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Game Reviews

‘Xenoblade Chronicles 2: Torna ~ The Golden Country’ Review – A Natural Evolution

What’s old is new once more as the new Xenoblade Chronicles 2 story expansion provides numerous compelling reasons to return to the world of Alrest.

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Monolith Soft has been churning out new content as part of Xenoblade Chronicles 2’s Expansion Pass since its original release back in December of last year. The $20 add-on has since included new sidequests, new rare blades, and a new challenge mode to the main game but it wasn’t until the story DLC, Torna ~ The Golden Country, released that its true worth could be measured. While this DLC episode shares many of the strengths and weaknesses of the base game it still manages to distinguish itself in a way that makes the return to Alrest worth the investment.

A Tale of Two Aegises

Torna ~ The Golden Country is a prequel that takes place 500 years prior to the events of the main story. The adventure follows Tornan Driver, Lora, and her Blade partner, Jin, as they play their part in the crisis that was the Aegis War which threatened to destroy all of Alrest. This DLC fills in the gaps purposefully left by the original story and gives important context for the motivations of many characters.

Torna Lora and Jin

Lora is a good-natured woman with a heart of gold to help those in need but also a maturity to think things through before acting. This carries through to her connection with Jin, as they have been together for seventeen years and that shines through in their complete trust and candidness with each other. It’s certainly a different dynamic than the “boy-meets-girl” scenario of Rex and Pyra in the original game, and one that is a joy to watch grow over the course of the adventure.

Other new characters, such as the charismatic Addam, are equally engaging while returning characters, such as Brighid and Mythra, are shown in a different light that exposes new and endearing facets of their personalities.

Unfortunately, poor lip syncing of the English voice-overs make a return, detracting from an already grab bag of voice talent. While the original Japanese voice audio is available, this is still a regrettable drawback for those who prefer the dub.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 Torna Addam

Nintendo is advertising Torna ~ The Golden Country as a standalone expansion that can be enjoyed without the context of the original. While this is technically true from a gameplay perspective it would not be recommended to do so from a story perspective.

Many of the most emotional scenes in the game stem from the tender moments between Jin, Lora, and others with the knowledge of the morbid reality fate has in store for them. The gravity of these moments is lost upon those who have not played the original game to some extent.

Watching Each Other’s Backs

Torna ~ The Golden Country takes place before the traditional Blade and Driver fighting styles of the original Xenoblade Chronicles 2 were established and, as such, combat plays out quite differently. Drivers and Blades still form pairs and fight together in real-time using a palette of three regular artes and a special, but the similarities end there.

Instead of the Blade swapping mechanic of the original, we have a Vanguard and Rear Guard system. The player directly controls the Vanguard character, moving around, auto-attacking, and using artes much like before, while the computer controls the Rear Guard and plays a support role by using various buffs, debuffs, and damage dealing skills.

Torna the Golden Country Combat

The current Vanguard and Rear Guard can be swapped with each other on a cooldown with a simple tap of the D-pad. This not only gives the player a brand new character to control with his or her own unique set of artes but will also recover a portion of your team’s health represented by a red section of the health bar. Since traditional healing skills aren’t as readily available in this expansion as the original, combat keeps the player on their toes by encouraging frequent swapping of Vanguard and Rear Guard in order to keep teams healthy. Performing a Vanguard swap to recover from the brink of death while simultaneously smashing a launched enemy to the ground provides a visceral satisfaction not present in the original game.

In addition to regular artes, specials, and swaps, team members now have access to character specific Talent Artes. These often bestow powerful effects, such as instantly recharging all regular artes or stopping enemy actions for a time, but come at a heavy cost or prerequisite, such as halving your current HP or drawing three times as much aggro with the next attack.

This adds some welcome individuality to each party member and knowing when and when not to use these versatile skills adds a risk vs. reward factor that can turn the tide of battle when used properly and vice versa.

Torna the Golden Country Talent Artes

Team compositions are fixed, which means that there is no randomness from the controversial Core Crystal system of the original game. While this does result in less flexibility in party setup, as only the element of a Driver’s weapon can be changed, this does allow for more focused combat encounters that have been designed specifically for the hand the player has been dealt. Defeat never feels like a foregone conclusion due to poor team composition but rather due to lapses in judgment that are easily identified and learned from for the next attempt.

This results in a fast-paced, rapidly evolving combat style that builds upon the skeleton of the original game in unique and engaging ways that make it feel new once again.

New and Old Frontiers

Exploration has always played an enormous role in Xenoblade games and Torna ~ The Golden Country doesn’t use its status as a DLC episode to shirk those responsibilities. The brand new Tornan titan that we had only heard mention and seen glimpses of before in flashbacks is on full display in all its glory.

Boasting environments such as woodlands and desert dunes, Torna provides sceneries and landscapes not present in the original game. While these new zones aren’t quite as large as other titans we’ve seen previously, they still properly stoke an explorer’s adventurous spirit with treasure to uncover and secrets to discover in every nook and cranny. A much needed auto-save feature, not present in the original, ensures that the many hours spent exploring won’t be lost due to an unfortunate accident or battery depletion.

Torna the Golden Country Alleta

The grasslands of Gormott also make a return, although they may look a little different compared to the ones players know from the original. While the overall topography remains unchanged, new landmarks are present while others simply don’t exist yet, passages that once led to one location now lead somewhere else, and so forth. Perhaps the biggest difference is how the sprawling city of Torigoth in the original game is simply referred to as a “small hamlet” in this prequel.

These little difference not only make an old area feel fresh but also lend credence to this story taking place 500 years before the original, that this is a time period different from the one we know. The immersion isn’t perfect, however, as most NPC’s still wear the exact same clothing from the original, the Mor Ardanian flagship has the exact same layout, and all of the regular monsters you fight are exactly the same. While this is a relatively minor gripe, it’s still a shame Monolith Soft wasn’t able to take that extra step to really expand upon this tumultuous time period for Alrest.

During exploration, your party will come across numerous campsites to rest at for the night. These serve a dual purpose of allocating bonus experience points gained from side quests as well as crafting pouch items. Each character has a crafting specialty, such as Lora’s charms and Mythra’s “creative” cuisine, and use items gathered in the world to create items that boost combat capabilities or provide some permanent benefit such as increased run speed.

Torna the Golden Country Campfire Crafting

Party members can also chat with each other at campfires but these are only simple reviews of the current objective and where to go next. Seeing as some of the most heartfelt conversations in video games, and storytelling media in general, come from campfire talks, it’s a bit disappointing they weren’t taken more advantage of here to flesh out the characters outside the main story.

Community Service

With Torna ~ The Golden Country comes a new side-quest mechanic called Community. It’s rather simple in that as you complete the request of NPC’s they’ll join in your community which represents the support Prince Addam of Torna has with the people. Sometimes people will join your community simply by talking to them, as well. As your community grows it will level up, unlocking new side quests to complete with better rewards in turn.

What the game doesn’t tell you up front, however, is that this is not an optional feature that can be ignored.

At certain points in the main story, the game will require you to be at a certain community level or higher in order to continue. If you’ve been diligent in completing side-quests as they arose then meeting these requirements may not be too much extra effort. If you had decided to forgo side-quests for a time in favor of progressing the main story or, even worse, ignored them altogether, though, then this grinds any momentum to a screeching halt.

Torna the Golden Country community Level

This results in having to potentially dedicate hours towards completing numerous requests, a problem that is exacerbated by the sheer tedium of many of them. Most requests simply require going to specific locations, slaying X number of Y monster, or gathering X amount of Y items, the last of which being particularly troublesome in that Torna doesn’t fix the original’s problem of being unclear where to exactly find specific collectibles.

The Community system as an optional mechanic makes sense to reward players who want to make the most out of their game time. As a mandatory requirement, however, it comes off as more of an excuse to force players to retread tracks through areas they’ve already been to. It’s counter-intuitive to the Xenoblade series’ “play how you want to, do what you want to” attitude games have had up until this point, and is a puzzling decision on Monolith Soft’s part to make.

Golden Opportunities

For Xenoblade’s first venture into story DLC, Torna ~ The Golden Country does an admirable job of providing meaningful content that complements the main game. It takes many aspects of the original and puts compelling spins on them that makes the entire 15-30 hour adventure comfortably familiar, yet stimulatingly different.

The artificial gating created by the Community system is a rather sizeable blemish on an otherwise rock-solid expansion. The instantly gratifying combat, engrossing story, rewarding exploration of eye-catching locales put in the legwork to make up for this drawback, however, and give players eager to return to Alrest more than enough reason to dive back in.

Heralding from the rustic, old town of Los Angeles, California; Matthew now resides in Boston where he diligently researches the cure for cancer. In reality, though, he just wants to play games and watch anime, and likes talking about them way too much. A Nintendo/Sony hybrid fan with a soft-spot for RPG’s, he finds little beats sinking hours into an immersive game world. You can follow more of his work at his blog and budding YouTube channel below.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. James Baker

    September 24, 2018 at 4:56 am

    I think I can give this DLC a miss. I can already tell the voice acting is going to infuriate me by the picture of Addam.

  2. TollyBoyer

    September 24, 2018 at 5:42 pm

    Best single player game on switch in this year.

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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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