Category Archives: Open-World

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.

South Park: The Fractured But Whole

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Wage superhero warfare across the town of South Park.

PC Release: October 17, 2017

By Ian Coppock

In an age when people take offense more easily than ever before, there’s never been a greater need for South Park. Biting social satire isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but as long as programs like South Park fearlessly lampoon everything under the sun, then maybe, just maybe, a few people might remember not to take everything under that sun so damn seriously. Video games have also provided a platform for satire and absurdity, and the boys who provided so much of it in South Park: The Stick of Truth are back with another digital jab at the universe in South Park: The Fractured But Whole.

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South Park: The Fractured But Whole is a role-playing adventure game set in the universe of the eponymous TV show. The game was originally slated to be released in December of 2016 but was delayed by over 10 months. To hear publisher Ubisoft put it, more time was needed to ensure that the game met “the high expectations of fans.” The title was originally going to be called South Park: The Butthole of Time, until South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker learned that retailers wouldn’t sell a product with the word “butthole” in its name. South Park: The Fractured But Whole is their workaround.

Like South Park: The Stick of TruthThe Fractured But Whole was created with the close involvement of Parker and Stone. Television’s edgiest duo did far more than provide the main characters’ voices; they also served as executive producers and writers for the title. Such involvement is the right way to do a licensed game, and it sets The Fractured But Whole apart from so many uninspired tie-in games that also borrowed a license.

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To battle!

South Park: The Fractured But Whole picks up soon after the events of The Stick of Truth and once again casts players as the New Kid, a mute fourth grader who moved to South Park at the start of the previous game. Players can customize the New Kid with a wide variety of accessories and hairstyles. Fantastically, The Fractured But Whole also allows players to play as a female character (Stick of Truth was no-girls-allowed). Parker and Stone didn’t waste any time implementing their biting humor, as the game’s difficulty and skin tone sliders are one and the same.

The Fractured But Whole makes another big shakeup by swapping out The Stick of Truth‘s fantasy role-playing motif for the capes of South Park‘s long-running superhero subplot, Coon And Friends. When Cartman shows up with a missing cat poster promising a $100 reward, the boys quickly embark upon a quest to get that money and launch their cinematic universe. The New Kid decides to join the hunt as well, in a story that simultaneously parodies the film Captain America: Civil War and lampoons the long running Marvel-DC rivalry.

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Don’t forget Coon vs Supercraig: The Return of Tupperware!

Like The Stick of TruthThe Fractured But Whole is a class-based RPG. After creating their character, players can also build a superhero persona from a variety of classes and powers. There’s something for every fighting style; players who like brute force can pick superhuman strength, while those who prefer a defter touch can go after psychic or cyborg powers. Players can add more powers to their arsenal as they progress through the game, but choose carefully; with great power comes great responsibility.

Also like The Stick of TruthThe Fractured But Whole‘s combat is turn-based. Players can summon allies to their side and engage groups of foes with offensive and defensive moves just like in the last game. They can also make use of items like snacks and potions to restore health and revive fallen comrades. The one big change this system offers over The Stick of Truth is the incorporation of movement squares. Players can now move around the combat space to inflict more damage to foes or dodge attacks that take more than a turn to charge.

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This is super cereal.

The addition of movement to the South Park series’ combat is a mixed bag. While it is fun to be able to move closer to enemies and inflict more damage on them, it’s also easy for players’ teammates to get in each other’s way. Characters can’t unleash superhero moves if an ally is standing in front of them, which is made all the more problematic by the game’s small battle spaces. This also makes it easy for characters to box each other in or funnel foes through debris to pick them off one by one.

To be fair to The Fractured But Whole, the game also makes some refinements to what The Stick of Truth introduced. Just like in the last game, the New Kid can unleash devastatingly powerful farts. These fart move are far better explained and far easier to use than the ones in The Stick of Truth and require holding down only two buttons instead of executing hokey keyboard/mouse maneuvers. The New Kid’s farts are also much more powerful; ripping a big one sometimes means ripping the fabric of time.

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I can smell your fear… and your farts!

The Fractured But Whole lets players manage all this combat and chaos from a wide selection of menus. Using the New Kid’s phone, players can manage everything from their superhero’s appearance to the number of followers on Coonstagram. The Fractured But Whole is a little too eager to throw all of these menus at new players, but they’re reasonably streamlined and do an admirable job of letting players manage their character. Players can also call upon the power of the options menu to tweak the game as needed; this menu is a solid one, with plenty of toggles to play around with.

The Fractured But Whole‘s character management system is deeper and more streamlined than that of The Stick of Truth. Tethering power bonuses to clothing made sense in The Stick of Truth‘s fantasy RPG landscape, but The Fractured But Whole changes things up by chaining buffs to artifacts instead of outfits. These artifacts can be slotted to the New Kid and allow for bonuses like increased attack and hit points. This system allows players to retain a powerful character while also being free to dress them up in whatever superhero garb they find coolest.

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Phone menus! Phone menus everywhere!

When player aren’t busy customizing their character or taking on gangs of Professor Chaos’s goons, they’re busy exploring the town of South Park. Just like in The Stick of Truth, players explore the town from a side-scrolling perspective and can take a glance at everything from the boys’ neighborhood to downtown. Exploring South Park remains as fun as ever (especially for fans), but the town hasn’t changed all that much since The Stick of Truth. Indeed, with the exception of only 4-5 new buildings, the town map looks pretty much identical to that of The Stick of Truth.

Additionally, the side quests around town feel less inspired than those in The Stick of Truth. Their design seems mundane in comparison to something truly novel, like the last game’s Al Gore/Manbearpig story arc. Rather than diving headfirst into prolonged references to the TV show, players typically engage in more ho-hum tasks like finding Jimbo’s wallet. Even the funnier side quests tend to be similarly short and shallow, feeling more like the repeatable radiant quests in Skyrim than anything else.

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(yawn)

Even though The Fractured But Whole‘s side quests and world feel a bit stale, its main narrative is one hell of a lot more interesting than that of The Stick of Truth. For all the comedy gold The Stick of Truth struck, its plotline about Nazi zombies felt lazy and outdated. The TV show’s satire is known for its timeliness, so to see a 2014 game adopt a zombie meme that stopped being funny years ago was unusual (the part about Randy being the New Kid’s fart sensei was pretty funny, though).

The Fractured But Whole has a more interesting story that meshes the boys’ Coons And Friends mythos into a narrative about crime, law, and farts (what else could anyone want?). The only issue with this story is that for all its satire and potty mouth, it runs mostly on plot threads recycled from previous South Park episodes. It feels less like an original story and more like a smashup of some of the show’s most popular moments; rarely does it contrive its own comedy. The story that’s there is coherent and funny, but… it’s not very original.

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Yeah, Randy passed out drunk isn’t new story territory.

Even though The Fractured But Whole‘s story is by and large cogent, it does face the threat of being undone by one simple foe: bugs. As of writing, The Fractured But Whole suffers a wide-ranging gambit of performance issues and other problems. The game is subject to crashing (especially to the black screen of death) and freezing up on players. Cutscenes have an unfortunate tendency to freeze or stutter.

Players may also experience other bugs that are more trivial but no less frustrating. Sometimes characters’ spoken audio will cut out. Other times, the game’s text boxes contain no text at all. These issues make more sense when remembering that The Fractured But Whole was developed by a branch of Ubisoft, a company whose previous games have also exhibited problems like these. Oh Ubisoft… when will it produce a video game that only has more functions than bugs?

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This must be Ubisoft’s quality control office.

The main takeaway that fans of South Park: The Stick of Truth should bear in mind is that The Fractured But Whole represents the best and worst of video game sequels. The game’s high point is its story, which is funnier and more succinct than that of The Stick of Truth despite being built out of previous South Park story points. Less admirable, though, is the game’s cadre of uninspired side missions and little-changed world. Additionally, while The Fractured But Whole gives players more power than ever to create their own South Park character, that freedom comes at the price of too many menus and the clunky incorporation of movement into combat.

None of that is to say anything of The Fractured But Whole‘s numerous bugs, which mar the game’s core experience and may leave players quite frustrated. These bugs are more than likely a product of the game’s prolonged development. A game being delayed by a few months is one thing, but The Fractured But Whole‘s 10-month delay points to problematic development. That theory is far more believable than Ubisoft’s vague notions of ensuring only the best for South Park fans. Then again, given that all of the games Ubisoft produces these days are buggy, perhaps fandom really was the reason.

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What happened here?

Despite its deeper character customization and improved main plotline, South Park: The Fractured But Whole isn’t as good as The Stick of Truth. Fans should still at least try the title; just be ready to hit that refund button if the aforementioned bugs or the scourge that is Uplay verification prove problematic. Newcomers to the South Park game scene should first try The Stick of Truth before considering this game. Even though The Fractured But Whole provides the satire that’s so dearly needed in today’s hyper-charged climate, its numerous drawbacks preclude getting the full South Park experience.

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You can buy South Park: The Fractured But Whole 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.

The Evil Within 2

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Risk life and limb in a world of nightmares to rescue an innocent girl.

PC Release: October 13, 2017

By Ian Coppock

The 2017 holiday release season is off to a pretty good start. Games are not only being released in working condition; they’re actually optimized for PC! Granted, the Q4 release period still has a ways to go, but so far things are looking okay for players who game on PC. Now that Dishonored: Death of the Outsider has come and gone, Bethesda is taking another swing at gamers’ wallets with The Evil Within 2, the second installment in Shinji Mikami’s newest universe of nightmares.

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The Evil Within 2 is a third-person horror shooter and the sequel to 2014’s The Evil Within, a title created and directed by Resident Evil godfather Shinji Mikami. Like the first game, The Evil Within 2 is a big fan of putting players in a scary world and seeing how long they can survive (and go without crying). Mikami elected not to direct the sequel, though; he stuck around as an executive producer but handed directing duties to level designer John Johanas, who directed the first game’s story DLC.

The Evil Within 2 picks up three years after the events of the first game, in which grizzled detective Sebastian Castellanos battled an ethereal world full of nightmarish creatures. Sebastian’s efforts to share his story with the world only resulted in him being labeled a kook and getting fired from the force. Since then, he’s spent his time trying to drown his memories of the evil world of STEM in the bottom of a bottle.

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Sebastian’s had it rough.

Things change when Sebastian gets approached by Juli Kidman, his old police partner and a covert operative for the sinister Mobius organization. Juli reveals that Sebastian’s young daughter Lily, thought to have died in a house fire years ago, is actually still alive and being used as a host for a new STEM world of Mobius’s creation. Lily’s stopped responding to communications from the outside world, though, and Mobius believes that only her father can find out why. Though he’s still traumatized by the events of the first game, Sebastian agrees to dive into another world of nightmares to save his little girl.

Despite Mobius’s assurances to the contrary, Sebastian enters this new STEM and, of course, discovers that it’s every bit as creepy and horrifying as the world he explored in The Evil Within. This realm’s denizens have all devolved into zombie-like creatures and a small cadre of psychopathic inhabitants seems to have run of the asylum. STEM’s newest lineup of psychos includes (among other characters), a psychotic priest with a god complex and a photographer who gets off on filming people as they die. All of them want to use Lily to shape STEM as they see fit.

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Damn hipster artists. Always trying to be so edgy…

The only way for Sebastian to stay alive in STEM is to use his head, and The Evil Within 2 does a good job of letting players do that. As in the first game, Sebastian is often outnumbered by monsters and must rely on tactics to survive. Players can find guns but ammo is pretty limited, so hiding behind corners and using stealth kills is a must-do. Players can gather ammo and medical syringes in the game world, both of which are a bit more plentiful in this title than in The Evil Within.

The Evil Within 2 is perfectly happy to borrow its predecessor’s sneak-and-stab gameplay, but not without a few shakeups. The sequel introduces a crafting system, allowing players to gather materials and use a workbench to make everything from ammo to medicine. Sebastian can also find gun parts and use them to upgrade his equipment. The creepy green gel upgrade system returns from the first game, and thankfully it includes stealth upgrades (for some reason The Evil Within didn’t have those).

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Try not to burp.

It’s good that The Evil Within 2 lets players beef their stealth up, because this game emphasizes sneakiness a lot. The first Evil Within had its occasional stealth encounter but by and large expected players to simply shoot the monsters out of the way. This time there are more, tougher monsters, so sneaking around is much smarter than going down guns blazing. The monsters aren’t necessarily brainier, though. They seem content to use the same patrol patterns as their shambling predecessors.

Additionally, John Johanas seems to have tamed Mikami’s enthusiasm for boss battles. Whereas most levels in the first game ended with a prolonged boss fight, The Evil Within 2 features far fewer such encounters… and that’s a good thing. Horror games are supposed to be about making players feel powerless in the face of an overwhelming force, and giving them the chance to fight that force head-on is a dysfunctional design choice. This time around, Sebastian is challenged to sneak past big baddies instead of deplete their many life bars, which is how a horror game should be.

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CLOSE THE DOOR CLOSE THE DOOR CLOSE THE DOOR

This increased emphasis on stealth and powerlessness makes The Evil Within 2 feel more like a horror game than its predecessor did. Sebastian still has his guns and his abilities, but The Evil Within 2 remembers to reward players for also using his wits. This shift is ironic considering that The Evil Within 2 marketed itself as more of a psychological horror game than a survival horror title… it would seem that the opposite effect was achieved, and what a happy accident that was.

The Evil Within 2 is also made to feel scary by its grotesque monster designs. Like a lot of Japanese horror media, The Evil Within 2 features creatures that could be politely described as creative and bluntly described as horrifying. Sebastian can expect to go up against a rogue’s gallery of ghouls during his second trip to STEM, and the fact that most of them are impossible to confront directly only makes them scarier. What do some of these contorted ghouls look like? Two words: living tripod.

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Nah, I don’t need my photo taken, thank you.

The Evil Within 2 is also scary because of its world, which feels much more cohesive than that of the first title. For all the scariness afforded by The Evil Within‘s individual levels, each was a completely segregated world that disjointed the larger production. Players would go from traipsing through a church to sneaking through a cityscape, often with absolutely no transition. The Evil Within 2‘s levels are each part of a larger, singular landscape. The result is a game whose world feels more focused and less random.

While on the subject of the game world, The Evil Within 2 meddles with the first game’s conventions by offering a mix of open-world and linear levels. Occasionally, Sebastian is forced to sneak around a small town rife with buildings to loot and side missions to complete. Though the open world design feels pedestrian and uninspired, it’s still fun to sneak around a monster-infested town in search of ammo and coffee. The game’s linear levels are much more in line with those of the first game: lots of doors, lots of hiding places, and lots of scares.

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“I’LL TEACH YOU NOT TO FLOSS, HOOMAN!”

The Evil Within 2 makes great strides with its heavier emphasis on stealth and by switching up its level design, but by far the best improvement the game makes over The Evil Within is its narrative. The Evil Within introduced an intriguing universe full of delectable lore, but the story that was supposed to bind it all together achieved no such goal. It was less a cohesive narrative than a tour of Shinji Mikami’s Super-Fun Horror Carnival: a magical place where creativity was abundant but was also recklessly thrown at players like snowballs.

By contrast, The Evil Within 2‘s story has some actual structure. It remembers to tell players why Sebastian is motivated to do what he does instead of just using him as a pair of eyes to purvey horror curios. Whereas the original game never really even explained why this person was in STEM in the first place, this title fleshes out motivations, exposition, and narrative in a thoughtful way. The pacing is nothing to write home about but both the dialogue and the plot are significantly better written. The game still has a few plot holes, but certainly nothing essential to understanding the story.

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There can be beauty in despair.

Sebastian’s exposure to all of these narrative changes is more of a mixed bag. The character gets much more dialogue, but all that’s to be found is the same gravely voiced horror hero present in other games. He’s likable, but part of the fun of The Evil Within was playing as someone who was profoundly unlikable. Side characters also get much more screen time, particularly Juli Kidman, who might just be the most fascinating character of all. Even though he risks being a Rick Grimes clone, Sebastian’s character evolution over the course of the game is both believable and deeply satisfying.

There’s a common theme in all of this talk of streamlined gameplay and a structured narrative: organization. Unlike its predecessor, The Evil Within 2 is more interested in offering a cogent horror experience to the player than just slinging endless spectacles at them. For all the amazing things that Japanese game design has pioneered, masters like Mikami have an unfortunate tendency to focus on creativity so completely that structure gets ignored. John Johanas’s game direction seems to have tempered this tendency, allowing Mikami’s creativity to flourish but not at the expense of structure.

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I am now deathly afraid of hide-and-seek.

It’s also worth pointing out that The Evil Within 2 runs well on PC. True, its system requirements are steep, but the game runs at a fluid framerate for any machine that can meet them. The game wasn’t without its launch day woes (including a bug that prevented Sebastian from walking into the third level), but Tango Gameworks has been rolling patches out at a breakneck pace, squashing most bugs wherever they can be found. Thankfully, The Evil Within 2 also does away with those stupid black bars that the first game paraded around. Get out of here with that “cinematic experience” crap.

The Evil Within 2 has some tired level design here, a plot hole or two there, and certainly isn’t without its occasional instance of hokey dialogue. At one point the game implies that all mentally ill people are destined to become murderous psychopaths. Despite all of that, its effective union of creativity and structure makes it one of the best big-budget horror games since 2014’s Alien: Isolation. The game moves its universe forward in a meaningful way and more effectively adheres to the conventions of good horror design. The result is a thrilling game worth sinking teeth into, and not just because it’s a dramatic improvement over its predecessor.

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You can buy The Evil Within 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.

Miasmata

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Discover the cure to your illness on a dark and dangerous island.

PC Release: November 28, 2012

By Ian Coppock

Tonight’s review marks the final installment of September’s survival game lineup. FarSky was a game about finding tranquility in survival, while Adrift examined outlasting a disaster of one’s own creation. Sky Break was an attempt at surviving for the sake of others rather than just the self. Miasmata is about none of these things: it is the basest of survival games in that the player is out for their own skin and nothing else. If they’re not careful, that skin will get ripped right off.

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Miasmata is an open-world survival horror game created by brothers Joe and Bob Johnson, who also work under the moniker IonFX. The title was released in November of 2012 in a state unlike virtually any other survival game on Steam: complete. Yes, just like FarSkyMiasmata forwent being an early access title and skipped on over to finished product. Hell, FarSky and Miasmata might be the only two open-world survival games to do such a thing on Steam.

Anyway, Miasmata is implied to take place in the early 20th century and stars botanist Robert Hughes as its player character. Robert has fled to the mysterious island of Eden to discover a cure to his illness: a debilitating plague that has physically weakened him and will probably kill him sooner rather than later. Robert has arrived to Eden hoping that he can synthesize a cure from the island’s native flora. That mission is the goal of the game: explore the island, study its flowers, and make a cure if possible.

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Time to put all that work in my mom’s flowerbed to use!

Even though Robert is an expert botanist, he has his work cut out for him finding the cure. Eden is home to dozens of flowers and fungi, all of which could help bring about a cure but need to be carefully studied first. Each region of the island is home to different flora and demands careful exploration. Some plants only appear in hard-to-reach areas or during specific times of day, making exploring the entire island a must for players who hope to find the cure.

Fortunately for Robert, he’s got the equipment he needs to succeed. Eden was once home to a thriving community of scientists, all of whom conveniently left a string of houses and laboratories for players to make use of. Being scientists, most of them also left a ton of notes behind, so players who are up for a bit of reading can speed things up by plagiarizing from their peers’ observations. Players can use these labs to study plants and recover from the rigors of exploration.

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Ah, perfect!

Because Miasmata is a survival game, players have to take care of themselves while out in the wilderness. Robert apparently photosynthesizes his food, but still needs to drink water every so often before becoming dehydrated. Additionally, Eden is riddled with cliffs and hidden pitfalls for players to watch out for. Robert’s also not a very good swimmer, so don’t go out too far on those sunny beach days. Better to stay on the shore and just glance at the sea from afar.

There’s another, much more sinister danger to Eden. Though a game about gathering plants may not sound scary at first glance, Robert is being hunted. A monster stalks the forests of Eden looking for human prey, and will kill Robert if it so much as sniffs the botanist. Robert has no means of self-defense should the monster show up, so players who hope to survive can only do so by hiding until it passes. Who knew picking flowers could be so dangerous?

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There’s something in the trees…

Miasmata starts out with the same conventions as many other survival games, giving players a first-person perspective and a handful of meters to manage. All players really need to do to stay alive is stay hydrated; Robert carries a canteen that he can refill at most camps and there are plenty of sources of fresh water on the island. Some players might prefer calling this system “survival-lite”, but they’re are still being challenged to maintain their character’s health in a wild environment. Close enough.

Miasmata forks off on its own path by attempting to model realistic movement physics. Robert doesn’t stop or turn on a dime, moving more like a real human would in a wild environment. The game also attempts to simulate momentum; players that run toward a slope too quickly may tumble and fall to the ground. The system sounds neat on paper but often feels clunky while actually moving around. Robert has to take wide turns to get around, and it’s surprisingly easy for him to hurl himself off of a cliff. This is one of those titles where a few small, deliberate movements are better than mindless running, even if it’s only because Robert sometimes feels like he’s walking on jelly.

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Geez, is this dude drunk?

Robert’s lack of coordinated physical movement could be chalked up to his illness, but Miasmata‘s clunky controls feel more like a gameplay shortcoming than a story point brought to physical life. Robert’s character animations are similarly amateurish; his arms and hands are visible in the shot and sometimes bend at… interesting… angles when he’s refilling his canteen or doing some science. The character is quite frail, so take it easy when walking near precarious drops. Miasmata also allows players to map the island via triangulation; this mechanic too is clunky, but the attention to realism is nice.

Far more interesting than Robert’s movement is Miasmata‘s focus on botany. In order to find the cure, players have to gather plant samples and bring them back to a nearby laboratory. They can use the equipment therein to study different plants and their properties. Some plants are necessary to craft the cure, while others are useless. Still other plants can be synthesized into lesser kinds of medicine, allowing players to restore their health or gain temporary buffs like increased movement speed. Miasmata‘s lab work is some of the coolest science-ing in video gaming.

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From this daisy I shall create… ibuprofen!

As fun as it is to stay in the lab playing mad scientist, Miasmata truly comes alive through exploration. Eden’s environments are verdant and vary considerably from region to region. Some parts of the island bear tropical coasts while others are rainy groves reminiscent of the Pacific Northwest. Still other regions encompass swamps, plains, and canyons. All of these areas are meticulously detailed with doodads like fallen logs and thick undergrowth. When paired with wildlife like birds and butterflies, these details help Miasmata‘s world feel alive.

Miasmata successfully conveys that vibe even though its visuals are basic. The Johnson brothers can work wonders with object placement, but that doesn’t stop those objects from being rough around the edges or bearing noticeably aged textures. The textures on flowers are particularly rough. Miasmata shouldn’t be glossed over because it looks a bit old (even by 2012 standards), but the game’s proprietyary MILO engine was definitely built on a budget.

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Hmm…

Miasmata also has one of the kookiest lighting setups in recent gaming memory. Seriously, this title’s lighting is all over the place; players can be walking around in the sunlight but the area around them will be lit with flat light. Contrary wise, it’s not uncommon to see areas that should be shadowed lit unnaturally brightly. The lighting also seems to change when players glance at the sun; one look toward ole big blazey and the environment suddenly becomes pitch black. It’s a strange setup.

Fortunately, neither dated visuals nor wonky lighting can stop Miasmata from looking pretty. Despite the smudgy textures, the game still looks like a verdant island paradise thanks to its use of bright, strong colors. Additionally, the game’s water and sky boxes look impressively realistic even by contemporary standards. Miasmata’s environmental features are a mixed bag, but the negatives don’t stop the game from giving off a wild, unexplored vibe.

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Ooooooh…

That vibe of being on an uncharted island is part of what lends Miasmata its intoxicating atmosphere. It’s easy for players to get lost (both figuratively and literally) in Eden’s wilds while out looking for the cure. Miasmata builds its atmosphere by foregoing music; what few tunes the game has are pretty, but the title is usually content to leave players alone with the sounds of nature. This design choice reinforces the game’s nature vibe and makes the environment all the more engrossing.

Of course, leaving players alone in nature also makes Miasmata more tense. Players never know when the monster is going to show up, and there’s nothing more terrifying than wondering when the sound of birds chirping will be shattered by a distant roar. Avoiding the monster isn’t all that difficult, but wondering when it’ll show up and making sure that Robert is close enough to a hiding spot keeps players on their toes. The sight of Miasmata‘s wilderness inspires both awe and fear.

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Yeah, no, I ain’t going in there.

The capstone of Miasmata‘s chilling atmosphere is its storytelling. Robert doesn’t talk and there’s no truly active storyline that exists outside of gathering flowers, but there’s plenty of exposition to be found in the scientists’ settlements. Players can expect to find bits and pieces of conventional world-building, but there’s also a hidden story about previous events on the island and their implications for Robert’s quest for a cure. Sans the occasional spelling or grammar error, it makes for interesting reading.

What’s more, Miasmata structures its exposition and environments to tell a story. As Robert makes his way around the island, it’s implied that his trip to Eden is more than just a quest to find the cure. Miasmata makes chilling use of environmental storytelling, leaving corpses and telltale signs of destruction around the island. Funny thing about the dead scientists; a lot of them seem to have been killed with a knife, not the beast’s claws. What’s going on out there?

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What happened here?

There’s no denying that Miasmata is rough around the edges. Its visuals are dated, its movement is spongy, and its lighting is on drugs. None of these things, though, stop the game from being one of the best survival experiences available on Steam. The title has a thick atmosphere befitting a horror game and an engrossing world that players will want to explore every inch of. It runs well on computers new and old and comes complete with a decent options menu. More than that, though, Miasmata confers the tension of surviving in an uncertain, dangerous environment in a way that few survival games (Early Access or not), can. It delivers tense exposition and environmental storytelling that, at times, are as frightening as its monster. That’s why everyone should buy it.

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You can buy Miasmata 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 2

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

PC Release: April 30, 2013

By Ian Coppock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What even is that thing?

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

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

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Put ’em up, lobster-man!

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

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

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The hills are aliiiiive with the sound of puuuunchiiiiing…

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

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

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Damn. Someone filled the sky with fruit punch again.

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

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

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

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

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

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You can buy Zeno Clash 2 here.

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

Sky Break

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

PC Release: October 21, 2016

By Ian Coppock

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

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

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

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Wait, WHAT?!

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

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

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Now THIS is what I call moving on up!

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

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

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A wild robo-tiger appeared!

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

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

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

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

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

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Heel, catdog!

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

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

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WHAT IS HAPPENING

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

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

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Faster! But not TOO fast!

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

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You can buy Sky Break here.

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

FarSky

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Hunt, survive and thrive under the sea.

PC Release: April 25, 2014

By Ian Coppock

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

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

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

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Ooooooh…

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

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

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Home sweet home.

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

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

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Can I just, like… stay down here forever?

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

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

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Time to land me some fish and chips!

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

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

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DOWN BRUCE, DOWN!

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

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

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Multiple Hanks inbound.

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

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

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This is lovely.

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

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You can buy FarSky here.

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

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.

Agents of Mayhem

Mayhem1

Bring the ruckus (and some mayhem) against a ruthless super-villain.

PC Release: August 15, 2017

By Ian Coppock

What could Volition do to take the Saints Row franchise any higher? Saints Row IV gave players godlike abilities and virtually unlimited freedom; how could Volition up the ante from there? More than a few inveterate Saints Row fans loudly suggested taking the series back to the grounded grittiness of its early installments, but the brand as it’s known today was built on silliness. Volition kept silliness in its pocket when it went back to the drawing board, which may explain why its newest game, Agents of Mayhem, is several degrees sillier than the studio probably intended.

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In case the purple fleur-de-lis symbols weren’t enough of a clue, Agents of Mayhem is a spin-off of the Saints Row franchise. The game follows the exploits of M.A.Y.H.E.M., a super-cool spy agency battling the League of Evil Gentlemen Intent on Obliterating Nations (or L.E.G.I.O.N. for short). Led by the diabolical Dr. Babylon, L.E.G.I.O.N. has gotten its hands on a deadly dark matter device, prompting the titular agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M. to spring into action.

As one might expect of a game with this premise, Agents of Mayhem has a campy, ultra-light atmosphere consistent with Saturday morning cartoons. That motif is evident in everything from the game’s animated cutscenes to the main plot; the name “Dr. Babylon” certainly sounds like something out of Freakzoid! or Animaniacs. Just like those cartoons, Agents of Mayhem prefers to keep its premise simple: retrieve the doomsday device and defeat Dr. Babylon in a futuristic rendition of Seoul.

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Oooooooooh…

Players control the agents of M.A.Y.H.E.M. from a third-person perspective, and each agent has his or her own weapons and combat specialties. Some characters get up-close and personal with a shotgun, while others keep the fighting at a distance with a sniper rifle. Most characters have powers befitting their personalities; the team’s resident frat boy douchebag, for example, can pelvic-thrust grenades at foes. Players can also upgrade each agent’s stats and unlock new abilities with every level up.

Players can send a team of up to three agents into the field, but Agents of Mayhem only allows control over one character at a time. That said, players can instantly switch to any character in their squad (even during firefights) which is handy for alternating between combat skillsets or in case one agent is on the verge of death. It’s convenient to be able to use the shotgun character for close-quarters combat, then switch over to the sniper class to hit foes who are far away.

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I cause the mayhem around here!

Agents of Mayhem‘s squad mechanic is novel, but it’s the only novelty the game brings to the table. Its gunplay is some of the blandest third-person shooting of recent years. Anyone who has spent hours running in little circles shooting bad guys can look forward to doing more of precisely that, and only that, in Agents of Mayhem. While it’s true that each character has his or her own special power, they’re not all that cool to look at. They certainly could do a better job of hitting the bad guys.

Agents of Mayhem also lets players drive cars around the city, but the cars handle like ass. No, seriously, they handle like trying to speed down a highway on nothing more than an unclothed posterior. Acceleration and braking are both incredibly abrupt, while turning the vehicle feels more like trying to turn a big-bottomed yacht. The vehicle camera also insists on facing the rear of the car at a flat angle instead of an elevated one, so good luck avoiding obstacles and pedestrians.

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“Hey! Who put a boat hull on my Sedan?!”

Alright, so Agents of Mayhem‘s gunplay is a snore-fest and the cars handle drunkenly even if the driver is sober… is there anything fun to do in Seoul? In real life, probably, but in Agents of Mayhem… not really. There are two types of side activities in Agents of Mayhem: the first is street racing, which, given how poorly the cars handle, isn’t all that great (although certain missions allow players to race on foot). The other activity is taking over enemy outposts, which involves a lot of…. gunplay. Agents of Mayhem dresses shooting missions up as different types of firefights, but they’re all firefights.

With Seoul apparently being a bust, the only other place for players to hang out is aboard M.A.Y.H.E.M.’s futuristic airship. It’s a cool-looking set piece that divvies up various agent activities and utilities like a shopping mall, but that’s about it. Players can travel back to the ship between missions to hear other agents’ take on current affairs or to buy upgrades from various armorers.

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Apparently the M.A.Y.H.E.M. ship has a Sunglass Hut.

If Agents of Mayhem can’t play cool, at least it tries to look cool. Character actions ranging from jumping to shooting are smoothly animated, though the agents seem to suffer a literal stiff upper lip when talking. The game’s world is also quite lively, utilizing a blend of bright colors and just a touch of cel shading to achieve a stylized aesthetic. Agents of Mayhem‘s rendition of Seoul also benefits from neat object placement (though the game could stand a few more objects).

The big downside to all of these visual achievements is that Agents of Mayhem‘s open world ain’t all that open; in fact, it’s tiny. The entire game world is maybe the same size as one London borough in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Size doesn’t matter if a game can make its world feel lively, but Agents of Mayhem‘s Seoul also feels empty. The map has only a handful of cars and NPCs moving around; sometimes players will stumble onto a street that’s completely devoid of either. Because of these design missteps, Seoul is wasted as an open-world setting in Agents of Mayhem.

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Let’s blow this joint.

If Agents of Mayhem had more vehicles and characters swarming its streets, that might help to explain why this game has so many bugs. As of writing, the PC version of Agents of Mayhem is rife with a few peculiar performance problems (say that five times fast). Players should be on the lookout for everything from the sound randomly cutting out to NPCs walking through solid objects. Agents of Mayhem is also fond of crashing, and crashing frequently. The game’s options menu, while thorough, can only do so much against these issues.

Let’s be generous for a moment and pretend that Agents of Mayhem doesn’t randomly go deaf or send its NPCs off of cliffs; the game still doesn’t run all that well. It has a nasty penchant for unstable framerates that can flare up for no apparent reason. That problem makes some sense when the game gets gummed up over lots of on-screen explosions and characters, but who knew that a stroll down the sidewalk was cause for a game to panic? If the game’s constant freezing is any indication, Seoul’s a lot chillier than it looks (ba dum tssss).

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DAMN YOU GLITCH WIZARD!

The final nail in Agents of Mayhem‘s purple-glossed coffin is the writing. While it’s true that the Saints Row games aren’t as laugh-out-loud hilarious as core fans say, the writing in Agents of Mayhem is several notches below the humor in the mainline Saints Row games. The jokes just aren’t funny; characters say lines like “home-sweet-temple-turned-field-office” and pause like that’s the most rip-roaring punch line of the century. No, the real punch line is that this game thinks that that’s a punch line.

At the end of the day, it’s also hard to know who Agents of Mayhem‘s intended audience is. The game’s cheesy dialogue suggests that it’s trying to appeal to children who enjoy similarly cheesy cartoons… but its liberal use of profanity and adult humor implies that it’s gunning for adults (as does the M rating). While it’s hard to know who Agents of Mayhem tries to please with its writing, it’s easy to see that it ends up pleasing no one.

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Agents of Mayhem’s confusion is unknowable, and possibly diabolical.

Agents of Mayhem is both a disappointment in its own right and a shocking step back from the fun of Saints Row. There are a lot of video games out there that do one or two things blandly, but Agents of Mayhem is one of those rare titles that does everything blandly. The game is just so mediocre; the writing falls flat, the gameplay is rote, and its system performance leaves a lot to be desired. Gamers looking for a new open world to play in and Saints Row fans emerging from hibernation both need to stay far, far away; there’s better mayhem to be had in other, better games.

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You can buy Agents of Mayhem 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.

Westerado: Double Barreled

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Sniff out the outlaw who killed your family.

PC Release: April 16, 2015

By Ian Coppock

Wild West media is easy to spot because of its rustic setting, but there’s a motif even more endemic to that genre than saloons and gunslingers: vengeance. Many (maybe even most) stories set in the Wild West feature a similar pattern: a young man seeks bloody revenge for a wrong dealt to him or a loved one. That motif has made it into every Wild West video game from 12 is Better Than 6 to Call of Juarez: Gunslinger, but no title exhibits it more thoroughly than Westerado: Double Barreled.

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Westerado: Double Barreled is a Wild West whodunit that challenges players to find a murderer in a bustling town. The game begins when the player character returns home from a long day of bison-chasing to find his ranch burned down and his family killed. The young man follows a trail of clues to the nearby town of Clintville and must discover who the murderer is by gathering hints about his appearance. Players can collect these hints by completing quests and exploring the environment.

The player’s journal contains a composite sketch of the murderer that gradually fills out as players learn more about his appearance. Does he wear a 10-gallon hat? Does he flaunt a big ole beer gut? Townsfolk will disclose details like these once the player has completed a quest or two, like shooting up the local bandit clan or escorting a stagecoach to safety. All told, there’s probably two dozen such clues, and the fun of Westerado is getting out into the world to find them. Each quest is structured the same; talk to a character, complete their assignment, and come back for a hint.

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This varmint seems to be feeling rather… blue.

Westerado is presented as a side-scrolling game set in a small but vibrant open world. Players can explore the town of Clintville or head out into the wilderness to search for clues. During their journey the player becomes acquainted with a colorful gallery of characters, most of whom have at least one clue to give about the murderer’s appearance. Sometimes players have to complete missions before characters will talk to them; that wealthy oil baron doesn’t take time out of his schedule for just anybody.

What do those missions entail? Sometimes they’re as simple as talking to someone. Players can approach NPCs and engage them with a few options for conversation. Some characters are more talkative than others while some are there just to add bodies to the town of Clintville. Players can ramp up the charm and form alliances with locals or be a bit more bullish in Sherlocking their way around town. Either way, being amicable to the townsfolk is usually the better way to complete a quest.

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This right here is an example of NOT being amicable.

Of course, players can always count on their trusty revolver when words don’t do the job. Combat in Westerado: Double Barreled is simple, if clunky: everybody shoots in a straight line and players dodge bullets by being out of their foes’ line of sight. This means a lot of skipping up and down all over the screen, which can be difficult to do if the player’s fighting a lot of enemies. Players can extend their health by buying a hat, which will fly off after a few shots but is still better than nothing. Players can also sink their hard-earned cash into other items… like a shiny new gun.

What’s great about Westerado is that combat and dialogue are both just options. Players are free to complete most assignments however they’d like. Maybe it’s better to talk those bandits out of occupying the railroad instead of gunning them down… then again, shooting and killing all of them would probably be the faster option. However players want to complete the job, Westerado offers that flexibility. Players can gain a violent or pacifist reputation depending on their actions, which can impact gathering clues and challenges them to find out if it’s better to be feared or loved.

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Gimme the whiskey and nobody gets hurt!

If talking through a quest is a better option in Westerado, it’s thanks to the game’s funny writing. Players begin most sentences with “Ah’m lookin’ fer” as a tongue-in-cheek homage to Texan accents, and the dialogue is riddled with little jokes and innuendo. Seducing the oil baron’s wife is not adultery, it’s simply her being interested in the player’s “hat-making skills.” The dialogue satirizes Wild West one-liners in as loving a manner as possible, which is both funny and its own right and helps compensate for the relative lack of character development.

Players who are less interested in talking than adventuring can still find plenty of fun in exploring Clintville’s environs. Westerado‘s map, while not huge, allows players to explore a disparate palette of environments ranging from the town proper to the wilderness on the outskirts. Players can also descend into mining tunnels (bring a light), cross the desert, or head up into the mountains. There’s lots to find out in the world (especially money), making exploration in Westerado a must-do for the discerning cowboy detective. With each new area explored, players can fill out another square on their map.

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All that remains of the Texas Chili Fire of 1868. No survivors.

Westerado‘s environments and indeed the entire game benefit from a gorgeous retro-style aesthetic. The game’s world was built from the ground-up with, to hear developer Ostrich Banditos put it, “the grittiest pixels this side of Montezuma.” Each object in Westerado is finely detailed with tons of pixels, resulting in a bustling Wild West town and natural features like groves of autumn trees. The game’s visual style is reminiscent of old desert paintings, especially in its use of strong colors, which produce a vibrancy on par with the most sophisticated 3D games.

Even though the environments in Westerado are pretty, the character models look rudimentary by comparison. The pixels used to build the game’s characters are much larger than the ones used in the environments, which helps draw a bit of contrast at the expense of the characters looking primitive. Their animations are also pretty stiff. None of that stops Westerado from being an excellent game but it does make it obvious which element of the game’s visual design got the most time and attention.

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Glorious.

Even though Westerado treads no new narrative ground in its presentation of the Wild West revenge story, the game is unusual for its genre in how much free reign it gives players. Rather than confining them to a linear story and world, Westerado allows players to explore a vibrant Wild West at their leisure. The game also maintains a much lighter tone than most stories in its vein thanks to a combination of humorous writing and subtle encouragement to explore the environment. This vibe is further reinforced by sweet violin-and-harmonica-driven music.

The heart of Westerado is not its writing or sleuthing, but its replayability. A single round of Westerado can last anywhere from 2-4 hours. That’s not very long, but the appearance of the murderer is randomized with every playthrough, giving players an incentive to come back and commence their investigation again and again. Plus, players can unlock new protagonists with every playthrough, leading to a near-infinite number of quest and story combinations. It makes for a lean, mean replayability machine, one that leverages Westerado‘s charming world to the max.

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For vengeance!

Westerado: Double Barreled is a great title, one that players who love adventure games and side-scrolling shooters should purchase and play right away. Indeed, it’s not hyperbolic to say that Westerado is one of the greatest Wild West games on PC. It’s a great game not just because it runs well or because of its old-school aesthetic or even its charming writing… but because its apt attention to replayability results in a world of endless charm. Get the game and set off into the sunset in pursuit of that most Wild West of goals: vengeance (maybe with a side of bison).

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You can buy Westerado: Double Barreled 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.