Category Archives: Hack’n’Slash

Crazy Oafish Ultra Blocks: Big Sale

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Kill hundreds of rival shoppers in the name of holiday consumerism.

PC Release: December 16, 2016

By Ian Coppock

Welcome one and all to the 2017 Art as Games Christmas Special! As usual, thanks to everyone who read the reviews that were posted all year, and a huge welcome to newcomers just stumbling into this particular corner of gamedom. Tonight’s title celebrates that most venerated of American holiday traditions. Family? Nope. Friends? Nope. Being thankful for things? Not likely! No, the holiday tradition being alluded to is, of course, un(hinged)bridled consumerism, with Crazy Oafish Ultra Blocks: Big Sale!

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Crazy Oafish Ultra Blocks: Big Sale (let’s just call it COUB, easier on the tongue and the eyes and the lips), is a high-octane shopping simulator that seeks to capture the quintessential American holiday spirit. Players spawn in as an everyday shopper whose goal is to get into the mall, find a list of randomly generated items, and leave the store. The game sounds like a perfectly innocent shopping trip on paper, until players consider that there’s only one TV left for dozens of shoppers to fight over.

COUB is far more than a trip to the mall: it’s a vicious battle royale in which dozens of shoppers bloodily compete for that last item on the shelf. Sure, players can find the item that they need easily enough, but getting out of the store ahead of the dozens of other customers who also want it is another story. Players who hope to escape the mall alive need to pack much more than a shopping cart. Luckily, being in America, this mall has plenty of gun stores.

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Santa baby, why don’t you go buy a new gunnnn, for funnnn…

Players control their shopper in third person and can meander around the mall at their leisure. Each round of COUB brings with it a different gallery of items for players to find. Players can bet that beer’ll be at the convenience mart and the TV’ll be at Not-Best-Buy, but sometimes COUB spawns its stuff in weird places. It’s probably not every gamer’s first thought to look for a VR headset in the women’s clothing department.

Grabbing a shopping cart and finding the items on the list is simple enough, but what about paying for them? In the event that the shopper forgets their wallet, players can find other ways to make money. Cash can sometimes be found in hard-to-reach areas of the mall… other times, it can be plucked from the bodies of fellow shoppers. Whatever it takes to get those gifts, right? COUB seems to agree.

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GET BACK! Or you’re all going on the naughty list!

Anyway, once players have the cash, they can purchase presents and leave the store. The catch is that, much like grabbing a key in a horror game, the purchase turns all the NPCs around the player immediately hostile. The more items the player collects, the bigger the angry mob that chases them around the mall. Sometimes the crowd can get alarmingly big; players who’ve crossed out their entire list can expect upwards of 40 customers to chase them to the exit. It’s social Darwinism meets ‘murican capitalism!

Even the most nimble players will find that outrunning rival shoppers is only a temporary countermeasure. The only way to truly deal with the throngs of crazed consumers in COUB is to mow them down with a gun or get choppy with a sword. The mall is loaded with plenty of melee and ranged weapons, allowing players to make quick work of bloodthirstily thrifty shoppers. Most customers jump into the fray armed only with their bare fists, but be careful; a few are packing some heat of their own.

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Two asscheeks full of buckshot and he’s still running like a champ… go Santa!

While COUB has no problem encouraging players to mow down swarms of shoppers, aiming is another story. It’s hard to tell if COUB‘s guns shoot directly forward or if they lock onto the nearest enemy shopper… perhaps a bit of both? In any case, aiming and firing weapons in COUB is much more of a chore than it should be. It’s certainly more difficult than it should be to hit a giant, hard-to-miss rabble of shoppers. Players’ best hope for killing bad guys is to wait until they’re almost brushing up against them before firing. Luckily, most shoppers go down in one hit.

Killing enemies with a melee weapon is marginally easier than using a gun. Players can jump into the fray with their fists if they want to get immediately killed by the horde, or keep their distance with a weapon and swat shoppers as they get close. No matter if players use a gun or a sword, they can count on COUB to cook up one hell of a bloodbath. The amount of gore that can be spilled in this game is comparable to Postal. Lord.

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You better not pout, you better not cry, you better say your prayers, you’re all gonna die…

It’s a bit jarring to see so much blood coat a cartoon aesthetic, but that’s what COUB goes for. The game’s visual design is all bright colors and block-shaped characters, with an impressive amount of object detail to boot. The mall is absolutely jam-packed with both colorful items and huge crowds of people, so good luck running out of things to glance at. The game’s character animations are a bit wonky (especially since NPCs ragdoll upon death), but remain serviceable.

COUB‘s sound design is a little less amusing than its visuals. Some of the game’s sound effects, like footsteps, come through just fine, but gunshots are extremely muted. COUB‘s “soundtrack” is a single, looping piece of elevator music that sounds alright the first time around, but quickly gets annoying the longer players are trapped in the mall. Hell, the music is probably what drives all the NPCs to such violence.

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I need your biggest frickin’ waistline, lotta cookies to eat tonight!

Much like a bearded fat man who’s had a hundred cookies too many, COUB struggles with running well. Players might find that the game chugs a bit on their machine, which is a joke considering its simple visuals. This problem also feeds into COUB‘s framerate, which has an annoying tendency to slow down even when there aren’t dozens of characters in frame. Most annoying of all is a bug that occasionally prevents players from leaving the store even when they’ve gotten everything on their list.

As is to be expected, these bugs weigh down the fun of driving a cart ’round the mall, collecting presents, and shooting bad guys. Even though COUB‘s been out for almost a year, the developers don’t seem to have done much to address these issues. Hopefully they consider a patch, because COUB‘s shopping adventure is bizarrely addicting. It is truly the tobacco of video games.

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Negotiations are breaking down…

Players should bear a few other things in mind when considering COUB. In addition to being slow with a patch, the developers are terminally Russian; ergo, the game has a few spelling and grammar errors (also, the devs’ names are listed in Cyrillic). Most of these comprehension errors, like “beer case” are funny, while others, like “system unit” are too opaque. Oh well; all the more reason to hit up (or shoot up) every store in the mall.

Additionally, despite its cute and cuddly appearance, COUB is not for the under-18’s. That should be a given considering how much gore is in this game, but there’s no shortage of other controversial sights in the mall. For some reason the game allows players to collect nudie cards, but that salaciousness is somewhat broken by the fact that all the models are also block people. It’s a random design choice but, frankly, so are nearly all of COUB‘s design choices. That’s what makes the game work.

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(inoffensive shopping mall music)

COUB is one of those games that was definitely built on the cheap and with a bit of duct tape, but that’s also what gives it its charm. It’s one of the weirdest games to come this way in a while, but it works as a title because of its absurd gameplay and painfully accurate satire of American consumerism. Sure, gun battles don’t break out every Black Friday (at least not yet), but COUB‘s humor works because it brings the real-life tension of the shopping season to a furious, hilarious boil.

And with that, this year of reviews draws to a close. As always, huge thanks to everyone who’s been along for the journey. As long as there are more video games releasing, players can always expect more reviews to appear on this page. Have a happy holiday (whichever one that might be), and don’t drink too much nogshine. Actually, scratch that; there’s no such thing as too much nogshine.

Or too many video games.

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You can buy Crazy Oafish Ultra Blocks: Big Sale 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.

Assassin’s Creed Origins

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Witness the rise of the Assassins.

PC Release: October 27, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Well, well, well, look what’s back after two years away! It turns out that Ubisoft has at least a modicum of self-awareness; the publisher decided to give the Assassin’s Creed series a break when it became clear that everyone was all assassin’d out. Indeed, Ubisoft now seems devoted to this revolutionary concept of not releasing annual sequels, and Assassin’s Creed Origins is its first proof of that concept.

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The Assassin’s Creed series made a strong showing with its eponymous 2007 debut. Despite its flaws, millions of fans fell in love with the saga’s tale of freedom-loving Assassins and power-hungry Templars duking it out throughout the course of history. From the Italian Renaissance to the American Revolution, there was seemingly no setting that Ubisoft’s new flagship series left untouched. When Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag released to universal (and well-deserved) acclaim in 2013, the series was at its zenith.

Then… Assassin’s Creed Unity happened. Released in 2014, Unity‘s high-flying tale of French Revolution intrigue was one of Ubisoft’s ugliest displays of hubris. In addition to being released in a broken state across all three platforms, Unity was stuffed with such bizarre design choices as needing a mobile app to unlock certain treasure chests. Unity‘s release made Ubisoft the laughingstock of the gaming world and even slowed the sales of 2015’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.

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ARE WE HAVING FUN YET, AMI?

After Syndicate (which was an alright game, by the way) failed to sell anywhere near what Ubisoft wanted, the company realized that rushing these games out year after year was probably a bad idea. As a result, no Assassin’s Creed game was released last year, as Ubisoft elected to take more time on this year’s release: Assassin’s Creed Origins. As implied by its title, the game is a soft reboot of the franchise that seeks to explore the hitherto untold origin story of the series’ hooded killers.

Assassin’s Creed Origins takes place in ancient Egypt over a thousand years before the events of even the first game. Players assume the role of Bayek, an Egyptian Medjay (think sheriff), who’s out for revenge after a cabal of masked figures kills his young son. The part about avenging the death of a loved one should sound instantly familiar to any Assassin’s Creed fan, and Origins tows that part to a T.

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Revenge is a dish best served sweltering.

Bayek may not be an Assassin on paper, but few would suspect that after watching him scale a pyramid. Like his many series predecessors, Bayek is an apt gymnast who can cross towering buildings and treacherous chasms in the blink of an eye. Players can put these abilities to good use attacking foes from above, or creep through some conveniently arranged bushes.

Origins also gets rid of the parkour-up and parkour-down system established by Assassin’s Creed Unity in favor of the more free-form system seen in earlier games. The result is a climbing system that feels more organic and allows for more movement (even if that means that players may unintentionally leap to their death every so often). Between the Pyramids of Giza and the numerous citadels and temples throughout ancient Egypt, players will never want for things to climb on.

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The Sphinx, pre-nose job.

Bayek’s sneaking and climbing is nicely complemented by his Eagle Vision. Like all of its predecessors, Assassin’s Creed Origins gives players a sixth sense for detecting bad guys and treasure, and it’s not dissimilar to the Batman: Arkham games’ detective mode. Unlike previous AC games, Bayek’s Eagle Vision is tied to the eyes of his pet eagle Senu, whom players can use to spot bad guys and points of interest just like the drone in Tom Clancy’s Ghost Recon Wildlands. How Bayek can see through his eagle isn’t ever quite explained… perhaps he’s a descendant of Takkar from Far Cry Primal?

However, neither organic free-climbing nor a telepathic murder-bird can hold a candle to Origins‘ greatest gameplay strength: its combat. Past Assassin’s Creed games tended to make combat too simple or too complicated, but Origins‘ fighting is silky smooth. As Bayek, players can fight foes with a variety of tight maneuvers like dodging and parrying, or snipe from a distance with a deadly longbow. Origins‘ combat makes it one of the most fun third-person melees to come this way in a while, and is a far cry from the tedious fighting of Assassin’s Creed Unity.

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You can also ride a camel. 11/10 would camel again.

Origins‘ preference for straightforward weapons over convoluted stealth tools gives the Assassin’s Creed series a badly needed breath of fresh air. Whereas past Assassin’s Creed games bogged players down with a riot of weird tools, Origins simply hands players a sword and a bow and says go get ’em. Bayek does obtain a few stealth gadgets (like the hidden blade), but most of these are context-specific tools that can be deployed on the fly. All of this comprises the series’ tightest gameplay since that of Black Flag. Naval combat also makes a welcome return, albeit restricted to a handful of linear missions.

Origins‘ neatly stratified gameplay is put to great use in its vast open world. Origins‘ rendition of ancient Egypt is by far the largest map the series has ever produced, comparable to Skyrim in both size and number of locations to explore. Players can sink dozens of hours into raiding Egypt’s tombs or hunting animals that prowl the oases. Origins also has more cities than any other Assassin’s Creed game, allowing players to explore Alexandria, Memphis, Cyrene, and other famous ancient world locales. It’s a rich, seamless realm that offers up no shortage of exploration and fun.

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Whadya mean there are no jazz clubs here? It says Memphis on the sign!

Players can also bet that Origins‘ Egypt is as beautiful as it is deep. The game’s environments comprise a gorgeous quilt of wilderness, towns, and cities; even Assassin’s Creed II‘s Renaissance landmarks can’t compare to the intricacies of Alexandria or the stark color of the desert. Origins make use of strong colors and plentiful object detail to bring its world to life. The game features dozens of environments ranging from dunes to forests (in stark contrast to the notion that Egypt is nothing but desert). Players can traverse this land on a horse, a camel, or in a boat.

Though Origins‘ environments are pretty to look at, its character models are much less impressive. Assassin’s Creed has never done well with its characters, and Origins‘ ancient Egyptian denizens look just as much like mannequins as the NPCs in previous installments. NPCs do look much more detailed during cutscenes, but all that detail quickly fades back into obscurity once the gameplay resumes.

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Would you look at that?

Origins rounds out its detailed level design and varied color palette with some of the series’ best sound design. The music borrows heavily from that of the very first Assassin’s Creed, relying on fast percussion and electronically modified horns to build a novel soundscape. Origins‘ other sounds are similarly rich; everything from Bayek’s footsteps through sand to the unsheathing of his blade sounds satisfying. The voice acting is hit-and-miss, but the characters who matter to the story are all well-voiced.

Yes, though Assassin’s Creed Origins continues the series’ tradition of historical figure cameos, they’re not as obnoxious as those of previous installments. Whereas Assassin’s Creed Syndicate rather pathetically shoehorned a nine-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle into its Victorian world, Origins presents a few famous faces and leaves the rest of the storytelling to the Assassins. Origins‘ decision to reign in the cameos is a welcome change over stuffing them awkwardly into the story. The game’s storytelling also benefits from the presence of meaty side missions instead of the usual story-free side activities.

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NOBODY MOVE! I dropped a scalpel!

While it’s fun to see Cleopatra and Julius Ceasar on the gaming screen, Origins‘ story is made on its original characters. Bayek is the most likable Assassin yet produced by the series; not even the legendarily affable Ezio Auditore can compete with this character’s wit, charm, and humanity. Bayek’s likability stems from the dichotomy of his infinite compassion for his fellow Egyptians… and his infinite hatred for the ones who killed his son. The character suffers crises of faith and fits of savage rage just as he plays with children and tells genuinely funny jokes.

Bayek is also an altogether different character than the many Assassins before (or after?) him. In stark contrast to most Assassin’s Creed protagonists, he is ardently religious, and it’s fascinating to see him try to reconcile his faith with all the blood on his hands. The game’s writing pulls off that inner conflict beautifully, without all the proverbial detritus that’s slowed the cogs of past Assassin’s Creed games. Aya, Bayek’s wife, is similarly torn between her desire for revenge and for Egypt to reclaim its past glory. Players can switch over to her for a few missions and rather emphatically prove wrong the notion that women can’t fight (or ignite lighthouses).

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Heaven help those who tempt parents’ wrath.

It’s because of its strong characters that Assassin’s Creed Origins sticks the story landing despite using the same premise as other titles. Origins is hardly the first AC game to send a protagonist off to avenge a loved one’s demise, but it is the first since Black Flag to portray characters’ emotions so candidly. Those portrayals go a long way toward encouraging players to once again kill their way through a list of greedy fat cats, and add fresh context to what would otherwise be a tired routine.

Because of its attention to detail, decent writing, and instantly likable characters, Origins‘ story is one of the best Assassin’s Creed tales yet. The story does suffer occasional pacing issues (especially toward the end), but Bayek’s quest for justice in an Egypt being torn apart from within is compelling stuff. The game’s ancient world setting is also the series’ most vibrant since the Renaissance set pieces; hopefully a future AC game sees players off to Greece or the Roman Empire.

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Don’t slip!

Origins has a lot to offer gamers on every platform, but the title has a special present for PC players: great system performance. It seems ridiculous to type onto this page, but even as of launch, Assassin’s Creed Origins suffers almost no performance issues. Occasionally the game may crash, but the title launched bereft of the character pop-in and other problems that have plagued Ubisoft titles for years. Origins comes up with a clean bill of health for PC gamers, and that’s marvelous.

Assassin’s Creed Origins has saved the Assassin’s Creed series, and is second only to Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag as the best game the franchise has ever produced. Whether it’s delving into the pyramids or igniting one of the most emotionally charged narratives that triple-A gaming has ever produced, Assassin’s Creed Origins is a resounding success that gamers everywhere should try. Origins has broken the shadow cast by Assassin’s Creed Unity and made being an AC fan fun again.

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You can buy Assassin’s Creed Origins 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.

Malebolgia

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Find a way to escape from the deepest circle of Hell.

PC Release: May 6, 2015

By Ian Coppock

Winter nights can be beautiful, but they’re also dark and cold. The hoary chill of a winter evening can exude a forbidding atmosphere (they don’t say the night is dark and full of terrors for no reason). Some game creators recognize the cold of a winter’s night and develop games that capitalize on that feeling. Some of them even add a light bit of horror on top of the wind chill, just in case said chill wasn’t isolating enough. Malebolgia is one of those games, and it also seeks to be the herald of doom.

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Malebolgia (not to be confused with last week’s Miasmata) is a third-person horror game created by Belgium-based developer Jochen Mistiaen. The game borrows heavily from Dante’s Inferno and other works, depicting Hell as a frozen wasteland instead of the stereotypical fire-and-brimstone realm of Not-Mordor(TM). Malebolgia also emphasizes themes of sin and crime, carrying that motif in everything from its lonely storyline to its intoxicating atmosphere.

Malebolgia begins when Leopold, an old European nobleman, wakes up in a dark palace. It doesn’t take long for him to realize that the palace is on the shores of an icy lake, which itself is at the very bottom of Hell. Leopold can’t remember how he ended up here, but he resolves to find a way out of the palace and, God willing, a path out of Hell. With nothing but a small torch and his trusty halberd, Leopold sets off into the solemn halls of Palace Malebolgia.

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Ah hell. No pun intended.

Leopold quickly discovers that he’s not alone; the palace is inhabited by a lively mix of demons and undead souls. The latter have rebelled against the demons for control of the palace, leaving Leopold in the middle of a war for supremacy. Some of these souls Leopold knew in the mortal world, while others have as few compunctions about trying to kill him as the demons do. Perhaps most mysteriously, Leopold keeps catching glimpses of a beautiful young woman whom he swears he’s seen before.

The only way for Leopold to get out of the palace is to fight his way through its creepy denizens. Malebolgia challenges players to take on hordes of hideous creatures and find a way out, even if that means also confronting uncomfortable truths about Leopold’s past. Malebolgia‘s dungeon gameplay closely resembles that of the Legend of Zelda series (ironic, considering that the game’s cel shaded aesthetic looks just like The Wind Waker).

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STRANGER DANGER!

Malebolgia‘s movement controls are fine enough, but the game stumbles out of the starting gate with some tragically clunky combat. As Leopold, players have to judge when an enemy is winding up for an attack and make sure to either dodge or parry when it happens. That sounds okay on paper, but Malebolgia‘s fighting controls are both slow and occasionally unresponsive. Leopold has a similar setup for his own fighting style, making most encounters in Malebolgia a tedious game of chicken.

Additionally, Malebolgia suffers from sparse save points. Some of the boss battles in this game are quite difficult, but the title foregoes putting checkpoints near boss rooms. Instead, players have to fight through crowds of minions or jog down long corridors as penance for having failing their last attempt at a big fight. Fortunately, most bosses can be dealt with once players memorize their attack windups. Tease an attack out of them, bounce out of the way, then launch a devastating counter-attack with the halberd.

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Huh. Apparently decapitation didn’t work the first time.

Astonishingly for a dungeon-style adventure game, Malebolgia doesn’t provide a map. Players who find a key have to remember which locked doors they might have passed and how to get back to those parts of the palace. Most of the palace’s rooms are laid out in symmetrical patterns, but the basement and a few other locations are much easier to get turned around in. Malebolgia‘s omission of basic navigation tools is… eyebrow-raising, to put it politely. It certainly doesn’t help players who have short memories.

Malebolgia‘s gameplay shortcomings make the game feel shallow, and it’s regrettable that such basic facets of third-person adventuring weren’t implemented in the title. Though the game runs well enough, Malebolgia also features a limited options menu. It opens with the standard Unity resolution and graphical quality options upon starting the game, followed by a few token toggles in-game. Occasionally Malebolgia‘s achievements may not activate, but achievements are a complete waste of time anyway, so… meh.

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(sigh)

It’s a shame that Malebolgia doesn’t have better gameplay, because its art direction and atmosphere are on point. The palace is one of the creepiest environments to be featured in a recent third-person horror game and comes complete with ghoulish white walls, dimly lit ballrooms, and hidden basement catacombs. Players will still want to explore this dismal place even without a map. It’s a creepy joint not unlike Beast’s castle in Beauty and the Beast: a lair that juxtaposes towering beauty with unsettling sights. The game’s cel shading also adds a nice touch.

Likewise, Malebolgia‘s music is morbidly beautiful. Leopold is seldom accompanied by music as he explores the palace, but occasionally gets mournful piano melodies as he walks around. Boss fight music gets pretty spooky, with frighteningly high strings and sharp, acidic vocals that heighten the sense of danger. For anything that can be said about Malebolgia‘s gameplay, its artwork, level design, and lighting demonstrate a much keener attention to atmosphere.

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(shivers)

The most sophisticated aspect of Malebolgia‘s game design is its narrative. As previously mentioned, Leopold can’t remember how he ended up in Hell but wants desperately to escape the palace and its cold-blooded denizens. He spends most of the game on his own, but occasionally meets up with characters who claim to remember him from times past. The dialogue in these interactions is written to provide just enough of an unsettling implication without going into full spoiler territory. The exchanges make artful use of hints to keep players guessing what’s really going on.

Additionally, Malebolgia‘s story is heavily textured with themes of sin and remorse. Most players can probably infer that Leopold didn’t end up in Hell for no reason, and the tale of his being in the palace is a dark one. Some of the characters that Leopold meets are representative of remorse or punishment, and the story gets additional exposition in the form of the occasional poem-laden cutscene. Suffice it to say that Malebolgia‘s ghostly story is a beautiful, sad piece of writing. It wouldn’t look all that out of place in a 19th-century treatise on Dante’s Inferno.

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What did you do, Leopold?

In essence, Malebolgia is a journey to discover the truth in a hostile, depressing world. It’s a game that runs on a combination of sub-par hack’n’slash gameplay and dramatically higher-par (?) storytelling. The game is a study in extremes, challenging players to uncover a genuinely good story but also admonishing them for it through clunky gameplay. It’s a game that looks beautiful and feels forbidding as only good horror games can, but is also mired in needless frustration.

Like its protagonist, Malebolgia is tragic. It has a decent story and great art direction that gets muddled by poorly implemented gameplay. Players on the lookout for an uncommonly good horror-tragedy might be able to stomach Malebolgia‘s gameplay, but anyone disinterested in narrative or atmosphere should give it a wide miss. Developer Jochen Mistiaen has story and atmosphere down pat in his game design; if he becomes equally proficient at gameplay, his next title could be incredible.

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You can buy Malebolgia 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.

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.

Zeno Clash

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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.

Shank

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

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Liberate Victorian London from an authoritarian cabal.

PC Release: November 19, 2015

By Ian Coppock

Even in an age of unlimited sequels, Ubisoft’s devotion to churning out Assassin’s Creed games felt particularly gratuitous. Another year, another assassin running around killing people in an exotic locale. It wasn’t until the release of Assassin’s Creed Unity, one of the worst big-budget games of the decade, that the studio checked its ego and realized that maybe, just maybe, fans’ patience was not unlimited. Before putting the series on a year-long hiatus, though, Ubisoft had one more card to play: Assassin’s Creed Syndicate.

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Released in the fall of 2015, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is, like its many predecessors, an open-world, third-person game that’s all about stabbing people. It’s the 10th Assassin’s Creed game released on PC in just eight years, making this series even more sequel-happy than Call of Duty. After the demise of Assassin’s Creed Unity in 2014, Ubisoft released Syndicate a year later in the hopes of putting its flagship series back on track. Whether those hopes ever materialized is the subject of tonight’s review.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate takes the series’ secret war between freedom-loving Assassins and control-obsessed Templars to Victorian London. The game portrays the British capital as having been a bastion of Templar power for centuries, with the Assassin presence in the city all but obliterated. Jacob and Evie Frye, twin Assassins living out in the boonies, decide (quite literally on a whim) to go to London and liberate it from its Templar masters. Whereas most Assassin’s Creed games take place over years or even decades, this title’s narrative takes place just in 1868.

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Time to go to merry old London!

Jacob and Evie unite with London’s last surviving Assassin and realize that the Templars do indeed run everything from banks to bilges. They control a good chunk of the British parliament, have a hand in all of the city’s most powerful industries, and rule the criminal underworld with a gang called the Blighters. In case all that wasn’t enough, the Templars are also searching for a Piece of Eden, one of those prehistoric mind control devices (because of course they are. That’s the premise of, like, every one of these damn games).

Jacob and Evie decide that the only way to liberate London is from the ground up, so they start the Rooks—the game’s titular crime syndicate—as a means of taking back power one city block at a time. Jacob decides to go after the Templar bigwigs running London’s various rackets while Evie looks for the Piece of Eden. Thus begins the latest battle in the millennia-old war between stab-happy freedom fighters and aloof control freaks.

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I think it’s time for a right proper slashing, eh wot?

Like all of its predecessors, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is a third-person game that encourages players to explore a vast open world. Indeed, some might say that AC games are more about exploring than, y’know, assassinating people, especially considering all the collectibles. Players can pursue main story missions (which thankfully still involve assassination) or run around London gulping down tea and opening treasure chests as they see fit. Being a Ubisoft game, Syndicate is also rife with side activities like taking down enemy fortresses and stealing cartloads of crumpets.

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate does break away from its predecessors in some regards. It’s the first game in the series with two playable protagonists, allowing players to switch seamlessly between Jacob and Evie a la Grand Theft Auto V. Syndicate‘s marketing made a big noise about Jacob being a bruiser and Evie a sneaker, but both twins are pretty much identical when it comes to abilities (which calls the necessity of multiple protagonists into question). The game also introduces street vehicles and a few new gadgets for players to toy around with.

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‘Ello guv’na! *stab*

What’s that? New gadgets? Yes, Jacob and Evie get toys that scream steampunk. These include electric grenades great for making a “shocking” entrance and a line launcher that lets both twins grapple around London like Batman. That latter tool makes getting around the city both fun and easy, and it gives the series’ aged climbing gameplay a break. Jacob and Evie can also fall back on more conventional weapons like throwing knives and, of course, the hidden blade. Owing to the Victorian era’s open carry restrictions, most of the twins’ weapons are concealed inside canes and under cloaks.

Despite these new weapons, Syndicate‘s core gameplay remains little changed from that of previous AC games. Players can still hop around buildings, sneak along corridors, and stab unsuspecting enemies with speed and style. Syndicate also retains Unity‘s parkour-up and parkour-down utility (perhaps the one thing Unity did well) allowing players to hop up and down surfaces with ease. Unfortunately, Syndicate insists on tying the running and jumping functions to the same button, so inveterate AC players can look forward to more of the same free running snafus. It’s both fun and frustrating.

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Mistakenly grabbing a ledge is just as endemic to AC games as assassinations.

Syndicate‘s combat is much more forgiving than that of Assassin’s Creed Unity. Players have a small window with which to execute counter-attacks or exploit holes in an enemy’s defense, but that window isn’t minuscule like it was in Unity. As in previous games, players go toe-to-toe with several classes of foe, each with his or her own weapons. This system ultimately results in combat little different than the button-mashing of AC games past, but it is one of the series’ smoother instances of this system.

At the end of the day, Syndicate does Assassin’s Creed gameplay better than most of its peers… but it’s still Assassin’s Creed gameplay. The free running is still a bit clunky, the combat is still a bit too reliant on button-mashing, and traveling around the open world is more or less the same. Players can also count on occasionally missing the haystack when they leap off of a building. It’s the same set of core issues that’s been hounding the series for years, buffed to a slightly less problematic shine.

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Slow down slow down slow down SLOW DOWN

One major improvement Syndicate makes over past Assassin’s Creed games is its menus. This game has an even more in-depth options menu than past AC games, no doubt an attempt by Ubisoft to smooth things over with PC gamers after Unity‘s downfall. Players can adjust anti-aliasing and other functions to the tune of their own machine, and the game’s other utilities are easy to find. It’s a sad commentary on Assassin’s Creed when a game gets props just for having a decent menu, but that’s where this series is at.

Syndicate‘s aptitude with menus goes beyond options. Players can easily adjust Jacob and Evie’s appearances and arsenals from the game’s streamlined character menus. Managing the Rooks is also made simple with a one-page menu, which allows players to select upgrades like better weapons and increased revenue. This feature may not sound all that exciting on paper, but anyone who’s put up with Assassin’s Creed III’s economy menu or the mess of menus in Assassin’s Creed Unity will appreciate it.

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Just checking for options, sir, no need to be concerned.

Syndicate is a video game worth taking some time in the options menu for, because when it runs well it offers a gorgeous presentation. Ubisoft did well in bringing Victorian London to life on the small screen; the city is awash with thousands of sharp textures and beautiful lighting effects. The game fluidly combines pristine royal palaces and rotted slums into a single tapestry, one that players will want to explore. The game’s apt use of both dour and bright lighting, as well as the aforementioned textures and object placement, result in a world that feels alive.

Being an Assassin’s Creed game, though, Syndicate‘s character models could stand to gain some… life. NPC movements still look a bit stiff, and it’s sometimes easy to spot a clone-stamped character that was just in another crowd. Thankfully, Syndicate avoids creating huge crowds of people like Unity did, keeping the game safe from all of the performance issues that that decision caused in Syndicate‘s predecessorThough Syndicate‘s NPCs look like wax dummies, the game’s cutscene animations and facial capture are much more impressive.

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Them’s some good shadows.

While on the subject of performance, how well does Syndicate run on PC? The answer is that it runs better than Unity, but that’s not saying much, is it? Though Syndicate benefits from a steady framerate and alright optimization overall, the game is still awash with lots and lots of bugs. No facet of the Syndicate experience is bug-free; sometimes the HUD disappears, other times enemies don’t react to the player’s presence. Some objectives don’t feature an interact prompt. By far the weirdest bug is the one that both causes the audio to short out and the player character to walk around of their own accord.

The list of bugs goes on and on, and that’s a real shame for both Syndicate and the Assassin’s Creed series. After Assassin’s Creed Unity met its demise from an ungodly flood of bugs, Ubisoft had an opportunity to prove that it had a quality assurance department, even a quality assurance guy, somewhere in its corporate apparatus. Syndicate‘s slew of bugs, while not as bad as that of Unity, is still substantial, and indicates that Ubisoft didn’t adequately test for these problems before Syndicate shipped.

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Looks great, but why did the sound just cut out?

The amount of inconsistencies in Syndicate‘s system performance is outdone only by the amount in the main story. The game carries the Assassin’s Creed series’ adorable bastardization of historical figures to new lows, portraying Charles Darwin as a sneaky thief and Alexander Graham Bell as a guy who invented poison bombs when he wasn’t busy inventing the telephone. The game even finds a way to shoehorn a nine-year-old Arthur Conan Doyle into some side missions, which is just… why?

Not that Syndicate‘s fictional characters are all that great either. Jacob Frye is written as an irritating frat boy who dispenses arrogance at a teeth-grating clip. By contrast, his sister Evie is a far more likable character and the only one who seems to be taking this jaunt into merry old London seriously. Her level-headed demeanor and sarcastic wit contrast painfully with Jacob’s poorly written overconfidence, to the point that players may leave a cutscene having suffered a small stroke.

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These two couldn’t be more different.

The plot that all of these characters pursue is the same plot that almost every other Assassin’s Creed game shares: an assassin kills his or her way to a Piece of Eden. Syndicate‘s narrative suffers from using this same tired premise, but benefits from having a lighter, much more upbeat tone than recent AC games. This helps give Syndicate one of the better Assassin’s Creed narratives and proves that these games are at their best when they don’t take themselves so damn seriously.

Players who were hoping for a grim Victorian tale in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate will find it in the game’s Jack the Ripper DLC. Set 20 years after the events of the main game, Jack the Ripper follows the Frye twins as they pursue history’s most infamous serial killer. The DLC allows players to even play as the Ripper in certain sections, and these are executed with an unexpected affinity for horror. The DLC’s side quests, like liberating prostitutes and protecting innocent suspects from being killed by mobs, are similarly morose. It’s a surprisingly fun DLC, one that demonstrates that horror can work in an AC game.

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Why so serious?

Assassin’s Creed Syndicate is a mixed bag. It has a decent narrative and a streamlined open world, but its gameplay is badly aged and it has a ton of bugs. Syndicate‘s narrative also doesn’t move the series forward in a meaningful way, continuing recent games’ frustrating habit of hinting at new concepts while ignoring hints introduced in other titles. It’s better than Assassin’s Creed Unity, but again… that’s not saying much. Maybe Assassin’s Creed Origins will provide the reboot that this series needs; might be better just to wait for that game instead.

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You can buy Assassin’s Creed Syndicate 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.

Mark of the Ninja

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Sneak, stab, and slice your way through hordes of unsuspecting foes.

PC Release: October 16, 2012

By Ian Coppock

Usually these reviews begin with some incoherent analogy about how a game’s subject matter impacts society; the impact of ninjas doesn’t really need to be verbalized. Parents purchase entire catalogs of ninja costumes so their kids can look badass on Halloween. Everyone knows what a throwing star is. There are even ninja-themed restaurants where waiters deliver food and then vanish in a cloud of smoke. Ninjas have infiltrated the video game world too, but which ninja-themed titles are the real deal? It’s time for Mark of the Ninja to step out of the shadows.

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Ironically for a game that’s about avoiding the spotlight, Mark of the Ninja is one of the most iconic platformers of recent years. The game was developed by Klei, a Canadian outfit that most gamers probably know better as the masterminds behind Don’t Starve. Before crafting an isometric adventure game about avoiding terminal hunger, though, Klei created a game that put stealth into a side-scrolling platformer. That was a feat that few gamers and critics thought possible back in 2012.

Mark of the Ninja is set in a modern world that’s forgotten all about ninjas, which is just the way they like it. One last clan of them ekes out a secret existence in present-day Japan… until an army of mercenaries kicks down their door. Players assume the role of the Marked One, a particularly skilled ninja who beats the gun-wielding mercs back from his home. Together with his best friend Ora, the Marked One is charged by Master Azai with a new mission: kill the wealthy aristocrat who leads the mercenaries.

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Silent but deadly.

As his name implies, the Marked One is no ordinary ninja. His body is covered in tattoos that grant him extraordinary powers, like the ability to see through walls and even pause his perception of time. The trade-off is that the ink in these tattoos will eventually seep into his brain and drive him mad. Before that happens, though, the Marked One can still use his powers to cause some good (or shed some blood, depending on who’s being asked). He can also depend on some neat-o ninja gadgets and, of course, his sword.

As previously mentioned, Mark of the Ninja is a side-scrolling platformer with a heavy emphasis on stealth. Though the Marked One’s abilities are formidable, he’ll go down in an instant if an enemy soldier shoots him. One of the game’s primary motifs is that the way of the ninja doesn’t change, even if the rest of the world does. The Marked One only has traditional ninja tools to wield against machine guns, lasers, and other modern tech.

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Can you see him?

On the surface, it may seem grossly unfair that players have only throwing stars and smoke bombs to wield against automatic weapons (and it is), but therein lies the challenge of Mark of the Ninja. Since players can’t exactly walk up to an enemy and challenge them to fisticuffs, they have to rely on stealth and subversion to defeat foes. The most common way to dispatch an enemy is to simply stab them from behind… assuming players can get up behind them without making any noise.

Even though the Marked One’s roster of tools and equipment is a bit rustic, it’s not ineffective. Smoke bombs work wonders for cutting through laser screens, just as throwing knives can make short work of security cameras and other electronics. Players can also gain experience and level up to access more sophisticated tools: a cardboard box is great for sneaking around Metal Gear-style, while a handful of flesh-eating bugs can make enemies quite… excitable.

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He’s in this screenshot too.

Smoke bombs and swords are all well and good, but they pale in comparison to the Marked One’s powers. As previously mentioned, players can pause their perception of time in order to pick targets for throwing knives or listen to what’s happening in nearby rooms. The further players progress, the more formidable their powers become. The Marked One is also proficient at more conventional abilities like hiding inside objects and, well, just staying out of sight.

This combination of tools, powers and gymnastics makes Mark of the Ninja a true thriller, one that challenges players’ tactical abilities as much as their reflexes. Everything from ducking out of sight to stabbing a foe is implemented with silky smoothness, making it easy for players to execute complicated maneuvers. As a result, there’s no limit to the fun that can be had with Mark of the Ninja‘s gameplay. Its stealth is not only masterfully implemented, but also allows for endless creativity.

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Can you spot him now?

Another design element underlying Mark of the Ninja‘s skill with stealth is its level design. Each level in the game is riddled with hiding spots and secret passageways, giving players variety in how they approach their target. Does the Marked One take the front door and slip in and out of enemy patrols, or does he find a vent cover and sneak around in the air ducts? Each path has its own advantages and dangers, but they all allow for stylish stealth kills. They represent some of the most intricate platformer level design in years… perhaps even more so than Rayman Origins.

No matter if the player is a slash-happy psycho or a pure ghost, Mark of the Ninja grants points and bonuses for proficient gameplay. Players who simply sneak past foes may seem to gain more points than someone who leaves the enemy base bereft of life, but skillful kills grant points as well. Players can also gain points by completing challenges hidden in each level. Mark of the Ninja‘s points system exudes the same commitment to player freedom as its other design facets.

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This is driving you crazy, isn’t it?

Mark of the Ninja impresses with its gameplay and level design, but the game’s artwork is what binds it all together. Like its protagonist, Mark of the Ninja dabbles in shadows, giving players a neat assortment of spooky temples and towers to sneak around in. The game’s foregrounds also explore darkness as a gameplay element; players who get caught walking around in the light will suffer the consequences, but hiding in those oily shadows leaves guards none the wiser.

Mark of the Ninja‘s backgrounds are similarly exquisite. Whether the Marked One is sneaking around Japan or Eastern Europe, the background paintings are all packed with detail and dark, strong colors. They add a grand sense of scale to the Marked One’s mission, reinforcing the notion that he is a small mouse scurrying up and down the corridors of a massive, malicious colossus. These bleak-but-beautiful backgrounds confer a dark atmosphere to the title, certainly one appropriate for a game about ninjas. The game’s soundtrack is a likewise collection of low, moody tunes.

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Is he still eluding you?

Mark of the Ninja‘s characters and cutscenes are quite different from its intricately detailed environments. Much like Klei’s Shank games, the story is told in animated cutscenes whose style wouldn’t look out of place in a lineup of Saturday morning cartoons. Though character animations don’t suffer for this style and the cutscenes are well-enough animated, their cartoony visage contrasts sharply with the more sophisticated visuals in the game’s environments. Mark of the Ninja‘s voice acting is acceptable, though the writing has an unfortunate tendency to get cheesy.

Mark of the Ninja‘s writing problem seeps beyond dialogue and into the game’s plot. Though the game excels at making players feel like a ninja, the story uniting those gameplay elements feels much less inspired. The tale is a pretty conventional revenge story; some guy trashed the temple, so get out there and kill him. Ironically for a game about stealth, Mark of the Ninja‘s plot twists can be spotted from a mile away. So yeah, don’t play this game for its plot; play it to kill guards with flesh-eating bugs.

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You can’t see him… but he can see you.

Like some of the other platformers reviewed here recently, Mark of the Ninja‘s mediocre storytelling is not nearly bad enough to kill the game’s fun. Between its sophisticated level design and its smoothly implemented stealth gameplay, Mark of the Ninja is one of the most innovative platformers of the last five years. It’s an important title because its gameplay challenges platforming conventions, and does so with skillful design. Plus, it’s a lot of fun; it may not be the only ninja video game kicking around, but it is one of the best.

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You can buy Mark of the Ninja 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.

UBERMOSH & The Desktop Distortions

Ubermosh

Swords and bullets and vines, oh my!

PC Release: August 13, 2015

By Ian Coppock

As much as UBERMOSH & The Desktop Distortions sounds like the name of Josie and the Pussycats’ dubstep knockoff, the name actually refers to the collected works of Walter Machado, one of indie gaming’s most sublime (and underrated) developers. Putting all seven of his games into a single review is not an attempt to rush through an artist’s work, but rather a mirror of his games’ format: short, sweet, and no lesser for their furious blips of activity. Let’s start with UBERMOSH.

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UBERMOSH is a game about a female cyborg who spends time in the desert killing aliens and cutting bullets in half. That premise begs—no, screamsfor more detail, but UBERMOSH is frustratingly mum in that regard. The only other tidbits the game gives are that the woman is known as the Blade Saint and that her victims seek her out so that they can be ritually sacrificed (or so it’s implied). The Blade Saint can cut enemies and their bullets in half with a swing of her sword… but she can also pick up her fallen foes’ guns for a little wildfire of her own.

UBERMOSH is played from an isometric viewpoint and, as its name implies, is accompanied by some head-banging electronica that wouldn’t sound out of place at a rave. Guns sound so forceful that every shot fired is a bass drop. Additionally, the game leverages Starcraft-looking graphics in its design, going for a dark retro aesthetic that looks both beautiful and rough around the edges. The goal of UBERMOSH is simply to survive the alien horde for as long as possible; get hit once and it’s back to the main menu.

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COME AT ME BRUH!

UBERMOSH runs and plays like silk. The game’s aesthetic of crunchy pixels means that its system demands are low, while its gameplay is fun, fast-paced, and easy to pick up. The base game comes with a short tutorial that lets players acquaint themselves with the basics before they jump into arena mode. The more monsters players manage to slay, the higher their spot on the leaderboards. Most rounds in UBERMOSH last only a minute, so the game is usually played in short bursts.

UBERMOSH enjoyed moderate success when it released on Steam and acquired a cult following. Six months after UBERMOSH‘s debut, Walter Machado released a new version of the game on Steam called UBERMOSH:BLACK, which includes some new visuals and a much higher difficulty level. UBERMOSH:BLACK features little new exposition on the tale of the Blade Saint but adds class mods that grant specific perks like multiple respawns. Machado was careful to leave the original UBERMOSH‘s controls and music unchanged but added a new psychic ability, Brainclap, to the Blade Saint’s arsenal.

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I haven’t seen this many bug guts since the moth zapper fire of 1832.

Machado’s next release was UBERMOSH Vol.3, which adds a few more enemy types and trades in the previous two games’ hemmed-in arenas for an endless battlefield. The Blade Saint can roam as far in any direction as she chooses; it matters not, as the enemies will come spawning no matter where she runs. UBERMOSH Vol.3 also features slight tweaks to the enemies’ visuals and a morsel more story read out at the beginning of the tutorial… but not nearly enough to fully explain a cyborg who sacrifices robots to the anthem of a mosh pit.

UBERMOSH:WRAITH, the fourth title in the series, gives players the ability to unleash lightning on foes Emperor Palpatine-style. It retains the endless map of UBERMOSH Vol.3 but enemies spawn in much quicker, resulting in a harder challenge. The game also features more music to keep players’ hearts pumping as they cut down aliens left and right. Finally, UBERMOSH:WRAITH expands upon its predecessors’ penchant for class mods, letting them choose new perks at the expense of certain restrictions. For example, players can pick the ability to respawn multiple times but at the expense of being able to pick up guns.

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Fear the wraith!

UBERMOSH:WRAITH was marketed as the final volume of the UBERMOSH series, but Machado surprised the community by releasing UBERMOSH Vol.5 back in May. The fifth installment in the series is apparently set 1200 years after the first game and features the Blade Saint at her zenith. Players can wield two swords in UBERMOSH Vol.5, and all of the abilities introduced in the previous games, against an even more aggressive slew of foes. This time the exposition features subtitles, but it says little beyond that the Blade Saint can grant the titular Ubermosh phenomenon.

Walter Machado’s method of improving the UBERMOSH experience is unique even in an industry with endless sequels. Rather than simply rework the original game, Machado releases a new title every six months or so that incorporates feedback from the UBERMOSH community. On the surface this model makes Machado look like a Machiavellian profiteer, but each UBERMOSH game is only two dollars and owners of the previous games in the series get the next release for free.

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Feel the power of the dark side!

Machado’s method is also a novel way to demonstrate how a game can change over time. Each iteration of UBERMOSH features a small handful of improvements, but those iterations are preserved for players to enjoy while Machado works on the next title. UBERMOSH games don’t differ that much from title to title, but the first UBERMOSH and the fifth are very different animals. Players can experience that evolution for themselves instead of seeing the original experience replaced by an update.

Mechanically, all five UBERMOSH games present the best of the fast-paced arcade era. The games’ pixelated graphics and crunchy static are deliberate callbacks to the golden era of arcade gaming. The gameplay is challenging but fair, requiring players to watch their flanks as they slice and shoot their way through hordes of alien foes. Players who make especially effective Blade Saints can see their high scores posted on leaderboards for all to fear. UBERMOSH throws defeated players back into the fray at the clip of Hotline Miami, encouraging players to keep trying for that high score.

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A high score as measured in gallons of blood.

The UBERMOSH games present smooth, fast-paced arcade experiences that everyone should try, but they all suffer from a few common issues. The first is introducing new players; each UBERMOSH title has a tutorial but it’s basically the same as the main game, albeit with reduced enemy spawning. Sure, the controls are posted in the lower left-hand corner, but the game could do with a few tips on how to stay alive longer. Contrary to what the game’s breakneck pace implies, there is a strategy to UBERMOSH: circular running.

The other facet of the UBERMOSH series’s design that could stand some polish is the story. UBERMOSH isn’t built for an in-depth narrative but a bit more exposition on this fascinating “moshpunk” universe that Machado has created would not go unmissed. The only bits of story to be found are some quick announcements at the beginnings of some of the game’s tutorials (and only the fifth game has subtitles in its tutorial). UBERMOSH games also lack an options menu, but they auto-adjust to screen resolutions and their visuals are too basic for serious problems. The games run bug-free.

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This is your brain on lasers.

In addition to the UBERMOSH series, Machado has made two additional titles with different gameplay but a similar emphasis on short bursts of activity. The first, SWARMRIDERS, is a prequel to the UBERMOSH series that follows the Blade Saint before she became the Blade Saint. Rather than cut bullets in half, players shoot at a pursuing swarm of aliens from the back of a speeding motorcycle. The Blade Saint’s gun never stops firing, so all players have to worry about is aiming at the aliens before they touch the motorcycle. One hit and it’s game over.

Like UBERMOSHSWARMRIDERS features an aesthetic made up of crunchy pixels, but the characters and their animations are much more sophisticated. The game has music that is about as fast-paced as that of the UBERMOSH games but that’s almost exclusively driven by percussion rather than guitars and heavy electronica. It’s a challenging little gem that, like the UBERMOSH games, could do with more exposition, but provides lots of entertainment in little chunks of gameplay.

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Does anyone cover alien damage on motorcycle insurance?

Machado’s other non-UBERMOSH title is Trip to Vinelands, a trippy (hehe) running game in which players have to escape a claustrophobic array of hedges as quickly as possible. Trip to Vinelands spawns players onto a screen of spike-covered walls that shift and collide into each other constantly. Players have as little as two seconds to spot the way out of the map, only to spawn into yet another tumble of moving hedges. Players can increase their score by quickly navigating multiple screens of deathly vineyards, but get crushed and it’s back to the main menu.

Unlike the UBERMOSH games and SWARMRIDERSTrip to Vinelands features sickly sweet background colors and rapidly shifting environments. Though its gameplay involves escaping a collapsing room instead of killing aliens, Trip to Vinelands is no less dependent on quick reflexes than Machado’s other games. Indeed, Trip to Vinelands is even more of a reflex challenge than UBERMOSH or SWARMRIDERS, as players have to sprint long distances with only a second or two to evaluate their surroundings.

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Ohhhhhh mah God…

Even though Machado’s games are light on story, they’re heavy on concision. The gameplay in each of his seven Desktop Distortions—as he calls his collected works—is both fluid and frantic. Whether it’s slicing bullets fired from an alien or dodging an incoming wall of spikes, Machado’s games demand frantic attention from players, which makes them deliciously challenging.

Each of Machado’s games doesn’t suffer for having minute-long rounds… because they’re furiously fun. On top of that, each title is highly stylized with details hearkening back to the golden age of arcade gaming. Desktop Distortions is an enticing package that succeeds in delivering art in a minute. Each game in the collection is worth getting, and Machado is a developer worth watching.

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You can buy Ubermosh and Desktop Distortions 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.