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‘Dishonored 2’ Review – A (Slightly) Flawed Gem

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Dishonored 2 is a game that encourages a creative approach above all else. Where other games settle for for a lone, linear path – or in some cases, even force it – Dishonored 2 offers several. Best of all, these different paths are meaningful, detailed and incredibly fun to explore.

There’s a big decision to be made even at the outset of the game: do players take the role of Corvo, the Royal Protector and protagonist of the first game, or the Empress Emily, an empathetic but inexperienced leader? Each comes with different abilities, though their story will play out almost exactly the same in every way – most lines of dialogue have been written in such a way that they could apply to either character.

Unfortunately, this is one of a few indications that the story feels like an afterthought, rather than any kind of focus. The first game wasn’t exactly lauded for its plot, but it did a great job of building an interesting world and filling it with a good deal of mystery and intrigue. While the world-building is just as good – or really, better – in this sequel, that mystery is absolved entirely, replaced with a plot that would be as generic as possible if not for some of the holdovers from the first game.

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It’s a shame, too. One character remarks, “the world is better with a hint of mystery”, so it seems like the writers were at least aware of the fact. While straight-up storytelling isn’t necessarily an issue, the problem is that all the intrigue of the first game has been replaced by generic and uninteresting explanations. There’s still a lot we don’t know – some of the details of the supernatural, for example – but a great deal of subtlety has been lost, with no benefit from doing so.

The good news is that the story is at least inoffensive and unobtrusive, even if it may come as a bit of a disappointment to fans of the first game. It also may only be such an issue because the world at large – and especially the city of Karnaca – is so beautifully and intricately designed that the otherwise ordinary plot and characters become so obviously sub-par.

The game takes place in Karnaca, “The Jewel of the South”, rather than the dreary and rain-drenched streets of Dunwall (though players will spend a little bit of time there, too). Karnaca is, put simply, one of the greatest locations in gaming history. Each area – tiny or otherwise – is littered with details, and every single prop feels as though it belongs, both in the world and as a useful tool for more imaginative players. It’s a beautiful and sunny sea-side paradise, as far-removed from Dunwall as possible.

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Each mission takes place in an intricate environment, and every player will be able to find a path that suits their style. It’s possible to complete every level without so much as distracting a guard, with the exception of some major characters, but it’s also possible to complete the game as a supernatural killing machine, and the game will treat each strategy as being equally viable.There are so many paths, hidden side quests and things to steal that it’s almost impossible for a player to find them all on a single play through.

Having said that, whether you pick Emily or Corvo, the basic mechanics are the same. Players will sneak, steal, kill (though the game can be completed without killing a soul) and use their supernatural powers to achieve their goals. Where they’re different – other than a handful of lines from NPCs – is in their suite of powers.

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Very early into the game, players meet the Outsider, the mysterious god-like character from the first game. He’ll grant them a choice: accept his gift, allowing access to (incredibly fun) powers, or reject his gift and move on. It’s important to note that it’s possible to reject the powers and play without them, and each level is designed with multiple routes in mind for such players, though it’s significantly more difficult.

Corvo will gain access to his powers from the first game, though they’re slightly re-tuned and upgraded. One upgrade allows “Blink” – the quintessential teleport move – to freeze time while the player is aiming, as seen in the DLC of the first game. Players can also make their rat swarms deadlier than ever, or possess the dead as a means of scouting. It’s comfortingly familiar with enough of an edge to keep old fans invested, and freezing time never gets old.

Emily, on the other hand, is completely different. She does have a rough equivalent of Corvo’s Blink in the spell “Far Reach”, which summons a shadowy tendril to propel her across large gaps or from cover to cover, but most of her powers are brand new, and typically much more interesting than Corvo’s.

For example, Emily has access to the “Domino” spell, which will tie the fates of guards together. Use Domino on four guards and decapitate one, then watch the others fall in an instant. She can also summon a Doppelganger to distract or fight guards while she slips by.

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Where Dishonored 2 gets really interesting is in the combination of these ideas. Need to take down a large group of guards, but can’t get close? Summon a Doppelganger and use Domino on it, so whatever you do to it is replicated on the nearby guards. Clever players have even discovered that a Doppelganger can be summoned below Emily as she’s in mid-air as a means to break her fall. The possibilities are nearly endless and are always satisfying.

While the combination of powers feels like enough to keep the game fresh for years, the levels themselves also offer plenty of variety. The first few missions offer glimpses into the lives of Karnacan locals, but don’t have much in the way of variety. This changes – dramatically – when players arrive at the brilliant Clockwork Mansion. Levers and buttons scattered around the enormous mansion will cause it to shift, with walls pushing in and furniture rising out of the floor to completely change the layout at a whim. Even better is that clever players can find their way behind these walls and into the mechanical innards.

Another level has players seeing into the past and present simultaneously, being able to shift from one to the other at will, with the player’s actions in the past having powerful effects on the present. These levels mix up the gameplay in clever ways and allow for some outstanding puzzles and secrets, but they do sometimes feel as though they undermine the powers and stealth to a degree.

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Dishonored 2 isn’t likely to make the same kind of waves as its predecessor, if only because it isn’t here to present new ideas, content with refining those found in the original and touching up the gameplay with some new powers and mechanics. This is a shame, because it’s an absolutely brilliant game that undoubtedly deserves your time. The only thing stopping it from being a masterpiece is the generic story and boring characters, but they’re hardly enough to get in the way of a good time.

As a quick note, many players are complaining about severe performance issues when playing on PC. While I didn’t encounter any in either of my plays through the game, it’s something to be aware of. Arkane has promised that a fix is in the works and is due in the near future. In the meantime, Bethesda has offered some advice.

Rowan is a lifelong gamer, and has spent a socially unacceptable amount of time playing them. His favourite games are "Metal Gear Solid 3", "The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker", and "Trying to get a job".

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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