Game Reviews

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night

Shattered Glass

Koji Igarashi was responsible for a handful of my favorite games, namely Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. When he left Konami and landed on Kickstarter with Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night and a promise to deliver an Igavania game like he’s given us before, I was 100% on board. Symphony is over 20 years old now, but it’s a timeless classic, and his other Castlevania games could be spoken of in the same breath. Could Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night, a spiritual sequel to a beloved classic as we’ve seen crowdsourcing attempt to replicate countless times before, live up to those sorts of expectations? The answer is no but it’s complicated.

Crystal shards, demons, a person wronged, and a labyrinthine castle; those are the ingredients of Bloodstained’s story, which is wholly ignorable for 99% of players. It’s just not particularly interesting nor is it the focus. This is an action platformer in the same exact vein as previous Iga-produced Castlevania games, but more namely, the Aria of Sorrow and Dawn of Sorrow games. Both of them have a mechanic that’s copied almost wholesale into Bloodstained, which is the collection of enemy abilities and enhancements. Killing enemies will sometimes result in a “shard” ability. Sometimes this means you will be able to replicate an enemy’s attack, like throwing a bone. Sometimes it’s a stat boost. Sometimes it’s a little familiar that floats along with you and helps in some way. Regardless, beyond the collection of weapons, armors, consumable potions, food, and crafting ingredients, this shard collecting gives the game a “gotta catch them all” feel as you repetitively slaughter these demons to collect their goodies.

Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night delivers on the promise of a Koji Igarashi style Castlevania game with an intellectual property that isn’t owned by Konami. You could do a few name swaps and this game would feel right in line with that series. The game itself feels like those prior games. The platforming and action are tweaked just right to rarely feel loose or cheap. It’s got responsive platforming, lots of enemies to kill, and lots of ways to kill them. It’s got the soundtrack that’s fairly close to those games and the gothic feeling and look. It’s 3D on a 2D plane done with Unreal engine, which sort of gives everything a shiny look. It comes off as a bit cheap when compared to how rich and expensive the fully 2D Symphony of the Night looked, but it’s far from bad. Stripped to its bones, the core gameplay is fun. Platforming, tons of weird enemies, and a lot of nooks and crannies to explore are what make these games enjoyable.

There’s a whole raft of non-gameplay bits that don’t have too much effect on that core loop. There are three side quest paths that simply involve getting particular items or killing particular enemies for item rewards. There are two crafting systems; one for items, another for food. Enemies drop ingredients for both systems, and they’re both of dubious return. I found that the weapons and items dropped by enemies alone were mostly sufficient to make numbers go up and get through the game. The food grants one-time permanent stat boosts, and some repeatable boosts by eating it, but I was collecting ingredients solely to complete the food side quest. Some of those ingredients are painfully rare. There’s also a ton of appearance customization options that you can only get by finding style books and delivering them to an in-game barber. I made a few changes when I found the barber the first time, didn’t make note of where he was, and never found him again. I spent the rest of the game running around with a pocket full of unused style books. This stuff exists, and it’s almost entirely optional.

Where the game stumbles is in this particular labyrinth. It just doesn’t seem to flow as neatly as previous games. As usual, progress is gated by a collection of core gameplay upgrades (like a double jump), but there were times where the way forward wasn’t clear and wasn’t gated by some kind of obvious upgrade. There was one particular obstacle that halted all progress and it was gated by finding and killing the right demon, but there were some extra steps in between. In other places, progress is simply slowed by throwing a ton of high damage, high hit point enemies in a long path to the next save point. The last third of the game really suffers from this.

The game also has the Stink of Crowdsourcing, which is stuff in the game that otherwise wouldn’t be there if it weren’t crowdsourced. The most obvious of these are paintings with the faces of Kickstarter backers, but the Kickstarter campaign sold a lot more:

  • Backer gets a special message in the credits
  • Backer face as a painting in the castle
  • Backer designed weapon
  • Backer pet as enemy in the game
  • Backer designed enemy
  • Backer designed hidden room

Going over this list, the least noticeable were the backer designed weapons. This game is so jammed full of weapons that I couldn’t tell if I ever used one that a backer designed; they simply blend in. Backer designed enemies also didn’t really pop out at me. But the backer faces as paintings were super obvious, and the pets as enemies were rather out-of-place. Is someone really that excited to know that I killed a digital representation of their dog a dozen times so I could get its shard? The backer designed hidden rooms were almost always exceptionally tough, optional boss fights. They weren’t necessarily bad, but often out of place with their location, and gated by finding a key somewhere in the rest of the castle. This key gating is itself out of place with the style of these games; I can only think of one particular key needed in all of Symphony of the Night. I was feeling like the night janitor with my ring full of keys by the end of Bloodstained.

I put down Bloodstained for a few days in the last third of the game because I got frustrated by the labyrinth. I couldn’t tell whether I was moving in the right direction, and this style of game still uses hard save points. Dying during a long exploration run means losing all that progress, and it sucks. I had very mixed feelings about the game at this time: was it really any better than those previous Igavania’s? Is this game fun and I am bad at it or does this particular labyrinth suck? I went back and pushed through to the end, and I’m glad I did. The game ends in spectacular, classic Castlevania fashion. But it’s not quite enough to pull it up to greatness.

What I hope happens is that the team of studios that made Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night can take this momentum to make a better sequel, absent of the muddy last third and silly crowdsourced additions, and Bloodstained 2 is a great game. Today, I’m glad I’ve got one Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night but it’s a flawed experience. It’s a good game that looks cheaper than it is, has a pile of bolted-on distractions, and really loses itself in the last third.

Game Reviews

Tom Clancy’s The Division 2

Trouble in the Capitol

After the wreck that was Anthem, I was ready for a better shlooter. After playing the open and closed beta, I knew that The Division 2 was that game. But having spent ~30 hours in the game, I’ve come to learn it improves a lot of issues (compared to Anthem, but also The Division) but it still isn’t perfect.

The Division 2 is a third-person cover shooter with loot collection. It picks some time after The Division, but in Washington, DC rather than New York City. Like NYC in the previous, DC was ravaged by the Green Poison (a manufactured smallpox variant) and is in a state of rebuilding rather than the simple survival focus of The Division. But there isn’t a whole lot of plot here either because it also retreads a lot of “reestablishment of society” beats from The Division.

The Division 2, if anything, has a lot to do and collect. Every area of the map is simply littered with missions and landmarks, and these tasks give you plentiful amounts of loot. The world of The Division 2 has knee pads, backpacks, body armor, sanitary masks, and other protective gear everywhere. And guns! It’s like a prepper hive lives in every basement, and most of them exploded up to the surface in the ensuing disaster. All this gear has a handful of levels of rarity and numbers go up in a satisfying fashion if you’re compelled by seeing numbers go up.

The Division 2 improves on the first game’s skill selection (which are things that you can do in combat on a timer, like drop a turret or pull up a shield) and enemy tactics. In the first game, a solo player like myself could do very well simply by dropping an automated turret and then flanking the enemies as they take cover from the turret. That doesn’t work so well in The Division 2, because enemies outnumber and flank you, and tougher ones will simply rush your turret and kick it to death. To compensate, you’ve got a much bigger selection of tools to adapt to enemy tactics. Where The Division had four, The Division 2 has eight, and each of those has three variants. You can only pick two configurations out of the possible 24, and it’s a hard choice. That turret that draws enemy attention is still useful, but sometimes I’d rather have the grenade launcher that drains enemy armor, or the drone that heals me.

This variety in gear and tactical options doesn’t change the basic gameplay loop though, and it wears on after a while. With some exceptions, weapons are just bullet hoses, and the enemies are just more goons with a guns shooting at you. A lot of the missions take place in museums and DC landmarks, which is cool because they’re beautiful environments with neat set pieces, but what you do in the missions rarely changes. You enter a room full of enemies, take cover, and then shoot at them until they die. That sounds like an oversimplification, but it really isn’t. The action feels good but I’ve mowed down hundreds of enemies. This isn’t a big change from the last Division, where I also cleared rooms and mowed down hundreds of enemies with automatic weapons.

The huge amount of stuff in the game but limited variety in core gameplay has worn out my interest in playing it more. I’ve honestly not completed the main mission branch, and I’m going to need to take a break and come back to it later before I start to resent this game. It’s a fun game for the first 20 something hours and numbers go up, but numbers going up isn’t cutting it for me anymore. It is more fun to play with others, and matchmaking exists for every activity, but even playing with others doesn’t change the core gameplay loop. The good(?) news is that this is a “live service” type game that will be getting more stuff over time, and Ubisoft has demonstrated their dedication to supporting their games with The Division (which markedly improved over time), and other titles like For Honor and Rainbow Six: Siege. I’m fairly confident I’ll come back to The Division 2 in a couple months, wrap up the main missions, and play more of the new stuff they add to it. The Division 2 is fun but wears out its welcome before you finish all of what it offers.

Game Reviews


Out of Tune

Anthem is a mess. There’s no nicer way of putting it. I can’t recommend it in any form today. The good(?) news is that it’s essentially unfinished but it’s a part of EA’s games-as-a-service strategy. Like so many other games-as-a-service shlooters (that’s loot-shooters, games like Destiny and The Division), it’s being patched frequently with new features, quality of life improvements, and bug fixes. The outstanding questions are can they fix this game post-release and do they have the will to keep working on this game?

You play as a freelancer, someone who has a Iron Man-esque suit of armor and a partner to guide you through your contract missions. Beyond the usual wildlife threatening Fort Tarsis, an enemy nation is seeking to take control of the “anthem of creation”, the source of all life. You have to stop them and confront the deadly events that lead to the downfall of the freelancers.

This is a wild oversimplification of an overly-complex plot. In Bioware fashion, they’ve crafted a world and breathed life into it but this may be one of the clumsiest introductions they’ve ever done. This is, above all, an action game and you are thrust into the action first. All of the shapers, relics, anthem of creation, javelins, and other such periphery is either spouted by non-player characters that stand around in the hub world between missions or, more frequently, dumped into an in-game encyclopedia for you to read at your leisure. It’s all fluff but it makes the missions you go on really nonsensical. They throw all the lore and technobabble at you while you’re elbow deep in enemies and none of it informs your actions. It can all be ignored so you can safely enjoy the action game without thought. It’s really odd that Bioware, a company that built a reputation on its writing and characters, has made an action game that doesn’t need any of that.

The game itself is serviceable at the very best. The open word is big and you get to fly around it like Iron Man and that’s pretty cool. But the shooting doesn’t feel particularly great and the world itself would be extremely difficult to navigate if it weren’t for the objective markers. It all really looks the same. The missions themselves aren’t that different from other shlooters, but they lack flavor. I know when I land at an objective, I’m going to defend a spot, look for slightly hidden items, or just kill a few waves of enemies. There’s a distinct lack of compelling antagonists, so everything feels less like heroism and more like routine pest control. All of this is preceded and proceeded by terribly long load times. The load times so long that you can put down your controller and play with your phone for a minute.

Alright so there’s no flavor in the gameplay and the game world is both incomprehensible and utterly optional, but the game is also plagued with bugs. When I started this game (on Xbox One, on retail release day) I spent the whole series of opening cutscenes staring not at what was happening but at a tiny aiming reticle and a HUD compass that were obviously misplaced. The day after, I couldn’t login for a couple hours because they pushed out a patch that made it appear to many people as if they were banned from the game. That was fun to sort out on my own. Throughout the game, in the opening mission that was strictly single player and in routine coop multiplayer, I’ve experienced a lot of movement stuttering and rollback because the networking code can’t keep up with the action. I’ve started missions to find I’ve been added to someone else’s mission in progress, so I don’t even get a chance to listen to the briefing dialog, and the game is very aggressive about not letting anyone stray too far from the group. Fall behind for any reason (like picking up collectables or harvesting crafting materials) and it’ll give you 10 seconds to catch up before warping you to where everyone else is. I’ve even been dumped out to the start screen from the single player hub world for no obvious reason.

I’ve finished Anthem‘s main mission branch and I don’t feel like I need to see much more for the purpose of this review. Anthem, at best, is a functioning video game and too frequently it isn’t. Other shlooters have improved over time, and sometimes made radical changes to address problems. I don’t know if Bioware can turn this game around. They’ve communicated a roadmap that extends to May and beyond but it’s all new missions, items, and features to be added. Recall that Mass Effect: Andromeda also released in a disaster state with a slate of paid addons planned, and those plans were canceled. They made the game work and dropped everything else to do it. Anthem may never significantly improve on what they published on day one.

What they’ve released is a mess. I’m a glutton for punishment and I will be keeping tabs on Anthem‘s progress. I expect to come back in a year and revisit this review. Today, no one should waste their time with this game. I don’t hate Anthem or EA but I’m terribly disappointed that this was pushed out in the state it arrived. It feels like it needs another year in the oven to get to an acceptable state.

If you still think you want to brave Anthem‘s current state, here’s a selection of images and videos I’ve captured to highlight some of the bugs I’ve seen.

Stray HUD elements in the opening cutscene
Awful network hitching when moving from one area to the next
I can still see my team very close to my position but I have to be yanked out of the game to catch up.
I loaded in mid-mission and was forced to warp to the team’s position, adding even more loading time.
Game Reviews

Shadow of the Tomb Raider

In its own Shadow

Tomb Raider (2015) made me a Tomb Raider fan. Despite being a Playstation owner and playing lots of video games in the timeframe when the original Tomb Raider was popular and hugely mainstream, I never got into it. Never even played it. But Tomb Raider (2015) got a ton of positive reviews and it was a fun action/stealth/Metroidvania-ish game that I loved, so I’ve been onboard for the sequels since. But something about Shadow of the Tomb Raider felt off.

As in all Tomb Raider games, you are Lara Croft, archaeologist, anthropologist, indistinct researcher of some sort, and you are still fighting Trinity, the Illuminati-esque villains who were responsible for your father’s death. This time, Croft’s exploits unintentionally but directly initiate the apocalypse. As natural disaster threatens to destroy the world, Croft has to stop the apocalypse, stop Trinity, and regain the trust of indigenous people whose still-living culture she is maybe plundering and maybe exploiting.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider dodges most of the “Croft forgot how to use the tools she acquired in previous games” problem of most Metroidvania sequels, but not all of them. Basic traversal stuff that was learned in previous games like rope arrows and some new tricks like rope rappelling are given from the start, but she has to learn how to use a shotgun to blow open some debris-covered doors? The new gates to progress also aren’t very convincing as they’re just stronger versions of stuff you already know. For example, doors you can open with a rope pull from the start also come in a variety where they use braided rope and you need a special rope ascender to open them. Okay, but you never use that rope ascender to, I don’t know, ascend a rope. It’s strictly for busting doors open. Another example is your makeshift knife. In the opening areas, it’s all you have because Croft survives a plane crash. But you quickly get back into civilization and yet you still can’t get through some doors because your knife isn’t tough enough. It’s a bit incongruent.

The action feels a bit loose too. Every encounter with an enemy seemed to either result in me dying immediately or easily dispatching the enemies with an assault rifle. Once stealth is broken, there’s almost no point in trying to go back into hiding, so I may as well put away the bow and start shooting. It is more satisfying to achieve the stealth puzzle of killing everyone without being spotted, but there’s no particular penalty for running in and noisily shooting everyone.

This all might sound like the gameplay is crap, and it’s not. It looks great, controls perfectly well as far as the platforming and movement go, and it’s still fun to explore the world and solve platforming puzzles. But I merely enjoyed it because I’ve seen this game before. The previous Tomb Raider games have done much of the same thing and better. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a good game, where its predecessors were great.

Game Reviews

No Man’s Sky Next

Listlessly Drifting Through Space

No Man’s Sky wasn’t exactly a success on release. Sure, it seemed to sell well and generate a lot of discussion, but an overwhelming majority of that discussion was on whether or not the developers delivered on what they promised. Such an incredible number of words were written about what was or was not promised, and was or was not delivered, that the developers essentially dropped the game and disappeared from public eye, quietly updating and improving it until we reached this most recent update. It was enough of a leap to warrant a release on a new platform (Xbox One), and a new name, No Man’s Sky Next. However, it doesn’t exactly fix what made No Man’s Sky a disappointment.

In No Man’s Sky, you are a solitary explorer in an infinite galaxy. The game pushes technological boundaries by providing an almost limitless number of planets to explore, with almost limitless numbers of aliens, plants, and minerals on those planets. And before the Next update, that was about it.

Over the course of two years, and including the Next update, the game added the ability to build a base, manage a fleet of frigates, interact with other people through online multiplayer, and offered a handful of quests with storylines to follow. The base game just kind of pointed you to the center of the galaxy, but now there are things to do in this universe. Unfortunately, it’s still not much of a game. The bulk of my time was spent filling meters and watching them slowly tick down while I tried to accomplish the meager and sometimes unclear goals the quests gave me. There are so many planets to explore that none of them seem particularly noteworthy until you land on a nasty one that is hostile to almost all life and you’re low on resources. Then I spent too much time scraping enough bits and pieces together just to get off the planet and hope the next one I landed on wasn’t such a hellhole. Every planet has a universal system of space police that seem to serve only to annoy you. If you mine resources in front of them, they attack. If you fight back, they summon reinforcements, escalating in number and size, never backing down. The only way to escape them was to literally run into any building and hide.

I did this all for about 20 hours, on top of the 10 I spent on the original release, before I gave up entirely. I had built myself a sizeable base on the least hostile planet I could find, but I still couldn’t find the point in continuing to play this game. It’s barely fun and barely a game at all.

Game Reviews

Brigador: Up-Armored Edition

Extremely Stompy


Neon lights, an authority violently overthrown, and buildings that crumble like they’re made out of ash under your mech’s stomping feet, all to a synth soundtrack. Brigador knows exactly what it wants to be. The good news is that it mostly achieves its vision, with a couple hiccups.

You play as a mercenary collecting a paycheck by completing missions in support of the Solo Nobre Concern. They’re offering a ticket offworld if you can help them overthrow the factions controlling the city of Solo Nobre. You’ll do this in an isometric action game from a variety of mechs, tanks, and anti-grav vehicles with dozens of weapons.

At first look, Brigador might remind you of the classic Strike series (Jungle Strike, Desert Strike, Nuclear Strike, etc) of helicopter action games, due to the vehicle selection and third-person isometric perspective. That’s not a terrible comparison, but Brigador offers a lot more. Not only are there more vehicles, weapons, and pilots, but more depth to the combat.

You’re armed with two weapons, and an auxiliary ability. Each weapon has its own fire rates, and their own behaviors. There are the standard machine guns and cannons, but also mortars, lasers, and shotgun-type weapons. Your mouse controls not only set the direction of fire, but also the range of fire, so you can launch mortars over walls, spray smoke canisters in semi-circles or lines, and shoot over or past enemies. This is cool in a lot of ways for the level of control it gives you over the destruction you’re going to rain down, but it complicates what is otherwise a fairly simple action game. Instead of just pointing in the direction of the bad guys and firing away, you’ve got to actually consider their distance and aim so that you’re not shooting in front of or over them. If you can’t get this and just treat it like any twin-stick shooter, you’re going to have limited, frustrating success.

The campaign mode offers a couple dozen missions with premade pilot/vehicle/weapon combinations that are fun, but it’s kind of training wheels for the operations mode, which is much more freeform. Operations mode lets you select any pilot, vehicle, weapon you desire, and go on a multi-map romp with an open set of objectives and building difficulty. Early options and low level pilots offer easy difficulty and a couple maps to stomp through, but unlocking high level pilots will greatly increase the resistance and later operations become endurance runs to see if you can manage to keep up your health and ammo count across several sprawling maps.

The music of Brigador is also notable for perfectly pairing this dystopian mech action with Makeup and Vanity Set’s synth sounds. It’s a beautifully drawn game with a moody soundtrack that comes together very well. However, some of the weapon sounds could use some work. In particular, big cannons don’t really sound like the size they are. They nail the whirring sound of very large machine guns though, which is great.

Brigador is a great action game after you’ve figured out its quirks. It’ll frequently overwhelm and stomp on you, but rarely to the point of frustration. Your implements of carnage come in a large variety, so there’s a ton of action to be had. It’s only slightly marred by disadvantaged by doing more than action games of this nature normally do when it comes to weapon control, but that’s a gift once you’ve got the hang of it.

Game Reviews

Marvel’s Spider-man

I finished this game this weekend and I have nowhere else to put my thoughts. Hello long-unused blog!

Spider-Man is the first game I’ve played to completion on my PS5. I don’t have a ton of modern Spider-Man game experience to begin with. I own a copy of Spider-Man 2 for Xbox and I’ve never played it. Wisely, this game takes a whole book out of the Batman: Arkham series. This game is a lot of that game, plus web swinging.

That was a good idea, as Batman: Arkham is awesome, and so this game is awesome. I’m punching, I’m kicking, I’m webbing bad guys to walls, I’m throwing stuff at them, I’m dodging. It’s great. The other feature, web swinging, is also a lot of fun. Long distance movement in games can be pretty tedious but swinging from buildings across the city is effortless and rewarding. The game also promotes not using fast-travel by making some activities only visible if you’re near them. It’s smart, and it works. I rarely used the fast travel unless I was going all the way across the map and didn’t have any intention on doing any side activities.

This game also has the narrative chops to hang with the Batman: Arkham series. I don’t know which version of Spider-Man this is based on, except that it’s not the movie Spider-Man, but it works well. Spidey’s not an old man but he’s out of college. Most of the big villains are known and locked up. It introduces a new villain who carries most of the plot. It’s got an emotional end.

What I really want to praise in this game is how it layers on activities. This is an open world game. At the start, the map is populated with activities. As I progressed through the story missions, it added more activities to the map. I’m not a completionist, but I do like to put off doing consecutive story missions but doing side activities. I found that by the time I’d completed a series of side activities, the story was adding new ones to the map. I loved it because it gave me more to do without overwhelming the map with icons from the start, and the game was ramping up the difficulty of activities as I was learning how to play it.

Overall, I was extremely impressed by Marvel’s Spider-Man. It may be a reskin of a different comic book game, but it’s very well done.

Game Reviews

Blair Witch

I’m the rare person who likes everything about The Blair Witch. I like Book of Shadows. I like Blair Witch. If I had a chance to play the first trilogy of The Blair Witch games, chances are that I would have liked those too. Imagine my surprise when the game Blair Witch was revealed at E3 this year. It had what I wanted. Woods. Darkness. Dilapidated buildings. Even a dog! But, much like my feelings about 2016’s Blair Witch movie, this game doesn’t quite coalesce until you get to the end.

Blair Witch is a first person horror game in which you play Ellis. You have volunteered to scour the Black Hills forest for a missing boy. You brought your dog Bullet and little else. As you make your way through the woods, you find a trail of breadcrumbs that lead you closer to the boy and further into the forest.

Blair Witch follows Bloober Team’s recent forays into horror, namely Layers of Fear (a haunted house) and Observer (a cyberpunk haunted house). Layers of Fear‘s did a lot with atmosphere and loud noises because there wasn’t a whole lot of capital G Gameplay, but Observer added in some monster avoidance sections, ala SOMA, in which you could run face first into some kind of monster and die. Blair Witch throws in some portions where you are expected to look where your dog is barking and blast tree monsters with your flashlight. It’s clear that Bloober Team is trying to expand their horror horizons, but this felt kind of hokey. These parts weren’t terribly difficult or frequent, just sort of annoying.

If most of the gameplay is a progression of Bloober Team’s prior works, the rest is carried by the Blair Witch movies, namely wandering around in the woods and spooky rundown buildings. There’s no map and the feeling of being lost in the woods is really effective. Minus the hokey tree monsters, the horror mostly works. It builds effectively and, even with a companion dog, it’s hard to feel safe. This is what Bloober Team did well in Layers of Fear and Observer.

Where this game falters is in its narrative. Ellis never really becomes a sympathetic character and the story is built around slowly revealing his dark past and whether or not he can be saved. Bullet is a more sympathetic character here, and he’s a dog. The game also sort of relies on the player having seen some parts of the movies, leaning heavily on the most recent film. I knew what was going on because I’ve seen all of them, but I think a non-fan would be rather confused about a lot of the things that go unsaid. There’s also a laundry list of collectibles, and no way to go back through the game after you’ve beaten it to collect them or alter your ending. You can make game saves mid-game and return to those, but there’s no chapter select. Once you finish it, you’re going to have to play it again from the start if you’re chasing achievements.

I’m a tad disappointed. I saw a little Silent Hill 2 in the trailer, and I see a sliver of it in this game, but it’s not quite there. Hard to recommend for those who haven’t seen the Blair Witch movies, which I obviously enjoyed, but even fans may not enjoy this because of the weak antagonist and silly tree monsters. The scares are here, the tension is here, but it’s far from perfect.

Reference: Bloober Team. Blair Witch (Bloober Team, 2019)

Source: Free via Xbox Game Pass

Game Reviews


Control had some work to do right out of the gate. Quantum Break wasn’t exactly an unqualified success and Remedy’s relationship with Microsoft seemed to disintegrate from it. Now back out on their own and paired with 505 Games, Control is a bit of a return to form for Remedy. Smaller in scope than Quantum Break, but doing more with less.

Control is a third person shooter with mind powers. You play as Jesse Haden, a woman who walked into the Federal Bureau of Control, and assumed leadership by bonding with the weapon of the former director. If that sounds weird, we haven’t even scratched the surface. The FBC is charged with protecting the nation from supernatural threats, and it’s been invaded by a threat called The Hiss.

Control is a pitch-perfect blend of creepypasta, Lost, and The X-Files. There’s lot of talk in memos and audio logs about containment and neutralization of Altered Items and Objects of Power. Jesse can bind with some of these OOPs to get new powers, starting with the ability to throw stuff with her mind. Littered all over this game are collectibles describing the supernatural effects of these items and how the FBC are working to contain them. There’s also a series of videos that look like someone took the Dharma Initiative videos from Lost and made their own. These all star the same guy who played Alan Wake. Speaking of Alan Wake, there’s also a series of videos starring the guy who voiced Max Payne. This whole game is stuffed with creepy fiction and Remedy all-stars and I loved it.

The gameplay is also well suited to the atmosphere. This is no cover shooter. Jesse has the archetypal shooter weapons: pistol, shotgun, sniper, etc. Augmenting these are the mind powers, with the first and most useful being Launch, which throws stuff. Essentially every piece of set decoration can be picked up and tossed at the enemy. It does a healthy amount of damage right out of the gate and it’s extremely satisfying. More abilities trickle out later, but Launch is a mainstay through out of the game. Both weapon ammo and mind powers are on a delayed recharge, so combat is usually a matter of emptying one of those meters, and then emptying the other while the first recharges. Enemies also explode with health pickups when they die, so it makes no sense to sit in one place and shoot things in the distance. Eventually you need to get up close to heal. There’s a good variety of enemies, so the mix of weapons and mind powers have plenty of uses and combat essentially never gets boring.

There are two things that take away from Control, and that’s the environments and difficulty spikes. The whole game takes place in the same extradimensional building (think House of Leaves or the Tardis from Doctor Who), and eventually I noticed that it’s an awful lot of poured concrete. It’s good looking and well designed but there’s just so much grey I can look at. Jesse is also fairly fragile, and I found numerous points in the game where difficulty spiked really hard, to the point that I sometimes just walked away from a mission and did something else, or quit out of the game entirely from frustration. There’s a brutal section near the end of the game that took me at least a dozen attempts to get past, and required that I play the game differently from how I spent the rest of the game playing it. It wasn’t fun. Even now, there are a couple side missions I may not finish because I’m past the ending and they’re annoyingly difficult.

Despite these fairly minor quibbles, I absolutely loved Control. It’s creepy, it plays well, and it looks great. Control is an excellent storytelling game.

Reference: Remedy Entertainment. Control (505 Games, 2019)

Source: Purchased from Epic Game Store

Game Reviews

Wolfenstein: Youngblood

Let’s make a recipe to describe Wolfenstein: Youngblood:

Take Wolfenstein: The New Colossus

Chop it in half

Move it along from the 1970’s to the 1980’s

Triple the collectibles

Give it to the people who made Dishonored

Add an extensive weapon mod system

Add two player coop

Add microtransactions

And take out the story

There. That’s about right.

Youngblood is a new non-sequel in the Wolfenstein series, much like The Old Blood wasn’t a sequel to The New Order. It’s smaller in scope, taking only about 10 hours to complete. It’s meant to be played in coop but I played almost the entire game solo. It wasn’t terribly burdensome, though, of course, the AI wasn’t quite as useful as a human player.

It plays an awful lot like how I remember The New Colossus playing. Stealth is an option and sneaking around to silently murder Nazis is extremely satisfying. But, more often than not, you’re going to get caught and have to shoot your way out of an area. All of the weapons have that signature Machine Games look and feel. They sound great, they look great, and they’re very effective! Except that Youngblood added a layer of armor to almost every enemy. Some armor is broken with the shotgun and submachine gun (squishier targets), but most armor is broken with heavier stuff, the assault rifle and pistol. At first, I was annoyed by this system, and it never quite felt great against big enemies, but it does force you to use different weapons in different situations. My biggest problem with it is that there are more weapons for squishy targets than armored targets, but there seemed to be more armored enemies than squishy, so I didn’t get to have as much fun with every weapon.

The structure of the game is very reminiscent of Dishonored. There are a small handful of mission areas, and the bulk of the early game is visiting these areas repeatedly to complete short-ish tasks. For example, you’ll go in to one area, make your way to the mechanic’s garage, find an item or kill a particular enemy, and then you can either pick a new mission in that area and do it, or go back to the hub safe area. The result is that a bulk of the game is doing small missions in the same areas repeatedly. There were four major assaults on Nazi strongholds, and those were the big missions. Still not a whole lot of narrative to them, and once I completed them, I was handed another small mission to go back to them. Even the big mission areas get reused. The New Colossus did this too (sending you back to maps you’ve already finished to get more XP or currency), but it was a much bigger game.

The two places where the game fails is in the narrative and failing to exploit the setting. There’s a lengthy cutscene at the start, a lengthy cutscene after you finish three of the five major missions, and a short cutscene after you beat the boss. That’s it. In between, there isn’t a whole lot of motivating narrative to the little missions you’re doing before taking on Nazi strongholds. This is a fairly sharp contrast to The New Order and The New Colossus, both of which were rather competent in their storytelling. It’s particularly painful to have such an uncompelling and absentee antagonist when those prior games had great (well-written but awful) antagonists.

It’s also nominally in the 80’s. I don’t expect it to be all shopping malls and aerobics and new wave, but you can’t just throw around some 3D glasses, VHS tapes, and cassettes as collectibles to make it 80’s enough. The 1980’s in Nazi-occupied Paris should be absolutely fascinating, but instead it’s indistinguishable from any other game depicting a fascist occupation. Rubble, concrete, big Nazi robots. There’s not even radios playing the fascist pop music they made for this game. You only get to listen to it by finding the cassette collectibles and listening to them in a menu. This doesn’t fly for a coop game. Give me a Walkman!

Now let’s get to the ugly. Microtransactions. There are two currencies in game: silver coins, and gold bars. You can find silver coins all over the place in small quantities. You get silver coins for finishing missions. You have to purchase gold bars for cash. Silver coins are what you use to upgrade and modify your weapons, but all the cosmetics in the game (weapon and player skins) can also be purchased for silver coins or gold bars. There’s no lack of silver coins in the game, but for practical purposes, you’re going to spend those on your weapons, not looking good. I know this is a coop game and you can show off your good looks for strangers, but I really don’t understand why they jammed in this second currency. It’s not loot boxes, but it’s greedy and needless.

If I sound down on Youngblood, it’s because I kind of am. It’s the daughters of BJ Blazkowicz fighting Nazi’s in Paris in the 1980’s, and it’s just okay. This is a concept that could’ve been a full Wolfenstein game rather than a half-step before the next full sequel. I liked it but didn’t love it because I want it to be more than it is.

Reference: Machine Games and Arkane Studios Wolfenstein: Youngblood (Bethesda Softworks, 2019)

Source: Purchased from Steam