RetroN Jr. Announced at CES 2020

RetroN Jr. Lets You Play Your Game Boy Games on Your Giant HDTV by Andrew Liszewski at Gizmodo

Now that ThinkGeek is no more, Hyperkin will be carrying the “April Fool’s Day prank turned real” torch and turning the RetroN Jr.—a gag product it originally introduced on April 1, 2017—into a legitimate way to enjoy classic Nintendo Game Boy, Game Boy Color, and Game Boy Advance titles on a big screen TV.

I’d use the word “legitimate” loosely in this context.

The Consumer Electronic Show (CES) was this week out in Las Vegas, NV. There was a tons of wacky, cool, and overly ambitious tech revealed this past week. I won’t be commenting on it all. I think John Voorhees at MacStories did a great job of summing the highlights up. I wanted to throw up a small post about the RetroN Jr.

It is the next emulation box from Hyperkin in a similar vain of the RetroN 5. These plug ’n play boxes come off cheap like what you’d find in a drug store toy aisle. Back in 2014, before I dove into the RGB rabbit hole, did think the RetroN 5 looked dope. When I look at the RetroN Jr., I see a nostalgia fueled cash grab, but I see why this type of product keeps happening.

The middle ground for bringing classic games to the modern era is still developing with first-party mini consoles like the SNES Classic or the Sega Genesis Mini. These often sell out quickly though and only play the games pre-installed by the company producing it. Portable games have not had that demand met yet by official console makers yet.

The higher fidelity end of the market is flourishing with scalers and the upcoming Analogue Pocket, put that’s a steep price of admission for the casual consumer with their copy of Tetris or Pokémon Blue lying around. Hyperkin has seen this gap in the market and is meeting that need, even if it involves cutting corners.

It’s a balancing act: features and price. Someone like myself knows the value of accurately running these games in higher visual quality, but until official consoles are produced and can stay in production or FPGAs become cheaper to make, companies like Hyperkin will prey on nostalgia of consumers.

Apple’s Ad-entity – Go Left Gaming

Apple’s Ad-entity – Go Left Gaming:

This was the first article I wrote about Apple. I’d like to do more writing about Apple outside of Twitter, so I figured I would repost it here.

Almost 10 years later, the entire landscape of the company has changed. The iPhone was only one year old at the time of the “New Soul” ad. At the beginning of 2017, the iPhone made up 69.5% of Apple’s revenue and having sold 1.2 billion units in its lifetime. The iPad wouldn’t be out for another two years. Needless to say, the face of Apple has changed over the last decade: and lately, I’ve begun to notice a shift.

It is funny to see most of Apple’s official videos that I linked to in the original post be removed from their YouTube page. I’m curious if they can be found on their official press site or if Apple actively wipes old product ads away from their media facing history.

The History of Breath of the Wild – Go Left Gaming

The History of Breath of the Wild – Go Left Gaming:

I wrote this history back a week before the worldwide launch of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

It has been a long, winding journey just to get to the game’s launch on March 3, 2017 though. Zelda fans love timelines, so I thought it would be worthwhile and interesting to look back at the history of the development of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It is easy to forget where a game has come from and exactly what it took to get to a launch.

I am sharing this here for two reasons:

  1. To test reblogging/sharing posts from other sites.
  2. I’m proud of this piece and like it quite a bit.

Lara Croft GO Review – PlayStation Insider

Originally published on PlayStation Insider on January 6, 2017. PlayStation Insider is no longer active, so I have republished the review here for myself. If you would like to see the original post, check out the Web Archive.

I am a huge proponent of quality, mobile games. If a game is up to snuff and cost a few bucks, I think the developer should have their share. A popular genre on mobile platforms are puzzle games. Titles such as Threes, Monument Valley, and twofold inc. are gems on my iPhone that I go back to regularly. Three years ago, Square Enix announced that its Montréal studio would be making mobile games. It was not the company’s first foray into mobile gaming, but the results immediately caught my attention. 

I am a huge fan of Hitman GO and was stoked that it made its way to Vita with a platinum trophy. After playing Hitman GO on Vita, I could not wait for Lara Croft GO to make its way to PlayStation. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long. Lara Croft GO is here on PS4 and Vita, with new levels in tow, and was worth the wait.

Lara Croft GO is a natural evolution from Hitman GO. Square Enix Montréal found a core turn based puzzle mechanic and then applied a given Square Enix franchise to it (please give me Kingdom Hearts GO). The board game vibe of Hitman GO perfectly suited the franchise in an oddly delightful way. For their second title, Square Enix Montréal adapted their formula to the Tomb Raider franchise. They ditched the board game diorama design from Hitman GO in favor of a fuller aesthetic. Lara Croft GO sports dense jungles, buried ruins, and hidden caverns that give the levels life. Colors are imaginative with warming oranges and soothing blues blending all together. The modern polygonal graphics tie it all together for a visually captivating game, whether you play on Vita’s OLED display or your HDTV.

My favorite visual elements come from the way Lara moves. Generally, she moves in a standard forward fashion. When climbing off a ledge or going backward, she somersaults with a striking fluidity. Even when I would swipe quickly to speed up the level, I would make sure to stop to watch the graceful animations.

Gone are the specific challenges on each board like Hitman GO. Replacing the challenges are collectibles scattered throughout the levels. Tap the jars to collect gems and statues that unlock different outfits for Lara. Their placement can be blatantly obvious, while some are deviously hidden behind platforms and moving objects. The level select screen shows you how many per level you have collected. This makes completing your collection and pursuing the platinum trophy an addictive delight.

When concerning the actual puzzles, Lara Croft GO is engaging by introducing new mechanics in a well paced manner. I learned the skills I needed in early levels of each chapter. Over the course of the game, it became up to me to master the rules of the game. 

For example, one type of enemy is a snake. If you step in front of the snake, it will kill you. Approaching a snake from any other side or using a spear to throw from a distance, allows you to kill it and progress. By the end you are navigating boards with five or more snakes and pitfalls with only one spear. 

Puzzles may have occasionally stumped me, but for no longer than 5 to 10 minutes. When I finally solved the puzzle, a clear click of a light bulb coming on sounded inside my head. This lead to a satisfying sense of accomplishment and kept me going for just one more level.

A surprise to myself was the visual storytelling packed into Lara Croft GO. The entire main campaign revolved around Lara exploring an ancient place with a big, ol’ spooky snake following her around. It fit into the world and gameplay without bogging down the game itself. It all wraps up in grand fashion and was a load of fun to tackle. The final levels are worth talking about because of just how much fun they are to play. The whole narrative thread is icing on the cake.

Lara Croft GO isn’t without its frustrations, unfortunately. The port to Vita, the platform I played on the most, has egregious load times. 40 to 50 seconds just to load some levels. I found myself catching up in my Twitter feed, looking back at my Vita and the level would still be loading. Anytime you die or restart a level, lengthy load times accompany it.

On PS4, the game loads instantly. Once you play on PS4, it’s hard to go back to the Vita version. The home console port does have some funky stuttering, particularly when collecting items or moving too quickly. It is a shame though, because the touch controls on Vita make navigating less frustrating than its dualshock counterpart. Plus, being able to chip away while on the go is nice. Thankfully, automatic cross save is enabled. Any time you boot up the game, it syncs with the server to give load the latest save.

This port to PlayStation systems isn’t without something new and shiny. A whole new chapter has been developed by Ko_op. Titled “The Mirror of Spirits,” these new levels sport one of the series’ best puzzle mechanics: mirror paths. On one side of the level is the Lara avatar you have used the entire game, and on the other is a spirit Lara that mimics your movement. The challenge of navigating two characters through two different puzzles kept me on my toes. This level pack provided some of the best puzzles in the entire game, which was a welcome treat to someone who had already played Lara Croft GO on iOS.

Lara Croft GO is a captivating puzzle game. It excels at what made Hitman GO so great and shines with the Tomb Raider IP. Square Enix Montréal should keep bringing their iOS games to PlayStation as far as I am concerned. They fit right in on the ecosystem (particularly the Vita). The new expansion is the best in the game, so much so that I would argue it is worth the price of entry even if you have already played the game on iOS. Lara Croft GO is everything I wanted in the next GO game and is an absolute must play puzzle game.


Amnesia: Collection Review – PlayStation Insider

Originally published on PlayStation Insider on December 9, 2016. PlayStation Insider is no longer active, so I have republished the review here for myself. If you would like to see the original post, check out the Web Archive.

Horror games seem to be a dime a dozen these days. Games about robot bears and creepy dolls litter digital game shops. Even with PSVR hitting mainstream consumers, horror VR experiences flooded the gate at launch. Back in 2010, a champion among the horror genre stood out within the community: Amnesia: The Dark Descent.

I still remember my first encounter with Amnesia: The Dark Descent back in 2013. A friend of mine bought it for me on Steam for my MacBook Air. I barely made it to the first puzzle before my computer’s fans were whirling like a jet engine. I never touched the game again. 

Three years later and I finally could complete what I had attempted with my friend thanks to Frictional Games. The Amnesia Collection includes Amnesia: The Dark Descent, its DLC titled Amnesia: Justine, and its indirect sequel Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. These games have left the PC market and come to PS4 in a bundle. Unfortunately, the jump to console leaves much to be desired in these ports.

As far as horror games go, Amnesia: The Dark Descent nails the sense of dread. Almost always surrounded by darkness, light sources are a scarcity in the game. You have a lamp that contains a limited amount of oil that is used up while the lamp is on. You may also light torches with tinderboxes you find lying around the castle. If you run out of light sources and can’t find anymore, the darkness will start to mess with your character’s head. 

Amnesia: The Dark Descent‘s signature insanity mechanic means if you stay in the dark for too long or look directly at monsters your character’s sanity will slowly drain. This causes the screen to go wobbly, which leaves you slow and vulnerable to monsters. To keep your sanity, you must solve puzzles and stay in the light as much as possible. It’s this balancing act that is the core challenge—and charm— of the first game.

Once you grasp this mechanic though, the rest of the game becomes crystal clear and it is not a pretty sight. This version of Amnesia: The Dark Descent is woefully marred with egregious technical hiccups and design choices. Monsters will walk in place or not trigger at all. If you get near an enemy stuck in a loop or near an invisible trigger (which is often where you need to go), the beast will suddenly snap out and attack. If you succumb to a monster, odds are it will simply not be there when you reload the checkpoint. Sometimes your checkpoint will even be ahead of where you were in the area. This sucks all the tension out of encounters.

The game performs as if Frictional Games just right clicked the PC file and chose “Save as .PS4.” The controls are not optimized for a gamepad whatsoever. The only gamepad added feature is rumble, which shakes more than Scooby-Doo in a haunted mansion. There is no option to reduce or shut off rumble. 

This is no remaster, but I am disappointed there was no sort of visual polish. Textures are muddled and drab. You’ll be seeing a lot of them too, since you’ll be crouched against the wall in the dark, especially in the latter half of the game. In fact, the game doesn’t even present itself at full resolution. This small black box encompasses the screen at all times. I checked for any options or if it was my television’s aspect ratio settings. Nope. The game just presents itself at a funky ratio.

Amnesia: Justine performs in a similar way to Amnesia: The Dark Descent since they are intertwined. The reuse of assets in Amnesia: Justine is smartly used to create a small plot line. I enjoyed the idea of saving or killing captives throughout different rooms. It’s short and sweet, allowing for more playthroughs and casual attempts.

Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs is an unique Amnesia game since Frictional Games only published the title. The Chinese Room, creators of Dear Esther, developed this indirect sequel. Outside of the name, the two games share little in common. Sanity and item management are totally removed. You find a modern lantern that never runs out of light. Puzzles are reduced to point-and-click roadblocks. No item you need is too far away or puzzle too difficult to solve. 

There is also little actual danger. The first couple hours are completely devoid of it. When danger does present itself, all you have to do is put out your lantern, crouch, and walk around the threat. Despite diverging from its roots, I did enjoy Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs more than Amnesia: The Dark Descent because of what I found to be a more intriguing and engaging story.

Released in 2013, A Machine for Pigs does boast sharper and more detailed environments than its predecessor. The game actually is presented at your TV’s full resolution! Unfortunately, this graphical boost may bring out more technical monsters than expected. The game features horrifying frame rates whenever you decide to turn, enter a visually packed room, or run. Basically, anything outside of walking straight forward. It’s truly scarier than all the pig corpses lying around.

All three games do utilize stellar sound design, though. I could be playing in a fully lit room and still feel tension in my gut because of the nail-biting sounds. Whether is was guttural growls, scraping, or heavy footsteps, I found sound to be my anchor in the experience across this collection. Monsters and the worlds came alive through my headphones.

When looking at each Amnesia title, they are truly solid foundations for horror games. It’s not a surprise to see the PC community praise the franchise, but when it comes to this PS4 collection, it’s hard to get sucked in. The real horror is how it made it onto PS4 in such a maimed state. Frictional Games seems to have dragged the corpse of their beloved game series to console and left it to rot. The beating heart of a classic can be heard if you listen close enough. It’s just a shame you have to dig through the corpse to find it at all. 


Battlezone Review – PlayStation Insider

Originally published on PlayStation Insider on November 25, 2016. PlayStation Insider is no longer active, so I have republished the review here for myself. If you would like to see the original post, check out the Web Archive.

Battlezone has a quiet underlying legacy within the hallowed halls of video games’ history. Before invading the homes of those with PSVR, Battlezonemade a name for itself on the battlefield of the arcade floor. Using first-person, 3D vector graphics and a periscope viewfinder, Battlezone became a novel arcade cabinet in 1980 that is sometimes considered the first virtual reality arcade game.

Throughout the years, Battlezone has popped in and out of the hallowed halls of gaming history. It appeared on PSP as a third-person tank game and graced Xbox Live Arcade with traditional first-person experience.

Dawning a viewfinder once again, Battlezone is closer to its roots than ever before. Utilizing PSVR, Rebellion has brought the arcade classic into the modern age with true virtual reality. Battlezone does not forget its roots in this outing, but with the updated technology it brings along some unfortunate side affects that no arcade cabinet would have.

Battlezone is a game that appears simple on the surface, but when you immerse yourself into the game its minutiae clouds the overall experience. Rebellion fails to capture the ease of play an arcade game can provide, which hampers the impact Battlezone has as a true virtual reality game.

There is one game mode in Battlezone. A campaign with varying lengths (short, medium, long). The story is barely enough to motivate anyone to drive a giant, virtual tank, but I find folks don’t need much motivation besides the fact it is a giant, virtual tank.

The campaigns are presented by a polygonal map made up of tiny hexagon pieces that  represent levels. Complete the task in each level to move across the board toward a boss. No matter what length of a campaign you pick, they feel long and repetitive. I found myself wishing I could just skip to the end. The levels and objectives hardly rotate. They become a chore you have to complete over and over to finish the campaign. Thankfully, the game does save where you left off. Each hexagon can represent a short play session. There is no commitment to finish an entire campaign in one sitting.

You may play a campaign in either online co-op or offline single player. While I did not have any friends to test online with directly, the matchmaking was quick and the connection was smooth. Since VR is so contingent on smooth frame rates, I was glad to find no lag that impacted the VR experience.

From the outset of your campaign run you get to choose the type of tank you want to use. There are light, medium, and heavy classes of tanks and a couple more can be unlocked by completing certain tasks. Their performance varies, but each comes equipped with two main weapons and a perk.

I believe these different weight classes are the root of my VR sickness that I experience every time I play Battlezone. The speed of the light tank or using a turbo boost with any of them combined with looking around led to my first and only experience with VR sickness. In a game all about immersion, I felt like any movement of my head would trigger another unsettling wave in my stomach. I would like to note that I have had others play the game and not get sick at all. In my time with PSVR, I have found that VR sickness can be triggered in plenty of different ways and is not the same for everyone.

Keeping your head still is not an option though. You’ll want to be looking around to keep an eye on your enemies while you drive in a different direction. Aiming is done with the right analog stick. More often than not, I found aiming to not be as precise as I expected. Combined with low ammo counts and occasional drops, every shot truly counts. When you miss, it’s a frustrating moment. After playing a game like Rez Infinite where aiming is fluid and natural, it is disappointing to be met with aim that is ever so slightly off.

Beyond shooting enemy tanks, towers, and UFOs, you can upgrade your tank with more powerful and different weapons. These can be acquired from enemy drops or purchasing them in the in-game store with credits. The ability to upgrade is a satisfying system and makes you feel more powerful with each shot.

Visually, Battlezone is quite nice. Rebellion went with a futuristic, polygonal style. The red enemies stand out against the cool blues and greens used for the stages. This makes them easier to spot as you whip your tank around. The frame rate is absolutely solid at 60 fps, with 120 fps achieved through reprojection. This buttery smooth frame rate is essential to an immersive, non-distracting VR session.

Battlezone on PSVR is a neat touchstone to its arcade roots. Even at the start of each session when it asks me to insert a “C.O.I.N” (Combat Operative Identification Nexus), I find myself reminded of the history of gaming as a whole and how far it has come in the past 40 years. Despite consistently making me sick, Battlezone has heart. The campaigns feel a bit long in the tooth, but the short level design does allow for shorter sessions. In the end though, I find myself asking, “why is this game in VR? What does it add?” It certainly adds a cool factor no other tank game I have ever played has had. Beyond that, I’m not sure it there’s much else. With the aiming not being as accurate or satisfying as other VR games, the VR in Battlezone devolves back to what it was in the arcade; a novelty game.


SUPERHYPERCUBE Review – PlayStation Insider

Originally published on PlayStation Insider on October 21, 2016. PlayStation Insider is no longer active, so I have republished the review here for myself. If you would like to see the original post, check out the Web Archive.

There was also heavy use of an animated GIF of the beginning of every session of SUPERHYPERCUBE. That GIF has been lost and I don’t have the means to recreate it at the time being. Here is the intro as a 360º video.

Intro GIF

Look at that.


That is the opening animation to each round of SUPERHYPERCUBE.  It’s like going into hyperspace with rainbows.


It is pure euphoria that could only be experienced through virtual reality. I wish I could throw the GIF up one more time and call this review done.


There is much more to enjoy in SUPERHYPERCUBE than total envelopment by a rainbow, but that doesn’t stop the beginning from slapping a grin on my face as I rush off into the matrix of an 80’s inspired virtual puzzle game.

Developed by Kokoromi and published by Polytron (the creators of FEZ), SUPERHYPERCUBE is a drop puzzle game, in the vain of Tetris. At the start of every game, you begin with a single cube that obscures your view of wall with a hole in it. As the wall moves closer to the cube, you must orientate the cube to fit it through the hole. Wall after wall, more cubes attach themselves to the original cube. You quickly find yourself having to position this odd 3D shape you have amassed into a 2D hole. It’s like fitting a square peg into a round hole.

What makes virtual reality essential to this puzzle game is the simple mechanic of looking around the massive shape of cubes in front of your face. The only way to see the hole you have to fit is to physically look around cube obscuring your view. When this fact dawned on me during my very first session at a PSVR demo in Best Buy, I was in awe of the simplicity and was hooked from then on out. I kept wanting to make the 30 minute drive to Best Buy just to play one more time.

If you fail to match the shape to the hole, you will lose the cubes that did not fit. You can fail twice before it is game over. To keep you going longer and to chase the high score, there are two power-ups that you can unlock to use during each run. The first is HYPERFOCUS, which allows you to slow down time so you can line up the shape before crashing into the wall. The second is SMASH. As the name implies, this power-up lets you obliterate a wall and advance to the next.

To use these power-ups, you have to use BOOST to fill two meters: HYPERFOCUS takes one meter, while SMASH requires both. By pressing the X button, you can fly right into the hole and advance immediately to the next challenge. The further back from the wall you are, the more boost time you have, which fills the meter more quickly.

I found my heart rate climbing higher and higher as my awkward shape assembled itself, demanding me to make it fit the approaching hole. I always felt on the verge of success and failure. Finding the right orientation moments before collision is elating, followed immediately by the excitement of the challenge to do it all over again.

As satisfying as the rush of matching shapes is, the drive to play over and over was chasing my high score. The way scoring works is as straightforward as game itself. After each wall, the amount of cubes you have attached is added to your score: The more cubes you have, the more points are added. Between your own scores and the world leaderboards, the score chasing is an essential part of the addictive quality of SUPERHYPERCUBE. The addiction comes from knowing, deep down at your core, you can make it one more wall farther and raise that score to climb the global ranks. 

The art design begs the question, “What if virtual reality was prevalent in the 80’s?” Wireframes surround you in a dream like trance of color. The further you progress, the more complex the visuals become. Lines turn into squares, which turn into triangles and so on. Fueled by neon and 80’s technology, the game pulsates with a perceptible energy. Fused with the immersion virtual reality provides, this vibrant design of colors, shapes, and lights transcends perception and becomes a palpable buzz of excitement. 

The sound design is enveloping. Cubes attach themselves with satisfactory thumps. Boosting from wall to wall surrounds you in a rushing woosh, as if you stuck your head out a window of a car going down an empty road. It is abstract much like the visuals that are developing around you as you go deeper into the machine that is the world of the puzzle. No catchy, inescapable tune like Tetris. The sound hums with the energy of the neon art style. This game is alive. Every design decision is crucial and executed masterfully to convey that through a headset.

SUPERHYPERCUBE is a mesmerizing journey where I want to go deeper and deeper every time I play. The surge of energy from the aesthetic combined with the high of nailing the orientation of a complex object amped me up and kept me returning over and over again. Kokoromi has created a must-have launch title for PSVR. SUPERHYPERCUBE is pure puzzle mechanic joy that shines. You are wired into the world of the puzzle and Kokoromi wants you to stay. They don’t have to ask me twice. Now if you’ll excuse me.



Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration Edition Review – PlayStation Insider

Originally published on PlayStation Insider on October 10, 2016. PlayStation Insider is no longer active, so I have republished the review here for myself. If you would like to see the original post, check out the Web Archive.

Since 1996, Tomb Raider has been an iconic franchise in pop culture. Over the course of games, reboots, Angelina Jolie, and the marvelous Lara Croft GO, Tomb Raider has been a staple in video games and media for quite some time. After this long in the industry, Lara’s games have become action/adventure comfort food for gamers. 

Despite all the outlets Tomb Raider as a franchise has reached, it has always favored well on PlayStation. The two seem to go hand-in-hand, which is why when Rise of the Tomb Raider was announced in 2014 as an Xbox and PC exclusive, I was shocked. The game came out in 2015 to much critical acclaim and PlayStation fans were stuck patiently awaiting their turn to dig into the next grand adventure with the English archeologist.

One year later, PS4 owners now have the opportunity to go with Lara on her latest adventure. Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration is the same story and world as last year’s game, but packed with all the previous DLC, new content to explore, and a PSVR experience. Was it worth the wait for PlayStation fans? In short, yes. Despite an overall lack of difficulty, the story and mechanics hold true, as do the righteous open world segments sprinkled throughout the hidden land of Kitezh.

From top to bottom, Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration is how you make a proper sequel. As a follow-up to the reboot simply titled Tomb Raider, developer Crystal Dynamics has created an Empire Strikes Back quality sequel. It keeps the snappy bow mechanics, engaging, but not too difficult puzzles, RPG-like skill tree, and expands the environment with open world locations. These open world areas allow you to explore, collect materials you may need, and level up. They also are full of great detail that lend credence that this lost city was real. The remains of the civilization beg to be explored. There are plenty of tombs, structures, and crypts to discover, each with rewards that aid Lara in her quest for the Divine Source and eternal life.

If the story and characterization of 2013’s Tomb Raider was an appetizer, then Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration is the main course. Lara is no longer the inexperienced treasure hunter and survivalist she was; she is experienced and poised this time around. That experience came at a cost though, as Lara struggles with her identity as a Croft, her father’s legacy, and her balance between being an archeologist and guardian of history’s dark secrets.

Lara’s character and progressive arc is one half of the narrative’s strength. The other is the villain chasing Lara into Kitezh: Konstantin. Leader of an underground, religious private militia, Konstantin is consumed wholly by claiming the Divine Source as his destiny for God. He has no hesitation when it comes to murder. He truly and emphatically believes in his cause, which makes his actions of chaos all the more terrifying. He is the yin to Lara’s yang and it spins the story in a exciting way. 

Unfortunately, the rest of the cast fails to evoke any sort of response from me. Lara’s best friend Jonah and stepmother Ana feel like puppets placed in to fill gaps. As hard as Crystal Dynamics tried to flesh out the cast and draw players in, the supporting characters never leave a mark the way Lara and Konstantin do.

Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration blends so many diverse game mechanics into its structure that one may worry of an overload. Like a giant pot of gumbo, the game has a splash of action/adventure with a dash of RPG skill trees to go with a sprinkle of Metroidvania item progression, that all seeps together over while simmering over the warm flame of its open world. It is a recipe that Crystal Dynamics has clearly slaved over in the figurative kitchen to get just right. The balance of new and old strikes a piquant flavor that envelops your digital taste buds. 

The key ingredient in the recipe is its character progression systems. Lara is the same badass she left the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot with. She has no problem dirtying her hands with her enemies blood. Each kill you get, whether in stealth or open combat, is rewarded with a small bit of experience. Stealth kills and clearing an entire combat section quietly is worth the most, but build up your combat skill tree and you can score massive points for gnarly kills.

You are always becoming a better tomb raider. Outside of combat, collecting lost artifacts of the past also boost your experience. Lara will become more proficient in foreign languages if you translate enough memoirs. With higher language proficiency, Lara can translate monoliths that reveal hidden locations of treasure that helps push your level even higher. Every level up is extremely satisfying.

When you do level up, you earn one skill point to spend. You can use these skill points to flesh out one of three skill trees. Each one is adaptive to different types of play styles. If you prefer to explore and gather materials, you can dump your points into the survivor skill tree over the brawler one. It adapts to your approach, much like Lara has to adapt to her surroundings.

Outside of the skill trees, other skills can be acquired by completing the optional tombs scattered throughout the open environments. These tombs are detailed puzzle rooms that are utterly satisfying. The tasks are never too difficult to solve, but the game doesn’t hand over the solution either. If a puzzle is too tough for you, pressing in R3 activates survival senses. This feature lets objectives and key items glow and helps players figure out the puzzle.

Another way Crystal Dynamics spices up the game with RPG mechanics is through resource management. Gathering wood, cloth, and oil lend materials to crafting different types of arrows or new equipment to let you carry more ammo or even more materials. Hunting down deer or rare animals like bears score you their fur to use as gear. It’s never hard to find more supplies as the game is full of them. If you are missing something, just use survival senses. Nearby materials glow gold and help fill your satchels quickly.

Just like Lara herself can be leveled up, so can her weapons. Using the materials you gather you allow you to invest in skill trees for the four archetypes of weapons in the game: Assault rifle, pistol, shotgun, and bow. You can collect a variety of these types of weapons over the course of the game, but the perks carry over. If you invest a ton of materials into your first pistol, those upgrades carry over to any other pistol. You aren’t punished for spending the materials. In fact, you are encouraged. It is a smart solution that doesn’t lock you into one weapon per archetype. 

As your weapons and gear become more plentiful and diverse, you’ll be able to explore and do more. It’s this slice of Metroidvania design that I love the most. It encourages retreading older areas to explore the caves you couldn’t get into or to finish an optional tomb you couldn’t before. All of these choices lend themselves to becoming the best Croft you can be and the progression from beginning to end is a satisfying journey.

For all of Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration’s well balanced ingredients, some stick out like pineapple on pizza. While the combat is fun and the weapons are snappy, the encounters themselves are a cake walk. The design for encounters funnels you into a space with usually three to seven enemies, depending on the size of the area. Typically these scenarios begin in stealth and let you choose how to approach the enemies. I played the game on normal difficulty and could complete nearly every encounter, in stealth, from the starting point. If the enemies did spot me picking them off their comrades with headshots, I could simply finish them off with my bow or axe. They never challenged me to switch up my approach or move around. The game does include three higher difficulties, which I wish I started on. The only encouragement I found in mixing up my routine was when chasing trophies. 

I have noticed some technical errors as well. Objects won’t be available for interaction occasionally based off of the camera angle and Lara’s position. Lara can have wonky, minor collisions with textures and objects. It isn’t game breaking, but it can be frustrating, especially for a game that has been arguably complete for over a year now.

One surprising complaint I have is that new weapons from DLC are unlocked right off of the bat. As a part of the celebration, quite a few weapons in each category are simply unlocked from the get go (as long as you have the base weapon). This means you can use better and more deadly weapons immediately. This is in direct conflict with the Metroidvania design in the game. Sure, I wasn’t forced to use them, in fact, I steered away from them, but it sure does make an already easy combat experience even easier.

Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration isn’t solely reheated leftovers from Xbox One’s fridge though. The most notable addition is the Croft Manor expansion with the story content titled “Blood Ties” and a zombie horde mode inside the manor as well which is called “Lara’s Nightmare.” Blood Ties also has PSVR support.

Blood Ties is a no combat, exploratory environment that tells the story of the Crofts. In the same vein as Gone Home, you walk around an empty home in a storm collecting and reading different items that help flesh out the history of Lara’s parents. The story is quite good, although I felt like Lara was more invested than I was. It was as if I was silently watching Lara react to her family’s story rather than becoming Lara and feeling the emotional weight. This may all change in first person with PSVR and I plan to update this review with impressions of the VR experience shortly after I receive my headset on Oct. 13. 

There are few puzzles scattered in the Blood Ties story that built in a satisfying way. Even outside of a tomb, Crystal Dynamics knows how to make satisfying puzzles that lend themselves to the feeling of being an archeologist. I did have an issue with the pacing though. The collectibles are narrated just like the main game, where all action stops to hear a brief monologue. With the text immediately to the right, I found myself reading it faster than the narrator spoke. I wanted to hear the performance and continue to walk around the manor. Having me stop everything to hear dialogue was like a game of tug-o-war, with one side being a desire to hear the performance and the other to continue exploring. Exploration often won the war. 

Walking around the dilapidated manor isn’t the only thing to do inside. There is also a horde mode with zombies as a new expedition in the game. For those unaware, expeditions were around in last year’s version of Rise of the Tomb Raider. They allow players to take on self-imposed challenges and add modifiers through cards. These cards can be purchased with in-game currency that you either earn or can purchase on PSN. This new expedition uses the manor as a combat field for a zombie hoard inside Lara’s dreams.

Lara’s Nightmare is a blast to play. The manor has been given a proper, spooky feeling where I kept looking over my shoulder in search of zombies. Unlike the core enemies in the main game, these creatures did have me mix up my tactics. I had to use different weapons on different foes and manage my ammo by alternating guns. It adds a wonderful sense of dread as you run through the manor in search of three floating, fiery heads to shoot. When all three are down, you have to face a giant floating head as a final boss. I do wish, since the manor was designed with VR in mind from the ground up, that I could explore or play in VR for Lara’s Nightmare. I can only imagine the tension if it was all in a virtual world instead of third person. VR aside, this horde mode is the cherry on top of the whole experience.

The complete package of Rise of the Tomb Raider: 20 Year Celebration is a meaty gaming experience that truly does feel like a celebration of an icon. While it may not demand the most from players in terms of difficulty, the game world concocted by Crystal Dynamics is a worthy anniversary title for the iconic heroine. PlayStation fans are in for a hearty, full bodied game that was worth the year long wait.


Destiny: Rise of Iron Review – PlayStation Insider

Originally published on PlayStation Insider on September 30, 2016. PlayStation Insider is no longer active, so I have republished the review here for myself. If you would like to see the original post, check out the Web Archive.

Two years ago, Bungie released their first new IP in nine years. Not straying far from the theme of space and shooting, Destiny’s hype was lofted high thanks to promises and the pedigree of the studio at hand. What they delivered was a competent shooter that had style over substance. While the game was critically received as “good,” the community flourished and launched the game into the place it is today.

Now the game’s final expansion is out in the wild and Guardians are becoming Iron Lords. Bungie has corrected the mistakes of the original Destiny, often referred to as vanilla, with Rise of Iron having a full fledged and focused story with consistent cutscenes, a richer multiplayer experience, and the most varied content the franchise has had to date. It may not be as fundamentally game changing as The Taken King was last year, but Rise of Iron shows its strength in a calculated move of nostalgia aimed at its vibrant and loyal community.

Bungie was supposed to release the sequel this year, but decided to delay it into 2017. To fill the void and keep the community engaged, Bungie had to make some sort of content, and thus, Rise of Iron was born!

Narrative in Destiny has always been a go-to weak point for people to wag a finger at. It’s understandable and valid, especially considering the Halofranchise’s story under Bungie’s development. Vanilla Destiny had “no time to explain why they had no time to explain” a structured story. The Taken King vastly improved with a few more cutscenes and a cohesive narrative that tied throughout the campaign and the raid.

Rise of Iron is what vanilla should have been, considering on Bungie’s previous work. Its story is grounded in Destiny lore, based on Lord Saladin from the Iron Banner crucible event. Long ago, Lord Saladin locked away a virus-like material called SIVA. The Fallen have dug it up and Lord Saladin needs new Iron Lords to answer the call. It has focus, although it is shorter than The Taken King’s campaign. Cutscenes open and close out missions with a succinct narrative. Where Rise of Iron strives, in regard to narrative, is in the follow-up quests to the main campaign.

The real heart of Rise of Iron lies within the post-campaign quests. Two specifically stand out amongst the pack: The exotic quests for Ghjallerhorn and Khvostov 7G-0X. For those not familiar with those names, Ghjallerhorn is the exotic rocket launcher that was infamous for melting bosses with its absurdly good perks. Even more specific is the Khvostov 7G-0X, which was the very first gun every Guardian uses in the tutorial mission. Both guns have questlines that revolve around building each weapon. There is a sense of pride and accomplishment in creating your own of each. The callback to each is meant to evoke a sense of nostalgia and a feeling of just how far you’ve come in your journey to become legend. The Khvostov 7G-0X quest, in particular, felt hand crafted for day one Guardians and as a personal thank you from Bungie.

When it comes down to the gameplay of Rise of Iron, the expansion does not stray from The Taken King in any substantial way. There is a new area to explore called the Plaguelands. It is a new area of Old Russia that bleeds into the starting area of the main game. It is a smart way to tie the beginning of the franchise into new content. Some areas are reused, but spruced up with new visuals of SIVA overtaking the wall and Old Russia.

The Plaguelands are certainly the largest patrol zone yet, packed with more visual elements. It functions like any other patrol area though. Once you learn the lay of the land, you typically hop on your sparrow and race to your destination, rarely stopping to look at all the detail or pick off a few of the new Splicer type enemies. It would have been nice to fill all that open space with more dynamic tasks to complete instead of the same tasks in other areas.

Other than the Plaguelands, a new patrol mission type was created for SIVA and a new public-event area called Archon’s Forge was made akin to Court of Oryx from The Taken King. These add just one more thing players can do on patrol runs as they fill out bounties and quests.

In regards to quests, Bungie has expanded upon the record book tracking introduced as a microtransaction in SRL (Sparrow Racing League). Bungie brought it back for free in both Year Two Moments of Triumph and now in Rise of Iron. Functioning like an in-game achievement system, the Rise of Iron record book is packed with tasks to complete. The more you do, the more rewards you get. Upon completion, players will unlock full sets of Iron Lord gear and will look unbelievably stylish as they slay their enemies while covered in wolf pelts. This is a great way to implement in-game achievements, outside of trophies or Xbox achievements. It has a checklist feel that demands to be completed. It’s not necessarily meant to be filled out rapidly, although the most dedicated may grind them out quickly. There are plenty of tasks that will keep Guardians occupied for the next couple of months.

Bungie has decided to leave PS3 and Xbox 360 in the dust. Rise of Iron does receive a small boost in visuals thanks to this decision, primarily with particle effects, such as snow or red particles from SIVA and Splicers. There maybe a wider ability of things to do in the raid, but at this time I have not completed the new raid, Wrath of the Machine. I will be sure to update this review with full thoughts on the raid upon completion.

The music also gets a new coat of paint. The new soundtrack revises original Destiny songs and adds slick electric guitar. It adds a slight edge, all while lending itself to a grand score that is worthy of legends. I cannot get over how good the guitar is during the Sepiks Perfected strike. You can listen to it and the whole soundtrack below.

Arguably the highlight of the expansion is the brand new raid introduced in Rise of Iron. Raids are the highlight of Destiny’s player vs environment (PVE) content. New raids are exciting within the community since the high level entry point allows Bungie to experiment with the game’s design and let their freak flag fly. 

Wrath of the Machine takes a little bit from the previous three raids in terms of design, while embracing a wonderfully gripping sense of world aesthetic. The art direction for the raid is above and beyond previous raids. From clusters of red and shiny SIVA particles (thanks PS4 power) to the theme of computers and technology, Wrath of the Machine shines visually. The dedication to the theme even seeps into the quest for the raid exotic, Outbreak Prime. I would like to note that members of my fireteam experience a noticeable frame rate dip during the zamboni portion of the raid. During my time, the frame rate never pulled me out of the experience, but I have heard enough complaints that I thought it fair to mention here.

Mechanically, the raid strikes an excellent balance of teamwork, even though the mechanics themselves hardly evolve over the period of the raid itself. Each boss may use an element of the first encounter, but Wrath of the Machine never lays the burden of triumph on one Guardian or all. Bouncing back from a death or two is possible, without punishing the whole fireteam. Much like Vault of Glass, the victory belongs to all the Guardians (except the ones you carry).

Wrath of the Machine blends the best parts of the previous raids into one. It may not be the longest raid, but the environment and enemies are engaging. When considering the short time Bungie had to develop Rise of Iron, Wrath of the Machine is an engaging and exciting raid that you can play with friends on a weekly basis.

Multiplayer has received a few new features as well. The two most notable additions are private matches and a new mode, Supremacy. Private matches are totally customizable with mode, points, location, and time of day. They encourage the social aspect of Destiny within the crucible, outside of the heavily competitive scene. It may not capture the spirit of Halo 2 LAN parties, but it still is welcome.

Supremacy is Rise of Iron’s kill confirmed mode. The concept is to gain points, you not only have to get the enemy kill, but also pick up an orb called a “crest” to confirm the kill and actually gain points. The mode is fun and encourages open combat and more conflicts. Where Supremacy falls short is the length of the matches. Teams play to 135 points with each kill counting for two points. The mode certainly feels like a drag halfway through matches. Hopefully, Bungie will patch the length of matches, but until then players can adjust the time and points in private matches.

Rise of Iron doesn’t reinvent the wheel when it comes to the Destiny formula. It is a love letter to both Destiny and the community it birthed. It’s filled with heartwarming memories that invoke comfort, nostalgia, and a sense of accomplishment. I feel like Bungie handcrafted this content for Guardians like me: Those that have been there from the beginning. Due to the reminiscent focus on content, Rise of Iron is not the best starting point for new Guardians who answer the Traveler’s call. It lacks a sense of reinvention and invigoration that The Taken King brought the table. Rise of Iron may not reinvent the wheel, but it doesn’t necessarily have to. I can’t imagine a better swan song for Destiny’s first full cycle. I truly feel like I have become legend with my fireteam.


Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 Review – PlayStation Insider

Originally published on PlayStation Insider on September 21, 2016. PlayStation Insider is no longer active, so I have republished the review here for myself. If you would like to see the original post, check out the Web Archive.

Over the course of 36 years, Pac-Man has taken many forms, both inside and outside of the maze. His classic arcade experiences are imbued into pop culture. When Bandai-Namco experiments with Pac-Man it can be a definite hit, like the wonderful Pac-Man 256, or a forgettable miss, like Pac-Man Party for Wii, a blatant and bland Mario Party rip off. Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 takes the spirit of the yellow puck and adds flashy lights, ear thumping music, and slick gameplay that keeps the aging icon from fading into obscurity.

At its core, Pac-Man still has to follow a line of pellets around a maze-like board while avoiding ghost enemies. Eat enough pellets to fill the meter at the bottom of the screen. This meter spawns the fruit or a power pellet, which allows you to advance to the next board. The more pellets you eat, the more points you will earn for eating them. Pellet points max out at 500 and reset if you lose a life. This reminds me quite a bit of Pac-Man 256 on mobile, without the punishment of missing a pellet resetting your points. CE2’s pellets are laid out in a specific path on the boards. This path of pellets is the quickest route to get all the pellets scattered across the board. While it’s easy to see the path you need to take, it is a whole other task to stick to it.

A large shake-up in the traditional Pac-Man gameplay is with the ghosts. Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde don’t take Pac-Man’s life in one go any more. Our little puck has built up tougher skin over the years. Now you can bump into a ghost one or two times before it gets mad enough to kill you in one hit. This lends to a more forgiving experience in your attempts of the levels.

The ghosts have another alteration that lends itself to one of CE2’s most satisfying and delightful features. Scattered along the pellet path are little green ghosts that sleep until Pac-Man gets close enough to wake them. Once awake, these little ghosts attach themselves to the colored enemies on the boards. This creates a long train over the course of the levels. When it comes time for a power pellet, cut off and corner the leaders of these ghost trains and chow down for maximum loads of points. 

CE2 comes with two modes: Score attack and Adventure mode. 

Score attack is the tried-and-true addictive formula of chasing the top score on the leaderboard that has been a staple of the yellow muncher from the beginning. The game features 10 levels with three different difficulties; single train, regular, and extreme. You have five minutes to do your best to max out your score. Each level has a scoring system that shares with your friends and leaderboards. To have a top tier run, you have to weave through the course with precision picking up pellets, waking up ghosts, and chomping down on long trains of ghouls. 

The rush of cornering ghost trains and barely beating the score above you on the leaderboards is thrilling. It’s a loop that I see myself chasing over and over again. It captures the spirit of the arcade without having to put in 25 cents every time you want to top your score.

Adventure mode is more akin to the variety of Pac-Man spinoffs. It features a three star system similar to popular mobile games that hook you with familiar goals like collect all three items or complete these three tasks. The goal is to collect enough stars to face a boss ghost at the end of a world. Adventure mode’s biggest problems are a lack of variety in challenges and no leaderboards. The challenges are all about getting X amount of fruit in a certain amount of time. Crank up the difficulty to have fewer lives and less time, which leads to earning more stars. Points don’t matter. As long as you collect all the fruit before time runs out or lose all your lives, you earn the stars. I wish there was spice to the challenges. The lack of pursuing a top score and a repetitive task wears down the mode’s longevity quickly. Adventure mode feels more like filler than substance. I would have preferred a few more hand crafted levels to climb the leaderboards in than meaningless boss battles.

Before starting a round, there are quite a few options of how you want the level to look and sound. You can change the maze theme and colors, the background, character models, camera angle, and the music. It is a cool level of aesthetic customization. Almost all the options work together and pay homage to Pac-Man’s past. I do wish there was a preset I could create for all levels however, instead of tweaking each level individually to my liking.

The music alone deserves its own spiel. The thumping electronic beat matches the rush of racing through the mazes and dodging ghosts. It sucks you in and eggs you on to reach that high score. Having music like this in an arcade game really adds to the experience to make it richer, like Resogun or the Hotline Miami series.

CE2 is quite the arcade package. The addictive score chasing is in peak form for Pac-Man’s latest game. With vibrant visuals coursing through the little yellow body, CE2 is a dope game for new and experienced players alike. The leaderboards will keep you coming back as you chase the top slot, even if the Adventure mode takes a back seat.