Category Archives: Role-Playing

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.

Destiny 2

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Save humanity’s last, best chance for survival.

PC Release: October 24, 2017

By Ian Coppock

After much hooting and hollering from console fanboys to try this game, try this gameDestiny 2 has landed on PC. Most PC gamers (especially the ones who game only on that platform), have reacted to the launch in ways ranging from mild interest to complete indifference. Those reactions could be chalked up to gaming’s long and sad history of broken PC ports, but it might just be because few PC gamers have ever played a Destiny game. Destiny 2 is out to change that, and to make a big splash in the world of PC gaming.

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Destiny 2 is a massively multiplayer shooter and the second installment in Bungie’s new flagship series. The legendary developer, best known for creating Halo, began work on the first Destiny shortly after escaping Microsoft’s clutches. The game released in 2014 to mixed reviews; critics and gamers praised its gunplay but took everything else (especially its “story”) to task. The game eventually straightened up and flew right, but only after releasing multiple, overpriced expansions that gamers were only too happy to throw money at.

Originally, Destiny was supposed to be a 10-year endeavor, but Bungie’s publisher, Activision, isn’t known for not releasing sequels all the time (cough*Call of Duty*cough). Destiny 2 shot out of the gate barely a year after its predecessor’s last expansion. The title has been hailed by console gamers as a major improvement over the first title, but PC gamers have no such point of reference, so reviews like these will have to suffice.

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HAVE AT THEE, ALIEN-KNAVE!

For those PC gamers who need a quick primer, the Destiny games are sci-fi shooters set in a universe of both spaceships and magic. After enjoying centuries of peace and prosperity across the Solar System, an apocalyptic event called “the Collapse” forces humanity to retreat to Earth ahead of a foe called “the Darkness.” Humanity’s sole hope for survival is the Traveler, a sentient globe that gives certain humans a magic power called Light. These warriors, the Guardians, serve as the Destiny series’ player characters and are the only thing standing between mankind and a myriad of alien threats.

Destiny 2 takes place a year after the last Destiny expansion and opens with the Cabal (one of those aforementioned alien threats), invading humanity’s last city and taking the Traveler for themselves. The player’s Guardian rushes home to help repel the invaders but gets their Light stolen by Ghaul, a Cabal leader who seeks the Traveler’s power for himself. As the Guardian, it’s up to players to get their mojo back, assemble humanity’s scattered forces, and retake the city before the Traveler’s Light is snuffed out forever.

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So I’m guessing that deflector shield didn’t work out…

As a Guardian, players can employ a diverse mix of magic powers and sci-fi weaponry to take the fight to humanity’s foes. Players can find and equip ever better armor, as well as a wide range of pistols, rifles, rocket launchers, and other killing implements. As players regain their Light, they can also unlock special abilities that even the odds on the battlefield. Players can pick from a few different classes that each emphasize guns or magic or a mix of the two, and branch out into sub-classes as the game goes on.

As players level up and gain new abilities, they can also explore dangerous areas all over the Solar System. The Cabal are hardly the only threat to humanity; a wide variety of other alien species are happily squatting in the ruins of mankind’s solar empire. These include four-armed bug pirate things and a race of creepy robots that are basically Geth in all but name. Players can face these threats by playing through the story or teaming up to embark upon MMO-style dungeon raids.

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And here we have a fossilized parkour gym…

Destiny 2‘s first-person gunplay is the foundation upon which the rest of the game is built, and boy is it identical to Halo. Anyone who played Halo back in the day will instantly recognize how Destiny 2‘s weapons handle. Grenades float through the air as if borne on the backs of butterflies, while light weapons feel more like Super Soakers than actual firearms. Thankfully, Destiny 2‘s mainline guns pack much more of a kick than the weapons in Halo, which helps players feel like the powerful space warriors that the game wants them to be.

Destiny 2‘s other big gameplay feature is its powers, which players can level up and earn like in most RPGs. Different classes offer different powers; the Titan class, for example, focuses on brute battlefield strength, while the Warlock emphasizes devastating magical powers. As players pick and choose these powers, they can branch out into sub-classes that offer further specialization. These powers are a mixed bag: some, like the Hunter’s double-bladed melee pandemonium, are awesome. Other powers… not so much.

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Oh my God it actually IS a Super Soaker!

Players can use these guns and powers to undertake story missions (most of which are relatively brief) or explore pseudo-open world areas in pursuit of items, quests, and timed events like boss battles. These areas are fun to explore and are also apparently much larger than the ones found in Destiny. Neither of these activities holds a candle, though, to going on Strikes and Raids. Strikes are small-scale dungeon adventures meant to be completed in just a few hours, while Raids (much like their World of Warcraft counterparts) are involved marathons that can support huge fireteams.

Of course, any game involving Bungie also features PvP multiplayer. Destiny 2 introduces a few modes for the multiplayer enthusiast to try, including the time-honored deathmatch and a fun best-of-ten mode called countdown. These bouts are some of the most fun multiplayer shooting to come to PC so far this fall, as teams of four players fight viciously for supremacy. Players can also compete in weekend-long competitions called Trials of the Nine, or in the Iron Banner, a tournament that randomizes each player’s equipment without unbalancing anyone.

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SING, MY ANGEL OF MURDER!

With that rather exhaustive list of shooter features out of the way, it’s time to ask a more fundamental question: is it fun? The answer is that yes, Destiny 2‘s shooting is indeed fun; the caveat is that it’s not shooting that hasn’t already been done a million times. Destiny 2‘s shooting is a very “safe” amalgamation of all the shooter trends popular in the industry these days, so players hoping for something more novel might be disappointed. Destiny 2 also has a vicious appetite for grinding, and players who don’t share that appetite might get bored by gunning down alien waves over and over.

Additionally, while Destiny 2‘s gameplay is polished on the front end, its underpinnings could use some work. The game’s menus are a jumbled mess that juxtapose player powers, maps, locations, and arsenals. For some reason, prompts to start missions on a given world sometimes appear away from that world. Destiny 2‘s menus can be hard to follow, and that assessment is coming from someone with a great deal more patience than the pathologically impatient shooter fans this game is presumably aimed at.

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Does anyone else see a Krogan, Darth Revan, and Garrus?

Destiny 2‘s story is a similarly “safe” space odyssey that doesn’t break any notable ground for the genre. If this game’s narrative is an improvement over the first game’s, that might just be because the first game didn’t really have one (at least the vanilla version). Destiny 2‘s narrative goes through the typical paces of a space opera: a big bad guy appears, someone gets captured, the hero needs to believe in themselves, and an epic battle ensues. There’s even the monologue about saving the galaxy, and a planet-destroying superweapon to boot.

None of these things are bad, per se, but the game’s singular focus on plot comes at the expense of the characters. No one evolves along with the story or changes in a meaningful way; the NPCs are just there to yell missions into the player’s ear. Sorry, but even Destiny 2 poster boy Cayde-6 is funny for only so long. Destiny 2‘s focus on scale instead of narrative is no surprise coming from an Activision studio, but it still represents a missed opportunity to inject some Mass Effect-style nuance back into space adventuring.

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Darth Ghaul, Dark Lord of the Space Hippos.

Then again, perhaps it’s a bit naive to take a game so obviously built for multiplayer to task for having an underwhelming story. Sure, the narrative is what binds Destiny 2 together, but its multiplayer scene is where the game truly comes alive. No, the real stories of Destiny 2 are the ones of friends getting together to take out hellholes full of alien creatures, not a silent Guardian’s fight against an obese space turtle.

What’s more, Destiny 2 runs well on PC, so players seeking those great multiplayer stories can do so without having to worry about crashes and too much lag. It would seem that that extra month or two that Bungie took to port this game was well spent, as Destiny 2 can maintain a consistent framerate and has been praised by many gamers for running well even on subpar rigs. Players might experience occasional lag, but that happens on any multiplayer game with a heavy server load.

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Oh God, a Space Toaster! TAKE COVER

While the Destiny fanboys may have exaggerated how fresh and novel the game’s shooting is, they certainly weren’t kidding about the scenery. Destiny 2 is a gorgeous game that weaves thousands of colors into epic space paintings. The game’s environments are layered with rich colors and object detail, which helps Destiny 2 give off that space opera vibe. Many times, players will also have the opportunity to behold jaw-dropping vistas, especially anytime the Traveler is within view.

While on the subject of art and immersion, it’s also worth pointing out that Destiny 2 has one of the prettiest soundtracks of any 2017 game. Bungie is well-known for its musical chops and gave Destiny 2 a spine-tingling OST driven by strings and deep horns. It’s a set of music that moves at about the same pace as the tracks of the original Halo, but abandons Gregorian chant in favor of a more diverse sound. This is definitely one of those titles whose soundtrack is also worth buying.

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(drool)

In conclusion, Destiny 2 is one of those games that’s built to the scale of everyone’s favorite space epics, but it relies on the players to spin the story instead of a team of writers. The game’s subpar central narrative is not the star of the show; the stars are the great tales of battle that players pass from Discord server to Discord server. While Destiny 2‘s gunplay isn’t anything new, its curious post-apocalyptic excitement adds enough novelty to keep the fun going for a long time.

The bottom line for PC gamers is that Destiny 2 is worth taking more than a glance at. It won’t replace Counter-Strike: Global Offensive or Team Fortress 2 in anyone’s library of favorite multiplayer shooters, but it might just be a worthy enough companion for even those vaunted titles. Get some friends together and give the game a try, because while Bungie explores little new ground when it comes to shooting, the stars are the limit in its mesmerizing space fantasy universe.

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You can buy Destiny 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.

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.

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.

Pyre

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Lead a team of exiles from the brink of collapse to the cusp of victory.

PC Release: July 25, 2017

By Ian Coppock

Has anyone seen the new Gatorade ad urging viewers to “make defeat your fuel”? As much as bringing that ad up may seem like a cynical attempt to boost this review’s search rankings (and as much as Gatorade is a mediocre beverage), the ad does raise an interesting point about defeat. Setbacks can be crushing, but they can also spur people to make a roaring comeback and surpass their personal demons. Just as that sports drink advertisement is unusual in its examination of defeat, so too is the subject of tonight’s review: Pyre.

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Pyre is the latest creation of Supergiant Games, the indie studio behind universally acclaimed titles Bastion and Transistor. Like its two predecessors, Pyre is a game that puts players in a vibrant world and sets out to tell a compelling story with as much showing and as little telling as possible. Unlike Bastion and TransistorPyre is a party-based role-playing game that challenges players to manage an entire group of novel heroes instead of just one.

Pyre is set in the Downside, a world whose magic, monsters, and audacious battles all make for a much livelier place than the name “the Downside” implies. The downside of the Downside is that it’s a purgatory; a place where a government called the Commonwealth sends those it deems criminals. Players take command of one such band of exiles on a quest to find a way out (if such a thing exists) of the Downside and back to the Commonwealth.

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A round of applause for the hipster, the talking dog, and an angry lady with horns!

Pyre‘s story begins when the aforementioned hipster, talking dog, and angry horned lady fish the player character out of a desert. The character is an anonymous female scholar nicknamed the Reader, so labeled because of her ability to, well… read (from this it can be inferred that the Downside’s literacy rate ain’t all that high). The exiles who rescue her have a bunch of old tomes sitting in their wagon; from them the Reader learns that escape from the Downside might be possible if the exiles participate in the Rites.

The Rites are both the main plot device and the primary gameplay mechanic of Pyre; a series of magical games in which teams of three face off for a chance at escape from the Downside. The exiles agree to form their own squad and set off in their trusty wagon, intent on confronting other triumvirates of castaways and getting the hell out of hell. It’s up to players to manage their team of Rite participants, decide which routes to take between battles, and see their companions through the perils of the Downside.

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For freedom!

Pyre‘s gameplay marks a significant departure from the isometric adventuring of Bastion and Transistor. Players navigate the world of the Downside in a visual novel-style interface where animated action plays out in the background and important info is presented in the foreground. Players can chat up characters and make important decisions regarding their journey, like which path to take through the wilderness. The Reader can also access the wagon’s interior during pit stops or visit the slugmarket (so named for the physiology of its proprietor) to trade goods.

The Rites comprise Pyre‘s other piece of gameplay. Once the exiles have arrived to the next battle site, it’s up to players to select a team of three companions to face off against a triumvirate of opponents. Each team is given a pyre (hey!) to defend. Once the match begins, a magical orb is dropped onto the field for players to jockey for. The goal of the game is to carry that orb past the opponent’s defenses and slam dunk it into their pyre, weakening its flame. Whichever team can extinguish the enemy’s pyre first wins the match. Each round is narrated by a sarcastic, condescending wizard who’s as likely to chide the player for being a screw-up as he is to laud their inventiveness.

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Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for the Downsiiiiiiide Exiiiiiiiiles!!!

Rites in Pyre play like a combination of Rocket League and Interloper. Characters exude a circular aura that functions like a shield, and when two opponents’ auras overlap, the character with the weaker aura will disintegrate and be banished from the field for a few moments. Characters can also cast a deadly spell that carpet bombs a straight path ahead of them, eliminating any foes that get caught in the blast. Both of these perks are rescinded when a character grabs the orb, making them vulnerable.

Characters in Pyre can roughly be divided into light, medium, and heavy weight classes. Light characters are fleet-footed on the battlefield but only do so much damage to the enemy pyre. By contrast, heavy characters move across the battlefield at a slow lumber, but their attack spell does much more damage to foes and they can take twice as many life points away from the enemy pyre as light characters. Each character also has his or her own abilities useful for getting around faster and dodging enemy attacks.

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It’s time to duel!

Although these magic-ball matches are fun and make for quite a little adrenaline rush, they’re not without their clunkiness. Players can only control one character at a time; sure, it’s not hard to rapidly switch between contestants, but it’s awkward to take one character out onto the field and leave the other ones idling near the pyre. Additionally, some character classes just ain’t all that great at magic-ball. The aforementioned heavy character is a beast at taking out foes, but getting her to the enemy pyre is difficult.

Then again, getting the characters to work as a team is one of the main points of Pyre. Perhaps it’s better to use the heavy character to wipe out enemies and then switch over to the light character to deliver the orb-dunk. Combatants also gain experience after each match whether it ends in victory or defeat, and can learn valuable new abilities with each level-up. Players can also equip their athletes with ability-enhancing trinkets found out in the game world.

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Three points? More like THIRTY POINTS!

Though Pyre‘s gameplay is quite different from that of Bastion or Transistor, the game is in lockstep with its predecessors when it comes to the quality of its writing. Once again, Supergiant has succeeded in creating a vibrant, alluring world with its own original lore. Unlike its two predecessors, though, Pyre comes loaded with exposition. Players can consult the history of the Downside in their tome or by mousing over highlighted words in characters’ dialogue.

The character writing in Pyre is the best that Supergiant has ever penned. Each participant in the Rites is far more than just a magical athlete; they’re people with checkered pasts and their own hopes and dreams for lives outside of the Downside. They evolve in response to the journey and in reaction to the actions of their teammates; as the journey wears on, players’ affection for these characters swell. Pyre starts off with the three characters pictured above but lets players acquire more of them, including a sultry bird lady and a heroic worm clad in armor.

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Players can know their characters as both warriors and people.

Pyre also represents the zenith of Supergiant’s skill with a paint brush, somehow being even more gorgeously colorful and detailed than either of the studio’s previous two games. This isn’t to say that Bastion and Transistor aren’t also lovely; only that Pyre includes more sophisticated object detail, character animations, and a brighter swath of colors. The Downside has a bad rap because of its status as a prison, but that sure doesn’t sour its many beautiful regions, all of which the player travels through on their road to freedom.

Additionally, whereas the musical scores in Bastion and Transistor both followed singular themes (the former being string-driven and the latter being jazzy), Pyre‘s soundtrack is much more eclectic. From R&B keystrokes to acoustic guitars, each track in the game seems to be an ode to each genre of music. This can leave the placement of some songs sounding random, but they’re all so good that that randomness is moot (this is a game whose soundtrack is as much a must-own as the game itself).

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The in-game sound design ain’t too shabby either!

As mentioned earlier, Pyre is a novel study of defeat and how a person comes back from it. All of the game’s visual and written design elements inform that motif. Players can learn why characters were banished to the Downside and see the effects of that banishment made manifest on the land itself. These nods toward a quest for redemption give Pyre a somber, sadly beautiful atmosphere. Everybody, even the smack-talking enemy team captain, is a sympathetic character, as they all just want to get out of this awful place and get home.

It’s that sympathy that makes Pyre such a heart-breaker. It’s difficult to elaborate without spoiling, but suffice it to say that some characters might get to go home before others. Who goes and who stays? Who will be missed the most? How will one character’s absence affect the rest of the group? No two decisions play out the same way, and Pyre masterfully telegraphs the impact of each choice to the rest of the narrative. The chance at freedom becomes as bittersweet as the backstories of the Downside’s exiles, and that’s what makes Pyre such a masterclass in studying tragic characters.

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What a world.

Although Pyre‘s Rites need some refinement and the magic-ball competitions feel mechanically disjointed from the rest of the game, the title is Supergiant’s best work. The game aptly combines charming writing and gorgeous visuals to produce an unforgettable world. Each character is a fascinating piece of the Downside to whom players quickly become attached, and the world itself is a treasure for any fantasy fan. The icing is that the game runs bug-free (at least in the run for this review) and its options menu is competent. Defeat can be a great teacher, and no game explores that motif in a more eloquent manner than Pyre.

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You can buy Pyre 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 Deadly Tower of Monsters

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Make your way to the top of a monster-infested space tower.

PC Release: January 19, 2016

By Ian Coppock

There’s a certain type of movie that thrives on being terrible. These include corny slapstick films like FDR: American Badass! and most every film that SyFy has ever produced. Even though these movies have slapdash production values, ludicrous plots, and terrible acting, something about the garishness of that formula keeps audiences coming back for more. It’s the tried-and-true idea of a movie being so bad that it’s actually good. The Deadly Tower of Monsters is a video game homage to those movies, so grab some popcorn and a licensed Sharknado beverage; this game’s a doozy.

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If ever there was a video game that attempted to transplant B-movie camp from the big screen, it’s The Deadly Tower of Monsters. Created by ACE Team, the fine Chilean folks behind such hits as Zeno Clash and Rock of AgesThe Deadly Tower of Monsters is an isometric adventure game that lovingly challenges players’ suspension of disbelief. The game is portrayed as being a movie also called The Deadly Tower of Monsters, with fictional director Dan Smith providing DVD commentary that guides (and amuses) players.

The story of The Deadly Tower of Monsters stars—brace yourself—Dick Starspeed, intergalactic space explorer extraordinaire! Starspeed (or “Master Dick” as he’s known by his faithful robot sidekick Robot) crash-lands on a hostile alien planet full of dinosaurs, aliens, evil bug-men, and all kinds of other weird stuff. He teams up with the lovely Scarlet Nova to help take down her father, an evil space emperor, and free the planet from his tyrannical grasp. All they have to do is ascend the titular Deadly Tower of Monsters! Dun dun dunnn!

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Shoestring budget. Literally.

Players can pick between Dick, Robot, and Scarlet (those sound like naughty code words) for their ascent up the Tower of Monsters. Each character has his or her own skills that can be upgraded over the course of the game. Some characters can plant mines and others can teleport short distances. The world of The Deadly Tower of Monsters is also rife with ray guns, energy swords, and other useful killing implements. Using all of them is as simple as mousing over an enemy and clicking.

True to B-movie form, The Deadly Tower of Monsters is overrun with kooky critters. Indeed, it’s worth wondering if there’s an enemy type that this game doesn’t have; stop-motion dinosaurs? Check. Flea/human hybrids? Check. Giant mechanical lizards? Check. UFOs? Triple check. The enemy variety in The Deadly Tower of Monsters is both a loving tribute to the golden era of B-movies and a great way to ensure gameplay variety. Few other games can offer players the chance to battle vacuum pugs.

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Oh look, it’s not-King-Kong!

The Deadly Tower of Monsters’ art is an eclectic mishmash of styles that one might expect to find in an early 70’s sci-fi flick. Players start their adventure in the jungles at the foot of the tower but quickly go on to explore gaudily colored space palaces and, of course, the token pool of lava. Each environment is drowning in a riot of bright colors that would look too random if that wasn’t the motif that The Deadly Tower of Monsters wasn’t going for. The Deadly Tower of Monsters‘ textures could stand to be a little sharper but its attention to object placement is excellent.

The game features other art elements tying the game to the B-movie films it emulates. Flying creatures are suspended by puppeteers’ strings, and the stop-motion dinosaurs are actually stop motion. Characters wear and use The Jetsons-esque space equipment complete with pew-pew sound effects. These and other design elements comprise a constant reminder of where The Deadly Tower of Monsters gets its ideas from and help the game stand out in the isometric adventure genre.

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Ohhhhh mah God.

Apart from The Deadly Tower of Monsters‘ visual design, the other element informing the game’s campy atmosphere is its fast-paced music. The game has that corny series of fast-paced horns that all great terrible movies have, mixed together with some old-school electronic sounds and an over-dramatic drum kit. The music speeds up during combat and slows down when characters are just trying to make their way up the tower, but no matter its tempo, it succeeds in bringing a small smile (or an eyeroll) to players’ faces.

The characters’ voice acting is the piece de resistance of The Deadly Tower of Monsters‘ sound design. Dick Starspeed sounds like the stereotypical space hero douchebag, channeling an Ed Sullivan-like tone in his observations of the world and condescension toward his allies. Scarlet Nova sounds similarly typical of the era, with a few ironic observations about how female protagonists were always relegated to tier two in the 70’s B-movie era. Robot just sounds really depressed, which is weird. Being stuck on a planet full of toy dinosaurs and ray guns is hardly cause for sadness.

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It’s the dream team.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters‘ plot is just as derivative of those old movies’ narratives as one might expect. The objective of the game is simply to climb the tower, dethrone the evil space emperor, and complete a few other objectives as they crop up. The protagonists remain firmly in their niches as they go up against a mwhaha’ing space tyrant and his mad scientist sidekick, both of whom are also unapologetic call-outs to B-movie sci-fi. The dialogue is a lighthearted mix of heroic speeches about standing up to tyranny and little jokes that mostly center on Dick Starspeed’s clueless-ness.

The best writing to be found in The Deadly Tower of Monsters comes from its fictional director, Dan Smith. As previously stated, Smith comes into the studio to record DVD commentary over this “movie”, providing inadvertent tutorials and hints for players as they ascend the tower. Smith spends most of his time, though, demonstrating hilarious ineptitude about cinema and satirizing movie-making conventions of the 1970’s, which make for plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. As an example, Smith will often tell a humorous story about how a monster in the game came about as a movie character, only for his assistant to point out that putting a dwarf into a trash can and calling it a robot probably violates OSHA regulations. “Regulations?” Smith might say. “What are those?”

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I wasn’t kidding about the little person in a trash can.

The Deadly Tower of Monsters‘ shoutout to campy sci-fi is spot-on, but the title’s actual gameplay could stand to be more exciting. It’s isometric gameplay at its most basic: equip a weapon and an ability, mouse over an enemy, repeat until enemy is dead. The game doesn’t take creative liberties with this setup, preferring to wrap pedestrian gameplay inside an otherwise engaging world. What’s more, the three characters aren’t all that different. Sometimes one or the other will be needed to get past a certain part of the tower, but they’re otherwise functionally identical.

Luckily, The Deadly Tower of Monsters runs well, and it has a decent options menu for adjusting potential performance issues. The game looks great but isn’t packing millions of polygons in each character model, so it shouldn’t force rigs to chug. A few players have commented that they get low framerates when running The Deadly Tower of Monsters, but ACE Team was proactive in immediately setting up a guide to navigate that issue. Making sure the game is running on the GPU should solve the problem.

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I also wasn’t kidding about the vacuum pugs.

Players should pick up The Deadly Tower of Monsters not for its gameplay, but because it lovingly satirizes the best and worst of so-good-it’s-bad movies. The game’s humor and writing are spot-on, even if the gameplay is a little stale. The world is a riot of random design elements held together only by the ironic mentions of how random they are, which makes the game’s world all the more alive. Give The Deadly Tower of Monsters a go and that mean old space emperor a run for his money. Or just listen to a crazy director rail against safety laws. Whichever works.

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You can buy The Deadly Tower of Monsters 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.

Transistor

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Reclaim your voice and your home from a mysterious enemy.

PC Release: May 21, 2014

By Ian Coppock

On the surface, a game about a woman who kills evil robots with a sword that’s bigger than she is might sound like a Final Fantasy fanfic or the fever dream of a Square Enix executive, but Transistor is neither of those things. Released by Supergiant Games three years after its debut title, BastionTransistor is a game that preserves its predecessor’s themes and storytelling style in a whole new world. It’s a rare thing for a studio to maintain that kind of consistency, but it’s only one of the things that makes Transistor special.

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Like BastionTransistor is an isometric adventure game that lets players take down bad guys with a variety of stylish weapons and moves. It also embodies its predecessor’s penchant for focusing on raw emotion in its storytelling rather than mere exposition. Transistor has its own narrative and visual identity though, shedding Bastion‘s fairy apocalypse world in favor of cyberpunk art deco. Transistor also goes deeper than a new aesthetic and toys with a few conventions of adventure gaming.

Transistor is set in the gorgeous city of Cloudbank and begins when a soulful singer named Red is attacked by forces unknown. Red only survives the attempt on her life because a mysterious man stepped in to take the blow meant for her. Heartbroken, Red takes up the glowing sword—the titular Transistor—used to end the man’s life and decides to set off after the people who tried to kill her. The Transistor contains the consciousness of the slain man, who serves as Red’s guide.

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Red’s tale has tragic beginnings.

Red quickly realizes that assassination attempts are the least of her problems. A mysterious army of robots called the Process begins teleporting into Cloudbank and deleting chunks of the city from existence. They serve as the bulk of Transistor‘s enemies and stand between Red and her search for the truth. Red takes these foes on as well, all while determined to know what, if anything, their appearance has to do with the attempt on her life.

Transistor allows players to take these foes on with a variety of melee and ranged attacks. Red can clobber foes with the Transistor or use ranged attacks like laser beams. Players can do this in real time or in Turn() mode, which pauses the game and lets Red stack up however many attacks her energy bar will allow. Turn() allows Red to attack much faster and deal greater damage, so taking the time to plan out attacks does way more than just pause the game.

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Giant swords work wonders against robotic would-be muggers.

As Red travels deeper into Cloudbank, she can find new abilities and absorb them into the Transistor. These include attacks like the aforementioned laser beams and defensive moves like dodging out of the way.  Killing enemies grants experience points, which can be used to unlock new perks that make Red’s moves stronger. Red can also find tools called Limiters() which, like the idols in Bastion, make the game more difficult but allow her to gain more experience points.

A novel change Transistor makes to the isometric RPG formula is the ability to tack abilities onto other abilities. In other words, Red can take the techniques she learns and use them as main abilities, or install them on other powers to create something entirely new. Players can use a laser beam attack and Red’s dodge roll as separate moves, or they can tack dodge roll onto the laser beam to make the laser beam ricochet off of enemies. It’s a cool system that allows for a wide range of playstyle customization.

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For my next attack, I will combine spaghetti… WITH MEATBALLS!!!

Beating up foes with a laser-shooting sword is well and good, but Transistor fumbles on managing these abilities behind the scenes. The game’s combat and ability menus are a jumbled mess that fail to adequately explain how abilities work or even how to combine them. Transistor gives players its terms (Functions() and Limiters()) without much of an explanation and seemingly expects players to know how to combine them well. It’s also difficult to switch over to other menu functions like reading about characters in Cloudbank.

At least the Turn() user interface is easy to understand. It’s easy for players to pause the game and plan out Red’s attacks and moves… certainly much easier than actually planning those things behind the scenes. Though Transistor can be played in real time, using the Turn() function does grant a significant strategic advantage. Players looking for a challenge can have a go at the game without using that function. Gamers who dislike turn-based combat (ahem) needn’t worry that Turn() is anything like that, as it doesn’t allow enemies to plan out counter-attacks.

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Right now my only move is run run run awaaaay…

Transistor‘s gameplay is only a little smoother than Bastion‘s, but this game might have substantially better artwork. Transistor continues Supergiant Games’ proud tradition of stunningly beautiful artwork, with delicate paintings in the background and sharply rendered foregrounds. Cloudbank bursts with color and detail; each district Red visits has a distinct visual identity and atmosphere. These districts are jam-packed with thousands of delicately drawn objects and surfaces, leaving players with no shortage of things to gawk at. Transistor‘s character animations are an improvement over those of Bastion‘s, being more smoothly animated ‘n such.

Transistor also benefits handsomely from the use of strong contrast. Whether it’s the red-and-white colors of the Process or the cityscape of Cloudbank, all of the game’s environments stand out thanks to these bright, powerful colors being placed right next to each other. It helps lend the game another layer of visual novelty on top of its cyberpunk-deco style. Come to think of it, Transistor‘s use of contrast goes beyond color, fusing elements of old and new design together into single novelties. All of these styles blend together without the resultant visual design feeling random.

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New York and L.A. ain’t got nothin’ on Cloudbank.

Even better than Transistor‘s visual design is its soundtrack, which is a must-have even for gamers who don’t typically purchase the OST. The game’s score is a stylish selection of tunes that alternate between slow lounge sounds when Red’s just out exploring and jazzier music during combat and adventuring. Most songs are accompanied by the smooth, gorgeous voice of Ashley Lynn Barrett, who returned after also working on Bastion‘s soundtrack to record both singing and hums.

Like BastionTransistor‘s world is also full of rich sound effects that help it come alive. Logan Cunningham returned from voicing the narrator in Bastion to do the same again in Transistor, but the two voices sound quite different. The former was an acid-tongued old man; the latter is an earnest younger guy who cares deeply about Red. That each performance sounds so different is a testament to Cunningham’s skill. Transistor‘s other vocal performers, particularly Sunkrish Bala, are also excellent.

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CHRISTMAS LIGHTS ATTACK!

Transistor‘s story packs the same vague storytelling and show-don’t-tell style of Bastion, but its narrative is quite a bit darker than even that fairy apocalypse. Maybe it has something to do with being set during an apocalyptic event instead of immediately after it. Red’s race through Cloudbank begins with questions about why someone tried to kill her, but that goal quickly turns into saving the entire city from being swallowed by the Process. The game’s writing is quite good; Red doesn’t talk, but the Transistor provides plenty of concisely written observations about what’s happening around them.

Like Bastion, Transistor also chooses to leave out most of the details about its world in place of subtle implications. What is Cloudbank? Why is the Process attacking it? Most of these questions can only be answered by paying close attention to the tone of the dialogue instead of actual words, much like Half-Life 2 did with much of its own exposition. Players who don’t pick up on or ignore tone might feel a bit cheated of this information by the end of Transistor, but the game’s main narrative still packs enough emotional weight to leave them smitten by the time the curtains fall.

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A (stylish) search for answers.

With the exception of its poorly laid out ability menus, Transistor succeeds in both being a gorgeous adventure game and lovingly improving upon everything that Bastion brought to the table. It runs well, has a good options menu, and it wraps a dark tale of love and loss in one of gaming’s most beautiful aesthetics. Everyone should try Transistor, especially with Supergiant’s next project, Pyre, hitting storefronts in just a few weeks. Transistor manages to preserve the enthusiasm that made Bastion a great game while establishing its own magical identity that’s just as worthy of exploration.

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You can buy Transistor 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.

Bastion

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The world has been shattered. Find a way to put it back together.

PC Release: July 20, 2011

By Ian Coppock

A good fairy tale has poignancy bubbling beneath its colorful aesthetic, and Bastion is no exception. When Supergiant Games’ debut title shipped in 2011, it received acclaim for aptly combining colorful illustrations with a surprisingly deep narrative. Traditional fables and fairy tales that accomplish that combination are often remembered long after publication, and Bastion‘s enduring popularity is probably due to it having accomplished that goal as well. What else, if anything, does this beloved game have going for it?

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Bastion is an isometric adventure game set in the magical world of Caelondia. The Kid, Bastion‘s star and player character, wakes up in the aftermath of an apocalyptic event called the Calamity. The once shining and prosperous Caelondia has been shattered into a thousand floating pieces, and the Kid needs to find his way out of the ruins and to safety. No one’s to say what or who caused the Calamity, but before long the Kid stumbles upon the game’s titular Bastion. According to legend, the Bastion has the ability to rewind time… provided that the Kid can find its missing power cores.

The Kid decides to set out in search of the cores so that he can rewind time and undo the Calamity. He’s aided in his quest by Rucks, an old man who also serves as the game’s gravelly voiced narrator, and a handful of other survivors secreted throughout the post-apocalyptic landscape. Finding the cores isn’t as simple as traveling from island to island, though; each level in Bastion is crawling with strange ghouls and legendary beasts. The Kid will have to fight through all of them to snatch the cores and power up the Bastion.

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Ooooooo

Players can engage these foes with a wide variety of melee and ranged weapons found throughout the ruins of Caelondia. The Kid starts the party out with a large hammer and a repeater rifle, but players can also find swords, bows, pistols, and other killing implements later on in the game. Combat in Bastion is pretty simple, just hit or shoot at the enemy until their health expires and they vanish into the ether. It’s usually easy to tease an attack out of an enemy and then counter-strike. The Kid can drink health tonics if he gets too roughed up and black tonics to charge up special attacks.

The Kid has a few other options for rounding out his combat abilities. Players can find chunks of material out in the wilds useful for upgrading weapons and can drink buff-granting alcoholic beverages at the local watering hole. Players who are feeling extra adventurous can activate strange idols that make the game harder but that also grant extra experience points. The Kid can access all of this stuff by using cores to upgrade the Bastion’s facilities and pay for it using crystal fragments dropped by enemies. It’s fun to come back to the Bastion after a hard level’s adventuring and rebuild it piece by piece.

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Oh we’re putting in the distillery. No question.

Bastion‘s gameplay is fun, if a bit simplistic. Despite the game’s admirable variety in level design, the Kid’s penchant for combat remains relatively unexplored beyond just slicing and shooting at foes. The Kid can level up, but the benefits of doing so are limited just to carrying more health potions and picking a few added benefits from each of the Bastion’s buildings. There was definitely some potential for Supergiant to add more depth to the Kid; having class-esque warrior or mage skill trees would’ve been a perfect fit for this fairy apocalypse.

All of that said, Bastion does a good job keeping its levels wild and its enemies unpredictable. The Kid will find a random assortment of enemies, bosses, and environmental hazards in each level, so even if the combat is a bit shallow, the rhythm of in-game battles changes constantly. One level might have its boss fight at the very beginning followed by a slog through smaller foes afterward. Another might end up being a very short level in which the Kid has to run along a falling island. Each level is different, which helps keep players wondering what excitement is around the corner.

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A wild gasbag appeared! It used chili farts! It hurt itself in its confusion!

Varied level design and enemy assortments aren’t all that Bastion‘s world has going for it. The game is one of the most beautifully illustrated titles of the decade. Each level is bursting with color and delicately drawn object details that range from crumbling masonry to thousand-color pockets of wilderness. Bastion is packed with thousands of objects and decorations in its levels, while paintings of forests and valleys make for beautiful backdrops. It’s a beautiful game that renders notions of the apocalypse always being bleak incorrect.

Bastion‘s mastery with color is accompanied by fluid character animations. Though the Kid could stand to move a little faster, his and the other characters’ animations are sound. Enemies are drawn in a similar fashion, looking more like living paintings than anything else. These animations aptly combine with the aforementioned visuals to make Bastion‘s world glow with life. Even if players somehow tire of Bastion‘s gameplay, they won’t be hurting for pretty things to look at.

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(creepy drooling noises)

Bastion doesn’t stop the buck at producing amazing visual art, as its soundtrack is also quite lovely. In many ways the game’s OST is reminiscent of Braid, with lots of quick little violins and thoughtful acoustic guitars. Occasionally the game includes more somber music, particularly toward the end. Bastion also brings high-quality sound design to the table; everything, even the Kid’s footsteps on gravel, were recorded with rich detail. Bastion‘s acute attention to good sound design makes the game come alive that much more (just listening to the Kid sort through booze bottles is relaxing. Clink, clink, clink).

Bastion‘s single voice acting performance comes from Logan Cunningham, who channels a Sam Elliott-esque air in narrating the Kid’s journey. The narrator chips in at a regular clip throughout nearly all of Bastion’s levels, providing backstory on the regions the Kid visits and insights into what the silent protagonist is thinking. Cunningham’s performance is up there with Kevan Brighting’s narration in The Stanley Parable as one of the most masterful game narrator performances in recent years. He’s instantly likable in Bastion as a character who ponders (and dispenses barbed wit) like an old man.

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Tranquil in destruction.

Bastion‘s narrative relies on a time-old, show-don’t-tell setup that prefers to focus on the Kid and his companions; Caelondia already has plenty of screentime through its beautiful visuals. The narrator dispenses details about the Calamity in crisp, concise sound bites that focus on what the world used to be instead of just what it’s become post-disaster. Because the Kid doesn’t talk, the narrator’s guidance through the world of Caelondia is usually the player’s only direct source of information. Players interested in more exposition can learn about characters’ pasts by partaking in combat challenges. Kind of a random way to learn more story, but it’s interesting stuff.

Bastion, like the best old fairy tales mentioned earlier, aptly shifts between warm and dark tones in its storytelling. It delivers humor and heart in all the right places, but as the Kid gets closer to restoring the Bastion, he learns some uncomfortable truths about the Calamity that grind his efforts to a halt. Players have to make some tough choices in finishing the Bastion and deciding what to do with it once the mythical fortress is restored. The game resonates with heartfelt emotions that, much like a good fable, climax with just a touch of somberness.

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How did this happen?

Bastion‘s story is also comparable to a Pixar film in that it can be appreciated by players of all ages. The game’s worth considering for gamers who have children, as it’s relatively simple to pick up and play through together. Bastion has the outer sense of adventure that young gamers love, but its narrative has mature undertones that older players will appreciate. That versatility is surprisingly absent in game media these days, but it underscores Bastion‘s visual and narrative charm.

Bastion‘s limited options menu is less charming than it is, well, limited, but at least the game runs well. Despite not leaving players with that many options in the event of a performance issue, the game’s hand-drawn visuals are not taxing. Bastion runs as well on a monster rig as it does an old Microsoft laptop, and it also pairs well with a gamepad. Between being almost six years old and doing away with attempts at hyper-polygonal realism, Bastion is a safe bet for players who are anxious about performance problems.

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Go forth and be awesome.

Bastion is one of the best isometric adventure games ever made. The game masterfully combines stunning artwork and quality writing with fun gameplay. Even if that gameplay runs the risk of being simplistic, this is compensated for by Bastion‘s varied level and enemy design. This is a game that fans of every genre should buy and try as soon as possible, especially with Supergiant’s latest project, Pyre, just around the corner. Bastion is one of those games whose emotions and world will stick with gamers years after the fact… just like a good fairy tale.

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You can buy Bastion 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.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords

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Stop the Sith from wiping out the last Jedi.

PC Release: December 6, 2004

By Ian Coppock

For anything that can be said about the Star Wars prequels, that sequence in Revenge of the Sith in which countless Jedi are getting murdered is a real gut-punch. It’s arguably the most pivotal scene of the entire prequel trilogy, where the Star Wars universe violently changes hands from Jedi to Sith. Tragic as that scene is, though, it’s not the first time that the Jedi were driven to the brink of extinction. If the old Star Wars canon is to be believed, there was an even darker, grittier period for the Jedi that began with Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords.

Take a seat, young Skywalker. This game makes for quite a tale.

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Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords (let’s just call it Sith Lords, that title’s one hell of a mouthful) is a third-person RPG set in the Star Wars universe, and the direct sequel to BioWare’s wildly popular Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. Unlike the first KOTORSith Lords was actually developed by Obsidian, a studio that makes bank developing sequels and spinoffs on behalf of other devs. Like KOTORSith Lords comprises a mix of quick turn-based combat and open-world exploration across a variety of planets. The game allows players to create their own character, pick a class, and recruit squadmates to fight alongside them.

Sith Lords takes place five years after the events of KOTOR, which is itself set an eye-popping 4,000 years before the Star Wars films. Neither game is considered canon anymore, but that doesn’t stop them from being good Star Wars stories. KOTOR detailed a galaxy-wide war between the ancient Republic and an entire empire of Sith warriors led by a cyborg with a chip on his shoulder (or is it his jaw?). Anyway, even though the Republic eventually won out over the Sith, the galaxy was left a pile of smoldering wreckage. Most of the Jedi were wiped out in the conflict, leaving only a small handful still standing when the dust settled.

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The Jedi victory over the Sith came at an awful price.

To make matters worse, the remaining Sith simply fled underground and spent the next few years ambushing and assassinating the remaining Jedi from the shadows. A new generation of Sith Lords is now but a few steps away from galactic domination, and only one more Jedi stands in their way: the player character. Sith Lords begins as the titular baddies ambush the protagonist, and the unlucky Jedi wakes up dazed and confused in a derelict mining colony.

Like KOTORSith Lords allows players to create their own male or female character, and choose from a couple of different cosmetic options. Unlike in KOTORSith Lords’ character starts out as a Jedi, so players nix picking a soldier class and can start leveling up Force abilities from the get-go. Canonically, the character is actually a female Jedi named Meetra Surik, a name that Star Wars: The Old Republic players might recognize. To the game and most NPCs, though, the character is known simply as “the Exile.”

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The Exile! (jazz hands)

After wandering out of the colony’s medical bay, the Exile encounters a strange old woman named Kreia, who claims that the two share a bond through the Force. The Exile finds a few more characters strewn throughout the colony, but the group is forced to make a quick escape when the Sith show up to finish their dirty work. Kreia believes that the Exile is the galaxy’s best chance for stopping the Sith, though stops short of endorsing such a mission herself. Indeed, the old woman’s motivations remain delightfully vague for most of the game.

As the Exile travels around space running missions and picking up more oddball squadmates, he/she notices a few particular Force abilities. For a start, the Exile can form bonds with squadmates through the Force, strengthening their trust in him/her and even influencing their sense of morality. The Exile also learns that these abilities may or may not be tied up in why they were, well, exiled from the Jedi Order so many years ago. The Exile decides to try to seek out the Jedi Masters who oversaw his/her banishing — not just to learn why it happened, but to enlist their aid in stopping the Sith.

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Yay, they brought back this sarcastic clunker!

The Exile’s journey around the galaxy plays out a lot like the main character’s quest in KOTOR. Players have a ship (the same ship from KOTOR, in fact) that they can use to putz around the galaxy and visit a few planets. Those planets are chock full of story missions, side quests, and lots of money and items. Combat is third-person and turn-based, but as with KOTOR‘s combat, the turns move quickly enough to keep the fight interesting. Attacks do only have a chance to hit, though, so be sure to level up that accuracy and critical hit damage as much as possible.

Each squadmate in the Exile’s party has his, her, or its own combat specialty and unique abilities. Some squadmates have latent Force powers and can eventually become Jedi apprentices (though lightsabers are rarer than gold dust in this game). Others are trigger-happy shootists that would rather put a blaster bolt between someone’s eyes than give them the time of day. Still others are more specialized in their abilities, adept at hacking into places they shouldn’t. Regardless of their specialties, the Exile’s team has that Mass Effect 2 ultimate badasses vibe to it. Who knows? Maybe a Sith ends up joining the team! That’d be crazy, right?

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Right.

The changes that Sith Lords makes to KOTOR‘s gameplay are relatively few. Players can now craft their own components for their armor and weapons, rather than having to find them out in the field. The Exile can also make a few basic guns and battle drugs, given the proper materials. Sith Lords‘ range of hand-to-hand combat moves is expanded for some reason, and the conversation system is a bit more dynamic, giving players more freedom to persuade the weak-minded through the Force or just be a really good debater. Players can also access a palette of new and interesting Force powers. Force Scream, for example, is logistically similar to Force lighting but lets players flatten people like that little kid in Linkin Park’s music video for From the Inside.

Anything else? Not really. Money is a lot easier to come by, that’s for damn sure. KOTOR had an approximate game-wide limit on its money, and players had to be really choosy about where to drop that coin. Sith Lords makes it far easier to pick up some extra cash, and it’s not like there aren’t tons of weapons and armor to buy anyway, right? That’s pretty much all there is to be said about the changes Sith Lords makes to the KOTOR formula. That is to say… not many.

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Punch him in the lightsaber! That’ll show him!

The changes that Sith Lords makes to the KOTOR aesthetic are also few in number. This game was only released a year after KOTOR, so there wasn’t time for Obsidian to get to work developing new assets or visuals. There are plenty of new character models, which is neat, but the game retains KOTOR‘s awkward character animations and not-so-well-aged object details. Textures remain blurry, colors are still a bit blotchy… fights have a few new animations, but they’re mostly restricted to the fisticuffs. Still not sure what the purpose of that skill tree is when the player can use a lightsaber.

Sith Lords has a few original creations, though, that outshine everything the game borrowed from KOTOR and even give its beloved predecessor a run for its money. The first is the game’s sound design. Guns, lightsabers and spaceships return in rip-roaring audio glory, and they still come through cleanly despite being over a decade old. Far better even than that, though, is Sith Lords‘ soundtrack, which is one of the greatest Star Wars soundtracks of all time. Alternating between quietly haunting melodies and dramatic, triumphant strings, Sith Lords‘ score is an audio masterpiece. The music is so good that LucasArts was using it for videos and promotional material up to the very last second before the Disney acquisition. Seriously, it’s damn good music.

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I find your lack of musical taste disturbing…

The final and grandest piece of Sith Lords is the game’s narrative. With the game’s war-torn set pieces and the bleak notion of being the very last Jedi, Sith Lords is the closest that Star Wars has ever been to having a post-apocalyptic setting. Some aspects of the game, like invisible Sith assassins that crawl around like animals, even give off a horror vibe. Sith Lords‘ atmosphere is impressively dark, and that bleakness is carefully arranged in every war-torn city, every battle-weary NPC. The Exile cannot trust anyone; even the Force is arrayed against them. Players are as hunted by these grim signs as they are by in-game Sith assassins and bounty hunters.

More than just the apocalyptic vibe, Sith Lords benefits from having some of the best writing of any Star Wars game, far superior even to that of KOTOR. The writing results in some truly memorable characters with believable development arcs and heart-wrenching motivations. Kreia, the aforementioned old woman, is one of the most interesting video game characters ever written, Star Wars or otherwise. Her reserved character and constant criticism of the player no matter what they do smack of a depth rarely seen in RPGs anymore. Similar things can be said about the bounty hunter who’s secretly afraid, and the Mandalorian getting too old for this s***. It all makes for a batch of believable characters… characters that become very dear to the player very quickly.

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That Kreia is a mysterious one…

It’s impressive that Sith Lords manages to tell a great story despite not being a finished game. It’s true; an entire planet and a few other side quests were left out of production so that Obsidian could meet a deadline. While it’s unfortunate that some content was left out of the game, the studio did a good job at covering those loose ends up (not sure if that’s commendable or unfortunate) and the rest of the game doesn’t feel short, clocking in at a few hours longer than KOTOR. A few mods are floating around that add bits and pieces of that content to the base game, but finding and downloading them is another story.

Sith Lords also deserves some leniency for the creative risks it took in penning its narrative. Rather than merely giving staple Star Wars concepts a new face, it twists those staple concepts around in interesting and terrifying ways. The idea of the Force undergoing a metamorphosis is an exotic concept, and the game’s portrayal of the Sith as hungry animals rather than cunning tacticians makes for a refreshing change. The point is that Sith Lords isn’t afraid to bend some of Star Wars‘ rules or tinker around with concepts enshrined as untouchable, and that’s what makes it such a great game. Perhaps even better than KOTOR.

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Just another day in space-pocalypse.

Sith Lords isn’t the most well-known Star Wars game ever made, but it is one of the best. Its dark, rich story introduces bold new ideas to the Star Wars universe, rounded out with terrific music and some of the best writing of any Star Wars media. Don’t let Sith Lords‘ aged aesthetic or its relegation to non-canon status by Disney stop a playthrough. Pick up a copy (the Steam version’s nice and updated) and delve into some of the darkest, grittiest Star Wars storytelling ever penned.

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You can buy Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords 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.