Assassin’s Creed Chronicles: China

Ubisoft
Reviewed on: PS4
Also on: Xbox One, PC
Street: 04.21

I’ve never understood why the emphasis in Assassin’s Creed games is less on historical assassinations and more on ridiculously trite “hunt and gather” missions, layered with the extremely superficial satisfaction of climbing and jumping off buildings into bushes. Being a yearly title, Ubisoft’s signature 3D action series doesn’t often get a chance to step outside its populist trappings. This, ironically, often saps the game of its greatest strengths—its ability to build immersive worlds and to get players lost in the game’s time period and cultural aesthetics. The first game in the 2D Assassin’s Creed Chronicles series, China, is an important step in this direction—a side-scrolling action game that actually emphasizes visual flair and stealth, the two oft forgotten components of recent Assassin’s Creed games. Plus, it’s the first game in the series to feature a female protagonist. That’s not to say it’s a great game—while the controls and general atmosphere are greatly improved, the actual level design and storytelling is quite flat, but there’s a blueprint for a great companion series underneath the too-familiar surface of Chronicles: China. Intrigue carried me through this brief experience and has me mildly intrigued at the planned sequels to follow. –Randy Dankievitch

Fast Fingers Plus
BluBox Games

Reviewed on: iOS (Exclusive)
Street Date: 04.22

Most platformers are designed around one concept: Challenging a player to think about the movement of their on-screen counterpart. These paths are called “lines” by professional speed runners. Fast Fingers Plus is essentially the bare bones of this idea, represented in a very colorful manner. Gameplay is simple: Drag a finger as fast as possible from the beginning to the end of the level, avoiding everything from saws, doors and spinning blades to get to the finish line. The levels are tiny and based around a combination of speed and precision—miss a turn by a pixel, and watch your finger fly off your iOS device into nothingness as the “restart” button awaits a press. This turns later levels into “kamikaze or fail” mode. Since there’s really no incentive to explore strategies or approach a level with any kind of critical mind, the game eventually turns into a repetitive slog of hitting the same obstacle over and over and over, until the one time you’re able to infinitesimally miss the wall you’ve been hitting for the last half an hour. Fast Fingers Plus is really only a game for the most casual and the most hardcore. Those looking for genuinely engaging platform experiences aren’t going to find them in the short, simplistic puzzles Fast Fingers Plus has to offer. –Randy Dankievitch

Sorcery 3
inkle

Played on: iOS
Also on: Android
Street Date: 04.23

Remember “gamebooks”? For kids like me, who grew up in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, gamebooks—particularly anything space or fantasy-related—were glorious things. Imagine a book where players could literally choose their own adventure—forget putting a floppy disk and fighting with MS-DOS—there were role-playing experiences right on the bookshelf, with “loading times” equating a page turn. Sorcery 3 is essentially a modernized adaptation of one of these, taking stories from the Fighting Fantasy series and translating them to iOS, bringing new life to the spell casting, clue hunting and gambling found in the original series. And it’s a ball of a time: Sorcery 3 prides itself on being the open-world equivalent of traditional, linear gamebooks, and it’s an absolute blast to play, especially if you’re carrying a character over from the previous titles to really ramp up the time-traveling challenge. There isn’t anything quite like Sorcery 3 in the App Store—gamers looking for something that truly challenges, look no further than Steve Jackson’s latest digital translation. –Randy Dankievitch

Victor Vran
Haemimont Games

Reviewed on: PC (Exclusive)
Street Date: 02.28

An early access game on Steam, Victor Vran is still extremely rough around the edges; what story is contained is littered with fantasy clichés, and its gameplay often feels derivative of other, more popular games. Yet, there’s still a ton of promise in Victor Vran’s interesting take on isometric action-RPGs: the ability to traverse terrain—like walls—is a welcome new addition to the genre, and the progressive unlocking of skills and abilities certainly gives players the feel of becoming an increasingly powerful creature in the beautiful world Haemimont Games have built—for example, hexes, which unlock at level 12, allow players to increase the challenge presented to them in-game. The combat itself is fluid and fast-paced, encouraging a little more strategy and reaction than typical hack and slashers. Unfortunately, with a distinct lack of progression systems, it may be hard for players to really feel the control of crafting a hero to their desired play style, which most expect in an a RPG. However, Victor Vran is an intriguing single and multiplayer game—only time will tell if it can grow into the full-fledged aRPG fans have craved since the disappointment of Diablo 3. –Randy Dankievitch

NBA 2K16

NBA 2K16
Visual Concepts/2K Sports

Played on: PS4
Street Date: 10.6.15

 

Fall is an exciting season: the leaves are changing, corporate America is shoving pumpkin-flavored everything down our throats, and the smell of an upcoming NBA season is in the air—is there a better time of year? The colorful, apple-infested months of fall also bring another yearly basketball tradition: The yearly release of Visual Concepts and 2K’s latest NBA-licensed title, which has become a cultural cornerstone since its debut 15 years ago on the Sega Dreamcast. With NBA 2K16, Visual Concepts have delivered another impressive, slightly frustrating, occasionally head scratching entry in their series, continuing to embrace the ideals of player freedom—a philosophy it oddly contradicts in this year’s most advertised addition.

 

Before we discuss the monstrosity of NBA 2K16‘s myCareer mode, let’s talk about the rest. From top to bottom, NBA 2K16 makes integral improvements over its predecessor, again proving the series’ dedication to constant evolution. It begins with the game’s controls: 2K16 introduces all-new passing controls, giving unprecedented precision over ball movement with dedicated buttons for bounce passes, lob passes and hand-offs, which makes throwing alley-oops or entry passes into the post much more precise and reliable than in years past.

 

These new passing controls are a foundation the rest of NBA 2K16 builds on. With completely overhauled offensive and defensive AI, NBA 2K16 challenges players—arguably for the first time in the game’s history—to play actual basketball, a virtual recreation of the modern game no other sports game comes close to replicating. How the game flows, with both modern, historical, and international teams running realistic offenses and defenses is impressive. Games of NBA 2K16 feel more alive and challenging than ever, even on default difficulties or when playing against friends. Thanks to defenses that actually collapse, effective pick-and-roll systems, and a much-improved play-calling system, NBA 2K16 feels like playing a game of basketball, with all the strategic subtleties that go along with it.

 

In addition, 2K’s improved many of its core game modes in subtle, yet very effective ways. MyPark is arguably the greatest benefactor, with smoother matchmaking and more reliable gameplay, but other modes like myTeam and myGM aren’t left in the wind, with tweaks and improvements abound to keep players engaged through another long winter of NBA double-headers. And then there’s Spike Lee, who nearly single-handedly ruins myCareer, NBA 2K16‘s signature single-player mode.

 

Essentially, the first four hours of the myCareer experience are hijacked by Spike Lee’s first “video game film”, Livin’ Da Dream, which is one of the most stereotype-ridden pieces of media I’ve ever subjected myself to. Forget the fourth wall breaking or how it apes the story lines of Lee’s 20-year old film He Got GameLivin’ da Dream forces players to sit through two hours of cutscenes starring a character named Frequency Vibrations, hiding players from the actual improvements and new Connections and Endorsements systems in NBA 2K16, with a hackneyed story about an alarming number of racial stereotypes. Once it’s over, myCareer has never been better – but those painful hours of sitting through Spike Lee’s trash dumpster fire of a motion-capture “film” are lost forever, moments that contradict the very nature of creative freedom the rest of the game tries to nurture in players.

 

Regardless of how Spike Lee nearly ruins the whole party, NBA 2K16 remains a must-own for any diehard NBA fan. Things like a DJ Premier-assisted soundtrack and new ways to earn VC currency are simply benefits: The NBA 2K series remains one of the most consistent yearly releases of any genre with their latest entry.

Blackwell 4: Deception

Blackwell 4: Deception

Blackwell 4: Deception

Developer/Publisher: Wadjet Eye Games

Played on: iOS
Street Date: 09.24

Of all the video games with terrible film adaptations, I always thought Blackwell was a series ripe for a great film–or in 2015, a new Netflix series. The series, which spanned a total of five games, starred Rosangela Blackwell, a freelance writer thrust into the role of detective medium when her aunt dies and a ghost named Joey Mallone arrives to pass the torch onto her. Part supernatural mystery and part nuts-and-bolts police drama, Wadjet Eye’s point-and-click adventures could make a beautiful film – particularly Blackwell 4: Deception, a 2011 PC release making its way over to iOS this month.

Blackwell 4: Deception is an interesting entry in the series; while it neatly fits in line with Rosangela’s charcter arc – in this game, she resorts to some morally questionable tactics in investigations, suggesting a darker turn for the character after the events of Blackwell 3: Convergence–the rest of Deception feels oddly separated from the rest of the story. In this sense, Blackwell 4 is an easy place for newcomers to the series to jump right in and thanks to some nifty improvements over its predecessor, makes for a much smoother playing experience.

The Blackwell series is known first and foremost for its storytelling, and rightly so. Each installment tells wonderfully rich tales about mediums and the souls they help “move on,” revealing shades of complexity and layered stories that delve into the absurdities of the supernatural, but always keep enough of a focus on its characters to remain rewarding. Deception is no exception to this rule: the changes in Rosangela’s character come hand in hand with some nifty tidbits about Joey’s mysterious history, told through the game’s wonderfully written, beautifully delivered dialogue. For me, this is where the real beauty of the series lies.

But where Deception really impresses are its game mechanics–the story itself, while certainly engaging, is typical conspiracy thriller fare, with a heavy dose of ghosts, spiritual mafias and fighting over souls (no more spoiler—I promise!). The improvements to the core mechanics, however, are quite noticeable. For example, Rosa now has a cell phone, and doesn’t have to go home every single time she finds a clue, which erases hours of mindless traveling back and forth. There are new puzzles of course, and while none of these are all that memorable, the puzzles, particularly the Joe/Rosa swapping puzzles have a nice flow to them, each crafted in ways that both engage players with the on-screen characters, and help inform the story in subtle ways.

Deception isn’t just about refinement though—there are a few intriguing new features to keep the mystery-solving adventures fresh, all of which really elevate the experience. Whether using the game’s useful—if rudimentary—search engine, or the improved character switching mechanic in puzzles, there’s something about Deception’s head-scratchers that separate it from the original trilogy. They’re slightly more intricate than the ones I’ve solved many times before in previous games.

While Blackwell 4: Deception isn’t going to blow anyone away with its take on the point-and-click genre—it’s certainly one of the most engaging experiences of its kind in recent memory, thanks to a wonderful sense of aesthetics, a fantastic soundtrack and a confidence in storytelling that most games desperately lack. In short, it’s another terrific entry in the series, one that Blackwell fans will love, and adventure fans new to the series can jump right in and enjoy.