Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX (2020)

As a kid, Pokémon was undoubtedly my favorite franchise. I played through all of the games dozens of times, I watched the TV show, I had trading cards and toys, I loved everything Pokémon. When Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Red Rescue Team came out in 2005, I happily played it despite it being a spin-off with little resemblance to the main games. This rogue-lite dungeon crawler with a Pokémon skin remained a fond memory of mine, so when it was announced it was getting a remake in 2020, I was ecstatic to revisit it. The main concern I had for the game was whether its gameplay would still be enjoyable so many years later. Spoiler alert: it isn’t.

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What I wasn’t worried about was the game’s sense of charm. I bought the game during my final semester of college, with many projects and final exams looming, and in the height of the COVID-19 lock-down. It suffices to say that I was looking for a relaxing and wholesome game during these stressful times. Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX has charm in spades. The premise of the game is that you play as a Pokémon, teaming up with some Poké-pals to rescue others who are in trouble. You form a rescue team in a small village, undertaking missions to help others and raise your reputation. The music, visuals, and the wholesome nature of the game does an excellent job at establishing the comforting environment that I was looking for.

The main issue that I had with Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX is not really the game’s fault. It’s a remake of a 2005 game, and as such it must emulate the core mechanics of the original. The thing is, the gameplay of the original game was an outdated formula back when it was released fifteen years ago. In 2020, a dungeon crawler of this nature is outdone by its peers. In Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX, you enter randomly generated dungeons, exploring each floor, and progressing deeper and deeper until you reach your goal. There are items to pick up, adversarial Pokémon to battle, helpless inhabitants to rescue, and even a few bosses to fight. The game is played on a square grid, and is turn based. When you move a space forward, so do all of the other Pokémon that happen to be in the dungeon.

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When an opposing Pokémon gets in your way, you can take it down with whatever moves that you and your party have at your disposal. There is a small chance that defeating an enemy will inspire them to join your cause. As a dungeon crawler, you proceed floor by floor, searching for the next staircase to progress. Inventory management plays a crucial role as you must keep an ample supply of food, healing items, and other trinkets that may assist on your journey. The problem with all of this is that the game is completely brainless. You can completely zone out, just walk through the dungeon searching for the next floor, and whenever you encounter an enemy you just pick the best move to dispatch of them as soon as possible. There is very little strategy, planning, skill, or nuance of any sort.

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I understand that the Pokémon series is meant to be accessible by everyone, including little kids. But there is a difference between an easy game and a repetitive grind. Unfortunately, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX is the latter. Every mission plays out the exact same way, and there is very little the player can do to spice things up. You can switch party members out, but for all of the story missions you need to keep two out of your three party slots as the main characters. It doesn’t allow for a lot of freedom when team-building. Moreover, there is not a great sense of progression either. You cannot even evolve until the post-game, so it doesn’t feel like there is a concrete goal to work towards. After a couple of ventures into a dungeon, I started to feel the tedium of the game set in.

The one exception to the repetitive and overly simple aspect of the game is the post-game content, which there is plenty of. The dungeons and quests after you complete the main story are slightly more challenging, and actually encourage building specific teams to take on certain dungeons and bosses. There is at least some element of strategic planning here. But it comes too little too late, as I was tired of the game’s repetitive formula by the time I had completed the main story.

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On the bright side, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX is at least a faithful remake of the original game. Other than a few minor changes, this game replicates the original experience, as a remake should. The new painterly art style is phenomenal, it exudes a warm feeling, perfect for the cozy atmosphere of the game. Another change was that the IQ system was reworked into a simpler system in which each Pokémon has a “rare quality” that has some significant effect on the party as a whole. I think this was a positive change, as I remember the IQ system being fairly confusing, but that could just because I played the original game when I was a little kid.

The final new change is that the player can now recruit more Pokémon in each dungeon if they are fortunate enough. You can still only bring three members into each dungeon, but now you can have a party of up to size eight if you were to recruit five additional Pokémon while traversing the dungeon. In the original game you could only recruit one additional Pokémon per dungeon, so this definitely makes collecting new allies a simpler affair. The downside here is that having too many allies can trivialize dungeons and boss fights. It’s already an easy game, and it only becomes easier when you have twice the party members that you were originally intended to have. Instead of allowing you to have eight members in a party, I wish you could simply recruit new Pokémon without them being a member of the party immediately. This would keep the benefit of being able to recruit new team members beyond the one additional Pokémon per dungeon, but also avoid trivializing the entire game.

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Overall, Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX is a victim of its origins. It’s a fine remake, but the game that it remade just doesn’t hold up very well. The game is cute, charming, and wholesome, but it’s impossible to ignore the outdated gameplay. A niche audience may still enjoy the Pokémon Mystery Dungeon games, but I found the game to be incredibly tedious and repetitive. It is for these reasons I give Pokémon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX a 5/10. Sometimes it’s better to let nostalgic games remain a fond memory.

Astral Chain (2019)

I have never been particularly good at action games which rely on combo-heavy gameplay. While I may enjoy them to an extent, I usually fall back on bread and butter combos, never utilizing the full potential of the games. When I first learned of Astral Chain, I was excited at the prospect of an action game that deemphasized combos, and instead was geared towards positioning and strategic use of combat options. Astral Chain is unique in that you are essentially controlling two characters at once: the main character and their metallic companion. This concept had a lot of promise, and I was excited for an action game that I could really master. Unfortunately, my time with the Astral Chain did not pan out so well, and I was ultimately disappointed by the game’s shortcomings.

The idea behind Astral Chain is that you play as a futuristic police officer in a decaying world. The world is being corrupted by some extradimensional being, and you are assigned to a special task force to defend the last city on Earth from the spreading corruption. You are equipped with a captured entity from the other dimension, chained and tamed so that you can utilize its abilities against its own brethren. You control both the main character and this being, called a legion. By holding down on one of the gamepad triggers, you can move the legion and use any abilities related to it. If you are not holding the trigger, you are controlling the main character, and the legion will attack the nearest enemy automatically. Most of the time you can simply let the legion do its own thing while only you focus on piloting the main character.

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What drew me into Astral Chain was how strategic the combat seemed at a glance. There are five separate legions that you will acquire throughout the course of the game. Each has a panoply of special abilities, and as such some are better suited for certain enemy archetypes. On top of this the actual chain connecting the player and the legion is a physical entity that has consequences on the battlefield. You can use it as a trip wire to stop charging foes, or you can use it tie up and immobilize enemies, or you can use it to have the human dash to the legion or vice versa. All of this is great, there are tons of ways to mix up combat and come up with your own style. Utilizing all of the legion’s abilities, using the chain itself, and positioning the legion and main character simultaneously makes for a hectic but fun combat system. There’s no need to memorize long strings of button inputs to pull off a combo, instead you improvise your own methods of operating the legion.

While I love that the combat is unique and lets players develop their own styles, it also has quite a few issues. The most glaring and common issue in the combat is the camera. It can often be difficult to tell what is going on due to the fact that it can be finicky to position the camera well. This is exacerbated by the fact that for some reason many of the arenas are extremely cramped. Moreover, there are big, flashy animations that obscure what is happening.

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One of the more bizarre problems with the combat was how the dodge functioned. In most games, dodging provides the player with invincibility frames, so you could dodge through attacks if timed properly. Astral Chain functions similarly, except there is a noticeable lack of invincibility frames. This is fine for the quicker attacks, since the player still can properly avoid them with well-timed dodges. But for longer, lingering attacks such as spinning slashes or shockwaves, the dodge is not sufficient. You could dodge the attack, but get hit by a lingering hitbox and take damage regardless of how well you timed your dodge. I think the idea behind this was to force the player to focus on properly spacing and moving far away from enemies when they use these kinds of attacks, but many times combat is so chaotic you cannot possibly tell if they are going to do a spinning attack or regular slash.

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Astral Chain isn’t a particularly long game, there are around a dozen “chapters” to complete. This is fine, except for the fact that the first couple chapters of the game are essentially elongated tutorials. One of the most crucial mechanics in the game, sync attacking, is not even unlocked until the third chapter. Spending such a significant portion of a game in tutorial-town is something that I always abhor in games. I somewhat understand it, since Astral Chain has a ton of buttons and intricacies. However, the first chapters are extremely boring and a poor introduction to the game. The combat in these beginning sections is just mashing the attack button and dodging when appropriate. The legion gets very little use. Considering the legion is such a crucial aspect of the game, I would have like for these chapters to have introduced the core mechanics of the legion earlier on.

The action portion of Astral Chain is certainly unique and it can be a blast, but it is held back by some of the nagging issues I mentioned. Unfortunately, the rest of the game is far less redeemable. The setting itself is interesting, and the art style is sharp and vibrant. Other than that, I found the non-action parts of Astral Chain to be painful. The voice acting was somewhat stiff, but perhaps that was because the script was so poor. The main character doesn’t talk at all, and their twin is an unlikeable jerk throughout the course of the game. The dialogue just doesn’t feel natural in the slightest. This isn’t helped by the fact that the story itself was a big anime trope. That would be ok if the elaborate and crazy narrative ideas actually made sense. The villains are so poorly explained that their motives and ultimate goals remain a mystery even after beating the game.

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The strongest part of Astral Chain is undeniably its combat. It’s strange then that the game puts so many roadblocks between combat encounters. A ludicrous amount of time is spent wandering around environments doing random tasks before you can actually get to the fun parts. The game often transports the player to the “astral plane” which is a different dimension in which most of the combat takes place. Unfortunately, between encounters the player is often left to explore, do light puzzle solving, or do the dreaded platforming sections. It feels like the developers had an idea in mind to put downtime between action sequences, but put zero effort into actually making the downtime anything but a chore.

The astral plane is so dull to look at, so exploring it grows tiresome quickly. The “puzzles” in the game generally consist of moving a block from point A to a highlighted point B. There are no obstructions are anything that could constitute an actual puzzle. And the platforming is downright frustrating. Your character cannot jump, and you must rely on dashing to the legion to make it across gaps. But where exactly your character will land is not obvious, so sometimes you just don’t dash far enough despite your legion being on a platform. Moreover, you can get stuck on the tiniest pieces of environment geometry and will instantly fall.

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Outside of the astral plane, there are plenty of other time-wasting tasks to get in the way of fun. The stealth sections are absolutely unnecessary and unrefined for instance. Most of the game’s side quests are poorly tuned mini-games. Moving stacks of boxes using motion controls, chasing down petty criminals, and shooting balloons are ultimately not engaging tasks. The biggest culprit of being an underdeveloped time-sink are the investigations. At the beginning of each chapter, you generally must run around a crime scene to gather clues about some mysterious occurrence. Of course, there is no actual logic or deduction here. It’s just talking to various characters who give you highlighted clues, and then at the end you take a quiz by matching the clues to some questions. Maybe I was disappointed because I had just played the masterful deduction game Return of the Obra Dinn, but the investigations felt like they were slapped on during the end of development rather than being a fully fleshed out feature.

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Overall, I did not enjoy my time with Astral Chain. It’s a game that I think spread itself too thin with many different ideas rather than focus on refining one or two. If the platforming, puzzling, stealth, exploration, and side quests were dropped entirely I think the game would be better off for it. Moreover, if time hadn’t been spent making these underdeveloped features, maybe more time could have been spent to refine the core aspects of the game. The combat was fun, but it definitely could’ve been fine tuned. The investigations needed a lot of work to be turned into a decent feature. If the game had been centered around combat and investigations, I think it could’ve been a more succinct experience rather than the mess that it is. It is for these reasons that I am giving Astral Chain a 4/10. There are much better action games out there, as this game is a muddled and unfocused collection of ideas.

 

Return of the Obra Dinn (2018)

Puzzles come in all sorts of forms. There are plenty of variations of brain teasers: sudoku, crosswords, mazes, logic puzzles, Sokoban, cryptic puzzles, and mechanical puzzles. Return of the Obra Dinn is unique in its core premise in that it that it does not clearly fit into any of these typical categories. It is a game of deductive reasoning. The player must use snapshots in time to determine facts about characters and their fates. Obvious hints are rarely given to you, and often times you must use logical reasoning to solve the scenarios in front of you. I have truly never played a game similar to Return of the Obra Dinn, and I hope to play more games like it in the future.

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The premise of the game is that you are an investigator tasked with examining the mysterious and abandoned vessel: the Obra Dinn. All sixty crew members and passengers have vanished, yet the ship returned from its voyage all the same. Equipped with a magical stopwatch, it is your job to determine the fate of each of the ship’s inhabitants. You are given a group picture with all the passengers, and a separate document of their names, jobs, and nationalities. The goal is to match the faces to the names, as well as what happened to them. If they are dead, you must additionally deduce how they died and who killed them.

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Each body you discover on the ship whirs the stopwatch into motion and a snapshot of the moment that person died is revealed to you. The player is tasked with using the exact moment of a character’s death to determine clues about that character, as well as any others who may happen to be present. Brief bouts of dialogue and audio are played in the moments leading up to the still frame, which often contain vital information to each scene. The magic of the game is how cleverly information is hidden. As previously mentioned, you need 3 pieces of information to solve a character’s fate: matching the name to the face, how they died, and who killed them. You may easily deduce one of these facts from the scene of a character’s death, but it takes logic and observational skills to figure out the rest.

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Some clues are simple and should be obvious to most people. In the first few scenes in the game the captain’s fate will be made abundantly clear. Other characters will require you to use process of elimination, or make logical conclusions based off of environmental clues. You can use a character’s garb or accent to narrow down who they could possibly be. Any given snapshot contains tons of information, much of that information pertaining to the characters in the background. It is the player’s job to notice the details and piece together all of the scenes to paint a coherent picture. It is hard to explain the game in a way that gives its premise justice since I don’t want to spoil any of its surprises. If you like watching murder mysteries and guessing who the killer is, this game its right up your alley.

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To match the unique gameplay, Return of the Obra Dinn uses a seldom seen visual style in video games: dithering. The game is completely in black and white, and it works well in the context of the game. If the game had a more detailed art style and used colors, the player could easily determine which characters are in a given scene by matching their visage to their appearance in the journal. The art style gives the game a distinct look while also being an integral function. Moreover, the visuals harken back to much older PC games, giving Return of the Obra Dinn a vintage vibe. It certainly could have been a PC game from the 90s, but it’s a wonderful game all the same.

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One of the most brilliant aspects of Return of the Obra Dinn is how it validates your deductions. There are sixty characters who you need to determine the fate of, and as such there needed to be some method to confirm given character’s fates as you play. Having to wait until you filled out all sixty characters would be a nightmare, as you would need to get all sixty correct at the same time to beat the game. And you would have no idea which fates were correct or incorrect until hours into the game. The opposite is also a problem: if each fate were individually validated, it would be all to easy just to guess each character by plugging in different combinations of fates. Instead, fates are validated in threes. This means that if you fill out three fates completely correctly, the game will let you know and lock in those fates as correct. This prevents being able to easily guess fates, and also gives you periodic chances to find out whether your deductions are correct or not.

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Even with the safeguard of having to get three fates correct, I still feel like the validation system is too abusable. There are a few different ways to use this system to guess fates about characters. While it is completely up to the player if they want to abuse the system to get freebies by guessing, I still consider it a flaw in the design of the game. It’s so easy to exploit the system, and as a result it’s extremely tempting to do so. When you get stuck on a certain character, the option to just guess is always there at the back of your mind, tempting you. It’s a shame if you do wind up cheesing the system and guessing a few characters, as there really are ample hints spread out through the game. And it’s not like you can just replay the game the correct way afterwards, since you know all of the answers. Do not ruin the game for yourself, play it the right way; do not guess. The only way to prevent this type of exploit would be to add some sort of timer on each character after modifying what you think their fate was. I think thirty seconds to a minute would be plenty of downtime that would deter people from brute force guessing through all of the options as it would take far too much time to do so.

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My only other problem with Return of the Obra Dinn is that the game is a little bloated with time wasters. Its not a particularly long game, and that’s fine. But between each fragment in time there is a minute or two of downtime where the game plays an animation leading you to the next body. Obviously, it makes sense to show the player where to go next, but the animation is unnecessarily drawn out. Moreover, if you ever want to replay a scene (which you are going to be doing a lot of), you are going to have to find the body associated with the scene and spin up the watch. I wish you could just click on the desired scene in the notebook to watch it. I spent a lot of time fumbling around trying to find the right bodies to replay scenes. Its not a big deal, but when I’m trying to solve a mystery, I don’t want to have to spend a few minutes searching the ship every time I want to examine something again.

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Overall, Return of the Obra Dinn is a phenomenal game with a unique premise. I rarely play through games quickly. It takes me a while to click with a game and sink my teeth into it. Perhaps the highest praise I could give this game is that I played through the entire game in a single day. The addicting feeling of discovering clues, piecing together tidbits of information, logically deducing whodunnit cases, and solving fates culminated in a game that I could just not put down. It is for these reasons that I give Return of the Obra Dinn a 9.5/10. I wish that there were similar games out there, but this is truly a novel experience. For now, I will excitedly wait a few months for when I have forgotten all of the fates and can replay the game.

Luigi’s Mansion 3 (2019)

As a kid, I grew up playing what would become the Gamecube classics. Metroid Prime, Super Smash Bros Melee, The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, Super Mario Sunshine, and Paper Mario: The Thousand Year Door were all staples for young me. One game among these landmark series that seems to be forgotten Luigi’s Mansion. This spooky spinoff centered around Luigi had masterful atmosphere and a unique approach to gameplay that set it apart. Unfortunately, the series seemed to be a one-hit-wonder as a mediocre sequel wouldn’t be released until 12 years later on a handheld console. To the surprise of many, Luigi’s Mansion 3 was announced in 2018 as a revival to the series, and it was released a year later in 2019. The question was: would it match the quality of the original Luigi’s Mansion as a proper sequel, or would it be another failed attempt?

The premise of Luigi’s Mansion 3 is that Luigi and pals get invited to stay at a luxurious hotel. As it turns out, this was an elaborate trap by King Boo to capture Luigi as vengeance for all of his ghost-catching antics. The player must travel up the hotel, floor by floor, in order to rescue Luigi’s companions. Of course, Luigi has access to the Poltergust G-00, a vacuum equipped to suck up any ghosts that you happen to come across. To make your way up the hotel, you must acquire elevator buttons which give access to the higher floors. To get these buttons, the player must thoroughly explore each floor, solving puzzles, battling hordes of spectral ghouls, and ultimately defeating a boss ghost.

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To assist Luigi in his ghostbusting endeavor is an improved Poltergust, which has a few new features. As usual, Luigi must stun ghosts by blinding with his flashlight, then he must suck them up using his vacuum. What’s new however, is that Luigi can now slam ghosts caught in the vacuum’s grasp. This addition is natural and feels absolutely phenomenal when battling ghosts. Rather than just slowly draining away at ghost’s health, the slam ability gives the player much more control to deal damage. You can also slam enemies into each other, making for a great crowd-control tool to deal with large groups of ghosts. Another new tool is the plunger, which sticks onto surfaces and allows Luigi to pull on it using the Poltergust. This has limited use in combat, but it is frequently used when exploring rooms and solving puzzles. The plunger synergizes fantastically with the slam ability, as you can slam things that you stick with the plunger. These two additions feel perfect in the environment of Luigi’s Mansion.

The new addition that stands out the most is Gooigi. The Poltergust wields the power to create a Luigi clone out of mysterious goo. Gooigi is a tremendous addition to the game as it enhances puzzles, combat, exploration, and even enables coop play. Gooigi can sink through grates, push himself through bars, or travel through pipes, but dissolves upon touching water. Many instances of the game require clever use of Gooigi to make it through a room that regular old Luigi could not normally traverse. While you can only control one of Luigi or Gooigi at a time, you can use them in unison to tackle obstacles that require the power of two vacuums. While I really enjoyed the addition of Gooigi as well as the plunger and slam, the last new feature felt underutilized: the dark light. It shines a UV light instead of a normal flashlight, and this can reveal hidden things. This feature was alright as it rewarded observant players who noticed when something in a room was missing, but in reality, it was all too easy to just shine the dark light on every surface to see if there were any invisible goodies.

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The bulk of gameplay in Luigi’s Mansion 3 is two things: combat and exploration. As previously mentioned, combat generally consists of stunning ghosts, sucking them up, and repeatedly slamming them until their health is depleted. Its decently fun, but it’s too easy for the majority of the game. The slam move makes Luigi an all-powerful ghost terminator, once you get a single enemy in your grasp, it becomes tremendously simple to clear out the whole room just by slamming ghosts into each other. This isn’t helped by the fact that there is pitiful enemy variety in the game. There are only four main types of basic enemies that you will be frequently fighting. While it was satisfying to wreck these fodder foes, the real enjoyment in combat came through the boss fights. Each floor houses a unique boss which are a lot trickier to defeat than their basic counterparts. The bosses are puzzle-like encounters as the player must deduce how to damage them. Surprisingly, the bosses actually become moderately difficult as you progress through the game. While the basic ghosts are too simple to be engaging, the bosses were a ton of fun.

The other half of gameplay in Luigi’s Mansion 3 is exploration. Running around in each room and sucking up every perceivable object is key to the Luigi’s Mansion 3 experience. The environment is jam-packed with hundreds of objects and destructible pieces of furniture that fly around the room as you clean out the room. The player is rewarded with money as a reward for diligently vacuuming everything in sight. Its strangely addicting to just clean out an entire room and watch as dollar bills and gold coins go flying as you slam desks and chairs and tables into pieces. The visceral satisfaction of turning chaos into order by sucking up debris is paired with the fulfilling sound of collecting coins. There are secrets and puzzles hidden that only an observant player could spot. People who are paying attention will be greeted with fat stacks of cash or collectible gems. As someone who likes to search every nook and cranny, I appreciate the effort to make the game dense with collectibles.

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With all of the time spent just examining each room for details and secrets, it’s a blessing that Luigi’s Mansion 3 looks so good. The Nintendo Switch is not a powerhouse console by any stretch of the imagination, but Luigi’s Mansion 3 is in the running for the best-looking game on the Switch. Even with flurries of items flying about the room, the framerate never dips and visual fidelity is kept constant. Proper lighting and shading are integral in representing in dark and dangerous hotel. The details on even the most minute objects is superb. Luigi is animated with supreme fluidity as he shivers and tip-toes past his supernatural foes.  Moreover, each floor in Luigi’s Mansion 3 fits some sort of overarching theme. Some themes make sense in the context of the hotel, such as a shopping floor, a floor filled guest suites, or the basement filled with plumbing. Others feel like portals to different dimensions, like visiting and Egyptian tomb or a pirate ship. Nevertheless, the variety in environments keeps the game from ever feeling too repetitive.

One of my key complaints with Luigi’s Mansion 3 is even though the game is ripe with opportunities to uncover secrets, it often feels pointless to do so. The player is showered with coins for doing anything and everything. While there are six gems per floor to find, that is essentially the extent of exploration. Money feels virtually worthless because you get so much of it, and there is basically nothing to spend it on. There literally three things that can be purchased with in game money: extra lives, boo trackers, and gem trackers. Extra lives are nice for beginner players, but I suspect the game is already pretty easy for most players, so they won’t need extra lives. The boo trackers are worthless as boos can easily be found since the controller rumbles when one is nearby. The only worthwhile purchase is the gem tracker, which I admit is a great feature. It shows the player the room that a random gem is hidden in, without disclosing its exact location. This is great as it lets the player track down the last few gems that they are missing without sacrificing the experience of actually finding and uncovering the gem. Ultimately, even with me purchasing a decent amount of gem trackers, I still had a ridiculous surplus of cash.

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I often found myself wondering why I was cleaning out rooms and searching for secrets. That immediate satisfaction of collecting stacks of cash or gold bars was often followed by the question of purpose. There has to be some sort of goal that the player can work toward, not just some nebulous number increasing by the thousands. Giving upgrades to the player’s health or vacuuming capabilities could have been an interesting money sink. Even purely cosmetic options such as alternative costumes for Luigi or different colors for Gooigi could have served as an acceptable way to spend the hundreds of thousands of dollars that the game rains upon you.

While Luigi’s Mansion 3 certainly has fluid animations, actually controlling Luigi is far less crisp. General movement is alright, Luigi is pretty slow and cannot jump. This is a solid contrast to the more acrobatic Mario. The main issue lies in how aiming the Poltergust works. Because the camera is at a fixed perspective, aiming feels inconsistent and awkward. This is not always a problem, since sucking things up with the vacuum has a large area of effect, so accuracy is not necessary. But in certain instances, you will be required to precisely aim the plunger, light, or vacuum. It can get moderately frustrating on some of the late bosses when you have a small window to attack, and you waste loads of time futzing with where your vacuum is pointing.

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My last gripe with Luigi’s Mansion 3 is a more subjective problem and it ultimately a matter of preference. When comparing this game to the original, its clear that there is a distinct deviation in design. The original Luigi’s Mansion was darker, grittier, and generally felt more unsettling. Sure, it was still a Nintendo game and as such had children as its primary audience, so it was not scary or horrifying. But as a kid I do remember being genuinely anxious about exploring the mansion, and I think this is due to a few things. First, the visual styles of the games are subtly different. The original game was darker and colors were muted. In Luigi’s Mansion 3, the game is brighter and colors are more vibrant, giving the game a more cartoonish look.

Moreover, the tone of the original game felt a bit more serious. Maybe I am misremembering, but it felt like the ghosts in that game were genuinely out to get you. In Luigi’s Mansion 3, the tone of the game is far more light-hearted and comedic. This makes the game more family friendly, especially as there is a coop mode, but it lacks that unsettling feeling that the original game embodied. This is also mirrored in the level and world design. The game is much more linear than the original, both in individual levels and throughout the entire map. Every floor plays out similarly: you arrive at the floor, traverse through some rooms, solve some puzzles, fight some ghosts, defeat the boss, and then move onto the next floor. Floors are rarely interconnected. The game felt like a series of individual levels rather than a sprawling labyrinth of hallways and rooms.

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Overall, Luigi’s Mansion 3 is a return to form, but with some hiccups. Having a full-fledged Luigi’s Mansion game on the Switch is a blessing, but it makes me nostalgic for the original. Perhaps I am just wearing rose-tinted glasses, but this game’s atmosphere and level design pale in comparison to the original game. Each room in Luigi’s Mansion 3 is brimming with objects to vacuum, furniture to destroy, and puzzles to be uncovered, this is all helped by the gorgeous visual design. Moreover, the combat in this game is the best in the series and the plethora of unique bosses highlight how fun it can be. It is for these reasons that I give Luigi’s Mansion 3 a 7/10. Despite its flaws, Luigi’s Mansion 3 satisfies a primitive urge to shift chaos into order by vacuuming up every object in sight.

Fire Emblem: Three Houses (2019)

The Fire Emblem series is one that is divisively split across different eras. The staunch difference between the “new” and the “old” is palpable. The newer games in the series have a much more pronounced emphasis on the characters and their relationships, as opposed to the older games which placed importance primarily on gameplay. The newer games in the series feel a lot more anime-ish than their ancestors. Fire Emblem: Three Houses makes strides to attempt to reconcile these separate styles, so that fans of both the new and the old will be satisfied.

The premise of Fire Emblem: Three Houses is that the player is a professor at a prestigious institution for nobles from three nations of the fictional land of Fódlan. The members of the institution separated into three houses according to their home nation, and the player must choose which house they would like to lead. This important choice will dictate which characters you will be using and how the story progresses. Of course, the land of Fódlan is not safe from strife, as eventually tension between the three nations erupt. The shift between playing at war and war itself is well delineated in the gameplay. Fire Emblem: Three Houses separates its core gameplay into two parts: the monastery and battles.

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The monastery houses the institution, and all of the corresponding activities. This parallels to the newer aspects of the series as the player teaches students, converses with various characters, completes side-quests, plays mini-games, and various other life simulation features. The battles are standard to the series, turn-based tactical bouts of war. The battles themselves seem to mirror the older games in the series with more interesting maps and objectives. By cleanly separating the game into its components, players could focus more one which aspect they enjoy more, and I appreciate the attempt to satisfy all fans of the series.

The presentation of Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a bit all over the place. Character art is superb and the game is fully voice acted. The game is by far the most ambitious entry into the series. I’d wager that this is due to the move from an old handheld console to a new home console. This huge upgrade in hardware let the developers really increase the scope of the game. There are multiple routes, each with different characters, battles, interactions, and stories. Additionally, there is an entire explorable monastery, which is really more like a small town. It houses every character in the game who can be conversed with at any time. Despite all of these great things, it is impossible to ignore just how ugly the game is. The 3D visuals are incredibly out of date, it genuinely looks similar to Fire Emblem: Path of Radiance which was released back in 2005. I rarely harp on graphics, but Fire Emblem: Three Houses is just so jarringly unpleasant to look at.

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One of the core aspects of the Fire Emblem series is its emphasis on resource management. The two primary management facets make a return: weapons have limited uses until they break and you want to dole out experience to appropriate members of your army. In Fire Emblem: Three Houses there are some additional resources that correspond with being a professor to inexperienced recruits. Each unit in your house begins as a complete novice, and you can tailor them however you would like. Of course, each character has their own strengths and weaknesses that should be taken into account. Once a character has learned enough about their requisite class and is a high enough level, they can take an exam to promote to the next tier of classes. For example, one of my units had an affinity for lances and horseback riding, so that is what I trained him in. As he mastered those traits, he went from being a basic recruit, to a soldier, to a cavalier, and finally became a paladin.

I really enjoyed the beginning portion of the game as I took note of all of my units and their strengths. I planned out paths for them, figuring out what classes I would like them to be down the line. Moreover, time is extremely limited in the early game. You can only train a couple of units per session, so I had to carefully choose who needed training the most. Planning out my army from scratch was incredibly enjoyable. Trying to fill all of my needs in terms of units while also satisfying each character’s strengths was a fun management aspect.

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The switch to the Switch led the developers of Fire Emblem: Three Houses to make as expansive of a game as possible. I appreciate that the developers attempted to include as many features as possible. Alongside the explorable monastery, multiple routes, and personally teaching each unit, Fire Emblem: Three Houses also brings back a few key gameplay features. First and foremost are abilities. In the past few Fire Emblem games, units would be granted new abilities upon reaching certain thresholds within their classes. These class specific abilities are great because they further specialize units and differentiate classes.

In addition to abilities, combat arts make a return from Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia. Similar to abilities, combat arts are learned by units throughout the game but instead of inherent bonuses, combat arts are more powerful attacks that can be used at the cost of weapon durability. Some of these attacks do additional damage, while others have special traits like immobilizing enemies. Moreover, Fire Emblem: Three Houses introduces a whole new strategic option: battalions. Battalions can be equipped to units, granting them small bonuses in stats while also allowing them to use battalion specific gambits. These gambits were frequently low-accuracy but high-power attacks, often times hitting multiple enemies. While I found combat arts and gambits to have a more niche use than the ubiquitous abilities, I am glad that there are additional tactical options at the player’s disposal.

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While I do appreciate that Intelligent Systems attempted to incorporate more features to flesh out the experience, I felt as if the monastery and life simulation aspects were ultimately lacking. In the early game, time is valuable and choices are endless. I wanted to carefully plan how to spend my time to get the most out of it. Additionally, figuring out what class path I wanted each unit to take was an interesting puzzle. But once you decide what class you want each unit to be, there really is no engaging gameplay left in the monastery. Sure, you can reclass units and teach them other skills, but there is rarely a point to doing that. Once you invest significant time and experience into a certain skill, you aren’t going to stop using that skill to focus on another. Moreover, as you progress through the game, you gain “professor level” which allows you to spend more time at the monastery. This makes choices feel less important, as you have more than enough time to complete everything that you want to do.

A common comparison that I see is between Persona 5 and Fire Emblem: Three Houses, as both have significant downtime spent doing social simulation. I think Persona 5 was more successful in this department because time was extremely scarce in that game, you had to carefully plan your schedule where as you don’t have to do that in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Additionally, in Persona 5 any action you took had an immediate benefit, such as improving your relationship with a character or increasing one of your stats. In Fire Emblem: Three Houses, there is a layer of abstraction between an action and its benefit. When spending time with a character for example, you increase their “motivation”. The higher the motivation, the more time you can spend lecturing them. So, in order to increase a unit’s level in some skill, you need to spend time with them to motivate them, then spend more time to lecture them on the appropriate subject, and repeat that cycle numerous times to see any benefit. The disconnect between the action and the payoff makes the whole thing far less rewarding to engage in.

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Another issue I have with the monastery is just how barren and repetitive it gets. Outside of recruiting characters from other houses, there is nothing that feels worthwhile to engage in. Between every major battle the player is encouraged to explore the monastery: completing quests, talking to characters, doing mini-games, lecturing, so on and so forth. The problem is how shallow all of these tasks actually are.

All of the quests are incredibly blatant fetch quest padding, there is no substance here. Talking to characters can sometimes be interesting as they have different dialogue depending on where you are in the story, but most of the time its just filler one-liners. The mini-games such as fishing, tournaments, or gardening are all pretty boring and unimportant. The lecturing is fun in the beginning as you figure out what you want each character to focus on, but past that its just a matter of clicking on the character and their respective skill to put experience into it. The only worthwhile thing to do in the monastery is listening to support conversations between characters, but this is hardly a new feature and has existed in nearly every Fire Emblem game to date. Ultimately, the monastery is a pretty shallow time waster, and I feel like it significantly hurts the game.

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I would not be so offended by the monastery if it wasn’t such a gargantuan waste of time. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a very long game, especially by Fire Emblem standards. For me, it was about a sixty-hour game to complete a single path, which is two to three times longer than any other Fire Emblem game that I’ve played. There is the same amount of main story battles in this game as any of the other games in the series, so all of that extra time is spent futzing about in the monastery. There is an option to “skip” things like exploring the monastery or lecturing, but it just seems counterintuitive to what the series entails. Resource management is important, so outright skipping things like managing a character’s skill experience just feels wrong to me. Moreover, it is not optimal and is sure to make playthroughs more difficult than they really should be.

Its telling that when I began playing the game, I was excited to try all of the paths to experience all of their characters and unique stories, but by the end of the game I had no desire to attempt even a second playthrough. Not because the gameplay was bad, but it was just such an unnecessarily long experience that it began to drag. Furthermore, the first half of each path is exactly the same, except for the characters of the house you are leading. All of this just put me off playing the game a second time, even as a huge fan of the series who wanted to see how each route would play out.

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While I believe that the time spent in the monastery is by far and way the largest issue in the game, there are a few other problems that will nag at series veterans. Primarily that the game is far too easy. There are a few reasons for this, one of which being that the game only launched with three difficulties: easy, medium and hard. I usually play on the “lunatic” difficulty in Fire Emblem games, but that option was not added until a patch after release. I had to settle for hard, which was suspiciously simple, even for an experience player. This is partially due to the ability to rewind time, a returning feature from Fire Emblem: Shadow’s of Valentia.

Turn-based games involving some sort of luck factor always have the issue that sometimes the player can get unlucky and get screwed over. While it is the player’s job to mitigate risk and take high-percentage plays, sometimes lady luck just isn’t on your side. The ability to rewind turns is a feature that included in Fire Emblem: Three Houses to prevent this. I welcome this idea, as it prevents losing units or having to restart chapters due to an unlucky roll. The issue arises with how often the game lets you use this feature. Being able to do this once or twice a battle to combat bad luck is reasonable, being able to rewind time ten times in a single battle is unacceptable. It completely undermines the point of tactical decisions in the game. The goal of games such as Fire Emblem or XCOM is to make low-risk moves to maximize chances for success. By allowing the player to undo moves so frequently, it lets the player make reckless decisions and play poorly with the knowledge that they can just undo it if things go south.

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Moreover, the map design in the game was not capable of being pushed to a point of sufficiently challenging players. Unfortunately, this is due to the fact that any unit can be made into any class that you want and reclassed at any time. This puts map designers in a tough spot, as they can’t possibly know what units the player has in their arsenal to design around. Maps can’t require or heavily encourage the use of a certain type of unit, as there is no guarantee that the player ever pushed one of their units into that class. Generally, the maps are pretty decent, especially by modern Fire Emblem standards. There are some interesting objectives, and many maps encourage the player to move quickly. Its just a shame that the maps are frequently too easy and let the player steamroll them without having to engage in strategic thinking.

My final, and undoubtably nitpicky, complaint about Fire Emblem: Three Houses is how the classes are handled. Admittedly, some classes got some interesting features which I appreciate: archers are far more useful than they were in the past due to increased range, and mages get to carry more interesting spells for various situations. Class balance has always been a bit of a problem in the series, but not nearly as bad as it is in Fire Emblem: Three Houses. Certain classes are just exceedingly powerful, while others are strangely weak. This is a large problem because the player gets to choose what class each unit is, so naturally players are going to gravitate towards the more powerful ones. There’s just no reason to ever use half of the classes in the game, and that kills variety. Furthermore, each unit begins as a basic recruit, so the early portions of the game feel like you are just using ten of the same unit.

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A bizarre decision was to include weapon mastery and all of its perks as abilities rather than just being inherent. In previous games characters would get increased hit rate, avoidance, and critical strike chance after gaining a level in their weapon skill. In this game, you have to equip a “mastery” skill into one of the character’s ability slots. Additionally, skills like “breaker” or “faire” which are gained from mastering a weapon have to also be equipped in an ability slot. A character only has five slots for abilities, and right off the bat three of those are taken simply for weapon mastery. The more interesting abilities have to fight over the remaining two slots. Moreover, this completely negates any potential for hybrid units. There’s no feasible way for units to use multiple weapon types, since you need three ability slots to fully utilize a weapon and you only get five ability slots. And that’s not accounting for other powerful abilities.

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The classes also do not have anything resembling clear and intentional paths to follow. There are five tiers of class: recruit, basic, intermediate, advanced, master. For many units, there exists no logical path through these tiers. For example, if you want to make a unit which flies on the back of a Pegasus: they begin as a recruit, then become a soldier, then become a Pegasus Knight, then there is no advanced Pegasus class, and then they become a Falcon Knight. Inexplicably, there is a gap between intermediate and master. So, I either must turn my Pegasus unit into an unrelated advanced class, or simply leave them as an intermediate class until they are ready to become a Falcon Knight. Neither choice is particularly appealing.

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The master classes in general are completely wonky, many of them are bizarre hybrid classes, which as previously stated are just not viable. They have no sensible paths which lead into them. For example, Mortal Savant requires a master of swords and magic, yet none of the tiers below master have a class which remotely resembles this. For many classes, their logical path ends at the advanced tier, as there is no corresponding master class. It’s a shame because it feels like my units were done promoting halfway through the game, since there was no rational master class to promote them into.

I understand that I am harsh on Fire Emblem: Three Houses, as I am with every series that I love. After playing so many of these games, and playing them for so long, I’d like to think that I am fairly knowledgeable about the series and its mechanics. Things like the difficulty, class balance, and map design weren’t major flaws, but were noticeably problematic. The biggest issue, the monastery outright decimated any desire I had to replay the game on separate routes. Its slow, repetitive, tedious, and a large part of the games play time. Despite this, Fire Emblem: Three Houses still manages to be a triumphant success for the series. The scope of the game, the story, the swathe of new mechanics, the multitude of playable routes, the interesting characters, and the solid gameplay all make for one of the best modern Fire Emblem games. It is for these reasons that I give Fire Emblem: Three Houses a 7.5/10. While not perfect, Fire Emblem: Three Houses melds the varying directions of the franchise into one cohesive game.

Cuphead (2017)

It’s not often that you will see a game with as much effort put into its presentation as Cuphead. This run and gun indie game was carefully drawn, frame by frame, in an attempt to recreate the legendary cartoon style from the 1930s. Animation studios like Disney and Fleischer obviously inspired Cuphead, and the artists went through great, painstaking lengths to imitate that classic cartoon feeling. Not only did Cuphead succeed in adapting the “rubber hose” style of animation to a game, but they also succeeded in making the game itself pretty damn fun.

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If you’ve heard anything about Cuphead you know these two things: it’s animated frame by frame by hand, and it’s hard as hell. It’s an interesting combination; many of the bosses look absolutely amazing and you just want to revel in their detail, yet you can barely find time to breath as you are being pelted by wave after wave of projectiles. The game looks like it straight out of an old cartoon, and it’s is apparent that an enormous amount of time and effort was dedicated to giving Cuphead its unique look. Additionally, an entire orchestra was brought it to create a magnificent soundtrack. The developers of Cuphead made sure that the presentation was authentic to their vision, and it shows.

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The premise of Cuphead is that you play as that the main character and his friend lost a deal with the devil, and as payment they must round up the souls of individuals who have been hiding from the devil. You travel across Inkwell Isle, fighting bosses and collecting their soul contracts upon their defeat. The vast majority of the game’s content are these boss battles, but there are a few scattered classic run and gun levels to provide a different sort of challenge. Mostly, you will be fighting various bosses, each with a few different phases and assorted attack patterns to learn. Dodging and weaving through projectiles, learning varying patterns, and using windows of opportunity to deal damage are key skills that the player must learn if they want to conquer Cuphead.

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There is no doubt that Cuphead is a difficult game, but it is rarely a frustrating game. The beauty of the game, other than its gorgeous visual presentation, is how compact its fights are. The vast majority of bosses are easily beatable in under two minutes each. Each phase of a boss will only last for 30-45 seconds as long as you are dealing consistent damage. Granted, these are intense bouts that feel far longer than they actually are, but in reality, you can quickly master any boss. These short fights make the learning process far more forgiving.

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You are going to die quite a few times when first encountering a boss, but you learn as you play, figuring out how to dodge tricky attack patterns on subsequent attempts. Some games can feel unfair when you get hit with some new attack pattern that you cannot possibly anticipate, but Cuphead diminishes this feeling by only having fights being a couple minutes long. You don’t lose significant progress upon death. Moreover, most attacks in the game are “fair” in the sense that you have a realistic chance of dodging them the first time you see them. You can react to fair attacks; they don’t come out of nowhere nor do they require previous knowledge to anticipate them. Unfortunately, there are a few instances of “unfair” attacks in Cuphead that can get a bit irritating.

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While most of the bosses and their corresponding attack patterns are well-designed, there are a few outliers that definitely were teetering on being frustrating. There were a few instances of attacks that came out ridiculously fast, or attacks that have very precise locations where you can stand to be safe. Both of these types of patterns feel unfair that you could not possibly react to them, you had to have seen these attacks and learn their signals to reliably dodge them. This isn’t a huge deal as battles are so short, as you can quickly retry with newfound knowledge. What is less forgivable are the more erratic bosses.

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There are a few late-game bosses in Cuphead that I felt had unpredictable, and sometimes undodgeable attack patterns. Grim Matchstick, Rumor Honeybottoms, Cala Maria, and Dr. Kahl’s Robot all made me pretty aggravated. All of these bosses have overlapping hazards: the first two have moving platforms that you have to jump between while dodging their attacks, and the latter two can launch multiple attack patterns at the same time. Both of these scenarios I would classify as unfair. The hazards often overlapped in ways that made them random, overly difficult, or straight-up unavoidable. It makes the process of figuring out the boss’ attack patterns far more maddening, as each attempt is going to yield different combinations and it will be difficult to reproduce success.

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Other than the occasional frustrating boss, there were a couple of minor and nitpicky issues in Cuphead. On rare occasion, the developer decided that putting things in the foreground to block the player’s vision was a good idea. It wasn’t. When I’m in an intense boss fight and focused on dodging waves of projectiles, I certainly do not want a pillar obscuring my character, the boss, or the thing that I’m trying to dodge. Another gripe that I have with Cuphead is its non-boss levels. These levels are classified as “run n’ gun”, and are akin to the classic titles run and gun games such as Contra or Metal Slug. These levels are not particularly offensive, but they are uninspired and dull in comparison to the more intricate and interesting boss fights.

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The run n’ gun stages just feel like they were slapped on at the end of development in order for the game to have content other than boss fights. Each of these stages houses five coins, which can be used to purchase various upgrades. These upgrades include different weapons and charms which can be used to augment some aspect of gameplay. The various guns were a great addition, as they are fun to test out and are incredibly helpful on some bosses. Charms, on the other hand, feel unbelievably poorly balanced. There are technically six charms to choose from, but in reality, there is only one charm: the smoke bomb. This charm is overwhelmingly more powerful than its peers, and at times it feels blatantly overpowered. It augments the player’s dash so that you are invincible while dashing. This is always incredibly strong, but it outright breaks certain bosses as you can easily dash through all of their attacks.

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Overall, Cuphead is a masterclass in presentation. The meticulous work done to replicate the recognizable animation style from decades ago is what sets this game apart. The gameplay itself is solid as well since most of the bosses are well designed. While it is a difficult game that can occasionally feel a bit unfair, its short battles keep it from being overly frustrating or tedious. It is for these reasons that I give Cuphead an 8/10. Cuphead is a glorious combination of classics. The cartoonish animations, the full orchestral soundtrack, and the recapturing of a classic video game genre all meld together for one great game.

Death Stranding (2019)

As someone who values creativity, innovation, and uniqueness in games, Death Stranding was one of my most anticipated titles of 2019. It boasted Hideo Kojima’s signature style, yet it promised to be even stranger than the Metal Gear Solid series. It would be an understatement to say that Death Stranding is divisive. It firmly falls into the category of “love it or hate it” type of games. Kojima’s over the top and campy dialogue, the bizarre and confusing story, and the seemingly uninteresting gameplay were all either panned or praised depending on who you asked. I consider Death Stranding to be an important milestone for the gaming industry. It’s triple-A, yet it’s incredibly niche; it’s a game with a high production value yet the creators knew that the game would not appeal to everyone. Fortunately for me, this a niche that I really enjoyed, and I am solidly in the “love it” camp.

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You play as Sam, a delivery man in a post-apocalyptic world. Earth has been decimated by a phenomenon known as the “Death Stranding”, a sort of disease that causes dead bodies to transform into anti-matter and destroy entire cities in violent explosions. The anti-matter ghosts that are created when a person dies are known as BTs, and if these BTs come in contact with a living person, the explosive “voidout” occurs. BTs tend to show up during bouts of “timefall”, which is a toxic equivalent to rain. Timefall causes anything it touches to rapidly age, decaying any living thing it its wake. The world has been devastated by the appearance of the Death Stranding and timefall. Voidouts annihilated major cities before they even knew what was happening.  Now, there are few remaining communities, and many people choose to live alone in doomsday shelters.

Sam plays the critical role of being a porter. He delivers packages from shelter to shelter, city to city, bringing necessary supplies between the scattered remnants of humanity. Since the dangers of timefall and BTs are unavoidable, most people refuse to leave the safety of their underground bunkers. Porters like Sam are the lifeline of civilization, undertaking the dangerous task of journeying in treacherous conditions to facilitate trade between the few survivors. Sam’s job is even more important, as he was given the task to link these scattered shelters via the chiral network. This advanced network allows people to communicate, share data, and ultimately become a global community again. Sam’s job is to rebuild America by bringing vital resources to people across the country and to connect them to the chiral network.

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Death Stranding transforms what is considered downtime in most games into its core concept: walking. As a porter, the player must travel between shelters, delivering packages and avoiding danger along the way. Death Stranding does something very unexpected, it flips the universal notion of how inventory works on its head. In typical games, you have an inventory in which you can store items, sometimes up to a certain weight threshold. The inventory is a magical beast in most games, there is no physical representation of it, just a menu for easy access to things that you have collected. In Death Stranding, every single thing you decide to place in your inventory is physically on Sam. For every piece of cargo you bring with you, there are draw backs. You will move slower, you will be easier to spot, you will lose balance more easily, you will gain uncontrollable momentum, and it will be harder to fit into small gaps. This turns what is usually an implicit feature of most games, the inventory, into an important management aspect.

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The core gameplay in Death Stranding revolves around being a porter in a disjointed America. You travel from coast to coast, delivering packages and connecting survivors to the chiral network. There are numerous dangers when traveling in the desolate environment of Death Stranding. Some areas are ripe with BTs, which require the player to stealthily avoid these mysterious ghosts. Moreover, terrorists are looking to intercept Sam and steal his cargo at every turn. There is also the obvious environmental factor when trekking across long distances. There is always a risk of running out of stamina, resources, or taking too dangerous of a path that inevitably damages your cargo beyond repair.

Each delivery in Death Stranding is a balancing act. You must examine the map to work out the best route to reach your destination. Avoiding BTs, terrorists, and choosing a path with manageable terrain is crucial to having a good experience. If you try to head straight up or down a cliff, or trudge through a river, Sam is going to be very hard to control. Picking an efficient route is then followed by deciding what cargo you want to bring along. There are tools to deal with the environment and enemies; ladders, climbing anchors, and a variety of other devices are critical to a delivery’s success. However, every tool you bring has a weight, which as mentioned earlier will make it harder to balance, move, and be stealthy. Choosing an effective route and bringing the correct tools is vital to Sam’s success, and to the player’s enjoyment.

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Trekking through the wilderness is a supremely lonely experience. The seeds of civilization are few and far between, and the solitary journey between these bunkers of hope is one of silent contemplation. As Sam slowly makes his way across the gorgeous yet eerie vistas of desolation, the player is left alone with their thoughts. Death Stranding is a slow burn, action is tense but sparse. The majority of the game is spent wandering through scenic landscapes, but the few moments when you do encounter enemies are all the more tense due do their rarity. Music is also used to its greatest possible effect, when a song begins playing it is as if the player is transported into a movie. The visual of Sam hiking in the lonely wilderness with a calming and ambient soundtrack playing in the background creates some unforgettable and picturesque moments.

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Despite the isolation of the lone porter, Death Stranding is a game all about connections. Reconnecting the people of America, the connections of personal relationships, the connections between life and death, and the connections between players. This game implements a unique form of cooperation with players around the world. Even though you will never truly meet the other players, you will help each other through treacherous world. When you connect a region to the chiral network, you will also be able to see what other players have built in that region. Bridges, roads, storage boxes, safehouses, vehicles, ladders, and various resources are shared among players. You can contribute resources to other player’s structures to complete them or upgrade them. The player base is collectively working together to make the game easier for each other. You can leave signs of encouragement, or warnings of danger to come. And you can always drop some “likes” to show your appreciation for what other players have built.

The transformation of the world in Death Stranding is an incredibly satisfying experience. Watching an empty wilderness gradually fill with player structures as you connect the chiral network accomplishes the effect that you actually are rebuilding America. I was absolutely obsessed with efficiently connecting each location on the map via a network of roads, bridges, and ziplines. I wanted to make it simple for myself and other players to quickly travel across the landscape. Donating resources that I had collected to reestablish the world made it feel like I was contributing to the greater whole.

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Death Stranding made me feel like I was working with other players, rather than just playing in isolation. I was worried that player structures would make the game too easy, as you could just use previously placed roads and bridges to complete any mission, but this is not the case. The player structures only appear once you connect a location to the chiral network, so each trek to a new place is still difficult and lonely. Each of the main deliveries is “pure” in the sense that you will play it exactly how the developers designed it: with no external assistance.

Hideo Kojima is known for his absolutely convoluted stories, and Death Stranding is no different. Just describing the basic idea of the world earlier in this article was difficult. As previously mentioned, Sam is traveling across America, delivering supplies and reconnecting people as he goes. Ultimately, he is trying to reach his sister on the West Coast, who is being held hostage by an anarchist terrorist group. Moreover, Sam carries around a “Bridge-Baby”, affectionately referred to as BB. Little BB acts a connection between the worlds of life and death, allowing Sam to sense and see BTs. There is a ridiculous amount of moving parts in Death Stranding, many of which may seem random and disconnected. It all comes together by the end of the game. In true Hideo Kojima fashion, there are plenty of plot-twists and unexpected explanations for what may seem nonsensical at first.

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Despite the convoluted nature of the story, and what may seem like an incoherent world, Death Stranding manages to contain one of the most emotional stories in the medium of video games. Sam begins the game as a cynical, standoffish, and antisocial man who is just doing what he needs to do to survive. Witnessing Sam’s transformation as he travels with BB is one that I highly empathize with. Occasionally, I was taken out of the moment by some of the campy dialogue that Hideo Kojima has become known for. At this point it’s expected, but that doesn’t excuse some of the really goofy writing. It’s odd because there are absolutely masterful scenes with amazing dialogue, but then once in a while Kojima will throw in some ridiculous one-liner that just makes me scratch my head.

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Much of the game’s emotional impact has to do with how well the game was acted. Kojima brought in an all-star cast of actors to portray his vision. Norman Reedus, Mads Mikkelsen, Léa Seydoux, Guillermo del Toro, Lindsay Wagner, and many more all were critical in the story of Death Stranding. Norman Reedus as Sam and Mads Mikkelsen as Cliff Unger were both absolutely phenomenal portrayals of their respective characters, filling them with life and emotion. Cliff in particular has become one of my favorite characters ever, from any medium.

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The core mantra behind Death Stranding is connections. The entwined thread of humanity is one of love, compassion, turmoil, and misunderstanding. Kojima famously stated that this is the first “strand-type game”. In a traditional game, you use a stick to beat the obstacle in front of you. Instead of using a stick, in Death Stranding you use a strand, connecting people to overcome the obstacle. There is traditional combat occasionally, but the game is primarily focused on connecting the remnants of humanity. The strands connecting people can get tangled, causing anguish and agony. The unrelenting love of a parent, the fervent hunger for revenge, and the desire to watch the whole world fall apart all are key components to Death Stranding. The main point that the game gets across is that everything is connected in some way, and we should be attempt to form positive strands rather than face life as a lone warrior.

My solitary gripe with Death Stranding is that the game is too easy. Despite there being multiple difficulty options, even the hard difficulty did not present any form of challenge. The early portions of the game are by far the most difficult, but the game only gets easier as you progress. Early on you have low carrying capacity, limited equipment to build, and are unfamiliar with the controls. The game is divided into 15 chapters, and by chapter 3 you are essentially given all the tools you will need to defeat the majority of the threats in the game. Sure, you get more powerful equipment as you get farther along, but once you are given a weapon to deal with basic enemies you are set. This is a problem because Death Stranding benefits from those occasional tense moments when you encounter a terrorist camp or a horde of BTs. Once you have a weapon to deal with these threats, the genuine fear and anxiety disappears.

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Moreover, the vast majority of bosses in Death Stranding pose no realistic threat to the player. Some of the bosses are horrifying spectacles, but they are all show and no go. Ultimately, there should have been an extra difficulty level added for players like myself who wanted a bit of a challenge. A “survival” difficulty could make bosses more threatening, and make resource collection more integral to player success. As it stands, the player is given more than enough resources to build any sort of tool that they need. Weapons, exoskeletons, vehicles, and structures (with the exception of roads) are all fairly cheap to build, meaning that you never truly have to scrounge for resources or properly ration materials.

One of my favorite moments in the game was early on before I had weapons or vehicles available; I snuck into a terrorist camp, stealthily dispatching the guards one by one, then I stole all of their precious materials and loaded it onto one of their own trucks to haul away. This was exciting and rewarding, I walked away with a stash of resources and a vehicle. Yet this was a hollow victory as a couple of hours later I realized that the extra resources that I acquired weren’t really necessary, and I could build a truck whenever I wanted. If building tools were more expensive and resources were scarcer it would force the player to scrounge for materials. Additionally, players would think twice about wasting valuable tools when not necessary. Terrorist and BT encounters would remain tense as you would try to get through them without blowing through a bunch of resources. I understand that many players would not want to have to constantly restock materials, so an additional difficulty level would be the best way to solve this issue.

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It is important to understand that Death Stranding is not a game for everyone. Some players are going to click with the game, others are going to dislike it or outright hate it. And that’s ok. The modern triple-A industry is filled with cookie-cutter games in which producers and developers are afraid to take risks so they follow a proven formula. Kojima Productions made something entirely unique, which I heavily appreciate. Being unique doesn’t necessarily mean that a game is worthwhile, but in the case of Death Stranding, I think the game has plenty of appeal and attempts to convey a meaningful message.

This is definitely not a game for everyone, it understandably won’t appeal to a large chunk of players. It’s slow paced, filled with exposition and cutscenes, has a confusing story, and its core gameplay will bore many players. While I personally found a sort of Zen state by making deliveries, I understand that many people will desire high-octane action. I loved deciding what tools to bring, what cargo is important, what route to take, and subsequently traveling along that route. This is not a standard open world game in which the world is your sandbox. You have to follow the guidelines laid before you or you will have a bad time. Carrying too much cargo will mean you will move slow and have a hard time balancing. Traveling across rough terrain will cause you to fall over and lose cargo. Not bringing the right equipment may leave you with no way forward. Players who do not follow these rules are going to get frustrated, you must be patient and play the game the way it was designed.

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Overall, Death Stranding is a one-of-a-kind game. It’s certainly a niche experience, and many people are going to absolutely abhor it. Still, I hope that everyone at least gives this game a shot. It can be an absolutely enthralling journey if it clicks for you. The artistry, narrative, online cooperation, and uniqueness of Death Stranding are second to none. It is for these reasons that I give Death Stranding a 9.5/10. It’s not for everyone, but everyone should give it a shot. Get out there and rebuild America, and don’t forget to keep on keeping on.

 

Yoku’s Island Express (2018)

Indie metroidvanias are extremely common, so I am always on the lookout for one that sets itself apart. Yoku’s Island Express is a phenomenal example of a game that exudes creativity. It is a relaxing and charming adventure which is chock full of personality. While being a short adventure, Yoku’s Island Express is a sincerely enjoyable one.

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While 2D, indie, platforming metroidvanias are abundant today, Yoku’s Island Express stands out from the crowd by merging platforming and pinball. You play as Yoku, a dung beetle who is tasked with being the mailman on the diverse island of Mokumana. Luckily, instead of rolling around dung, Yoku rolls a ball which come in handy on the island full of conveniently placed pinball paddles. You can only control Yoku by moving left and right, but you can trigger different color pinball paddles to launch Yoku through platforming gauntlets. This is quite a unique take on platforming, and I loved just how different it is to conventional platforming.

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Upon arriving to the island of Mokumana, you make your way up to the central hub village where you learn that the protective deity of the island has been injured. It is your job as the postmaster to gather the three chiefs of the island to heal the guardian god and to track down whoever attacked him. First and foremost, Yoku’s Island Express is a wholesome journey. As you traverse the various terrains of the island you encounter numerous species of animals which you cooperate with to achieve your goal. It’s a cute, uplifting story accented by vibrant art and upbeat music.

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I was surprised with just how good the metroidvania aspects of the game were. The game points you in a vague direction to where the three chiefs are located. It is for the player to explore and discover how to reach the goal. Despite this, I never felt lost or confused when searching for the path forward. There is not an overwhelming amount of directions to choose from, so as long as you head in the correct general direction you will eventually find the right path. Moreover, backtracking is made quick and easy. Even though there is no fast-travel which teleports the player between major areas, there is a clever alternative. The “Beeline” serves as an unlockable express route which lets the player quickly travel between important locations once unlocked. Furthermore, Yoku’s Island Express has plenty of shortcuts so you rarely have to repeat platforming sections, making backtracking a breeze.

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Despite being a fairly short game, Yoku’s Island Express makes up for that by encouraging exploring for collectibles. The main collectible in the game are wickerlings. These little guys have no immediate tangible reward, but the game does a great job at instilling a desire to hunt them down. As you collect them, the game will show that the wickerlings are a progression towards hatching a mysterious egg. The overwhelming desire to know what would happen when all the wickerlings were found, and what was inside the egg drove me to 100% this game.

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I rarely 100% games these days as scrounging for collectibles can get excessively tedious, but I never ran into that problem in Yoku’s Island Express. The vast majority of hidden treasures are easily discovered, and the few that I missed were a breeze to find once I beat the game. This is because you can unlock “trackers” that will pinpoint the location of any missing collectibles on the world map, making it a cakewalk to find whatever I missed. I loved this, and I firmly believe that any game which has collectibles should have a similar idea implemented.

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The gameplay of Yoku’s Island Express revolves around pinball-platforming. As you roll around the island, you will frequently enter these pinball chambers which you must progress through to move forward. These pinball challenges usually have the player hit specific spots to unlock the way forward. You could be hitting switches, barreling through tunnels, or trying to make precise shots. Of course, as a metroidvania you unlock new upgrades which will make these challenges more and more complex. The developers absolutely nailed the sense of satisfaction of just playing around in these pinball chambers. Flying around at high speed, hitting targets, and being constantly rewarded with this game’s form of currency: fruit. In Yoku’s Island Express there is no combat, there are no enemies, and you cannot die. It’s a comfy game, it’s not meant to be stressful or frustrating.

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There is something to be said for the fact that the game managed to be occasionally challenging despite there being no enemies or way to die. Just like real pinball, if you miss the bumpers, you can fall through a crack and have to launch yourself back into the level. Like real pinball, which eats your quarters, you will lose a couple of fruit for failing. Luckily, as you bounce around a pinball chamber like a madman, fruit is constantly flowing. So even if you aren’t hitting your intended target, you end up collecting a swathe of fruit completely unintentionally. This is a great way to keep the game feeling rewarding, and to keep the players from feeling discouraged when they can’t quite make precise shots.

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One of my few critiques of the game is how annoying it can be when you are struggling to make a very particular shot. You need to launch off of the correct bumper, at the correct angle, with the correct momentum. A couple of millimeters to the left or right will result in a missed shot. To be clear: this wasn’t a problem in itself, I welcomed the idea of making difficult shots. What grew tiresome was trying to get in position to make these shots in the first place. In some scenarios, transferring from the left bumper to right bumper (or vice versa) is not trivial. Simply getting into a position to make a shot could take a minute or two. Then missing that shot repeats the whole process. This did not happen too often, and it isn’t a big deal, but it highlights why the pinball concept can’t be taken much farther while maintaining the relaxing nature of Yoku’s Island Express.

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Pinball can be a little frustrating, like in the scenarios I just described. For the most part, Yoku’s Island Express does a phenomenal job keeping its platforming simple enough that it doesn’t get to be tedious or exasperating. But what that means is that the game has severely limited itself with how far it can take its main concept. The developers couldn’t make anything difficult or anything that required a gauntlet of challenging shots. They couldn’t push the game’s core concept to its limit because the core concept is pinball, and pinball can quickly grow maddening. This is the antithesis of the cute, quirky, and calming game of Yoku’s Island Express. Ultimately, the pinball-platforming was kept simple, and I felt like it was missing some more complex challenges.

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Despite my gripes, Yoku’s Island Express is still a triumphant success of upbeat positivity. Even in an oversaturated market, it manages to be a fresh and enjoyable experience. The creativity and unique concept really are what made this game stand out to me. It is for these reasons that I give Yoku’s Island Express an 8.5/10. This is a perfect game to just kickback, relax, and explore the wonderful world lovingly crafted by the game’s creators.

Borderlands 3 (2019)

One of my most anticipated games of 2019 was Borderlands 3. As someone who played the hell out of Borderlands 2, I was amped up for the long-awaited new entry to the series. Unfortunately, I was ultimately underwhelmed by Borderlands 3. The game is definitely not bad, but there a few questionable design choices that grow annoying over time. Moreover, as someone who values innovation, Borderlands 3 definitely disappointed be with its lack of improvement over its predecessors.

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It has been a while since the last major Borderlands release. Eight years since Borderlands 2 and five years since Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel. Despite all of that time between releases, only minor changes were implemented. Don’t get me wrong, I love the core Borderlands looter-shooter formula, yet Borderlands 3 does absolutely nothing that makes me want to play it over its ancestors. Ultimately, it’s more of the same. If you enjoyed any previous Borderlands games, then it’s very likely that you will like Borderlands 3, but don’t expect anything mind-blowing or revolutionary.

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A few minor improvements were made throughout the gameplay that were noticeable, but they are not gamechangers. Movement in general has a few additions such as sliding, mantling, and ground-slamming. These are nice inclusions that make the game feel a bit smoother to play. High-rarity loot seems to be far more common this time around, I was getting legendary drops fairly frequently. Moreover, each legendary piece of equipment has some special effect that makes it fun to use rather than just being a huge stat increase. Boss fights are a far more integral part of the experience in Borderlands 3 than any of its predecessors. There are dozens of full-fledged bosses that are not simply bullet sponges. These bosses have telegraphed attacks and recognizable patterns, making their fights rely a little more on skill than just raw damage. Killing these bosses is also a great way to acquire those rare pieces of loot. Overall, all of these changes are fairly minor, but are nice inclusions that I hope get carried into the series going forward.

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By far my favorite aspect of Borderlands 3 was the revamp on classes. In each of the previous Borderlands games there were 4 characters to choose from, each with a special ability and 3 skill trees to modify that ability. In Borderlands 3, each of the skill trees holds its own ability. Meaning instead of having a single ability with some slight modifications, now each character has 3 completely different abilities depending on which playstyle you want to pursue. Furthermore, as you progress down the skill tree you can unlock equippable augments for abilities, modifying them even further. All of this provides far more customization for how you want to play the game. You can easily reset skill points at any time so you quickly test different builds.

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Despite there being a few positive changes in Borderlands 3, there were far more irritating quirks that were introduced. One of the biggest irritants was how often the game stops the player to spew dialogue at them. In past games, dialogue was often played while roaming around or shooting enemies. It was background noise that would be mildly entertaining, or at the very least you could ignore it entirely. Now, the game forcefully stops you in your tracks to listen. By locking doors, blocking paths, or outright making it so the player can’t move, Borderlands 3 insistently makes sure the player is listening to its writing. The worst part of it all is that the writing in the game is atrocious.

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The undoubtably largest issue in Borderlands 3 is its writing quality, in both dialogue and overarching story. Borderlands as a series has always been known for its bombastic humor and ridiculous jokes. Borderlands 3 tries to follow the same legendary style, but it falls completely flat the majority of the time. With incessant pop culture references and crude humor, Borderlands 3 jokes felt outdated coming out of the gate. To make matters worse, gags go on for what feels like an eternity. Even if a joke is funny, repeating it a dozen times is a surefire way to make it annoying. It’s not just the poor dialogue which hurts the game, but the story itself is completely nonsensical.

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The main villain of Borderlands 2, Handsome Jack, was iconic. Borderlands 3 on the other hand revolves around the twins Tyreen and Troy Calypso. These two are obvious parodies of internet influencers, as they gain followers by streaming their antics. Ultimately, they are trying to open vaults across the galaxy and gain the power within. It’s hard to properly explain why I dislike the story without spoiling what happens, so here are some ambiguous explanations: the villains “cheat”, there are some extremely annoying characters who are pushed to the forefront of the game, some foreshadowed events never occur, vaults feel devalued, and the player feels like a side character. To touch on the last point a little more, the game has the bizarre feeling that the player is entirely disconnected from the events of the game.

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The player is essentially a hero, traveling from planet to planet and stopping an evil cult from amassing power. Yet every time you accomplish something, one of two things occurs: the villains teleport out of nowhere to somehow snatch victory while you aren’t looking, or the characters attribute the player’s accomplishments to other characters who did nothing. After completing a long and grueling quest, I want to feel like there was a point to it. To be rewarded. Something. Instead, there is always something waiting to rip away the feeling of accomplishment. The player’s character is never included in cutscenes or major interactions between the villains and the heroes. It feels like you are a spectator instead of a player.

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There are a few nagging issues which I had with the game as well. For some reason, cutscenes are unskippable. I never skip cutscenes anyway, but the option should still be there. Especially since Borderlands encourages multiple playthroughs with different characters, I wouldn’t want to rewatch the same cutscene. The game has a fair number of irksome bugs, like the inventory displaying the wrong stats for items, or playing through the wrong dialogue when talking to a character. Lastly, when I played the game there was a Halloween event which proved to be frustrating. In game events which provide bonus content are great, as long as they don’t intrude on the rest of the game. This event would spawn ghosts when enemies were killed, and these ghosts would rush at the player, inflict damage and increase recoil. There was no way to turn off this event, so through my entire playthrough I had to deal with these annoying ghosts. Let me opt out of the event so I can play the game the way it was designed.

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Overall, Borderlands 3 had high expectations but it missed its mark. The core gameplay of Borderlands is at its best in this entry, but the game is fairly disappointing in all other aspects. There is nothing that makes Borderlands 3 stand out for its predecessors. Both the dialogue and story are poorly written. And the game has a wealth of minor irritants. It is for these reasons I give Borderlands 3 a 6.5/10. If you like the Borderlands series, or just want to shoot n’ loot, Borderlands 3 is perfectly fine game. If you are expecting anything more, look elsewhere.

Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (2016)

After the less-than-innovative Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception, I feel like the Uncharted series needed something more inventive. Luckily, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End enhances the adventure with some new tools to be used in a variety of scenarios. Moreover, despite being 3 years old, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is one of the most graphically impressive games that I have ever played. This is all of course complimented by the tenets of the Uncharted series: insane action, lovable yet realistic characters, phenomenal writing, and a sense of adventure.

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This entry is without a doubt the best story in the series. The game still follows Nathan Drake and his companions, yet it has a more somber tone as Drake realizes how his lust for adventure is damaging his relationships. After being contacted by his sketchy brother, Drake decides to go on one last treasure hunt to find the lost stash left by the infamous pirate Henry Avery. There are plenty of character-building sequences in this game, including flashbacks from when Nathan and his brother were kids and how they became addicted to treasure hunting. Throughout the entire series, Nathan rarely thinks of how his actions effect his wife Elena and his mentor Sully. In Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, we get a more personal look at the characters and Nathan finally realizes how poorly he is treating those around him.

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Naughty Dog has made some major additions to gameplay of Uncharted. Three new mechanics are introduced: a grappling hook, sliding, and a climbing spike. The climbing spike is given to the player late in the game and does not see much use, but it is a welcome addition nonetheless. It requires the player to dig the spike into certain walls to create something for Nate to hold onto while climbing. It isn’t a revolutionary new tool, but it does make climbing at least a little more interesting than just jumping from ledge to ledge. The two far more important additions are the grappling hook and sliding.

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There are branches throughout the game which Nathan can grapple onto, allowing him to swing across crevices. These branches can be found in climbing sections and combat arenas alike. The same can be said for sliding ramps. These steep ramps have the player slide down them, often times jumping off at the very end to carry momentum into a long jump across a gap. Both the grappling hook and the sliding mechanic were a fantastic way to make climbing sections more interesting. You can actually mistime or misalign jumps from the grappling hook or from sliding. This alone makes climbing sections more engaging, as there is way that you can die if you screw up. The issue is that the grappling hook and sliding ramps are not nearly used frequently enough throughout the course of the game. For the most part, climbing is the same old noninteractive and boring button mashing as you watch Nathan leap from handhold to handhold. And there is more of it than ever.

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I am a proponent for games to include what I categorize as “downtime”. Things like cutscenes, exposition, walking, or the puzzles and climbing in the case of Uncharted. Having some downtime between difficult sections can give the player a break from action. If a game is constant action, then players quickly accrue mental fatigue and will need to take breaks from the game more frequently. While I appreciate that Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End does have plenty of downtime between its intense shootouts, it does feel a little bloated at times. Climbing in particular should be a means to an end, not a core gameplay mechanic. It should serve as a method to traverse terrain, to view the gorgeous locales and set pieces, and to provide small breaks between action. Instead, climbing is frequent and often goes on for too long. The developers try to make it exciting by having the things you are climbing on crumble or fall, but it is pretty much impossible to fail a climbing section without blatantly hitting the wrong buttons.

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Climbing is just one way that the grappling hook and sliding are utilized. They can also be utilized during combat to quickly traverse an arena. Without a doubt, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End has the best level design of the series in this regard. The combat sections usually have multiple buildings and a plethora of ways to traverse the arena. This was mostly done to accommodate the new emphasis on stealth. While stealth did exist in previous entries, it was never a viable option other than taking out a single enemy at the beginning of a fight. Now, you can hide in tall grass to take out adversaries, climb up a building to sneak up behind a sniper at the top, and there are far more walls so that you can navigate a battlefield without being spotted. Even if you are spotted, you can often run away and hide so that enemies lose track of you.

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The levels were obviously designed with that stress on stealth in mind. The developers wanted the player to have many options to sneak about an arena.  Each encounter feels more contained, as you can glance over it before engaging the enemy. You can see where the enemies are located, how many there are, which ones you want to prioritize, and you can begin to plan a route to stealthily take out as many as possible. Of course, the option to go in with guns blazing is always available if the player so desires. The new stealth mechanic adds a new dynamic to combat encounters, and that paired with the level design makes for the most enjoyable combat in the series to date. It feels like guerilla warfare as I constantly dipped in and out of stealth to take out a couple of unsuspected enemies. It is a shame however that once an all-out shootout begins, the gameplay reverts back to the dated systems of its ancestors.

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Being able to stealthily takedown enemies is a great way to make combat more strategic. However, it can be a bit slow as you have to constantly wait for opportunities where enemies are not looking. My bigger issue however is with the standard gunfights. While levels were designed to be easier to navigate without getting pelted by bullets, there still is little reason to ever risk leaving cover. Trailers of the game have Nathan swinging from a rope while shooting, or sliding down a slope to wallop enemies waiting at the bottom. The problem is these tactics are wildly ineffective in the actual game.

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Unless you are playing on the easier difficulty levels, then you are going to get absolutely torn apart by swinging, sliding, or running around during a gunfight. I don’t think the game needs to approach DOOM levels of run-and-gun action, but I wish you were a bit safer when performing action hero maneuvers. Perhaps have the player take reduced damage while moving quickly. That way, if you are swinging or sliding you won’t get killed before you can finish. It makes sense too; a moving target is harder to hit than a stationary one.

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The Uncharted series is known for its elaborate set pieces and action sequences, and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is no different. There are some extremely fun chase sequences and scenes where Drake is hopping from car to car to take out a convoy. This is all displayed beautifully as this game is an absolute visual masterpiece. The moments of over-the-top action is what I have come to expect out of the series, and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End delivers in spades.

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Now that I have played through the entire series, I feel like I should include my general thoughts on these games. The Uncharted games are technically revolutionary due to their high-fidelity graphics. They drive the industry forward in that regard. Moreover, the well-written characters, witty dialogue, and spectacular acting performances are some of the best in any game. Personally, I felt like the gameplay across all four games was underwhelming. Third-person cover based shooters are pretty ubiquitous, and the Uncharted series does nothing to stand out among an abundance of similar games. The puzzles are similarly simplistic, and the climbing is downright noninteractive.

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I equate the Uncharted series to high-budget action flicks, they focus on spectacle and want to appeal to as many people as possible. They probably wanted gameplay to be simplistic, so that players of all types could enjoy the series. Any sort of innovative gameplay always runs the risk of driving players away. I’m not the biggest fan of the series as I place a lot of value into games being creative and pioneering. I think that the games are fine for what they are, and a lot of people definitely enjoy them. Uncharted is the video game equivalent of movies like Indiana Jones or The Avengers. They are enjoyable movies where you can turn your brain off, listen to the witty dialogue, and watch some entertaining action.

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Overall, I think Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End is debatably the best in the series. While it has the best combat, visuals, and story in the series it is too bloated with an overabundance of climbing sequences. You could go for hours at a time without any significant gameplay happening. It’s a shame because the gameplay is by far the most refined it has ever been. Uncharted 2: Among Thieves and Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End are without a doubt the pinnacle of the series. It is for these reasons that I give Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End a 7/10. While it doesn’t do anything innovative in the gameplay department, Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End still has fun combat and insane action.