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‘Persona 5’ Review – Stealing Your Heart and the Show

Persona 5 is a great game that sets a high bar with its amazing visuals, audio, gameplay, and story. It is a definitive purchase for anyone who finds themselves to be a fan of role-playing games, Japanese or otherwise.

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There are few games that reach the level of detail and style that Persona 5 has achieved. Everything, from the game’s striking and bold visuals to its snappy and catchy soundtrack, overflows with a level of love and dedication not seen in many games. Persona 5 is a 90+ hour modern RPG that delivers a story and gameplay experience above that of its predecessor and spiritual prequel, Persona 4.

Persona 5 follows the same basic structure as its predecessors, Persona 3 and 4: High schooler by day and vigilante by night. During the day you go to school, hang out with friends, and take in all the sights that Tokyo has to offer. The game takes place over the course of a year, and the map is constantly expanding as you discover new locations throughout the region. The city is vibrant and lively. It’s full of people and activity like any major city should be, and it stands in stark contrast to the much less active and bustling town from Persona 4. Faceless students and salarymen walk from train station to train station on the their morning an evening commutes, you can overhear the gossip of other people as you walk around the city, and each location has its own special shops that sell unique items, accessories, and gifts.

The liveliness of Tokyo doesn’t end with just its background though, as this attention to detail is even brought into things like menus or loading screens. The same NPCs you see walking around Shibuya or any of the train stations fill the loading screen as they move from one locale to next, and each shop keeper gets their own specialized shop menu. The doctor at the local clinic will spin around in her chair, check charts, and cross her legs as you navigate your way through selections of medicine and healing items for example.

During the daytime you’re also encouraged to make confidants, or friends, with the people you interact with from day-to-day. Persona 5’s main themes are about overcoming prejudice and adverse authority, and each confidant has their own issues they’re struggling with related to these cases. The aforementioned doctor was forced to take the fall for a medical screw-up made by her boss, there’s a politician trying to undo the mistakes of his past, and a girl that’s had her antagonizing mother’s hopes and dreams forcibly thrust on her, to name a few. Each confidant’s story is interesting, and while they’re not as fleshed out as the main members of the cast, it’s hard to not feel for them at times.

Confidants come in all shapes and sizes from your teammates to your homeroom teacher.

In past Persona titles these extra stories served little outside of making your level grind easier by giving you bonus experience, but in Persona 5 each confidant provides some kind of unique service both in and outside the life-sim elements of the game. Some of these hold a little more weight than others, and completing each confidant’s story line rewards you with both a great side-story and gameplay-related bonus. A shogi player will teach you battle tactics, the doctor will research new medicine, and even one of your teachers will help you in the evenings so you can get more stuff done.

When you’re not walking around Tokyo and taking care of your social life as a student you’re exploring the Metaverse, or the collective human unconscious, as the leader of the Phantom Thieves. A group built on the frustrations of disempowered youth, the Phantom Thieves seek to change the world by reforming the corrupt hearts of those in power. Each member of your ragtag team of freedom fighters has their own tie to someone abusing or using them, you included. The driving force behind the story is the fact that you were set up to take the fall in a crime you didn’t commit. You have to start your life over and move to a new city in order to escape the restrictions of being a convicted felon. One thing leads to another and you soon find yourself in control a Persona, a reflection of your own heart, which allows you to fight the other reflections within the Metaverse.

The Metaverse exists in between reality, and those with strong evil convictions subconsciously build dungeons, called Palaces, where their shadows reside.  By going into the Metaverse and defeating a shadow the Thieves can force a change of heart in the individual, and make them to confess their own crimes out of guilt. Each Palace is vastly different in color, design, and layout from the one before it. Unlike dungeons in Persona 3 or 4, Palaces are built as individually constructed levels rather than being procedurally generated. Each Palace comes with its set of sneaking points and puzzles that fit perfectly with the Palace theme. You use secret passage ways in an old castle and find clever ways to avoid security lasers in a museum to name a few.

There is one weak link to Palace design, Mementos, a side-dungeon that uses the same random generation that 3 and 4 used. It’s a small blemish on an otherwise great system and doesn’t really take too much out of the game. You won’t spend too much time in Mementos though, as most sections can be cleared in roughly half an hour or so, and you’ll only find your stays taking longer when there’s a side-quest to take care of.

Combat in Persona 5 is turn-based, a series staple, but it flows with a depth that’s akin to other ATLUS rpgs. Exploiting elemental weaknesses or landing critical hits knocks enemies down and gives you extra turns. The same is true for your enemies, and one small misstep can lead to a game over on higher difficulties. An element from older Persona games that was brought back for 5 is negotiation. When you knock a group of enemy shadows down you’re given the option to bargain with them. Every shadow falls into a certain class, and if say the right things you can easily extort money, items, or even ask them to join you as a new Persona (which can be fused with each other to make even more Personas).

Mastering combat feels rewarding, as it opens ways for plenty of unique combos with powerful outcomes. A true mastery of combat is needed for most of the major boss fights, which turn things on their head thanks to the unique gimmicks they introduce. Simply trying to brute force your way through a difficult fight is often the wrong way to go about it and will, more often than not, lead to your demise.

Both reality and the Metaverse are complimented by a masterful soundtrack. Both Persona 3 and 4 stuck to variations of pop-rock, but Persona 5 steps a bit more towards jazz with mixes of several other genres in between. In particular, the later Palace themes are some of the most memorable in the game because of how perfectly they fit their respective settings. Other standout portions of the soundtrack include the various battle themes as well as many of the slower tracks that play during evenings. There’s a huge amount of variety, even for simple background tracks, as weather conditions like rain can cause a slight change in tempo to readjust the mood.

The facial animations in cutscenes are strikingly well done, and each one is filled with emotion and vigor.

There’s one other element between the gameplay, visuals, and music that also stands out: the writing. Persona 5’s cast is one that’s easy to empathize with. The main cast isn’t defined by their high schooler age, but rather their actions. Some of these kids have been to hell and back, some lived through abusive situations, but all of them have to find ways to overcome and cope with both personal and societal stressors that have brought them into the Phantom Thieves. Despite being set in high school, Persona 5 is far from your typical “teenagers save the world” JRPG plot. It’s not just the main cast though, the villains are well-defined too. And while you maybe won’t agree with their actions, they all have a story and aren’t left as being evil for the sake of being evil.

The voice acting only serves to further this attachment, as both the English and Japanese voice cast bring out the best in each line. The real stand out performances in the both the English and Japanese dub are for Yusuke, an aloof and dramatic artist with some of the game’s best one-liners. Both actors do a great job of conveying his personality as he has plenty of mood changes. Every actor does a stand up performance though, and Persona 5’s dub also one of the best the series has seen since its start over 20 years ago. The game comes with dual audio so you can listen to whichever you prefer, but both are exceptionally good. The one major weakness of the English track is a few odd name pronunciations, but all the emotion behind the characters is still there.

There are so many positive things about Persona 5 that it’s difficult to sum them all up in a 1500~ word review. I haven’t gone over all the great little tidbits in the localization, the intricacies of the Persona fusion system, the vast amount of things you can do in Tokyo other than talk with confidants and shop,  and even the small shout outs and references to other things in pop culture. Persona 5 is a game stuffed at the seams with quality content. It’s an amazing game, whose only real hang ups are a few mispronunciations and one or two pacing issues that last for maybe 4 or 5 hours in a 90+ hour title. Persona 5 is only loosely connected with other games in the series, and requires no prior knowledge to fully enjoy. Any fan of RPGs (J or otherwise) is doing themselves a disservice by not picking up Persona 5.

Persona 5 Review

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6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. John Cal McCormick

    April 18, 2017 at 8:08 am

    This is the best JRPG I’ve played in years. I find it interesting that Persona and Final Fantasy games came out after long development cycles, both trying to update the genre for a modern audience, and both picked completely different ways of going about it. Final Fantasy became a Western role playing game with Japanese characters and tropes. Persona doubled down on the turn based battling while making everything else around it more accessible, colourful, and interesting.

    It’s a superb game.

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Game Reviews

‘Link’s Awakening’ for Switch Review: A Recurring Dream Nearly Realized

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Charming as it still is, going back to the Game Boy’s Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening can produce mixed emotions, as modern convenience has not been kind to its two-button control scheme and other annoying quirks. Yet, the draw of Koholint Island’s bizarre story and oddball atmosphere persists — so much so that Nintendo has decided to give their aging experimentation a very welcome Switch facelift, with pleasant visual updates and added accessibility that should mostly satisfy longtime fans and help initiate newcomers. However, a distracting lack of polish and ambition blurs the vision, and holds this otherwise enjoyable remake (re-imagining?) back from attaining the sublime dreaminess it deserves.

Link's Awakening for Switch house

That has little to do with the base game; Link’s Awakening for Switch is essentially the same great experience Zelda veterans will remember, albeit prettier and with some quality-of-life additions along the way, such as dedicated buttons for common actions (like swinging a sword or dashing, thankfully), useful map markers, and bottles for fairies (sorry Crazy Tracy, but you’ve become obsolete). Link also moves in eight directions now, which feels much better (though he can still only dash in four), and the world scrolls by in a more seamless fashion, allowing tantalizing peeks into neighboring areas that weren’t visible before.

Obviously those are great tweaks, and they help Link’s Awakening for Switch flow away from the sometimes stilted pace caused by constant menu-opening that could make the original a bit of a slog at times (especially when a lot of item-swapping was necessary). There’s also a bit of extra content this time around, the most notable being a dungeon editor at the location of the former Camera Shop, and some additional dolls to win at the claw game that can be placed in various houses around the world as decorations. None of these perks contribute in any meaningful way, but hey — if you’re into arranging previously played dungeon rooms into booby-trapped mazes for your Zelda friends to test out like lab rats, then maybe Dampé’s house will get some use.

Link's Awakening For Switch

No, the pitch here is basically that the Switch version is still the same old Link’s Awakening, but better looking — and for many, that will be enough. Koholint’s new plastic sheen projects a more playful, friendly vibe that makes for an agreeable, relaxing journey. Some of the darker aspects may not land quite as hard as they did with those stark, black-and-white pixels (the Game Boy Color version also had a more cheery feel), but there’s something about the rubbery trees, fuzzy grass, and rippling ponds that suggests a less-melancholy island of misfit toys.

And with a collection of some of the strangest characters of the series, as well as a surprisingly poignant story, this small-scale adventure has lost none of its appeal as an engaging Zelda title. Sure, there are a few times where inexperienced players might get stuck at a particularly opaque puzzle, and though the wise owl and phone weirdo Ulrira give plenty of direction, sometimes you just have to set out and explore. Poke around a bit. That’s how games used to be, and it’s actually refreshing when Link isn’t being pushed along; there’s a beautiful (and manageable) world out there, filled with all sorts of secrets to uncover.

Link's Awakening for Switch desert

Beautiful, that is, when the frame rate isn’t taking a nosedive. The biggest disappointment with Link’s Awakening for Switch is not in the decades-old game design, but in the remake’s current performance. That seamlessly scrolling world tries to hide its loading, but stumbles quite frequently when doing so. Every time Link enters town, transitions to another area, or steps out of a cave or house, the visuals chug to catch up, largely stuttering until they can stabilize again. As someone who usually doesn’t care about such things, I was surprised at how much these short-but-jarring dips took me out of the pleasant atmosphere and affected my enjoyment. A Link Between Worlds set the top-down Zelda standard for buttery smooth gameplay, and it shouldn’t be unreasonable to expect similar polish when remaking one of the franchise’s most revered entries.

Instead, Link’s Awakening for Switch remains rough around the edges in this and other ways as well, niggling though those issues may be. It’s not uncommon for items dropped by enemies to get stuck on geometry (why does it always happen when you really need that heart?), and swinging the sword feels a bit awkward and clunky, occasionally only registering a hit on one enemy despite multiple being struck. Link also waddles a tad on the slow side, and the platforming actions feel loose — nit-picks for sure, but noticeable in their lack of refinement.

Link' Awakening for Switch bird

None of this twists Link’s Awakening for Switch into some kind of nightmare — far from it — but this remake seems like a wasted opportunity to retune an ancient instrument into a modern marvel capable of hitting the highest notes, and that’s not quite what’s happened here. What we get is a very fine edition of a fantastic game — one that will give longtime fans a great excuse to return to island exile, and hopefully introduce a whole new generation of players to one of the Zelda franchise’s most interesting and off-beat adventures. But though it’s certainly the best version yet of this classic, Link’s Awakening for Switch doesn’t quite reach the definitive summit.

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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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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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Game Reviews

‘Heave Ho’ Review: Us & Chuck

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Couch co-op is a phrase that’s used pretty infrequently these days. In fact, it seems that couch co-op wasn’t even a phrase at all until it wasn’t the norm anymore. With the modern emphasis on online experiences, the delights of a room full of screaming maniacs stumbling through a party game is largely a lost remnant of generations past. This, however, poses a difficult conundrum to any reviewers unfortunate enough to be unable to fulfill the most vital component for a couch co-op game review: a full couch. Treading in the wobbly footsteps of party classic Mount Your Friends (and clasping at the slippery tentacles of Octodad), Heave Ho is a game fundamentally for social people.

Its premise is a very similar task that involves swinging your wacky avatar’s limbs around, desperately trying to grab hold of any nearby surfaces. The game is more concerned with getting your character to the end of an obstacle course than clambering over your opponents like in Mount Your Friends, and there are a distinctly smaller number of limbs to control (and appendages to laugh at).

Couch co-op is a phrase that’s used pretty infrequently these days. In fact, it seems that couch co-op wasn’t even a phrase at all until it wasn’t the norm anymore. With the modern emphasis on online experiences, the delights of a room full of screaming maniacs stumbling through a party game is largely a lost remnant of generations past. This, however, poses a difficult conundrum to any reviewers unfortunate enough to be unable to fulfill the most vital component for a couch co-op game review: a full couch. Treading in the wobbly footsteps of party classic Mount Your Friends (and clasping at the slippery tentacles of Octodad), Heave Ho is a game fundamentally for social people.

Its premise involves the very similar task of swinging your wacky avatar’s limbs around, desperately trying to grab hold of any nearby surfaces. But Heave Ho is more concerned with getting your character to the end of an obstacle course than clambering over your opponents like in Mount Your Friends, and there is a distinctly smaller number of limbs to control (and appendages to laugh at).

Fingertips count in ‘Heave Ho’

There’s really not much to Heave Ho that warrants more explaining, as expressed via the world’s shortest tutorial at the beginning of the first level. Use the left analog stick for moving both of your character’s arms, press L or ZL for grabbing with the left arm, and press R or ZR for the right; that’s it. At least, that would be it, unless — and this is admittedly a somewhat niche bugbear — you’re a user of the neon red/blue launch Joy-Con, because their colors are flipped on the game’s assistance gloves. You can tell yourself you won’t be affected, but if you’re playing handheld and staring at bright blue and red in your own hands, you’re naturally going to associate those colors with the in-game hands.

A lot of the game feels flat solo, but these moments are still great

Upon acknowledgement of the incredibly basic controls, players are promptly (and literally) dropped straight into the level, left to fumble your way around the various objects and pitfalls en route to the goal. Striking a balance between careful, methodical navigation and reckless flinging is the key to success, with the former being more reliable and the latter being a hell of a lot more fun.

Heave Ho does feels a little forced in terms of its attempts at humor; it’s all very noisy, colorful and silly, which is obviously the point, and playing a game where you chuck a gangly anthropomorphic blob around with little-to-no coordination is never going to be the way to get your fill of sophisticated chuckles. I guess goofy wigs and obnoxious voices are funny to some people, but as the game gets harder and the challenges begin to frustrate, the humor is less of a mood lifter and more of an annoyance.

It all looks like fun and games here, but this world is horrific

The strength of a game like this will typically be measured in the number of laughs emanating from a packed living room, but its longevity will always be judged on how it endears as a solo experience. This is even more vital in the absence of online multiplayer, meaning you’re either playing with a house full of mates, or by yourself. I don’t have a house full of mates all that often, so the majority of my time with the game was playing solo, and that really doesn’t feel like the optimum way to get the most out of Heave Ho. The wacky, party-gaming hijinks sharply degenerate into a frustrating, often tedious slog when played alone.

The moments of intense satisfaction when nailing a long swing to a distant platform, or completing a particularly tricky level, shouldn’t be ignored, but they are too often mired by either boredom or anger. Easier levels require very little thought or technique to complete, and late-game ones are rage-inducing. This is exacerbated by the inexplicable decision from the developers to force players to complete all of an area’s levels in one run. There are no checkpoints after individual levels, so if you find yourself at a wall on the final level of a run and need a break from the game, you’re going to have to go back and complete all its preceding levels just to get yourself back.

I ain’t even gotta look!

This is a real mood-killer, and I found myself apathetically averse to trudging back through older levels to merely match the progress of a previous day’s attempts, especially when that previous day ended in frustration anyway. The type of game that Heave Ho is — one that builds itself on rapid-fire, bite-size challenges — just cannot benefit from forcing players into marathon sittings, especially when multiple people are required for optimum enjoyment.

Having online options would help, and it’s baffling as to why couch co-op and online co-op are mutually exclusive in some games. Playing an online game of Worms back on Xbox 360 was one of the most hilarious experiences I’ve had in any multiplayer game, and it’s such a shame to be denied even the potential for this with Heave Ho instead of being left to drag my tired fiancé to the TV for some forced hilarity. It might have been the worst possible litmus test for a party game, but were she writing this review it would have consisted largely of how “stressful,” she found it. I saw a few smiles, but perhaps the game isn’t as inclusive as it tries to present itself.

Two heads are definitely not better than one here

With the fiancé out of the potential player pool, I may bring Heave Ho out at a more receptive social occasion in the future, as the potential for communal hilarity is definitely there, but solo play is definitely not going to be something to engage in again. Perhaps if the necessary quality of life improvements were made — chiefly, being able to swap the colours of the assist gloves around and having a checkpoint after each level — then players might be more inclined to hammer away at it, but unfortunately, it’s likely to be just squirreled away as a potential curiosity rather than a go-to source of fun.

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Game Reviews

‘The Walking Dead: The Telltale Definitive Series’ Review: A Bittersweet Swan Song for Telltale’s Defining Game Series

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When Telltale Games released The Walking Dead game back in 2012, there was no telling as to how the point and click interactive adventure game was going to be received. But the game became more than just a success. It became a critically acclaimed and commercially successful phenomenon that transformed Telltale Games into an A-list game development studio overnight. Winning countless awards- including a huge amount of Game of The Year awards from various publications– The Walking Dead proved that games that focus on delivering engaging narratives and well-developed characters can be just as good as big and bombastic games.

However, the closure of Telltale Games in September 2018 meant that several projects were cancelled and The Walking Dead: The Final Season, which had just released its second episode, was suddenly thrown into a state of uncertainty. With the fans desperately wanting to complete Clementine’s story, Skybound Games stepped in, took on the challenge, and managed to finish the series with the critically acclaimed final episodes. Now, a year later, a compilation of all the games has been released and it’s a huge accomplishment. There is a sense of achievement surrounding this collection and whilst it is not without issues, it is a perfect package for fans of The Walking Dead as well as a poignant ending of an era.

Unused concept art of Clementine’s house doesn’t go to waste as it acts as the setting for the main menu.

The Definitive Series is a collection of all four seasons of Telltale’s The Walking Dead as well as the Michonne miniseries and the 400 Days DLC, plus a ton of new bonus material and additional features. A short documentary on how Skybound Games saved The Final Season is available as are developer commentaries from some of the cast and developers of the games for some various episodes. There is also an art viewer which shows off concept art from all the seasons and a character viewer where you can look through various character models and animations as well as listen to voice lines from across the series. The final bonus feature is a music player, which allows you to listen to Jared Emerson Johnson’s origianl score from each season.

The bonus content is definitely a must-have for diehard fans of the series such. The ten-minute film The Return of The Walking Dead is a short but fascinating look into Telltale’s rise and fall and the effect it had on the staff as well as the fans. The developer commentaries also provide an insight into the game that fans would not otherwise have. For instance, the voicemail from Clementine’s mother Diana in the first episode of Season One is revealed in the commentary to have been the audition tape for actress Rebecca Schweitzer. They found her performance so impressive that they did not ask her to record any more dialogue for the role of Diana. Instead, they used the audition in the finished game as well as in the trailer for the game. It is little facts like this that I found really fun to hear when listening to the commentaries.

The art viewer provides some brilliant concept pieces from the team behind the artwork of the games. It also gives an insight into some scrapped ideas. There is concept art for an unused gym setting in Ericson Boarding School from The Final Season as well as a dilapidated version of Clementine’s house. The house concept gets some use in the form of the menu for The Definitive Series, but a return to Clementine’s home could have been a fascinating addition to the game. The character viewer is definitely fun to play around with too as you can mix up voice lines and animations to create some weird and wonderful sights. My personal favourite animations are the Rosie model with AJ riding on her back and the updated Lee model with AJ perched on his shoulders, joyously shooting a machine gun. The music player is a great addition as well as Emerson-Johnson’s score hasn’t been readily available since now (except the music from Season One which was previously released as an album). It’s great if you want to let the music play in the background but one problem I did find is that you can’t jump from one song to the next automatically. All the songs have to be selected manually so you cannot let the albums play out. Despite this, the music player is still a good addition to the collection.

One of the most noticeable features of The Definitive Series is the improvement to the graphics. After playing through the first episode of Season One, the graphics update is incredibly noticeable. The world looks crisper and clearer, with more attention paid to background details that were barely noticeable when the game first released in 2012. For instance, when in the drugstore that is owned by Lee’s family, you can clearly see the pictures on the wall in the background and you can read the signs dotted around the drugstore easily. It is a nice touch that makes the world more believable and immersive. There is also more shading included, mirroring the style of the comic books even more than it already did. The improved visuals are very similar to the visuals in The Final Season, with more detail put into the aforementioned comic book style. It greatly enhances the experience of playing the game, adding more depth and elegance.

There is a significant improvement to the graphics in the remastered version of Season One.

The game isn’t without its problems. The release on the PlayStation 4, the platform on which I played it, was marred with a wealth of technical problems. The only working parts of the PS4 version when it first released was the art viewer, director commentaries and music player. The character viewer did not work at all and neither did the actual games (obviously the most important part). To be blunt, the PS4 version was pretty much broken upon release. Skybound Games has since released a patch to fix the issues, but my download of this patch took me an entire day.

I wasn’t able to actually play the game until three days after I received it. This was incredibly frustrating but kudos to Skybound Games for acknowledging the problem quite quickly and keeping PS4 players informed of the patch progress.  The actual game also has some technical bugs and glitches and they are the sort that has come to be expected from Telltale titles. Awkward lip-syncing, dead-eyed characters and jarring animations are still present but I also got some new issues such as dialogue suddenly cutting off or characters missing out half of their voice lines. Although these kinds of glitches are known in these games, I am disappointed that these couldn’t be fixed in The Definitive Series. The game may look better, but it still has numerous hiccups that can take you out of the experience.

The player can listen to music from all four seasons as well as the mini-series and DLC. The music player in Clementine’s pool is a also a nice touch!

Despite the technical hitches and the broken PlayStation release, The Walking Dead: The Telltale Definitive Series is a must-have for hard-core fans of the game series. The behind the scenes insights are interesting for those invested in these titles and the various art and music available can make you truly appreciate the hard work that went into creating this world and these characters. Admittedly, The Definitive Series has little to offer to those who aren’t aware of the series or for casual fans who already own the games.

That being said, there is a community of fans out there (myself included) who have loved and supported Telltale and The Walking Dead game for years who were genuinely devastated by the studio closure. It is those fans who will get the most out of this collection. The game encapsulates a nine-year journey and it is a bittersweet sendoff to the series and to Clementine, who we have seen grow throughout the series. No matter whether Telltale Games makes a comeback or not, the studio will always be remembered for this defining title which introduced us to Lee, Clementine and A.J and made us care about their struggle to survive in a post-apocalyptic world.  The Definitive Series marks the end of The Walking Dead Game– and the end of Telltale Games as it once was- and although the ending is certainly bittersweet, it is wrapped up nicely with this collection.

Somewhere in a much happier alternate reality…

The Walking Dead: The Telltale Definitive Edition is out now for PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch and Microsoft Windows.

Can’t get enough of The Walking Dead? Season nine of the popular AMC television show is available now on Blu-ray and DVD in the US and will be available on September 30th on Blu-ray and DVD in the UK. The show will be returning for its tenth season on AMC on October 6th, 2019

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