Monthly Archives: December 2014

World of Warcraft: Warlords of Draenor

Blizzard’s iconic World of Warcraft has been one of a handful of games that have endured in the massively multiplayer arena. While many highly-touted MMOGs have come and gone, World of Warcraft has lasted despite its tendency to rely on outdated mechanics and antiquated practices. Tens of millions have fell in love with the worlds of Azeroth and Outland, and the newly explorable realm, Draenor, proves equally appealing. Few other games offer that same sense of accomplishment you earn when completing a raid or finally receiving just that right piece of gear, and few have years' worth of quality content ready to absorb and stimulate you. When World of Warcraft gets a new expansion, it's a big deal.

Warlords of Draenor picks up right after the events of Mists of Pandaria, and has the game's latest big-nasty, Garrosh Hellscream, escaping from his confinement with the aid of a very large accomplice. He then travels back in time to Draenor, stops the Orcish clans from becoming corrupted, joins the Burning Legion, unites the clans into the Iron Horde, and realigns the Dark Portal to invade Azeroth. (As you might surmise, the Warlord of the Warsong is a very busy Orc indeed.) You play the role of an Alliance or Horde General, part of the force that drives the Iron Horde back through the gate. Warlords of Draenor opens with the most thrilling preamble since The Burning Crusade and the Legion's invasion of Azeroth, and in doing so, infuses the game with a sense of urgency that makes it feel like truly dire times.

Warlords of Draenor's complementary ties to The Burning Crusade are clear. It is, in many ways, an analog to the first expansion, but instead of Lord Kazzak opening the Dark Portal to Outland to release the Burning Legion into Azeroth, it is instead Garrosh unleashing the Iron Horde from a pristine Draenor. Warlords of Draenor’s deftly utilizes its thematic ties to previous events, offering an alternate universe that treats you to story elements that cleverly refer back to the entire series. Expect some mild confusion: This Draenor is an alternate Draenor and not actual Draenor Prime (which is Outland), and while the events that happened in previous expansions expansions actually did occur, they didn't occur on Draenor--or perhaps more precisely, they haven't yet occurred on Draenor. The in-game Draenor (as opposed to the Outland Draenor) exists 30 or so years before present-day Azeroth, because the Dark Portal can transcend both space and time. (Don't worry if you already feel lost; it's best to take it all in a little bit at a time until it makes sense.) Luckily, you can enjoy Warcraft lore whether you skim it or dive deeply, and if you haven't explored the original game and its first two expansions in great detail, you might wish to spend time with them, if only to enjoy all of Warlords of Draenor's delightful cameos and references.

This expansion doesn’t only turn the lore on its head, though: there is plenty under the hood to be excited about. The ability and stat systems have been overhauled to squish the stats down into more palatable numbers and a set of useful abilities for each class. If you had a million health prior to the expansion, you might discover you only have 400,000 upon entering Warlords of Draenor. However, the stat readjustment applies to enemies as well, so you will still be as powerful as you were previously. It is undoubtedly cool to deal thousands of damage per second, but it takes little time to realize that "hundreds" is the new "thousands," so you needn't worry about losing that sense of power that comes with the hard work of tailoring a character to your liking. Blizzard has also retired the superfluous stats of hit, expertise, dodge rating, and parry rating, thus streamlining the process of building a character even more. Abilities have been refined for each class to draw from a more useful pool, with fewer cooldowns and less crowd control, making gameplay more tactical than strategic in nature, with less emphasis on complex macros in an attempt to get players to spend more time playing and less time preparing. If you're a sporadic player, the new changes are welcome, as they minimize the commitment required to learn and absorb such a daunting amount of information. Fortunately, new characters can instantly level to 90, so anyone new to World of Warcraft can play with friends that have subscribed to the game for years, and veteran players have a fresh template upon which to experiment with new abilities and a new character.

Blizzard also has thankfully improved the visuals. All character models (save Blood Elves, Worgen, and Goblins) have received updates, and Blizzard is in the process of creating new models for enemies as well. Although World of Warcraft is still not a graphical powerhouse, the new models and textures make for a great compromise, enhancing the game’s aging visuals while still supporting an enormous range of systems. The graphical improvement is a bit haphazard in its current form though. The effect of the new models populating a world with many of the old is sometimes jarring, but more and models are scheduled to be improved, so this should not be a permanent gripe. Nonetheless, as graphical fidelity in other games increases at such a tremendous rate, it becomes harder and harder for World of Warcraft to counterbalance its aging looks with its charming aesthetic and enthralling adventuring.

Subtle improvements permeate the new expansion. The auction houses for each server have been consolidated into one entity, which makes searching for appropriate equipment less frustrating than before and widens item availability. The user interface, while staying the same as a whole, received a host of tweaks and upgrades to reduce frustration. It is great, for instance, to be able to finally label bags by item type and have treasures auto-sorted into them. Quest items now go in their own separate menu, so you never have to miss out on that 50th pair of leather pants just because something essential was in the way. Reagents can now be used in the bank, which is a huge plus, since it makes having to carry them around for long periods of time unnecessary. Given the importance of gear and items, it's wonderful to be able to spend less time organizing them and more time earning them.

Warlords of Draenor’s questing is notably more focused than with previous expansions. Although there are the typical collection quests, the quest UI changes get you into the meat of the game quicker than ever. The Dungeon Finder and player-vs.-player windows have been folded into the Group Finder, making it simple to find quests, dungeons, raids, or anything in between, thus eliminating a ton of the most frustrating aspects of WoW in one fell swoop. Blizzard has also expanded its phasing technology, allowing Draenor to appear quite different to each player, depending on their progress and story choices. Depending on your place in the story, you may see characters that have been long dead in other players' stories, though you still inhabit the same zone. The new garrison system uses phasing extensively, as each player-maintained garrison can only be seen by its owner or invited friends.

With all the changes laid out in Draenor, however, adventuring sticks to a familiar path. You log in, perform your dailies, then get to work for the various NPCs strewn throughout the land. Where things tend to diverge from the day-to-day workings of seasoned players are in raids and dungeons, if not drastically so. Raids have undergone a respectable facelift as far as difficulty goes, while still serving up satisfying encounters to seasoned vets. Dungeons automatically adjust individual difficulty levels depending on the number of players involved, and raids themselves range from casual to challenging. There's a system in place to ensure lower-level players can't accidentally sidle up into a higher-level dungeon they simply aren't ready for, and progression is tiered in a way that forces you to approach dungeons in a way that's fair for everyone. Loot drops have also been refined, ensuring hard-working raiders are rewarded with items they actually find useful rather than a bunch of trash or less-than-personal goodies for a one-size-fits-all series of frustrations.

Given the importance of gear and items, it's wonderful to be able to spend less time organizing them and more time earning them.

NPC awareness has never been one of World of Warcraft's strong suits; you might strut around upon a rainbow-colored tiger, brandishing high-level gear, and quest-givers might still talk to you in annoyance, as if you are a mere underlying in annoyance. In Warlords of Draenor, NPCs acknowledge you as a powerful hero, and your position as a General of the Horde or Alliance is rewarded by the aforementioned garrison system, which provides you with a large plot of land and the means to develop it. The initial garrison is fairly humble, but as you place more buildings and level them up, a collection of huts and tents transforms into a large fortress. Each building serves a purpose, with some serving to boost your profession or access the benefits of other profession, while some are just fun places to visit. Each building has its own unique impact on the world as well, activating quests once they have been built or upgraded. You eventually max out at 10 plots of land in your garrison, and with 21 buildings available, you must choose the proper ones to get the best benefits from your garrison. (Luckily, if you erect a building that doesn't suit you, you can demolish and replace it.) After the garrison reaches level two, you face keep invasions, although thankfully, invasions are not time-sensitive. It's easy to become attached to what amounts to your own little town, and you can find yourself spending more time collecting resources and attracting followers for your garrison than you do on the main quest line.

With a garrison come soldiers and staff, and you can also recruit a whole host of followers to command. As you journey across Draenor, you meet NPCs that can be recruited through meeting them, completing quests, earning achievements, or buying them from taverns. They come in three quality levels which determine their effectiveness: uncommon, rare, and epic, with the rarest of them requiring you to meet stringent prerequisites. Once followers make it to the garrison, they can be assigned to missions, or to work in one of the buildings. Each one possesses his or her own profession, items, and level, and you manage them through menus. You send your followers to quest, gather resources, and manufacture goods in their respective buildings, and use the same menu to collect the rewards. It's an adequate system, but with so much care put into the customization and building of your garrison, it's disappointing that you cannot accompany your followers on quests, help them work, or lead them into battle against another player in fortress-versus-fortress gameplay. For now, the garrison endgame lacks luster.

Warlords of Draenor has revitalized World of Warcraft with a huge amount of new content and refinement of the basic gameplay. Unlike the debacle of the New Game Enhancement of Star Wars Galaxies, Blizzard has not taken away anything with the stat changes, but instead finally fixed the “stat inflation” that had built with each expansion. For those new to World of Warcraft or those who have been around since the original release, Draenor feels like the beginning of a new era of the game. There are those who have said that World of Warcraft is on its way out, and that it is tired and old. Warlords of Draenor proves otherwise. Blizzard’s winning formula is not going anywhere.

Sunset Overdrive and the Mystery of the Mooil Rig! Review

The better the game, the easier expansion packs can rely on a more-of-the-same approach (see Mass Effect 2 and Diablo III). Mystery of the Mooil Rig! is wholly effective in its series of nine missions, with objectives recognizable to those who have beaten Sunset Overdrive. Normally, I dislike being an errand boy in open world games, yet I’m happy to engage in fetch quests in Mooil Rig, because each quest is succinctly designed and retains the same kind of comedic storytelling found in the main game.

It’s hard to turn down assignments from one of the world’s more resilient and endearing quadriplegics. If you’ve played several hours of Sunset Overdrive, you’ll know I’m talking about Brylcreem. The absence of arms and legs didn’t stop him previously, and he remains the eternal optimist in the Mystery of the Mooil Rig. Now armed with a fortified exosuit, Brylcreem plays Colossus to the hero’s Wolverine, launching you toward key objectives, including a boss’ mouth. These scenes add thrilling forward movement; the more you hurtle at breakneck speeds, the more you want to keep going.

Don’t mind the crowds. One explosive round should clear the area right up.

Add-ons to open world games either expand the maps with a new landmass (e.g., Burnout Paradise’s Big Surf Island, Forza Horizon 2’s Storm Island) or conjure up new experiences within the current city (e.g., Watch Dogs: Bad Blood). The Mystery of the Mooil Rig opts for the former, with a sprawling oil rig primed for more perpetual grinding. It’s an overly intricate off-shore base littered with life rafts, barges and other tiny landing points to help you avoid the water. With the exception of one occasionally lethal undersea creature, spending time in the ocean isn’t a hazard at all. Like an energy drink-addicted version of Jesus, this expansion capitalizes on the main game’s speedy methods of unaided water traversal. Whether you’re on or near the rig, the biggest rushes come from stringing together movement combos as you make your way to your next objective. The addition of two new water moves--a deep dive and an eye-catching high-flying uppercut--mean you can maintain movement combos for hundreds of yards in watery areas within Sunset City, not just the Mooil Rig. The upper cut--oddly named ‘Water Slam Bounce’--looks like a water-based Shoryuken, although I was unsuccessful in using it to attack flying foes. It’s more practical as a method for reaching elevated parts of the rig.

If I were to describe Sunset Overdrive’s look and feel to someone who knows nothing about Insomniac Games’ latest hit, it would be ‘bubblegum punk’. The closest aesthetic relation I can come up with is Crazy Taxi, but even that Sega classic didn’t saturate its visuals with this much fuchsia and neon green. Couple that with Sunset Overdrive’s grind-intensive gameplay. If it’s a railing or some semblance of a railing, you can grind on it. If it has an edge, you can grind on it. Somewhat like the adrenaline-fueled action film Crank, suspending forward movement often results in death. These situations are diciest when you have to protect stationary objects from invaders--it forces you to get creative with nearby grind points. Provided you mix up melee and ranged attacks, you’d be surprised how long you can survive going back and forth on a 50-yard railing.

No one deserves an ostentatious exosuit more than the noble Brylcreem.

Those who love Sunset Overdrive already know how playing well creates a feedback loop within seemingly chaotic combat. Having a sliver of health is seldom a cause for concern, because you know that firing another explosive teddy bear is likely to yield a health pack, along with a high body count. The missions in the Mystery of the Mooil Rig are seldom short of such moments, so surviving them is all the more gratifying.

Insomniac’s writers for Sunset Overdrive exude the chops of a revered, decades-old comedian, one who never laughs at his own jokes and knows to keep quips short and sweet. That includes avoiding the sin of over-explaining a punchline or the myriad pop culture references throughout the main game and this expansion. Even with a boss sporting multiple tentacles, the script wisely avoids hamfisted nods to Japanese erotica. Like the multi-generational appeal of Looney Tunes animated shorts, the Mystery of the Mooil Rig namedrops cultural allusions that many adolescents today won’t pick up on, like a certain Alfred Hitchcock film with cross-dressing. One of the most memorable missions is a fetch quest for the versatile ‘director’ Alan Smithee, whose name has been attached to many edited-for-TV movies dating back to the 1960s, a Metal Gear Solid trailer, and numerous voices in games like Eternal Sonata and Street Fighter X Tekken.


For all the risks Sunset Overdrive takes with its vibrant art direction and intuitive level design, the Mystery of the Mooil Rig is a fundamentally safe spin-off. It’s impressively consistent with the main game, and enough that relearning the controls takes no time, even if you haven’t touched Sunset Overdrive since launch week. This user-friendliness leads to tight, concise story mission playthroughs that will be familiar to fans of the main game. It’s not to say these objectives are easy. They’re just short, a result of Insomniac’s talent for creating scenarios trimmed of fat and devoid of filler.

Loadout Review

Loadout feels good on the PlayStation 4. It’s not just how well the game has adapted Sony’s controller, but also that small changes have translated into some big differences. This free-to-play third-person shooter is all about collecting gun parts and crafting them into vicious weapons that lash out with fire, lightning, or spiked metal spheres--just as it was on the PC. But on the PlayStation 4, Loadout tries new things, completely revamping its method of distributing weapon parts that makes collecting them almost as exciting as constructing them into a vast array of deadly guns. Despite a lackluster campaign and a locked-out ranked mode, Loadout is a frantic and entertaining shooter on the PlayStation 4 and will keep you happy on your quest for loot, with a smile on your face and a numb trigger finger.

The highly craftable guns are the stars of the show, and the customizable loadouts set the stage. Abandoning traditional classes, Loadout instead offers a toybox that slowly fills with various gun parts that you can play with using its robust weaponcrafting menu. For instance, creating a powerful shotgun is as easy as snapping a scatter barrel and a shell-loading magazine onto a gun chassis. Swap that scatter barrel out for a Gatling barrel and strap on a high-capacity magazine to create a Gatling gun, and so on. Different ammo types kick things up a notch or two, and can make your weapon belch fire or send out a slap of electricity that sends chain lightning through a group of hapless foes. Not all ammo types are deadly: loading your gun with healing rounds transforms your weapon from a death dealer to a wound healer, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be the team medic. Or, if you’re feeling sneaky, you can use a gun with a silencer, and, using the disguise equipment, go undercover to infiltrate the opposing team and silently take them by surprise. And you might as well slap on a suit, mask, and tie from the outfitter store while you’re at it, and become the spy Team Fortress 2 always knew you could be.

Earning parts in Loadout on PlayStation 4 is a much different experience than in the PC version of the game. On a PC, you unlock parts from daily prizes or in a tech tree by earning experience and spending blutes, Loadout’s in-game currency awarded at the end of matches. On the PlayStation 4 edition, weapon parts, gear, and safes are often awarded at the end of finished multiplayer matches or campaign missions. Safes, which contain items of varying rarity, are opened with dynamite, which is bought with spacebux, Loadout’s other currency that must be purchased with actual cash and not blutes, somewhat like the currency in Counter-Strike: Global Offensive’s weapon cases and keys. Parts are assigned levels, as well as a degree of rarity that moves from common to rare items. Rarer parts can grant optional attribute boosts, such as decreased reload times or additional health.

Comparing the two systems of delivering items, from the tech tree of the PC version to earning parts post-match on the PlayStation 4, I prefer the latter. Parts and gear come at a steady flow in Loadout on PlayStation 4, and I can’t deny the giddy feeling of anticipation that grows just before opening each loot chest or safe filled with new toys to play with. You gain a lot of weapon parts as you progress, but not everything is worth keeping. The included fusion mechanic allows you to take a lower-tier item and merge it with other disposable parts to increase its potency. It’s a great way to burn off extra junk you don’t need, while making your weapons even stronger, all the while not spending any actual cash on upgrades yourself. And the upgrade is often quickly apparent, too; promoting that level three pyro rocket to level five or higher can mean the difference between leaving your foes medium rare or well done.

Baldies do it better.

Crafting and naming your own custom weapon is a joy I’ve rarely experienced in other online shooters. A machine gun with the offensive output of mosquito bites later roars as it rips flesh from bone. A feeble rocket launcher that evokes more laughs than screams evolves over time to become a frightening, two-hit kill monster that causes enemies to burst into flame--it’s enough to bring a tear to your eye.

The weak campaign mode, however, is a wet blanket that stifles some of that fire. There is no “story” to speak of, only five chapters with missions that consist of you fighting waves of AI-controlled alien baddies on the available multiplayer maps and gametypes. For at least a few missions, the campaign is passable, if not somewhat disappointing. But after playing through chapter after chapter of similar battles, the venture becomes tedious and dull. The only real incentive to play each campaign is tied into Loadout’s new method of distributing loot. Campaign mode offers loot packs and safes that drop randomly as you play through a match, and that unfortunately means having to wade through the muck for some of those precious parts and equipment--some of which, like deployable health packs and jump boots, is awarded at the end of certain missions. At least collecting the extra loot in campaign is still enjoyable; it’s just the parts in between that are the issue.

The highly craftable guns are the stars of the show, and the customizable loadouts set the stage.

One additional positive about the campaign, however, is that it allows you to earn some additional spacebux without having to fork over any of your hard-earned cash. Currently, Loadout on PlayStation 4 is the only version to have the campaign included with the package. The PC version is set to have the currently separate campaign (now in beta) merged with the base game next year.

Thankfully, the core multiplayer experience is just as exhilarating and violent as ever, and it is here you spend most of your time. The controls adapt well to DualShock 4, though aiming does feel a little squirrelly when zoomed in--a problem that can be alleviated by lowering aim sensitivity. Other than that, Loadout plays exceptionally well on the controller; skirmishes haven’t lost an ounce of their raw intensity in the transfer from the keyboard and mouse. Across six varied maps that include deep crevasses, hidden pathways, and high ledges, you sprint, dive, and leap high into the air while raining fire on enemies above and below.

Loadout’s action is ferocious, and each clash erupts in a chaotic frenzy of flying rockets, popping grenades, and neon lasers; the vibrant cartoon visuals are a colorful foil to the absurd violence onscreen. During battles, flesh is seared from bone, heads are blown apart to leave bouncing eyeballs and a brain, and somewhere in the fracas is a person thrusting their gun between their hips as a pair of disembodied legs run across the war-tattered field before collapsing. Loadout is often as hilarious as it is grotesque, leaving you vacillating between laughing at the slapstick insanity and cringing at the immense gore. And you know what? It’s quite a lot of fun--though much of it is like a riding a rollercoaster through a whirlwind of bullets and body parts.

Bots can be a great part of any multiplayer shooter, but their rarity in the genre makes them a pleasant delight in Loadout.

Multiplayer consists of four-on-four matches among five game types: blitz, death snatch, extraction, domination, and jackhammer. Blitz and domination are won by taking control points on a map, the latter of which has you fighting to control three points at once. Death snatch is Loadout’s take on classic death match, and plays similar to Call of Duty’s Kill Confirmed mode. In death snatch, dead opponents drop a vial of glowing blutes that must be snagged in order for the death to count as a kill. Extraction tasks each team with protecting a teammate who collects blutonium deposits and places them into marked grinders to score points. Finally, jackhammer is a mode similar to capture the flag, except the flag is a massive hammer that smashes enemies into itty bitty meaty chunks. You can kill up to five opponents, which adds extra points to your score when the hammer is claimed at your base.

There are two downsides to multiplayer; the most notable is the lack of the ranked mode, Annihilation, which is currently locked out with “Coming Soon!” written over it. Instead, you are left with the unranked arena, which performs rather poorly in terms of matching you with players of similar skill. You have an overall level that increases as you gain experience points earned after completing matches. However, that rank is effectively slashed in the arena, and you often find yourself paired with unskilled allies or against a team of seasoned players. I realize this is the caveat of any unranked multiplayer, but it’s incredibly frustrating to play a session consisting of about ten losses in a row due to unbalanced matchmaking. The other issue with multiplayer is that with only six maps, things soon slide into repetition. Having five game types does help deter some boredom, but after a dozen hours I was more than ready for a change in scenery. And just when will there be more than three customizable characters to choose from?

How dare I be denied?!

Loadout on PlayStation 4 is not without its issues, but overall it remains an energetic, madcap shooter with a violent sense of humor that delights as often as it disgusts. There are still tweaks to be made--the underwhelming campaign is the first that comes to mind--and, once released, the ranked mode will also greatly increase its value, which is a lot, considering that the game is already free of charge. Regardless, there is a lot of entertainment to be found in Loadout. The welcome new changes to earning gun parts will keep you killing, collecting, and customizing for many blood-soaked hours to come as the game continues to evolve, just like the many weapons that call it home.

WELCOME to RETRO Game Players

Welcome to Retro Game Players! Here you will find all aspects of retro gaming including reviews from all retro game consoles, arcade, pinball, as well as PC and Mac Games. You will also find Playthroughs of all the games covered and a section on Repairing and Modding your game systems to keep them running right along with the current gen systems. Please subscribe and LET’S GET RETRO!!

Tetris Ultimate Review

On the year of its 30th anniversary, it's hard to think of new things to say about Tetris. Few games even come close to being as universally recognized and understood as the Russian puzzle game that has caused countless people to dream about stacking blocks into perfect lines.

So as hard as it is simply to write something original about the classic, it must be harder to invent new and exciting ways in which to actually play it. As a result, just about every gaming platform under the sun (and even many non-gaming platforms--hello, graphing calculators) tends to end up with at least one or two new editions of the same old formula, maybe experimenting with a new mode or two but mostly sticking to what's tried and true. Ubisoft's crack at celebrating the series' history falls into this exact trap, and Tetris Ultimate is mostly a game you can look at and say, "Yep, that's Tetris."

Tetris. It's Tetris.

The basics are unchanged. You are given a vertical playing field in which you drop tetrominos--various shapes composed of four squares each. As a randomized parade of pieces falls from the top of the screen one at a time, you can move each one left or right as well as rotate it clockwise or counterclockwise. The goal is to create a straight, unbroken horizontal line of blocks, which removes the line from the playing field and scores you points (more points if you can eliminate several lines at once). The more lines you clear, the faster the game becomes.

Over three decades, this formula has remained largely unchanged, and rarely have the rules been so much as tweaked. But while there are no options to customize the look or sound of the game, Tetris Ultimate sports an admirable list of settings that let you tailor the feel of the game to your liking. For instance, you can turn off the hold queue (which allows you to save a piece for later use), change the behavior of the random generator, or turn off the more advanced wall kick and t-spin maneuvers. You can also tweak how long you can rotate a piece at the bottom of its drop--the controversial "easy" or infinite spin is not a default. You can't get super specific with these values, but the options are nice to have regardless.

Four-player cooperative modes can seem overwhelming, but they're a nice twist on classic Tetris.

While the potential variety of Tetris may seem limited, previous iterations of the series have nonetheless seen some rather inventive new modes using tetrominos. By comparison, Tetris Ultimate's mode selection is bare-bones. In addition to your standard marathon and endless modes there's Sprint (a race to see how quickly you can clear 40 lines), Ultra (a high-score challenge where you only have three minutes to play), and a couple of multiplayer-only battle modes--one with power-ups and one without. All modes can be played with humans or bots, with team versus team and co-op variations of each.

Co-op and team modes are the most interesting twists on the Tetris formula, as they widen the playing area (and thus lengthen the width you need to cover to get a line) and divide the screen up so that each player has his or her own designated section to drop pieces into, with a couple of columns of shared space in between that both players can use. Communication becomes important not only because scoring is impossible alone but also because all players on a team share both the pool of upcoming pieces as well as the single held piece, so if you're saving that straight block for a specific purpose, make sure your partners don't use it themselves.

While there are no options to customize the look or sound of the game, Tetris Ultimate sports an admirable list of settings that let you tailor the feel of the game to your liking.

When playing online, there doesn't seem to be a great system for matchmaking similarly skilled players. The only "rank" you ever achieve is designated by how far you are able to get in either the marathon or endless mode. But playing vanilla Tetris without interference is quite a different beast from a battle mode match against another player, and this doesn't appear to be a consideration when matching players together. Furthermore, many matches are hit with unfortunate lags and/or bugs, and if the game's host disconnects for any reason, the other players are out of luck even if they're 14 levels deep in a marathon game.

If you don't want to put up with the occasional lag that comes from playing against strangers, you can pretend to play against your friends by challenging their "Tetris Self," a bot that tries to play at about the same skill level as its player. It's an interesting idea, but it doesn't feel any more special than playing against an AI with a custom name--which is all this is.

When playing alone or in offline multiplayer mode, Tetris Ultimate nails most of the basics. Unfortunately, it doesn't go far beyond them. The four-player versus and co-op modes are a lot of fun, and the classic high-score chase is as solid as ever, but there are no visual or music options, and the selection of modes feels lacking. To be fair, at $10, Tetris Ultimate is one of the cheaper Tetris games to hit consoles in recent years, and what you get for that price is perfectly competent. The game's main menu features a prominent store icon that promises more modes coming soon, so those looking for more variety may get what they're looking for via DLC.

It turns out that Tetris is a lot harder to play if you can't see your pieces.

Part solid execution and part missed opportunity, Tetris Ultimate is hard to judge. If all you want is a good version of classic Tetris for your new console, this one will suit your needs well. The low price is nice and the gameplay options provided are a nice touch, but it doesn't do enough to earn the "ultimate" moniker.

Tropico 5: Waterborne

It may be as revolutionary as a hipster in a Che Guevara t-shirt. A lack of originality means that Tropico 5: Waterborne doesn't wring much more life out of the latest edition of Haemimont Games' dictator-in-a-box city builder. Much like the main game, which slightly stretched the familiar Tropico formula with new historical eras and nastier politics, this expansion barely broadens El Presidente's possibilities with a series of glub-glub gimmicks that lets you take Caribbean corruption into the actual Caribbean. Enough new content is provided with a new campaign, buildings, and window dressing to get diehard fans of the original game interested for a couple of days, but there isn't anything essential here, and the $20 pricetag is a little steep.

The premise is pretty simple. El Presidente decides that being the boss of a banana republic isn't satisfying enough, so he goes the Bond villain route and heads to the sea. Quicker than you can wonder why every other 007 bad guy in the 60s and 70s seemed to have some kind of watery HQ complete with submarines and pet sharks, you're expanding your tropical dictatorship from the traditional island jungles out onto the waves. All of this wet and wild action comes in the form of a new Lord of the Pearl campaign centred on the various kooky oceanic activities necessary to secure the legendary Black Pearl. Forget about giving out any brownie points for originality.

Pirates attack your towns, taking advantage of the terrible in-game combat system featuring troops that are virtually impossible to control.

Most of the new campaign storylines and quests focus on the high seas, although there isn't anything here all that interesting, save the odd geeky reference to things like discovering R'lyeh and then sending good old Penultimo off to meet with Cthulhu. Unfortunately, the developers don't do too much with these out-there plot points. At the very least, they could have had the simpering toady devoured. That said, sending canned goods to R'lyeh for the bonus of importing what have to be Deep One immigrants is kind of nifty, even if there isn't anything here beyond the textual references. Still, the goofy sense of humor on offer in Tropico 5 is strongly present, adding chuckles to the yawns. This remains a charming and very likeable experience thanks to cornball humor, the great radio broadcaster, and the fantastic soundtrack with its peppy Latin beats and guitar plucks.

The campaign is something of a snoozefest. Waterborne scenarios play out pretty much exactly like they did in the original Tropico 5, with you continually being pushed along from one directed goal to another, given various trade quotas, and so forth. A stream of advisors and flunkies shows up basically to give you orders about exporting this or that resource, building this or that facility to please the great unwashed, dishing out an edict to please a foreign power or suck up to an island faction, and so forth. The only difference is the watery flavour of the plot, although it really doesn't make much difference if you're trudging through the same old goals on land or on the high seas. Dull is dull.

The oyster farm is one of the few new buildings offered up in Waterborne.

New game mechanics are few and far between. There is a paltry number of new facilities to construct, none of which is any sort of stop-the-presses addition to gameplay. You can now set up oyster farms to gather pearls, which can be a hot commodity on the export market. Smuggler's docks let you play up to pirates and open up black-market trade routes, but at the cost of occasionally being invaded by gangs of pirates that do little but expose the chaos of the core game's combat system.

Some of these features get a little more interesting as the years fly by, but even then, there isn't much to recommend such amenities as the glass-bottom boat, tidal power plants, bathysphere, and floating apartments. You can build nuclear subs in the modern era, at least, although these aren't exactly a show-stopper given the poor combat features of the core game. Most of the new features are minor variations on existing buildings that add nothing aside from a nautical flavour to your dictatorship. About the one positive is that there is something for everyone here. The new water-based structures feature in every aspect of your city-building, from core infrastructure like food production to tourism to military defense. They do add a sprinkling of variety that should liven up sandbox games.

Combine Popeye with Papa Doc, stir in the usual city-building procedures of Tropico 5, and you've got Waterborne, an expansion short on imagination and implementation. Nothing here adds any meaningful content to a game that was already pretty well-known to long-time followers of the franchise. Another half-dozen or so hours of peasant-oppressing, Swiss Bank-building fun is provided for the truly dedicated, but there isn't anything here with lasting value or appeal.

Elegy for a Dead World Review

"What is Elegy for a Dead World?" you might ask, though the answer is as ephemeral as understanding particle/wave duality, or describing love to one who has never felt it. It is an interactive writing tool and an exploration game that provides no answers and expects you to supply them. It is a complex game of Mad Libs in which you enter some, many, or all words to the story you wish to tell about the otherworldly panoramas before you. And, if you like to write but frequently find yourself at a loss for words, it is a muse, poking and prompting you to put your fingers against the keyboard and let your voice be heard.

You may think of a muse as an ethereal goddess who blesses you with magical inspiration, but as any creator knows, this is not the muse's modus operandi. Says Stephen King in On Writing, "You have to do all the grunt labor, in other words, while the muse sits and smokes cigars and admires his bowling trophies and pretends to ignore you." Elegy for a Dead World is your cigar-smoking fairy. It invites you into one of three landscapes, which you access via a central screen that shows you hovering in front of a rotating nebula of purple and pink. "You," in this case, is a helmeted astronaut of indeterminate age and indeterminate gender. This wanderer of the cosmos may indeed represent you, or may instead represent someone or something else, entirely a product of your imagination. The figure's anonymity is vital to Elegy for a Dead World's success, for the stories you create allow you to assign it any role you wish.

And so you seek your muse in one of those worlds, which you walk or float across in two dimensions. One world is characterized by its red and orange skies, temples lit by glowing candles, and structures that frame the nighttime moon, which dominates the heavens. In the next, the remnants of past labor prevail. You pass by hovels and machines as you move forward, and suddenly another edifice looms large--a university, or perhaps a courthouse. The remaining world is blessed by life; upon entering, a cyclopic gazelle grazes in front of a colossal sculpture depicting three giants bearing the burden of an entire planet upon their shoulders. You may wonder what secrets this trio of kingdoms might harbor, but it is not for the game to supply them.

No--illuminating secrets is your role. Elegy for a Dead World provides you a structure, and then sits back and waits, smoking cigars while you do the work. Before entering a world, you choose the framework for your story. A framework called Letter to a Loved One suggests you tell your beloved why he or she would love this particular place, for instance, and begins with the line, "You'd like it here; _____. There are worse places that _____." As you press on, you encounter prompts that require more input, and eventually, a tale forms. You aren't confined to elaborating on pre-written blurbs; you may delete those words and take your own journey, and each world offers a freeform option that allows you to write wherever you like. But the frameworks represent the muse's creative injections, and there are enough of them to suit writers of all skill levels, if not necessarily all interests.

The boundaries on subject matter are inherent to the game. These are science-fiction worlds, and while you could ostensibly use them to tell all kinds of stories, Elegy for a Dead World's imagery naturally limits you. In most ways, the limitations are a function of its design: writers, like other artists, often flourish when confined; limits are defined by genre, medium, occasion, and commission, and allow the artist to get deep and specific rather than broad and general. But Elegy's vital limitations lurk within its predetermined frameworks, and needn't have manifested in its relatively small, similarly themed worlds. You can write what you wish, but should you want your story to consistently reflect the landscape, you must accept what the muse provides. He's fickle that way.

Don't presume, however, that Elegy for a Dead World doesn't provide ample creative freedom. I have used a library as a backdrop for a miniature autobiography, which proved an effective exercise in brevity, a quality for which I'm not known. In another world, I used prearranged stanzas to craft a raunchy poem I can't print here. You can name and publish these stories, which appear with still images that match the environments that inspired them, as well as browse other players' creations. You would suppose most popular stories would reflect the somberness of the game's visuals, but players' stories often begin with such hysterical lines as "There are TBone steaks in the sky" and "When I have fears that cannot be soothed, I reach for an ice cold Coors Light." It seems some imaginative souls refuse to be restricted after all.

Appropriately enough, Elegy for a Dead World's potential impact lies as much within you as it does within the game. I imagine many people might download, play, and scoff, wholly alienated by a creation tool that expects so much and provides so little. And there are times when I open the game only to stare at it for a few moments, become blinded by my own lack of artistic vision, and then shut it down in favor of entertainment that expects less of me. Yet there's nothing like Elegy for a Dead World, a muse in the guise of a narrative creation tool in the guise of a video game, and it’s within those layers that you find the treasures.

Destiny: The Dark Below Review

Three months after the release, the chances are very good that you know how you feel about Destiny and how you will likely feel about The Dark Below. If the problems that have left many a player crestfallen, even angry, in the weeks and months since the game hit haven't affected your need to keep at the constant grindstone week after week, then The Dark Below at least gives your daily runthrough a nice kick in the pants for a few days.

The scenario is that new non-player character Eris Morn is one of six warriors sent to go kill big baddie Crota (whose sword you wield during one of the early missions on The Moon in the campaign). She is the only one who survived, and she is now enlisting the help of Guardians to help finish what she started. Eris as a persistent storyteller is a good one, a better one than your previous companion (known affectionately as Dinklebot) at least, and her desperation and post-traumatic stress disorder lurk behind every word. Of course, that story is in one ear and out the other, as it is with most of Destiny's campaign content. You get an initial mission in the Cosmodrome as an appetizer, and it's there to introduce the new screaming female wizard baddie, Omnigul, and a new debuff called Weight of Darkness that comes into play when you start the raid called Crota's End.

From there follows a random spewing of new content, all to get your character good and ready to take on Crota's End, the main event. Ultimately, instead of building on Destiny to offer something we haven't seen or fixing some of the game's biggest issues, all The Dark Below does is amplify everything both good and terrible about Destiny. The core mechanics haven't changed and don't need to, since the gunplay is the one thing that Bungie nailed right out of the gate. The campaign missions to stop the Hive from resurrecting Crota are challenging, occasionally unique (one of the early sections involves a hectic firefight in planetary AI Rasputin's core while classical music plays as a warning siren), but ultimately meaningless. Most of them are all too similar to the missions you’ve played hundreds of times before, and the rewards are paltry, with the exception of the new fusion rifle Murmur, which at least has some elemental tricks up its sleeve. The same goes for the PlayStation-exclusive Strike, which is disappointingly, painfully short. Better rewards can be had in the new Daily and Weekly Heroics, though these two missions are tied directly to the add-on, so should you not splurge on The Dark Below, there will be weeklies you will not have access to. As it is, the two current missions, even if you manage to roll deep with a fireteam, are aggravatingly difficult.

Because of these limitations, to stand even a ghost of a chance with most of the new content, you must grind and grind often. The Dark Below ostensibly requires you to be level 28, but there's very little in the pack that approaches doable or fun until you're at 29 or better. The new multiplayer maps--Cauldron, Pantheon, and Skyshock--are fun enough, though fairly nondescript as far as multiplayer maps go, not giving nearly as much of the verticality that the original maps deliver so well. Skyshock in particular can be a vast, empty nightmare on small-team playlists or a frustrating, sniper-filled hellhole when there's more.

Nightfall has arrived. Are you ready to face the darkness?

All this is Destiny's biggest post-game problem in a nutshell: After level 20, the game, at its worst, actively impedes you from having fun, and at best, it artificially extends the amount of time you need to spend with it. Even with the tweaks that have been made--the ability to purchase upgrade materials from vendors instead of farming, improved weapon drops, the new level cap--everything you do is in aid of reaching arbitrary goals. The list of grueling tasks continues to grow, and you can add the brand new insanity that is upgrading Exotic equipment to the list. (If you had Exotics before purchasing The Dark Below, then your progress is now dependent on Xur even having your item in stock that week to upgrade it, unless you are lucky enough to find the new version of the Exotic as a drop.) The add-on exacerbates the frustration by making the new content reliant on your Guardian being at the highest level possible, which, as it always has, relies on repeating content you've already seen countless times already. Arguably, the game tries to compensate by making new gear accessible to whoever can afford it from vendors, but that has the added effect of rendering the last two months of many players' work useless, especially the folks who struggled through Vault of Glass.

Ironically, the most fun part of the DLC is a quest to fill a special urn, purchased from weekend vendor Xur. It's a five-step quest in the vein of the Exotic Bounties, with a nice, varied set of objectives and no level requirements. The quest also contains what's possibly the most enjoyable objective in the entire game thus far, where, instead of participating in a normal Public Event in Earth's Skywatch, you get a message stating, "The enemy is moving against each other," which triggers a large-scale Fallen/Hive war, involving every enemy type from both factions. In the middle of the chaos, you must kill a tough-as-nails boss knight called Urzok the Hated. The quest is pure madness, and any players passing through can participate; it’s the kind of event that Destiny should provide far more often. Upon killing Urzok, a quest on The Moon opens up and asks you to kill waves and waves of higher-level enemies using one of Crota's swords, all while the floor is pitted with fiery panels of death. It's hard, but at no point does the mission feel unfair, nor does it seem as though your enemies are there just to soak up bullets. It's Destiny at its most clever, and though the reward doesn't necessarily justify the effort, the game would shine so much brighter were it to provide more of this brand of fun rather than expecting you to spend 20 minutes in the Crucible to earn three more pathetic marks so that you may one day afford your 75-mark weapon.

The PlayStation-exclusive Strike isn't much of a selling point.

As mentioned, all of this is the lead-up to the big show, which is Crota's End. Much like Vault of Glass, it involves a lot of organization: Bungie still offers no raid matchmaking and expects you to have friends that own Destiny and are willing to coordinate play times. Crota’s End also brings with it plenty of rough fights, along with an over-reliance on "somebody needs to stand here and wait" puzzles. The raid doesn’t do much creatively with the landscape, perspective, enemy placement, or enemy types, but there's at least some combat variety and plenty of visually stunning backdrops to ogle when you get a moment to pay attention. The first moments are almost awe-inspiring, beginning with a leap of faith into an endless abyss, along with a horde of Thrall and a steadily dying light that eventually restricts your ability to move altogether. It's then 20 minutes of fumbling around in the dark with your team, trying to activate new sources of light, and many a mad dash away from lamps that explode once lit.

What follows is a series of last stands in which you must wait upon panels to magically build bridges between one platform and the next, and are then beset upon by high-level bullet sponges. Vault of Glass started similarly, though the stakes are higher here: endless waves of thrall and durable knights swarm you, all while you try to coordinate who remains on platforms, who picks off the Thrall, and who functions as a veritable team medic. It isn't uncommon to simply stall for time just long enough for a single gunner to make the run across a platform--and there's very little in gaming as satisfying as the sigh of relief when most of the team is dead, and someone still manages to cross the final bridge. Collectively, these encounters feel like an attempt to do something beyond the norm, but the challenge makes it a demanding adventure that won't necessarily end in victory. As expected, Crota’s End is highly difficult, and as with Vault of Glass, while there's a recommended level of 28, you're not making a dent in the thing until you hit 30-32, which, of course, involves repeating content, over and over, until you get there. To be fair, however, reaching level 30 is certainly easier now than it once was.

If you're interested in The Dark Below, you know what kind of game Destiny is. You're okay with the grinding. You have a like-minded clan that you play with frequently. You've been level 30 since October. You spend two or three hours a day racking up resources just in case. You are the Destiny player the game wants, which essentially means that you are a farmer. You find out what kind of product you want, and you invest the herculean time and energy needed to obtain it and then nurture it with constant love to bring it to fruition until you decide to destroy it and plant something new in its place. This is Destiny’s circle of life, and The Dark Below does just enough to feed it, if not enough to make it thrive.

The Talos Principle Review

There comes a point in single-player games where we can feel utterly alone with ourselves. It's not just that no one else is around in the game, but everything is obscured from our perception. The finite levels begin to close in as you feel their limitations stop you from doing what you really want to do. We even feel trapped within the very mysteries we're meant to solve as we question what the point of it all is. This only really affects us because it mirrors how life treats us a lot of times. Why are we doing what we're doing? Is there a point to living, some grand design that makes our work worth it? This exact sense of isolation is explored in The Talos Principle, a contemplative meditation on the nature of humanity wrapped in an excellent first-person puzzle game.

Not that you're human to begin with. You awaken in a Grecian garden with no memory of what came before, armed with only the sophisticated communication skills that an adult might possess. You then hear what claims to be the voice of God, who commands you to gather the multitude of tetrominoes scattered throughout. You have free rein to enter and unlock every area within your sight, but the voice forbids you from ascending the tower at the center. Collect all the pieces, and you earn life eternal. And yet you're not entirely blind to the circumstances around you. Your form is robotic in nature, so you immediately deduce that you're not a biological human being. Sometimes the details of the world around you turn blurry and fuzzy, as if the world itself is glitching, so it's not hard to figure out you're inside some kind of computer simulation.

The jammers deactivate laser barriers and turn off mounted machine guns.

The tetrominoes themselves are cleverly placed behind gauntlets of puzzles you have to solve using several implements and switches that have been provided for you. Levels typically involve finding your way from one point to the next while bypassing the obstacles along the way. The most basic of these is the barrier of light, which you can dissipate by pressing a switch, aligning a colored beam of light into a matching hole, or disrupting it by using a special jammer you sometimes find nearby. Other obstacles, like mines, machine guns, or even the level itself, require similar strategies, but also involve timing and light reflexes. One element remains consistent: most puzzles task you with bypassing whatever is in your way through logic, often to the point where the game becomes a door-holding simulator. It's not uncommon to hold a barrier open from both sides so that you can get the tools you need to progress further.

Nevertheless, the combination of tools and level design keep the puzzles consistently fresh. Jammers and light-refracting rods let you manipulate any number of devices. Boxes can depress switches and serve as platforms to reach higher places. Fans blow whatever you put on them into whatever direction they point. You even use a recorder to record your own actions for a short time, and then play back the recording so that you may work alongside your clone in tandem, which is particularly useful once you gain the ability to have your recording carry objects above its head (including the real you). The Talos Principle forces you to broaden your mind and master the multitude of interlocking devices each room holds. Some puzzles even require you to move, align, and adjust them into a sprawling, interlocking system of mechanical relationships, an act that makes you feel particularly clever. Developer Croteam makes the most of a familiar conceit, challenging you to look at angles, sequencing, and timing in new, complex ways.

Some of the details of the world around you sometimes turn blurry and fuzzy, as if the world itself is glitching.

When you're not busy whittling away at the main task at hand, you're free to explore the strange simulation, which you soon find is something of a mix between the Garden of Eden and the Library of Alexandria. Aside from the forbidden tower, you're free to wander within the bounds of each area. You won't find much of interest aside from scenery, but you run into strange terminals scattered throughout the place. Each screen you find houses several pieces of information, some of which seem laughably irrelevant. Sometimes you find clues as to the nature of the place you find yourself, but sometimes you come across a history of the myth of Osiris, a passage from German philosopher Immanuel Kant, or a set of lyrics to an insipid modern-day pop song. But they are all musings trying to define what it means to be human.

And then there's the library assistant, which starts out as a plain speak program meant to assist you in a more conversational tone. Before you know it, however, it starts asking you questions about your nature, what a person is, what morals are, and many other heady topics in an increasingly passive-aggressive manner. You eventually get into full-on philosophy debates with it, and, much like real philosophy debates, you hardly ever feel victorious (though the jerk of an assistant will certainly try to claim as much), but you get to stretch your ideas until they either break or strengthen. Where most games are content to make you feel physically powerful, The Talos Principle dares to put you in the shoes of Socrates.

The simulation mimics real locales like Greece and Egypt.

The puzzle rooms, while often brain-bending, are short enough that you might blaze through them with an almost mechanical glee, which almost seems to undermine the existential theme of the game. But we're talking about The Talos Principle here, so named for the bronze man of Greek myth that suggests that, if a machine can be like a human, then a human is like a machine. We are, after all, consciousness attached to working parts. You quickly learn the basics of how to manipulate the divine tools you're given, and your knowledge and expertise grow as your ability to apply logic as you move through the levels increases. But then, so can a machine. Artificial Intelligence can learn, too.

But as you get better at your given “vocation,” you're going to wander inevitably over to the terminals and pore over every work, absorbing what the ages' finest thinkers have to say about the human condition, what history and mythology tell us about our mortality and our immortality, and how the human race is advancing on the back of what came before. You listen to the audio logs of the simulation creator's musings on life and science and civilization. You read the QR codes of the AIs that came before and hear about what conclusions they came to. You even enter the tower you've been forbidden to climb because you just can't help yourself. The game doesn't require you to do any of this, but you do because you're inherently curious and eager to learn, another pesky human trait.

The puzzle rooms, while often brain-bending, are short enough that you might blaze through them with an almost mechanical glee.

After hunting down every last bit of information that the world has to offer, you don't come to any neat conclusions, but quite the opposite. Most of the knowledge that you accrue during your lengthy journey is quite contradictory. Clearly, humanity hasn't figured itself out yet. But you trudge on anyway, gathering tetrominoes as you use the knowledge of the past to build a future for yourself. The hints that the QR codes give build on your past experiences to help you solve the harder puzzles. The vast repository of knowledge at your fingertips help you form ideas about humanity and morality, which you arm yourself with when talking to that smug assistant. Every idea, every thought you come across, helps shape your belief system, ultimately informing whether you accept eternal life, ascend the tower, or stay behind and help the next generation reach new metaphorical heights. Your success is truly built from the whole of everyone's past triumphs and failures.

The Talos Principle is an absolute joy to play, packed to the gills with expertly designed puzzles and enough ancillary content to make any history of philosophy buff salivate. But all of that is almost beside the point in the face of the game's thematic ambitions. It may seem like you're alone in this world, but you're really not, and that's the greatest triumph of The Talos Principle: It serves as a fantastic representation of the human condition, complete with curiosity, speculation, wonder, fear, and a yearning to know the unknowable. But most importantly, it nails the role that isolation plays in the human condition. Because of all we don't know, because of how seemingly out of control we all are in the cosmic sense, we feel alone. But, in reality, we're alone together.

Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms Review

With a name like Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, this dungeon crawler might prompt you to file it as yet another action role-playing jaunt, embellished with a series of colon-spliced fantasy buzz words. But you'd only be half right. What might not translate in its ambiguous title is a wholly unique hook: twin dimensions in which its hack-and-slash fare unfolds through a revolving door of swappable puppet heroes. Though Heretic Kingdoms' numerous quirks, undercooked features, and surprise cliffhanger reveal the project to be an episodic work-in-progress, rather than a standalone, self-contained game, it boasts enough intrigue to convince you to overlook its obvious faults.

Heretic Kingdoms summons for you the Devourer, a soul-consuming demon confined to the nether realm whose ability to possess the bodies of the long-dead and the freshly deceased grants it a foothold in the physical realm. As your first agent in the mortal world, you choose to resurrect a soul from the traditional trinity: the legendary archer, the famed warrior, or the deposed princess-mage. Your curmudgeonly demon is portrayed as the self-assured protagonist, barking over-delivered Old English lines at its subordinates, but as soon as you wake the dead, Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms sports a truly ensemble cast.

Consume the essence of the living as the ghostly Devourer.

Your chosen hero and the demon bicker, jab, and actively mock one another as the dynamic between them shifts from subservience to reluctant partnership. They spit caustic dialog that lacks nuance but serves to build character as you're guided through Heretic Kingdoms' unique mechanics. You learn to instantly phase back and forth between the two while you undertake your living hero's opening quest line: to wrap up questions lingering from their former life, before they wound up in a tomb and in the ethereal service of the Devourer.

That relationship, and the hero-demon dialog that propels it, is the peak of the interaction between characters. But you're never forced to rely solely on them for your connection to the Heretic Kingdoms. Before long, you slay and consume the souls of assorted creatures: the zombie behemoth, the lupine berserker, and the crocodilian shaman. Uncovering new skills and talents are a large part of the genre's draw, so watching this stable of playable heroes from diverse species and creeds grow into a fighting force is a special treat. These fully customizable supporting characters can be rotated in to fill out the remainder of your four-slot party and are every bit as upgradeable as the top-billed duo, down to their own unique armor, weapons, and skill trees.

Your chosen hero and the demon bicker, jab, and actively mock one another as the dynamic between them shifts from subservience to reluctant partnership.

Weapon of choice is one of Heretic Kingdoms' strongest virtues: a refreshing change of pace from the traditional lone wolf mentality when it comes to hacking through its fantasy environments. And the Heretic Kingdoms, though represented through the expected archetypes--the forest zone, the desert area, the caverns and crypts--are beautiful, tangible places, bearing the weight of history and scars that are reflected in fine detail. A few levels stand out as especially unique, strange, and otherworldly. But for the most part, they each house their sights and vistas to be gazed down upon from an isometric perch.

With the addition of the shadow realm, each area is also represented in a darker, slightly altered mirror of itself, shrouded in neon nether energy. A collapsed bridge or blocked passage in the mortal realm may not be present in the shadow world, forcing you to shift back and forth between the Devourer and its living puppets in order to progress through each long area and underground dungeon. Traversal itself plays out like a puzzle in this regard, reinforcing the welcome notion of cooperation between these realities, despite the simplicity of the mechanic.

Heretic Kingdoms, at least initially, promotes exploration through treasure caches, crafting materials, and loot-bearing breakables that cover the paths of the physical plane, while optional tasks from eager non-player characters can be found off the beaten path. Yet these side quests begin to taper off toward the adventure's midpoint, which is a shame, since the Heretic Kingdoms are as convincing a world as you're likely to find.

The Heretic Kingdoms are detailed places full of history and scars.

The centuries of conflict, politics, factions, and secret orders that shape the geopolitical climate are referenced constantly. Throughout the adventure, it's actually quite easy to lose track of the finer points and even some larger, overarching notions. If you're not diving into the flavor text wrested from historical books and tomes, or listening for names and places in the quick conversational dialog, you're likely to fall behind. And though scripted conversations are at times campy and inconsistently delivered--too quietly to fight the persistent soundtrack--Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms is populated, albeit sparsely, with well-conceived characters and a dedication to fleshing out a believable universe.

Unfortunately, the focus ultimately shifts, and that air of discovery and non-violent interaction with the world gives way to the inflexible destruction of anything between you and your quest marker. It's a symptom of an unfinished product that falls back on dense periods of combat for lack of something else to do. And Heretic Kingdoms' combat is its most divisive element. Though well-designed in form, with the aforementioned clever twists, it can't functionally support the grand scheme.

Its standard click-to-move, click-to-attack system is finicky and floaty, rendering precision targeting and maneuvering difficult in thick groups or tight spaces. At its best, it takes some getting used to; at its worst, it's jagged, seemingly delayed, and not smooth enough to deliver on the seamless swapping of characters necessary for ability combinations. I regularly found myself trying to control targets with a quick succession of spells, only to be hampered by a delay or an unregistered click, and walking toward the enemy with a fragile mage.

One of the only times you could identify with a giant wasp over the human hero.

When Heretic Kingdoms works, it's rewarding. The strengths of its combat lie in the variety of consumable party members and the ability to outfit your squad with characters that meet your needs. Each character's basic attack and four-slot action bar can be augmented from a deep skill tree, allowing you to create extensive combinations by swapping between characters on the fly.

You might have your mage open with a lobbed fireball, then slow the approaching beasts with a magical blast of sand so you can swap to your archer and pin them with poisonous arrows. When finally cornered, you might shift to your zombie bruiser, leveling the area with shockwave ground attacks and stunning nearby monsters in order to buy time to switch back to your mage and repeat for desired results. This dance of skills and talents creates opportunities for moments of brilliance when you've memorized your party and its many abilities, potentially hammering keys in quick succession to cause all sorts of impressive destruction.

Of course, the Devourer has its own obstacles in the ghostly phantoms, apparitions, and demons that roam the shadow plane. Both realms work in tandem, and aside from a few monsters that have a presence in both, you can pick and choose the lesser of two dangers. But the Devourer is the driving force of your adventure, and if it dies, your journey ends. Knowing when to sacrifice a puppet character in the physical realm to get away from dangers in the shadow realm is a hard-earned lesson.

Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms is populated, albeit sparsely, with well-conceived characters and a dedication to fleshing out a believable universe.

In keeping with the themes of the afterlife, death itself is merely a temporary setback for those puppets. You'll collect soul essences from each enemy killed to resurrect your own dead characters or to quickly heal any member of your party. With enough souls in your pouch, it's possible to stand toe-to-toe for a short time in even the most dangerous encounters. The system rewards smart, strategic play, while allowing you to pick and choose how you want to engage. With so much to manage, control, and keep an eye on, the potential of Heretic Kingdoms' combat is obvious--but it won't be reached until a future update soothes its twitchy unpredictability.

And in that regard, updates are coming to Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms with both fixes and content. Heretic Kingdoms isn't complete at this time. In its current state, it runs approximately 8-12 hours before it abruptly ends, promising the next "book" in the journey will be delivered at a later date. While episodic games are nothing new, the fact that some quests and dungeons are included but can't be completed yet, along with features that feel incomplete, means Shadows feels less like an episodic game and more like an incomplete one.

The crafting component of Heretic Kingdoms exemplifies this difference. Though at first it seems robust and extensive, it played almost no role in my adventure. Nearly every recipe for an item in my level range required ingredients I hadn't encountered yet, despite the burgeoning stash of materials quickly filling an extensive inventory. I regularly scanned the unorganized list of recipes for potential improvements, but the only craftable items were inferior to my current gear by several levels. It's a wasted feature in its current form. And though I have no doubt future attention will be paid to fleshing it out, right now it seems more like an ambitious feature that never quite arrived where it was supposed to.

Zaar the Berserker’s swift axes play a vital role in reclaiming the homeland of his people.

Despite the admitted incompleteness of Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms, some elements of the game also lack finish. Cutscenes are grainy, and minor graphical artifacts pop in and out of menu screens and character windows. Bugs of varying severity hide just under the surface--e.g., removing characters from your party and reselecting them causes some of their skills to become unmapped from their action bar. The rough edges are not enough, however, to overshadow the game's smart, refreshing design. Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms has many unique qualities that both elevate and iterate on the traditional mechanics of the genre. With time and enough developer support, the game could even become an unheralded standout in a space dominated by a few big names.