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Game Reviews

‘NBA 2K19’ – A Slam Dunk and a Vast Improvement on its Predecessor

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By now, you figure there wouldn’t be much to add to the conversation when reviewing the latest entry in the NBA 2K franchise. Not only is it one of the most critically acclaimed video game series of all time (not to mention a series that has had a strong hold on the video game basketball market for nearly two decades), but little has changed with the brand from one installment to the next. Year-in and year-out, the 2K games have almost always delivered a level of quality that no other sports series has come close to matching, and in this critic’s opinion, the NBA 2K series is the only viable option for fans seeking out a game that is well worth your hard-earned money (sorry NBA Live).

NBA 2K18 is a game we called great, but also incredibly frustrating. Put aside the atrocious myPlayer campaign and overall reliance on microtransactions, what really bothered me was the actual gameplay and the disappointing MyCareer mode that the game offered. That’s not to say that game isn’t good (read our review) but it was a step down from NBA2K 17, arguably the best entry in the series by far. Thankfully Visual Concepts was determined to correct some of the problems that befell last year’s edition. NBA 2K19 is not without its fair share of problems but it is hands down, the best basketball game on the market, a triumph of style and simulation, and a game loaded with plenty of content to keep you busy until next September.

NBA 2K19 Review2K19 features its strongest MyCareer mode yet with the aptly titled, The Way Back, a fascinating look at the culture behind college basketball recruiting. The story puts you in the shoes of a somewhat arrogant young baller nicknamed A.I. (not to be confused with Allen Iverson) who leaves college early for the NBA draft, only to have his dreams crushed when he’s left undrafted. Despite having enormous talent, A.I. still has a lot to learn before he will ever get a chance to play in the big leagues. With few options available to him, A.I. makes his way to China to play for the Shanghai Bears hoping his time there will catch the attention of an NBA scout.

A.I. sure knows how to dress great!

Written by Adam Hoelzel and directed by Christian Papierniak, The Way Back gives players plenty of reasons to remain invested with several unexpected plot twists and a journey that takes A.I. from the East to the West where he gets a spot playing for the Mad Ants, the popular NBA G League team located in Fort Wayne, Indiana. There’s plenty of colourful characters you meet along the way including Corey Harris played by Aldis Hodge (A.I.’s former college teammate), Zach Coleman played by Haley Joel Osment (a backstabbing social media guru) and Coach Stackhouse played by famous character actor, Michael Rapaport who steals the show despite only having a few scenes. The Way Back even features a love interest played by Meghan Lennox who doubles as a famous sports writer as well as a few villains – the most memorable being Marcus Young (Mo McRae), A.I.’s teammate who will do anything in his power to get what he wants. The Way Back is a well scripted, finely acted coming of age tale about a young man who starts out as a self-centered, incredibly selfish brat who over time must overcome his biggest obstacle – that being his overall attitude to both the game he loves and the game of life. The Way Back also doubles as a heady dose of the American dream and the American nightmare combined as it unfolds as a true-to-life investigation of how one turnover, one bad pass, or one missed basket can make all the difference in a player’s fortunes. And it isn’t just about the decisions A.I. makes on the court but also the decisions he makes in his everyday life. Featuring an RPG element that allows players to choose between certain actions and decisions, players are able to craft a personalized journey and shape the outcome of A.I.’s destiny. For example, at the end of the regular season playing with the Mad Ants, A.I. must decide if he should pass the ball as often as possible to his arch nemesis Marcus Young and win the game for his team, or, steal the spotlight and score all the baskets knowing full well the Mad Ants will not only lose, but Marcus would find a way to get his revenge.

Visual Concepts continues to set the benchmark for sports titles

Despite the short five hour running time, The Way Back is an incredible achievement that conveys the fabric of modern American life, aspirations and incidentally, sports, in close-up and at length. After several ups and downs, “The Prelude” culminates with A.I. negotiating a deal with a club of your choosing (of course I chose the Lakers). By the time A.I. has finally achieved his goal of playing in the NBA, he’s accomplished more than just a career – he’s become a better person getting there.

Mad Ants NBA 2K19

Marcus Young (left) and Ricky D (right)

MyCareer doesn’t just get by on the story, however; some quality changes and welcome new additions help make the story mode far more enjoyable than its predecessor. This time around, you’re able to skip the cutscenes (although I’m not sure why you’d want to) and the revamped Neighborhood is drastically improved thanks to the design, variety and more refined navigation. Included are easily achievable daily bonuses, flexible endorsement contracts, tons of minigames to participate in, and a layout that sidesteps the endless walking 2K18 forced you to do. The biggest highlight, however, comes during the “Prelude”, when A.I. and his college friend visit an arcade that just so happens to feature the original 2K game. Taking a page out of Uncharted 4, MyCareer then lets you play that original 2K game in a match between the 1999 Houston Rockets and the Boston Celtics. All in all, MyCarrer is of course only one piece of the overall experience but it is hands down the best addition to the game.

You can play the original NBA 2K game in MyCareer!

There’s so much to write about when reviewing NBA 2K19 – from the Blacktop mode (that includes half court street basketball) to the updated roster, to the classic NBA teams, to the colorful commentary (welcome Bill Simmons), to the incredible soundtrack, and even MyLeague, which allows you to build upon  an NBA franchise with a dazzling amount of customization. But of all the improvements and changes this time around, it is the new gameplay additions and tweaks that are by far it’s most impressive component. NBA 2K19 has a tougher learning curve when compared to all of the entries from the past, something which prevents you from easily pushing towards the hoop thanks to a much-needed improvement on defense. Even as a veteran of the series, I found myself getting destroyed by the CPU. It takes some time getting accustomed to the advanced controls but in the end, you’ll appreciate how the game forces users to be smart on the court.

NBA 2K19 has a tougher learning curve

Needless to say, 2K Games is pushing its affection for realism and I doubt you’ll find another sports game in which the A.I. behaves so realistically. Furthermore, the new “takeover” mechanic gives players the opportunity to raise their attributes within several distinct categories – something that makes you think more carefully about your choices on the court as your performance can hurt the number of attribute points you are rewarded after a match. For example, if you want to focus on boosting your passing skills, you’ll want to make sure you not only pass the ball often but avoid any turnovers. Once the game has ended you can trade in your “currency’ and raise your skill level as you see fit. My only major gripe is the speed of the transition game. After playing the aforementioned original 2K mini-game which features controls that are both fluid and smooth, it became clear just how sluggish the 2K gameplay has become. Apart from that, the character models and faces are somewhat awkward. Lebron James, for example, doesn’t look like James and the animation at times leaves much to be desired.

NBA 2k20

The Prelude allows you to play the original 2K game when you visit this arcade!

As the reviewer, I should state that I have no interest in dabbling with microtransactions nor do I care to play online. Over the years I’ve spent the majority of my time with the 2K series playing with my family and friends. That said, one of the biggest strengths of the game is that it offers something for everyone, even if that means you for some reason are a fan of its aggressive monetization tactics and choose to spend your hard earned cash and pay to win. Apart from that, NBA 2K19 is a must for any fan of the franchise. Visual Concepts continues to set the benchmark for sports titles leaving me wondering just what they can add next year.

– Ricky D

NBA 2k19 ReviewNBA 2k19NBA 2k19NBA 2k19 Review

Some people take my heart, others take my shoes, and some take me home. I write, I blog, I podcast, I edit, and I design websites. Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Goomba Stomp and the NXpress Nintendo Podcast. Former Editor-In-Chief of Sound On Sight, and host of several podcasts including the Game of Thrones and Walking Dead podcasts, as well as the Sound On Sight and Sordid Cinema shows. There is nothing I like more than basketball, travelling, and animals. You can find me online writing about anime, TV, movies, games and so much more.

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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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