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Celebrating gaming characters of 2016

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I see your Corvo and raise you a Nathan Drake

It’s been a long and hard year for a lot of people, but one thing that hasn’t suffered this year is gaming, and specifically, gaming characters. Diversity in gaming has been a huge issue that has dragged way behind other mediums, and it’s still an ongoing one that needs rectifying. However, this was a year worthy enough for us to be proud of; gaming is growing up, and so has its characters. What follows is a celebration of game characters of all forms, no matter what way they are rendered, whether or not they have dialogue or voice acting. Each entry contains some original amateur pixel art created specifically for this feature. There are countless characters that are also worthy of recognition that couldn’t fit into this feature but we’d love to hear some of your favourite characters portrayed in gaming this year. Enjoy.

[The descriptions that follow contain MINOR SPOILERS for the events of Uncharted 4, Quantum Break, Firewatch and Ace Attorney Spirits Of Justice.]

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Elena Fisher/ Drake
Award: Most Emotionally Resonant Character
Game: Uncharted 4
Performed by: Emily Rose

imageUncharted 4 is home to the best written and realised characters this year, but Elena is a standout for the medium. Elena has always been a fan favourite, and in previous entries was regularly used as the stakes for what Drake could lose. Uncharted 4 finally stopped resetting their relationship at the start of each game, and posed the question of what their lives would be like if Drake kept his promise at the end of Uncharted 3. An early chapter shows the monotony of their relationship; Drake is bored at his job and Elena is unhappy at the type of journalism she’s working on. They clearly have big – but REAL – relationship problems, they put up idle small talk and deflect issues instead of talking them out, resorting to playing a video game to distract from the problems. There’s something scarily human about Elena and Drake’s interactions that gamers aren’t used to in games. What makes Elena special is how she grounds the narrative; she’s the brick of the relationship, and in the end she is what time and time again pulls Drake back from insanity. The prospect of losing her, not through death, not through bullets, but from her walking out of Nate’s life is the most human and well-written loss gaming has achieved this year, and it’s all thanks to Elena’s portrayal. After all nothing worthwhile is easy.

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Nathan Drake
Award: Best All-Around Developed Protagonist
Game: Uncharted 4
Performed by: Nolan North

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It would be remiss to leave out Drake in this two-sided relationship, and how we will miss him. Nate has always been that likeable, charismatic character, spouting smart-aleck quips during death-defying stunts, all the while slaughtering hundreds of people. But he’s never felt like more than a cartoon character; he’s the hero, after all. In Uncharted 4 though, he’s not the hero, he doesn’t save the world from annihilation, and he doesn’t rescue the lady. He lies, he deceives, and he spends half the game feeling guilty. The game’s best sequence of set pieces is masterfully followed by a scene that is heartbreaking. You, like Drake, get pulled into this adventure, both enjoying yourself and reminded of the cost at which it comes. Elena’s reveal sends everything tumbling, but the biggest shock is when Drake refuses to take stock of what he did, and fails to apologise. He holds back tears as Elena closes the door on him. The ‘sorry’ does come in another of the game’s best scenes, and in the same moment Elena forgives him, because in some form she does enjoy the adventure too. Naughty Dog continues to show up just about every other developer when it comes to character dialogue and writing. Drake has never been so likeable than in the final installment, and it’s not because of his one-liners – it’s because for the first time, he’s relatable, he’s human, and he grows as a character.

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Wrench
Award: Most Entertaining Character
Game: Watch Dogs 2
Performed by: Shawn Baichoo

imageNow, I know what you’re thinking: of course I would list the character I gushed about already, in addition to doing an interview with the actor who played them, but you’d be dead….. Wrong! No, not wrong…what’s the word I’m looking for…that’s it! Right. Who would have thought that the sequel to the game that had one of the worst gaming protagonists would be praised for its diverse and entertaining cast? Wrench is just one of the fantastic characters in the game, alongside the Protagonist and Josh, but somehow stands out, as he has the biggest laughs in the game, and manages to bat (or sledgehammer) off stereotypes with insight into his social anxieties. At the same time, his character design is, from a pure visual front, inspired (literally inspiring for multiple cosplayers), the juxtaposition of a punk-looking hacker wearing a spiked jacket, while also having a mask displaying emoticons (including a winky face) is a look rarely seen in video games.image Sure, some people hate him (old men yelling at clouds mostly), but often is the case that the most successful characters are ones that not everyone gets on with, despite having something to say about them. Most importantly, there’s something very uplifting about a character who suffers from social insecurity being not only self-assuring, but also being represented in a AAA release. Don’t start smashing things with sledgehammers, though… unless it’s a copy of the first game.

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Apollo Justice
Award: Biggest Character Growth
Game: Ace Attorney: Spirits Of Justice

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Though Phoenix Wright may headline this Ace Attorney installment, it turns out that Apollo Justice is the real star, even moreso than the game with his name on the box. Spirits of Justice (okay, they managed to get his second name in the title) drops the ball with Nick, somehow managing to yet again relegate his character to bluffing his way through every case despite him being an experienced lawyer. Poly, however, manages to get an interesting character arc, where we also learn about his origins as well as get touching story about his family. He even manages to out-bluff ‘Wright’ at his own game – within his own game. The game develops his abilities, and though he started out as not very self-assured, by the last case he finds his confidence. The ending really cements his importance to not only this game, but to this series. For a character with hair that looks like an antenna, he sure is charming. We can only hope it’s not the last we see of him, because he might just be the most interesting character they have right now.

 

Beth Wilder
Award: Best Secret Hero
Game: Quantum Break
Performed by: Courtney Hope

imageIf there’s one thing Remedy can be relied on with every game they release (whenever they finally get around to it), it’s the ability to create quirky, relatable, and entertaining characters. In some ways, Quantum Break turns down the zany from both Alan Wake and Max Payne (although it still acknowledges that the games all exist in the same universe), but its cast of characters are still worthy of note. Jack Joyce might be the game’s protagonist, but Beth Wilder is one of the most tragic game heroines of the year. For Jack, the events of time shutting down and the impending ‘end of time apocalypse’ consist of nothing more than one day of his life – give or take a couple of trips through time and…. ohdearjumpingfrogs, it all starts getting very confusing – but for Beth Wilder, she’s spent most of her life preparing for it. She witnesses the end and has to live through years of her life all over again knowing that she can’t change the future. She has the knowledge of 9/11, but despite her best effects, it can’t be changed, nothing can be changed, everything in time has already happened, will happen and is happening. It’s what makes the game one of the cleverest and most-considered takes on a time travel narrative; it sets its rules and sticks to them (looking at you Bioshock Infinite). The thing is, somehow Beth doesn’t give up, even when we see her at her most defeated, when she’s shouting at a Jack who can’t understand what she’s been through as he reaches out to hold her hand, her letting it slip away. Through that, there’s still a glimmer of hope, but it’s not hope for her. After it seems the game has forgotten her, it makes sure to end the game with her in mind. After all, if she held out hope maybe there’s a chance time really can be changed, eh Jack? Most importantly she likes Toto.

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Trico
Award: Best Gaming Bond
Game: The Last Guardian

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Trico might just be the most well designed NPCs in gaming. The way it behaves, the animations and its growth throughout the game, is a marvel to behold. To anyone who has had a pet that they confided in, that was a friend, the bond you form with Trico is all too familiar, an emotional attachment that makes you want to reach into the screen and put your arms around that beak. The journey you take with Trico is more than anything a journey of friendship, the strength of which surpasses the boundaries of language, species and size. It replicates all the emotions of owning a well-loved pet: the fear when they get lost, the sadness when they become ill, the comfort they provide when you feel depressed, and the numerous frustrations when they ignore you. The game took nearly 10 years to develop, but Trico makes that time worthwhile.

The Last Guardian is ultimately about the way unlikely relationships form. It’s about all the positive aspects of life, an experience that will remind people why we keep fighting when times are tough. It’s special. We’re unlikely to play a game like it again. It’s going to be a divisive game; it always was, and Trico will also play into that, as mileage will vary. There are valid complaints directed at the game, numerous in fact, but Trico alone saves it. More than any other game this one is defined by a single character and an emotional attachment. People may deliberate over its framerate, but a year from now players will still think about Trico, and that’s the legacy of the game. It’s a bond that we will not forget.

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Geralt of Rivia
Award: Best Monotone Character
Game: The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine
Performed by: Doug Cockle

imageIs this cheating? Putting aside the fact that the Blood and Wine DLC is better and has more care in it than most full games, two years in a row The Witcher 3 has been showing up most games, and as an extension, so has Geralt. CD Projekt Red used this opportunity to tell one last story with Geralt, and they made sure it would do justice and examine the whole basis of who he is. The DLC ventured to show a different side to the character, a more human, lighthearted attitude, and as the trope goes, a ‘being too old for this sh*t’ questioning of retirement. For the first time, Geralt is given a home, and there is something very bittersweet about the idea of him settling down and taking a breath from his monster-slaying days. Blood and Wine is home to one of the best scenes in the whole of The Witcher, and it’s not some epic battle, but instead what the series does best: just two characters talking, striving for a life they never knew. This may be the last time we see the character, but the way they closed his chapter couldn’t have been more perfect. Take that rest Geralt – you’ve earned it.

 

Dr. John Wakefield
Award: Best Use of a Handful of Pixels
Game: The Last Door Season 2

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Granted that there will be a lot of ‘what, I’ve never even heard of it’ questions, but The Last Door Season Two is one of the most interesting indie horror games this year. Donning a pixel art aesthetic that manages to capture all the atmosphere and dread of a Lovecraftian horror story, and with an episodic structure that keeps you hooked, that alone makes it worthy of attention. Dr. Wakefield, who was briefly introduced as the doctor to the protagonist of the first season, must now track down what happened to his patient, Mr. Devitt. Although he may not be the most in-depth or emotive character compared to the other ones previously named here, this list is to celebrate all different types. Wakefield is a rather mundane character, a Doctor after all, and so is obviously out of his depth when revealing the mysteries of the occult (maybe he should apply to the Scooby Doo gang next). The game is home to countless mysterious and engaging characters, which is a feat to pull off considering the limitations of the art style, being made up of a handful of pixels and text boxes for dialogue. It just goes to show that you don’t need a big budget or 3D rendered environments to craft an intriguing world filled with characters that creep you out more than any jump scare could. Most of all though, it’s just a game worth playing.

 

Henry and Delilah
Award: Best Talking Head Duo
Game: Firewatch
Performed by: Rich Sommer (Henry), Cissy Jones (Delilah)

imageIf there’s one thing Firewatch excels at it is the dynamic between Henry and Delilah, two characters that never meet once in the game. What an achievement of writing and voice acting, that conversations solely had over radios are hugely effective in developing two fascinating and flawed people. This is without factoring in the gut-wrenching opening that had you teary-eyed over a couple of text screens. A wide variety of complaints were thrown at the game, most common of which was how the it concluded. Granted, there is a good basis in the criticisms, as the ending was limp, and these two characters just move on with their lives without much deliberation.image, but at the same time, it was an intentional piece of design, a comment on real life; we often craft or fantasise about drama that isn’t really there, and what we dream of is always more interesting than the reality of life. At the end of the day, you can’t run from your problems forever; they’ll be waiting for you. As strong of a connection Hank and D had, it’s easy to embellish a relationship that is nothing more than the friendship of co-workers. Some aspects were disappointing – as intended – but Henry and Delilah showed that disappointing isn’t always bad, and there’s always something good to take away.

 

The Boy from Inside
Award: Best Visual Storyteller
Game: Inside

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Inside is a masterclass in visual storytelling. Its vague and ambiguous themes are conveyed without words, relying only on what you can see and piece together as the vessel through which the adventure is told. The boy you play doesn’t even get gifted with a name, similarly to Playdead’s previous indie hit, LIMBO. Instead, characterisation is communicated through animations. Playdead doesn’t do things by half measures, and just about every contextual interaction is accompanied by a bespoke animation. When the climax hits, it’s one of the most shocking and exhilarating sequences depicted this year in gaming, and it all centres around the boy and the deftness of beautifully executed animations and visual design. Characters don’t always need to be talking nonstop with photorealistic faces for us to be invested in their plight, and Inside proves that.

 

The Overwatch Ensemble
Award: Most Diverse Cast
Game: Overwatch

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Blizzard’s audio-visual design is almost second to none. Their games appeal to both hardcore competitors and casual players, one of the biggest draws being a slick and vibrant art style that stands out from the competition. Similarly to Hearthstone, the visuals in Overwatch are cartoony, but the game’s biggest achievement is its characters. Somehow Blizzard has managed to give personality to each and every playable hero. There’s a character for everyone, and not just in their play style but also in the diversity they represent. They might just be the most attractive lineup of people in a game, representing different body types, genders, nationalities, and even species. Clearly, the amount of time spent making sure you can tell each one apart based on their silhouette has paid off. It’s no surprise that there’s a plethora of porn and fan fiction for each of the heroes (in just about every conceivable sexuality and ‘kink’), as they’ve they’ve captured the imaginations of everyone. If there’s anything that says ‘I’ve made it big time,’ it’s to have all your characters in an orgy of the filthiest porn known on the Internet. *All Overwatch porn viewed over the course of writing this was for research purposes and not viewed out of enjoyment. That sounds plausible enough.*

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All the pixel squiggles present in this feature are original squiggles created by the author Oliver Rebbeck. Do not use without express permission from the original creator, and so on. *I’m sure you know the drill*

 

 

 

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One day it struck Oliver what his true calling in life was; to become a millionaire celebrity while doing nothing. Unfortunately YouTube has enough of those, so until then Oliver will have to deal with writing about games. He has experience writing for several games sites, talking nonsense and working on a novel when sanity can gain traction. Currently dancing through life until the impending death of the sun consumes us all. Likes sandwiches.

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‘Castlevania Bloodlines’: The Official Sega Genesis Sequel to Bram Stoker’s Hit Novel, Dracula

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Castlevania Bloodlines

Castlevania isn’t a dialogue-heavy series by any means, but it’s still home to one of gaming’s most compelling narratives. Equipped with only their ancestral weapon, the legendary Vampire Killer, descendants of the Belmont clan face off against Count Dracula every 100 years like clockwork (give or take). His resurrection is inevitable. Just as good will always triumph over evil, evil will rise again. Castlevania was about the cyclical nature of good and evil long before Dracula mused about the nature of humanity in Symphony of the Night. Castlevania chronicled the Belmont family’s centuries-long struggle to keep Count Dracula at bay, game after game. Of course, he wasn’t the Count Dracula– more a representation of evil– but that was as much a given as a Belmont rising up to wield Vampire Killer. Then Castlevania Bloodlines happened. 

Released in 1995 exclusively for the Sega Genesis, Bloodlines may have looked like any other Castlevania game, but it marked a series of eclectic firsts for the franchise. Gone are the Belmonts and the game neither takes place inside of or involves getting to Dracula’s Castle. Bloodlines is even titled Vampire Killer in Japan, creating a bigger divide between it and previous entries, but that hardly compares to Bloodlines’ strangest contribution to the series: making Bram Stoker’s Dracula canon. 

The nature of how Dracula fits into the Castlevania mythos isn’t as plain and simple as just taking the book as writ as canon, but it fits much cleaner than one would expect. Although Bloodlines may lift elements from the novel with its own embellishments, its changes are ultimately inconsequential. Quincey Morris doesn’t have a son in the novel, but he’s the only major character alongside Dracula not to keep a journal, keeping his background relatively obscured. Quincey also doesn’t sport his signature bowie knife in Bloodlines’ backstory, finishing Dracula off with a stake (instead of the Vampire Killer for whatever reason.) 

There’s no mention of Jonathan Harker, Mina, or Abraham Van Helsing– and Dracula’s motives aren’t at all in-line with his novel counterpart’s– but Konami’s references to the novel make it clear that audiences are intended to consider the novel canon even if the details don’t quite match up. It seems a strange choice, especially for a franchise that was pushing its tenth anniversary by the time Bloodlines released in 1995, but it’s not a totally random decision on Konami’s part. Much like how Super Castlevania IV’s tonal maturity gave it a greater layer of depth, Bloodlines thrives off its connection to Bram Stoker’s Dracula

If there’s one immediate benefit to tying Dracula to Castlevania: Bloodlines, it’s grounding the latter in some semblance of reality. Set in 1917, Vampire Killer was the most modern Castlevania to date– not just at its release, but until Aria of Sorrow was released in 2003. The games were never period pieces, but they were set far enough in the past where literal Universal Monsters wouldn’t keep the series from staying narratively grounded. More importantly, the series’ settings were always consistently gothic, creating a unique sense of style around Dracula himself rather than the time period. 

Bloodlines opts for a wildly different approach altogether when it comes to setting, doubling down on the series’ historical elements while keeping Super Castlevania IV’s darker tone intact. Dracula feels a part of the world, rather than the world of Castlevania feeling a part of Dracula. At the same time, Bram Stoker’s Dracula helps ground the very minimal plot by giving John and Eric’s trek across Europe greater scope. John and Eric even have a personal stake in the plot, having witnessed Quincey’s death. It’s all window dressing, but Bloodlines’ assimilation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula gives the series some narrative legitimacy to rub shoulders with its high quality gameplay. 

The connections to Bram Stoker’s Dracula are admittedly loose, but they’re loose enough to work in the game’s benefit. Dracula is structured as an epistolary novel with chapters divided in letters, journal entries, articles, and logs. The story is told coherently, but this approach often results in the point of view & setting changing. While uncertainly a direct reference to the novel, Bloodlines similarly allows players to switch between John & Eric whenever they use a continue on Easy mode, and each stage takes place in a different country rather than just Transylvania. 

Bram Stoker’s Dracula may give Bloodlines its foundation, but it’s that globetrotting that gives the game its identity. Stage 1 opens in Romania, the ruins of Dracula’s Castle left to time after his previous defeat. Where other games would immediately transition into the depths of Castle Dracula, Bloodlines’ Stage 2 instead takes players to the lost city of Atlantis in Greece, while Stage 3 involves scaling the Leaning Tower of Pisa in order to slay a demon at the top. There’s a grandiosity to the stage design simply not present in previous entries. Not just in terms of scope, but in actual structure. 

Only six stages long, Bloodlines is the shortest of the mainline Castlevania games, but it makes up for its lack of length with longer stages overall. The main story falls on the shorter side, but the stage to stage pacing ensures that Bloodlines neither outstays its welcome or goes too soon. While a Stage 7 may have done the game some good, Bloodlines’ six stages offer some of the tightest action-platforming in the franchise. Enemies are by no means infrequent, and Bloodlines requires players to understand both John & Eric’s unique platforming skills by Stage 3, outright preventing progress should players fail to adapt.

John’s unique platforming ability will be familiar to all those who played Super Castlevania IV as, predictably, he can use the Vampire Killer to hang. This time around, however, John can whip onto just about any ceiling. Eric, on the other hand, has a charged jump that thrusts him into the air when released. Eric’s jump ignores platforms entirely, allowing him a degree of verticality Castlevania typically doesn’t give to players. Stage 3 even features a room that’s a bottomless pit for Eric, but easy platforming for John thanks to its whip. Subsequently, there’s a room where John can’t make progress due to the ceiling, but Eric can jump right through.

John and Eric’s abilities are natural extensions & evolutions of Simon’s from Super CV IV, just split between the both of them, but it’s also worth noting how Bloodlines’ more involved platforming helps to further flesh out Castlevania’s world. Bram Stoker’s Dracula coupled with the European setting did more for the series’ world-building at the time than any of its predecessors, save for Rondo of Blood. It’s not often that a video game series absorbs a literary classic into its main plot, but Castlevania handles it surprisingly well. 

It’s fitting that Castlevania Bloodlines is titled Vampire Killer in Japan. At its core, Vampire Killer is a recontextualization of Castlevania. The story is still framed through the Belmonts’ struggle against Dracula, but the scope is wider, extending mediums in the process. Vampire Killer is about the legacy of the Vampire Killer and the vampire killers whose fates are sealed by the whip. Symphony of the Night may be a direct sequel to Rondo of Blood, but Bloodlines set the stage for Symphony to tell a traditional and intimate story.

More important than anything, though, Castlevania taking Bram Stoker’s Dracula and making it a part of its canon is just so outlandish that it makes perfect sense. The series that regularly featured Universal Monsters as bosses was never going to ignore the novel forever. That Bloodlines uses the novel tactfully and in a game where its presence is appropriate– intentional or otherwise– weirdly elevates Castlevania as a franchise. Castlevania isn’t just a Dracula story, it’s the Dracula story. And of all the games to make that declaration with, Bloodlines is a damn good choice. 

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XO19: Top 10 Best Announcements of the Show

Xbox just had their best XO presentation ever, and it wasn’t even close. Here’s a rundown of the best announcements from XO19.

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xo19

Microsoft had a lot to prove going into its fifth annual XO showcase. Console launches are on the horizon, cloud competitor Google Stadia is about to ship to early adopters, and Game Pass subscribers are as hungry as ever for new additions to the lineup. Then there’s the fact that XO has always been looked down upon by the gaming community in general as a lackluster, padded presentation.

All of that changed with XO19. This was, by far, the best XO in the event’s history. In fact, it featured more shocking reveals and genuinely impressive announcements than a good deal of Microsoft’s recent E3 press conferences. From new IP reveals, to first-time looks at gameplay, to a couple “I never would’ve believed you a week ago” shockers, it’s clear that Xbox stepped up its game from years past. Here’s our list of the best announcements of the show.

10. Everwild Reveal

It’s not too often that we get to experience a new IP from Rare. Their last attempt, Sea of Thieves, was a fully multiplayer, always-online affair that gradually garnered a cult following thanks to some of the best community engagement and most consistent content updates in the industry.

We don’t know what type of game Everwild is yet, but it’s certainly oozing that same colorful, ambient charm that made players fall in love with Sea of Thieves all those years ago. Seeing as how we only got a cinematic teaser, though, it might be quite some time before we’re running around these gorgeous environments.


9. ID@Xbox Lineup

The ID@Xbox team has pulled it off again. Despite being stuck with an almost insultingly poor time slot in the presentation, several of the indies shown off in this short montage rivaled some of the show’s AAA spotlights. It had everything from high-profile indies like Streets of Rage 4, Touhou Luna Nights, and the Yacht Club Games-published Cyber Shadow, to more modest beauties like SkateBIRD, Haven, Cris Tales, and she dreams elsewhere.

The best part? All of these are launching on Game Pass day and date. The worst part? No actual dates were announced for anything shown. Regardless, it’s encouraging that so many high quality indies are continuing to come to Xbox (and that relationships with Devolver Digital and Yacht Club are rock-solid).


8. West of Dead Reveal/Open Beta

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Raw Fury has one of the better eyes in the indie publishing scene. Gems like GoNNER, Dandara, and Bad North have all released under their watch, and West of Dead might be their best acquisition yet. It’s a heavily-stylized twin stick shooter that switches things up by making tactical cover a core part of the experience.

The trailer hinted at roguelike elements being present, and the ever-popular procedurally generated levels should significantly up replayability. How it plays, however, remains to be seen…unless you have an Xbox, in which case you can play the exclusive open beta now before the full game comes to all platforms next year.


7. Halo Reach Release Date

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The Master Chief Collection has long been the one golden goose that endlessly eludes those outside of the Xbox ecosystem. Earlier this year, though, Microsoft made waves when it announced that it was bringing the entire collection over to PC. Reach is the first step in that process, and it’s finally making its way to both PC and Xbox One as part of the MCC on December 3rd.

It’s just a date, but the fact that so many new players get to experience one of Halo‘s most beloved outings at last easily made it one of the highlights of the night.


6. Grounded Reveal

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Who woulda thought? Fresh off releasing one of the best RPGs in years with The Outer Worlds, Obsidian decided to show off a passion project from one of its smaller teams: Grounded. The premise? Honey, I Shrunk the Kids: Survival Edition.

Players take control of kids the size of ants as they fight off actual bugs, cook, craft armor and weapon upgrades, and build shelter to survive in the wilderness of someone’s backyard. As silly as it sounds and looks, and as unexpected a project it is for Obsidian to undertake, it genuinely looks rather promising. The cheerful color palette is a welcome contrast to the dark, brooding aesthetic so many other survival games have adopted. There are plenty of details left to be uncovered, but if early impressions are anything to go by, this is one to keep on your radar early next year.


5. Age of Empires IV Gameplay Reveal

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Age of Empires is one of the most esteemed strategy franchises in history. Despite having this beloved IP in their back pocket, however, Microsoft hasn’t published a new mainline game in the series since 2005. Age of Empires IV was originally announced over two years ago, and after buttering everyone up with the release of Age of Empires II Definitive Edition that afternoon, the first glimpse of gameplay was finally shown at XO19.

Simply put, the game looks gorgeous. Every building is full of detail and the countryside looks surprisingly lush and picturesque. Witnessing hundreds of units charging down the valley towards the stronghold in the trailer was mind-blowing as an old-school fan. They didn’t show off any innovations or moment-to-moment gameplay, but it’s looking more and more like the future of the franchise is safe in Relic’s hands.


4. Final Fantasy Blowout

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Xbox’s success in Japanese markets has become something of a running joke over the years. Though inroads were clearly made with Bandai Namco, many more Japanese publishers won’t go within a mile of the platform. Possibly through working with Square Enix’s western division to put the latest Tomb Raider and Just Cause entries on board, it looks like the main branch has finally decided to give Xbox players a chance.

Starting this holiday, Game Pass subscribers will gradually get every single-player Final Fantasy game since Final Fantasy VII. More shocking still, The Verge reported that the Xbox team is working to get the massively popular MMO Final Fantasy XIV over as well. The sheer value of having every post-Super Nintendo Final Fantasy game included in Game Pass (even XV) is ridiculous. It remains to be seen what the rollout cadence of these ten titles will look like, but considering how long each of these are, one per month wouldn’t shock or disappoint.


3. The Reign of Project xCloud

With Stadia launching just next week, Microsoft had been surprisingly quiet on their cloud gaming front up to this point. The service had gone into preview for those lucky enough to get in and, by most accounts, it had been fairly well-received. The real question came down to what Xbox was going to do to make itself stand out from its competition.

The bombs dropped here felt like the equivalent to the thrashing Sony gave to Microsoft back at E3 2013. Microsoft shadow dropped 40+ new games into Preview for players to test (for free) including Devil May Cry 5, Tekken 7, Bloodstained, and Ace Combat 7. Even better, xCloud will support third-party controllers including the DUALSHOCK 4 and will finally show up on Windows 10 PCs in 2020.

Perhaps the most damning announcement, however, is that xCloud will be integrated with Game Pass starting next year. Only having to pay for a Game Pass subscription to access 100+ games and play them in the cloud (including Halo, Forza, The Outer Worlds, and all those Final Fantasy titles) makes xCloud a far better value than Stadia right out of the gate. If this didn’t force Google to adjust its strategy, we might be looking at a very short cloud gaming war.


2. Square Sharing the Kingdom Hearts Love

Kingdom Hearts 3 releasing on Xbox One was somewhat bittersweet. On the one hand, players who had left the PlayStation ecosystem after playing the first games had a chance to see the arc’s conclusion. On the other hand, new players had no options for going back and experiencing the series’ roots.

Kingdom Hearts HD 1.5+2.5 Remix and Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue finally coming to Xbox next year is a godsend for younger players and new players alike. More important, however, is the tearing down of those over 15+ years old exclusivity walls. Just like with many of the Final Fantasys, the main Kingdom Hearts games had been married to PlayStation systems for years. This shift at Square is an exciting one, and it bodes particularly well for the next generation of Xbox hardware.


1. Yakuza Finally Goes Multi-Console

It seems like Phil Spencer’s trips to Japan finally paid off. In what was arguably the most shocking announcement of XO19 (right next to Kingdom Hearts), it was revealed that SEGA is taking the Yakuza series multi-console at last. Not only are Yakuza 0 and Kiwami 1+2 coming to Xbox, but all three are going to Game Pass next year as well.

Does this mean support from Japanese studios will increase across the board? Of course not. But getting big names like Bandai Namco, Square Enix, and SEGA on board is nothing if not encouraging. Xbox is clearly pulling out all the stops to ensure a diverse suite of third-party support come Scarlett’s launch next year, and it’s the healthiest the platform has looked in a very long time.

Honorable Mentions:

Bleeding Edge Release Date

KartRider Drift Reveal/Closed Beta Announcement

Last Stop Reveal

Wasteland 3 Release Date

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‘Garden Story’ First Impressions: The Coziest of Adventures

Long-awaited Twitter darling Garden Story just released its first demo. Here’s what we learned after playing through it twice.

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Following the unfortunate (but understandable) delay of Animal Crossing: New Horizons, there’s been a distinct lack of chill, aesthetic games to fill the void. Garden Story’s charming environmental art and animation have earned it a dedicated social media following, but it wasn’t until Picogram released a demo just a couple of days ago that anyone with a Steam account could actually experience the game for themselves. So, just how fun is this wholesome little RPG?

Setting the Scene

Garden Story’s demo centers around the newly-appointed village guardian Concord (a grape) and their first steps in rebuilding Autumn Town, a community ravaged by a sinister force known as “the Rot.” Chatting with villagers reveals a bit of insight into the situation at hand; it’s soon clear just how much the other townsfolk need the player’s support.

There are several clear parallels to old-school Legend of Zelda titles here, but Garden Story manages to set itself apart rather quickly. For one, this isn’t a solo adventure; the player sets out with Rana (a frog) and Fuji (a tomato) on a friendly quest to be as helpful to the surrounding community as possible. Seeing friends around and watching cute scripted cutscenes between the crew does a great job of instilling a sense of camaraderie and friendship.

In another pleasant twist, everything here is themed around building rather than destroying. Instead of traditional swords and bows, Concord repurposes his dowsing rod and scavenging pick into makeshift weapons. The combat itself calls to mind Stardew Valley; simple, minimal, and clearly not the main focus. There’s a pesky stamina bar that restricts the number of times Concord can attack and how far they can run, frequently forcing players to pause between barrages. In this way, encounters often come off as more of a necessary evil in Concord’s town rehabilitation journey than a main attraction.

Rebuilding a Community

So, how does one go about aiding the town? The method highlighted in the demo was by attending to a quest board with three different types of requests: Threat (combat), Repair (exploration), and Want (gathering). Each is accompanied by a task that plays an integral part in keeping Autumn Town safe and in good working order (e.g. clearing out Rot, finding sewer access so new resources can flow into town, and so on).

Aside from fulfilling requests, there are a few interesting hooks to incentivize hitting every shiny thing you come across regardless. The more different types of items are scavenged, and the more catalogues are filled by being updated with new materials, the more literature becomes available to give little bits of insight into Garden Story’s world and history. Then, in another parallel to Stardew Valley, any leftover resources can be sold in the pursuit of buying tool upgrades.

While the full game will feature four locations to explore and tend to, there was still plenty to do in Autumn Town itself by the end of the demo. Rana mentioned that villagers will post new requests daily, and the demo even featured a mini side quest (called “favors”) that led me to obtain a brand-new tool. Between daily requests, favor fulfillment, and dungeons spread across four different regions, it’s looking like there will be a good bit of content here for those who really want to hang around Garden Story’s world for as long as possible.

Ambient Appeal

Though it remains to be seen just how enticing its complete gameplay loop and accompanying systems are, Picogram’s latest is already delivering on its core appeal: being a cozy, relaxing experience. The color palette is soft, the lighting is moody, and the soundtrack is right up there with the Animal Crossing series as having some of the most mellow, loopable tunes around.

In fact, it’s the sound design in particular that gives Garden Story such an intimate feel. From the sound of a page-turning when entering and exiting buildings to the gentle gurgles of a bubbling brook in the forest, it’s clear that composer Grahm Nesbitt poured a ton of love into making this one feel just right. Here’s hoping the full game more than delivers on all the potential shown here.

Garden Story is slated to release in Spring of 2020 and is available to wishlist on Steam.

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