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‘Automata Empire’ — How Simple is Too Simple?

A major theme that seems to have been present in recent game development history is that bigger is better. The phrase “open world” has been used more times than can be counted, single player games have received supplementary multiplayer modes, and side quest upon side quest has been added to make them seemingly never-ending.

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A major theme that seems to have been present in recent game development history is that bigger is better. The phrase “open world” has been used more times than can be counted, single player games have received supplementary multiplayer modes, and side quest upon side quest has been added to make them seemingly never-ending.

While some of these games have been absolute masterpieces and deserve every bit of praise and hype that they have received, some of the more simplistic gameplay ideas have either fallen to the side or been concealed under a myriad of other features.

Enter Automata Empire. At the center of the game is one concept: the feedback loop. This simply means that each output in the game’s system will be used as a new input. Drawing inspiration from Conway’s Game of Life, Nonadecimal Creative challenges the player to amass an army of fuzzy automata, each with a numerical value. As these minions combine and reach numerical values of six, they will split and create a new automata.

AutomataEmpire

Taverns serve as a hub for your automata, encouraging them to combine and repopulate your army.

This is where the feedback loop comes into play. Each increase in the population via this method leads to one more automata that is ready to combine, creating a cycle that will continue as long as there is a steady stream of inputs (automata combining). These minions are either used as warriors against the enemy, or sacrificed to construct buildings to guide their movements.

The key to victory comes in mastering the management of this population. While early expansion is tempting, having patience and allowing your furry soldiers to combine and expand around Taverns may ensure your success.

Built to Last

If there is one good thing about Automata Empire, it’s that Nonadecimal Creative crafted a product built for replayability.

Automata Empire has been designed so that matches last no longer than 12 minutes, win or lose. This seems to be the perfect time for a quick game break over lunch or in between binge watching episodes of Westworld. However, if one requires an even shorter experience, Lightning Mode will play the game at two times the normal speed.

This quickness of play is also a blessing for players like me, who just do not enjoy a vast majority of this game. Automata Empire is a title that can be incredibly polarizing. There are certainly players who love it, and for them, the quickness of the matches allows them to fit more scenarios into their allotted gaming time.

Despite how short the matches were, I still counted down the seconds until they ended. There are some issues with the reliance on the feedback loop as Automata Empire‘s backbone, and while the combination of its mechanics with the automata armies hypothetically creates a seemingly endless number of scenarios, many of these were, to be blunt, boring.

 The Much-Needed Bit of Humor

The game’s only somewhat frilly feature is the generation of the most ridiculous titles and hero names that could ever be imagined. These are unlocked by accomplishing certain tasks, adding a bit of comedy to a game that otherwise doesn’t have many features beyond the core gameplay.

These titles also give the player one more objective, if small, to aim for. In Automata Empire, any objective or game constraint can seem massive due to their scarcity. Although seeing the ridiculousness of some of the names was incredibly enjoyable, this was at least partially due to how dull most of the matches were. There needed to be more of this humor, this light-hearted vibe, somewhere in the game, and it simply did not exist.

Siegecraft Tries to Save the Game

While I did not care for much in Automata Empire, Siegecraft was the game mode that finally succeeded in showing me real potential. The objective of this mode is straightforward: protect your castle from the enemy soldiers at all costs.

That the game hinges entirely upon the concept of the feedback loop is intriguing, but it isn’t implemented in the most engaging way. While all the modes give you an objective that requires you to take advantage of the loop, most still feel somewhat underdeveloped.

The game begins and the player has an enormous amount of freedom due to the lack of constraints. However, this freedom can be overwhelming, especially when combined with the initial task of figuring out how to take advantage of the loop.

By giving you one small section of the map on which to focus your attention and resources, Siegecraft has the perfect level of constraint. This limit was the key to crafting a compelling game mode. Nothing else truly worked for me, but felt that this small section of Automata Empire could easily grab one’s attention for hours at a time.

Has Potential, but Needs Work

If Automata Empire grips you, it has you completely. I experienced this for a short time in Siegecraft mode, and it showed me the potential of the game’s core concept. When everything works together perfectly, Nonadecimal’s creation can be great.

However, this does not happen often enough. Not even close. Although the matches are short, there are still plenty of moments where there is nothing to do but watch the screen, and while constant action is certainly not required for a game to be interesting, waiting around in with nothing to do is dull and allows Automata Empire to grow stale much faster than it should.

This just isn’t a game for me; or at least not right now. The elements are there and the idea is intriguing, but it needs more: more time in development, more game modes, more buildings. The upgrades need only be small, preserving the core gameplay and art style, but they need to add the focus and humor that would take this game to the next level.

Automata Empire is like a soup that you forget to add the spices to. It’s edible as it is, and you might even get a bite that has some real flavor, but with a little pepper, salt, and red pepper flakes, it could reach an entirely different level. Unfortunately, in its current state, it just seems undercooked.

Sara Winegardner is a lifelong gamer and aspiring journalist currently based in Washington, DC. Being fed a steady diet of Pokemon, Final Fantasy, and MMORPGs since she can remember, Sara will play just about anything, even if it means grinding for hours on end. Her childhood dream is to walk the E3 floor at least once.

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

Earthnight is an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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Game Reviews

‘Life is Strange 2’ Episode 5 Review – “Wolves”: A Worthy Send-off

The final episode of Life is Strange 2 may take a while to get going but it does offer a solid conclusion to the Diaz brothers’ journey.

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Life is Strange 2

Life is Strange 2 hasn’t made any bones about being a political game over the course of the last year. The 5th, and final episode, “Wolves”, doesn’t just continue with this message, it doubles down, and in a big way.

Set near the Arizona-Mexico border, “Wolves” follows the Diaz brothers on the final leg of their journey. Having escaped from the cult that held Daniel up as a messianic figure in the previous episode, Sean and Daniel are camping out in a sort of pop-up town filled with outsiders like themselves.

Life is Strange 2

The location provides Life is Strange 2 with its final breath of relaxation before the story enters its high tension endgame, and it’s a much needed reprieve. Unfortunately, it does seem to go on a bit longer than the player might like, and that makes things drag a smidge.

To give you some idea of how long you’ll be spending in the village, 4 of the 6 collectibles are found here. So, yes, this starting area is the main place you’ll be spending “Wolves” in. To be clear, the area isn’t bad per se. There’s a lot to see, a scavenger hunt to go on, and a few interesting characters to speak with, including a surprise cameo from the original game. The bummer of it all is that players will be feeling the time here more laboriously simply because there isn’t much of anything happening.

Life is Strange 2

In the 2nd or 3rd episode of this story it’s perfectly fine for an extended bit of down time. Episode 3, in particular, benefited greatly from allowing you to settle into the setting and get to know a diverse and likable new group of characters. However, by the 5th episode, players will be so eager to see how things are gonna settle up, they won’t be able to get out of this area fast enough.

On the upswing, once Sean and Daniel leave the village, the story moves at a pretty solid clip to the credits. As the key art and trailer for “Wolves” might suggest, the Diaz brothers do indeed challenge the border wall in the final leg of Life is Strange 2. Where things go from there, I won’t spoil, but rest assured that Daniel will absolutely go through the crisis as you’ve trained him to do.

By this I mean, you will see the final results of your choices throughout the game, and they’re pretty impressive. With 4 possible endings, and 3 possible variations on those endings, Life is Strange 2 can ultimately play out in a variety of ways. How yours plays out will, of course, depend on the choices you’ve made and how you’ve influenced your brother throughout your journey.

Either way, though, Life is Strange 2 closes off “Wolves” with an emotionally satisfying and generally fulfilling conclusion to your journey. It might be a necessary evil that the events can’t be intense the whole way through, being that this is not an action or combat-focused game, but the fact that things take so long to get going in the final episode is a bit of a problem.

Still, fans worried that Life is Strange 2 might fail to stick the landing can rest easy. “Wolves” might not be the best, or most satisfying, episode of the series but it does what it needs to do and it does it well, particularly in the back half.

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