Tower of Time makes an incredibly strong case for itself in its first few hours. It opens with a young boy in an apocalyptic fantasy world stumbling upon an ancient and forbidden tower and naturally deciding to explore. After meeting the mysterious presence that rules the tower, he is sent away but imprinted with a desire to return someday. The story picks back up when he returns, now a fairly important military figure, to lead an expedition into the tower’s depths. Narrated from a strange split of present and past tense, this intro sets up the mysteries that will drive the game’s story: What is the tower, who is the being that inhabits it, and why did it mark your character? It carries an air of somber tension on an epic scale, and it’s clear is that you’ll eventually decide the fate of the world. There seems to be a good chance that you’ll even doom it.
You don’t actually control the game’s main character, who spends most of the game lounging in an extremely uncomfortable looking throne in the tower’s foyer. For reasons left to you to discover, this lets him highjack his party’s senses and influence their decisions. In gameplay terms, that means you occasionally step in as the protagonist to solve disputes, but mostly you play as the party for all intents and purposes. At the start, that party consists of Kane, the duty-bound knight, and Maeve, the kleptomaniac archer. They are as one-dimensional as those descriptions make them sound, but in the first level they’re charming enough, and their utter bewilderment about the whole tower makes them seem pretty relatable. At set points in the game, you’ll also recruit a handful of other heroes drawn from the game’s cookie-cutter fantasy races.
So far, so good, and things only get better once you take control of them. You explore the tower with standard click-to-move controls, à la Diablo or Baldur’s Gate. The first environment is chock-full of items to find and little tableaus that you can click for a short text description. At first, I was blown away by how much detail there was in the environment. Little bits of set dressing helped tell the story of the tower, and there were even a few clever environmental puzzles set out. You’re rewarded for examining every room, uncovering clues, and using everything you find to solve puzzles with your wits rather than by following quest markers.
Things change once you get into combat. Tower of Time looks a lot like a standard cRPG in combat at first, as you give orders to your party members in real time or slow time down for more control. It diverges from genre tradition by placing combat in an arena with a loading screen separating it from the map. You start with just your characters on screen, and enemies soon start spawning in waves. Some encounters have additional objectives, like freeing an ally from a cage, destroying portals, or protecting structures. None of this makes any narrative sense, and the layout of the arenas is completely divorced from the world map.
I can’t see a single way in which it’s an improvement over traditional cRPG combat. Having enemies spawn in waves prevents you from positioning strategically before the fight. There are terrain features in the arenas that you can use to your advantage, but the setup makes it feel more like an elaborate American Gladiators course than a fight taking place in the game’s world. I also found combat incredibly slow paced and wished there was an option to speed up the action. You can activate “Story mode,” which makes battles trivially easy, but they still drag on and on. It’s almost more tedious to play this way, since fights then become mostly about waiting for enemies to spawn and break themselves against your heroes.
Each of your party members can only take four skills into battle, and they often have long cooldowns, creating long stretches of the battle where you basically have nothing to do. That’s really unfortunate, because a lot of abilities are interesting and fun to use. Many of them revolve around positioning, allowing you to either move swiftly around the battlefield or halt your enemies’ progress. But by the time I unlocked the more intriguing strategic options, I had lost any interest in combat. These encounters were so often so packed full of enemies that the strategy was less about using abilities intelligently and more about just not getting overrun. There are lots of big boss battles, but they rarely felt different from regular combat. The first few are interesting, but most simply resort to spawning tons of enemies and spamming AOE, making positioning a nightmare and strategy a joke.
Oddly, you don’t even gain experience from combat. Throughout the tower, you’ll find blueprints for buildings. With one of these, you can upgrade class buildings in a city menu accessible outside of the tower, then use a separate training building to upgrade your heroes. It feels unnecessarily complicated, but it’s at least an original idea. Unfortunately, this all makes combat even more of a pain, since fighting enemies never actually makes you stronger. Once I realized this, I began to dread each combat encounter more and more. What’s more, it also means that your heroes can level up very unevenly, if you happen to find an upgrade for one class building but not another.
Exploration is the real high point of the game, and it remains its strongest asset even when its shine rather quickly fades. Floors two and three have you running around flipping lots of levers to open passages, and the puzzles start to feel much less original. Still, the levels remain packed with things to do. On each floor you’ll find optional bosses, hidden rooms, and rare equipment. You can skip entire wings of each level if you want. And if you look carefully, you’ll frequently find letters scattered around that can direct you toward more secrets.
While the levels are packed with rewards for exploration, there’s nothing compelling about their design. The early levels are built on floating platforms, giving you a clear view of the floors below you. It’s oddly disorienting, giving the impression that the space you’re navigating is floating in the ether rather than built into a tower. There’s also no cohesion between levels. You’ll explore flooded passages, followed by brass and steel machineworks, followed by crystalline caverns, followed by full-on sci-fi military installations. The game seems to want to be everything at once, a problem that eventually killed the experience for me.
Similarly, the characters grated on me the longer I was exposed to them. They’re fairly stereotypical to start, but there was some energy to the early game’s writing, and their relationships were somewhat engaging. But eventually they just keep having the same conversations, reacting in the same way to different events. The dutiful knight is dutiful. The greedy rogue is greedy. The weird elf is a weird elf. Occasionally one will share their own insight on what’s going on, which often clued me in to different ways of thinking about the game, the only good trick the writing had. There are also rare instances where you can intervene in their conversations, swaying decisions for one character or another. This results in a simple disposition shift; the folks you sided with will like you more, and the others will dislike you, adding buffs or debuffs to the party accordingly. It’s very simplistic and seems like a waste of what could be an interesting system.
The main thing driving me to play was finding out what was going on with the tower. The mystery set up at the beginning is legitimately compelling, and the game keeps sprinkling seeds of stories to come. I wanted to know the true nature of the tower, of magic, of “the void” introduced early on. You also learn what happened to turn the world into a wasteland as you go deeper, and I was invested in finding out. But each floor gets caught up in its own story too much, often losing sight of the throughline. I got bored of this cycle resetting with every level and presenting me with these micro-dramas rather than focusing on the much more interesting overarching story of the mysterious voice in the tower and the dark forces that brought doom upon the world.
This game’s biggest downfall is bloat in every aspect. It just has too many systems, too many items, too many enemies in each battle and too many battles to begin with. Too many floors to this explore with too many different themes, too much pointless dialog (and too little of substance). On a narrative level, the temptation to make this story into an epic journey robs it of interest. Learning that a corrupt scholar led a group of people into the tower and slowly turned on them is interesting. Learning that he summoned monsters from another realm to build an army is interesting. Repeating and expanding on that (ultimately unimportant) storyline for half a dozen hours is not. Learning that a powerful mage used the tower to study a dangerous fifth element (not love, sadly) is interesting. Learning this by spending hours running around a level to collect crystals from random locations is not. Tower of Time has maybe 12 hours worth of good ideas in it, stretched out to several times that. There really is a lot to like in this game, from inventive art design to a compelling backstory, which made it all the more disappointing that ends up buried under hours upon hours of boredom.
Just days before the launch of Overwatch’s 2nd Anniversary event, it seems we know everything to expect upon logging in.
In a perhaps suspiciously vague Reddit post, user digitai1234 said that they found images of the event’s new skins thanks to “some dude in Taiwanese OverWatch fan club.” While the lack of details doesn’t give us faith in the leak’s validity, the attached imgur links of all the new skins sure do. These are either legit new cosmetics or the work of some very industrious fakers. The new skins show a wild mix of styles, from Tracer’s garish club kid/motocross outfit to McCree’s Sherlock Holmes getup. I, for one, will be saving up my precious coins for Orisa’s dryad look. Commenters in the thread have been hard at work translating the text in the images since they surfaced.
Around the same time, a video also surfaced, confirming the image leak. The video shows all of the new skins in Overwatch’s menu, as well as new emotes to be released during the event.
Perhaps most exciting of all, it also gives us a detailed look around Petra, the event’s new Deatchmatch map. The ancient city of Petra is a famous archaeological site and tourist attraction in modern-day Jordan. If you weren’t paying attention in history class, you’ll also recognize it from films such as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The map is an intricate maze of tight corridors and twisting caverns with a few wide-open chambers. Basically a playground for close-range characters and ambushers.
Just a few hours later, the Overwatch team released an official (though much shorter) Petra preview video, along with a cute stop-motion teaser for the event.
If all the new info has you itching to jump into the event, you don’t have long to wait. Overwatch Anniversary begins May 22, and lasts until June 11.
Video games are great at bringing people together, but for years, many have felt left out. People with impaired vision, hearing, or mobility often struggle to enjoy a medium that combines images, sound, and interactivity. Developers have made efforts to make their games more inclusive, through additions such as captioning and color blind modes, but Microsoft recently announced what may be the biggest accessibility endeavor yet for gaming.
A few days after rumors began circulating on Twitter, Microsoft officially unveiled the Xbox Adaptive Controller. Rather than targeting any specific disability, the controller aims to make games accessible for a wide swath of people. The device itself is a large rectangle with two prominent buttons, a d-pad, and smaller navigation buttons. Its layout and the fact that the buttons are programmable already make it more accessible for players with limited mobility, but its real genius lies in its expandability. Along the back of the device, there are 19 ports, each corresponding to a different controller function. Accessibility devices can be attached with standard 3.5 mm jacks, making the controller completely customizable.
The Xbox Adaptive Controller isn’t the first piece of hardware to tackle accessibility, and in fact, that’s what makes it great. Rather than relying on proprietary accessories, the controller lets players use devices they may already have. Devices such as foot pedals and mouth-operated joysticks already commonly used by gamers with disabilities can be attached to the controller out of the box. Piecing together controllers out of disparate components has been a mainstay of accessible gaming for a long time; the Xbox Adaptive Controller just simplifies and formalizes it.
To develop the controller, Microsoft partnered with organizations that have been working to make gaming more accessible for years. The company also did exhaustive research and consulted with gamers with disabilities to make sure they were solving the right problems. The effort they put forth is apparent. Every aspect of the controller, from its rounded edges and spacious button placement to the clear indicators of each port’s function, is meticulously designed to meet the diverse needs of its users.
The controller is set to go on sale later this year and retail for $99.99. Microsoft has promised more information to come at this year’s E3.
If you played the original Dragon’s Crown when it came out way back in the long-forgotten year of 2013, you probably remember two things: It was a fantastically fun brawler, and it had some serious issues with how it depicted women’s bodies. For better and for worse, both are still true today.
Dragon’s Crown Pro is a straight-forward remaster. You won’t find much new content-wise, so if you have an opinion about the original, you can basically just apply it to the HD update as well. And if you happen to still be playing the original on either the PS3 or the Vita, you’ll soon find the online mode much more populated, as the remaster offers cross-play with the original title. For the uninitiated, Dragon’s Crown Pro is a side-scrolling brawler set in a lavishly (and sometimes problematically) illustrated fantasy world. Created by Vanillaware, it has plenty of features that elevate it above other simplistic beat ‘em ups, much like its predecessor, Odin Sphere.
You can choose from six classes, which, unlike in many side-scrolling brawlers, actually play quite differently from one another. These include a Dwarf who specializes in dealing melee damage and tossing enemies, a Sorceress who offers support magic and can animate skeletons, and an Amazon with wild air attacks and a berserker rage mechanic. Even the more straightforward-seeming classes -- the Fighter, the Elf, and the Wizard -- reveal hidden depth once you start digging into their skill trees and learn how to best use their unique abilities. I played through the entire campaign as the Elf, the archer class, certain that her combination of long-range damage and minor spells was the perfect playstyle for me. Then I tried the Wizard, getting deep into his versatile spell options and active mana regeneration mechanics. On a whim, I made a Dwarf, the character I had the least interest in, and fell in love with the brazenness of his flurry attacks and the huge interrupt potential in chucking enemies around the screen. It would be overstating it to say that switching classes feels like playing an entirely different game, but not by much.
You can customize each character to some extent through skill upgrades and loot. As you trek through the game’s dungeons, you’ll come across treasure chests that your ever-present rogue companion can unlock. At the end of each level, you choose which of these to keep and which to sell. Each weapon and piece of armor has a random selection from a huge pool of bonuses. They can add elemental damage, increase item drop rates, grant resistances, or give you any number of other effects. You’ll also gain experience, which you can spend on skills from a general pool or a class-specific list. These upgrades can add extra effects to your attacks or grant you entirely new abilities, offering a fairly flexible way to tune your character to your liking. After you make it to the story’s midpoint, you can start any new character at level 15 and skip the first half of the game. It’s a great way to test out other classes’ abilities without committing to a full playthrough with each one. At this same point, you also unlock a fun, goofy little cooking minigame that boosts your stats when you play multiple levels in a row. It’s buried so deep in the game and goes so unremarked upon that it feels like a secret mode when you first stumble upon it.
It’s fortunate that there’s so much versatility to the gameplay, because Dragon’s Crown’s structure has a lot of repetition built in. The main campaign sends you through nine stages in a linear order, then tasks you with playing alternate paths through the same levels in a different order. You can also take on quests that give you specific objectives to complete within the levels, which often take more than one run through to complete. Once you finish the game, you have the option to play through the levels two more times on higher difficulty settings to really complete the game. You do unlock some entirely new options at that point as well: a procedurally generated dungeon where you fight progressively tougher enemies for progressively better loot, and a PvP arena mode.
Of course, a lot of this is optional, and the alternate paths through levels are significantly different, so while the game does feel repetitive, it’s rarely boring. The quests you do are usually not as simple as just “Kill X amount of enemy Y,” so they, too, change the way you approach the levels. While you’re repeating levels, you’re fighting one of two different bosses, seeing a different selection of rooms, and performing more esoteric objectives like looking for hidden passages or, at least on one occasion, dancing with ghosts. Still, you could easily play through each level a dozen times if you continue into the post-game, which inevitably gets old.
Fortunately, Dragon’s Crown Pro’s levels are interesting and varied. Each level features a slightly different selection of enemies, and enough environmental twists to make each level feel unique. Some feature traps, interludes where you ride boats or magic carpets, and environmental hazards. What really makes the levels feel different from one another is the gorgeously rendered backgrounds and their general character. Infiltrating a goblin fortress feels much different from ascending a mage’s tower, traversing an enchanted forest, or exploring a submerged cave, despite the fact that you’re essentially just walking to the right and dispatching enemies on the way.
Your forays into these levels are interspersed with bits of a fantasy story that lies in the exact center between traditional and clichéd. In short, you help to foil a plot against the crown, then defeat an ancient dragon that threatens the realm. It’s more charming in action than on paper, thanks to the fantastic art and sound design. In one of its few additions to the original, Dragon’s Crown Pro adds a live orchestral version of the score. The original score by no means sounds outdated, but the new version adds a slightly fuller feel, making the choice of which to use entirely a matter of preference. The remaster also includes new voices for the chatty narrator, who pops up regularly to comment on the action. There are six new voices, one for each character class, which were originally released as DLC for Dragon’s Crown. They feel a little less consistent than the original narrator overall, but I enjoyed switching between them to match the character I was playing.
Atlus, the game’s publisher, has been touting its graphical upgrade in comparison videos, but it was the least noticeable upgrade for me. Dragon’s Crown looked great for its time because of its art direction, not because of its graphical fidelity. In some ways, its storybook art style helps it age better than any PS3-era attempt at realism. That’s not to say that Dragon’s Crown Pro doesn’t look great. It certainly does, and I was able to appreciate even more of the intricate detail that went into the characters and environments than I was in the original release. It just doesn’t feel like a generational leap.
While I was happy to see the game’s beautiful art make the leap, there are some elements that I wish had been left in 2013. If you remember the controversy around the game’s release or look at basically any image that comes up when you search for “Dragon’s Crown art,” you’ll know what I’m talking about. If you’re unclear, the game goes out of its way to sexualize every woman in it to a completely absurd degree. When the game came out, a lot was made of the muscle fetish look of the Amazon and the considerable gravity-defying magic the Sorceress must be deploying to keep herself upright. Honestly, you’ll hardly notice these details once you’re in the thick of the game’s crowded combat, but good lord, they’re jarring at first. It would be easy enough to overlook if that were the whole problem, but the character models aren’t the biggest issue by a long shot. Within each level, as rewards for completing quests, and even in shops in town, you’re constantly presented with lush illustrations that seem straight out of Frank Frazetta or Boris Vallejo’s sketchbooks, and I mean that both in terms of their eye-popping quality and their jaw-dropping sexism. Nearly every woman depicted in the game is scantily clad, impossibly proportioned, and usually posed for maximum titillation. You can’t even repair your weapons in town without seeing a tableau that would lead to an extremely embarrassing conversation if someone were to walk into the room while you’re playing. It’s gross, it’s misogynistic, and it’s even less excusable in 2018 than it was in 2013.
You may feel differently about it. Maybe the game’s depiction of women doesn’t hamper your enjoyment, maybe it makes it impossible to play. For me, it sullies an otherwise joyful experience and makes me feel guilty about liking the game. But I do still like it. I’m embarrassed to call myself a fan, but I do still play. That certainly speaks to my position of privilege as a man, but it also speaks to just how great every other aspect of the game is. If you’re able to overlook some pretty vile sexualization to play one of the most well-crafted and inventive brawlers around (and I can’t judge you for doing so -- I’m doing it, too), then Dragon’s Crown Pro is almost certainly what you’re looking for. But maybe wait to play it until your roommate’s not around.
At first glance, it’s easier to compare Light Fall to other games than to see what sets it apart. Its gameplay, level design, and visuals owe a lot from both Super Meat Boy and Ori and the Blind Forest. But once you get into it, Light Fall is much more interesting for how it forges its own path than for how it sticks to any formula.
Light Fall is a hardcore platformer, challenging you to traverse its levels while dodging spike-lined corridors, lasers, and the occasional enemy. It has plenty of difficult moments, but it’s much easier and more accessible than the games that defined that genre, or even recent entries such as Celeste. Light Fall’s stand-out feature is a set of abilities based on conjuring boxes. For reasons explained early in the game, you’re able to place cubes that hang in mid-air below you or beside you, launch them to damage enemies, or remote control them for a few clever puzzles. You can then use them as platforms or wall-jump off their sides to navigate the game’s environments.
These abilities introduce a welcome twist to the genre, and I was impressed by how easy they are to use. You’re often dashing at Sonic-like speeds through levels, and if these abilities were implemented awkwardly, they could have easily dragged the game to a halt as you tried to position boxes correctly. Fortunately, the developers clearly put a lot of work into making sure they feel just right. If you’re hurtling through the air when you summon a box below you, it’ll appear just far enough ahead to ensure you land on it. If you’re falling and create a box beside you to grab onto, it takes your trajectory into account, placing it at just the right height for you to stick the landing. At first, I felt like the game’s speed would become uncontrollable, but within a few levels, I had adjusted to its breakneck pace. Once you’re in tune with it, you’ll be bouncing from block to block as you scale to otherwise impossible heights or catch yourself from a lethal fall.
Even aside from this mechanical difference, Light Fall plays much differently from the more punishing hardcore platformers such as Super Meat Boy. Where that game is all about finding the safest route through its deathtrap levels and pulling off perfect inputs, Light Fall is about using the tools at your disposal creatively and recovering from errors. If you misjudge a jump, for example, you can summon a box to land on and get a second chance.
But your power isn’t a get out of jail free card. Once you jump into the air, you can only use your power four times before touching solid ground again (landing on your own boxes doesn’t count). The challenge becomes about finding the right time to use your powers as you leap through tight caverns full of deadly crystals. Deciding exactly when and where to place these platforms to get the most distance out of each jump means the difference between life and death.
Stages often cram you into tight, winding corridors that force you into a more deliberate pace, while others allow you to just zip through the sky on a bridge of summoned boxes. They don’t always lean into the acrobatic freedom that your powers enable, but they’re still immensely satisfying. I had dozens of moments of breathless excitement as levels demanded nearly flawless sequences of split-second decisions to survive. You’ll often use your powers to catch yourself just before falling to your death or carve a winding path through brambles of instantly fatal obstacles.
Unfortunately, it feels like Light Fall ends before it really explores all the possibilities of its premise. Its dozen stages can be completed in just a handful of hours, culminating in an extremely lackluster final boss fight. The game is absolutely designed to be replayed, however. It includes a speed run mode where you try to top your own best times and climb a leaderboard, and each level is packed with collectibles that you’re highly unlikely to find on your first playthrough. I had a good time going back through these modes, but they’re not quite as thrilling as making your way through the game for the first time.
Light Fall puts an odd amount of emphasis on the story for a platformer of its type. You’re guided through the game by a narrating owl with his own ties to the world’s history. I found it all pretty skippable, to be honest. There’s nothing particularly bad about it, it just doesn’t do much to earn the forefront position it gets. The game’s music was similarly middle of the road. Its tone is wildly different from stage to stage, swinging from strangely somber tracks to casual, loungey beats. As far as presentation goes, art is the standout. Each of the game’s stages has a gorgeous backdrop painted with a neon color palette.
I was ultimately left wanting more from Light Fall, which I suppose is halfway between a complaint and a compliment. I had a blast performing in its precision dance across platforms that I built as I ran. It struck the right balance between being challenging and never stalling progress, but came to an ended much earlier than I expected. The game’s core mechanic is interesting, but it rarely feels like it’s used to its fullest. All in all, Light Fall is a brief but inventive revitalization of a staid genre.
From the outset, Solo makes it clear that it’s not a typical game. It starts with three questions: What is your gender, how would you like to be represented, and how would you like your love to be represented? Soon you’ll be asked another question: What role does love play in your life? These simple, direct questions immediately establish a tone (achingly sincere) that persists throughout the rest of the game and forms the basis of your interaction with it. Choosing to present yourself as coupled, single, or heartbroken influences what questions you’ll be asked later, and perhaps more importantly, gets you thinking about your love life.
This mindset will be crucial to your experience of Solo. Taken at face value, it seems to be a simple puzzle game. Traveling across a multi-color archipelago, you manipulate blocks and hang-glide through the air to reach tiny lighthouse-like structures. These activate larger totems, which in turn pose questions to you. We’re trained by puzzle games to see this endpoint as just a marker, a stand-in for achievement, and to see the block-pushing as the real point of the game. But Solo inverts that relationship. The goal here is to reach those totems, not because they signify that you’ve solved a puzzle, but because that’s where the real game is. The puzzles, and to some extent the totems themselves, stand in the way of your true goal, which is self-knowledge.
The puzzles themselves are simple, but mostly excellent. You can pick up and move blocks, or float them through the air with a magic wand, to create a path to the lighthouses and totems. Picking up blocks with the magic wand feels great (and very similar to the magnesis power in Breath of the WIld). The controls are silky smooth and responsive; just navigating the island feels fun.
Some blocks have special properties, such as fans that blow other blocks into the air or suction cups that grab onto surfaces, and you can combine these in different ways to reach your goals. According to the developers, puzzles don’t have set solutions, instead allowing you to make your own path to your goal. This fluidity occasionally got irritating when the environment provided no clear hint to a puzzle’s solution. But for the most part, I enjoyed it. The most difficult puzzles in the game actually became the least satisfying in a way, because the more time you spend working out their solutions, the less time you’re spending immersed in the game’s theme.
Solo is not a game about puzzles. Solo is a game about love, and it’s not shy about saying so. Even the blocks can be read as symbols of the game’s themes of uplift, connection, and reaching out. In addition to the guileless totems flat-out asking you questions, the islands are also inhabited by a second set of beings who occasionally swing by to wax philosophical about the concepts you’re delving into.
These spirits are much more lyrical than the inquisitive totems, and I found them somewhat less effective. Their monologues verge on saccharine, and they slightly contradict the idea that you’re shaping your own experience by setting their own tone for you. That said, they do set that tone well, even if they come off a bit melodramatic.
From time to time, you’ll also encounter the manifestation of love that you picked at the beginning of the game. You can have light interactions with them, such as sharing a bench or helping them lower a drawbridge. They’ll often pop up shortly after you’ve answered a totem’s question to offer commentary on your choice. Sometimes their rhetorical questions come off as a little accusatory, but they’re never confrontational. They’re clearly meant to make you look deeper into your views and examine any blind spots or consequences of them that you may have missed. At times, their commentary felt slightly off the mark, imbuing my answers with meanings I didn’t intend but they generally had cogent things to say. It’s best to look at them as offering one outside perspective, rather than sitting in judgment or stating an absolute truth. I found them to be the most interesting of the “characters” that inhabit Solo’s world. And even if you don’t like what they have to say, it’s still nice to pass a few minutes sitting on a swing with them, taking in the view.
Solo does these little moments extremely well. You have access to a guitar that you can play to make affect the weather or drain the world of color, seemingly for no reason than the fun of it. The islands are dotted with roly-poly dogs, jumping fish, and hungry moles. Some of these animals let you pet them, some beg for food, and others will flock to you if you play a nice tune on your guitar. You can also tackle a series of side puzzles (building paths for stranded dogs or diverting water to a dry garden) that are completely optional, granting no advantage toward actually completing the game. The world is so inviting, and its inhabitants so charming, that I was happy to while my time away solving these optional puzzles or just running around the island, catching wind drafts, and petting animals.
Even aside from any goals, the islands of Solo just feel like places you want to explore. The graphics are almost overwhelmingly cute, and everything on the island looks soft and round and safe. It works with a huge color palette, painting its world in vibrant shades in a cartoonish, almost paint-by-numbers style. The music, on the other hand, is surprisingly melancholic, inspiring the introspective mood that is a prerequisite for getting the most out of the game.
To say that Solo is a game like no other is almost selling it short. Its strange fusion of puzzle game and psychological inventory managed to pull off things that I didn’t know games could even attempt. For days after I finished it, I felt its after effects rumbling around inside me. You can take that as a kind of warning; if you’re prone to rumination and unhappy with your love life, Solo might bring you to some pretty dark places. Above all, the game is defined by what you bring to it. If you’re the type to call games with something to say pretentious, that’s probably what you’ll call this one. If you’re not willing to take a slow pace and do some soul-searching, you’ll find it boring. But if you approach Solo on its own terms and open yourself up to its curious gaze, you’ll find a unique experience that may just bring some hidden parts of yourself into the light.
Dead in Vinland starts strong with a gorgeous hand-drawn cutscene that quickly establishes the stakes. You essentially play as an entire Norse family forced to escape by sea from marauders burning your home for unknown reasons. Yet the gods are evidently as angry with you as your countrymen, and a storm grounds you on a mysterious island with few supplies.
From there, each day is divided into two action rounds and a rest round each night. During the two daytime turns, you assign your family members to activities, such as harvesting, scavenging, or exploring. You can also upgrade your workstations or craft new ones to open up more complex tasks, such as hunting or farming. These workstations and the camp they inhabit are presented sort of like dioramas, with the camp itself spread across several horizontally arranged screens. Everything from the characters to the buildings has an attractive hand-drawn look that helps sell the story as somewhere between graphic novel and storybook. Within the first few rounds, you’ll come across a band of generic evil Vikings led by a staggeringly poorly written maniac, which introduces another dominant mechanic. Each week or so, this gang will demand tribute, in the form of one of your precious resources. This provides a good sense of short-term goals, as well as a few for the longer term: recruit allies and defeat the madman.
It’s a standard setup for the survival sim genre, but the settlement building’s quirks started to open a rift between the game’s systems and its narrative that would eventually grow into a chasm. For instance, one of the structures you can build is a rest area. Napping there during the day will help your characters recover fatigue. Oddly, though, it recovers more fatigue than simply napping in the seemingly much more comfortable shelter you already have. You also need to build a cooking stove to roast meat, despite the fact that you already have a campfire from the start of the game. If you can look past the absurdity of some of its premises, the settlement layer of the game is engaging. There’s a wide variety of resources to collect and activities to undertake, making it possible to tailor your camp to accomplish your objectives in a lot of different ways. Your characters’ needs are as varied as the ways to satisfy them, making it necessary to plan several steps ahead and anticipate shortfalls before they become catastrophic.
Dead in Vinland takes care to acquaint you with its mechanics much more than most survival sims, which I appreciated since unknowing missteps could ruin your playthrough down the line. If a single one of your characters’ meters (fatigue, hunger, sickness, disease, injury, and depression) reaches 100%, it’s game over. The tutorial shows you how to manage these meters and shows you the basics of building up your base, assigning tasks to your party, and exploring the island. However, constant interruptions for long conversations between your party members bog it down and make the information it gives you harder to retain.
As for the dialogue itself, it’s the source of most of my frustrations with the game. Each of the four family members is a broad, uninteresting caricature. Eirik is the stoic father who blames himself for the family’s misfortune. Blodeuwedd is the equally stoic mother whose entire character revolves around her status as a mother and wife. Moira, Blodeuwedd’s sister, is a mischievous witch who is weirdly obsessed with her sister’s sex life. Kari is the rebellious daughter of Eirik and Blodeuwedd who would look more natural in Hot Topic clothing than a Viking’s garb. Watching these characters interact is insufferable, and when they do speak, it’s always with twice as many lines as they need. Their conversations are also packed with ellipses to indicate pauses and internal asides, each of which adds another full-screen card that you have to click through one by one. It’s honestly exhausting, but you likely won’t be tempted to read through any of them because the dialogue is terrible, packed with modern slang and repetitive jokes.
Even worse, these conversations are often just setups to make life harder for your family. While some conversations result in the bond between characters strengthening, the result is more often detrimental. Either characters have a wedge drawn between them, or they gain points in one of their status meters. That would be fine if you could draw a straight line from your actions to their consequences, but it’s usually unclear why your actions had any effect at all. Rather than trying to roleplay any of the characters, I had to calibrate my dialogue responses toward what seemed like the most innocuous thing I could possibly say. Even then, the character’s actual statement would sometimes take on a different shade of meaning than I had intended and hurt them anyway. A lot of times you’re not even given a choice in the matter. Characters will just carry on their own conversations, with no input whatsoever, and end up harming themselves or each other. In a game where you frequently occupy a razor-thin margin between life and death, these scenes could end your game with absolutely nothing you can do about it.
In some instances, you come across others on the island. Despite the game ostensibly taking place in Vinland (the Norse term for North America circa 1000 BCE), the island seems to be populated by more lost intercontinental travelers than aboriginal people. When you stumble upon another wanderer, you’re given a choice of which character to send as an envoy. In the first few encounters, I chose based on who I thought would make the most narrative sense: Send the mystic to deal with supernatural matters, and the patriarch to talk to a traveling priest. When their dialogue seemed a little canned, I reloaded to try the conversations with other characters, and saw the exact same words, just coming out of different mouths. I can’t say for sure that there are no unique encounters to find this way, but I was too disillusioned to put much thought into them ever again.
Of course, not all of your encounters will be friendly. If you choose to send a character exploring, you’ll sometimes run across other islanders fighting to survive, namely by killing you and stealing all your stuff. As in so many games, dealing with your problems using violence is more fun than using words. When Dead in Vinland’s turn-based combat kicks off, each side’s fighters line up in a melee row and a ranged row. These rows affect which attacks you can use, as well as which targets these attacks can hit, much like in Darkest Dungeon. Each character’s stats determine their turn order and give them a number of action points they can use to execute attacks. Oddly, your characters seem to be placed into these rows at the start of combat randomly, so you often use your first turn getting them where you want them. Changing rows only takes one action point, and some moves throw in a row shift for free, so you don’t have to completely waste your turn on positioning.
Combat was probably the most fun part for me, though it’s treated like a hazard to avoid while exploring and it eventually gets as tedious as the rest of the game. Classes have clear-cut roles in battle, and no one feels entirely useless, though some are naturally more powerful than others. Status effects are also emphasized in combat, enabling a lot more strategy than just picking the attack that does the most damage. Abilities are also pretty varied within individual characters, so I never felt like I was left with nothing to do in a turn. Although if you end your turn with unspent action points, you get one extra on the next round, which makes doing nothing sometimes the right choice. Winning a fight rewards you pretty handsomely, but it also leaves you open to taking lasting injuries. It strikes a good balance between risk and reward, and connects the combat to the survival sim in a way that games with multiple layers don’t always do.
If you’re a fan of survival sims and aren’t bothered by cringe-inducing dialogue, Dead in Vinland is worth a try. The settlement management was actually quite good, but it was so peppered with inconsistencies and agency-stealing sequences that I couldn’t get as invested in it as I wanted to. I found myself hoping for bandit attacks just to break up the monotony. What frustrates me most is that its biggest weaknesses could be ripped out entirely without affecting the underlying game at all. It went further than most survival sims to tell a story and flesh out its characters, which I respect, but nearly every step it took in those directions was faltering. I can’t care about characters just because I’m in control of their fate, nor can I take a story seriously when it constantly breaks its own tone. It’s not that Dead in Vinland is lacking in any major way, it’s just a good game buried under a mountain of little annoyances.
Masters of Anima is a strange beast. Part RTS, part action game, it casts you as a Shaper, molding raw life force (Anima) into the form of Guardians (creepy soulless puppets who kill at your command). In gameplay terms, that means you control your avatar from a top-down perspective while also summoning and giving orders to a battalion of the aforementioned murder puppets. It’s a compelling concept that feels great when it works, but it sometimes proves too much to handle.
After an animatic intro sequence narrated by Scottish Morgan Freeman, the game bombards you with its jargon-packed, emotionally shallow narrative. You’ll learn about Shapers, Anima, and Guardians, plus Builders, Golems, the Heartshield and Spark, and eventually Sunder Lords. Basically, a lot of extraneously capitalized nonsense that gives your character motivation. It doesn’t come into play much until the very end, until it’s hilariously thrust back at you in the game’s final minutes, as if you were interested in the mumbo jumbo that it treats as a revelation.
You’re also introduced to your character, Otto, and his fiancee, Ana, both of whom are well acted if not particularly interesting. Ana is set up to be a much more powerful Shaper than Otto (the Supreme Shaper, in fact), which doesn’t turn out to mean much because she’s immediately captured by Zahr, the game’s red-eyed, black-robed, villain caricature. Zahr “Sunders” Ana, separating her into three parts, thus establishing Masters of Anima’s extremely video gamey plot. It feels like the script was sent through a time machine from 1998, both in how contrived it is, and in how gross it is to turn a supposedly competent female character into a literal object (or three) for the male hero to collect. It’s also completely irrelevant to the player’s motivation, which is of course that commanding an army of killer homunculi sounds like fun.
There are a lot of mechanics at play in Masters of Anima, and the game does a decent job of introducing them without overloading you or holding your hand too much. Within the first level, you’ll learn how to summon, command, and destroy your first type of Guardian, and learn about the resources that doing so revolves around. Summoning troops uses Anima, which you find scattered around the environment, and destroying them returns that Anima to you. Not long into the game, you also learn how to summon a type of Guardian that leeches Anima from enemies, which becomes invaluable in battle.
You quickly learn the finer points of controlling Guardians, which is mostly selecting them and clicking on enemies that you want dead or objects you want fiddled with. Issuing commands is easy; the trouble comes, oddly enough, from selecting troops. When you scroll through your troops (using shoulder buttons or your mouse wheel), you automatically select all units of whatever type you highlight. Issue a command, and they all move at once, but they’re then deselected. The options menu lets you decide whether to automatically select the next unit type in your list or to stay with the current unit type, but you have to push another button to call these troops back to you before you can give them another command. It’s a small quirk, but it left me constantly unsure of which troops I had selected.
It’s also one quirk among many. A splash screen recommends using a game pad, but I found the keyboard and mouse much easier to use. With a game pad, you use a reticle that extends a short distance from Otto in the direction he’s facing to select individual units or small groups. From there you order them to move or attack. There’s no way to move the reticle aside from repositioning your character; an especially odd choice given that the right stick, which seems perfect for this, is instead only used to perform a dodge roll. This drastically slows down your ability to give orders, and turns your character into little more than a cursor chasing down your other troops and pivoting toward enemies to issue attack orders. With a keyboard and mouse, you use your mouse exactly as you would expect, clicking and dragging to select troops, then clicking enemies to attack. Later battles that involve moving subsets of units to engage new enemy waves or avoid area of effect attacks are a complete mess if you’re using a controller, but much more manageable with a mouse.
Positioning is the key to combat, which makes this precision crucial. Combat takes place within designated arenas throughout the level, which I found disappointing, but it works well enough once you get used to it. There are really no minor enemies in the game; each time you encounter a Golem, it’s a real battle. Golems have massive health bars, along with a special bar that constantly counts down. When it hits zero, your enemy gains stronger attacks and starts to unleash area of effect damage across the battlefield. Around the midpoint of the game, combat started to feel like a slog, and I was just tossing wave after wave of Guardians at the enemies. That “strategy” works a lot of the time, but once I took a step back and committed to playing to the Guardians’ different strengths; combat became a lot more fun.
You quickly add Guardians to your repertoire throughout the first few levels, ending up with five types. Protectors, your first allies, are your front-line soldiers, absorbing blows with their shields while bashing enemies with axes. Sentinels do lots of damage with their bows. Keepers drain Anima from enemies. Commanders boost nearby Guardians’ power. And Summoners create even smaller melee drones to send at the enemy. Each also has a special ability that you can activate by using Otto’s “Battlecry” at the cost of Anima. When you use this ability, it triggers a number of Guardians near Otto, which you can increase as you level up. For instance, Protectors stun nearby enemies, Keepers give you health instead of Anima for a short time, while Commanders relay your Battlecry, triggering nearby troops to activate their abilities in turn. Clustering your Guardians and picking the right time and place to activate your Battlecry becomes extremely important later in the game.
Bosses were generally showstoppers, calling on you to use your Guardians’ strengths to the fullest to guide your enemy’s attention while attacking objectives elsewhere or finding safe spots from which to rain down damage on them. One late-game boss in particular tests your coordination by unleashing devastating area of effect attacks while summoning resilient Golems, demanding that you pay attention to a dozen parts of the battle lest you lose your entire army in one swoop.
Unfortunately, your troops don’t always want to cooperate. Protectors, in particular, often seemed like lost lambs. Being melee fighters, they’re prone to getting tossed around, and can’t attack at range. I often found them standing motionless on some far-flung part of the battlefield waiting for me to tell them what to do next. It wasn’t uncommon to hit the recall button and eventually be swarmed by stragglers whom I’d apparently abandoned much earlier in the level.
When you’re not ordering hundreds of automatons to their deaths, you’ll use them to solve puzzles. I kind of hesitate to even call them that, as you’re mainly just using your Guardians to traverse the environment. You’ll have Protectors push blocks and Keepers create shields that protect you from environments that have been corrupted by Zahr’s nefarious and poorly developed scheme. Given the extremely low challenge that these obstacles present, I often found them to be little more than irritating ways to slow down progress.
Masters of Anima’s graphics and sound are nothing to get excited about, but they’re perfectly serviceable. The Guardian’s designs are varied and pretty interesting, and everything is rendered in a nice storybook style. I honestly can’t remember a single song from the game, but the voice acting lent the characters a lot of charm, despite them having about as depth as the cast of G.I. Joe.
All in all, Masters of Anima is built around the strength of one great idea that it executes with mixed success. At its best, when you’re deftly maneuvering your troops to avoid attacks, using Protectors to tie up melee attackers while bombarding high-damage foes from afar with Sentinels and Summoners, playing the game felt the way that I always wanted Diablo’s Necromancers to feel. It’s an uneven game that falters often, but it left me wanting more. It seems like a case where a more sure-footed sequel would take its excellent premise and turn it into something much more impressive than its middling first attempt.
When you hear the word “cyberpunk” do you think of glittering neon cityscapes speckled with flying cars and populated by sleek androids? If so, Shadowrun would like to have a word with you. Old-school cyberpunk was about people who have been stepped on or stamped out by corporate-controlled technology in the near future, and how they used that same technology to fight back. The Shadowrun setting, originally appearing in 1989 as a pen-and-paper RPG, has always been a unique beast, mixing even parts fantasy and sci-fi. While the image of an elf hacking a computer to steal from a dragon is too silly for some to stomach (William Gibson, whose novel Neuromancer inspired Shadowrun, famously despises the games), the series offers a compelling peek into a technobabble-drenched life of crime.
Harebrained Schemes released three Shadowrun games in the 2010s, and as far as I’m concerned, Shadowrun: Dragonfall is the best of them. Technically, we’re talking about Shadowrun: Dragonfall - Director’s Cut, which added a few new missions as well as an improved interface and other enhancements, but that’s just too much punctuation for one title. It’s also the only version of the game currently available.
Set in the anarchic “Flux State” of Berlin in 2054, it expanded on the somewhat threadbare Shadowrun Returns without succumbing to the bloat that sometimes plagues its successor, Shadowrun: Hong Kong, which is still an excellent game in its own right. After stumbling upon a terrifying secret, you end up on the hit list of a group that could potentially destroy all of Berlin. Your mission is to shut the group down before they can take you out, though you spend most of the game running side jobs to earn the cash for this massive undertaking.
Like the other entries in the series, Dragonfall is a turn-based strategy/RPG hybrid that mixes isometric grid-based combat with exploration and a huge amount of both character development and stat crunching. You play a custom character who takes control of their own squad of shadowrunners early in the game. Shadowrunners are essentially freelance criminals who are contracted for jobs as part of the neverending corporate wars that define the Shadowrun universe. In fitting with the game’s theme, you’re driven by the need for cash, not loyalty, and your employers have as much disdain for you as you do for them. When you go on missions, you can choose up to three companions either from your regular team who will grow alongside you, or from a pool of mercenaries if you’re afraid of commitment and also want to miss out on the best part of the game.
The biggest advantage that Dragonfall has over the rest of the franchise is its characters. Despite my borderline unhealthy crush on Hong Kong’s rat shaman, Gobbet, your regular crew in Dragonfall comprises some of my favorite video game characters ever. Off the top of my head, nothing else even comes close. When you’re not on a job, you’ll spend your time in the Kreuzbasar, a relatively safe and stable neighborhood full of colorful inhabitants. Almost no one feels generic. Everyone from quest givers to simple shopkeepers has a distinct personality, even if your interactions with them are purely commercial. I found myself holding personal grudges against characters who had wronged me, and feeling something akin to friendship to those who managed to show kindness in the face of Berlin’s oppressive squalor.
Of course, you’ll spend most of your time with your crew, which includes a disgraced commando (probably your least interesting teammate except as a foil to the others), a punk-singer-turned-shaman, and a young woman who’s replaced nearly every part of herself with machinery. They’ve all been chewed up and spat out by society in some way or another, either by supernatural forces, human supremacists, or the ruthless corporations that run the world. If Deus Ex’s Adam Jensen existed in the Shadowrun universe, he’d be just another prick standing between you and a paycheck. You can dive deep into your team members’ backstories as you play the game, provided you win their trust, and each not only fleshes out the game’s world and themes, but also stands as a fully realized person.
Winning the trust of your allies is by no means simple, though. You’ll need to prove that you’re worthy of respect, and the way to do that varies with each character. Choosing whether to suck up to someone, stand your ground, or simply leave them alone can have a profound impact on your relationship with your squad as well as the outcome of quests. It’s possible to lose access to entire plotlines and characters because of a careless word. Fortunately, Dragonfall’s conversation system is as good as any I’ve seen in a game. In some cases, you need to carefully read your conversation partner, sizing up their tone, their needs, their relative power, and how you can turn any of those things to your advantage. This might mean anything from flattering a potential employer for a job to threatening a janitor out of sounding an alarm. In other cases, your skills come into play.
Dragonfall has a complex skill progression system and is fairly stingy about doling out XP, or “karma.” You can invest these karma points in attributes (such as strength or charisma) or skills (such as close combat or summoning), but your level in any skill can never be higher than the attribute that governs it (so with five points strength, you could have a maximum of five in close combat, for instance). In addition, the cost to buy these increases by one each level. What all this means is that you need to invest your karma carefully. You’ll probably never max out more than one or two skills, and spreading yourself too thin will leave you woefully underpowered. It’s much better to go down a path you find interesting and roleplay around it.
The integration of these skills with conversation and exploration is one of the things that makes Dragonfall a masterpiece. Your karma investments will pay off in unexpected ways as you play. Maybe your knowledge of medicine will help you identify a dangerous substance or your aptitude as a spell caster will help you astrally track a target. Some skills will come into play far more often than others — decking, or hacking, will constantly get you out of jams — but the strict upgrade economy keeps you from gaming the system, which makes these successful skill checks feel all the more organic and satisfying. The right combination of skills and good dialogue choices can even get you through some missions without firing a single bullet.
Dragonfall shines just a bit less in combat. Victory relies heavily on strategic positioning, use of cover, and rationing your limited action points. While not quite as unforgiving as something like XCOM, the game has pretty low tolerance for mistakes, making planning and frequent use of support abilities a must. What’s more, you can often manipulate the environment to your advantage, particularly if you’re a decker or shaman. Admittedly, all of that sounds pretty thrilling, but it gets old by the game’s end. Despite the fact that you regularly receive new abilities to use in battle, the core gameplay remains the same. Using a different ability or weapon mostly just means doing more damage or hitting at a longer range, and like in XCOM your squadmates have the frustrating tendency to whiff repeatedly even when their attacks have a 90%+ chance of hitting. There’s nothing wrong with the combat, and it was good enough to hold my attention through the end; I just wish it had the dynamism and inventiveness that enliven every other part of the game.
It’s worth mentioning the Matrix, since it’s a major differentiator for the game, even though in practice it’s just a jankier version of combat. Well before Keanu Reeves stuck it to the Man and expressionlessly saved humanity from evil squid robots, the term “the Matrix” was used to describe a digital landscape. In Dragonfall you explore this space primarily to steal valuable corporate secrets, but sometimes to access locked doors or other bypass other security measures. This plays out on an alternate map with basically the same rules that govern combat in the real world as you fight representations of security programs protecting their data. The difference is that only one character can enter at a time, and only if they have a cyberdeck. Your available abilities are also much more limited, and since your chance to hit is calculated differently, you tend to be less accurate as well. It’s probably the biggest missed opportunity of the franchise, though experiencing it is almost entirely optional.
While some of Dragonfall’s mechanics may wear thin, its world never does. The Flux State is a fascinating setting, packed with interesting characters, political intrigue, and a keen sense of having been lived in and worn out. Evocative text passages precede level transitions that set the stage for what’s to come and fill out the world in a way that cutscenes would struggle to do. While the graphics are nothing mind-blowing, they’re certainly stylish, and the game’s solid art direction makes the world come alive, especially in the Kreuzbasar. The game’s sound carries far more than its own weight, lending life to mostly still backdrops with the clever use of crowd noise, rumbling subway trains, and the dull hum of sterile offices to sell environments. And though you’ll hear a lot of the same songs repeated throughout the game, they’re tonally perfect and never got old for me.
I constantly felt myself wanting to pull up a seat in the Kreuzbasar’s coffee shop or stop to peruse a street vendor’s drones. Dragonfall depicts a world completely under the heel of otherworldly monsters and capitalism run amok, but it’s still teeming with humor and humanity, from surprising encounters like meeting the self-made king of an abandoned laboratory to sharing a quiet moment of reflection with your team after a botched run. In Dragonfall, you’re always a job away from starving, a step ahead of those who want you dead, but its vision is so compelling, it gives this squalor its own kind of grandeur.