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Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon - Nintendo 3DS
Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon - Nintendo 3DS
Offered by game-ware
Price: $43.99
12 used & new from $41.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A "Mystery" Worth Investigating, November 28, 2015
I've gotten a bit of a third wind when it comes to the Pokemon franchise as a whole.

When I was a kid, I lapped up pretty much anything and everything I could related to the series. The cards, the anime, the games, the toys, the bedspreads, the toothbrushes (really!)... I was obsessed, like most kids of my generation. I fell out of it until the beginning of high school, when a few of my friends got me hooked again, and I obsessively went to GameStop at each launch to buy both versions, even sleeping in my clothes and shoes one night so I could be ready as soon as I got up. Going into college, though, interest starting withering up again. I just felt like the series was repeating itself, and that not enough was really there to keep me going. I even wrote a super hipster blog post about it on my favorite gaming site. I was done for good... probably.

But now, as I'm writing this, I just got back from McDonald's, where I bought two of their new Pokemon Happy Meal toys; I've sunk a bunch of time in Pokemon Omega Ruby; and I'm even thinking of going back and trying to go through X and Y... on top of buying Torchic and Vulpix plushes. Part of the reason for this latest change in heart? Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon made it easy to fall in love with this series again.

Which is pretty odd, considering the other entries in Chunsoft's Mystery Dungeon line of spin-offs didn't really phase me. In fact, they were part of the reason that I started to care less and less about the franchise... on top of the fact that my ex-girlfriend was obsessed with it. But I digress: I've never thought they were really that great. Blue Rescue Team was probably the best one, though. It had a sense of whimsy, humor, and was hard in that way that was mostly not frustrating... at first blush, anyway.

But with each subsequent entry, it just got desperate. The plots got too bland, and were sprinkled with some of the worst narrative choices I could think of. The gameplay didn't evolve all that much, and in fact, got dumbed down from the first game. And then, Gates of Infinity hit, and that seemed to just be the end of it all. The ultimate in bland design, bad storytelling, and a sacrifice of the aesthetics that I'd grown fond of. It felt like the logical conclusion to the route Chunsoft had been taking the series.

Which is why, in many ways, Super Mystery Dungeon feels like a distinct attempt to reboot the franchise as opposed to continue it. Ken Sugimori's art is on the box again, instead of ugly 3D renders. The plot is back to being simple and cute, for the most part. And, most importantly, it all feels fresh again... yet familiar enough to satiate fans of the franchise.

See, the basic conceit, flow, and progression of a Pokemon Mystery Dungeon game are still here, and then some. You do a personality test, you get assigned a Pokemon, you realize that you're a human trapped in a Pokemon body, then you go on adventures with a companion. You'll wind up joining some sort of a guild that revolves around exploring dungeons, and you'll probably end up getting new companions, and interacting with the umpteen zillion different Pokemon that are in here. It's not too radical of a change.

The big change that makes it all work, though, is that the old rigmarole has gotten a fresh coat of paint slapped onto it, and quite a shiny coat to boot. Dialogue no longer straddles the uncomfortable line of "childishly simple" and "weirdly complicated," and instead, winds up being a really fun mixture of "gut-bustingly funny" and "microscopically epic." Yes, this is still distinctly a game for kids. It's about little children Pokemon going to school, getting into mischief, making friends, and having adventures. But the writing is snappier than ever before, with each Pokemon having their own distinct style of speech, and the stuff they say managing to make me constantly have a smile on my face, and even laugh out loud a few times. It's for kids in the same nostalgic, charming way that Peanuts is, and not in the cloying, obnoxious way that Family Circus is, in other words.

And that good dialogue has to carry the game for a while, because it definitely takes a bit for things to start going. A large portion of the early game revolves around very small excursions before finally, hours later, starting to dive into the bigger, more substantial stuff that revolves all the world's Legendary Pokemon getting turned to stone. Personally, I didn't mind this. Instead of being an everyday, ordinary Pokemon getting thrust into greatness, players have to slowly adopt the role of everyday, ordinary Pokemon, and then, after they get used to that, are forced to confront all the consequential, world-altering stuff. It gives the game a distinct sense of scale, which I admire. And after you finish the main brunt of the plot, the game really opens up, with tons to do, lots to see, and approximately seventy billion Pokemon to meet.

Even better, all of this isn't even a chore to get to. In fact, for the first time, I would hazard to say that a Mystery Dungeon game is actually fun. Stalwarts and diehards forgive me, but I've never totally understood the appeal. The "move around on a grid, die in one hit, then lose everything and about five hours of progress" approach has felt even more unforgiving than something From Software would cook up, and then some. Pokemon Mystery Dungeon, Shiren The Wanderer, Izuna (it's basically one)... I grow tired and just give up after a while. And as I can attest to with the later Pokemon-themed entries, making it easier doesn't fix it, either; it just makes it feel more tedious. I like the basic gameplay, but the flow eventually makes me irate.

Super Mystery Dungeon, however, manages to capture the spirit of the early hours of Blue Rescue Team, then keeps milking it for the entire game, much to my delight. Make no mistake, Chunsoft has cooked up another devilishly hard game, and have gone back to the strict "die and lose everything" formula. And yet, it doesn't feel discouraging. The field of movement feels much more fair. The enemies don't have massive difficulty spikes with each level of a dungeon. Your Pokemon's belly is the only one you have to worry about feeding. You can even use an item to save inside of dungeons now.

A lot of these tweaks may sound small, but they go a long way into making Super Mystery Dungeon an enjoyably challenging experience as opposed to a cheap exercise in frustration. It's a lot more fun to die and realize where I went wrong, and rest easy knowing I saved and stashed my items somewhere, as opposed to dying and losing everything and hating the game and hating myself and then smashing the cartridge against a rock. It's hard but rewarding, is what I'm trying to say.

Oh, and you can play as every starter Pokemon ever, too. That's pretty cool. You don't even have to use the one you get from taking the quiz, which is pretty much the only thing Gates to Infinity got right. I did, though. It feels lame not following through with the one the game gives me.


Basically, Super Mystery Dungeon's gameplay is a riff on the same stuff we've gotten from past entries, but it's a pretty major riff considering how little these games have changed from entry to entry. Every tweak, every addition, every minor feature seems like a calculated attempt at earning goodwill back from the most jaded of franchise devotees and the most dismissive of longtime critics. The result is a grid-based RPG with a great deal of depth, a nice flow, and a metric ton of content to keep players occupied for ages to come.

It's all really pretty, too. Of course, I still miss the 2D sprites, because I'm a sucker for good sprite-work, which all of the games pre-Gates had in spades. But it seems Chunsoft is firmly committed to taking the franchise in a polygonal direction, and at least this time, they've done it right. Everything is bright, colorful, happy, cheerful, and pretty much any other superlative in that vein. Textures are smooth and surprisingly detailed, too, bringing life to the expressive, bouncy character animations. To round it all out, there's a consistently smooth framerate the entire time, which is impressive considering how crisp everything looks, and a feat that no 3DS entry of the main Pokemon franchise has managed yet. Which is really sad, if you think about it.

The only real serious critique here is the music. As silly as this may sound to some, the music actually stands out to me in this game as mediocre, and even outright bad in extreme cases. This franchise has always had pretty great music, but this time around, it's all pretty generic, rote stuff that doesn't inspire much enthusiasm. Granted, it definitely gets better when more serious stuff starts happening, narrative-wise, but for the first major portion of the game, the soundtrack is just lame and forgettable, and feels childish in a distinctly obnoxious way.

And yet, that's a fairly minor knock when looking at the rest of the package. Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon is, as I said above, a soft reboot for the franchise. It took the core strengths of the early entries, then eliminated all of the excess growth that had latched onto subsequent games and fermented into bland moldiness. On top of that, it refined core mechanics that have desperately needed fine-tuning for over a decade at this point, and by proxy, pushed not only the Pokemon Mystery Dungeon series forward, but the entirety of the Mystery Dungeon brand as well.

Will people who hate this style of game suddenly fall in love with it? Nope. It's still very much its own thing, love it or hate it. But as somebody who's always loved the gameplay but hated everything else, I can firmly say that Pokemon Super Mystery Dungeon is a game that's not only the best in its series, but the very best (like no one ever was, even,) in its own style of gameplay. It's one of the better RPGs this year, and a solid game for both role-playing fans and Pokemaniacs alike.

If Nintendo keeps up games of this caliber, then count me as a Pokemon fan again for the foreseeable future.

- A fun, cute story that eventually turns into a whimsical epic.
- Great dialogue with memorable characters.
- Engaging, deep gameplay with a steep but fair challenge.
- Super cute art style with great visuals.

- Mediocre, and sometimes insipid, musical score.
- Won't do much to sway people who hate Mystery Dungeon games.

Score: 9

Rise of the Tomb Raider - Xbox One
Rise of the Tomb Raider - Xbox One
Price: $59.99
48 used & new from $48.49

21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars She Has Risen, November 12, 2015
Tomb Raider II is often considered to be the finest of Lara Croft's many adventures, and for good reason. Core Design took everything that worked with its 1996 landmark game, then polished it into an epic adventure that spanned the globe. Pretty much all of the weird little quirks, bugs, and things that just flat-out didn't work in the first game were gone, and what we were left with was one of finest video games to date. Speaking personally, there were action/adventure games before Tomb Raider II, and then there were ones after it. The difference was night and day. It was just that good.

Taking that into consideration, would it be fair to consider Rise of the Tomb Raider a new Tomb Raider II? It's a sequel to 2013's dynamite reboot, and a second step in the bold new direction that series started walking in. I only ask because I can't think of playing another game of this variety without inevitably comparing it to the sublime feat that Crystal Dynamics has achieved here.

But we're getting a little ahead of ourselves here. See, ever since Naughty Dog overhauled what people thought of as a typical "action/adventure" game in 2007, the once-revered Tomb Raider franchise began to struggle against its sleeker, more streamlined competition. Crystal Dynamics' half-response, Underworld, was undoubtedly a stellar game, and had some of the finest set pieces I've ever seen conceptualized. That said, something had to give. Despite a 2005 revamp, Tomb Raider's central dynamics and core design philosophies were still holding the game in the pass. Despite my fondness for them, there was no denying that what used to work was no longer marketable.

And then came 2013. Tomb Raider, a game I openly roasted pre-release, ended up garnering a perfect score from me, in a year already slammed with amazing games. Basically, it took everything that made Uncharted famous, then did it ten times better. Huge set pieces, blistering action, pitch-perfect shooting mechanics, a stellar plot... it really did have it all. Except... one thing. One thing, despite my love for it, did make me pine for the old days of the franchise. With the emphasis on fast-paced action, there was a general feeling of linearity to the whole thing. By emulating Uncharted, it also emulated that franchise's focus on big corridors as opposed the expansive worlds that Lara Croft was known for exploring.

Which makes it all too funny, then, that I spent the first few hours of Rise of the Tomb Raider remarking to myself, "it's too big!" And, indeed, the first thing one notices when booting up Crystal Dynamics' follow-up is that it's a truly huge game. Perhaps it doesn't have the map size of a Fallout or Elder Scrolls game, but what it lacks in square mileage, it makes up for with sheer amount of things to do, stuff to see, tiny nooks and crannies to scope out. Playing this in tandem with Fallout 4 over the course of this week, I've felt infinitely more pulled into Rise's world, and felt way more compelled to do all of the stuff here.

Perhaps that's because Crystal Dynamics has actually put the "adventure" back in "action/adventure" with this game. The genre has, as of late, become a modified sort of corridor shooter, just with pretty set pieces. At no point during any Uncharted game, or any of the countless imitators it spawned, did I feel like I was on an adventure of any sort. I just felt like I was shooting things in exotic locations. Same with Tomb Raider, to be honest.

But in Rise? I felt like I was a kid cracking open one of Lara Croft's adventures for the first time, all over again. The huge dungeons to pillage, the hidden traps to avoid, the tricky set pieces to scale... they're all back, and arguably better than ever. From start to finish, I never stopped feeling like I was a tiny, insignificant little speck in the face of everything that was around me. Considering that video games so often try to make players feel like the exact center of the known universe, it's a refreshing change of pace to feel out of your element, tiny in the face of something huge. To a minor extent, it's almost the same type of feeling Bloodborne instills in players. Totally different game, of course, but that mood of being something small trying to conquer something large is ever-present here, albeit to a slightly more restrained extent.

It's impressive that Crystal Dynamics makes Lara feel so tiny here, too, because this is perhaps the most deeply personal Tomb Raider game we've gotten since the almost-masterpiece that was Legend, from a narrative standpoint. In the 2013 game, Lara's characterization was good, but occasionally got downplayed in order to accommodate a fairly large cast. Here, she's front and center. Her upbringing, what drives her, what makes her keep going, how she feels about the crazy stuff that happens around her... it's all here, and the game is far better off for it. Camilla Luddington's performance as Lara is the best that the franchise has ever had, and helps the character balance the thin line between "legendary heroine" and "flawed human being" with the utmost perfection.

The excellent narrative helps too, of course. Rihanna Pratchett, a writer who I love but is certainly hit-or-miss, knocks it out of the park with Rise. It's a spicy blend of gritty survival drama, paranoid conspiracy thriller and otherworldly horror, all thrown into a blender and mixed to perfection. There are no jarring tonal shifts here. Somehow, gruff men in military outfits, otherworldly skeleton soldiers, a secret cult seeking to purify the world through genocide, and a quest for immortality all work together perfectly. Nothing feels out of place, and from the explosive start to the jaw-dropping finale that opens up the mythos like never before, I was hanging on every second in a way I didn't expect.

Speaking of "hanging," that's something you'll be doing quite a lot of in Rise, as expected. Hanging on ledges, hanging on ice axes, hanging on arrows, hanging on branches... lots of hanging. It's all really fun, though, because what you're hanging onto is often on the verge of crumbling between your fingers, blowing up, or some other horrible thing. What I'm basically trying to say is that, unlike a lot of games of this variety, in which "hang on a thing, then jump and hang on another thing" is a primary mechanic, the "climbing around" parts of Rise are probably the best out there. It never feels same-y or monotonous, or anything even close to that.

The same can be said of virtually every other gameplay mechanic, actually, It seems like Crystal Dynamics took every criticism of the previous game to heart and tweaked Rise into being the technically superior product. Shooting feels faster and less easy to rinse and repeat than it did in the 2013 game. Players get access to gear that lets them traverse the environment much, much earlier than last time. "Run while stuff explodes" sequences feel much more visceral and don't happen in a super heavy concentration, giving the whole game much more room to breathe. Oh, and platforming actually feels like platforming again; it's very not streamlined in some respects, and the result is a game that feels like it actually requires a degree of skill to pull off the climbing, jumping and other stuff that Lara has to do. It all just works, and works exceptionally well.

Which gave me some worry as the game opened up, actually. Would Lara being put in a quasi-sandbox limit the appeal of the gameplay? Would it feel out of place, in the same way that the open world in Metal Gear Solid V did? The answer is a resounding "no," because Crystal Dynamics wisely chose focus over breadth, and it pays off. There is definitely an open-world aspect to Rise of the Tomb Raider, but it has a distinct flow to it that your average open-world game does not. Instead of a big sprawl with stuff dotting it, the world feels like a cohesive little world that has several other, smaller worlds to go explore, each with their own distinct feeling. The feeling of the whole world is one of interconnectness, something that other games could learn a thing or two about.

Those "smaller worlds" I mentioned often (but not always) take the form of "Challenge Tombs," something introduced in the previous game. But those, while fun, were just small rooms with relatively simple puzzles at the center of them. Here, Challenge Tombs are whole other sections of the map, massive areas to traverse, fight through, and explore before you can even get to work on the puzzles housed within. Most of them are also hidden, too, which gives a huge sense of discovery and accomplishment when you stumble onto them. Imagine walking through a frozen forest, accidentally wandering through a cave, and then finding a weird crack in the wall. You squeeze through the crack, and suddenly, you're in a massive canyon, wind and snow whipping at you as you stand at the edge of a bottomless abyss, the sun glaring in your face. These are the kind of moments that make Challenge Tombs feel like crucial parts of the game world, and not just little diversions. They help build an atmosphere of discovery that was missing from the 2013 game, and hearkens back to the franchise's roots.

Only, unlike those early Tomb Raider entries, there is finally enough graphical horsepower available to render everything the creators can imagine in jaw-dropping detail, which is exactly what they've done here. I don't think it's any stretch to say that Rise of the Tomb Raider is the most graphically spectacular game of 2015, especially on a home console. The attention to detail here is truly impeccable, from sweeping vistas dotted with intricately detailed trees to tiny lines and scratches that accumulate on Lara's face. Environments, characters, enemies, and everything else all look flat-out incredible, almost to the point where I couldn't believe my eyes at times. For a game to capture realistic scenery and nuanced facial expression without treading into the uncanny valley is no small feat. It's also remarkable that the Xbox One is capable of housing such detailed visuals without the framerate slowing to a chug (see: The Witcher 3,) and yet, here we are, with a game that runs at a steady framerate and rarely (if ever, really,) dips below that. From both a graphical and performance standpoint, Rise of the Tomb Raider towers above every other console game this year, even impressive titles like Until Dawn or Assassin's Creed Syndicate.

It feels bad, almost, enjoying this game as much as I do. 2015 is almost over, and I've already doled out "perfect" scores to a few other titles this year, which is a far cry from 2014, in which barely any decent, let alone good, let alone great, games were released. Maybe that's a testament to how good gaming was this year. 2015 really has been kind to us, hasn't it?

And yet, I believe with full conviction that Rise of the Tomb Raider is perhaps the most innovative title this year in many ways. The "run while stuff blows up and then shoot stuff but also climb" type of video game is arguably the most popular type of third-person experience around now. Because of that, it's sort of stagnated, hasn't it? We've jump off cliffs. We've dashed between rooftops. We've surfed trains as they blew up beneath our feet. But hasn't it all gotten a little bit old? It's gotten so that whenever an Uncharted-esque title hits shelves, I sigh and play through it, not hating it, but not loving it either. Hell, even everything from Uncharted 4, so far, looks very much like stuff I've seen before. And this is speaking as a fan of that series.

Then along comes Rise of the Tomb Raider. A game that, for all intents and purposes, is the next logical step for the action/adventure genre. With years of games to pull from, Crystal Dynamics cherry-picked mechanics and put them here, refining them until they all played perfectly. Uncharted's climbing, The Last of Us' crafting and choice of how to approach combat, Tomb Raider's own archery system... they're all here, but all of them work better than they ever have. And then, the developer went the extra distance. They restored the Tomb Raider franchise back to its former state, to a sprawling, overwhelming adventure with lots to see and even more to do. A game that will, undoubtedly, take me hours to scrounge around in, poring through every inch of the map, scaling every last surface.

It's a huge game, both in scale and in what has been accomplished. It wouldn't be far from the truth, in fact, to call it "monumental." Because, for years, I will be comparing every game of this variety to Rise, and I suspect very few will even get within striking distance of it.

Back in 1997, sitting next to my dad and watching him play Tomb Raider II on our old iMac, I never dreamed that Lara Croft would be destined for bigger, better things. And yet she was. Rise of the Tomb Raider is her greatest outing yet, a game against which other games should be judged. And, for my money? It's one of the greatest games since the medium's inception.

Oh, and that Karen O song at the end is pretty toasty.

- A lengthy, engaging narrative.
- Fantastic, varied gameplay.
- Unforgettable set pieces.
- The most engaging Lara yet.
- Best visuals on the Xbox One, and of the year.
- Loads of content, all of it great.

- An optional mode that isn't a part of the main game has some form of microtransactions

Score: 10
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 24, 2015 7:46 PM PST

Call of Duty: Black Ops III - Standard Edition - Xbox One
Call of Duty: Black Ops III - Standard Edition - Xbox One
Price: $59.99
142 used & new from $44.54

6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Future Imperfect... But Still Pretty Great, November 9, 2015
It's November, so that means it's time for more Call of Duty. We've been doing this song and dance for almost a decade at this point, and it doesn't show any signs of slowing down. Treyarch's back in the saddle this time around, so that gives reason to be excited; the first Black Ops is one of the highest points of the franchise, and the follow-up introduced a remarkably fresh take on the single-player component of the series.

Five years after the initial entry in the sub-series, though, does Call of Duty: Black Ops III deliver the shot in the arm that last year's above-average Advanced Warfare did, or does it lazily slum it like 2013's embarrassing Ghosts?

The answer is to that question is another question: does Black Ops III really need to be a Call of Duty game at all?

That sounds rather negative, I'm aware, and that is sincerely not my intention. Honestly, I'm enjoying my time with Black Ops III, all told. It has a campaign that tries some new stuff. It has pretty stellar multiplayer. Its Zombie mode would be amazing if the online component wasn't functionally broken. As a package, it's a substantial one, and pretty much all of the stuff here is solid, some of it even exceptional.

But my larger question, I guess, is whether or not this needed to be a Call of Duty game in the first place. There are bits and pieces of this game that shine through and wow the player, and these are the components that are the most unconventional for the franchise. Let's take the campaign, for example. There's a whole intrigue narrative thread about "good guys gone rogue" and "political intrigue blah blah" that permeates the story. It's dully executed. I couldn't care less about it, in fact. It's something Call of Duty's done in virtually every "modern" game in the franchise.

And then you shoot robots. Or get torn limb by limb by robots. Or watch robots march out of the flames of a destroyed buildings. On top of that, there's a whole smattering of virtual reality, neural linking, and augmented reality stuff that plays a large part at the beginning and then in small helpings throughout the rest of the game. It's awesome. I love it, and want more of it. It's basically Terminator, in so many ways, and it's great.

Are you seeing the problem, then? One half of this game is the rote, boring, conspiracy thriller junk that's become a hallmark of all Call of Duty games. The other is a futuristic, post-apocalyptic techno-thriller blockbuster with robot armies and futuristic battleships. It's like two entirely different games have been smashed into each other, and that's just in one of the three modes. It's almost like Treyarch was a child in an art class, drawing a cool, beautiful, amazing thing, and then Activision, the state-appointed teacher, tapped them on the shoulder and said, "Mm-mm, Treyarch, remember, you still have to make this a Call of Duty campaign!"

As a consequence, what we have is part predictable junk, part exhilarating sci-fii action. It's entirely incongruous. Sometimes, I ended up walking away from the story feeling disappointed, jilted, and exasperated. Others, I didn't want to stop playing because, dang it, I really wanted to wreck some more robots. It never stopped swinging wildly between those two feelings, and I predict that many players won't have the patience to slog through the junk to get to the good stuff.

"But I never play the campaign," you might say. "Tell me about the multiplayer!"

Well, the good news is that this is probably the best that Call of Duty multiplayer has been since the original Black Ops. It's fast, furious, and full of an astonishing amount of customization... at least, as much as this series will let you be. You pick one of nine operatives, MOBA-style, each of whom have their own backstories, perks, appearances, so on, so forth. From there, it's the same sort of "play a lot, unlock stuff, specialize your character, max out your level, then prestige and do it all again, but differently this time."

Now, I actually do still like this system. It hasn't gotten old for me yet; it just has to be done well and tweaked, in a way that I wasn't entirely convinced Advanced Warfare pulled off, and in a way that Ghosts never came within striking distance of. But Treyarch has managed to make stuff interesting again. There is an impressive and astounding amount of freedom given to players when it comes to how they level up, how they want their loadouts, so on, so forth.

As far as the actual gameplay goes, Treyarch has done their best to perfect the formula while still adding in twists. Everything controls similarly to past games, and the same general strategies for success will carry you far. But it's the little things that make it count. Running on walls is in. Power slides are in. Class-exclusive perks are in. These additions to the formula, without diluting the basic core of what makes that formula work, make Black Ops III not only feel like a well-oiled machine, but one with plenty of bells and whistles to impress longtime players.

That said? Those bells and whistles are impossible to bring up without mentioning another game: Titanfall. Almost everything that Treyarch "introduces" here is lifted wholesale from Respawn's fantastic 2014 shooter, and frankly, that's really disappointing. The developer had an opportunity to try genuinely new things, in the same way that Sledgehammer did last year. Instead, they just cribbed something from another game, and honestly did it in a far more linear and restricted fashion than Respawn here. There's not nearly as much variety in terms of strategy and map selection in Black Ops III; it feels like a pared-down Titanfall shoved into Call of Duty maps. Your mileage may vary depending on how appealing that description sounds to you.

So, all-in-all, multiplayer is good. It's fun, I've put a lot of time into it, and I suspect that I'll put several more hours into it over the coming months. For the first time, I've even considered partaking in the Season Pass, as I definitely enjoy what's on tap here. While, yes, it's a tempered sort of enjoyment, and yes, I do think the cribbing of elements from Titanfall is pretty low, there's no denying that, as a whole, it's very fun and super addictive.

While I'd like to say some stuff about Zombies, I really can't. I've tooled around in single-player, and I liked that alright, but this mode shines with multiple people. Unfortunately, Activision didn't get the memo, because as of right now, matchmaking of any sort is functionally broken, preventing any sort of online multiplayer whatsoever in this mode. I have tried, quite literally, several dozen times to get games going or join other games to get an impression of how it worked (hence why this review is late,) before giving up in frustration. Launching a game in which one-third of the package just flatout doesn't work is kind of awful.

You'd think with Destiny's disaster of a launch, Activision would have learned its lesson, right?

But unlike that game, Black Ops III has a major saving grace that bumps it up above many, many games on the market right now: local multiplayer. Yes, every single mode in this game has couch co-cop, and it's wonderful. The campaign, Zombies, and the online multiplayer all have split-screen capability, meaning that there are literal hours upon hours of content here for you and your buddy/significant other/knitting club to dive into. In a marketplace where developers are prioritizing 60 FPS over fun with a friend, it's a godsend that Treyarch remembers what really matters when making a video game.

And I think, overall, that says it best about Call of Duty: Black Ops III. There are some flaws here, for sure, and some elements that hold the entire package back from perfection, not to mention bits that are cribbed from competition. But Treyarch, a veteran studio with almost two decades under their belt, has been around the block hundreds of times by now. They know what gaming enthusiasts care about, and it's all here. Fast action, lots of content, and a ton of stuff to do with friends, either online or on your couch.

Despite niggling imperfections, coupled with a desire to see Treyarch do something that isn't a game in this franchise, Call of Duty: Black Ops III is an average game in some areas, and an amazing one in others. When you throw it all together, though, you've got an overall very good game that's got something for nearly everyone.

- Local multiplayer for everything.
- The most polished multiplayer in years.
- Half a great campaign.
- Heaps upon heaps of content.
- It's like Terminator, and I like Terminator.

- Liberal cribbing of Titanfall mechanics.
- The other half of the campaign is mediocre.
- Zombies online component is busted as of now.
- A visual mixed-bag, as some parts look jarringly bad.

Score: 8.5

Assassin's Creed Syndicate - PlayStation 4
Assassin's Creed Syndicate - PlayStation 4
Price: $51.94
116 used & new from $34.99

17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars London Calling, October 27, 2015
If there's one thing I'm almost always up for, it's trash-talking Assassin's Creed. That sounds a bit bitter and vindictive, sure, but we're talking about a series built on broken promises and unfulfilled potential, yet one that is perennially defended as "innovative" and "educational," both of which it only is occasionally. Sure, there are some fantastic games in the series. I count Black Flag among the best open-world titles ever released, and Liberation has one of gaming's most interesting female protagonists. The first one, practically a retro game at this point, even holds a special place in my heart.

That said, the series almost ran itself into the ground last year with the release of Unity. To date, it is one of the most embarrassing, laughable pittances of a AAA game ever dropped onto the market, and it seemed that even some of the most diehard fans were put off by the abhorrent lack of quality displayed there. It would have been wise, then, to maybe nix the whole "crank out a game every year" thing and take some time to figure out what went wrong. But Ubisoft didn't have time for that. So here we are again, less than a year later, with Assassin's Creed Syndicate.

This time, though? I actually quite love it.

It isn't for lack of trying to go in with a healthy dose of cynicism, I can tell you that much. As awful as this sounds, part of me wanted another excuse to go on a tangent about Ubisoft, to rail against annual releases, to tear into the same-ness of AAA titles. Alas, I'll have to get my ya-ya's out about that elsewhere, because as it stands, Assassin's Creed Syndicate is a stellar video game, warts and all.

Even the narrative, one of the historically weakest parts of the franchise, tries some new hats on and took me by surprise. Yeah, we've got the Templar and Assassin conflict still waging, Abstergo still doing evil corporation things, a cocky male lead in the middle of it, so on, so forth. But this time, there's a welcome breath of fresh air in terms of narrative variety and depth. Twins Evie and Jacob Frye travel to London to carry on their father's legacy and take down the Templars, then find themselves forced to start a fearsome gang in order to topple the Templar-backed crime syndicate known as the Blighters, who practically govern all of the city and the surrounding territories.

This time around, however, there is a distinct lack of the old "one person against the world" hat that this series has historically loved. More so than even the heavily ensemble-based Black Flag, Syndicate's narrative is driven by a stellar cast of characters who are among the most memorable in a title this year. Aside from the compelling leads, the rogue's gallery of original characters and historical figures assembled here is a dynamite one, not to mention relatively diverse. It's a blast to blow up factories with a wise-cracking Charles Darwin, or to hijack a train with the aid of Ned Wynert, the franchise's first transgender character. From body types to genders to backgrounds, the only diversity checkbox left unchecked here is pretty much the racial one, and even then, it says more about the time period (Victorian London) than it does any racial prejudice on part of the developers. For Assassin's Creed to have more than gruff men and a few token sexy women comprising its roster is a welcome change from most of the past entries, and it's an exciting step in a more progressive direction for the franchise as a whole.

The effect this diverse and interesting cast has on the overall story is a positive one, and makes it into one of the more authentic, genuine entries in the series. With Unity, III, and pretty much any game with Altair or Ezio, we only got to see the emotional journeys of the protagonists, who were often presented as stoic moral pillars, and were typically as generic and flat as Sunbeam Bread. Here, we get to see Evie and Jacob butt heads. We get an insight into how the rest of the cast factors into the larger conspiracy of the plot. We get both an in-depth exploration of the time period and a glimpse into how this story fits into the grand scheme of the canon (there are several interesting callbacks to past games here.) And, on top of all that, we get some of the best bits of the whole "future" meta-narrative that have been in the series thus far, which actually present us with compelling, interesting modern-day characters that are easy to start caring about.

From a narrative standpoint, Syndicate is a definite high point for the franchise, and is of such a high quality that I genuinely hope Ubisoft can pull a hat trick and not start slumming it again next year.

Speaking of slumming it, that was probably my biggest fear for this game in terms of gameplay: an unwelcome repetition of old mechanics that grow stale after the first few hours. And, make no mistake, Syndicate does very little to rock the boat in terms of gameplay. This still controls and acts very much like what we expect from an Assassin's Creed game in 2015. Free-running, air assassinations, some novelty form of transportation (horse-drawn carriages here,) free-flowing combat, some ranged combat, yada yada yada.

That said? It works better here than it has in the past, and personally, I feel like it represents a honing of fundamentals for the franchise. Unity tried too much stuff and did it all horribly. Black Flag had an amazing world and great navigation mechanics hampered by some unpolished combat and finicky gunplay. Pretty much anything before those games had their own niggling little flaws too. Here, it feels like a developer has finally nailed what it takes to make this franchise work. Outside of the occasional "why in the world would you jump off of that in that way" issues, everything works like a dream here, especially the smooth and polished combat, and the fun, fast zipline mechanic. Navigating the world and beating down thugs, not to mention assassinating targets, works with barely any hang-ups.

Also, I must say it was wise for the more elaborate, Hitman-esque stealth assassinations from Unity to be retained here. There's a certain charm to navigating large arenas and discovering bonus, silly ways to take out targets. For instance, it's much more fun to pretend to be a corpse and kill a doctor in the middle of an operating theater than it is to just storm in, swords swinging, and take him out with brute force. Much more polished than they were in their initial introductions, these elaborate kills add a great deal of charm to the overall experience.

That charm is easier to enjoy in Syndicate, too, because the game doesn't perform like trash. Everything looks stunning, outside of some of my usual complaints of Ubisoft games (no dynamic reflections, questionable distance draw, etc.,) and runs at a respectable frame rate. No, it's definitely not 60 FPS (at least on consoles,) but with how much stuff is often going on at once in Syndicate, that's pretty acceptable. And considering that the last game operated at around 10-15 FPS for a month or two after its launch, it's a major improvement.

Insofar, I realize that a lot of my praise for Assassin's Creed Syndicate has sounded pretty backhanded, and I apologize for that. Overall, I really do think this is a pretty great game. It's not going to set the world on fire in terms of gameplay, no, nor does it really do much to stray from the patented "Ubisoft Open-World Game" progression mold. That said, it does all of that relatively rote stuff very, very well, and is paced in such a way that actually makes me feel motivated to not only progress through the story, but to go out of my way to do all the side activities, which are all engaging and entertaining in their own right. In other words, yeah, it's very much what we all expected in many respects, but done so well that I don't particularly mind.

What really sets this one apart is the little things. The ability to switch between Jacob and Evie. The excellent roster of characters. The engaging and memorable set-pieces. The in-depth upgrade system. The merciful lack of aggressive immersion-breakers like reminders for micro-transactions and companion apps. The overall atmosphere of Victorian London. All of these things add to a solid, if somewhat predictable, package, resulting in a game that is half "pretty good," half "astonishing."

Assassin's Creed Syndicate represents a sort of compromise. It's still firmly rooted in its increasingly archaic systems of progression and navigation, yet shows a distinct willingness to try out a lot of new, polished mechanics that have managed to suck me in and keep wanting more. It's the best Assassin's Creed since Black Flag, and I daresay the second-best in the franchise next to that one.

Here's hoping Ubisoft keeps putting out games that work as well as this one. Or, you know. Work in general.

Hey, I needed to get that shot in somewhere.

- A dynamic, immersive world.
- A roster of memorable characters.
- Stellar aesthetics and music.
- Solid gameplay that satisfies.

- Still stubbornly rooted in series traditions.
- Feels very much like an "Ubisoft Open World" experience.
- Horse-drawn carriages are often more janky than fun.
- Has some pretty jarring glitches at times.

Score: 9
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 28, 2015 10:31 AM PDT

The Legend of Legacy - Nintendo 3DS
The Legend of Legacy - Nintendo 3DS
Price: $39.90
31 used & new from $30.00

4 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Legendary, October 14, 2015
It's been a while since we had something that felt like a classic, quality JRPG, with no pandering to a demographic hungry for skimpy costumes, no attempts to make the genre seem "accessible" and "modern," and no glorified teen angst wrapped in a billion convoluted nonsense words. Just a vast fantasy world to explore and grind levels through, full of challenges and mysteries. The market's hurting for more titles like that.

Now, after several bosses and dozens of deaths, and with only a fraction of the sprawling map uncovered, I can say in full certainty that The Legend of Legacy is everything I want in a classic Japanese role-playing experience... and then some.

In this game, nothing is made readily apparent to the player. The narrative, where to go, how to progress, how a map is laid out, what enemies to avoid... almost everything is obfuscated behind a thick cloud of smoke, and from behind it, you can practically hear a voice screaming, "figure it out!"

From a narrative standpoint, this might seem like a risky approach to take, but it ends up working in the game's favor. Choosing from one of seven different protagonists, players have to navigate the story by talking to other characters, exploring every inch of every map, and do a bit of guesswork to figure out what, exactly, is happening. Each narrative overlaps with the other, and players can recruit the other protagonists into their party as they go on. While selectively learning about each character's varying motivations, details about the mysterious land of Avalon, its tumultuous past, and uncertain future trickle into the story, weaving thin bits of silk into the narrative until players are left with a rich, complex, colorful tapestry.

Perhaps a game that lacks the emotional gut-punches of a Final Fantasy or the interpersonal drama of a Persona could be considered behind the times, but I never got that feeling here. The lack of detail and overall focus on world-building here feels like a deliberate choice, and it pays off by crafting a world that I felt genuinely sucked in to, perhaps more than any other title this year.

Aiding that emphasis on exploration and discovery is a system of progression that is downright ingenious. Instead of telling players where to go, and how to get there, and what to do once they arrive, The Legend of Legacy is content to simply sit back and say, "eh, do whatever." Skip an entire dungeon and head straight for a boss area, or meticulously track down every sub-boss and item to prepare yourself. Grind levels on hordes of enemies or find items that buff you for big fights. While, yes, there is a very, very loose structure that you're supposed to follow, how you build upon that structure is up to you. By buying a map in the hub town, you gain access to a whole new area, and you're free to go exploring. That's that. The world is, essentially, yours for the taking.

This approach is part of the reason that this game works so well. So many RPGs, particularly recent ones hailing from Japan, boast vast plains and wide oceans to explore, but so few actually capture the joyful, addictive feeling of risk-and-reward exploration and discovery. This game is one of the few. At no point has the illusion of Avalon being a real place been broken for me, and I suspect that moment won't ever come. Ruins, forests, valleys, fields and more are contained on this tiny cartridge, and rendered with more care and attention than perhaps any other title on the console, even the deservedly popular, exploration-focused Etrian Odyssey franchise. It's a genuine joy to explore every level, which in turn fills out a map for you to sell in town for a high price. So, not only is exploring each new place fun, it's lucrative.

Within all of these places are enemies, of course, and the way you tackle them is a delicious blend of old-school strategy and new-school innovation. A three-person party goes into battle against up to five enemies, and from the outset, players pick the positioning of the characters. You can stand in the traditional horizontal line formation, bracing everybody for full offense, or put one character in front of the others to sponge up any oncoming damage. You pick up more formations as you progress, and as the characters train in certain roles, they become more accustomed to them.

I say "accustomed" because in The Legend of Legacy, the traditional "leveling" system has been thrown out the window in favor of a more specialized approach. There are no "levels" for each character, per se; instead, stats and attacks of each character become leveled up individually based on how one plays the game. If a character uses a sword a lot, they're going to learn more sword moves; the more they use those moves, the stronger those moves get. And if a character acts as a damage sponge for the entire party, they're able to block more moves and soak up more hits, their HP and Defense boosting accordingly.

This system is brilliant. In a wealth of role-playing games, characters either gain arbitrary levels and players root through stats screens to figure out what a character is good at, or players use attribute points to stat out a character however they want. Both of these are great systems when used right, and I'm not trying to knock them in any way. That said, seeing a developer take the initiative to deviate from the norm is refreshing, and the fact that it works in such an intuitive, substantial way is significant. Taking an older style of gameplay and reframing it in a new way is no easy task, yet that's exactly what FuRyu has done here.

It's a good thing, too, that the core gameplay is so tight and intuitive, because some of the challenges facing players are downright heinous at first glance. Seemingly minor threats will wipe a party of characters out without a second thought, and boss encounters will often happen out of the blue, no foreshadowing whatsoever. But thankfully, players can save the game anywhere, at anytime, and it's a feature I'd encourage anyone to use liberally. One save can mean the difference between a fun challenge and a frustrating exercise in backtracking.

Even when your entire party doesn't wipe, however, it's still best to try your hardest to keep everyone alive, thanks to a Dark Souls II-esque health penalty system. See, your party will start at full health at the outset of every battle, but if a character falls in that battle, their max HP gets bumped down a notch until you go back into town and rest up at the inn. If that character keeps dying, their health will keep getting decreased, eventually reaching a comically low level, until restoration.

This, on top of the core difficulty, has lead to many critics deriding The Legend of Legacy as "too hard." Personally? I find anyone who says that to be utterly full of it. "Too hard" has never, isn't, and will never be a legitimate complaint, at least as far as I'm concerned. There's "obliquely designed," "mechanically unsound," and about a billion other things you can say, but "too hard" translates to "I wasn't good at it and therefore it's bad" in my book.

None of those above terms apply to this game, either. The challenge in The Legend of Legacy comes purely from the game's staunch refusal to handhold and coddle players, instead opting to throw them in and force them to formulate their own strategies, cultivate their own strengths, overcome their own weaknesses. It's a game that isn't insurmountable, just stubborn.

But out of that stubbornness comes some of the most rewarding experiences in my recent gaming career. For example, I ran into the first major boss really early on in the game. It completely wrecked me, and every time I came back, it took me out in a new, surprising, and disheartening way, without fail. Each time, I left the area and explored, charting new maps, getting new equipment, learning new strategies. By that fifth or sixth time, I came back to the boss, ready for a fight. I got exactly what I came for. Even though I was properly leveled, probably overleveled, the boss kept me on my toes. I couldn't just tank through with strength alone. I needed to think. I needed to plan. Slipping into a steady rhythm, and almost wiping a few times, I finally managed to take it out.

That several hour attempt at cracking the code for defeating a boss, learning its secrets, schooling myself on the lore behind it, gathering items that could reverse its attacks... it's very telling of the type of player The Legend of Legacy demands. It's only for the most attentive and patient players, the type of person who doesn't want to just breeze through a game and move on to the next one. It demands your attention in every possible way, and if you give it anything less than your undivided focus, you're doing a grave disservice to the experience as a whole. It's not "too hard." It's not "repetitive." It's a demanding, challenging, intricate game, the type of experience that we rarely get these days, and certainly not from a full-price retail game.

In a marketplace where developers scramble to try and figure out how to make games more accessible, more able to be easily played through, FuRyu has stood up, put its foot down, and said, "forget it," producing a challenging, complex, engaging piece of interactive art. From top to bottom, it's a nuanced and dense experience, all at once. This, coupled with some truly stellar music and a gorgeous art direction, makes The Legend of Legacy one of this year's best titles, and perhaps one of the best role-playing games I've ever played.

- A dense, intricate world to unravel and discover.
- Diverse roster of playable characters.
- Gameplay that's both complicated and intuitive.
- Steady but totally fair difficulty curve.
- Truly masterful soundtrack.
- Heaps upon heaps of content.

- Occasional framerate drops in big battles.
- Not an easy game for people just getting into RPGs.

Score: 10

Chibi-Robo!: Zip Lash with Chibi-Robo amiibo bundle - Nintendo 3DS
Chibi-Robo!: Zip Lash with Chibi-Robo amiibo bundle - Nintendo 3DS
Price: $39.99
52 used & new from $30.62

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Plug It In, Plug It In, October 12, 2015
Chibi Robo's had a bit of a hard time fitting into the gaming world, despite being as cute as a button. His first game was printed in small quantities and sold pretty badly, thus making it a bit of a collector's item these days. There was a Wal-Mart-exclusive DS follow-up about parks, and a 3DS AR game on top of that, but neither really struck the right chord with the general populace. The open-world housecleaning simulators have fared better in Japan, but not by much.

And now we're here. A 3DS side-scrolling action platformer, which is very telling of Nintendo's desperation to make the little guy relevant in some way, shape, or form. Thing is, despite seeming to be a very bog-standard platforming game on the surface, skip ltd. managed to throw in a heaping helping of its signature quirkiness... for better or worse.

Chibi-Robo!: Zip Lash finds the titular robot in outer space, polishing a spaceship with a toothbrush, when aliens suddenly invade Earth and start messing things up. Luckily, they're around the same size as the little duder, so he can toe-to-toe with them pretty easily. Plus, he's got a sick new power in the form of his plug, which can be grown to long lengths and used as a whip, grappling hook, and general projectile. Along with the help of a talking TV buddy, he'll go through six different worlds, trying to stop the aliens from doing alien stuff. Oh, and from stealing all the world's snacks. That's pretty rude, you know.

As you've probably guessed, Zip-Lash's focus isn't really on the plot, and that's totally fine. You're a little robot and you've got a job to do. Really, what more do you need to know? If that hasn't sold you on the premise, then nothing else here is likely to sway you.

As with most platformers, the real draw here is the gameplay, and from a mechanical standpoint, Zip Lash is quite an impressive little romp. Aside from the usual "jump on a thing, jump over a thing, don't fall don't a pit to your death" shenanigans, there are novel tweaks that come in the form of Chibi Robo's plug. The mechanics thrown in here can only really be described as a weird mix between Bionic Commando and Castlevania, with their own little flourishes added in for good measure.

Players will find themselves whipping the plug in classic Belmontesque fashion to knock enemies out of their way and to topple bosses, then using it to grapple up to ledges and swing across chasms. Then, once the cord is grown a bit, it can be thrown and ricocheted off of walls, usually to hit switches, solve puzzles or grab hidden items. It's a neat little trick that I haven't really seen in a game before. All things considered, all the mechanics work how they should and how one would want them to, which leads to one of the smoother Nintendo platformer outings in recent memory, not to mention one of the most original.

If only, then, the package as a whole was a bit more conducive to enjoying the mechanics, as opposed to bogging players down with pointless gimmicks that only seem to serve the purpose of extending gameplay length. As mentioned above, there are six worlds, and within them, six levels plus a boss. But instead of just, you know, actually going to those levels, players are forced to spin a wheel determining how many spaces they will go on a circular map, which determines what level they'll go to.

"But wait," you say, "what happens if I land on a level I've already gone through?" And therein lies Zip Lash's most glaringly obnoxious flaw: you have to play through the same level again. There's no skip option. There's no way to pass over. And you only get a limited number of spins on the wheel. As the game progresses, the levels get a bit longer and more involved, so the prospect of being forced to go through them again is more than a bit annoying.

While, yes, it's totally possible to use in-game currency to "buy" the numbers you need, then manually put them on the wheel, the fact that it's even a mechanic in the first place is a bit confusing. What exactly is the purpose? I get wanting players to go back through levels again and finding more stuff, because there are definitely reasons to do that in Zip Lash. But gently forcing us? That almost makes me not want to, if only out of spite.

Other aspects are confusingly delivered as well. For example, this game's been touting amiibo integration, and even comes bundled with one, which is really cute and probably my favorite yet. But as far as actual utilization, it's fairly weak. Once a day, you can tap a Chibi-Robo amiibo to your 3DS (or NFC reader,) and then presto, you've got access to Super Chibi-Robo... for one level. Then you have to wait to the next day, a la Kirby and the Rainbow Curse. Other amiibo can be used, but only to get extra coins for a capsule machine, which lets you unlock in-game toys. Which, yeah, is better than nothing, but in the wake of the great integration found in, say, Super Mario Maker, it just feels a bit unsubstantial and pithy.

While, yes, the overall structure that houses the gameplay is a bit faulty, the trimmings are least pretty nice. That is to say, the visuals and music are both pretty stellar. Most impressive to me is the expressiveness present in the animations and worlds. Everything is vibrant and colorful, friends and foes alike have fluid, bouncy motion, and the backgrounds have a very distinct, sort-of blocky look to them. When combined with the steady framerate, the visuals are a winner. The music is also great, all of it perky, happy, and fitting the mood of wherever the player is and whatever they happen to be doing.

Despite my initial impressions of this being an insubstantial, derivative platformer, Chibi-Robo!: Zip Lash is, all told, a pretty good time, and one of the more interesting titles to come out of the Big N in a while. It takes a lot of invigorating risks, and while there are some annoying setbacks that make it hard to recommend to a more casual audience, platforming enthusiasts and lovers of quirky, fun, different things will find a great deal to love here.

- Original, novel gameplay.
- Big levels with lots to do.
- A quirky, Katamari-esque vibe.
- Nice visuals and audio.
- Fills that Bionic Commando void a bit.

- Baffling progression system.
- A bit oblique for a casual audience.
- Lackluster amiibo integration
- A collectathon at heart, which some may not like.

Score: 7.5

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 - Standard Edition - PlayStation 4
Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 - Standard Edition - PlayStation 4
Offered by P & B Store
Price: $39.99
72 used & new from $24.68

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Robomodo Does It Again!, October 7, 2015
I'm not entirely sure what compelled me to actually try playing Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5. It's been covered by every major outlet. We all know it's a bad game. But I've never been content just knowing a game is bad. I need to experience it for myself, especially when it comes to a franchise I care about. That's why I've suffered through Sonic The Hedgehog (the one everyone calls "Sonic '06") to the end: I love that series, and I'll follow it into the rankest bottoms of the video trash pile out of misguided obligation.

But the thing about Sonic The Hedgehog, another infamously bad game, is that... well, at least it was going places. At least it tried something. That's more than I can say for this game. Because honestly, the only place this was ever going was face-first into the pavement.

Yeah, I just said this game is worse than what's often considered the worst of the worst, and I mean it in full sincerity. After spending several hours with the thing, I'm just frustrated. Frustrated, confused, hurt, angry, jilted... all of the emotions one usually feels after a fight with a loved one. Except this time, it's a fight with the Hawkman himself. Why would you do this to me, Tony? Why would you hurt me like this?

That's what Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 is: an embodiment of hurt and grief. It even starts off with a brief glimmer of hope, to draw you in, to make you feel comfortable. The first few tricks, the first halfpipe you hit, the first manual... it all starts coming back to you. Long weekends and late nights spent perfecting combos and trying to grind on everything back in the halcyon days of your youth, in the early 2000's. But it's a fleeting, brief sensation.

What follows can be described in multiple ways. Awful. Disgraceful. Broken. A dirty disgrace to all of humanity that should grind itself right into a landfill. The overarching point, though, is that it's a truly wretched little heap of a game, because those first few tricks are the only ones it knows. Everything else is layer upon layer upon god forsaken layer of padding. It just smacks of desperation and lack of ideas. You practically hear it defecating itself with fear as you keep playing. "Collect a thing! Do these tricks! Beat this time! Oh, you did? You're... you're serious? You played past the first level? Y-You're gonna keep going? Well, uh, I guess... I mean, just do it all again. Maybe knock some stuff over too? Uh, here's a power-up, I guess!"

That literally describes everything you do in Pro Skater 5. The objectives are recycled, regurgitated on half-finished maps, expecting to be lapped up by somebody, anybody, too stupid to see that you're doing the same thing with each passing hour of your life. It doesn't matter if the mission's name is some horrible pun related to the current stage. It's the same. It's all the freaking same, and there's pretty much no variation past the first two stages, on top of the game being entirely unfun.

It's all just a very sad collection of depressing trash.

Even more depressing is that you can see the game attempting to end its own wretched existence the more you play. I mean, why else would it keep actively breaking itself when you try to do simple tasks, like ollying or grinding? See... Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5 is not only a very bad game, with copious amounts of repetition carried out across a handful of abhorrent stages with slippery controls, but it's a fundamentally broken one. During my time with the game, my character flew off their board, twenty or thirty feet through the air, for no particular reason. I ragdolled and clipped through a pole after falling off my skateboard, mid-trick, for no apparent reason. I nudged a wall and my board flew out of existence, into the ether, as my character fell to the bottom of a swimming pool, limp, numb, screaming internally as they cursed their fate for not being able to move like a normal human being with basic motor skills.

You've seen videos of this game by now, I'd assume, but it doesn't do justice to how bad it really, truly is. The framerate dips to sub-atomic levels. Wrecks will just occur with no rhyme or reason. Your character will fall through the world. Everything about this game is busted, from top to bottom.

What else is there to say, really? The soundtrack is terrible and repetitive. The graphics are a laughable orgy of jagged textures, muddy colors and egregious product placement. The online integration is pointless and barely works. It's pretty clear that, in every department, this was something squirted out, with minimal effort, because Activision is losing the Tony Hawk license this year. Nothing about it is redeeming. It's not a "diamond in the rough." It's not "underrated." It's not "misunderstood." No amount of patching can hide the plain and simple fact that this is, irrevocably, an abhorrent game that has no right to exist, let alone have an asking price of sixty dollars.

I'm quite aware that this isn't my normal review structure, and in many ways, is an unprofessional rant. But for a game like Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 5, an unprofessional temper tantrum of a game by a developer who has never cared about this franchise from day one, it seems appropriate. Don't waste your money, or time, or mental energy on this disemboweled carcus of a once-hallowed franchise.

- Activision will lose the Tony Hawk license soon.
- Robomodo will never touch this franchise again.
- Maybe somebody will Kickstart a spiritual successor.
- People will finally realize that Project 8 is actually not a bad game.
- Ride and Shred no longer look that bad

- Everything related to this game.

Score: 0

Persona 4: Dancing All Night - PlayStation Vita Standard Edition Edition
Persona 4: Dancing All Night - PlayStation Vita Standard Edition Edition
Price: $39.90
44 used & new from $39.90

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Save The Last Dance, October 4, 2015
Has it really been seven years since Persona 4 came out? I guess so, in Japan anyways. To me, it feels like it's never stopped coming out, if that makes any sense. What was originally a beautiful swan song for the PS2 became a multi-media franchise, branching off from the main Shin Megami Tensei series and becoming its own beast altogether.

In the wake of that, we've gotten six separate games, three manga series, two anime series (plus a film,) and a whole slew of merchandise. Not only that, but other entries in the MegaTen brand have become more and more tailored to fans of P4, to the point where the entire DNA of the franchise has become fundamentally altered. At this rate, I wouldn't be surprised if I open Persona 5 and there's just a disc that says "Persona 4 Golden HD Edition."

Anyway. This is where it allegedly all ends: a rhythm game. How a brutally unforgiving role-playing game with a nuanced and emotionally riveting narrative got turned into a Vita-exclusive rhythm game, I'll never know, but hey, here we are. Persona 4: Dancing All Night is many things. A visual novel. A rhythm game. A canonical sequel to Persona 4. But above all? It's another chance for Atlus to let their prized goose lay one more golden egg. Only, this time, that egg isn't nearly as special or shiny as the first six.

That isn't to say that Dancing All Night is necessarily a bad game, because it isn't. It's pretty solid stuff, actually, and a fun rhythm game in a marketplace desperately needing more of those. We even get an entirely new narrative that's pretty meaty and offers a nice excuse to get reacquainted with the characters we've grown to love over the years. We find the cast getting mixed up in the high-stakes world of the Japanese pop idol scene, and getting sucked into yet another creepy, twisted parallel universe inside of an electronic device (a website this time.) See, the idols of an oddly-themed group get sucked into the website by a mysterious assailant for... reasons. Only, this time, players can't fight the demons that populate the place for... more reasons.

I'll be blunt: this is probably the stupidest story I've seen in a Persona game, and maybe even a Shin Megami Tensei game in general, which means that I'm basically saying the gleefully campy and narratively absurd Soul Hackers has a better story. Not only does it retread a lot of the same beats that were touched on by Persona 4, it does so in a dull, trite, and unremarkable way. The game's attempts at wit fair a bit better, and there are definitely some fun bits of dialogue between fan-favorite characters, but even then, most of the writing just feels shallow, and definitely not compelling enough for extended playing.

Part of that may very well be in the presentation. Because this isn't, in fact, a role-playing game, the narrative isn't progressed through a balanced system of text boxes, menus, and exploring the world, but rather in a more traditional visual novel fashion. That is to say, in a way that is incredibly dull unless the narrative and dialogue are compelling. Which in this case, they aren't, and so the entire narrative suffers from being unremarkable in both writing and presentation. Even the animated cutscenes aren't particularly interesting, thanks in part to rather unremarkable animation.

Some people may jump down my throat for critiquing the narrative in what was always going to be a silly game, but that's just it: the game doesn't treat the concept as if it's silly. Everything ends up getting played very po-faced, once the main brunt of the narrative kicks into high gear, and that just doesn't work. Persona 4 dealt with heavy topics such as toxic masculinity, homophobia, gender identity, and the caustic side-effects of misogyny. In Dancing All Night, a canonical follow-up, the powerful ending to that game is undercut, and any sort of real narrative complexity is dropped in favor of a toothless romp through the world of Japanese idols and demon fighting.

Why, then, would I still contend that this is a pretty good game? That lies in the main meat of the package: the rhythm game itself. Developed by key staff behind the popular and fun Project DIVA franchise, the main component and draw of this entry is some really fun stuff. The screen layout is fairly unique, as there are three icons on each side of the screen, and prompts flow out from the middle of the screen, gravitating towards the icons to be hit in time with the music. There are also optional prompts in the form of flicks of the analogue sticks that replicate record scratches, which are prompted by rings that also flow out from the middle. It's a really novel layout, and much less cluttered than Project DIVA can get at times, while still maintaining the frantic speed that I like about that franchise.

Good mechanics don't mean anything without good music to jam out to, though, and unsurprisingly, the music here is all top-notch. Not only do we get tracks directly from Persona 4, but we also get a slew of remixes and some tracks from the animated incarnations of the game. The biggest advantage here, of course, is that Shoji Meguro is one of the best living composers, video games or no, and so his original score is still incredible seven years later. On top of that, the remixes are all top-notch. In particular, Akira Yamaoka (the famed Silent Hill composer,) Yuu Miyake (Katamari Damacy) and Norihiko Hibino (Metal Gear Solid) lend some stellar takes on tracks. Everything here is pleasant to listen to and fun to play.

Only... I wish there were a bit more to play. Maybe that's a bit petty, asking for more of a good thing, but I would hazard to say not. There are only a little over 25 tracks here, and as far as rhythm games are concerned, that's sort of unacceptable. Hatsune Miku Project Mirai DX, which launched a few weeks ago, has close to fifty, on top of a ton of ancillary content to keep you busy. Here, we've got the songs, a story mode, and some unlockable costumes... oh, and a whole spate of DLC that launched with the game. Fun. Oh, and did I mentioned quite a few of the songs are remixes of songs that already have remixes in Dancing All Night? That's pretty obnoxious.

But still, the music is pretty great, and the visuals are among the best on the Vita. Loading times are brief, songs have a lot of replay value (outside of a truly idiotic scoring system that barely makes sense,) and despite being pretty shallow, the story is pretty long and will give you plenty of enjoyment if you really, really wanted more Persona 4.

And maybe that's the biggest sign of whether or not you'll get a kick out of Dancing All Night. Personally, I'm tired of Persona 4. It was a fantastic game, and Golden was a pretty excellent re-release. I'll even defend Persona Q, as I thought it was a clever and fun crossover with Persona 3 (my favorite entry, by the way.) But all the manga? The anime? Two fighting games? Scores and scores of merchandise? I dunno. It all seems a bit much, and throughout my time this past week with Dancing All Night, I felt smacks of desperation. A distinctly corporate attempt to see how far fan goodwill can go before they have to do something else. To me, that time is now. Persona 4 has ceased to become an offshoot of Shin Megami Tensei; Shin Megami Tensei is starting to feel like a big offshoot of Persona 4, and that's not cool.

But for now? Persona 4: Dancing All Night is an above-average foray into rhythm gaming, and a messy but admirable attempt to crash visual novels into that genre. Despite the lack of content, it's still worth it for fans of the original game, but feels like the death knells of Atlus milking their cash cow throughout the whole package.

Honestly? I'm starting to be glad Persona 3 wasn't as popular, as I'd feel much more upset if this is what that franchise came to...

- The central conceit is pretty fun.
- Music is completely wonderful.
- Graphics are sharp and beautiful.
- A substantial story mode, in terms of length.
- Inventive gameplay.

- It's another Persona 4 game.
- There's not a ton of content on the cart.
- A lot of DLC is already out.
- Too many remixes.
- An insubstantial story mode, in terms of execution.
- The grading system is garbage.

Score: 7

Note: For those have been following my reviews for a while, I'm implementing a more concrete scoring system, as I've gotten questions about it before. Basically: 1&2 = 1 Star; 3&4= 2 Stars; 5&6 = 3 Stars; 7&8 = 4 Stars; 9&10 = 5 Stars. Hope this makes things more clear!
Comment Comments (4) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Oct 6, 2015 10:08 PM PDT

Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer - 3DS
Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer - 3DS
Price: $38.94
61 used & new from $34.95

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars "I'm On My Way, Home Sweet Home", September 27, 2015
What would happen if you stripped Animal Crossing down to its very core elements?

No, I'm not talking about grinding for Bells, socializing with animals, or even managing a town. In this case, home design is, quite literally, the name of the game. Nintendo opted to take its famous (and famously addictive) series of cute life simulators and make an entire title that revolves around home design. By consequence, the entire premise sounds eerily similar to many, many games that one can download for free on iOS or Android, except with the asking price of a full retail game. On paper, this seems like a pared down, simplistic diversion that gives potential customers very little incentive to spend their money on it.

In execution, however, there's a lot more to Happy Home Designer than meets the eye.

Make no mistake, of course: this is, for all intents and purposes, not an Animal Crossing game. It looks, sounds, and has the general atmosphere of one, for sure. Most of your favorite characters even make an appearance, and if not, then you can probably snag them with one of the nifty amiibo cards. But it only goes as far as that, because when you get right down to it, this is a very different beast altogether.

As mentioned above, this game only has one core mechanic, and your enjoyment of Happy Home Designer hinges entirely on how much you like it. Ask yourself a simple question: do you really like spending time in Animal Crossing making the perfect house, and if so, would you like it better with an even wider array of customization options? If you answered "yes" to both of those, ask yourself another question: would you enjoy an entire game built around doing just that with the touch screen, with a few ancillary mechanics thrown in for good measure?

If all of that sounds good, then congratulations, you're ready for this odd little diversion that Nintendo has cooked up. Happy Home Designer places players in the role of an agent of the Big Brother-esque organization that designs and ranks houses in the Animal Crossing series. Donning a dapper little red coat, you'll built houses, design the insides of houses, design the outside of houses, and (sometimes) design bigger locations, like schools or hospitals. Items will gradually unlock with each client you take, and features will become available as you spend Play Coins on them. With every new home and facility completed, your town will get bigger, and your prominence as an ace designer will grow.

But that's not all. Even if you end up getting exhausted with all of that, and run out of things to do in the base game, which will take a while, there's a whole other feature to keep players engaged: trading cards, that lovable old stand-by of consumer crazes. The new amiibo cards, Series 1 of which launches with Happy Home Designer, are an addictive new element that bring in a decent wealth of new content. With each cards, players can scan in company for their villagers, bring in new clients to design for, or just bring in a little animal buddy to chat with. They're a non-essential feature of the game, for sure, but if you're able to invest the extra few bucks in a NFC reader (or if you have one of the New 3DS or New 3DS XL models,) it's worth picking up a few packs... or a ton of them until you get your favorite animal. There are over a hundred cards to collect, so if you really get into it, it'll expand the life of your game by a significant amount.

When you get right down to it, though, this is game is really about designing, and luckily, it isn't necessarily an entire game of the "grab items and drag them with your character" mechanic from previous games. If it were, I wouldn't still be itching to pick up the title and play it instead of writing this review. No, in Happy Home Designer, all of the heavy work is accomplished through the touch screen. You can click and drag furniture (and villagers,) tap new wallpaper and floor designs, and do pretty much everything, outside of moving your character, with the touch screen. It makes everything much more streamlined and easier to maneuver than before, and the fact that the grid system for arranging furniture is much more lenient is just icing on the cake. Going forward, the changes here should be carried over to the mainline Animal Crossing entries, as it would make designing your dream home much less of a tedious task.

I'd also like these features to be carried over for the simple fact that, well, a game that only has one or two standout features in the entire package is a tough sell to a lot of people. Don't get me wrong, these features are great, and have already captured several hours of my attention, and will probably capture several dozen more. But the thing is, Animal Crossing has always been about choices. In talking about the games with friends, everyone plays it differently. Some people like fishing for hours on end; others like maintaining an absurdly ornate garden that spans their entire town; still others like becoming a pro at identifying and capturing bugs.

In Happy Home Designer, the only choice you have is in how to design a house. That's about it. While, yes, Nintendo has been very adamant in emphasizing this as a spin-off, there's a tinge of disappointment about not being to shake fruit out of trees, save up for that shiny new item, or just bum around your town in a game that looks and sounds like an entry in a series where I've always been able to do those things. Seeing things like trophies and bugs simply becoming unlockable items is kind of saddening.

That's really my only complaint with the game as a whole, and while it is a large one, it isn't enough to damper my enthusiasm for picking it up again. While some critics have savaged this entry for its lack of challenge, I feel like that sort of misses the point. Happy Home Designer is a game about unleashing creativity with a huge assortment of tools, and adding in restrictions, plus the heartwrenching idea of making cute animals sad (I don't think I could handle a crying Isabelle,) would negate that core design philosophy. This isn't a "game" in the traditional sense. There's nothing to win, and nothing to lose. It's just a fun, robust way to design cool stuff and interact with cute things. Nothing more, nothing less.

At the end of the day, that's what will decide whether or not Happy Home Designer is for you. Do you like designing things? Do you like being creative? Do you just really, really like cute stuff? If so, you'll be like me and spend over an hour on a single room, just to make it fit your personal vision. If not, then this game wasn't ever going to be for you in the first place. While Animal Crossing, as a franchise, is still defined by choices, and the lack of them here definitely stings, there's such a massive wealth of content, and the best excuse to buy trading cards I've seen in a while. It's all tied together with a fun online component that lets players visit other peoples' designs and vote on them, and will definitely keep the game alive for several months after release.

While Animal Crossing: Happy Home Designer is most certainly a spin-off, in every sense of the term, it's one that has a lot of character and a ton of content, which puts it leaps and bounds ahead of other shallow, soulless "games" of its ilk that can be found on the App Store. If you know what you're getting into, and you're excited by the idea of making KK Slider's dream home for him, it's well worth the money, and made even sweeter by a fun little bit of trading card gimmickry.

- Core mechanics work very well
- Everything is too cute for words
- A wealth of content that will keep you busy for hours upon hours.
- Trading cards are a fun addition to the whole thing.
- The online component is well-implemented and fun.

- Not much to do beyond the core "design a town" idea.
- Not being able to pick the shirt you wear is a bummer.
- The trading cards are sort of a form of DLC, if you really think about it.

Score: 8

Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX - Nintendo 3DS
Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX - Nintendo 3DS
Price: $29.99
21 used & new from $29.99

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Cuter Than You Can Shake A Leek At, September 10, 2015
It's around 2:30 AM where I am, and I should probably be getting to bed. But after spending a good bit of time with Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX today, I felt compelled to write something about it. So, here I am. Why did I feel so compelled, you ask?

Because it's one of the best 3DS games I've played in ages.

Now, even though I've never actually reviewed any of the Vocaloid games (weird, right?) that have made it stateside, I definitely have played them and have a pretty strong opinion on them. And that opinion is, well, they're pretty alright. The rhythm mechanic is nifty, if a little confusing, and the music is uniformly good across the board. Ditto for the visuals But everything else? Eh. I can take it or leave it, to be totally frank. It's basically a bad idol management sim, and a vaguely voyeuristic "raise a human" sort of affair. Most of it is sort of tedious, and I've never felt compelled to spend a whole lot of time with it. Oh, and a lot of the video accompaniments to the music often feel like an edgy teenager's photo collage. Some bright, colorful, candy vomit coupled with grim-dark angst. I mean, I get that they're virtual pop stars, and just like real pop stars, do different types of videos, but yeesh. Tone it down a little. But yeah. I generally like the Project Diva games, despite their issues.

Which brings me to Project Mirai DX, the perfect antidote to all my complaints with Hatsune Miku as a video game series. Vaguely confusing rhythm components? Nah, make it simpler and faster. Edgy teenage anime fan attitude? Forget it, make everything cute. Obnoxious "raise a person" weirdness? Here's an idea, make it more like a Tamagotchi. All jokes aside, the complete overhaul of what it means to be a Vocaloid rhythm game here is nothing short of marvelous, at least in my opinion. Everything is cute, bright, and happy, and even the more edgy-sounding bits of music have visuals that don't feel like cringe-y fan service.

The music here is among the best out there, whether in a Vocaloid game or rhythm game in general. You have fun, upbeat pop numbers like "Electric Love" and "LOL." You've got cutesy and charming ditties like "Sweet Magic" and "Animal Fortune Telling." Then there's the more serious, wistful numbers, like "Deep Sea Girl," "Melancholic" and "Senbonzakura." There are 48 tracks, all told, and insofar, they're all charming in their own way. It's rare enough that Western audiences get a rhythm game these days, and even rarer that all the music is uniformly good. That, in and of itself, is a treat.

Also a treat is the compelling, fast, and somewhat innovative gameplay. Unlike the Project Diva series of Vocaloid games, in which button prompts swirl in from every which way, sometimes overlapping into a visual mess, Project Mirai DX takes a different approach entirely. The buttons you press (please don't use the touch controls, that's asking for a scratched touch screen) are on a line that's constantly moving. A circular cursor overlaps the button prompt on the line, indicating when you're supposed to tap. It's super intuitive and is a far less cluttered system than what we've seen out of the franchise so far. Oh, and sometimes, the lines make little shapes, like bunny heads and hearts, to correspond to the songs. Adorable.

"Adorable" applies to everything else here, too. As a fan/addict of the Nendoroid toy line, I was really happy to learn that Project Mirai, as a brand, is the result of a collab between Crypton Media Group, Sega and Good Smile Company (the makers of Nendoroids). As a result, everything is cute to an absurd degree. Even when Miku is riding a train that shoots lasers out of a front-mounted cannon amid a forest of cherry blossom trees (!), her short stature and alarmingly large noggin makes the whole thing feel fun and silly. Some people might miss the stylish, edgy music videos of the Project Diva series, and I get that. "The world don't move to the beat of just one drum" and all that jazz. But personally? I love this stylistic direction. On top of just being cute, there's something bizarre and entrancing of watching a tiny-bodied, big-headed micro-human do choreographed dances to Japanese pop music. Like, what other game has that? Plus, the 3D is among the most ingeniously-used and visually arresting on the 3DS, which is a neat little perk.

The cuteness and absurdity luckily carry over to the other gameplay elements as well. For the first time in a Vocaloid game, I actually cared about taking care of my Vocaloid and raising them and building them a house and feeding them tiny food. It's oddly relaxing to buy a strawberry shortcake for a Nendo-person, watch them eat it and love it, then buy them a new outfit and give them an allowance. None of it feels creepy because they barely look human, so it feels much more like a virtual pet situation than it does "give this adult/teenage human sexy outfits then feed them, you 18-21 year-old anime fan." You can talk to your Vocaloid, take them shopping, let them watch videos, etc., etc. It's like a lighter, more otaku-bait take on last year's strangely appealing Tomodachi Life, and there's nothing wrong with that, in my books.

I don't have a lot to say beyond that. Yeah, the touch controls aren't great. Sure, this game's appeal is limited to anime fans and rhythm game players. But for that core demographic? Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX knocks it out of the park, and then some. It addresses every issue I've had with the franchise (faux-edge, long loading times, boring raising sim mechanics,) then adds heaps upon heaps of substantial content and doesn't bother the player with reminders that DLC can be purchased. When you buy this game, you're getting a cute, addictive rhythm game crashed into a light virtual pet sim, chockful of content just waiting to be unlocked the old-fashioned way: with in-game currency you earn by doing well. There are even sub-games to idle away your time.

For its intended audience, Hatsune Miku: Project Mirai DX is a complete must-have. For everyone else, it's one of the best introductions to rhythm games outside of your Guitar Heroes and Rock Bands. But, above all else, it's just a cute, fun, wonderful little gem of a game that stands out in a year already filled with great releases.

Now I should probably hit the hay, but I know I'm going to try and least play one more song... or a dozen.

- Cute, fun visuals.
- Every gameplay aspect works.
- Ingenious rhythm mechanics.
- Excellent track list.
- Loads of content.
- AR stuff is fun.
- No gaudy DLC ads.

- Touch controls are unnecessary.
- The intended audience is pretty small, I guess.

Score: 9.25 (Great)
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 13, 2015 10:04 AM PDT

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