Exo One Review – Interstellar Highway Hypnosis

We all have those games that we put on after a long day. The kind that let you shut off your brain, immerse yourself in a cozy atmosphere, or simply provide you with the comfort of nostalgia. For me, those kinds of games usually include quiet, meditative, profound narrative experiences. Exo One fits this category perfectly. It’s a game where you navigate expansive and beautiful alien worlds in a shift that can change shape to roll or fly into the horizon. Now that it’s out on PS5, does this strange and beautiful sci-fi title take us to must-see worlds, or will you fall asleep mid-flight? Let’s find out. A Surreal and Meditative Experience Exo One is a unique title that may not be for everyone, but it can certainly be played by anyone. The game’s controls are simple and effective. Its gameplay is equally simple, with subtle elements that can improve your overall performance, but no real pressure to hit a high score or the like. The story overall is intentionally vague, but those who pay careful attention to the snippets of narrative between planetary exploration will find their efforts rewarded. During the opening of Exo One, you hear about a failed mission on the planet of Jupiter, one that claims the lives of several astronauts. You also hear about blueprints sent by extraterrestrials that provide plans for a new type of ship that defies all human explanation. As you descend into your first world, it’s implied that you are indeed piloting this ship. Some quick tutorials show how you can use the triggers to either increase gravity or flatten out the ship’s spherical shape into a disc that lets you glide like an interstellar frisbee. The gravity function, in particular, is useful when building momentum, as it lets you exponentially increase your speed to launch off the terrain. Once in the air, a quick switch to your disc form lets you soar. You have a “jump” button you can use as well to gain a little extra air, but you’ll primarily need to manage your momentum through careful application of the gravity ability and your disc form. This cycle of building up speed and soaring high into the sky is intoxicating, especially as you reach new worlds in your journey. Each planet is spread out before you, allowing you to choose how you navigate the path forward. In the distance, a bright blue beam shows your destination, but there’s no rush to get there. Instead, the game lets you sit back, relax, and enjoy the sights. Subtle details like the way sunlight breaks through the clouds or beads of water gather on the screen sell a sense of immersion in the world. Soaring high, only to turn downward to build up speed, lets you break the sound barrier in a satisfying display of both sound and a visual cone of fog that explodes outward from your ship. It all comes together to create a meditative gameplay experience perfect for … Read More

Outlast Trials Review – Misery Loves Company

As a major fan of horror in all its forms, I’ve always loved the Outlast series. I was hooked from the moment I played the first game with its claustrophobic halls and the iconic green hue of night vision on my handheld camera. The sequel, particularly a scene involving a cornfield (if you know, you know), will forever be a mainstay in my nightmares. Outlast Trials has always intrigued me. What would happen if Outlast was multiplayer and cooperative? Could a live service surrounding this take on the series have legs? Now that Outlast Trials is out of early access and running its new “Prime Time” event, it’s time to see how this multiplayer variation compares to the horror of the prior two games. Does misery love company, or would it have been better to go alone? Let’s find out. A Fresh Take on the Series If you asked me about the viability of a multiplayer horror game a decade ago, I’d tell you to stick with single-player. Horror is supposed to be isolating and lonely. If you add people, you take away tension. Of course, recent years have proven me wrong on that front. Games like Dead by Daylight and other asymmetric titles have shown that you can add players without taking away scares. It’s all about the balance of power. Sure, you can have four people running around, but if their combined skills and abilities leave them vulnerable to what goes bump in the night, you can still achieve the scares you’re looking for. Outlast has always leaned heavily into this dynamic in its prior titles. You could never defend yourself. Your only option was to run, and your only source of visibility was limited to batteries you had to find in the environment. You never had the upper hand; you had moments to breathe, and even those were few and far between. It was oppressive, atmospheric, terrifying, and a little exhausting in long stretches, but it worked. Outlast Trials keeps much of this DNA intact but takes careful steps to make everything repeatable. The game is set in the Cold War era before the other titles in the series. It has you create a character who willingly volunteers for a series of trials, hoping they can turn their life around. The Murkoff Corporation wants you, and they’ll use everything from brainwashing to mind control to test the limits of your sanity and your humanity. Let’s just say that the corporation’s idea of “rehabilitation” comes from the school of Jigsaw and the SAW movies. Once you’ve finished a very tense opening that involves you erasing all evidence of your existence, the game puts you in a cell of your very own, and it’s here you’ll meet up with other players or venture into the trials on your own. Beyond the opening, the game’s story is limited to evidence you find in the various maps during your trials. There’s a good number of these for lore hunters, which I … Read More

INDIKA Review – Playing Devil’s Advocate

I have played video games since I was old enough to hold a controller. I cut my teeth on the Sega Genesis and my parents’ Apple Macintosh computer. I’ve been a console and PC gamer ever since, and I’ve played thousands of titles over the years. I say all of that because I’ve never played anything quite like INDIKA in all that time. While you can pick apart the elements of INDIKA and categorize its gameplay, once you put everything together, it becomes more than the sum of its parts. It’s wild, weird, funny, and even profound. It’s not for everyone, but is it for you? Let’s find out. A Fever Dream of a Game INDIKA is a third-person adventure set in an alternate version of 19th-century Russia. You play as a nun named Indika, who is a bit of a black swan among the others at her convent. From the beginning of the game, it’s very clear that the other look down on her. As if this wasn’t enough, Indika also hears a voice she’s convinced is the devil himself speaking to her. I told you this was going to get weird. There are a few odd moments from the beginning, but the opening is purposefully simple from a gameplay standpoint. You run simple errands and perform chores for a few other nuns as the devil’s voice waxes poetic and chastises you. You collect points, contributing to a simple skill tree that offers abilities that ultimately earn you more points. From the beginning, the game informs you that these points don’t matter, and they don’t. You won’t get any special endings or secret unlocks from collecting them (or the collectibles you can find), but the presence of the whole system reminds you that you’re still playing a video game at the end of the day. There’s also something surreal about doing something simple like filling up a bucket of water from a well, only to be rewarded but retro-style pixelated coins that wouldn’t be out of place in a Mario title. As the game progresses, INDIKA leans into the surreal and strange nature of its character and the world around her. This alternate version of Russia is bleak and filled with strange side characters. It’s also violent, as she soon crosses paths with a wounded soldier companion who is seeking help. The two become an unlikely duo as the game goes on, venturing through various environments, from a dilapidated village to a canning factory. At certain points in the story, you’ll also see flashbacks that flesh out Indika’s backstory. These are presented in a retro pixelated style and often require precise platforming or simple arcade-style gameplay. They offer a nice variety to the main game, mainly exploration and puzzle-solving. When you combine both pieces, even though the entire experience only lasts about 5-6 hours, you get a lot of variety across INDIKA. I particularly enjoyed the moments when the devil’s voice in Indika’s head becomes overwhelming, leading to strange … Read More

Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story Review – Preservation at its Finest

We’re well past the point where games have been accepted as a form of art. While the greatest paintings, written works, and cinematic masterpieces have all been immortalized and preserved in museums or digital collections, game preservation remains a minimal focus across the industry. Thankfully, developers like Digital Eclipse are showing the rest of the world how it’s done. Their latest release is Llamasoft: The Jeff Minter Story, an interactive documentary and collection of Jeff Minter’s catalog of titles from his time in the game industry. This type of preservation seems like an easy win, but does Digital Eclipse have the format down, or is there room for improvement? Let’s find out. A Near-Perfect Combination of Preservation and Education Over the last few generations, a few games blur the line between a documentary and an interactive experience. Some seek to tell the story of a historical event, while others deep dive into a specific region’s culture. However, Digital Eclipse has carved out its niche in this genre with games that preserve the history of gaming itself. Jeff Minter’s story isn’t their first title, but it does fall into their Gold Master series of games, and it creates a time capsule within the broader history of gaming. The game’s structure is divided into two parts. The first is a collection that includes nearly every single one of Jeff Minter’s games that are all playable and preserved to capture the moment of time they existed within. Fans of retro titles or Jeff Minter’s work will find this treasure trove with interesting concepts. The only notable omission from the list is Defender 2000 for the Atari Jaguar. Neither Jeff Minter nor Atari have the rights to the title, but the collection still feels comprehensive without it. However, the deeper meat of the experience is the chapters that chronicle the entire history of Llamasoft and its creator. These chapters are organized into timelines that include all manner of photos, cover art, video interviews, and, of course, playable versions of the games. It’s an excellent way to preserve history, allowing you better to understand the context around each game’s release. It also helps inform the design thinking that went into the titles, which makes them unique. This structure makes it easy for both fans of the games and newcomers to experience the full story and what makes the titles unique. Since all these games are from the same developer, you’ll naturally encounter similar ideas and gameplay concepts throughout the catalog. It can’t be avoided due to the collection’s nature, but it allows repetition to set in after extended play sessions. While it’s also part of Jeff Minter’s design and charm, some of the games and their instructions leave something to be desired because it is difficult to understand how to play the game. You’ll find scans of the original instruction manuals and controls for your platform of choice, but even with these things you may spend several minutes being confused each time you try a … Read More

Synth Riders Electro Swing Essentials 2 Review – Back in the Swing of Things

Synth Riders is easily one of my all-time favorite VR titles, rhythm or otherwise. It combines a great list of tracks with unique mechanics and brilliant mapping that always feels great, even on higher difficulties. Like any other rhythm game, Synth Riders has received several song packs over the years. Perhaps the most unique of these was the original “Electro Swing Essentials” pack, which introduced me to this genre that combines the upbeat tempo and brass instruments of swing music with elements of EDM and other electronic music. It’s one of the most popular packs for a reason, but now we have Electro Swing Essentials 2, which offers five new paid tracks and four free ones. Should you swing on over to the store to download it? Let’s find out! Breaking Down the New Tracks First on the list of paid tracks is “Guilty Pleasure” by Jamie Berry, featuring Little Violet. This is the song featured in the track below, one of the best in the pack. It has a great tempo and wonderful use of muted trumpets alongside an upbeat rhythm in the background to keep everything moving. It’s hard not to dance along as you play through this one, and while my abilities max out at “hard” difficulty, this track will get you moving and tapping your feet the whole time. It’s a great way to start the pack. Next is “Boring 20s” by Tamela D’Amico, Wolfgang Lohr, and Ashley Slater. This track continues with the overall energy you would expect from the pack, but I enjoyed it less than the other ones. That’s not to say it’s bad, but the chorus isn’t quite as catchy as the other songs. As a result, the mapping for this track just wasn’t quite as engaging for me, and I think that comes down to the track’s rhythm being less consistent than something like Guilty Pleasure. It’s not a bad song, but it doesn’t quite translate to the gameplay like others in this pack or the prior one. Next is “Magic Man,” featuring J Fitz from Balduin and Wolfgang Lohr. This one brings back the upbeat tempo of the first track in the list while leveraging a consistent background rhythm to keep you moving. The vocals are also unique compared to most of the tracks on Synth Riders, which helps it stand out. It’s yet another example of how this genre can keep you moving while leveraging the game’s “rails” in unique ways that force you to move with the music. The next paid track in the pack is “Let’s Start Again” by Cut Capers. This is the “Odd Chap Remix” of the track, which lends it an Electro Swing feel. Of all the paid tracks in this pack, this one feels the least like a true Electro Swing song. It has some use of brass instruments, and the tempo is about right, but it lacks the unique charm of the other tracks. Last, but not least, is “Rose” by Swingrowers. … Read More

State of Play: January 2024 Highlights!

With a new year comes a new State of Play, and while nothing will ever truly replace the glory days of E3, these small bursts of news are always appreciated. While yet another State of Play has gone by without news of a Bloodblorne remaster or about Silksong, we still have plenty of new announcements to go over, so let’s get started! Helldivers continues to look like Starship Troopers The show opened with another quick trailer for Helldivers 2, which is coming out very soon on February 8th. The game looks like it would be fun for some online co-op, and I do appreciate the Starship Troopers-inspired style, but the lack of a single-player is important to note. Stellar Blade Gives me NiER Vibes An extended look at Stellar Blade came next, with a style and tone that reminds me much of Nier Automata. The wide open environments, the post-apocalyptic Earth, the surreal enemies, and the focus on characterization all felt somewhat similar. The game seems to be borrowing some soulslike elements, too. For example, you can find camps out in the world with shops. They confirmed you can also rest here to recharge your health, but I spotted a notification in the gameplay about how enemies have respawned, so that tells me it could have elements from those types of RPGs. Stellar Blade also received a release date of April 26th, 2024. Sonic Generations gets a New Version with Shadow Sega brought out the blue blur early in the State of Play stream. Not only are we getting a remastered Sonic Generations, but it’s going to include a Shadow campaign. Sonic Generations was a fun one, I enjoyed the levels inspired by both old and new generations of Sonic, so a new version with Shadow sounds good to me! Zenless Zone Zero looks very Anime-y From the same folks who brought you Genshin Impact and Honaki Star Rail comes their next free-to-play RPG, Zenless Zone Zero. While it was initially announced for PC and mobile, this confirms that PS5 players will also get it. Besides the new setting, the game will also feature real-time combat instead of the turn-based gameplay of the studio’s other titles. Foamstars Brings Splatoon to PlayStation I know that comparing Foamstars to Splatoon is a tired old meme, but with the latter title only being available on Nintendo Switch, I think there’s nothing wrong with bringing the idea to other consoles. This multiplayer title will be included on PlayStation Plus when it releases on February 6th. This is a smart move because I don’t know I’d immediately pay for a multiplayer-only title, which will guarantee a community initially. Dave the Diver Swims to PS5 Dave the Diver is an interesting indie title I’ve played on the Switch. It starts with a simple loop of catching fish and running a Sushi restaurant, but it quickly adds new gameplay and narrative elements. It’s whacky and fun. Most importantly, it keeps you on your toes and keeps things … Read More

Arizona Sunshine 2 Review (PSVR 2) – Buddy Knows Best

Zombies and virtual reality go together like peanut butter and jelly, or in this case, like bullets and headshots. It’s a combo that makes sense, but it has been done plenty of times across all VR headsets. These days, if you’re a zombie shooter, you’ll need to do something different to stand out. The original Arizona Sunshine was one of the first zombie titles to make a splash on the VR scene. Still, it was followed by other heavy hitters like Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners, so does Arizona Sunshine 2 once again take the undead crown on PSVR 2? Let’s find out. Injecting Life into the Undead It’s been a while since I played the original Arizona Sunshine, but there’s no need to stress if you haven’t experienced the original. You can jump into the new game and understand what’s happening. It has a refreshingly simple but surprisingly heartwarming story penned by Rob Yescombe, who also wrote The Invisible Hours and Rime, to name a few other titles in his resume. One thing that Arizona Sunshine 2 brings to the table to stand out is the irreverent tone of its story. The protagonist is a wise-cracking guy who doesn’t take things too seriously and refers to all zombies collectively as “Fred,” which I particularly enjoyed. This time around, though, our hero is not alone. Very shortly into the first chapter, you’re introduced to a German Shepherd dog named Buddy (or at least, that’s what the protagonist names him), who will be with you for the entirety of the game. Having a companion with you immediately makes Arizona Sunshine 2 feel fresh and interesting. It’s also impossible not to get attached to Buddy from the get-go. He doesn’t need any help during firefights with hordes of the undead, but he’s happy to lend a helping hand (paw?) and will tear apart zombies on your behalf. Issuing commands to Buddy is as simple as holding a button on the left controller and pointing to zombies for him to bite or as part of environmental puzzles where he can lend a hand. He’ll also act of his own accord during fights, with surprisingly capable AI that helped me survive more than a few scraps. Most importantly, you can pet him. Excellent interactivity lets you rub his face and ears with your hands and have them react realistically. You can also put any hat you find on him and yourself, which is a nice touch. Buddy’s character immediately gives the story emotional weight, and it’s clear through the dialogue that the bond between him and the main character deepens as they navigate through various environments and set pieces in search of Patient Zero, who may hold the key to a cure for the zombie virus. It’s nothing you haven’t seen before. Still, the combination of humor, genuine heartfelt moments (like playing fetch with Buddy), and constant companionship helped me immerse myself in the world of Arizona Sunshine 2. From a gameplay perspective, Arizona … Read More

Alan Wake and the Art of the Meta Narrative

Video games are no strangers to breaking the fourth wall or, in some cases, outright shattering it. There are countless examples, but none have struck me as profoundly as the recent Alan Wake II and developer Remedy’s Connected Universe. When Alan Wake was originally released on the Xbox 360 in 2010, it quickly became one of my all-time favorites. Still, since then, Remedy has grown, evolved, and even gone so far as to define the approach to crafting a self-aware narrative. Join me as I walk through how each of their titles has built upon this concept, culminating in the masterpiece that is Alan Wake II. A Brief Overview of Remedy’s Connected Universe Remedy Entertainment’s Connected Universe is a relatively recent development in the studio’s history, but it’s an important one and a key differentiator in their work. Fans have speculated that the studio’s games have been connected for a decade. Still, it wasn’t confirmed officially until the release of Control’s AWE Expansion in 2020, which was a crossover between Alan Wake and Control. Sam Lake, Creative Director at Remedy Entertainment, described the concept as: “The idea that the tales told in some of our games would be connected to each other, a connected world of stories and events with shared characters and lore. Each game is a stand-alone experience, but each game is also a doorway into a larger universe with exciting opportunities for crossover events.” The release of Alan Wake II furthers this bridge between it and the universe of Control, but other hints point to past titles like Quantum Break being involved (even if Remedy can’t outright confirm this due to legal issues that we’ll discuss later). The official bond between these two games has sparked speculation and excitement about what comes next. It’s an exciting time to be a gamer and a Remedy fan, but let’s talk about everything that led up to this blending of two worlds. 2010: Alan Wake Debuts on Xbox 360, and it Begins… It’s insane to me to think that Alan Wake came out thirteen years ago. I lived in an apartment with two roommates and worked full-time at GameStop. I remember getting the collector’s edition home and jumping right into it. It was magical, but given my unstable setup, something knocked the Xbox 360, putting one of those perfectly circular scratches in my disc. I had to beg the store manager at GameStop to swap it for another copy. It was not the best start, but we were back in business the following night. The layers of the original Alan Wake are pretty easy to spot. Still, they’re crucial for grasping how Remedy and writer/director Sam Lake’s style has evolved since that initial release. For those unaware, the game stars a writer named Alan Wake, who takes a trip to a small town in the Pacific Northwest called Bright Falls. He hopes to get past his recent writer’s block and spend quality time with his wife, Alice. Right off the … Read More

Layers of Fear (2023) Review – What’s Old is New Again

One of my favorite horror series in gaming is Layers of Fear. Since the original’s release back on PC, I’ve always loved its combination of atmospheric environments, chilling soundtrack, and its stories about artists driven mad by their craft. With the release of Layers of Fear 2023, the series compiles remakes of the first two games with all the DLC, and some new content to round out of the package. With Unreal 5 powering this new coat of paint, I was eager to dive in and experience it all over again. Let’s find out if this new version has enough layers to keep you interested, or if the repetition of playing the games again will drive you mad. More Than a Remake Layers of Fear 2023 is a joint effort between the original developer and a new developer who worked on the collection. It includes a full remake of the original title, the second game, and the DLC from the first game. It adds an additional story to the first game from the wife’s perspective, and the story mode also includes a new story about a writer who ties everything together from her place in a lighthouse. Separate from the story mode, which flows through all of this content, incorporating intermissions where you play as the writer, you can also use a chapter select to play specific content from the games and use a separate save file to experiment and get different endings. As a Layers of Fear fan, this is perhaps the most amazing package one could hope for. Not only do the games look and play great in Unreal 5, but the added story elements and chapters expand the universe even further, and do a great job of tying the games together better than ever. Those who didn’t enjoy the games originally probably won’t be swayed by this, but one thing I will say is that some new gameplay elements have been added to spice up the horror. Namely, in the first game there is now a lantern that can be used to banish the ghost of the painter’s wife, who shows up to stalk you at key points. These sections do devolve into you running around trying to find three of something so you can progress. This tends to be grating because she really keeps up with you, and your lantern requires time to recharge between focused blasts of light. I much preferred the sections where she was chasing you and you just had to find the way forward. This was more compelling than going in circles as you search for keys, gears, or the like. The second game also incorporated chase scenes in the original and the new version that I liked for similar reasons. The story of Layers of Fear 2023 benefits greatly from the new content that adds the writer as a new character. Her intermissions do a wonderful job of making you feel like there’s something greater behind the scenes pulling the strings … Read More

Amnesia: The Bunker Review – Greatest Hits Horror

The Amnesia series from Frictional Games is one of the all-time horror greats. I was a fan of Frictional even before their breakout hit, though, back when Penumbra was their brand of horror. While that series has remained dormant, the bones of it still exist even in their latest release: Amnesia: The Bunker. In Amnesia: The Bunker, you play as a soldier in WWI who must evade a monster within an underground bunker long enough to facilitate your escape. It’s a simple, but effective premise with a unique setting. Is this enough to put this series back on the top of horror gaming? Let’s find out. A Streamlined Return to Form, but Does The Old Formula Work? The last Amnesia game, Rebirth, was met with mixed reception due to a number of factors. On the one hand, it was much larger in scope than prior games, which are usually limited to a few locations. The narrative was also far more grand and sci-fi than I think many expected. It was also low on scares, though it did have them. The penalty for death wasn’t very severe, and large portions of it were tense, but lacked any true threat to the player. Contrast this with the first game in the series, where you’re always on edge, and it’s easy to see why Rebirth didn’t quite land. With Amnesia: The Bunker, it’s clear that Frictional Games wanted to go back to their roots. The concept is simple, the horror is constant, and the tension is nigh-overwhelming. It worked wonders back in the day, but I left my experience with The Bunker wondering if perhaps things became too streamlined? Amnesia: The Bunker begins in the trenches of WWI, where explosions rock the screen and bullets fly during the tutorial. It’s a different kind of horror, but effective nonetheless. It’s not long, though before you awake in an underground bunker and soon find yourself alone with only the promise of a monster to keep you company. The mechanics are refreshingly simple this time around. You are armed with a crank flashlight, a revolver, and limited inventory space to explore the bunker with. Much like a sort of roguelike structure, you have a central safe room with a map, a stash, a crafting table, and a generator that lets you recoup your losses between journeys out into the Bunker. While prior games in the series had you steadily lose sanity in the dark, that mechanic is absent from Amnesia: The Bunker. Instead, the monster that stalks you is afraid of light and therefore becomes a constant threat in the dark. The aforementioned crank flashlight helps, but the sound of winding it up gives away your position. Thankfully, you can fuel up the generator in your safe room before heading out to look for supplies and a way forward. Don’t worry, there’s a catch. The fuel in the game is finite, so you’ll want to make the most of your time while the lights are on, … Read More