Monthly Archives: September 2017

Zeno Clash 2

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Put ’em up against dozens of enemies on a quest to discover the truth.

PC Release: April 30, 2013

By Ian Coppock

Few feelings match the anticipation of the final encounter. There’s something special about waiting in the wings for one last battle… and a chance to overcome an enemy. Those who are truly lucky may even discover higher truths about the world around them, sometimes as a direct result of defeating that foe. This is the motif and the final rallying cry of Zeno Clash 2.

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Zeno Clash 2 is the direct follow-up to Zeno Clash,  a first-person puncher and ACE Team’s debut title. After taking a break from Zeno Clash to develop the fabulous Rock of Ages, ACE returned to the fold of its weirdest world to continue the story of Ghat. Like its predecessor, Zeno Clash 2 takes place in a surreal land full of anthropomorphic animals… and emphasizes punching, kicking or throwing any that stand in the player’s way.

Zeno Clash 2 begins shortly after the end of the previous game, in which protagonist Ghat returned to his home city of Halstrom and defeated its baby-snatching ruler, Father-Mother. Ghat didn’t come home alone, though; he brought with him a blue-skinned Golem intent on giving law and order to the city. “Law” and “order” being foreign concepts to Halstrom’s colorful inhabitants, Golem’s arrival has sparked unrest in the city and made Ghat rethink his decision to bring him home.

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Anyone else getting a “Dr. Seuss meets Alejandro Jodorowski” vibe?

After punching his way out of the local watering hole (since punches count for currency in Halstrom), Ghat bumps into Rimat, the woman who led the effort to hunt him down in Zeno Clash. Rather than put him in handcuffs, though, Rimat proposes teaming up with Ghat to investigate what Golem really wants in Halstrom. The pair do a little detective work and discover that, yes, Golem’s mission to provide law and police to Halstrom is much more than a random act of philanthropy.

Golem doesn’t take too kindly to snooping, though, forcing Ghat and Rimat out of Halstrom and back into the wilds of Zenozoik. Once again Ghat is forced into exile, and once again he must punch, fight and headbutt his way to the truth of a grand conspiracy. This time, though, he’s got Rimat by his side, a woman who may have once been his most persistent enemy but is now intent on exposing that same truth. Together, the pair strike out to fight their way across Zenozoik.

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Ah, good to be back in the land of freaks.

Like its predecessor, Zeno Clash 2 is enthusiastic about first-person fighting. Ghat is an accomplished pugilist, and solves most of the problems thrown his way with a pair of bare fists. Players can also use guns and other ranged weapons on occasion, but they’re pretty rare; Zeno Clash 2 scales back Zeno Clash‘s enthusiasm for firearms to focus more on punching. Players can also use grenades if they want to make a real show of force (and if the opponent is too slow to move out of the blast zone).

Zeno Clash 2 is also more faithful to ACE Team’s original vision for the series. The developer initially planned to make Zeno Clash an open-world title but didn’t have the resources to do so. It would seem that ACE found the cash to make the Zeno Clash experience that they always wanted to, because Zeno Clash 2 is set in a small but vibrant open world. Players can tackle the main story or take on side quests at their leisure. There’s all sorts of fun to be found in Zenozoik.

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What even is that thing?

Zeno Clash 2 is chock full of refinements for the series, including some meaty improvements to the fighting system. The original Zeno Clash‘s arsenal of punches and kicks was serviceable, if simplistic, but Zeno Clash 2 streamlines Ghat’s abilities to allow for more advanced combos. Ghat can more quickly string up combos, and it’s also easier for players to throw punches of varying power. The controls are smoothly implemented on a keyboard and mouse as well as Xbox gamepads, so swing away.

Additionally, Zeno Clash 2 throws a wider variety of foes at the player. Enemies of the same weight class often have different attacks; a far cry from the original Zeno Clash giving each weight class the same roster of moves. Ghat also encounters these foes in a much more random variety than in the first game, which keeps the combat feeling fresh and keeps players guessing what malformed bird-creature will jump out of which oddly colored tree.

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Put ’em up, lobster-man!

Even more dramatic than Zeno Clash 2‘s improved fighting is the game’s visual upgrades. Whereas the original Zeno Clash benefited from strong colors but suffered from rough graphics, Zeno Clash 2 kicks Zenozoik into overdrive with exquisitely rendered objects. Everything the game throws at Ghat from environments to characters look wonderfully detailed; certainly much more so than in Zeno Clash. ACE Team made these improvements while preserving the weirdness that gives the series its kick.

Zeno Clash 2 also runs well on PC. The game allows players to punch to their hearts’ content without throwing bugs or glitches into the gears. Zeno Clash 2 has a great options menu for addressing any potential concerns and, unlike the original game, it can run at a standard 1920 x 1080 resolution. Occasionally players may see a bit of texture pop-in, but it’s a are phenomenon. It certainly doesn’t obstruct Zeno Clash 2‘s bright visuals and smooth performance.

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The hills are aliiiiive with the sound of puuuunchiiiiing…

As previously mentioned, Zeno Clash 2 abandons its predecessor’s linear format in favor of an open world. Players can visit regions over and over to find hidden items or take up side quests for Zenozoik’s eccentric inhabitants. Some regions are entirely optional to explore and contain only side quests. Finding all of the corners of Zenozoik (both for the main narrative and side missions) is highly recommended. It’s an open world that features Zeno Clash at its best, with a range of diverse environments and even more diverse (and crazy) characters.

The liveliness of Zeno Clash 2‘s environments goes beyond their being bright and open. Each region is inhabited by its own brand of crazies, most of whom are happy to get into fisticuffs with Ghat if the player gets too close. Additionally, though Ghat starts out with Rimat at his side, players can accrue a small but deadly pool of other side characters to tag team wrestle with. A handful of these are returning characters from the first game, including Ghat’s original companion Deadre. The voice acting and music are hit-and-miss, but both are better than the first game’s.

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Damn. Someone filled the sky with fruit punch again.

Even though Zeno Clash 2‘s fighting improvements and transition to an open world are where the game gets the most fun, the narrative is perhaps the title’s most important improvement for the series. Whereas Zeno Clash‘s narrative was a scattershot collection of flashbacks and stilted dialogue, Zeno Clash 2‘s plot is infinitely more cohesive. Ghat’s new quest to discover the origins of Golem is much more cleanly written than his flight into exile in the first game. The dialogue inevitably benefits from much better storyboard organization.

Zeno Clash 2 also does what all good sequels do by massively expanding the scope of its predecessor’s lore. The world of Zenozoik is given much more backstory and mystery than it had in the original Zeno Clash; the result is a world that recontextualizes the original title and makes the story of Ghat feel more epic for doing so. Zeno Clash 2 drops its hints and its climaxes at an even tempo (despite a slow start), culminating in an ending bout much livelier than a Mayweather-McGregor matchup.

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Guess I’m not allowed to go to the rave.

Zeno Clash 2 is more than a sum of improvements to the original Zeno Clash. It’s one of the most novel beat ’em up games of the last five years and a shining example of what a sequel should do. A sequel shouldn’t just retread paths trod by a preceding game with little to no change; instead, a sequel should strive to expand the scope of what the previous game set down. It should use the preceding installment’s narrative and world as a springboard for a new, grander experience.

Zeno Clash 2 accomplishes that in spades. It’s a game with streamlined, fun fighting set in a world that players want to explore. Its story is a cogently arranged saga of fighting and  truth-seeking with interesting characters. Its dialogue, while occasionally awkward, carries itself with more passion and enthusiasm than that of the original game. For all these reasons, it’s a game worth picking up,  and not just by fighting fans. Its trippy visuals and world may also very well serve as a viable substitute for acid.

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You can buy Zeno Clash 2 here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider

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Join your former mentor on a mission to kill a god.

PC Release: September 15, 2017

By Ian Coppock

The standalone expansion is back in vogue, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. In an age when devs hack pieces out of their own games to sell separately and studios launch their titles with hundreds of dollars’ worth of skins (*cough*Evolve*cough*), a more substantial piece of additional content is a welcome change. Bethesda seems intent on leading the expansion pack charge, first with Wolfenstein: The Old Blood in 2015 and now with Dishonored: Death of the Outsider.

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Dishonored: Death of the Outsider is a standalone title that started out as a piece of DLC for last year’s Dishonored 2. Plans changed when Dinga Bakaba, Dishonored 2‘s lead designer, advocated for making Death of the Outsider its own title instead of an add-on. That decision proved to be a good idea because it gave Death of the Outsider the chance to foster its own identity that’s independent of Dishonored 2.

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider is also meant to serve as the end to the “Kaldwin era” of Dishonored titles, wrapping up the Dishonored world’s current plot threads and character arcs. According to industry scuttlebutt, if Arkane elects to make more Dishonored games, they’ll feature new characters and storylines. Death of the Outsider is thus intended to be an encore, a final hurrah of the Corvo Attano/Emily Kaldwin arc (even though neither of those characters feature in this title).

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Dance, you ruffians! Dance, I say!

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider takes place a few months after the end of Dishonored 2 and stars Billie Lurk, former assassin-turned-boat captain. Having helped Emily/Corvo on their journey in Dishonored 2, Billie turns her attention to finding her old mentor Daud, the guy who killed the Empress in the original Dishonored. Daud hasn’t been heard from in over 15 years, but Billie has it on good authority that he’s in Karnaca, the one and same city Dishonored 2 took place in.

Sure enough, Billie finds Daud in the city’s least reputable corner and watches him use the same awe-inspiring powers he wielded in Dishonored. It turns out that Daud has been out and about studying the Empire of the Isles on a deeply personal mission, one that he needs Billie to help him execute. Daud’s noticed that a lot of the bad stuff that goes down in the world of Dishonored is due in no small part to the Outsider, and makes Billie a bold proposal: kill him.

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You out of your mind, old man?

Wait, the Outsider? That black-eyed supernatural entity who floats around in the void, bestowing terrible and amazing powers upon whomever he sees fit? The guy who can see into the past, present, and future? The kid who’s basically a god? Yep, that Outsider. Billie is rightfully skeptical that it’s possible to kill him, but Daud thinks that he’s found a way to do so deep in Karnaca. Billie decides that she’s willing to risk her life to see the Outsider gone, and picks up her old assassination tools for one last job.

Like previous Dishonored titles, Dishonored: Death of the Outsider is a first-person game that emphasizes stealth and subterfuge. Even though Billie’s out to end his life, the Outsider decides to give her her own set of deadly powers to use. Players rely on a combination of skill with a knife and supernatural abilities to navigate levels and complete objectives. Usually those objectives involve ending the life of some heavily guarded fat cat, but Billie can perform other missions too.

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Billie’s out to hunt the devil himself.

Unlike previous Dishonored titles, Dishonored: Death of the Outsider gives players all the powers, all at once. Billie is given a small but potent set of abilities that are all fully upgraded and ready to use from the get-go. These include a Blink-like ability called Displace as well as a much more novel power that allows her to assume the guise of any unconscious NPC (for a limited time). Players can also use a magical scout wisp to scope out the area ahead.

Death of the Outsider also features an even more far-reaching formula shakeup than immediate power: removal of the chaos system. The endings of previous Dishonored games were affected by how many NPCs the player murdered; no such penalty system exists in Death of the Outsider. Players are thus free to sneak or kill as they see fit. Billie’s story gets the same ending no matter whether she sneaks past everyone or leaves a trail of corpses.

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THE GLOVES ARE OFF, GENTLEMEN!

Both of these fundamental changes to the Dishonored formula are quite refreshing. Getting all of the powers at once conveys the fun of the new game plus mode onto Death of the Outsider, which doesn’t feel all that out of place considering that this is an expansion to Dishonored 2. The design change gives players as much freedom as possible to traverse maps and kill enemies, and emboldens them to experiment with different abilities. What’s more, Billie’s mana recharges over time instead of relying upon elixers, so magic away.

Additionally, it’s nice to see an end to the chaos system. Sure, it served as a way for players to challenge themselves and make as little noise as possible, but a game about assassination shouldn’t give players an adverse narrative because they, well, assassinate people. Dishonored: Death of the Outsider recognizes this and makes the narrative and gameplay two separate entities. Some might say that the chaos system’s removal negates the player’s impact on the story, but Billie is still doing plenty of story-moving stuff.

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I summon the powers of a contemporary sculpture!

Another refreshing departure that Death of the Outsider marks from Dishonored 2 is that it actually runs well. Even though almost none of the big-budget titles that released last fall ran well on PC, Dishonored 2‘s PC performance was particularly dishonorable. Between the crashing, the stuttering, and the FOV bugs, there weren’t many facet of Dishonored 2‘s performance that didn’t need patching. Luckily, Death of the Outsider runs just fine. Arkane managed to sidestep all of the performance issues plaguing Dishonored 2 and Death of the Outsider is much, much better for it.

Additionally, players who do experience performance issues while running Death of the Outsider should check out its comprehensive options menu. The menu allows players to adjust virtually everything about the game from key bindings on up to visual effects like shadows. The result is a title that, even if by chance it doesn’t run well the first time, actually allows players to try to remedy issues. Props to Arkane for including an in-depth options menu.

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“My… look at that DASHING options menu!”

Death of the Outsider‘s decent system performance does more than make the game playable; it also makes it more beautiful. Dishonored 2‘s rendition of Karnaca was always marred by the poor performance, but players can now experience the city in all its proper glory. Karnaca espouses beautiful Greco-Roman architecture and bright colors, giving players no shortage of things to gawk at even as they’re slitting throats and stealing purses. Objects are well-placed and the game’s Void Engine-powered textures are sharp as ever.

Death of the Outsider also benefits from more varied level design than past Dishonored games, sending Billie through the customary multi-leveled city streets as well as more constricting spaces like caverns. Levels in Death of the Outsider are sizable, and though their design isn’t all that different from past Dishonored games, there’s still lots to find. Death of the Outsider also adds a contract system in which players can complete side jobs for extra coin. Just take care to read the job postings carefully.

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You want me to cook WHAT for dinner?

Dishonored: Death of the Outsider succeeds in creating the series’s most fun gameplay experience to date, but the same can’t be said of the story. The narrative sounds like compelling stuff at face value: find a way to kill a god and bring an end to an era of Dishonored. The problem with Death of the Outsider‘s narrative lies not in its jaw-dropping backstory nor its lore, but in how breakneck of a pace this story is delivered at.

Worse still is the game’s ending, the most rushed and anticlimactic of any Dishonored narrative. It’s difficult to elaborate without spoiling, but suffice it to say that the ending does not befit the premise of setting out to kill the Outsider. The narrative just quickly peters out with a vague epithet about the future and leaves it at that. It’s not quite Mass Effect 3-levels of abrupt, but that example’s mere usage is not a good sign for Death of the Outsider‘s ending.

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What the hell is this place?

Luckily, Death of the Outsider saves its story’s mediocrity from seeping into the gameplay by keeping the two untethered, resulting in a title that has the series’s most meh story but also its most fun gameplay. It’s a shrewd use of the expansion format, as Arkane was able to shed the mediocrity of Dishonored 2 and still have enough elbow room to try new things. Death of the Outsider is the Dishonored saga’s gameplay at its purest, giving players the most freedom of any Dishonored game to sneak and to stab. Players who enjoy both of those kinds of gameplay should pick the title up, and series fans keen to see how the Kaldwin era ends should as well. Happy hunting.

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You can buy Dishonored: Death of the Outsider here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Sky Break

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Search a storm-ridden planet for the cure to a deadly plague.

PC Release: October 21, 2016

By Ian Coppock

The next title in this month’s pack of survival games is Sky Break, a game about staying alive more for the sake of others than the self. Unlike FarSky, a game about tranquil survival, and Adrift, a game about outlasting a disaster of one’s own creation, Sky Break is a game about pegging the fate of millions to the survival of a single person. It presents the need to save others as being just as much of a pressure as finding food or shelter. Where the game goes from that premise is the subject of tonight’s review.

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Sky Break is a third-person adventure game and the sophomore effort of FarSky Interactive. With Sky Break, FarSky swaps out the underwater setting of its titular debut with that of an alien world far, far in the future: a future in which humanity has been driven to the brink of extinction by a deadly plague. The player character, an anonymous explorer, is sent to the stormy planet of Arcadia to find and synthesize a cure. If they fail, so too does the human race.

The character starts Sky Break out being one of many explorers sent to Arcadia, but the planet’s aforementioned stormy weather wreaks havoc on the fleet and leaves the player the sole survivor. Bereft of their colleagues and armed only with what they can scavenge from the world around them, it’s up to the player to find a cure, repair their ship, and avoid falling prey to Arcadia’s fierce storms and killer robots.

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Wait, WHAT?!

What’s that? Killer robots?! Yes indeed, Arcadia’s fierce storms are hardly the only obstacle players have to keep an eye out for. The planet is also swarming with animal-like robots that exhibit all the feral ferocity one might expect of actual animals. It turns out that Arcadia was settled by humanity long ago, but had to abandon the planet when these mechs turned on their creators. Before anyone starts screeching that Sky Break is a Horizon Zero Dawn clone, bear in mind that this game released about four months before HZD. Checkmate, fanboys.

Luckily for the player, killer animal robots weren’t the only things the colonists left behind on Arcadia. They also happened to leave behind chests full of supplies and, oh yeah, a fully functional sky base that can move wherever the player needs it to go. This high-tech sky-loft comes packed with a medical room, a greenhouse, and other necessities for surviving on Arcadia. The station also comes with a landing pad for the ship… if players can fix it.

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Now THIS is what I call moving on up!

With all of these resources at hand, players are well-equipped to explore Arcadia and find the cure. Sky Break is played from a third-person perspective and outfits players with a laser rifle, a repair tool, and other devices useful for navigating Arcadia’s wilds. Players are also accompanied by a drone that can emit sonar pings and reveal nearby items. Finding the cure is pretty simple: just walk up to a nearby plant, gather a sample, and the let the character’s built-in synthesizer start cracking away at it.

Of course, Sky Break doesn’t actually tell players most of this. The game gives general directives like finding the sky base and locating nearby islands, but doesn’t otherwise inform players how to proceed. It doesn’t divulge that having gathered plant material sit in the inventory is sufficient for making a fraction of the cure. Sky Break‘s abject lack of hints is a needless frustration that can make it difficult to discern what to do next or how best to explore Arcadia.

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A wild robo-tiger appeared!

Apart from its lack of detailed information, the other wearisome element of Sky Break‘s gameplay is, well… its gameplay. The only way to complete the game is to collect plant samples for the cure, but each sample only yields about .20% of the final product. Sky Break attempts to dilute the botany monotony by splitting the world into islands and across wilderness, but the end goal is the same no matter which chunk of rock the player is traversing. Occasionally the player may try to reclaim a signal tower and fight off hordes of robots, but those are by and large the only instances that things shake up.

Not that Sky Break‘s shooter gameplay is all that remarkable either. There are lots of robotic animals prowling the wilds, but they all go down the same way: just shoot until they die. The enemies in Sky Break have rudimentary AI, typically only barreling straight toward the player much as the sharks do in FarSky. Unlike FarSky‘s sharks, though, these enemies can at least be dodged. Far more novel than shooting the robots is the ability to tame and upgrade them, making them valuable wilderness companions.

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Down, boy! …Or girl? Or it? Down, thing!

Sky Break‘s most novel gameplay feature is the weather. As previously mentioned, Arcadia is perpetually rocked by thunderstorms, and the severity of those storms affects finding the cure. Most times the storm is reduced to rain and light wind, which is hardly a bad thing. Other times, though, the storm kicks up to a fever pitch, unleashing deadly tornadoes and frequent lightning strikes. Sometimes the storms can get so bad that the player’s minimap can short out, forcing them to take shelter until it passes. Fortunately, players can usually reduce the storm’s ferocity with a nearby lightning rod.

Sky Break‘s weather gameplay is cool, but its other gameplay elements leave much to be desired. Players can bet that most of their time will be spend gathering plants and shooting any robots that attempt to obstruct them from gathering said plants. Compound this with the fact that players don’t have any resource needs, like food or water, to maintain, and Sky Break feels less like a survival game and more like an adventure demo.

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Heel, catdog!

To Sky Break‘s credit, the game attempts to break up the routine of alien gardening by featuring several different biomes. Players start out in a lush forest but can go on to explore a scorching desert and an unforgiving arctic wasteland. Each of these environments is brightly colored, but the game’s object design and graphical rendering are… rudimentary. Likewise, character animations for both the player and the robots are painfully stiff.

Sky Break also suffers from several interesting notions of how to render weather. FarSky Interactive did a good enough job animating wind-rustled tree leaves and grass, but for some reason elected to animate gales of wind that shoot upwards from the ground. It’s a bizarre-looking eyesore, one that suggests either lazy effect implementation or that the wind was animated to flow in the wrong direction. Sky Break does marginally better with its world’s sound design; a lot of the effects are muffled but the music is pretty.

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WHAT IS HAPPENING

The nail in Sky Break‘s coffin is its large load of bugs. Robot animals will simply glitch through physical obstacles if they charge the player hard enough. The game is subject to random crashes that no amount of tinkering in its options menu seems to fix. Why Sky Break is so prone to this performance issue is a mystery; its graphics constitute a minimal system performance burden.

Finally, Sky Break is also prone to some of the worst character and object pop-in of any game reviewed on this page… even the Ubisoft ones. This problem is at its most dire when players fix their ship, which they can fly around the world much like they could the mini-sub in FarSky. Astoundingly, the ship can fly faster than the world around it can load, meaning that players have to wait for the world to spawn in around them once they reach their destination. If the player is waiting in a space that’s supposed to be occupied by a landmark like a rock formation, that cliff or butte will spawn around the player and trap them (and their ship) inside it. What a farce.

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Faster! But not TOO fast!

There’s not a whole lot else to say about Sky Break. Its sound design is muted, its world is scattershot… the entire production feels more like an Early Access build than a finished product. The game presents an interesting world and concept, but its execution is slipshod in almost every game design department. As such, it’s better off avoided. Sky Break represents a surprising step back for FarSky, whose eponymous debut was a much better game. Hopefully the studio can recapture FarSky‘s sense of fun with The Free Ones, its upcoming island escape adventure, but until then… skip Sky Break.

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You can buy Sky Break here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Shank 2

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Fight to save the only living person who still cares about you.

PC Release: February 7, 2012

By Ian Coppock

Side-scrolling beat ’em ups have gone out with a dang in recent years. It used to be that arcades could draw hordes of teenagers with the promise of great titles that espoused only two things: running to the right and beating up hordes of foes. The genre has made much more sporadic appearances since arcades’ heyday, with Guacamelee! and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game being two of the few popular such releases in recent years. The other series in this vein, Shank, gave re-popularizing the side-scrolling beat ’em up another attempt with 2012’s Shank 2.

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Shank 2 hit stores about two years after Shank and, like its predecessor, was developed by the Canadian studio Klei. Like ShankShank 2 is a side-scrolling fighting game in which players assail hordes of anonymous foes with fists, knives, and pretty much whatever else happens to be within arm’s reach. The title’s design hearkens to the golden age of such games in everything from its simple storyline to its mechanics, while also improving upon Shank.

Shank 2 is set not long after Shank, in which the protagonist (whose name is also Shank) took out a bunch of underworld bad guys for daring to assassinate his girlfriend. Having fulfilled his quest for vengeance, Shank decides to take a bus back to his hometown and reunite with Elena, the woman who raised him as though she were his actual son. Though Shank’s homeland is better for being rid of the cartel, the military has stepped into the resulting power vacuum and declared martial law. Shank 2 begins when one such patrol of troops stops Shank’s bus on the outskirts of town.

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Did you just confiscate my booze?!

As his name implies, Shank has no problem dealing out violence at the slightest provocation; when a soldier takes his tequila, he responds by murdering the entire patrol. He makes it home in time for another round and unexpectedly reunites with Corina, a childhood friend who now leads a resistance movement against the military. Shank couldn’t care less who runs things as long as he gets his booze, but gets pulled into the rebellion after Elena gets abducted by the villainous General Magnus.

Unwilling to let Elena, the only person who cared for his well-being as a child, get carted off to a fate worse than death, Shank gets his knives (yes, knives, because this the sequel and therefore the protagonist wields two weapons) out and sets about doing the thing he does best: stabbing, shooting, and bloodily murdering his way through a literal army of foes. Though Corina is Shank’s buddy in this fight, the roguish ex-hitman spends most of the game fighting alone.

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Oh dear. This man seems to have a fatal lead allergy.

Shank 2 starts the party by borrowing a lot of Shank‘s gameplay; as Shank, players can engage enemies in combat with a wide variety of melee weapons or take out foes from afar with an arsenal of guns. Shank’s speed with knives is unmatched, but a larger, heavier weapon like a chainsaw deals much more damage. As players race to save Elena, they can unlock new and more powerful weaponry for taking out Magnus’s soldiers. Guns are great for keeping large foes at bay or for killing enemies who are perched out of reach, while grenades and molotov cocktails make effective impromptu fireworks.

From there, Shank 2 makes a few changes and refinements over its predecessor’s handiwork. Players can now only pick their weapons at the start of each mission, which makes the game more challenging at the expense of the fun that came with switching weapons on the fly in Shank. Most weapons hit about as hard as or harder than they did in Shank; the shotgun, hilariously, remains brutally OP. It beats back entire crowds of foes and reduces the reckless among them to a bloody pulp. Shank can also pick up objects in the environment, like boards and pipes, and use them as weapons.

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Yeah, that spear’s not gonna help you.

The enemies in Shank 2 are only marginally less stupid than the foes in Shank; both groups seem content to charge mindlessly into the whirlwind of knives and gunfire that is Shank. Shank 2‘s bad guys are a bit tougher, and the game does away with displaying enemy health like its predecessor did to keep players guessing how many more hits a bad guy can take. Unlike in Shank, enemies in Shank 2 are defined more by what they’re packing than their physical size (though players can still count on fighting plenty of freakishly huge dudes).

Players can also encounter a wider variety of enemies than in Shank, which gives the game more variety and keeps the hero wondering who’s around the next corner. Sure, Shank spends the bulk of Shank 2 fighting rank-and-file soldiers, but also goes up against primitive cannibals, greedy smugglers, and maybe even a witch or two during his journey to save Elena. Players can take these foes on solo, but they can also buddy up against the bad guys with Shank 2‘s co-op mode. Player twos can play as Corina, who has her own roster of weapons and a faster fighting style, but there’s also a whole slew of other characters for both players to pick from. Choose wisely.

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Death buddies!

Shank 2‘s refinements to its predecessor’s gameplay result in a smooth experience (one that’s best played with a gamepad), with fluidity and speed that make for one hell of a fighting game. The platforming is tight thanks to well-placed paths and territorial elevation, while Shank immediately responds to controls and can execute complicated moves with a few simple button presses. Shank 2‘s system performance is as agile as its protagonist, even if its options menu leaves a lot to be desired.

Though Shank 2‘s gameplay improvements are impressive, more impressive still is the game’s incorporation of environmental kills. Players can now take advantage of their surroundings to get the drop on foes, releasing cargo onto unsuspecting enemies or using machinery to creative (and bloody) ends. Whether it’s springing traps or starting fires, Shank has no problem turning a building full of enemies into a flaming death trap. Opportunities for environmental kills are plentiful, and creative players will take great joy in executing them.

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I’m so sorry that TV fell on you! What a horrible accident that I had nothing to do with!

Shank 2‘s environmental improvements go beyond great platforming and unorthodox murder opportunities. The game’s artwork represents a significant refinement over that of Shank, with hand-painted environments that look more detailed than those of the first game even as they look more dour. Shank 2‘s character animations are fantastic whether the player character is charging through bad guys or simply taking in the view. Shank 2‘s aesthetic also benefits from dramatic weather effects and much more varied environments than those of Shank.

The result of all of these artistic game changes is a world ripe for exploration. Shank 2 encompasses a dour dystopia that wouldn’t look out of place in, say, Nancy Farmer’s House of the Scorpion novel. The game artfully blends Hispanic influences with grim industrial themes to promulgate a grim atmosphere. These motifs also result in great level variety; players will spend one mission cutting through a jungle graveyard and the next fighting in an aging seaport.

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My oh my, what a lovely piece of propertySHOOTTHATGUY!

The only facet of Shank 2‘s level design that hasn’t evolved gracefully is the storytelling. Unlike Shank, the PC version of Shank 2 does not feature a heavily censored narrative, but what little story there is is told at a breakneck pace. Shank’s transitions from one level to another are usually poorly explained; there’s one scene where Corina interrogates a random soldier for the location of the next level when she could’ve done that to any of the dozens she’d just slaughtered. Sometimes the dialogue is drowned out by other audio; a symptom of careless sound design.

Additionally, Shank’s fight to save Elena doesn’t carry the emotional weight found in Shank‘s revenge tale. Part of that might have to do with the titular character feeling like a different person. He’s rewritten to be an unthinking killer instead of a remorseful one and has a new voice actor. Both of these things make the character feel like an antecedent to the man in the first game, and thus Shank 2 feels more like a prequel than a sequel. There’s not much to be said of the game’s other characters; Corina is the stereotypical fearless freedom fighter and Magnus the scheming overlord.

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Is that falling I hear?

Fortunately for Shank 2, most brawler fans will have too much fun with its gameplay to care about its glaring plot flaws. Story problems notwithstanding, the game represents a sizable improvement over Shank and is a title that platforming and brawler enthusiasts should try. A hypothetical Shank 3a title that introduces more improvements and gives this character the full, uncensored story he deserves—might be what side scrolling beat ’em ups need to fully reclaim the glory they enjoyed in their arcade days. Until that day comes, though, fans of the genre should try Shank 2.

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You can buy Shank 2 here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

TTV2

TTV2

Dash through a deadly maze for as long as possible.

PC Release: September 11, 2017

By Ian Coppock

In this day and age, Googling “running through a hedge maze on acid” really isn’t all that unusual. If Rule 34 is a given, why not also have a rule stating that if it exists, someone has at least Googled it? Well, anyone who happens to be curious about what it’s like to run through a hedge maze on acid can stop drilling: they’ve hit oil. Welcome to a review of TTV2, a game that’s all about dashing through a maze-like fever dream that wouldn’t look out of place in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. It’s time to start running.

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TTV2 is an abbreviation for Trip to Vinelands 2, for this is the sequel to Walter Machado’s trippy maze-running title. Just like its criminally underrated predecessor, TTV2 inserts players into a terrifying world of shifting walls and challenges them to find an exit. Even if players can dodge the thorny walls and spinning machinery, escape is only temporary; the way out leads to yet another maze. The goal of the game is simply to survive for as long as possible; one brush with an obstacle and it’s game over.

Players who hope to be good maze runners (no, not like Maze Runner) have to have quick reflexes and an even quicker eye for detail. Most mazes in TTV2 only have an exit for a few seconds; linger too long and the chance for escape is forever lost. TTV2‘s mazes spawn in a random order, precluding a difficulty curve and making success as much a matter of luck as skill. The game’s controls are pretty simple: just use WASD or the arrow keys to move around.

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Run. RunrunrunrunRUNRUN!

TTV2‘s most alluring (and novel) design facet is its shifting obstacles. There’s no set exit point in each maze; walls and buzz saws move around, and characters simply have to touch an obstacle-free edge of the screen to continue. Players don’t spawn on the corresponding edge of the next map; usually, the game plonks the maze runner down right in the center of the next challenge. This prevents TTV2 from being too linear and lets the game immediately throw all the punches it can at the player.

The respawn mechanic is where players have to be especially careful with their reflexes. Most platformers train gamers to just keep moving in the same direction when they leave one panel of the scene and enter the next; after all, they’re usually strung together into a single level. TTV2 upends this design convention by making each scene completely disconnected. Continuing to move in one direction after escaping a maze can lead players right into the path of a buzz saw. TTV2 only gives players a few seconds to stop and pick a new direction before getting murdered, and that’s what makes it challenging.

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THE FLOOR IS BUZZ SAWS

The addicting allure of TTV2‘s endless challenge is enhanced with immediate respawns. Players who meet their fate at the thorns of a shifting wall can immediately jump back into the game at Hotline Miami speeds. Instant respawns are crucial for a game that’s all about infinite challenge; games that punish players for failure with long load screens risk making themselves frustrating. TTV2 (and other games like it) utilize this mechanic to keep themselves accessible.

TTV2‘s precise controls also help give players a chance against the ever-shifting stream of obstacles. The character (a well-dressed gent who appears to have the Eye of Sauron for a head) moves at a fast enough pace and immediately stops or turns when prompted. Thank God the controls aren’t floaty (although that could make for an interesting challenge as well).

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Right full rudder!

Half the reason that these thorn walls and buzz saws are so frightening is because they’re difficult to avoid; the other reason is their spooky appearance. TTV2 is a study in visual contrast, giving its obstacles and character dark colors while giving its backgrounds vivid, surreal colors. The backgrounds’ sickly peach color and crunchy textures help give TTV2 the same trippy vibe as Trip to Vinelands or Machado’s other games: the UBERMOSH series. These comprise a gorgeous, albeit unsettling, aesthetic.

The other artwork informing TTV2‘s rave-like vibe is its music. Machado has never shied away from making good use of head-banging electronica. TTV2 might have the best tunes of any of his titles, with pounding tracks that reinforce the game’s sense of urgency. Anyone who likes dark, grimy electronica will probably end up sticking around in TTV2 as much for the music as the gameplay.

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Crunchy drums and static and OH GOD THAT IS A WALL

If TTV2 has a flaw, it’s that the game is pretty difficult to tell apart from Trip to Vinelands. Sure, the player character has a larger head and the backgrounds look different, but the core gameplay remains little changed from that of its predecessor. Indeed, perhaps the only true change that TTV2 makes to the Vinelands formula is including more obstacles to dodge. The end result is that players have a few new traps to avoid… but only that select few.

Having said that, Machado’s design philosophy of representing incremental changes with a whole new sequel is not the sinister scheme that it sounds like. Owners of Machado’s previous games get the next title in the sequence for free if not at a very generous discount, and it’s a unique way to see how a designer’s motifs and conventions change over time. As of writing, TTV2 is only about sixty cents (not sixty dollars), so players who are reluctant to drop money on sequels can rest easy. TTV2 is an easy grab.

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Yeah… I think this is game over.

TTV2 is quick arcade action done right. It could’ve made a few more changes from Trip to Vinelands, but its cheap price and endless replayability mitigate that concern pretty soundly. Players who like arcade games should grab this title, as should reflex gamers and anyone who wants to run through a maze on acid without actually dropping acid or risking getting arrested for having dropped acid. TTV2 is one of the most fun fever dream sleeper hits to launch on Steam in a while; get it while the tripping’s good.

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You can buy TTV2 here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Adrift

Adrift1

Discover what destroyed your space station… and how to get back home.

PC Release: March 28, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Sometimes the key to surviving a difficult situation lies in realizing one’s own role in it. That motif is rarely explored in survival video games; oftentimes the protagonist is simply thrust into a disaster and expected to survive it for as long as possible. Adrift is different. It’s a game that encourages players to discover the truth as they’re fighting for life… and to accept that truth even as they may be fighting to deny it. These and other fights inform Adrift, the subject of tonight’s review.

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Adrift‘s concept has unorthodox origins. When the Xbox One was first unveiled back in 2013, gamers and critics were rightfully outraged over the dumb stunts Microsoft was trying to pull at the time. The most infamous of these was that the Xbox One required an Internet connection to even function. To make matters worse, studio head Adam Orth took to social media to belittle those concerned, infamously typing “why would I live there?” in response to one concerned user who was in the sticks and didn’t have access to steady Internet. When someone else opined that the constant connection requirement was a bad idea, he simply replied, “deal with it.”

Orth’s comments weren’t the stupidest things a Microsoft exec could say to angry gamers… but they were still pretty damn stupid. They certainly evidenced how out of touch Microsoft was with both its customers and reality. As for Orth, the backlash against his comments was so severe that he quit his job at Microsoft and took some time to think about how people recover from disasters of their own creation. To Orth’s credit, he was innovative enough to take that life experience and turn it into a tangible product: that product is the video game being reviewed here and now.

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THAT’S SO META

Adrift kicks off as player character Alex Oshima watches a piece of the space station she was in charge of fly right past her head. She quickly realizes that she’s floating in space, all by herself, in the midst of a debris field that was once the rest of the station. With no recollection of what happened, Alex quickly floats to an intact piece of the station to find a way out of the debris. Unfortunately, the escape vehicle is locked off behind a broken computer core, and the components needed to fix it have been knocked all over the place.

If Adrift is any indication, humanity will not have mastered keeping spare parts close at hand by the year 2037. It also seems a bit peculiar that the station needs to be functioning in order to escape from it (if it’s functioning, why would someone need to escape?). Whatever; it’s the impetus for exploring the station’s modules, keeping an eye out for details, yadda yadda yadda.

ADR1FT Screenshot 01

Something tells me I’m gonna need more than a pipe wrench to fix THIS… thing.

The entirety of Adrift is played in zero gravity, and the game does its best to simulate moving in that environment. As Alex, players can air-thrust around the game world, as well as rotate in circles and come to a complete halt. That last feature may not sound all that noteworthy on paper, but remember that this is zero gravity; players who don’t pay attention to their own trajectory risk slamming into walls or careening into the void.

Adrift caught a ton of flak for these movement controls, and to be fair, they could stand some refinement. Even when Alex’s suit is repaired, she moves at a snail’s pace. With respect to the fact that Adrift is meant to be played at a slow pace so as to soak up the atmosphere, it doesn’t need to be played at the speed of tar going uphill in January. Eventually Alex can upgrade her thrusters to move at a somewhat fast pace, but don’t go into this game expecting to jetpack around like Diddy Kong.

ADR1FT Screenshot 01

Come onnnnnnn… just a little bit further… eeeeeeee….

The rest of Adrift‘s gameplay revolves around survival and exploration. Alex’s suit sprung a leak, so it pays to make sure there’s a floating oxygen container nearby whenever possible. Players who don’t stock up on good ole O2 risk suffocating. This survival challenge is compounded by the fact that the suit draws air for both breathing and movement from the same supply. Maybe it’s not such a bad thing that Adrift encourages moving slowly (especially if asphyxia is the alternative).

Players also have to keep an eye out for more visceral obstacles. There are lots of live wires floating around the station, as well as chunks of debris that all happen to have at least one pointy end. Alex’s suit is also apparently made of Styrofoam, because one brush against the wall and bam, WE GOT A BREACH! Luckily, players can upgrade and repair their suit as they go along, and these upgrades are presented at an even pace so as not to create crushing difficulty. These elements comprise a subtle but vicious survival challenge.

ADR1FT Screenshot 01

Cotton ball inbound! BRACE FOR IMPACT!

Another element informing Adrift‘s vicious survival challenge is its level design. Though most of the space station’s modules are intact and linear on the inside, Alex also has to navigate hazardous debris fields to get to where she needs to go. Floating through these fields can be very tense, especially when players jump at getting hit by an unseen obstacle. Navigating deep space is brought to terrifying heights in Adrift, which is probably why this game gets compared to that movie Gravity all the time.

Unfortunately, Adrift‘s enthusiasm for debris fields is also where its level design is at its worst. Certain sections of the game are easy to get turned around in, and even Alex’s built-in scanner is only so good at pointing out the way forward. It’s annoyingly easy for players to get lost in space (without even The Robot to chide them) and run out of oxygen before reaching a close enough module. When this happens, the nail-biting tension of these space crossings is replaced with something much more rote: irritation.

ADR1FT Screenshot 01

HALP

Luckily, players can also lose themselves in a less literal, less frustrating sense. Adrift is an absolutely gorgeous title; in fact, it’s one of the most graphically sophisticated games ever developed. Adrift compacts thousands of colors into its visual design and its textures are so sharp that they may very well cut players’ eyeballs. The level of detail on everything from Alex’s gloves to a floating pack of space-rice is insane; more insane is how masterfully the game’s lighting is implemented to interact with and give volume to these objects.

The price that players must pay for all of these high-end visuals is Adrift‘s equally high-end system requirements. The game runs well on PC, but anything less than a powerful gaming rig might shed tears and/or explode when running it. For players who have a big rig and still experience problems, Adrift provides a top-tier options menu with customizations for everything audio, visual, and in-between. Toiling away in the options for a few minutes is worth the experience.

ADR1FT Screenshot 01

That is f***ing beautiful.

Adrift is worth experiencing for more than just the visuals, though. Sure, it also has stellar voice acting and a creepy soundtrack befitting a graveyard in space, but the narrative makes for an enjoyable sci-fi thriller. The “thrill” lies not so much in the game’s insistence that Alex go get backup floppy disks (which is a bit repetitive), but in navigating the broken station and learning about the lives of its inhabitants. As so many games in this vein do, Adrift leaves audio diaries and open email accounts just drifting around for players who are hungry for backstory.

Adrift‘s story is told through those diaries and emails. It’s a tale that revolves around not just pure survival but also unchecked ambition and, ultimately, guilt. This isn’t spoilers territory, by the way; the game makes it clear from the get-go that Alex isn’t just an innocent bystander in the destruction of the station. Not only does this narrative give off a creepy vibe; it’s well-paced and dispenses details just around the next corner.  The tension of Adrift lies in uncovering what Alex’s exact relationship is to the world around her… much like what Adam Orth contemplated following his departure from Microsoft.

ADR1FT Screenshot 01

Oh thank God, the turnip garden got s***housed.

Provided that players have a decent rig and are willing to put up with slow controls, Adrift is a sci-fi thriller worth experiencing. It looks great, sounds great, and does a good job at delivering a suspenseful story about being marooned in space. As for Adam Orth, it sounds like he’s not only learned from his mistakes, but turned those mistakes into a genuinely good game. Adrift is a game worth getting, and Orth’s future endeavors are worth paying attention to.

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You can buy Adrift here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Zeno Clash

Zeno1

Save the world by beating the crap out of colorful creatures.

PC Release: April 21, 2009

By Ian Coppock

SOMETIMES CAFFEINE IS A THING AND IT CAUSES PEOPLE TO GAIN A LOT OF ENERGY ALL THE SUDDEN AND WANT TO JUST RUN OUTSIDE AND GO AROUND AND RUN OUTSIDE AND MAYBE EVEN GET INTO A FIGHT WITH ANOTHER PERSON NOT JUST ANY PERSON AND ALSO NOT NECESSARILY A FIGHT MAYBE AN ATHLETIC COMPETITION LIKE BASE JUMPING OR RUNNING OR PUNCHING THINGS REALLY REALLY REALLY HARD HEY LOOK ZENO CLASH A GAME ABOUT PUNCHING!

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The only thing more random than that intro is a video game about a man who punches hermaphroditic bird-men: that game is Zeno Clash. A first-person brawler developed by the Chilean studio ACE Team, Zeno Clash sticks players in a colorful fantasy world and encourages them to punch all of it. The title was built in Valve’s Source engine and released over eight years ago; since then, Zeno Clash has enjoyed a long-lasting legacy as one of gaming’s most fun (and most eccentric) brawlers.

Zeno Clash begins in earnest when its protagonist, a pugilist named Ghat, kills the hermaphroditic bird creature in charge of his hometown (yep, that’s a real sentence). Accompanied by his close friend Deadra, Ghat skips town ahead of the bird-man’s many angry children and takes refuge in the wild. All the while, he remains mum on why he committed the murder, giving Deadra the cold shoulder as the pair strike further and further away from civilization.

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Ghat refuses to spill the beans on why he made himself a fugitive.

Zeno Clash emphasizes first-person punching; players are given a few tips and tricks on how to score knockouts before being thrust into fights to loosen some teeth. Players are often forced to put ’em up against 3-5 enemy combatants at once, all of whom have as few compunctions about kicks and knockouts as Ghat. Players can punch and kick their foes as well as executive more creative moves like throwing them into the air. Ghat can also use hand grenades and, on occasion, powerful guns (if one can call a pea-vomiting piranha mounted on a stick a gun).

Zeno Clash‘s fighting system lacks the polish of later-gen fighting games, but that hardly saps its fun. It’s easy for players of all skill levels to pick this game up and start punching and throwing like a pro. Zeno Clash‘s enemies generally aren’t that hard to fight one-on-one, but players can count on plenty of challenging brawls against multiple foes. Additionally, Ghat will be forced to go up against heavy enemies, wild animals, and colorful bosses. Zeno Clash paces all of these encounters at an even clip, letting players acclimate to its ever-increasing difficulty. It’s a fun, smoothly implemented experience.

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That must’ve been one crazy rave.

Zeno Clash puts just as much soul into its world as its fighting. The land of Zenozoik is a bizarre place indeed, one rife with mutated animals and people who seem to get their clothing from the local junkyard. Zeno Clash‘s eccentric aesthetic goes beyond crazy characters; the game looks like something Dr. Seuss might’ve drawn if he’d ever dropped acid. Zenozoik is rife with so many goofy rock formations and oddly shaped trees that one could be forgiven for mistaking it for a messed up The Lorax adaptation.

Unlike so many video games that look weird just for the sake of looking weird, Zeno Clash‘s unorthodox visuals have a purpose. They go beyond simply giving the game a surreal vibe; each character has a design that suits their role in the story. It’s easy to tell that each character and level in Zeno Clash is a passion project rather than a cynical attempt at novelty. Their designs are endearing despite their strangeness and invite players to see what else is out in the land of Zenozoik.

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Ha, cool.

If Zeno Clash‘s visuals have a flaw, it’s that they haven’t aged well. Objects look conspicuously polygonal and in-cutscene character animations are stiff as boards. The textures could stand a lot of sharpening, as they too have grown old. ACE Team could also have done a better job with item placement, as lots of objects haphazardly clip through each other and dull the sense of being in such a weird world. The game looks a bit shoddy even by 2009 standards.

Fortunately, Zeno Clash‘s options menu is much more refined than its visage. The game borrows most of the visual fidelity options found in other Source titles and allows players to rebind PC controls. The only option that needs an update is the resolution menu: the highest res that players can choose for this game is a measly 1360 x 1024. There’s no option for the standard 1920 x 1080 resolution, so players running a 2K monitor (that is to say, the overwhelming majority of PC players) are out of luck.

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Oosh.

Even though Zeno Clash manages to impose some order on its crazy visuals, the same can’t be said of the game’s plot. For a start, the structure of Zeno Clash‘s narrative is pretty shaky. The story buries itself in endless flashbacks and cutaways, making it easy for players to forget where they’re actually at in the plot. The game also has an annoying tendency to focus on irrelevant details; Ghat and Deadra walk around in the woods, get jumped by a crazy person, and then spend three flashback missions learning that loon’s backstory. These flashbacks rarely have any pertinence to the main plot, which makes them feel gratuitous.

Additionally, though Ghat’s motivations for killing Father-Mother (the bird man, and yes, that’s his/her name) are believable, the game gives no good reason for his keeping it a secret. Well, no good reason that the game’s awkward dialogue provides. ACE Team gets a bit of a break for its writing because English is not these devs’ first language, but that still doesn’t change the story’s lack of organization. The voice acting underpinning this story is also hit-and-miss. Ghat’s voice actor sounds just like Elias Toufexis and is almost as good, but Deadra’s voice actress is more stilted in her delivery. Zeno Clash‘s music is also serviceable, but that’s about it.

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“Oh no….” (said in a bored voice).

Zeno Clash‘s plot raises many more questions than it answers. The game deals far too much in characters whose motivations are unknowable. Indeed, players could be forgiven for thinking that this title isn’t its own story so much as a doormat for Zeno Clash II… because it is. To be fair, a lot of video games end up being glitzy concept demos for a far grander title down the line, but most of those games at least try to have a complete story. Zeno Clash presents a partial story. It’s a good intro for a few novel characters, but that’s about it.

Despite its narrative shortcomings, Zeno Clash remains a fun brawler. Fighting game fans should consider getting the title if they’re willing to stomach sub par storytelling and small resolutions. Players who get Zeno Clash can also count on being introduced to one of gaming’s weirdest worlds: a place whose visuals contain heart and passion even if the story leaves a lot to be desired on both of those fronts. Get the game, give punching a two-legged pig a try, and if that sounds like fun, punch everything else the game has in its corner.

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You can buy Zeno Clash here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Seasons After Fall

Fall1

Master the powers of the four seasons to set a friend free.

PC Release: September 2, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Part of what makes September so agonizing is waiting for fall to arrive. Autumn is empirically proven to be the best season of the year, what with its bright colors, cool temperatures, and near-complete absence of insects. Pumpkin spice lattes are an abomination, but their proliferation at Starbucks and in the media is a small price to pay for enjoying fall colors. To celebrate the onset of autumn, we’re taking a brief break from discussing brand-new games to review Seasons After Fall.

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Released just over a year ago by the adorably named studio Swing Swing Submarine, Seasons After Fall is a side-scrolling platformer that’s all about taking in nature. Despite what its name implies, Seasons After Fall is about all the seasons, and all the beauty that each one has to offer. The name “Seasons After Fall” isn’t the best title for a game that espouses all four seasons, but let’s be fair; Seasons In Addition to Fall and Seasons But Also Fall don’t roll off the tongue nearly as well.

Seasons After Fall takes place in a mysterious, gorgeously painted wilderness and stars a magic fox as the player character. This little vulpine critter is no ordinary fox; it’s been imbued with the power to change the season instantaneously. It’s up to the fox to travel the world, learn how to change to new seasons, and ultimately use these abilities to free an imprisoned woodland sprite. Despite her predicament, the sprite is able to guide the player from afar and provides advice on how to progress.

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Over the river and through the woods…

Right away, Seasons After Fall impresses with its delicate artwork. Even in a genre overflowing with hand-painted visuals, the title’s gentle backdrops and intricately painted foregrounds are a cut above the rest. Each region in Seasons After Fall is a nature painting replete with bright, varied colors and thousands of details to spot. These visuals excel at giving Seasons After Fall a heavy nature vibe: that crisp, vivid feeling that comes with taking a walk in autumn woods.

What makes Seasons After Fall‘s artwork even more impressive is that the same scenes are done over in four different seasons. Because players can change between the seasons at will, each region they visit in Seasons After Fall can be presented as a delicate spring vignette or a sweeping autumnal portrait. Each season utilizes its own palette of strong colors; winter is done out in deep blue and stark white while summer is green, green, green. The result of all this painting is that each environment in Seasons After Fall packs both four times the variety and four times the beauty. They’re breathtaking.

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(swoon)

Equally breathtaking is the music that accompanies Seasons After Fall‘s autumnal vistas. Swing Swing Submarine hired a string quartet to compose the game’s music, and made damn good use of some damn talented musicians. Most scenes in Seasons After Fall are accompanied by lively string progressions, with a deep cello serving as the base and violins adding an energetic, almost merry vibe to the production. Occasionally the music is improperly balanced and drowns out the game’s other audio, but these instances are mercifully rare.

Seasons After Fall is also content to strip the music out on occasion and leave players alone with the sounds of nature, which change with the seasons. Spring brings with it a cacophony of birds chirping and the sound of rainfall, while summer retains the birdsong but swaps out rain for wind. Winter, as always, is mute. The best and most atmospheric sounds by far come during the autumn sections: leaves crunching, wind blowing… it all reinforces Seasons After Fall‘s lovely outdoor vibe.

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Quick! Use your tale as an umbrella!

So far there’s been a lot of talk about how seasons inform the art and sounds of Seasons After Fall; how do they affect the gameplay? Nearly all of Seasons After Fall‘s challenges are simple environmental puzzles, and this is where the game’s season-changing mechanic comes into play. A geyser isn’t much use to anyone in the springtime, but switch over to winter and it freezes up, making for a great platform. Conversely, a tree isn’t all that lively in winter, but come summertime its leaves make handy ramps.

Seasons After Fall‘s gameplay is easy to understand, but that’s mostly because it’s so simplistic. All the player has to to is behold an object that can produce a platform and switch over to the season that’ll make it do so. This setup leaves the title’s gameplay feeling shallow and light on challenge; inveterate platforming fans will have little trouble causing mushrooms to grow and geysers to shatter. Something more challenging, like timed puzzles requiring quick seasonal changes, would not have gone amiss.

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Hot cocoa senses tingling…

Luckily, Seasons After Fall excels at giving players silky smooth character control. The game’s jumping and running mechanics are implemented with laser precision. Switching between seasons is pretty simple too; just hover in the air for a sec and voila! Autumn awesomeness. Though Seasons After Fall allows players to run and jump with wild abandon, the camera can be a bit slow to catch up, sometimes waiting until the player is at the very edge of the scene before re-centering.

Seasons After Fall‘s PC performance is more enviable than its gameplay. The game runs well on PCs of all shapes and sizes, most likely because of its 2D setup and low-poly paint job. These factors are also probably responsible for the game’s small options menu, which lists out a few resolution sizes, audio options, and its controls. Nothing fancy, but luckily for Seasons After Fall, it has an autumn-level lack of pesky bugs.

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Aw. He’s all tuckered out by his godlike powers.

Another detail to keep an eye out for among the fall colors is Seasons After Fall‘s story. The game’s plot does a pretty good job of guiding the player through the seasonal vistas (as the fox is a mute and has no verbalized character motivations), but isn’t quite as memorable as said vistas. Players spend most of the game being guided around by a woodland sprite, whose young British voice actress lends peppy energy (and a charming accent) to the production. Later, Seasons After Fall introduces a few guardians who guide the player along at a significantly slower tempo than the sprite.

The game’s actual writing is about three fifths musing about the seasons, two fifths telling the player where to go, and just a dash of plot twist. None of it makes for exemplary exposition and there are a few grammar errors here and there, but it does provide a solid enough foundation for traversing an ever-changing world. Seasons After Fall could stand some more narrative heft, but its art, gameplay and sound design are substantial enough that the game doesn’t feel lesser for not having it.

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Climb, little buddy!

There are a lot of exciting games coming down the pipe this autumn, but make some time for Seasons After Fall. It’s a delightful little title whose atmosphere successfully captures the joy of nature, though its gameplay could stand some more depth. As an aside, this title is best enjoyed with a slice of pumpkin bread and some dark roast coffee… like really dark roast. Hell, make it a pumpkin spice latte if absolutely necessary.

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You can buy Seasons After Fall here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

FarSky

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Hunt, survive and thrive under the sea.

PC Release: April 25, 2014

By Ian Coppock

The term “survival” usually brings scraping by in a jungle or fighting a hungry animal to mind; why can’t survival be relaxing? Why can’t Tom Hanks spend some time lazing on the beach when he’s not busy fishing coconuts out of trees or screaming at volleyballs? FarSky explores the notion of finding tranquility in survival and exploration, of enjoying a relaxing vibe even when death is swimming nearby. How does it do this? Let’s find out.

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FarSky (not to be confused with Far Cry) is an underwater survival game created by the eponymous FarSky Interactive. It’s unclear why a game about being underwater is called FarSky; maybe because the sky is far away from the bottom of the sea? Or perhaps FarSky Interactive wanted to emulate the concept of the self-titled debut album? Whatever the reason, FarSky remains the rarest type of title that can be found on Steam: an open-world survival game that isn’t in Early Access.

FarSky‘s lively mix of exploration, building, and crafting is split into two modes: Adventurer and Sandbox. The two are virtually identical; Adventurer tosses a light narrative and endgame goal onto surviving in the ocean, while Sandbox allows players to just keep swimming without any pesky exposition. Both modes encourage players to hunt for fish (which are definitely food, not friends), harvest resources, and craft tools.

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Ooooooh…

Adventurer mode is essentially a glorified tutorial for Sandbox, as evidenced by its simple goal and laughable premise. The mode casts players as Nathan, a diver who needs to reassemble his broken submarine in order to reach the surface and call for help. Apparently Nathan has weights tied to his ankles, because swimming up to the surface himself and waiting for rescue is out of the question. Nathan gets some handy dandy survival tips from his buddy Madison, who chimes in over radio to remind him to eat his lunch and to watch out for sharks. That’s literally all there is to this title’s “story.”

No, the true fun of FarSky lies in the game’s Sandbox mode, where players can build bases, fight sharks, and explore the ocean ad infinitum. Unlike the Adventurer mode, Sandbox spawns players into a random part of the ocean with one underwater module to inhabit and precious little else. From there, it’s up to players to stay one fin ahead of oceanic predators and dive the depths in search of treasure. Even though FarSky is set underwater, players move about as if on dry land and jump jet from place to place. That’s okay though, because swimming in games is generally terrible.

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Home sweet home.

FarSky‘s gameplay will be instantly recognizable to anyone who’s played Minecraft. Indeed, calling FarSky “underwater Minecraft” is not entirely without merit. Like Minecraft, players control their character from a first-person perspective and spend most of their time harvesting materials from the environment around them. Players also have a hunger bar and must keep the munchies at bay by hunting fish or growing vegetables. Players have to watch out for predators, who are drawn by the killing of fish and also come out in droves after dark.

Once players gather enough materials, it’s time to build an underwater base. FarSky allows players to construct the ultimate marine lair, a process made easy with the game’s simple crafting menus. Those same menus allow players to build plenty of other cool gear, from reinforced diving suits to spearguns and even little submarines. For anything that can be said about how derivative FarSky is of Minecraft, few games do crafting and base-building as well as this title does.

FarSky4

Can I just, like… stay down here forever?

The other neat thing about FarSky is how it stratifies its biomes. The game features three levels of ocean for player to explore: the shallow spots near the surface, the deep blue sea, and the very, very bottom. The deeper the level, the more lucrative its resources. Players can’t race straight to the bottom for the good stuff, though; they first have to build the requisite diving suit, which can only be made with materials found in the preceding stratum. Players can also access a topographic map to see where the next big gold deposit is, but the game doesn’t allow setting waypoints, which is silly.

Though this system is a bit simplistic, FarSky‘s strata are an innovative way to stagger out exploration and make players build progressively more advanced equipment. It requires them to be methodical in both building a base and in using their resources in order to reach the bottom (rather than, y’know, just being able to reach the bottom from the get-go). This setup also encourages players to explore each level of the ocean thoroughly and use the materials found therein before proceeding 20,000 leagues deeper.

FarSky5

Time to land me some fish and chips!

FarSky does a good job of encouraging its players to get out there and explore, but some would-be Jules Vernes might find this title’s gameplay shallow. Like many survival games, FarSky encapsulates a simple cycle of hunting, eating, building, and exploring. It can be lots of fun to find treasure in the deepest depths and spend hours building up a dream home, but constantly hunting for fish, gathering materials, and returning home to do it all again can get repetitive.

Some of FarSky‘s other gameplay elements also come up feeling somewhat cheap, particularly the predator encounters. Sharks out for the player’s blood barrel right toward them and cannot be dodged, meaning that players either have to have a speargun or be really good with a knife to avoid becoming fish food. Bereft of either of these things, it’s easy for players to end up dying and respawning without their inventory. Being able to have at least a small chance of dodging the sharks would be nice.

FarSky6

DOWN BRUCE, DOWN!

FarSky‘s artwork swims a very fine line between being low-poly and being low-budget. The ocean is well enough animated; fish swim believably and kelp sways serenely, which helps reinforce the vibe of a living, breathing sea. Less serene are the game’s textures, some of which are hideous. The surfaces of mineral deposits and certain items are heavily pixelated, making them look less like objects in a 2014 title and more, say, like something out of 1995’s Star Wars: Dark Forces. Fish and other sea life look a lot better, but that might be because most of them feature only one or two solid colors.

FarSky does a bit better when it comes to object placement, scattering shipwrecks and seaweed in a believable pattern across its game world. The game’s maps also feature impressive geographic variety; players can traverse sandy plateaus, geyser fields, and deep underwater canyons in search of resources. FarSky‘s veneer is simplistic and lacks polish, but the game’s object placement and usage of bright colors is a big help. The game’s dramatic changes in elevation add more spectacle (and variety).

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Multiple Hanks inbound.

Despite suffering a host of amateurish design problems ranging from unrealistic movement to smudged up textures, FarSky‘s siren call is still pretty compelling. The game’s mechanics, while simplistic, are smoothly implemented and make it easy for players to explore. It’s fun to dive deep into the ocean in search of food, treasure, and new geographic formations. It’s also fun to come home after a long day’s diving and build out that cool underwater base; there’s always room for another sub bay or another hydroponics lab.

In spite of its shallowness, FarSky is also remarkably relaxing. Maybe it’s the kelp gently swaying, or the beautiful piano-driven music playing in the background, but few survival games are as apt at relaxing the mind as FarSky. Its beautiful oceanic visage and simple setup make it accessible to everyone, and allow the game to run on PCs new and old (despite a limited options menu). FarSky would benefit from more realistic underwater physics and better rendered visuals, but it’s still a fun little distraction. It’s not the Heart of the Ocean, but it’s still a rough gem.

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This is lovely.

At the end of the day, players looking for a simple survival experience or a casual underwater adventure should try FarSky. Its gameplay can’t hold a candle to the complexity of better-known survival adventures, but its relaxing vibe, mysterious atmosphere, and easy crafting gameplay still make for a savory cocktail. Dive deep and see what secrets the ocean conceals; players can count on plenty of shipwrecks, surprise shark attacks, and base-building fun in this pleasant little sea shanty.

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You can buy FarSky here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.

Shank

Shank1

Slash your way through the criminals who murdered your girlfriend.

PC Release: October 26, 2010

By Ian Coppock

It’s a legit fact that September is the most boring month on the calendar. It’s the waiting period between summer and autumn; nothing really happens and it seems to stretch on much longer than necessary (just ask Green Day). In an effort to shake September up, this month’s slate of weekend reviews are all about fighting and surviving (things that students who are just now enrolling in or returning to school should also be able to relate to). With excitement and adrenaline in mind, it’s time to talk about Shank.

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Developed by the fine Canadians over at Klei (the creators of Don’t Starve and Mark of the Ninja), Shank is a side-scrolling beat ’em up for which the term “gritty” seems an inadequate descriptor. This game isn’t “gritty” so much as “choked to the brim with sand, blood, and bullets.” Shank emphasizes running from left to right and killing as many dudes as possible with as many swords, guns and grenades as possible… all while chugging down bottles of tequila. Brain cells not included.

Shank begins when its titular hero walks into a bar looking for the man who killed his girlfriend; as these stories go, things quickly get bloody and Shank resolves to fight his way to the killer instead of talking. As far as games go, Shank is pretty meta; the title is named both for its protagonist and for the primary means by which that protagonist ends lives. It turns out that stabbing someone repeatedly is a great way to end a bar fight. Who knew?

Shank2

Shank (pictured left) has few compunctions about misusing tableware.

Shank‘s gameplay is reminiscent of both fighting games and old-school, side-scrolling shoot ’em ups that put arcades on the map. As Shank, players can dispatch foes with a versatile mix of knife fighting, heavy melee weapons, and guns. Shank’s shank makes for a quick-handed weapon but doesn’t do all that much damage, while heavier weapons like chainsaws make short work of enemy life bars at the expense of speed. Guns and grenades, while not as up-close and personal as a knife, are effective at beating back hordes of enemies or hitting distant foes.

In addition to his skill with a knife, Shank is quite the gymnast, able to sprint long distances and leap from rooftop to rooftop with terrifying grace. Players can also use their knife as a climbing tool to ascend buildings or wall-run from one vantage point to another. If Shank takes too much damage, players can reach for a nearby bottle of tequila to restore his health. Enemies out for Shank’s blood come in all shapes and sizes but generally consist of lightweight pugilists, attack dogs, and freakishly huge brawlers.

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Remember, kids, start your day out with a hearty bowl of steroids.

Shank‘s gameplay is much more graceful than knifing hordes of enemies might imply. The character’s movements are extremely fluid, allowing players to leap between surfaces and pounce onto foes with ease. Weapons are also made easy to switch between for on-the-fly tactical adjustments. As players progress through the game, they can upgrade Shank’s arsenal with newfound killing tools like shotguns and SMGs. The katana is particularly effective at slicing foes into sushi.

Shank‘s combat, though imperfect, is elegant. It’s not a sophisticated setup—players simply select a weapon and button-mash their way to victory—but it scores points for making it simple to switch between weapons and for its aforementioned acrobatic freedom. The one major drawback is that the shotgun is OP; so OP, in fact, that everything the game throws at Shank after he gets it (even bosses) fold like hot laundry. This doesn’t make the game un-fun, but boy does it water down the challenge. Never bring a hatchet to a shotgun fight.

Shank4

You call that a gun?! THIS is a gun!

The thing about Shank that’s not so watered down is its artwork; holy crap is this game gory. Shank is quite liberal in its portrayal of violence, with execution and fight scenes so over-the-top as to be comparable to the film 300. The game’s visceral approach to combat reinforces its violent atmosphere. Shank‘s grim vibe is further rounded out by its environments, which wrap decent albeit linear level design inside such dour backdrops as a sun-baked town and a literal city of brothels.

There is a rift between all of this violence and the art style that Klei uses to portray it. Though everything from the cutscenes to the character movements is well-animated, it’s a bit silly to see such a serious, gritty story play out in the style of a Saturday morning cartoon. Picture Kronk from The Emperor’s New Groove flaying someone alive at the Dreadfort from Game of Thrones and it gives some idea of the dissonance this game’s art direction offers. It’s all well and good on a technical level, but a more mature art style might’ve suited Shank‘s theme better.

Shank5

Hehe. Haha (clears throat).

Shank is a cartoon that the kids probably shouldn’t watch, but that’s due as much to its narrative as its gore. Avenging the death of a loved one is hardly an unexplored topic in games, but Shank gives the trope unexpected depth. It’s unafraid to explore such taboo subject matter as rape, and in surprisingly blunt language. Shank also surprises as a character; he’s much softer-spoken and more thoughtful than his mindless killing implies. He’s aware of his many transgressions but is no less willing to commit them in pursuit of revenge. The character’s introspection breaks the revenge hero mold.

Of course, all of this depends on the version of Shank that players have. For some reason the PC version of this game is heavily censored; Klei edited out most mentions of Shank’s girlfriend (and thus his motivation for revenge) as well as a huge plot point that plays out at the end of the narrative. Why? Additionally, why did only the PC edition of Shank get this treatment while the console versions were left uncensored? Klei knows that PC refers to “personal computer” and not “politically correct”, right?

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*this caption has been censored due to profane language and a reference to alcohol*

It’s unfortunate that Shank‘s full story doesn’t see the light of day on PC, but its fun beat ’em up gameplay thankfully remains untouched. It’s weird to review a game whose narrative quality depends on the platform it’s being played on, but… stranger things have happened. Either way, Shank is the game to play for gamers who love platformers and brawlers, and there’s even a small co-op campaign since it’s dangerous to go alone. Take a glance at the title and the gritty, well-designed combat that it has to offer.

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You can buy Shank here.

Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at ianlaynecoppock@gmail.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.