Game reviews

Charterstone makes its distinctive mark on legacy boardgaming

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The Charterstone box is a nearly perfect expression of the experience of playing. It’s mostly blank. An empty sky. There’s nothing there. It’s unpainted. A canvas. Or rather, it doesn’t even exist yet. Not a void that has swallowed stuff, but an immaculate space waiting for your contribution. Oh, look, there’s a little patch of artwork on one side. A tiny zeppelin hovers over some crates. There are two quaint and assuming buildings behind it. This is how your game of Charterstone will begin. Twelve games later… Well, I’ll get to that in a sec.

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Twin-stick shooter developer 10tons’ Tesla vs Lovecraft sets the genre back 15 years

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10tons Ltd., an indie developer in Finland, has been making twin-stick shooters since 2003, when they released Crimsonland. Since then, they’ve done various workaday projects — anyone for a round of Sparkle 2 on the iPad? — but their heart is clearly in the the top-down wholesale slaughter of innumerable dumb enemies. With Tesla vs Lovecraft, they’ve gone back to their first love.

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I don’t play fishing games, but if I did, I’d play Atom Fishing II

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In real life, my experience with fishing began and pretty much ended when I was a kid young enough to be scared by a fish. Which is a perfectly healthy thing to be scared of. When you impale fish on a hook and drag them out of the water, where they frantically thrash and flop their slimy wet bodies and prickly fins, eyes and mouths agape, it’s a horror show. As a kid, I wasn’t sure whether the fish was dying or attacking, but whichever the case, I wanted no part of it. Fish belong in water. “Fish out of water” is an idiom for a reason.

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A Hat in Time is so good I’m gonna die

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Everyone knows the scene in Despicable Me when Agnes sees the stuffed unicorn at the carnival booth. “It’s so fluffy I’m gonna die,” she states simply. So the Steve Carell mad scientist character has to win it for her by blowing up the booth. As they walk away from the smoking ruin, Agnes clutches her newly won unicorn and snarls, “It’s so fluffy!” Her voice has dropped several registers. It is ragged with mad glee at the fluffiness of the unicorn, now locked in her fingers. It is so fluffy.

That’s how I feel about A Hat in Time. Not the precious cuteness of “it’s so fluffy I’m gonna die”. But the ragged mad glee once she gets her hands on it.

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Pinball FX3 gets Carnivals, Legends, and an awkward switch to another platform

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I have some good news and some bad news on the Pinball FX3 front. The bad news is the Nintendo Switch version. The frame rate hitches are a real poke in the eyeball, especially given the loading times. There’s no comfortable way to control the flippers while using the screen vertically, which is one of the selling points for playing on the Switch. And most importantly, more than half of the tables are missing. None of the Marvel or Star Wars tables are available. Ouch. You’d think Disney has it out for Nintendo. Even the Bethesda tables are missing. How odd that I can play Skyrim and Doom on the Switch, but I can’t play the Skyrim and Doom pinball tables on the Switch.

But the good news is that Carnivals and Legends, the latest pair of tables for Pinball FX3, adds something good and something great to the roster of 70 tables. Or 30, if you’re playing on the Switch.

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Bomber Crew demands that you help him, help him, help the bombardier

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I was in a Lancaster over Bremen. I had to knock out some submarine pens with a mega-bomb from high altitude. My crew were getting cold in the atmosphere, even though they had thermal mittens and electrically heated boots, and if I didn’t get to a lower level soon they would start to get hypoxic, even though I had equipped them with “advanced oxygen bottles” which were probably made in the USA. The target came into view through wisps of cloud, slowly moving across my bombsight. At this height it was a small-but-discernable structure, much different from the seemingly huge targets that filled my bombsight when I attacked from low altitude. As it entered my crosshairs, I hit the “release” button and switched to my pilot to tell him to dive to low altitude. As I dropped lower, I entered a hornet’s nest of fighters. I swiveled my view around and around, trying to pick up the ones I hadn’t yet “tagged” so my gunners could focus on them. I told my radio operator to “auto tag” and start calling out targets. There were too many. So my radio operator got on the horn and requested assistance. An agonizing thirty seconds or so later, a flight of Spitfires flew into view and took down two Messerschmidts right off the bat. Given a bit of breathing room, I sent my engineer to fix the port fuel tank, which was leaking, and sent the bombardier to grab a med kit and give first aid to the top turret gunner, who was down and bleeding. The tail gunner grabbed more ammo. My navigator plotted a course across the North Sea. With some luck, we’d make it home. If we didn’t, my crew had sea survival vests, a dinghy, and a homing pigeon. They had a good chance of getting picked up by the Royal Navy.

Exciting, no? Much different than what I expected from a game that gave me seven bobbleheaded nine-year-olds to fly a cartoony bomber on solo missions over cartoon France and Germany.

Turns out that wasn’t the only thing I didn’t expect. Continue reading →

Star Wars: Battlefront II is a great game from a certain point of view

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Darth Vader is awesome. We all know this. Even if you’ve never seen a Star Wars movie, you know that Darth Vader is someone you don’t want to mess with. He’s gigantic. He wears space samurai armor. He has a red laser sword. He’s voiced by James Earl Jones. You don’t want to be on the bad side of that. All that imposing badassery is exactly why kids love to roleplay as Darth Vader. No one scares Darth Vader. Nothing hurts Darth Vader. That bully that torments you at recess? Darth Vader would destroy him. Early bed time? Not for Darth Vader. Time-out in the corner for breaking Mommy’s favorite cookie jar? No chance of Darth Vader agreeing to that! Pretending to be Darth Vader is the ultimate power fantasy. Getting to be Darth Vader in Star Wars: Battlefront II and mowing down hapless rebel soldiers gives you exactly the adrenaline rush and satisfaction you’d think it should. You are a whirling red and black sawblade buzzing through balsa wood. You are become death, the destroyer of worlds.

But what if you don’t get to be Darth Vader? Continue reading →

A bit of madness is key in Lovecraft Letter

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Seiji Kanai’s Love Letter, a game about getting a princess to like you, has come a long way in five years. Back in the day, it was a shrewd little exercise in simplicity, featuring only eight different cards in a deck of sixteen cards. Your hand size was one. On your turn, you drew a card and then discarded down to the hand size, playing the ability of the card you discarded. In other words, all you ever did was decide which of two cards you’re going to play. It was over in minutes. After a few rounds, you moved on to play a Real Game.

But then came the rewrites. The latest rewrite of Love Letter has failed its sanity check.
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Prey is the opposite of American lives

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(This review was written for one of my Patreon review requests. Since Prey has been out for a while, I wrote specifically for people who have finished the game. It contains spoilers. Lots of spoilers.)

When F. Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives, he wasn’t talking about second chances. A guy who writes Great Gatsby obviously believes in second chances. He was instead talking about the traditional structure of a three-act story. The first act sets up the conflict, the second act develops how the characters will deal with the conflict, and the third act is the climax in which everything is resolved. Fitzgerald was deriding Americans for skipping past the important second act in which the characters develop. Americans, he implied, go straight for the payoff.

Prey, a solid entry in the tradition of Bioshock, is the opposite of American lives. It is almost all second act. Continue reading →

Assassin’s Creed: Origins is also its Destiny

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“They’re just scavenger hunts,” my friend says. He’s dismissing big-budget open-world AAA games like Assassin’s Creed: Origins. He’s explaining why he doesn’t play them. I’m explaining why he’s totally missing out.

“Well, sure,” I agree. “But the idea is they’re scavenger hunts in really cool places. Imaginative places where you want to spend time. The scavenger hunt is disguised as gameplay, and it’s your reason for being there. The real point of the game is the place, the worldbuilding.”

Many many hours later, I will come to rue these words. Or will I?

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Thaumistry: In Charm’s Way put a spell on me

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When do you give yourself permission to look up a hint while playing an adventure game? You can’t do it each time a difficult puzzle gets in your way, because you’ll deprive yourself of the endorphin rush when you come back the next morning and solve that doozy on your own. Puzzles are weird that way. Even when you put them down, something in your brain keeps doing the work.

But you also can’t never look up a hint, unless the game just “clicks” with you, like Myst did for me in college, when I finished it over the course of a single day, hint-free. That’s the only time I’ve ever done that, and yes, I am bragging about it.

Here’s my personal hints policy: Continue reading →

Zen Studios and Pinball FX3 decide zen is not enough

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Since the dawn of time, pinball machines have been all about the high scores. When you play, you’re trying to get a higher score than you’ve ever gotten. Otherwise, your time is wasted. Too bad. Hope you enjoyed the laid back zen of that ball doing its thing. Because now you have nothing to show for your efforts but a pocket a few quarters lighter. Or, in the case of virtual pinball, less time to spend leveling up a Diablo III character.

The Pinball FX developers at Zen Studios are about to ruin all that. Continue reading →