Review: Ori And The Blind Forest

21 03 2015

Of the various announcements and upcoming games shown at E3 2014, through the onslaught of sequels and reboots there was a small unassuming flower blossoming amidst the giants. Developed by Moon Studios under Microsoft Games Studios, Ori And The Blind Forest soon became one of the talking points of the show with its captivating graphic style. However any seasoned gamer could tell you that looks aren’t everything and that both style and substance are indispensable with regards to quality games. Is Ori And The Blind Forest a prize bloom or lost amongst the weeds?

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Within the vast forest of Nibel, a small mysterious creature named Ori comes into the world. Happened upon by chance by the benevolent Naru, Ori is taken in and lives a simple but happy life in Naru’s company. However, within the workings of the great forest, all is not well. The land’s beauty begins to fade and shrivel away, and Ori is compelled by a strange and ancient presence to venture deep within the hidden corners of the forest to restore its splendor and save everything that he knows before its brilliance disappears. As Ori leaves the comfort of his old home behind, the shadow of the fearsome and enigmatic Kuro looms over the trees; one who would see the light extinguished forever.

Ori And The Blind Forest is a 2D platformer game with exploration in the style of “metroidvania” games in which the player must traverse a variety of challenging landscapes and as they uncover new abilities and movement options new areas and hidden secrets become accessible. There is also an RPG-esque leveling system that allows players to augment Ori’s combat abilities, exploration methods, and endurance with experience that accumulates from defeating foes or finding hidden boosts tucked away within the different areas. Ori’s adventure is concise and focused without feeling restrictive or railroad-y, taking about 10 hours to complete.

Of all of the things that would draw a player into the experience, the stunning visuals are the main hook. Absolutely magnificent and wondrous to behold, Ori And The Blind Forest may be the most gorgeous game I have ever beheld. Every single moment of the game radiates an incredible sense of beauty and magic; each environment is painted lavishly to have character and visual punch in every aspect. In an era of modern games with heavy emphasis on hyper-realism and graphic fidelity, the painterly look and fantastically rendered world fills a space that was dearly lacking. It is difficult to put to words how unbelievably beautiful the scenery is, so here, have a look for yourself:

Adding to the brilliance of the experience is the wonderful sound design. The majestic and haunting score hits all the right notes at the right moments and is as much a part of the soul of the game as the exquisite visuals. The sound effects of all the different facets of the environments and characters fits perfectly and makes it as much a treat for the ears as for the eyes.

Aesthetics notwithstanding, Ori is a winner in the gameplay department as well. While there’s little that hasn’t been done before in similar platformer-exploration games, Ori And The Blind Forest delivers solidly on its conventions and melds all of its mechanics elegantly. Ori handles well; his movement is natural and responsive making the platforming element of gameplay–which is the core of the experience–a solid foundation demanding just the right amount of planning, reflexes, dexterity, and timing to feel difficult enough to provide a sense of exhilaration and accomplishment but surmountable enough to keep the game’s pace flowing and provide the simple pleasure and sensation of continuous movement. The sense of progression as the player acquires new abilities feels just right, introducing new methods of movement at regular intervals that allow Ori access to previously unreachable areas and offer new approaches to navigating previous sections. Each addition lets you view retreaded segments in a fresh perspective, as dangerous areas become trivial to speed through and enemies become tools for moving around in clever ways. Puzzle elements comprise another large part of Ori’s adventure and are done well, encouraging thoughtfulness and use of Ori’s capabilities in unorthodox ways without being too obtuse. The game is undeniably challenging but rarely punishing due to Ori’s Soul Link ability which allows the player to save the game at virtually any time, allowing instant retries to particularly tricky sections of traversal or combat; there’s no “game over.” During my playthrough I accumulated nearly 230 deaths but never once did I feel like I skipped a beat.

On top of everything else, Ori And The Blind Forest also has a fantastic story woven throughout the game. A simple but powerful, moving narrative of love and sacrifice underlies Ori’s adventure that will strum at your heartstrings as it unfolds through the gorgeous sights and sounds. The plot is mostly storybook affair, but rather than reducing to a simple struggle between light and darkness Ori’s tale rides on some meaningful themes and at times is deeply touching.

There is very little to complain about as far as stumbling points, but at a few times throughout the game the difficulty suddenly seems to jump dramatically and will demand of you one-perfect-run for a lengthy gauntlet of hazards. If there was one feature I would have wished for, it would have been a way to teleport to waypoints across the fairly vast world instead of having to navigate all the way through the areas again to retread for previously inaccessible pickups. There are a few imperfections on the technical side, but they occur so infrequently that they are forgivable. There is very occasional slowdown on the Xbox One version of the game during intense action with lots of particle effects, but almost never in a way that affects the flow of the gameplay or jolts you into fumbling a precise series of maneuvers.

If there was ever a decisive piece of evidence for the games-as-art argument, it is this one. Beautiful in both visuals and play, it can be confused for nothing else but a work of art, and a superb one at that. Every aspect comes together to form a truly amazing game that you never knew you needed until it is in your hands. For the modest asking price of $20, Ori And The Blind Forest is an experience that simply cannot be missed.





Review: Evolve

16 02 2015

From the studio that spawned the Left 4 Dead games comes a new unique breed of FPS shooter aiming to establish itself as a new order in the game kingdom of team-based competitive game where either side is evenly matched, but couldn’t be more different. Will this genetic anomaly be a chapter or a footnote in the xenobiology books?

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The tale of Evolve’s world is played out in deadly confrontations across various sites of the lush but savage planet of Shear, where a few outposts of humanity have emerged to attempt to colonize and tame the new frontier in hopes of establishing a new home for our species. However, the planet is teeming with hostile wildlife and “megafauna” including giant alien super-predators that stalk the crags, swamps, and forests. A crack team of hunters from all corners of the galaxy is dispatched as a countermeasure to combat the threat of these monsters in a bid for control and survival in the unforgiving wilds of Shear.

Evolve is a multiplayer-focused asymmetrical online FPS game. One team of 4 players assume the roles of the hunters, comprised of different roles and specialties that must work together as a cohesive unit against the 5th player, who controls one of the massively powerful monsters in a scenario-based match played in a vast level strewn with vegetation, bizarre wildlife, and monolithic remnants of colonist construction projects. At the onset of each game, the monster is a underdeveloped juvenile, and must evade the team of hunters as it feasts upon prey animals and grows ever-stronger, eventually reaching its full strength and becoming a force of nature that can devastate its enemies within seconds. The hunters and the monster must outmaneuver each other amidst the rocky caverns and vegetation of the expansive maps in a deadly game of cat-and-mouse where the tables can turn at any moment and the line between predator and prey is thin and blurred.

The hunter characters are divided into 4 different classes: Medic, Trapper, Support, and Assault. Each specializes in a different method of combating the monster and has a specific role to fulfill towards their team’s success. Medics dispense healing and keep the team on their feet, and have several other useful tools like tranquilizer guns to sedate the monster and slow its movement. Trappers are integral to containing the monster and prevent it from fleeing a losing battle with their various tracking equipment and harpoon guns. Support is a flexible class that brings an assortment of useful tools to the table, ranging from group cloaking devices, calling in orbital bombardments, to shielding units that can protect teammates from harm. Finally, the Assault class is the front-line fighter that devotes itself solely to dealing heavy damage to the monster to bring it down with excessive firepower. Within the 4 roles, there are 3 different characters per class that each go about their job in a different way and offer some variety to the playstyles and strengths of the class.

Players can choose from 3 different hulking monsters when playing the opposition, each with a different style of play and methodology. The brutish Goliath is an unstoppable juggernaut that relies on its tremendous strength and unwavering toughness to pound the hunters to a pulp, whether it engulfs them with a stream of clinging flame, tears boulders from the ground to fling like a catapult, or simply throws the destructive weight of its bulk crashing into its enemies. The sinister Kraken prefers to fight from afar, bombarding its foes with blasts and bolts of bio-electricity as it hovers aloft like an angry thunder-god, drifting across battlefields with the malicious presence of a boiling storm cloud. Lastly the slippery Wraith rewards stealth and subterfuge as it slithers through the terrain, with its strange warping abilities to use misdirection and its evasiveness to lure hunters into deadly ambushes at the hands of its reaper-like rending talons. Playing as the monster is certainly the most unique and fresh aspect of Evolve, and there’s something primal and satisfying about controlling one of these dread monstrosities that speaks to the soul’s hunger for destruction; the bestial id within that lurks in the darkness of the heart of the player, straining against its cage.

Playing Evolve is a tight and engaging experience that is focused and expertly crafted. The 15 to 20 minute matches are tense and well-paced where lulls in activity foster a sense of dread and the sudden explosion of violence from a run-in with the monster provides a hot, frantic rush of adrenaline. Playing as the monster manages to provide both a sense of progression and a driving immediacy and the solitude of being pitted against 4 other players but still on level playing ground makes you feel both vulnerable and addictively powerful at the same time. There is a slight learning curve to get acclimated to the various tricks and trades of both the monster and hunters that is satisfying to climb and has a sweet-spot balance of depth and intuitive aspects and the diversity of the ability interactions as well as the composition of the various maps presents lots of opportunities for counter-play and outwitting the enemy. The glory of victory is distinctly different whether singlehandedly overpowering your foes as the monster or conquering your quarry with teamwork and synergy as the hunters.

Visually and aurally, the game also shines. The verdant groves and twisting canyons of Shear are as captivating as they are dangerous, with strange alien growths and otherworldly vegetation and mineral formations that crack and shatter against the hide of a rampaging creature or a roaring torrent of high-tech gunfire. The hunters all have personality and simple but pleasing designs, but the monsters are where the game really flexes its visuals. Tooth and nail, spur and scale, the creature cast is fearsome and awesome to behold as they skulk, pounce, and eviscerate with their jagged teeth, undulating tentacles, and tree-snapping tails in tow. The games’ minimal HUD and visual language are concise and unintrusive, never dulling the feast for the eyes but conveying just the important pieces of information. The hunters’ banter, the report of the futuristic weapons, and the gurgling hisses of the creatures all meld together as a visceral treat for the ears.

For all of Evolve’s strong points, there are a few points of contention. Most notably the content seems sparse especially for players just getting their hands wet. Upon initially launching the game, only 1 hunter of each class and 1 monster is available for use and the others must be unlocked by fulfilling various requirements for the characters/creatures preceding the next. While this is probably meant to be a device to get new players well-versed in basic concepts and core aspects of gameplay using the more straightforward characters, it forces players to “grind” and have several repeated runs with the starter selection in order to unlock options to experiment with. Secondly there is already a bevy of additional content for purchase and the aggressive DLC focus is a bit troubling; there is already nearly $87 worth of add-ons available for purchase within the first week of the game’s launch. Granted most of these extras are cosmetic, but with 2 new monsters and 6 new hunters supposedly on the way, with the currently announced pricing there is forseeably $75 worth of gameplay-relevant content alone in the future. Such a high asking price for add-ons is somewhat unprecedented even in this current generation in which DLC has been embraced as commonplace, and there has already been considerable backlash regarding this game’s content release schedule.

Despite a few concerns, Evolve has a great many strengths that send it towards the upper end of the food chain. While it may not be the perfect organism, it represents an interesting mutation of a oft-retreaded genre and a fascinating new experience that stands on its own feet (tentacles?) amidst a fiercely competitive wilderness of FPS games as an evolutionary success. In a land of devour-or-be-devoured, Evolve emerges as a top predator in my bestiary.





Review: DmC: Devil May Cry

7 04 2013

Ever since the debut of Dante the Demon Hunter on the Playstation 2, the Devil May Cry series became the new standard for what an action game ought to be. Although the series is still fairly young, it has produced more grand slams than strike outs and has gathered a strong following due to the consistent quality and polish of the games, and DMC became one of Capcom’s most successful and hot properties. When the announcement of the latest game bearing the DMC name went live, sporting both word of a new studio at the helm and a much punkier, “emo” look for a younger Dante, there was a backlash of revulsion and doubt. Series fans had their doubts in such a drastic change both in the aesthetics and development for this newly minted image for Devil May Cry, and doubly so since it appeared to be a reboot bearing no numbering or subtitle; an implied end of the “devil we know.” Can the new developer Ninja Theory uphold the pedigree of the series, or will this experiment be a sin against it?

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DmC’s plot takes place at the earliest point yet in the timeline of the Devil May Cry series, preceding DMC3. In DmC, players take control of the youngest iteration of Dante yet and delve a little deeper into the origin story of the Sons of Sparda. Dante’s character is a little rougher around the edges with a “fuck you” attitude, but still exudes the swagger and smarmy charm that we’ve come to expect; more crass than cool and a joker without being (too) juvenile. The overall tone of the game is much ruder and raunchier with a more grungy, urban beat.

Visually the game is quite captivating and this is where it makes the best use of its stylistic divergence. Throughout Dante’s quest he will be repeatedly thrown into the world of “Limbo,” which is a twisted alternate reality dimension where the landscape itself springs to life as a malevolent entity intent on killing Dante any way it can. You’ll be treated to some awesome spectacles as the environment lurches and folds back onto itself like a huge stone serpent, or inverts gravity to change the layout of the level. It’s a world with no rules except the ones that are stacked against you.

The developer Ninja Theory cut their teeth on the PS3 exclusive Heavenly Sword, and their experience carries over into this highly combat-centric game. The general flow of combat will feel familiar to series veterans, chaining together combinations of sword slashes, aerial juggles, and endless streams of bullets to tear apart wave upon wave of demonic spawn. The new addition is a modification of the controls that closely mimics that of Heavenly Sword, in which the L2 and R2 buttons can be held down to modify attacks, instantly morphing Dante’s signature Rebellion sword into “angel arms” or “devil arms” to expand his moveset and adapt to different situations. Additionally, Dante is able to utilize the Ophion chain to snare enemies and either pull himself towards the target or yank the victim towards him, enabling him to execute some very extensive and creative combos. Unfortunately the interesting angel/devil arms system sometimes becomes cumbersome when it is forced upon the player. The various enemies that arbitrarily force the player to use certain weapons eventually end up being obnoxious rather than interesting, and when some of them show up at the same time in a battle, it sometimes begins to feel like a to-do list. Several enemies swing closer to a “bitch” than a “challenge” to fight, when your options for dealing with them feel constrained. The problem could have been mitigated if those enemies made the other attacks less effective rather than completely ineffectual. The most fun to be had is experimenting with crazy attack strings to devastate your opponents and the foes that inhibit that don’t much contribute to the fun.

The Ophion chain is also heavily utilized in navigation and platforming, which is mostly how your time is spent when not in combat. Using the chain to fling Dante around the environment doesn’t quite give the sensation of freedom and exploration; it mostly ends up boiling down to a sequence of button presses that must be made to get from point A to point B, but it does encourage a sharp eye to look for hidden areas where Dante can find hidden items. At its best it emulates the sensation of movement of the PS2 era Prince of Persia games as Dante catapults and bounds about the twisting cityscape of Limbo, but at its worst it can be a miserable crapshoot on gauging distances with poor perspective and visually confusing ques that can be a quick way to drain your health bar for no reason at all (you are penalized whenever you fall from one of these acrobatic sequences). Spotty targeting, camera issues, and the propensity for platforms and ledges in the level design makes for repeated eye-rolling missteps during both the combat and platforming sections of the game.

Devil Arms are still intact for a fair amount of variety, but none sport the originality or gimmicky appeal of previous offerings, but are fairly effective and still satisfying to use. A nice addition is the ability to reassign your unlock points to the various moves available in the devil arms in case you change your mind later or acquire a weapon that really suits you. A large variety of launcher and air-launcher moves coupled with the Ophion chain means that Dante tends to spend a lot of time juggling opponents in the air, and finding creative combinations of moves with the various weapons to create intricate and lengthy air combos is when the game is at its best.

DmC manages to retain the soul of the series throughout, but there are some things that series veterans will find off-putting. In particular the “new” (old?) Vergil will throw off perceptions previously held about this character and will clash with the image that he has held up until this point. There are various winks and nods thrown in to dedicated fans, primarily in trophy/achievement names or in passing by some of Dante’s numerous quips and one-liners. The notorious difficulty of series is maintained, particularly on Nephilim difficulty which is where old hands should go to get the authentic “Devil May Cry” experience.

In the end DmC is somewhat of a misfit, but it has legs to stand on its own. It won’t please every series fan, and it is unlikely to win many new ones, but is still a solid contender that does more things right than wrong. I would recommend DmC to dedicated fans of Devil May Cry that want to see a fresh take on the series as Dante settles in to his demon hunting legs.





Review: Tomb Raider

27 03 2013

Although it may damage my “gamer cred,” admittedly, I have not been acquainted with Lara Croft prior to this title. After my first outing with Ms. Croft, I’m now an official fan, but at the same time our understanding of who Lara Croft is may have changed forever.

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The story begins as you might expect for standard adventure fare: an expedition crew goes in search of a mythic land in the heart of the Dragon’s Triangle and a brutal storm shipwrecks Lara and company on an unknown island. The difference is, this isn’t the same Lara Croft that people imagine when they hear the name. This is Lara before she knew she was Lara; this Lara is shivering, scared, and bleeding. Lara must sharpen her resolve and master the wilderness, outsmart her foes, and unravel the mystery of the island because the only other option is to die trying.

Tomb Raider is not only a story of survival, but also of growth and becoming. Contrary to the game’s tagline, Lara shows us that survivors aren’t born, they’re made; forged in the heat of the beating midday sun and doused in the night’s chilling rain. Through an unrelenting gauntlet of life-and-death gunfights, endless climbs up jagged cliffs, and bone-cracking falls (loooots of falls), players will watch Lara go from a sobbing mess of featherweight shark-bait to the one that says “Bad Mother Fucker” on it. Her appearance becomes rugged with scrapes, bruises and grime, her aim becomes steady and true, she’ll begin to retort to enemies’ threats, and she eventually unleashes some raw execution moves that would almost make even Kratos flinch.  Lara’s growth arc goes from blood, sweat and tears to just blood and sweat as she takes ownership of her situation and responsibility for her own life and the lives of her crewmates. When one is brushed with death so many times, they can’t help but change their colors.

But despite all the hardening up, at its core the narrative is about the softer, human side of Lara. Lara starts off the game vulnerable, fragile and afraid, and at the end of the game she is still all of those things but she’s found her courage and will to carry on. The plot does a great job maintaining a sympathetic image of Lara throughout the story primarily through the cast of supporting characters, the doomed exploration crew of the Endurance, that Lara must both protect and rely on. These elements serve as a deconstruction of the gun-slinging action heroine front that Lara has always been cast as, and reminds us that behind that nocked flaming arrow and underneath all that dirt and mud, there’s a person there.

The gameplay itself feels like an amalgam of the best aspects cherry-picked from Uncharted and the recent Batman and Resident Evil games. It will draw many comparisons with Nathan Drake’s series of games but tonally is quite different; much grittier, edgier and severe, more hold-your-breath than breathtaking. The player’s time will be divided between navigating Lara through expansive wilderness and ruins, scavenging for junk to improve equipment, bloody dirty firefights and heart-stopping action sequences. While I felt that the various elements of gameplay had nothing that I hadn’t seen before, each aspect is superbly done with a great amount of polish.

The game is masterfully paced, instilling both a sense of breakneck immediacy and a wanderlust and intrigue that beckons the player to venture and explore. The flow of the advancement reminds me most of Batman: Arkham City in which acquiring new tools and equipment figure into the progression, opening new paths that were hidden or inaccessible before in a way that revisits old locales with a perspective refreshed by a new ability and never feels like backtracking. While the meat of the action is in the main story arc there are indeed, as the name would suggest, tombs to be raided. There is an immense amount of challenge and enjoyment for completionists in seeking all of the extras and collectibles, hidden high and low in dark crevices scattered around the sprawling map. I made my way through the singleplayer experience in about 14 hours with 86% completion.

The combat is streamlined and frantic. At its most basic level when a fight breaks out it plays like a cover shooter, and you’ll want to lunge for cover as soon as it starts because it only takes a few good shots to put you down even with an improved health upgrade. Lara automatically ducks behind obstacles while moving about freely rather than “snapping” to a cover position which works very well and is simple and uncumbersome. It’s a real godsend for that since you’ll find yourself flushed from cover frequently by enemies who have deadly accuracy with their grenade type weapons (it’s like Lara’s fighting a roster of MLB pro pitchers sometimes). Oftentimes enemies will try to outflank you and close to melee distance, where things get really nasty. Lara has precious little she can do except panicked dodges when enemies crowd her but eventually she learns deadly counterattacks to surprise enemies that close in expecting easy meat, hewing them savagely with her crude improvised weapons. The combat can be quite deadly even on normal difficulty, but the difficulty can be toggled at any time in the pause menu.

If there was one thing that could have been improved, I wish the survival aspect of the game had more emphasis and ambitiousness. While hunting, foraging, and scavenging are prevalent throughout the game, none of them is imbued with the sense of significance or import that I was expecting from a game with the word “survivor” in the tagline. For one, these activities are never a necessity. There is no starvation or thirst mechanic to speak of; these activities are completely elective and carrying them out simply rewards you with some extra experience used to improve Lara’s skills. Additionally, the scavenging and rummaging for materials in the game is very abstracted; doing so rewards you with “salvage” points which are used as a universal currency to improve weapons and tools. I would have preferred a more robust and thoughtful survival/crafting system but this barebones system still gets the job done and at least provides the incentive to do such activities. But for me the most jarring omission is the complete lack of first aid or healing that is an immensely significant trope within survival stories. Sure, there are some story missions where Lara has to retrieve medical supplies for herself or a wounded ally, but the application is completely offscreen and never comes up as a gameplay element. Instead the game opts for the common 5-second magically regenerating health harkening from such games as Call of Duty which for me removes a lot of the threat and danger that could have enhanced the tension. And, since there is no healing items, crafting parts, or sustenance to carry around, the game also completely lacks any kind of inventory management, although I suppose that’s not necessarily a bad thing seeing how many games manage to implement it poorly (*cough* Resident Evil *cough*). Tomb Raider seems to give survival gameplay a nod rather than a fair shake and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater/Subsistence still features the best survival gameplay of any game I have tried to date.

There is also a multiplayer offering but it seems kind of like a tack-on. It features common deathmatch/team oriented modes with customizable loadouts and character selection. It is reminiscent of the multiplayer in the Uncharted games, in terms of both the general gameplay and the staying power. While the multiplayer isn’t really the main draw of the game it is nice that it’s available and certainly doesn’t detract from the game as a whole.

Overall, Tomb Raider is a triumph of a game with an engaging narrative, compelling gameplay, and gripping visuals, hitting all the right notes for a blockbuster action-adventure game while setting itself apart from the crowd as a unique entry and a cut above the rest. I recommend this game very highly to anyone even remotely curious on this reinvention of one of the golden oldies of action-adventure gaming. Whether this was meant to be a reboot or simply a prequel remains to be seen, but I look forward to my next outing with the new Lara Croft. I hope she’ll get another opportunity like this to show us who she is, not just what she can do, with a spotlight both on her exploits and her substance.





Review: Soul Calibur V

5 02 2012

2012 is already shaping up to be a booked year for fighting games and the first arrival comes to us as the Soul series’ 2nd offering on current-gen systems. Soul Calibur V brings a number of new things to the battlefield in an effort to reinvent and inject new life into the enduring franchise with revised gameplay systems and core mechanics. A delicate balance must be struck to create something both fresh and formulaic, where there must be both novelty yet a firm sense of familiarity. Does SCV hit the mark or has the soul finally burned out?

In terms of the story and setting Soul Calibur V represents the furthest chronological leap in the series, taking place a full 17 years after Soul Calibur IV. Many of the veteran souls return to the stage of history, and an equivalent amount of mainstays of the franchise have bowed out to younger replacements, bequeathing their fighting styles onto their progeny or understudies. However, there are also several jarring omissions from the expected roster, as many other staples are inexplicably missing: Seung Mina, Talim, Yunseung, and Zasalamel have been unceremoniously axed (insert Astaroth joke) and have no equivalent or replacement. Is it just me, or do I smell DLC shenanigans?

The core gameplay is of course at the heart of this review. The addition of the Soul Gauge (read: super meter) has overlayed a new aspect borrowed from many other legacy fighting games of meter management and devastating comeback moves that must be integrated into the routines and arsenals of those wishing to master the game. The classic “Guard Impact” mechanic has also been completely revised, requiring usage of a portion of the Soul Gauge to utilize rather than being on on-demand technique. Additionally a new “Just Guard” mechanic has been introduced as somewhat of a substitute to the conventional Guard Impact, but it feels more similar to the parrying system of Third Strike; much stricter in terms of timing and requiring speedier execution to capitalize upon.

The new systems introduce significant considerations in the flow and play of the game, however the overall feel of the characters is very much preserved and familiar. Although there are always tweaks to their movesets between games, many players will find that they can return to their mainstay characters within minutes with the majority of their staple moves intact. Some characters have had a bit of balance tweaks and re-focusing; for instance Tira is much faster and more dangerous with her wide-arcing swings, Astaroth is more sluggish and cumbersome but does truly monstrous damage, and Yoshimitsu may be the most dangerous he’s been since SCII. The wholly new characters Z.W.E.I. and Viola are very unorthodox compared the rest of the cast with their mystic-infused fighting styles, but seem like strong competitors with their difficult-to-read movements and helper mechanics to assault the opponent in tandem (I am reminded of Eddie and Bridget from Guilty Gear). Ezio Auditore of Assassin’s Creed is perhaps the most appropriate guest character of the franchise history and he fits in well with the cast. Due to the absence of conventional Guard Impact, characters with built-in GI moves like Cervantes and the sword-n-boarders have more incentive to use those maneuvers in a match. Although concrete tier lists have not yet emerged, from what I’ve seen I expect Leixia, Xiba, Siegfried, Alpha Patroklos and Yoshimitsu to be in the upper echelons.

Online play is somewhat spotty at the moment, but I’ve played several successful matches with serviceable latency. As far as online modes it’s the best the Soul series has done so far but still nothing to write home about.

Other than conventional versus modes, there are a few side modes worth investigating. Create a character mode is back and quite robust in terms of freedom and customization, but lacks any of the unique styles from previous iterations other than Tekken’s Devil Jin, thus any custom creations will simply imitate an existing character. The wealth of options is impressive, and you can create some authentically slick-looking customizations (or hideously inappropriate abominations, if you prefer). The story mode follows the quest of Patroklos and Pyrrha, Sophitia’s heirs, to reunite and vanquish the curse that has plagued their family for generations. While it’s par for the course on fighting game story modes and therefore fairly underwhelming, it introduces some interesting twists and revelations of the SC world and even a few geniunely thoughtful and introspective moments. You’ll have to wade through it anyway in order to obtain the unlockable characters so be glad it isn’t intolerable.

Even after spending a good dozen or so hours with the game, there is always a difficulty in evaluating any fighting game in its infant months. It is hard to say if the systems and balance are solid enough that the game will be worth playing “for serious” over the long run. Past Soul games have always have exploits or anomalies unveiled that have dispelled the game’s tournament potential but Namco has been pretty good about pushing free updates and balance patches; they’ve already released a 1.01 patch to remove a supposed “fuzzy guard” exploit. All doubt cast aside, what I can say conclusively is that right now, at this moment, the game is damn fun and I’m going to be playing it in the forseeable future. For now, that’s all I need it to be.

Uncle Nightmare will be seeing you all online.