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Game Reviews

Stomping Ground: ‘Battletech’ Review




It’s been a long time since the Battletech franchise released a strategy game, with Mech Commander 2 being released in 2001. The series has found much better footing in the more action-oriented genres, and it’s seen a lot of success with a series of first and third person games.

However, the series is based on a board game, and finally someone has decided it’s time to bring that to the digital world. That someone just happens to be Hairbrained Schemes, previously known for their amazing work on the Shadowrun games, which were also digital conversions of traditional pen-and-paper games. Are mechs still exciting from an eye-in-the-sky view, or is this destined for the scrap heap?

Blow Things Up for Money

BATTLETECH‘S plot is surprisingly good for a game otherwise about blowing things up for money. You play a mercenary veteran in the service of House Arano, who’s king just died leaving the throne to his daughter Kamea.

On the day of her ascension, the royal city is attacked by Kamea’s uncle and cousin who start a civil war and steal the throne, killing your best friend and attempting to kill you and Kamea in the process. Now, three years later you’re in charge of a small mercenary company hired by Kamea to serve as her military backing for her upcoming coup. She agrees to bankroll your operation, and in return you get revenge. A win-win for everyone.

While the writing is generally great, taking cues from other fiction steeped in political meandering like Game of Thrones, there are two major issues with the plot. The first is that it all just seems so familiar, and it is, unfortunately, a story we’ve seen time and time and time again. The evil side of the family wrestles control from the good side, a fight breaks out, and the good side, after overcoming hardships and hurdles, wins the day, probably with a deal of sacrifice too.

Secondly, the plot at times just doesn’t show up or isn’t clear. In fairness, the bulk of the game is spent as a mercenary, but the story literally will just stop dead at times only to reappear when it thinks it necessary, making it difficult to care when you do finally return to the reason for playing the game.

Major plot points are punctuated by cutscenes featuring amazing, albeit mostly static, art.

Battletech Is A Little Too Familiar

That said, while the main plot may not always show up, BATTLETECH does do a great job of allowing you to create your own story, usually the one about you being on the verge of bankruptcy most of the time. Time and money are everything and it is impressive how, in a game about giant robots firing lasers and missiles, the most dangerous enemies are the clock and the checkbook.

The early game is going to keep you extremely lean, often forcing you to take contracts just to pay the bills, but because the game does a great job of creating an atmosphere of being a hungry mercenary commander, this never feels totally detrimental. Mostly the game simply shows you goa od time and money management and makes the payoff when you finally buy some breathing room that much sweeter.

Unfortunately, the time/money management does highlight one of the biggest issues with the game: the pacing. Quite frankly it’s all over the place. A lot of management-style games of this nature have downtime, waiting for the aliens to show up in Xcom or for your team to heal in Jagged Alliance 2, but the downtime between engagements in BATTLETECH can be insanely long, slowly bleeding you dry in the meantime.

The world doesn’t stop because your mech lost an arm or your pilot took a round to the abdomen, and certainly neither does the bill collector. Repairs and hospital time can really add up and you can go months on months without a team ready to deploy, all the while paying upkeep costs and edging closer to bankruptcy. It does get better as you unlock faster repairs and better medicine, but before than an entire campaign can end if one of your mechs gets too badly beaten up.

A Long Wait

It’s unfortunate that there’s such a long wait between combat missions because tactically this is one of the best turn-based-strategy games in a long time. Combat just feels amazing, and clearing a particularly difficult mission with minimal damage is an outstanding feeling. There are a few idiosyncrasies that can take some time to get accustomed to, especially if you’re coming off of other turn-based strategy games, but once you get into the swing of things combat is incredibly satisfying.

Outfitting mechs is one of the deepest, and most frustrating parts of the game.

To start, the encounters are split into phases, based on the weight class of mechs, with lighter mechs moving first. You’ll always know which phase every unit is slotted for, so thinking ahead is easy to do, and certain abilities can manipulate the phases to change when your units activate or allow you to activate twice.

Then there’s the evasion system, which is based on movement and terrain. The more you move the more evasive you mech is, and certain terrain types grant bonuses like forests give you cover or water cooling your mech down, or debuffs like slower movement or increased heat. Finally, there’s heat and stability, the former builds as you fire weapons and if you overheat you’ll take damage and risk a core meltdown, and the latter is affected by taking damage, and can cause mechs to fall over and become easy targets.

All of that is on top of the variety of different weapons, never mind the mech pilot’s skills and the positioning of the two mechs facing each other. Then there’s layers of armor and special weapons, as well as melee damage and pilot abilities. All of this could and should be difficult but the game does a good job of making the whole thing manageable, and more importantly, easy to use, mostly. There are enough feedback and information given out that combat is simple and enjoyable, although again the UI doesn’t always do a great job of presenting info in a logical manner, and finding some stats seems unnecessarily difficult.

Ruthless Enemies, Player Bias

As for the enemies you’ll face, they can be downright ruthless at times. The AI is particularly fond of ganging up on weaker targets, and frankly so should you. Enemies will often outnumber you two or even three to one with vehicles and turrets as well. While most enemies will have less armor, more difficult missions can be absolutely punishing and some encounters can drag on for turns at a time. Still, the game often felt more player-biased than some other strategy games, and the balance landed on comfortable more often than not.

Visually the game is sort of all over the place. There’s a LOT of detail put into the mechs, and zooming in on them is a treat for fans of the series. Far from their Eastern cousins, the mechs of BATTLETECH are slow, hulking, utilitarian things and that shows perfectly in their design. Damage modeling is also handled very well and it is genuinely exciting to watch as limbs go flying after a great hit.

Unfortunately, terrain art is somewhat lacking in any detail, and a lot of the maps feel barren and mishmash as a result, occasionally spruced up with small features. It doesn’t really hamper the experience, but it can make the game feel less alive.

Melee makes a return to the series, allowing for devestating blows and an easy way to clear out vehicles

The audio is a bit better. Weapon sounds have a decent enough punch to them, even more so when accompanied by an explosion signaling a good hit. The mechs themselves have a lot of groaning and whirring, matching their look perfectly.

The music is quite good, matching the fantasy influence of the story with the sci-fi industrial world for a great soundtrack that matches the action without overpowering it. Finally, voice work is mostly decent, with Lady Kamea being a standout the few times her lines are voiced. Your pilots also have a decent selection of barks to match their actions, everything from landing a critical hit to moving for cover and the variety is decent enough that your team will feel dynamic.

It’s All About Those Robots

Unfortunately what can really bring the game down are the numerous bugs and glitches, ranging from mildly amusing to actually game breaking. While none were experienced during this review there are far to many reports on the Steam page to ignore, and players are complaining about audio not starting to frequent crashes.

Also, despite being a Unity engine title the game can be an absolute system killer, thanks to some poor decisions like uncapping menus to let them use resources unchecked. The developers have stated they’re aware of these issues and as of this review some patches have already dropped, but it should be something to remember if you’re planning to pick the game up.

BATTLETECH might just be the closest a game about managing a mercenary company of giant robots has ever, or will ever come. There are issues, and at times the game almost seems reluctant to let you get to the good stuff, but when you outclass and out maneuver a massive enemy force to win the day and score the contract that all seems to go away. It’s a game that will keep you hungry, always looking for the next fight, and when it delivers it’s simply amazing.

Andrew Vandersteen has been watching movies and playing games since before he could do basic math, and it shows. But what he lacks in being good at things, he makes up for with opinions on everything nerd culture. A self described and self medicated audiophile and lover of anything and everything really, really terrible, he's on a constant quest to find the worst things humanity has ever published. He's seen every episode of The Legend of Zelda, twice, and thinks the Super Mario Movie was a war crime. When he's not playing games or writing about them, he's messing around with audio or fixing computers. Perpetually one paycheck short of breaking even, and always angry about something.

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Game Reviews

‘Coffee Talk’ Review: The Best Brew in Town

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.



It’s 9:00pm. The rain just started coming down softly a few minutes ago, and the street outside is reflecting the lights above it. Neon signs shine brightly in the distance, although it’s hard to make out the words. You unlock the doors to the coffee shop and wipe down the counters in order to get them clean for the customers. The rain makes a soft sound as it hits the glass and passerby speed up their walking pace to avoid it. The bells chime as a tall, green orc walks in and sits down at your table in silence. You wonder what their story is…

I wanted to set the tone for this review because of how important atmosphere and audio/visual design is in the world of Coffee Talk. While it’s easy to boil the game down as a visual novel-type experience, it’s honestly so much more than that. A unique cast of characters, incredible user interface, and a mysterious protagonist combine to form the most enjoyable experience I’ve had this year on Switch.

Coffee Talk
Some of the subject matter can be pretty serious in nature…

Coffee Talk is beautiful because of how simple it is. The entire game takes place within a single coffee shop. As the barista, you’re tasked with making drinks for the patrons of the shop as well as making conversations with them. The twist is that earth is populated with creatures like orcs, werewolves, and succubi. The relationship between the various races is handled very well throughout the story, and some interesting parallels are made to the real world.

Making drinks is as simple as putting together a combination of three ingredients and hitting the ‘Serve’ button. If a unique drink is made, it will be added to a recipe list that can be referenced on the barista’s cell phone. This is where the awesome user interface comes in, as the phone has a series of apps that can be accessed at any moment in the game. One app houses your recipe list, another acts as a facebook for the characters in the game, one allows you to switch between songs, and the other houses a series of short stories that one of the characters in the game writes as it progresses. It’s one of the coolest parts of the whole experience and helps it stand out from other games in the genre.

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

Coffee Talk cycles between talking with customers and making drinks for them. In the beginning, they will ask for basic beverages that can be brewed on the fly. Later on however, they may ask for a specific type of drink that has a unique title. These drinks often have certain descriptive features that hint at other possibilities in terms of unique dialogue. If the wrong drink is made, you’ll have five chances to trash it and make a new one. If the wrong drink is made, don’t expect the customer to be pleased about it.

The gameplay really is not the focus here though; it’s the characters and their stories that take center stage. An elf with relationship issues, a writer that can’t seem to pin down her next story, and an alien whose sole goal is to mate with an earthling are just a few of the examples of the characters you’ll meet during the story. There are tons of memorable moments throughout Coffee Talk, with every character bringing something unique to the table. The barista develops an interesting relationship with many of these characters as well.

Coffee Talk
Appearances can often be deceiving in this game.

Even though serving the wrong drinks can change some of the dialogue, don’t expect any sort of options or branching paths in terms of the story. It’s not that kind of experience; the story should simply be enjoyed for what it is. I found myself glued to the screen at the end of each of the in-game days, waiting to see what would happen in the morning. The first playthrough also doesn’t answer all of the game’s questions, as the second one is filled with all kinds of surprises that I won’t spoil here.

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen. It’s an easy recommendation for anyone who loves video games, not just visual novel fans. There are characters in the game that I’ll certainly be thinking about for a long time, especially when the setting brings out the best in them. Don’t pass this one up.

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Game Reviews

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



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.



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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