Category Archives: archived reviews

Review: Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance

Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance isn’t a very good video game. Some might even go as far as to say that it’s a bad video game, a take that I don’t know that I fully disagree with if we’re being honest, but it does paint the game in an absolute and irredeemable light, which I don’t believe is the case here. Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance is a rough, buggy, clunky game that should have been better, but it misses the mark in so many ways, ranging from combat to its core structure that it will surely require some hefty patches to get it to a recommendable state.

Full transparency here: I was really looking forward to Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance, the spiritual successor the two very good Baldur’s Gate: Dark Alliance games from the PS2 era. This modernization is such a different product than its predecessors, that it ultimately feels like a massive injustice to the legacy of those previous titles. Whereas the originals were top-down, action-RPG games that walked the line between the dense RPG mechanics of Dungeons & Dragons proper, and some genuinely fun brawler combat. I’m sure plenty of folks out there would disagree with that statement but as a young man with no interest in the source material at the time, these games were able to keep me invested and engaged in a way that fantasy properties across all forms of media had failed to do. I was hoping that this new Dark Alliance would illicit some of those same feelings, but the D&D DNA on display in Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance seem like little more than set dressing thrown over a pretty bland cooperative action game.

One of the more puzzling aspects of Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance has to be the lack of a dedicated caster class. It’s kind of buck-wild to me that in a Dungeons & Dragons themed product, the use of magic is relegated to special abilities to be used in conjunction with martial fighting rather than have its own dedicated class. With so many different classes available to choose from in D&D proper, it’s a severe letdown to only be able to pick between two fighters, a ranger and a barbarian, all of which are martial combat focused. There’s an actual reason for this limited selection of classes however, because Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance is an adaption of the R.A. Salvatore novel The Crystal Shard which explains why the characters and classes are what they are.

Even if you’re able to look past the limited character options, the game itself does a pretty poor job of capturing the essence of Dungeon’s & Dragons. Not having the ability to create your own character regardless of story justifications, is just a big bummer in my eyes. Not being able to access your inventory mid-game also is a big misstep especially when you look at the original Dark Alliance games where you were always able to equip the stuff you found on the fly. Even weirder is that the loot you pick up inside levels are generic placeholders that get “identified” and usable when you return to the hub area. It reminds me a lot of early Destiny where you had to get the engrams you’d find identified before they turned into real and usable loot.

But Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance actually does attempt to incorporate some more D&D and RPG elements into the experience, by putting a pretty big focus on exploration and puzzle solving while you’re in levels. None of it is particularly hard or interesting, but about half of your time spent within the levels allow for some significant loot and resource hunting, which basically just means breaking everything you can see to reveal hidden paths, mining (smashing) crystal ore (upgrade currency), platforming challenges and what I’m very generously calling “puzzle solving.” These mostly come in the form of timing your movement to avoid spike and fire traps, finding an item to help unlock a door or elevator, or just running in the opposite direction of the horribly unclear objective markers on your map to find treasure chests and optional enemies.

There are also some optional objectives to tackle within levels, all of which seem to involve collecting things, killing bosses, or destroying things. There are also several different difficulty levels to choose from when selecting missions if that’s something you’d like to do, but I don’t know if it does anything aside from just giving enemies bigger health bars or letting them hit you harder.

One of the things I am mildly enjoying in the game is its upgrade system, which is admittedly very overwhelming at first. It’s nothing crazy or revolutionary, but you can essentially upgrade every piece of gear a couple of times by utilizing both the crystal ore you find throughout levels, as well as the gold you pick up along the way. There are 5 or so different rarities of crystals that allow you to upgrade rarer gear. So legendary crystals will allow you to upgrade legendary equipment, whereas common crystals wouldn’t allow for that. You can also transform common crystals into their more rare counterparts by using gold, which helps curb the reliance on random crystal drops.

Aside from upgrading your gear you can also pick from different color options for just about every piece of gear for the paltry price of just 50 gold pieces, which for context is basically nothing. You can upgrade your core stats via attribute points which can be earned through exploring levels, but are primarily earned through leveling up where you can also unlock feats, new moves, and inventory upgrades. Unfortunately, nothing you can unlock is capable of washing away the myriad of gameplay specific issues within Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance.

Playing Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance can feel like an exercise in futility, because all manner of issues can hamper your experience at any time. One of the more notable issues I noticed was that the enemy AI just doesn’t work. I could stand right outside of an area where enemies are hanging out and just kill them from a distance without them ever reacting to being peppered with arrows. It was ridiculously easy to cheese my way through parts of this game because the enemies never really put up a fight or acknowledged my presence if I stood far enough away from them. I’m sure the game gets hard enough to the point that cheesing it or playing solo won’t be viable, but in the early goings I never felt overwhelmed or outgunned.

Even when I decided to leap into the fray and not just annoy my enemies from afar, I found that the combat was mushy and unresponsive, which led to a lot of moments where I was trying to charge up an attack but the game just straight up ignored my inputs. It was as if I was trying to play faster than the game would allow for, which seemed like a weird additional way of keeping me from spamming attacks considering there’s a stamina meter in the game that still doesn’t fully make sense to me. Some attacks I did would just lower the maximum amount of stamina I could have at any given time, without ever really providing a clear way to fix that issue. You’d think that taking a short rest would remove that cap from the stamina meter, but sometimes it just doesn’t work. In fact, sometimes it will just randomly fix itself without any explanation, which is infinitely more maddening to me.

By default both light and heavy attacks are assigned to the right bumper and trigger respectively both of which are supposed to combo together seamlessly, but the controls are just so muddy and unresponsive that combos happen more by accident than anything else. There are also some special abilities that are on a cool-down, as well as an ultimate move I could activate whenever the ultimate meter finally decided to fill up. Aside from that, the game has fairly standard brawling mechanics that include blocks, parries, launchers and so on.

Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance is a painfully buggy experience, of which my favorite bug has to be when I killed something and its lifeless body is launched into the stratosphere, never to be seen again. I hope this is never “fixed,” because there’s nothing to fix in my eyes, so we can just go ahead and hand-wave the issue away by saying that goblins naturally fly away when they die. But not all of the bugs are as funny as that one, because a lot of revolve around performance and online desynchronization issues. It’s never fun to hit an enemy and have them vanish only to appear behind me and pummel me to death, and that happens with alarming regularity when playing online. Online connectivity is a prevalent problem too, because after every chapter in a mission when my group would try to return to the hub world together we’d all be disconnected without fail.

To put it kindly, Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance is a flawed game that’s in dire need of some patches to not just address bugs, but to smooth out some of the rougher edges of the non-gameplay experience. From connectivity issues and desynchronization issues to loot management, these things need to get sorted out before any sort of community can really develop around the game. I’m hopeful that the bigger issues like bugs and combat functionality will be fixed and adjusted as time goes on, but those little nuisances are the pain points that will eventually kill an online game if unaddressed for too long.

Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance didn’t turn out the way I had hoped it would but I have to believe that it can only get better from here. Like most games, it’s an infinitely more enjoyable experience with friends, but that isn’t a phenomenon that’s exclusive to Dungeons & Dragons: Dark Alliance. In its current state it’s not a good game to play, but it is a great thing to laugh at with your buddies thanks to its shoddy B-movie qualities. I’d love to be able to both enjoy the campy aspects of the game in addition to a great gameplay experience, but it just isn’t there yet.

Review: Adios

I don’t know if I’ve ever actually experienced anything quite like what I did when I played through Adios. I don’t mean to imply that I was awestruck by it by any means, because I genuinely found it to be an incredibly underwhelming game to play. Yet despite its numerous mechanical shortcomings, this narrative-focused, first-person adventure game delivered a really impactful story that left me feeling pretty raw emotionally.

It’s hard to talk about Adios without wandering directly into spoiler territory because the game is only about an hour or so long, so I’m just going to talk about the first 5 minutes of the game to avoid anything too spoilery. The store page for Adios reads, “A pig farmer decides he no longer wants to dispose of bodies for the mob. What follows is a discussion between him and his would-be killer,” which was a pretty interesting concept that was the catalyst for me playing it at all.

The first thing you do in Adios is check your journal while sitting on your porch. Inside, the lone entry essentially says to “tell him that you’re done.” A white van pulls up and you’re thrust into the next scene where you’re taking wrapped bloody packages out of the back of said van, and chucking them into the pig pen alongside your would-be killer. What follows is a series of conversations and interactive vignettes with you and your would-be killer about their lives and experiences. It turns out that both of these characters have been doing this for so long that they’ve become close friends, a fact that looms over every conversation you have together throughout the day.

Your would-be killer is trying to convince your character to not stop doing what they’ve been doing for so long because the consequences are admittedly pretty bad. He spends the entire day with you trying to remind you of all of these reasons to stay and stick it out without explicitly ever saying that it’s the worst and final decision that you’ll ever make. Throughout the game you’ll learn more about both characters and their personal lives, while they both try to walk a delicate line between work and pleasure. It’s one of the few games that’s really emotionally impacted me, with the last one being The Bonus World’s very first Game of the Year back in 2017, Night in the Woods.

What made Night in the Woods great was a multitude of elements coming together in a well-rounded experience that had an incredible narrative woven throughout it. Adios on the other hand, is done a gigantic disservice by even being a video game. For how good the story, writing and acting can feel at times, they’re all unfortunately wrapped up in something that can barely be called a game, let alone a fun one. The structure of Adios is that you have a few locations of interest on your farm that trigger a scene for you to experience. In that scene you might need to do a mindless and mechanically uninteresting task like give a horse an apple while the two characters reminisce about the past. You finish listening to the conversation and move to the next scene. Most of these conversations are really well done, providing insight into the characters while uncovering their motivations, desires and general outlook on life. These are really the star of the show, so if listening to people talk isn’t your thing, then Adios has very little else to offer.

But these little vignettes you experience might not have anything for you to do in them at all. Sometimes you can just put the controller down as dialogue happens, only to occasionally pick a “dialogue choice,” all of which either don’t change anything about the story, or are grayed out for some reason. My guess is that there isn’t actually a way to pick those dialogue options, because they usually are things you’d rather say but your character can’t bring themselves to actually do. In this case, I thought that was very effective, but it doesn’t change the fact that most of these vignettes have you do a lot of sitting and listening.

When I bought Adios I thought it would be this little life-simulation kind of game with a heavy emphasis on the story. I wasn’t expecting anything revolutionary mechanically, but it cannot be overstated just how bad playing the game itself is at times. The first issue has to do with the presentation of Adios in general. From far away, the sweeping vistas of houses and farms in the distance have this painterly quality to them that I can appreciate. Up close however, things look a lot muddier. Look, I’m not one of those people who needs great graphics for everything especially if you’re very clearly trying to tell a compelling story over having dazzling visuals, but if that’s truly the case, maybe the character models should animate a touch better, or at the very least have any form of lip-syncing going on. Instead you’ve just got these weird caricatures that flap their gums at you while saying some heavy shit.

I don’t know what resources were available to the development team so I don’t want to sound too harsh, but it was truly disheartening to find this really engaging story completely mired by uninteresting game mechanics and iffy visuals. The worst part was that there were moments where I’d start to zone out while the characters were having these really intense conversations. I think Adios would be infinitely better if it were a short film or animated feature, because being a game doesn’t really enhance the story in any way, and in most cases detracts from an otherwise excellent experience.

But all of these issues with the gameplay were never enough to stop me from seeing Adios through to the end, and I’m happy I pushed forward. The ending of the game and the events directly leading into it were particularly gut-wrenching and left me feeling a bit teary-eyed when it was all over. Of course it wont affect everyone the same way it did me, but that should be a result of the story not resonating with them, not the uninspired and boring gameplay they have to endure.

Despite all of my criticisms, I do think Adios is worth experiencing. I don’t know that I’d suggest you run out and pay $20 bucks for an hour long story, but if you have the desire and ability, I say go for it. Otherwise, I’d say you should wait for a sale to play Adios, but either way, you should play Adios at some point.

Review: Cyber Shadow

There’s a moment when playing an action game where you fall into a rhythm and everything just clicks, making your deft dodging and precision platforming feel less like conscious choices and more like you’re just acting off of pure instinct. When a game manages to get you into that zone, it can be the difference between enjoying said game and loving it. Cyber Shadow is a game that’s filled with these moments of pure 2D action and platforming bliss, but it’s also filled with a lot of bullshit that can rip you right out of that rhythm. Yet none of the lows of Cyber Shadow are enough to outweigh its highs.

Cyber Shadow is a very good video game that hearkens back to the “tough as nails” platformers of my youth like Ninja Gaiden and Mega Man, but it’s never nearly as punishing as those games solely because there isn’t really a way to lose. When you die, the worst thing that happens is your robot-ninja protagonist is sent back to a previous checkpoint which admittedly are spaced out pretty poorly, especially in later levels. It becomes pretty annoying when you have to trudge through these previously cleared sections just to attempt to decode what new enemy or level mechanic is going to kick your ass on the next screen. To be fair though, it is very satisfying when you finally do manage to make your way through these nightmarish gauntlets and onto the next checkpoint, I just wish that these sections weren’t as punishing as some of them are. But that’s certainly a “me” complaint, whereas I’m sure other people though Cyber Shadow was fairly easy and just breezed through every section that gave me trouble.

Yet despite these spikes in difficulty and the several times where I had to quit the game out of pure frustration, I always ended up coming back the next day to tackle a challenge with a clear head. Eventually I’d find myself in that fugue state where I wasn’t even thinking about my next moves because I was just leaping and slashing my way through the levels like some sort of murderous, sword-wielding gazelle. Those are the moments where Cyber Shadow stops feeling like a good game and truly feels like a great one, and there’s plenty more of these moments than the ones that make you want to uninstall it all together.

What I really enjoyed about Cyber Shadow is how it doles out abilities and new items as you progress. At the end of each level or so, a boss you defeat will drop some sort of new ability for you, whether it’s throwing shurikens or shooting fireballs into the air, each ability isn’t only viable for combat but also helps you traverse levels. For instance, you unlock a ground pound early on that allows you to smash through certain floors and boxes, but it also allows you to bounce on the heads of enemies and avoid falling into death-pits. All of these abilities can utilize your energy meter, which you can refill by breaking stuff in levels or just slicing up some robots. But even without energy, these abilities are still usable albeit without the extra damage boost or special effect.

One of the more interesting mechanics in Cyber Shadow however, is how they handle checkpoints. Aside from them being scarce and in some cases, poorly spaced apart, they have this interesting mechanic where you have to activate the unique properties of a checkpoint by buying it with in-game currency. This currency is also found by breaking shit in the environment and dispatching enemies, and is expressly for usage at the checkpoints. Every checkpoint has at least one of three purchasable upgrades that can either refill health, refill energy, or spawn an item. Most checkpoints have the health regeneration ability unlocked already, allowing you to just step onto the checkpoint and refill your health, but some will charge you for that feature. These purchases don’t carry from checkpoint to checkpoint, making you have to choose if it’s worth it to unlock that cool item at this checkpoint.

As someone who has beaten the game already though, I can say that you shouldn’t spend your money on refilling your energy because those things drop like crazy throughout the levels. Instead, you should buy the item at the checkpoint if you can afford it. The items are all pretty great with the exception of the first one which just makes your sword slashes a little bit longer, while the cooler ones are like auto-firing guns that hover around you, a shield that you can propel forward, and a saw blade on a chain that you can swing around and hit to gain more murderous momentum. I don’t think the items are randomized, meaning that if the game is giving the opportunity to buy the gun, it’s probably because it’ll make the next section a lot more manageable. My only real issue with the items is that you never really get to spend too much time with any of them, as early level items are nowhere to be found in later levels. I would love to use that dope saw blade again, but I never had the opportunity to buy it.

There’s also a story in Cyber Shadow that you can pay attention to if you want. I however didn’t find it that interesting or engaging, as it mostly served as a way to stop the action so I could see a cut-scene of some people being very dramatic and talking about robots. I think there’s a Dr. Wily figure that’s making all the robots do bad stuff, but once again, I kind of checked out of the story pretty early on. Your mileage may vary, but I didn’t play Cyber Shadow for it’s narrative and don’t feel like I missed out on much. However, if you find yourself uninterested by the story, Cyber Shadow has one hell of a good soundtrack that you should most certainly pay attention to.

The things I like about Cyber Shadow far outweigh the things I dislike about it, but I do feel like I should mention that there are a few levels that are real momentum killers. Whether it’s checkpoints making these levels more laborious than they actually are or the level itself is just filled with nonsense garbage that can only be tackled through trial and error, Cyber Shadow isn’t without flaws. Yet despite those rage inducing moments, I still made my through the entirety of Cyber Shadow because the action is that good. There are also some later levels that break from the structure of what you’ve been doing for most of the game that are really enjoyable. Cyber Shadow isn’t my favorite action-platformer by a long shot, but it’s still a very good one that’s deserving of your time if you find that there’s a robot-ninja sized hole in your heart.

Review: Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales

Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales is a game that not only builds on the incredible foundation that was Marvel’s Spider-Man with a new protagonist and mechanics, but cuts out a lot of the bloat that plagued its predecessor. The refinements overall result in a tremendously well-paced experience that every Spider-Man fan should check out as long as they aren’t using a launch PlayStation 4.

In Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, you play as the titular Miles Morales who has been tag-teaming New York City alongside his mentor and OG Spider-Man, Peter Parker. The main conceit of the story is that Peter and Mary Jane have gone on something of a working vacation in Europe, leaving Miles to be the sole protector of New York City for the next three weeks. Peter, having never been able to take a break from protecting the city gets a much needed respite from it, while Miles finally has his chance to prove that he’s just as legitimate a Spider-Man as Peter is.

That chance comes when Miles uncovers a new gang that’s risen from the ashes of the defeated criminal enterprises from 2018’s Marvel’s Spider-Man, along with a corporation doing unsurprisingly unscrupulous things. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales doesn’t waste much time before thrusting you into the heart of this ~10 hour experience, keeping the story and the intrigue moving at an enjoyable brisk pace. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales also cuts out all of those dreadful stealth missions where you played as “not-Spider-Man,” which is an overwhelmingly good decision.

What I love about Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales is that not only in its storytelling does it respect your time, but the missions and side activities have been tuned in such a way to keep things fresh and engaging without bogging you down with an enormous activities checklist. To be clear, the game does have mildly repetitive challenges and side activities within it, but their volume has been greatly reduced. While random crimes are still recycled ad-nauseam, the bigger side missions are all unique in their structure. It’s one of the few times I’ve been able to look at a follow-up to a game and see a developer actually respond to the criticisms they’ve received.

When you start Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales, you’re already way more capable than Peter Parker was in Marvel’s Spider-Man. Allowing you to have access to advanced swinging mechanics and combat abilities right from the jump makes the game much less of a grind, while also making narrative sense as well considering there would be no reason for Peter not to teach Miles all he’s learned in the course of his adventure.

From top to bottom, I had an excellent time with Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales both from a narrative standpoint and its new gameplay mechanics. Miles has access to electrically powered attacks, dubbed “venom strikes,” as well as an inherent cloaking ability that I probably didn’t use as much as I should have. Miles doesn’t have the same amount of gadgetry and tech that Peter had in his game, but these abilities more than make up for it. Besides, there was only like one or two suit modifications and gadgets worth using in Marvel’s Spider-Man.

My only real issue with Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales comes with its technical performance. Being that this is a cross-generation game appearing on PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 5, the game felt half-baked on my launch PS4 in a way that Marvel’s Spider-Man did not. At the beginning of the game it both ran well and looked incredible, but as time went on, the cracks started to show. My running theory is that as time progresses in the game, the time of day and weather also change with it. When nightfall would hit or snow would fall, the game would run heinously in a way that I imagine newer hardware could handle with ease.

I experienced a ton of frame rate hitches and even had the game just lock up in certain places for a few seconds, but to its credit the game never crashed or made me lose progress. But it really made the best part about these games, which is to say the swinging around, feel like a chore. Having to battle the frame rate every time I dared to take to the skies truly detracted from an otherwise outstanding game. Even aside from that though, the version I played was plagued with other technical errors like dialogue just not playing in cut-scenes, cut-scenes just freezing completely, and my least favorite of all, the game playing two music tracks on top of each other. That last one was something that literally ended up giving me a headache until I rebooted both the game and console.

It’s a shame that the technical quality of Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales wasn’t up to snuff, because the rest of the game was so good that it made me power through these issues just to see the end. Hell, I still want to hop back in and sweep up all the stuff I missed, but I’ll have to wait until I can get my hands on a PS5 before I attempt it. If you’ve got a system capable of running it properly as well as a love for Spider-Man as a concept, I cannot recommend Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales enough.

Review: I Am Dead

Contrary to what its morose title might suggest, I Am Dead is a genuinely touching and pleasant puzzle game that has you uncovering the history of the small port village of Shelmerston in an effort to secure its future.

In I Am Dead you take on the role of Morris Lupton, a recently deceased citizen of the village of Shelmerston. In his life, Morris was the curator of the Shelmerston Museum, a role that he took great pride in as a lover of his hometown. In death however, Morris teams up with the ghost of his dog Sparky to uncover the true nature of why the dormant volcano that the village is perched around has begun to rumble for the first time in centuries.

Shelmerston has long been kept safe from a fiery demise thanks to a spirit who sacrificed going to heaven in order to watch over the village, taking on the role of the Custodian of Shelmerston. Aggi, the Custodian in question, had her remains dug up and put in the museum by none other than Morris himself, which is what seems to have caused her power to wain. So Morris and Sparky set out on a journey to find a new spirit to take up the mantle and keep the village safe for years to come.

You do this by diving into the memories of people who came in contact with a potential replacement Custodian, learning about who they were and what their impact was on the town. One of the first spirits that you’ll investigate is the daughter of a prominent artist in the village who had no interest in following in her father’s creative footprints.

You’re then presented with this tableau of an outdoor art installation filled with various tourists and artists. You’ll eventually come across someone with a thought bubble above their head which signifies that they’ve got a story about this potential new Custodian. Upon entering their mind, they’ll begin to narrate a story about their encounter with whomever you’re investigating at the time. You’ll also play this not-so-great mini-game where you drag your mouse up and down until you make a blurry image that encapsulates their narration into a clear one. The story being told, while very interesting and enjoyable, is in service of revealing an object that held meaning to the potential Custodian.

This is where the “puzzle” aspect of I Am Dead comes into play. You’re never really solving anything when it comes to the main plot-line of the game, instead you’re trying to locate the object that was discussed in the memories you invade. It seems simple at first, but the way you go about finding these objects is pretty fun, but might be better explained through example.

One of the objects on my list was a Frisbee with some stars on it that was confiscated by a real uppity campground manager. In each level, there are these smaller inspection areas where you can focus on individual objects and structures. In this example, the manager’s RV was one of these inspection zones that I could zoom into and peel back the layers of. As you zoom into the RV the walls melt away to uncover a messy interior littered with various flotsam and jetsam to look at. You can click on cupboards, bottles, coolers, toys, plants and much more to see what’s inside of them by zooming in. Eventually I zoomed in on a chair that had a storage space underneath it and found the Frisbee, crossing it off the list of items in the level I needed to discover.

The idea behind finding these objects is to awaken the spirit of said influential person that once inhabited the island in order to ask them to take on the mantle of the new Custodian. And that’s kind of the core loop of I Am Dead. There are other challenges in every level that you can accomplish that fall into two categories.

The first comes in the form of these tiny little spirits called Grenkins. Unlike the plot relevant objects you need to find in I Am Dead, the Grenkins are tougher to find and even tougher to collect when you do find them. Whenever you click on a tableau with a Grenkin hidden in it, Sparky will bark a bit and show you an icon that most of time, looks like nothing. In reality, what you’re being shown is the cross-section of an object that is at a particular angle and level of zoom. Luckily the game gives you an indication if the object you’re highlighting has a Grenkin in it, but finding the correct angle can sometimes take longer than any other objective on the island.

The other challenge comes in the form of riddles. Some bizarre spirit will list off some objects that are pretty well hidden and provide you a riddle to their location. I found these to be the hardest challenges in the game, because they’re phrased fairly vaguely and usually point to objects hidden inside of other objects. An example that sticks out to me was a clue that alluded to a steeped art supply, which turned out to be an eraser that was dropped into a cup of tea. You’d never even find it unless you were inspecting this one particular cup of tea very closely for some reason. That, or you’re really good at riddles.

To me, the story of Shelmerston, its history and inhabitants were the real star of the show. Learning about the village and the stalwarts who lived in it very quickly out-shined the hidden-object part of the game. The characters are all pretty interesting and seeing the impact they had on the lives of those around them was delightful and quite frankly, heartwarming. I also thought that I Am Dead ended very strongly, delivering on the emotional weight that had been built up over the five hours or so it took me to complete it.

I Am Dead is a great story wrapped up in a low impact game that touches on so many aspects of coming to grips with mortality in a surprisingly hopeful way. It’s funny that a game that’s quite literally about death and being dead can be such a pleasant experience, but I think that was the point. If you’re looking for something lightweight and cheerful, oddly enough, you should check out I Am Dead.

Review: SpongeBob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated

Towards the end of my time with SpongeBob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated, my opinion of it had soured so drastically from how I felt when I began it. Being a 3D platformer from 2003, it shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that you’re hopping from level to level, completing challenges and solving puzzles in order to obtain some sort of shiny object, which in this case are golden spatulas. Collecting enough golden spatulas grants you access to more levels, where you’ll do more challenges and so on and so forth. It’s a 3D platformer through and through.

Seeing as the original game released a few years into the show being around, I was able to catch most of the references and jokes and not feel like an outsider to the source material. It was actually kind of nice to revisit this world I hadn’t thought about in nearly twenty years, only to see it realized in this 3D space that I could run around in and explore. I’ve never played the original release so I don’t know how the it looked when it came out, but SpongeBob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated looks really crisp and colorful. It’s fully voiced as well which makes the whole thing feel like a really long, yet enjoyable episode of the show.

For how well this remaster has done in terms of presentation, I feel like some attention could’ve been paid to the actual gameplay itself. SpongeBob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated is a decent platformer at best, and a frustrating test of patience at worse. The game is marred by a disastrous camera that will play along with you the most part, but will damn you at the worst possible times.

There is a point later in the game where you learn how to wall jump between two walls. After the first few times of just leaping at the wall and then rhythmically hitting the jump button until you crest the obstacle you’re climbing up, a new version of this challenge appears. This time, instead of going up, the walls you’re jumping between move forward and backward, offering you a way to get to a distant platform. This “simple” task turned into ten minutes of me leaping to my death because the camera felt the need to lock into what can only be described as a “cinematic” angle the moment I took my first jump. That’s what the camera does in SpongeBob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated, it’s fine most of the time until it decides you’ve been in too much control.

The camera’s ability to screw you over doesn’t just stop with platforming either, because I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve tried to attack something only to find that it’s just out of my reach. This of course leads to me getting counterattacked, stun locked, thrown off of a level, or all three at once. And if you do happen to fall off of a level, know that everything resets because of that. Were you halfway through a particularly tedious puzzle? Great news, now you’re back at square one. Got through all of those enemy encounters? Then you can totally do it again. While you retain all collectables along with the puzzles you’ve already solved, falling off of a level or dying often feels like the game is adding insult to injury by making your climb back to where you were even much more tedious.

While SpongeBob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated has its share of highs and lows, I found that playing as any character other than SpongeBob isn’t very fun. There are certain points in levels that allow you to swap between either Sandy or Patrick depending on what the level calls for. Patrick can lift heavy things and throw them, while Sandy can glide through the air and swing from certain objects. Playing as either of them isn’t fun, especially when the game calls for precise platforming from Sandy. Her specific challenges usually rely on using a combination of gliding and swinging, both of which are hilariously unresponsive.

There’s a level later on where Sandy is put to the test and must cross a massive chasm of nothingness in order to get to a floating plot of land. There are swing points scattered about which require you getting close enough to them for an indicator to pop up letting you know that you’re locked on and able to initiate a swing. But that window is incredibly small when you’re worrying about plummeting to your death while trying to fumble with the unresponsive controls.

If there was a word to describe SpongeBob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom – Rehydrated as a product, I guess ‘inconsistent’ would be it. It has all the charm and joy that I remember from the show itself but isn’t particularly fun to play. That being said, I still finished it because it scratched that 3D platformer itch I had, but I have no intentions of going and sweeping up the collectibles I missed or anything. I bought and played through the game because I have fond memories of those early seasons of SpongeBob, and that was enough to push me through. But if you have no connection to the source material, then this is just a decent platformer at best.

Review: BarnFinders

BarnFinders is a game that I am deeply conflicted about. It’s the exact sort of mindless, meditative gaming experience that I love so much, most of which involves you finding, repairing and selling various flotsam and jetsam at your own junk shop. It also is a game that is tremendously unfunny and at incredibly problematic in the way it represents various ethnicities and cultures.

Clearly aping the likes of reality television shows like Storage Wars and American Pickers, BarnFinders puts you in charge of your very own, rundown junk shop somewhere in the southeast portion of a fictionalized America. Your establishment is pretty miserable at first, boasting nothing more than a dingy storefront and a beat-up truck. Eventually you can upgrade just about everything, but it still retains that unkempt feel.

Just like real life, your computer in BarnFinders is the heart of the operation allowing you to accept various jobs and travel to different locales. Jobs boil down to a borderline incomprehensible email asking you to retrieve a specific item from a location and mail it back to the sender. After accepting the job, you need to front the cash to drive your truck to any new location you wish to go to, but that’s only necessary when you first go to a destination.

You arrive at the location which can range wildly from barns, houses, bunkers and more, and are reminded of what item you’re there for, as well as a progress bar that ticks down as you collect other items you can resell currently in the dwelling. It’s just enough information to let you know there’s something you missed without explicitly telling you what it was, ultimately making it a fun little puzzle that can get pretty tedious after enough meandering through the level.

Chairs, hard hats, traffic cones, laptops and other notable items are usually prime for resale, while the deluge of cardboard boxes and hay bales that litter the area can be broken down into repairing components that you can use to fix certain broken big ticket items like televisions and microwaves. Aside from fixing things, you’ll also find items that can’t be sold, but can be combined with other items to make more rare and expensive products to sell like motorcycles and what definitely is an Atari 2600. Finally there’s just dirty items that need to be hosed off before they can sold which can be anything, but the first one you’ll come across is a blow-up sex doll.

Once you load all of that stuff into your truck, you head back home and prepare your merchandise to put on sale the next day. This includes the aforementioned cleaning, fixing and building of components that you’ll find throughout levels. But you won’t be able to just do those things because you need to buy the various stations that allow you to perform those actions. You also need to buy tools like an ax, a shovel and some lock picks, as well as a price gun that allows you to upgrade the interior of your store.

The store has a few spots for wall shelves, display cases and free standing displays, all of which hold different sized items. A washing machine needs a free standing display, while a guitar is hung on the wall. Where you put things doesn’t matter, because this whole section of the game is incredibly underwhelming but extremely necessary to progressing. You also can change the flooring and wall coverings, but despite how much they cost they’re all varying degrees of filthy.

Once you have your shelves packed with the garbage you rescued from various dumps, you get to open up shop and meet the very small cast of characters in BarnFinders. This is where things go from uninteresting, to aggressively bad. The characters in this game are all different stereotypes, including the co-owner of your store, your uncle. Being set in the southeast, BarnFinders leans into a lot of the stereotypes about the people from those areas, portraying your uncle as an uneducated, scraggly-haired redneck. Also in this cast of characters is an Asian woman named Lady Dragon and an African-American man dressed in Rastafarian garb, constantly smoking a blunt.

It’s all part of that aggressively unfunny “sense of humor” I mentioned up top. In addition to that, the characters all speak in noises and grunts while text bubbles appear near them, some of which are problematic as well. You’ll hear and see a lot of these things during the tremendously mundane retail portion of the game, where customers appear in your shop in front of objects they want to buy. You being the employee of the month, go up to them and can either elect to sell at the default price or haggle with them. Haggling in this case means to play a bad timing based mini-game that sometimes just doesn’t work.

Speaking of bad mini-games and terrible “humor,” the parts of BarnFinders where you have to bid on properties is hilariously thin as well. Some barns or houses will require you to own them before you can actually pick through them, which means you’ll have to enter an auction for it. The only people who ever show up to these auctions are the same characters as I mentioned earlier, but this time their text bubbles will shout various insults at you whenever you outbid them. These too are written in an insanely problematic way that I won’t go into, but you can imagine what they are like.

Outside of having terrible writing being hurled at you, in an auction you’re allowed to raise the price by a modest amount or a large amount, both of which change depending on the item itself. I’m fairly certain that none of this matters however, and the auction ends once you’ve hit a certain price threshold. It feels like the game decided that a certain house was worth ten-thousand dollars, started the bidding at five thousand, and would keep the auction going till you made it past the ten grand price tag. This is evidenced by the fact that no matter how long you wait to put in a bid, the auction timer won’t start to count down nor even reveal itself until you’ve made it to a certain point. It’s this smokescreen that very quickly dissipated and revealed nothing more than another time wasting mini-game in its place.

What I do like about some of the properties you acquire however, is how expansive they can be. Some levels are multi-layered and require some light puzzle-solving and platforming to find mission critical items. There’s also the fact that some of these levels are spookier than others, but BarnFinders is courteous enough to ask you upon starting said level if you’d like to be scared or not. I wish that kind of courtesy extended to other aspects of the game, but this was a pleasant surprise that accounted for my low threshold for fear, or as others might call it, “cowardice.”

There’s also this gigantic alien sub-plot that I can’t even get into because of how absurd it was, but just know that aliens play a large part in BarnFinders. It’s bizarre and ends up becoming a weird focal point of the game, but I don’t think it’s any worse for including these story beats.

It’s hard to feel good about playing BarnFinders when there’s just some really unnecessary bullshit that are just hurtful and tone deaf. Even from a purely gameplay focused standpoint BarnFinders makes it seem like there’s a lot to do and consider, but there really isn’t much new to do as you play for a few hours. Outside of level design and maybe one level specific item, there’s really nothing mechanically engaging to do after the first 3 hours of play and that’s probably for the best.

Review: The House of Da Vinci 2

Back in 2016 the first The House of Da Vinci was released on mobile devices and was received warmly by critics and myself alike. In 2019 a sequel was released, once again on mobile devices, and despite my enjoyment of the first entry I completely missed The House of Da Vinci 2. Now in 2020, The House of Da Vinci 2 has been released on PC and has proven to be another solid entry in the series, mixing both very creative and frustratingly obtuse puzzles with a largely forgettable story.

To be completely candid here, I found the story of The House of Da Vinci 2 to be entirely forgettable and mostly an obstacle that got in the way of solving cool puzzles. I understand that you need some connective tissue to grant some sort of motivating factor or narrative thread, but it never managed to engage me at all. The story seemed fine overall, but it just was so far from the reason I was playing, that for the rest of this review it won’t really be a talking point.

With that said, you start The House of Da Vinci 2 off by escaping a prison cell and the sewers that run beneath it. You learn the basics of interacting with the world along with how to manage your inventory and how to use a special magic orb that you eventually come across.

The orb in question can be twisted open to reveal two lenses inside that both allow you to see hidden things in the environment, and also see through time. The first lens let’s you see hidden mechanisms that are obscured by walls or inside of another object, and it allows you to interact with them. So you might not be able to see the lock on a door, but with this orb you can see the mechanism for it, and mess around with it.

The second lens allows you to see through time and travel to a past version of the level. These are highly scripted events and not something you can just do whenever you like. In certain parts of the level, if you open up the orb you’ll be greeted by a static swirling portal that you can walk through and enter the past. For example, in an early level I was in a Gazebo that only had one entrance in it, but opposite me in the distance was a very large door that seemed like where I had to go. I popped open the orb and was transported to a past version of the gazebo that had two exits, allowing me to progress further and solve other puzzles before returning to the portal and climbing through into the future.

One of the things that jumped out to me immediately was how clearly The House of Da Vinci 2, just like its predecessor, is a mobile game first. From the menus to just navigating and interacting with the world was crafted with a mobile user in mind and ultimately feels clunky in spots on other platforms. That’s not a bad thing if you’re playing on a mobile device, but considering I was playing it on PC I found some of the movement and interaction stuff to be a little tedious.

The entire game is mouse driven, allowing to you look around by clicking and dragging the mouse which works without any issue. The problem is that in order to move around or zoom in on a puzzle so you can interact with it, you have to double click the area or object, and sometimes those things can be a little closer to each other than you’d like. There were plenty of times in levels where I would try to interact with an object, and suddenly find myself gliding across the floor to another section of the level. It’s not game breaking or anything like that, just a minor annoyance that I kept running into.

The puzzles themselves run the entire gamut from really interesting, to straightforward, and to completely obtuse nonsense that doesn’t make any sense and you just so happened to luck your way into solving. There are so many puzzles that are either really cool or just not noteworthy whatsoever, so you just kind of breeze past them thinking you’re the smartest person in the world. Then you get to a puzzle that mentally breaks you, occupies an hour of your time as you start to question how you ever even made it through school, and then eventually realize you didn’t fully move a switch or something. Standard puzzle game stuff.

Luckily there’s a pretty good hint system in place that will give you increasingly more descriptive tips depending on how long you’ve lingered in a section without advancing a little. To better explain it, there will be a room filled with puzzle boxes and panels that all tie into each other in some fashion, but they usually have some chronological order for you to tackle them in. So the hint system starts some timer depending on how long you’ve gone without any progress, and gives you the first and most vague hint before starting the timer again and issuing a more descriptive one. It’s a good system that unfortunately doesn’t offer much for when you’ve exhausted all the hints and still don’t know what to do.

The House of Da Vinci 2 is also a pretty long game for what it is, clocking in around six hours for me which was a welcome surprise for me. The beauty of The House of Da Vinci 2 is that there’s very little to no repetition in the puzzles, and for the few times there was a similar puzzle, it was just different enough to feel fresh. The levels themselves are visually interesting, but usually boil down to little more than a cool new backdrop for you to play with a few objects inside of. The levels do a good job providing something that’s new and visually interesting, without being overly distracting.

Lastly, I should mention that while the game looks and runs well on PC it also comes with an inflated price tag if you choose the non-mobile approach. On phones it’s just five dollars, whereas the price on Steam is twenty. I don’t say that as a value judgement, just something for potential player to consider if they’re interested. Aside from playing on a larger screen with better graphical fidelity, there’s no real difference between the versions.

The House of Da Vinci 2 isn’t going to change your life or the way you think about puzzle games or anything like that. The truth is that it’s a solid puzzler that’s good for a few hours of fun. Maybe you’ll find the story to be engaging and thought provoking, but judging it solely on the strength of its puzzles, The House of Da Vinci 2 is pretty good.

Review: The Escaper

Without fail, every time I find myself in a mall and pass by some slapped together, hastily assembled “escape the room” experience, I feel this unnatural draw to throw my money at it in the hopes it isn’t completely obtuse and nonsensical.  Usually they are and I find myself wishing I didn’t blow nearly $30 dollars on an hour of bad puzzles.  That’s where The Escaper comes in.  The The Escaper takes that rinky-dink mall escape room scenario, and let’s you enjoy it from the comfort of your own home.


I usually enjoy a nice puzzle game in this vein, whether it be a series like The Room or a game like The House of Da Vinci, but unfortunately The Escaper trades in too many of the tropes that puzzle and adventure games did in the past, usually requiring some obtuse or inane solution to progress.  The puzzles nor their solutions are rarely ever clever or satisfying in a way where it doesn’t feel like you’re just bashing your head against a wall until the answer comes out.

There are currently 4 rooms to escape from in The Escaper.  You progress through them one by one, with the exit to a room leading to the next one.  The rooms initially appear to be fairly straightforward, with you starting in some vintage study with a locked door.  Escaping this room is pretty easy for the most part, but just like every room in the game, there’s at least one extremely obtuse and vague puzzle to be solved.


I initially thought that maybe I was at fault here, considering that while I love puzzle games but am notoriously terrible at them.  Then I reached the second level which was a boiler room.  This is where it became apparent that some puzzles are just broken.  For instance, there was a keypad on a door with 8 numbers that it needed to unlock it.  These numbers are found together and presented in a certain order, something to the effect of 20, 35, 40 and 60.  I punched the numbers in, and got nothing.  I punched them in backwards and also was met with failure.  The actual solution was just randomly punching in these groups of numbers until it opened.

There was nothing in the room that indicated that the numbers had to be punched in that specific way.  And that’s the biggest shortcoming with The Escaper.  It’s painfully vague and expects you to engage in a lot of trial and error in each level.  Sometimes the technical aspects of the game can even hinder your progress.  Early on in the first level, you need to find the right time to wind a clock to so some classic adventure game nonsense can take place.  The problem I ran into was that the thing you have to read to find the time was in such a low resolution that I just assumed it was just part of the scenery.


There was even an instance where I had to punch in 1 of 6 solutions to a puzzle based off some markings on a wall.  The game wanted me to just try them all, but thanks to a fun graphical glitch, I was able to see that a secret compartment was behind one of the markings.  Wouldn’t you know it, that was the solution to the puzzle.

But despite all of this, I still pushed through and beat the game.  Despite its many shortcomings, The Escaper did scratch an itch of mine, and being priced at 4 dollars certainly helped. But unless you’re really desperate for one of these games and you don’t want to play other, and frankly better options out there, I can’t say it was worth the 2 hours it took to beat.

Review – The White Door

There are games out there that are so well crafted that they’re capable of eliciting a genuine emotion out of the player, providing proper motivations or worthy payoffs.  The White Door is not one of those games.  The White Door desperately wants to be one of those games, but unfortunately falls short.20200315162916_1.jpgThe broad pitch for The White Door is that it’s a psychological mystery game about a man who is in some sort of medical facility.  His memory is fractured which requires his doctors to frequently quiz him on details about his life.  The whole game sets up this idea that this man had a mental break after a series of failures and missteps in his personal life.

The story itself isn’t bad or anything, it’s just nothing of note.  It’s predictable and kind of dull in spots, and tries so hard to be mysterious but often ends up feeling as if it’s trying too hard.  It’s a shame too considering that on paper, The White Door sounds like it could be something interesting that shows a unique perspective on the issues it’s trying to raise.  It just never seems to nail the tone or atmosphere that it’s shooting for, however.20200315164215_1.jpgWhile the story itself is mediocre, the gameplay is somewhere between dull and bad.  It’s a point and click style adventure game that has you interacting with the environment along with playing a few mini-games, but the collection of puzzles included range from painfully easy to unbelievably obtuse.  Memorizing patterns and answering the questions your doctors give you are pretty straightforward, but later in the game you’re tasked with identifying symbols and numbers that in some cases, are almost impossible to figure out without some outside help.20200315163415_1.jpgI don’t mean to sound so hard on The White Door because I genuinely think there are some good ideas on display here.  The presentation and storytelling methods are neat and deserve to be fleshed out more, while the puzzles could certainly use some refining.  It isn’t a bad game, hell, you might even enjoy it.  It’s only about two hours long which is nice, but even in that short window I started to feel as if it was overstaying its welcome.  I’d be curious to see what a second pass at The White Door looks like, but I can’t say that I’m impressed with the game as is.