Category Archives: Reviews

LA Noire Switch Review

When it first released in 2011, L.A. Noire was an anomaly; its facial capture tech was an innovative showcase of animation, and it’s focus on slower-paced interrogation puzzles widely contrasted the big-budget shooters of the time. Six years later, the game has surprisingly managed to make its way onto Switch. While a few sacrifices were made in performance and graphical fidelity to get L.A. Noire running, the ambitious spirit of this stylistic 1940s-era detective adventure remains.

L.A. Noire’s principal 21 cases are all present, including all of its DLC cases. As budding LAPD detective Cole Phelps, you spend the bulk of your time gathering evidence, interrogating suspects, and making accusations. Phelps is a fascinating, yet morally flawed, character whose checkered past is compelling to see unfold as the story goes on. The cases you solve remain interesting and well-paced, balancing slower, more meticulous investigative moments with brief shootouts and vehicular/on-foot chases. On Switch, the game controls as well as it did on previous generation consoles, especially when playing docked with a Pro Controller. It also offers motion and touch controls, which are welcome additions that make L.A. Noire feel more involved. Motion controls allow you to use the right Joy-Con to control the camera and physically manipulate objects you pick up, while touch controls command Phelps where to go and what investigate by simply tapping the screen. However, both control schemes don’t feel as functional as playing with a traditional gamepad setup.

Interrogations often lead to many of the game's most tense and captivating moments.
Interrogations often lead to many of the game’s most tense and captivating moments.
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While L.A. Noire’s story and varied pacing are some of its most exceptional aspects, where it truly shines is in its interrogation sequences. Armed with your intellect and the wealth of evidence you collect during your investigations, questioning suspects and seeing through their facial ticks to expose their secrets lead to many of the game’s most tense and captivating moments. The facial animations hold up well, displaying a level of realism that’s still impressive. And with top-notch performances from its facial capture actors, interrogations are just as absorbing and believable.

In a subtle change from the original, interrogation options have been changed from “Truth,” “Doubt,” and “Lie” to “Good Cop,” “Bad Cop,” and “Accuse.” The new naming scheme helps to give you a better understanding of Cole’s behavior towards a suspect’s testimony, which was difficult to gauge in the original. The renewed context is particularly useful when a suspect is playing coy, where it makes sense that using the more forceful “Bad Cop” approach would root out more information. However, the new terminology isn’t perfect. There are situations where it isn’t specific enough; this is apparent when responding with “Good Cop”, where the option seems to lean more towards believing the suspect rather than following proper police protocol. Despite this occasional issue, interrogations are consistently rewarding, often requiring critical thinking and sharp judgment to complete perfectly.

There still isn't much to do in the game's faithful recreation of 1940s-era Los Angeles.
There still isn’t much to do in the game’s faithful recreation of 1940s-era Los Angeles.

L.A. Noire’s finer qualities are maintained, but its notable shortcomings also persist. Movement is a bit clunky during shootouts, and there are plenty of useless filler objects to sift through during crime scene investigations. But the most glaring issue lies in the game’s recreation of 1940s-era Los Angeles, which is authentic but doesn’t offer much to do outside of main missions and random street crime activities. New hidden collectables in the form of books and records have been added to the Switch version to encourage exploration, but it’s not made clear that these items exist nor does the game encourage you to seek them out.

These issues don’t do much to detract from the experience at large, especially considering how well the game runs. Visuals have taken a slight downgrade compared the original version, sporting new jagged edges, fluctuating textures, and noticeably weaker draw distances and dynamic lighting effects. However, these issues are less apparent when playing the game undocked, where it runs and looks the best.

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Even considering L.A. Noire’s age, it’s a wonder that the game can be played on Switch.

On the other hand, frame rate maintains a steady 30 frames per second, only drastically dipping when surrounded by multiple NPCs or vehicles while on foot. Though, it’s not a deal breaker, seeing as the game consistently performs well during the moments where it matters, like during investigations, interrogations, and car chases.

Even considering L.A. Noire’s age, it’s a wonder that the game can be played on Switch. While nowhere near as technically striking as seeing Doom run on the console, there’s still something special about playing what was once such an ambitious game on last-generation consoles in the palm of your hand. And the game lends itself well to the platform; the bite-sized length of missions makes it a great fit for playing on the go.

If sharp visuals and higher frame rate are huge factors in your enjoyment, then you’re better off playing L.A. Noire on PS4 and Xbox One, which sport added bells and whistles that elevate the game’s performance. But if you’re charmed by the idea of experiencing it portably, then L.A. Noire on Switch comes recommended. It may not work the best under pressure, but it’s well worth replaying or experiencing for the first time on Nintendo’s convertible console.

Oure Review

Sometimes it’s not clear what a game is trying to do, exactly, or what you were meant to get out of playing it. Sometimes a game just exists, and you finish it feeling neither richer nor poorer for having played. Oure is one such game; it’s pleasant in parts, but it lacks a clear vision and sense of purpose.

In Oure you play as a young boy or girl who, in the game’s opening moments, is pushed through a glowing door of light and finds themselves suddenly able to transform into a long and slender dragon, one obviously inspired by Chinese mythology. This type of dragon is a traditional sign of prosperity, and the game implies throughout that the actions you take may be repairing a broken world. Of course. There’s a personal cost–there usually is in this sort of narrative–but there’s not much in the way of pathos in this plot.

After a brief tutorial you’re unleashed into an open expanse of clouds and invited to fly around the game’s hub, following glowing markers to your next objective and collecting scattered blue orbs to progress. The dragon is simple to control, because there’s not actually a lot it can do–you can climb up or dive down while flying through the air, and speed up if your stamina has recharged. The dragon is pleasantly zippy, and snaking through the skies at fast speeds is inherently satisfying. Gliding through the air, dipping into clouds, chasing orbs, and simply existing peacefully as the dragon is the most enjoyable part of the game. Unfortunately, the appeal of flying around wanes fairly quickly–the sky holds few surprises, and there’s never a major change of pace or scenery. Wherever you go, it’s just clouds as far as the eye can see, and the few collectables and additional pieces of lore you can scavenge aren’t going to amount to anything significant beyond a few PlayStation Trophies. The novelty of flying around as a dragon wears thin because the game gives you little sense of purpose outside of your primary objective.

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Your ultimate goal is to tame eight Titans, and to do so you need to collect the aforementioned orbs (although you can finish the game having collected less than a quarter of them) and activate pillars scattered around the map. Doing so is as simple as flying to them and finding their nearby activation point, at which point a Titan sequence will kick off. Most of these encounters are over within a few minutes, and combined they don’t add up to much. The Titans might be epic in scale but taking them down is either very simple or annoyingly fiddly, with the game never quite finding the right balance in between.

The relaxing tone of flying through the clouds is at odds with these Titan sequences, and it’s hard to identify a coherent link between the two parts of the game. The goal in each sequence is to grab every one of the glowing spires attached to a Titan, flying over them and figuring out the best way to approach the Titan’s weak points. Each one requires a different method, but there’s nothing here that feels particularly distinct–if you’ve played games with boss fights in them you’ll be familiar with many of the approaches. After you grab a spire you’ll have to solve a quick line-drawing puzzle, a la The Witness, to pull it out. Once all of them are pulled out the Titan will be tamed.

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Among these sections there are quite a few good ideas, like scouring a creature’s back for puzzle clues or one sequence that resembles a simplistic arcade shooter (albeit one where you don’t shoot back), but these sequences aren’t rich enough to elicit a strong response or make them memorable. I never felt a sense of achievement beating any of them, and by the time I’d defeated all eight I was surprised that the game had so little to offer. The difficulty curve is all over the place, too. The second Titan, which will occasionally knock you back with gusts of wind unless you grab onto pegs scattered along its enormous back, took me the longest to complete out of any of them. It was frustrating rather than feeling like a fair challenge–there’s no indication of when the big gust is about to hit, and losing all your progress along the beast’s back every time the wind came felt unfair. Only one Titan encounter felt particularly unique in how it was designed, forcing you to switch between dragon and child forms to progress (and even that one has some frustrating structural issues).

There just isn’t very much to Oure beyond aimless exploring, since the battles are unsatisfying and brief and the collectables feel arbitrary. Lazily soaring through the clouds collecting orbs and finding secrets can be momentarily relaxing, but there’s no compelling reason to keep exploring the clouds once you’ve wrapped up the Titan fights. The plot doesn’t go anywhere, and the main action sequences feel like a small batch of concept proofs. Oure is the gaming equivalent of a daydream–it’s pleasant and light, but it feels like a distraction rather than something worth latching on to.

Steven Universe: Save the Light Review

The Steven Universe cartoon is a conceptual gold mine, and an RPG may be the perfect kind of game to showcase its bubbly and feisty superhero personalities. Following its 2015 mobile RPG (Steven Universe: Attack The Light), developer Grumpyface successfully captures much of what makes the show special in Steven Universe: Save the Light. Though somewhat tragically, the otherwise lovable adventure is regularly disrupted by underlying technical issues.

For most of the game, it’s just Steven and up to three of his besties getting into some relatively standard RPG shenanigans. You explore the environment, pick up loot where you find it, run into wandering enemies, and take them on in active-time turn-based combat. Like its predecessor, Save the Light is an RPG from the Paper Mario school of game design. Combat emphasizes contextual button presses, where hitting your mark does extra damage, defends against attacks, or adds effects. This comes with the minor-but-nifty twist that characters don’t necessarily have to act when their turn comes around, but can instead bank Star Points for more expensive abilities in future turns. Strategy comes down to determining how best to dismantle an enemy, not necessarily whose turn it is.

The vibrant cardboard cutout art style manages to admirably convey the spirit of the show without being an exact copy. One area, the Strawberry Battlefield, is particularly stunning, with warm green natural beauty and plump fruit engulfing the still-discernible remains of deadly weaponry and wartime detritus. The game’s fixed camera angles give you a good look at the expansive environments; however, the camera often has trouble adjusting as your party moves around the map, and sometimes the camera doesn’t follow you at all.

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The character animations are also a source of joy, with every little action conveying a ton of personality. Peridot doing a fiddly Super Mario Bros. 2-esque Luigi jump is one of those little treats that constantly makes you smile. The music follows suit: While the number of tracks is limited, the tunes themselves are pretty well in line with the show’s 8-bit sounds, with gentle synth pop. Even here, the glitches rear their ugly head, with music from the overworld frequently continuing to play when you open the menu screen, leading to a dissonant overlap between tracks.

Traversing the environment presents the most debilitating problem of the game, which lies with the AI. All four of your party members are onscreen at once, and it’s all too easy for characters to get stuck behind objects, seemingly forgetting that they have the ability to jump and could use it to regain freedom. To make the situation worse, the game doesn’t auto-teleport lost characters to your location when a battle starts, so getting into an encounter with a glitched-out party means that the battle starts with only one character, or sometimes not at all (which can only be fixed by quitting and restarting the area). Latter portions of the game are extremely puzzle- and platforming-heavy, which exacerbates the problem.

Still, the game almost makes up for it by staying staunchly true to its source material, as far as the fine details go. Fry bits and donuts restore health; Together Breakfasts heal the entire party; you can use Bismuth’s forge to upgrade weapons; Onion sells goods in hidden areas of every stage, like the shady little criminal that he is.

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But where the show’s personality really shines through is in the character progression: While leveling up gives characters a number of upgrade points to pour into different stats, the most powerful attacks and abilities are predicated off of the characters looking out for each other. A few of the basic attacks utilize that philosophy by themselves; Steven can play his ukulele for his allies to boost their attacks, and Greg can do the same and heal them (it’s worth noting that these instruments add guitar/ukulele tracks to the background soundtrack). When the relationship meter between two characters is full, they can either perform a team-up attack… or if it’s two Gems, they can perform a special dance that allows them to meld together and become a Fusion (an ultimate version of each Gem from the show that can deal out major damage).

After a particularly tough battle, Steven will often stop the journey in its tracks to tell one of his traveling companions how great they are, which not only increases their relationship, but grants additional XP. Yes, every character can just hammer away at enemies and still do well–but true success in Save the Light is nothing without a little help from your friends. Save the Light plays like your typical RPG, but the notion that you’re off on an adventure with your best friends is tied to the game’s systems in an extraordinary way. If this was all Save the Light was, we’d be talking about a simple-but-enjoyable RPG, and a pitch-perfect way to hang around in Steven’s universe between seasons of the show. Unfortunately, it’s still brought down by the fact the game being broken in some major ways.

Spelunker Party Review

When you bring up “difficult games,” the first thing that comes to mind for many Japanese players isn’t Dark Souls, but the NES game Spelunker, thanks to the many ridiculous ways that the game’s hero can die very, very easily. This notoriety has given Spelunker a cult following big enough for developer Tozai Games and publisher Square-Enix to reimagine it on modern platforms–while implementing all the little idiosyncrasies that made Spelunker so infamous in the first place.

The game follows Spelunker, Spelunkette, and companions as they travel to the depths of the earth in search of a mysterious energy source that’s causing strange events across the globe. You and up to four friends, either on- or offline, go exploring in stages filled with hazards large and small (though size doesn’t really matter when everything kills you). These stages are divided up into several smaller sections, and everyone playing needs to reach the end of one section before they can move on to the next. Oftentimes, this involves collecting multiple colored keys to open doors blocking the way to the section gates. Other collectibles are scattered around the stages as well: Bombs and flares add to your ammo supply, gold lets you use various in-game features like excavating for items, and Litho-stones contain pieces of new gear that can boost the heroes’ stats and level up with use.

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One thing Spelunker Party does particularly well: It recreates the myriad absurd ways that Spelunker can die an ignoble death. If you’re used to platforming heroes who can survive a fall of more than a foot, it’s going to take quite some time to get used to Spelunker dying after attempting jumps that any other action game protagonist would easily survive (and that’s not even taking into the account the absurd one-hit deaths from things like self-inflicted explosions and bat poop, either). But that’s the way Spelunker was, and that’s how Spelunker party is: true to its source in a way that some players will find charming, and others will find aggravating.

Thankfully, Spelunker Party’s level design takes these weakness into account. Yes, the stages are challenging–owed mostly to the limitations of the old-school mechanics– but they rarely cross the border into downright unfair territory, instead rewarding you for cautious play. They also have a fair bit of variety to them, and introduce new gameplay mechanics over time–some of which turn out far better than others (I really don’t think Spelunker needed expanded water physics or boss fights). Stages also tend to go quite long, which can be a terrifying prospect as a solo Spelunker: If you run out of the five lives you’re given on each stage attempt, you lose everything that you collected since you started the stage, and you must start the level over from scratch. This can get very frustrating once you reach the even-more-difficult later and optional levels.

Thankfully, there’s a way to offset this difficulty significantly, and that’s by playing with others either on- or offline. The addition of more people to play with transforms Spelunker Party into a cooperative platforming experience that’s far more fun than the solo mode. Local multiplayer allows for you to play split-screen with up to three other people in the same room. Communication is a big thing here, as you can coordinate exploration duties, help guide folks through difficult areas, and–most importantly–have a mutual laugh at the dumb deaths you all take.

Online play is similar, though lack of voice communication in the Switch version of the game hinders it. Perhaps the biggest benefit of the multiplayer is that you’re not automatically toast when you run out of lives; one your lives counter hits zero, you respawn at your last checkpoint with 30 seconds on a timer. If another player comes back to save you, you’re back in commission – but if time runs out, you’re out of the stage for good. The back-and-forth revival mechanics make the stages a lot easier to tackle, lead to tense situations, and even present moral quandaries–is it worth trying to backtrack through a space littered with hazards in 30 seconds to save another player, or do you simply mourn for the fallen and make haste to the exit with your loot? Is it worth constantly reviving a weak link in the group? That’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself.

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But while Spelunker Party is far more fun with others, finding friends who can put up with the rigid, old-fashioned game mechanics and grind might prove challenging. Much of Spelunker Party’s free-to-play lineage is still evident: While microtransactions are absent, the game pushes you to replay levels in order to earn money, boost scores and experience points (both for your player, companion animals, and individual pieces of gear), and collect Litho-stones. Perhaps most frustratingly, collected Litho-stones don’t grant loot immediately–they only represent pieces of items that are assembled over the course of playing and replaying levels. Even the game’s quest system seems purposely designed to waste as much of your time as possible; they function like achievements (collect X number of items, defeat ghosts, and so on), but you must manually select each one, and you can only take on a single such quest at a time when, ideally, the game should be automatically tracking this stuff from the outset and rewarding you as you go.

Spelunker Party is a bit of a hard sell. If you can get a bunch of old-school-minded players together as a group and are prepared to laugh at yourself (and others) over a bunch of stupid deaths, it’s a pretty great time. As a solo experience, however, it leaves a lot to be desired. Even if you like the absurdly strict mechanics, the grindy nature of the game and the overly long stages simply don’t lend themselves well to solo play. Spelunker Party, much like the original game it’s based on, can be a hard game to love, but if you’re prepared to dig deep with some friends, it can be a gem.

Doom Switch Review

There was a time when the thought of playing a game like 2016’s Doom on Nintendo Switch seemed too good to be true. Yet here we are, playing Doom on Switch. While it’s impressive to see it running on a portable system at all, Nintendo’s convertible console obviously can’t stand up to the performance of other consoles or PCs. Doom has endured a few compromises during its transition to a more modest platform, and depending on your tolerance for blurry visuals and fiddly controls, these cut corners may be a deal breaker no matter how fascinating the experience is at first blush.

Doom’s campaign is all here, accompanied by multiplayer and the leaderboard-centric arcade mode–the only thing missing is SnapMap. Just like before, you push through hordes of demons with bullets and gut-wrenching melee takedowns while a heavy metal soundtrack encourages you to go faster and hit harder. As enemies scale, your weaponry follows, offering a gratifying escalation of excitement befitting Doom’s reputation.

This is not to say that Doom’s campaign was perfect to begin with, and the same issues it had in the past persist on Switch. There’s a fair amount of repetition to deal with, some of which diminishes what should be a monumental milestone: landing on the ground in Hell. You wind up going to and fro multiple times, and despite the feverish action that carries you along the way, there is an amount of deja vu to contend with that saps your enthusiasm, if ever so slightly.

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Ultimately, Doom’s fast-paced combat makes the occasionally repetitive journey worth taking, and the addition of arcade mode allows you to focus on action alone if you have little interest in the game’s so-so narrative or mission structure. The mode was introduced on other platforms in a post-release update and is designed for people who want to either practice their speedrunning skills or rank on internet leaderboards. Multipliers and other score-boosting elements have been introduced to encourage different tactics, and in some cases, to create an unlikely path around a map for optimal scores and efficiency.

Every stage of the campaign is unlocked in arcade mode from the start, and you’re allowed to pick and choose from the weapons that would normally be available to you, in addition to every rune perk (regardless of mission), when choosing your loadout. The freedom to hop back and forth throughout the game is a boon as a returning player, though it’s constructed in such a way that you might want to dip your toes in the campaign from the start to get your bearings if you haven’t played Doom since 2016. Unless you’re able to find the rare extra lives amidst all the chaos, one death is all it takes for your run to end in arcade mode.

One of the unfortunate realities of playing such a demanding game with Switch Joycons is that you’re bound by the limitations of small analog sticks. Doom offers sensitivity and camera smoothing adjustments that do help to a degree, but compared to playing on the full-sized Pro Controller, Joycons feel notably less reliable. And despite the options menu hinting at motion controls when docked, they don’t apply to aiming–you just waggle the right joycon to melee enemies, which isn’t as responsive or effective as simply pressing in the right analog stick.

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Switch’s screen can also prove problematic when facing a room of sprinting demons. It may just be too small to provide the encompassing experience the game’s toughest challenges demand. It’s also strange to see the UI as it is, with a font size so small that you’ll be hard-pressed to quickly read menus when playing undocked. None of this is to say that Doom is unplayable or unenjoyable on the go, it’s just the least optimal way to play.

No matter how you approach playing Doom on Switch, you will undoubtedly have to contend with blurry visuals. Bethesda has promised the game will run at 720p regardless of whether your Switch is docked or not. In practice, even if Doom is outputting a 720p signal, It frequently shifts into lower gear, presenting not only low-res textures and models, but an overall muddied image that indicates dynamic resolution switching and stretching. There are rare moments when Doom appears sharp and clear, but you regularly see drastic swings in quality.

There’s nothing else like it on a portable system, but be prepared to face a handful of compromises, especially if you’re used to playing on other platforms.

This is most apparent during multiplayer matches where large groups of players on screen cause the resolution to plummet. And expect FPS dips in maps that contain a lot of geometry and lighting effects. Even so, it’s easy to jump into a few matches and get some enjoyment out of Doom’s multiplayer. It maintains the game’s emphasis on speed and firepower, and presentation issues aside, performs just as well as you’d hope when it comes to matchmaking and match stability. With plenty of modes and unlockables to tinker with, there’s a lot to keep you busy if you need a break from the campaign.

If you can stand to look at a lesser version of Doom’s once captivating world, you’ll find that the game plays well enough on Switch so long as you’ve got a TV in front of you and a Pro Controller in hand. There’s nothing else like it on a portable system, but be prepared to face a handful of compromises, especially if you’re used to playing on other platforms. It’s an impressive port that begs you to consider gameplay over graphics, and it succeeds more often than not.

Sonic Forces Review

From its opening stage, Sonic Forces displays a number of issues that are emblematic of the journey ahead: Its insistent tutorial messages interrupt your initial sprint down a winding road, the cinematic transition sequences that take you from one path the next that renders you an observer, not an active participant, and right as you’re about to settle into the glee of your mad dash forward, the stage ends. In this 3D Sonic game, developer Sonic Team attempts to iterate upon the formula of games like Sonic Generations and Sonic Colors, but it falls short due to frustrating design choices and inconsistent level design. Even its most entertaining moments come with caveats.

The game’s story once again sees Sonic getting involved in a battle against Dr. Eggman–this time over the fate of the world. The conniving scientist recruits the expertise of a powerful entity known as Infinite, who he uses to make short work of the blue hedgehog. Six months pass and Dr. Eggman has nearly taken over the entire planet, leaving Sonic and his friends in a tough position. To combat the threat, a ragtag group of freedom fighters consisting of Sonic, a younger version of himself, most of his supporting cast, and a new character you personally create and customize–simply named “the Rookie”–come together.

At first, Sonic Forces’ emphasis on story seems like a refreshing shift from the predominantly simple plot lines of recent games in the series. However, even though the heightened stakes provide an interesting power shift, they never culminate into anything interesting or impactful. It’s only in Sonic Forces’ levity where it manages to be somewhat entertaining, turning to puns or brief comedic situations to elicit a snicker, but all too infrequently.

Throughout your adventure, you’ll switch back and forth between playing as either Modern Sonic, Classic Sonic, or your custom character. Both Classic and Modern Sonic play similarly to their past iterations, with some minor additions: Modern Sonic has a double-jump and Classic Sonic comes equipped with Sonic Mania‘s Drop Dash ability; both are welcome tools that better distinguish the two hedgehogs. But the biggest addition to the formula is your custom character, who sports special weapons called Wispons that grant unique offensive and movement abilities. For example, the Drill Wispon allows you to quickly charge through foes or ride up and down walls. All three characters play distinctly from one another, and there are fleeting thrills to be had in plowing through minions with a speed boost or using a homing attack on a series of flying robots to quickly clear a path towards the finish line. However, the excitement of these high speed escapades are held back by clunky platforming and unwieldy movement.

Expect to repeatedly careen off the edge of a stage in your mad dash forward.
Expect to repeatedly careen off the edge of a stage in your mad dash forward.

During platforming and speed sequences, you frequently plummet down bottomless pits due to how abruptly your character builds up speed before a jump or how a road’s bumpers aren’t made clear. While death is to be expected, the level design repeatedly miscommunicates the placement of oncoming hazards and the timing required to avoid them. Admittedly, practice means you inevitably develop the reflexes demanded of you over time, but even with experience, the game’s inconsistencies mean you’ll often end up stuck on a ramp mid-run or make a double-jump that simply doesn’t flow the way you want. Sonic Forces’ sense of control is erratic and unreliable, resulting in a wealth of unintentional deaths and bizarre collisions with environmental hazards.

Sonic Forces’ level design does little to accommodate your need for speed. Although Modern Sonic and your custom character have abilities that encourage you to push forward at a blistering pace, it’s often smarter to slow down. Telegraphing the right time to go fast has always been a major design issue in the series, but it’s magnified here, where obstacles and platforming sequences that require slower, more methodical movements aren’t as explicitly signposted as they should be. Classic Sonic’s strictly side-scrolling stages fair better in this regard, but only by a little. The game does a poor job of teaching you the flow of its design, instead relying on multiple frustrating and unfair deaths to educate you on the intricacies of a stage’s pacing.

Set-pieces typically boil down to simplistic quick-time events that take you out of the high-speed action.
Set-pieces typically boil down to simplistic quick-time events that take you out of the high-speed action.

There’s a pervading sense of monotony across Sonic Forces’ seven unremarkable worlds. Nearly all the obstacles you encounter are rehashes of concepts and mechanics from previous games; lane-based level design, grind rails, speed boost sections, and side-scrolling platforming sequences all make a return. A set-piece sometimes breaks up the pace, but these encounters usually boil down to simplistic quick-time events that make you feel passive to the action happening on-screen. Multiple routes or lanes in a stage create the illusion of branching paths, but they’re so brief that they feel more like quick diversions than actual alternate pathways. It doesn’t help that stages are also incredibly short, typically clocking in at two-and-a-half minutes. With cutscenes before and after each stage, you can’t help but wish there was a little more ground to cover before reaching the finish line.

Your custom character’s Wispons add some variety to the mechanics, but even those are limited, as there are only a couple that offer practical benefits. For instance, the Lightning Wispon allows you to zip through a line of rings, often leading you to alternate routes in a stage. Out of the seven Wispons available, you’re likely to stick to using one or two, as there’s rarely any incentive to experiment once you’ve grown accustomed to how a couple work.

In terms of performance, Sonic Forces runs smoothly at 60 frames per second on PS4, Xbox One, and PC. The Switch version, however, runs at 30 frames per second and suffers from a downgrade in visuals comparatively while docked or undocked. While tolerable, the higher frame rate of the other versions gives them a significant bump over the game’s performance on Switch.

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It’d be fair to write Sonic Forces off as another weak entry in the series. It’s numerous shortcomings make for an uneven, often frustrating gameplay experience. However, knowledge of its various flaws can make for a smoother second run through. In replaying for S-ranks it’s possible to use your accumulated knowledge of a stage’s hazards and its most illogical pitfalls to better your experiences. It was rewarding and enjoyable to go back to older stages to take the most efficient routes, knowing precisely when to increase Sonic’s speed to earn faster times. That said, acquiring S-ranks and completing challenges isn’t entirely difficult, which makes the endeavor of replaying stages short lived, especially considering how brief stages can be. And speed running or not, Sonic Forces’ ill-designed stages and poor handling are still major obstacles that detract from your time spent playing.

For years the Sonic series has come up short in its 3D games. It wasn’t until Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations that the series was able to grasp a semblance of quality that could change the perception of the series as a whole for the better. Sonic Forces ultimately fails to advance the mechanics of previously successful 3D Sonic games, or present them in their best light. A mediocre platformer at best, Sonic Forces manages to do nothing more than reinforce long held stereotypes against Sega’s beloved blue blur.

Etrian Odyssey 5: Beyond The Myth Review

When a game series runs as long as Etrian Odyssey has, you usually start to see some sweeping changes and reinventions to its formula. But Etrian Odyssey has never really been about keeping with the latest gaming trends–after all, its core conceit of exploring a 3D labyrinth that you must carefully map out harkens back to the very earliest days of PC role-playing games. Etrian Odyssey V: Beyond the Myth continues in that tradition: It offers a big, challenging old-school-style adventure that has been carefully iterated on and improved over the past decade, with various enhancements and refinements bolstering a formula that doesn’t need any dramatic changes to stay relevant.

Beyond the Myth plops you down in the continent of Arcania, which is home to a Yggdrasil tree whose mighty branches grow all the way up into the heavens. Surrounding (and within) this great tree is a sprawling labyrinth, with many a myth spun about what lies at the top. Adventurers from across the land come to the kingdom of Iorys, which has just recently permitted exploration of the great tree for the first time. You construct and take control of a guild of adventurers. But many hazards await you on your climb–twisting mazes, unexpected surprises, and myriad monsters, including especially bloodthirsty beasts known as FOEs.

Like previous Etrian Odyssey games, Beyond the Myth focuses on exploration and atmosphere over storytelling. It lets you create a team of adventurers to your liking before setting you free to explore the gigantic labyrinth, with little in the way of extraneous banter (beyond some expository text and events every so often). Your characters don’t have much in the way of personality besides what you imagine, and the handful of non-player characters that you encounter outside of town aren’t terribly chatty.

In a lot of ways, it feels like a tabletop RPG campaign, with a game master chiming in every so often to describe a character or elaborate on lore, while leaving much to your own interpretation. But Beyond the Myth has a fair bit of voice acting for NPCs and the narrator, as well as battle cries for your created characters. While this sounds like a potentially good thing, the voice acting at large ranges from forgettable to aggravating, ultimately doing more harm than good. Sometimes things are better left to the imagination.

Before you begin your long, treacherous climb, you must assemble a guild from several different classes of characters, ranging from variations on standard RPG classes like Fencer, Pugilist, and Warlock to more esoteric classes like the Necromancer (who can conjure up wraiths as additional party members on a whim) and the Shaman (who wields dual buffing/healing abilities). As you level up, you can put points into character skills as you see fit, to create a truly customized party. Once you get some ways into the game, you’ll be able to hyper-specialize characters using Legendary Titles–a new system that effectively replaces the dual-classing system of previous games by allowing you to hyper-focus characters into a particular role (for example, your Dragoons can be unmovable, party-protecting tanks or hard-to-kill damage dealers). The option to hyper-specialize and micromanage your party to your heart’s content has always been a strong point of the series, and Beyond the Myth continues that tradition.

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A brand-new element added to the character management mix is the choice of races. There are four races of characters, each with distinct stat growth patterns and unique skills: the humanoid Earthlians, rabbit-eared Therians, elf-like Celestrians, and cute-and-tiny Brouni. Each race has unique skills (also powered with skill points), such as elemental resistance debuffs, and passive restoration skills. While this opens up some neat possibilities for additional min-maxing of stats to create superpowered adventurers, it’s also kind of a pain to manage at times; not only do you want a nice, balanced mix of party members that work well together, you also want to make sure you have the correct race skills to make your crew run like a well-oiled machine in combat. Sometimes remembering who has which race skills available can get messy.

Once you’ve made a party, it’s time to start the long, arduous hike up that big tree. A common element across Etrian Odyssey games are the grid-based, first-person 3D dungeons that you need to thoroughly explore and manually map out using the 3DS’s bottom screen. This isn’t an optional thing; you will need to make maps, or else find yourself terribly lost in a sprawling labyrinth of flora and fauna. Fortunately, you have a lot of mapping tools and markers available to you and a new automap feature that will save you from having to manually draw walls (a tremendous time-saver that I recommend turning on immediately). Don’t expect automap to do everything for you, though; you’ll still want to mark points of interest, hidden passages, and other potential hazards.

Speaking of hazards, the labyrinth houses plenty of them, mostly in the form of monsters that inhabit each successively more demanding floor. From the moment a member of your fledgling party gets one-shotted by a rabid flying squirrel on the first floor in your starting expedition, you know you’re in for some grueling fights.

The combination of careful, quiet exploration punctuated by fierce combat is what makes Beyond the Myth so much fun.

Fortunately, a variety of improvements makes combat a lot more enjoyable. For starters, the “enemy radar” in the dungeons is more accurate, allowing you to know almost exactly when you can expect an encounter to pop up (and prepare if you need to). It’s also possible to check enemy data mid-fight, meaning that you don’t have to memorize a bunch of weaknesses and details over the course of the game. Finally, a “Basic” difficulty setting makes the game slightly more merciful, altering stats and damage by a small amount in your favor and increasing experience gains. Thankfully, you can turn it on and off at a whim.

The combination of careful, quiet exploration punctuated by fierce combat is what makes Beyond the Myth so much fun. Seeing your meticulously planned party finally take down a fearsome FOE that’s been giving you trouble for hours is immensely satisfying, while little text-based side events that litter the dungeons as you explore are enjoyable in a different but no-less-engaging way. By focusing instead on small improvements to systems and ideas that already worked well, Etrian Odyssey 5 is a long and challenging RPG that sucks you in and leaves you determined to see what lies above.

Star Wars Battlefront II Review In Progress

Editor’s note (November 16, 2017 — 5:47 PM PST): EA has removed all microtransactions and have started measures to overhaul the progression systems. This review was written prior to the game’s November 17 launch, and will be updated over the next few days as we spend more time with the game’s modified systems.

If there’s one thing that Star Wars Battlefront II accomplishes well, it’s the feeling of being in the universe of the legendary film series. Serving up the greatest hits of all things Star Wars, the follow-up to DICE’s 2015 multiplayer-focused game presents a package that features a greater breadth of content, including an admirable single-player campaign. But the game overall is weighed down by an overbearing and convoluted progression system that doesn’t value the average player’s time, obscuring an otherwise solid Star Wars experience.

Set across the backdrop of the entire Star Wars saga–encompassing the prequels, the original three films, and the new trilogy–Battlefront II’s online modes and single-player offerings expand the scope of its galactic battles to feature more variety in its locations. From taking part in aerial dogfights above Kamino to raiding the Death Star II and escaping before its destruction, the sequel puts its campaign and 14 multiplayer maps set across the 40-year history of the series to good use, showing a clear difference in aesthetics and tone from one time-period to the next.

Unlike the first Battlefront, the sequel contains a narrative-driven single-player campaign. Set during the twilight of the Galactic Empire after Return of the Jedi, the story sows the seeds for the First Order in The Force Awakens. You take on the role of Iden Versio, commander of Imperial special-forces outfit Inferno Squad. She normally works to undermine Rebel forces with wet-work missions and other forms of espionage. But after the destruction of the second Death Star, her loyalty to the Empire is put to the test when an increasingly desperate Imperial army takes drastic measures to ensure its future.

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While the brisk 4-5 hour campaign features some strong writing and performances from its cast–with some standout levels that show off the visual luster and diversity of locations within the universe–the potential of its Imperial point-of-view soon becomes lost. Falling into some rather predictable twists, the story eventually turns into a familiar by-the-numbers Star Wars adventure, where the good guys and bad guys are clearly defined, and with a lead up to the final act’s confrontation that’s signposted from a mile away.

On occasion, the campaign will switch things up with levels that feature familiar faces in entirely different scenarios, adding some moments of levity to the story. The downside of these missions is that they often veer into pure fan-service territory, leaving Iden Versio–who proves to be an interesting character with her unique view on the galactic struggle–standing in the shadow of more-established characters. This is made worse by an abrupt ending that teases future updates to the campaign, instead of delivering a strong conclusion for its hero’s journey. The campaign does a decent job of showing the internal strife within the Empire’s ranks, even allowing you to explore an eerily sterile and oppressive Imperial civilization on Iden’s homeworld of Vardos. But it falls a bit short of making it a remarkable journey for its characters.

Outside of the campaign and massive multiplayer battles, there are side-modes that offer some interesting diversions. The Arcade mode makes a return, featuring themed levels where you battle AI bots as classic Light and Dark side characters. While it isn’t a particularly deep mode to dive into, with each mission offering increasing tiers of difficulty for better rewards, it can be fun to try out the different heroes against increasing numbers of enemies. Moreover, the fan-favorite Heroes vs Villains mode makes a return. Cutting out unnecessary filler, players can choose their unlocked characters–such as the rocket wielding Boba Fett, to the unstable Kylo Ren–and compete in 4v4 battles in over-the-top and ridiculous fashion. Heroes vs Villains will be the mode to unwind and cut loose with, away from the chaos of the epic conflicts.

Battlefront II’s main attraction is its expansive multiplayer content. From the 40-player conquest battles in Galactic Assault to the smaller, infantry-focused skirmishes in Blitz and Strike, there’s a greater variety of multiplayer modes than before. Selecting from several infantry classes and hero characters–including Luke Skywalker, Rey, Han Solo, and the story campaign’s Iden Versio–Multiplayer battles are usually intense affairs, especially at the full capacity of 40 players. Along with some stellar visual and sound-design, the large-scale battles have the same exciting flow as Star Wars’ most iconic fights, where one heroic action can turn the tide of a conflict.

Over the course of each match, you’ll acquire Battle Points, which you can cash-in for mid-battle rewards–such as piloting special starfighters or taking control of select hero characters to dish out punishment. While Galactic Assault will likely be the most popular mode for fans to see much of the game’s systems in action, the upgraded Starfighter Assault deserves recognition. Now with more responsive and tighter controls for maneuvering your vessels, the aerial- and space-focused mode features Battlefront II’s most intense missions. There’s nothing more exciting than piloting an A-Wing interceptor through a tight space and pulling off a killer shot in the nick of time.

Your set of troopers, starfighters, and hero characters can be boosted with Star Cards. They can amplify stats, add bonus attributes, and even give characters alternate loadouts–such as replacing a Heavy trooper’s energy shield for a grenade launcher. As you acquire more Star Cards and increase their ranks for a particular class or hero, the overall level for that character increases. The number of ways you can modify your characters is impressive, and the game gives you options to switch things up however you see fit. After each battle, you’ll collect experience for your overall multiplayer rank and credits to purchase loot crates in the in-game store. Unfortunately, the focus on chasing Star Cards–and the prominence of loot crates–reveals bigger issues related to the progression.

“The biggest problem with this system is that it’s never clearly explained.”

Not only is this entire system confusing, it’s also problematic that most of your unlocks and earnings come from opening loot crates. By relying on randomly yielded weapons, resources, cosmetic items, and Star Cards of varying grades, Battlefront II ties its progression to dice rolls. You can acquire and upgrade Star Cards on your own by using crafting components (also found in loot crates), but this also leads into the problem of gating. To upgrade a card, you have to ensure that your class level and overall multiplayer ranking meet certain standards–which in turn means having to rank up several levels in-game, and spending precious resources on loot crates for more resources and cards. Simply focusing on the characters and classes you like to play isn’t enough.

Due to the randomness, and the inherent dependence on the loot crates, progression is often dictated by what these results are. This can steer you away from classes you’d prefer to use, and more annoying results in receiving cards for hero characters you have yet to unlock. With how progression is structured, simply spending time with the Heavy or Assault classes does not guarantee more loot for them, as advancing them is all tied to the luck of the draw. This is especially frustrating when you invest so much time in the game–coming across others online who’ve had better luck or purchased pre-orders copies to acquire epic cards for their characters–only to see your favorite classes fall by the wayside due to the overall systems working against your favor.

While the game gives you options to purchase premium currency in the form of crystals–which you can buy in bundles costing up to $100–these can only be used to buy more loot crates. This is all made worse by the cumbersome menu system, which prompts you to exit out of multiplayer games to collect your paltry rewards from milestones and challenges while also obscuring vital info such as player rank and class data.

The biggest problem with this system is that it’s never clearly explained. While you’ll eventually come to understand how credits, crystals, and crafting components are used, you’ll still have to reconcile the fact that the time you invest in the game won’t always be rewarded with progress, or at least in the way you want.

In this way, Battlefront II plants itself in the same territory as free-to-play games, with much of its content and characters tucked away behind progression walls and randomized loot crates. This is an especially disappointing reality for a full-priced release. Above all, it ends up doing a disservice to the core gameplay, which can still provide solid moments of enjoyment despite the looming presence of its progression systems. Many of these issues related to the meta-game fall by the wayside when you’re in the thick of battle, as you’re taking part in the massive struggle throughout the many locales in the Star Wars universe.

While its main narrative feels unresolved, and the general loop of the multiplayer carries a number of issues, Battlefront II still manages to evoke that same sense of joy and excitement found in the core of what the series is all about. But as it stands, the biggest hurdle that Battlefront II will need to overcome–for its simultaneous attempts to balance progression with genuine feeling of accomplishments–is deciding on what type of game it wants to be.

Editor’s note: This will remain a review in progress until we’ve had the opportunity to test Battlefront II’s multiplayer servers on all platforms after launch. And in an unusual set of circumstances, we will also continue to put the game’s progression system through its paces as a result of EA’s rigorous pre-launch rebalancing of Battlefront II’s in-game store.

Pokemon Ultra Sun And Ultra Moon Review

Neither sequels nor remakes, Pokemon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon take a mostly simple approach to updating 2016’s Sun and Moon. Much of the previous games has been left untouched–the story once again takes place on the tropical island region of Alola and focuses on the Island Challenge, which differs slightly from the series’ typical Gym Badge-based progression. But some key story details have changed, keeping things surprising for returning players even if the story itself is basic RPG fare. Most notably, there are small quality-of-life improvements and charming touches that make an already enjoyable Pokemon game a more endearing experience regardless of your skill level.

The original Sun and Moon brought new Pokemon, a break from the Gym formula, and a number of updates that make the seventh generation (Ultra Sun and Moon included) the most approachable and prettiest Pokemon games yet. With an overwhelming roster of monsters to catch, Sun and Moon’s UI improvements made it easier to battle without an encyclopedic knowledge of every Pokemon, as well as train your prize fighters for the competitive metagame. But if you fell somewhere between newcomer and meta player, a mediocre story and pacing issues may have been disappointing.

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Ultra Sun and Moon immediately streamline the originals’ slow start. As a newcomer to Alola, you quickly get your first Pokemon and are initiated into the Island Challenge, a series of trials that Alolan Pokemon trainers undergo to prove themselves. Instead of meeting all the characters and going through a few cutscenes before picking your starter Pokemon, this time around you get to pick a starter right away and then go through the introductory story beats. The result is an opening that doesn’t hold your hand in the same way it did before–though it still has the obligatory Pokemon-catching tutorial, among others–and lets you wander more freely, a welcome change for both returning and new players.

Even before the first trial, you’ll have the opportunity to catch some pretty good Pokemon covering a variety of types and needs, including Pichu, Gastly, and Rockruff, meaning you can build a useful team early on without going too far out of your way. And you won’t have to spend much, if any, time grinding to make it through the Island Challenge as long as you battle any trainers you encounter on your journey.

Some of the trials are slightly different this time, like the one where you have to find a series of ingredients to make a stew, which adds a more puzzle-like element to stave off the fetch quest feel. Most notably, though, the battles against the powerful Totem Pokemon seem a little more sophisticated; the ally Pokemon that join these extra-powerful opponents in battle will sometimes use doubles support moves like Sunny Day to throw a wrench in your plans, and the added challenge is more satisfying to overcome.

Other than the trial tweaks, the next 15 or so hours–roughly the first three islands–are essentially the same as Sun and Moon, but new, small details break up the stretches of repetition. Your Rotom Pokedex asks you questions and makes adorable faces as you get to know it (though it can be a little too chatty at times). You’ll occasionally find a Pokemon in the world that just wants to play with you, and you can do things like play peek-a-boo and even walk through a meadow of playful Pikachu. There are also more side quests to take on, and though they’re rather small requests like catching a specific Pokemon or finding a few Pokemon that are hiding in a particular area, they reward thorough exploration and provide fun distractions in between trials. Talking to everyone, too, has its benefits; there are tons of new silly and cute interactions to be had that add even more personality to Alola and its inhabitants.

While all of the best parts of Sun and Moon are present and accounted for and things in general get off to a quicker start, Ultra Sun and Moon’s story remains underwhelming. And with the introduction of a new sort-of-antagonist in the robotic, mysterious Ultra Recon Squad duo, there’s almost too much going on–especially since there’s already two antagonist groups in Alola as is. By the time you’ve confronted Team Skull and are immediately thrown into a confrontation at the returning Aether Paradise, you’ll probably wish you could just get back to your Island Challenge and become the Champion already.

Though they aren’t very different from their predecessors, Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon make enough changes to stand apart as the definitive version of the seventh generation games. An overly complicated story is offset by charming details that bring even more life to the most vibrant Pokemon region to date, and small fixes iron out the shakier parts of the original journey. If you make it through Alola a second (or even first) time, you’ll be rewarded with a fun-filled and uplifting Pokemon adventure with its own share of spoilery surprises in store.

Rocket League Switch Review

Rocket League was a phenomenon when it debuted in 2015, and two years later it shows no signs of slowing down. The unorthodox sports game is a mix of soccer and vehicular acrobatics that’s immediately engaging, but a high skill ceiling ensures that you can put hundreds of hours into Rocket League online and continue to improve your control over car and ball alike. In our original review, editor Miguel Concepcion said “the promising concept of combining two wonderful things–cars and soccer–is equally magnificent in execution.” It’s unique, it’s complex, and now that it’s on the Nintendo Switch, it’s wonderfully portable.

Rocket League makes the leap to handheld courtesy of developer Panic Button, the same team responsible for the respectable Switch port of Doom. And similar to that conversion, Rocket League’s visuals have been somewhat stripped down to maintain a steady frame rate under the Switch’s hardware limitations. The impact of the downgraded visuals can be seen in jagged edges and fluctuating texture resolutions, but unlike a game that relies on a world to set the stage for characters and narrative events, Rocket League’s Switch scars are easily overlooked. The only time they can interfere is when playing handheld, where choppy models make it difficult to differentiate between objects in the foreground and background on Switch’s small display. This, thankfully, is rarely an issue.

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When you’re focused on a handful of other drivers and protecting your goal from a fast-moving ball, jaggies are the least of your concerns. And when subconsciously calculating your trajectory as you ramp up onto a wall and blast your rockets for a last-minute boost to slam a ball into the back of a goal from mid-air, you probably aren’t focused on a blurry texture here or there. Rocket League on Switch isn’t always a pretty game, but that doesn’t stop if from being every bit as exciting and competitive as it is on other platforms. As someone who has spent upwards of 200 hours with Rocket League on PS4, I was pleased to find that jumping into matches on Switch was just as easy as before, in terms of both matchmaking and controlling my car on the field–thanks in part to the rock-solid frame rate.

The game’s Nintendo-exclusive rides and their series-appropriate sound effects are small if charming touches that make the Switch version feel slightly more special than it otherwise would have. But the big new feature is local splitscreen play on the go. Relative to the constraints of playing on a small screen, it works as well as you’d hope, to say nothing of the surprising effectiveness of controlling your car with a mere single joycon. Small and short a few buttons, they still cover almost every input on traditional controller setups. The one notable exception is the lack of a second analog stick for camera control when you aren’t locked onto the ball.

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Switch players can engage in cross-network play with Rocket League’s Xbox One and PC community. As evidenced during our pre-launch tests, this system works without a hitch, and matches are readily available. The one minor caveat when it comes to playing online with others is that creating custom messages mid-match is less convenient than usual. This is because toggling chat brings up a window that takes up the entire screen, leaving you without the usual live feed that runs in the background in other versions of the game. You do have the option of connecting a USB keyboard if you want to type out messages while your Switch is docked, which can help speed up the process.

Save for its presentation, Rocket League on Switch is every bit the game it is elsewhere, and when you factor in its newfound portability, it’s also the most versatile. That alone makes it attractive to regular Rocket League competitors.

For people new to the game, they have a lot to look forward to regardless, as it’s one of the most fascinating sports games in memory. Nevermind if you don’t like soccer or couldn’t care less about the growing esports community. Rocket League is a unique game that redefines the concept of what a sports game can be, and Psyonix continues to support it with new content on a regular basis. It’s been around for a while, but now that it’s on Switch, there’s no better time to give it a shot.

Editor’s note: for a more in-depth analysis of Rocket League, check out our original review from July, 2015.