PS4/XB1 Review: Dear Esther: Landmark Edition

And we're walking... we're walking... we're walki...

And we’re walking… we’re walking… we’re walki…

I’ve played my fair share of walking simulators, but despite first emerging on the scene back in 2008 as a Half-Life 2 mod and then a full release in 2012, Dear Esther wasn’t one of them. Well, that’s about to change as the genre pioneer is finally hitting consoles with Dear Esther: Landmark Edition, which adds director commentary and gussies up the visuals. Let’s get walking…

…and then continue walking because that’s essentially all you do. Your only other function is the ability to focus your vision (read: zoom in). At no point does the game ask or allow you to interact with the environment, not even to open a door, and that makes the whole thing a one-note experience where there’s no opportunity to supplement the storyline via exploration.

Taking place entirely on an island, Dear Esther made me feel like I was traveling through some desolate area of Skyrim. It all looks pretty good, and there are some subtle details if you’re willing to stray from the beaten path and take a look. The caves are particularly interesting with all the symbols painted onto the walls, while the fact that the island is uninhabited leads to a unique sense of isolation.

Probably the game’s best aspect is its soundtrack, which hits you with brief, sorrowful piano chords that are made all the more effective since so much of the game takes place in silence. There’s a deliberate skew toward giving the player time to contemplate the nature of the island, or whatever else is on their mind, and it’s a nice counterpoint to the frequent overuse of music.

If, like me, your experience with walking simulators comes from titles like Gone Home or SOMA, odds are you’ll find Dear Esther to be a little archaic. Here, the entirety of the story is told via someone reading a series of letters he has written, presumably to his wife, Esther.

Chunks of the narrative are revealed as you wander the island, and though the game is almost entirely linear, it is possible to miss some if you stick exclusively the obvious path forward. It’s unclear whether you’re meant to be the writer of these letters, someone who found the letters, or if everything you’re encountering is simply some kind of dream.

This is a deliberate piece of ambiguity on the part of the developers, allowing individuals to read into the storyline whatever they like. What appears clear is that Esther was killed in a car accident, and that the driver of the other vehicle was likely drunk. Still, the game’s refusal to allow you to get to know anyone involved in the story it’s telling hurts the narrative.

And ultimately, that’s all there is. The world can be interesting and thought provoking, but not only is Dear Esther devoid of even the most rudimentary of challenges; it never manages to connect you, the gamer, to its world as anything more than a passive observer.

While this might’ve been revolutionary eight years ago, many games have come along since then and expanded on the formula, adding layers of intrigue and mystery to uncover while offering players a reason to rummage around for bits of info that deepen the narrative.

OVERALL (3/5)

Dear Esther helped build the framework of walking simulators, but the games that followed have left those humble beginnings in their wake. While not without its merit, Dear Esther: Landmark Edition is best left to those that truly embrace the genre it helped pioneer.

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XB1/PS4 Review: Batman: The Telltale Series – Children of Arkham

Bruce and Alfred uncover Wayne family secrets in Children of Arkham.

Bruce and Alfred uncover Wayne family secrets in Children of Arkham.

By: Mike Chen

Please note that since each episode of Batman: The Telltale Series features the same graphics engine and control setup, those elements will not be repeated in our reviews for the final four episodes. To read our complete thoughts on that, refer to our review of Realm of Shadows.

Children of Arkham, the second episode of Batman: The Telltale Series picks up shortly where the first one ended — with the startling revelation that the altruistic Wayne family might have had some dirty dealings in their closet. That’s not all that happened in the inaugural episode; Telltale essentially took the established Batman canon and tossed it into a blender.

Yes, Catwoman‘s here, but she’s dating Harvey Dent. Yes, Oswald Cobblepot‘s around, but he was Bruce‘s childhood buddy and now looks more like the young version from TV’s Gotham than the traditional Penguin we know. And Martha and Thomas Wayne? Yeah…

Children of Arkham takes this effective but somewhat disjointed starting point and runs with it. Like most Telltale games, the fun is in the narrative. This story hops around quite a bit, going into requisite Batman territory with the Wayne family murder while opening a new subplot about a drug wave invading Gotham.

Unfortunately, the main plot is shoved to the side somewhat with the arrival of a new psychotic drug, though on the positive, there’s plenty of interplay between Bruce and Selina (welcome in any Batman iteration) and some more of that cool “plan Batman’s invasion” that we got in the first episode.

From a story perspective, there’s a choice of significant consequence at the end of the episode — which, it should be noted, feels shorter and more streamlined than the first — and unless Telltale pulls a reset on us, that decision will impact the series’ three remaining installments.

So, while technical issues still happen, including clipping and frame rate, this is an enjoyable take on the Bat-universe and continued stellar performances from some of the best voice actors around.

OVERALL (4/5)

Children of Arkham jumps freely around the Batman mythology for an involving, sometimes dizzying episode; one that succeeds despite a number of technical problems that slipped through the cracks.

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PS4 Review: OlliOlli: Epic Combo Edition

Skateboarding is not a crime. Grinding giant robots might be.

Skateboarding is not a crime. Grinding giant robots might be.

By: Jeff Cater

If you’ve destroyed a controller or two over the last couple of years it was probably either from playing Dark Souls or a smaller, unsuspecting devil game called OlliOlli. Now, developer Badland Indie has taken its two award-winning twitch skateboarding games and combined them into one package with several awesome and insightful bonus materials in the form of OlliOlli: Epic Combo Edition.

CONTROLS (4/5)

OlliOlli is a game that is a touch difficult to pick up and be good at, but the same really goes for skateboarding in real life. In OlliOlli tricks are done almost preemptively. What I mean by this is that, like Skate, you “charge” up your moves until you’re ready to perform them.

As you’re rolling along you can press “X” to pump up some speed, and, for example, when you approach a rail you’ll then hold down on the left thumbstick in order to prepare an ollie. Once you’re ready for takeoff, simply release the stick and let it reset to its neutral position and you’ll find that your skater has jumped high into the air.

To rack up points while airborne you can mix in spins (LB/RB) and prepare rail grinds by holding a direction and pressing “X” at the right time to land perfectly. Say you want to perform a kickflip or a hardflip, you’d hold right/left on the stick rather than down, releasing when you want to pull the trick.

I’d also suggest you try to play this with the newest controller you can, because any laze in the stick or dead zone can really make pulling anything off truly difficult.

GRAPHICS/SOUND (4.5/5)

OlliOlli has a great 2D aesthetic that looks like a mash of Mario and Skate or Die, and it’s chock full of speedy visuals and bright colors. Depending on which country your skate venue is located, the backgrounds are full of fun little touches like Japan’s bullet-train speeding by or a dilapidated Detroit-esque cityscape.

Tricks do not have many frames of animation, which actually fits the look of the game perfectly. If you happen to be pulling off a huge combo a trail will light up behind your skater, encouraging you to do your best to land it perfectly.

Sounds of grinding and wooden boards cracking against various obstacles are effective enough, but the soundtrack is where OlliOlli really shines. In OlliOlli, the tunes are all pretty catchy but don’t make much of an impact. When you switch from OlliOlli to OlliOlli2 the difference between soundtrack quality is immediately noticeable, with some very sweet Streets of Rage 2 sounding tunes.

GAMEPLAY (4.5/5)

In either game, the objective is to assemble the largest string of tricks possible within the time allotted. To do this, you’ll be throwing your skater from rail-to-rail into crazy manual combos, taking giant leaps of faith, and doing your damndest to stick your landings to lock your score in.

Each level is set up in a unique way as well, allowing several different methods of point gain. Do you hang on the rails high above and grind your score to insane heights? Or would you rather take flight and keep spinning to increase your modifier quickly? Maybe your awesome twitch-reaction skills will have you all over the place, taking flight and seeking that perfect rail to chain onto.

As mentioned above, you would do well to use as fresh of a controller as you can in order to play these games because any false input from the stick will mess you up bad and make the game nigh-impossible to enjoy. That being said, if you don’t have any issues with your controller you’re all set to have a great time.

OlliOlli ultimately rewards practice too, so if you’re having any troubles assembling a sweet line in a given stage just give it another shot — you’re not going to be a pro immediately in this game. After spending a few minutes getting used to the hold-and-release function of the control scheme you’ll still find it challenging but tons of fun!

BONUS FEATURES (5/5)

OlliOlli: Epic Combo Edition comes with a few sweet special features as well. First up are three documentaries about the development process for the games, which offers great insight as to what the company is all about (hint: making badass skateboard games) and offers great watching material for anyone interested in the development cycle of games or getting to know the developers themselves better.

Also included is a full color booklet that shows off a ton of cool art and short developer interviews. The highlight of the special features (in my humble opinion) is the inclusion of the soundtrack for OlliOlli2, which you’ll no doubt find to be quite enjoyable in or out of the game.

OVERALL (4.75/5)

OlliOlli: Epic Combo Edition is an absolute steal at its price point. Within this package are two great games that are addictive and rewarding along with very cool and interesting supplementary materials. If you never hopped on the rails of OlliOlli, there’s no better place to start than here.

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Throwback Thursday: Win JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Eyes of Heaven on PS4!

jjbaThis week we’re heading back to the world of Bandai-Namco and giving away copies of JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Eyes of Heaven on the PlayStation 4, courtesy of the good folks at Bandai-Namco.

HOW TO ENTER
To enter, simply let us know what the strangest game you’ve played is in the comments section below. Please include your @Twitter handle as well.

Sample Comment
Tokyo Jungle
@WTFIsGoingOn

THE FINE PRINT
Winners will be selected on Thursday, September 29th. All entries must be submitted by 4 PM EST/1 PM PST on Thursday. Please note that although anyone can enter you must be following me on Twitter to win.

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PC Review: Space Run Galaxy

Shiver me timbers, it be a space squid.

Shiver me timbers, it be a space squid.

By: Brian Gunn

Space Run Galaxy is the second entry in the Space Run series, though you would be forgiven if you did not know about the first game since it went fairly under the radar. With this entry, Passtech Games are looking toward passive multiplayer games to freshen up their tower defense mechanics.

CONTROLS (4/5)

Tower defense games tend to control fairly simply, and Space Run Galaxy lives up to that standard. You just need to find what you want in a list of ship parts and place them on the defined areas. There are some tweaks to the formula, such as each weapon having a special ability to invoke or certain ones that you’re able to rotate when attacks come from a new angle, but it’s still pretty straightforward.

GRAPHICS/SOUND (3/5)

There’s a fairly stellar art style to the characters in Space Run Galaxy. It’s almost like a comic book, and the variety of oddballs you meet all feel distinct. Sadly, yhat charm doesn’t particularly translate to the actual gameplay. The towers and enemies end up feeling a little on the bland side and similar to many others in the genre.

The game is about space truckers essentially, which means it is heavy on the typical traits of space western stories and games that have been coming out over the past decade like Rebel Galaxy and Firefly. Expect lots of guitar twangs that fit the atmosphere but don’t particularly stand out. Story moments are voice acted and work well for the most part.

GAMEPLAY (3.5/5)

The Space Run series sets itself apart via a unique central hook to the tower defense formula in that it has no set levels. There aren’t lanes of enemies to prepare for; instead you’re piloting a ship and simply dealing with things that get close, and levels are often randomized. This means you have to play on your toes quite a bit more than other games in the genre.

Space Run Galaxy puts players in the role of a nameless newbie space-runner. There’s no characterization for the lead, so it often feels like you are playing the android helper that deals with all the characters in story moments.

You’ll interact with most of the previous game’s cast, include its main character, Buck. There’s not much of a narrative thrust at the start beyond “be a better space-runner,” but eventually you’ll find yourself embroiled in a plot to save the world, like usual.

Your spaceship itself is made up of a variety of construction cells, and each of those cells can hold one item, whether it’s a piece of cargo, an engine, or a missile launcher. Gameplay is split between managing the overall campaign and each level. You don’t build many permanent upgrades to a ship, instead upgrading the amount or quality of a tower, and then each level you’ll be able to place them wherever you want.

However, the campaign’s missions frequently entrust you with cargo to deliver at far away space stations, and it will take up space on your ship. So there’s thought to be put into whether you should load up two missions worth of cargo and sacrifice the spaces you’d normally reserve for weapons or shields, or leave some behind and make a second trip.

There’s also a unique multiplayer element to the game that seems fairly ambitious. While there’s no direct co-op or PVP or really any interactions with other players directly, you can create missions for them to do, as well as sell them your goods. So if you have some leftover cargo three planets away, you can create a contract for another player to move that cargo instead of doing it yourself. It’s a little limited in scope, but it does a good job of making the world feel populated.

Sadly, the campaign is more interesting than the levels. Enemies feel too repetitive and don’t have enough variety until near the end. It can also be easy to sort of wind up in a bad position with your tower placements if you get an unlucky spawn.

OVERALL (3.5/5)

Space Run Galaxy is a unique tower defense game with cool multiplayer elements. It does struggle a bit in the moment-to-moment gameplay, but it lays great groundwork for a sequel. Let’s hope third time is the charm.

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