State of Play(Station)

Last week, Sony debuted the first episode of “State of Play”. In short, this is the PlayStation version of Nintendo Direct. I think this is a great thing. It’s just another example of how E3 is dying, which I’ve been saying for years. Every year I do a blog post about E3 and in the last several years I have been very critical. I want to reiterate that my problem with E3 is not the general concept but the business model and execution. I think live gaming events for the public are a good thing. I think making them private events that only allow media while charging game companies a fortune to give the event content is preposterous and outdated. And I praised E3 for finally selling some public access tickets in my post last year. But really it’s too little and nearly too late. If drastic changes aren’t made to the model soon, the entire concept will be dead in the water if it’s not already. All that is to say that I happily support State of Play as a concept.

Let’s be honest, the content shown in this first episode was lackluster. It was a bunch of VR announcements that affect less than 10% of the entire PS4 user base, a remake we don’t really need, an indie Gauntlet clone with a minor PVP component, Concrete Genie, and footage from two AAA titles that we were already well aware of. Concrete Genie was probably the only part of that presentation that had any real value to the bulk of PS4 users. And please don’t try to tell me that presentation told you anything about Days Gone you weren’t already aware of if it’s a game you were actually interested in before watching the presentation. But the content shown isn’t why I already consider State of Play a success and ultimately a good thing.

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Sony announced that they weren’t attending E3 this year months ago. They were very open and honest about the fact that they have very little to show for this year. Between such a strong 2018, with games like God of War, Detroit: Become Human, and Marvel’s Spider-Man, and the all but confirmed transition to PS5 coming in less than two years, they’re basically riding out the rest of this generation. Also remember that there are great third party titles coming out that Sony has no real reason to try to compete with directly this late in the gen when the largest user base is on their platform anyway. Games like Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice put plenty of money in Sony’s bank account for a fraction of the work it takes for them to make the next God of War level project. And since they’re putting out a new console soon anyway while concurrently dominating the current generation, and have the largest console multiplayer base with games like The Division 2, there’s really no reason for them to rush out anything. I genuinely believe the only reason this first State of Play was released now is that they were trying to console people who have been complaining about the lack of announcements directly from Sony since the last E3. Remember that PlayStation Experience was cancelled last year as well. In a way, this is the ideal scenario though.

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When a company has nothing to show, it’s fairly common for them to say nothing, make up some bullshit, or show something way too far in advance. For whatever reason, a large number of gamers seem to be happy when the second or third thing occurs, but get livid when the first, the most honest of the three, happens. Yet Sony did none of these three things with this State of Play. They had nothing and they used it. Even with very little to show, they put together a 20 minute presentation about what was on the way, and in true Nintendo Direct style, they only showed things that will be out relatively soon. This level of transparency has never really existed in the gaming industry before from a AAA publisher and hardware manufacturer. I would much rather a company honestly tell me they have nothing than lie to me or show me stuff that may not even happen (glances at Scalebound). So for me State of Play was great even if the games shown were a combination of junk and information I already had.

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Still not over this.

I also really liked the format. I want all gaming presentations to be done like State of Play. No bullshit. No random people I don’t care about trying to make badly written jokes to transition between projects. Just a single faceless voice giving bare bones facts about upcoming projects over gameplay footage, with release dates in the not too distant future. They showed 17 games, all releasing this year, with gameplay footage, in less than 20 minutes. That’s amazing. The recent Nindie Showcase showed 18 games and took more than 25 minutes. The time of the long drawn out presentation is past. People watch these at work in a corner window or while traveling, on their phones and tablets. I don’t need pomp and drama in my games presentations. I need facts and footage in an efficient and informative manner. And there’s no resentment.

I won’t speak for everyone, but a large number of gamers are fed up with media and gaming personalities. Over the last several years, a lot of faux pas, bullshit, and disappointing moments have been perpetrated by the games industry and media, not to mention “influencers”. Much of this has been overblown, but there have also been many valid criticisms. People no longer want to see unqualified hacks or unknown randoms present games. Unless it’s an actual developer talking, I could personally do without a face at all. A large part of this comes from jealousy, and I include myself in that statement.

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Why does this random millennial get to present games while I have to work my boring job? Do they game more than I do? Do they have some degree in gaming that I wasn’t aware I could get? What gives them the right above all the gamers watching to have that job? This is the thought process that has developed over a generation of random unqualified media personalities with nothing to justify their positions except a social media following getting the privilege of working alongside the games industry. It has bread a lot of bad blood that has even often spilled into development as well. Many people are kind of just done with people, which is admittedly sad but not unjustified. I appreciate that Sony recognized this in how they formatted this first State of Play. Faceless voice presenting games with a minimum amount of marketing fluff. No one to get jealous of. No experiences to envy. No reason or target to hate. Just gaming. And really isn’t that what these presentations are supposed to be about?

AAA State of Play

I genuinely liked State of Play. The content was disappointing but the way it was presented was ideal. And this also showed that Sony is willing to do State of Play presentations even when nothing huge is in the pipeline. That’s great for indie games. There are so many great smaller titles that never get any attention simply because people don’t hear about them and they don’t have the budgets for marketing. But if Sony, like current Nintendo with the Nindies Showcase, will take the time to do presentations with no spectacular announcements, that gives indie titles a real chance to shine on PlayStation consoles.

I guess the point I’m making is that a lot of people have been complaining about State of Play but I think it showed a great amount of potential as a format and the future of gaming news. Slowly but surely we are breaking down the walls between the developer and the gamer with more direct access to information without the need for middle men, media companies, and elitist events that most of the gaming community can’t attend for one reason or another. In my book, the future of gaming information distribution is going in the right direction.

What are your thoughts on State of Play and what this means for the future of gaming news?

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ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! Review – 8.8/10

When I was a young lad, back before the age of internet, always online, and microtransactions, we played many great games that made no sense but were tons of fun and super addictive in a healthy way. I can’t tell you why fat, Italian plumbers jumped on mushrooms or why blue hedgehogs felt compelled to collect golden rings, but I can tell you that the number of mushrooms I squashed and the number of rings I collected is much higher than the number of Fortnite bucks I’ve earned. One of my favorite games from my childhood was the original ToeJam & Earl (1991) for the Sega Genesis.

If I’m honest, I didn’t really understand the game as a kid. It was the original roguelike before that was an established genre. I played it often but never really knew what I was doing. I also don’t remember watching the opening movie so I don’t think I even knew what the premise of the game was back then. What I do remember is that it was one of the games that my father and uncles used to love to play and we all would play it together. I also loved the funky music and the fact that a character was named ToeJam, because that was and still is funny to me for some reason. So when I think about ToeJam & Earl, it’s always with great fondness. I eventually did go back and play the original game years later, actually watched the cutscenes, and completed it. I also completed the ToeJam & Earl III: Mission to Earth (2002) for the XBOX. I tried ToeJam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron (1993) right after completing the first game, but I really didn’t like the different gameplay style. In any case, I have always cared a great deal about this franchise. That’s why I was ecstatic when I heard that someone was making a new installment after all these years. It is an honor and a privilege to be able to play a new ToeJam & Earl game in 2019. I kind of wish I had gotten the Switch version so I could round up my uncles and father and play it as a family once again.

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ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is both a sequel and a remake of the original game. It is important to understand this going in because it informs a number of design choices that people who aren’t familiar with the original game might not like or understand. As I said previously, it’s a roguelike but it has a number of conventions specific to this franchise and not much else. It’s also important to understand this in the context of judging it. If you’re looking at it strictly as a game being released in 2019, then it’s obviously not going to stand up to most if any top tier games being released today. Or at least that would be the case if we didn’t keep getting dumpster fire AAA releases like Fallout 76 and Anthem. But if we look at this in the context of recreating a game from 1991, then it’s one of the most true to form remakes I’ve ever seen not based on a game from the modern era. That’s the context within which I played and ultimately chose to review this game.

Assuming you have played or at least looked up some footage from the original game before starting Groove!, the  first thing you notice as soon as the opening cutscene starts is that the graphics are vastly improved but true to the original style. It’s like night and day even though they’re both flat environments pretending to have three dimensional qualities. This new game definitely has a bit more depth to it with things like hills and the ability to clearly see the previous level floating beneath the one you’re currently on, but it’s still the same 2D style used in the first game. The vibrant colors stand out so much in this game. Compared to original, it’s like you were looking at a dirty screen and someone finally cleaned it off. Everything is brighter and way more detailed, including ToeJam and Earl themselves. Plus there are a lot of display options. You can play full screen or windowed play in 18 different resolutions.

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There is a literal hoard of earthlings in this game to interact with, both evil and good. The movement is fluid and diverse for all of them. The playable characters move very smoothly as well. There’s no skipping or lost frame rate issues, even when playing with multiple players on or offline. Not only is the movement smooth, but it’s also well animated. What I like most about the game’s graphics is the amount of variety. 68 earthlings, 67 different types of presents, 25 stages with random layouts, nine playable characters, and even multiple environments from level to level. Many of these assets are interactive as well. Even the trees and bushes can be directly interacted with. And this is all randomly generated depending on which mode you’re playing. You do see some repetitive stuff such as enemy assets reskinned in different colors in later stages. But overall there’s a lot going on in Groove! and the game handles it perfectly.

The HUD is simple but effective. You have the level counter on the top center of the screen, which also notifies the player when a piece of the spaceship is on that level. In the bottom right you have the mini-map. With the rest of the HUD being in the bottom left, showing the character’s avatar, the XP bar, the HP bar, and the power up meter. In local coop mode, the HUD for the second player appears in the top left corner of the screen. When playing with four players, the HUDs are distributed to each corner of the screen when playing in a single screen and to the top left of each box when in split screen mode. What’s really nice is you can turn the map and HUD off if you want an extra challenge. You can also make the map larger at any time by holding the map button if you need to examine it in finer detail. But really the mini-map, assuming you have a large enough screen like I do on my PC, is quite adequate. It shows you locations for special things, the entire grid of the current level you’re on, and environmental landmarks such as desert or water. I never once needed to use the enlarge map function during play.

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The menus are done very nicely too. A much better, clearer font than was used in the original game. The manual, which is quite comprehensive, is broken up into clear sections with small blocks of text, making reading through the whole thing very easy to do. It’s not an overwhelmingly graphic intense game. It’s more like an art piece that combines the simplicity of the past with some of the benefits of modern graphic development to make something totally new and beautiful but still definitively retro in nature. You’re not getting the bare bones Sega Genesis graphics but you’re also not going too far and getting something odd looking like ToeJam & Earl III. Ultimately I think it’s a wonderful looking game that delivered exactly what it needed to visually.

The first thing I want to say about the gameplay is that it’s buttery smooth. I was surprised at how smooth the gameplay actually is. Even when using a controller, a DualShock 4 in my case, the input works perfectly. There’s no lag. No input issues. This game works. I was very happy with how it instantly accepted my controller and gave me no issues. Now the game will not revert back to keyboard automatically if your controller gets disconnected during play. My controller ran out of battery in the middle of a game while running away from a group of enemies and I couldn’t pick up with the keyboard. My guy just stopped moving until I got the controller plugged in. The game doesn’t even pause when this happens. And since you spawn in the same spot where you died, I just kept dying until I got the controller working again. A bit of an oversight on the developer’s part, but nothing game breaking and easily fixed with a patch. HumaNature Studios is also really responsive on Twitter and is actively seeking out and listening to feedback for future patches, so this issue may very well be fixed in the near future.

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The gameplay is quite simple in practice. You have to traverse 25 levels in search of 10 spaceship pieces, which are scattered randomly throughout the levels. The 10th piece is always on level 25, as stated in the manual. You traverse these levels by walking around each one trying to find an elevator. You can walk normally or sneak to avoid being seen by bad earthlings. Different presents can affect your movement as well. You also have the ability to swim through water but you can only swim for an amount of time corresponding to your current health. Meaning the larger your life bar, the longer you can swim when you’re at full health. You always start a new game with three lives but can earn more as rewards and through presents along the way. While traversing these levels you can collect money, presents, and food which also all incurs XP. Money is used to pay for services from good earthlings and to use certain items like parking meters. Presents, of which there are 67 different types, can do all sorts of things, both good and bad. They can do things like refill health, give you special powers like flight and better jumping, or reveal parts of the map. They can hurt you as well by doing things like dropping all your items, damaging you, and lowering your rank. Some presents are broken when you find them and have a chance of exploding when opened. You can also drop presents you don’t want.

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You can only carry a limited number of presents at a time based on the character you choose and your current rank. Food can either restore or remove life. Rotten food, which always looks like the same types of food, hurts you while all other food helps you. Different types of food give or take different amounts of health. You can also gain XP. XP is used to increase your rank. Increasing your rank increases your stats like the size of your life bar, walking speed, and number of presents you can carry. There are a total of six stats with each character having their own strengths and weaknesses. You always start at the bottom rank at the beginning of a new game and can work your way up 15 ranks. You don’t level up automatically. Once you’ve collected enough XP, which can be gotten in many different ways, you then have to find a “wiseman” and he will increase your rank free of charge. You don’t have to increase your rank to beat the game. As soon as you find all 10 pieces of the spaceship you’ve won.

The gameplay is very simple to understand but that doesn’t make it easy. The many different enemy earthlings can be quite tricky and they often congregate in groups. Some will chase you or hit you with status effects like freezing you in place. Some will even drop you down to lower levels. Sometimes you’ll intentionally have to jump off levels to get away from enemies, causing you to have to back track and make your way up again. The map for each level always starts off blind and then expands as you explore the level you’re on. Presents are important. It’s necessary to use them often but strategically. The presents do many different things, but many of them are not identified until you’ve used them once. This means every time you find a new type of present you risk it being a bad present if you haven’t already used it previously to identify it. There is also a good earthling you can pay money to identify presents for you. I’m not 100% sure if this is true, but it seems to me that presents you’ve identified in past games will be identified in all future games. But there are also enemies and bad presents that remove your present labels and I’m not sure if this carries over to future games. It’s definitely something that I need to confirm with more research. It could also very well be completely random from game to game.

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The gameplay is always the same but there are three difficulties that can be played across three modes. The “Fixed World” mode has the map stay relatively the same every game. This is a good mode to learn how to play the game once you’ve finished the tutorial. But the real challenge is when you hit “Random World” mode. This is the same gameplay but the layout of the levels changes every time. This is the roguelike experience that was spawned by the original game. There is also “Random World Hard” mode. At the start you only have Fixed World mode and then you have to reach level 10 to unlock Random World mode. But you don’t unlock Random World Hard mode until you complete a Random World run. The Hard mode is harder but not by a huge amount, in my opinion. There aren’t necessarily more enemies but they do more damage. There are also fewer presents around. Or at least that was my experience playing it. I played it in coop with a total of three players so maybe that affected the experience as well. We did manage to beat it though. You also have to take into account difficulty level and character. You can actually change your difficulty mid game whenever you want from the pause menu, but you can’t unlock prizes and achievements unless you’re in normal mode, which is considered the hardest of the three modes. Because of this, I never took the time to play in either of the two easier modes because that would be a complete waste of time. Each of the nine playable characters has their own stats, so it’s important to understand all six stats and choose the character that best fits your play style.

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There are also two mini-games that you play within the game as special occurrences. The Hyperfunk Zone is kind of like a Sonic the Hedgehog style special zone. It’s a 2D side scroller where you continuously run from left to right collecting items until you run out of time or hit an exit portal. There is an ending, and an achievement for reaching it, but it’s quite a ways forward so it’s hard to achieve. It’s fairly simple to play and only requires you to press one button to dodge past exit portals. If you time it wrong then you leave the Hyperfunk Zone before reaching the end. You can also run out of time but picking up clocks extends your time in the zone. When you enter the Hyperfunk zone during coop play, all players are transported there regardless of where they are on the map. Each player plays independently but the running pace is the same. That means if you have two players and one gets out the other player can continue and the player who is out has to wait for all other players to finish.

The second mini-game is kind of like Guitar Hero but with buttons. You have to press corresponding buttons to a beat as they move down the screen. It works OK but the timing isn’t as clear as Guitar Hero and the feedback isn’t there with vibrations or anything so you tend to be too early or late sometimes because your eyes don’t agree with the beat, even though it looks like you were on time. This mini-game is played solo directly on the map so playing doesn’t affect other players during coop.

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Groove! supports both local and online cooperative play. When playing in coop mode, only one person has to be in normal difficulty to unlock prizes at the end. This is really convenient for when playing with younger children or amateur gamers. You can enjoy the game with them while allowing them to play at an easier difficulty without losing out on prizes. Local coop supports up to four players. Each HUD is added to another corner of the screen and the screen splits for local coop so having more than four players would get way too cluttered. Online coop, which doesn’t split the screen, also supports up to four players. You don’t actually see the HUDs for other players in online coop so technically there’s no reason it couldn’t support more, but four is the maximum and honestly that’s enough for the size and scope of this game.

I really like the way the coop works because it’s not limiting like most coop games. You are playing the same game on the same map, but you can work fairly independently of each other. You have your own lives and life bars, money, and presents. But present effects are shared. Or at least some of them are like invisibility. It didn’t seem like physical enhancement presents are shared like wings or rocket boots. When one player runs out of lives they become a ghost and can take a life from another player if that other player agrees to give one up. All players show up on the mini-map so you know where you are in proximity to each other. But if one of you falls down to the previous level the other player isn’t affected. The one limitation is that players can only progress to unvisited floors together. This means that if one player reaches the elevator to the next floor first then they have to wait for the other player(s) before they can progress to the next level, even if that player has fallen down to a previous level. Thankfully though, you are immune from all damage when inside the elevator so you don’t have to worry about dying while waiting for other players to get there. Even the fake elevators give you immunity when waiting for other players in them because they don’t reveal themselves to be fake until all players have entered them.

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During local coop, the game will instantly switch between shared and split screens depending on how close players are to each other. It will also split the screen if one of the players accesses the present or pause menu. The other players are unaffected. The screen splitting is dynamic so it constantly changes back and forth. It’s a horizontal split for two players, a horizontal and a vertical split for three players, and a 2×2 split for four players, all of which work fine for this gameplay. You do need a large enough monitor to play comfortably with that many players though. I can’t imagine trying to play this with four player split screen on the Switch handheld mode screen. The split can be set to dynamic or fixed. Dynamic means the screen will split based on location. The player farthest north on the map will inhabit the top screen in the event of a split. Fixed means the same player, player one, will always be on the top, or top left in the case of four players, whenever the game splits the screen regardless of your specific location on the map. This can be toggled in the pause menu at any time. There is a teleport option in coop mode that allows a player to join the rest of the group instantly but I haven’t figured out exactly what prompts this yet. I think it’s when all but one character is in the elevator waiting to move on to the next level, but I couldn’t recreate this in all situations.

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During coop there is a quick chat function which is fairly easy to use. It’s all preloaded text based comments that appear over the speaking character’s head. These can be used, whether online or offline, to give other players information like where to go or that you’re waiting for them. There is also a verbal cue to tell the other player(s) to look, but that’s only in local coop. In online coop, when characters are near each other, you can see the message appear over the speaking character’s head. When not near each other the message shows up at the bottom of the screen with the avatar of the character/player speaking. In local coop the quick chat message always appears over the speaking character’s head, requiring other players to look at that player’s screen if they’re not near each other and thus in shared screen view.

The drop in and out nature of the gameplay works really well for casual and serious play. Even the online allows people to drop in and out at a whim without ending the game. You can create private and public lobbies and jump into and out of games of any difficulty, including those you haven’t unlocked yet, easily. It will also let you continue if you jump into a game and then the original host leaves for whatever reason. The only issue I experienced with the online was once I joined a game and got all the way to the end but then it disconnected me before I got to claim the prizes. I’m also not entirely sure if players can boot you or not when you join their games so that may be what happened. Normally when you get to the end of an online game, even when you joined late, you get to claim the prizes as you normally would. You do not however, unlock Random World Hard mode by completing it online. You just get the achievement and the prizes but it remains locked in your game until you complete the Random World mode first.

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Overall, the gameplay is quite good. There are a few minor issues that one might consider bugs, but I’ve yet to witness anything game breaking. The gameplay is challenging but fair. There are definitely some balance issues from character to character though. ToeJam is way superior to Earl for example because of his much faster movement speed. There is also some sort of issue I can’t quite figure out where certain player combinations are forced in coop. Like when you try to join a game certain characters will be locked other than the character the host is already using. I’m not sure why this is. It may just be a bug because in local coop I can select any combination of characters I want including both retro and modern ToeJam & Earl at the same time. In any case, it’s a really fun game and I look forward to spending more time with it.

The greatest compliment I can give to Groove! in terms of writing is that it has any at all. Most roguelikes have little to no story for some reason. This game has a full story as well as in game dialog. It’s not a fully immersive, plot focused game by any means. But the fact that HumaNature Studios took the time to actually flesh out an entire narrative is a treat in and of itself. It’s a simple story that’s comprised of only two simple cutscenes and some in game dialog, but it still bookends the gameplay experience in a way that offers the player a reason to start and closure at the end. Really that’s all a game like this needs. The in game dialog is funny and there’s quite a lot of it. It takes place on the elevator rides between levels as well as during gameplay. It changes depending on how many players are in the game and who they are. Even with only one player there is still elevator dialog. It’s mostly funny comments about the game itself. Speech bubbles are also used during gameplay to tell the player things like when you’ve reached your maximum number of presents. At the same time that this happens, audible speech is used by the characters to clue you in when a speech bubble appears. There’s not much in the game as far as writing is concerned, but I’m happy with what was included. As a side note, this game has possibly the most comprehensive in game manual I’ve seen for any indie game ever. It’s split into 12 sections and has a ton of information. Taking the time to read through all of it before actually playing will help you considerably. It’s also important to note that the game can be played in English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and/or Portuguese.

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As this is a ToeJam & Earl game, the music is not only important but top shelf. By my count, there are 32 songs in the game. You can actually access all of these in the credits whenever you want. The music is of course quite funky, as it should be. The sound effects and voice acting are good too. Very responsive with no lag and high quality. I was also very happy with the sound mixing. The sound effects are not drowned out by the music. You can set the volume levels of the music and effects separately in increments of 5 from 0 to 100. I keep them both at 100 and it sounds fine. I really don’t have any complaints about the sound in this game and I don’t think anything else needs to be said about it. It does not disappoint.

There’s a surprisingly large amount of replay value in this game. And not just because it has random world generation and three difficulty levels. That plays a factor, as does the fact that there are nine playable characters, three of which have to be unlocked. But really there is just a ton of content to unlock and interact with. Groove! has 49 achievements and 41 unlockable rewards, each having a different effect on the gameplay. Plus you can play with other people both on and offline. There’s just a lot to do if you really want to get your money’s worth. A single game takes about one to two hours maximum depending on the difficulty you’re playing at and your pace. At $20 I think the price is OK but not amazing. You definitely can get 20 hours out of this game if you want to do everything. But if you’re just playing to complete each difficulty once then it’s a four – six hour game at best. So either make of it what you will or wait for a discount. $10 would be more than fair for this game. I give it an A+ for replay value.

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It’s quite a mazing to be reviewing a ToeJam & Earl game in 2019 unironically. It took a long time to get this project started and then another four or so years to get it released after the Kickstarter campaign was successfully funded. HumaNature Studios definitely delivered. ToeJam & Earl: Back in the Groove! is exactly what it needed to be. It has a few small bugs but really it’s a perfect recreation of the original game with modern conveniences and improvements added in a non-invasive way. I really can’t speak highly enough of this game. I definitely recommend it for people who like games that are just fun. It’s not too challenging. It’s not too intricate and doesn’t require a huge time commitment. It’s just a fun experience worth having and sharing with other people. And that’s really what ToeJam & Earl was always meant to be.

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Devotion Review – 6.9/10 (But definitely worth playing.)

Red Candle Games is a small Taiwanese studio that focuses specifically on producing games that present realistic depictions of Taiwanese culture and beliefs in a narrative focused structure while applying elements of horror. What is so interesting about their games though is that the horror aspects, like everything else in them, are not original concepts. They are realistic depictions of actual Taiwanese beliefs. That’s one of the main reasons their games are so interesting to play and why they appeal to such a diverse audience within Taiwan. Their first game, Detention, appealed to people of all walks of life and ages in Taiwan. It was an excellent 2D point and click that also managed to be quite scary. Now they’ve released their second game, Devotion, and it’s being met with similar appeal. Already there are reviews and videos of the game all over the Taiwanese internet not just from gamers but from a completely random assortment of Taiwanese citizens. This is because once again they have managed to capture an eerily realistic snapshot of Taiwanese life and culture. Even as an African American living in Taiwan and ultimately experiencing the culture as an outsider, I was extremely impressed with how well the game depicts Taiwan. So before getting into the real meat and potatoes of the game review, know that as cultural snapshots of Taiwan both Detention and Devotion are top notch experiences that are informative, entertaining (for horror fans), and highly accurate.

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Gameplay (Left) – My actual tile (Right)

Devotion is a first person walking simulator style game that takes place in a single apartment building located in, I believe, Taipei. The bulk of the game takes place in a single two bedroom apartment but there are a few sequences that have the player explore other parts of the building as well as fantasy locales for sequences taking place in the spirit realm. The graphics are an incredible step up from their previous game. This is a highly detailed 3D environment that takes place across multiple time periods and realms of reality. While it is still an indie game, the visual quality rivals that of some low to mid-tier AAA titles. The atmosphere is a mixture of vibrant hues and gloomy shadows. As the story takes place across several years of a family’s life, there are many ups and downs depicted in the same 3D space. Some moments are happy and inviting while others are scary and induce paranoia within the player. What’s truly impressive about the graphics is just how realistic they are.

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Gameplay (Left) – My actual door (Right)

As someone who actually lives in an apartment in Taiwan, playing Devotion is a very unique experience. I wasn’t aware of just how similar most apartments are in Taiwan before I played this game, but apparently they’re all pretty much the same, otherwise Red Candle Games must have snuck into my apartment for inspiration. So many small details about the game’s setting are pulled right out of my apartment. The entire time I was playing the game, my girlfriend kept commenting on all the objects that look exactly the same. From the floor tiles, to the doorbell, to the doors, to the kitchen, it’s all a bit too real. This is especially stressful when playing a horror game because it’s just too easy to place yourself within the game when it looks almost exactly like the place you actually live in. I think this is one of the main reasons so many people in Taiwan are taken with the game. It would probably be too uncomfortable of an experience to play this game in VR for me because I might end up trapped in an Inception like state of confusion about reality.

Gameplay wise, it’s a slow paced walking simulator that focuses on developing the story and atmosphere rather than on exciting gameplay mechanics. You move, look around, and click on things to interact with them. Occasionally you are required to use a few other buttons to do specific things like pull up your item menu or complete a specific active task for effect, but mostly it’s just looking around and discovering things. There is a single chase sequence that requires you to quickly run through a maze of hallways. This is the only part of the game where you can die, which I did several times. The game quickly reloads to the start of that sequence and has you try again until you’ve finally succeeded. Though this one sequence is different from the entire rest of the game’s gameplay it works just fine and requires little to no adjustment from normal play. Honestly I could have used a few more sequences of this nature to make the overall experience more exciting and increase the fear factor.

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A large part of the gameplay involves reading. There are 33 different documents to find, many of which contain clues that help you figure out how to progress forward. I don’t believe you need to find all of them to complete the game, because there is a trophy/achievement for doing so and not all of them reference specific actions you need to complete. The bulk of them provide you with background information about the narrative as well as culturally specific traditions and legends. As this is a point and click, reading and interpreting clues is paramount to reaching the end. Chances are you will get stuck and have to look over things more than one time before you realize what the game expects you to do. I ran into this situation about midway through the game. This was not an issue of language limitations, as all the text is in English and the dialog, though in Chinese, is all subtitled in English. The roadblock I ran into was cultural. You had to complete a ritual that was probably fairly obvious to most traditional Taiwanese citizens, but as an African American I knew nothing about it. It was only after reading through all the documents I collected along the way that I found the clue I needed to solve the puzzle. Though it can be frustrating while playing, I really like this type of system because it really forces you to use your skills of observation and interpretation to solve puzzles rather than just handing you the answers to move forward. Chances are you will end returning to each of the available time periods more than once before you find and figure out everything you need to finish the game.

While the gameplay is fairly basic at a mechanical level, I highly recommend that you use a keyboard and mouse if playing on PC, which I was. The game supports multiple controller types but the amount of lag when using a controller with the default settings is unbearable. I tried both a Dualshock 4 and a Wii U Pro Controller and both performed unacceptably. The walking movement is laggy and looking around is extremely inconsistent as well. But as soon as I switched to a keyboard and mouse the controls were flawless. Movement is smooth and quick to respond. Commands are highly responsive with pretty much no input lag. You do have the ability to try to change the sensitivity of the controller to make it run better, but not to the standard that it should be running at. I was able to clean up the movement considerably but there was still quite a bit of lag and the movement kept stopping abruptly after raising the sensitivity to account for the lag. You just need to use a keyboard and mouse to play this on PC. At least until some patches are added. Really the only performance problem I had once I gave up on using a controller was that the game crashed once near the end. A simple restart of the application solved the problem and no other ones ever occurred. And with the game’s auto-saving function I lost a maximum of maybe 2 minutes of progress with the restart. The game is also broken up into chapters so you can easily backtrack without having to lose too much progress. You can also use this function post-game to replay specific sequences.

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There are only a few sequences where the gameplay is slightly different from the general experience. The chase scene that I mentioned previously, a few mini-game style moments involving some puzzles, and a storybook fantasy sequence that plays like a platformer. All in all, the gameplay was exactly what it needed to be, but I do feel like there could have been more sequences outside of the traditional point and click mechanics of the normal gameplay.

As with Detention, the writing in Devotion is very personal and culturally specific. The game follows a family, mostly through the eyes of the father but sometimes from the daughter’s perspective as well. The story mixes elements of horror, mystery, and drama to touch on serious themes including parenting, religion, financial insecurity, marriage, and ultimately guilt. Much of the plot is steeped in metaphors and cultural references that don’t all necessarily translate to the larger world. I was lucky enough to be able to play through the whole game alongside a Taiwanese person to explain things to me. While this lack of cultural understanding will absolutely not hinder your ability to complete the game, there are definitely some parts of the narrative that you most likely won’t understand or be able to relate to directly depending on your cultural and religious background. The ending is a good example of this. It’s sort of abrupt and not clear what actually happened. But my girlfriend explained to me that if you read the Chinese text of the game that it’s much more obvious what actually occurred. I won’t spoil that here though. In a way it’s not necessarily a problem for the ending to be vague as the game touches on supernatural themes anyway that can be left up to interpretation by each individual player.

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I was happy with the way the story was presented, but ultimately it was a hollow overall experience for me compared to Detention. The buildup is really good and the atmosphere is very scary. Within the first 10 minutes of the game my girlfriend and I literally jumped out of our seats and yelled because of a specific occurrence. This, along with much of the marketing materials pre-release, led me to believe that this was going to be a true horror game. Sadly it wasn’t. There are a few horror sequences, and they are done fairly well, but the bulk of the game is not scary. Instead the atmosphere is used to make the player expect something scary to happen but that rarely happens throughout the course of the game. The rest of the game is more sad and introspective than terrifying. And that’s not a problem, or at least it wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t been misled into believing I was about to play a horror game. So while the writing was in no way bad, it also lacked the impact I wanted it to have. It was very similar to playing Gone Home (2013), where the game comes off like a haunted house horror game but is really just an emotional journey about the main character’s family problems and learning to accept reality. I would love to see these same visual assets reused to make a proper horror game.

Because I was much more focused on reading subtitles and documents as well as searching for clues, I feel like the sound didn’t have the impact on me it probably could have had while I was playing. There are some great sound effects at times such as the use of knocking on doors to clue you in on where you should be going next. The sound quality of the voice acting was quite good, even if I couldn’t understand it directly. The music, though few and far between, was effective and really helped bring the daughter character to life.  Overall, the sound quality was quite good, but my need to focus on reading detracted from my ability to focus on and ultimately appreciate it. It’s important to note that you could technically play through the whole game with the sound off but you would lose out on the full impact of the voice acting, the music used as part of the narrative, and some of the of the better sound effects.

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I can’t really say that there’s any reason to replay Devotion more than once. You can easily get 100% completion in the first playthrough and if you miss anything it’s easy to load one of the chapters and backtrack to the achievement(s) you missed. This is ultimately how I got the only achievement I missed during my first playthrough. And the chapter load took me right to where I needed to get to complete that achievement. So while the first playthrough is quite good, I really can’t say that there is any real replay value in this game. I have already heard rumors that extra content will be added though. The whole game can be beaten in under 4 hours so I gotta say that the $17 price tag is a bit too steep. It’s definitely worth playing and can be beaten to a 100% completion in one sitting, which I did. But my advice is to wait for a price drop.

While I liked Detention more overall, Devotion was a great step up quality wise for Red Candle Games. The jump in graphics between the two games was mind blowing. The writing, though not as scary, was just as culturally significant and impactful while remaining a personal narrative about specific characters in the world. And the narrative is totally believable. The supernatural stuff is of course open for interpretation but the real life events could be about pretty much any Taiwanese family. The gameplay works, but they really need get the controller performance up to snuff. I’m kind of curious to see how the game will perform on other platforms when it’s inevitably ported like Detention was. While I gave it a 6.9, let me be clear in saying that this score is not because the game isn’t good. It’s because it has issues with controller play, no replay value, and a fairly high opening price point for the amount of actual gameplay. The score is in no way meant to present the game as a bad gameplay experience. I simply can’t in good conscience score it higher with those issues. If the game was at say $5, had more achievements, and no controller issues, we’re looking at something around an 8/10 rating. At the end of the day, I encourage you to try Devotion. It’s an interesting experience that’s much different from the walking simulators and point and clicks you see from Western developers. It’s a solid second installment for the company and certainly worth your time.

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The Division 2 VIP Beta Review

Let me start by saying that I did not preorder The Division 2. I did play the VIP beta, because I was fortunate enough to obtain a code. But I would never preorder a game in order to demo the game. For me, since demos are now almost completely dead (written as I currently download the Devil May Cry V demo), betas are the new demos. This is even more true when you consider just how little beta feedback actually changes the final game from the beta these days. Betas are the new way we try before we buy. And developers know that which is why they’ve started doing these closed betas that require most participants to pre-order the game. It’s a dumb system and dumb choice to fall into it, but lots of people do it so developers will keep getting away with it. That opening statement was not in any way, shape, or form meant to disparage The Division 2 as a game. It’s merely to comment on current business practices I disagree with while also stating my objectivity with this review because I haven’t spent any money on the game and thus can judge the beta from a neutral position.

The first thing that needs to be said about The Division 2 is that Ubisoft did not reinvent the wheel, and that’s a compliment. I really liked The Division. I liked the core story. I loved the gameplay. I loved the map. I loved the concept of the dark zone. I loved a lot, but not everything, about the gear system. For me it was a great game. The endgame was severely lacking at the start and then by the time it released I had no interest in jumping back into the game so I never really got to experience a lot of the later content. But in general I thought it was an excellent game. Really what I wanted from The Division 2 was the same core game with a lot more polish in a new locale with better endgame content. While I can’t speak to the amount of content in this sequel based on the beta, I can speak to the gameplay and basic mechanics and those are for the most part almost exactly what I wanted.

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Improvements have been made. One of the most noticeable is in the storage. It’s organized now. As soon as you open it, you notice the specific gear type categories. Thank God! So much more convenient. And managing your gear is streamlined as well. You can mark things as junk and leave them in your backpack or stash to return to them later still marked as junk. Or you can press “Deconstruct Junk” from the sub-menu and all your junk gear is instantly deconstructed. I will never go back to manually deconstructing again, because it takes longer to manually deconstruct one item than to just mark the one item as junk and deconstruct it through the sub menu. The gameplay is still really tight, but I think the cover to cover movement is even smoother than in the first game. The weapons and gear system is pretty much the same with the color coding, numbers, and special attributes. And that’s fine. The compare items system works much better than I remember it being in the first game. Maybe I’m just imagining that part though. But in general the gameplay feels better while not totally different. The crafting is still an annoying RNG system though.

The world is much more interesting. I know a lot of people were/are whining that it’s no longer set in New York, but that’s a stupid complaint. What really matters is how alive the setting itself is regardless of where it is. The world of The Division 2 is much more alive . . . with NPCs. There are many more animals in the map now. Not just dogs. There are dear, raccoons, rats, birds, dogs, and probably other things. Hopefully a bear appears at some point. And all the animals are interactive. You can even kill the rats, which I of course tested FOR SCIENCE! There are many more patrols of enemies as well as friendly NPCs roaming the map. You can call for backup from NPCs, which is awesome. You can take control points and then they get guarded and managed by friendlies, who you can then supply with resources to make them stronger. And these control points act as fast travel points so you have a lot more efficiency when traveling around the map, if you want it. At the same time though, the world outside the DZ seemed pretty devoid of other players. I want to believe this was just because it was a closed beta, but I saw plenty of other players in the safe houses. But outside I had very little contact, or even sight of, other players that I wasn’t personally grouped with. And honestly even the DZ wasn’t as populated as I expected/hoped it would be with actual people.

Dead Rat
Rat postmortem.

The lack of players was hopefully the cause of this, but I had so much trouble with the matchmaking. Really that was my only serious complaint about the beta. The entire matchmaking system outside of main missions is/was absolute trash in the beta. The first problem, which the game didn’t notify me about, was that your settings are defaulted to friends and clan members only. The problem with this is that it didn’t tell me which led me to spending over an hour trying to find people to join my group from the matchmaking station with no luck. Someone on Twitter had to tell me to change my settings. But that didn’t even really help. First, the game kept switching back to friends and clan only no matter how many times I set it to open. I’m not sure what was causing this. But even when it was set to open, I had no luck with getting people to join me. I’d sit at the matchmaking station forever and no one would join. I’d get tons of invites to join others but never got anyone to join me. Now usually I don’t care about being the group leader, but because of what I consider a content management flaw, being group leader when you’re actually trying to complete stuff outside of main missions is required.

The matchmaking in main missions works great. You go to the mission start point and the matchmaking station is right there. It works quickly and effectively. And when you complete the mission it’s done for you even if you weren’t the host. The same cannot be said for random map activities. Taking control points is challenging. It’s not impossible to do solo but it is hard. The final control point on my map was too difficult for me to solo with the gear I had at the time. So I opted to try to do it with other people. I joined a random group and we cleared it. Then when I returned to my session it was still unfinished, leaving me stuck still unable to finish it and still unable to get people to join my group. My main issues with the matchmaking come down to a lack of hard controls/customization options.

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First, why do I have to go to the matchmaking station? It’s 2019. This is supposedly a map full of players constantly roaming around looking for things to do. Why can’t I just initiate matchmaking from anywhere in the world and nearby players can just join up? In Destiny I you would see people running around the map all the time. You could easily work together without being in the same group and easily join up without having to change sessions or forgo your own game’s progress.

Second, why can’t I control specific details of the matchmaking process? I would get countless invites to other groups but no one ever joined mine. Why can’t I set that option in the matchmaking? I should be able to tell the game exactly what I’m looking for, whether or not I want to be the group leader, and what specific type of activity I want to do. The matchmaking station only had six categories: random activity, random main mission, open world exploration, answer the call, and random bounty and dark zone, both of which were not available during the beta. These matchmaking options aren’t specific enough. Random activity truly was completely random. It would just pick a task with no regard to what I actually needed to do on my map and try to toss me into some random group. Random main mission seems completely pointless until/unless you’ve already done everything and are just looking to farm XP. I hope I never need to use that. Open world exploration is too vague. Instead you should be able to choose from a list of available activities on the map like take control points, farm XP/gear, side missions, or any other number of things that can be done on the map. Random bounty gives me hope because bounties are a nice new addition. They’re randomly occurring hunt missions where you have to take down a specific NPC within a time limit for special gear and additional XP. Having a specific matchmaking option for this gives me hope that there will be tons of them constantly running on the map. During the beta I only encountered two or three bounties. A dark zone matchmaking system is of course necessary and will obviously be present in the final game. I just hope they put a matchmaking station in the DZ entrance, since there wasn’t one in the beta, in the final game because the safe houses aren’t near the DZ entrance, which you can fast travel to directly.

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The answer the call feature is the beginnings of a great idea that I hope works better and easier in the final product. While you can’t match make from anywhere on the map, you can call for help. This is not when you’re bleeding out and hoping for a revive. You can send up a call directly from the map or menu at any time. People can answer your call and randomly join your group to help with whatever activity you’re doing. This was the only time I was able to get someone to join my group. It took a while, but eventually a white knight answered my call. The nice thing about this feature is that you can leave the call on while still playing the game so you’re not just sitting around waiting like at the matchmaking station. And the game notifies you when someone puts out a call nearby. The problem is it doesn’t show you on the map where they are unless you answer the call so you never really know how far it is till you’ve already committed. Another problem with the feature is that I think you have to go to the matchmaking station and use the answer the call feature to help someone else. I kept getting random notifications via ISAC that someone was in need of assistance and had put out a call. And I genuinely wanted to join these players and help them. But I couldn’t figure out how to do that from where I was when getting the notification. I hope I’m wrong and just couldn’t figure it out because the feature will only be effective if at any time from anywhere you can just answer the call, join their group, and run directly to the location of the player in need. If you actually have to go to a safe house and use the matchmaking station first then it’s a wasted concept no better than the open world exploration matchmaking feature. The matchmaking needs to be heavily improved. Being part of the Division is the main crux of the game’s plot/concept. If you can’t easily and effectively team up and work with others then it’s a waste of what’s for the most part an excellent shared world shooter.

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The Dark Zone seems much improved in some ways and worse in others. There is no longer a single dark zone that everyone plays in. Instead, like the map itself, there are dark zone districts of varying difficulty levels, each with multiple entry points. This is a way better system. It allows players to choose the level of challenge they’ll be facing and better manage their DZ experience. I kind of hope there will be some sort of management controls from Ubisoft’s side that will ensure that super high rank players can’t just roll into the noob DZ and tear through lower level players. That’s the only problem I see with a system that actively tells you where the easy and hard parts of the DZ are. It’s essentially creating a shooting gallery for advanced players. The DZ otherwise works much the same as in the first game. But now there are more marked enemy spawn points and notifications to tell you when they’re occupied so you can better manage your roaming time and not just wonder around hoping to find stuff to do. I didn’t see enough other players in the DZ, but again this was a closed beta so I assume this won’t be a huge issue in the final game. My biggest complaint about the DZ was the frequency of valuable drops. There were not nearly enough air drops taking place. In the time it took me to reach DZ level 10 I saw only two or three total air drops. This is too slow for a populated DZ. They should be happening every five to ten minutes so there’s enough swag for all players to at least have time to get to and try to fight for. And the occupied landmarks weren’t dropping enough valuable stuff at all. Many times I would clear areas and not even get any contaminated gear. While I really liked the fact that you could get some gear in the DZ without having to do the extractions, this shouldn’t be happening at the rate it was compared to finding contaminated gear. And the contaminated gear I was finding was mostly complete trash.

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Since there was no DZ matchmaking available during the beta, I ran the DZ solo. I liked that I was able to do that effectively. I worked with other random players I found within the DZ without ever officially teaming up with them. The system works and people are able to coordinate well within the DZ without being in groups. I was also able to kill a rogue agent, steal his gear, and extract it solo. I only saw two the entire time I was in the DZ so a 50% success rate is pretty good. The DZ leveling system is nice. You can level up fairly quickly if you stick to farming landmarks. In The Division 2 DZ levels come with special perks that only affect the DZ. There are level tiers every five DZ levels and each tier grants you a perk. Some levels have only one perk and others have you choose which one you want to implement, sacrificing the others in that tier in the process. You can respec your DZ perks but this feature wasn’t available in the beta so I don’t know what the cost or process of doing this is.

In general, I really like how the map is broken down. Each area, including the DZ is clearly marked with level range recommendations/requirements. There are a fair number of fast travel locations in each area, once you’ve unlocked them. There are events constantly appearing to farm additional XP such as bounties, hostage situations, and broadcast hacks. Even if the endgame isn’t super strong, there seems like there will be more efforts to keep the game alive past the base game. But there is definitely going to be what seems to be a lot of end game content as well.

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Endgame is always the Achilles heel of these types of games. It’s especially difficult when they’re not trying to go the Destiny route of adding plot based expansions at additional cost, which I can’t say will or won’t be the case with The Division 2 at this point. What I can say is that the beta featured a number of endgame clues and teases. There is of course the DZ, which I already discussed. Each mission can also be replayed on a harder difficulty. But that’s not all there is. There are definitely going to be raids because they’re mentioned in the beta’s pause menu. But there are also invasion missions. Invasion missions are replays of old mission maps with completely new enemies and plot tie-ins. But these aren’t just the same enemies with new skins. These enemies are way harder, way smarter, and way different. I finished the final (second) main mission in the beta at level six. The maximum level you could reach during the beta was level seven. That’s regular level as opposed to DZ level. Upon completing the last available main mission you unlocked special access to an invasion mission. This gave you access to three specialty builds that were much higher level and had way better gear. This gear also included an additional (fourth) weapon with a special feature. Examples included a grenade launcher and a compound bow. This mission had enemies set to level 32, more than four times higher than the enemies in the regular mission. They were a special military group that was invading the area and presumably trying to conquer Washington DC. They had crazy stuff including literal attack robots. This mission was difficult. It took me, as part of a four man team, 58 minutes to complete. It was stressful, it was scary, it was exhilarating, it was satisfying as hell once completed. While I don’t love the idea of replaying the same mission maps over and over, calling these the same missions does a disservice to the people that designed them. It is a wholly different experience. In light of all this, I’d say it looks like there is going to be a fair amount of endgame. I just hope it’s available as soon as I reach the end of the base game.

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Finally, there seems to be a new PVP mode other than the DZ. The Conflict mode was described in one of the tutorial messages, but sadly I didn’t have time to try it before the beta ended. Hopefully I’ll be able to try it in a public beta before the game releases. Based on the little bit the tutorial screen tells about it, I believe it’s a PVP mode with multiple specialized maps and modes that nets rewards. It also has its own leveling system, making a total of three within the game I’ve seen so far. I could also believe that many people were playing this mode which might explain why the map felt so devoid of players to me.

Overall I was really happy with this beta. It showed me the things I needed to see and experience to want to buy the full game. Gold edition seems like it will probably be necessary, but without a content timetable, I can’t say if it’s the best decision for me, as I really didn’t make proper use of the season pass in the first one. I had a good time with this beta and I think this game will do very well. It’s the same core game from the first one with a number of noticeable improvements, added modes, and a new setting. I’m definitely looking forward to retaking Washington DC.

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Taipei Game Show 2019

Once again, I had the pleasure of attending Taipei Game Show this year. It’s one of my favorite shows because of how hands on it is. It’s also one of the better game conventions that’s both completely open to the public and extremely affordable, with a single day ticket price of just $10. I will say though that the ticket price is up 50% from last year so while it’s not high, that increase in price percentage wise is worrying for the future of the show. I will qualify that statement by saying Taipei Game Show is one of the best shows for high quality free swag that’s open to the public. Every year I get a fairly good haul of stuff I probably don’t need and this year was no different.

The best thing about gaming events in Taiwan is the large number of playable demos. I’ve been to company specific events like PlayStation Gaming Festival Taipei and neutral events like Taipei Game Show over the last few years and consistently events in Taiwan always focus on having playable demos open to the public rather than just footage and demos only available for VIP invited visitors. This is the main reason I keep going back every year.

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In general, I’d say this was a weaker show than last year’s. At last year’s show, the bulk of games on display to try were unreleased titles or games that were very new. At this year’s show there was plenty of new stuff that hadn’t been released yet, but there were also a lot of demos for stuff that was already out.  Even some stuff that I’d already beaten. Take the Ubisoft booth for instance. They had Just Dance 2019 on their main stage, which is fine because they always have that year’s Just Dance running with people dancing because it makes for a good show. But their other offerings were lacking. They of course had The Division 2 Beta and that’s exactly what should have been there. That was the main portion of their booth. But the only other games they had on display to try were Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Starlink: Battle for Atlas, and Trials Rising. That means of the five games they had on display three of them had already been released last year. And I personally own all three of them so unless you wanted to wait in line for over an hour to try The Division 2, which I didn’t having already played the alpha, I just tried Trials Rising, which I’ll discuss in detail in my demos review section of this post.

It wasn’t just Ubisoft that was featuring a lot of already released stuff though. Bandai Namco always has a large booth, and this year was no different. But the only game I tried from them was God Eater 3. The main focus of their booth was Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown, which makes sense because it literally came out this month. But they were featuring demos for Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun!, Katamari Damacy Reroll, and a bunch of Gundam stuff that’s focused on the Asia market that I’ve never heard of, as per usual. The only game that they had that was truly special for a show was One Piece World Seeker, which I didn’t even get to try because I didn’t realize they had it until the show was closing for the day. They did no special promotion for it. No large display, which they had for two or three other games, including Ace Combat 7, no posters, no special One Piece swag. They just had it set up on a few screens and you had to notice it on your own, which sadly I didn’t.

bandai booth

As usual, there was no XBOX presence there. Other than PC gaming, which is a big thing at the show every year, Microsoft has no showings at Taipei Game Show. You can buy some PS4 and Switch games at the show every year, but not a single XB1 game could be found. Speaking of which, they had physical copies of Kingdom Hearts III available which is awesome because the game launched in Taiwan the day I attended, which shows just how on top of their game SONY really was for the show.

The thing I found most disappointing about the show this year was the limited Nintendo presence. They didn’t take the time to show up in person like PlayStation does every year. You only get glances of the Switch through third party developers/publishers like Ubisoft and Bandai Namco. But an actual Nintendo booth and store would have been so much better. PlayStation had their own official booth and store, selling new physical games and merch, like they do every year. You could even buy Death Stranding t-shirts this year, though they didn’t have any new footage or gameplay for the game being shown, because of course they didn’t. In a way PlayStation is uncontested just about every year at Taipei Game Show because they put in the investment to make a spectacular booth and feature a huge number of playable demos including PSVR offerings. Most of the demos I played at the show this year, as is true every year, were at the PlayStation booth. And really I don’t think it should be that way. It simply is because enough other companies don’t care enough to participate, which is sad to say the least.

playstation booth

On the PC side of things, it was kind of disappointing because though most of the big Asian players attended such as Nvidia, HyperX, Gigabyte, Cooler Master, ASUS ROG, MSI, and even ThermalTake, they all focused on parts rather than games. They were selling parts in their booths, which is fine, but really that was the main focus of their booths. Showing off and selling products that could be used for gaming rather than focusing on actual gaming. And while this makes perfect sense from a business perspective, as these are hardware companies, it really detracts from the spirit of the show. They could do a lot more to feature more playable demos for new and yet to be released games and make that the focus of their booths while showing off their hardware. In my opinion, this would be the more appropriate way to do things. Of all the PC booths I saw, only ASUS ROG had a demo for an unreleased game. They had a small section where you could try out the PC version of Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice as evidenced by a single mid-sized poster on the far side of their booth. In comparison, PlayStation had a giant statue of one of the game’s bosses and a small Japanese hut shaped structure where you could try out the game complete with Japanese style stools/backless chairs. This was the only PlayStation demo I experienced that did not require you to stand. The point is that PlayStation put in that much investment to display a game that isn’t even exclusive to their platform, meanwhile these PC companies were doing the bare minimum to talk about actual games.

cm booth

On the swag front, I’m always really impressed most by the mobile app companies and indie studios. It shows just how much money mobile apps make in Asia, because their swag is on a whole other level compared to companies like PlayStation and Nvidia. The swag for the PlayStation booth was game specific. Meaning you got different stuff for trying different games, with most games having no special items at all. Every PlayStation demo gave you red envelopes with a 7 day free trial for PlayStation plus. This is very standard for Taipei Game Show as it always happens right before Chinese New Year, so the envelopes are culturally specific to Asia. Over the years I’ve gotten red envelopes from numerous brands. This year only PlayStation had them. But certain games also gave you special items for trying them. Dead or Alive 6 gave a lanyard and collectors pin. A VR game called Focus on You gave a full sized couch pillow. But most of the time you just got the envelopes. And remember that this is after waiting forever in those long PlayStation lines. Meanwhile some random mobile app company gave me a fairly large stuffed cow, which I named Mr. Moo Cow, for trying three apps over the course of maybe 10 minutes. I will clarify that trying the three apps gave me the chance to draw a prize and that’s what I won, but they had lots of great prizes and plenty of those cows to give away.

An indie PC game studio that I’ve never heard of gave me a full length mousepad of very good quality. Again I drew this, but the same logic applies. SEGA gave out blue lanyards. Nvidia made me travel to five different locations around their booth as well as one at another booth they were partnered with for the chance to draw a prize, which ultimately got me a Monster energy drink and some stickers. Of all the larger companies at the show, I’d have to say the best single swag item was from Bandai Namco. It was a Taiko no Tatsujin: Drum ‘n’ Fun! themed neck pillow. But it required you to try five different games they had on display, all of which had their own separate lines. Sadly I didn’t have time to complete this. I even offered to pay for the pillow because I really wanted one and they refused to let me buy it. Overall I was very happy with my swag haul, but my point is the larger companies in the industry really could stand to step their game up.

swag tgs 2019

I will say though that Ubisoft impressed me this year by thinking more outside the box with their swag. Last year they had a system where you tried any game, of which they had several compared to this year, and you got a prize draw. You went to the claims table and they had you play a Just Dance themed prize machine like the one in Just Dance 2018 and you won a random prize, of which they had a large variety of prizes you could win. I got an Assassin’s Creed Origins t-shirt, a Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle t-shirt, and a Rabbid Mario hat. It was a really nice system because most of the prizes were really good and the system was entirely random so you didn’t have to wait to try a game you didn’t necessarily want to try to get the swag you wanted. It did however mean that you could get swag you absolutely didn’t want or repeat prizes. They also had a special For Honor keychain which was only available to those who waited in line to try that specific game, which I of course did. This year they didn’t have general swag. You only got a 5% coupon to the Taiwan UPLAY online store. But their game specific swag for The Division 2 was very creative. You got a “Tommy the Teddy Bear” backpack charm which consists of a teddy bear with a bowtie and a The Division 2 keychain. But the really cool part is that it comes with an in game activation code that will give your character in the game the teddy bear charm for their backpack as well. That’s cool swag. It makes a direct connection between the live event and the game. It’s limited edition, which players really care about for some reason, and it motivates people to buy the game. And it was still cheaper to make than the neck pillows or Mr. Moo Cow while being just as valuable to the gamers at the show. Kudos to Ubisoft.

tommy the teddy

Now let’s talk about what’s really important at game shows: the playable demos. I had the privilege to play seven AAA/large studio demos for games that weren’t yet released at my time of playing (I’m counting Kingdom Hearts III because it wasn’t available in the US for another four days) as well as a few indie titles. Sadly, the three indie titles I recall playing, one on PSVR and two on PC, weren’t anything special so I won’t take the time to go over them in this already long blog post. So let’s just talk about the big stuff. Please note that at Taipei Game Show demos only last 10 – 15 minutes due to the sheer number of people waiting to play. They simply can’t let people play for as long as I would have liked to, and that makes sense. So be aware that my assessment of these demos should be taken with a grain of salt because I didn’t have time to change any settings or get super comfortable with the controls. Also note that the demos in Taipei Game Show are mapped for Asian players, which is different from standard button maps in the West. For instance, on a DualShock 4 controller O is the confirm button in Asia, while X is the confirm button in the West. These sorts of things do really make a difference. I remember going to Taipei Game Show back in 2016 and trying Attack on Titan for the first time and absolutely hating it because of the button map and my inability to read the directions, since they’re always in Chinese or Japanese at Taipei Game Show. Then when I got to try the game at home with an American button map and English directions I absolutely loved the game.

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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice

Of all the demos available, this was the one I was most excited to try. Obviously Kingdom Hearts III was more important overall, but that was set to release less than a week from the event so trying the demo for 10 minutes wasn’t really that important in the grand scheme of things. Sekiro on the other hand is one of my top games for this year that won’t be out for some time. The only game I wanted to play more than Sekiro is Ghost of Tsushima, which sadly wasn’t available to play. Though they did have a giant poster and a guy dressed up like a samurai to promote the game and taunt my very soul. But thankfully I at least got to try the next great soulslike title.

Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice was a rough demo experience. Obviously the game is difficult, which it should be. But it’s also not the same gameplay as Dark Souls or Bloodborne, so you can’t just walk on with that past experience and expect things to just click right away. This is a completely different animal. For starters, the pace of the gameplay is much faster than even Bloodborne. You’re zip-lining around the level, dealing with long range attacks like rifles, and having to dodge the view of spotters stealthily hidden throughout the world. It’s as much about stealth as it is about combat performance. And you are not very powerful in the grand scheme of things. Basic samurai go down in a few swipes, or instantly with a stealth kill. But even the first tier armored samurai were quite the amount of effort/attacks to take down. And the first mini-boss was pretty much impossible for me to bring down in the 10 minutes I had. This is because he had four other enemies in the area with him, two of which couldn’t be stealth killed. The three of them together were just too difficult for the items I had. The long range attacks are severely lacking. At least what was available to me in the demo. I really hope to be able to get a bow and/or rifle in the full game. I really hated the button map in this demo. I hate to be one of those people that makes excuses like that for not being able to beat a game, but honestly if I can’t remap that game and that’s the final layout for the US version, I’m gonna have a terrible time. It did not work for me at all. It’s not that it’s drastically different from Bloodborne. It’s that what you’re doing in Bloodborne with the controls is vastly different and that makes all the difference in the effectiveness of the button layout.

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I want to be clear in saying that I don’t think it’s a bad game after playing the demo. I’m fairly certain I’ll be buying the Collector’s Edition day one. It’s very challenging, which is what it’s supposed to be. But there are definitely things I want to see changed in the final product from what I experienced in the demo. That’s of course assuming the conditions leading up to the point in the game the demo took place in are inevitable for the items, skills, and damage I was getting in the demo. It’s very possible that the experience I’ll have based on my preferred play style will net drastically different outcomes from what I got in the demo.

Dead or Alive 6

I’m a big Dead or Alive fan and have been since I bought the third installment on the original XBOX 18 years ago. I had played the earlier games causally in arcades but DOA3 is when I really fell in love with the franchise. It’s still in my top five fighting franchises and I play every game. Really I don’t expect things to be too different from game to game and I prefer it that way because the DOA formula is nearly perfect in my opinion. I just want some new fighters, new stages, and maybe some new special moves and I’m pretty much fine with it.

What I got from this demo is almost exactly what I wanted. The graphics are good. The roster includes all the characters I wanted, including Hyabusa, and the gameplay is much the same. There are some new specialty attacks, similar to what you get in the latest Soul Calibur, but by and large it’s the same buttery smooth, fast paced gameplay fans of the franchise are accustomed to. There was also a great selection of costumes for all the fighters. I’m very much looking forward to playing this game.

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Devil May Cry 5

I’ve never beaten any of the DMC games, unless you count DmC: Devil May Cry (2013) by Ninja Theory. But I’ve always wanted to play them all. I’ve been very impressed by the things I’ve seen about DMC5 so I finally bought  1 – 4 remastered on PS4. The DMC5 demo delivered both what I wanted and expected. It’s fast paced, smooth, visually gruesome, and slightly comedic. I was very happy with the gameplay, though I do feel that I didn’t fully understand the robotic hand system they implemented. I thought it was a bit weird, but I also liked that you could completely destroy your hand and then have to fight with one arm. The different arm types were cool as well because it allowed you to create a more customized gameplay experience based on your preferences. The gameplay was fair. I’d recommend playing this one on hard if you’re a hardcore fan of the franchise or genre. I beat the boss in the demo with little fear of dying. But overall I was very happy with it and I’ll certainly be buying the game.

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God Eater 3

God Eater is a franchise I’ve always been interested in but never had the time to really play. I actually own the first two games on PC, but I’ve never played either of them. I really like the genre because of games like Toukiden and Monster Hunter World. But when you have games like Monster Hunter World available the motivation to take the time to play anything else in the genre becomes sorely lacking. But I still wanted to try this demo.

Personally I struggled a lot with this demo. A large part of that comes from the fact that it wasn’t in English. I had such a hard time trying to figure out the weapons controls. I kept accidentally changing from the sword to the gun mode and then couldn’t get the gun to fire properly. The demo had me running around looking for monsters but very few were spawning in the level. I actually ran out of time before the real monster showed up so my whole demo experience was really lousy. I hope they release a public demo because I’d genuinely like to try it again with a full understanding of how the gameplay mechanics work before passing final judgement. That is to say the game is not at all intuitive.

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Kingdom Hearts III

I have waited more than a decade to play Kingdom Hearts III. I have watched as Square Enix dished out garbage handheld spin off title after garbage handheld spin off title. I have seen Sora travel to worlds that made up my childhood and fight alongside some of my favorite characters growing up. But in all these years I have never seen his story get a proper conclusion. It is my hope that I will finally get this in Kingdom Hearts III. No I did not need to play a demo for a game that will literally be released before this blog post is even published. But of course I took the time to wait in line and play it anyway.

The game dropped me directly into Toy Story world. I don’t know how far into the game that was/is, but it seemed like it was quite a ways in because I was really OP. I could combo through the air for what seemed like forever. I had magic attacks that were super powerful. It was definitely fun but it did not feel earned. The team up moves were amazing and quite beautiful. I also really liked that Buzz and Woody fought alongside me without me having to sacrifice Donald or Goofy from my team. The demo definitely did its job in making me excited to play the game. But I’m hoping they don’t just drop me in at that level of power from the start. The gameplay was very smooth overall, as is to be expected. And the AI for my team mates was very effective as well. I can’t comment on Donald’s healing AI/ability at this point because I didn’t take enough damage to require healing.

kingdom hearts 3

At the end of the day, I already preordered the game months ago so playing the demo didn’t matter much to me or have any impact on my decision to buy and play the game. But I am really looking forward to finally getting to play it. As I write this post, I’m preloading it onto my PS4.

Space Channel 5 PSVR

I didn’t actually know this game was in the works. Space Channel 5 was one of my favorite games from the Dreamcast. It’s one of the only games that I enjoyed with my sisters as a kid. Even my mom liked watching us play it. I’m a big music/rhythm game fan and SC5 was one of the best from that era. The blend of story, challenging gameplay, and sci-fi graphics made for a great music game experience. And it featured Michael Jackson. So I was both shocked and ecstatic to find out that a VR version of the game was in the pipeline and available to try.

I have to say that it worked very well gameplay wise. You really had to do the moves and keep to the rhythm. It was responsive, mostly fair in its judgement of your move accuracy, and quite fun. The demo didn’t have any of the more challenging dance battles because it was only the first level, but from what I experienced I think it could end up being a stellar overall gameplay experience. What I didn’t like was that they changed the level structure and presentation. In the original game you play as Ulala and travel through the stages dance battling aliens and rescuing people along the way. In this demo you played as Ulala’s trainee and the entire concept of traveling through the stage was removed. You just stayed in the same place the entire level and the aliens came to you, bringing their hostages along with them. This lazy way of doing the level really took away from the overall experience of the original game. And playing as a trainee was kind of a bummer. Especially since she never talked back to Ulala. I would have much preferred an entirely new story as the third installment of the franchise with this new system rather than change up the process of the original game in this manner. The gameplay is quite solid though so hopefully we’ll see something like that in the future whether it’s Space Channel 5 or a new IP altogether.

sapce channel 5

Trials Rising

I only tried this game because I played and liked the beta for Trials Fusion and didn’t want to play Starlink: Battle for Atlas or Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, both of which I already own. And I certainly wasn’t going to wait two hours to try The Division 2 beta. Especially after having already played the alpha. So I tried the one game that was completely new to me.

Trials Fusion is extremely hard. I’m so glad you can continue from the very plentiful and automatically applied checkpoints because wow is it difficult to get past the various obstacles in a given course. The ramps and angles are so unforgiving. Timing is everything and you rely on luck way too much. I crashed so many times trying to get through a single course that it got depressing. I don’t know who the target audience is for that game but it’s certainly not me.

trials rising

The only two demos that I didn’t get to play but really wanted to were One Piece World Seeker and Concrete Genie. Both of these were under marketed, as in not marketed at all, so I wasn’t even aware of them till the booths were already closing up for the day. This was probably my biggest complaint from the show this year. There simply wasn’t enough put into providing people with information. Usually there’s an information booth in every main intersection. This year there was nothing. No people walking around to ask for directions. No help desk inside the floor. You could get assistance about specific booths from booth employees, but for general help about the show you were on your own with nothing more than a printed map, which I had to go out of my way to find because they weren’t handing them out at the door like they always have in past years that I’ve attended. There should have been a list of playable demos made available online before the show started so you could plan what you wanted to try in advance.

One thing I noticed about a number of demos, both indie and AAA, was that many of them had intros that were way too long. If you tell me I only have 10 – 15 minutes to try out a game, less than a minute of that should be taken up by story introductions. I didn’t wait in line for an hour to get plot points. I just want to try the gameplay and see the graphics. Between that and loading times, so many games were just wasteful in their time management of that 10 – 15 minute span of time. A VR demo I tried from an indie studio had me sit through 10 minutes of introduction with Chinese subtitles and not enough volume before I got to fire a single bullet. This is not OK.

just dance bracelet
My prize for competing.

I’ll end this post by sharing a rather interesting experience I had at the Ubisoft booth. If you follow me on Twitter, then you’re probably aware that I’m a big Just Dance player/fan. Though I’ve never formally competed, based on my online performance for the past two or three installments of the franchise, I genuinely believe and tell people that I’m in the top five players in Taiwan. At least on Nintendo platforms. While I was at the Ubisoft booth waiting in line, I mentioned to one of the employees that spoke English that I was a big fan of the franchise and that I was a top player in Taiwan. As they do every year, they had Just Dance, 2019 in this case, running on the stage. But this year they allowed anyone to walk up and play rather than limit it to invited guest players only like they usually do. I actually didn’t want to play because I had only played about three hours of Just Dance 2019 at this point, having just opened the game earlier in the week. This employee went and told the guy in charge of the Just Dance section of the booth that I claimed to be a top player. He, also being able to speak English, came and asked me if I’d play. I felt like I had to at this point otherwise it would look like I was lying about my skill level. After reaching the stage, they introduced me to the host and Ubisoft’s brand ambassador for Just Dance in Taiwan. The host seemed to be an active Just Dance player but he wasn’t actually playing at that time. The brand ambassador was introduced to me as the number one player in Taiwan. I chose to introduce myself by my Just Dance online name rather than my real name and to my surprise they both recognized my Nintendo Switch User ID from previous Just Dance versions. The brand ambassador was quite good. He had already mastered all the 2019 songs, which makes sense if you started playing it day one because it’s been out since October. I just got a late start because I usually close out the year with the previous version before starting the installment for the next year. I will say without argument that he was better than I was consistently. But of the four to five players playing, I was getting second place and the ambassador was not blowing me out of the water. At times I was even ahead of him but he was ultimately closing out each song in the lead. I actually really would have liked to play against him in some songs from 2018 because I do believe that I was at his level of play. Ultimately they interviewed me after I was done playing and featured my interview in this official Ubisoft Taipei Game Show video. See if you can figure out who I am.

So that’s it for another solid Taipei Game Show. Here’s looking forward to a great year of gaming and attending again next year.

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2018 Year in Review

I’m gonna be honest and say that I was not looking forward to writing this post this year. Not because it was a bad year for gaming but because it was too good. There is just so much to say about gaming in 2018 that I didn’t want to take on the daunting task of trying to summarize it in a single post. There’s really no way to address all the positive things that happened in gaming during 2018. Outside of gaming, the last year was shit. Literally right up to the end of it. But gaming wise it was one of the best years we’ve seen in a long time. So while I’m gonna do my best to do this year justice in a single blog post, I acknowledge that I’m going to come up short. But this post is tradition so it had to be done.

As always, let me talk about how gaming in 2018 was for me personally first. This was an excellent year. I played more release window games in 2018 than I have for the last five to ten years. And I didn’t even break my oath to only buy three day one release titles. Due to review copies, which I’m now getting again in small amounts, as well as borrowing from friends, sales, and winning some contests, I was able to play many games while they were still relevant, which almost never happens. Some of the games I played this year include Monster Hunter World, God of War, Detroit: Become Human, Spider-Man, The Crew 2, Starlink: Battle for Atlas, and of course Smash Bros. Ultimate. I also got a copy of Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey but I haven’t played it yet because I still haven’t played Origins, which I just got for Black Friday. So many of the games I played this year were amazing. I got four platinums. That’s not me bragging. Usually I only get one in a given year. I got four because games kept being so good that I wanted to fully complete them. Plus I played some amazing games from past years like Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. If I had to pick my absolute favorite for the year I would reluctantly say God of War. But we’re talking inches of difference between first, second, and third place. The game that I actually felt had the strongest narrative experience for me personally was Detroit: Become Human. The game that surprised me the most was Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle. I went into that game thinking I would hate it but it was great. Really it was just a full year of phenomenal gaming experiences.

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As for completing my gaming goals in 2018, I was pretty disappointing. I only managed to complete six of my 13 main goals and one of my bonus goals. This is much lower than my completion rate for 2017. I’m gonna try to be better and set more practical goals for 2019. The goal I’m most proud of myself for finishing is that I beat Final Fantasy VII for the first time. Now let’s talk about the highlights, good and bad, of 2018 for the rest of the gaming community. Highlights are in no particular order. As I said already, I’m not really going to be able to do this year justice but I’ll do the best I can.

PS4 Wins the Year

Many great games were released in 2018 on all platforms, but there can be no debate that the overall highest quality total gaming experience was on the PS4. SONY delivered exclusive hit after exclusive hit while still allowing players access to the great cross platform exclusives released in 2018 like Red Dead Redemption 2. The best overall platform for gaming in 2018 was objectively the PS4.

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God of War

In my opinion, this was the game of the year. I was very much against the idea of them making another Kratos game. I was worried about them changing the setting, changing the actor, and adding in a kid. I went into the game expecting something mediocre, but Cory Balrog managed to reboot a franchise that didn’t need to be touched beautifully. It was visually stunning, well written, expertly acted, and mechanically sound. While I wasn’t happy with the cliff hanger ending, I’m happy that a direct sequel will be made and I was extremely impressed with this game overall. And so was everyone else. It won several awards including PlayStation Game of the Year at the Golden Joystick Awards. At the time of writing this it has a 94 on Metacritic. It truly was a perfect reboot to an already great franchise.

Detroit: Become Human

As hit or miss as David Cage is, he delivered an amazing narrative experience with this one. This story was powerful. These characters were meaningful. This world was depressing while being extremely realistic. Parts of this game hit me so hard I thought I was gonna cry. The multiple social issues addressed were done tastefully while not being overly preachy. I will definitely go into the next Quantic Dream game with optimism. While this game didn’t score as high critically as some of the other games released this year, it is a respected PlayStation exclusive and was nominated for several awards.

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Spider-Man

Insomniac Games managed to revolutionize the comic book game genre with this one. This game played perfectly. It looked amazing and had one of the best photo modes I’ve ever seen. It was written at the quality of a Marvel movie and even had a Stan Lee cameo. Hopefully it’s to games what Iron Man was to movies and we will now get a collection of amazing interconnected comic book games taking place in the same universe. It’s a PS4 exclusive though so if you don’t have one you better buy one soon so you don’t get too far behind in the timeline.

ASTRO BOT Rescue Mission

I’m not a huge fan of current VR and I have yet to be truly impressed by any games released on PSVR, or really any VR platforms for that matter. While I haven’t personally played ASTRO BOT Rescue Mission, the talk is that it revolutionized VR gaming. It’s been called the Mario 64 of VR. That’s a hefty claim, but if it’s true I hope it means that we’ll start to see consistently great VR games that make the platform actually worth buying for the majority of gamers. I do personally want to try this game after watching some footage but not enough to go out and buy one of those overpriced headsets. Hopefully as the library grows so will my interest in making the purchase.

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Tetris Effect

It warms my heart to know that Tetris still mattered to people in 2018. It still matters to me and always will. While I think the VR aspect of the game is overrated, it is an excellently made Tetris game overall. Filled with stunning visuals, hypnotic music, and an overall calming vibe, this may be the best Tetris game ever made. The price is way too high but it’s quite a good game for what it ultimately is.

PlayStation Won’t be at E3 2019

Just over a month ago, SONY announced that there would be no PlayStation/SONY presence at E3. The reasons why aren’t exactly clear but many people have their theories. Really this shows that SONY is so confident with the PS4 at this point that they’ve become arrogant.  Maybe that’s OK though. As long as prices don’t go up and they continue to release great exclusives it really doesn’t matter how they get the word out. In the age of the internet, it’s more effective to do news posts all year round like Nintendo than to launch all your bombs in one event. Personally I have no problem with them ditching E3 as long they continue to keep the public informed about current and future projects.  I find the fact that they cancelled PlayStation Experience in 2018 to be more unsettling.

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XB1 Continues to Disappoint

I have no love for Microsoft but I also have no reason to hate the XB1 or the people that use it. At this point I just feel sorry for them more than anything. They get all the cross platform games so that’s nice, but that’s not why you buy a console. It’s the exclusives that make or break a gaming platform and by any objective standard the XB1 is broken. The only truly great exclusive they released in 2018 was Forza Horizon 4. And while it may be a good racing game, that genre doesn’t justify consoles or those who purchase them all on its own.

Sea of Thieves

Sea of Thieves is to XB1 what No Man’s Sky, which wasn’t even an exclusive, was to PS4. It’s a boring, repetitive, mostly disappointing pirate themed farming scenario except the prizes are even more disappointing than those of Destiny. Even more depressing is the fact that it was developed by Rare, because we all expect better from them.

Backwards Compatibility

The one thing that the XB1 must be praised for is the backwards compatibility. The library of backwards compatible games continues to grow and that’s a beautiful thing. It still doesn’t justify the console overall, but it’s a noble thing that Microsoft has taken huge steps in preserving the overall useable lifespan of games. This is even more important in light of Nintendo literally suing private citizens for trying to preserve their older titles. I’d like to see PlayStation take on similar policies with the PS5.

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Sunset Overdrive

I have spent years waiting for them to port Sunset Overdrive to a platform I actually use. In November, they finally ported it to PC. While this is great news for PS4 users, it only serves to cheapen the value of the XB1 even more.  Porting an exclusive like that is a slap in the face to the entire loyal XBOX user base.

Nintendo Gonna Nintendo Hard

What can I say about Nintendo that hasn’t already been said about pet cats? They do whatever they want. They almost completely ignore public opinion on most topics. Nothing they do ever seems to make sense from the outside. They literally attack those who love them. But we still love them. The company doesn’t always make the best decisions, but they almost always make profitable ones. Sales wise, Nintendo owned this year. And that’s following 2017 where we saw Super Mario Odyssey and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. They just print money.

Pokémon Let’s GO

Haters ranted and raved and continue to do so, but this game sold three million copies in the first three days after release. I haven’t purchased it but the more I see footage from it the more I want to. It looks the way Pokémon was originally intended to but couldn’t because of technological limitations. While I think it’s ridiculous to be charging $100 for it because of a single use controller, the overall concept of the Let’s GO games works. And linking it to Pokémon GO was a brilliant move. I doubt this is the last we see of the Let’s GO series.

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Smash Bros Ultimate

Simply put it’s the best Smash Bros. ever made. It is definitely missing a number of features like break the targets and a story mode reminiscent of the original game. But I would still argue that it’s the best in the series. And I do foresee patches and additions being added to it. I will be playing this a lot more than I already have and I don’t even have Nintendo Switch Online.

Super Mario Party

This was certainly a step in the right direction but it came up short. Most people who grew up with the original Mario Party wanted Super Mario Party to just be that with online pvp functionality. Instead they just did a small list of boards, lots of mini-games, and limited online functions. This game was so close to being perfect, but isn’t that what Nintendo does all the time? They love to get about 75% there and just screw up the end game.

Nintendo Online

This service is pretty much everything I feared for Nintendo. It’s peak predation in every sense of the word. The so called deals are basically non-existent. The number of games worth having the service for is super limited. The retro titles are too retro to warrant paying for the service. This is pretty much an additional paywall for Splatoon 2 and Smash Bros Ultimate that has to be repaid annually.

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Dead or Alive Xtreme 3: Scarlet

This is noteworthy more in how surprising it is than the actual game itself. This port of the latest Dead or Alive Beach Volleyball game was not expected to be available on the Switch. Even more surprising is the fact that the Switch version will be uncensored while the PS4 version will be censored. And let’s not forget the HD Rumble feature. Basically playing this game on the Switch is as close to feeling up a woman that the people who are gonna buy this game will ever get to. For a console and company that’s always packaged itself as the family friendly gaming brand, it’s quite shocking and meme worthy that Nintendo allowed this.

Ports, Ports, and more Ports

Ports on the Switch aren’t just for Wii U games anymore. Real AAA PlayStation and XBOX titles are making their way to the Switch and they play and look fairly good while also being portable. DOOM, Wolfenstein II, and Final Fantasy XV: Pocket Edition are just a few examples. And many more have been announced from current and past gens. Slowly the Switch is becoming the most versatile console to game on and the sales numbers show that it’s working.

Noteworthy Non-Exclusives

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Monster Hunter World

Supposedly this was the bestselling Capcom game ever released  . . . and rightly so. What’s great about MHW, and why it was so successful, was that they took an already award winning concept and made it accessible to all gamers. The idea of hunting giant monsters with a very limited narrative structure has always been a good one. The problem with past MH games is that they were always too complicated and had a steep barrier of entry. This game keeps what’s good about the past games but made it much easier for new players to jump in. The many limited time events throughout the year with various cameos like Ryu and Dante have kept the game relevant even several months later.

Battle Royale is Cancer

Cancer is a disease that takes already existing cells within a body and transforms them into harmful cells. As the disease spreads across the body, more and more cells are taken over by the spreading cancer until the life form eventually dies. I think this is a rather apt description of the battle royale genre. It has over taken the industry as the most watched genre on Twitch and developers have taken notice of that. More and more games are adding BR modes. It’s a genre that adds nothing particularly new to gaming. It just transformed traditional PVP into baseless 100 man maps with no story, no chance to turn the game around after dying, and no reason to care about the match once you’ve died. I think it adequately portrays how much people’s attention spans have fallen due to technological advances. I fear for the day that all games become Battle Royale and real gaming eventually dies.

Red Dead Redemption 2

Red Dead Redemption 2

What happens when you take The Witcher 3 and set it in the Wild West era? Something extremely popular even when riddled with glitches. I’ve heard people say this isn’t just the GOTY but the “game of the generation”. Slow your roll. It’s an epic achievement in many ways and Rockstar Games should be proud to have delivered something so impressive. That being said, it still has many of the various issues we’ve grown accustom to with Rockstar titles. While it was certainly one of the most impressive games of 2018, I’m fairly certain we won’t be talking about it once Cyberpunk 2077 releases.

WTF Bethesda

Bethesda went whole hog on not giving a damn this year. Not only did they put out the travesty that is Fallout 76, but they followed that up by saying The Elder Scrolls VI and Starfield would use the same broken engine they’ve been using since 2011. Skyrim was an excellent game but it’s really time to move on to the next engine. I don’t completely blame the engine for all the problems with Fallout 76, but it definitely played a factor. Of course Bethesda is nowhere near closing down, but the fact that we keep letting them get away with releasing broken games is problematic to say the least.

Spyro Trilogy Remastered

When you find a winning formula you keep doing it over and over again until people get bored with it. Spyro Reignited Trilogy is a testament to how successful Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy was. They’ve also announced that Medievil is being remastered for 2019. Personally I’m OK with them remastering much older games and clearly everyone else is as well.

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Destiny 2: Forsaken

While I have no love for Destiny and would never buy another game in the franchise, it must be acknowledged that people really seemed to like the Forsaken expansion in Destiny 2 so kudos to Bungie for getting that right. That being said, Activision is doing everything they can to make people angry with microtransactions.

No Man’s Sky Patches

I still haven’t played No Man’s Sky but as they have evolved the game over time the idea has become more and more appealing. While I’ll probably never completely trust Hello Games, I will commend them for acknowledging that they screwed up with that game initially and have worked tirelessly to improve it, which they have and continue to do. I think NMS is directly responsible for Ubisoft’s decision to make Starlink: Battle for Atlas, which is an achievement in and of itself.

Starlink: Battle for Atlas

In my opinion, this was the hidden gem of 2018. I don’t know why it wasn’t talked about way more than it was, but I will admit that there are some inherent flaws with the way it was priced and distributed. I finished it and really enjoyed it, but I did feel like it was short at only 30 hours for an open solar system game. I have said it before and I’ll say it again, Starlink is everything we wanted from NMS plus Starfox, if you play the Switch version. It’s really just a narrative focused NMS with the ability to fast travel, a manageable amount of content, and a real plot to follow. You also have multiple playable characters. I think the toys, specifically how they were priced, were a turn off for people. I have the digital deluxe version and I think that really is the superior way to play. If they had not done the toys and instead just sold the deluxe version content with all the characters available as the vanilla version and then a gold edition with additional story missions, that would have been a lot more successful. Because the game isn’t about the toys. They’re a gimmick to try to compete with amiibo. But the game itself is great and it’s a travesty how little attention it actually got.

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Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey

The Assassin’s Creed franchise went through quite a few years of disappointing content. People, myself included, were fed up with the horrible storytelling and the awkward structure of games like Unity. Having finally played Syndicate this year, I have to say that it was actually quite good on all fronts. But it was still the old style of game that had become tiresome and overdone. Changing the formula in Origins really reinvigorated the franchise and Odyssey successfully continued that momentum.

Darksiders III

I don’t think it’s the game itself that’s necessarily noteworthy here. It’s the fact that the game finally released. When THQ shutdown, the Darksiders franchise was up in the air. Most people who had played the first two, such as myself, definitely wanted to see III released, but there were no guarantees it would ever happen. To see it finally release six years after II is amazing. I haven’t gotten to play it yet myself, but thankfully I’ll actually be able to because it exists.

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Gaming Industry Do’s & Don’ts

Ninja

If the battle royale genre is the cancer of gaming, Ninja is a tumor. This toxic hack somehow managed to become the face of Fortnite and end up as the first non-athlete to make it on the cover of ESPN magazine even after having said a racial slur during a live stream and basically throwing all female streamers under the bus. It just goes to show you that the influencer system is no different than systems of the past. Minorities and women get shit on while assholes get rich for doing little to no actual work. I hope this hack goes away and takes Fortnite with him.

Castlevania Netflix Season 2

Castlevania is not just a great game cartoon. It’s just a great cartoon. The animation style, the storytelling, the acting, and the relationship with the games are all done perfectly. Cartoon production studios should take note of this show for literally any genre that contains violence and caters to an older audience. I hope we see other shows like this for other classic game franchises like Metroid.

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Monster Hunter Movie

The only positive thing I can say about this movie so far is that they cast Tony Jaa. That’s an A+ casting decision for a Monster Hunter movie. Other than that, this whole project looks like shit. They’ve shown tanks and modern looking guns. The casting in general seems to be steering more towards an American audience of people who don’t actually play the games. And don’t pretend like the Resident Evil movies were good. This all reeks of a cash grab franchise that will drone on for years and years against the desires of the people who actually play the games.

Kotaku

This is what happens when you cheapen the term gamer to the point of including absolutely everyone with a smart phone. The number of controversial articles they put out claiming games are destroying society, women, and the future is just appalling. Their twitter feed is one of the most entertaining comments sections you can read though so at least there’s that.

Diablo

I have no love for Diablo. I have no love for Blizzard. I have absolutely no positive feelings about Activison. In fact I’m worried that Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice will suck because of Activision. While I don’t support Blizzard in any way, I feel bad for their loyal fans who have spent years hoping for the next Diablo. Them announcing a mobile game and not even mentioning a proper next installment was a real slap in the face to all their fans. I commend that guy for standing up in the middle of their conference and calling them out. And then they followed that by announcing that all their franchises are getting mobile games. Clearly Activision has poisoned that already stagnant well and any smart person would jump ship rather than throwing more money into that pit or microtransactions, predatory pricing, and general disregard for their consumers.

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Goodbye Telltale Games

This hurt a lot. And the news came out of nowhere. I was so sad to hear that I won’t be getting The Wolf Among Us season 2 among other titles. I beat Guardians of the Galaxy this year and Game of Thrones last year. I was waiting for additional seasons of both. But really I should have seen this coming. I have said multiple times in the past that they seem to be taking on way too many projects. And I wasn’t aware of just how bad their licensing agreements were with a lot of these companies. The studio really was mismanaged and it’s a shame what happened to all their employees. It reminded me of when Visceral Games closed down, save for the fact that Telltale didn’t collapse because of bad management from an overarching publisher. Hopefully small studios will learn from this and stop trying to be too big for their britches.

Goodbye Prima Games

Prima Games closing its doors is the equivalent of seeing your childhood home demolished for me. I used to collect their player’s guides. I recall some of my favorite ones that I still have in a box somewhere. Games like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Kingdom Hearts, Final Fantasy X, and many others. But it makes perfect sense that they closed down. I’m shocked they lasted as long as they did. Printed gaming tips in 2018? GameFAQs has existed for more than 10 years. YouTube playthroughs and guides can be watched from your phone. Google can pinpoint the exact item you’re looking for and bring up a marked map of where it is in the game in seconds. Who was still buying player’s guides for any reason other than collecting and nostalgia? And they weren’t cheap either. Every time I saw a new guide released by them I was shocked at how expensive they were in recent years. They cost more than many games do now. All good things must come to an end and Prima Games had a great run.

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2019 Looks Amazing

There are a host of great looking games coming out in 2019. For PS4 it’s going to be the year of the samurai. For the Switch we’ll see new installments of some classic fan favorites. CD Projekt Red may raise the bar even higher than The Witcher 3. This is just a small sampling of the announced games for 2019.

  • Ghost of Tsushima
  • Kingdom Hearts III
  • Yoshi’s Crafted World
  • Medievil
  • Devil May Cry V
  • Nioh 2
  • Animal Crossing
  • Cyberpunk 2077
  • The Last of Us Part 2
  • Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice
  • Luigi’s Mansion 3
  • Shenmue III
  • Doom Eternal
  • Bayonetta 3

There is so much more I could cover but no one wants to read a 20 page blog post in 2019 and I really don’t have the time or energy to write one. Overall I’d say this was a really good year for gaming, unless you’re predominantly an XB1 user. I really didn’t cover enough of the bad moments but there were just so many noteworthy goods to talk about. I hope this is not an outlier year and that 2019 continues this trend of great gaming. My biggest concern at this point is deciding which games I’m going to take the time to play because there are so many worthy candidates. How was gaming for you in 2018? What games are you most excited about in 2019?

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Starlink: Battle for Atlas Editions Matter

A couple months ago, I published a review of my first hours playing Starlink: Battle for Atlas. While I stand by the views expressed in that review, it has come to my attention that it may have been misleading due to information that I was not aware of at the time of writing. So don’t consider this post a retraction of that review but rather a clarification of some specific points.

I praised Starlink and continue to do so. It’s a phenomenal game that I never put down feeling disappointed. But having done more research and now finished the game, my perspective has been altered, or more appropriately refined, slightly. Every play session I had, in the 30 hours it took me to complete the game, was enjoyable. Whenever I stopped playing, I was excited to play it again as soon as possible. While I was playing it, I always felt like there was a lot of content, albeit much of it was repetitive a la the No Man’s Sky formula. It definitely feels like a large amount of fulfilling content tied to a story I found interesting, until I reached the end, which was surprisingly abrupt, even though it was after almost 30 hours of play. While the gameplay can get repetitive due to the farming and planetary take over mechanics inherent to the game/genre, I still think it’s a great overall experience that appeals to players looking for games like No Man’s Sky with more direction. What I was not aware of though is how vastly different my gameplay experience was to that of other players. More specifically to players who don’t also have the Digital Deluxe version of the game.

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The review copy of Starlink I received wass the digital deluxe edition on Switch. When I first started the game, I was under the impression that most of the content I had access to was available to all players with the exception of StarFox related content for PS4 and XB1 players. What I learned after already playing 20 hours was that this was/is completely false. Apparently anyone who didn’t buy the digital deluxe edition is playing a completely different game than I did.

My version of the game gives me full, unadulterated access to 10 pilots, 6 ships, 15 weapons (not including the default Arwing lasers), and all the StarFox story content. All ships, including the Arwing, all weapons, and all pilots can be used interchangeably in real time for every single portion of the game. You can even play the StarFox missions without using StarFox. Every pilot, weapon, and ship has independent experience points and can be mastered through use. Each pilot has special abilities and attacks that are useful in specific situations. Each weapon and ship can be modded with four to five mods that drastically affect performance. You can have up to three saved loadouts that can be hot swapped in the menu screen whenever you want, including mid battle. I had full control of my gameplay experience. I could tailor my loadout(s) for each individual enemy to be perfectly suited to take them down.

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I needed a ridiculous amount of experience to max out everything, which I didn’t end up doing due to a lack of content, so I was never needlessly gaining XP. The RPG elements of the game were a critical part of my gameplay experience and added to the diversity and strategy of playing the game. For me, Starlink was a robust, multifaceted space fighter shooting game with RPG elements, a solid plot concerning several playable characters, and an arsenal of weapons at my disposal. I do think it was ultimately too short for the amount of pilots, ships, and weapons available though. But this wass not the game many people appear to be playing.

Something that needs to be noted about my version of Starlink is that the content is all seamless. When I was playing the game, I couldn’t tell what was vanilla content and what was deluxe edition content. There are no content walls. There are no purchase this to unlock this moments. There are no separate menus for DLC content. The story doesn’t break apart for each character. The cutscenes aren’t broken up between different characters. Everything in the game seems like it should be there and the game would suffer if any part was removed. Even StarFox content has been almost perfectly weaved into the rest of the game. Other than the differing art style, the characters appear in basically all the group cut scenes, as do all the other pilots. So I honestly can’t even imagine what this game would look like without all these pilots present. Yet this is apparently how the game is for everyone else.

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I had assumed that everyone had access to all the weapons and ships but that some of the pilots may be in the story but not playable without those specific toys. What I have come to learn is that actually nothing is available to vanilla physical edition players except the toys that came with their version. Even worse is the fact that the XB1 and PS4 physical starter packs come with less content than the Switch starter pack for the same price, due to the lack of StarFox.

The Switch physical starter pack comes with two pilots, two ships, and three weapons (not including the built in lasers on the Arwing that don’t take XP to get stronger). The XB1 and PS4 versions only come with one pilot, one ship, and three weapons, don’t have StarFox pilot or content, and don’t have a built in default weapon on the ship. All additional pilots, weapons, and ships have to be purchased separately for all versions. This is ridiculous. It’s literally all my fears for gaming brought to life. People have been making EA DLC jokes for years but this is the extreme version of that.

StarFox Starter Pack

Playing Starlink with only two pilots, three weapons, and one ship would be like paying $60 for Smash Bros and getting only two fighters, one map, and only hammers, hearts, and bombs as usable items with everything else being available as paid DLC. And these physical starter packs cost $75! That’s insane. Especially when you consider that for $60 you can get the vanilla digital edition and start with five ships, seven pilots, and 12 weapons. You are literally getting bent over by buying the physical edition. Expanding your arsenal of ships, pilots, and weapons is also considerably cheaper via DLC in digital form. You could probably buy a second digital deluxe edition of the game and have change left over with the amount of money you would spend buying all the content in physical form. For just $5 more than the physical starter pack you can get the digital deluxe edition and that’s without taking sales prices into account. As I write this, it’s currently $60 on the eshop.

I think this is a real problem. Not only for the game itself, but for the precedent it sets. This is more predatory than amiibo and that’s already bad to begin with. Not to mention the fact that this pricing scheme ruined the image of a perfectly good game that should have been in the running for Game of the Year. It definitely shouldn’t have won, but the digital deluxe edition would have been worthy of nomination if it was the standard edition.

Physical DLC

At first I didn’t understand why this game was being ignored. It was old news just a couple weeks after it released. I was having a blast playing it and I didn’t understand why no one else was even talking about it. Now I do. This is a phenomenal game that has everything I wanted from this genre, but the bulk of players are essentially playing a beta version of the game, and that sucks for the developers too. Their game was ruined by greed. And the gameplay experience is ruined for the players who don’t have all the content as well.

The difference in weapons, ships, and pilots is so severe that it’s honestly like playing a completely different game. For example, I have six ships. That means that in any battle I can have my ship blown up six times before it’s game over. I have never gotten a game over even though I played on hard. But if I only had one or two ships I would have been getting game overs constantly. I have 15 weapons to choose from with elemental properties, range properties, and ammo style properties. Some are rapid fire. Some are burst fire. Some are single fire. Some are short range. Some are long range. I have five different elemental types to choose from, all of which were required to solve certain puzzles along the way. I honestly can’t imagine playing the game without all these options. Elements matter. There are fire and ice type enemies. If you only have one fire weapon, one ice weapon, and nothing else, you are basically playing with one weapon against any fire or ice type enemy because using the enemy’s element powers them up.

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Of course people aren’t enjoying the game. They’re not getting to play the full game with the entire experience. Every character can max out each ship and weapon plus their skill tree. I’ve mastered some weapons with StarFox, no ships with anyone, and only managed to max out StarFox’s skill tree before finishing the game. But that’s because I played as all 10 pilots throughout the course of the game. Whenever I maxed out something with a specific pilot, I wouldn’t use it with that pilot anymore so that I never wasted any XP. If I was limited to only one pilot, one ship, and two weapons, I’d have  maxed out everything long before the end of the game and would have wasted tons of XP. It’s also important to note that every pilot has a skill that enhances all other pilots. That means that the more pilots you have the more benefits, which I did take advantage of with all 10 pilots, you get for the entire team.

I think this whole thing is a real shame and a scary look at the potential future of games distribution. Starlink: Battle for Atlas is a great game. I encourage everyone to buy it. It’s lots of fun and 30 hours of content isn’t terrible by today’s standards. But please make sure you buy the digital deluxe edition, otherwise you’re not only not getting the full game experience. You’re getting flat out conned into spending more money than you need to for not even a quarter of the experience you get with the digital deluxe edition. It’s a shame this game was ruined this way. It’s a shame most people won’t play it because of this system. And most of all it’s a shame that Ubisoft felt like this was an acceptable practice. I hope they patch it so that everyone can at least get the minimum number of pilots, weapons, and ships that the base digital version offers. Otherwise this is just highway robbery.

Again, I don’t retract my original soft review of the game. Everything I said in it was accurate and I do stand behind the game for its graphics, story, and gameplay. But I now have to qualify it by saying that I was speaking specifically about the digital deluxe edition and that’s the only version I endorse people to buy.

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