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‘Red Dead Redemption II’ Review: The Defining Game of the Generation

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Red Dead Redemption II is one of those rare, monumental video games that seems destined to serve as a watershed moment for the industry going forward, like a great chasm separating everything that came before from everything that is yet to come. The virtual world in which this game takes place is so far above and beyond what we’ve seen in an open world setting before that you’ll likely still be left gawping at the screen when you’re sixty hours deep, still discovering, still exploring, still aghast at how this technological marvel ever came to be. Never before has an open world game been crafted with this level of polish, and if it were to be suggested that some form of witchcraft or sorcery were involved in its creation, even sceptics of the supernatural might find themselves swayed to believing in all manner of uncanny phenomena.

It’s the sort of game that only a studio that made truck loads of money with their last release can afford to make without concern; a surprisingly risky triple-A blockbuster, one that appears to care not one whit what gamers — hardcore or casual — want or expect, and one that makes no attempt to follow the accepted norms, for better and worse. This is a slow-burning historical drama set in the Old West, one that at times seems to meander, and at other times hurtles with such electrifying pace that you won’t be able to stop yourself from grinning out of sheer, giddy, childish glee. The methodical approach Rockstar has taken to storytelling here is mirrored in the gameplay: you’ll spend just as much time riding your horse to the next town over with nought but the chirping birds for company as you will getting into gunfights and drunken punch-ups in seedy saloons.

It’s a story that unfolds not like a movie with a definitive beginning, middle, and end, but more akin to a television series comprised of dozens of smaller arcs, some more important than others, but each in service in some way of driving the story forward — however slightly — to its inexorable conclusion. It’s beautiful, overwhelming, tedious, exhilarating, ugly, fascinating, funny, tragic, exhausting, and utterly, utterly engrossing. It’s awesome in the literal sense of the word. It’s also the defining game of the generation.

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It usually means something big is about to go down whenever the whole gang rides together.

Set in 1899, Red Dead Redemption II is a prequel to the original game released on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 back in 2010, but familiarity with that title is by no means a prerequisite for enjoying the story here. Those who have played the original will see characters they remember and locales they’ve visited, but II tells a standalone story that works entirely as is.

We play as Arthur Morgan, a lieutenant in a gang of outlaws led by the charismatic, loquacious, Dutch Van der Linde. We meet the gang in the wake of a botched robbery in the town of Blackwater that has alerted lawmakers to both their whereabouts and their identities. They’re forced to go on the run, leaving their base of operations and their accumulated wealth behind, hoping that heading east will keep them out of reach of the long arm of the law while they come up with a plan for a more permanent method of escape. The east represents everything the gang fears about America at the turn of the century — law, civilization, progress, government, and an end to their way of life — but with the only other path available to them seemingly leading to the end of the hangman’s rope, they turn tail and flee through the mountains towards uncertainty.

The opening hours of Red Dead Redemption II are perhaps not as action-packed as you might expect, and if you’re going into the game expecting Grand Theft Auto on horseback, then you might find yourself left wanting. The early missions see Arthur and Dutch braving the harsh mountain weather in search of food and shelter, and we learn what has gone wrong for the group through their conversations as they walk or ride. The gang has suffered losses — not only financially, but in numbers, too. Not everyone made it out of Blackwater alive, and without money or food, others will surely perish in the days and weeks to come.

Dutch Van der Linde is a compelling character to follow.

Some within the gang are ostensibly good people that joined up to escape their troubled lives, while others are dangerous, sociopathic criminals who seem like they’d be perfectly happy robbing and murdering for the rest of their days — whether they get paid or not. The one thing these people have in common is their belief in the man calling the shots; Dutch Van der Linde makes for an intriguing, almost cult leader-like figure, charismatic enough to hold his disparate group of misfits and miscreants together despite their varied backgrounds, genders, ethnicities, and general dispositions. But as the game progresses and as the various storylines unfold, it becomes harder for Dutch to hold his increasingly fractured group together with promises of a paradise that’s always just one big score away, only for it to all go awry and leave them deeper in the mire, time and again.

Rockstar Games’ stubborn determination to tell their story their way pays off. It would have been easy to throw in more turret sections or blow more things up, or to build the narrative around larger than life, satirical caricatures. Too often in the past they’ve relied on casts of despicable but entertaining characters, anti-heroes that we couldn’t really care about but would make us laugh or shock us. Here, they’ve created a varied, layered, complicated bunch — more grounded, more real, and more like people with genuine motivations and reasons for doing the things they do.

This isn’t Blazing Saddles, or even Django Unchained. It’s more like Unforgiven, or The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It’s a captivating, absorbing yarn about the end of a way of life, the Wild West coming up against the indomitable march of progress, and it’s told slowly and deliberately across many missions, spanning many hours. But it’s also about the things people will do when they become desperate, about loyalty and the price of it, about coming to terms the bad deeds you’ve committed in the past and not allowing them to prevent you from doing good in the future, and about accepting your inevitable fate rather than fighting it to the detriment of everyone around you. In a twenty-hour game, some of the narrative twists and turns might feel forced, but here, by the time the sensational, genuinely exciting finale rolls around after sixty hours, if you’re anything like us, you’ll be out of your chairs willing every punch and gunshot to land.

We see many familiar faces from the original Red Dead Redemption.

In a less ambitious, less self-assured game being crafted by a studio with less of a financial cushion, it’s easy to see how executives in suits could have demanded some changes to make the experience more accessible, but Rockstar Games’ more grounded approach here has paid dividends. This is their best ever story, featuring their best ever cast of characters.

There are other areas of the game in which Rockstar’s intransigence, their disinclination to adhere to contemporary standards in gaming are not such a success. The controls in particular feel positively archaic, and while you will undoubtedly get used to them over time — and it is certainly worth persevering — it’s impossible to ignore the obvious fact that at times Red Dead Redemption II feels like a game a decade older than it is. Everything feels slightly more complicated than it needs to be; you’re always being asked to hold buttons when surely a single press would do, you’re required to tap X to sprint when I think we’ve all pretty much accepted now that just clicking L3 will suffice, and the aiming in gunfights is finicky enough to make auto-aim practically a necessity.

There’s also huge stretches of time spent playing the game in which you might feel like you’re doing little of any consequence, and while these quieter moments do a wonderful job in terms of world building, there’s no escaping the fact that some people are going to wonder why they’re shovelling pigshit and talking to an old feller about his past rather than blasting fools with their shootin’ irons. A slow and methodical game like this is simply not going to be everybody’s cup of tea; think The Last of Us rather than Uncharted, and sixty hours long. You’re going to spend an incredible amount of time riding your horse alone, buying new shirts or hats, hunting for meat or fish to keep your camp fed, and (seriously) waiting for your beard to grow.

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Some of the nights spent in camp celebrating a job well done are wonderfully entertaining pieces of world-building.

Depending on how enamoured you become with the world that Rockstar Games has created for you here, you’re either going to want to spend as much time in it as possible, exploring every nook and cranny, finding every secret, and talking to every character, or you’re going to find a lot of the time spent outside of main missions a bit of a damp squib.

The mission structure throughout the game is superb. Despite how many missions there are — and there are a lot — the quality of them never dips or even seems to waver. You’ll generally have to direct Arthur to a member of your posse who’ll set the scene for what’s about to go down, and the journey to wherever the meat of the quest is due to take place will be spent chatting with your companion(s). During these quieter moments, you learn much about your fellow gang members — their pasts, their temperaments, and their feelings about the bigger picture you’re involved in. Even minor characters get moments to shine and give you a reason to care about what happens to them.

There’s an incredible amount of variety in the quests you’ll be given. Some are as simple as performing a menial task or travelling to another location to talk to somebody, others are multi-faceted, elaborate operations involving dozens of characters, multiple locations, and an awful lot of gunfire. The quieter, more laid-back quests help to provide context for the noisy, violent ones, and as a result, every time you take part in a well-planned robbery or rescue a friend from the clutches of an enemy, it feels like a major event. Some of the smaller missions are also the funniest, and while most of the wackiest characters in the game are relegated to side-quest status in Red Dead Redemption II, there are still lots of amusing moments.

Ain’t no party like a cowboy party.

One fantastic early mission sees Arthur head into town with his friend Lenny to go for a “couple of quiet drinks” at the local saloon, and the shenanigans that ensue make for one of the most entertaining gaming moments of 2018. Red Dead Redemption II is littered with gems like this. There are so many of these quality scenarios — some big, some small — that you’ll undoubtedly see more and more people talking about them as they get further into the game. Side-quests are just as well-written and entertaining as the main quests, and many add so much flavour and character development that you’d be robbing yourself if you didn’t experience them.

Voice acting is strong from start to finish, and every NPC in the game can be talked to, whether you choose to be amiable, hostile, or violent with them. The soundtrack is an absolute delight as well —at times minimal, and at others grandiose. There are instances in the game where you’ll have to ride across a long distance without company, and during some of these a song will begin to play. Incredibly, these songs seem perfectly timed to fit the journey — just another example of how Rockstar Games’ painstaking attention to detail and sense of perfectionism has created an adventure that stands head and shoulders above other open world games.

Graphically, the game is beautiful. It takes place across a number of fictional states in America, each with their own unique topography, climates, and ecological systems. To the north, there are snowy peaks populated by wolves and moose, while to the south, there are swamps and the threat of alligators, with everything between. All of these areas are densely populated and absolutely jaw-dropping to behold. Rarely is this more readily apparent than when observing the changing weather conditions or watching wildlife go about its business.

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Sadie Adler is just one of the many companions Arthur can ride with, and she’s also one of the best.

The intricate world is teeming with flaura and fauna, and the animation quality is staggering. Of course, you can hunt animals if you so desire, with some quite obviously being more dangerous than others. Skinning kills means you can have a trapper craft new clothing or holsters for you, while the meat can be donated to camp for the gang’s butcher to use to keep everyone fed. So, if you’re after some killer alligator shoes to go with your elk-skin chaps, then you better get yourself a hunting rifle and put some time aside.

Otherwise, if you want to rely on clothes that don’t require you to go out and skin anything, you can visit a store in one of the many towns. These establishments sell most of everything you’ll need on your adventure, and the level to which you can customize Arthur is really impressive. Beyond clothes, you can change his hairstyle and beard (but only once your hair has grown long enough),as well as change the appearance of your trusty horse. You can upgrade the camp you’re staying at via donations, and you can customize your weapons with engravings, different metal types, and various varnishings.

Towns also offer more than simple stores to peruse. There are saloons where you can eat, drink, and be merry; there are poker and blackjack tables where you can try to win a small fortune; there are theaters to visit where you can watch cabaret that is genuinely entertaining — this is a world so packed with things to see and do, so stuffed with activities, side-quests, and people to meet, that you can kinda believe that they all just carry on living their lives even after you’ve powered down your console.

John can generally be found wearing Cookie Monster pyjamas with a PlayStation controller in his hands, operating on a diet that consists largely of gin and pizza. His favourite things are Back to the Future, Persona 4 Golden, the soundtrack to Rocky IV, and imagining scenarios in which he's drinking space cocktails with Commander Shepard. You can follow John on Twitter at www.twitter.com/JohnDoesntDance

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5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Patrick Murphy

    November 6, 2018 at 9:11 pm

    Nice review! Based on the amount and sort of attention given to various elements, this sounds extremely weighted toward those who consider story and immersion into a world more important than gameplay. I can’t count myself in that group (and I’ll avoid this like the plague), but it does seem like a huge accomplishment. We’ll see how much it actually defines this generation, but if that does end up being the case, what aspects do you see having the most influence?

    • John Cal McCormick

      November 7, 2018 at 3:44 am

      It very much is. It’s similar to The Last of Us in that way. That’s held in a super high regard and as one of the best games of all time, but if you remove the story and how you feel about the characters, the atmosphere, the music, and focus just on the gameplay, you’re left with a fairly okay third person survival game. Take Princess Peach getting kidnapped out of a Mario game and you’ve still got a game that’s a tonne of fun to play.

      So it depends what you’re after. If you want the whole package then Red Dead II absolutely delivers, but if your finger is going to be hovering over the skip button every time someone starts talking then it’s probably not for you.

      Undoubtedly, the most influence is going to be in how the open world has been crafted. Open world is a thing that just won’t go away, and more and more games are going open. If you compare the open world here to games that even came out last year like Zelda or Horizon Zero Dawn, Red Dead Redemption II is so far ahead of them that it’s ridiculous. It plays like one of those cinematic, third person action games like Uncharted where it’s all been meticulously planned out like an interactive action movie, but it isn’t. The open world is that organic. Things just happen and it’s like they’re meant to, but then you play the same section again and it plays out differently. The world is absolutely packed with stuff. It’s just an incredible achievement in building a virtual world to inhabit, one where it seems to take longer for that, “Oh yeah, it’s just a game” moment to hit when you realise that you can’t do something, or go somewhere because it’s not in the code.

      That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to have more fun playing it, but I do expect to see more studios try to emulate what Rockstar has done here in the world and how you can interact with it.

      The problem will be that studios like Ubisoft who are intent on churning out open world games on an annual basis simply won’t have the time to do it. Rockstar spent years on this thing, and poured a lot of money into it – something they could afford to do because GTA V made so much money. They could afford this kind of risk. I don’t see many other studios doing it, so I fully expect that Red Dead Redemption II will remain the most impressive open world we’ll see until the next console generation.

      I could be wrong, but I genuinely don’t see anyone surpassing it.

      • Patrick Murphy

        November 8, 2018 at 8:50 pm

        That’s one thing I wonder about – how many studios could even seriously attempt to try to attempt the level of intricacy that Rockstar has achieved in their open world? Unless there’s a particular element or system that someone can home in on and take in a new direction, I feel like this could just basically be an anomaly that earns more admiration than emulation.

        I’m curious to see what developers have to say about it. I listened to a couple on the GI Show appreciate it from a distance (they had worked on Assassin’s Creed, Far Cry, and MGS 4), but they seemed to share the opinion that no one else has the budget or time to mount an effort like that, and they hoped it didn’t turn into an unrealistic standard.

        • John Cal McCormick

          November 9, 2018 at 3:09 am

          Yeah, this is what I mean by nobody topping it until at least the next generation. When you look at the studios working today, who would seriously try to outdo this open world knowing how long it would take and how much it would cost. The likes of Activision and Ubisoft are going to be sat there looking at their money, knowing they can just bang out another Destiny or Assassin’s Creed and it doesn’t need to be this well made, but they can monetize it to death and turn a profit for less effort.

          Microsoft has nothing, Nintendo is a no go. Sony has studios working on open world titles but none of them have been close to this. Perhaps Naughty Dog – Sony seems to let them do whatever they want – as they’ve been heading more and more toward open world in their latest releases but nothing they’ve made comes close to this on that level. As a virtual world it’s just brilliantly made, and far beyond the closest competitor.

  2. Antonia Haynes

    November 7, 2018 at 4:21 pm

    Excellent review! I agree with so many of your points.

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Game Reviews

‘Fire Emblem: Three Houses’ Review: Raising the New Generation to a High Standard

Fire Emblem: Three Houses marks a triumphant return to home console that puts in the effort to pull the player into its world.

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There are few comeback stories in the gaming industry as impressive as that of the Fire Emblem series. After very nearly going cold the grid-based, SRPG was single-handedly saved by 2013’s Fire Emblem Awakening and has since gone on to prosper as one of Nintendo’s most well-recognized IP’s. Now, after more than a decade, the storied franchise makes its return to home consoles with Fire Emblem: Three Houses, an entry that takes bold steps forward in promoting it above and beyond anything the series has seen to date.

Three Houses, Three Countries, One Path

Fire Emblem: Three Houses takes place on the continent of Fodlan and consists of three major countries. At the center of the three territories is the Garreg Mach Monastery which simultaneously houses the Military Officer’s Academy as well as The Church of Seiros, the land’s primary religion. The game picks up with your self-named protagonist being appointed a professor at the Monastery after protecting some of its students from a bandit attack. At the same time, an enigmatic young girl named Sothis begins appearing in your dreams who alludes to ominous events to come.

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Sothis will aid the player character throughout their journey

The gameplay of Fire Emblem: Three Houses can be split into two categories — The traditional turn-based grid combat familiar from past titles and the teaching and guidance of students at the monastery. Teaching and school life are brand new to the franchise and are the foundation on which the entire game is built upon.

In the early goings of the game, you are asked to choose between the three classes, or houses, to instruct and guide in your time as a professor. These three houses — The Black Eagles, The Blue Lions, and The Golden Deer — each correspond to one of the three countries of Fodlan and consists of students from those territories. Your selection of which house to lead will have ramifications that permeate practically every aspect of the game including the story, units available in combat, and interactions within the school; this lends the decision a weight that goes beyond choosing who has the prettiest faces.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses House Leaders
Claude, Dimitiri, and Edelgard are the heads of their respective houses and will play pivotal roles in the game if you choose them

The school year is divided into months with school activities taking up the bulk of the time that culminates with an assigned battle at the end. As a professor, you are tasked with teaching your students the art of war and this is accomplished primarily in the classroom. 

Each week begins with establishing a lesson plan for your class. You can work with students one-on-one to develop specific skills of various weapon types, assign them to group tasks to forge bonds and other proficiencies, and help them establish goals that they will work towards on their own time. Doing so allows them to equip better weapons and, most importantly, acquire new class types through certification exams. 

Small events such as students asking questions on subject matter or seeking advice on their goal paths are evocative or actually being a teacher. It’s easy to grow attached to your students as you guide them from a lowly Commoner class to something as grand as a War Master over the course of the game. While Three Houses does a good job of easing the player into these intricacies, there is an Auto-Instruct option available as well for those who find it daunting or don’t care for perfect optimization.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Teaching

The end of each week features a free day that can be spent in one of three different ways. You can host a seminar with another faculty member that provides a large amount of skill experience or embark on battles for quest rewards and character-specific paralogues that help flesh out their backstories. The option to explore the monastery, however, is the most interesting and involved of the three as it gives you free rein to roam about the campus in a fully 3D environment.

All In a Day’s Work 

Garreg Mach Monastery is sprawling, with numerous buildings explore, courtyards to walk through, and facilities to take advantage of. While the graphics of Three Houses aren’t necessarily something to write home about from a technical perspective — there are even moments of noticeable slowdown in particularly populated areas — the vibrant art style and eye-catching medieval architecture give the monastery a beauty that makes it a pleasure to wonder about it.  Small details such as pegasus knights flying in the sky and messenger owls flitting about between buildings breath life into the campus and lend credence that this is an academy in a fantasy world.

There are a plethora of activities to do while roaming the premises and Three Houses does an admirable job of easing you into each of them. Tasks such as gardening various crops and fishing for the biggest catch not only provide valuable resources but also go towards increasing your professor level which increases your maximum Activity Points you can spend in a day.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Monastery

Meanwhile, sharing meals with students in the dining hall, inviting them out to tea parties, and returning lost items all serve to build bonds between pupils and increase their motivation for further studies. Interacting with them in such ways or even just talking to them on the school grounds also offers insight into their thoughts and feelings on current events in the world, which goes a long way towards developing their character in addition to Fire Emblem’s long-established support conversations. 

As characters spend time together in the monastery and fight together on the battlefield their support levels will rise, granting various bonuses in battle such as increased hit rate and evasion. These supports are accompanied by conversations that flesh out each character’s personality and provide valuable backstories not found in the main story.

In typical Fire Emblem fashion, the cast of Three Houses is unique and distinct with multiple layers of complexity over initial arch-typical natures. Peeling back these layers over the course of the game serves as some of the most satisfying intrinsic rewards it has to offer, with macho, good guy Raphael and self-doubting Marianne being particular standouts in my play session. This is accentuated even more since every single line of dialogue, no matter how minor, is fully voiced, a rarity for JRPG’s. The English acting ranges from good to exceptional, but the Japanese voices are also available for those who prefer it.

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Support conversations range from comical, to serious, to heart-warming — but they are always engaging.

It’s a shame the same level of polish can’t be said about the main story, however. The plot is rather straightforward and doesn’t do much to push the boundaries of expectations outside a mix-up here and there. Many scene transitions are nonexistent and jarring and the stilted movements of CG scenes reserved for important moments detract more than they add. That said, the stellar character and world-building that take place within the monastery more than makeup for the lukewarm story-telling and give ample reason to become invested. Not to mention the curiosity of seeing the story from the other houses’ perspectives encourages subsequent playthroughs.

Bonding and interacting with students outside of your class is worthwhile as well as it’s possible to recruit them into your own house. Convincing a student to join your class takes a large amount of effort over a long course of time, making the moment they finally give the “Ok” feel much more earned than recruitment has in past Fire Emblems. This not only gives you another unit to use on the battlefield but also avoids potentially seeing them as an enemy down the line when things aren’t quite so peaceful in Fodlan anymore.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Dining

It’s easy to fall into a routine when going about the monastery in Three Houses. The constant loop of every action taken feeding into accomplishing another is positively addicting. It encourages you to make the most out of each day while also emphasizing the steady march of time. For a game that places such importance on the passage of time, however, it is slightly off-putting how the seasons in the monastery never change from its default bright, sunny day, especially with talk of snow and colder weather abound in later months.

All time spent at school is ultimately in preparation for combat, though, and Three Houses presents some of the finest and most refined form of it the Fire Emblem series has ever seen.

Applying Theory to Practice

The fundamentals of combat in Fire Emblem: Three Houses are the same as all of its predecessors but numerous additions and changes cast it in a whole new light. Encounters take place on grid-based maps and you move each individual character to attack enemies, assist allies, and position them for counter-attacks, among other things. Once all of your units have moved the enemy gets their turn to retaliate and the process repeats.

Before initiating combat a combat forecast appears that tells you the damage each side will inflict, the chance of landing that attack, and the chance of dealing a triple damage critical hit. Utilizing this forecast to calculate risk vs reward of various engagements becomes routine as deaths of characters are permanent when playing in Classic mode, although Casual mode makes its return that brings back lost units after the mission as well. The fight then plays out automatically with characters fluidly moving in unique and organic ways depending on how the battle plays out. While you have no control during these segments, there’s something viscerally satisfying about seeing someone like burly Raphael deftly dodge an attack and roundhouse kick the enemy to the face in retaliation.

Battle

The weapon triangle — a series mainstay that gave rock-paper-scissors qualities to weapon types — has been done away with in Three Houses, requiring players to think beyond simply matching enemies with their direct counters. In its place come Combat Arts, a system that’s been taken from 2017’s Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. These special skills are obtained by gaining proficiency in weapon types through teaching sessions and combat and grant each character different ways to approach combat.

The set of Combat Arts learned are unique to each character. For example, Claude and Bernadetta are both proficient with bows but only the latter learns the far-reaching snipe art “Deadeye,” while only the former learns the blessed imbued “Monster Blast”. This applies to magic as well, with every character learning a different set of spells as they grow more proficient. While there is some overlap in spells and arts learned between characters, they nonetheless make them feel more distinct from one another as opposed to simply using the ones with the best stats, minimizing the problem previous entries have of “dead weight characters”.

Another wrinkle to combat is the addition of battalions and Gambits. Battalions are a unit of generic soldiers that can be assigned to each character to confer various stat bonuses. Each battalion grants the use of their special Gambit, powerful abilities that typically hit multiple enemies in an area, thus weakening their stats and preventing movement for a turn. Support type gambits exist as well, such as letting allies sustain a lethal hit once or making it so they take and deal only one damage for a turn. Not only do Gambits open up new strategic possibilities by introducing a form of crowd control to the series, but they are also pivotal in taking down Three Houses’ new enemy type: Monsters.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Combat
Battalions also add more life to the battlefields by showing more than just your unit and the enemy facing off one-on-one

Monsters have been in Fire Emblem games before, but never in this form. Monsters are gargantuan beasts that take up four squares on the grid, sometimes more. They have multiple health bars to drain, devastating area sweeping attacks, and barriers that diminish damage taken and prevent critical hits. The key to slaying these beasts is to utilize battalion Gambits to attack multiple parts of the monsters at once and systematically whittle down their barriers.

Unlike regular enemy and boss types that can usually be taken down by one reasonably powerful unit, monsters require the brunt of your military force to slay. Contending with both monsters and regular enemies as they barrel towards your army provides for some of the tensest moments in the game that then result in blissful satisfaction for overcoming them; all the more emphasized by Three Houses’ phenomenal soundtrack that amplifies feelings of triumph to remarkable heights.

Map designs, on the other hand, leave something to be desired as many take place in large, open areas where strategy ultimately boils down to careful positioning of units on defensive tiles. Even maps with branching paths feel like little more than an excuse to give your units an opportunity to equally distribute experience gained from combat. The lack of gimmicks and terrain variety leads to missions sometimes blending together, a problem exacerbated by the fact that nearly every victory objective is either “Route the enemy” or “Defeat the commander.” It’s never so dull as to become mind-numbing, but having more variety in the 60-80 hour long campaign would go a long way towards solidifying what is otherwise an incredibly tight combat experience. 

Lessons Learned, Experience Showing

Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a grand culmination that takes a deep, introspective look into what makes the series so great and evolving it in meaningful and impactful ways.

The monastery and professor role not only fit right at home in such a character-driven game but also breath fresh life into the school setting that has long been regarded as “the graveyard of creativity.” The main story may not be the most engrossing but never has it been easier to grow intimately attached to such a large and varied cast of characters. Those attachments manifest in battles as a drive to persevere and the various tools the game gives you, old and new, give the power to do so. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is no doubt, the triumphant return to home consoles that fans have been waiting over a decade for and a sterling lesson that for a game series, class is always in session.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses Rhea
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Game Reviews

‘Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order’ Is Endearingly Archaic

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Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order does not feel like a 2019 game; it’s not “always online,” it isn’t “e-sport ready,” and there’s a noticeable (and welcome) absence of micro transactions (it also looks nothing like the much-hyped Crystal Dynamics-developed The Avengers game, recently debuted at E3). In fact, much of the Team Ninja-developed, Nintendo-published Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3 feels like a throwback to the previous generation of gaming: it’s grind-y, repetitive, and rather simplistic in the RPG elements integrated into the core mechanics. And yet, it’s some of the most fun I’ve had playing a game this year — a wildly entertaining action game with some serious replayability.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is a deeply imperfect game, but it also has its heart in exactly the right place, bound to satisfy fans of Marvel films, Marvel comic books, and the Ultimate Alliance community alike.

Ultimate Alliance 3 exists in a strange space; it’s not a sequel of the previous two titles in the series (it’s not even set in the same universe), nor is it aligned with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For better or worse, Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order lives in its own strange little alternate universe, albeit one where Thanos and The Black Order are still trying to assemble the Infinity Stones for cosmically destructive purposes. As one might assume, the game follows its 36 playable heroes as they hunt down the six Infinity Stones across the galaxy.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order

The beats of the plot are stunningly obvious to anyone who has read a comic book or seen an MCU film in the past decade, but I’m here to report that Ultimate Alliance 3 has absolutely nothing to say about those stories, nor does it offer a new take or angle on the now-familiar material. Beat-to-beat, Ultimate Alliance 3‘s story is abundantly forgettable, a series of silly scenes constructed for one purpose: to get to the part where everyone uses their super powers and everything turns into an absolute mess of particle effects, attack animations, and beautiful chaos. (Or, in the case of the incredibly brief, embarrassingly boring chapter on the Inhumans, utterly pointless.)

“Chaos” is the best descriptor for the core gameplay loop: like its predecessors, Ultimate Alliance 3 sees players controlling a four-person squad, with the ability to shift between characters at the tap of a button (in single-player mode, Ultimate Alliance 3 also supports up to four players in any offline or online mode). Each character has heavy/light basic attacks and four special abilities, the latter of which can be combined in various ways with another teammate’s abilities (called “synergy” attacks) to combat massive waves of AI enemies and bosses.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order

There is also a third meter that builds up in order for all four characters to trigger a special ability at the same time. Although it is absolute visual nonsense (an often-incomprehensible mess of animations and effects, despite a rather consistent frame rate), these super abilities are strategic elements in dealing massive damage at key points during combat. (Plus, they look cool.)

Ultimate Alliance 3‘s core mechanics are rather simplistic and familiar: each super hero can be leveled to 100, raising the stats of their abilities, and can apply up to four stat-modifying ISO-8 crystals. Anyone whose played an action-RPG knows the deal here: it’s like Diablo III without grinding for equipment — or for the real fans, like a simplified version of the now-defunct MMO Marvel Heroes. It’s all about progress, leveling up characters to make them more powerful, completing missions, and taking on challenges to unlock ability points on the game’s massive, hexagonal upgrade tree.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order

However simplistic its mechanics are, it’s still undeniably satisfying; triggering massive, particle-effect-laden synergy attacks never gets old, even after more than 40 hours spent playing through the story (and its four unlocking difficulty levels), as well as the game’s Infinity Trials, a separate challenge mode which unlocks special characters and alternate costume for completing variety of different objectives. Ultimate Alliance 3 just feels good to play — even despite its occasional problems with camera (especially in local multiplayer mode), and the rather repetitive loop of “kill faceless bad guys in room, leave room, kill more bad guys, kill boss, repeat.”

It would be easy to write off Ultimate Alliance 3 as “not enough of a good thing.” Lazy environmental design, uninspiring graphics, and repetitive combat loops are blatantly obvious shortcomings, bound to underwhelm players upon first impression. But give it time; eventually, Ultimate Alliance 3 reveals the true frenzy in its heart, and becomes a very challenging (and surprisingly punishing) game. At its higher difficulties, this is not an easy experience, which oddly transforms it from a game of persistent progress into one of measured experimentation and demanding execution.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order

Ultimate Alliance 3, often to its detriment, doesn’t really engage players with the depth of its combat system. There isn’t a list of synergies to be found in the game, though that might encourage players to experiment with different combinations of characters and abilities, as there’s a bonus system attached to squad construction, where certain combinations of two, three, or four heroes will buff specific traits on all included heroes.

It also doesn’t foreground the strategies that later bosses and trials will require; at high levels, Ultimate Alliance is about efficiency, position, and discipline — about using one’s abilities and team-specific strengths to contain the chaotic challenges Team Ninja’s constructed. After a dry first 3-5 hours, Ultimate Alliance 3 really begins to blossom, each challenge and boss fight becoming a puzzle of team construction, battle strategy, and timing. It takes a bit to get there, but once it unearths its true nature, it transforms into a completely different, much more replayable game.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order

That game is based on experimentation and repetition; for those who like their semi-isometric action RPG’s to have some bite, Ultimate Alliance 3 has you covered. The upgrade/refinement ISO-8 system (akin to the Diablo III gem system) alone offers dozens of hours of replay for fine-tuning a team’s stats to optimize runs through the game’s dozens of story chapters and Infinity Trials, the latter of which often come with specific level stipulations and requirements to complete (including both a three-star rating and S+ rank grading system for the real perfectionists).

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order isn’t finished yet, either. There are plans to offer both free and paid updates for the near future, in the form of monthly updates and a $20 season pass (for 3 paid DLC character & expansion packs). Cyclops and Colossous are already scheduled to join the roster in a free update on August 30th, and a number of other heroes have already been named, including Moon Knight, Blade, and Punisher (in September 30th’s Marvel Knights: Curse of the Vampire DLC), the Fantastic Four, and others.

Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order

The opportunities really are endless; Ultimate Alliance 3 has the benefit of an incredibly strong foundation, which opens the door for so much ingenuity to be added as the game continues to grow. Adding more characters, chapters, and modes in the future will only further the insane replay value this game offers — especially if the competent-if-bare-bones multiplayer experience is expanded on in any way.

A little ugly, a little short, a little simplistic, a little unwieldy with its menus and uneven story… Marvel Ultimate Alliance 3: The Black Order is a deeply imperfect game, but it also has its heart in exactly the right place — a game that’s bound to satisfy fans of Marvel films, Marvel comic books, and the Ultimate Alliance community alike. It’s a very thin thread to try and weave, but Team Ninja and Nintendo have done it, offering a deep roster of playable characters (Elsa Bloodstone or Crystal, anyone?) and some seriously well-refined gameplay systems, bound to last the most dedicated fans hundreds of hours of gameplay.

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Game Reviews

‘Super Mario Maker 2’ Review: Made With Love

Does Super Mario Maker 2 surpass its predecessor, or is a change in console making for flawed construction?

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In 2015, the Wii U’s Super Mario Maker made waves as the gold standard for commercial level creators. It offered quick and capable tools for realising two-dimensional Mario fantasies, backed by accessible controls and a thriving community of creators. Four years later Nintendo have followed up on this recipe for success with Super Mario Maker 2. With a toolbox more jam-packed than ever before, and a full-blown story mode, does this Switch heavy hitter surpass its predecessor, or is a change in console making for flawed construction?

super mario maker 2

Let’s get creative

Super Mario Maker 2 mimics its predecessor’s blueprint, from the interface (bar a few tweaks) to the Coursebot. Players can get busy flexing their making muscles right away though (no more waiting for things to unlock), with bundles of new cool bits to boot. Most notable is night variations for all course themes, lifting the total from a measly six to a whopping twenty (including four brand new course themes in Desert, Snow, Forest, and Sky).

The Super Mario 3D World game style brings a splash of freshness, but the catch: it exists in a realm removed from other game styles, as switching to and from Super Mario 3D World’s game style results in courses resetting. Co-op is a pleasant addition too, although creating courses together on one screen is a tad clunky.

super mario maker 2

Despite stepping away from the Wii U’s ingenious gamepad/touchscreen controls, Super Mario Maker 2 retains its accessibility and intuitive handling whether in docked or handheld. The learning curve is minor, especially for those acquainted with the original. And of course, the quirky music of said original is back in action, entertainingly soundtracking the countless hours players will invest making their masterpieces.

But the star of the show is Super Mario Maker 2’s Course World, granting players an online hub to play and share courses. It’s built on its predecessor with souped-up search features and tagging, so searching course and maker IDs, alongside course properties, is a breeze. Also, nailing a world record on someone’s course is exhilarating, try it.

super mario maker 2

Story time

New to Super Mario Maker 2 is its story mode. Peach’s Castle has been obliterated (or rather, reset by the Undo Dog), and it’s up to Mario and co. to rebuild it. Cue a reason to dive into a spattering of Nintendo made courses that serve to both inspire players’ ideas and serve up a slice of platforming fun to boot.

Despite Super Mario Maker 2’s blatant improvements over its already awesome predecessor, some gripes remain. As versatile as Mario’s toolset is, I forever found myself running into limitations (some totally nonsensical), including:

  • Vertical stages (a quality addition) aren’t available outside sub-areas.
  • Custom scroll (yet another quality addition) isn’t available in sub-areas.
  • Having Mario ride ascending platforms in vertical stages (like an elevator) fixes the camera to the centre of the screen rather than the bottom (giving a poor view of what’s above Mario). This can be alleviated via autoscroll, but it’s a finicky endeavour that should’ve been streamlined.
  • Clear conditions (yet again another quality addition) still demand Mario grabs the flagpole. Tough luck if players want their course to conclude climatically as the finishing blow is dealt to Bowser.
  • Enemy stacking is prevented in the Super Mario 3D World game style (why?).
  • There’s no means to select music independent to a game style and course theme.
  • Amiibo functionality is out the window, so don’t expect Super Mario Maker’s bizarre character transformations.
  • Oh, and the Koopalings are absent. Come on Nintendo, such a breadth of bosses would be a creator’s dream.

super mario maker 2

Super Mario Maker 2 delivers so much, but still plonks a ceiling over players’ imaginations. Perhaps these limitations will be addressed with DLC, but for now, this anticipated sequel falls Shy Guy of its potential. But negatives aside, the hyper additivity of everything on display, and a host of welcome additions to its base formula, result in Super Mario Maker 2 raising the commercial level creator bar once again. Grab a Nintendo Online Membership, get making and playing, and watch the time fly by.

[penci_review id=”156760″]

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Game Reviews

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

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Ever since the Far Cry series really hit its mainstream stride with 2012’s third installment of the franchise, it has been hard to imagine the FPS landscape without its titanic presence looming large over the entire genre. With their mix of finely-honed mechanics, breathtaking landscapes, subtle social commentary, and some of the most noteworthy villains in gaming history, the Far Cry games have set the tone and direction of open-world shooter game design for much of the last decade. New Dawn certainly looks to be on trend, as it joins the likes of Rage 2, The Division 2, and Days Gone in painting an entirely new picture of the post-apocalypse; one that I will be examining more closely in an upcoming article.

In the same vein as Blood Dragon and Primal before it, Far Cry New Dawn is the latest standalone expansion of the series’ roster of titles. The hyper-stylized retro-futurist and consciously naturalistic aesthetics of Blood Dragon and Primal respectively, have been blended into one when it comes to the dubstep-infused visuals of New Dawn. It’s a fresh, bold choice of color scheme and style that contrasts starkly to the realism of the environments of Hope County in Far Cry 5.

Far Cry: New Dawn

After the first screenshots and gameplay footage were released to the world, I’ll admit that I was uncertain as to whether or not the flamboyant color scheme would be appropriate for a post-apocalyptic setting. Having played the game though I can safely say that my initial doubts were blown away on the winds that stir vast fields of vibrant flowers, which dominate the landscape, just as surely as the old world was scoured clean by the atomic fires of Joseph Seed’s prophesied Collapse. The rest of the planet may have been reduced to rubble and ash by waves of nuclear fire, but there’s something almost disarmingly Edenic about the way that Hope County weathered the storm to end all storms.

Far Cry: New Dawn

Where other companies might have elected for a more gritty take on life in a post-atomic horror, for example, 4A Games and their Metro series, Ubisoft Montreal opted for a more vivid vision of the end of the world. According to lead artist Isaac Papismado, the team wanted to avoid presenting players with a stereotypical conceptualization of the post-apocalypse. The result is a charmingly beautiful gameworld that subverts expectations across the board.

The natural landscape is enhanced rather than diminished by the remains of human civilization. The repurposed buildings, either inhabited by peaceful settlers or murderous bandits, with their haphazard reconstruction provide suitably ruinous set dressing whilst at the same time functioning as the perfect platforms for engaging gameplay. The combination of borderline excessive natural beauty and crude human habitats makes for a delightful backdrop to the run-and-gun gameplay loop that we’ve all come to know and love.

Far Cry: New Dawn

The most notable settlement is, of course, Prosperity, your home base. As you progress through the game you can acquire resources to improve it, expanding and upgrading the capabilities of your impromptu home. In and of itself it isn’t anything particularly remarkable, but what makes it truly special is that it’s exactly like the kind of home that you can imagine players who grew up playing this kind of game building for themselves at the end of the world.

Its contents include all the creature comforts that a gamer could want, and the layout means that they’re all within a few steps of each other. It’s a compact, efficient hub from which to gradually expand your influence over the remnants of Hope County, and going back there always has that warm feeling of coming home.

Far Cry: New Dawn

When it comes to the gameplay there isn’t really much to say about Far Cry: New Dawn. If you’ve played any of the recent Far Cry games then you’ll know exactly how it functions. That’s by no means a bad thing though. Part of what makes the series so successful is the accessibility and familiarity of its gameplay. After a long hiatus, coming back to Far Cry felt like slipping into an old pair of studded-leather chaps and a spike-shouldered denim vest (post-apocalyptic threads of choice, naturally).

Being able to instantly recall every single control means that there’s no barrier between the player and the game, which means that you’re able to focus entirely on what’s going on in front of you, rather than what your hands are doing with the controller. Interactions with the game world become instinctive to the point of being muscle memory. From gunplay to menu navigation, crafting to world traversal, talking to NPCs and vehicle control, everything about the game plays wonderfully. The fact that all the attendant systems, such as crafting and guns for hire, function in a “no fuss, no muss” manner means that the game just works. It’s never more complicated than it needs to be, and player progress feels completely organic as a direct consequence. It may not be original or unique, but it’s a testament to great game design.

Far Cry: New Dawn

One of the issues I raised in my review of Far Cry 5 was that the world often felt too busy for its own good. There was so much going on that it felt as if the game was never willing to let you have even a moment’s peace and quiet to just take everything in. The same can still be said of New Dawn but, oddly enough, it’s more of a positive point this time around rather than a negative.

No matter which direction you run in or where you choose to go, there is always something going on which makes events feel like they’re happening completely independent of your presence. Wandering groups of bandits will engage in firefights, wild animals roam the hills and forests, and NPCs with missions and snippets of lore will emerge seemingly at random. This makes it so that, regardless of what you decide to do, there is always relevant and meaningful content to engage with, whether it contributes to the main story or not.

Far Cry: New Dawn

In terms of story, New Dawn could have done better but it features enough set-piece moments and carryovers from Far Cry 5 to remain entertaining to the last. Mickey and Lou, the twin leaders of the bandit group tormenting Hope County, never manage to achieve the same manic charm of Vaas, the twisted despotic allure of Pagan Min, or the terrifying insightfulness of Joseph Seed, but they serve their purpose well enough to maintain a consistent level of threat.

As I said in my recent review of Rage 2, it’s a shame that games of this style and genre are consistently let down by weak and short narratives. However, it’s such a consistent issue with almost all games like this that I’m beginning to wonder if it’s a problem at all and not just the nature of the beast. Perhaps what’s more important is that the games remain consistently great to play rather than offering up in-depth and enthralling stories. Their narrative shortcomings, although glaring, can often be overlooked when you focus on how you’re doing what you’re doing in the game instead of why you’re doing it. Gamers and the industry itself would be poorly served if all games were alike in that regard. Sometimes it’s better a game, or series of games, remains true to the core of its design rather than attempt to ape the constituent elements of other genres.

Far Cry: New Dawn

Far Cry: New Dawn may not be the best game in the series, but it’s far from the worst either. The sheer unexpected nature of Blood Dragon meant that it still stands out as the best among the expansions. Primal, with its unique pre-historic setting and low-tech approach to combat, remains something of an oddity. But New Dawn is without a doubt the DLC that Far Cry 5 deserved. Although Dead Living Zombies, Hours of Darkness, and Lost on Mars were interesting in their own right, none of them really should have been released individually. They should either have been self-contained game modes, storylines in the base game itself, or set aside entirely so that Ubisoft had the time and resources to make New Dawn bigger and better than the previous two actual expansions of the third and fourth games. As it stands, however, New Dawn is an intriguing entry in the series and more than a decent game in its own right.

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Game Reviews

‘Muse Dash’ Review: A Gorgeous Melody of Anime Aesthetics

Muse Dash is a rhythm game that puts anime aesthetics and song variety above all else. Does it pay off? Click here for the full review!

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muse dash

The best rhythm games aren’t just about the quality of the music but the experience that’s crafted around it. Be it a hectic fusion with Bullet Hell or a violent, mind-numbing wasteland of noise, the challenge ultimately lies in providing a reason to play the game instead of simply listening to the OST. Muse Dash artfully manages this through tried-and-true rhythm-based gameplay and some of the most aesthetically appealing visual design I’ve seen in the genre.

If It Ain’t Broke…

Muse Dash’s mechanics aren’t the most intricate, but they don’t necessarily have to be. Players are assigned two buttons: one to jump/attack in the air, and one to attack on the ground. Enemies and obstacles move towards the player to the beat of the music, and you’ll have to time your button presses precisely to get the highest possible score. Do well enough and you’ll automatically get placed on the game’s global leaderboards, which you can scroll through when selecting any given song.

Though enemies change depending on the setting of the stage (which is loosely determined by the vibe of the song), they all serve the same purpose from a gameplay standpoint. Enemies on the ground correspond to lower notes/melodies, while those soaring through the air correspond to higher ones. The only real variation comes from the occasional boss attack (where the antagonist shooting at you suddenly flies towards you directly), and bizarre beat-em-up sections.

In these beat-em-up bits, a mini-boss will fly at you and prompt you to button-mash as much as possible to get a higher combo. The issue is that these occur mid-song, meaning that as soon as they’re done players are thrown right back into the chaos of the stage. It feels like variation for the sake of it rather than because it adds anything meaningful to the game, and the abrupt transition from button-mashing to keeping track of a rhythm led to multiple botched runs.

At the end of every track you’re assigned a grade based on your number of Perfects, Greats, Passes, and Misses. Not missing any hits and avoiding taking damage will result in a Full Combo (one of the most rewarding feelings I’ve felt from a game in some time, particularly on Hard and Master difficulties).

Speaking of difficulty, songs are rated on a scale from 1-9. Easy can land anywhere from 1-4, Hard 3-7, and Master 6-9, depending on the track. Better yet, there are dedicated leaderboards for each difficulty of every song. It’s a thoughtful touch that ensures that players who aren’t particularly great at rhythm games can still play through every track and have a goal to work towards.

Anime, Anime Everywhere!

Muse Dash enthusiastically puts the “anime” in “anime rhythm game.” Upon booting it up, players are immediately greeted by colorful (and slightly suggestive) art of the game’s three young protagonists Rin, Buro, and Marija. The anime aesthetic is everywhere, from the animated character selection screen to the beautiful artwork for each song; even the enemies and bosses have a distinct visual flair to them.

Though you’ll start out as Bassist Rin, each character has a variety of themed skins (e.g. Sleepwalker Girl Rin, Idol Buro, etc.) that can be randomly unlocked through gameplay. More than simply offering special character art, these each come with different abilities and unique animations. For instance, Idol Buro gives you 50% extra XP when finishing a stage, making her a great way to fly through levels. Since these skins are random, however, she might be somewhat useless by the time you actually unlock her.

This uncertainty is part of the overarching feedback loop that’s at the core of Muse Dash’s replayability. While there are 40 songs available in the base game, almost all of them are locked behind levels. The more you play and the better you perform, the faster you’ll level up. Leveling up awards two random items that go towards unlocking character skins, Elfins (little helpers that float alongside you and grant different buffs), and even special character and environmental art. Though some might view needing to unlock the songs as a negative, it only further incentivized me to continue playing my favorite stages to get higher scores and level up faster.

Keep the Good Times Rolling

In case you’re yearning for more head-bopping good times, Muse Dash offers far more beyond the initial 40 tracks. The “Just as planned” DLC is a whopping 10x the price of the base game’s $3 buy-in on Steam and Mobile (it’s all bundled together for $30 on Switch), but it also adds 78 songs for a grand total of 118.

These are grouped into multiple six-song packs with different themes. The Cute is Everything Pack comprises happier, more upbeat songs, whereas the Happy Otaku Pack has slightly more dramatic tunes that you’d typically hear in an anime OP, for instance. The DLC also acts as a season pass of sorts, with the devs pledging to add a new pack every month for the foreseeable future.

Unlike the base tracks, the DLC tracks are all unlocked from the get-go. Unfortunately, this is where one of Muse Dash’s few flaws become apparent. Though this brings in a ton of new songs across a variety of packs, there’s nothing on the selection screen that shows which songs have already been played. If someone wants to go through and experience each of the songs one after another, they either need to have a great memory, marathon them all, or click on each song individually to see if they already have a score recorded. It’s a strange and frustrating oversight for a game that nails so many other elements of its UI.

muse dash

On the whole, though, Muse Dash is simply a joy to experience. It certainly isn’t for everyone; if you’re put off by scantily clad anime girls or victory screens where said anime girls lightly bounce in place, this probably won’t be your cup of tea. It also won’t stun you with complex mechanics or inventive gameplay elements you might’ve experienced from its contemporaries.

But if you love anime and anime-inspired music (as previously stated, there’s a DLC pack titled “Happy Otaku Pack” for goodness sake), then this should be a no-brainer. Whether you decide to get the full experience or stick with the base version for what’s easily one of the best values in gaming you’ll find this year, Muse Dash comes highly recommended.

Just be sure to play with headphones!

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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 Film, TV, Anime and Comic writers.

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