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PAX East Hands-On: Living On the Edge With ‘Katana Zero’

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Katana Zero

It’s usually pretty difficult to get into the flow of things when demoing a game on the show floor; chances are you’ve been on your feet for a long time, you’re tired, and there are hundreds of sounds assailing you from every which direction. So when despite all those obstacles a game just ‘clicks’ immediately, you have something special on your hands. Such was the case when I played Katana Zero at PAX East this past weekend. The way it presents its setting, the way every movement flows effortlessly into each other, and the way it puts on a performance all added together to leave one of the most lasting impressions of the show.

Death is a Hair’s Breadth Away

Katana Zero is a 2D action-platformer where you play as a samurai hitman. Every enemy dies in one hit, but so do you. The demo consisted of three stages, each with a “target” to be assassinated or rescued in the end (I wasn’t quite able to finish the third stage within my time limit). Each stage is made up of a series of rooms that has to be cleared of all enemies, then safely traversed in order to progress.

The moves at your samurai hitman’s disposal are simple, which contributes to the intuitive nature of the game. You can jump, slash at foes, pick up and throw objects at them, and dodge roll out of danger’s way. You also have the ability to slow down time, which is useful to for slashing bullets back at enemies or timing your rolls through the blades of a spinning fan.

Katana Zero Game

While Katana Zero is clearly an action game, it also feels almost reminiscent of a puzzle game. Assessing the best approach when entering a new room then executing on it provides an ebb-and-flow to the action. Failure is an inevitability with how tricky some rooms are, but refining your strategy to attacking here instead of dodging there makes success all the more exhilarating, especially when that hard work is played out before you.

You see, your hitman never actually ‘dies’ in Katana Zero; instead, the gameplay takes place in his mind as he simulates potential outcomes of a room in his head. When you finally clear the room, you’re treated to a sequence of the hitman going through it in that exact way, minus any time slowing you may have used while playing. Every slash has an appropriate weight behind it, and every deflection a satisfying “ping!” that results in a beautiful ballet of death. It’s like being given a tiny trophy for your achievements — but don’t worry, you can skip these sequences if you’re in a hurry. For example, maybe you just want to see what happens next in the story.

Navigating Inner and Outer Demons

Katana Zero is more than just a well-oiled action-platformer. It also has an intriguing narrative told through an interesting storytelling style. At the surface level, you’re simply an assassin living job to job, but there’s a dark past bubbling beneath, which is gradually uncovered through therapy sessions (of all things) in between missions.

The therapist will ask you questions about your life and missions, and you’re normally given three diverse options to choose from as answers. What’s unique about this conversation system is that you can attempt to cut him off mid-sentence at many different points. A red meter fills up, indicating just how long you have to to do this before it progresses to the normal dialogue options.

Katana Zero therapist

In my case, I was much too kind; I let him finish his sentences, for which he expressed gratitude before giving the hitman his “medication.” The way the therapist reacts to your answers combined with the effects they have on the samurai’s psyche make it clear that these talks will have ramifications on the plot down the line, and I got to see a small example of this in the second mission.

After entering the hotel where my target resided, I was stopped at the receptionist’s desk as she asked about my peculiar attire. After responding that it was a kind of cosplay, she immediately launched into a resounding speech professing her love for the anime medium. Prior experience with such individuals in my life told me that this could go on for a while, so I tried to cut her off. Her demeanor immediately changed as she became red-faced with annoyance, so I meekly let her finish before I was finally let into the hotel.

When I dispatched my target on the rooftop, I made my way back down to the lobby, where a hostile guard interrogated me, demanding to know why I was covered in blood. When I again answered that it’s cosplay, the receptionist chimed in to agree with me. The guard, while still suspicious, let me pass without any more altercations. In other demos, I saw that the receptionist was “eliminated” as “collateral damage” due to those players’ “lack of discretion,” so your choices have very real consequences on the world.

Katana Zero receptionist

Talking to the developers at AskiiSoft, they said that Katana Zero started off as a game without a story, but as they began to implement and refine the narrative, it eventually evolved into something they are proud of — despite being the source of their greatest development challenges.

When they discovered a hole in the plot, they wouldn’t simply try to shoehorn a new cutscene in to fill the gap; they would go the extra mile and create new levels and rooms in order to provide context for those new developments. The past two or so years the game has been in a constant state of “almost done” as new plot holes have been discovered and addressed. This level of attention to detail was apparent even during the few cutscenes present in the demo.

With addictive gameplay and the signs of an engrossing story, Katana Zero has all the makings to be an all-killer, no-filler, dopamine-inducing adventure. After finishing my demo, all I wanted to do was keep playing more, which is simultaneously the best and worst feeling to have on a show floor. Fortunately, we don’t have to wait long, as the Katana Zero is releasing on PC and Switch on April 18th.

Heralding from the rustic, old town of Los Angeles, California; Matthew now resides in Boston where he diligently researches the cure for cancer. In reality, though, he just wants to play games and watch anime, and likes talking about them way too much. A Nintendo/Sony hybrid fan with a soft-spot for RPG’s, he finds little beats sinking hours into an immersive game world. You can follow more of his work at his blog and budding YouTube channel below.

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Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019

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Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019

Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019Awesome Mixtape Vol. 5

It’s that time once again in which I bring to you my awesome mixtape featuring the best tracks from the best video game soundtracks of the year. Last year, my mixtape featured tracks from Triple-A titles such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and indie darlings like Celeste. In 2017, my picks for best soundtracks included tracks from some of my favorite games including Cuphead, Breath of the Wild and Into the Woods, to name just a few. Well, 2019 has been another banner year for the industry and as always, the games were blessed with an astounding selection of musical scores— some would argue the soundtracks were even better than the actual games at times. As always, it wasn’t easy deciding which songs to include and what to leave out— and as always, I’ve also mixed in some audio clips from various cut scenes while trying to keep it spoiler-free. Feel free to share this link and let me know if you think I’ve missed any great soundtracks in the comments below.

Best Video Game Soundtracks 2019 Playlist

Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding
: Low Roar – “I’ll Keep Coming”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Life is Strange 2: Seyr – “Colour To Colour”
Life is Strange 2: Jonathan Morali – “Into the Woods”
Life Is Strange 2 clip
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Sayonara Wild Heart”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Wild Hearts Never Die”
Death Stranding: CHVRCHES – “Death Stranding”
Afterparty clip
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “Title and Credits”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Hades Gonna Hate”
Afterparty: scntfc – “Schoolyard Strangler”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Main Theme
Octopath Traveler: Yasunori Nishiki – Cyrus the Scholar
Kingdom Hearts 3 clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses clip
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Main Theme”
Fire Emblem Three Houses: Yuka Tsujiyoko, Hirokazu Tanaka – “Blue Skies and a Battle”
Devil May Cry 5 clip
Devil May Cry 5: Kota Suzuki – “Urizen Boss Battle Music”
Untitled Goose Game – Dan Golding – “The Garden”
FAR: Lone Sails: Joel Schoch – “Colored Engine”
Days Gone: Nathan Whitehead— “Soldier’s Eye”
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Death Stranding clip
Death Stranding: Low Roar – “Easy Way Out”
Metro Exodus: Alexey Omelchuk – “Main Theme”
Resident Evil 2 Remake clip
Resident Evil 2 Remake: Masami Ueda, Shusaku Uchiyama, Shun Nishigaki – “Mr.X Theme Music (T-103)”
Sayonara Wild Hearts: Daniel Olsen – “Begin Again”
Life is Strange 2: Lincoln Grounds, Pat Reyford – “Morning Good Morning”
Life is Strange 2: Sufjan Stevens – “Death With Dignity”
Luigi’s Mansion 3 clip
Luigi’s Mansion 3: Koji Kondo – “Main Theme”
Ape Out: Matt Boch – “Intro”
Deltarune: Toby Fox – “Field of Hopes and Dreams”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “Loose Cargo”
“Star Wars: Imperial March” Hip Hop Remix
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order: John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra
Death Stranding: Silent Poets – “Asylum for The Feeling”
Catherine: Full Body: Shoji Meguro – “Tomorrow”
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening: Koji Kondo – “Marin’s Ballad of the Windfish”
Metro Exodus – Alexey Omelchuk: “Teardrops”
Sekiro: Yuka Kitamura – “Ashina Reservoir”
Return of the Obra Dinn: Lucas Pope – “The Doom”
Medley: Eye of Death / Wild Hearts Never Die / Dragon Heart / Clair De Lune

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‘New Super Lucky’s Tale’ is Polished, Pleasing Platforming

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Streamlined, focused, and tons of fun, New Super Lucky’s Tale is a fantastic reworking for the Switch that absolutely nails the lighter side of Nintendo-style 3D platforming. Tight controls and a nearly flawless camera support running and jumping challenges which more often than not emphasize creativity over complexity, and it’s all set against a colorful, pun-filled, charming world full of quirky characters and light satire. Though the experience is not as epic or razzle-dazzle as something like Super Mario Odyssey, developer Playful has wisely trimmed the collect-a-thon fat that so many others in the genre employ in order to pad play time. The result lasts long enough to satisfy, yet also instills a fervent desire to see more adventures from its fearless, furry hero.

New Super Lucky's Tale carnival

In the fine tradition of its gaming ancestors dating back to the N64 days, the basics of New Super Lucky’s Tale revolve around acquiring arbitrary objects sprinkled through various stages in order to unlock doors and move on to the next area. This time it’s pages from the mystical Book of Ages, which contains the power to travel between worlds, and is the endgame of an nefarious cat sorcerer named Jinx and his gang of cartoonish thugs, the Kitty Litter. As part of a secret organization sworn to defending this kiddie-friendly Necronomicon knockoff, it’s up to Lucky to track down as many of these clover-embossed pages as he possibly can, and hopefully complete the book before his nemesis can get his claws on it.

It’s doubtful that the story will be what compels most players to keep going, and to that end, New Super Lucky’s Tale‘s simple setup also fits right in with its genre brethren. Still, Lucky is an amiable and upbeat fox to follow around, and Playful does an excellent job of surrounding him with a cast of gibberish-spouting weirdo goofballs that includes hayseed grub worms, supremely zen Yetis, loyal rock golems, and slick carny ghosts. Though their dialogue does little to drive any sort of narrative, it is endlessly amusing and often witty in its cheesy wordplay. In other words, the writing has a very Nintendo-like feel in its eccentricities that adds to the overall fun.

New Super Lucky's Tale factory

Those jokes would be less endearing without fantastic gameplay, but New Super Lucky’s Tale delivers some of the best running and jumping this side of Mario. Though this fabulous fox can’t quite match the plumber’s precision, Lucky does feel extremely responsive, and has a nice sense of weight and momentum that never feels out of control. He also comes out of the den with a well-rounded moveset, including a nifty double jump, a swishy tail (a la Mario’s spin punch), and the ability to burrow under ground. These moves can be chained together to create a satisfying flow both when exploring 3D stages and side-scrolling ones alike, and will surely inspire players to use them in creative ways in order to access seemingly out-of-reach spots.

And they’ll have to if they want to find all four pages hidden in each stage. New Super Lucky’s Tale requires a bare minimum of these leaflets to be found (and simply beating the stage merits one as a reward), but it’s in rooting around those nooks and crannies where much of the fun lies, and it gives the developer a chance to squeeze every ounce out of the unique mixture of environments they’ve created. From the assorted carnival games of a haunted amusement park to a beach party dance-off, there are a surprising amount of different things for Lucky (and players) to do here, with hardly any two stages ever feeling alike. One 3D level might task Lucky with casually exploring a farm as he gathers up the members of country jug band, while a side-scrolling obstacle course sees him dodging canon fire from an airship piloted by a feline Napolean. Some stages have a platforming bent, while others emphasize searching out secrets tucked away in mini puzzles.

New Super Lucky's Tale farm

It’s an absolutely delightful mix, and that sheer variety keeps New Super Lucky’s Tale fresh all the way through to the epic battle with fat cat Jinx himself. And though platforming veterans might find the overall challenge a bit too much on the friendly side, a few of the later bosses and and bonus stages may make that 100% goal a little tougher than it at first seems. And yet, it’s hard not to want to go back to incomplete stages or that block-pushing puzzle that stumped the first time around; the brisk pace and clever design will likely compel many players to find every scrap of paper out there.

No, Lucky isn’t the second coming of Mario, but there are few 3D platformers that offer such a polished, concise, joyful experience as New Super Lucky’s Tale. It may have taken a couple of efforts to get there (and for those who have played the original Super Lucky’s Tale, levels and bosses have been reworked here), but Playful has nailed a balance between creativity and efficiency that begs for more. 

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How Do ‘Pokemon Sword and Shield’s’ Max Raid Battles Measure Up?

Max Raid Battles are one of Pokemon Sword and Shield’s premier new features. Do they live up to their full potential? Let’s find out.

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max raid battles

One of the most heavily promoted new features of Pokémon Sword and Shield have been their Max Raid Battles. These gargantuan fights are both a key part of the online experience and likely the first taste most players will get of Dynamaxed Pokémon in-game. So, how’d this take on Pokémon Go’s raid system pan out in the series’ first mainline entry on console?

Well, on the plus side, getting into the thick of a raid is super straightforward. After the opening hour or two, players are introduced to the Wild Area and can access Max Raid Battles straight away by walking up to a pillar of red light on the field. From there you can invite others, challenge the raid with NPCs, and choose which Pokémon you want to use.

Real Friends Raid Together

Playing with friends online, though, is a bit more convoluted. There’s no “Invite Friends” option to be seen. Instead, all social features are handled through the Y-comm (literally accessed by pressing the Y button). It’s here that players can Link Trade, Link Battle, exchange player cards, and more.

After actively connecting to the internet–which has to be done each play session and each time the Switch is put into sleep mode–it’s up to the host of the match to find a portal and send an invitation to everyone. A notification will pop for friends on the side of the screen, and then it’s up to everyone to join the match directly through the Y-comm interface.

If players want real people to fill in any remaining slots (all raids are four-person affairs), they’ll need to join before the room fills up. Setting a Link Code avoids this hassle by creating a room but, unlike Salmon Run in Splatoon 2, only computer players can fill remaining spots after friends finish joining this way.

After some experimenting and fudding about, my buddy and I were able to hop into matches fairly quickly without much issue. Nonetheless, it’s hard to shake the feeling that creating friend lobbies is only such a headache because it had to be tied to the Y-comm. Pair this with the fact that battling while waiting for a friend to create a room can cause the notification not to pop, and getting a group together is a bit more painful than it should be.

Max Raid Battle Rundown

The raids themselves are a surprisingly engaging twist on the classic Pokémon battle formula. Groups of four challengers work together to take on a Dynamaxed raid boss. Each raid boss has a different star rating, and even the 1-star battles are no joke the first few times around. These boss Pokémon are merciless, and regularly one-shot lower leveled ‘mons with ease.

To combat these monstrous foes, one random trainer in every group is granted the ability to Dynamax their chosen Pokémon and lead the charge. The Dynamaxed Pokémon gets the benefit of having extra-powerful moves and increased HP, though it’s rather disappointing that there only seems to be one Max Move per move type (one Grass move, one Dark move, and so on). Each of these has a secondary effect on the battlefield; some trigger sandstorms, others trigger a health regeneration field that heals everyone a bit each turn. Regular moves with type advantages deal a significant chunk of damage, but it’s Max Moves that can truly turn the tide of battle.

If one of the group’s Pokémon faints, that trainer has to sit out for a turn before it automatically gets revived (a smart design choice to keep all trainers actively involved). However, the fainting of each Pokémon triggers the storm above to become more and more vicious. After four faints or ten turns, everyone is booted out of the raid sans rewards.

max raid battles

The Fruits of Victory

Two of the easiest ways to better your odds are 1) Choose a Pokémon with a type advantage going into battle, and 2) Manage who Dynamaxes when. Each trainer’s Dynamax meter grows periodically and, though only one trainer can use it at a time, multiple players can activate it over the course of a raid. It also seems like each raid’s star rating is tied directly to the raid boss’ level, so bringing a generally powerful Pokémon to a lower-level raid is another viable strategy for success.

Aside from the chance to capture the raid boss itself (and some Pokémon are Max Raid Battle-exclusive), winning a raid nets players some very worthwhile rewards. These include everything from EXP candies and berries to nuggets and TMs. It’s not so much of a haul that it hurts the overall balance of the game, but there’s enough to make getting a few friends together and grinding raids for a couple of hours worth it.

max raid battles

Though Max Raid Battles are just a small part of the overall Sword and Shield package, they’ve ended up being a rather fun take on Pokémon’s traditional multiplayer offerings. For as unnecessarily complicated as playing with friends is, there are also a few cool ideas here, like being able to join a raid from anywhere on the map as long as the host is at the raid pillar. There’s some good fun to be had here if you prefer to battle alongside your friends instead of against them.

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