Back to the Future: The Game – Episode 1: It’s About Time Review

Despite its short length and easy puzzles, this episodic adventure still captivates with strong storytelling and compelling characters.

The Good

  • Great visuals
  • Expert voice acting brings characters to life
  • Interesting story.

The Bad

  • Puzzles offer little challenge
  • Only takes a few hours to finish.

Films of the ’80s are notoriously responsible for spawning a deluge of supercheesy fashion fouls, hokey acting atrocities, and cringeworthy fads. To some extent, the Back to the Future movie trilogy is guilty on all charges, but if thoughts of flaming tire tracks left by a heavily pimped-out DeLorean evoke feelings of fuzzy nostalgia, then you’ll find lots to love in this resurrection of the franchise. As an all-new episodic adventure game series, Back to the Future: The Game shows a lot of promise with its debut installment, even if the puzzle complexity and overall difficulty is dialed down a bit lower than it is in developer Telltale’s other games.

Doc's time-warping DeLorean is as sweet as ever.

Doc’s time-warping DeLorean is as sweet as ever.

Instead of rehashing the events that played out in the films, Back to the Future: The Game explores new territory and continues the time-hopping adventures of Marty McFly and Doc Emmet Brown. It’s About Time picks up a few months after the events of the third film, and all is not well in Hill Valley. Doc has gone missing for months, and the city is determined to sell off his estate to cover his past-due financial obligations. Marty is reluctant to let the sale go through, and even more reluctant to let any of Doc’s possessions go to his nemesis, Biff Tannen. But soon the DeLorean mysteriously shows up with a recorded message from Doc who is stranded somewhere in the past, and Marty has bigger problems to deal with. Marty has to figure out a way to save his old pal, which kicks off an oddball time-traveling rescue mission set in Hill Valley’s prohibition era. The entertaining story that follows is enhanced by believable character interactions, imbuing the adventure with a great sense of authenticity.

Marty and Doc are strong and likeable lead characters, and the impressive visual designs mixed with the expertly delivered voice work make them all the more entertaining. Doc is actually voiced by Christopher Lloyd, while the other main characters are voiced by sound-alikes. The killer verbal delivery sounds spot-on, and Marty sounds especially good. Even with a cartoonish sheen, the characters and locations really come to life in the first episode. The game is one of Telltale’s best-looking efforts yet. Hill Valley offers a highly detailed and interesting streetscape to explore. However, it’s a little disappointing that the town is not more interactive. When Marty enters most buildings or storefronts, your point-of-view remains stuck out on the sidewalk. During such moments, Marty typically engages in a quick snippet of dialogue behind closed doors before being booted back to the street. There are only a handful of key indoor locales in which to venture around. They’re well developed and offer some neat puzzles, but they’re few and far between.

The PlayStation 3 control scheme works similarly to its PC counterpart, though remapped buttons make it easy to quickly access various submenus. The left thumbstick moves Marty around directly, and you can select hot spots you’re standing next to with a tap of the X button. The shoulder buttons let you cycle through available hot spots to interact with manually. It’s a nice touch that saves a little time when you don’t feel like manually walking across the screen to grab something. Moving from one area to the next often switches camera angles. This can make it awkward to get your bearings at times, but it doesn’t take long to figure out where you are or which direction you’re moving in.

Marty!

Marty!

A well-penned story, compelling characters, and a stellar presentation drive the game more than anything else. When it comes to the gameplay and puzzles, It’s About Time is surprisingly light on challenge and content. The flow and scope of the game is very standard adventure-gaming fare. You follow the plot cues and often find objects to interact with or items to pick up and carry around until they’re needed. Most puzzles you encounter are interesting and well thought-out. For example, trying to figure out a way to con the young version of Doc into finishing a peculiar invention to unknowingly save his older self has you running around on a cavalcade of amusing errands. The puzzles almost always skew on the easy side, so while they’re still enjoyable to solve, you shouldn’t come to It’s About Time looking for a challenge. If you do find yourself stuck, there’s a scalable hint system that you can call on to give you a nudge in the right direction.

Despite lacking some of the complexity and puzzle depth of Telltale’s other work, Back to the Future’s premiere episode still holds you pretty tightly in its grip for the few short hours it takes to plow through it. It’s a brief trek that packs plenty of plot and personality to balance out its other shortcomings. Considering the strength of the story and the fact that the plot thread runs throughout the whole series, you’re sure to be left feeling anxious to see what comes next. This series holds a lot of promise, and the taste in episode one definitely provides a strong foundation for Telltale to continue building on in upcoming episodes. The future looks bright indeed.

By Nathan Meunier

Retro/Grade Review

Retro/Grade succeeds at bringing a fresh take to the rhythm genre and filling it with sensory pleasures, but a lack of music means it outstays its welcome sooner rather than later.

The Good

  • Electronic music you can bob your head to
  • Unique take on the rhythm game formula
  • Plenty of challenge levels can keep you busy for awhile.

The Bad

  • Too few songs
  • Visuals can be distracting.

Have you ever flawlessly completed a side-scrolling shooter? What if you were asked to flawlessly play a game backward, to the beat of electronic music? What if the price of your failure were the collapse of the space-time continuum? Such is the premise of Retro/Grade, a unique rhythm game with a lot of charm, some great tunes, and tons of visual flair, but a dearth of music prevents the fun from lasting very long.

Betcha Doc Brown didn't see THIS coming.

Betcha Doc Brown didn’t see THIS coming.

Retro/Grade begins at the end. You put a couple of shots into the final boss, the day is saved, the credits start rollingÂ…and then everything starts to go backward. From then on you have to unplay the entire adventure of space hero Rick Rocket, undoing his every shot and redodging every enemy attack. Everything is happening to the beat of the level’s music, so you’re not just playing a shooter in reverse; you’re also playing a rhythm game. You can think of the playing field like Rock Band’s note highway turned on its side. Where there would be notes, there are now Rick’s reversed weapon projectiles, and you move up and down the space lanes to catch them with a well-timed press of the X button. The number of lanes varies by difficulty, starting with only two for the beginner level and going up to five for the tougher difficulties.

Failing to undo any of Rick’s shots or getting hit by enemies causes damage not to your ship, but to the space-time continuum. If it’s destroyed, the game is over. To help fix your mistakes, though, you earn Retro/Fuel that allows you to go backward–er, forward?–in time. You lose any multiplier you may have built up, but it helps you overcome tricky sections in which you might otherwise die. Every lane is color-coded the same way a Guitar Hero game would be, with the color of every friendly and enemy projectile giving you a clear signal as to whether you want to be in that specific lane or avoid it.

Your ship might be faster than a DeLorean, but it's not nearly as stylish.

Your ship might be faster than a DeLorean, but it’s not nearly as stylish.

It’s amazing how well these many elements works together. After the rhythm game fatigue that set in for most people after the market was flooded with music peripheral games, Retro/Grade’s unique take on the formula helps the action feel fresh. You’re doing many of the same actions, albeit with a controller instead of a fake instrument (though you can, in fact, bust out your plastic guitar and play Retro/Grade that way), but it feels like a much different experience. It helps that the electronic music is catchy and the visuals are packed with pleasing colors and animations.

However, as sharp as the visual design is, it occasionally does interfere with your ability to see what’s going on. There’s such an explosion of light on the screen at all times–from pulsating backgrounds to the tons of projectiles onscreen at once–that it can sometimes be too easy to lose track of what you’re trying to hit and what you’re trying to avoid, most notably when both friendly and enemy bullets look the same. This is most problematic when using the overthruster power, which is Retro/Grade’s equivalent of star power. When using the overthruster, all the color in the game becomes blurred. This looks awesome, but it can be frustrating to try to differentiate different aspects of the level unless you already have it memorized. You might say this merely adds challenge, but it’s the kind of challenge that’s typically more frustrating than satisfying.

The campaign’s 10 levels, played from 10 down to one, won’t last long and can easily be finished in a single sitting. There are reasons to go back for lower scores (yes, lower–you’re playing down from a high score and trying to get closer to zero) to beat your friends on the leaderboards or to try to master the higher difficulty levels, but you will probably spend most of your time in the challenge mode. There, you are given a map full of challenges to complete, ranging from short and simple (such as getting to a 4x multiplier) to more unique (playing a song at 140 percent speed) to more challenging (catching every projectile in a song when it’s close enough to you for maximum score). Completing certain challenges unlocks different extras, such as new ship designs (many of which are inspired by other indie games, including Minecraft), music, and artwork.

Star Wars backwards is Sraw Rats.

Star Wars backwards is Sraw Rats.

Retro/Grade’s lack of levels does tarnish some of its luster. The overall quality is sufficient, and with more than 100 challenges, there are enough tasks to keep you busy. But all those challenges are based on the same 10 levels that are found in the short-lived campaign. That means you play the same 10 songs over and over again, and while they’re great songs, all the psychedelic style in the world can’t keep those 10 songs fresh forever. The familiarity doesn’t quite breed contempt, but it does make the experience much less exciting as time goes on.

But that’s a fairly simple problem to overlook for an inexpensive downloadable game. Retro/Grade has a lot to offer, especially to those who already have a fondness for rhythm games. All of the pieces come together nicely for an enjoyable experience for both mind and ears, but it’s best played in short bursts so you don’t get tired of it too quickly.

By Britton Peele

Stacking: The Lost Hobo King Review

The Lost Hobo King is a welcome return to the world of Stacking, but it’s over before you know it.

The Good

  • Lots of memorable hobos
  • Satisfying to work out multiple solutions to puzzles
  • Dolls have fun abilities and amusing dialogue.

The Bad

  • Story can be finished in less than half an hour
  • Ending is abrupt and unsatisfying.

The Lost Hobo King offers the chance to return to the charming world of Stacking, where beautiful Russian nesting dolls inhabit environments that feel pieced together from things you might pick up at a garage sale. Your $5 gets you a new area to explore, new puzzles to solve, and new dolls to meet, and if you’re yearning for more Stacking, then you will enjoy your time in the hobo kingdom of Camelfoot. But completing the quest takes almost no time at all, and although there’s joy in finding every solution to every puzzle and in simply playing with these dolls, there’s just not enough to this trifling bit of downloadable content to make it wholeheartedly recommendable.

Seagulls are the hobos of the bird kingdom.

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In this quest, you once again play as Charlie Blackmore, the diminutive hero of Stacking whose small size lets him leap into and control larger dolls. Charlie’s new adventure begins with his friend Levi whisking him off on a secret hobo mission to save the kingdom of Camelfoot. To restore prosperity to the land, three mythical hobo blacksmiths must be awakened from their long rests so that the crown can be reforged and placed on the head of the rightful king. Only a doll as brave, resourceful, and tiny as Charlie can complete the trials, awaken the blacksmiths, and save the land. Like the environments found in the original game, Camelfoot feels like a large-scale handcrafted play set; rusty tin cans worked into the landscape make it feel like a fitting home for the hobos who live there, and you often find dolls huddled around lit matches for warmth.

Details like these make Camelfoot a pleasant place to visit. Unfortunately, there’s just not much to do there. Three hobo blacksmiths to awaken means three challenges to pass, the most interesting of which requires you to make your way deep into a ghoul-infested crypt. But seasoned Stacking players will find working out one solution to each of these three challenges very simple, and if you do the bare minimum of one solution for each challenge, you can easily reach the story’s conclusion in less than half an hour.

Like challenges in the main game, all of these puzzles have multiple solutions, and it’s fun to return to each one and test your wits by trying to ferret out all of the ways to approach these situations. (Stacking’s very generous hint system returns here, making it simple to get nudges in the right direction when you get stumped or just have solutions spelled out for you if you prefer not to work them out for yourself.) But even taking these multiple solutions into account, The Lost Hobo King feels like a short and insubstantial addition to Stacking, even when considering the modest $5 price. This is emphasized by the sudden and unsatisfying ending. After awakening the three hobo blacksmiths, you go through a straightforward set of actions that feel like they’re building up momentum for an exciting climax but, instead, turn out to be the climax itself.

Every hobo appreciates the value of a fine bucket.

Every hobo appreciates the value of a fine bucket.

But the dolls who populate Camelfoot give you a reason to dally there for a while. You meet a meat merchant who’s tossing out free samples of his product and a fisherman who you may be able to assist with his digestive ailment. Charlie can stack into hobo sages who can decipher the runes scrawled around the kingdom; a cheese maker whose stinky wares may drive away other dolls; a panda bear with a secret; and numerous other colorful characters. Simply encountering and interacting with these dolls is enjoyable. Talking to someone while stacked into a raccoon doll is likely to result in a very different response from doing so while stacked into an ordinary vagabond, and the greatest joys of The Lost Hobo King, like those of Stacking itself, come not from solving puzzles but from just playing around with the dolls and their abilities. There are 10 new hi-jinks to complete with the dolls you meet in Camelfoot, giving you an incentive to experiment with the skills of these characters, as if you needed a reason to go around whacking innocent dolls with a hobo’s bindle.

The Lost Hobo King is just a tasty little morsel of new content. You meet some memorable new dolls and solve a few fun but simple puzzles. Unfortunately, this morsel is just enough to make you hungry for more, and not quite enough to leave you satisfied.

By Carolyn Petit

Fallout: New Vegas – Dead Money Review

Trial-and-error frustrations diminish the impact of this add-on’s great characters and dialogue.

The Good

  • Excellent dialogue and voice acting bring the new characters to life
  • At first, it’s satisfying to avoid or destroy traps
  • A good length for a good price.

The Bad

  • Avoiding hazards eventually gets tedious and annoying
  • The villa’s mazelike streets are visually unappealing
  • The forced stealth and escape sequences aren’t at all enjoyable.

If you were to list your favorite aspects of Fallout: New Vegas, “trap avoidance” would not likely be a top entry. Nevertheless, New Vegas’ first downloadable add-on, Dead Money, requires you to make your way through trap-infested streets and corridors, where you must keep your eyes peeled and your ears keen, lest you miss the signs of the game’s deadly hazards. The focus on careful exploration sometimes acts as a strength; at other times, a weakness. Escaping a mine-infested street can make for tense progress, which in turn leads to a pleasant feeling of relief should you make it through unharmed. On the other hand, these constant dangers eventually lead to frustration because the labyrinthine and monotonous levels suck the joy out of exploration. Fallout: New Vegas – Dead Money too often stresses the main game’s worst qualities. For example, it’s incredible that developer Obsidian Entertainment thought to include several jumping bits, considering the game engine’s terrible, unresponsive jumping mechanics. Fortunately, great voice acting and intriguing new characters provide a counterpoint to the flaws and inspire you to push ahead regardless of the frustrations.

Some dogs must be kept on a tight leash.

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As with Fallout 3′s add-ons, Dead Money begins with a radio signal. In this case, that signal draws you to a bunker entrance, where you are knocked unconscious, stripped of your belongings, and outfitted with a collar that threatens to explode if you refuse to comply with your orders. Those orders come from the holographic image of a man called Father Elijah, who enlists your help to infiltrate the infamous Sierra Madre casino and pilfer the riches within it. Many have already followed the signal and apparently failed at their task, victims of the casino’s built-in defenses, a hazardous red mist that has settled over the area, and their own treacherous greed. You have little choice but to follow Elijah’s orders, which means finding three other individuals and convincing them to follow your lead.

Dead Money’s highlight is its characters–specifically, the three companions that join you as you stalk your way through the dangerous corridors and later figure into your sojourn in a mysterious casino. A mutant with two personalities is the most memorable of them, alternating between a hungry and obedient simpleton (Dog) and a logical sophisticate (God) eager to keep his unintelligent other self “in the cage.” Each personality offers its own companion perk, and Dog’s is one of the more helpful ones. Unless you dismember them, the creatures you encounter will rise up again after defeat, but Dog can munch on their downed bodies to render them dead once and for all. Christine, another companion, is a mute that communicates with awkwardly animated gestures, but you eventually discover she’s got even more bite than Dog. And then, there is Dean, a smooth-talking ghoul with slippery morals and a talent for self-preservation. Turn by turn, you lead these three characters to key locations, and though you leave them behind once you arrive, they still play a role in your adventure. It’s unfortunate that all three of them require you to complete a fetch quest once you reach your destination. By the time you lead your third companion to your objective, all you can do is groan as he or she predictably drums up an excuse to make you go collect or kill something.

Eventually you feel as if your eyeballs have rusted.

Eventually you feel as if your eyeballs have rusted.

You spend most of your time in the streets of the casino’s surrounding villa, making your way to important locations while avoiding a number of dangers. One such danger is your collar, which begins beeping–and eventually explodes–when you wander too close to radios and other devices that trigger its self-destruct mechanism. You can destroy most of these instruments, though locating them during the small window of opportunity can be a challenge, forcing you to put yourself in temporary danger to find the offending radio and shoot it down. Your collar isn’t the only reason to proceed cautiously, however. The streets are dotted with bear traps and mines, and doorways might be protected with shotgun traps. And then, there’s that feared red cloud, which reduces your health should you breathe in its vapors for long. The pace is slow and methodical, and at first, the resulting tension makes for a pleasant twist on the typical New Vegas exploration. Gunning down a speaker as your collar signals your impending demise provides relief to the rising stress, as does spotting and disarming a bear trap before it harms you.

The tension turns into tedium with time, however. This, in part, results from the sameness of the corridors you traverse. The villa is separated into a few different sections, but the maze of streets and balconies looks much the same everywhere you go, and the imprecise quest marker doesn’t always provide a clear sense of direction. The red cloud and subdued lighting are atmospheric at first, but because there’s so little to break up the view, the muddiness loses its short appeal. After hours of slow progress–punctuated with frequent saves and reloads–you long to explore without so many stringent rules holding you back. Once you make it into the casino, your eyes will thank you for the visual variety, but the invulnerable holographic sentries you encounter don’t ease the frustrations. A forced stealth sequence in which being spotted means an instant fiery death is New Vegas at its worst, as are multiple timed escape sections that test your patience and have you cursing the game’s clumsy movement mechanics and vague sense of direction. The casino trip rewards you not with fascinating exploration, but with excellently written backstory uncovered at terminals and in voice recordings. The Sierra Madre’s riches aren’t the resources locked in the casino’s vault–they are the glimpses of past greed and deception, as well as the drive of one man to protect the woman he loved.

In Dead Money, you don't follow God--He follows you.

In Dead Money, you don’t follow God–He follows you.

Fortunately, New Vegas’ flexibility occasionally shines through the trial-and-error murk, most notably in how you approach your companion relationships once you enter the casino. If you aren’t big on combat, there are still plenty of chances to talk your way out of certain quests and hack into security systems. If you prefer to get your hands dirty, you get new toys to play with, such as bear traps fashioned into melee weapons, throwing spears, and a rifle that comes in mighty handy during the end sequence. If you have these on your person when you complete the add-on, you get to keep them, along with anything else you have pilfered, though otherwise, Dead Money is a mostly encapsulated experience. It features its own economy, based on Sierra Madre chips, and has its own network of vending machines. (One nice touch: You stumble upon codes for unlocking new items to purchase at these glowing machines.) It also offers crafty players new items and recipes to cobble together.

Dead Money represents a change of pace for Fallout: New Vegas, though it’s not a consistently enjoyable one. Tense, deliberate pacing gives way to aggravation as the game forces you to watch every step while you meander through its dull surroundings. Lest you forget this content’s Fallout roots, however, there are numerous technical oddities to remind you of them. Activating VATS targeting while firing at a turret may get the game stuck in slow-motion purgatory for a minute or more; companions might get mired in the environment or inexplicably make their way to the rooftops while you traverse the streets below. Nevertheless, Fallout: New Vegas – Dead Money’s provocative characters and fantastic writing make it a tempting detour for Fallout fans aching for something new. You also get some bang for your buck here: depending on the thoroughness of your exploration, you could spend anywhere from four to eight hours on Dead Money for only $9.99. Here’s hoping that New Vegas’ next add-on sticks to what the game is good at rather than forcing its weakest gameplay mechanics on players who want to do things their own way.

By Kevin VanOrd

SkyDrift Review

While there’s nothing unique about SkyDrift, it successfully delivers fun and frantic arcade racing that’s best enjoyed online.

The Good

  • Online play is a lot of fun
  • Pleasing visuals
  • Tight controls.

The Bad

  • Only six different tracks to race on
  • No local multiplayer.

SkyDrift is an arcade airplane racer that focuses all of its energies on the familiar trappings found in games like Mario Kart Wii and Hydro Thunder Hurricane; power-ups, multilayered tracks, and loose arcade controls are the game’s defining characteristics, and it makes the most of these tropes. It’s not particularly original, but if you’re in the market for a good-looking, simple arcade racer that’s fun to play online, SkyDrift fits the bill just fine.

Tearing up your opponent with a well-placed rocket is immensely satisfying.

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At the heart of SkyDrift are three race modes: Power is standard racing with both offensive and defensive power-ups enabled; Survivor is an elimination-based variation on Power that removes whoever is in last place at timed intervals; and Speed replaces power-ups with glowing rings that provide your plane with a brief boost. These modes are scattered across the main single-player campaign, which places you in stages that get progressively harder as you advance, with new planes and paint jobs awarded along the way. All of the modes are enjoyable, but they become fairly repetitious before too long–the game would certainly benefit from having a few more race types to add to the variety. There are six tracks (plus reversed versions of each) set in different locations. The surrounding environments for each track range from the mountainous to the glacial, and they’re all visually striking, with impressive levels of detail. Annoyingly, though, SkyDrift’s overly saturated lighting effects can sometimes be overbearing on the visuals, making power-ups and obstacles difficult to discern against the harshly lit backdrop.

Power-ups include the usual suspects, such as mines, heat-seeking missiles, and shields. Picking up two power-ups of the same kind upgrades their effectiveness, and it’s also possible to trade in stored power-ups for small doses of boost. To a similar end, you can drift behind other planes and ride lower to the ground to gain even more boost. You can also use the right stick to “knife edge” the plane so that you can weave through tight crevices and gaps that would otherwise cause you to crash instantly. Even when you do crash, though, respawns are quick enough that you don’t lose much time. Because tracks are awash in sharp corners and sudden hairpin turns, the high-speed nature of the game ensures that you’re considerate of your every action–when you mess up, it’s usually your fault and not the game’s. SkyDrift’s tight controls and multitude of power-ups let you approach mid-race situations with the kind of sudden tactical initiative that can either help or hinder you, depending on the decisions you make. That said, it’s a shame that none of the power-ups are particularly creative–it would have been nice to see more-expressive weaponry beyond generic rocket launchers and machine guns.

Custom paint jobs like this snazzy electric blue are unlocked as you progress.

Custom paint jobs like this snazzy electric blue are unlocked as you progress.

Beyond the single-player races is lag-free online multiplayer, which is really the shining jewel of SkyDrift. While the multiplayer cannot be played locally, all of the aforementioned modes and tracks can be played with up to eight players online, and the host retains complete control over map settings and the choice of planes before races begin. Despite the competency of the AI in the single-player portion, the game becomes infinitely more enjoyable when real people are thrown into the mix. Power-ups are well balanced, and no one plane is more likely to dominate than any other, meaning that every competitor is treated fairly, regardless of skill level. A host of criteria-based badges and medals can also be earned throughout both single-player and online matches, which is a nice touch that neatly ties in to the game’s achievements and trophies.

If you’ve ever played an arcade or kart racer before, then you have a good idea of what to expect from SkyDrift. It does nothing that hasn’t been done in the past, nor does it outperform any of its contemporaries in any meaningful way. Thankfully, solid controls and a strong dependency on tactics mean that SkyDrift still manages to offer up a good amount of fun in spite of its derivative makeup, especially when played online.

By Sean Evans

Way of the Samurai 4 Review

Way of the Samurai 4 compensates for clunky mechanics with an enjoyable blend of soapy melodrama and irreverent humor.

The Good

  • Abundant silliness, both scripted and player-generated
  • Multiple storylines reward replay.

The Bad

  • Klutzy combat
  • Lots of menu navigation and loading screens
  • Some things are never explained properly.

The arrival of European sailors on Japanese shores ushered in a strange and turbulent period in Japanese history. The clash of cultures gave rise to radical xenophobes, scheming magistrates, and unscrupulous traders, all of whom you have the chance to ally yourself with in Way of the Samurai 4. You can also wear a tuxedo jacket and no pants, brandish a giant fish in combat, and be pursued through the forest by a dozen angry sumo wrestlers. Way of the Samurai 4 isn’t so much a wacky adventure through these tumultuous times as it is a wacky sandbox that encourages you to live the same few days over and over again, taking different paths, forging different alliances, and experiencing different kinds of sex torture. Though the combat is clunky, the mechanics are dull, and the visuals are dated, there is plenty of goofy fun to be had in Way of the Samurai 4.

And all you wanted was a peaceful evening at the gambling den.

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The key lies in the structure. The game spans just over four days, each divided into day, evening, and night. Each time period contains a few different events that allow you to further different story paths, like allying yourself with the shogunate to restore order, becoming an advocate for the foreigners, or joining a band of rebels. These events are mapped out in the menus, making it easy to follow the main storylines but also clueing you in to other significant events waiting to be discovered. Each story has enough goofy characters, overwrought dramatics, and strange occurrences to be entertaining most of the way through, and if you start to get bored, well, there are plenty of other things to do.

Talk to the folks in town and take random missions for cash. Dress outlandishly and make every cutscene a ridiculous farce. Beat up thugs and make them join your dojo. Eat some sushi, refuse to pay, and flee from the cops. Flirt with women, infiltrate their bedrooms, knock out all the competing suitors, and then whack your date until her clothes come off. Go fishing. Forge a new weapon at the smithy. Chat with Melinda Megamelons or the King of the Homeless. Jump-kick random passersby in the head. Play a card game. Try to reunite a craftsman with his estranged apprentice. Or just hang out by the horse-drawn-wagon tracks and watch people get run over.

There’s a lot of silliness and drama to discover in Way of the Samurai 4, and this helps stave off the dullness of sitting through frequent loading screens and running doggedly around the map. Much of your interaction with this irreverent world is through sparse dialogue trees and other menus. Perusing item descriptions and visiting different shops are the only ways to learn about all Way of the Samurai 4 has to offer, and even then, some elements are likely to elude you until repeated playthroughs.

A courteous host does not comment on his guest's lack of pants.

A courteous host does not comment on his guest’s lack of pants.

When you’re not scurrying all over town or navigating options, you’re in combat. There are multiple fighting styles for the few different weapon types, but combat only makes use of light and heavy attacks, blocks, dodges, and a few combo maneuvers. Hit detection is irregular, so slashing and kicking your way through enemies feels haphazard. This makes combat less like a thrilling contest and more like a chore, though there is still some satisfaction in pummeling your foes silly.

Your first playthrough of Way of the Samurai 4 is disorienting, because the game doesn’t do a great job of explaining all the systems at work. On subsequent adventures, however, you have a better idea of what you can do and can better focus on what you want to do. And even a few playthroughs in, there are still strange delights and new events to discover. Way of the Samurai 4 isn’t the prettiest package, but for those with a taste for weirdness and a measure of patience, it’s a gift that keeps on giving.

By Chris Watters

Legasista Review

There’s a robust dungeon crawler buried beneath Legasista’s typical anime-style trappings.

The Good

  • Engaging dungeon exploration and looting
  • Clever, challenging enemies and traps
  • Lots of customization options for existing and player-made characters
  • Fantastic soundtrack.

The Bad

  • Cheap-looking cutscenes
  • Customization tools are a pain to use
  • Dialogue errors make certain gameplay elements confusing.

At a quick glance, Legasista looks like a typical Japanese role-playing game: anime-styled characters, some plot bits about an ancient society with long-lost weapons, and lots of complicated statistics and systems to keep track of. But Legasista’s outward appearance is somewhat deceiving: this is actually a challenging dungeon crawler with many layers of depth. Players familiar with NIS’s Cladun series for the PSP will immediately feel at home here, as the animations and core gameplay of Legasista are based heavily off of those games. However, Legasista has some key differences from the Cladun adventures, and it’s those differences that ultimately make it a superior game.

Love loot? You've come to the right place.

Love loot? You’ve come to the right place.

Legasista follows young Alto, whose sister has been transformed into a small jewel. The only way to reverse the spell is through the power of an ancient weapon which has been sealed away in a tower. Alto gets more than he bargained for, however, when he finds that the weapon is a humanoid female named Melize who has lost most of her functionality. The artifacts containing her abilities need to be found in the tower, but there are a few other treasure hunters and opportunists who are raiding the tower for themselves and don’t appreciate Alto’s meddling. It’s a simple story, but effective and engaging enough to keep you going. Its presentation through crudely animated character artwork, however, looks cheap and awkward.

As you advance through the story, more dungeons open for you to explore, and each completed dungeon yields more plot twists and potential party members for your exploration troupe. Base controls for exploration are pretty straightforward: a simple strike attack, a jump, a dash that increases speed at the cost of defense, and shoulder-button controlled magic spells and item use. Certain equipment can change these controls: for example, bows and hammers can be charged by holding down the attack button, while equpping a shield replaces the dash move with a guarded trot.

Most dungeons are short affairs with a few traps and treasures to claim, while others are laden with damaging gimmicks and tricky puzzles that can leave careless players in a bind. Still others feature (sometimes optional) bosses that test your ability to dodge, guard, and use your weapons and magic effectively. To make this a bit easier, you can take up to three characters into a dungeon and swap between them as you wish. Each character has his or her own set of equipment and special skills, some of which can be useful in particular situations: mechanical characters, for example, can’t be poisoned, but also can’t use any healing items since they don’t eat food.

Walk through the Angel Gates to enter paradise.

Walk through the Angel Gates to enter paradise.

In Legasista, energy frames are the primary means of character enhancement. These easy-to-understand frames work as simple, single-character equipment arrays that offer distinct benefits and disadvantages. As you soon discover, equipment arrangement is very important in Legasista. Each item you wear has a durability rating, and taking damage decreases the durability of the item furthest to the right in your gear display. Once the durability hits 0, the item breaks, and you lose its benefits and stat boosts until you either fix it or leave the dungeon (in which case it repairs automatically). After a certain amount of gear is gone, attacks deplete your green health bars, and once all of your HP is gone, that character is kaput.

The keys to managing your equipment are the aforementioned energy frames. The energy frame a character uses determines precisely what gear and enhancement items they can equip, as well as the order in which your gear and HP is likely to break. Multiple energy frames are earned over time for each character class, and learning to pick and outfit a good frame for the situation is vital. Is it better to use a frame that puts most of your HP bars to the right and protects your special augmentations, or are you willing to sacrifice your armaments to survive? A limited amount of item pickups can also be equipped mid-dungeon, but their maximum durability upon leaving will be reduced as a result. You’ll need to take a lot of factors into consideration, as losing vital items like magic spells mid-dungeon from a fierce assault can be hugely detrimental.

There’s a robust dungeon crawler buried beneath Legasista’s typical anime-style trappings.

The Good

  • Engaging dungeon exploration and looting
  • Clever, challenging enemies and traps
  • Lots of customization options for existing and player-made characters
  • Fantastic soundtrack.

The Bad

  • Cheap-looking cutscenes
  • Customization tools are a pain to use
  • Dialogue errors make certain gameplay elements confusing.

There’s a great deal of gear to choose from, too. All items in Legasista are earned in the dungeons; there are no shops or currency, so you amass a virtual armory of all kinds of items. Equippable armaments are determined by a character’s class and energy frame, and every piece of gear has variations on its efficacy, special skill offerings, and equip cost. The most desirable items are those that come with “titles,” which provide various augmentations. It’s possible to swap titles between equipment by discarding old items, collecting their titles, and overwriting titles on other gear, thus creating some awesome armaments. However, the process by which this is done seems to have suffered some errors in localization, making it difficult to figure out an essential element of high-level customization.

Editing your own character sprite requires a lot of time and effort.

Editing your own character sprite requires a lot of time and effort.

Equipment is just the tip of the iceberg: gaining levels earns points that can be spent on various enhancements, some of which can carry over should you elect to swap a character’s class. If you’re willing to put in the effort, you can build a very powerful character to your personal specifications. After a certain point in the story, you can even make custom characters from scratch, defining everything from their starting class to their special abilities. You can even create and edit custom sprites and animations for your characters, though this is easier said than done–the in-game sprite editor’s interface is confusing and cumbersome, and while you can import PNG files from a PC to use, the files require very particular formatting. You’ll likely find yourself using one of the prebuilt models based on existing NIS game characters and calling it a day.

There’s a great deal of depth to the main game, but the extra dungeons are where Legasista gets really intense. After a certain amount of playtime, you unlock the ability to discover secret dungeons and to literally dig up randomly generated dungeons. These multilevel “ran-geons” are both the most rewarding and the most treacherous locales in the game. By using certain types of gates to hop from one floor to the next, you can influence elements like enemy levels, item drop rates, and special rules.

The randomly generated bonus dungeons offer terror and treasure in equal amounts.

The randomly generated bonus dungeons offer terror and treasure in equal amounts.

But sometimes gates aren’t what they seem, and one unlucky gate trip can transform a breezy dungeon romp into a hellish gauntlet of overpowered foes–and wiping out means losing all of your hard-earned loot. Since stronger foes yield better item drops, management of risk/reward in the ran-geons becomes an exciting metagame in itself. It’s possible to spend hours just making random dungeon runs for the chance at incredible items, all while enjoying a mix of fantastic songs from the superb soundtrack.

Despite some flaws, Legasista is a surprising little gem of a game in the current lineup of PlayStation Network exclusives. For $15, you get a challenging, fun dungeon crawler with plenty of depth and a lot of potential playtime under its hood. It might not seem like much at an initial glance, but spending some time adventuring in Legasista will likely convince you of the worth of its hidden treasures.

By Heidi Kemps

Rochard Review

Rochard’s gravity-defying antics make for an enjoyable adventure, albeit one that rarely reaches for the stars.

The Good

  • Fun assortment of movement techniques and abilities
  • Pleasant combination of puzzle-solving and combat
  • John Rochard is a memorable protagonist.

The Bad

  • Challenging puzzles and standout moments are rare
  • Occasionally places too much emphasis on combat
  • Visuals don’t have much personality.

Sometimes, ordinary people are thrust into situations in which they have to do extraordinary things. Such is the case with John Rochard, a simple man who is cast into the role of hero when the mine he’s working on is invaded by a gang of ne’er-do-wells called wild boys. Thankfully, John has a handy device that lets him loosen the grip of gravity and accomplish other nifty things, which makes his transition from space miner to space savior significantly smoother. Though this 2D puzzle platformer is short on satisfying puzzles and memorable moments, it’s still an enjoyable trek that provides you with a fun assortment of ways to navigate its tricky environments.

John Rochard isn’t the swiftest swinger in the galaxy, but he gets the job done.

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Rochard’s story isn’t one of its strengths; this tale of ancient relics and corporate corruption plays out predictably and ends with an unfulfilling cliffhanger. But John Rochard’s unapologetically blue-collar ethos makes him a distinctive protagonist; you may love or hate his use of phrases like “Get ‘er done,” but in either case, you probably won’t forget him anytime soon. Unfortunately, the visuals don’t make as strong of an impression. John and the other characters look like rejects from Team Fortress 2, and the environments, most of which are industrial corridors, don’t have much personality. However, the electronic music, which sounds like something out of a 1970s John Carpenter sci-fi film, brings some tension to the action.

As he navigates the space mines, space temples, and space casinos of this adventure, John Rochard has a constant companion: his G-lifter. This multipurpose handheld device can grab crates, fuses, and other objects, even if they’re on the other end of the screen, and although its rock blaster function isn’t actually used for blasting any rocks during the game, it comes in very handy for blasting bad guys. The action boils down to you running and jumping through levels, using the G-lifter’s lift ability to solve puzzles and its rock blaster to shoot wild boys, turrets, flying attack bots, and other people or things that mean you harm. The right stick lets you precisely aim the G-lifter, and using it to lift and toss objects feels natural, but Rochard himself moves a bit sluggishly. This befits his girth, but it prevents him from being inherently fun to control.

The most common obstacles to your progress are barriers that prevent the passage of specific things. Some barriers, for instance, allow objects to pass through but are impenetrable to people, while others are the opposite. Much of your time is spent trying to figure out how to circumvent the barriers and get a fuse you need from one spot to another. This often requires you to carefully observe your surroundings, looking for small windows you can fire the fuse through or other environmental features you can take advantage of, and it’s pleasant to solve these puzzles, snap fuses into place, and continue on your way. But you rarely have to think too hard about your spatial predicaments. On occasion, you might need to make clever use of a terminal that lets you reverse gravity or otherwise think outside the box to solve a particular puzzle. Typically, however, you employ the same concepts over and over as you move forward, and it’s rare to encounter a problem that requires you to look at things differently. As a result, standout moments that offer you a feeling of particular triumph as you overcome a real brainteaser are exceedingly rare.

Fuses: cause of, and solution to, many of your problems.

Fuses: cause of, and solution to, many of your problems.

Rochard does introduce new mechanics at a steady pace, though, which keeps the gameplay from falling into a rut. Most of the time, you have the ability to reduce the effect of gravity, which lets you jump higher and lift bigger, heavier crates. At a certain point, the recoil jump becomes a vital technique for reaching higher areas. To do this, you jump and then shoot a crate downward with the G-lifter while low gravity is enabled, which propels you upward. Over time, you acquire explosive charges and sticky charges, as well as the ability to use the G-lifter to swing from anchor to anchor like a low-gravity, slow-motion Bionic Commando. These techniques bring some variety to the act of traversing Rochard’s levels, but like using the G-lifter to solve spatial puzzles, you rarely have to use these abilities in particularly clever or unusual ways. As you get close to the end of the game, the G-lifter gains a fun new power that gives you a huge edge in combat, and the joy of using it on your enemies makes it a nice reward for your progress, but you have it so briefly that its impact on the game is minimal.

Most of the time, combat is a standard affair: You aim with the right thumbstick and fire away. Enemies don’t exhibit much intelligence and are content to absorb your blaster fire until they keel over. To change things up, you can use the G-lifter to grab nearby crates (or, after a specific upgrade, flying attack bots) and hurl them at bad guys, though you never need to rely on these techniques because your standard rock blaster is always up to the task. The combat is a simple but enjoyable aspect of the game that lends some danger to the otherwise easygoing act of navigating the levels. But once in a while, combat takes center stage, as you’re forced to hold out against lots of enemies while waiting for an elevator to arrive or a colleague to come to your rescue. There’s not enough to the gunplay for it to stand on its own, and you might find yourself frequently taking shelter during these battles and simply waiting for your health to recharge, popping out to blast a few baddies, and then taking cover again. It doesn’t make for particularly exciting encounters.

Every once in a while, Rochard's world gets turned upside-down.

Every once in a while, Rochard’s world gets turned upside-down.

But these instances are rare, and though it has few standout moments to offer, Rochard is a mostly pleasant journey. The modest, steadily increasing variety of ways you can use the G-lifter to get around and defeat bad guys keeps things fresh during the course of this roughly eight-hour adventure. It’s too bad that Rochard isn’t as memorable as its titular hero, but it’s nonetheless an enjoyable escape if you’re interested in a gravity-defying jaunt through a variety of exotic space places.

By Carolyn Petit

Stardrone Review

Stardrone’s vibrant, physics-driven arcade action suffers from difficulty spikes and frustrating design elements.

The Good

  • Colorful visuals
  • Easy to learn how to play
  • Lots of potential for replay and mastery.

The Bad

  • Core gameplay mechanics just aren’t that interesting
  • Certain levels are painfully difficult.

If you’ve been playing games for a long time, you might remember an old NES title called Clu Clu Land. It starred a strange little fish-lady named Bubbles that constantly swam her way through a playing field, trying to find hidden gold ingots, as well as avoid traps and obstacles. The only way you could control Bubbles was by pressing and holding down a button to have her cling to poles scattered throughout the level, making her spin around in circles until she faced the direction you wanted her to go–at which point, you’d release the button. It was an interesting concept, and it appears to have provided a lot of inspiration for Beatshapers’ Stardrone. The setting might be completely different–rather than guiding a fish though an undersea maze, you maneuver a ship through colorful star labyrinths–but the central game mechanic of latching onto things and spinning around them to direct a constantly moving object through a 2D maze is exactly the same. That’s not to say that Stardrone is simply NES-era gameplay dressed up in a current-generation shell. As basic as the core mechanic might be, there are additional gameplay elements and ideas present in Stardrone that would have never been possible all those decades ago. Unfortunately, none of them serve to elevate the game beyond just moderately entertaining.

You probably can't tell what's going on here. This isn't terribly uncommon during Stardrone.

You probably can’t tell what’s going on here. This isn’t terribly uncommon during Stardrone.

Stardrone features more than 50 different stages to challenge players. Each features a different objective, such as collecting or reactivating objects scattered around the stage, reaching a goal, or destroying a set number of enemies, as well as a unique design laden with tricks, traps, and other elements. The central control scheme in each of these levels is the same: Rather than assuming direct control of your ship, you press and hold either the X button or down on the D pad to tether the ship to an onscreen hub unit. The ship will then orbit the hub until you release the button, sending it flying in what is hopefully the direction you want to go. When there are multiple hubs onscreen, you select which one you want to try to tether to by moving and holding one of the analog sticks in its general direction. Should you own a PlayStation Move, you can opt to play Stardrone using a different control scheme, where you press the Move button to tether and select which hubs to attach to by pointing at them.

The mechanics and controls are pretty simple, but the stage designs themselves are what add complexity to Stardrone. The diminutive levels are meant to be played and replayed for high scores, better times, and complete mastery. Items, boosters, barriers, traps, and enemies litter the stages, and as you play further into the game, more elements get added to ramp up the complexity. Some of these design elements are quite fun, like the speedy conveyor-belt walls and the supersonic blast vents. These send your little ship speeding through the stage at dazzling speeds; that is, until the point where you’re happily zipping along and then smash headfirst into a wall of spikes with little warning. More often than not, the elements that get introduced throughout Stardrone’s level progression wind up being more frustrating than challenging or fun. Instant-kill traps begin to line the entire stage boundary, barriers block the way unless you scour the stage to find keycards, and enemies seem to gang up on you and make movement impossible without taking lots of damage. Don’t expect many resources to combat these hazards, either; grabbing hubs to avoid traps is difficult when you’re zipping along at super speeds, and you can only crush your enemies after entering into Comet Rush mode by collecting a set number of star items in rapid succession (which is often easier said than done).

Point at any distinct element you see in this image--odds are that it will kill you if you touch it.

Point at any distinct element you see in this image–odds are that it will kill you if you touch it.

When it comes right down to it, a lot of aspects of Stardrone just seem poorly implemented. The bright, trippy visuals are appealing, but oftentimes, the overdose of color and background imagery can make important things, like collectible stars needed to finish some stages or your pointer cursor when using the Move, very difficult to see. The physics and speed-booster elements in stages can also be irritating: It’s more difficult to remain tethered to a hub when your ship is travelling at high speeds. If you’re being blasted around and need to try to tether to stop yourself from smashing into a wall of deadly spikes, it can also be difficult to point to the hub you want to grab in time, particularly with the Move. The Move controls are fine in relatively trap-free stages, but in high-speed danger zones, it’s tough to quickly point to where to attach. On top of it all, the difficulty fluctuates wildly at times. Sometimes you’ll encounter a very easy level immediately after a stage where your controller-chucking rage will barely be held in check.

As it stands, Stardrone is a decent action/puzzler. It can be a nice diversion at times, but it lacks the sort of well-designed dressing needed to make its simple core mechanic feel fresh, interesting, and fun. Stardrone seems destined to be forgotten amongst a sea of far better games available on the PlayStation Network.

By Heidi Kemps

I Am Alive Review

Constant tension and difficult emotional decisions make I Am Alive a powerful adventure.

The Good

  • Tough choices affect your and others’ survival
  • Unnerving psychological combat system
  • Constant tension in all of your actions
  • Intriguing story elements conveyed through background details
  • Suffocating visual and audio design heighten emotional connection.

The Bad

  • Intrusive heads-up display clashes with the raw aesthetics
  • Unnecessary moments of hand-holding.

Your city is in ruins. Destroyed cars litter the decimated streets and lie dormant beside the crumbling buildings that struggle to rise above the twisted train tracks. Dust swirls and cloaks, choking anyone unfortunate enough to be caught in its suffocating gusts. And the people are in even worse shape than the tattered city they still call home. Society has disintegrated as quickly as the structures that used to cage in its residents. Some people travel in wolfish packs, scrounging on the weak to feed their insatiable desires. Others huddle with their loved ones, thankful just to survive another day. How will you react in this bleak world? I Am Alive effectively conveys the broken state of society when devastation hits and no police force exists to keep order. There is no good or bad here, just alive or dead, and the tough decisions you make to keep breathing ensure I Am Alive’s emotional depth.

Fire can be your ally in the right situation.

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The protagonist is an unnamed man in search of his family. On the surface, the decision to leave the main character nameless seems strange, especially when the supporting cast members all have a moniker to call their own. But it makes sense when you consider the purpose of this survival-themed adventure. Through difficult decisions and a constant feeling of dread, you are the main character in I Am Alive. By painting only a cursory character in the starring role–determined, loyal, loving–and leaving the rest of his details unstated, I Am Alive immediately draws you into this world and establishes that you, not a digital construct, have to make the tough choices.

When the event hit, you were on the other side of the country. Four hours to fly across the country, almost a year to walk back home. But your family needs you. Hints of betrayal, where you somehow let down your kin at some point in the past, are touched on and make you wonder what unforgivable act was committed to bear such a terrible penance. Like most of the details, you never find out exactly why the main character is struggling with guilt. It’s never explained what “the event” entailed, either. Was it an attack by a foreign nation? Homegrown terrorism? Natural disaster? It’s left to your imagination, but the cause isn’t important. Only the effect. And when he arrives at his apartment, long since abandoned, with no clue as to where his family has disappeared or if they’re even alive, you care.

Prepare yourself for the event by working on your upper body strength.

Prepare yourself for the event by working on your upper body strength.

That bond is further strengthened by the appearance of a young girl. Mei is surrounded in a parking lot by angry men with bad intentions. She’s alone, scared, and looks strikingly like your own daughter. In a flurry of violence, you slay those men because doing nothing would have made it impossible to live with yourself. Mei begins to trust you. Her mother has gone missing, and your protective instincts take over. Tied to your back, you carry her through the desolate remains. You establish an immediate connection with Mei because she’s helpless, sweet, and doesn’t deserve to live in this terrible world. She can’t even remember what the city was like before the event hit. When she develops a fever, you rush to find medicine–it’s an objective you must complete, but you need no encouragement. She’s your only companion and your closest connection to your own family, so you do everything in your power to keep her safe.

Story details are kept to a minimum. Instead of pulling you out of the action with long cutscenes, most of the information is conveyed as you walk through this wasteland. At one point, you come across a group of survivors huddled together by a roaring fire in the heart of the subway. They see Mei on your back, tired and hungry, and they offer you some meat. You greedily accept their present because a piece of meat replenishes most of your health and stamina in one bite.

As you survey their camp, you come across a cage that is now filled with bones. Dog? Cat? Human? You can only wonder what sort of meat was handed to you. Later on, you find a starving, desperate woman struggling to carry onward. When you hand her a can of fruit, she shows her thanks and you feel good for saving someone in need. Walk by her position later, you find her hanging from a noose. You didn’t need to go back, but you wanted to see how she was doing, and now you can’t get that image out of your head.

Caring for Mei draws you into this world.

Caring for Mei draws you into this world.

With direct routes destroyed by the event, you have to climb to get to new areas. You go up drain pipes, across rails, and down ladders as you take hold of anything that supports your weight. As soon as you grab on to a ledge, your stamina drops, and the pounding music solidifies the idea that time is running out. You’re not superhuman, just a regular man, and you will die if you run out of strength. So you move as quickly and precisely as possible. Your limited reserve of items can be used to recharge your stamina in a pinch, but each morsel is precious. You have to make your resources last, which tinges every climb with the pressure of failure. If you press too far and let your stamina go below its breaking point, it won’t regenerate fully when you step back on solid ground. There’s permanence to your actions in I Am Alive that makes everything you do take on added importance.

When you aren’t clinging frantically to the side of a wall, you weave through the chaos of your new reality. Although you only travel through a small part of the city in I Am Alive, it feels like an entire world. The devastation cuts off the quickest path to your destination, so finding out how to get where you want to go takes patience and determination. On the street, a poisonous fog continually saps your stamina, so you have to find ways to rise above the cloud. If you climb up to a fire escape to catch your breath, you can survey the landscape. You may walk in the wrong direction for minutes at a time, trying to find a way to cross seemingly impassable obstacles. There’s a feeling of dread that permeates all of your choices. If you go off to the wrong place, you might not be able to climb to clean air. You might die on the street. So your heart races, but you press on and hope that you don’t get caught in the fog.

Constant tension and difficult emotional decisions make I Am Alive a powerful adventure.

The Good

  • Tough choices affect your and others’ survival
  • Unnerving psychological combat system
  • Constant tension in all of your actions
  • Intriguing story elements conveyed through background details
  • Suffocating visual and audio design heighten emotional connection.

The Bad

  • Intrusive heads-up display clashes with the raw aesthetics
  • Unnecessary moments of hand-holding.

There are times when the illusion is tarnished. You walk down an alley and the game boldly warns you that you’re going the wrong way. Getting completely lost is difficult, given that you have a map you can access anytime, so such hand-holding is unnecessary. An intrusive heads-up display also strips away some of the realism. A giant red and white bar stretches across the top of the screen at all times, giving constant updates of your health and stamina. Handy? Yes. But there could have been a more elegant way to handle such concerns. I Am Alive is so effective because it removes many artificial barriers and forces you to make intimate and emotional decisions. The few unrealistic elements are a stark contrast to the engrossing world and only lessen the experience.

With walkways destroyed, you have to climb to your destination.

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Such concerns won’t matter when you’re engaged in a tense fight for your life. Some people on the street want to attack you. They want to kill you. Aggression is a last resort for a man desperate to stay alive to see his family once more. So when you’re approached by an armed thug, you hold up your arms instead of your gun. Slowly back away, try to calm him with your words, and lure him into thinking he has the upper hand. And then, when he lets his guard down, slit his throat with a quick slash from your knife. His companion will know you were playing possum. He rushes toward you, but you freeze him in his tracks with your gun. With sights aimed at his head, he doesn’t realize the chamber is empty. You yell at him angrily and order him to back away. Steer him toward the fire and kick him into it. You’ve now killed two men and didn’t have to waste any ammunition to do so.

Combat in I Am Alive is psychological. Because picking up one bullet feels like a bounty, you need to be smart and resourceful to stay alive. Reading the emotions of the aggressive survivors who are intent on your death is key if you want to make it through unscathed. When a group ambushes you amid the wreckage of a highway-turned-parking-lot, you need to immediately assess the situation. Who’s armed? Do any of them have guns? Those are the most likely to cause you harm. But analysis goes deeper than that. There may be four or five attackers closing in, and you can’t expect to kill that many with two bullets. So you listen to their words. You watch their actions. Who’s weak? Who’s following orders? And who’s strong? If you can eliminate the leader, his subordinates surrender. Such mind games keep you on edge during every fight because you’re never sure going in what mask your assailants wear.

Locked gates offer little resistance once the apocalypse hits.

Locked gates offer little resistance once the apocalypse hits.

Of course, there are people who don’t want to kill you. Maybe they have their own stash of valuables to guard or their own loved ones to protect. When you approach them, they threaten you. They shout and yell, even pointing a weapon your way. But they don’t want to fight. They just want to live. Keep on walking if you want. You’re not a street thug, after all; just a desperate man in search of his family. But you can see a precious bottle of water just behind the man yelling frantically for you to keep moving. He sounds weak, scared. His gun probably isn’t even loaded. So you take one step closer to him–just to see how he reacts. He yells but doesn’t shoot. You take another step and then another. And then you’re face to face. Do you kill him? Take his bottle of water? Or do you leave him be? The choice is yours. There is no punishment, either, because there’s no police force to keep order. You have to decide if you want to kill the innocent or let him live.

Other people want your help. They’re desperate for it. “It’s my son! They stabbed him!” one woman cries. “My asthma is getting worse with every breath,” a stranded man coughs. If you save these people, you earn another chance to retry should you fail. But think about the cost for a second. You have exactly one first aid kit on you right now, and the only other item that can cure you is the mystery meat you were given in the subway. Are you willing to give up your first aid kit for an extra life? Especially because you’re more likely to die without that health? Sure, you find out pieces of the backstory when you rescue a survivor, but that’s a hefty price to pay just to find out the women and children were evacuated to a northern city. And how about those people locked in a cage? You would have to fire your only bullet to free them, and you might need that bullet to protect Mei.

These decisions carry even more weight if you play on survivor difficulty. You have two choices when you start the game: normal and survivor. The only differences between them are how many items are scattered throughout the world and how many retries you have should you die. If you run out of retries, you could be sent back a half hour or more. It’s a punishment that fits with the themes of the game. This is a cold, hard world, where your actions have severe consequences, so losing your retries has to communicate that you failed. On normal, you might have enough resources to spare a bottle of painkillers to a person in need, but on survivor, everything is different. There is no good or bad in I Am Alive because there’s no telling how far a person would go to survive. Is it really wrong to withhold your only first aid kit from a complete stranger? Or to take medication from a person who most likely will be dead before the sun rises anyway?

Deciding whether or not to help people in need is tougher than it sounds.

Deciding whether or not to help people in need is tougher than it sounds.

The emotional weight is amplified by the stifling artistic design. Grays and browns populate this world, with the faded red, white, and blue of an occasional American flag the only striking colors. When the dust swirls, draining your stamina with every step, you can hardly see 10 feet in front of you. Hazy outlines hint at an upcoming oasis or deadly danger, and you have to walk closer just to make out what’s right in front of your face. When you find safety at one point in the game, the bright colors are almost blinding. It’s clean and pure in ways that you’ve forgotten could exist, and you want to spend the rest of your days in that brightly lit dream world. But you have to leave. And the dust engulfs you as you walk into the black night.

I Am Alive effectively draws you into a city gone to ruin by relying on instinctual human reactions to establish a strong emotional connection. From a technical standpoint, there’s nothing special here. The controls are stiff, the graphics are murky, and the voice acting hits odd notes. But I Am Alive rises above these basic concerns to offer an engrossing experience that’s difficult to forget. If you let this deliberately paced adventure get under your skin, it draws you into a world that shows how humans react when the rules are stripped away. Some just want to survive while others want to impose their will, and you’re left to decide your own path. I Am Alive is a smart and well-crafted adventure that keeps you tense throughout, and it makes you desperate to know the fate of the family you so anxiously want to find.

By Tom Mc Shea