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Alder’s Blood Review – God Is Dead

Alder’s Blood certainly has an awesome setup: humankind has killed God, and now His corpse is corrupting the world, unleashing unrelenting horrors in the form of savage beasts. As the game open’s you control Duke, a Hunter seeking the body of God in order to hopefully end the torment.

But Duke’s reward is instead a haunting vision of horror that leaves him blind. You then swap over to Chief and his band of Hunter’s as they find Duke and set off on a mission to find the body of God, deal with the monsters, and hopefully survive this bleak world through turn-based stealth and monster slaying.

As for the Hunters themselves, they are a form of super-human. They are empowered with heightened senses to help them hunt the beasts that roam the lands. Indeed, they’re sort of like Witchers. However, they are also vulnerable to the Corruption themselves, and so while they are compelled to hunt the beasts down that very goal drives them towards madness.

The world and story of Alder’s Blood are an unrelentingly depressing one, and that means there’s little in the way of memorable characters. However, the writing is actually quite strong, leaning heavily into its mixture of supernatural and western, a tone that will be familiar if you’ve played Hunt: Showdown.

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The basic premise of how the turn-based action works is familiar stuff, with each of your three Hunters having a set amount of stamina to spend. Moving, reloading, shooting, attack, and using gear all use stamina. Unlike XCOM you’re free to mix these actions as you like, which I appreciate.

It allows for more flexibility. Something else I appreciate is that if you completely use up Hunter’s stamina they’ll fall to their knees, exhausted, and have to skip their next turn. Another thing that makes stamina management vital is how enemy attacks also drain stamina, potentially exhausting a Hunter as well as slicing them up into little bits.

The emphasis is most firmly on staying hidden and keeping combat to a minimum where you can. There are just four basic mission types, and only one of those specifically requires you to kill some monsters. To stay hidden you can use patches of grass, large objects and an infinite supply of stones to distract potential beasties.

The real trick is understanding the smell system. You see, the beasts you hunt have keen senses and your Hunters probably aren’t the cleanest bunch. The stench they give off is shown as hazy lines, while the wind direction dictates where it floats.

If a beast catches a whiff they instantly go on alert, which is terrible if you were going in for a cheeky backstab. Carrying a gun makes the smell travel further, too, so taking that shotgun along on a stealth mission might not be the best plan.

In fact, I love that actually taking just one Hunter is sometimes a better plan. Alder’s Blood never mentions it, and of course, it’s tempting to take as many bodies as you can, but with three Hunters running around it’s a lot harder to stay hidden.

If you do need to slay some monsters then there are some things to consider. Guns, for instance, make noise, so you need to be careful about what’s nearby. If you can sneak up behind a beast with a small weapon you can knock them down.

A lot of time it’s best to leave them there while you make a hasty retreat to safety. Another option would be to Banish the fallen foe, a trick that costs a chunk of stamina but in return instantly gets rid of the threat, though the Hunter who did it takes a hefty doss of Corruption for invoking such a ghastly power.

The trick to the way fights play out is that you want to isolate the enemy. It’s incredibly easy to get swamped and ripped to pieces, so fights need to be picked smartly. I like that. I like that just killing everything is the dumb choice.

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You get a fair variety of gear to help you out, too. Stuff like a net can immobilize an enemy for a turn or two. There are decoys, traps that drain stamina and health, throwing knives, and more. Between these and the pebbles, you can fling there’s a good range of options for distracting, trapping, or destroying enemies.

As for the beasts you battle, there isn’t a huge variety in them, but they are interesting nonetheless. The small Shrieker can send out a piercing scream when it spots you, alerting everything nearby to your presence, for example.

There are even beasts capable of remaining hidden from your special Sixth Sense vision mode which highlights enemies that are out of your sight. Most of all, I like that even the smallest beasts can still be deadly if you don’t pay attention to them.

Something I like a fair bit less is how the encroaching darkness can literally summon up enemies. I think the idea is to push players to make rash moves and not just hide in one spot for too long. As a game progresses the A.I. will spawn more foes, including on occasion right beside one of your Hunters, potentially messing everything up in the most annoying way possible outside of literally slapping you.

It feels at odds with the stealthy nature of Alder’s Blood, though – here you are being rewarded for your carefully timing your movements with even more enemies.

Sometimes it’s possible to get your ass kicked through sheer bad luck, too. An enemy might come stomping out of nowhere and immediately pick up the horrid stench of Hunter’s armpits. There’s no real reason or rhyme to how the beasts move about, which gives you a constant sense of danger but can also be very, very annoying in a stealth game.

Even when you throw a stone they might investigate the spot then come right back again. Finally, it’s possible for the game to suddenly change the wind direction, meaning suddenly your upwind of something that would really, really like to stick a claw in your eyeballs.

Repetition can become a bit of an issue, too. Four basic mission types and a fairly small selection of enemy types don’t help, but the main problem is most missions play out exactly the same. Because of that, there were almost no memorable moments. Thinking back, I couldn’t tell you one mission from another – you move from bush to bush, tossing pebbles as you go. Occasionally, you kill some stuff.

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In the likes of XCOM 2 or the more recent Phoenix Point, you could become attached to your little virtual soldiers. Their heroic, seemingly impossible shots and crazy escapes gave them personalities. And the fact that they could die at any time only served to increase your attachment.

But importantly there was also a chance you could keep them alive, if you played smartly and luck was on your side. That was the key to ensuring they didn’t feel like faceless assets. In Alder’s Blood, though, your Hunters are nothing more than walking numbers because their fate is inevitable thanks to the creeping decay of Corruption.

Every mission a Hunter undertakes increases their Corruption, which in turn gives them negative traits. Eventually the Corruption will result in them going mad and potentially hurting other Hunters. Before that happens you’re expected to sacrifice them in a special ritual.

This transfers a chunk of their experience to another Hunter, typically one you’ve just spent some coin on recruiting.

It’s a fascinating idea and one that is doubtless divisive. The Steam forums are filled with discussions about it, with some loving the idea and others hating that their Hunters are purely disposable. It’s true, too: knowing that your Hunters have to die stops you ever giving a damn about them.

And Alder’s Blood doesn’t even try to let you form a connection with them. There are just two basic character models, and customization is limited to a few colors. The only thing that differentiates them is the gear they carry, the perks you assign them, and the bad traits they get from the Corruption.

None of those things give them a personality. On paper I like this concept of a veteran Hunter choosing to sacrifice themselves before madness can consume them, passing their knowledge to a younger Hunter so that their legacy may live on.

However, what I don’t like is that when you use that experience or XP gained during a mission, to level up a Hunter there are only ever perks that take effect outside the main missions. So my level 10 veteran Hunter kills himself and passes on…being able to scavenge food a bit better? Really? It makes the sacrifice feel a lot less impactful.

The camp is where you do the general bookkeeping of running a band of monster hunters. From here you can assign jobs to your Hunters, like crafting items you need, resting up to regain health and standing guard to decrease the risk of being ambushed. You can also scavenge, hopefully resulting in some useful cash, food, or crafting items.

These camp tasks are where those perks I mentioned in the previous paragraph come into play. What perks are available to choose are randomly chosen, but if Lady Luck allows it you can sometimes focus a Hunter toward doing one thing exceptionally well.

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From the world map, you get to choose where you travel next, at the cost of some of your food. There are primary story missions, but there are also some side-missions as well which can help improve relations with the four factions or just provide some helpful resources.

Of course, you have to weigh up the reward against the surge of Corruption your Hunters will have to endure for their efforts. Getting from point to point costs your food, so combined with the constant crafting of items there’s a very light management element to Alder’s Blood.

All this yacking and I’ve not even mentioned just how good Alder’s Blood actually looks. Take a gander at the screenshots and you’ll see that dripping so much atmosphere that it’s damn near leaking out the screen. For all of its faults, one thing is absolutely not up for debate: that is one hell of an art style.

Alder’s Blood is a gorgeous looking game with a bleak, depressingly dark world that stands out as something different. The story it tells is surprisingly good, too. It’s the gameplay where I find myself questioning the game’s design.

The focus on stealth is great, and I like the idea of taking smell into consideration since you’re hunting beasts. But the Corruption system just doesn’t feel right, the missions get repetitive and as often as Alder’s Blood excited me, it also annoyed me. This one is probably for the real die-hard turn-based lovers who like a bit of grim fantasy.

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Streets of Rage 4 Review – Streets of Awesome

2020 has already been a crazy year. And yet somehow in the midst of all this mayhem, I never would have imagined that the weirdest thing of 2020 is that I’m playing Streets of Rage 4. I never saw this coming. I never once considered that after 26-years since Streets of Rage 3 we’d get a sequel. How did this even happen? Where did this come from? I don’t know. I don’t care, because Streets of Rage 4 is a hell of a sequel.

Here’s what Streets of Rage 4 does not have: leveling systems, loot, microtransactions, tough moral choices, a massive open world, side-missions, or a min-map cluttered with so many icons that it all becomes one giant blur.

And here’s what Streets of Rage 4 do have: punching, kicking, side-scrolling, boss fights, and occasionally annoying enemies. If that sounds terribly simple in this time of vast triple-A games then kindly leave this review. Streets of Rage 4 is not for you. While there are certainly improvements over Streets of Rage 3, this is a game focused on staying true to the franchise and delivering a tight, simple experience. If you want innovation then look elsewhere. If you want to smash some people in the face, then look no further.

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The story is simple and over the top, as you’d expect from the series. Ten years after the defeat of Mr. X at the end of Streets of Rage 3 his children, the Y Twins, are out for revenge, and they’ve got some fancy brain-washing tech to help. To step them old gang is back: Axel, Blaze, and Adam. They’re joined by a few characters, including Cherry – the daughter of Adam – who’s the fastest of the bunch, and Floyd, a hulking tank of a man who uses his bionic limbs to dish out heavy damage. These newcomers slot nicely into the roster, and all five of the characters feel nicely distinct and fun to play. It’s tempting to stick to a single one throughout the few hours it takes to fight through the campaign, but it’s much more fun to jump between them. Plus, there are some unlockable additions to the lineup.

Your basic move is a straight punch or kick. It can be turned into a short combo, or you can hold the button down to power up a slightly more powerful strike. You can also flick out a quick back kick to catch sneaky enemies coming up from behind, while double-tapping forward and attack will unleash a blitz move. The nimble Cherry, for example, will deliver a shoulder barge that’s great slamming enemies backward.

If you sidle up to a foe you can grapple them and deliver a couple of swift blows to them, or you can slam them. You can even chuck them into other enemies for added awesome.

You can also launch three special attacks, the first being a ‘defensive’ special that gives you some breathing room, a jumping special, and a normal offensive special. The important thing to remember is using a special attack eats up a small portion of health. However, if you can land a few regular punches or kicks that health will be given back to you, but if you get hit that health instantly disappears. It’s a solid risk vs reward system that encourages you to pick your moment smartly.

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The defensive special I mentioned is the only true defensive option you get in Streets of Rage 4. You can’t parry attacks, block, or dodge. Even the ability to run that was introduced in Streets of Rage 3 is now only usable by Cherry. If you’re new to the series this lack of options when it comes to fending off foes could take some getting used. The trick to mastering fighting is learning how to manage the surrounding enemies, learning their attacks, and knowing when to launch into a quick combo and when to stay away.

The final move in your arsenal is a special star attack that deals hefty damage to anything stupid enough to be nearby. You need to a star to perform it, though, and those are quite rare. Plus, having spare stars at the end of a level bumps up your final score, so there’s a good incentive not to use them unless you really, really have to.

A bunch of classic enemies re-appear and are joined by a raft of new bad guys, too. It’s a diverse and fun selection of arseholes to battle, each of them with a clear ability, strength, and weakness that must be learned and exploited. The old sneaky goon with a knife still loves to catch you off guard while you’re busy dealing with a crowd, but there are also hefty biker ladies who love to deliver a powerful head butt. Admittedly, there are a few enemies that feel like they are a bit overpowered or have moves that feel almost impossible to counter or avoid, but some updates should sort that out. A bigger issue is that Streets of Rage 4 does occasionally throw too many enemies on the screen at once, and the combat mechanics don’t give you the tools to really deal with that. It can feel unfair at times. But it was never enough to make me feel too angry at the game, and overall the diversity of the enemies and the way they all behave uniquely is very impressive.

So are the bosses, too. Every level finishes up with a boss fight because that’s just what you do in a Streets of Rage game. Again, it’s a mixture of old and new here, and there are a few with annoying abilities. Shiva brings some fun martial arts and shadow clones to the mix, there’s Max and his powerhouse style and so much more. Like the regular enemies, it’s all about learning their moves and how to avoid or counter them, and picking your moments. There wasn’t a single boss fight I didn’t love, even as I swore at the screen and held the controller so tight it nearly cracked. This is the kind of game that brings your inner jerk to the fore and almost make you rage quit on the higher difficulties. And that’s why it’s awesome.

Another wonderfully smart piece of design is how Streets of Rage 4 ties lives into points. In short, if you can get your score high enough you’ll earn a free life, which is pretty valuable. Beating up enemies and snatching up cash that’s just lying around on the streets nets you some points, but the biggest way to increase your score is to build up your combos. The catch is that getting smacked in the face will break your combo and lose you those lovely, lovely points. You have to be careful and make smart choices about when to back up and bank those points before jumping back into the fight.

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Sticking on the topic of racking up the points, Streets of Rage 4 is built around chasing high-scores. The story mode will only take an hour or two to blitz through, and while that might be a negative to some people I rather think it’s a positive: as sublime as the gameplay is, a story mode that lasted any longer would outstay its welcome. You can head back and tackle individual stages on any of the five difficulty settings. You could also hit up Arcade mode where you get a single credit to beat the entire game, a challenge not for the faint of heart even on the easiest setting. There’s also a boss rush if you want to hone your skills against them. Finally, an online battle mode gives you a chance to square off against another player. There’s not really enough depth to support one on one fights like this but it’s a fun distraction.

Or you can play through the game in co-op mode with another player either online or local split-screen if you happen to be stuck in a house with an actual live human being.

I’m really not doing Streets of Rage 4 justice. On paper, it sounds so absurdly simple and lacking in-depth, yet in action, it’s anything but. Don’t get me wrong, it’s an easy game to learn and to play, but getting good at it takes time. Lots and lots of rewarding, satisfying, controller-destroying time. And it all feels so perfect. There’s nothing that feels off about the combat or clumsy or like it doesn’t quite fit correctly. Once you’ve got used to relatively slow movement speed – and have learned to attune your eyesight so you can correctly judge the depth of field so that you don’t flail madly at thin air while the bad guy just below you looks on in amazement – it feels outstanding to play. It’s downright addictive, too, each level lasting around 5-10 minutes and thus perfect for that ‘one more go’ feeling.

The brand new art style for Streets of Rage 4 caused a bit of a stir when it was revealed, but once you see it in person I think any doubts will wash away. The hand-drawn environments and characters look beautiful, and there’s plenty of nice details in how everything is animated. The way that Axel has bulked up, for example, and bounces up and down on his feet, or the way that moves transition into each other. The whole look does a good job of keeping the tone and style of the original games while also looking like something you’d want to buy in 2020. But if you do fancy a bit of the retro look you can head to the options and pixelate the characters or environment, or both. Plus there’s the original character models to unlock which look great when contrasted against the detailed backdrops.

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One of the things that stuck with me over the years about Streets of Rage was the stellar. Luckily both Koshiro and Kawashima agreed to come back, giving the music a strong foundation, but they got some extra help, too. The result is just like the rest of Streets of Rage 4: a compelling mixture of old and new. The techno soundtrack gets the vibe of the originals right, but has some modern twists. It’s damn good stuff.

I suppose I could tear Streets of Rage 4 apart for being an incredibly safe sequel that has only made small changes and improvements in the 20+ years since the last game. And I think that would be fair, in some ways. But the kid version of me who spent dozens of hours playing Streets of Rage on the Sega Genesis would never forgive me. And I wouldn’t blame him. Sure, Streets of Rage 4 does not innovate, but I don’t think myself or any of the other fans of the franchise wanted it to. What we wanted is what we’ve got: a pure Streets of Rage game with enough tweaks and small additions to make it feel like it can hang out in 2020 while still being true to what the franchise is all about. By which I mean punching dudes in the face. And Axel’s glorious facial hair does Streets of Rage 4 do punching dudes in the face well! Like, really, really well! This is a glorious example of the side-scrolling beat ’em up genre, perhaps the very best we’ve got. It’s easy to learn but hard to master. I can’t wait to spend dozens of more hours seeing if I can master it, or if I’ll forever be stuck getting measly C-grades on every level.

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Fort Triumph Review – Fantasy XCOM

Do you like the idea of XCOM? But don’t like how it basically revels in torturing your very soul until it turns you into a blubbering wreck of a human being? Then Fort Triumph might be for you! After spending a few years in Early Access on Steam, Fort Triumph has finally got its full release to very little fanfare. So let’s shine a light on it and see if it’s worth playing.

The story is based upon some pretty typical fantasy and RPG archetypes with a group of four heroes (A Mage, a Paladin, a Rogue, and a Berserker) trying to find some work. To make itself stand out a bit though, Fort Triumph goes for absurdism fantasy and a bright, cartoony visual style that reminds me of the Warcraft games. The Mage, for example, is way too academic and would do anything in the name of gathering data, plus she’s maybe a bit too happy to Channel her power. Meanwhile, the Paladin is overly naive and fights for truth and justice and all that, and is having a bit of a debate about whether maths is acceptable since Paladins are taught that numbers are a terrible thing.

Humour is the strong point of the story. Without any voice acting not every joke lands, but there were a few lines that made chuckle, and as a fan of Terry Pratchett I have a soft sort for absurdism fantasy. The four heroes are quite likable too, in a very basic way since they have all the depth of a drop of snail pee.

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You might have noticed that I haven’t mentioned the names of these daring adventurers. The way that Fort Triumph handles its cast of four characters is…strange. See, even the initial four champions that you get can die. Depending on whether you’ve chosen perma-death or not they will either be gone completely, or they’ll be waiting for you to buy them back from a nearby city. Either way, you can go into a story mission with a rookie hero you’ve recruited at the nearby tavern, or indeed without any of the original characters whatsoever.

What Fort Triumph does at this point is to grab the strongest character you have that represents the class of your missing heroes, and then just rams those new named characters into the story. This new person with a new name will somehow take on the personality of their predecessor, and the rest of the gang will simply carry on as nothing happened. They’ll chat about things like their friend never died, and there isn’t a strange new person standing around. They’ll talk about stuff that never happened to this new character like it actually did happen to them. It’s weird. The developers really needed to think about the story they wanted to tell, versus the fact they wanted to include character death.

By comparison, the new Gears Tactics uses a system where certain characters can’t be permanently killed, while others can be. It’s a mish-mash, but at least it does allow the story to work while still allowing some of your squad to perish if you screw up.

The actual story itself is bolstered by a few fun characters but is mostly dull with nothing truly memorable. There’s a couple of moments where it feels like chunks of the narrative are missing, too. Especially the end of chapter two leading into chapter 3.

If you’ve ever played XCOM or anything of that ilk you’ll be instantly familiar with the gist of how Fort Triumph works – you and the enemy take turns moving characters around the place, spending Action Points to do things like attack or use special abilities. Unlike many other games though, you’re also free to swap between your heroes at will, and attacking won’t end their turn automatically. That gives you a lot of freedom when it comes to planning out how to tackle the enemy.

All the action takes place on relatively tight maps and most characters have quite a lot of movement available to them. Because of this and the fact that there’s also a lot of melee-based characters cover isn’t quite as important as it is in other games.

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The thing that sets For Triumph’s turn-based gameplay apart is the use of a very basic physics system. You can happily sidle up to a tree and then kick it so that it topples onto an enemy, or you can boot a rock into someone so they rebound off a wall. This can trigger chain reactions, too, so if you kick a goblin into a pillar the pillar will then fall and damage the enemy behind that. It’s not just kicking, either: a mage can throw a blast of wind to shove scenery and enemies around, while a ranger can use grappling hooks and special arrows to do the same. Best of all you can activate another of your heroes’ Overwatch ability. Kick a goblin out of cover, for example, and that can set off your Ranger’s Overwatch, sending an arrow flying across the room and into the goblin’s skull.

It really does make for some fun opportunities and makes you look at the battlefield differently than you normally might. There’s even skills that let you shift allies, enemies, and bits of the scenery around. That giant bit of rock might look better over there, and might just setup another hero for a fantastic combo. Later levels in the campaign even introduce earns that do a variety of things when smashed, giving you some extra options to play around with.

But as fun as squishing a spider underneath a tree might be, and it is indeed rather enjoyable, it can’t hide the fact that Fort Triumph is a very light tactical experience. To be fair, that’s somewhat of an unjustified criticism: it isn’t trying to be a deep game that plumbs the depth of your tactical brilliance. But it’s still worth mentioning that if you’re looking for the next XCOM this isn’t it. Fights are often over in a matter of just a couple of turns, positioning helps but isn’t key since the cover is so easily annihilated and characters can typically move a great distance.

I also found that since the game follows the XCOM style of letting you use every character in a single turn and the campaign typically lets you go first, it was possible to utterly decimate most of the enemy at the start. This was especially true when using high-level characters. You’ll also find that certain combinations are absurdly strong. For example, it’s possible to let your melee heroes retaliate against any melee attack against them, then combine that with another ability that heals the entire team when they kill an enemy. With these in place, you can march a high-level Paladin or two straight into the middle of the enemies, and then watch as the A.I. merrily feeds its units to their waiting hammers.

As for the way the game handles death, you get two options: proper perma-death does just that, killing off any characters who get their arses whooped in a fight. The second option lets you recruit fallen heroes from a city’s tavern, albeit at quite a high price.

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Whether you opt to get your fallen comrade back from the dead or just spend a few coins on a rookie for your squad you only get a choice of four measly classes: paladin, rogue, mage, and berserker. As they get leveled up you can choose to improve existing skills and pick out new ones that are presented to you in random order. There’s a tad more variety thrown into the mix in the form of the four different races (Trolls, Undead, Goblins, and Humans) each having some inherent bonuses. Owing to their size Trolls can act as cover for other units, while the diminutive Goblins can take cover far more effectively. As for the Undead, they aren’t affected by pesky things like bleeding or being blinded owing to their lack of blood and eyeballs. Still, it just doesn’t feel like quite enough, and it doesn’t help that there aren’t a lot of character models, either. One Ranger will look almost identical to another and will play nearly the same, too.

Outside of kicking over trees and smashing faces, Fort Triumph goes a bit Heroes of Might & Magic on us. Basically you’ll take turns moving around a map where you can pick fights with groups of enemies, visit special areas that provide a bonus, and hoover up all sorts of artifacts. You can even have multiple groups of heroes trotting around the world. Meanwhile, the A.I. is doing the same, so you need to fend them off or even capture their cities while also tending to the story missions.

Notice that I mentioned capturing cities. Don’t worry, as the responsible new owner of a slightly damaged city you don’t actually have to concern yourself with the day to day running of your new acquisition. Basically each city you grab increases the number of heroes you can have running around, though each individual group is limited to five characters. It’ll also generate money that you can then use to hire new heroes or construct buildings. These buildings will provide a bunch of potential benefits, like the infirmary increasing health. The exact buildings you get to pick from depends on the race who owned it previously.

All in all the campaign will probably take you around 6-10 hours to complete. Interestingly, there are campaigns for the other three races, but they’re all greyed out. The only information I could find about this game from the Steam forums where the developers said that “Yes, there’s only one campaign with three-story acts. We might add more in the future, but this is still only in the realm of ‘perhaps’.” Um, why have them on the menu at all, then?

Once you’ve run through the campaign you can always head into skirmish mode where you can pick from the four races, choose one of the three map types, and jump into a game.

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There’s a collection of annoyances that seem to have magically carried over from XCOM. To start with, the way the game calculates your odds of hitting a ranged attack seems to use some form of mathematics hitherto undiscovered by humanity. I’ll be buggered if I can make sense of it, but sometimes you’ll have a visually perfect shot at an enemy standing in the open but Fort Triumph will only give you a 30% chance of hitting it. And then sometimes the most awkward angle and a bad guy behind a pillar will equal a 90% chance.

Then there’s the fact that arrows and magic spells passing straight through solid objects frequently, which again brings up the question of Fort Triumph’s maths work. Other visual problems include the action camera zooming in to show a rock or a pillar.

As we’ve discussed before, oh glorious readers, sometimes you don’t want something complicated that makes your head hurt from all of the tactical and strategic possibilities. As awesome as XCOM 2 is, it’s hardly a relaxing game to play. Fort Triumph, however, takes great joy in being a straightforward game where you can zone out a little, enjoy the bright colors and engage your brain just enough to stop you from becoming a complete and total couch vegetable.