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‘Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age’ Review – An RPG Appears!

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Dragon Quest is a monster of a series, and one of the big 3 older series in Japan alongside Final Fantasy and Shin Megami Tensei. It’s the forefather to most JRPGs, and set the foundation for what plenty of games, RPG or otherwise, use when constructing narrative or gameplay. Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age feels like the peak of what the series can do. It’s a highly polished and refined game that makes use of only the basic building blocks of RPG and narrative design to create a solid, and enjoyable experience.

The story of Dragon Quest XI is paced very well. The game is broken into smaller, chapter-like, mini-stories instead of one over-arching plot. Your position as the luminary is one of hope, and while your goal is to defeat the Darklord, you also get to take opportunities to help the lives of those around Erdrea. It’s a “by the numbers” plotline when compared to most other Dragon Quest titles, but it does throw a few curve balls every now and then. Despite your role as the hero, you ’re labeled a villain by one of the land’s most powerful kingdoms. It turns your journey into one of redemption and proving to the other kingdoms of Erdrea that you’re not the evil dark spawn your falsified reputation has you painted as. The story plays out across roughly 60 hours of playtime with maybe an extra 30-40 that are filled in by side-material.

Despite the game’s length, it’s very easy to sit down and play through an “episode” or two a night and feel like things are constantly moving along. While the game isn’t presented in a chapter format, it plays out like one. Every location you visit or major character you encounter has a story and culture tied to them. IOften these differences are brought about in the localization and script. The Japanese mythos-inspired town speaks in haiku, and races of fantasy creatures speak in rhyme.  It builds Erdrea out to be a massive world. People talk and react differently from town to town, and it prevents everything from feeling similar. You never spend too long in one particular place, so the cartoonish accents and odd speaking patterns of certain people never become grating and instead add flavor to the story and writing.

Truly the darkest of timelines.

The flipside is that often times these town arcs are very short, and the character growth in them can fall flat. There were at least two or three chapters of the game where things felt rushed or the cast started to act inexplicably out of character from how they had been for the entirety of the game before. Revelations are had without any real lead-up, but these events are few and far between. It’s off-putting, but not unforgivable. The few instances of inconsistency are far and few between compared to the rest of the story. The writing, voice acting, and pacing help make Dragon Quest XI’s story is one of the strongest the franchise has had in a very long time.

One of the more interesting aspects of the plot is how Dragon Quest XI handles direction. The story starts linear and begins to break to a more open setting as the game goes along. There will be certain scenarios where you can choose to do things in a particular order. You’re given a list of tasks to complete, but not the direct order in which to do them. Post-game is a large open world that has you tying up loose ends and side-quests across the continent at your own discretion. The downside is that the difficulty spikes randomly between the myriad of tasks you can do. There’s still a “directed order” that it feels like you’re supposed to do things despite the game letting you go anywhere. Sometimes grinding is the only way to reach a suitable level to deal with certain encounters, but the areas you can best farm experience in aren’t always obvious. Erdrea is an ever-growing world, and changes as different events play out. It’s interesting to see the development team create multiple versions of the same area, but it can get confusing in the post-game when you’re trying to figure out what side-material you’re best prepared for.

Combat plays out in a basic turn-based format: activating abilities, slinging spells, and brandishing blades against your foes. Matches aren’t just mindless button-mashes though, and you have to work proper team compositions along with buffs and debuffs to deal with certain enemies and encounters. There is never a party member that doesn’t have a use. Planning how to properly play to a certain character’s strengths is often the key to getting through tough encounters or having to face the continue screen.

Boss battles range from fun and memorable to frustratingly hard. The difficulty for many of the more agonizing bosses boils down to dodging status effects or surviving multiple waves of attack. Bosses often get two or three actions for each action of the team, and this can lead to full-party wipes if a boss happens to land a lucky critical hit or the RNG decides to use both turns for multi-hit attacks.

Surviving in combat comes from a mix of keeping up to date on your armor and accessories as well as wisely investing in your character’s skill trees. It’s often best to fully invest your points into one tree at a time to maximize your skills, especially since many of the cast’s best abilities are locked at the end of certain skills trees rather than being learned by leveling up. There’s no punishment for poorly investing points or finding out you don’t like the playstyle one tree gives you. You can reset your character’s skill points at any save spot for a small amount of gold, and reinvest them as needed. Gold is pretty easy to come by. The only time the party truly struggles financially is in the first few hours, but things pick up rather quickly. Equipment costs can also be offset by the game’s crafting mini-game, ‘the fun-sized forge.’ Forged items tend to have slightly better stats than most purchasable gear or can even give you access to things a few stops before you find a store that stocks them. You can also rework items in the force to increase their stats further, which is invaluable to keeping special weapons relevant after their base stats begin to fall off.

This chapter thankfully has a happy ending.

Dragon Quest XI: Echoes of an Elusive Age is a solid example of how to properly build an RPG game in modern times. It’s solid, yet simple, gameplay coupled with a creatively written world and cast show that you don’t need to continually reinvent your series with each entry to stay relevant. You don’t need overly complex plots to make characters likable. The sheer amount of things to do and places to explore in Dragon Quest XI is staggering, and the game has a level of polish to it not often seen in other big-budget titles.

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Taylor is a writer from Atlanta, GA. His passion for games extends across genres and generations. When not playing or writing about games, he's probably reading science fiction.

Game Reviews

‘Judgment’ Review: No OBJECTION here

Judgment is so well written and localized that it fully deserves the level of recognition that any standard Yakuza game gets.

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Judgment Game Review

Ryu Ga Gotoku Studio don’t make perfect games; they make special games. Anyone with a vested interest in the developer’s Yakuza series will be well aware of the cult-level of fandom that surrounds these quirky, violent, and gripping titles. Despite the hugely increased Western exposure Sega’s given these games in the current generation, being a fan of RGG Studio’s work still feels like something of an exclusive club for those who ‘get it’; those who can embrace the weird and wonderful world of Kamurocho and its oddball denizens. As a spin-off (of sorts) with the same virtual setting, and built in the same game engine, Judgment probably won’t be signing up too many new club members, but those already ingratiated into the insanity will find a lot to love.

Judgment may be set in Kamurocho, but its plot is completely new and doesn’t have any links to the Yakuza titles. Players take control of Takayuki Yagami, who’s currently working as private investigator after his first, and only, criminal case as a defense lawyer saw him secure the acquittal of a murder suspect who, upon his release, went on to kill his own girlfriend. ‘Tak’ runs the Yagami Detective Agency alongside his partner Masaharu Kaito, a former Yakuza member of the Matsugane family. Because of course there are Yakuza in this game.

If Judgment didn’t do this, we’d all be rightly disappointed.

Considering series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu is rarely ever actually in the Yakuza, the Japanese gangsters probably have about as much of a role as antagonists in Judgment as they always do. This time, as well as constantly starting fights with Yagami, the Yakuza secure their role in proceedings via the distinction of being murdered by a serial killer and having the eyes gouged out of their corpses. In their quest to uncover the truth, Yagami and his partner find themselves fighting – both figuratively and very, very literally – against myriad foes, including a variety of Yakuza clans, the local police department, prosecutors, the Ministry of Health, journalists, and more.

Being a private investigator means Yagami can’t focus on just one serial killer to pay the bills, and there are 50 side cases to fill out the lengthy main plot. They’re mostly brilliant, genuinely intriguing, typically hilarious, and stuffed full of the type of risqué material that has become a staple of RGG’s games, and Polygon writers’ nightmares. It’s pretty standard for one of these games to present an incredibly complex and dramatic plot supported by utterly ridiculous side quests, and for the non-sensationalist fan this is both a mandatory inclusion and the source of countless memorable moments. I’ll certainly never forget roping a vampire into doing community service, or chasing down a bald male idol’s “hat” (see: wig), only to have him apologise and explain that, “it’s a really fast hat.”

The noise this ‘hat’ makes when it blows in the wind is comedy gold.

It can be a little jarring to see so many shockingly sex-related story beats end with well-meaning humility, but the writing quality of RGG consistently bails them out of controversy. The women of Kamurocho are almost constantly being stalked, harassed, or just plain paraded in front of horny salarymen. It seems that RGG is aware of the outside world’s perspective of this facet of modern Japanese culture, and is often quick to condemn anything that could, and should, be seen as out-of-touch. They could, of course, just take it all out in the first place, but where’s the fun in that? Yagami is the player’s window into the debauched world of the Tokyo underbelly. His insightful reactions humorously pick apart this questionable culture in a way that likely mirrors your average westerner’s attempts to fathom characters like Ass Catchem and Judge Creep ‘n’ Peep.

Yagami can gain boosts by both drinking and smoking, engage in illegal underground gambling, have four girlfriends on the go at once (which I did purely for the trophy), and is absolutely not averse to smacking seven shades of Shichifuku Street out of anyone who messes with his cause for justice. You know what, though? If Judgment, and the Yakuza games before it, didn’t throw open this window into wacky Japanese culture with the enthusiasm that it does then it just wouldn’t be credible, and would be a damn sight less fun. It might be shocking, but it’s a truly joyful experience that pokes fun at itself with snappy, witty writing and a bevy of interesting characters completely devoid of tired tropes or insipid dialogue. It’s all turned up to 11, and that’s why I love it.

What sport do you think you should play based on your butt?

Being built in the Yakuza 6 engine ensures that general gameplay feels, well, pretty much exactly like Yakuza 6. Naturally, Yagami has his own unique fighting ability – which he employs a darn site more than he does any actual detective work – that consists of two styles: crane and tiger. Crane is a faster, more agile fighting style and is recommended to be used against large groups of mooks, whom you’ll be squaring off against 90% of the time. Most of the EX special moves for this style are focused around crowd control, whereas the tiger style is better suited for one-on-one battles (aka bosses) and is a much more visceral and power-based approach.

There are tons of potential weapons lying around all over the city, including the obligatory bicycles, and Yagami has easily some of the best EX special moves of all RGG’s games. Befriending local shop owners allows for context-sensitive help, usually in the form of some variant of burning hot food to throw in the eyes or force down the gullet of some hapless schmuck. Better still are the tag team moves available whenever Yagami has a buddy in tow, and the cherry on the icing on the cake is the traffic-based finishers – one of which is probably my favorite of all time.

This is awesome, and it’s not even the one I mentioned as my favorite.

It’s not all fighting, though, and the main appeal of Judgment is in its potential for a more methodical, puzzle-based, detective campaign. It’s, unfortunately, a potential that isn’t as well-realized as many would have hoped. There are a couple of lock-picking mini games which are completely unremarkable (and barely used after the first couple of hours), a scene-analyzing first person mode used to dig up clues, and a tailing mechanic. The latter is employed the most by far, and my word does it get boring by the game’s end. Slowly walking after a target that will routinely turn around out of trepidation is not fun, and it’s made even less fun thanks to the wonky hiding mechanic that supposedly lets Yagami duck behind obvious cover points to avoid detection.

I say obvious cover, but I believe that my definition of obvious differs from that of the developer’s. Sometimes a car will be cover, other times it won’t be, and you’ll be stuck standing with head poking over the top of a car smashing the circle button expecting Yagami to do the thing he’s done dozens of times before. Same goes for certain light boards and walls. It’s basically a crapshoot that often left me running around in the open like a total maniac, and an obvious one at that. For some reason, each target has a meter that tracks how much they’ve noticed the really conspicuous man flailing around behind a car and knocking people over, so if that meter never gets filled then you can just duck behind whatever bit of cover is the correct one and they’ll react like they didn’t see a thing.

Okay, Maybe a Few Objections…

The biggest disappointment is that it leaves Judgment feeling like another Yakuza game with a few uninspired additions rammed down your throat, rather than the standalone experience it tried to market itself as. The detective angle definitely works from a story perspective, but it barely alters the gameplay in any meaningful, or satisfying, way. Unless you count flying a drone directly upwards to press X by a second-floor window, or wearing a disguise to walk into a room and press X by someone you want to spy on.

10/10 would one-liner again.

Undeniably worse than the misstep of not fully utilizing the investigative elements is the inclusion of the Keihen Gang invasion events. These happen way too often, and are guaranteed to always abruptly halt whatever story process you’re making. They essentially boil down to the owner of a Chinese restaurant (I have no idea why) texting Yagami telling him that the Keihen Gang are back causing mayhem, and you’re then left with a threat meter to try and whittle down.

I say try, but you’ll basically be forced to do this, as Yagami will be jumped by goons every 20 seconds or so, and there will be up to four gang leaders chillin’ on random corners waiting for a good ol’ fashioned, mano a mano slobberknocker. These bastards all have the ability to deal mortal wounds to Yagami, which manifest as a permanent health drain that requires an expensive medical kit to remove. Yay. It’s a completely needless bit of padding that can really spoil the flow of player progress. Worse still, the rewards for fighting them off, and the overall impact on the game’s narrative, are completely negligible and not worth anyone’s time.

Dice & Cube is another of the new mini games. It sucks.

Time is something that you better have ready if you’re wanting to fully beat Judgment, as anyone familiar with the Yakuza series will already know. I beat the game after just over 50 hours, completing all but three side quests and missing a couple of the 45 friends Yagami can make in the city, and that was still only listed as 63.7% completion. Kudos, as well, to the new drone races mini game, and the brilliant arcade ‘light gun’ game Kamuro of the Dead.

You certainly can’t complain that Judgment doesn’t offer value for money. In a world where most games are intent to charge real-world money for extra character skins or maps, Judgment is content to take your initial investment, throw a 50-hour campaign at you and still make time to include a full version of Virtua Fighter 5.

Oh, for crying out loud, lads. Can’t the drone race stay sacred?

When all’s said and done, though, Judgment lives by its story, and what a story it is. Ryu Ga Gotoku are operating at an absolutely astounding level right now. Their consistent flair for creating truly nasty bastard villains, infinitely likeable antiheroes, excellent character development, believable relationships, snappy dialogue and jaw-dropping drama is, for me, completely unparalleled. Add that to the flawless Japanese voice cast, and the considerable work that the best localization team in gaming has to put in, and it’s a truly incredible piece of work.

Judgment has all the nonsense of a typical RGG game, but it’s all offset against an impressively modern and intelligent narrative that expertly piles a lot of emotional weight onto the notion of true justice. It questions the role of a defense lawyer, weighing up the value of finding the truth vs. simply disproving the prosecution. It also raises the very topical issue of uncovering the truth against those who wish to stifle it for ‘the greater good.’ It’s mature, it’s gripping and it’s genuinely thought-provoking. Fundamentally, this will last a lot longer in the memory than some dodgy tailing mechanics. Not perfect, then, but undeniably special.

Judgment isn’t quite the Yakuza-meets-Phoenix-Wright we were hoping for, but it’s held together masterfully with the recognizable formula of terrific fighting mechanics, a jam-packed open world, and an incredible story starring yet another brilliant protagonist. The game is so well written and localized that it fully deserves the level of recognition that any standard Yakuza game gets.

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Game Reviews

‘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?

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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?

super mario maker 2

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.

super mario maker 2

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.

super mario maker 2

Story time

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

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.

[penci_review id=”156760″]

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Game Reviews

‘Far Cry: New Dawn’: A Post-Apocalyptic American Dream

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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.

Far Cry: New Dawn

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.

Far Cry: New Dawn

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.

Far Cry: New Dawn

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.

Far Cry: New Dawn

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.

Far Cry: New Dawn

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.

Far Cry: New Dawn

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

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.

[penci_review id=”156413″]

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Game Reviews

‘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!

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muse dash

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.

muse dash

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!

[penci_review id=”156319″]

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Game Reviews

‘Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled’ Breathes Life Into an Abandoned Franchise

n the track, Crash Team Racing: Nitro Fueled is the same fantastic Mario Kart clone it was back in 1999, complete with the game’s carbon-copied items and ever-debated power-slide mechanics (press R1 to jump and slide, then time presses of L1 to gain turbo boost up to three times).

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Crash Team Racing: Nitro Fueled

There are a number of interesting parallels between the beginning and end of the current console generation. Where the first few years of the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One’s life were essentially the Enhanced Edition era (slight upgrades of the last round of big PS3/X360 games), the last two years are shaping up to be the Remastered Era, dipping even further back into the nostalgic vaults of video gaming to reinvigorate brands and fill time until the Playstation 5 and Project Scarlett hit in 2020.

Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled is a wonderful revitalization of an oft-forgotten, beloved racing franchise.

Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled, released last week on PS4, Xbox One, and the Nintendo Switch, is but the latest in a long line of remasters in recent memory, following on the heels of the recent Spyro Reignited Trilogy, Resident Evil remasters, the original Borderlands re-release – and, of course, 2017’s well-received Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy.

Adapted and developed by Beenox, Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled falls in between the two camps of remasters: while it’s not a complete overhaul in the vein of Resident Evil 2, calling it a conventional upgrade (in the vein of the Bioshock Collection or Okami HD) undersells it quite a bit.

Crash Team Racing Nitro Fueled

Rather, Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled falls somewhere in between both approaches to remastering, an enticing mix of the old and the new. While it painstakingly recreates the core gameplay loop of the original two Crash Team Racing titles, it wraps the game around it in a more modern structure (and some seemingly un-modern loading times, even on my PS4 Pro), a strangely satisfying half-step of evolution for the long-dormant series (Crash Nitro-Kart was released in late 2003 – and no, Crash Tag Team Racing doesn’t count, it’s a goddamn platformer).

On the track, Crash Team Racing: Nitro Fueled is the same fantastic Mario Kart clone it was back in 1999, complete with the game’s carbon-copied items and ever-debated power-slide mechanics (press R1 to jump and slide, then time presses of L1 to gain turbo boost up to three times). The combination is barely controlled chaos: the high speeds and windy tracks of Nitro Fueled make for some insanely satisfying racing — though admittedly, the skill floor of the game is much higher than most family-friendly entries in the genre. The game’s default difficulty is not “easy”, and immediately demands familiarity with the game’s mechanics: it’s still not the most welcoming kart racer for beginners, lacking in the player-friendly assists that make Mario Kart 8 such a welcoming title at family gatherings.

Crash Team Racing Nitro Fueled

Once you figure out the rhythms, it is still fun as hell – and thanks to the complete graphical redesign of every track, Crash Team Racing Nitro-Fueled  brings 31 original tracks into the HD era with glorious pastels, wonderful atmospheric touches (Coco Park’s track is littered with rose petals, for example), and some truly gorgeous explosion animations. It’s a rather impressive feat: though each track feels completely new, the architecture from the original games is completely intact, ensuring the same strategies and shortcuts of the original series remain viable – it’s a small touch, but an important one in helping reinvigorate CTR‘s underrated legacy.

Between the flags, everything one might love and hate about the original is maintained in all its purity here; the difficult (and rewarding) short cuts, the frustrating power slide learning curve, the insane challenge of beating AI opponents on Hard difficulty… there hasn’t been a single change made to how Crash Team Racing plays in Nitro-Fueled, showing how surprisingly resilient CTR‘s game design in 1999 holds up to modern standards (which is basically Mario Kart 8 and Sonic All-Stars Racing Transformed, the only notable kart racers of the past decade).

Crash Team Racing Nitro Fueled

Despite that, Crash Team Racing: Nitro Fueled doesn’t feel like a remake devoid of new inspiration (in the vein of say, the Arkham Collection or Burnout Paradise Remastered): strangely, the game’s online multiplayer and in-game store (called the ‘Pit Shop’) show Beenox and Activision have some serious interest in reigniting Crash Team Racing as a live game. Each Grand Prix, beginning July 3rd, appears to work like the seasons found in games like DOTA, Fortnite, or Apex Legends (except here, it’s completely free): players gain experience playing the game, incrementally unlocking new skins, characters, and other customization options during the limited event window. Beenox is even designing a brand new track for each Grand Prix, bringing an intriguing stream of new content to a remastered game.

The proposition is interesting, but there is still some work to be done for this to give the game a meaningful life span: currently, online lobbies are restricted to one race at a time, and with the game’s already lengthy loading times, loading in and out of lobbies for four minutes of action at a time can be a momentum-killer, especially when half the lobby drops out in between races or battles, causing the whole process to start over again. If the Grand Prix allows players to race in cups together — or at least offers some other form of continued play — there might be some hope for this game to build a meaningful community of online players.

Crash Team Racing Nitro Fueled

At $40, Crash Team Racing: Nitro Fueled might initially feel a bit expensive: after all, in gameplay terms, it is exactly the same game it was between 1999 and 2003 (again, fuck Crash Tag Team Racing and its weird focus on open-world platforming). But the game’s impressive graphical overhaul (despite being locked to 30 frames a second, I might add) – and interesting approach to becoming a “live” entity – is proposition enough for any kart racing fans hungry for something besides Mario Kart 8 (which has stood alone in the industry since its release in 2014; sorry, Team Sonic Racing). Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled is packed to the brim with characters, tracks, modes, and replayability. It serves as a wonderful revitalization of an oft-forgotten and beloved racing franchise.

[penci_review id=”156231″]

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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.

Contact us: Editor@GoombaStomp.com

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