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  • Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot Review - Sparking Joy
    by Heidi Kemps on January 23, 2020 at 6:30 pm

    Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot begins right where the anime does: introducing us to Goku and his son Gohan just before the Saiyans are set to invade earth, revealing Goku's true Saiyan heritage and setting off a chain of events that threatens the entire universe. It's a story we've seen played out in many Dragon Ball Z games over the years, but unlike recent examples, Kakarot tells its tale by way of a narrative-driven RPG rather than a strictly combat-focused game. It gives life to the world and story of DBZ in a refreshing way, offering us a glimpse into what life is like for Goku and his many companions outside of battles to decide the fate of the universe.All of Dragon Ball Z's major story arcs are contained here: the Saiyan invasion, the showdown with Frieza on planet Namek, the Androids, the fight against Cell, and Majin Buu's story. But among all of these massive, earth-shattering sagas and intense fights are numerous smaller stories and character interactions that many games have simply glossed over.The game's structure is split into parts: free-roaming/exploration sequences with a semi-open world, battle scenes against foes big and small, and cutscenes where you watch some of the most dramatic story moments of DBZ play out in gorgeous in-engine renditions. There's a good balance between all of these; it rarely feels like you're spending too long watching a cutscene or that you're thrust into constant battle without being able to take a moment to catch your breath. Sometimes the exploration sequences can seem overlong, but a lot of that depends on how much time you want to spend doing side quests and hunting collectibles like power-up orbs, food supplies, and materials for side pursuits like cooking and crafting. It's not essential to spend a lot of time on side pursuits, but it does provide benefits--and while you're flying around the big, vibrant environments, it's easy to be swept up in exploring the DBZ world itself, which is filled with giant fish, rampaging dinosaurs, and futuristic cities.One striking thing about DBZ: Kakarot is how it showcases the large cast of the anime. You begin the game as Goku, but as the story progresses, you assume control over several other characters, like Gohan, Piccolo, Vegeta, and Trunks, to name a few. Familiar faces like Krillin, Tien Shinhan, Yamcha, and Android 18 also appear to aid you in combat as assistants. Many of the other supporting DBZ cast members make cameos in side quests and story scenes as well. Building friendships with characters through questing and giving gifts rewards you with a character emblem, and by placing it on a “community boardâ€� that represents a group of Goku's companions, you can earn assorted boosts to combat, item-gathering, cooking, and other adventurous pursuits.But these rewards are only part of what makes DBZ: Kakarot's adventuring feel satisfying. Dragon Ball Z is a series where character relationships and interactions are important, and that really comes through in the non-combat story bits. You see Piccolo warm up to young Gohan, Chi Chi's tough mother role, the fighters bonding outside of battle, teenage Gohan doing his goofy Great Saiyaman shtick, and much more. Even relatively minor characters like Yajirobe, Launch, and Puar have side quests that showcase funny interactions, silly scenarios, and genuinely sad and touching moments. Seeing so many DBZ characters given their moment to shine is great, and it helps you forget that a lot of the side quests are fairly typical RPG kill-these-enemies or collect-this-item affairs. As someone who thinks some of the “fillerâ€� and comedy episodes of DBZ are among the series' best, I really appreciated an increased focus on these stories in DBZ: Kakarot.Of course, it wouldn't be Dragon Ball Z without combat. While the 3D, action-driven combat takes some getting used to at first, once you've got a decent handle on the controls, you'll be flying around, shooting off ki blasts and Kamehamehas like a pro. You control a single character who has two basic attacks--up-close melee strikes and ranged ki blasts. If you have companions in the fight, the CPU will control them, and you can command them to make use of special attacks. Besides your basic strikes, you have several powerful special skills, a boost to get up close to the opponent, several defensive techniques to guard, dodge, and catch an attacking opponent off-guard, and even (eventually) the ability to transform into stronger forms. Many of these abilities cost ki, which can be charged mid-battle but leaves you vulnerable when doing so, making ki management very important. A tension gauge fills over time, and when it's full, you can send your warrior into a superpowered state where you can chain special attacks into each other, causing some serious devastation.It's an intriguing combat system, and the 3D aerial movement element is unique, but there's a lack of depth--most normal enemies and even a few bosses can be patterned to make fighting them much easier. On top of that, enemy variety outside of main story battles tends to be lacking, particularly the annoying cannon-fodder foes that will interrupt you during times when you just want to explore. But fighting still has some standout moments during big boss fights when enemies whip out massive, incredibly damaging energy attacks that force a rapid change in strategy. Overcoming some of the nastiest things Dragon Ball Z's iconic villains toss at you with skillful dodging and well-timed attacks is immensely satisfying, and it somewhat makes up for all of the combat time wasted punching the same robots over and over again.Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot's modern, semi-open approach to telling the saga of DBZ--despite some minor issues--is a good one. Zooming around the environments and seeing the world up close is a blast, and it's great being able to interact with so many fun DBZ characters and see stories that usually get passed over for game adaptations. And even though combat can be a bit lacking, when the big battles happen, they feel suitably epic and engaging. If you're looking for an enjoyable way to see the life and times of adult Goku through a new perspective, Dragon Ball Z: Kakarot will grant your wish. […]

  • Unity Of Command 2 Review - Lifetime Supply
    by David Wildgoose on January 17, 2020 at 3:00 pm

    At first glance, Unity of Command 2 may look intimidating, the familiarity of the pint-sized tanks and military men that populate its World War II battlefields obscured by an impenetrable fog of unintuitive jargon and confounding icons. But once the confusion clears it reveals a surprisingly straightforward wargame whose keen focus on establishing and severing lines of supply delivers remarkable strategic depth.This isn't really a strategy game about marching your troops forward to attack the enemy. Unity of Command 2's twist on the genre makes it a game about manoeuvring your units to occupy spaces that maintain clear supply lines to your forces and deny supply to the enemy. In fact, the winning move often involves holding your position. Sometimes you don't even need to engage the enemy at all; you just have to starve them out.Placing you in charge of the Allied forces in 1943, the campaign opens in North Africa before pushing up through Italy and into the heart of Western Europe. Missions arrive in groups known as conferences, one of the first off-putting terms you'll encounter. At the start of a conference, you can spend prestige points on upgrading your field headquarters, extending their range and efficiency during combat, and on purchasing theatre cards that you can play in battle to grant additional abilities. Beat all the missions in a conference and you unlock the next, along with another chance to upgrade and purchase.Luck and short-term planning combine here in an interesting way. The cards available to purchase are shuffled randomly, meaning you can't always rely on picking up a favourite and may need to accommodate a curveball or two. And the choices you make are locked in for the duration of the conference, so you've got to manage with what you've got in terms of HQ upgrades and make those cards last over several missions. Knowing you have only three opportunities to use a naval bombardment over the course of a single mission does a lot to focus the mind. Such constraints force you to make bold choices about which targets you absolutely must hit and when precisely is the right time to do so. Get these plays right and you feel like the greatest general the world’s ever seen. Extra cards can be collected during missions as you complete certain objectives, but they arrive more as a relief package--an unexpected boon to your cause rather than a way to undermine the decisions you finalised at the last conference. At the outset of each mission you're able to survey the map and plan your approach. Usually there are a couple of primary objectives that must be fulfilled to complete the scenario, accompanied by a few secondary objectives that, if achieved, offer a bonus reward or even a slight tactical advantage in the next mission. These objectives are designed in such a way to guide you across the map, and the attentive player will glean useful advantages from them. For example, if the objectives ask you to take a certain town by turn 5 and a second town by turn 8, then it's likely that taking the first town will be beneficial to your efforts to take the second. And if you're tasked with taking and holding a location then doing so will undoubtedly accord an ongoing advantage. Clear, concise objectives provide a structure to each mission that makes it easy to digest what's expected of you, and when you should be aiming to have it accomplished.Rounding out the preparatory phase, the units at your disposal are pre-assigned as per the scenario, so you're never burdened with choosing whether or not to deploy the US 13th Airborne or the 7th British Armoured Division--they're already there, conveniently positioned on a hex, ready to go. Although units come in only two types--tank and infantry divisions--there's a host of critical attributes that can distinguish one tank division from the next, assuming you can get your head around the collection of arcane icons used to describe them.Units are composed of "steps," an offputting, unfamiliar term that basically measures the health of the unit. All else being equal, a five-step unit will beat a three-step unit. Yet in these variable battlefields, things are rarely equal. Tiny stars and crosses next to a unit indicate whether it's an elite, veteran or regular unit, but these icons are all-too-easily missed, and even after dozens of hours of play I still found myself occasionally not noticing I was sending a regular infantry to their doom against an elite. Other, multi-coloured symbols represent various specialists serving in the division, but there's no tooltip or in-game explanation as to how a specialist can benefit a unit. I had to rely on an external guide, alt-tabbing out to remind myself that the dark blue icon with the chevron indicated a self-propelled anti-tank specialist while the chevron and dot meant it was a towed anti-tank specialist. There's a lot to remember and keep track of, and unfortunately, the tutorials and in-game tooltips aren't up to the job.However, once you've taken stock there's the opportunity to make some last-minute adjustments, adding more regular or specialist units to this squad or that, to better suit the strategic gambit you wish to employ. Deploying an engineer specialist to the siege at your primary objective will help whittle away the enemy's fortification bonuses, but maybe you're better off assigning them to the infantry in the east to help ford all those rivers and secure a secondary objective? All these resources are limited, though, and the trade-offs you're forced into always carry weight.The importance of every decision you make is heightened by the tight turn limit applied to each mission. Of course, you're free to take all the time in the world on each turn. But Unity of Command 2 is a wargame with a fast turnover, and that's precisely what makes it so accessible. Brief skirmishes are the order of the day rather than long, drawn-out stalemates. Often you'll be asked to tick off secondary goals within three or four turns while 10 or 12 turns is a generous amount of time to secure the primary objectives. Experimentation is encouraged by the short time scale. Roll the dice on one strategy, fail quickly, and then before you know it you're back at the battle planning stage, pondering a more effective approach based on the lessons taught by your unsuccessful sortie.Battles are won through a combination of clear, decisive strikes and a conservative support structure that can swiftly respond to any breach in your line. The way you have to manage logistics through the supply line system turns what could have been a puzzle game about finding the correct solution into a meaty strategy game brimming with flexibility. Victory is all about identifying where you really need to break through the enemy line to secure that vital railroad junction that will cut off supply to every enemy unit in a particular region of the map. Or it's about realising that you can drop those paratroopers behind enemy lines to blow up a bridge that will deny the Germans' ability to keep supplying the frontline. Seeing your plan executed successfully is incredibly satisfying, but at the same time, it's still entertaining to see a plan fall apart as enemy tanks overrun a key chokepoint, suddenly finding yourself scrambling to hold the line and divert supply to your now-stranded troops.Unity of Command 2 is an overall excellent wargame. The early going can be tough as it takes time to acclimatise to some idiosyncratic terms and learn to interpret the raft of poorly-explained icons. Persistence--not to mention some handy community-written guides--does pay off, though. Stick with it, and you'll be rewarded with one of the finest strategy games in recent times. […]

  • Wattam Review - Forever Wondering
    by Funké Joseph on January 8, 2020 at 7:32 pm

    There's a part in Wattam where your friend (an old-fashioned telephone) is crying because the sun took its receiver and is making a long-distance phone call. To solve this cellular problem, you have to gather all of your friends, stack them up, and climb on top of them so you can explain the situation to the sun and ask for the receiver back. Once you get up there, the sun gives it back and apologizes for the misunderstanding. The telephone says that it's okay, and then you carry on with your day.That might sound like a hallucination, but that's the heart of Wattam. It's a bunch of silly concepts and weird actors being constantly thrown into head-scratching scenarios that you have to solve. In this world, it doesn't really matter that everything is so bizarre. What matters is ensuring all of your friends are happy, and every character would do absolutely anything possible to make their reality a friendship utopia.Every character in Wattam is a vibrant random object that changes shapes, forms, and sizes the more you progress and interact with the world and its environment. The game starts with one character, but you meet plenty of new pals, and later in the game the screen becomes charmingly cluttered, like a kid dumped a bunch of their toys on the floor and didn't clean it up. Among the characters are trees that can gobble up others and turn them into a fruitified version of themselves, a toilet named Linda that can turn characters into poop, and a nose named Ronald that can sniff up characters that are buried underground. The characters always seem to be having fun, embracing the change and sometimes adopting new personas and using catchphrases to parody genres like action movies and whodunits. They treat each other like old friends and run around and play with each other even when you're not controlling them. Watching them all interact and utilize their powers together adds a sense of life to this zany world--it may be weird, but they have their own fascinating ecosystem going on.The main character is a green cube with a bowler hat named The Mayor. At the start of the game, The Mayor finds out about "Kaboom," the hidden power of its hat which launches everyone in the nearby radius into the sky in an explosion of laughter (the people love a good Kaboom). With your newfound ability and the strange charisma of a cube, it's your job to explore the world, learn its history, and keep everyone happy. Most of the time you're acting as a mediator, walking up to whoever is crying at the given moment, asking them a genuine "What's wrong?" and then solving their problems via a mini-game. It's tough work at times due to some pushback from awkward controls and sudden frame rate drops, but it never gets frustrating. You just look down and realize you're playing as a cool little apple who loves to dance and you finish the mission. It's also satisfyingly worth it at the end of each puzzle when you see your motley crew of inanimate objects cheering you on and having a blast together in this world you helped soothe.You can play as anything on the screen, and when you swap into a character, it changes the main instrument in the song that's playing in the background. Each character has their own designated sounds: If you switch to a plant bud you'll hear the theme with a xylophone, for example, and if you switch to a poop you'll hear fart noises. Each quirky object has a clear and thoughtful theme tune, and the soundtrack as a whole always has you grooving. Sometimes I'd take a break from the main story to swap to a character and just listen to how the songs sounded from their perspective. There's a jazz song on the soundtrack called "A Long Time: The Six Years" that has no business going that hard.Wattam is a collection of plotlines with objectives that can be completed in a few minutes, so each time you go back to the game it feels like a vastly different experience than what you were doing half an hour previously. One moment you could be running around as a miniature acorn, trying to find a spot to bury yourself, and the next you could be meeting a golden bowling pin that wants you to stack your friends to its exact height. It could so easily have been disorienting to be forced to constantly learn new mechanics and to always be playing the game in new ways every few moments, but Wattam isn't overwhelming. There's a sense of intrigue whenever a new character needs help, because whenever you help one, something in the game changes significantly--someone will gain a new power or maybe a mysterious staircase will emerge for you to investigate.While it's essentially an anthology of short mini-games, Wattam has an underlying plot that's revealed over the course of a few cutscenes. These stop all the tomfoolery to tell a story of the apocalyptic events that happened right before the start of the game; it's a surprising tonal shift but it still fits very well with Wattam's ethos. Wattam is cool because it isn't just eccentric for eccentricity's sake--it also has a message it wants to share. You meet a few characters that come in the form of scroll, a book, and a futuristic floppy disk that explain that message and why connections and bonds are so important in this world. While they aren't the deepest cutscenes in the world, Wattam's message inside of them is ultimately heartwarming and offers context to things you wouldn't think are connected.It isn't often that you play something that is so pure and unapologetically itself, but that's Wattam. I don't know if I'll ever play another game that makes me turn all of my friends into fruit so I can progress. It oozes passion, and it has an infectious enthusiasm that's present in each and every aspect of it. Wattam never takes itself too seriously, and that makes it easy to buy into its world and suspend your disbelief. While the gameplay is all over the place, Wattam is held together by themes of friendship and a cohesive soundtrack that actually leave you grinning long after you're done. […]

  • Supermash Review - Flop Jam
    by Alessandro Barbosa on December 20, 2019 at 10:52 pm

    It's easy to think of how some of your favorite video game genres might fit together. In the space of just pure imagination, it’s possible to completely deconstruct familiar tropes and wildly throw them against a wall to see what sticks, challenging established norms without consequence. It’s this sort of unhinged creativity that makes Supermash initially hard to ignore. By making it easy to choose two genres and mash them together with randomly determined results, Supermash seems to promise a near endless supply of retro concoctions. But instead of delicately blended results, the games that Supermash does spit out lack any identity, while feeling too similar to one another when they do work and downright frustrating when borderline broken.The core conceit of Supermash is the ability to create new games from templates of genres. The genres on offer are varied, ranging from a classic NES action adventure in the vein of The Legend of Zelda to the sneaky steps of a Metal Gear-inspired stealth game. Each genre template plucks a core idea from its inspirations and uses that as the core mechanic for your eventual combinations. For example, a JRPG will lend turn-based combat to any game it’s matched with, while a shoot-'em-up will introduce vertically scrolling terrains to whatever other genre you choose to pair with it.Supermash is incredibly easy to get going--pick two genres, decide on a desired game length and difficulty, and use mostly single-use collectible cards to make small cosmetic and gameplay changes to the initial result. The rest is handled by Supermash’s procedural generation, which doesn’t always do the best job of masking the limited templates it's clearly working with. Within an hour, I was recognizing the same layouts in both stealth and action adventure mashes, and even routinely seeing the same visual palates used to dress them up in. Seeing the strings behind the puppetry would’ve been disappointing but forgivable, though, if the games themselves were any fun to play.Most of the creations lack any substantial differences between them. Whether you’re playing a shrunken-down Zelda-like dungeon or jumping through a Mario-inspired platformer, you’re generally doing one of three things: finding a specific character, retrieving a specific item, or killing a certain number of a specific enemy, all within a short timeframe. These don’t change with the genres you’re putting together, which often makes genres meant to be less linear pointless. Genres like JRPGs or metroidvanias are much more than just their styles of combat or collectible upgrades, but Supermash never gives you levels or goals that reflect this. And even when the objectives do coalesce with the main genre influence, they’re just unsatisfying to play. Platforming feels floaty and imprecise, dungeon crawling becomes nothing more than a repetitive checklist, and shoot-'em-ups never capture the exhilaration of their inspirations.Randomly assigned modifiers called "glitches" can somewhat differentiate one mash from the next, but more often than not, they result in more game-breaking issues. A glitch can, for example, spawn a new enemy every time you attack, or conversely heal you every time you take damage. These serve to either eliminate any challenge or increase it to frustrating levels, regardless of the difficulty setting you assign prior to making the game. Others are more frustrating, though. I had a glitch that moved me in a random direction for a few seconds after each attack, which made simple movement a chore. It forced me to just forgo combat entirely while navigating a dungeon, further restricting the already limited actions I had. There’s no way to turn these randomly assigned glitches off either, so when you’re dealt a bad hand, you just have to restart and hope for a better result next time.That isn’t to say there aren’t some combinations that aren’t at least amusing. Playing a 2D stealth game with the turn-based combat of classic Final Fantasy games doesn’t work mechanically (having to go into an action menu to perform a stealth kill is ridiculous), but it does remind you of how good each of the individual parts are in other games. But Supermash’s multitude of little games never come close to reaching the entertaining heights of the genres they attempt to recreate, which makes it difficult to want to test the abilities of its random generation further after your initial attempts.Encompassing all of this experimentation is a thin story about three friends trying to keep their video game retail store open, with the crew hoping to package and sell some of these new creations to spark some interest. Story objectives set some parameters for your next mashup, indicating what genres and modifiers to use, without really steering you towards any great outcomes. There’s an additional journal to work through with objectives tied to each genre you have at your disposal, each connecting small but throwaway stories within them.Progressing this journal is incredibly frustrating, though, since the items required for completion are populated into your generated levels at random. You’re forced to repeatedly mash together the same genres in the hopes of finally getting one that has what you need, which only serves to expose the repetitive nature of them even faster. Each chapter culminates with a boss fight specific to the genre you’re completing, and despite being some of the only handcrafted bits of retro action in Supermash, they fail to be any more exciting than the random contraptions you put together. Most are one-note and devoid of challenge, only requiring repetitive attacks and simple movements to overcome. They’re not worth the time you need to invest to unlock them.It’ll be rare for you to want to save any of the creations Supermash lets you construct, which is indicative of how shallow and unsatisfying they all are at their core. In a bid to try and do so many things right, Supermash forgets the fundamentals of all the genres it tries to encompass, while also overreaching by trying to make them all work in some way together. None of Supermash’s creations feel close to replicating the joy of their inspirations, and instead serve as reminders that there are far more focused and polished attempts at each individual one that will reward your time better. There’s no doubting the imaginative idea at Supermash’s core, but it ends up choking on its ambition. […]

  • The Touryst Review - Life's A Beach
    by James O'Connor on December 20, 2019 at 5:00 pm

    The first island you visit in The Touryst is a tiny, perpetually sunny place, and it's full of spots to have a sit or a lie down. Having a rest doesn't achieve anything, but I found that my immediate instinct was to give my character a moment to luxuriate on a bed in one of the island's small personal rooms--this is a game about vacationing, after all, and on any vacation it's important to relax. The Touryst is a soothing and relaxing experience thanks to the lovingly rendered voxel graphics and the (mostly) gentle gameplay, and despite some occasional moments of frustration, playing it really does feel like taking a mini-vacation.You play as a moustachioed man in a loud shirt who is tasked with travelling between different island vacation spots and collecting cores that rest within the game's scant few monuments--essentially short dungeons. You move between beach parties under orange sunsets, lush tropical expanses, and Mediterranean tourist spots, before diving into murky underground caverns that contain jumping puzzles and non-violent boss encounters. It's a strange combination of elements, but The Touryst wears its strangeness on its sleeve.This is, above all else, a game about the joy of a holiday. As you play, you unlock new islands to visit, and while each one is small, they also all have their own distinct flavor, as well as unique activities to discover and engage with. The superb voxel art style imbues each setting with personality and makes the simple act of sightseeing a pleasure. Simply existing in these beautiful locations is inherently enjoyable, and while each new setting won't take long to fully explore, I found walking around each one calming.The monuments themselves contain puzzles and tests of your dexterity, and working your way through them is essential to unlock every island and complete the game's story. They're ultimately the least interesting part of the game, but they're certainly not without their charms. They can be quite challenging, but the key is usually to just remember that there's an optimal solution to the puzzles, even when it seems like they're just asking you to nail precise jumps. Often, how you're manipulating the camera to line up your angles and judge the space you're in is as important as your ability to control your trajectory; if you're messing a jump up often, it's because you haven't quite cracked what that room is asking of you.Even so, every now and then, the game asks for a greater level of precision from your actions than the controls want to give you. The controls are a bit floaty for how small some of the platforms you're landing on are, and one jumping puzzle took me, at a conservative estimate, 25 attempts to get. The rooms inside monuments are viewed from an isometric perspective, which can make judging gaps difficult. Any situation that requires you to throw an object with great precision is frustrating too because of how the throwing arc works, but these moments of frustration only stick out because they are rare.Outside of these moments, The Touryst is a game with a lot of chill. One island doesn't even have a monument at all--instead it has a movie theatre that shows a short highlight reel of moments from the rest of the game, an art gallery that you'll eventually populate with your own photography, and, best of all, a retro arcade with three cabinets. There's a racing game (based on the studio's own Switch game Fast RMX), a strange platformer, and a Breakout clone, all offering brief diversions that successfully sucked me in for an hour. Completing the high scores in these arcade games (and earning the arbitrary cash reward) is challenging, but there's something almost zen about a game that encourages you to waste your time like this--it perfectly captures my very specific childhood memory of discovering arcade machines in local pubs while on holiday and shovelling coins into them. The Touryst, appropriately, frames everything you do as an act of tourism.Completing sidequests will earn you money, but cash is largely inconsequential to completing the game--by the time the credits rolled I had hundreds of coins left with very little to spend them on. The sidequests play into the shaggy nature of the game--you don't complete them because they're helpful, but because you want to see everything the game world has to offer. I spent a long time down a mine you encounter on one island, engaged with a spelunking challenge that lets you collect gems that can then be exchanged for money. I spent so much time down there not because I needed money--I never even traded the gems in. I did it because the mines are particularly enjoyable--they let you abseil down cliffs, swing between ledges, and even ride rickety minecarts as you delve deeper and deeper.There are plenty of other activities scattered across The Touryst's small world. You can fix up a boring beach party, then liven it up further by buying new records for the DJ; you can show off your sporting prowess in surfing, soccer, and pull-up minigames; you can search the game world for photography subjects with the camera you're given early on, or hunt down several carefully hidden scrolls. The sidequests are often very simple and easy but watching as island life slowly shifts and changes based on your actions is a delight.I found that as the credits rolled on The Touryst's strange ending, I was keen for them to finish so I could jump straight back in and mop up the remaining objectives. Admittedly, even if you want to do absolutely everything, The Touryst isn't very long—my completion total sat at 94% after five and a half hours. But perhaps it's better this way--after all, the best vacations often end before you've had a chance to really get homesick. It's the next best thing to an actual holiday. […]