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Game Reviews

‘Dead Cells’ Review: Die, Die and Die Again

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The warrior with the burning head tentatively crosses the black bridge. He’d finally made it further than ever before. He’d blitzed his way through the prison dungeon, crept his way through the dim turquoise forest, and leapt through the battered ramparts. Now, the warrior treads cautiously. Ahead he can see a looming, mutated figure. On sighting the warrior, the creature roars and begins to stomp towards him. A short while later, the warrior’s broken body smashes lifeless against the cold stone floor of the bridge. Moments after that, he revives back in his prison quarters to start his journey all over again.

Dead Cells, from developer Motion Twin, is a stylish 2D action-platformer that I’m sure some reviewers will call a ‘Metroidvania’ game with modern improvements. Fortunately for you, I have very little experience playing that style of game. Sometimes a fresh, naive set of eyes is what you need.
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Welcome to the Island

Dead Cells’ story is minimalist. The game allows the player to piece together elements of the plot and worldbuilding by stumbling across rooms and reading notes. In spite of this style of storytelling being something I’m enamoured with in similar games, I wasn’t impressed by the story Dead Cells tells. Still, this is one of those rare instances where I’ll admit I’m not playing this game for the rich characters or pathos. I’m playing Dead Cells to harvest some goop and get swole.

The premise: you play as a parasitic slime, a disembodied mass of immortal cells capable of possessing headless bodies. Once firmly seated in your latest host body, you have one simple goal: get the hell off the island you’re currently imprisoned on. And, as it turns out, you’re a kung-fu master, comboing, jumping and rolling your way to freedom as you progress through the world.

And what a world it is. If anyone needed confirmation that 2D pixel art can hang with photo-realistic AAA titles, they need look no further than this game. Its vibrant colour palette combines with a dilapidated horror landscape to create an instantly memorable gaming landscape. In the Ramparts area, for instance, the player character streaks across the prison’s late dusk rooftops, a shadow against the defiant setting sun, as towers scroll in parallax behind you. The levels are designed beautifully, each section distinct and well-balanced.

Death by Design

The character designs double down on Dead Cells’ artistic strengths. The player character is immediately identifiable, smoky, burning head billowing out from a lean warrior’s physique. Hopefully, we’ll see the character cameo in other games, following in the successes of other characters like Shovel Knight. Enemy types tend to share this visual quality.

Early enemy types are quite generic and simplistic, shambling puke-green zombies or Robin Hood-esque archers. However, later enemies have much more visual, and combat, complexity. A personal standout is a pirate enemy that patrols the Stilt Village, a cannon-carrying brute that can both fire explosive projectiles and batter you to death with the thing. More games ought to have pirates in.

The idea is that every time you die, you’ll come back smarter than before—and, sometimes, more powerful. As you progress through each level, you’ll pick up Cells and gold from defeated enemies. If you make it to the end of a level, you can spend your accumulated Cells on permanent upgrades for your character, such as new weapons (from blueprints you obtain from enemies), more health potions, or the ability to carry over gold into the inevitable next run. However, if you die before reaching these end-of-level checkpoints, you’ll lose all of your Cells. Unlike a lot of Souls-inspired games, Dead Cells doesn’t even give you the chance to retrieve these Cells. Sorry, buddy. 

Every time you die, the level layouts change. According to the plot, the island is an organic being which evolves, adapting to your progress. This prevents the game from getting stale; however, there is no stand-out level design due to this randomisation. You’re still playing with all of the same, designed, level sections. They simply get swapped in and out, remixed, on every death. Additionally, I never felt that the island was actually adapting to my style; the levels never actually seemed to counteract my ‘roll-n-slash’ strategy.

Variety is the Spice of Death

Dead Cells has a huge amount of weapons and tools. I don’t think I’ve even encountered all of them in my playthrough. Each weapon has a different moveset, and you’ll come across different weapons every time you respawn. At times, you might be stuck with a certain weapon type that might be uncomfortably slow, or not hit hard enough for your liking. Whenever this happened, I simply kept a classic mantra in mind: “git gud, scrub”. As infuriating as that mantra can be, I think the advice works well in regards to Dead Cells. I died multiple times against the game’s bosses, which, for some, could be mildly frustrating, especially if you’d had a good run prior to your tragic demise. However, it’s simply a learning experience, right? You’ll get ‘em next time.

Like other skill-based action games, once you learn the enemy’s attacks and patterns, you’ll be blasting through the levels until you hit a new zone. The weapons and tools, combined with the mutation mechanic which allows you to get a specialised buff at the end of every level, allow you to build playstyles that suit your run. You can build towards a hyper-aggressive life-stealing DPS fiend, a whirling ballet of dagger slashes and rapid arrow shots, or play cautiously, baiting enemies into the range of well-placed traps or turrets. The latter was how I eventually beat that first boss. 

I only had the one problem with the game’s combat variety. I never found the shields to be very useful, given the usability and feel of rolling. The few times I found a use for them was when I was learning new enemy patterns. Usually, however, I’d be rolling around with a melee weapon and a ranged weapon, and even if I were to pick up a well-designed, unique shield, I’d rarely use it. Given the Sheer, Unlimited Power of the dodge-roll, the shield spaces might have been better served by even MORE melee weapons, but that’s just my personal, Bloodborne-skewed bias.

The game’s attempts at humour, fortunately, spread thin in my time playing it, are often more miss than hit. Ranging from physically painful to nearly-a-smirk, the game’s jokes are juvenile at best and soulless at worst. They serve more as an indictment of internet culture than as a glaring flaw of the game itself, as they are missable and infrequent. However, I felt uncomfortable about a joke where, upon finding a somber room with a suicide, the Prisoner shrugs before punching the hanging body for loot. Yikes, Dead Cells. Alright. Little bit callous. If this sequence was played seriously, the Prisoner would take equipment from the dead man due to necessity. That angle might work, but here, it was clearly played for laughs.

I played Dead Cells on the Switch, and I did notice a few odd performance issues. A frame-rate dip here, a split-second freeze there. There wasn’t anything game-breaking, and frankly, I don’t think the issues influenced my enjoyment of the game in the slightest, but the developers were aiming for a flawless 60FPS. Motion Twin are currently prioritising fixing this issue and bringing the Switch port up to the standard of the other platform releases.

Dead Cells is a brilliant, challenging game empowered by powerful visual design and addictive combat. It’s few flaws do little to detract from the overall experience, even if the story could have done with a little more time in the oven. While taking inspiration from many classic and modern titles, Motion Twin’s latest effort confidently stakes a claim to its identity thanks to bold design choices and mastery of game feel. 

George slumbers darkly in the wastelands of rural Wiltshire, England. He can often be found writing, gaming or catching up on classic television. He aims to be an author by profession, although if that doesn't pan out you might be able to find him on Mars. You can argue with him on Twitter: @georgecheesee

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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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Game Reviews

‘Yaga’ Review: A Bittersweet Fairy Tale

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Yaga Game Review

Some games feel perfectly suited to their genres, as if they fulfill every ambition that their genre could promise. On paper, Yaga from the developer Breadcrumbs Interactive, should be one of those games. This roguelike RPG is meant to bring traditional Slavic folktales to life, and its procedurally generated structure allows the game to change in every playthrough, just like how the ancient fairy tales it’s based on can change in every telling. Yaga immediately shines on a conceptual level, but as a game, the most important question remains: will this fairy tale be enjoyable to play?

From start to finish, Yaga uses the rich source material of Eastern European history and folklore to create a vibrant, fantastical world. The entire game is framed as three elderly women telling the story of Ivan, a heroic blacksmith who has been stricken with the curse of bad luck. These women spin a fanciful yarn, one in which Ivan is constantly plagued by horrors from traditional fairy tales such as the hideous One-Eyed Likho, along with more realistic foes, such as a corrupt, overbearing Tsar. The game thrives on this balance between history and fantasy. Its world is filled with peasants who face daily, universal struggles with war and agriculture, while massive ogres and goblin-like Vodyanoys haunt the surrounding wilderness. This mixture creates a strong setting that finally gives Slavic history and mythology its long-overdue representation in games.

Yaga Game Review

“Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.”

The frame story always remains the same: Ivan will always have to serve his Tsar while avoiding bad luck in every playthrough. However, beyond these core details, the old women are extremely flexible storytellers, often switching events around or changing story beats entirely. In some playthroughs, you may discover a woman raising an enormous chicken; in others, you may instead encounter a band of thieves waiting to rob you. You will frequently face important decisions to make that will dramatically impact the outcome of your quest. yes, you can always break into monster hideouts with hammers blazing to slay every creature before you; but more often than not, you are also given the opportunity to peacefully talk your way out of these toxic situations. Even more dramatically, oftentimes the game will zoom out to the old women storytellers and allow you to choose how they tell the rest of Ivan’s story. Yaga is at its best when it doubles down on this player freedom. It makes every moment engaging and allows its stories to truly come alive.

Yaga

Yaga’s writing and presentation only serve to make this world even more striking. It features a distinctly dark sense of humor – for instance, a man may ask you to push a boulder into a well behind his house, but he will neglect to tell you that he has also thrown his wife into the bottom of that well ahead of time. Much of this dialogue is even written in rhyme, enhancing the otherworldly, fairy tale atmosphere. On top of that, nearly all dialogue is fully voice acted, with most voice actors delivering some eccentrically charming performances that make the game feel as if it’s a playable Disney film. The visuals look like they’re taken straight out of a Russian children’s book of fairy tales, while the music incorporates traditional instruments and language into an electronic, hip-hop fusion soundtrack that captures the cultural heritage that Yaga focuses on while connecting it to modern culture. Take the presentation and story together, and Yaga becomes a playable portrait of the lives and superstitions of Eastern European peasants.

However, this leads to the gameplay. Quests may be randomized each time you play, but nearly every one of them takes the same general format. One character will request help, and then Ivan will have to venture out into the world to fight some demons or recover an item. Worse yet, the levels are just as randomized in their procedurally generated design, and not in a particularly clever way, either: most of them likewise follow the same formula, being little more than arenas full of enemies connected by copy-and-paste environments. Many paths in each environment lead to nothing more than pointless dead ends. The combat has a satisfyingly simple basis, with basic moves like long- and close-range attacks, roll dodging, items to use, and a variety of different weapons to equip, although his trusty old hammer is generally the best choice. However, while this simplicity makes the combat enjoyable on its own, there is very little depth to it, and the inherently repetitive design of the mission only serves to highlight how paper-thin combat can be. Most battles involve little more than hacking away at enemies until they die, which becomes increasingly repetitive by the end of the roughly ten-hour campaign.

Yaga

At the very least, the robust customization system helps add a little intrigue to the combat. As a blacksmith, Ivan is naturally gifted with the ability to craft weapons for himself to use. By scavenging parts and items from fallen enemies and treasure chests around the world, Ivan is able to create the most powerful weapons. Crafting is simple to use yet extremely ripe for experimentation, requiring only one base item and a handful of accessories to create unique new items. With dozens of components to discover and use in your forging, there are plentiful opportunities to create the best possible weapons.

“All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.”

The crafting system would be the standout aspect of the moment-to-moment gameplay if it weren’t foiled by another one of the game’s systems: Bad Luck. Ivan has been cursed with perpetual Bad Luck, which grows constantly throughout the game – whenever something good happens, Bad Luck is sure to increase. Whenever the Bad Luck meter fills all the way, Likho will appear and strike Ivan, generally breaking one of his weapons or stealing his money.

Yaga Game Review

On paper, this mechanic makes sense, since it prohibits the player from becoming too overpowered and also fits into the folklore style off the story. In practice, however, it is an infuriating limitation on player progression and invention. It effectively punishes players for putting thought and care into their weapon crafting and character-building – at any moment it can all be washed away in bad luck, so what’s the point? Considering how enjoyable the crafting and combat systems are, it’s a shame that Bad Luck seems to exist solely to diminish the very best parts of the gameplay, leaving the game feeling like it cripples itself.

Your enjoyment of Yaga depends heavily on what experience you want out of it. If you’re looking for a deep and satisfying RPG, then it likely won’t deliver. Although it features satisfying combat and customization systems, the frustrating randomization of its level design and Bad Luck system only serve to foil these good qualities. If you are instead looking for a faithful, fleshed-out image of Slavic cultural heritage, portraying both the harsh realities of peasant life along with its fanciful folklore, then Yaga is a clear triumph thanks to its emphasis on player choice, its excellent writing, and its beautiful hand-drawn visuals and inventive soundtrack. All told, Yaga achieves a bittersweet ending: it’s bitter as a game but sweet as a fairy tale.

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Game Reviews

‘Remothered: Tormented Fathers’ Review: I Want My Remummy

There’s merit to be had if you just want a quick bash at a quirky, indie horror game, but with so many flaws, I can’t recommend Remothered.

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Remothered: Tormented Fathers Review

It feels like a while since the ‘survival horror but you can’t fight back’ genre was at its peak, especially with the recent, tradition-tinged revival of the Resident Evil series, but back in 2017 when Remothered: Tormented Fathers was being developed for PC it was all the rage. Like any indie game that’s had even the slightest amount of interest or acclaim during the current generation, Remothered has received the now-obligatory Switch port. Although its modest technical requirements clearly made a successful transition to the platform more than manageable, they don’t help to hide the game’s very obvious shortcomings.

Players take control of Rosemary Reed in her attempts to investigate retired notary Dr. Richard Felton, who is currently undergoing treatment for a mysterious disease. Oh, and he has a missing daughter that he probably murdered. The plot of the game feels a little cliché, but it’s undoubtedly its strongest facet. However, suspending your disbelief at the ropy animations and dodgy voice-acting is needed to avoid being sucked into feeling like you’re watching Theresa May running around a big mansion trying to escape from a John Cleese impersonator with his arse hanging out. Alas, I clearly failed in this endeavor.

Remothered is essentially a game of ‘go there, fetch that, bring it here, use it’ with an added element of ‘don’t let the annoying old man kill you in the face with a sickle’. Yeah, one of those ones. The story takes place almost entirely within Felton’s huge mansion, and navigating the ol’ girl is by far the game’s toughest element. It’s made especially harder while you’re constantly on edge, trying to avoid the stalking lunatic without a map, weapons, or a proper objectives system. Be prepared for your bearings to be quite considerably lost.

There are a couple of ways to avoid that face full of sickle. There’s a dodge button (provided Rosemary isn’t too tired to actually dodge), a run button, distraction items, and defense items that will automatically be used to escape a grab attack if you have one equipped at the time. Remember those crappy bits in Resident Evil 4 where you had to play as Ashley? This is like that… for a whole game.

While a little tired in 2019, there’s nothing inherently wrong with the formula of the weapon-less survival horror game – it’s just that in Remothered, it’s not implemented all that well. Enemy AI routing is weird, which should be grounds for an unpredictable fright-fest, but leans more toward the annoying and/or hilarious. It seemed like the stalkers would either sit directly outside the room I needed to enter – barely moving and refusing to be distracted for longer than a few seconds before returning immediately to their original spot right on my current objective – or simply bugger off to another floor and never come back.

Even with his penchant to completely vacate the area, and despite his advancing years, Dr. Felton possesses supersonic hearing. It seemingly doesn’t matter how far away you are – if you run in this game, he will hear you. To make matters worse, the sound design just doesn’t make sense. With every press of the run button, enemy dialogue would instantly change to indicate they’d heard you and then loud footsteps would permeate every room you enter as if they were right behind you, when they most certainly are not.

It’s either a cheap scare tactic to give the impression of enemies constantly being within touching distance, or the fallout from a combination of naff sound design and the limitations of my Switch’s Pro Controller not having a headphone port. What makes it worse is that everything is so campy that it’s seldom scary in any tangible way. When the man trying to murder you is constantly shouting about how he hasn’t got anything to eat that isn’t moldy while you hide in his cupboard, it’s not exactly bone-chilling.

As a result of the big-eared murderers and their impeccable radar tuned to the sounds of running, I spent almost the entirety of the game… well, not running. Unfortunately, Rosemary walks slower than an asthmatic ant with heavy shopping, and this made exploring the mansion a monotonous chore – especially when getting caught and subsequently having to run up and down floors to hide before slowly sneaking back to restart the investigation.

Puzzles are that old school type of obtuse where you’re tasked with finding everyday items to fix problems. The puzzle itself lies in realizing the item the developer decided should work, finding it in the giant four-floor mansion, and slowly returning to the its intended area of use without dying. For example, in order to get into an attic, you have to search rooms at random to find an umbrella to pull down the door’s previously-out-of-reach cord. It’s such a shame that Remothered eschews any type of self-contained puzzle for a string of confusing fetch quests, as everything feels more tedious than taxing.

It feels a little unfair to bemoan the lack of polish for a two-year-old indie game, but Remothered is full of niggling issues. Animations are janky, lip-syncing is non-existent, and the camera wigs out after the QTEs to fight off enemies have finished – always pointing you in the wrong direction. I also encountered a couple of game-breaking bugs where Rosemary did her door-opening animation without the door actually opening, and I couldn’t enter the room without rebooting the game. Lastly, and I don’t want to be too harsh to an Italian developer, but the in-game English is pretty abysmal, and lots of the game’s expositional notes and articles border on illegible through their poor translations.

There are some people out there who can’t get enough of the whole hiding under sofas schtick, but I like my survival horror games with better psychological tension, a (limited) means to fight back, and coherent puzzle-solving. There’s merit to be had in the game’s labyrinthine setting and short length if you just want a quick bash at a quirky, campy indie horror game in the Haunting Grounds model, but with so many flaws and such a frustrating gameplay loop, I can’t recommend Remothered: Tormented Fathers outside of anything other than morbid curiosity.

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