Dive bombing an unsuspecting sniper with the melee-focused Interceptor Javelin (the name Anthem gives its exosuits), eliminating an entire wave of enemies with a succession of the Storm’s tempestuous energy abilities, tearing through the sky, the jungle sun gleaming off of the Javelin’s exterior, there are many moments when Anthem literally shines. These moments provide glimmers of hope, brief glimpses into a potentially bright future for developer BioWare’s cooperative, mech-fueled, looter shooter. Unfortunately, any brilliance Anthem displays is too frequently eclipsed by a poor game state at launch rife with repetition, dismal design decisions, a grating grind, punishing pacing, and a lackluster narrative, the antithesis to the game’s gorgeous graphics and generally great gameplay.
Relics of the Past
Narratively, Anthem is a fairly familiar sci-fi affair involving a mysteriously absent forerunner species capable of shaping the planet, powerful relics they left behind, and the different factions attempting to control or contain said relics. That could be a description of Halo. Where Anthem manages some distinction is the “cataclysms” resulting from these unchecked relics, which take the shape of monster spawning portals and, perhaps in an environmentalist turn, devastating storms. To combat these cataclysms and contain these relics, humanity devised the Javelins. Now humanity’s last hope is in a small faction of Javelin pilots, the Freelancers.
The rest of the narrative could be read as a metaphor for the game itself. Previously revered as heroes, the Freelancers (BioWare) have fallen out of favor with the public (gamers) after failing to live up to their reputation and some costly mistakes (Mass Effect Andromeda). Unable to prevent a hostile faction known as the Dominion (EA) from activating a relic hidden beneath the heart of Javelin operations has resulted in the worst cataclysm humanity has ever seen, the Heart of Rage (gamer rage). Failing to stop the Heart of Rage once (Anthem‘s launch), could the key lie in the past (a lot of updates and patches)? Pepper in some nonsense sci-fi jargon giving purpose to the player for doing the same thing over and over and over again and, bam, you’ve got your AAA, live game, sci-fi shooter recipe!
“Slow Alone. Stronger Together.”
The world of Anthem is littered with quite a few intriguing characters for the player to interact with back at Fort Tarsis, the game’s central hub, that help push the narrative along. Well acted and captured, these characters provide a spark of life to the game’s first-person sections and give the otherworldly plot some heart and history. In these sequences, players are given fully voice acted dialogue options, that, while having no perceivable impact on the narrative, keep these sections interactive instead of just one-sided conversations. That’s not to say that some of these dialogues aren’t vexing NPCs dumping nonsense sci-fi exposition onto unwilling players’ heads in the name of plot development, but in the best instances I was eager to make a good impression with the more relatable characters I had taken to. What I didn’t take to was having to slowly jog through the poorly mapped Tarsis to get from one monologue to the next, especially if it ended in more generic sci-fi babble over meaningful character interaction. That slow jog can’t be understated, resulting in tedious strolls through a notably single player space in cooperative game. It does explain the game’s slogan:
Strong Slow Alone. Stronger Together.
Moments like these accentuate issues with Anthem‘s pacing. Tearing through the campaign as the most agile Javelin, the Interceptor, most campaign missions take no more than fifteen minutes. This is immediately followed by a mandatory trip to Tarsis to adjust my Javelin and the tedious task of walking to dialogue sequences to progress the story and or collect new quests, not to mention the loading periods loading in and out of the hub, resulting in five to ten minute periods away from the game’s main draw, the cooperative action. If played simultaneously with friends, these waits between missions can be even longer as each player modifies their loadout and pushes through the dialogue delivered context for the next mission. I’ve critiqued Destiny in the past for its over-reliance on exposition dumps when flying in to the next story mission, but I’d take that over a required trip to Tarsis any day, especially since players can multitask and mess with their loadout while loading in Destiny. Anthem, on the other hand, requires players to have access to the Forge back at the Fort or in the mission pre-launch menu to swap weapons and gear. That’s sure to spell out frustration in any loot oriented game, especially when early gameplay trailers boasted gear swapping on the go.
Like a Dream
Luckily, combat and general gameplay is the antithesis of Fort Tar-slow. Flight controls in Anthem are tight and responsive, and each Javelin “handles like a dream.” Players can leap into flight at will, dive enemy troops on the ground, roll out of harm’s way, and hover above the field for an aerial advantage, all while an overheating mechanic ensures players are conscious while in flight and can’t over-utilize these techniques in a fight. Paired with the equally fast and fluid combat makes for some furiously frantic fun. Leveraging maneuverability to skate around an incoming attack or to deftly flank an enemy tank before letting loose with slur of shotgun shells or machine pistol munitions is extremely gratifying. Different guns pair better with different Javelins, courtesy of each Javlins unique strengths, adding depth and distinction when playing with a diverse team setup. The lightning-quick Interceptor, for example, can make excellent use of close range arms that pair with its range of melee attacks, while the Colossus benefits from hunkering down and shooting at a greater range. Even more distinct and satisfying to use are the series of abilities unique to each Javelin that punctuate Anthem‘s gameplay.
Each Javelin provides a great deal variety and perfectly encapsulates a core concept with its inherent and unlockable abilities. The Storm has a wide range of elemental and area-of-effect attacks ideal for slaying slews of enemies and hovers above the battlefield with a personal shield. The Colossus is a heavy hitting tank type with a range of multi-target attacks. The Ranger is an all range Javelin with a levy of grenade and rocket type attacks. The Interceptor is an agility based, melee monster with an assortment of throwing glaives and dashes to accentuate this style of play. So satisfying are these abilities, in fact, that I frequently go through missions without firing a single shot, opting to instead dice my enemies to death with the Interceptor itself. Not all abilities are created equal, however, and it is disappointing to be stuck with a weak or slow one for an entire mission or to have your best ability by a wide margin be one you don’t like. At least in the first scenario, you know for certain that a trip to Tarsis is only around the corner. Gameplay can also get a little stale once all of the abilities have been experienced since Anthem reserves most of its engaging gear and activities until after the twenty-or-so-hour campaign.
Combat tends to be engaging to the point that I generally don’t mind how repetitive the mission structure tends to be, however, it doesn’t take long to recognize how similarly every level is set up. Fly here, clear some ads, follow the radar to a specific point, hold to investigate, fly there, clear ads, protect a circle, done. Thankfully, again, flight and combat are really fun, but it’s a shame that most variety comes late in the game, similar to loot.
Shoot. Loot. Repeat.
Speaking of, perhaps the largest concerns with Anthem center on the loot drops. While most flags raised have been regarding the endgame loot grind where this is more critical, from the outset Anthem‘s loot seems antagonistically. Early on it just doesn’t matter since early gear drops so much more commonly. All the same, in most looter shooters I’ve experienced, almost all gear dropped through the campaign is at or above the players Gear Score, or Light Level, or whatever you want to call it, to help them climb through the early ranks. It’s typically not until the endgame grind that more powerful gear drops exclusively from endgame activities. In Anthem, however, it seemed like roughly half of all gear gained was worse than my current gear making the climb early on, again when it doesn’t matter, much slower and RNG based than necessary. This issue is only compounded when operating at higher levels.
For an investment cycle to work in a live game, players need to feel they’re earning tangible rewards for the time and effort invested. Anthem‘s constant struggle has been striking the proper balance, and in its current state, the rewards simply do not match the difficulty and time investment. There’s also a severe lack of endgame content to keep players invested longterm, limited primarily to three Strongholds, dungeon-like missions culminating in a large, unique boss fight. While Strongholds do propose an engaging challenge, that’s still pretty on content, though, as a live game, there is, of course, a roadmap charting the course for more content to come.
Finally, it’s also worth mentioning that all cosmetics are exclusive to Anthem‘s in-game store thus far, so while players are free to extensively color their Javelins, players won’t be grinding for cool armor which denotes their in-game achievements to other players any time soon. In a third person game filled with rad exosuits, this was a horrible decision as it means one less incentive to chase.
For all of its issues, I still find Anthem incredibly fun and am inclined to return again and again. Viewed as the game as a service that it’s been billed as, its difficult not to notice issues with the engame, the loot grind, and some of the missing investment opportunities on top of Anthem‘s struggle with pacing and repetition. Viewed as a momentary diversion and Anthem looks far more inviting. Exceptional in-game maneuverability, enthralling arena combat, thrilling Javelin abilities, with plenty of diversity in the form of new weapons and especially different Javelins each with their own unique abilities make Anthem distinct and worth experiencing. Viewed in that light, it is exciting that even if not fully invested, Anthem can be returned to later and it will hopefully be improved and have more to experience. In the end, Anthem might not be quite ready yet, but it has potential, like an inert Javelin waiting to take flight.
‘The Touryst’ Review: Vacation, All I Ever Wanted
There’s an acceptance of a certain rhythm when traveling alone: often an itinerary-less trip will be filled with quiet solitude and uneventful meandering; yet, when those exciting moments of interaction and discovery are inevitably stumbled upon, they tend to be of the highly memorable variety. The latest offering from Shin’en Multimedia, The Touryst, shrewdly captures this relaxing, energizing roller coaster. It’s a quirky little getaway that encourages players to explore its gorgeous voxel island delights at their own pace, letting them bask in the peaceful surroundings and doling out treasure for those curious to seek it out. The result is a soothing weekend sojourn of puzzles, platforming, and mini games under the sun that is also winds up as one of the best indies on the Switch.
There’s no doubt that atmosphere plays a big part in what makes The Touryst so successful, as the vague setup and sparse narrative casts a mysterious aura over the proceedings. Who our mustachioed vacationer is or why he agrees to find glowing blue orbs for some random old man is pretty much left to the imagination. Is the player curious about what they could see and find out there among the green palm trees, sandy beaches, monolithic temples, and sky blue waters? Then they will follow their nose regardless of the lack of any story motivation, and The Touryst has sprung its trap. The urge to see the sights and have an adventure is a must here, and so the wandering begins.
Luckily, The Touryst is filled with charming things to stumble upon around almost every corner, be that a scuba diving boat operator on a Greek isle that facilitates swimming with the fishes, a seaside dance party in need of a hi-tech energy boost, or a bustling business center complete with an arcade, art gallery, and movie theater (for those times when you just need to sit down for a while). Personality abounds, as long as friendly players aren’t shy about talking to strangers (the best way to get the most out of a trip to a new place). No matter where one’s feet take them, there are plenty of mini-stories at play thanks to the native inhabitants and fellow tourists, with these weirdos offering interactions both puzzling and profitable.
But there’s more to life than racking up coins via side quests; there’s something eerily odd buried beneath the tropical destinations of The Touryst that beckons to be uncovered by just the right explorer. Towering mounds filled with ancient devices and clever puzzles hold secrets that promise that this vacation will be one for the scrapbook. These short ‘dungeons’ are the meat of the game, providing a variety of platforming and logic challenges that range from overt to opaque; sometimes even finding the way in to these ominous structures is a puzzle in itself, which only further drives an overarching sense of discovery.
Smartly, The Touryst rarely telegraphs solutions to its tests (or in some cases, that there even is a test), and instead encourages experimentation. Inside temples, players need to determine why certain lights are glowing and others aren’t, understand how sequences work, pay attention to rumbling feedback, and decide just how to deal with once-dormant mechanical creatures that now awaken to stand in the protagonist’s way. Things can seem opaque at times, but Shin’en has managed to hit that sweet spot that keeps poking around from getting too frustrating. But just in case, there are plenty of beach chairs and cabana beds to lie down on and think. Or, just soak in some rays and enjoy the scenery.
Regardless of the difficulty players may or may not have with the crafty puzzles or surprisingly challenging mini games (good lord, surfing and those 8-bit arcade throwbacks can be tough), The Touryst is still a sight to see. Shin’en has created a buttery smooth island-hopping environment that is a pleasure to peruse. Go off the beaten path and enjoy the gorgeous sunsets, gently pixelated waves, crunching grains of sand, and flopping flora. The visuals seem so simple, yet at times can be stunning to behold, especially when spotting some of the smaller details that have been added to make these place come alive. A depth of field style entices players to see just what that blurry landmark off in distance is, and the soundtrack seamlessly shifts between relaxing and intriguingly uncanny. That developers have achieved this with what are surely the shortest load times on Nintendo’s console makes the experience all the more immersive.
Like most vacations, The Touryst is destined to be over too soon for some players, but trips like these aren’t meant to last forever. The five hours or so it takes to see all there is to see is highly satisfying throughout, and the vague hint at the end of a followup will have many Switch-owning puzzle fans looking forward to getting future time off.
‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us
It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.
It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club has also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!
Shovel Knight: King of Cards
King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.
Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.
All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.
Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.
It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produces hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.
The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.
It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?
Shovel Knight Showdown
Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.
What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.
Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.
Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.
What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode as I did.
With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience, I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.
‘Disco Elysium’: A Thought-Provoking Mystery
For the most part, the majority of games are easy to classify, but from time to time a game is released that defies conventional rules and resists simple categorization. Disco Elysium is just such a game. On the surface of it, it’s a topdown, isometric RPG of the oldest of old schools. It draws upon long-established systems, structures, and mechanics that make it comfortably familiar. However, beneath that patina of tradition lies something completely unexpected and utterly unique.
Developed by the small, independent studio ZA/UM, with a story penned by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, and a painstakingly detailed world crafted by artist Aleksander Rostov, Disco Elysium stands apart from most RPGs in that it is startlingly realistic whilst simultaneously being grimly fantastical. Set on an isolated archipelago in the wake of a failed communist revolution, the game casts players as a detective sent to solve the murder of a man found hanging in the backyard of a rundown boarding house/cafe. It’s a simple setup made all the more complex by the fact that the player character is suffering from a severe bout of alcohol and drug-induced amnesia. The mystery that needs to be solved concerns piecing together exactly who the player character is, as much as it involves reconstructing the chain of events that resulted in a brutal death.
Arriving at conclusions to both conundrums requires navigating complex webs of social and political intrigue. Along the way, players will encounter union bosses, disgruntled workers, war veterans, and all manner of extraordinary and mundane citizens just trying to go about their daily lives in a place that seems designed to thwart their ambitions at every turn. More than that though, players will be required to engage in continuous internal dialogues that involve the protagonist gradually putting themselves back together. The result is character customization in a quite literal sense of the word. Rather than the standard array of physical options that most games of this type present players with, the options are entirely psychological. Player actions and choices determine the overall structure of the internal workings of their character. Whether they decide to be a high-minded idealist trying to better themselves and the world around them in whatever way they can or opt to descend into anarchic, hedonistic self-obliteration such choices determine exactly who and what their version of the character is.
The foundation of stats and skills that are usually inert background components that all RPGs are based on is firmly in place. However, rather than being a numerical bedrock upon which all gameplay is based, Disco Elysium takes those sets of modifiers and statistics and makes them an active part of character progression and world development. As you progress through the game, skills points can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to upgrade core character stats, of which there a total of twenty-four covering a whole range of mental, physical, and social attributes, that govern player’s ability to immediately interact with the game world. However, they can also be used to learn or forget particular thoughts These thoughts develop depending on how players decide to approach situations and solve problems and can unlock semi-permanent bonuses and even penalties.
Much as in reality, the things the character is capable of are largely dependent on their frame of mind. If players opt to make a character that is brash and uncouth then they will find it difficult to subtly manipulate interactions to their benefit or arrive at unobtrusive solutions to various situations. On the other hand, if they elect to play a character that is more thoughtful and introspective, or cunning rather than crass, then they will find it difficult to emerge unscathed from more physical challenges. It’s an interpretation of character development and player progress that feels much more organic than in any other game of this sort. This is probably where Disco Elysium does the most to stand out from other such titles. Such a flexible approach to progress is hopefully something that other companies will emulate going forward, as it allows the character to develop a true personality that goes a step beyond the mathematically-oriented, incremental statistical increases that are usually the norm.
The ways in which player action, character interaction, and game reaction combine together is probably the closest it is possible to get to a truly curated dungeon master-guided play experience in an RPG. There is such a wide and unpredictable variety of moment-to-moment options that players can never be certain what exactly is going to happen next. This sense of improvisational unpredictability is a quintessential element of any RPG, but it is often lost in translation from tabletop rules to computer game mechanics. This pitfall is avoided thanks to the fact that the world of Disco Elysium was conceptualized as a tabletop game but doesn’t actually exist as one yet. As such the developers were able to implement systems without the expectation of adhering to pre-existing mechanics. This expectation has often been the downfall of many such games in the past, such as the much-maligned Sword Coast Legends which was lambasted for its apparent butchery of the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. It will be interesting to see if Larian Studios can avoid similar problems with Baldur’s Gate 3.
As intriguing and unconventional as Disco Elysium is, and no matter how deserving it is of the accolades it won at 2019’s Game Awards, it’s hard to recommend it as something to play if you’re looking for fun. It’s relentlessly grim even when it’s trying to be funny, and its stream of consciousness style makes even the most basic of interactions a minefield of potential disturbing possibilities. With its biting combination of continental existentialist ennui, pseudo-Lovecraftian undercurrents, and socio-political critique it isn’t a game that you play for the sheer joy of it, but rather for the esoteric and unusual experience that it offers. That being said, in a market that’s full to bursting point with crowd-pleasing blockbusters and oftentimes strictly by-the-book sequels or carbon copy titles, it can be incredibly rewarding to delve into a game as intricate and nuanced as Disco Elysium.
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