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Game Reviews

‘Oxenfree’ – A Stunning Technical Accomplishment That Is Haunting and Altogether Exquisite

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Night School Studio created a new supernatural thriller that has some of the best sound design in years.

Oxenfree is best described as a single-player, point and click dialog-driven narrative game with a story that follows a group of teenagers who travel to a mysterious island for a day of tomfoolery. Early in the night, the five teens head to the beach for beers, bonfires and a game of Truth or Dare. It doesn’t take long before they discover that this seemingly deserted island has an ominous history, which surfaces after they pick up strange signals on their radio emitting from a nearby cave. When they decide to explore the cave, shenanigans ensue, and it’s up to you (player one) to explore the island, unearth clues and unravel a mystery, decades in the making. What was supposed to be a fun weekend getaway takes a turn for the worst as each teen is forced to face the skeletons buried deep in their closet.

You play as audacious blue-haired Alex, who’s trying to reconcile her feelings about the death of her brother Michael while coping with her parents’ divorce and her mother re-marrying. She’s hoping the trip will award her some quality time alone with her new stepbrother, Jonas, and maybe a chance to escape her deep-seeded feelings of regret and guilt (as we soon enough learn from Michael’s girlfriend Clarissa, it was partially Alex’s fault that her brother, died). Unfortunately, while wandering through the caves, Alex unknowingly unleashes a supernatural force that causes everyone on the island to experience some sort of time-looping paranormal activity that makes it seem like they are living the same day over and over again. And because Alex realizes she is somewhat to blame for unleashing this phenomenon on her friends, she takes it upon herself to find a way to save everyone involved.

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Teens, alone on an island, squaring off against deadly forces is nothing new in the horror genre. One doesn’t need to look far to come up with a list of similar stories and truth be told, Sony’s Until Dawn quickly springs to mind when thinking of a comparison point. On paper, the premise of Oxenfree may seem like a clichéd thriller, but really, Oxenfree is a near-masterpiece, a blend of mind-boggling sci-fi, and subjective storytelling that serves as a singular and timeless piece of gaming. These high school seniors aren’t just fodder – they’re three-dimensional characters with complex inner lives that you don’t often see in video games. The mystery that unravels as you explore every corner of the island is really just a MacGuffin, an excuse to navigate the heady dynamics inherent to a group of hormonal troubled teens. The real charm in Oxenfree is the character development and like the majority of great horror films, Oxenfree explores the theme of isolation, both in a literal sense and in a figurative sense.

Oxenfree, in fact, is a bit like a teenager: brooding, complex, restless, and difficult to love.

Oxenfree is primarily a game about conversation, and at the center of the gaming mechanics is a type of speech-bubble interface. Dialogue balloons similar to what you’ll see in comic strips suggest three deviating plotlines based on their color. As Alex, you can decide what to say and who you choose to help throughout your journey. Night School Studio boasts some former Telltale Games designers in its roster, and so there are clearly many similarities to other walking simulators when it comes to interacting with these characters. But what sets Oxenfree apart from its contemporaries is the speed in which these characters riff off each other. Oxenfree’s characters are constantly chatting, and you have a restricted amount of time to respond to what someone is saying much like you would expect from a real-life conversation. In other words, there are no pauses in Oxenfree. The dialogue rattles along quickly from character to character, and if you don’t respond fast enough, the conversation moves on with or without you. The same applies to your supporting cast, and as Alex, you have the power to allow someone to finish what they are saying or you can interrupt them mid-sentence and change the flow of the conversation. And if you choose to remain silent, people take notice and react to your silence. More importantly, every decision you make will test the relationships of everyone involved. For a game as heavy on dialogue as this one, it’s a definite plus that it features good writing and strong, voiceover performances delivered by Telltale veterans which include Evin Yvette and Gavin Hammon.

Some have argued that the repartee between the cast rings false and their responses to the supernatural elements seem unrealistic. There is some truth behind this since often Alex and her friends don’t seem truly frightened by the paranormal and rather than frequent hysteria, these teens remain, for the most part, calm. I think the problem really has more to do with the art style than the actual script or voice acting. You see, while Oxenfree features gorgeous hand-painted 2D characters and environments, it also relies heavily on the voice cast since the characters appear quite small onscreen. In other words, there are no close-ups, zooms or dollies that can capture their facial and body expressions outside of a few minor gestures and movements like arms flailing and reactionary headshakes. I’m guessing when Nightschool Studio sat down to record the voice work they had to decide between having the actors deliver their lines in constant panic and screaming at a high-pitched volume  or – something soothing, calm and easy on the ears. I think they made the right decision but regardless of how you feel, I believe the voice acting is so good that these minor quibbles never take away from what the game is really about. As for those that say the teens don’t feel authentic, I wholeheartedly disagree: They bluster, bicker and trade insults, then suddenly expose their most guarded feelings. The conversations are the game’s lifeblood and thankfully, the teens of Oxenfree are refreshingly likable. With an excellent script behind some amazing voice-over performances, the teens never wear out their welcome. Oxenfree, in fact, is a bit like a teenager: brooding, complex, restless, and difficult to love.

Oxenfree benefits substantially from the ongoing emphasis on the sounds of the unseen horror.

While this is definitely a coming-of-age tale, it’s just as much as a ghost story inflected by a deeply atmospheric soundtrack courtesy of the electronic musician SCNTFCOxenfree’s sound design is so good I’d wager it features the best soundscape of any game available on the Nintendo Switch – and it’s aided with a clever twist since Alex must use a radio to tune into the supernatural side of things. You see, Oxenfree relies largely on Alex’s receiver which she carries everywhere to generate scares. With the press of a button, players can access eerie, ghostly radio frequencies that unlock doors, warp the environment, reset time, and reveal the dark history of the island they are stuck on. You never really know what you’re tapping into when playing Oxenfree but the radio is essential when investigating the mystery at large. In other words, Oxenfree benefits substantially from the ongoing emphasis on the sounds of the unseen horror. The effect is phenomenal. Senses kick into overdrive, ominous sounds fade in and out, and the mix of visuals and sounds begin to cross over from the radio waves into Alex’s mind, and the lines between reality and the subconscious become blurred. It’s all open to interpretation and there is a lot to interpret. And while the dial is severely limited for the first half of the game, it eventually expands fleshing out both the characters seen and unseen.

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Oxenfree is unapologetically story-driven and extremely light on gameplay – and to be fair, that may not be what everyone wants when purchasing a game. There are no real puzzles to solve, bosses to battle or even quick-time events to challenge your reflexes. Getting off the island becomes the priority which means you spend a lot of time exploring – but all that is really required of you the player – is to decide how you want to respond to conversations and adjust the dial on your radio. I’ve been told that the long walks from area to area have tested the patience of some of my colleagues who say that jumping over obstacles, climbing up and down low cliffs and walking down narrow, twisting paths through the dilapidated military base takes too much time. To be fair, it takes less than two minutes to cross the entire island and more importantly, these long walks are somewhat essential since they afford the characters time to interact, and between the sarcastic teen chatter and awkward stand-offs are genuinely touching moments. There are choices to be made as you travel throughout the island, and based on what you say and who you say them to impacts everyone’s future. Without it, the game just wouldn’t work.

Alongside the main story, there are several items hidden throughout the game to collect (which players can uncover if they choose). This includes letters from the island’s single resident, Maggie Adler which explain what happens to the dead Marines and hints at a gruesome coverup. I recommend seeking them out in order to better understand what happens in the past, present, and future.

Oxenfree

Like most walking simulators, Oxenfree’s story also branches depending on the choices you make, and it’s possible to get one of a few different endings but no matter what ending you get, sacrifices must be made. And that’s the beauty of Oxenfree, by giving players the agency to tell the story they want and creating emotional connections to the characters, every ending comes with a heavy price to pay. While the horror elements are what grant Oxenfree its narrative urgency, the character interactions are the best part of the journey, and like most games that offer players a choice, the results of your decisions – much like life itself – aren’t always satisfying.

Oxenfree is an astonishingly imaginative, poignant, genre-defying tale of loss, grief, guilt, revenge and time travel wrapped in a ghostly mystery that’s just as dark and disturbing as adolescence.

  • Ricky D

** Spoilers below **

For those curious, I somehow managed to get the one and only happy ending, or at least I thought it was until it wasn’t and I realized Alex and her friends were doomed and stuck in an endless time loop no matter what. If you’ve played the game and didn’t get the secret ending, I’ve embedded a video below by Gotchi3 that shows what happens.

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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  1. Joanna

    October 10, 2017 at 3:24 pm

    Oxenfree is one of my all-time favorite games. Very light on the gameplay, yes, but it has one of the most engaging stories I’ve ever played, some of the best voice acting around, and the sound design is amazing. Glad you see you enjoyed it as much as I did. 🙂

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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