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Game Reviews

‘NBA 2K18’: A Great, Frustratingly Backwards Thinking Entry in the Acclaimed Series

It seems like such a simple question; “is NBA 2K18 a good basketball game?”

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It seems like such a simple question; “is NBA 2K18 a good basketball game?” Ostensibly, NBA 2K18 is a masterpiece: the pinnacle of years of work for the Visual Concepts/2K teams, a game that fully embraces the changing philosophies of recent iterations of the world’s most popular basketball video game, markedly better than its predecessors in a number of measurable, tangible ways. Though I roll my eyes at this metaphor, the initial observations of NBA 2K18 at release was the epitome of a slam dunk; great reviews, solid sales, and buckets full of hype for the new modes and gameplay enhancements. It all seemed to be a perfect storm; and yet, after five weeks of playing NBA 2K18 religiously, I’m not able to definitively say whether this is a great game, a good game – or a terrible game that represents the worst business and development practices of the series.

The framework of NBA 2K18 is undeniably solid; as disappointed as I am yearly that the Create-a-Legend and Jordan Challenges of NBA 2K12 are never to return, it’s impressive how much content is available to play in the streamlined myCareer, myTeam, and myGM/myLeague modes, both on and offline (though, thanks to the VC currency system and other “features” I’ll detail throughout, 2K is mostly a useless game when not connected to the internet). myCareer has expanded from being a great career mode wrapped in a terrible story to being an all-encompassing monster of badge grinding, player upgrading, and online play – complete with another shitty story and set of characters –  all taking place in the alternate universe known as “the Neighborhood”. myTeam has quadrupled the amount of single and multiplayer offerings within its mode (including “Schedule Mode”, which features 30 individual challenges to beat for each of the league’s 30 teams – that’s right, 900 mini-events to complete), a never-ending spigot of fantastic content and addictive card pack opening screens that’ll make Hearthstone developers jealous in how much revenue they’ll generate. myGM is no slouch either, the logic of the mode being reworked to incorporate the new rules and intricacies of the new collective bargaining agreement signed this year – PLUS it gets its own myCareer-level awful narrative thrown on top, as well!

Seriously – the first season of this year’s myGM sees a player’s chosen team be bought out by an obnoxious, disinterested owner that does whatever he can to ruin your initial experience with the mode – to the point he makes unapproved trades on your behalf, completely ruining the meticulous construction players go through to set up their franchises to become dynasties for years to come. And (spoilers) it only lasts for a season! The owner comes in, ruins your relationship with coaches and players, forces trades, screws up a team’s cap room for two-three seasons to come, and then he’s just gone the minute the first season has completed. Simply put – what the fuck was the point? Considering nothing else has changed in the mode (the menus are even exactly the same), it may just be a matter of 2K searching for ways to make a mode they hyped up as being completely refreshed, actually feel like something different – however, the only thing it does is ruin a lot of good will that comes with the actual, wanted changes to the mode’s logic and gameplay.

There’s no shortage of things to do in 2K, that’s for sure: in fact, this might be the most time anyone spends off a basketball court in a 2K basketball game without ever running in fear of getting bored. In The Neighborhood, players can always progress their “Road to 99” story by “experiencing” the lengthy, excruciatingly shitty cutscenes that tell this year’s story (which is so awful and predictable, it’s not even worth recapping – just know the player-controller character is a person who goes back to playing basketball when his true dream of being a DJ fails. Yes, that is correct). Players can also participate in any number of activities that will encourage them to spend cash on some hot VC currency: get a fresh haircut (that were so expensive 2K had to cut the prices in 1/4 the week of release, due to player complaints), work on badges in the gym, or head over to the outdoor courts, the myPark of NBA 2K18 that mostly works, most of the time (complete with the requisite amount mechanic cheesing and connection issues, of course).

Perhaps the most disappointing turn about myNeighborhood/Road to 99/The Story of DJ the Fuckboi is just how slow it all feels, top to bottom. Players move sluggishly around the neighborhood to go from place to place, progress of a player’s attributes and skill set is slower, and inextricably tied to VC – which of course, is earned significantly slower in this year’s games; for the first time since the mode’s inception, there’s really nothing exciting or rewarding enough to make myCareer worth playing, unless you’re really into Pro-Am (aka grinding to get into tournaments) mode, or have some investment in the 2K18 E-sports league that’s been slowly forming over the past six months. Forget how disappointing and stereotypical the main plot line of myCareer is; the entire mode is predictably disappointing, thanks to the increasing need to make the mode something that is only fun when extra monetary funds are being spent to artificially increase the almost non-existent feel of player evolution.

No matter how disappointing the mode and feature suites of 2K18 are, there’s no denying the mastery of on-court performance 2K once again offers its audience…. at least, in comparison to EA’s NBA Live relaunch, a well-intentioned basketball simulation that’s just janky and arcade-y enough to keep most virtual basketball heads at bay. For a game that still relies on the increasingly-archaic systems of animation construction and  prioritization (rather than moving to real-time physics, as titles like FIFA have done in recent years), NBA 2K18 mostly looks and plays as smooth as it ever did, particularly on a PS4 Pro, where the 4K assets and 60-frames a second action look buttery smooth, and insanely detailed, right down to facial hair, sweat, and indentations on the court surface from sneaker scratches.

However, this doesn’t mean that NBA 2K18 plays “perfectly”, or even is a marked improvement over last year’s game: in fact, this game seems tuned even further towards replicating “modern” basketball, or at least 2K’s interpretation of it. This means the only two viable sources of offense is driving to the basket off a pick and roll, or driving the lane with a player in order to collapse defenses and kick outside; at least, that feels like the only two viable offensive options. Post play is as subdued as it ever was, and thanks to the everlasting glitches with rebounding and defense (where boxing out and blocking shots often lead to an easy opponent score), still showing off their ugly mugs at various points in each match. Errant passes and players stepping out of bounds in the corner are two big issues 2K clearly wanted to address, so at least there are a few bugs that have existed in 2K games for the past five years that are addressed in 2K18  – but not enough, a sentiment that is doubled down upon when faced with the new frustrations 2K’s on-court product presents players.

The most frustrating, and encompassing, of these issues, is the rampant changes in difficulty. Suddenly, there is no such thing as a consistent offensive player: “good” releases on 85% free throw shooters regularly brick, players like Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving regularly miss routine layups on any difficulty above Pro, and the difference between opponent AI defense, and a player’s AI defense, have never been more apparent. The lack of consistency with defensive AI has increasingly gotten worse with each patch 2K has pushed out this year: to the point where I can no longer trust a big man not to leave his defensive assignment wide open under the basket during any type of offensive action, since every single one of them are magically glued to the ball handler during any type of pick and roll action, or getting locked up on screens underneath the basket. This isn’t just on lower difficulties: on Hall of Fame, AI defenders on my team would routinely make the most aggressively stupid choices possible, even though the opponent AI stuck to my players with some of the most aggressively unbalanced ability I’ve ever seen. I can’t get a PF to effectively hedge a pick when I’m controlling him, but I’m unable to create space between my PG and the opponent C 25-feet away from the basket, on multiple consecutive possessions?

As a player who has been playing 2K18 at an effectively high level for the past 15 years, I’m confident in my ability as a virtual basketball player. For the first time ever, NBA 2K18 makes me question my own choices: why are players missing “excellent” release shots, multiple times in a row? Why does every ball poked loose turn into easy points for the opponent, instead of a turnover? Why did I just miss three open layups in a row? No longer do I feel confident that I’ll be able to charge to victory when facing any sort of mechanical adversity in a 2K game; while that may make the game slightly more realistic in terms of shooting percentages and the “look” of a game, it can sometimes lead to a really offputting experience – and oddly, it appears to be totally random. I’ve shot 35% for a game on my home court, and I’ve also made 4/5 free throws with Hassan Whiteside in the late 4th quarter of a road game; the lack of consistency in experience undercuts the experience, in 10 point losses or 30 point wins. Maybe it’s the game’s undying allegiance to the effects of “momentum”, maybe it’s 2K forgetting that consistency in a sports video game is more important than staunch, stiff adherence to “realism” in all aspects; whatever the philosophic changes to the heart of 2K’s gameplay may be, it has ultimately led to a slightly less satisfying experience than in years prior.

Ultimately, that lack of confidence defines my experience with 2K: from the game-changing fundamentally on-court after each post-release update, to the inconsistent on and off-court experiences with its increasingly small mode set (and the game’s unholy obsession with shoving microtransactions down player’s throats, even after offering $80 and $100 priced versions of the game), 2K18 is as impressive as it is disappointing, a game that only superficially offers players new ways to engage and enjoy the most critically acclaimed sports series in the universe. And while it’s a foregone conclusion that I’ll put multiple hundreds of hours into the robust myTeam mode, the specific joy of playing myCareer is completely gone, as is the excitement to dig into the new off-court features of any game mode, given how currency driven and uninspired they’ve all become. NBA 2K18 is still the best basketball game anyone could play in 2017 – and admittedly, one of the best sports titles overall – but that accomplishment is not as impressive, or exciting, as it was in years past.

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

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Game Reviews

‘The Touryst’ Review: Vacation, All I Ever Wanted

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There’s an acceptance of a certain rhythm when traveling alone: often an itinerary-less trip will be filled with quiet solitude and uneventful meandering; yet, when those exciting moments of interaction and discovery are inevitably stumbled upon, they tend to be of the highly memorable variety. The latest offering from Shin’en Multimedia, The Touryst, shrewdly captures this relaxing, energizing roller coaster. It’s a quirky little getaway that encourages players to explore its gorgeous voxel island delights at their own pace, letting them bask in the peaceful surroundings and doling out treasure for those curious to seek it out. The result is a soothing weekend sojourn of puzzles, platforming, and mini games under the sun that is also winds up as one of the best indies on the Switch.

There’s no doubt that atmosphere plays a big part in what makes The Touryst so successful, as the vague setup and sparse narrative casts a mysterious aura over the proceedings. Who our mustachioed vacationer is or why he agrees to find glowing blue orbs for some random old man is pretty much left to the imagination. Is the player curious about what they could see and find out there among the green palm trees, sandy beaches, monolithic temples, and sky blue waters? Then they will follow their nose regardless of the lack of any story motivation, and The Touryst has sprung its trap. The urge to see the sights and have an adventure is a must here, and so the wandering begins.

Luckily, The Touryst is filled with charming things to stumble upon around almost every corner, be that a scuba diving boat operator on a Greek isle that facilitates swimming with the fishes, a seaside dance party in need of a hi-tech energy boost, or a bustling business center complete with an arcade, art gallery, and movie theater (for those times when you just need to sit down for a while). Personality abounds, as long as friendly players aren’t shy about talking to strangers (the best way to get the most out of a trip to a new place). No matter where one’s feet take them, there are plenty of mini-stories at play thanks to the native inhabitants and fellow tourists, with these weirdos offering interactions both puzzling and profitable.

But there’s more to life than racking up coins via side quests; there’s something eerily odd buried beneath the tropical destinations of The Touryst that beckons to be uncovered by just the right explorer. Towering mounds filled with ancient devices and clever puzzles hold secrets that promise that this vacation will be one for the scrapbook. These short ‘dungeons’ are the meat of the game, providing a variety of platforming and logic challenges that range from overt to opaque; sometimes even finding the way in to these ominous structures is a puzzle in itself, which only further drives an overarching sense of discovery.

Smartly, The Touryst rarely telegraphs solutions to its tests (or in some cases, that there even is a test), and instead encourages experimentation. Inside temples, players need to determine why certain lights are glowing and others aren’t, understand how sequences work, pay attention to rumbling feedback, and decide just how to deal with once-dormant mechanical creatures that now awaken to stand in the protagonist’s way. Things can seem opaque at times, but Shin’en has managed to hit that sweet spot that keeps poking around from getting too frustrating. But just in case, there are plenty of beach chairs and cabana beds to lie down on and think. Or, just soak in some rays and enjoy the scenery.

Regardless of the difficulty players may or may not have with the crafty puzzles or surprisingly challenging mini games (good lord, surfing and those 8-bit arcade throwbacks can be tough), The Touryst is still a sight to see. Shin’en has created a buttery smooth island-hopping environment that is a pleasure to peruse. Go off the beaten path and enjoy the gorgeous sunsets, gently pixelated waves, crunching grains of sand, and flopping flora. The visuals seem so simple, yet at times can be stunning to behold, especially when spotting some of the smaller details that have been added to make these place come alive. A depth of field style entices players to see just what that blurry landmark off in distance is, and the soundtrack seamlessly shifts between relaxing and intriguingly uncanny. That developers have achieved this with what are surely the shortest load times on Nintendo’s console makes the experience all the more immersive.

Like most vacations, The Touryst is destined to be over too soon for some players, but trips like these aren’t meant to last forever. The five hours or so it takes to see all there is to see is highly satisfying throughout, and the vague hint at the end of a followup will have many Switch-owning puzzle fans looking forward to getting future time off.

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Game Reviews

‘Shovel Knight: King of Cards’ and ‘Showdown’ Review: Really Spoiling Us

It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise.

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It’s a Yacht Club Games overdose this holiday season, as the Kings of Kickstarter are back with, not just one, but two new entries in the Shovel Knight franchise. Not content with just releasing another new character’s twist on the original formula, Yacht Club has also developed their own fighting game in the Shovel Knight universe. It’s to the developer’s credit that two simultaneous releases can be of this quality, but valid questions can also be asked as to whether the original formula has gotten stale, and whether Showdown’s new concept does the series justice. Fear not, for both questions will be answered in this bumper, two-for-one review!

Shovel Knight: King of Cards

King of Cards is the latest re-tread of Shovel Knight, and this time the emperor’s new clothes are the regal duds of King Knight, who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the kingdom of the card game Joustus… without really having to beat that many people at it. After the stoically heroic Shovel Knight, the dastardly cunning Plague Knight, and the broodingly enigmatic Spectre Knight, King of Cards’ protagonist embodies an enjoyable dose of pompous entitlement. His quest isn’t all that noble, and he really can’t be bothered to do a lot of hard graft to reach his goal. Thanks to the typically witty script, King Knight shines as a loathsome oik who doesn’t pay attention to any advice he’s given, and would rather have a fight, or cheat, than actually get better at Joustus.

Shovel Knight
This a late-game bout of Joustus, which shows how complex it can get.

Joustus might not really be all that important to King Knight, but it adds an entirely new element to the traditional Shovel Kinght gameplay. Those players who are a sucker for built-in card games (myself included) will find a lot to enjoy when stepping away from all the platforming and fighting to engage in a round of Joustus. The game is played by placing cards, one at a time, onto a grid with the goal of having more of your cards placed on top of gems than your opponent.

All cards contain abilities and can be used to shove opposing cards out of the way (and off the gems), with advanced cards used to blow up, slam or recruit those of the other player. It all starts off simple enough, but can get really brain-taxing as the story progresses, and grows to be a real highlight of the game – and one of the better card-games-within-a-game I’ve played. Cheat cards can be bought to give you a leg up for trickier opponents, especially as the winner of each game gets to take one (or three if you control all gems at the end of the round) card from the loser.  

Shovel Knight
Platforming at its satisfying best. Y’know, without actually touching the platforms.

Outside of Joustus, King of Cards will feel pleasingly familiar to fans of the series. As in previous entries, the levels all share the same look and gimmicks as the original Shovel Knight, but are reshaped to adapt to the new abilities of King Knight. He has a shoulder barge attack that launches him forward, across gaps if need be, and will send him into a spin on contact with enemies or certain types of walls and blocks. This spin move acts very much in the same way as Shovel Knight’s shovel pogo attack, and allows King Knight to bounce around levels with impressive finesse. Anyone who’s played Shovel Knight before knows the drill now – try and clear every screen by chaining together as many bounce attacks as you can. It’s the law.

Shovel Knight
Familiar foes return, but the way you deal with them is the same!

It also wouldn’t be a Shovel Knight game if there weren’t a ton of unlockable moves and buffs. Amongst the best unlocks for King Knight are a Tazmanian Devil-esque tornado spin that allows him to climb walls and smash up enemies, a hammer that produces hearts with each wallop for precious HP, throwable suicide bomber mice, and the ability to stand still and have a big ol’ cry to regain HP. Something we can all relate to.

The world map returns, and is in its best guise in King of Cards. Levels are now a lot shorter than you’d expect – there’s typically only one checkpoint in the non-boss levels – but there are a lot more of them, and a large number have secret exits to find. They’re interspersed with the multiple opportunities to play Joustus, and with the seemingly random appearances of traditional Shovel Knight bosses who show up, Hammer Bros. style, on the map to block your progress. It makes for a really tight campaign that’s filled with a ton of variety.

The floor is literally lava!

It seems almost arbitrary to say, but if you like Shovel Knight and you’re not tired of the standard gameplay, there’s so much to enjoy with King of Cards. He’s probably not the most fun character to play as (for me, that’d be Spectre Knight), but his game is easily the most diverse. He’s just such an enjoyably unlikeable idiot that you’ll constantly be playing with a smile on your face, bopping along to the classic Shovel Knight chiptunes, pogoing around levels and pausing for the occasional game of cards. Who could ask for more?

Shovel Knight Showdown

Who likes Shovel Knight boss fights? Everyone does, right? How about fighting three of them at once in an amalgamation of Smash Bros. and Towerfall? It’s as chaotic as you’re imagining, and seems like a total no-brainer as a second genre for Yacht Club to transpose their blue, spade-loving hero into.

What seemed like an obviously smart move doesn’t necessarily play out in an ideal way. The one-on-one fights in Showdown are as tightly-contested and entertaining as ever, but the multi-man rumbles are absolute mayhem. There are a few different stipulations applied to fights, and these typically involve simply whittling down your opponents’ lives, or depleting their health bar to briefly kill them off and steal any gems they’ve collected from around the level, with the winner being the first to an assigned number.

Shovel Knight
I found it best to just try to escape in every multi-man level.

Standard fights are more enjoyable, as the simplicity of smacking seven shades of snot out of the competitors keeps things manageable amongst the cacophony of onscreen visual noise. The gem-collecting levels, especially with multiple opponents, are frankly a bit of a mess that I rarely found enjoyable.

Perhaps I’m just not very good at Shovel Knight boss fights, but the game felt overly difficult even on the normal setting. Playing story mode often sees your chosen character up against three opponents on the same team, and when it comes to collecting gems from around the level, they’ve got way more of the space covered and you barely get a chance to breathe with them swarming you from the word go. It’s basically an exercise in getting wailed on while you try to run away and scramble for gems, and it’s just not that fun.

If the whole game were 1v1 I’d have more fun, but it’d be a bit pointless and unsubstantial.

What does add a layer of fun to the game is the chance to play as the complete ‘Knight’ roster of Shovel Knight characters, and the best part of Showdown is learning new moves and trying to find your ‘main’. Perhaps, with more time to sit down and learn the move sets in the practice mode, the game would feel more rewarding than if you just jump in and try to slog through the chaotic story mode as I did.

With a four-player battle mode as the only other gameplay option, Showdown was clearly never meant to be anything other than a brief little curio to give fans of the series’ boss fights an overdose of what they love, but as a complete experience, I found it lacking in both modes and reasons to keep plugging away at the arcade fighter-style story mode. It turns out that the boss fights in Shovel Knight are more fun at the end of a platforming level rather than in the middle of enclosed space filled with flashing lights, random effects, environmental hazards, and three bastards all chasing you down. If you can handle all that stress, you’ll have a much better time than I did.

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Game Reviews

‘Disco Elysium’: A Thought-Provoking Mystery

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Disco Elysium Review

For the most part, the majority of games are easy to classify, but from time to time a game is released that defies conventional rules and resists simple categorization. Disco Elysium is just such a game. On the surface of it, it’s a topdown, isometric RPG of the oldest of old schools. It draws upon long-established systems, structures, and mechanics that make it comfortably familiar. However, beneath that patina of tradition lies something completely unexpected and utterly unique.

Developed by the small, independent studio ZA/UM, with a story penned by Estonian novelist, Robert Kurvitz, and a painstakingly detailed world crafted by artist Aleksander Rostov, Disco Elysium stands apart from most RPGs in that it is startlingly realistic whilst simultaneously being grimly fantastical. Set on an isolated archipelago in the wake of a failed communist revolution, the game casts players as a detective sent to solve the murder of a man found hanging in the backyard of a rundown boarding house/cafe. It’s a simple setup made all the more complex by the fact that the player character is suffering from a severe bout of alcohol and drug-induced amnesia. The mystery that needs to be solved concerns piecing together exactly who the player character is, as much as it involves reconstructing the chain of events that resulted in a brutal death.

Arriving at conclusions to both conundrums requires navigating complex webs of social and political intrigue. Along the way, players will encounter union bosses, disgruntled workers, war veterans, and all manner of extraordinary and mundane citizens just trying to go about their daily lives in a place that seems designed to thwart their ambitions at every turn. More than that though, players will be required to engage in continuous internal dialogues that involve the protagonist gradually putting themselves back together. The result is character customization in a quite literal sense of the word. Rather than the standard array of physical options that most games of this type present players with, the options are entirely psychological. Player actions and choices determine the overall structure of the internal workings of their character. Whether they decide to be a high-minded idealist trying to better themselves and the world around them in whatever way they can or opt to descend into anarchic, hedonistic self-obliteration such choices determine exactly who and what their version of the character is.

The foundation of stats and skills that are usually inert background components that all RPGs are based on is firmly in place. However, rather than being a numerical bedrock upon which all gameplay is based, Disco Elysium takes those sets of modifiers and statistics and makes them an active part of character progression and world development. As you progress through the game, skills points can be used for a variety of purposes. They can be used to upgrade core character stats, of which there a total of twenty-four covering a whole range of mental, physical, and social attributes, that govern player’s ability to immediately interact with the game world. However, they can also be used to learn or forget particular thoughts These thoughts develop depending on how players decide to approach situations and solve problems and can unlock semi-permanent bonuses and even penalties.

Disco Elysium Review

Much as in reality, the things the character is capable of are largely dependent on their frame of mind. If players opt to make a character that is brash and uncouth then they will find it difficult to subtly manipulate interactions to their benefit or arrive at unobtrusive solutions to various situations. On the other hand, if they elect to play a character that is more thoughtful and introspective, or cunning rather than crass, then they will find it difficult to emerge unscathed from more physical challenges. It’s an interpretation of character development and player progress that feels much more organic than in any other game of this sort. This is probably where Disco Elysium does the most to stand out from other such titles. Such a flexible approach to progress is hopefully something that other companies will emulate going forward, as it allows the character to develop a true personality that goes a step beyond the mathematically-oriented, incremental statistical increases that are usually the norm.

Disco Elysium Review

The ways in which player action, character interaction, and game reaction combine together is probably the closest it is possible to get to a truly curated dungeon master-guided play experience in an RPG. There is such a wide and unpredictable variety of moment-to-moment options that players can never be certain what exactly is going to happen next. This sense of improvisational unpredictability is a quintessential element of any RPG, but it is often lost in translation from tabletop rules to computer game mechanics. This pitfall is avoided thanks to the fact that the world of Disco Elysium was conceptualized as a tabletop game but doesn’t actually exist as one yet. As such the developers were able to implement systems without the expectation of adhering to pre-existing mechanics. This expectation has often been the downfall of many such games in the past, such as the much-maligned Sword Coast Legends which was lambasted for its apparent butchery of the 5th edition Dungeons and Dragons ruleset. It will be interesting to see if Larian Studios can avoid similar problems with Baldur’s Gate 3.

Disco Elysium Review

As intriguing and unconventional as Disco Elysium is, and no matter how deserving it is of the accolades it won at 2019’s Game Awards, it’s hard to recommend it as something to play if you’re looking for fun. It’s relentlessly grim even when it’s trying to be funny, and its stream of consciousness style makes even the most basic of interactions a minefield of potential disturbing possibilities. With its biting combination of continental existentialist ennui, pseudo-Lovecraftian undercurrents, and socio-political critique it isn’t a game that you play for the sheer joy of it, but rather for the esoteric and unusual experience that it offers. That being said, in a market that’s full to bursting point with crowd-pleasing blockbusters and oftentimes strictly by-the-book sequels or carbon copy titles, it can be incredibly rewarding to delve into a game as intricate and nuanced as Disco Elysium.

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