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Tales from Telltale: A Telltale Games Retrospective

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The shutting down of Telltale Games was heartbreaking to watch unfold, and not just because so many incredibly talented people were out of a job, but because many of us here at Goomba Stomp have spent a fair amount of time playing many of the studio’s games over the past decade or so.

With the recent news that the company is being revived, we’ve decided to re-run this article which looks back at a few of the games that we have fond memories playing. Let us know which Telltale game is your favourite and feel free to share any other thoughts, memories and general feedback in the comments below.

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Batman Telltale

Batman: The Telltale Series

One of the biggest properties that Telltale ever had the good fortune of procuring also led to one of their best franchises. What set Batman: The Telltale Series apart from other Telltale games was its focus on tactical takedowns of enemies, and a QTE system that really fit with the Caped Crusader and his bag of tricks.

However, what really made Batman: The Telltale Series stand out was how it revamped the Batman mythos for its own purposes. Drawing inspiration from a wide range of sources (including Batman: The Animated SeriesBatman v SupermanThe Dark Knight and The Long Halloween) Telltale’s take on the World’s Greatest Detective still managed to have its own unique voice.

Putting a heavier focus on Bruce Wayne allowed the game to have a different kind of storytelling, and the ways which the game re-wrote the history of the Dark Knight were truly shocking. One need only look at how classic characters like Thomas Wayne and Vicki Vale were dynamically retooled for this story to see the kind of brass balls on the writers of Telltale’s Batman series.

Introducing a compelling new villain, while offering vastly different takes on Batman’s classic rogue’s gallery, Batman: The Telltale Series is a wonderfully fresh take on a character who has been around for eight decades, and it belongs well within the company of great Batman stories. (Mike Worby)

Enemy Within

Batman: The Enemy Within

If Batman: The Telltale Series was Telltale’s attempt at putting their own unique spin on Bob Kane and Bill Finger’s Caped Crusader, then Batman: The Enemy Within was where they doubled down on their vision of Gotham City’s unique cast of characters.

The Enemy Within isn’t just one of Telltale’s best games, it’s also one of the best Batman stories in years. Focusing on Bruce Wayne’s attempts at infiltrating an international cabal of villains known as The Pact. This boldly dynamic tale introduces plenty of new blood into Telltale’s Batman universe, including fresh takes on Harley Quinn, the Riddler, Amanda Wallace, and most importantly: The Joker.

A character who has truly been done to death over the last decade, managing a fresh approach to the Joker seems like something of an impossibility in 2018. Yet Telltale truly pulled off a masterful new Joker in The Enemy Within by allowing you to shape the madman as he soul-searched for his purpose in the world. Treating him like the unstable creature he is would lead to something like the classic Joker we’ve all come to know and loathe but for players that tried to steer him away from his villainous path, a daring new version of the Joker was waiting to be unveiled.

Featuring 2 completely different scenarios for the final episode based entirely on how you handled the Joker, The Enemy Within is a compelling and shocking take on the Batman mythology, and easily one of the best games Telltale ever crafted. One of the greatest tragedies of the studio’s closure is that we won’t get to see any more games set in their brilliant vision of Gotham City.  (Mike Worby)

TalesFromTheBorderlands

Tales From The Borderlands

It’s hard to imagine anybody could have had high hopes for Tales From The Borderlands prior to release. A mash-up of Telltale’s patented narrative focused adventures and co-operative, loot-grind first-person shooter series Borderlands? I was a big fan of the work Telltale had done with their previous titles since The Walking Dead, but this one seemed destined to disappoint from the moment it was announced. What’s so surprising about Tales From The Borderlands is not that it didn’t bomb, but that it just might be some of Telltale’s finest work. The game throws together a rag-tag band of anti-heroes and ne’er-do-wells who – largely for reasons pertaining to fortune, glory, or survival – must unite to take on common foes, and maybe, just maybe, learn some valuable life lessons along the way. The cast is quickly likable and the writing is sharp with the sort of back and forth witty banter you’d expect from a movie like Guardians of the Galaxy. The story begins in medias res, with two of our heroes being held captive by a masked kidnapper, and each offers input into how they wound up in the pickle they’re in. This narrative style allows Telltale an opportunity to subvert their trademark tough, morally ambiguous decision-making style, and instead play the choices for laughs as the two leads remember the events of their tale very differently, each blaming the other for what went wrong. What starts as a charming but silly and disposable yarn transforms throughout the series into a genuinely interesting tale with a strong emotional core as the cast begin to trust one another and reveal hidden depths to their characters. The apex is probably episode four, which delights from start to finish, from an outrageous opening title sequence to a heroic sacrifice and ultimately the greatest QTE in Telltale history – it hits all the right notes, and proves that Telltale couldn’t just make you cry but could have you laughing out loud as well. (John Cal McCormick)

Walking Dead Season Two

The Walking Dead: Season 2

The Walking Dead: Season 2 was about Clementine finding her way on her own. The player questions who Clementine is while growing up with her hero gone and her future changing rapidly every day. She’s alone now, and even though Lee taught her to care for others, the second season dares to teach Clem, and the player, that the only person to save is yourself.

Clementine, with her new set of survivors, has to figure this out on her own, and she and the player’s hand is forced to make some harrowing and challenging decisions. Telltale was most successful in getting players to challenge their beliefs, morals, or the choices they ultimately make. The brilliant mechanic of only having an allotted time to make that choice gives the player no thought process, only gut reactions.

Telltale creates in Walking Dead an inescapable and hardening truth that conventional morals have no room within a zombie apocalypse. While Season 1 provided relatively clear-cut decisions, Season 2 challenged that by reminding the player over and over again that you cannot save anyone besides yourself. That’s a lot for a little girl growing up in an extremely unsafe world. It’s clear that Clem didn’t know, or neither did the player, of who she really is outside of Lee.

The core of this particular game is patience, peacefulness, and conversation. Even though the hellhole has only deepened, Season 2 is about finding those moments of quiet and how to talk to each other, rather than just life or death decisions.  (Katrina Lind)

Michonne

The Walking Dead: Michonne 

Telltale means a lot to me. Not just because it’s games are good, but because it’s games have had such a big role in shaping my life over the last few years. The first Telltale game I played was The Walking Dead: Season 1. I was in high school at the time, had just recently begun listening to Podcast Beyond and was in the middle of my second to last year of exams.

It was the point in my life where I moved beyond just playing games and actually became invested in the greater industry around them. I hadn’t heard of Telltale’s The Walking Dead until Greg Miller spoke about it on Beyond. It wasn’t available on consoles in New Zealand at the time, so I started playing it on my iPad. I had no idea how important that game would be to me. It was emotional, riveting and the first game to ever make me cry. From that day forward I’ve regarded it as one of my favourite games of all time, viewed the opinions of Greg Miller crucial to finding new games and thought for the first time that games might be able to tell better stories than movies.

I loved their follow up projects like The Wolf Among Us and Tales From the Borderlands, reviewed Batman: Season 1 and Guardians of the Galaxy during my time as a game reviewer and wrote countless news articles in the lead up to A New Frontier. However, there is one Telltale game very close to me, that I’ve never spoken about.

For the last few years, I’ve struggled with mental illness. When I was first diagnosed I found it hard to understand my condition and find appropriate representations of it in media. I wanted to feel I was understood, that I wasn’t alone in this. Then I found The Walking Dead: Michonne. It’s a spin-off title, three episodes long and released between seasons 2 and 3 of Telltale’s ongoing series.

Most push Michonne aside for not progressing The Walking Dead formula further, viewing it as a bland derivative of the past games. I saw another character who’s inner struggles were eating them alive. I saw a story of someone who appeared strong in front of others, but weak and vulnerable when alone. It was a powerful message to me at the time. Even the strongest of us can be tortured by invisible demons. The Walking Dead: Season 1 meant a lot to many people. The Walking Dead: Michonne meant a tremendous amount to me despite being panned by others. Not every game needs to connect with everyone, one person is enough. So it’s saddening to know that both I and others won’t continue having experiences like this in the future. (Chris Bowring) 

The Walking Dead Final Season

The Walking Dead: The Final Season

As I have been very fervently pointing out over the last month The Walking Dead: The Final Season is already among Telltale’s finest work, even as a half finished game. The bummer of it all is that it might remain that way.

As most reviews have pointed out, the new engine that runs The Final Season is just the breath of fresh air that Telltale needed to reinvigorate their formula. Things like totally free control of the camera with the right analog stick and a more strategic combat system are the precise things that Telltale needed to bring their gameplay back up to snuff with their already solid storytelling.

With these improvements The Walking Dead: The Final Season is poised to be a contender with the very best of Telltale’s games. It’s really too bad that the timing couldn’t be worse for them. Imagining a Wolf Among Us sequel or a Stranger Things game running on this engine is enough to really get a fan excited.

Will Telltale find a partner to help them finish the game or will Clementine’s journey go unfinished this close to its conclusion? I guess we’ll just have and see, won’t we? (Mike Worby)

Wolf Among Us

The Wolf Among Us

After a decade perfecting a formula that mimicked television and turned video games into a series of episodes, Telltale followed up their smash hit The Walking Dead with an episodic prequel of another famous graphic novel – Bill Willingham’s comic series Fables. Taking place in the fictional New York City in 1986 (nearly 20 years before the events of the comic), Telltale’s neo-noir crime drama centers on Bigby Wolf, the sheriff of Fabletown who sets out to hopefully solve a murder mystery before the killer strikes again.

Of the two dozen or so games Telltale created since the studio was founded on October 4, 2004, The Wolf Among Us may just be the very best – a smart, stylized whodunit that is both sobering and thrilling, and sometimes, magical.

There’s a lot to love about The Wolf Among Us, from the gorgeous neon, cel-shaded graphics that blend splashes of bright color with the muddy palette of the classic film noir to the large cast of eccentric mythical characters – but what stood out the most for me is how The Wolf Among Us took inspiration from The Blue Dahlia, one of the most overlooked and under-rated film noirs written by the great Raymond Chandler. Like The Blue Dahlia, The Wolf Among Us interweaves a tangled plot centered on the death of a woman, a wrongly accused man, and a range of possible suspects while addressing issues of neighborhood class struggles. In other words, The Wolf Among Us is less a story of what these legends and folklore figures would do in the real world and more a dark detective story that puts us in the head of the Big Bad Wolf and forces us to makes decisions that will ultimately have a great impact on the lives of everyone he meets along the way.

In keeping with the structure of a compelling whodunnit, each episode unfolds at a steady pace while scattering clues, yet never giving too much away. It’s basically a Raymond Chandler nursery rhyme that paves out a fascinating detective story and an even more fascinating gumshoe who spends his time meticulously pawing through evidence, trying to decipher how it all relates to the crime at large. The setup works mainly because Bigby is such an intriguing character – and the more he investigates, the tougher his choices (and yours) become as he explores the seedy dark underbelly of his hometown. And when things get really bad, it takes a toll on him mentally and physically, as he transforms into an actual wolf.

The season’s final episode, “Cry Wolf” (which the Internet was falling over itself trying to understand) makes the entire journey well worth your time as it culminates in a swirl of revelations that left many people baffled and confused. If The Walking Dead was Telltale’s tear-jerker, The Wolf Among Us is the studio’s head-scratcher, a rare game that left me with a lot to think about, long after the credits rolled. (Ricky D)

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

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

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

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

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

saria-romance

Saria

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

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

princess-ruto-romance

Princess Ruto

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

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

marin-romance2

Marin

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

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

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

midna-romance

Midna

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

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

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

zelda-romance

Zelda

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

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

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

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

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

Though you could always choose the bottle…

Link-romance

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

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Apple Arcade Indie Game Spotlight

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

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

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Devolver Digital Joins the Arcade

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

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

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

Indie Games Spotlight

Mosaic Paints a Bleak Picture of the Daily Grind

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

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

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Get your Zelda Fix with A Knight’s Tale

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

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

Indie Games Spotlight

Spidersaurs: Contra Meets Cartoons

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

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

Go on an Emotional Adventure with Mutazione

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

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

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

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

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Borderlands 3

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

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

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

Borderlands 3

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

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

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

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

Borderlands 3

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

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

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

Borderlands 3

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

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

Borderlands 3

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

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

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

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

Borderlands 3

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

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

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

Borderlands 3

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

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

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

Borderlands 3

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

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

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

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

Borderlands 3

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

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

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

Borderlands 3

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

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

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Games

Could Apple Arcade Be the Best Gaming Subscription Service Yet?

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

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Apple Arcade

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

So…what is it?

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

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

Apple Arcade

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

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

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

What makes Apple Arcade so special, anyway?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Games

Sirfetch’d is the Leek ‘Pokémon Sword’ Needed

Fortunately, Pokémon Sword specifically, has given more reason than just filling the pokédex for future Galar trainers to go seek out this elusive duck. Meet Sirfetch’d!

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Sirfetch'd Pokémon Sword

Ever since we were chasing pokémon around the tall grass of Johto, it was obvious that among the Kanto pokémon given evolutions, Farfetch’d was the one that had been forgotten. A pokémon with more dishes than moves, Farfetch’d had the usability of a fork scooping water, becoming a time-dwindling nuisance due to its rarity. Fortunately, Pokémon Sword specifically has given more reason than just filling the pokédex for future Galar trainers to go seek out this elusive duck. Meet Sirfetch’d!

Sirfetch’d is easily one of the best-designed pokémon for Pokémon Sword and Shield that has already been announced. With a sword and a shield made from its previous garnishing, and a prideful stance that oozes confidence, Sirfetch’d genuinely looks like the next stage of evolution from the woefully inept Farfetch’d. What we don’t yet know is its stats and, as a consequence, what tier it will be in competitive gameplay. But what we do know is it will be a fighting type with the ability steadfast, much like the fellow knight Gallade. Its signature move, Meteor Assault, will be debuting in Pokémon Sword and Shield, which inflicts heavy damage that forces the user to recharge the next turn.

Farfetch'd and Sirfetch'd
Farfetch’d and Sirfetch’d

The announcement of Sirfetch’d only creates curiosity as to who its opposing pokémon will be in Pokémon Shield. It’s doubtful that there will be another evolution for Farfetch’d, as Sirfetch’d is shown already in command of a shield, so the play on sword and shield will not feature in a twin evolution. The likelihood is another pokémon that has been neglected for so long, and in dire need of a renaissance in the franchise; something like Dunsparce from generation two would be ideal, considering that, like Farfetch’d, it manages to be both rare and pointless.

What has made the addition of Sirfetch’d and some of the other Galar region pokémon so appealing is their alignment with the inspiration and theme behind Pokémon Sword and Shield. Sirfetch’d breathes the nature that the games are trying to convey, but so does Corviknight in its chivalrous demeanor. Crucially for Corviknight, it’s another hint at a Victorian England inspiration behind Pokémon Sword and Shield; the raven in the Tower of London is as iconic as the factory chimneys that tower above Galarian form Weezing. Even the possessed teapot is taking a less casual approach to the stereotype.

But honestly, it’s quite charming to see so much inspiration derive from a region of the world. Kalos was inspired by France, but the only pokémon that conveyed a French stereotype was Furfrou, which feels like a missed opportunity in hindsight. If Pokémon is to continue using regions of the world as the inspiration behind their generational games then, from what we’ve seen so far, Pokémon Sword and Shield could be ideal templates.

Impidimp
Impidimp in all its unwanted glory.

That’s not to say there haven’t been any poor designs. The two legendaries, Zacien and Zamazenta, are the rather generic canid legendary pokémon. Rolycoly looks like the love-child of Beldum and Minior, while Impidimp looks like it fell off the pages of a lost Atom Ant storyboard from the sixties. However, if there weren’t contemptuous new pokémon in Pokémon Sword and Shield, then the games would exist without reliable antagonists; getting through Pokémon Moon without the humorous Bananarama Dugtrio would have been an emptier experience. That is why it is easy to accept an Impidimp as long as there is a Sirfetch’d.

This is partly why it is easier to look forward to Pokémon Sword and Shield than it was to Pokémon Sun and Moon. There was a slight drop in pokémon design quality from X and Y to Sun and Moon, while so far, the designs in Sword and Shield have improved from Sun and Moon. The announcement of Sirfetch’d only confirms that designs have at least been slightly improved and we can await with great anticipation for what pokémon the opposing exclusive will be in Pokémon Shield.

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