onto specific surfaces, or War’s Vorpal blade that can bounce from target to target.

The prior Darksiders games have all allowed the Horsemen to buff themselves up in various forms, and Genesis carries on that tradition, albeit with an unusual system that involves gathering Creature Cores from slain foes. Different cores offer up different bonuses from a simple increase in damage to buffing special abilities or even adding some new ones, like a chance to leave a trail of fire when you dash. On top of that collecting cores, you already have increased their total power, making them more effective. This is where things get a little more complicated: you need to slot the Cores into a giant board. When the first Core is placed it opens up the adjacent slots and so on, with different slots featuring symbols that match those on the cores. By matching symbols you get an extra power boost. If that wasn’t enough then some slots can’t make use of a fully leveled up Core’s powers. Finally, there are special slots for Major Cores – the kind you get from beating up the larger monsters and bosses – and these provide the biggest bonuses.

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It’s a cumbersome system in some ways that feels over-designed. It certainly took me a little while to properly grasp it. Once you do, though, it’s quite satisfying to use, even if it has the same problem as a lot of upgrade systems – you don’t notice the little stat increases in the actual gameplay. Just playing through on the regular difficulty you don’t actually need to pay too much attention to Cores and their placement either, but if you plan on replaying level on the harder settings then that’s where the whole system comes into its own.

It’s clear that the developers want you to tackle those tougher settings and focus on building up your Creature Cores, and I did find myself doing just that. Sadly, there’s no endgame content so you really are just going through the same levels again with tougher foes, but the gameplay is strong enough to warrant it, I feel.

All of this glorious carnage and Creature Core gathering can be experienced solo, but you can also rope a friend into the action, too. Sadly there’s no co-op specific mechanics like joint attacks or anything cool like that, but it’s still heaps of fun to have a friend lopping off limbs beside you. It makes me hope that if we ever do get to see a true Darksiders sequel with the full complement of Horsemen that four players will be able to team up in co-op. That’d be pretty sweet.

Coming from the silky-smooth action of the PC version of Darksiders: Genesis the drop-down to just 30FPS is a harsh pill to swallow. That extra smoothness makes heaps of difference in a game like this. Still, swallowing that pill wouldn’t be so much of a pain in the throat if it wasn’t for the performance problems. Even on an Xbox One X Darksiders: Genesis struggles to hold 30FPS, often dropping a few frames and thereby giving a feeling of stuttering. Occasionally it drops more than that. It never gets bad enough to ruin the game entirely or anything, but it mars the otherwise excellent combat.

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The months between the PC launch and the console version should really have given the developers some time to apply a bit of spit and polish, but sadly pretty much all the same bugs and glitches are to be found. Enemies have a tendency to vanish during execution animations or appear several feet to the right or left of where they should be, leaving War to stab nothing but air like he’s trying to impale the Invisible Man. Bad guys also get stuck inside of scenery a fair bit, and you’ll get stuck on bits of the level, too. I even got stuck on loading screens a couple of times.

It’s definitely got some rough edges, even with those extra months between releases, but ultimately Darksiders: Genesis is actually a solid game. The mixture of combat, platforming, and puzzle-solving is compelling stuff that nicely ticks the “fun, mindless entertainment” box that floats around inside my head. And I don’t mean that as in insult. Not everything needs to be the next great work of art or full of complex, nuanced mechanics. It’s enough for a game to just be bloody good fun. That’s what Darksiders: Genesis is – bloody good fun.

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Review

Corruption 2029 – A Lean, Mean, Tactical Machine

The Bearded Ladies are a Swedish who made an impact last year with the launch of Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden, a tactical turn-based action game where you controlled a small group of characters that included a mutant pig. I never got a chance to play it, but the reception was pretty good.

For their newest game – Corruption 2029 – Bearded Ladies seem to have focused their attention almost purely on the core turn-based action, leaving out the various other elements that weren’t quite so well received.

That means Corruption 2029 is a very lean game, something which some people might like and others may not. So did stripping away the fat give Corruption 2029 the body of a Greek God, or did it result in something that looks like it just needs about 20 good meals.

Right, so let’s talk about the story: there isn’t one. I think. It all takes place in a dystopian future in Corruption 2029 which is obviously a long time away….wait, this is 2020. Jesus Christ. Anyway, America has been devastated by a second civil war, because I guess America is the only place things can happen, and you find yourself in control of a small squad of three robots behind enemy lines.

Littering the environments are notes from long-gone civilians, laptops to hack and other little bits and bobs that vaguely fill in the game’s lore, but it’s fair to say that in terms of story there’s really very little given to you, and what you do get is instantly forgettable.

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Your squad gets dispatched to do a variety of basic tasks, from wiping out all the enemies on a map to rescuing a target who then needs to be escorted to a terminal or something Corruption 2029.

When you aren’t in a fight the game is played in real-time with you controlling your squad using the WASD keys and the mouse. There’s a hefty dose of stealth at play here because you can click the left mouse button to go nearly invisible, reducing the radius at which enemy units can spot your squad. There’s a lot of benefits to staying under the radar, such as medkits, grenades, and explosives that can be picked up and either saved for later or used to help you complete the mission. Plus there’re opportunities to do stuff like hack turrets.

The biggest reason to sneak around like a coward is to set up ambushes. Corruption 2029 Using silenced weapons it’s possible to actually eliminate individual enemies, or if you watch patrols carefully you can potentially take out a group without everyone else hearing the racket and coming running.

However, enemies are also capable of radioing for help so you need to set up your attacks to deal maximum damage or otherwise risk being outnumbered. It’s incredibly satisfying to pick off some guards before setting up some explosives and using them to take out a whole building that a sniper was residing in. Do things right and you can enter combat having already killed off a big chunk of the enemy.

You really do need to make use of all that stealth, too, because the game can be rather unforgiving. One mistake can lead to huge numbers of foes descending on your idiotic arse, and while it’s sometimes possible to brute-force your way to a win it usually just results in you being very, very dead. It forces you to stop, think, and execute plans with precision, which I appreciate. Or at least, I appreciate it when I actually get it right, because I have all the planning capability of a certain sponge who lives in a pineapple under the sea.

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When you finally jump into a firefight proper the game swaps over to a turn-based system that will be instantly familiar to XCOM veterans. On your turn each of your soldiers gets just two action points to spend on moving, shooting, and using abilities or equipment.

Smartly, when you hover over a square that you’re considering moving to it’ll display lines of sight to nearby enemies as well as the odds of being able to hit them, because just like XCOM when you attack your success or failure comes down to chance. It’s a system that causes just as much tension as it does frustration.

Dramatic hits despite having just a 25% chance are elating, but at the same time missing a 90% shot feels like Lady Luck kicking you in the balls while wearing particularly point shoes. And like XCOM the system can occasionally go a little barmy, giving you weird odds despite standing right next to foes or even declaring you don’t have a line of sight when you clearly do. A little too frequently lines of sight mad no sense for my taste, so hopefully that gets patched.

The occasional weird mathematics isn’t enough to stop the action from being tremendously fun, though. And that fun is augmented through the various upgrades and weapons you earn as mission completion rewards. Your three soldiers have no set class, but each one can be given three implants that grant passive or active abilities, a primary weapon and a secondary.

A personal favorite of mine was to equip a sniper rifle, an upgrade that guaranteed critical hits when attacking from a height and an augmented jump ability that literally lets soldiers hurl themselves up onto buildings, even if that means leaping through roofs.

I also favored one of my soldiers touting a shotgun, bolstered armor and a handy ability to barge through walls or into hapless enemies whose lazy Sunday has now been totally fucked up. Now that’s an assault class. Other cool gear includes a mini-gun if you feel like everything in the immediate vicinity is entirely too free of holes.

While I can’t say that the whole upgrade and weapon system gave me the same anguishing choices as in XCOM, the fact that you can unlock and try out everything whenever you like means there’s plenty of room to play around.

It’s just a shame that customization doesn’t extend to your squad’s aesthetics or even their names. In something like XCOM, you can rename your goons and tinker with how they look, giving you a sense of ownership that is devastating whenever they die. In Corruption 2029 your three squad members have predefined names and look.

This made me think that perhaps the developers were going to give them distinct personalities, especially since they can’t permanently die – if they do get “killed” in combat they’ll be revived once the fight is over, and if all three are wiped out it’s just a mission failure.

But no, they have no personality and are visually damn near impossible to distinguish from each other until you give them different weapons. Even then, at a glance, it’s hard to tell which one is which. So why not let us name them and tweak how they look?

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The rest of the game’s visuals are pretty solid from a technical perspective, but a bit boring in terms of design. It doesn’t help that the developer’s last game also featured a three-person squad that had mutated animals. By comparison Corruption 2029 is very tame, opting for a much more realistic style with some lovely lighting and a good amount of detail on character models and in the environment.

The problem is it’s all rather bland and each the maps look kind of the same. Each location blurs together, and since there aren’t very many maps you’ll be playing them over and over again. This isn’t to say the game is ugly, it just needed more variety in both locations and the items strewn around the environments. There’s only so many times you can see the same buses or tanks before it becomes dull, after all.

You also don’t get as much meat on the bones as you do with something like XCOM. There’s no base building, economic management, or anything else of the sort. There are just a few missions to pick between at a time, meaning none of the insane juggling acts found in XCOM. It’s a bare-bones package, in other words, with the main campaign lasting somewhere around 10-15 hours, or a bit more if you fancy completing all the optional medals.

But it’s important to know that Corruption 2029 isn’t asking £40, instead, it retails at just £16.99, making it so much easier to forgive the limited maps or the fact that the package as a whole isn’t as beefy as other games on the market. In fact, I’m pretty impressed with the quality of the game considering its budget origins.

I didn’t run into any serious bugs or performance problems outside of one instance where a headless enemy was running around. The whole thing ran nice and smooth, though I’d still have liked some more graphical options and maybe even an in-built framerate limiter since my GTX 1080Ti kept trying to set itself on fire. But that’s the definition of a first-world problem, isn’t it?

As a tactical, turn-based game that’s lightweight on the wallet Corruption 2029 has left me impressed. The heavy emphasis on scoping out patrols, picking off stragglers, and planning an effective ambush helps set Corruption 2029 apart from other games in the genre. And then once you get into the combat proper it’s tense, tactical and tightly designed, even if the percentage system that governs attacks will sometimes leave you wanting to punch the nearest hapless human being.

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Review

Bloodroots Review – Blood-Soaked Fun

Good old-fashioned revenge is the driving force behind hundreds or possibly even thousands of books, movies, and videogames. It’s something we can all understand; the desire to get revenge on those who have wronged us. It’s a theme often found within Westerns in particular, so it’s not surprising that Bloodroots has a Western twang to its tale of Mr. Wolf, a killer who gets betrayed by his own gang known as the bloodroots Beasts. But Mr. Wolf doesn’t stay dead. He somehow manages to bring himself back from the brink and begins to hunt his former gang-mates down, intent on putting them 6ft under.

The story is very simple and yet is actually rather compelling. Mr. Wolf himself has almost nothing in terms of dialogue, but that just paints him as an unstoppable killing machine hellbent on getting revenge. Meanwhile, quiet scenes with the other gang members conversing help fill out the story as you progress through the game. They aren’t a nice bunch and so you’ll never sympathize with them or feel bad about hunting them down, but these scenes do flesh them out and help you understand how and why they came to betray their leader.

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I’m also a big fan of how the ghosts of your slain gang-mates will come and hang out at your campfire, giving them a chance to interact with Mr. Wolf. It’s a cool idea and fits in nicely with the game’s strange mixture of humor, dark moments, and Western themes. It doesn’t always manage to get that mixture just right, but for the most part, I enjoyed the unusual tone of Bloodroots.

So, you play as a murdering psycho killing other murdering psychos. But between you and your former friends stand many hapless victims that you must carve through using a top-down perspective. Pretty much anything and everything can in the environment be used as a weapon, from knives to cartwheels to a frying pan. You can ride on barrels, twirl ladders, and even smack people with a carrot or shove a fish over their head. Most weapons have a limited amount of uses before they break and you have to grab something else, but there’s always at least a few handy weapons nearby, encouraging you to always try out something else. More importantly, whatever you grab behaves differently, and learning the quirks, advantages, and disadvantages of everything is a huge part of the fun. For example, fireworks can take out a few enemies at once, but you can also use them to perform a double, triple, or even quadruple jump. Meanwhile, the saber launches you forward, but that can also easily lead to you falling off a cliff or getting surrounded if you aren’t careful.

Describing the action as fast-paced is an understatement, a bit like describing Adolf Hitler as a bit of a dick – yes, it’s not wrong, but it doesn’t really tell the whole story. Sure, you can play Bloodroots slowly and carefully, but the game feels like it wants you to go fast. Your movement speed is a health sprint. You die in just one hit and so do the enemies, so staying on the move is vital. Plus, you always need to be heading toward the next weapon because while you can always use your fists they leave you vulnerable for a second after a punch. That split-second is like a lifetime in a game where failure is a single hit away.

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Bloodroots uses the phrase “you’ll choreograph spectacular, ultra-violent combos” in its own description and I have to say it’s completely accurate. In a lot of ways, this game is more like a rhythm-puzzler. If you mistime an attack you usually get smacked and die, and the way enemies and items are laid out means there are subtle pathways through areas. If you can find them then the action feels like a gore-filled dance. Run here, a jump there, grab this, stab, stab, stab, jump onto a barrel, crash so that it sends me up onto this cliff here, grab the spear, throw it through these three guys at once.

Nailing an area in one nearly seamless run feels amazing, especially if you only barely scrape through a few incidents with some quick thinking. Dying only sends you back to the start of that encounter, and each encounter is typically only a few minutes long before you move off to the next area. And you will die. Probably a lot. Indeed, Bloodroots can be bloody infuriating at times, but that just makes figuring an area out all the more satisfying. It’s a gloriously gory puzzle, one that just so happens to involve obliterating people.

Highscores can give you a tempting reason to head back into a level and try to beat your previous efforts. I frequently got through sections on my first try but found myself knowing I could have done so much better. There are also unlockable hats that provide various different effects when replaying a level, like making enemies explode when punched or giving you a hover jump.

So the action is fast, frantic, kinetic, and gets the adrenaline pumping. It does have some flaws, though, so let’s jump into those. The first is that amidst all the mayhem it can be easy to lose track of the action and wind up dead because an enemy sneaked in and stabbed you in the face.

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The other thing that irked me was how easy it was to die by a complete accident. It’s really very easy to go flying off a cliff because you lunged through an enemy with a knife and the momentum sent you hurtling into the abyss. To be fair, that’s something you can learn to compensate for, but even then in the heat of the action it still happens and often doesn’t feel like your fault. Sometimes you can save yourself, and other times it’s as though the game holds up a giant middle finger as you plummet to your demise.

And there’s also the question of input lag. I think. It’s a little hard to tell if I’m just missing the timing or whether the game simply isn’t registering my command to pick up the weapon. Either way, it resulted in me standing there looking like an idiot because I thought I had picked up a knife and attacked with it, but actually I threw a punch at thin air before getting my head caved in. The problem is that in the thick of the action it’s bloodroots hard to tell whether it’s your own mistake or the game.

It also doesn’t help that cliff edges and jumps can be hard to judge due to the art style and the camera angles. Again, it’s a problem that becomes worse when you’re flying around the levels like a nutcase only to plunge off the edge of a building or completely misjudge where a ledge is. Things get worse when the game decides to introduce a few levels involving ice that sends you skating around. The laws of physics just seem to get thrown out the window at this point; sometimes you can stop yourself quite easily and other times you’ll go sliding to your death.

Thankfully the speed at which the game loads up the last checkpoint and the fact that there are only usually a few minutes until the next save point stops these deaths becoming too frustrating. Still, that doesn’t negate the fact that these problems exist.

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The visuals were heavily influenced by Samurai Jack and the other work of Genndy Tartakovsky. It looks pretty awesome in motion, like a blur of beautiful colors and bloodroots. You especially get to admire the lovely animation work during the final kill of each area when the game plays a quick cutscene of you brutalizing the unfortunate sap with whatever weapon you were wielding. Honestly, I wound up spending an extra hour just playing about with the various weapons so I could see all the fun murder scenes.

For the most part, the performance on my PS4 Pro was great, and bugs and glitches were non-existent. The only thing to note was that in a couple of sections the framerate dropped. It never got unplayable, but it was certainly noticeable contrasted against the normally smooth gameplay. And it does make me wonder how the regular PS4 might perform.

Now we come to the end of the review and I must, with a heavy heart, put aside my massive bias when it comes to Bloodroots. You see, dear reader, I share a bond with Mr. Wolf, the special kind of bond that can only be formed between two people who share the same name. But as a completely serious, totally dedicated videogame journalist person I must push that bond out of my mind in order to be completely fair and impartial. *cough*

Bloodroots is a lot of manic, sweaty fun for a reasonable price (£16) that has a couple of flaws, none of which manage to anything more than slightly mar the adrenaline-fuelled mixture of rhythm game, brawler and puzzler. Yeah, sometimes being the bad guy really does pay.

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Review

Warcraft 3: Reforged Review – What The Hell, Blizzard

Warcraft 3: Reforged is not what was promised. Not even close. Indeed, it’s so far from what was originally demoed and outlined in 2018 that Blizzard is arguably guilty of blatant false advertising. Of course, we all know that games are subject to change during development as developers alter their goals or decide to tweak the graphics for better performance. But in the case of Warcraft 3: Reforged, little was ever said to indicate that the original vision wasn’t going to come to pass. Even mere weeks before the game’s launch the official website boasted features that simply aren’t present in the finished product, including reworked cutscenes. So, let’s dive into this Warcraft 3: Reforged review and see why the Internet has dubbed it Warcraft 3: Refunded.

As I finished up this review Blizzard issued a non-apology where they stated they were sorry that some people didn’t have the experience they wanted. The wording makes it so that Blizzard isn’t actually apologizing for the game and its problems, and even implies that it’s the fault of the consumers. In the same statement, they attempted to explain away Reforged’s problems by saying that they didn’t want to steer away from Warcraft 3’s original vision, which is completely at odds with their own marketing for the game. It’s also strange that the original game can no longer be bought, and that owners of the original game need to download a 30GB update that automatically updates Warcraft 3 to the Reforged version. If you want to maintain the original vision of Warcraft 3, why remove the ability to play it as it was?

It’s baffling. Warcraft 3 is beloved by millions, was integral to the success of Blizzard as a company, and holds an important spot in the annals of videogame history. Combine these things with Blizzard’s faltering reputation and one would imagine Warcraft 3: Reforged would have been a priority for Blizzard, a chance for them to celebrate their history and rebuild some of the trust they have lost. But alas, that isn’t the case.

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The first hint that something is wrong comes early in the human campaign. When Blizzard first showed off Reforged in 2018 it presented a redone version of the culling of Stratholme cutscene where there were close-up views of the characters and a much more dynamic feel. It was fantastic, and exactly what the remaster needed. With four more hours of reforged cutscenes promised by Blizzard myself and millions of others were eager to replay the campaigns so that we could experience the story of Arthas like never before. But once you arrive at the Stratholme cutscene you’re greeted with something identical to the original game with static, zoomed out cameras and awkward animations. At the time of launch Reforged’s official website still showed the updated, improved cutscene. It’s hard not to feel like we’ve been lied to.

As for the cinematics they’ve been upscaled to run at 1080p instead of the original 240p, but otherwise remain mostly untouched. I say mostly because one other cinematic involving a fight between certain characters has gotten a major overhaul that looks good initially until characters actually start moving, at which point it becomes apparent that they are stiffer than concrete.

The good news is that Warcraft 3 remains an outstanding RTS game and Blizzard didn’t tinker with the core gameplay too much. This is the classic RTS formula at its peak: you build up a base, set some workers to gather gold and wood, churn out units and then hurl them at the enemy while sometimes clicking madly on some stuff to make it feel like you’re actually being tactical and not just hoping for the best. The real standout is your heroes who stomp around the battlefield armed with special abilities that you can activate. During the campaigns, your heroes can gather loot that increases their stats and even level up, both things carrying over from mission to mission. It makes you grow attached to your heroes. They are the foundation of your armies, and clever use of their abilities can help turn the tide of an entire battle.

While I might joke about just hoping for the best, mostly because that’s what I do in any RTS, the truth of the matter is Warcraft had and continues to have a high skill threshold. There’s a lot of room to improve your craft and the speed at which you can dish out orders. Your build order, army composition, and hero choice can all have huge ramifications for how matches play out, especially since the four factions feel distinctly different, something which the campaigns do a good job of showing you.

Speaking of the campaigns they are simply excellent. Reforged includes the Frozen Throne expansion content, meaning you get a total of seven meaty campaigns that span the game’s four different playable factions, kicking off with the Orks before moving on to Prince Arthas as he combats a deadly plague. The RTS genre has never been known for its storytelling abilities, but Warcraft 3 manages to tell a surprisingly strong tale with interesting characters and fun twists and turns. That just makes it even more of a shame that we didn’t get the properly improved cutscenes that could have given the story extra impact.

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Still, it’s bloody amazing just how well Warcraft 3 holds up in 2020. It’s easily one of the best singleplayer RTS games on the market. The mission design is simply superb and nicely varied, even managing to include some light stealth elements. Getting through the campaign in many RTS games can feel like a slog, but Warcraft 3’s campaigns are nothing of the sort. If you’ve never experienced it before then it’s nearly impossible not to recommend picking this up for the campaigns alone.

As for the graphical upgrade, it’s…mixed. On the one hand, the character models have been completely redone and are wonderfully detailed. However, on the other hand, the animations are jerky and stiff. Partly this is because they’ve been rendered at a much lower framerate, which according to Blizzard is so that they remain compatible with the original Warcraft. Since I have no technical knowledge I can’t dispute this claim. All I can comment on is how they look in the finished game.

So, the character models look nice and detailed even if they don’t move as smoothly as they really should. The environments have also been revamped, and sadly like the character models they are a mixed bag in terms of quality; the extra color saturation that helps bring Warcraft 3 more in line with World of Warcraft is most notable within the various maps, and I reckon the boost of color looks good. However, the environments themselves are lacking in detail, especially in comparison to the character models, and the lighting model is incredibly basic. This gives levels a flat, lifeless feel. Indeed, I’d argue that the original Warcraft 3 environments often look better than these supposedly Reforged ones.

The scale of heroes, buildings, and troops also becomes a bit of a problem with the newly reworked graphics. In the original game the blocky characters that were nearly as big as the buildings around them. It wasn’t a problem, though. But now with the much more detailed, realistic character models, the strange scale looks…odd. Ork chieftain Thrall atop is monstrous wolf looks especially strange because he practically dwarfs most buildings.

Another one of the things that were promised was a complete re-working of the clumsy, old user interface but like so many other parts of Reforged that seem to have got abandoned during development. Instead, we’ve got something that looks almost identical to the original game and which takes up a horrible amount of space on the screen. There are not even any UI scaling options, either, so you’re stuck with it. According to Blizzard, the updated UI will be coming at a later date, a baffling decision. Why wouldn’t you launch a remaster with something so important to the experience?

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Nor can you rebind the keys, which is a game as reliant on hotkeys as Warcraft 3 is an incredibly stupid oversight. It’s bloody 2020, Blizzard, rebinding keys should be normal. Instead, if you really want to rebind your hotkeys you have to modify the game via the text files in the main directory.

Then there’s the little issue of performance problems. Usually, Warcraft 3: Reforged runs perfectly fine, as you’d expect of a game that isn’t very demanding. But now and then the whole thing stutters, dropping frames like an optician whose drunk at work. It isn’t enough to ruin the game or anything, but the fact that a remaster of a game as old as Warcraft 3 has performance problems at all is insane.

Outside of the meaty campaigns you can always jump online and challenge other players, provided you’re willing to get beaten into the ground repeatedly by people who seemingly never stopped playing Warcraft 3 over the years. Thankfully the influx of new players should at least give idiots like me a shot at an occasional win. However, even online play as been marred with issues as people have reported connection problems, struggling to launch custom games, and much more.

There are once again completely mad omissions to be found. For example, despite Warcraft 3 already having competitive ladders they are missing in Reforged, as is clan support and automated tournaments. Blizzard is promising these features will be added in the future, but once again the question is why weren’t they included at launch? If that wasn’t bad enough custom campaign support has vanished, too.

The final thing to talk about with Warcraft 3: Reforged isn’t really anything to do with the game as such, but is important nonetheless. You see, the original DotA was born via the custom game feature in Warcraft 3, giving rise to a whole new genre in gaming. Had Blizzard been smart at the time they would have snapped up the people responsible for creating DotA, given the resources, and tasked them with turning their idea into a fully-fledged game. Blizzard didn’t do that, though, and watched as Valve launched Dota 2, and Riot introduced League of Legends.

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Clearly wanting to avoid this situation happening again Blizzard has put far more effort into rewriting their legal documentation for Warcraft 3 than they ever put into the game itself. Now, by playing Warcraft 3 you agree to forfeit all rights to anything you create in the custom game mode, including copyrights, meaning the concept you made using Warcraft 3 can’t then be replicated somewhere else.

It’s understandable that Blizzard would want some degree of control; after all, they made Warcraft 3 and all its assets, so it’s perfectly right that they would want some say in what happens with anything created from it. However, instead of opting to create a new policy where they and the community can work together, they’ve chosen complete domination and in the process have likely killed the community’s desire to create new content. If DotA was created today in Warcraft 3: Reforged it would likely never become a whole new genre, and while I personally don’t enjoy that style of game there’s no denying the millions who do.

But at least you will still get to enjoy the raft of custom games that people have forged using the newly improved editor. Sure, you’ll have to wade through a fair bit of questionable material that people are publishing to take advantage of Blizzard’s “ownership” of their creations, but there’s some awesome stuff out there.

Even if we ignore what was promised by Blizzard and look at Reforged on its own, this is still a pretty lackluster remaster of a game that deserved so, so much better. We’ve seen a variety of classic games get fantastic remasters, especially this past couple of years. Warcraft 3 should have been an easy win for Blizzard, yet somehow they’ve managed to make Reforged worse than the original game. For every improvement there seem to be several failures.

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Ultimately that makes reviewing Reforged rather tricky. The actual core game remains absolutely brilliant. And since this is now the only way to experience Warcraft 3 I find myself wanting to recommend it to anyone who has never played the game before. Warcraft 3 helped launch entire new genres, set the stage for World of Warcraft, and was an excellent RTS in its own right. It deserves to be played. It did not, however, deserve this remake/remaster/reforging or whatever this is meant to be. When Warcraft 3: Reforged was first announced Blizzard seemed to have a clear vision of what they intended to do. Somewhere since 2018, that vision became blurred. It lost its clarity. What we’ve gotten is a strange product that doesn’t quite know what it’s meant to be. It hasn’t been reforged, it’s just been gently reheated. And maybe hit with a hammer a few times.

Blizzard, for an example of how to remaster a classic RTS game properly, go and play Age of Empires II: Definitive Edition.

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Review

Dead or School Review – Lovably Bonkers

Look, I’ve been sitting here for 30-minutes trying to figure out what to put in this intro. I got nothing. So let’s all just assume I wrote something awesome about my Dead or School review and move on with our lives, shall we? Good? Good. Let’s do this.

Dead or School has actually been out in Japan for a while on PC. Its success leads to PS4 and Switch ports, too. But now its finally come to the UK and the US in all of its side-scrolling, slashing glory. So, with big games just on the horizon is it worth playing before Doom Eternal smashes into our lives, rams its meaty hands down our collective throats, and yanks out our insides before using them as comfy cushions.

The game takes place in Tokyo where a young girl named Hisako lives underground due to the surface having been devastated decades prior to the sudden arrival of mutants. As a member of the third generation of underground dwellers, Hisako knows nothing of the surface world, her entire existence having been spent in underground railway tunnels and stations. One day Hisako’s grandmother tells her about the surface world, especially about schools where kids could play and learn.

Hearing of this magical concept Hisako vows to go to the surface and build a school, and along the way picks up a number of like-minded people who are tired of living in the darkness of the underground. Realizing the determination in Hisako’s eyes the elderly lady gives Hisako her old school uniform and her blessing.

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If it sounds crazy that’s because it is. Dead or School takes its inspiration from barmy Japanese animé and Saturday morning cartoons where the narratives can include some crazy ideas. However, once you accept the weirdness there’s actually a surprisingly heartfelt and fun story with a couple of interesting characters and a decent mystery.

The downside is that to enjoy the story you have to be willing to accept a lot of…roughness in the dialog. The issue I have is that I could never tell if it was a case of bad writing, poor translation or if it was meant to be deliberately bad in order to capture the way that many subtitled anime shows can be a bit clunky in English. Or possibly a mixture of all three of those things. There are numerous grammar errors, incorrect spelling, and loads of odd sentence structuring going on, too. It honestly reads like someone with a basic knowledge of the English language translated the whole game from Japanese, possibly with the questionable “help” of Google translate.

Ultimately I assume that the stilted writing is meant to reinforce the tongue-in-cheek tone of the game. The over-use of phrases like “super technologies” makes me wonder if it’s meant to come across as a poorly subtitled anime. If that was indeed the goal then it succeeds, but personally, whether it was intentional or not doesn’t negate the fact that I often found myself re-reading sentences because I wasn’t sure I had read it right.

Most of the story gets told via static images of characters chatting away entirely by text, but occasionally the game tries to throw in a cutscene using its 3D models and environments and OH MY VARIOUS GODS, WHAT THE HELL IS THAT!? These in-game cutscenes are horribly blurred like they’ve been rendered at 240p resolution or something.

Indeed, the first thing that struck me about Dead or School was how confused its visuals are, almost as though it’s a few different games awkwardly shoved together. The main character, for example, is drawn in a sharp, vibrant anime style, but she also appears to be 2D, like a piece of paper running across the landscape. It only gets worse when the camera shifts from its straight-on view to an angle. Meanwhile, the background is fully 3D, looks blurry, and is incredibly boring. It’s a jarring contrast, one that isn’t helped by the fact that Hisako moves and interacts with the environment like she isn’t part of it. It’s difficult to put it into words, but you can see it in the odd angles Hisako stands at or the way you’ll constantly snag on bits of the environment. And the environment itself looks distinctly cobbled together, like how a massive rock will have a railing passing straight through it, or the way that rubble placement makes no sense. To be fair, a lot of people may not notice these details, but I couldn’t stop seeing them once I started.

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Ultimately Dead or School would have fared much better if the lovely style of the characters had been applied to the whole game, rather than going for the bleak, low-res 3D world we got.

But let’s get down to how this side-scrolling slasher feels to play. Hisako somehow manages to hide a total of three weapons about her slim person, starting with a basic pokey/bashing thing. There are powerful axes that swing slow but hit hard or nimble swords that don’t burn through your stamina too quickly. Then you get a ranged weapon such as a shotgun, assault rifle, or sniper rifle. Finally, Hisako can whip out her explosive weapon which comes in the form of a rocket launcher, grenade launcher or something similar explode in nature. Can’t go wrong with ‘splosions. And I’m not going to even speculate as to exactly where Hisako was storing a big-ass launcher.

When it comes to employing these weapons in the careful dissection of enemy limbs Dead or School manages to impress, though at first, it can feel clumsy. The key to it all is the dodge system because if you manage to leap out the way at the perfect time then you get a few seconds of slow-mo and a stamina recharge in which to beat the ever-loving shit out of stuff. Speaking of stamina, that’s the second key (can you have more than one “key” thing?) to the combat, because if you run out you can’t jump, attack or dodge until it recharges. Weapon add-ons and skill points can increase your stamina or reduce the amount you burn through, but you’ll always need to keep an eye on it or risk having to stand around like a confused penguin while predators close in.

Changing between your three weapons isn’t as smooth as I’d personally like, but overall the combat feels fun. Enemies just pop into existence and you get locked into a small area with them. While it can be a bit too easy to lose track of what’s going on in the bedlam which in turn makes dodging attacks awkward, the level of chaos usually feels nicely balanced so that you’re put under pressure without being totally overwhelmed.

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A lot of glitches and problems show up in the combat encounters, such as enemies getting stuck in the scenery, tumbling into chasms or just standing around doing nothing like they’re waiting for their mum to pick them up outside the local shop. And I’ve got to say that I got stuck a couple of times, too, forcing a restart of the game.

Your skill level can make a difference in fights, but there will be quite a number of times you find yourself being decimated by higher level foes, and that’s where looting and grinding come into. By kicking ass, rescuing silly people who have got themselves stuck and completing one of the very few side-quests you can earn XP that in turns grants you skill points to spend in one of three that correspond to your three weapons. There’s nothing very exciting in these skill trees, but you can boost stuff like your stamina and health, or improve the durability of your sword or the fire-rate of your gun. Solid stuff.

The loot side of things is a little more interesting to chat about because there’s some fun stuff that works and some weaker stuff that doesn’t. Basically weapons come in a few different rarities, and then using Reinforcement Gears and Modification Gears you can bolster their attack power and randomly generate special perks for them, like summoning up an attack drone or just dishing out extra damage. On top of that each weapon can be equipped with two add-ons that will provide more stamina, decrease reloads times or something along those lines. The only limitation is that each weapon and add-on has a weight, and the total weight you can carry is determined by your level, though you can also boost it by a couple of other means.

On the one hand I appreciate how much there is to play around with the system. You can spend plenty of time just tinkering with stats and buffing your gear. What I don’t like is how building a weapon up takes a lot of grinding, but once you find a new rarity level you pretty much have to abandon improving the older version and instead focus on the newer one because. That’s because the new weapon will typically start with lower stats than your current favorite, but will be able to exceed it through upgrading. And you really do have to favor the better versions in order to keep up with the strength of the enemies. This causes a continuous grind throughout the game that can become tiresome. At one point I had upgraded my Common Great Sword to the max level before finally stumbling upon a level 1 Latest version of it. I had admitted that I unleashed a loud sigh because I knew I was going to have to start building up the new sword. I’d like to see some updates introduced to either lessen the grind of improving gear or to have the level of new drops be a bit higher.

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The map gives Dead or School an open look but it’s actually fairly linear in nature with one specific path, often requiring some backtracking to get a keycard or explosives. But there’s some opportunity for light exploration with big baddies to find guarding chests, a couple of light puzzles to solve and some daft people to rescue. It’s a nicely balanced offering: focused with a few distractions along the way, spread out across a pretty lengthy game.

You’ve likely already noticed from the images adorning this review that Dead or School is a little…titillating. There’s absolutely no sex, nudity, GH, or even innuendoes in the entire game, but every female character features sizable breasts and there are a few gratuitous images of cleavage and booty to entice the weak-willed among us. To me, that isn’t a problem, but if you aren’t a fan of such things then be warned. Plus, it’s worth keeping in mind that the sexy female characters are very much in keeping with the tongue-in-cheek Japanese anime tone that Dead or School is aiming for.

Dead or School is a weird game, and one that I’ve come to realize probably isn’t in my wheelhouse. Despite that though, there are a lot of things I appreciate about it. In a strange way, it’s like one of the many drawings my six-year-old niece hands me: it’s messy, incoherent, and could never be described as good in a traditional sense, but I love it anyway and I happily display it to the world. That’s Dead or School: it’s visually messy, rough around the edges could probably never be described as being good in a traditional sense, but I kind of like it anyway. The tiny crew of just three developers clearly put a lot of passion and love into Dead or School, and I think it has the potential to find a small, dedicated audience who can love it for what it is.