Microsoft just finished one of their strongest E3 press conferences in recent memory. Beyond the 60-odd game announcements and AAA teases from the likes of Cyberpunk 2077 and Halo Infinite, one small section of the presentation still managed to stand out on its own merits: the ID@Xbox showcase.
ID@Xbox certainly isn’t anything new, but it sure has ramped up since its inception in 2014. The program not only allows indie developers to self-publish their games on Xbox and Windows, but it also significantly lowers the barrier of entry by letting registrants access free dev kits. All of this has resulted in a staggering amount of indie support for the console and Game Pass.
It’s no secret that Microsoft has been relying less on selling consoles and more on selling its services. Xbox Game Pass works not only because of the first-party lineup (which is haphazard to say the least) and the convenience of the service itself, but also because there’s a consistent flow of new titles being added every month.
While some games join ID@Xbox and simply appear on the online store, the program is increasingly becoming a core part of Microsoft’s Game Pass strategy. Since there aren’t enough larger games being added consistently to sustain it on their own (take Monster Hunter World or Shadow of the Tomb Raider, for instance), they’re leaning more and more on the hundreds of indie devs using their tools to populate the service with fresh experiences.
This brings us to Microsoft’s E3 showcase. All of the whopping 22 ID@Xbox games announced will launch day and date into Xbox Game Pass. We’d already knew that certain games were coming (Afterparty) and others had been previously announced for other platforms (Creature in the Well), but the lineup as a whole is surprisingly strong.
Here are just a few highlights from the showcase:
Afterparty is a stylistic adventure game that sees you playing as two best friends who suddenly find themselves staring at a lifetime in Hell. The only way out? Out-drinking Satan himself.
A far cry from their last hit title, the moody and suspenseful Oxenfree, Night School Studio is now crafting what’s shaping up to be one of the funniest games of the year. This is all about partying with demons, playing hellish drinking games, exploring the underworld, and getting to know Hell’s inhabitants via an evolution of the intelligent conversation system that made Oxenfree stand out from the pack. Cheers to fresh ideas!
Creature in the Well
First premiered at the Nindies Showcase in March, Creature in the Well is a pinball-inspired hack and slash dungeon crawler that looks as addictive as it does menacingly difficult. Players progress through a gauntlet of unique dungeons filled with pinball-esque puzzles and challenges, all the while trying to avoid the titular creature lurking in the shadows.
Though we recently had another pinball-inspired game in last year’s Yoku’s Island Express, Creature in the Well takes a decidedly more tactile approach to its design. Using your sword as the bumper opens up a Pandora’s box of puzzle-solving and combat possibilities, and it all looks wonderfully distinct thanks to Flight School’s gritty art direction. This is one of those that you just need to see for yourself.
Cozy games need love too! One of the most visually striking titles of the entire conference (no surprise given Thunder Lotus Games’ previous work on Jotun), Spiritfarer is rather ambiguously described as “a cozy management game about dying.” As the name suggests, players will be primarily tasked with ferrying a diverse array of spirits to the afterlife.
What’s more interesting are all the things you’ll be able to do in the meantime. Though helping spirits ascend is your end goal, you’ll also have the chance to befriend them, fish on the open seas, farm, cook, craft, and more along the way. Combine this with the studio’s emphasis on creating bonds and experiencing moving stories with the spirit passengers and this has all the potential of being a deeply heartfelt gem.
Thunder Lotus has already mastered the art of atmosphere in their games; now it’s time to see if they can do the same with storytelling.
Totally Accurate Battle Simulator
TABS is just as its name indicates: a battle simulation game. The hook? Wacky physics, the ability to spawn seemingly endless amounts of units, and the super janky chaos that follows. Somewhat similar to Goat Simulator in terms of design philosophy, the fun all comes from player experimentation. Which units counter which? How many soldiers can a squad of vikings handle? Can you actually take out a tough enemy unit without simply overwhelming it with sheer numbers?
TABS has been in the works for what feels like eons. It initially blew up on YouTube back in 2016 (when it was still in pre-Alpha), solely based on its endless replayability and the ridiculous situations players could tinker with. Now it’s much more visually impressive, boasts more units and tools than ever before, and simply looks like it’ll hit that timewaster itch perfectly.
The addition of Ikenfell to ID@Xbox was one of the most welcome shocks of the entire presentation. Originally Kickstarted in 2016, Ikenfell is a turn-based RPG that takes place at a magical school where students study hard to master different spells and enchantments. One day, a top student suddenly goes missing, and it’s up to you and your fellow classmates to search for clues, fight magical creatures, and ultimately get to the bottom of the disappearance.
As a long-time Harry Potter fan, the idea of a magic-school RPG is instantly intriguing. That said, Happy Ray Games seems more focused on delivering engaging tactical gameplay over worldbuilding or a deep story. Everything else about Ikenfell still looks charming, however, and after missing its targeted 2018 release, seeing it launch directly into Game Pass is a promising sign that it’ll see the light of day soon enough.
For the full lineup of ID@Xbox games revealed at E3 2019, click here.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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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.
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 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.
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.
How Asynchronous Online in ‘Death Stranding’ Brings Players Together
Hideo Kojima’s latest game creates a sense of community by aiding other players on the same perilous journey.
Video games have always been fascinated with the idea of player interactivity as a means of crafting a power fantasy. The player typically goes on a hero’s journey, eventually culminating in them being the one and only savior of the world inside the game. Typically associated with single-player games, MMOs also crafted that same narrative but with the conceit that everyone is going on this journey. Often the acknowledgments of other players are in multiplayer-specific features such as PvP and Raids. Destiny is a great example of a series that takes players on the same journey and makes no promise that the story is different between players by even allowing them to engage in playing story missions together. It all feeds into the larger narrative of Guardians fighting together to save the Light. A game that handles this very similar and perhaps more successfully is Hideo Kojima’s Death Stranding.
While lacking any direct player-to-player interaction, Kojima’s latest game is drenched in the conceit that community is crucial to triumph over adversity. You can read many articles about the game’s ideas of community from fellow writers on the site. What hasn’t quite gotten the attention it deserves is how revolutionary Death Stranding feels in terms of utilizing asynchronous online to greatly affect the game itself. Games like Dark Souls and other FromSoftware titles have included the ability to leave notes (which Death Stranding also offers) that help (or trick) players as they venture throughout the world on their own. How those notes’ effects are manifested are often on a much smaller scale – helpful at times but often to warn players of an impending way they might die. They don’t have a large impact on the player, only a temporary means of cheating death.
Where Death Stranding becomes something greater in scale is in what it lets other players do to other peoples’ single-player experiences. In the game, you play as Sam Porter Bridges who is tasked with reconnecting America from coast-to-coast. At first, the game thrusts Sam into its narrative, taking the reluctant, isolated character and forcing him to eventually realize the importance of hope and connections in dire times. As Sam starts bringing more and more people onto the Chiral network (which allows instantaneous communication and the transferring of 3D-printable goods), so too does the game open up and reveal its ultimate goal: to bring players together.
This doesn’t mean players will ever talk to other players, and the game very much avoids any real negative actions that can be performed on players. In fact, someone could play the game without ever actively engaging with online features. Instead, the game will passively hand out “likes” to other players whose ladders are used or roads are driven. If one wanted to fight the game’s narrative and instead keep Sam isolated and away from the community that the Chiral network provides, they could definitely do that – no matter how antithetical it would be to do so. Death Stranding even offers an offline mode that would nullify all of that and keep the experience solely on the player’s impact on the world and no one else’s.
Yet there’s a reason the online mode is the default mode. It was near the end of Episode 3 (which also happens to be when the game unloads almost all of its mechanics onto the player) when I finally realized the impact I was having on other people’s games. I had spent an entire day playing the game, but focusing largely on delivering premium deliveries – these are optional challenges that essentially boil down to carrying more cargo, damaging cargo less, or getting to your destination in a set amount of time. Death Stranding doesn’t ever tell you the best way to get somewhere. Instead, it places a wide array of tools in front of you and assuming the Chiral network is set up in an area, it can provide a rough guide on places to avoid or infrastructure already built. However, one of the key pieces of infrastructure missing for my playthrough was roads. My efforts immediately became focused on building a network of roads that made their way all throughout one of the larger areas in the game.
The game doesn’t ever make you build roads. It tells you the option is there but it doesn’t force your hand. Often tools will be introduced, like zip lines and floating carriers, but the game never demands that they’re used. Of course, engaging with those tools will make your life easier. There are easy ways to start building infrastructure in Death Stranding: ropes and ladders can help to scale mountains or plummet depths. Those will remain in the world for other players to use and will even appear on their maps as they hook up areas to the Chiral network. So, someone who plays the game earlier than someone else could lay down ropes and ladders, and depending on when the other person starts playing, they will find those once they have progressed to a point where they are traversing that area. Where the game becomes even grander in its sense of community is the realization that the more players commit to building roads or setting up zip lines, the more other players benefit.
The reality is that ladders and ropes are temporary – they cannot be rebuilt, they can only be replaced. The game’s Timefall – a weather phenomenon that acts as rain but ages anything it comes into contact with – can reset an entire map after a while if there is nothing more substantial placed on the map. So in my game, I decided that whenever I could build a road, I committed to doing so. This could mean going to multiple waystations and collecting materials that have amassed over time from deliveries, or going out in the world and finding these materials like Chiral crystals. At a certain point, I would load up a truck with multiple deliveries that were on or near the roads I had built, as well as with as many metal and ceramic materials I could load into the truck before it reached capacity. As I delivered packages, I’d replace them with more deliveries and more materials from each waystation. Eventually, I’d find myself at a point where a road was not built yet and would then build that road.
Community stands as the strongest component of Death Stranding .
In contrast to a game like Dark Souls, actions in the world such as providing notes on the ground or helping another player with a boss battle is helping them cheat death. The community that is being built is not one that has any lasting effect on the world in the game. No Man’s Sky may let players interact with each other and further their knowledge of the universe within the game, but often that help is relegated to an isolated planet. It’s a more contained impact. Hideo Kojima created a game where players don’t just build infrastructures for themselves, they can intentionally or inadvertently assist other players throughout their games. This leads to players like myself creating strand contracts with other players who have built things I liked in the game. A strand contract is a powerful feature because it means more of that players’ roads or other items built for the world will show up more frequently in my game.
Every Action in Death Stranding Creates Hope
One of the perks of building so many roads is you also get a lot of likes, whether passively given because someone used the road or actively provided by a player because they not only used the road but were appreciative that someone built it. It’s hard not to feel important in someone else’s life when you’ve made their experience less cumbersome because they no longer have to drive over rocky terrain or through enemy territory but instead can take a highway to their destination. What’s better is that more substantial developments like bridges and roads can be repaired by other players and even upgraded. So while I laid the initial roads down, I actually haven’t spent any materials repairing them. Instead, notifications come in and tell me players have repaired roads I’ve built. There’s no real reason to do that unless the infrastructure built was necessary to their journey through the game – making it easier but also providing the same feeling of helping out a larger community.
Community stands as the strongest component of Death Stranding – a game that doesn’t even try to be subtle in its intentions. Traversing Kojima’s version of post-apocalyptic America is harrowing on your own. With just your two feet and a package to deliver when the entire world itself is trying to stop you from doing so, America isn’t just divided – it’s hostile. Where Death Stranding shines brightest is when it offers a helping hand. Players aid one another to achieve the same unified goal: save the country. All of this is under the assumption that the country can be saved, but there is no denying that seeing someone else’s rope hanging off a steep cliff, or a Timefall shelter where it rains Timefall on a constant basis, is one of the most satisfying feelings. In Death Stranding, it isn’t enough to know that you’re making progress, but that everyone is willing to assist others to reach the same end goal. It’s a game where every action creates hope and is built upon the idea that we are at our best when we work together.
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