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  • Mortal Kombat 11 Review In Progress
    by Edmond Tran on April 22, 2019 at 12:00 pm

    The new big bad in Mortal Kombat is named Kronika, and she's causing a ruckus by messing with time and rewriting history. Characters are getting erased or colliding with their past selves, while alliances are reverting and new ones are being made--it's the kind of chaos that's ripe for conflict. Nothing that happened with Mortal Kombat before really matters anymore; the series is giving itself a clean slate, and not just with the lore in the story. Netherrealm's multifaceted fighting system has been streamlined, and comprehensive tutorials and practice functions are focussed on making sure no matter where you're coming from, you're well-equipped to dive deep into Mortal Kombat 11.It's hard not to get excited about the story mode in a Netherrealm game given the studio's history of crafting involved narratives, and Mortal Kombat 11 unsurprisingly delivers an entertaining and polished blockbuster-style cinematic experience with its tale of Kronika's time-bending antics. Combat is woven in with a number of cutscenes, though you'll probably spend more time watching well-choreographed action rather than participating. But the story is a great primer for some of the series' more popular characters nonetheless, and the joys of Kronika's time manipulation means that even if you're a passing fan and aren't up-to-date with all of the wacky stuff that's happened in the universe lately, you can still get a kick out of seeing classic versions of familiar faces, who are just as baffled as you about what's happened to their future selves since.Watching the character interactions between young and old selves are a highlight, and with the exception of a somewhat flat Sonya Blade, the solid performances are endearingly sincere with some unexpected moments of introspection. By the time it ended I was eager for more--more of Johnny Cage being embarrassed by his younger self, more of the bromance between Liu Kang and Kung Lao, the sappy dynamic between parents and children. But the story mode hits that perfect balance of being just enough and not overstaying its welcome. The plot conceits are regularly ridiculous, especially when family members and lovers get into fatal tiffs, but it's a delightfully bombastic and outlandish visual spectacle if nothing else.Mortal Kombat 11's eclectic roster includes a solid selection of the series' iconic fighters, along with some of the great additions from Mortal Kombat X, like gunslinger Erron Black and the grotesque insectoid D'Vorah. Three brand new characters do their best to help the lineup branch out--Geras is a tanky character with the ability to rewind and manipulate time, Cetrion is an elder god with flashy elemental powers, the Kollector has a wonderfully unsettling, six-armed demonic design--and they all add an inspired diversity to the familiar roster of magical ninjas and military hard-asses. Character variations also help to keep things diverse. A returning concept from Mortal Kombat X, each character can select between different sets of special moves that alter their playstyle. You can now customize these loadouts in MK11, but only two predetermined movesets are acceptable for serious competitive play. Even so, it means there are a few things to consider when picking which fighter to use.Some key changes streamline the mechanics of MK11, resulting in a fighting system that somehow feels more active and aggressive than its predecessors. The special meter system has been simplified to allow for amplified offensive and defensive maneuvers to be used at almost any time--gone is the idea of needing to hold back and save up two or three bars of a meter to perform a particular kind of technique. Dedicated meters for defensive and offensive techniques, along with rapid recharge rates mean amplified techniques can be used a little more liberally. "Fatal Blows" replace MKX's X-Ray techniques, serving as a last-ditch comeback mechanic that can be activated once per match when your health is nearly depleted, adding a heightened tension when things get down to the wire. Significant block damage discourages you from being overly defensive, while learning the perfect-timing demands of the "flawless block" system is encouraged to mitigate some damage and open up turnabout opportunities. Running and stamina meters have been removed and dash distances feel shorter, honing MK11's focus on always being within striking distance of your opponent. All of these tweaks mean there is rarely a low moment in a Mortal Kombat 11 fight.If you're new to the series, learning all those intricacies of the fighting system, special moves, and combo strings for characters can be intimidating. Fortunately, Mortal Kombat 11 does a lot to help onboard you to almost all of its concepts. Following the good work seen in Injustice 2, Mortal Kombat 11 features a comprehensive series of fantastic practical tutorials, with everything from teaching you basic attacks to more advanced lessons on managing the ebb and flow of a match, strategies on how to change or maintain the dynamic of a fight (like dealing with corners or projectile spam), and how to approach building your own combos. What's more, there are also a series of tutorials that succinctly break down expert-level concepts, such as one that shows you what frame data is and how it works in clear, visual terms. Not only that, there are lessons on how to interpret that information and use it in a practical scenario--it'll teach you what makes a move "safe" or "unsafe," how to create pressure in a fight, and even how to perform frame traps. It's an impressive resource that doesn't just give you a better understanding of Mortal Kombat 11's systems, but a deeper understanding of fighting game mechanics in general--knowledge that you can take to any other title.Character-specific tutorials exist, too, and are more than just a simple rundown of all available techniques. These helpful lessons focus on the most useful and practical abilities and combos for a particular character and give you suggestions on when to use them, the pros and cons of doing so, and what you could follow up with. Furthermore, the in-game move lists are incredibly comprehensive, providing all sorts of helpful data for each move's properties, so you can easily discern something like which of your character's moves has the quickest startup. It's valuable information and knowledge which Netherrealm has been building upon in its last few games and is presented at its best in MK11. Of course, if you're the kind of player that couldn't care less about the advanced stuff and just wants to jump in and see blood spilled, Mortal Kombat 11 can certainly be just as entertaining. Predetermined combo strings, flashy special moves, and humorously over-the-top barbarity means that the game is a joy to watch and participate in, whether the players are just messing around or taking it seriously.In addition to the game's story mode, MK11 sees the return of Klassic Towers, a more straightforward single-player mode where you fight a series of opponents before eventually facing big boss Kronika. But the real meat of the single-player offering is the Towers Of Time, MK11's version of the limited-time ladders seen in other Netherrealm games, which feature unique modifiers that can affect the playing field, combatants, and mechanics. The idea is that the Towers Of Time provide you with an ever-rotating palette of different single-player challenges to take on for various rewards, but the downside is that here, the odds are nearly always stacked against you.Some modifiers in the Towers Of Time can affect both you and your opponent equally, like a tilting stage that drains the health of whoever is lower. But more often, the challenges I took on featured negative modifiers that solely affected me, which means they felt horribly cruel and unbalanced. No matter how good you think you are at Mortal Kombat (or how bad you think I am), trying to fight an opponent where you're constantly being targeted and shot and frozen in place by devastating lasers from the sky, or being chased by missiles that turn your screen pitch black if one hits you, is a rotten experience. Being the loner in a 2vs1 match, or fighting a much hardier opponent whose attacks can't be interrupted, is more of an exercise in frustration than it is a hearty challenge.To overcome the more challenging Towers Of Time, MK11 encourages that you make liberal use of "Konsumables," a large variety of limited-use items that you can equip and activate during a fight. These have their own individual properties, whether it be countering a particular modifier effect, or giving you access to an additional ability. The catch is, the way that you obtain these Konsumables is through luck, perhaps earning one through completing other towers, or spending "Koins" you've accumulated from the game's activities to open one of hundreds of randomized chests in the Krypt, MK11's third-person quasi-puzzle-adventure mode designed for unlocking collectables like cosmetics, concept art, and countless other bits and pieces.So, there's no guarantee you'll have the right item to help you out on a particular tower, and if you don't, it's going to be a steep uphill battle. But in my experience, even if I did have a suitable item, using it really didn't feel like evening the odds. In the example of the aforementioned blinding missiles, using the item to counter the effects of darkness modifiers meant I could only mitigate one or two missiles before the effect wore off, at which point I would have to wait for the item to come off a long cooldown timer and then manually reactivate it in the middle of the fight, which opens me up to severe punishment from my opponent.I've only seen four days worth of Towers during the pre-release review period, so their behavior and difficulty may well change in the future. I'll continue to monitor the challenge varieties in the Towers Of Time during the week of launch to see whether the feeling of overwhelmingly unbalanced odds continues. While MK11's "Premium" microtransaction store wasn't live during the review period, the reliance on Konsumables to help even the odds in Towers Of Time, as well as the random nature of their acquisition, certainly makes me curious as to how you'll be able to spend the game's virtual currency, "Time Krystals," when the store goes live.(Editor's note: On the day this review-in-progress was published, Netherrealm representatives acknowledged the balancing issues with the Towers Of Time on their Kombat Kast livestream. They announced a fix would be made available ASAP, and we'll be considering any changes over the next week in our final review.) There's another issue in the way that the game handles its customizable gear for each character. Taking cues from Netherrealm's previous release, Injustice 2, each fighter in Mortal Kombat 11 has three interchangeable pieces of equipment that you're able to receive as a reward, level up, and equip with "augments" once you've done so. The problem is, there's not a lot of motivation to care about that stuff at all. With a few exceptions, gear parts are usually small and aren't a focal point of your character model. You're changing out weapons and pieces of flair rather than entire costume pieces--alternate costumes are predetermined and are unlocked through performing activities like Towers Of Time--so there's little motivation to change them up early on, especially when you'll likely have been earning experience on the default set you've already got equipped. Accruing experience to level up gear for specific characters is a slow process, especially if you like to use multiple fighters; the augments you can equip drop rarely, and the buffs they add for single-player activities are mostly meager. In Injustice 2, even if you didn't really care about the abilities a piece of gear had, they were at least interesting cosmetic parts that you could mix and match to customize a character in your own way for competitive play. Gear in MK11 by comparison just doesn't feel as interesting or meaningful to toy around with.MK11 also features a range of online multiplayer modes, including ranked and casual matchmaking, as well as private options like lobbies and the ability to practice with a friend. I'll be testing the performance of these modes over the next week once the game is widely available to the public. Additionally, GameSpot was not provided copies of Mortal Kombat 11 on PC or Nintendo Switch during the review period, and I'll be aiming to spend some time with those versions of the game--the PC release of Mortal Kombat X was certainly not without issues, and I'm curious to see how the game performs in the Switch's handheld mode. This review will remain in-progress until I've had adequate time to get a feel of these aspects, on top of keeping an eye on the Towers Of Time.MK11 isn't just a sequel for series fans and Netherrealm devotees, it's a gateway into the realm of fighting games for anyone who has a passing interest in watching ruthless warriors beat each other silly. Streamlined mechanics keep the act of fighting furiously exciting no matter what your skill level, and comprehensive tutorials encourage you to dig into the nitty-gritty. There's a diverse roster of interesting characters and playstyles, and the story mode is an entertaining romp. The unfulfilling approaches to the game's dynamic single-player content and progression may feel like they've totally whiffed (at least at this early stage), but Mortal Kombat 11 hits where it matters. […]

  • Katana Zero Review - Slow-Motion For Me
    by Alessandro Barbosa on April 18, 2019 at 2:00 pm

    The neon-soaked hallways and dirty streets of Katana Zero do a great job of sucking you into its broken world. Gangsters operate unhindered as society is still reeling from a devastating war, one whose loss has littered the streets with homeless war veterans and bars with resentful and drunken citizens looking for a fight. You are that fight--a ruthless sword-wielding assassin with the ability to slow down time--and Katana Zero gives you delicately designed scenarios to slice and dice your way through. Its abrupt ending is an unwelcome surprise, but the riveting action is complemented by an intelligently presented narrative with a variety of captivating themes that is difficult to pull away from.Katana Zero puts you in the shoes of a nameless assassin haunted by the fractured misdeeds from the past war. This war forms the backbone of Katana Zero's central mystery, which does take time to unravel. What starts out as straightforward assassination missions ordered by a shadowy organization slowly unfurls to encapsulate themes of post-traumatic stress, war crimes, and government killings. This plays out across multiple acts, comprised of small side-scrolling stages containing violent and thoughtful combat throughout.Genetic experimentation and drug use are central to both Katana Zero's story and gameplay. Thanks to a steady supply of a blue serum, you're able to augment your simple sword slashes with the ability to slow down time. This lets you pull off some incredibly stylish maneuvers and experiment with a malleable dynamic to the otherwise straight-forward combat. Slow-motion rolls can be combined with precise movement to quickly close distances, and your sword is not just for close-quarter slashing--it can be used to perfectly time a bullet deflection back to its sender. When combined with stage-specific items that can be used as long-range projectiles and security systems that can be transformed from a deterrent into an environmental weapon, Katana Zero doesn't struggle to keep its combat exciting.It helps that each stage is thoughtfully compact given how dangerously fragile you are. A single hit will send you back to the beginning of a stage, with fast respawns making the transition almost instant. This not only avoids the sting of detrimental progress loss, but also gets you back into the engrossing action quickly. There are a few stages that feel excessively long and end up being frustrating, but they're thankfully few and far between.The variety of enemies keeps each encounter from feeling repetitive, gently introducing more dangerous foes that will force you to change up your comforting strategies. Enemies with shields will push you away before swiftly firing at you on the ground, while knife-wielding gangsters can stagger you and delay your attacks for a brief (but deadly) moment. The ways levels combine these different enemies turns each of them into clever combat puzzles, where your twitchy instincts need to be supplemented by thoughtful planning and careful consideration of who to target first.Katana Zero doesn't shy away from telling its story through scenes of unsettling torture and vivid violence, yet it successfully contrasts this with delicately quiet character moments and some heartfelt relationships that help ground a protagonist that would otherwise be impossible to empathize with. It works incredibly well thanks to a creative approach to character conversations, which are often just as important as your violent exploits outside of them. Instead of just being given choices for responses, conversations allow you to interrupt characters to alter both the tone and direction of the scene. Characters react intelligently to your manners during an exchange, expressing disgust at your audacity to cut them off or surprise at your unexpected courtesy.Depending on how you respond, certain small narrative changes can take place too. In one instance I found myself pretending to love anime to convince a hotel receptionist to let me pass, which later helped me avoid the police as she corroborated my alibi. The same conversation played out differently the second time, as my short temper with the same receptionist led her to turn on me when getting questioned about my blood-soaked clothing. Small diversions like this don't have an impact on the trajectory of the main story, and there are a handful of scenarios where you'll be forced into a specific response in order to progress. But Katana Zero mostly handles your branching conversational decisions with grace, eloquently incorporating them into small but inconsequential changes to its excellently written dialogue.Each character moment lands thanks to the sublime pixel artwork. There's an immense amount of detail packed into each sprite, bringing the colorful yet distressing world around you to life with its sheer variety. Character sprites are the most impressive, featuring delicate animation that lends a lot of emotion to each conversation and story beat. These extend to the thoughtful effects applied to simple dialogue bubbles, which use a combination of flashing colors, moving parts, and aggressive screen shake to allow important interactions to hit hard. Katana Zero doesn't just use its retro-inspired style to pull on nostalgic strings. It elevates the style entirely with a sense of depth and detail that is difficult not to appreciate.Katana Zero doesn't shy away from telling its story through scenes of unsettling torture and vivid violence, yet it successfully contrasts this with delicately quiet character moments and some heartfelt relationships.The real pity is that despite its slick presentation and enthralling dialogue, Katana Zero's story just doesn't wrap up in a satisfying way. It starts introducing its central themes about halfway through and only increases in momentum from there, seemingly building to an enticing climax. But it swerves unexpectedly at the end to reveal that this entry is only the first chapter in a larger tale. After four or so hours you're left with a number of unhandled narrative threads and an unsatisfying conclusion, which dampens the exciting momentum that was building up. It's a deflating and abrupt end to the proceedings, with no promise of more to come in the future.The uncertain future of the story that Katana Zero so brilliantly sets up is concerning, but that shouldn't deter you from diving into this compelling introductory chapter. Its combat provides an exciting challenge that tests both strategy and reflex, while also giving you clever abilities to make it as stylish as possible. The narrative contextualization of both your abilities and role within Katana Zero's world is expertly written, with a clever dialogue system letting you inject personality into character interactions. Katana Zero is bloody and brutal, but it's also a heartfelt tale that you shouldn't overlook lightly. […]

  • Falcon Age Review - High Flying
    by Calum Marsh on April 18, 2019 at 12:30 am

    Having an animal retrieve something at your command is one of the great joys of being a pet owner. It's difficult to put into words. My girlfriend's daschund hardly listens and doesn't know any tricks, but when you ask him to fetch his plum-sized orange ball, he finds it, wherever it is, and brings it to your feet, tail wagging delightedly. Falcon Age, a first-person action-adventure game for PlayStation VR, understands the special fellowship that exists between a person and their pet, and it expresses beautifully the trust and affection that caring for an animal can make you feel. Besides robust combat and fine crafting, it captures that simple, precious thrill of playing fetch--and captures it so well that, after a few hours in the company of this bird, you may feel you've adopted a new pet.Falcon Age places in your charge a baby falcon whose mother is killed protecting it, and over the course of a roughly four-hour campaign you feed it, train it, nurture it, lead it into battle, and otherwise act as its full-time caretaker. This can be done conventionally, on a television and with a DualShock 4, or in virtual reality, with a PSVR headset and a pair of Move controllers (or in VR with a DualShock, if you so prefer). Falcon Age was designed expressly to be played in virtual reality, though, so the traditional, non-VR gameplay feels like something of an afterthought. It's adequate in two dimensions with familiar first-person controls, but the game's best qualities are appreciable only with the headset on and the Move controllers in your hands. If you want to really bond with your bird, you need to be able to reach out and touch it.You play as Ara, one of the few humans left on a planet ravaged by robot colonizers. As the game opens, Ara is imprisoned, forced to follow a monotonous daily loop of "reeducation" in the form of morning quizzes and hard labor mining ore by pickaxe outside. Soon enough, she escapes, and the story follows her efforts to adopt the ancient traditions of her near-extinct people while fighting alongside the scrappy resistance that aims to take the planet back from its unwelcome invaders. Interestingly, the story begins near what seems to be the end of the colonization; the planet has already been exhaustively ransacked for resources, and as we arrive it looks long-since despoiled. The air of late-stage devastation--evident in every bleak vista and arid valley--makes fresh a premise that might otherwise feel too familiar.It also makes clear the game's politics, which are as central to Falcon Age as the bird is. The background of the story--a sprawling, rapacious colonial superpower ransacks a planet of its valuables, strong-arming the natives into wildly unjust obedience--is obviously meant to suggest certain real-world analogues, and it's hard not to keep the historical parallels in mind when hearing this tale from the perspective of the oppressed. Even the falcon is poignant here; you're told early on that falconry is part of the traditions of the native population, rapidly disappearing under tyrannical rule. It's a simple parable, but it's relevant, and it lends the game a seriousness that belies the impression of a game about an adorable bird.As you and your falcon make your way through the desolate landscape, attacking robot outposts and learning to practice farming on the recaptured soil, you discover encampments, encounter other survivors, and, in keeping with the demands of an adventure game, meet merchants with things for you to buy and people with errands for you to complete. The world itself feels well-realized and intriguingly stark, as you chart vast plains of barren rock depleted of verdure and pitted with fixtures of sleek, ominous steel. The conversations you have with its inhabitants, on the other hand, tend jarringly slangy and sarcastic, with dialogue that clangs as oddly careless. Your hero, in particular, often talks like an angsty teenager, with options to sass in practically every exchange with other people. The snarky one-liners struck me as totally inappropriate to the setting.Communication with your feathered friend is, thankfully, much more natural--perhaps because it's entirely unspoken. For your troubles, it's at your command. The mechanics are simple, modeled on the basic techniques of falconry. Your bird's default state is airborne, circling the sky above you. Bringing a fist to your lips calls it to you, and raising a hand invites it to land on your wrist. While perched, it can be fed, stroked, played with, or tended to if wounded--more on that later. The Move controllers are very responsive to even subtle movements, and the bird AI is sharp enough that I almost never had trouble getting it to follow my commands or fly to me when needed. It feels like a natural extension of your own body in an elegant, smoothly integrated way.You can dress your bird, equip it with items and armour, and direct it toward points of interest in the environment before you. Sometimes this takes the form of a kind of problem-solving, as in certain AI-companion puzzle games such as The Last Guardian. A drawbridge out of reach can be lowered for use if you direct your falcon to cut the string holding it aloft, for instance. Other times it's a matter of getting along as partners in the wild. Your falcon will hunt animals, pick fruit from trees, or collect bits of ore for you if so instructed; stronger creatures, such as big armoured beasts who burrow in the sand, you can tackle together, taking turns striking and jockeying for advantage. While you are bereft of beak or talons, you are equipped with an electric baton and whip, which isn't too shabby. You may have to whip plates of shell off the back of a lumbering animal to expose a weak point where your falcon can swoop in.It's at robot basecamps that the hunt becomes a full-blown battle--and it's here, too, where the surprising depth of the game's combat system reveals itself. The basic strategy involves tagging enemies and standing back while your animal does his thing, but in more challenging skirmishes you're obliged to be an active, nimble participant. Your falcon can pin certain enemies in place for you to attack their weaknesses; it also relies on you, in some cases, to attack first, and it's enormously satisfying to work out the right approach to a new situation. At their most complex, these are battles of wits and reflexes--a challenge that's gratifying rather than frustrating, thanks to precise, intuitive controls with the Move setup, especially with free roam on.Like deflecting a bullet with a knife in Superhot, looking down the sights of a sniper rifle in Killing Floor Incursion, or slashing a block in half in Beat Saber, interacting with your bird in Falcon Age has a tactile pleasure that is truly satisfying. The bird itself, meanwhile, looks great, behaves believably, and feels on the whole like a coherent, fully realized character; more than a sidekick or ally, you come to think of it as a companion, like a cat or dog at home. The highest compliment I can think to pay Falcon Age is that it evoked the same feeling I get caring for my real-life pets--including the real wince of bone-deep alarm I felt anytime my bird was at risk of injury. This is about much more than a cute animal. It's about a bond, and one Falcon Age nails. […]

  • Pathway Review - Pulp Friction
    by David Wildgoose on April 17, 2019 at 2:00 am

    When you're struggling, Pathway sends you a dog to help out. It's that kind of game. You might have seen your squad massacred in the North African desert, but look! Here's a cute puppy called Donut. He's even got sharp teeth and the "Anti-Fascist" character trait that means he does +20% damage against Nazis. In moments like these, Pathway picks you back up and says maybe you can still complete the mission after all. Pathway is generous like that.Heavily indebted to the genre of mid-20th-century pulp adventure of which Indiana Jones is the obvious cultural touchstone, Pathway depicts a world where the Nazis are plundering ancient artifacts to harness their powers in occult experiments and so must obviously be stopped by an international band of mercenaries. It's a light, breezy, knock-about game of turn-based combat that understandably always wants you to succeed at killing Nazis, with or without a surprise canine companion. However, it lacks tactical depth and, while killing Nazis is a noble pursuit, its moral stance is less sure-footed when it steps into the territory of tired colonialist tropes.The core of Pathway is in its XCOM-style combat. Every encounter is preceded by a planning phase in which you place each member of your squad onto the battlefield. Smart players can take advantage of this head start by positioning their squad to, say, rush an exposed enemy on the first turn. In an early sign of Pathway's charitable spirit, you get this planning phase even when your squad has been ambushed and, unlike in XCOM, you'll never see an enemy already in cover on the first turn of a fight.During combat, each squad member can typically perform separate two actions--move and shoot, heal and reload, or some combination thereof--and much of the time an encounter consists of outflanking an enemy to get off a shot at them around whatever cover they happen to be hiding behind. Characters can also perform special actions depending on the weapon they carry and, in some cases, the skills they possess. Pistols, for example, allow for a special double-shot action that can target two enemies, while characters require specific skills to use items like grenades or medkits in combat.And that's about as deep as it gets, unfortunately. Aside from minor variations in clip size and range, all the guns function in much the same fashion and can drop most enemies in one to two shots. As a result, a character with an assault rifle plays no differently to one with a shotgun. The only meaningfully different weapon is the knife, not merely the game's only melee weapon but the weapon with the highest damage potential. Since there's no "zone of control" or "attack of opportunity" mechanic (outside a special action reserved for sniper rifles), it's perfectly feasible to run right up to enemies, jump over their cover and attack from the adjacent square. In fact, it's often the most effective approach, no matter how silly it looks or tactically uninteresting it becomes.Fights can still be challenging, even on the default normal difficulty. A way of evening the odds is to have the enemy greatly outnumber you. Unimaginative, sure, but it gets the job done. At other times, some enemies will have access to special abilities that you don't, while others can move further than your squad. These factors create situations where you're encouraged to think several turns in advance, coordinate attacks between your squad members, and time your limited special actions.But still, most of the time you're not really feeling that pressure. Most of the time you're just moving and shooting, moving and shooting, with the odd moving and knifing thrown in. Where the lack of depth is truly exposed is in the slim variety of actions on display, a failure that can be attributed to the derivative nature of each character's skill tree. Indeed, when leveling up characters don't earn new abilities, they merely improve existing ones; they'll boost that chance to for a critical hit, perhaps, or beef up their HP. True, you can unlock the ability for a character to use an additional weapon, so that they can now carry a shotgun as well as a pistol, but it's hard to get excited about that when, again, weapons don't function in any meaningfully different way.The lack of variety extends to the maps on which the battles take place. There is barely a handful of scenarios--Nazi camp, desert village, underground temple--and you're served up a seemingly randomly-generated version assembled from stock parts each time you enter combat. A benefit of this approach is that you never know exactly what you're going to get, but on the flip side, it means that none of the individual battlefields are ever memorable and they all end up blurring into one by the end of a campaign. That's not to say the arenas are poorly designed; they're serviceable and little more.Linking one encounter to the next is a campaign structure that sees you plotting a pathway across a network of nodes. At each node, you hit a narrative event that could be anything from following some Nazis into a mysterious mineshaft to finding an oasis at which you can rest. Sometimes you might end up in a fight, sometimes you might find some treasure or a trader with whom you can buy and sell, and sometimes nothing happens at all. It's a bit like FTL, really, except instead of zipping across space you're driving a jeep across the Sahara. These narrative moments are fun and typically well-written. They often allow for choices that can lead to surprising results and occasionally let you utilize the skills of one of the squad characters you've opted to take on the journey. But they do a poor job of depicting the African people whose countries, from Morocco and Egypt and beyond, have been invaded by the Germans. The locals you meet are helpless simpletons, peaceful goat herders at best and, at worst, cowards hiding in ruined villages and collapsed caves until you wander by to hopefully rescue them. These poor people can't do anything until saved by a globetrotting band of wealthy adventurers.Further, throughout the entire game, you're collecting treasure, much of it ancient religious and cultural relics of the people you're ostensibly helping. Literally the only thing to do with this treasure is sell it to fund the purchase of more fuel for your jeep and ammunition for your guns. Retrieve an ancient inscribed vase from the altar room of a secret temple? That goes for $250 at the next trader stop. The suggested idea is you're keeping these precious relics out of Nazi hands, but surely there's a better option than looting them for yourself and then selling them back to the people you stole it from.Pathway looks and sounds great, it nails the pulpy attitude it's aiming for, and, of course, it's always fun to shoot Nazis. But the more I played, the more the cracks started to show, the more samey it all became, and the more uncomfortable some aspects of its design made me feel. I still enjoyed much of my time with Pathway. There's a pleasure to be had in both its aesthetic choices and the frictionless grind of its structure, but I came away wanting more--more tactical meat in its combat and a more thoughtful approach to the way it chose to represent its world. […]

  • Heaven's Vault Review - Come Sail Away
    by James O'Connor on April 16, 2019 at 11:00 pm

    On the face of it, Heaven's Vault sounds like chaos: It's a planet-surfing science-fiction adventure game in which you play as an archaeologist who gets caught up in a doomsday prophecy. But it's a much calmer experience than you might expect--you play as Aliyah, an archaeologist employed by a university on Iox, the wealthiest, most opulent planet within her nebula, to track down Renba, a professor who has disappeared. Throughout the journey, you'll peel away at the complex and ambitious lore of the world and meet the interesting characters who inhabit it, but not without some slow sailing.You spend much of the game hunting for clues to determine not only Renba's fate, but also the nature of his research and the discoveries he was making in his travels. For most of the game, the exact details of Renba's mission are pleasantly unclear, and major theories the player concocts early on can be proven incorrect by later discoveries. To get to the bottom of things, you'll need to investigate various moons throughout the nebula, some settled, some abandoned. You'll also build and maintain friendships or trade alliances with folks who can provide you with assistance, collect artifacts and clues, and mess around with the game's neat translation mechanic.Throughout the game, Aliyah will encounter many passages written in "Ancient" script, which require translation to decipher. This will begin as guesswork, but as you progress you'll develop a better understanding of what different glyphs within longer words might represent. There's a two-tiered system in place for translating words: If you encounter an inscription of a full phrase, you can guess any of the words you're not certain of until you have a full, hopefully coherent sentence. If you find what Aliyah will describe as a part of a longer phrase, a list of potential words you've already translated or guessed will appear on the screen, and you must see if the part of text matches up with any of the words you already understand or have guessed at. These partial texts can confirm your definitions--if you've decided that a word means 'water' in a previous translation, for example, and it pops up again as part of a longer phrase, Aliyah might declare that she is either now confident in the translation of that word or believes it's wrong. After a while, you'll build up a much bigger vocabulary of translated words, making it easier to fill in the gaps.Across the game's somewhat excessive running time, I lost track of what the actual advantage of all this translation was to my progression, as correct translations tend to prompt conversation options rather than key clues for where to go next. But it's still an interesting and exciting mechanic, as so much of the pleasure of Heaven's Vault is about uncovering the lore of the world you're in and the characters who occupy it. You're dropped in largely unaware, and while the game builds an exhaustive timeline of events, stretching right back to ancient times, it's mostly on you to figure out the nuances of the occasionally abstract game world.Heaven's Vault opens near its own ending--the very first scene tells you where your adventure will end, which is a curious structural choice for a game that is so contingent on player choice. It's meant to indicate, perhaps, that your story is always going to end up the same way, although how you reach that ending will differ dramatically between players.This seems to be a fair claim, too. During my playthrough, I compared notes with another player to make sure that our choices mattered, and we discovered that our paths diverged completely at several points. Heaven's Vault unfurls in substantially different ways depending on how you play it and which choices you make. You can miss entire characters and plotlines, or experience hugely different relationships with the game's small but well-developed cast of recurring figures. The writing is mostly strong throughout, with dialogue flowing naturally and feeling in line with decisions you've made, and the moment by moment plot of Heaven's Vault genuinely feels like the culmination of your choices. There are some strange issues with character development--at one point a character demanded I come to visit them so that they could tell me about a major discovery and let me in on "certain confidences," only for them to reveal nothing when I visited with them, and a major character stopped trading goods with me for reasons I don't fully understand, substantially slowing down my progress through the game.When you're bouncing easily between locations, making discoveries and having interesting chats with Aliyah's friends and co-workers--not to mention your robot companion, Six--Heaven's Vault is a pleasure. It's perhaps too easy to lose track of the spine of the plot, but in the first half especially, there's a constant influx of discoveries and revelations that give the game a propulsive hook. But the scope and ambition of Heaven's Vault get the better of it in the back half. It took me 22 hours to finish the game, and it felt like a lot of those last 12 hours was spent on busywork--particularly when it comes to the game's sailing mechanic.In one of the lore's weirdest elements, traveling across the nebula necessitates that you "sail" the rivers between moons, steering your ship across literal bodies of water that act as pathways between locations. They only flow in one direction, so the only meaningful control you have comes when paths diverge in two directions and you must choose which way to turn. There's little to do out on the waters--you can steer left and right, fold your sails in to go slightly faster, stop to observe any interesting landmarks you pass, and check your map. Sailing isn't particularly exciting, yet it makes up a huge portion of Heaven's Vault.For the first half of the game, sailing feels like a mildly irritating distraction with moments of beauty, taking up a few minutes at a time. But in the back half, the sailing mechanics come perilously close to ruining the whole experience. The sites you need to visit in order to progress are marked on the map as large areas to explore, and while you can make the search areas smaller by finding more artifacts throughout the game, at some point you're almost definitely going to have to find it by scouring those areas yourself. The layout of the river can become infuriating at this point. When you're traveling to a moon you've been to before and miss a turn, you're given the option to rewind to a point just before the turn; however, when you're searching for an unknown site, no such option exists, and a wrong turn can mean a long, slow course correction as you follow the one-way rivers back to where you just were, potentially eating up to half an hour.The game has additional pacing issues throughout--Aliyah moves very slowly, and there was a section of the game where I found myself bouncing repeatedly between the game's two main locations, Elboreth and Iox, in the hopes of triggering new dialogue options between characters that would make the search for the next site easier. (Thankfully, you can skip the rigmarole of sailing to these two particular locations by asking Six to do it for you.)Heaven's Vault can be a fiddly experience--although patches hit during the pre-launch period that cleaned up most major issues, I continued to encounter a lot of camera problems throughout, and at one point, a site that took half an hour of sailing to find failed to load when I reached it. When I eventually sailed back there, it ended up being the least interesting site in the game. While some of these places you're searching for are teeming with plot development, others can feel like a chore.There's plenty to be charmed by in Heaven's Vault. The art style is pleasant, and the orchestral soundtrack is often beautiful. The writing and lore can occasionally make the game feel like an adaptation of a book that doesn't exist, and it's hard not to get invested in learning more about the game's world. It's just a shame that there's so much tedium to get through as well, and that the experience doesn't always reach the greatness it occasionally shows itself to be capable of. Heaven's Vault excels in creating a well-constructed, branching narrative, but expect long sections of it to feel like a slog. […]