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Game Reviews

‘Shadow of the Tomb Raider’: A Stunning Achievement and One of the Year’s Best

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Editor’s Note: This is the second of a two-part review. This portion focuses on the design and gameplay. 

If there is one thing that has stood out about the recent Tomb Raider games, it is the exciting and dangerous foreign lands Lara Croft adventures through. After exploring the winter surroundings of Siberia in Rise of the Tomb Raider, Lara Croft’s latest adventure takes her to the tropical savanna climate of Mexico’s largest Caribbean island. Racing through Cozumel, players are treated to a devastating prologue in which a natural disaster smashes its way through the Day of the Dead festivities in the small Mexican town, setting up what promises to be Lara Croft’s biggest and most dangerous adventure yet. The ensuing dodging and jumping relies on quick reflexes in order to bypass various obstacles and incoming dangers — nothing new to the series — but the much-improved controls and dazzling visuals in Shadow makes it all the more thrilling. It’s also downright depressing at times, such as when watching Lara swim past drowning victims, or witnessing a boy dangling for his life before falling to his death. Some scenes in Shadow will no doubt send shivers down your spine.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider Review

Action Speaks Louder Than Words

Admittedly, the first act of Shadow of the Tomb Raider moves at a slower pace, focusing heavily on exploring, treasure-hunting, and solving smaller puzzles in and around ancient tombs. There’s a lot of walking, a lot of cinematic cut scenes, a lot of chatter, and a lot of time spent collecting materials in order to craft better weapons. Once Lara travels deep into the dangerous Peruvian jungles and arrives in Paititi, the game quickly picks up speed. The second half brings the high-adrenaline action we’ve come to expect, with Lara spending a decent amount of time evading deadly traps, dangling from ledges, scrambling through collapsing structures, hunting treasure, and fighting her way past her enemies. In regard to its gameplay, this is the best the series has ever been, a remarkable achievement that features top-notch animation and stunning environments to discover. If you are like me, you’ll spend a good amount of time snapping photos and taking screenshots throughout Lara’s epic journey.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider Review

Silent but Deadly

In the first part of this review, I mentioned that Shadow gives the Uncharted series a run for its money, and that is mostly due to the intense and always exciting gameplay it offers. Throughout her journey, Lara will acquire various weapons, starting with a bow and a handgun, until she eventually ends up carrying an assault rifle and a powerful shotgun. You’ll be given plenty of reasons to use everything in her arsenal, but if you are like me, you’ll prefer taking out the bad guys as quietly as possible. You see, one of the biggest changes in this entry is the emphasis on stealth combat. I spent the majority of the game relying only on Lara’s bare hands and bow to kill most of Trinity’s goons. In fact, I only picked up my handgun for the first time when I was well past the halfway mark. Shadow encourages players to hide in the shadows, take cover in long patches of grass, crouch behind objects, or strike from a distance by relying on archery skills. In addition, Lara can now cover herself in mud to further camouflage herself, and attack enemies by sidling along walls. If that isn’t enough, she can also use her tethering abilities to string a rope around an enemy’s neck from a tree and hoist them into the air, choking them out. Every so often, Lara will also make use of her bow and arrow to create zip lines in order to get from one platform to the next.

Rise of the Tomb Raider made heavy use of Lara’s arsenal, adding skills and a crafting system that allowed her to become more efficient in combat, and this game is no different. Lara’s skill tree now includes the option to craft arrows, and there is a skill system designed to help out in three areas: seeker, warrior, and scavenger. Not to mention, the game also features an herb-crafting system where healing, defense, and combat enhancement items can be made at any given time. With plenty of new fighting techniques and new weapons (including a poisonous arrow that causes your enemies to panic), Shadow features the most intense combat of the entire series, bar none. Call me crazy, but the variety of ways to ambush your enemies sure beats Nathan Drake’s constant use of firearms (personally, I’ll always prefer a bow and arrow over a gun). More importantly, none of it ever feels overwhelming; even newcomers to the series should have no trouble understanding how to use and upgrade each new ability and weapon Lara acquires.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider Review

Paititi

Perhaps the biggest accomplishment is the creation of Paititi, the jaw-dropping small Mexican town located in the jungles of Peru. Paititi acts as a hub area where you spend the vast majority of your time interacting with the indigenous society and learning about their culture, history, and folklore. Never before has a location in a Tomb Raider game felt so alive. Players can freely wander around, talk to select NPCs, listen to their stories, and watch their daily lives unfold. If that isn’t enough, Shadow‘s options menu allows you to choose to have the game’s NPCs speak their native tongue, including Quechuan, Yucatec, and other Mayan dialects. The meticulous attention to detail must be applauded. It is here where you will find a vast majority of side quests, which are well worth your time exploring.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider also features some of the best puzzles in the series. Its side quest missions, optional crypts, and nine hidden tombs are extraordinary, challenging, and more importantly, they always feel fresh. It should be noted that I’ve read many people complain that the puzzles are far too easy. Shadow allows players to customize the difficulty level of combat, exploration, and puzzle solving independently of each other. Therefore, I recommend tweaking the settings accordingly to avoid this problem — otherwise, the game will hold your hand and pretty much tell you step by step how to solve each puzzle. After my initial playthrough, I wound up only completing 75% of the game, and to my surprise, Shadow of the Tomb Raider offered more puzzles to solve and tombs to raid after the credits roll.

Shadow of the Tomb Raider Review

Sounds Great!

Last but not least, I can’t end without mentioning the incredible score by Montreal composer Brian D’Oliveira, who spent three years travelling through dark corners of the Amazon and remote Mexican villages collecting the rare instruments used to compose the soundtrack. D’Oliviera (who grew up in Venezuela playing the Peruvian flute) said it was a dream to be able to bring the sounds of Latin American communities to millions of people. His hard work has paid off in spades; the soundtrack to Shadow is among the very best of the year — maybe the decade.

The Verdict

The story has its flaws, but Shadow of the Tomb Raider sets out to develop Lara Croft’s character as best as it can. Over the course of three games, we now have a better understanding of her past, her present, and a hint at what the future can bring. Each game has seen Lara evolve and become the legend she is said to be — a fierce warrior, brilliant archeologist, and courageous adventurer with a troubled past. And Shadow isn’t afraid to show her flaws.

As a game, the graphics and setting are beautifully rendered, the controls are tight and fluid, the combat is gratifying, and the puzzles are challenging enough without ever keeping the players away from the main mission for too long. As a whole, this trilogy is one of the finest video game series to date. As an action-adventure, a coming of age tale and a reflective story about obsession, Shadow of the Tomb Raider may be the best in the trilogy, an action adventure against which all future entries must now be measured. It is also one of the year’s best games — and the series has now approached the level of quality we’ve come to expect from Uncharted.

Click here for the first part of this 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.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. david grimes

    September 29, 2018 at 5:24 am

    this is a great review im like 3 hours in and iv been nothing but impressed yet most sites have posted seriously snotty reviews about this game. I dont know if its just me thats too easily impressed or others too difficult to please. Iv only recently got back into games after about 8 years so whether that plays a part i dont know but im often blown away by modern games only to find reviews totally nonplussed by them-the reviewers critisisms often incredibly petty to me. It just strikes me as really entitled and spoilt. This review has it right for me though im completely blown away by this so far.

  2. Ricky D Fernandes

    September 29, 2018 at 11:01 am

    Thanks. I take all my reviews seriously. It took the entire team three years to make this game. It took me two hours to write both parts of this review, but that doesn’t compare to three years. I’ve also read reviews on other sites and I was very annoyed by what they were saying. I think Polygon published 90 articles about the problem with Lara’s character — all of which are somewhat ridiculous. Meanwhile, Jim Sterling published his video tearing the game apart, yet it is clear from what the video that he most likely did not finish the game, nor make it past the halfway mark… which leaves me wondering why he even reviewed it in the first place.

    Anyhow, I could go on … but I agree with you … these days, most “critics” are not fair, or know what they are talking about.

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Game Reviews

‘House of Golf’ is No Hole-In-One, But it is Below Par

‘House of Golf’ may feel appropriate for Switch, but a lack of variety and reused content make this course nearly reach above par.

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Perhaps adding the word “mini” to the title would have been far more appropriate regarding the in-game circumstances of Atomicom’s newest family arcade sports styled game House of Golf. In the slew of golf games currently available on the Nintendo Switch, House of Golf may feel the most appropriate for the console’s capabilities due to its key focus on simplicity, portability, and accessibility, but a lack of diversity in individual hole design and reused content nearly makes this humdrum course reaching above par.

Simplicity is a key focus within House of Golf’s core mechanics. Controls, menus, and even gameplay are as simple as video games can get. The left analog stick operates the camera and holding down the A button fires your ball with a distinct power meter located on the right-hand side of the screen. Your goal is to attempt to achieve a hole-in-one or stay below a par number that changes depending on course and difficulty- just like regular golf, mini-golf, or any form of golf you can imagine. It never gets more complicated than that.

House of Golf may claim that its selling point is that it contains over 130 different holes divided into 5 different environments- or rather rooms- and 3 difficulties, but variety becomes bland after less than an hour of playtime. Despite there being five different environments, after completing one course on either the medium or hard difficulty setting, you practically have experienced all there is to do. Courses always remain compact and easy to navigate, but the game never gets challenging or adds some sort of flair that allows each hole to stand out from one another. It is a shame considering that the fluid gameplay foundation the courses are built on might just be the most tightly controlled golf game available on Switch.

As the title of the game implies, every course is designed around the interior aesthetics of a house- a rather small one at that as the game chooses to focus on table-top scenarios- quite literally. Each hole is rapid-fire short and manages to achieve a miniature sense of scale. They are stylized well but the game often reuses assets for each room despite the settings being entirely different. The atmospheres themselves manage to create a comfy aesthetic for each hole that only adds more cheerful feelings to the laid-back easy-going gameplay on top of a soundtrack that is extremely mellow yet quaint, but when you are on a nine-hole course that never completely changes that atmosphere can become tiresome.

What initially seems like House of Golf’s greatest strength though is being able to choose any environment, hole, and difficulty directly from the get-go, but this feature quickly takes the game south rather unintentionally. As soon as you open up the game, players can accommodate to their own personal skill level leaving the vast majority of them to skip more than a third of the levels. With no learning curve or incentive to play the game on its lowest difficulties, House of Golf rapidly begins to dwindle in new content.

When it comes to the ranking system, it is designed exactly like a traditional mini-golf game where your goal is to achieve a set number of strokes that will keep you above par. Stars will be awarded to players based on performance- a hole-in-one obviously being the highest gold star rank a player can achieve and a triple-bogey being the lowest. These stars, however, only unlock one feature: golf ball designs.

Extra unlockable golf ball designs are the only in-game rewards to collect throughout the game- and it is nothing to look forward to or worthwhile to commit to. They are charming to gander at for more then a couple of seconds, but they serve no real purpose in the long run- not even when it comes to the multiplayer. Rather then these rewards being applied to each individual player’s ball, House of Golf does not allow players to choose what golf ball design they wish to use. For some ridiculous reason, whatever player one chooses is applied to every golf ball.

Speaking of, while the singleplayer can be rather tiresome, House of Golf’s one notable addition that might just keep you on the course for longer than a few hours is the inclusion of a local multiplayer ranging from two to six players. Multiplayer presents a higher-stakes challenge for each course, which makes gameplay not only far more satisfying to win at but overall entertaining to play. Due to the compact course designs, often you can mess with your friend’s positions and overthrow the score of each hole. Multiplayer was clearly the go-to way to play as it is the first option that appears on the main menu.

One thing that should be noted is that only one joy-con is required for everyone to play as there is no other option to use multiple controllers- a convenient addition that you have to wonder why more games do not have it on the Nintendo Switch. It is by far the game’s most redeeming quality that absolutely deserves mentioning. For a game where one player controls the field at a time, this streamlines a lot of issues outside even that of the game itself.

It is no hole-in-one to ride home about, but Atomicom has managed to create an arcade-style sports game that is a mix of both simplistically relaxing and mildly infuriating. In its final state, the lackluster courses can make this one turn into a quick bore, but adding a few friends to the multiplayer scene can turn House of Golf into a few delightful hours. At its retail price of ten dollars, any Switch owner planning on picking up House of Golf should wait for it to land in a sale target-hole. It is not bad by any means, but there are better places to look to fill your golf fix, especially those looking for a single-player experience. For a cheap alternative, however, it might just be worth it for the multiplayer alone.

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Game Reviews

‘Riverbond’ Review: Colorful Hack’n’Slash Chaos

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Sometimes a little bit of mindless smashing is just what people play video games for, and if some light sword-swinging, spear-stabbing, laser-shooting giant hand-slapping action that crumbles a destructible world into tiny blocks sounds like a pleasant way to spend a few hours, then Riverbond might just satisfy that urge. Though its short campaign can get a little repetitive by the end, colorful voxel levels and quirky characters generally make this rampaging romp a button-mashing good time, especially if you bring along a few friends.

Riverbond grass

There really isn’t much of a story here outside something about some mystical leaders being imprisoned by a knight, and Riverbond lets players choose from its eight levels in Mega Man fashion, so don’t go in expecting some sort of narrative thread. Instead, each land has its own mini-situation going on, whether that involves eradicating some hostile pig warriors or reading library books or freeing numerous rabbit villagers scattered about, the narrative motivation is pretty light here. That doesn’t mean that these stages don’t each have their various charms, however, as several punnily named NPCs will blurt out humorous bits of dialogue that work well as breezy pit stops between all the cubic carnage.

Developer Cococucumber has also wisely created plenty of visual variety for their fantastical world, as players will find their polygonal hero traversing the lush greenery of grassy plains, the wooden piers of a ship’s dockyard, the surrounding battlements of a medieval castle, and the craggy outcroppings of a snowy mountain, among other locations, each with a distinct theme. Many of the trees or bridges or crates or whatever else happens to be lying around are completely destructible, able to be razed to the ground with enough brute force. Occasionally the physics involved in these crumbling structures helps gain access to jewels or other loot, but this mechanic mostly just their for the visual appeal one gets from cascading blocks; Riverbond isn’t exactly deep in its design.

Riverbond boss

That shallowness also applies to the basic gameplay, which pretty much involves hacking or shooting enemies and environments to pieces, activating whatever task happens to be the main goal for each sub-stage, then moving on or scouring around a bit for treasure before finally arriving at a boss. Though there are plenty of different weapons to find, they generally fall into only a few categories: small swinging implements that allow for quick slashes, large swinging implements that are slow but deal heavier damage, spears that offer quick jabs, or guns that…shoot stuff. There are some variations among these in speed, power, and possible side effects (a gun that fired electricity is somewhat weak, but sticks to opponents and gives off an extra, devastating burst), but once an agreeable weapon is found, there is little reason to give it up outside experimentation.

Still, there is a rhythmic pleasure to be found in games like this when they are done right, and Riverbond mostly comes through with tight controls, hummable tunes, and twisting levels that do a good job of mixing in some verticality to mask the repetitiveness. It’s easy for up to four players to get in on the dungeon-crawling-like pixelated slaughter, and the amount of blocks exploding onscreen can make for some fun and frenzied fireworks, especially when whomping on one of the game’s giant bosses. A plethora of skins for the hero are also discoverable, with at least one or two tucked away in locations both obvious and less so around each sub-stage. These goofy characters exist purely for aesthetic reasons, but those who prefer wiping out legions of enemies dressed as Shovel Knight or a sentient watermelon slice will be able to fulfill that fantasy.

Riverbond bears

By the end, the repetitive fights and quests can make Rivebond feel a little same-y, but the experience wraps up quickly without dragging things out. This may disappoint players looking for a more involved adventure, but those who sometimes find relaxation by going on autopilot — especially with some buddies on the couch — will appreciate how well the block-smashing basics are done here.

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Game Reviews

‘Earthnight’ Review: Hit the Dragon Running

Between its lush visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, Earthnight never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

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Earthnight

In Earthnight, you do one thing: run. There’s not much more to do in this roguelike auto-runner but to dash across the backs of massive dragons to reach their heads and strike them down. This may be an extremely simple gameplay loop, but Earthnight pulls it off with such elegance and style. Between its lush comic book visuals and its constantly evolving gameplay, it creates an experience that never gets old, from the first dragon you slay to the hundredth.

Dragons have descended from space and are wreaking havoc upon humanity. No one is powerful enough to take them down – except for the two-player characters, Sydney and Stanley, of course. As the chosen ones to save the human race, they must board a spaceship and drop from the heavens while slaying as many dragons on your way down as they can. For every defeated creature, they’ll be rewarded with water – an extremely precious resource in the wake of the dragon apocalypse. This resource can be exchanged for upgrades that make the next run that much better.

This simple story forms the basis for a similarly basic, yet engaging gameplay loop. Each time you dive from your spaceship, you’ll see an assortment of dragons to land on. Once you make a landing, you’ll dash across its back and avoid the obstacles it throws at you before reaching its head, where you’ll strike the final blow. Earthnight is procedurally generated, so every time you leap down from your home base, there’s a different set of dragons to face, making each run feel unique. There are often special rewards for hunting specific breeds of dragon, so it’s always exciting to see the new set of creatures before you and hunt for the one you need at any given moment.

Earthnight is an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.”

Earthnight

Landing on the dragons is only the first step to slaying them. Entire hordes of monsters live on their backs, and in true auto-runner fashion, they’ll rush at you with reckless abandon from the very start. During the game’s first few runs, the onrush of enemies can feel overwhelming. Massive crowds of them will burst forth at once, and it can feel impossible to survive their onslaughts. However, this is where Earthnight begins to truly shine. The more dragons you slay, the more upgrade items become available, which are either given as rewards for slaying specific dragons or can be purchased with the water you’ve gained in each run. Many of these feel essentially vital for progression – some allow you to kill certain enemies just by touching them, whereas others can grant you an additional jump, both of which are much appreciated in the utter chaos of obstacles found on each dragon.

Procedural generation can often result in bland or repetitive level design, but it’s this item progression system that keeps Earthnight from ever feeling dry. It creates a constant sense of improvement: with more items in your arsenal after each new defeated dragon, you’ll be able to descend even further in the next run. This makes every level that much more exciting: with more power under your belt, there are greater possibilities for defeating enemies, stacking up combos, or climbing high above the dragons. It becomes an acrobatic, dragon-hunting ballet that only becomes more beautifully extravagant with every run.

Earthnight

At its very best, Earthnight feels like a rhythm game. With the perfect upgrades for each level, it becomes only natural to bounce off of enemies’ heads and soar through the heavens with an almost musical flow. The vibrant chiptune soundtrack certainly helps with this. Packed full of driving beats and memorable melodies with a mixture of chiptune and modern instrumentation, the music makes it easy to charge forward through whatever each level will throw your way.

That is not to say that Earthnight never feels too chaotic for its own good – rather, there are some points where its flood of enemies and obstacles can feel too random or overwhelming, to the point where it can be hard to keep track of your character or feel as if it’s impossible to avoid enemies. Sometimes the game can’t even keep up with itself, with the performance beginning to chug once enemies crowd the screen too much, at least in the Switch version. However, this is the exception, rather than the rule, and for the most part, simply making good use of its upgrades and reacting quickly to the challenges before you will serve you well in your dragon-slaying quest.

Earthnight

Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.”

It certainly helps that Earthnight is a visual treat as well. It adopts a striking comic book style, in which nearly every frame of animation is lovingly hand-drawn and loaded with detail. Sometimes these details feel a bit excessive – some characters are almost grotesquely detailed, with the faces of the bobble-headed protagonists sometimes seeming too elaborate for comfort. However, in general, it’s a gorgeous game, with its luscious backdrops of deep space and high sky, along with creative monsters and dragon designs that only get more outlandish and spectacular the farther down you soar.

Earthnight is a competent auto-runner that might not revolutionize its genre, but it makes up for this simplicity by elegantly executing its core gameplay loop so that it constantly changes yet remains endlessly addictive. Its excellent visual and audio presentation helps to make it all the more engrossing, while it strikes the perfect balance between randomized level design and permanent progression thanks to its items and upgrades system. At times it may get too chaotic for its own good, but all told, Earthnight is a race that’s worth running time and time again.

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