Categories
Gaming PC Reviews

Review: Oriental Empires (PC)

Developer: Shining Pixel Studios
Publisher: Iceberg Interactive
Genre: Strategy
Rating: PEGI 16 (violence)
Platform: PC
Price: $29.99
Set in ancient China, Oriental Empires allows you to take an individual Chinese faction and build it into a powerful dynasty. Spanning three periods of Chinese history, the game allows players to develop their economy, military, trade, and inter-faction relations. Anyone familiar with the Civilization series should feel right at home here.

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: There is a lot of Chinese mysticism within the “Thought” skill tree. Some examples include ancestor worship, shamanism, and divination. While these skills don’t directly translate into any gameplay elements (meaning you cannot actively divine the future or perform shamanistic rituals), they are still part of the game’s culture and worth noting.
Violence: Units clash on the battle field in bloodless violence. Players can see the combat in as much or as little detail as they likezooming out makes the units look like little more than ants running clashing while zooming in will show individual soldiers jabbing at each other with swords, spears, and other forms of weaponry.
Positive Content: As a strategy game, Oriental Empires makes you think and plan your actions around limited resources, a skill that is always useful in real life and should be practiced as much as possible. Like the Civilization games, the game does not make it easy to be a world dominator, so forming peaceful relations with surrounding civilizations is preferred to constantly being at war. In that sense, the prevailing benefit of peace is a positive aspect for Christian gamers.

Review

Oriental Empires can be played in either a single player campaign or in multiplayer online mode. The single player campaign starts by asking the player to choose one of several factions, some of which are not unlocked until at least 200 turns have been played in a different campaign. Each faction comes with a brief history and different strengths and weaknesses, which are derived from the clans’ characteristics. For example, a clan may have a history of manufacturing, which would give a bonus to technologies studied under the “craft” tree, meaning it would take less time to research these items, but they may be  a more peaceable nation, meaning that items in their “power” tree could take longer to research. Using this knowledge, players will be able to pick a faction that meets their preferred strategy or to at least formulate a strategy for how to play early on.
The default screen you will see each turn. The menus to the left provide real time information about your settlements while the menus to the right provide information about your diplomacy, research, and statistics in comparison to other factions.
Once the faction is chosen, the game will start. Unfortunately, the game does not follow a historical timeline like what you would see in the Total War series. Instead, as previously mentioned, it bears a close resemblance to Civilization, so once you get into the game you are free to develop and move about according to your own strategy. There are no missions or quests to be completed. Whether this is a positive, negative, or neutral factor will greatly depend on whether or not the player has a preference between the play styles. While having quests is a great way to mix up the gameplay, it can also distract from a player’s ability to pursue their chosen strategy, as the quest may require players to move in a different direction for completion.
Regardless of your faction, you will start with one city already founded and one settler unit. Settler units, as the name implies, are units used to settle new cities. The game will provide a tutorial explaining the best places to found cities and what different bonuses are available—for example, forming a city near rhinos increases income while forming a city near a herd of deer will increase food production. New settlers can be hired after a set number of turns, and each city you found will have its own cycle of producing settlers. Players have to consider the placement of cities, of course, along with their available monetary resources and the authority of their leader—a faction that develops a greater number cities than its leader has authority risks revolts. This is made even more challenging by the fact that leaders can die in battle (or from age), with an heir taking over, and the heir does not inherit their predecessor’s influence.
This is the menu where you can cycle between settlements and choose which buildings to construct and which military units to hire. This menu also provides information such as population growth and noble/civilian unrest.
Other factors that players can govern are the advanced construction of their cities (walls, palaces, city expansions), construction of various buildings in their cities, and the forming of military units. Everything costs money to build and most things require a maintenance fee per turn, meaning that players have to keep a close eye on their income versus expenditures. This is actually one of my biggest complaints about the game—making money is hard, and there aren’t any tutorials that give an in-depth explanation of how to make money. Trading is mentioned, of course, and this is initiated by building a bazaar in each town. Once a town has a bazaar, it can begin trading with other towns in your control. The game also tells you that if one city produces something another city doesn’t, then trade value increases; for example, if one city has a silk weaver and another city has a jade manufacturer, then the value of trading increases because there are unique items in each city. Despite this, I never noticed a considerable increase in my income, and every time I constructed something new or hired a new military unit, I felt the hit to my finances. In addition, there is no way for the player to control trade with other factions. It is possible to have this type of trade going on, but it happens automatically, and isn’t guaranteed to happen with all of the factions with which you are friendly. It would be nice to control my own trade network and to negotiate trade values on my own terms, instead of having the game decide who I do and don’t get to trade with.
Money woes aside, the game also allows you to research various areas of expertise. There are four different categories—power, craft, thought, and knowledge—and players can research one item from each category at a time. This was a nice addition compared to what I’m used to, since I didn’t have to choose between researching a new military unit or a new craft production; I could have them going on simultaneously. Of course, some items in a category are dependent upon an item in another category. For example, you can’t research bowmen in power until you research bows in craft, so there is some planning involved when deciding which items you want to research at any given time.
A clash of clans.
With all that said, allow me to share one of my biggest complaints about the game: the menu system. While most of the menus are actually very convenient, some are downright frustrating. On the positive side, the menu on the right hand side of the screen gives you quick access to things like your relationships with other factions, your research, your statistics compared to other factions, and many other helpful factors. Likewise, the menu on the right hand side of the screen provides a quick way to check on events that have happened that turn—including construction progress and research progress—and a quick way to switch between your various cities. Well that all sounds positive, right? So what’s my gripe? Construction! In order to construct buildings or hire military units, you have to enter a completely different menu system, which is done by double-clicking on the city you want to build in. From here, you can toggle between buildings and military by clicking the appropriate tab at the top of the screen. It is simply frustrating to not be able to do all of this from the main screen—why not have a menu at the bottom of the screen that provides quick access to your construction options, a la Total War? On top of this, some cities will not have access to certain things, such as military units, but no explanation as to why seems to be given. This is also where players will be able to build farms, construct roads, and clear forests, all of which provide their own benefits.
Now that we’ve briefly looked at construction, let’s talk about the map and exploration. As previously stated, players will be able to recruit settler units to scout the land and settle new cities. Military units can also explore the land, and a unit with a leader can navigate to “encounter” tiles, where players may be able to meet influential people that can be recruited with various bonuses. A crafting master, for example, may offer his services for a fee, and from that point on the player may receive a bonus when researching items in the craft tree. Players can also encounter bandits who will rob them on these tiles. Opposing factions will also move around the map and through player territory. As these factions appear, players have the option to negotiate various agreements with them, including defensive alliances and peace treaties. Honestly, I felt that establishing defensive alliances was a little too easy. Every time I would encounter a new faction, I would offer to set up a defensive alliance and a peace treaty with them, in exchange for them revealing the location of their capital. Every once in a while I would receive a counter offer that asked for some money from me, but I never had my offer rejected. Granted, it is nice to not have to worry about conflict early on in the game, but establishing peace just felt too easy.
A closer look at the research menu.
Of course, what would a strategy game be without war? Players can enter combat with bandit units as well as other factions. While combat is automated—meaning that when combat starts, the troops behave on their own instead of the player directing individual units. Instead, the player can set up behavioral strategies ahead of time that will dictate how particular units should act when they get into combat. Those seeking world domination can also attack and capture opposing cities to add to their own empire. While not much to look at from afar, players can zoom in on battling units to watch combat situations in great detail. For those not interested, combat can also be sped up to get it over with faster. I do not recall any blood actually being depicted in combat scenarios, so those who do not enjoy graphical depictions of blood and gore should be relieved.
Overall, Oriental Empires provides everything one would expect from a strategy game. While some factors are frustrating—namely earning money and navigating the menus—it is a solid game and should be enjoyable to anyone who likes the strategy game medium. As previously stated, those who have played Civilization 5 should especially feel at home here.

 

Categories
Gaming PC Reviews

Review: Beholder (PC)

Developer: Warm Lamp Games
Publisher: Alawar Entertainment
Genre: Adventure, Strategy
Platforms: PC, Mac, IOS, Android
Rating: Teen
Price: $9.99
Inspired by dystopian works such as 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, Beholder places you into a totalitarian state as a landlord, of sorts. You’re tasked with the job of invading the privacy of your tenants in any way possible (without getting caught of course) and reporting any criminal activity you encounter, as the list of “crimes” just keeps getting longer and longer. Centered on player choice, this strategy game jumps from one morally ambiguous situation to another, asking you to pick a side or suffer the consequences.
Beholder shines with very positive reviews on Steam, several awards from the indie world, and a growing presence on several platforms. The IOS and Android version of the game were just recently released in May 2017, as well as the new DLC, Blissful Sleep, which focuses on the landlord that came before you.

Content Guide

Spiritual Content
Beholder doesn’t contain nor reference spiritual content during gameplay.
Violence
The landlord you play as in Beholder is not an outright violent person, but the world around you tends to be violent in the way that a sketchy nation under a sketchy dictator tends to be. There are riots outside the apartments at one point, and at the end of some character’s missions, death and murder may be involved: if a certain sequence of events takes place, two separate characters may commit suicide and two tenants may murder other characters, one in cold blood and the other in self-defense. However, you can play the game in a way that avoids these scenarios entirely. The most violent part of the game is probably the brutal way in which the State Police arrest people after you report them, usually involving physical and verbal abuse from the police to the “criminal” you turned in. However, since the graphics of the game are rather abstract, the violence isn’t really graphic (no blood, bruises, etc.)
Language
 I never came across much, if any, foul language during my playing of Beholder.
Sexual Content
 There is no explicit sexual content in this game. In one mission, you are asked by a nervous husband to see if his wife is cheating (news flash: she totally is) and you are tasked with catching them in the act. Having sex is implied, but nothing is shown; it only takes up a rather small portion of the game screen, and it’s incredibly quick.
Drugs/Alcohol
 One character is an alcoholic and various forms of alcohol are found in people’s rooms, available to be bought or traded for quests, and some of your tenants drink (but there’s no option for you to). It’s a rather small part of the game, however. One tenant is sent to jail due to making drugs. A drug (chemical weapon of sorts) is involved in one of the tenant’s quests, but you’re never directly involved with it or exposed to it.
Negative Behavior
Beholder centers around a landlord whose whole job is to spy on other people and basically be a snitch. Neither of those are great ideas of things to do in real life. (Don’t get in the habit of installing cameras in others peoples places and snooping through their drawers while they’re away!) Beholder centers around morally ambiguous choices and poses questions surrounding privacy and when being “lawful” isn’t being right. You as the player do have the option to cheat, steal, lie, bribe, deceive, blackmail, manipulate, and incite your tenants against each —but this is in your control and by your discretion for the most part. You could play the game without being a terrible person.
Positive Content
You can choose to play Beholder as a hero. As an ordinary person that’s willing to fight against what they know is wrong, and that’s amazing. You can be a part of a rebellion to fight a government that asks you to invade these people’s lives and you can work very diligently to save your tenants who are in need. The game often rewards you for helping others, saving your family, and putting what is right above what is “required” by the government. A game that highlights the fact that sometimes what is required by law is not always what is right, and showcases effective and (usually) honorable methods of resisting those authorities is important to consider and discuss.

Review

Beholder throws you into the life of Carl Stein, the new State-appointed landlord (of sorts) of your typical apartment building. After the battered previous landlord is dragged away by State Police, you go about your typical landlord-y job, of installing surveillance cameras, being told you must report every little bit of suspicious activity you see, and being modified so that you never need sleep and can watch your tenants noon and night. (Wait… that isn’t the typical landlord?) Well, in this totalitarian government, it is. Privacy is a lie, and you’re allowed to snoop, invade, and investigate any person you want in the name of preserving the State. Naturally, several people aren’t all cheery about this, and the government’s rather unsavory tactics in quelling rebellion don’t make matters any easier for you. You must decide what to do, how to do it, and how to make ends meet.
The main gameplay of Beholder centers around completing tasks given to you by both the Ministry and various tenants (including your own family) by whatever means necessary. The start of the game is always the same as you install those first sets of cameras in the apartments and catch that one bad guy in the act. (ALWAYS click the red, glowing circles people! Either that’s a report or potential blackmail money for you.) However, after that, things are kind of left up to you. You choose when and how to help, hurt, backstab, cheat, manipulate, steal from, spy on, or rescue the ever-flowing stream of tenants that come to reside in your apartment.
The choices you make can influence not only how people leave their place of residence (whether it be voluntary or not, for example) but also can wind up influencing the end status of your family as well as the nation as a whole. You’re given several opportunities to take a side: that could be the side of the State, the side of the rebellion, the side of your family, or the side of money (because your fortune won’t die with you, of course.)
 Beholder consists of elements that I’m sure many of us are familiar with: oppressive governments, management-style gameplay, non-linear storylines, morally ambiguous choices. However, while I’ve heard promises of these sorts of elements, Beholder is unique in that it actually delivers a satisfying experience while combining all of them. The choices really do make you think sometimes and you have to weigh the sides —Do I want to protect her? Can I afford to help them out? What will happen if the State finds out? Is blackmailing okay if it gets me money to help my family? The choices you make do actually have a profound impact on the game’s ending and where the game goes.
I’ve played through Beholder several times, but no playthrough has ever been exactly the same due to how the different dominoes fall each time. You really do get a deep sense of satisfaction at the end of the game when you see you’ve played a part in taking down the State or that your family made it through the game all alive.  
The totalitarian government, or “the state”, the presides over you feels like a constant presence and incredibly real. They aren’t to be taken lightly and the game’s atmosphere does an amazing job of truly getting across how serious and powerful this government is. It doesn’t feel all to unrealistic, and as you reach the end of the game, you genuinely have no idea what the government is going to do to you if you’ve been sneaking around the law. The way the characters act, think, and talk about the state and the supreme leader were certainly drawn from how real oppressive government impacted people, so the tenants and quests surrounding them feel fitting in the game’s setting. Nothing really feels out of place, except for maybe some of the rather silly things that become illegal.

 

Beholder can be played in either a beginner’s mode or the original (and harder) mode, both of which give you the same challenges; there are just higher stakes in the original mode. The atmosphere of the game is really amazing with a very fitting soundtrack, well-edited cutscenes, and thoughtful game design. The black blobby characters give the game a unique style and serve to give some rather dark material a less graphic nature while playing. Also, just looking at the title is a part of the game’s design. “Beholder” can be interpreted to stem from the phrase “eye of the beholder.” You as the player are the beholder and you have to decide what’s right and what to report, so it’s all in (say it with me now) the eye of the beholder.
However, this game is by no means perfect and it certainly has downfalls. Not every sort of player is going to enjoy the multitasking or micromanaging involved in this game and some of the actions can seem incredibly repetitive. While none of my playthroughs have been identical, I struggle to play this game all the way through back to back due to the monotony of installing cameras, filling out profiles, talking to the same people each time, etc. If that sort of management doesn’t seem fun to you, you would not enjoy this game. I’m definitely the sort of game player who likes to see all the ends meet up while keeping track of several things to get the job done— it excites me and keeps me engaged, but this may not be you.
The mechanics of the game do take a bit to get used to and there will certainly be times where a split-second mistake means you have to start all over again, which the save system allows for and is quite helpful. Finally, some reviewers on Steam mentioned that a certain level of heartlessness is required to truly master and enjoy this game…and this is kind of true. There is a darkness and grit to this game that requires you to be okay with compromising a bit to be victorious in the long run. But again, how you play is up to you and Beholder excels at allowing room for different methods and motivations to succeed—you just have to learn how to work your angle.
In conclusion, Beholder is an interesting, unique game that begs the question of privacy and what it means to be truly good citizen. Some great discussions could come from this game, and some great playthroughs can be experienced. If this sounds like the sort of gameplay you would enjoy, and for $10? It’s really not that much of a gamble. If you want to test yourself to see what you’ll do in this game’s situations, or just have a solid experience with a different sort of game, it’s a no-brainer that won’t hurt your wallet. (Just… be sure to check your new apartment for surveillance cameras from now on, kay?)
Categories
Gaming PC Reviews

Review: Tales From the Borderlands: Episodes 1-2 (PC)

Developer: Telltale Games
Publisher: Telltale Games
Price: $24.99

Introduction

Welcome (Back) to Pandora (Again)

I’ve come to expect great things from Telltale Games and their adventurous, point-and-click, quick time narratives. The quality of their work on The Walking Dead games is easily on par with the source material.
If you’ve read my reviews of Borderlands 2 (BL2) and Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! (Pre-Sequel), you know I’m a fan of the series and that I’m acquainted with the Borderverse’s overarching narrative. BL2 is easily a modern classic with fast-paced game play, RPG elements, and an interesting plot and memorable characters. With some judicious DLC (we’ll see what happens), Pre-Sequel could reach similar heights.
So the bar was high when I clicked “New Game” on Telltale’s Tales from the Borderlands (TFTB), a story by a developer I trust in a fictional universe I appreciate. Was I disappointed? Well…let’s talk about it.

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Fine. I wasn’t at all disappointed.

Story

Two Sides to Every Coin

TFTB picks up some time after the events of BL2. It cannot yet be determined if TFTB takes place before or after the events of the prologue and epilogue of Pre-Sequel, where Athena the Gladiator narrates the story of Handsome Jack’s meteoric rise to power.
TFTB, like Pre-Sequel, is a story within a story. We start off with a cyborg Hyperion code monkey, Rhys, being dragged through the dust by a strange, masked character who demands to know what brought Rhys to Pandora. The punishment for being uncooperative? The Pandora Special: shotgun to the face. Mmm.

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Thus begins the flashback to a cleaner, differently-dressed Rhys who is about to get demoted to vice-janitor (or something?) by his corporate rival, Vasquez. Rhys and his buddy Vaughn—not wanting to take anything sitting down—decide to gank ten million big ones from Hyperion and buy a vault key out from under Vasquez’s nose. The catch is, the contact is on Pandora, and Rhys and Vaughn aren’t exactly vault hunters.
The two of them head to the deal, and just when we’re about to learn what happened, we’re jettisoned back to the present. Rhys has just been dragged to the stranger’s lair, which houses another prisoner: Rhy’s one-time ally-turned-rival, Fiona.
Fiona is a con artist who grew up in the seedy underbelly of the Pandoran cave city, Hollowpoint. From Fiona’s perspective, we learn about the true nature of the vault key Rhys and Vaughn are about to buy, how it got to the Pandoran meeting, and what precisely Fiona, her sister, and her adoptive father have to do with it.

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Now that Rhys and Fiona are together in the present, the story jumps back and forth between their playable portions of the game. The narrative is punctuated with interruptions by the strange, masked captor or the other protagonist objecting to the version of the story presently being told (“That’s not what happened! This is how it really happened! Oh shut up! No you shut up!”).
The plot climaxes in a bandit arena, where all four main characters are forced to work together to survive a Pandoran version of Death Race, complete with the jibberish-spewing psychos and masked little people fans have come to know and love. Ominously, the last thing we see before the screen fades out is a digitized version of Handsome Jack throwing his arms up on the shoulders of Rhys and Fiona. This jerk again.

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Episode two begins after our heroes recover the macguffin from episode one. The quartet is quickly broken up thanks to a Rakk Hive, and we spend about half the narrative getting the guys and the girls back together. As the guys are stranded, the digital Jack, who no one but Rhys can see, offers humorous commentary and temptations toward devious actions (an achievement is called “Devil on my Shoulder”).
We’re treated to the same intermittent narrative interruptions either by a (1) contradiction by one protagonist or another (because no, Rhys did not in fact fall off a balcony and explode in a spew of blood that went everywhere, despite what Fiona might like) or a (2) question from the duo’s mysterious captor, usually involving the aforementioned shotgun.
After meeting up at Hollowpoint, the four “friends” make their way to a location from the other games I won’t spoil for you, where they discover a secret laboratory. After activating some long-lost technology, episode two ends on a cliffhanger that will leave you itching for the next episode’s premier.

Content Warning

Same Old Same Old

Everything from my reviews of BL2 and Pre-Sequel apply generally, and feel free to follow this helpful link for an in-depth discussion on the godless world of Pandora. For those who just wanted me to specify about the ESRB rating: violence/gore (it’s actually worse here than in the other games), language, sexual innuendo, etc. In short: not for your little tykes.
At one point, you literally scoop a dead guy’s eyes out of his head with a spork.
A spork.
I guess you could say it was...sporking...ridiculous? *puts on sunglasses*
I guess you could say it was…sporking…ridiculous? *puts on sunglasses* YEAAAAAH

Gameplay

“Come with Me if You Want to Leave”

The game alternates between low-stress scenes of exploration and narration, where your character examines the environment, usually stumbling upon some off-color bit of humor (by which I mean “poop jokes” and “NSFW”) before pushing the plot forward. Action sequences will have you pressing a button rapidly, which I imagine is easier on a controller than a keyboard, or responsively clicking your mouse or hitting up/down/left/right to avoid being shot in the face, dismembered, eaten, etc. Your successes, failures, and choices will be noted in the top-left corner of the screen: “Character X will remember you did this,” or “Character Y didn’t like that.”
As with other Telltale projects, TFTB is far more about story and choice than skill. Still, I found the experience refreshing in the choices you can make. For example, at one point Rhys calls in a loader bot to help himself out against an overwhelming swell of bandits. As the player, you get to pull up a little cybernetic display on your arm and choose the bot’s weapon loadout. Shield? Grenade? Rifle? The choices are yours, and the game responds appropriately.

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Upon completion of the first chapter, I watched the credits for about fifteen seconds before pressing the space bar to exit. Then, in the top left corner of the screen, I read:
“Telltale Games will remember you did that.”
And I was just like:

andy-dwyer-ripped-reaction

Presentation

Cell-Shaded Goodness

The quality that fans of the Borderlands series have come to expect is not lacking in TFTB. I have no complaints about the graphics. They are consistent with the other games, being sharp and colorful, and fit in perfectly with the established world and lore. A nice touch was integration of a menu scheme/in-game interface that mimicked the menus from the FPS games.The cinematography and animation are both also top-notch. These are no mere back-and-forth stock shots, friends, but thoughtful, artistic approaches to storytelling. Funny shots accentuate the comedy while more reflective and serious moments are handled expertly and subtly.
The music is appropriate both narratively and thematically (some favorite tracks from previous games return) and the voice acting is, as always, stellar.
Rhys’s voice was oddly familiar, and set my nerd senses tingling. I had no choice but to consult Dr. Google after I finished chapter one. I clapped and shouted “Yes!” when I realized Rhys is voiced by Troy Baker, who has worked on everything from Call of Duty to the Arkham games to The Last of Us (Joel). Most notably for me, Baker voiced Booker DeWitt in Bioshock Infinite. His performance as Rhys is just as entertaining as in any of the other big name titles.
Laura Bailey as Fiona was also a treat. In addition to being involved in a comparable number of games as Baker, she voiced my favorite companion character, Serana, in the Dawngaurd DLC of the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Serana was a notable companion character in that she actually had a personality and wasn’t always griping about being sworn to carry my burdens. If you’re gonna gripe about carrying my burdens, why did you swear to, Lydia? Now hold these stolen cheese wheels.
Nerds and normcore aficionados everywhere will appreciate Patrick Warburton (Kronk in The Emperor’s New Groove; appeared as a recurring character on Seinfeld) as a primary antagonist, Vasquez. Warburton takes his voice role seriously, but his trademark meat-and-potatoes timbre is famous by now, and almost disarmed me. Unfortunately, when Vasquez talks, all I hear is Kronk.
All the voice acting is top notch. Old favorites return with their original actors, and other notable voices from the series are heard on occasion. New characters are acted just as well as the old, weaving a consistent sci-fi world that is entirely engrossing. I must once again commend whoever is doing voice hiring for these games. Just…keep doing what you’re doing.

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Conclusion

Itching for More

As usual, Telltale brings the money when it comes to writing. The dialogue and narrative shifts from humorous and whimsical to adventurous and serious. Decisive moments for the player (you’ve got one bullet, who are you saving it for?) shift to meditations on what it really means to live on a savage, amoral world like Pandora. Nowhere is this more clearly seen than in one of the early sequences of episode one, where Rhys and Vaughn accidentally run over a skag. Fans of the series will recall that each BL game opens with a musical montage, and at some point in that montage, a vehicle runs over a skag. But when Rhys and Vaughn run over a skag, they don’t then leap in slow motion from a fiery explosion while shooting submachine guns or chucking grenades. Instead, they flip out—they just killed something! They’ve never killed something! The player, controlling Rhys, has the option to shrug off the skag’s death, but Vaughn is disturbed. And as the car rolls onward toward the next plot point, the camera pulls out and you see the skag trembling in its death throes as a pool of blood creeps out in a halo beneath it.
This is the kind of smart storytelling Telltale consistently delivers. Whereas Gearbox and 2K Australia kept the good times rolling and occasionally interrupted them with clear reminders of the grisly reality of the amoral Borderverse, Telltale is more intentionally showing us that all stories are reflections of reality. Someone who played this game has hit a dog or a cat or even a larger animal with their car at some point, and, forced to watch it writhing in the road, has had to decide whether they should just move on or put it out of its misery. We’re dealing with the real stuff of the human experience, here. That is, and always will be, the most fascinating thing about storytelling.
Also, Rhy’s personal loader bot makes a bunch of omages to Terminator 2. The classic thumbs-up. “Come with me if you want to leave.”
So. There’s that.
Agree? Disagree? Something nice to say? Leave it below.
Categories
Gaming PC Reviews Xbox One

Review: Ori and the Blind Forest (Xbox One)

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Developer: Moon Studios
Publisher: Microsoft Studios
Platform: Xbox One (Reviewed), PC

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Opening

From the moment it was first revealed, I’ve known Ori and the Blind Forest was something to keep an eye on. With its stunning visuals and vibrant color palette, it was clear to me that the platformer would bring some serious firepower to a somewhat lacking indie scene for Xbox One owners. The game is now here, and I’m ecstatic to report Ori and the Blind Forest is even better than I had hoped. Sorry PlayStation fans, but I think Microsoft wins this round in the exclusives showcase.

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Story

Ori, a forest spirit, is orphaned at birth. Naru, a benevolent forest dweller, finds the young spirit and raises him until one day when a great calamity strikes the forest. Things begin to decay, and the young Ori is forced to strike out on his own.

Over the course of Ori’s journey, we end up getting an excellent story, wonderfully told. Its roots go deep and you’ll both rejoice and cry as the emotionally charged narrative digs its claws into you. You’ll meet wonderful and terrifying creatures with their own emotional stories and motivations.

It’s clear the folks at Moon Studios took intense care and ownership with Ori and the Blind Forest. I dare say there’s no game on the platform with better narrative and deeper emotional attachment.

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Content Warning

Ori and the Blind Forest is about as clean a game as you can get with this format. There is no blood or gore to be concerned with, though there is some cartoon violence as you’ll have to fight your way through enemies all around the forest.

There is no explicit content in any format here. The language—what little is used throughout the game—is all child-friendly and there is nothing lascivious to be concerned about.

One thing that may be a concern to the younger audience is enemy design. While Ori and some of the characters he interacts with are somewhat cute, the denizens of the forest undoubtedly lean toward a darker, more evil side. Spiders, fish, and a giant angry owl with fiery glowing eyes are just a few of the foes that could cause little ones to shiver and shield their eyes.

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Gameplay

Ori and the Blind Forest is a masterfully crafted metroidvania. If you’ve sampled other fare like the classic Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, or Super Metroid, you have a good idea of what’s in store for you. If you’re unfamiliar with this style of game, you’re in for a treat.

Ori is made up of zones you’ll have to run, jump, fight, and more in. Each zone often has some sort of puzzle or condition that will have to be solved in order to move on to the next zone. These often consist of making your way to a specific room or location within the zone and triggering some sort of switch or conquering a complex movement puzzle. Luckily, the entire world of Ori is put together in a way that keeps it interesting to traverse and explore without becoming overbearing.

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Beyond solving the puzzles and challenges in each zone, there are a ton of secrets hidden throughout the game. For venturing off the beaten path, you’ll often be rewarded with bonus experience, extra skill points, and additional health and energy boosts. Each of these make you more survivable in the dark, decaying forest and provide a satisfying, tangible reward for your exploration.

As you work your way through the game, you’ll earn a swath of new abilities. While some may help you in combat, many of them reward you with new, exciting ways to maneuver around the world. This also usually results in being able to gain access to areas you previously couldn’t reach or break through. By the end of the game, virtually nothing can stop your progress, and that’s quite an empowering feeling.

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While you slowly gain new maneuvering abilities throughout the story, you also have access to a skill tree you can upgrade over the course of the game. This can be done using experience earned by defeating enemies or with hidden skill orbs you find in the world. Working your way through the skill tree can net you everything from upgraded damage to the ability to see hidden things on the map and much, much more. It will both ease your burdens as an adventurer and provide you rewards for all the enemies you defeat along the way.

One of the most unique things about Ori and the Blind Forest compared to many of its contemporaries is Ori’s ability to generate a “spirit flame.” This lets him create a small zone where he can save the game, upgrade his skills, and possibly recover a little health. It’s also a way of making sure you don’t lose too much progress as you journey around the forest. You’ll quickly learn it’s one of your most crucial tools.

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As much as I love Ori and the Blind Forest, I can’t deny it suffers from a few flaws. The game isn’t terribly long, taking only 7-10 hours to beat, depending on your pace. A bit of that is padded with backtracking that feels like it serves little other purpose than filler.

There are also portions of the game that can become rage-inducing exercises in self control where you’ll have to navigate long, complex platforming sequences that can kill you in a moment’s notice. They also offer no checkpointing options.

Even more egregious than any of that, though, is the fact that once you complete the game, the entire save game you finish is locked tight. That means you can never go back in with your fully tricked-out Ori and get all those collectibles you missed earlier. There’s also no “New Game+”, so completionists will need to make sure they get every item and upgrade before finishing the game.

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Presentation

Ori and the Blind Forest is a beautiful game. Through a masterfully chosen color palette and art style, both the story and gameplay can truly shine. Each area of the world feels unique without ever getting boring. I dare say the visual style feels almost Disney-like, with Ori paralleling a cute spirit-like version of Stitch from Disney’s Lilo & Stitch. It’s easy to see the caliber of work the art team has brought over the last four years.

On top of beautiful, fluid visuals, the game features an excellent soundtrack. Orchestral, piano-rich tracks help drive both the action and emotion on-screen, setting you on edge in the most intense moments and driving you deeper into the moment for those excellent story beats.

My only complaint is that Ori appears tiny on screen. It’s an unfortunate necessity to help facilitate the action, but it hampers the experience for any spectators. Everything looks so beautiful, it would be nice to see it in closer detail. It’s really a minor complaint, though.

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Conclusion

Ultimately, Ori and the Blind Forest is one of the best games in the Xbox One library right now, especially in terms of exclusivity. It has top-notch platforming and combat, a wide range of skills and abilities to unlock and upgrade, and a big world full of secrets to explore and uncover. The game is beautifully drawn and animated, helping deliver an emotionally charged story driven by a fantastic soundtrack you’ll be whistling long after the credits roll. The game fails to deliver a few of the standard features its genre typically affords, and a few sections can be pretty frustrating, but those shouldn’t be issues that keep you away from an otherwise excellent experience. Ori and the Blind Forest is a game that deserves your time and, quite possibly, far more.

Categories
Gaming PC Reviews

Review: Elite: Dangerous (PC)

Elite: Dangerous is a game that you can’t just jump into and start playing. You play as someone who is just making his or her mark on the universe, with the help of a small loan and a ship from a rich business man. The rest of the story is told in-game and you would honestly miss it if you didn’t pay attention to the news feeds. After about a week of playing I finally started getting a grasp on the core elements of the game. Even with a grasp on the game it doesn’t make things any easier. With all that said, the biggest problem with Elite: Dangerous is that you will be spending a lot of time waiting as you jump from star system to star system.

Controls

There are several different control options—from using a controller, to mouse and keyboard, to even more complex set-ups. Playing with a controller or mouse and keyboard can be done, but you will be very frustrated in the beginning. Elite: Dangerous really shines when you have a flight stick, and a special display setup either through a track IR (a head mounted movement tracker) or multiple screens. I went into this game expecting it to play and control like a space fighter, not a simulation (which was initially off-putting).

Before starting, I recommend that you read the manual. This way you can go into options and change the control settings to fit your play style (you will be using every button). At one time in learning the setup I actually looked online for flight sticks, because I was getting so frustrated with my current setup. I am glad I eventually just dealt with it and stuck with what I had rather than waste my money.

Gameplay

Once you get everything setup control-wise and actually get into a game you will need to learn the interface and how to find missions and other tasks. Once you find a mission and launch out of the space station, you will then plot a location using your jump drive. When you get into the map system you can look at trade routes for different materials. This can help you decide where to go if you have to find a certain material to buy and trade. On the surface Elite: Dangerous has a lot of options in controls and systems in game, but at the moment, there’s just nothing much to do in-game.

Graphics/Sound

The best thing about this game is the graphics and sound, and man do they really shine. When you fly close to a star and look at the surface you can see the liquid swirl, and you can almost feel the heat coming off the surface. When you fly close to a planet with rings, it goes from looking like solid rings to individual rocks orbiting the planet—each one has a distinctive look. When you look around the cockpit you can see the detail put into each section, from the onscreen display, to when you change something your character will move his hand to follow your change. One of the best examples of the graphics (and for the entire atmosphere of the game) is when you jump out of hyperspace, suddenly faced with a star in front of you. You almost instantly jump back in your chair a bit, and suddenly move your ship out of the way even though it is in no real danger.

Story

The game is not really up front about what exactly is going on in the world as far as story is concerned. The only way to start unfolding the plot is through missions and the in-game news board. While this form of storytelling is cool, you start the game with no idea as to what is going on. Even if you are just some Average Joe in this universe you would have a grasp on what is going on, even if it’s only a portion of the facts. I don’t know if, as the game is updated, they will change this and actually add an introduction scene or something, but as the game currently stands there is nothing. Some games work with no story, or a make-your-story-as-you-play plot, and that’s great, but in this situation it just doesn’t work. I wanted to know what drove my character.

Content Warning

As there is very little plot for this game, there isn’t much to say for a content warning. It’s a space flight simulator, so not a lot happens that I can discuss here. The T rating is for the mild violence in the game, when you are fighting space pirates. There are also some drug references in Elite: Dangerous in some of the missions you do, and items you can buy in the stores. Besides that, and the occasional ship battle, nothing is really bad in the game.

Conclusion

Elite: Dangerous is a game that, in its current state, is really only for people who are hardcore into space simulation games. Between the learning curve for game controls, and trying to figure out what you need to do in-game, it will not be a quick pick-up game. All that said, there are some cool moments—like flying close to a planet or star and seeing the details in them. As new updates come out and change this game, it might eventually become a game that is populated with content that makes the purchase worthwhile. After playing this game at PAX South I really wanted to like it, but there are not any moments that help break up the slow parts (sadly, most of the game). Eventually I hope that this game has enough content that I can jump in. If I want to be a fighter pilot or just a trader I can do that and enjoy the game for totally different reasons. Elite: Dangerous is a game that might one day become a great experience, but in its current version it is not. If you are looking for a good space flight simulation then pick up this game, but if you’re like me and want more of a space fighter—look elsewhere.