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A Post-Apocalyptic Retrospective Part 2: A Critique of ‘Fallout 4’

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Now that we’ve seen the progression of one of the greatest franchises in gaming history we can get to the problem at hand, everything that Fallout 4 got wrong. Instead of trying to outdo the level of player input in New Vegas, match the complex quest structures of Fallout 2, or even trying to stay in line with the satirical tone set in stone by Fallout itself, Bethesda made the executive decision that the series wasn’t about ANY of these things. Nope, if Fallout 4 and its embarrassing first two DLCs are any indication, Bethesda thinks that the quintessential Fallout experience revolves around going to ruined places, murdering things, reveling in the frequent ding of experience points, and being rewarded by repeating the same sequence for a hundred hours. For the first time, I understood what the purists felt when Fallout 3 was released. Here was this marvel of a series that was intelligent, innovative, and above all else, entertaining, and instead of getting a modernization of mechanics and progression of its themes, fans slogged through a first-person-shooter wearing Fallout’s face as they slowly realized that nearly every compelling element they cared about had been stripped down, misinterpreted or gutted entirely. Better presentation, tighter controls, and all the hype in the world couldn’t save this game from being the most mindless, shallow and disappointing game I’ve played all year. It isn’t an objectively awful video game, but it is an absolutely abysmal Fallout entry.

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This is not an instance of a series’ stagnation nor a team’s refusal to innovate, which is commonly used to criticize the Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed games, but a case of blatant misdirection. Fallout 4 not only fails to progress the series in any meaningful way, but manages to actually regress the franchise to the point where it is hardly recognizable. Fallout 3 was designed to be more user-friendly and accessible for newcomers, but as linear as its main quest was, its side quests, unmarked events and environmental storytelling made up for its simplification of more complex systems before New Vegas perfected the balance of action and RPG mechanics. The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim faced similar criticisms of being oversimplified, and while I mainly agree with this, the sense of wonder that it conveyed through its use of diverse locations like The College of Winterhold, the Thieves Guild headquarters beneath Riften, and Blackreach, made it a worthwhile experience overall. Fallout 4 cherry-picked some of the worst aspects of their past projects like the ungodly repetitive “radiant quests” of Skyrim, and the streamlining of the main quest from Fallout 3 and bewilderingly made them core parts of the game. Aside from its great aesthetics and polish (by Bethesda standards), Fallout 4 fails in nearly every category.

Before systematically going through all the ways this game regressed, it’s only fair to give credit where credit is due and praise the parts of the game that were actually improved. The sole factors that are undisputedly better in Fallout 4 than any other game in the series are its graphics and controls/movement. While its stiff animations and occasional glitches prevent it from comparison to the likes of The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt or Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, its visuals and environments are leagues ahead of past games, and post-apocalyptic America has never looked so enticing. Dynamic lighting, interior skyboxes and changing weather also add to the games atmosphere significantly. More importantly, sprinting is a godsend that should have been added years ago and the contextual cover system and improved VATS are nice additions to a game that will live or die depending on how long it takes the player to get bored of shooting at things. Another minor change that goes a long way is that looting bodies or containers now takes place in real time, adding a good amount of urgency when scrambling for ammo and weapons during a firefight. The user interface overall is functional most of the time, but companions remain as hard to control as ever and the idiotic decision to implement a limited dialogue wheel in a series that’s supposed to be story based is beyond my comprehension, but I’ll dive deeper into that when we get to the story.

Enemy AI may be marginally more intelligent than in past games, but NPCs and allies remain dumb as dirt, constantly obstructing your path and refusing to cooperate while in settlements. Though the game does feature a vastly more expansive weapon and armor crafting system that should improve customization in theory, its actual implementation simultaneously undermines the game’s own economy, loot, character progression and inventory systems. Equipment mods that are found, work as they do in Fallout: New Vegas, but are indeed more varied, the real trouble comes when creating these mods. The first problem encountered by players eager to begin crafting is the needlessly high barrier to entry for each type of mod. Want to attach something stronger than chains to a baseball bat? That’s going to require a base Strength of 4 and 2 ranks of the Blacksmith perk. Feel like slapping a night vision scope on that laser rifle? Better have a base Intelligence of 6 and 2 ranks of the Science! perk. Need to put any rank 3 mod on an actual gun? That sucks, you need to be level 25 to put those 3 ranks into the Gun Nut perk, which also needs a base 4 Intelligence.

By the time most players are at high enough levels to actually craft anything worthwhile, they then run into the problem of not realizing that duct tape and cameras are more valuable than actual weapons, since the adhesive and crystal that they can be broken down into can make better killing machines than anything a wandering merchant is carrying. The fact that you can make better items than what you can loot off legendary enemies, or buy, destabilizes how the game actually plays out, making players more interested in rummaging through craft stores than hunting the game’s strongest enemies. The only customizable system that doesn’t break the game is how it treats Power Armor, making numerous mods a ton of fun to track down, making it feel just as rewarding to pilot as in other games to compensate for how early you get it.

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If the crafting system didn’t already make this clear, the character building system is an absolute disaster. The once diverse and customizable SPECIAL system has been oversimplified in a way that makes even Skyrim’s lousy character building look like Dark Souls by comparison. Completely eliminating skills themselves, players pick their base SPECIAL stats at the start of the game, and then gain a perk per level, with each one locked behind both level and SPECIAL requirements. As if this didn’t dumb things down enough, SPECIAL stats can now be leveled up in the same manner as perks and there is no level cap. This completely eliminates any individuality among different characters, since any given one can not only max out all of their abilities, but completely redo their base stats. Making matters even worse, stats like Charisma and Luck are made almost useless, as they have, comparatively, no practical effect on the game. Since skill points were removed entirely, skill checks have also been nearly omitted (there are only a handful of them in the base game), meaning that no dialogue or special occurrences are limited to specific builds. Two thirds of speech challenges themselves have been relegated to asking for higher amounts of caps from people, and since you can now quick save during conversation, the entire system becomes pointless. Considering how essential certain perks are to crafting, settlement building and combat, nearly every player will dump points into the same skills (Lockpicking, Hacking, Crafting etc.). By locking major mechanics behind these perks, Bethesda kneecapped their entire game, assuring that every playthrough will feel exactly the same. I honestly can’t comprehend how anybody thought this was a good system to put in an RPG, making a game that should be personal and replayable, generic and a waste of time.

I wish I could blame the lack of care given to the RPG elements of the game on the Settlement system that Bethesda seemingly put so much effort into, but just like the other important aspects of Fallout 4, it’s ill conceived and poorly implemented. While fans and modders alike have always fantasized about building their own towns in this series, I doubt that any of them would actually prioritize this feature over making a competent entry of the franchise, let alone one that was as unpleasant as the one Bethesda made. Aside from the garbage controls for constructing whatever eyesore most players will inflict on their villagers, the developers failed to create an effective tutorial to actually teach players how to use the system effectively. Assigning villagers to jobs, sending them to different settlements and actually powering these hellholes are also needlessly convoluted and the transition between creation mode and normal gameplay is so jarring that it’s amazing that more players don’t suffer from whiplash. Although a few dedicated fans (and masochists) may find some fun to be had in this mess, it takes up a ridiculous amount of time, and is mandatory to reach certain points of the game for factions like the Minutemen. The more time spent with this game, the more apparent it becomes that Bethesda was so obsessed with allowing players to create their own world that they nearly forgot to make an interesting world of their own. For all the games vivid aesthetics and detailed environments, only a handful of these environments actually serve a purpose. In truth, Diamond City, Goodneighbor the Prydwen and eventually The Institute, are the only locations that the game puts any effort into developing, possibly hoping that players would care more about bland, self-established villages that they have to babysit, than actual towns. While the map is definitely better designed from a gameplay perspective, incorporating a lot of verticality into urban cityscapes, the various blips on the map are significantly less inspired than even Bethesda’s own Fallout 3. In fact, most of them play out similar to the banal dungeons of Skyrim, serving only to usher you along a direct path towards a token boss monster that will undoubtedly reward the player with some “unique loot,” which will inevitably be less practical than whatever the player has been encouraged to craft.

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This tired, bland design is even permeable in the game’s disappointing quests, the majority of which solely exist to take up space and provide some semblance of progression. Preston Garvey’s “Another settlement needs our help, I’ll mark it on your map!” quote didn’t become a meme because it was funny, it became a meme because it’s a pathetically encompassing phrase that sums up everything wrong with this game’s mentality of “It doesn’t matter what you accomplished or why you did it, just move on to the next thing!” Radiant quests sound great on paper. They have no bearing on the game world besides taking up play time, they can be randomly generated, they can be justified by the player because it keeps rewarding them, and most importantly, they usually don’t require any effort. The fact that these words are the most memorable part of the game says more than any critic ever could. I’ve run through radiation storms without a suit, I’ve charged up to Alpha Deathclaws to fight them with my bare hands, I’ve run through artillery fire naked, but I’ll be damned before I ever set foot near Preston Garvey again. The main quests leave absolutely no room for interpretation. You’re going to side with one of four equally underwritten factions, kill whoever they don’t like and end the game by either crashing the Brotherhood’s airship or detonating the Institute’s nuclear reactor, and I promise you that reading that sentence was more enjoyable than actually doing either mission. Even the quests that take place in some of the most vibrant environments in the series, like the Glowing Sea, the Institute and downtown Boston manage to completely waste the space. I lugged 300 pounds of duct tape, assault weapons and desk fans to Fenway Park, and this game seriously expects me to care about a quest to paint the walls? Give me a break. It’s a real shame that a setting as rich and full of history as Boston was merely used as window dressing.

Though Fallout 4’s gameplay is incredibly disappointing when compared to the series, if it was simply called something else, it would be a considered a pretty mediocre action game with some shallow RPG elements. No, where this game really falls flat is its story. The Fallout series’ main stories (until now, I guess) are based on three central principles. Primarily: the games satirize the ultra-patriotic, blind nationalism that purveyed the country in the Cold War era in order to create a false sense of nostalgia for an “American Golden Age” that never actually existed. Secondarily: the games use this setup to create an absurdist post-apocalyptic backdrop, aesthetically and fundamentally trapped in the Atomic-age, where the “old world” is a concept so foreign that it is utterly incomprehensible to the survivors of the very damage it caused. And most importantly: for the most part, this setting is played totally straight, and characters behave in realistic ways that show genuine emotion and thought. Fallout 4 quickly breaks the first two of these ideas within the opening minutes while rushing through a prologue that takes place before the bombs fell. Instead of making your own character, Bethesda decided you will pick one of two fully voiced protagonists; a stoic male war veteran, or his wife (no, she doesn’t get any defining characteristics). Coincidentally, seconds after signing up for the nearest Vault, bomb sirens sound off as the Great War begins. After being cryogenically frozen in the vault for 210 years, you are awoken to the sight of your spouse murdered and your baby kidnapped. Escaping the Vault into post-apocalyptic Boston, called “The Commonwealth”, the “Sole Survivor” sets out on journey to find their son and avenge their lover.

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Honestly, there are so many problems with even the basic set up that the only way to organize it is to systematically break it down from the beginning. To begin, the game quickly and thematically separates itself from every other main title in Fallout by grounding its player in the pre-war world. This could have been handled in an interesting manner, asking deep questions about what it means to be a “man/woman out of time,” how it feels to lose your old world and how a survivor would see the new Commonwealth, but due to both the games unambitious story and terrible dialogue options, it is completely wasted. Worse than that, it replaces the iconic satire of the old-world with a genuine sense of nostalgia for it, placing the protagonist on a pedestal and acting as though they are going to be the saving grace that returns the world to how it was. Instead of critiquing the ridiculous state of Cold War America, the game is effectively endorsing it. In addition to this, it completely demystifies the Great War lore, by showing it firsthand. Even from a direct narrative perspective, the intro is all too brief and coincidental to justify any player actually caring for this family. Fallout 3 spanned the first 19 years of the hero’s growth into adulthood, making them actually connect with their father before he disappears, so they can actually justify the whole game revolving around him. New Vegas was even more concise and effective with its introduction. “This guy directly tried to murder you, go deal with him as you see fit.” It’s both open-ended enough to allow for player input, and simplistic enough that you the player, want revenge as much as the Courier. Fallout 4’s prologue gives no depth to any of the family, then expects gamers to care about them when they disappear. It’s a rushed, shallow and lazy way to kick off a story.

Sadly, this laziness has been extended to the entire plot of the game, by replacing the perfectly functional scrolling, optional dialogue menu with a limited four option wheel. When this was first shown in trailers, fans held their breath to see if the game could pull off fully voiced player-dialogue based on optional brief prompts (as Mass Effect perfected). Having played through the game multiple times and exhausting every conversation tree I could find, I can confidently say that Fallout 4 has the most incompetent and ineffective character interaction system of any major RPG I’ve ever played. Any semblance of character or intrigue is completely lost on this game, as all speech options boil down to four responses: yes, snarky yes, no or more information. Further information only returns the conversation to the same four options until you eventually choose whatever option is required to make the game proceed. Apart from which faction you choose and a handful of side quests, the player’s actions are completely inconsequential to the game’s story. At one point the player has to rescue robotic detective Nick Valentine (one of the three or four developed characters in the entire game) from Vault 114, the headquarters of the mafia-like Triggermen. Whereas other entries in the series would have multiple options for stealth, diplomacy, hacking/lockpicking or rigging the Vault’s environment to help, Fallout 4 becomes just another corridor kill-fest until you face the man in charge, and convince him to run away. Like every companion in the game, Nick begins your partnership questioning your character, watches you kill some people he doesn’t like or approves of your stealing skills, tells you their tragic back story, watches you do more meaningless busywork, reveals some “shocking” twist to his life, and then declares your friendship for life. Compared to the companion quests in New Vegas, this is one of the biggest downgrades to the story by far.

Complex characters like Arcade Gannon, Cass and Boone didn’t give you soliloquies every other time they saw you blow somebody’s brains out, they carefully evaluated specific decisions you made, who you sided with, how you treated others and what your overall goals for your adventure were. Despite meeting their judgments of your character, you couldn’t just click through dialogue, you had to actually think about what you were trying to say and what words you would use to appeal to the companion’s personality. Fallout, Fallout 2 and New Vegas had some of the most colorful and interesting dialogue options I’ve seen in the medium. Every journey was filled with deception, playing multiple parties, intimidation, seduction and persuasion. The series that once had a range of player dialogue from lighthearted quips like “On the scale of one to ten, I’d say it’s a ‘shut the fuck up and fix me,’” to philosophical debates such as “Where you see death, I see change – and I see it as a strength.” These shortcomings all culminate in the game’s sorry excuse for “endings.” Delusionally believing that allowing the player to continue playing the game after the final mission excuses them from providing any sense of closure, Bethesda chose to not include the iconic endgame slides that show your impact on the world. A lot of fans were outraged at this change, but it’s actually quite reasonable on the developers’ part, considering you DID NOT have a meaningful impact on any part of the Commonwealth. Sure you blew up your enemies, but what did that accomplish practically? What does that mean thematically? How are the people we met affected by this? All good questions, none of which are answered. All the player gets is a pat on the back, a few cool items and a worthless title before being sent on to the real heart of the game: more radiant quests and settlement building! Fundamentally misunderstanding the very premise of the series, Fallout 4 neglected to include any role-playing in a role-playing game, resulting in the weakest title of the franchise and one of the biggest disappointments of 2015.

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“But wait-,” some fans say in denial, “some of the best parts of these games were the DLC. A few good expansions can put Fallout 4 on par with the franchise! Right?” I’ll get to this anti-consumer thinking later, for now, let’s take a look at what Bethesda has put out so far. The first DLC was promising enough when considering the low bar set by the base game. Released on March 22nd, Automatron brought back one of my favorite villains from Fallout 3: The Mechanist! It offered four fairly interesting quests, a mediocre twist on a fan-favorite character and introduced customizable robots to the game. Mixing and matching parts for robot companions is a fun gimmick at first, but grows boring quickly, as the robot’s bland writing contrasts their striking design. Yet again, the game locks a major system away behind the ranks of (what should be) build-specific perks like Robotics Expert, Science!, Blacksmith and Armorer. It’s an entertaining little distraction, but for the same price as past DLCs, Automatron is hardly worth the cost of entry. Buying time to finish up the first expansion that would actually be worth a damn, Bethesda released Wasteland Workshop for half the price of a normal DLC. To the collective groans of the gaming community, the expansion added a few more options for settlement building and a barely functional “Arena mode,” that allowed players to capture and fight the various enemies of the Commonwealth. While those five dollars would be better spent on games like Super Hexagon, Pony Island or The Binding of Isaac, if you’re somehow into building meaningless defenses for nameless villagers and a pointlessly good looking town, Wasteland Workshop can definitely do that for you. Finally, we get to the newly released Far Harbor. Regardless of the fact that the only reason I have this expansion is because I was dumb enough to buy the season pass, and likely due to the incredibly low expectation I had going into it, Far Harbor blew me away. I have almost no complaints about it. It is easily one of the best expansions of any game in the series. With better writing, a more interesting atmosphere, less linear quests and actual player choice, this expansion follows the Sole Survivor’s interactions with the three factions fighting over control of the titular fog covered island off the coast of Maine. The Synth character, DiMA, alone is more compelling than nearly any given character or companion in the Commonwealth, and linking him to Fallout 4’s strongest component, Nick Valentine, was a brilliant move. Featuring a ton of exotic weapons and enemies, the main quest’s level of interactivity and genuine intrigue made me question if it was even made by the same team of people who made the base game!

That being said, under no circumstance would I ever recommend playing Fallout 4 over any other game in the franchise, or any of the various better RPGs released in recent memory. At its core, it is a fundamentally unbalanced, oversimplified and boring video game that failed its series, its genre and its fans. The myriad of thematic, narrative and mechanical problems that plague this game are not simple issues that can be patched, altered or remeoved. A Mass Effect 3-style extended ending cannot make up for its horrendous dialogue and no amount of balancing can fix its tedious quests. Barring a Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn-scale remake, recommending Fallout 4 solely to experience Far Harbor or any future DLC would be like asking somebody to play through Bioshock 2 a dozen times so they can get to experience its Minerva’s Den expansion. Fallout 4’s depth makes Fallout 3 look like Dwarf Fortress by comparison. Bethesda sacrificed every nuanced RPG aspect of the Fallout franchise to make a sub-par action game that would appeal to larger markets while banking on the goodwill of dedicated fans. War never changes- but this franchise has, and I seriously doubt Bethesda will be the team to change it back.

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If you want to see Part 1 of the retrospective, check here: http://www.goombastomp.com/features/fallout-retrospective-part-1/

To learn more about the recent controversy surrounding Fallout 4 PC mods being stolen for the console addition, check out Wesley Yin-Poole’s write up on Eurogamer: http://www.eurogamer.net/articles/2016-06-06-row-over-stolen-fallout-4-mods

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Erik Malkavian

    July 8, 2016 at 1:30 am

    Great assesment. I have get a hollow feeling everytime I go to a new area HOPING it will have something meaningful going on and a quest but 90% of the time I found just another “shoot ’em bang bang” damn freakin’ Bethesda for this hollow and shallow game!

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Most Important Games of the Decade: ‘Dark Souls’

Despite the difficulty and learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the Dark Souls series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers.

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Dark Souls Remastered Review Nintendo Switch

Over the course of the last decade a lot of games have made large and influential impacts on the medium of gaming but few have done so as significantly or triumphantly as Dark Souls

The pseudo-sequel to Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls took the framework of the original title and altered it considerably. Gone were the many individual stages and hub area, replaced by a massive open world that continuously unfolded, via shortcuts and environmental changes, like a massive metroidvania style map. 

Dark Souls also doubled down on nearly every aspect of the original. The lore and world-building were elaborated on considerably, making the land of Lordran feel more lived in and expansive. An entire backstory for the game, one that went back thousands of years, was created and unfolded through small environmental details and item descriptions. 

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The bosses were bigger, meaner and more challenging, with some of them ranking right up there with the best of all time. Even standard enemies seemed to grow more deadly as the game went on, with many of them actually being bosses you’d faced at an earlier time in the game. Tiny details like this didn’t just make the player feel more powerful, they added to the outright scale of the entire game.

Still, if we’re here to talk about the biggest influence Dark Souls had on the gaming world, we have to talk about the online system. While the abilities to write messages and summon help were available in Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls improved on and enhanced these features to the point where they changed the game considerably. 

The wider player base made the online components work more consistently as well. Rarely were players left standing around for 15-20 minutes waiting to summon or be summoned for a boss fight. There were more messages on the ground to lead (or mislead) players, and the animated spirits of dead players warned of the hundreds of ways you might die while playing through the game. 

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The addictive nature of the game and its rewarding gameplay loop would lead to the establishment of the Souls-like genre. Like with metroidvania, there are few compliments a game can receive that are as rewarding as having an entire genre named for them.

Since 2011, the year of Dark Souls’ release, dozens of Souls-likes have emerged from the ether, each with their own little tweaks on the formula. Salt and Sanctuary went 2D,The Surge added a sci-fi angle, and Nioh went for a feudal Japanese aesthetic, to name just a few. 

Either way, Dark Souls’ influence has been long felt in the gaming industry ever since. Despite the hardcore difficulty and intense learning curve, gamers are still flocking to the series, and the genre it spawned, in massive numbers. For this reason alone, Dark Souls will live on forever in the annals of gaming history. 

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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.

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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