Category: Xbox One

Life is Strange

Life is Strange

The elevator pitch for Life is Strange is usually “a Telltale-style adventure game where you can rewind time to edit your choices,” but it’s far from a clone. The time travel mechanics are more multifaceted than that, for one thing, as they can be used to imitate premonition and teleportation, among other things. Its gameplay is also peppered with detective segments, its story is filled with potent symbolism, and its unique atmosphere often feels more like an out-of-body experience than a roleplay. The player is more of a companion than a puppeteer to the characters, but when those characters are so three-dimensional, their world so vividly realized, and its relevant subject matter handled so maturely, merely observing it all through a mildly fantastical lens is as engaging as it needs to be.

Befitting its stellar soundtrack, Life is Strange is like a punk or folk song in video game form – a lack of refinement is the price you pay for authenticity. For example, as devastatingly memorable as several sequences are, the amount of ambiguity and red herrings in the plot’s resolution is disappointing. Additionally, the “painted” art style flips between gorgeous and inadequate depending on the subject. Some of the flaws improve over time, however. Episode 1 – Chrysalis is especially bogged down with introduction, and the early episodes’ default gameplay pattern of “Incorrect action >> Rewind >> Correct action” is gradually replaced with more unorthodox puzzles. The voice acting also inadvertently improves too, since events become more dire in later episodes and the side characters become more…well, sidelined.

Devil May Cry 2 HD

Devil May Cry 2 HD

Devil May Cry fans and I have our differences of opinion, but they’re totally right about DMC2. This game is fascinatingly bad. Despite being nearly identical to its predecessor both mechanically and aesthetically, it still manages to be vastly inferior in literally every aspect. The camera and lock-on functions are delegated to an incompetent AI, while the shallower combat makes the controls feel more overcomplicated than ever. The enemies are so brainless and easily stunned, and your ranged weapons are so overpowered, that most skirmishes are resolved by simply mashing or holding the attack buttons until everything else is dead. The exceptions are a handful of boss fights which swing the difficulty to the other extreme with bizarrely unfair strategies. The only worthwhile gameplay contribution here is a dodge button; the new wall-running ability is so spectacularly useless that it doesn’t even count.

The two campaigns share 90% of their content, most of which is aimless, interchangeable levels full of arbitrarily respawning enemies. Playing through both is the only way to have the story make any kind of sense, although it doesn’t get very far in that regard. The plot plays out without any regard for internal logic or coherent structure – there’s no real beginning or ending, and the events of the first game apparently never happened. Dante’s one-off dour personality here is a rightful sore spot with fans, because it erases the unique juxtaposition of gloomy gothic atmosphere and ridiculous anime action, on top of being boring. The HD port fixes nothing, only adding some anti-aliasing and widescreen presentation to visuals that mostly held up anyway. At least the voice acting is so comically horrendous that it lands in “so bad it’s good” territory.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag

I can’t think of any developers I feel sorrier for than those of the Assassin’s Creed series. So much effort goes into their historical research, art direction, and level design, only for the big Ubisoft steamroller to come around and flatten it all into a watery paste. Fans often consider Black Flag to be the franchise’s last gasp of quality, and it’s hard to argue against a premise that’s essentially Red Dead Redemption meets The Wind Waker. But while the series’ dark age may have become overpowering with subsequent releases, it was still obviously on the rise in this installment. The new present-day framing device even comes across as a cry for help, being set in a Montreal-based game studio whose creative decisions are mandated by unseen corporate overlords.

Everything in Black Flag feels like it’s being torn apart by opposing forces. It should be both atmospheric and cinematic, but it can’t because the screen is so plastered with HUD elements.  The free-running feels amazing when it works, but there’s barely any skill to it. The combat is slightly better about the skill issue, but it also feels shallow and artificial beneath all its flair. The 18th- and 21st-century narrative threads complement each other nicely – the former is self-contained and follows a strong character arc, while the latter is an interesting continuation of the overall plot. Unfortunately, standard AC storytelling issues – arbitrary time skips, inconsistent progression, and an unsatisfying ending – still haunt the past segments, while the modern ones offer nothing to do but another timesink of asinine hacking minigames.

The expanded naval gameplay from AC3 is a well-advised focus this time. Ship combat is surprisingly deep and engaging, while harpooning and diving missions are novel additions. All of these things, along with all other things in this game, will become needlessly repetitive after only a few hours, however. I was actually astonished that there were no single-player microtransactions to be seen; the variety of grindy resource-accumulation tasks, particularly in the dreary fleet management minigame, seemed totally designed with them in mind. Bizarrely, ships are nowhere to be found in the game’s multiplayer, which is as clever a merger of stealth and deathmatch gameplay as ever, but is clearly just coasting on its predecessors’ foundations at this point.

Axiom Verge

Axiom Verge

Axiom Verge is the best type of game – one that uses a solid template as a jumping-off point for a host of crazy ideas. The template in this case is Metroid, and the crazy ideas include weaponizing in-universe glitches, phasing through walls, and exploring caves with a rifle-mounted drill. It should be an amazing nostalgic love letter, but seemingly everything that makes it awesome has a caveat attached to it. There are over a dozen weapons, but none of them are remotely balanced. The aesthetics are a nearly flawless NES recreation, but that means the environments are a pixelated jumble and the audio is unbearably screechy. The controls are excellent, except for the later movement abilities, which all handle terribly.

Much has been made of Thomas Happ’s one-man development effort, and with good reason: he clearly knows what makes this genre tick. Between the setting and the enemies, I haven’t seen a game world feel so completely alien since the last Metroid Prime. Between that and the meaty challenge (excepting some uneven boss fights), this 8-bit side-scroller can be uncommonly frightening. The one sector where Happ should definitely do some outsourcing is storytelling, however. After an intriguing first half, the plot abruptly implodes, with nonsensical twists involving every imaginable sci-fi cliché. It’s possible this was meant as another layer of homage, because it’s the kind of stream-of-consciousness schlock that informed 80s video games. In that case, mission accomplished, unfortunately.

Night in the Woods

Night in the Woods

I want to like Night in the Woods a lot more than I do. It’s basically Persona with all the anime sucked out, which should be the bee’s knees. Its story and characters are exceptionally well-written and memorable, not to mention unexpectedly topical (cosmic horror elements notwithstanding). It’s frequently hilarious, but it also understands when to get serious in order to grab our attention or make a point. It’s got a unique atmosphere that sways between pleasantly familiar, wistfully reminiscent, and decidedly creepy. Even its aimless, minimal gameplay avoids the trap of feeling token and instead reinforces the slice-of-life tone.

The problem is how inaccessible a lot of this quality is. Navigating the setting feels like a chore in every sense of the word. Slow player movement and inconvenient level design provide an inherently boring baseline, and an incredibly arbitrary distinction between foreground and background sprinkle a touch of frustration on top. Most problematically, the game’s system of missable daily character events demands the development of rigorous travel patterns, turning most of the experience into a veiled checklist. There’s definitely something special to Night in the Woods, but it’s going to make you work to appreciate it.

Salt and Sanctuary

Salt and Sanctuary

I’m constantly searching for a Souls-like that isn’t designed by assholes, where all the mechanics are effectively tutorialized, the checkpoints are distributed humanely, and all hints of artificial difficulty have been exorcized out. Such a game would be practically perfect. Salt and Sanctuary is not that game. In fact, had I realized how closely it mimics its inspiration, including every unintuitive detail of its interface, I probably wouldn’t have bought it. Which is not to say that it’s terrible. Part of copying Dark Souls is copying the things it does right, so S&S is still intensely atmospheric, impressively deep, and skilled at environmental storytelling. There’s just not much reason to play it unless your major issue with Dark Souls was its number of dimensions.

Anything that doesn’t owe its existence to From Software is an undisciplined jumble of quality. Switching to a wholehearted Metroidvania was appreciated, but the continued omission of a map in such a case is inexcusable. Wall-jumping and the ability to reveal/disperse certain matter via torchlight are cool features, but the controls are still emulating the clunky movement of armoured 3D characters. I’d love to welcome the full co-op gameplay with open arms, but it’s clearly a late addition, as it’s noticeably unbalanced and often bizarrely implemented. Finally, that brutal, smoky art style is terrible for navigation and populated by characters that comically look and animate like Salad Fingers.

Guacamelee! 2

Guacamelee! 2

A constant sense of déjà vu and a massive spike in annoying chicken noises slightly detract from this otherwise excellent sequel. Everything about the original Guacamelee! has been maintained here, including its quality. There’s the same tightly constructed Metroidvania level design, the same frenetic beat ‘em up combat, the same absolutely perfect controls, the same sassy humour, and the same weirdly serious story that doesn’t really mesh with everything else. There are a few fluctuations – the striking but messy background art is even messier now, while the co-op has been improved with regards to polarity-switching. Overall though, everything you need to know about Guacamelee! 2 is in its title, and that’s no insult.

NieR: Automata

NieR: Automata

“What’s the difference between a human and a machine? Is it worth living an existence without any inherent meaning? These are the questions I ask as I roam the ruins of civilization, a soldier in an eternal war. Anyway, here are my panties.”

That’s the NieR: Automata narrative experience in a nutshell. Iconic character design is admirable, but it’s disappointing that a game with a story so layered, symbolic, and fervently diegetic as this would stoop to such distracting fanservice. I feel the need to mention this because it feels so beneath the rest of the game, which, while noticeably imperfect, is so batshit insane that it’s absolutely worth playing anyway.

It’s telling that Platinum Games’ signature hyperactive beat ‘em up gameplay feels relatively tame here. Yeah, you’re doing acrobatic dodge moves and swinging around weapons taller than yourself, but you also hack robots via bullet hell shooter, battle newborn humanoid hiveminds, and self-destruct by removing your own OS chips. There are tons of ideas here, so not all of them are fully realized – particularly the open world, which is too appropriately lifeless for its own good. It needs a middle ground between difficulty settings, and the controls are pretty convoluted, but the combat comes with satisfying depth, and the soundtrack is spectacular. The bottom line is that you may be annoyed by NieR: Automata, but you’ll never be bored.