Dive bombing an unsuspecting sniper with the melee-focused Interceptor Javelin (the name Anthem gives its exosuits), eliminating an entire wave of enemies with a succession of the Storm’s tempestuous energy abilities, tearing through the sky, the jungle sun gleaming off of the Javelin’s exterior, there are many moments when Anthem literally shines. These moments provide glimmers of hope, brief glimpses into a potentially bright future for developer BioWare’s cooperative, mech-fueled, looter shooter. Unfortunately, any brilliance Anthem displays is too frequently eclipsed by a poor game state at launch rife with repetition, dismal design decisions, a grating grind, punishing pacing, and a lackluster narrative, the antithesis to the game’s gorgeous graphics and generally great gameplay.
Relics of the Past
Narratively, Anthem is a fairly familiar sci-fi affair involving a mysteriously absent forerunner species capable of shaping the planet, powerful relics they left behind, and the different factions attempting to control or contain said relics. That could be a description of Halo. Where Anthem manages some distinction is the “cataclysms” resulting from these unchecked relics, which take the shape of monster spawning portals and, perhaps in an environmentalist turn, devastating storms. To combat these cataclysms and contain these relics, humanity devised the Javelins. Now humanity’s last hope is in a small faction of Javelin pilots, the Freelancers.
The rest of the narrative could be read as a metaphor for the game itself. Previously revered as heroes, the Freelancers (BioWare) have fallen out of favor with the public (gamers) after failing to live up to their reputation and some costly mistakes (Mass Effect Andromeda). Unable to prevent a hostile faction known as the Dominion (EA) from activating a relic hidden beneath the heart of Javelin operations has resulted in the worst cataclysm humanity has ever seen, the Heart of Rage (gamer rage). Failing to stop the Heart of Rage once (Anthem‘s launch), could the key lie in the past (a lot of updates and patches)? Pepper in some nonsense sci-fi jargon giving purpose to the player for doing the same thing over and over and over again and, bam, you’ve got your AAA, live game, sci-fi shooter recipe!
“Slow Alone. Stronger Together.”
The world of Anthem is littered with quite a few intriguing characters for the player to interact with back at Fort Tarsis, the game’s central hub, that help push the narrative along. Well acted and captured, these characters provide a spark of life to the game’s first-person sections and give the otherworldly plot some heart and history. In these sequences, players are given fully voice acted dialogue options, that, while having no perceivable impact on the narrative, keep these sections interactive instead of just one-sided conversations. That’s not to say that some of these dialogues aren’t vexing NPCs dumping nonsense sci-fi exposition onto unwilling players’ heads in the name of plot development, but in the best instances I was eager to make a good impression with the more relatable characters I had taken to. What I didn’t take to was having to slowly jog through the poorly mapped Tarsis to get from one monologue to the next, especially if it ended in more generic sci-fi babble over meaningful character interaction. That slow jog can’t be understated, resulting in tedious strolls through a notably single player space in cooperative game. It does explain the game’s slogan:
Strong Slow Alone. Stronger Together.
Moments like these accentuate issues with Anthem‘s pacing. Tearing through the campaign as the most agile Javelin, the Interceptor, most campaign missions take no more than fifteen minutes. This is immediately followed by a mandatory trip to Tarsis to adjust my Javelin and the tedious task of walking to dialogue sequences to progress the story and or collect new quests, not to mention the loading periods loading in and out of the hub, resulting in five to ten minute periods away from the game’s main draw, the cooperative action. If played simultaneously with friends, these waits between missions can be even longer as each player modifies their loadout and pushes through the dialogue delivered context for the next mission. I’ve critiqued Destiny in the past for its over-reliance on exposition dumps when flying in to the next story mission, but I’d take that over a required trip to Tarsis any day, especially since players can multitask and mess with their loadout while loading in Destiny. Anthem, on the other hand, requires players to have access to the Forge back at the Fort or in the mission pre-launch menu to swap weapons and gear. That’s sure to spell out frustration in any loot oriented game, especially when early gameplay trailers boasted gear swapping on the go.
Like a Dream
Luckily, combat and general gameplay is the antithesis of Fort Tar-slow. Flight controls in Anthem are tight and responsive, and each Javelin “handles like a dream.” Players can leap into flight at will, dive enemy troops on the ground, roll out of harm’s way, and hover above the field for an aerial advantage, all while an overheating mechanic ensures players are conscious while in flight and can’t over-utilize these techniques in a fight. Paired with the equally fast and fluid combat makes for some furiously frantic fun. Leveraging maneuverability to skate around an incoming attack or to deftly flank an enemy tank before letting loose with slur of shotgun shells or machine pistol munitions is extremely gratifying. Different guns pair better with different Javelins, courtesy of each Javlins unique strengths, adding depth and distinction when playing with a diverse team setup. The lightning-quick Interceptor, for example, can make excellent use of close range arms that pair with its range of melee attacks, while the Colossus benefits from hunkering down and shooting at a greater range. Even more distinct and satisfying to use are the series of abilities unique to each Javelin that punctuate Anthem‘s gameplay.
Each Javelin provides a great deal variety and perfectly encapsulates a core concept with its inherent and unlockable abilities. The Storm has a wide range of elemental and area-of-effect attacks ideal for slaying slews of enemies and hovers above the battlefield with a personal shield. The Colossus is a heavy hitting tank type with a range of multi-target attacks. The Ranger is an all range Javelin with a levy of grenade and rocket type attacks. The Interceptor is an agility based, melee monster with an assortment of throwing glaives and dashes to accentuate this style of play. So satisfying are these abilities, in fact, that I frequently go through missions without firing a single shot, opting to instead dice my enemies to death with the Interceptor itself. Not all abilities are created equal, however, and it is disappointing to be stuck with a weak or slow one for an entire mission or to have your best ability by a wide margin be one you don’t like. At least in the first scenario, you know for certain that a trip to Tarsis is only around the corner. Gameplay can also get a little stale once all of the abilities have been experienced since Anthem reserves most of its engaging gear and activities until after the twenty-or-so-hour campaign.
Combat tends to be engaging to the point that I generally don’t mind how repetitive the mission structure tends to be, however, it doesn’t take long to recognize how similarly every level is set up. Fly here, clear some ads, follow the radar to a specific point, hold to investigate, fly there, clear ads, protect a circle, done. Thankfully, again, flight and combat are really fun, but it’s a shame that most variety comes late in the game, similar to loot.
Shoot. Loot. Repeat.
Speaking of, perhaps the largest concerns with Anthem center on the loot drops. While most flags raised have been regarding the endgame loot grind where this is more critical, from the outset Anthem‘s loot seems antagonistically. Early on it just doesn’t matter since early gear drops so much more commonly. All the same, in most looter shooters I’ve experienced, almost all gear dropped through the campaign is at or above the players Gear Score, or Light Level, or whatever you want to call it, to help them climb through the early ranks. It’s typically not until the endgame grind that more powerful gear drops exclusively from endgame activities. In Anthem, however, it seemed like roughly half of all gear gained was worse than my current gear making the climb early on, again when it doesn’t matter, much slower and RNG based than necessary. This issue is only compounded when operating at higher levels.
For an investment cycle to work in a live game, players need to feel they’re earning tangible rewards for the time and effort invested. Anthem‘s constant struggle has been striking the proper balance, and in its current state, the rewards simply do not match the difficulty and time investment. There’s also a severe lack of endgame content to keep players invested longterm, limited primarily to three Strongholds, dungeon-like missions culminating in a large, unique boss fight. While Strongholds do propose an engaging challenge, that’s still pretty on content, though, as a live game, there is, of course, a roadmap charting the course for more content to come.
Finally, it’s also worth mentioning that all cosmetics are exclusive to Anthem‘s in-game store thus far, so while players are free to extensively color their Javelins, players won’t be grinding for cool armor which denotes their in-game achievements to other players any time soon. In a third person game filled with rad exosuits, this was a horrible decision as it means one less incentive to chase.
For all of its issues, I still find Anthem incredibly fun and am inclined to return again and again. Viewed as the game as a service that it’s been billed as, its difficult not to notice issues with the engame, the loot grind, and some of the missing investment opportunities on top of Anthem‘s struggle with pacing and repetition. Viewed as a momentary diversion and Anthem looks far more inviting. Exceptional in-game maneuverability, enthralling arena combat, thrilling Javelin abilities, with plenty of diversity in the form of new weapons and especially different Javelins each with their own unique abilities make Anthem distinct and worth experiencing. Viewed in that light, it is exciting that even if not fully invested, Anthem can be returned to later and it will hopefully be improved and have more to experience. In the end, Anthem might not be quite ready yet, but it has potential, like an inert Javelin waiting to take flight.
‘Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ Review: Raising the New Generation to a High Standard
Fire Emblem: Three Houses marks a triumphant return to home console that puts in the effort to pull the player into its world.
There are few comeback stories in the gaming industry as impressive as that of the Fire Emblem series. After very nearly going cold the grid-based, SRPG was single-handedly saved by 2013’s Fire Emblem Awakening and has since gone on to prosper as one of Nintendo’s most well-recognized IP’s. Now, after more than a decade, the storied franchise makes its return to home consoles with Fire Emblem: Three Houses, an entry that takes bold steps forward in promoting it above and beyond anything the series has seen to date.
Three Houses, Three Countries, One Path
Fire Emblem: Three Houses takes place on the continent of Fodlan and consists of three major countries. At the center of the three territories is the Garreg Mach Monastery which simultaneously houses the Military Officer’s Academy as well as The Church of Seiros, the land’s primary religion. The game picks up with your self-named protagonist being appointed a professor at the Monastery after protecting some of its students from a bandit attack. At the same time, an enigmatic young girl named Sothis begins appearing in your dreams who alludes to ominous events to come.
The gameplay of Fire Emblem: Three Houses can be split into two categories — The traditional turn-based grid combat familiar from past titles and the teaching and guidance of students at the monastery. Teaching and school life are brand new to the franchise and are the foundation on which the entire game is built upon.
In the early goings of the game, you are asked to choose between the three classes, or houses, to instruct and guide in your time as a professor. These three houses — The Black Eagles, The Blue Lions, and The Golden Deer — each correspond to one of the three countries of Fodlan and consists of students from those territories. Your selection of which house to lead will have ramifications that permeate practically every aspect of the game including the story, units available in combat, and interactions within the school; this lends the decision a weight that goes beyond choosing who has the prettiest faces.
The school year is divided into months with school activities taking up the bulk of the time that culminates with an assigned battle at the end. As a professor, you are tasked with teaching your students the art of war and this is accomplished primarily in the classroom.
Each week begins with establishing a lesson plan for your class. You can work with students one-on-one to develop specific skills of various weapon types, assign them to group tasks to forge bonds and other proficiencies, and help them establish goals that they will work towards on their own time. Doing so allows them to equip better weapons and, most importantly, acquire new class types through certification exams.
Small events such as students asking questions on subject matter or seeking advice on their goal paths are evocative or actually being a teacher. It’s easy to grow attached to your students as you guide them from a lowly Commoner class to something as grand as a War Master over the course of the game. While Three Houses does a good job of easing the player into these intricacies, there is an Auto-Instruct option available as well for those who find it daunting or don’t care for perfect optimization.
The end of each week features a free day that can be spent in one of three different ways. You can host a seminar with another faculty member that provides a large amount of skill experience or embark on battles for quest rewards and character-specific paralogues that help flesh out their backstories. The option to explore the monastery, however, is the most interesting and involved of the three as it gives you free rein to roam about the campus in a fully 3D environment.
All In a Day’s Work
Garreg Mach Monastery is sprawling, with numerous buildings explore, courtyards to walk through, and facilities to take advantage of. While the graphics of Three Houses aren’t necessarily something to write home about from a technical perspective — there are even moments of noticeable slowdown in particularly populated areas — the vibrant art style and eye-catching medieval architecture give the monastery a beauty that makes it a pleasure to wonder about it. Small details such as pegasus knights flying in the sky and messenger owls flitting about between buildings breath life into the campus and lend credence that this is an academy in a fantasy world.
There are a plethora of activities to do while roaming the premises and Three Houses does an admirable job of easing you into each of them. Tasks such as gardening various crops and fishing for the biggest catch not only provide valuable resources but also go towards increasing your professor level which increases your maximum Activity Points you can spend in a day.
Meanwhile, sharing meals with students in the dining hall, inviting them out to tea parties, and returning lost items all serve to build bonds between pupils and increase their motivation for further studies. Interacting with them in such ways or even just talking to them on the school grounds also offers insight into their thoughts and feelings on current events in the world, which goes a long way towards developing their character in addition to Fire Emblem’s long-established support conversations.
As characters spend time together in the monastery and fight together on the battlefield their support levels will rise, granting various bonuses in battle such as increased hit rate and evasion. These supports are accompanied by conversations that flesh out each character’s personality and provide valuable backstories not found in the main story.
In typical Fire Emblem fashion, the cast of Three Houses is unique and distinct with multiple layers of complexity over initial arch-typical natures. Peeling back these layers over the course of the game serves as some of the most satisfying intrinsic rewards it has to offer, with macho, good guy Raphael and self-doubting Marianne being particular standouts in my play session. This is accentuated even more since every single line of dialogue, no matter how minor, is fully voiced, a rarity for JRPG’s. The English acting ranges from good to exceptional, but the Japanese voices are also available for those who prefer it.
It’s a shame the same level of polish can’t be said about the main story, however. The plot is rather straightforward and doesn’t do much to push the boundaries of expectations outside a mix-up here and there. Many scene transitions are nonexistent and jarring and the stilted movements of CG scenes reserved for important moments detract more than they add. That said, the stellar character and world-building that take place within the monastery more than makeup for the lukewarm story-telling and give ample reason to become invested. Not to mention the curiosity of seeing the story from the other houses’ perspectives encourages subsequent playthroughs.
Bonding and interacting with students outside of your class is worthwhile as well as it’s possible to recruit them into your own house. Convincing a student to join your class takes a large amount of effort over a long course of time, making the moment they finally give the “Ok” feel much more earned than recruitment has in past Fire Emblems. This not only gives you another unit to use on the battlefield but also avoids potentially seeing them as an enemy down the line when things aren’t quite so peaceful in Fodlan anymore.
It’s easy to fall into a routine when going about the monastery in Three Houses. The constant loop of every action taken feeding into accomplishing another is positively addicting. It encourages you to make the most out of each day while also emphasizing the steady march of time. For a game that places such importance on the passage of time, however, it is slightly off-putting how the seasons in the monastery never change from its default bright, sunny day, especially with talk of snow and colder weather abound in later months.
All time spent at school is ultimately in preparation for combat, though, and Three Houses presents some of the finest and most refined form of it the Fire Emblem series has ever seen.
Applying Theory to Practice
The fundamentals of combat in Fire Emblem: Three Houses are the same as all of its predecessors but numerous additions and changes cast it in a whole new light. Encounters take place on grid-based maps and you move each individual character to attack enemies, assist allies, and position them for counter-attacks, among other things. Once all of your units have moved the enemy gets their turn to retaliate and the process repeats.
Before initiating combat a combat forecast appears that tells you the damage each side will inflict, the chance of landing that attack, and the chance of dealing a triple damage critical hit. Utilizing this forecast to calculate risk vs reward of various engagements becomes routine as deaths of characters are permanent when playing in Classic mode, although Casual mode makes its return that brings back lost units after the mission as well. The fight then plays out automatically with characters fluidly moving in unique and organic ways depending on how the battle plays out. While you have no control during these segments, there’s something viscerally satisfying about seeing someone like burly Raphael deftly dodge an attack and roundhouse kick the enemy to the face in retaliation.
The weapon triangle — a series mainstay that gave rock-paper-scissors qualities to weapon types — has been done away with in Three Houses, requiring players to think beyond simply matching enemies with their direct counters. In its place come Combat Arts, a system that’s been taken from 2017’s Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. These special skills are obtained by gaining proficiency in weapon types through teaching sessions and combat and grant each character different ways to approach combat.
The set of Combat Arts learned are unique to each character. For example, Claude and Bernadetta are both proficient with bows but only the latter learns the far-reaching snipe art “Deadeye,” while only the former learns the blessed imbued “Monster Blast”. This applies to magic as well, with every character learning a different set of spells as they grow more proficient. While there is some overlap in spells and arts learned between characters, they nonetheless make them feel more distinct from one another as opposed to simply using the ones with the best stats, minimizing the problem previous entries have of “dead weight characters”.
Another wrinkle to combat is the addition of battalions and Gambits. Battalions are a unit of generic soldiers that can be assigned to each character to confer various stat bonuses. Each battalion grants the use of their special Gambit, powerful abilities that typically hit multiple enemies in an area, thus weakening their stats and preventing movement for a turn. Support type gambits exist as well, such as letting allies sustain a lethal hit once or making it so they take and deal only one damage for a turn. Not only do Gambits open up new strategic possibilities by introducing a form of crowd control to the series, but they are also pivotal in taking down Three Houses’ new enemy type: Monsters.
Monsters have been in Fire Emblem games before, but never in this form. Monsters are gargantuan beasts that take up four squares on the grid, sometimes more. They have multiple health bars to drain, devastating area sweeping attacks, and barriers that diminish damage taken and prevent critical hits. The key to slaying these beasts is to utilize battalion Gambits to attack multiple parts of the monsters at once and systematically whittle down their barriers.
Unlike regular enemy and boss types that can usually be taken down by one reasonably powerful unit, monsters require the brunt of your military force to slay. Contending with both monsters and regular enemies as they barrel towards your army provides for some of the tensest moments in the game that then result in blissful satisfaction for overcoming them; all the more emphasized by Three Houses’ phenomenal soundtrack that amplifies feelings of triumph to remarkable heights.
Map designs, on the other hand, leave something to be desired as many take place in large, open areas where strategy ultimately boils down to careful positioning of units on defensive tiles. Even maps with branching paths feel like little more than an excuse to give your units an opportunity to equally distribute experience gained from combat. The lack of gimmicks and terrain variety leads to missions sometimes blending together, a problem exacerbated by the fact that nearly every victory objective is either “Route the enemy” or “Defeat the commander.” It’s never so dull as to become mind-numbing, but having more variety in the 60-80 hour long campaign would go a long way towards solidifying what is otherwise an incredibly tight combat experience.
Lessons Learned, Experience Showing
Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a grand culmination that takes a deep, introspective look into what makes the series so great and evolving it in meaningful and impactful ways.
The monastery and professor role not only fit right at home in such a character-driven game but also breath fresh life into the school setting that has long been regarded as “the graveyard of creativity.” The main story may not be the most engrossing but never has it been easier to grow intimately attached to such a large and varied cast of characters. Those attachments manifest in battles as a drive to persevere and the various tools the game gives you, old and new, give the power to do so. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is no doubt, the triumphant return to home consoles that fans have been waiting over a decade for and a sterling lesson that for a game series, class is always in session.
‘Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order’ Is Endearingly Archaic
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order does not feel like a 2019 game; it’s not “always online,” it isn’t “e-sport ready,” and there’s a noticeable (and welcome) absence of micro transactions (it also looks nothing like the much-hyped Crystal Dynamics-developed The Avengers game, recently debuted at E3). In fact, much of the Team Ninja-developed, Nintendo-published Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 feels like a throwback to the previous generation of gaming: it’s grind-y, repetitive, and rather simplistic in the RPG elements integrated into the core mechanics. And yet, it’s some of the most fun I’ve had playing a game this year — a wildly entertaining action game with some serious replayability.
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is a deeply imperfect game, but it also has its heart in exactly the right place, bound to satisfy fans of Marvel films, Marvel comic books, and the Ultimate Alliance community alike.
Ultimate Alliance 3 exists in a strange space; it’s not a sequel of the previous two titles in the series (it’s not even set in the same universe), nor is it aligned with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For better or worse, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order lives in its own strange little alternate universe, albeit one where Thanos and The Black Order are still trying to assemble the Infinity Stones for cosmically destructive purposes. As one might assume, the game follows its 36 playable heroes as they hunt down the six Infinity Stones across the galaxy.
The beats of the plot are stunningly obvious to anyone who has read a comic book or seen an MCU film in the past decade, but I’m here to report that Ultimate Alliance 3 has absolutely nothing to say about those stories, nor does it offer a new take or angle on the now-familiar material. Beat-to-beat, Ultimate Alliance 3‘s story is abundantly forgettable, a series of silly scenes constructed for one purpose: to get to the part where everyone uses their super powers and everything turns into an absolute mess of particle effects, attack animations, and beautiful chaos. (Or, in the case of the incredibly brief, embarrassingly boring chapter on the Inhumans, utterly pointless.)
“Chaos” is the best descriptor for the core gameplay loop: like its predecessors, Ultimate Alliance 3 sees players controlling a four-person squad, with the ability to shift between characters at the tap of a button (in single-player mode, Ultimate Alliance 3 also supports up to four players in any offline or online mode). Each character has heavy/light basic attacks and four special abilities, the latter of which can be combined in various ways with another teammate’s abilities (called “synergy” attacks) to combat massive waves of AI enemies and bosses.
There is also a third meter that builds up in order for all four characters to trigger a special ability at the same time. Although it is absolute visual nonsense (an often-incomprehensible mess of animations and effects, despite a rather consistent frame rate), these super abilities are strategic elements in dealing massive damage at key points during combat. (Plus, they look cool.)
Ultimate Alliance 3‘s core mechanics are rather simplistic and familiar: each super hero can be leveled to 100, raising the stats of their abilities, and can apply up to four stat-modifying ISO-8 crystals. Anyone whose played an action-RPG knows the deal here: it’s like Diablo III without grinding for equipment — or for the real fans, like a simplified version of the now-defunct MMO Marvel Heroes. It’s all about progress, leveling up characters to make them more powerful, completing missions, and taking on challenges to unlock ability points on the game’s massive, hexagonal upgrade tree.
However simplistic its mechanics are, it’s still undeniably satisfying; triggering massive, particle-effect-laden synergy attacks never gets old, even after more than 40 hours spent playing through the story (and its four unlocking difficulty levels), as well as the game’s Infinity Trials, a separate challenge mode which unlocks special characters and alternate costume for completing variety of different objectives. Ultimate Alliance 3 just feels good to play — even despite its occasional problems with camera (especially in local multiplayer mode), and the rather repetitive loop of “kill faceless bad guys in room, leave room, kill more bad guys, kill boss, repeat.”
It would be easy to write off Ultimate Alliance 3 as “not enough of a good thing.” Lazy environmental design, uninspiring graphics, and repetitive combat loops are blatantly obvious shortcomings, bound to underwhelm players upon first impression. But give it time; eventually, Ultimate Alliance 3 reveals the true frenzy in its heart, and becomes a very challenging (and surprisingly punishing) game. At its higher difficulties, this is not an easy experience, which oddly transforms it from a game of persistent progress into one of measured experimentation and demanding execution.
Ultimate Alliance 3, often to its detriment, doesn’t really engage players with the depth of its combat system. There isn’t a list of synergies to be found in the game, though that might encourage players to experiment with different combinations of characters and abilities, as there’s a bonus system attached to squad construction, where certain combinations of two, three, or four heroes will buff specific traits on all included heroes.
It also doesn’t foreground the strategies that later bosses and trials will require; at high levels, Ultimate Alliance is about efficiency, position, and discipline — about using one’s abilities and team-specific strengths to contain the chaotic challenges Team Ninja’s constructed. After a dry first 3-5 hours, Ultimate Alliance 3 really begins to blossom, each challenge and boss fight becoming a puzzle of team construction, battle strategy, and timing. It takes a bit to get there, but once it unearths its true nature, it transforms into a completely different, much more replayable game.
That game is based on experimentation and repetition; for those who like their semi-isometric action RPG’s to have some bite, Ultimate Alliance 3 has you covered. The upgrade/refinement ISO-8 system (akin to the Diablo III gem system) alone offers dozens of hours of replay for fine-tuning a team’s stats to optimize runs through the game’s dozens of story chapters and Infinity Trials, the latter of which often come with specific level stipulations and requirements to complete (including both a three-star rating and S+ rank grading system for the real perfectionists).
Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order isn’t finished yet, either. There are plans to offer both free and paid updates for the near future, in the form of monthly updates and a $20 season pass (for 3 paid DLC character & expansion packs). Cyclops and Colossous are already scheduled to join the roster in a free update on August 30th, and a number of other heroes have already been named, including Moon Knight, Blade, and Punisher (in September 30th’s Marvel Knights: Curse of the Vampire DLC), the Fantastic Four, and others.
The opportunities really are endless; Ultimate Alliance 3 has the benefit of an incredibly strong foundation, which opens the door for so much ingenuity to be added as the game continues to grow. Adding more characters, chapters, and modes in the future will only further the insane replay value this game offers — especially if the competent-if-bare-bones multiplayer experience is expanded on in any way.
A little ugly, a little short, a little simplistic, a little unwieldy with its menus and uneven story… Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is a deeply imperfect game, but it also has its heart in exactly the right place — a game that’s bound to satisfy fans of Marvel films, Marvel comic books, and the Ultimate Alliance community alike. It’s a very thin thread to try and weave, but Team Ninja and Nintendo have done it, offering a deep roster of playable characters (Elsa Bloodstone or Crystal, anyone?) and some seriously well-refined gameplay systems, bound to last the most dedicated fans hundreds of hours of gameplay.
‘Super Mario Maker 2’ Review: Made With Love
Does Super Mario Maker 2 surpass its predecessor, or is a change in console making for flawed construction?
In 2015, the Wii U’s Super Mario Maker made waves as the gold standard for commercial level creators. It offered quick and capable tools for realising two-dimensional Mario fantasies, backed by accessible controls and a thriving community of creators. Four years later Nintendo have followed up on this recipe for success with Super Mario Maker 2. With a toolbox more jam-packed than ever before, and a full-blown story mode, does this Switch heavy hitter surpass its predecessor, or is a change in console making for flawed construction?
Let’s get creative
Super Mario Maker 2 mimics its predecessor’s blueprint, from the interface (bar a few tweaks) to the Coursebot. Players can get busy flexing their making muscles right away though (no more waiting for things to unlock), with bundles of new cool bits to boot. Most notable is night variations for all course themes, lifting the total from a measly six to a whopping twenty (including four brand new course themes in Desert, Snow, Forest, and Sky).
The Super Mario 3D World game style brings a splash of freshness, but the catch: it exists in a realm removed from other game styles, as switching to and from Super Mario 3D World’s game style results in courses resetting. Co-op is a pleasant addition too, although creating courses together on one screen is a tad clunky.
Despite stepping away from the Wii U’s ingenious gamepad/touchscreen controls, Super Mario Maker 2 retains its accessibility and intuitive handling whether in docked or handheld. The learning curve is minor, especially for those acquainted with the original. And of course, the quirky music of said original is back in action, entertainingly soundtracking the countless hours players will invest making their masterpieces.
But the star of the show is Super Mario Maker 2’s Course World, granting players an online hub to play and share courses. It’s built on its predecessor with souped-up search features and tagging, so searching course and maker IDs, alongside course properties, is a breeze. Also, nailing a world record on someone’s course is exhilarating, try it.
New to Super Mario Maker 2 is its story mode. Peach’s Castle has been obliterated (or rather, reset by the Undo Dog), and it’s up to Mario and co. to rebuild it. Cue a reason to dive into a spattering of Nintendo made courses that serve to both inspire players’ ideas and serve up a slice of platforming fun to boot.
Despite Super Mario Maker 2’s blatant improvements over its already awesome predecessor, some gripes remain. As versatile as Mario’s toolset is, I forever found myself running into limitations (some totally nonsensical), including:
- Vertical stages (a quality addition) aren’t available outside sub-areas.
- Custom scroll (yet another quality addition) isn’t available in sub-areas.
- Having Mario ride ascending platforms in vertical stages (like an elevator) fixes the camera to the centre of the screen rather than the bottom (giving a poor view of what’s above Mario). This can be alleviated via autoscroll, but it’s a finicky endeavour that should’ve been streamlined.
- Clear conditions (yet again another quality addition) still demand Mario grabs the flagpole. Tough luck if players want their course to conclude climatically as the finishing blow is dealt to Bowser.
- Enemy stacking is prevented in the Super Mario 3D World game style (why?).
- There’s no means to select music independent to a game style and course theme.
- Amiibo functionality is out the window, so don’t expect Super Mario Maker’s bizarre character transformations.
- Oh, and the Koopalings are absent. Come on Nintendo, such a breadth of bosses would be a creator’s dream.
Super Mario Maker 2 delivers so much, but still plonks a ceiling over players’ imaginations. Perhaps these limitations will be addressed with DLC, but for now, this anticipated sequel falls Shy Guy of its potential. But negatives aside, the hyper additivity of everything on display, and a host of welcome additions to its base formula, result in Super Mario Maker 2 raising the commercial level creator bar once again. Grab a Nintendo Online Membership, get making and playing, and watch the time fly by.
‘Far Cry: New Dawn’: A Post-Apocalyptic American Dream
Ever since the Far Cry series really hit its mainstream stride with 2012’s third installment of the franchise, it has been hard to imagine the FPS landscape without its titanic presence looming large over the entire genre. With their mix of finely-honed mechanics, breathtaking landscapes, subtle social commentary, and some of the most noteworthy villains in gaming history, the Far Cry games have set the tone and direction of open-world shooter game design for much of the last decade. New Dawn certainly looks to be on trend, as it joins the likes of Rage 2, The Division 2, and Days Gone in painting an entirely new picture of the post-apocalypse; one that I will be examining more closely in an upcoming article.
In the same vein as Blood Dragon and Primal before it, Far Cry New Dawn is the latest standalone expansion of the series’ roster of titles. The hyper-stylized retro-futurist and consciously naturalistic aesthetics of Blood Dragon and Primal respectively, have been blended into one when it comes to the dubstep-infused visuals of New Dawn. It’s a fresh, bold choice of color scheme and style that contrasts starkly to the realism of the environments of Hope County in Far Cry 5.
After the first screenshots and gameplay footage were released to the world, I’ll admit that I was uncertain as to whether or not the flamboyant color scheme would be appropriate for a post-apocalyptic setting. Having played the game though I can safely say that my initial doubts were blown away on the winds that stir vast fields of vibrant flowers, which dominate the landscape, just as surely as the old world was scoured clean by the atomic fires of Joseph Seed’s prophesied Collapse. The rest of the planet may have been reduced to rubble and ash by waves of nuclear fire, but there’s something almost disarmingly Edenic about the way that Hope County weathered the storm to end all storms.
Where other companies might have elected for a more gritty take on life in a post-atomic horror, for example, 4A Games and their Metro series, Ubisoft Montreal opted for a more vivid vision of the end of the world. According to lead artist Isaac Papismado, the team wanted to avoid presenting players with a stereotypical conceptualization of the post-apocalypse. The result is a charmingly beautiful gameworld that subverts expectations across the board.
The natural landscape is enhanced rather than diminished by the remains of human civilization. The repurposed buildings, either inhabited by peaceful settlers or murderous bandits, with their haphazard reconstruction provide suitably ruinous set dressing whilst at the same time functioning as the perfect platforms for engaging gameplay. The combination of borderline excessive natural beauty and crude human habitats makes for a delightful backdrop to the run-and-gun gameplay loop that we’ve all come to know and love.
The most notable settlement is, of course, Prosperity, your home base. As you progress through the game you can acquire resources to improve it, expanding and upgrading the capabilities of your impromptu home. In and of itself it isn’t anything particularly remarkable, but what makes it truly special is that it’s exactly like the kind of home that you can imagine players who grew up playing this kind of game building for themselves at the end of the world.
Its contents include all the creature comforts that a gamer could want, and the layout means that they’re all within a few steps of each other. It’s a compact, efficient hub from which to gradually expand your influence over the remnants of Hope County, and going back there always has that warm feeling of coming home.
When it comes to the gameplay there isn’t really much to say about Far Cry: New Dawn. If you’ve played any of the recent Far Cry games then you’ll know exactly how it functions. That’s by no means a bad thing though. Part of what makes the series so successful is the accessibility and familiarity of its gameplay. After a long hiatus, coming back to Far Cry felt like slipping into an old pair of studded-leather chaps and a spike-shouldered denim vest (post-apocalyptic threads of choice, naturally).
Being able to instantly recall every single control means that there’s no barrier between the player and the game, which means that you’re able to focus entirely on what’s going on in front of you, rather than what your hands are doing with the controller. Interactions with the game world become instinctive to the point of being muscle memory. From gunplay to menu navigation, crafting to world traversal, talking to NPCs and vehicle control, everything about the game plays wonderfully. The fact that all the attendant systems, such as crafting and guns for hire, function in a “no fuss, no muss” manner means that the game just works. It’s never more complicated than it needs to be, and player progress feels completely organic as a direct consequence. It may not be original or unique, but it’s a testament to great game design.
One of the issues I raised in my review of Far Cry 5 was that the world often felt too busy for its own good. There was so much going on that it felt as if the game was never willing to let you have even a moment’s peace and quiet to just take everything in. The same can still be said of New Dawn but, oddly enough, it’s more of a positive point this time around rather than a negative.
No matter which direction you run in or where you choose to go, there is always something going on which makes events feel like they’re happening completely independent of your presence. Wandering groups of bandits will engage in firefights, wild animals roam the hills and forests, and NPCs with missions and snippets of lore will emerge seemingly at random. This makes it so that, regardless of what you decide to do, there is always relevant and meaningful content to engage with, whether it contributes to the main story or not.
In terms of story, New Dawn could have done better but it features enough set-piece moments and carryovers from Far Cry 5 to remain entertaining to the last. Mickey and Lou, the twin leaders of the bandit group tormenting Hope County, never manage to achieve the same manic charm of Vaas, the twisted despotic allure of Pagan Min, or the terrifying insightfulness of Joseph Seed, but they serve their purpose well enough to maintain a consistent level of threat.
As I said in my recent review of Rage 2, it’s a shame that games of this style and genre are consistently let down by weak and short narratives. However, it’s such a consistent issue with almost all games like this that I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a problem at all and not just the nature of the beast. Perhaps what’s more important is that the games remain consistently great to play rather than offering up in-depth and enthralling stories. Their narrative shortcomings, although glaring, can often be overlooked when you focus on how you’re doing what you’re doing in the game instead of why you’re doing it. Gamers and the industry itself would be poorly served if all games were alike in that regard. Sometimes it’s better a game, or series of games, remains true to the core of its design rather than attempt to ape the constituent elements of other genres.
Far Cry: New Dawn may not be the best game in the series, but it’s far from the worst either. The sheer unexpected nature of Blood Dragon meant that it still stands out as the best among the expansions. Primal, with its unique pre-historic setting and low-tech approach to combat, remains something of an oddity. But New Dawn is without a doubt the DLC that Far Cry 5 deserved. Although Dead Living Zombies, Hours of Darkness, and Lost on Mars were interesting in their own right, none of them really should have been released individually. They should either have been self-contained game modes, storylines in the base game itself, or set aside entirely so that Ubisoft had the time and resources to make New Dawn bigger and better than the previous two actual expansions of the third and fourth games. As it stands, however, New Dawn is an intriguing entry in the series and more than a decent game in its own right.
‘Muse Dash’ Review: A Gorgeous Melody of Anime Aesthetics
Muse Dash is a rhythm game that puts anime aesthetics and song variety above all else. Does it pay off? Click here for the full review!
The best rhythm games aren’t just about the quality of the music but the experience that’s crafted around it. Be it a hectic fusion with Bullet Hell or a violent, mind-numbing wasteland of noise, the challenge ultimately lies in providing a reason to play the game instead of simply listening to the OST. Muse Dash artfully manages this through tried-and-true rhythm-based gameplay and some of the most aesthetically appealing visual design I’ve seen in the genre.
If It Ain’t Broke…
Muse Dash’s mechanics aren’t the most intricate, but they don’t necessarily have to be. Players are assigned two buttons: one to jump/attack in the air, and one to attack on the ground. Enemies and obstacles move towards the player to the beat of the music, and you’ll have to time your button presses precisely to get the highest possible score. Do well enough and you’ll automatically get placed on the game’s global leaderboards, which you can scroll through when selecting any given song.
Though enemies change depending on the setting of the stage (which is loosely determined by the vibe of the song), they all serve the same purpose from a gameplay standpoint. Enemies on the ground correspond to lower notes/melodies, while those soaring through the air correspond to higher ones. The only real variation comes from the occasional boss attack (where the antagonist shooting at you suddenly flies towards you directly), and bizarre beat-em-up sections.
In these beat-em-up bits, a mini-boss will fly at you and prompt you to button-mash as much as possible to get a higher combo. The issue is that these occur mid-song, meaning that as soon as they’re done players are thrown right back into the chaos of the stage. It feels like variation for the sake of it rather than because it adds anything meaningful to the game, and the abrupt transition from button-mashing to keeping track of a rhythm led to multiple botched runs.
At the end of every track you’re assigned a grade based on your number of Perfects, Greats, Passes, and Misses. Not missing any hits and avoiding taking damage will result in a Full Combo (one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve felt from a game in some time, particularly on Hard and Master difficulties).
Speaking of difficulty, songs are rated on a scale from 1-9. Easy can land anywhere from 1-4, Hard 3-7, and Master 6-9, depending on the track. Better yet, there are dedicated leaderboards for each difficulty of every song. It’s a thoughtful touch that ensures that players who aren’t particularly great at rhythm games can still play through every track and have a goal to work towards.
Anime, Anime Everywhere!
Muse Dash enthusiastically puts the “anime” in “anime rhythm game.” Upon booting it up, players are immediately greeted by colorful (and slightly suggestive) art of the game’s three young protagonists Rin, Buro, and Marija. The anime aesthetic is everywhere, from the animated character selection screen to the beautiful artwork for each song; even the enemies and bosses have a distinct visual flair to them.
Though you’ll start out as Bassist Rin, each character has a variety of themed skins (e.g. Sleepwalker Girl Rin, Idol Buro, etc.) that can be randomly unlocked through gameplay. More than simply offering special character art, these each come with different abilities and unique animations. For instance, Idol Buro gives you 50% extra XP when finishing a stage, making her a great way to fly through levels. Since these skins are random, however, she might be somewhat useless by the time you actually unlock her.
This uncertainty is part of the overarching feedback loop that’s at the core of Muse Dash’s replayability. While there are 40 songs available in the base game, almost all of them are locked behind levels. The more you play and the better you perform, the faster you’ll level up. Leveling up awards two random items that go towards unlocking character skins, Elfins (little helpers that float alongside you and grant different buffs), and even special character and environmental art. Though some might view needing to unlock the songs as a negative, it only further incentivized me to continue playing my favorite stages to get higher scores and level up faster.
Keep the Good Times Rolling
In case you’re yearning for more head-bopping good times, Muse Dash offers far more beyond the initial 40 tracks. The “Just as planned” DLC is a whopping 10x the price of the base game’s $3 buy-in on Steam and Mobile (it’s all bundled together for $30 on Switch), but it also adds 78 songs for a grand total of 118.
These are grouped into multiple six-song packs with different themes. The Cute is Everything Pack comprises happier, more upbeat songs, whereas the Happy Otaku Pack has slightly more dramatic tunes that you’d typically hear in an anime OP, for instance. The DLC also acts as a season pass of sorts, with the devs pledging to add a new pack every month for the foreseeable future.
Unlike the base tracks, the DLC tracks are all unlocked from the get-go. Unfortunately, this is where one of Muse Dash’s few flaws become apparent. Though this brings in a ton of new songs across a variety of packs, there’s nothing on the selection screen that shows which songs have already been played. If someone wants to go through and experience each of the songs one after another, they either need to have a great memory, marathon them all, or click on each song individually to see if they already have a score recorded. It’s a strange and frustrating oversight for a game that nails so many other elements of its UI.
On the whole, though, Muse Dash is simply a joy to experience. It certainly isn’t for everyone; if you’re put off by scantily clad anime girls or victory screens where said anime girls lightly bounce in place, this probably won’t be your cup of tea. It also won’t stun you with complex mechanics or inventive gameplay elements you might’ve experienced from its contemporaries.
But if you love anime and anime-inspired music (as previously stated, there’s a DLC pack titled “Happy Otaku Pack” for goodness sake), then this should be a no-brainer. Whether you decide to get the full experience or stick with the base version for what’s easily one of the best values in gaming you’ll find this year, Muse Dash comes highly recommended.
Just be sure to play with headphones!
Goomba Stomp is the joint effort of a team of like-minded writers from across the globe. We provide smart readers with sharp, entertaining writing on a wide range of topics in pop culture, offering an escape from the usual hype and gossip. We are currently looking for Film, TV, Anime and Comic writers.
Contact us: Editor@GoombaStomp.com
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