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E3 2017 Hands-On (Deck): ‘Sea of Thieves’ Captures the Myth and Magic of Piracy

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Sea of Thieves

Pirates are a fascinating, ever-relevant part of pop culture. In video games, pirates are as vital as ever, with two different pirate games featured at E3. Ubisoft’s recently revealed Skull and Bones takes the naval combat from Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag and uses it in a unique, competitive, multiplayer experience where two teams of five players, each in control of an entire pirate ship, seek to eliminate the enemy fleet and gain control of the high seas. Dark, gritty, and cinematic, Skull and Bones, in particular graphically, offers a slightly more realistic look at historical pirates than Sea of Thieves by bordering on a naval battle simulator. Sea of Thieves for Xbox One and Windows, on the other hand, aims and succeeds at capturing something much different. It doesn’t concern itself with the pirates of reality, but expertly encapsulates the romanticized perspective of pirates in the public’s mind. In that, developer Rare has captured all of the evocative myth, magic, high-flying adventure, and outrageous fun of pirate legend.

My time with Sea of Thieves began where all pirate adventures begin: the saloon. Surrounded by a motley bunch that would soon be my crew, we acquainted ourselves with one another by striking up song on the kind of assorted instruments most enjoyed by pirates, before sharing a couple of bullets and swings at one another with our swords. Sea of Thieves‘ item wheel is chock full of useful tools, such as a compass and fruit to restore health, and other humorously useless items like accordions and grog (that’s not entirely true, as the grog can be used to get tipsy or even drunk and during my play session one player drank ’til he puked all over another member of the crew). Small moments full of charm truly distinguish the shared world of Sea of Thieves. While it’s a treacherous world wrought with danger and adventure, it’s equally wrought with wit and humor, never taking itself too seriously and always providing a laugh.

After drinks and music it was time to begin our quest, and the four of us made way for the ship docked at port. Scrolling between the three maps in our map wheel, we decided to forego a treasure hunt utilizing the two standard, X-marks-the-spot maps in favor of a hunt for treasure alluded to by a mysterious riddle type map featured in the game. We also decided a captain much the same way – I commandeered the title and just sorta told everyone what to do without any contention from the crew, despite how ready I was to make a mutineer walk the plank. After a quick glance at the world map below deck, we found our heading, straight for Shipwreck Island, one of many handcrafted islands in Rare’s nautical world.

Sailing a ship is one of Sea of Thieves‘ core conceits. Players are entirely responsible for manning their ship, requiring teamwork and communication. Before setting sail, the ship must be prepped, the anchor raised, the sail lowered, and each member ready to man their station. In my playtime, I steered, Goomba Stomp’s very own Ryan Kapioski was lookout, one player navigated, while another…well he was kinda just there. Each member of the crew is dependent on other players playing their part; for instance, the player at the wheel is dependent on the lookout, as they can’t see beyond the mast and sail, and everyone else relies on the steerer to follow instruction. In this regard, Sea of Thieves offers a unique cooperative experience where everything is dependent on individuals operating as a unified whole. While certain tasks like raising anchor can be done alone, everything is achieved much quicker when all player band together. Certain roles may seem trivial and less engaging than others, but in reality each role is pivotal to sailing the ship efficiently. At the very least, navigating to a destination can be done relatively quickly, and anyone uninterested in their role probably won’t have to do it for long. Also, with a shared world, the seas are always inhabited by other players and threats making safe voyage less likely.

During combat, its all hands on deck. One player continues to steer while the rest man the cannons or move below deck to maintain the hull’s integrity as it receives blows from enemy vessels. Whether firing at an enemy ship, steering the ship to safety, or helping her stay afloat, Sea of Thieves‘ naval combat is frantic fun unlike any other, and one of the highlights of the game. Players less inclined to fight with cannon fire can even load themselves into a cannon and launch themselves toward an enemy ship to board it in a heroic, inane attempt to seize the enemy vessel. Comparable with Sea of Thieves quieter moments on the open seas, every member of the crew will have a truly critical role during a firefight, and it’s guaranteed that no one will feel left out of any potential fun.

Our ship came under fire once during the demo, but the enemy quickly fled as my crew returned the barrage and we arrived safely at Shipwreck Island. Lowering the anchor, we parked the ship, loaded ourselves into the shipwright cannons, and fired ourselves toward the island. Pulling up the riddle map once more, we continued to work through the clues. Soon we were all pulling out compasses and counting paces hoping to end up where the buried treasure lie, an easy task, as holding the trigger down while holding the compass results in the cartoony pirate making clear cut steps thanks to Rare’s clever design. Moments later we were all digging up a colorful, mysterious chest with our shovels before skeletal pirates protecting their booty rose from the grave to thwart us. Armed with swords, pistols, and blunderbusses, the crew took the fight to the undead guardians. Each gun has a very limited amount of ammo, so accuracy is essential. Leveling my pistol without a reticle, I aimed down the barrel of the gun before blasting a skeleton with a ball of lead while my crew routed two others with swords. Reloading, I found three more skeletons between us and the shore toward the ship. Two shots fired, two skeletons reduced to dust. The third fell prey to the sword-swinging buccaneers of the bunch. Seconds later, one crew member carrying our precious booty, we hauled back to the ship to sail off into the sunset and the conclusion of our demo.

While all aspects of sailing and nautical battles are designed in spectacular fashion, it’s the adventure and exploration aspect of the game experience in the latter half of the demo that appeals to me most, and holds the most promise. For one thing, the world is a beauty to behold, with a bright, warm, tropical color palette, engaging, cartoony visuals, and it’s overflowing with charming detail and magical, nautical ambiance.  Sea of Thieves embodies all of the allure of whimsical pirate lore and legend sensationally, perfectly maintaining the theme with all the mystique, wonder, and bottled magic of a Disneyland attraction. The comparison of Sea of Thieves to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride is an apt one, and easy to make. In fact, Rare handles the cartoon, caricatured corsair theme, tone, and atmosphere so remarkably that had they probably could’ve helmed Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales to a satisfactory conclusion. Regardless, Sea of Thieves is an immensely promising and ambitious concept which Rare has staggeringly managed to realize up until this point. Will Sea of Thieves make good on its unique, cooperative, shared world experience with its grin-inducing fanciful portrayal of a pirates life? Time will tell. I, for one, am on board; yo-ho, yo-ho, a pirate’s life for me!

Tim is not the droids you are looking for. He resides quietly in the Emerald City where he can often be found writing, reading, watching movies, or playing video games. He is the Xbox editor for Goomba Stomp and the site's official Pokémon Master.

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Game Reviews

‘Blasphemous’ Review: For God’s Sake

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I’m not a religious man, but have often found the gruesome and twisted fiction it can give rise to utterly fascinating. As such, Blasphemous instantly barged its way onto my radar with its gloriously macabre Kickstarter trailer back in 2017. Brooding and grisly, it evoked almost exactly what was eventually delivered in the final product, and — despite a number of technical flaws — the wait was definitely worth it.

Rather than putting it off until later in the review, the Dark Souls comparisons might as well be nipped in the bud at this early juncture. From its visual theme, narrative techniques, and gameplay bullet points, Blasphemous sets out its stall to be a mysterious and challenging affair of swords and monsters. It takes those familiar Souls facets and combines them into a non-linear Metroidvania platformer, and it’s a formula that has rarely been done with as much flair as it is here.

Defeating a boss feels suitably epic

Those familiar with FromSoftware’s narrative leanings will know what to expect from the story in Blasphemous — that being not a whole lot of surface-level understanding. The opening is mainly utter nonsense, comprised of your typical oldey-timey English and dogmatic scripture, and it doesn’t get an awful lot clearer as players fight through the campaign. However, nearly all the collectible items and powerups have readable lore at the press of a button, and piecing together these scraps of information will gradually reveal a greater comprehension of the story.

Players take control of The Penitent One — a masked man who seems to be permanently crying tears of blood — in a quest to reverse the effects of ‘The Great Miracle.’ This cataclysmic event devastated mankind as punishment for ‘The Age of Corruption,’ where everyone was basically really bad at religion and…blasphemed a lot? As a result, everyone in the world is a malevolent, murderous zealot intent on turning The Penitent One into The Pulverized One.

The abhorrent imagery, imposing scenery, and melancholy world of Orthodoxia really is a morbidly fascinating one. Featuring fully hand-painted, pixel-art cutscenes, its visual style is akin to an old Amiga game like Prince of Persia or Another World. Rarely have 16-bit graphics been used to paint such a grotesque scene, and as such, it’s an astounding game to look at. The excellent sprite work comes to life (or perhaps that should be death) with gory combat and executions, while enemies — particularly the bosses — are a thing of depraved, disgusting beauty.

Just what the hell is going on here? Horrific…

The combat, however, is perhaps a little too simplistic, relying heavily on the executions (usually triggered after performing a perfect parry and counter) to do the heavy lifting for a single basic sword weapon and a handful of extra powers. This is one of the biggest missed opportunities of Blasphemous. Keeping players engaged in labyrinthine, often confusing Metroidvania titles is key, and without an enticing loop of unlocks it can be a little difficult to maintain interest in exploring the world. Not every game has to be Dead Cells, but using the same sword that cannot even be enhanced (yet seems to power up by itself, despite you not leveling up in any way) denies players an important level of tangible progression.

However, simplistic combat doesn’t mean the game is simple — oh no, sir — as it can be extremely punishing — especially the bosses. What Blasphemous has to help players instead of new weapons or stat building is a litany of other sundries. Rosary Beads add various passive buffs like shorter cooldowns, damage and elemental resistance, and higher defense or HP. Relics enable environmental assistance to access new areas through platforms or vines, and Mea Culpa Hearts provide buffs at a price — higher strength at the cost of defense, etc. Prayers, which are essentially magic attacks that use up your expandable Fervor meter, can also be unlocked. They’re largely disappointing, as are the small number of abilities that can be unlocked using Tears of Atonement (souls, basically), which amount to only a handful; those movesets are then upgraded rather than expanded upon.  

Miyazaki, you bastar… oh, wait

What was unashamedly billed as a Metroidvania crossed with Dark Souls then feels more like the former than the latter in its gameplay, but a key element Blasphemous takes from Miyazaki’s masterpieces is that enemies only respawn when you rest at a Prie Dieu (which also refills your health flasks). It’s one of the most needed adaptations to the Metroidvania formula; nobody likes accidentally going the wrong way and having to kill all the same enemies again just to get back to where they started.

And go the wrong way players will, as Blasphemous breaks Metroidvania rule 101: don’t get the map wrong. The map isn’t terrible per se, but it is just slightly lacking in certain facets, which can make the journey through Orthodoxia needlessly annoying. By far the most egregious issue is that you can’t exit the map by pressing the map button again. Instead the jump button is used to exit, which will also make your character jump upon returning to the gameplay. It sounds pedantic, but with as many pitfalls and death traps as Blasphemous has, I certainly didn’t appreciate constantly jumping without intention, and died more than once because of it.

It might have taken an hour, but man was this satisfying

When players do die in Blasphemous, a marker will be placed on the map showing where they fell in order to help guide them back to reclaim lost Tears of Atonement and regain the portion of their Fervor bar, which gets gradually reduced with each death. This is helpful until realizing that the map can’t be zoomed in; having markers and a legend is all well and good, but when all you can do is view the map from a very zoomed-out angle, they might as well not be there. It makes finding those potential secrets — or even normal room dividers — much more difficult to pinpoint than they should be.

Unfortunately, Blasphemous is not only sprinkled with little design niggles, but it’s also quite buggy, and at times feels a little unfinished. At one stage I had the game soft lock so that I couldn’t use any of the trigger buttons (to heal or dodge), while another incident saw a boss glitch off the screen, initially attacking nothing before righting itself and appearing from thin air to kill me. Frame drops are also pretty constant — especially when playing in handheld mode — creeping down to single digits in busier areas, and when combined with the buggy camera, can lead to more than a few pitfall deaths.

I couldn’t move the camera that fast even if I wanted to (and I never would)

None of these issues truly spoil the experience, however, and so Blasphemous ends up as an intriguing and challenging title that easily holds a place in the upper echelons of its genre. As cynical as putting Dark Souls mechanics in a Metroidvania seems on paper, the execution here is largely successful, and ensures that the game can be regarded as more than just a pretty thing to look at. Its difficulty may put some people off, as might its vague story or numerous bugs, but the rewards of seeing the gorgeous new areas while brutally executing new enemies will keep hardcore purists going until the immense satisfaction of the final victory.

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What’s love got to do with it? Link’s 5 Best Almost Romances in ‘Zelda’

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Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on February 14th, 2016. 

****

For all the fairy tale aspects and emphasis on collecting hearts, the Legend of Zelda games aren’t exactly known for getting overly lovey-dovey. Despite having two characters who are clearly meant for each other, Link and Zelda have been basically all about business over the last thirty years, putting work before pleasure. Sure, there have been the occasional sideways glances or insinuations in between killing the pig monster that’s trying to take over their world, but otherwise the relationship has mostly stayed strictly platonic, full of the kind of stiff mutual respect that leads to underpopulation.

Zelda, of course, is burdened with the many responsibilities that come with running a kingdom constantly under siege by the forces of darkness, as well as presumably having to consistently fight the urge to give in to Stockholm syndrome during each of her many kidnappings. So basically, she’s pretty busy, really focusing on her career right now. She’s also royalty, so that’s intimidating (and most likely requires a similarly noble suitor). And Link? Don’t mistake his oversleeping for laziness. This guy needs his rest so he can slay monsters and push boxes that should be way too large for him to push. The Chosen One just doesn’t have time to play the Hyrule Field, and frankly, just like with a superhero, it’s probably best he doesn’t get to close to anyone.

Still, there have been hints of love over the last few decades, with Link’s opportunities extending to relationships of tenderness and awkwardness alike that have offered hope of a Happy Ever After for the hero in green. Unfortunately, he’s killed fans’ hopes by blowing every one of them, whether by tragic twist of fate or simply running away in embarrassment. Oh well. Here are the best of the “almosts”:

saria-romance

Saria

Throughout all of the Zelda games, one thing has become apparent: Link doesn’t really do guy friends. This trait is on full display in Ocarina of Time, but while Link may never be bros with that jealous jerk Mido, that doesn’t mean he’s all by his lonesome. His companionship with an actual Kokiri is clearly a deep, meaningful one, and so Saria becomes one of the most endearing characters in the game. Sure, Malon is cute in that farmer’s daughter kind of way, but she seems more in love with horses than heroes, and besides, with a dad who can’t take care of himself, you know the honeymoon would be short. But Saria genuinely cares. She gives Link an ocarina, a pretty cool gift if you’re a forest person, and she teaches him a song so that they can always be in contact (hint, hint). Add to that the long, sad, lingering look on Saria’s face as she watches her “friend” cross the bridge to adventure, and you know there was something going on.

So after defeating Phantom Ganon in the Forest Temple and revealing Saria as the Sage of Forest, her resigned acceptance that their carefree days are behind them is a bittersweet acknowledgment (and reminder) that duty will always come before happiness. Mido’s revelation later that she had been waiting all this time for Link’s return doesn’t help with the melancholy, her unfulfilled pining just another casualty in the fight. But hey, at least she gets to hang out with a bunch of other misfits who are similarly trapped by their fated responsibility! Including…

princess-ruto-romance

Princess Ruto

I’m not sure that anyone has thrown themselves at Link more than Princess Ruto. As a spoiled brat being carried around inside a giant fish that ate her, Ruto develops a one-way relationship that culminates in her believing the two to be engaged when she hands over Zora’s Sapphire, all while blushing profusely. These aggressive signals couldn’t be any more obvious, but Link does a great job of playing it cool and clueless. She really doesn’t pull too many punches though, and it’s hard to explain why he doesn’t bite. After all, who wouldn’t want to spend the rest of their lives with someone who’s rude, entitled, and bossy? So what that she’s an entirely different species and any offspring would be freaks of nature?

Even when older Link meets her later, she finds time to bring up their love life amidst all the seriousness of being a very important Sage, scolding Link for making her wait so long, then explaining how she can’t be with him until her duties are over. It’s all hilarious until you think about what would happen if Princess Ruto ever really did get free. Sorry fish lady, but the princess for Link is in another castle.

marin-romance2

Marin

With its tropical setting, one would think that Link’s Awakening would be one of the best chances for Link to find true love, but alas, even though he meets the girl of his dreams (who even looks like Zelda!), yet again it’s not meant to be. It’s hard not to instantly relate to Marin and her fascination with the young lad who washed up on Koholint’s shore. She has been trapped on an island her whole life, imagining a big exciting world out there beyond the vast ocean’s horizon, and yearning to see it. What kid (and many adults) can’t identify with that feeling? Link represents discovery, adventure, and the enthusiasm and verve she displays because of this is infectious. She definitely likes him, but does she like him like him?

Though quick to chide Link for hitting a cucco or smashing a jar, she’s rather shy about her feelings, but a couple of things slip. Sitting side-by-side on a log at the beach, she reveals her deepest desires and asks to know everything about him (before awkwardly laughing the question off), and later on top of a mountain, nearly confesses something before being interrupted by her father. The game itself even seems to think Link has a shot, asking after the hero “acquires” her and holds her high above his head like a treasure he just found, “Is this your chance?”

Sadly, however, Marin’s story may be the most heartbreaking of all Link’s ladies. She knows that when the Wind Fish wakes up, all of Koholint, herself included, might vanish into memory. She pleads with Link that “some day you will leave this island… I just know it in my heart… …Don’t ever forget me… If you do, I’ll never forgive you!” Marin just wants to exist, to feel, and Link, the person who has awoken that inside her, is destined to be the one that takes that from her. Getting the best ending to the game reveals some hope that maybe these two will meet again one day, in a magical land far away.

midna-romance

Midna

Has Link ever had a more fully-formed relationship with anyone than what he shares with the impish former ruler of the Twilight Realm? Following the classic Hollywood arc, the two start out bickering and irritated with each other, Midna constantly hounding her wolfish companion, with Link begrudgingly powering through the pain in order to get to the princess he actually likes. Naturally then, over the course of many trials and monster-shaped obstacles, the two slowly began to develop a mutual respect and liking for each other, as tragic backstories are revealed and codes of honor are put on full display. By the end, when sassy beast turns into great beauty (a nice twist on a classic fairy tale trope), Link is left speechless (big shocker), much to Midna’s delight. “What? Say something! Am I so beautiful that you have no words left?” This is called flirting, people. If I was Link’s wing man he would’ve received a nudge in the ribs right here.

In fact, most of their interactions over the entire game comprise of her playful teasing, the type of schoolyard antagonizing that is akin to pulling someone’s hair and running away. If Link’s the kind of guy I think he is, these insults will only add to the liking. On top of that, her mysterious nature and later trusting openness can only strengthen the interest. Of course, what it could easily boil down to is just that really, they’re the perfect match: she’s funny and talks a lot, while he’s well, Link.

Unfortunately, he stays true to silent form, and after a brief pause at the end where she clearly wants to admit her feelings but (I’m assuming) feels awkward with Zelda around, Midna departs back to her own dimension, never to be seen again, all because a certain green-clad idiot just stands there and lets her destroy the Mirror of Twilight (with a tear nonetheless) having never told her how he actually feels! Stupid Link! Rookie mistake, pal. Live and learn, plenty of fish in the sea, and all that crap.

zelda-romance

Zelda

Ah, but which Zelda? Well, in the entire franchise, there are really only two with whom Link had any real chemistry beyond teaming up to save the kingdom, but the best of those is the one that wasn’t even a princess. In Skyward Sword, Zelda is a happy youth, the kind of spirited person that everyone is drawn to, a force of positivity and happiness. She also has had a crush on Link for years, as the two have been particular friends since they were kids, much to the annoyance of a jealous Biff-type schoolmate of theirs. This really is the boy-next-door meets girl-next-door story that has less of a fantasy feel than the other games, feeling more grounded and accessible.

Much of this realistic feeling is owed to the amount of awkwardness between the two whenever they’re left alone in the beginning and things start to get real. Zelda often fishes for compliments on her choice of clothes or weirdly, her harp, while Link stammers his way through the several “aw, shucks” responses. This is all highly endearing in a puppy love sort of way, but throughout the game we are reminded as well of how deeply these two really care for each other, with Zelda risking her life without a moment’s hesitation to save Link from falling, or the goddess’ plot exploiting the fact that Link would “throw [himself] headfirst into any danger, without even a moment’s doubt” to save her.

Still, though there are many acts of bravery and sacrifice on both sides that outwardly prove love, the beating heart of Link and Zelda’s relationship in Skyward Sword lies in the small moments, glances, and gestures that have players rooting for these two crazy kids to come through in the end. Zelda nervously folding her hands in his presence, Link’s embarrassment at the implication of a kiss, the playful way she is constantly pushing him off the edge of high places and endangering his life, etc. While the end makes no guarantees, as one of only three people living on the surface, this is Link’s best chance to make a life for himself outside of killing things.

Ten bucks says his “be aloof” strategy drove her straight to Groose.

***

And that’s it! So, while romance has never been a main focus of the Zelda series, that doesn’t mean Hyrule doesn’t have a pulse. Link’s made a life out of collecting hearts, and despite all the misfires with the ladies and fish ladies, Link’s still young. He’s just got to get back on that horse and find someone that’s not his horse. After all, it’s dangerous to go alone.

Though you could always choose the bottle…

Link-romance

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Indie Games Spotlight: Apple Arcade (Almost) All the Way

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Apple Arcade Indie Game Spotlight

We love indie games here at Goomba Stomp – after all, they can offer some of the most groundbreaking, creative experiences out there. However, with so many coming out every single week, it can be hard to know which of them deserve your attention. That’s why we’ve started our new Indie Games Spotlight series, where we’ll highlight some of our favorite new independent games every other week.

Our inaugural issue is dominated by the recently released Apple Arcade. Apple’s ambitious new service has brought with it plenty of standout titles to discuss, including some from respected creators like Devolver Digital and WayForward.

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Devolver Digital Joins the Arcade

Apple Arcade is upon us, coming with a slew of stylish indies from a variety of developers new and old. One of the service’s most immediately prominent supporters is the boutique publisher Devolver Digital, which is supported Apple’s platform with some exclusive new titles, two of which we’ll highlight below.

First is Bleak Sword, a compact brawler that takes place entirely in stylish dioramas. Inflicted with a deadly curse, players must traverse through the isometric black, white, and red environments to right the wrongs of their world. The action has been streamlined to work equally well on both mobile devices and traditional gamepads, although it has also been spiced up with some RPG elements like spells to cast and stats to upgrade. It’s available to play now for Apple Arcade subscribers.

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The second release is Cricket Through the Ages, which features “inarguably accurate recollections” of the game of cricket throughout human history. Some of its true-to-life scenarios include one prehistoric match between cavemen and dinosaurs, another taking place during a medieval joust, and of course, one in outer space. Featuring simple one-button controls and support for both single- and multiplayer, this historic romp may not be exactly accurate, but it certainly does look ridiculous and fun. It can be played now on Apple Arcade.

Indie Games Spotlight

Mosaic Paints a Bleak Picture of the Daily Grind

Mosaic is all about one of the most mundane aspects of existence: the daily grind. It takes place in a seemingly pristine world where there’s little more to life than clocking in and out of work and whiling away the idle hours with mindless mobile games. As reality becomes gripped in a “harrowing technological autocracy,” it tasks the player with becoming the lone rebel to shatter the façade.

With its polygonal 3D visuals and subversive narrative, it easily draws plenty of comparisons to Playdead’s iconic Inside, as well as more recent experiences in the same vein such as the excellent FAR: Lone Sails. For those looking for a more introspective, provocative experience, Mosaic should be well worth checking out. It’s available on Apple Arcade now and will come to consoles and PC later this year.

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Get your Zelda Fix with A Knight’s Tale

Between the remake of Link’s Awakening and the upcoming sequel to Breath of the Wild, Zelda fans certainly aren’t starved for content. However, if you want even more Zelda-like action beyond what Nintendo is offering, then A Knight’s Tale looks like it could do the trick.

A Knight’s Tale ticks all the Zelda-like boxes: stylized cartoon graphics, a massive world to explore, puzzle-filled dungeons, and simple action-based combat, to name a few. Powered by Unreal Engine and boasting of more than 30 hours of content, it’s looking like a hefty serving of Triforce-inspired goodness. Unlike most other games on this list, no Apple Arcade subscription will be required to play this adventure when it launches across all consoles (yes, including Switch) and PC this fall.

Indie Games Spotlight

Spidersaurs: Contra Meets Cartoons

Remember being a kid and waking up every Saturday, eagerly anticipating a morning full of colorful, action-packed cartoons? That’s the feeling that Spidersaurs aims to capture from its very first trailer. It presents a post-apocalyptic world that’s being ravaged by mutant dinosaur-spider hybrid and pairs this with a run-and-gun gameplay style that’s reminiscent of classic Contra games.

Perhaps the most notable thing about Spidersaurs is the pedigree behind it. It’s being developed by WayForward, the creators of all-time indie classics like the Shantae series as well as more recent hits like River City Girls. It’s safe to say that whenever WayForward is involved, a quality product is more than likely to result. It should be well worth a look, especially since it’s available now exclusively on Apple Arcade.

Go on an Emotional Adventure with Mutazione

Mutazione offers a completely different type of cartoon experience than Spidersaurs. This narrative-focused adventure game is a slow, laid-back experience populated by otherworldly characters and presented with a delicate hand-drawn aesthetic.

It tackles the topic of growing up, putting players in the role of 15-year-old Kai as she leaves home to care for her ailing grandfather in a mysterious, forested world. It teases a mixture of relaxing slice-of-life activities – making friends, playing music, going to parties – while also alluding to a broader spiritual journey. Like so many other games on this list, it’s available to play now on Apple Arcade. It’s also available for purchase on PS4 and PC, for those who haven’t dived into Apple’s new service yet.

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Game Reviews

‘Borderlands 3’ Looks to the Stars While Stuck on the Ground

After a long hiatus, Borderlands returns… pretty much the same as it always was, for better or worse.

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Borderlands 3

Borderlands 3 is one of the most bizarre gaming experiences of this generation, a highly-anticipated, long-awaited sequel clearly feeling the pressure of living in its predecessor’s enormous shadow. Both beholden to its past and searching for its future, Borderlands 3 is a strange amalgamation of abundantly familiar elements and a few new ideas, most of which never truly find harmony with each other during the game’s lengthy campaign.

Borderlands 3 is perfectly content to just be more Borderlands, with all the expected thrills and frustrations one would expect from that philosophy.

In its attempts to look forward and backward at the same time, Borderlands 3 ends up feeling like a series of half-measures, a collection of systems and story beats that, in the few moments they’re able to take evolutionary steps for the franchise, feel like there’s still room for the now decade-old series to grow. Unfortunately, across the 50+ hours I’ve spent traversing, shooting, and constantly marking items for junk in my inventory, Borderlands 3 hasn’t offered those moments nearly enough, too often falling victim to its old habits, using its legacy as a crutch, rather than a device to propel the franchise into its (admittedly uncertain) future.

Borderlands 3

It doesn’t help Borderlands 3 front loads some of its worst writing; the opening act of the game is gratingly awful, hammering away at the same few punchlines for its characters as players embark on the series of fetch quests that comprise the game’s opening hours. Beginning some unidentified amount of time after Borderlands 2, Borderlands 3 opens on a war-ravaged Pandora enraptured by its inhabitants latest obsession: the Calypso Twins, who have seemingly galvanized the majority of the Crimson Raiders in their quest to… well, we’ll talk more about the Calypso Twins, and their role in the story, a bit later.

Early on, Borderlands 3 is desperately trying to prove to the audience it is still the same ol’ Borderlands, interrupting its genitalia references to break the fourth wall and acknowledges that yes, we’re once again beginning with a series of annoyingly spread-out fetch quests to introduce characters and establish tone. But the delivery of the game’s typical blend of meta humor and pop culture references feels stale on arrival; the lengthy fetch quests just feel like simplistic mission design, and “big dick energy” jokes just don’t hit like they used to in 2019.

(There’s also an entire plot line built around Ice-T as a sentient teddy bear, who calls his in-game wife a bitch constantly, in between dick jokes. It’s as terrible as it sounds.)

Borderlands 3 quickly establishes these abundantly familiar rhythms – and then, surprisingly, doesn’t do much to expand upon them through the rest of the game’s main campaign. Though Gearbox has called this title “the big one” in the past, it doesn’t feel like a major step forward in any sense of the word – and at worst, Borderlands 3 occasionally feels like a regression of what it does best, a slow burn of slight disappointments which add up to a confounding experience.

Borderlands 3

There’s also Borderlands‘ absolute dismissal of Twitch culture; as the introductory chapters of the game catch players up on the Calypso Twins’ sudden accrual of power, Borderlands 3 has a strangely “old man yells at cloud” feeling to it (to myself borrow an overused meme for a moment), an odd feeling for a game that prides itself on its own (debatable) edginess and camp.

The Calypso Twins are built around the stereotypical cult of personality associated with the biggest streamers of the world – and boy, does Borderlands 3 not spare an ounce of vitriol for the admittedly complicated, often disturbingly regressive world of streamer culture (though they do have a weapon that is a direct Dr. Disrespect reference, and also feature some of the most elaborate Twitch integrations of any modern game). But Borderlands 3 admonishes creator and follower alike with an empty dismissal of the “influencer” – in a rather bleak application of its signature nihilism, it buries any kind of interesting exploration of the Twins- as either characters or societal critique – under a thick layer of cynicism.

It never really even contemplates their place as unifers in a galaxy full of corporations addicted to war profits, under a thin, cynical veneer of disregard for their place in any culture, Pandorian or human – its critique of streamer culture ultimately just feels empty. At times, it even feels hypocritical; unsurprisingly, Borderlands 3’s consistently been one of the most-watched games on Twitch since before its public release last week (plus again; there are multiple streamer-related references sprinkled through the game). It’s contradictory at best – and when considering how thin the public personas of Troy and Tyreen are actually defined outside of “shitty streamer people and their shitty followers”, it just feels weird.

Borderlands 3

Like the story, the shooting and looting of the game is immediately familiar, though it is a much more welcoming feeling: the single biggest improvement to Borderlands 3 is the shooting, which feels tighter and heavier than it has the previous three entries in the series. If there’s a truly transcendent evolution of the game’s formula, it’s found here: the shooting is simply magnificent from the word go, especially with the new traversal elements of mantling and power sliding, movement options that do wonders to bring life to the game’s many, many, many, many engagements with massive groups of enemies, hidden baddies, and massive (-ly lengthy, though mostly well-varied) boss encounters.

The class selection is also fantastic; there’s a distinct rejection of Borderlands 2‘s semi-linear class system, with each of the game’s four characters featuring multiple unique skill trees players can utilize to create an impressive diversity of builds with. There are hints of old characters in Fl4K, Zane, Amara, and Moze, but those elements are welcomely remixed and expanded upon, in creative ways I just wish the rest of Borderlands 3 would take a hint from; I’ve never had so much fun switching between characters in a previous game, experimenting with the intersections of their diverse ability sets, and seeing how the game’s Legendary and Anointed equipment rarities can further those builds is easily the most satisfying part of the game (though admittedly, all four classes take until about level 30 before they truly unlock their mechanical potential).

Borderlands 3

It is worth noting the game’s technical performance is as inconsistent as its narrative; for a game that’s been in development for so long, Borderlands 3 feels particularly unpolished for a finished product – hell, between writing and editing this review, I lost a collection of 50 legendary items out of my storage bank because of a widespread bug, kind of an unforgivable mistake for an entire game built around loot hunting.

Outside of the major performance issues widely-reported since the game’s release – including the virtually unplayable “Resolution mode” on Playstation 4 Pro – Borderlands 3 is ripe with the glitches of the past: broken mission objectives, inconsistent AI companion pathing – and, as an added bonus, the expected bevy of Unreal Engine quirks (like falling through the map multiple times). Though it seems like a small complaint, waiting 5-7 seconds for your in-game menu to load in every few minutes in a 2019 video game quickly becomes frustrating, one of many examples of Borderlands 3‘s many rough edges.

(Playing as Moze in multiplayer was a particular low light: from the gravitational physics of my character completely breaking, to glitches that rendered my player utterly unmovable, Borderlands 3‘s co-op modes are frustratingly janky, to the point split-screen co-op is almost unplayable in its current state.)

But the most frustrating part of Borderlands 3 is (outside of the character classes, of course) how risk-averse the entire affair is; in terms of mechanics and systems, it is mostly an integration of Borderlands 2 and the new elements of The Pre-Sequel, with a couple of light improvements around the edges. For example, there are now gear scores attached to every item a player picks up; there’s still no way to effectively manage an inventory, or even a consistency to how the scores are formulated, but hey, at least there’s kind of a way to compare gear (which one will do constantly, since inventory management is a still a hot mess).

Borderlands 3

For every tiny improvement, there’s a concession attached to it; a great example is the game’s map and mission tracking systems. While the map now shows the topography of each area, a useless mini-map and a thoroughly aggravating menu UI make juggling multiple missions an absolute chore (even though one can switch missions on the fly with a touch of the button, there’s no way to see multiple objectives on the map, or even switch between them while in the map menu).

This persists across the entire Borderlands 3 experience: and as the tale of the Calypso Twins and the Great Vault lurches through its interminably lengthy second and third acts, it begins to wear on the experience. For better or worse, Borderlands 3 further entrenches itself in the habits and rhythms of Borderlands 2 – which, after seven years, begins to feel stale in areas, frustratingly reluctant to change, or even reflect on its well-established sensibilities (or on itself; there are literal jokes made about CEO Randy Pitchford’s many controversies, which are… uncomfortable at best). And while the game certainly demonstrates the effectiveness of carefully refining its (rightfully celebrated) mechanics, its absolute reluctance to take creative risks begs the question of why it took so long to bring this game together (or, at the very least, begs the question of whether Gearbox really wanted to do a Borderlands 3 at all, and only green lit the project after the overwhelming failure of Battleborn).

As the game moves through its middle chapters, it just feels lacking in a way Borderlands 2 never did, even with its predecessors own inconsistent humor and pacing. Though ostensibly a journey spread across the galaxy, featuring a massive cast of familiar and new characters, so much of Borderlands 3 feels small and isolated. Every area of the game is broken up into tiny segments, covering small areas of these seemingly massive planets – an experience itself constantly broken up by lengthy loading screens and regular back tracking, which doesn’t exactly vibe with the game’s epic, world-hopping scope.

Borderlands 3

The absence of the player-characters in the central narrative is another head-scratching omission; despite the inclusion of unique dialogue for every character throughout the game, the four main personalities of Borderlands 3 feel underdeveloped – a problem that persists considering how little they’re seen during the most important moments of the game. They’re explicitly excluded from so many of the game’s cinematic moments, they almost feel absent from the game’s actual story (despite the inclusion of unique dialogue for every character throughout the game, an experiment that pays off to mixed results).

I think about the ending of Borderlands 2, and how much potential it held for the future of the series: the promise of exploring entire planets with friends, finding Vaults and hidden pop culture references was almost breath-taking in its ambition. With its series of linearly-designed, stunted “zones” and limited planet selection at launch, Borderlands 3 never really harnesses the long-gestating potential for growth; and as the story begins building towards its climactic moments, it only further highlights the creative dissonance that plagues so many aspects of the game.

The clearest distillation of Borderlands 3‘s identity crisis is found in the game’s story, which struggles to justify itself as something more than just “another” Borderlands game. It is torn between its desires to attempt something new (at least, at times), and the emotional attachment it knows the audience has with the characters, rhythms, and memorable moments from the first three games of the series. It leads to a story that often follows a template: travel to new area, meet familiar old character for a mission, fight through a series of gently-guiding corridors while constantly staring at the map, rinse, and repeat for thirty-five hours.

Borderlands 3

Save for the occasional interlude and amusing side story – though that often finds itself stuck in its own loop, with a collection of ancillary characters who either wants to remind you how funny poop is, or how much people in this world enjoy murder and death – to the point its cynical nihilism is no longer humorous, and eventually becomes exhausting.

Sure, there are a couple new characters introduced, but they’re left to the fringes of the main narrative, which is, for all intents and purposes, a retread of Borderlands 2‘s major beats. Yes, it occasionally attempts to subvert expectations, but mostly by presenting a mirrored version of the series’ previous events – where Borderlands 2 was about an evil father manipulating their disgruntled child and the Vault Hunters, Borderlands 3 is basically about mad children manipulating their father and the Vault Hunters – but it is satisfied to simply just be that story, and not much more (and at times, even becomes wholly illogical… remember The Watcher and their foreboding warnings? Neither does Borderlands 3, apparently).

There is one particularly strong section of story, however, and it comes in an unexpected place: after serving the role of enigmatic mission giver (and named member of the Borderlands 2‘s lamest DLC), Sir Hammerlock’s arc in the middle section of Borderlands 3, while disappointingly divorced from the central events of the game, is emotionally propulsive in ways none of the other story is, a moment where Borderlands 3‘s themes find their voice for a too-brief amount of time.

Part love story, and part exploration of the intersections of family and legacy, Borderlands 3‘s tale of Hammerlock and the Jakobs family is so satisfying,the one time Borderlands 3 stops screaming at the player in its desperation to be funny or surprising. For a few hours,the overwhelming nihilism of Borderlands‘ eternally cynical world view melts away, and the series truly offers something akin to hope and possibility in its world. It represents the beautiful essence of Borderlands expansive set of characters, companies, and legacies, and is the rare moment where Borderlands 3 finds harmonic brilliance between its shooting, looting, joking, and genuine attempts at emotional beats.

Borderlands 3

But like most of the other familiar faces in Borderlands 3, Hammerlock’s story is contained to his few chapters on his home planet; for a game that ultimately turns on a story of family and shared purpose, there’s so much of Borderlands 3 that just feels like it is missing the mark, or ignoring it altogether. Outside of Lilith and Claptrap (and for a brief time before her quickly-forgotten disposal, Maya) none of the game’s previously playable characters factor into the narrative in any way – hell, most of them, like Axton, Gaige, Salvatore and Krieg, don’t appear or are barely mentioned at all, which kind of takes away from the game’s attempts to be an all-encompassing adventure through the history (and theoretical future) of its surrogate family of bandits, adventurers, scientists, and adventure seekers.

Instead, there’s a lot of focus put on a handful of underwhelming new characters (including Ava, the game’s single biggest missed opportunity relegated to Whiny Teen tropes), only occasionally interjecting those sequences with familiar faces: multiple major characters of the series have precisely one mission dedicated to them through the story, which again feels like Borderlands 3 lacking confidence in its own identity, unable to commit to forging new paths, and instead peppering serotonin-laced doses of nostalgia across the story as a half-measure to cover up that Borderlands 3 really has nothing new to say about its world, its people, or the story it’s been telling now for a decade.

Borderlands 3 is perfectly content to just be more Borderlands, with all the expected thrills and frustrations one would expect from that philosophy. That doesn’t make it an abject failure, of course: it’s still a game I’m going to play for hundreds of hours with my friends, thanks to the sheer diversity of gun play and character builds (it is a sequel to one of my favorite games of all time, after all) – but there’s a distinct feeling Borderlands 3 could’ve been so much more than… well, just more of the same Borderlands. Seven years after its last mainline entry (and five after its forgettable, under cooked “pre-sequel”), just being Borderlands one more time makes it feel like a series stuck in the past, retreating to safe waters by simply remixing the old game… with a strangely newfound (and ultimately, superficial) hatred of streamer culture layered on top to feel relevant in 2019.

Borderlands 3

That allegiance to the past ultimately comes at a cost; it makes the few moments Borderlands 3 tries to evolve stand out in stark contrast to the rest of the game, complete 180’s in emotional tenor that are never met by equal risks taken in gameplay design, or the construction of the main narrative. When the dick jokes and meme references subside, there is an emotionally satisfying core deep inside Borderlands 3, one that highlights the spaces in between the game’s consistently enjoyable shooting and looting gameplay loop (there’s a particular photo I discovered in the game’s later moments that literally brought me to tears, a quietly poignant and beautiful moment this game desperately needs more of).

But that version of Borderlands 3 only comes out in fits and starts, often hindered by the series’ allegiance to its old identity, one that time, and most of the gaming industry, has passed by (at least, during the main story; I’ll be back next week with thoughts on the post-credits/endgame experience). There is a great version of Borderlands 3 somewhere, a more driven action-RPG with a tighter campaign experience, a more ambitious, fully-formed story, and a true expansion of its celebrated mechanics to marry to the game’s wonderfully diverse class set and enhanced movement options. It’s just not this inflated, safe iteration of the series, one that drowns its few iterative innovations in a sea of repetitive familiarity.

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Games

Could Apple Arcade Be the Best Gaming Subscription Service Yet?

Gaming has its fair share of subscription services, but with its flexibility and clarity, Apple Arcade could be among the very best.

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Apple Arcade

Gaming has moved beyond consoles and physical storefronts. The past few years have seen the birth of ambitious new projects like Xbox Game Pass and Google Stadia, which aim to change the way you play your games. Apple has now entered the fray with a subscription service of its own, Apple Arcade. This might look like little more than yet another effort from a major company to capitalize on major trends, but in reality, this new project has the potential to be the best gaming subscription platform yet.

So…what is it?

Apple Arcade is a basic concept: for $5.00 per month, you gain access to an expanding library of games that can be played across all Apple devices, including Mac, Apple TV, iPhone, and iPad.

Compared to other subscription platforms out there, Apple Arcade is refreshingly simple. Unlike Xbox Game Pass, you don’t need to spend extra money to play your games on additional platforms; for that one monthly price, every game can be played across every one of your Apple devices. And unlike Google Stadia, a solid internet connection isn’t required to play your games. Every title on the Arcade can be natively downloaded onto the device of your choice and played regardless of the strength of your WiFi.

Apple Arcade

The mention of iPhone and iPad may have already set some readers on edge – after all, the gaming community can’t agree on much, but it has generally determined that mobile games aren’t always the best. They rarely provide the same caliber of experiences as console or PC games, so why would anyone want to spend a monthly fee to play a bunch of mediocre mobile games?

However, Apple Arcade is intensely curated to provide a high quantity of stylish, memorable games from some of the most respected creators in the field. For instance, famed indie publishers like Devolver Digital and Annapurna Interactive are fully on board, with multiple exclusive games planned to launch with the service. That’s not to mention the sheer number of highly anticipated indie games like Overland, Sayonara Wild Hearts, and Shantae and the Seven Sirens that will be included in the Arcade. Appple’s website promises that more than 100 different games will be available to play over the course of the launch period this fall, so if the game library can keep up this quality, then it could be promising indeed.

Image result for sayonara wild hearts gif
Sayonara Wild Hearts is just one of the many incredibly stylish indie games of Apple Arcade.

What makes Apple Arcade so special, anyway?

It seems like every company and their mother has a storefront nowadays. Ubisoft, Blizzard, Epic, and even Rockstar have all debuted platforms of their own, while Google Stadia is trying to remove traditional platforms entirely. In such a crowded environment, how can Apple Arcade possibly stand out? Simply put, Apple Arcade is already set to be the most flexible and easy-to-understand gaming subscription platform yet.

Every one of the many subscription platforms out there touts its “flexibility” in allowing you to choose what games to play and where to play them. Apple Arcade does the same thing but with one major difference: less limitations. As mentioned earlier, each game can be downloaded directly onto your device, and with save data being stored in the cloud, progress can be carried on between every one of your Apple products. Meanwhile, platforms like Google Stadia effectively shut down without constant WiFi access.

Apple Arcade
Apple Arcade offers a lot of games on a lot of platforms for a low price

In terms of price, Apple Arcade continues to stand out. For $5.00 a month, you can play over a hundred unique titles. Compare this with the $15.00/mo price of Xbox Game Pass or the $10.00 subscription price of Google Stadia Premium, and Apple Arcade easily comes out on top (that’s not to mention that you still have to pay for Stadia games individually on top of the monthly fee). For reference, a year of access to the more than 100 games in Apple Arcade costs the same as the retail price of a single triple-A retail title. You won’t need to invest in a new controller either, since PlayStation and Xbox gamepads are fully supported.

Even when it comes to the games included, Apple Arcade should stand out from the crowd. Stadia may already have some massive third party blockbusters like Cyberpunk 2077 and DOOM Eternal, but they don’t offer much incentive to be played on Google’s streaming service instead of traditional consoles or PCs. On the other hand, Apple Arcade’s low price point and more practical flexibility offer a compelling reason to play games on Apple’s service instead of purchasing them individually on other platforms. That’s not to mention the handful of exclusives available at launch or coming soon after, from famous minds like SimCity creator Will Wright and the father of Final Fantasy himself, Hironobu Sakaguchi.

The world of gaming certainly has more than its fair share of subscription services. Yet Apple Arcade stands out for its clarity, its accessibility, and its remarkable library. With these factors combined, it could become the very best gaming subscription on the market.

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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. We are currently looking for Indie Game reviewers.

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