The Forgotten Land may not nail the world-building or plotting, but it’s not snoozing when it comes to Kirby’s transformations. In fact, the new optional Treasure Road activities highlight his absorptive arsenal better than in any previous game. These short stages help players learn how to maximize the various functions of each copy ability, whether that’s for light environmental puzzles—such as the Drill ability to burrow under barriers—or to do battle armed with chakrams, axes, flames, and more. Between the Road and the relatively lengthy main quest—six zones with five stages each and a post-game area that remixes harder versions of earlier levels—The Forgotten Land really gives Kirby’s powers a workout.
That these abilities are purchased with the “kudos” earned from an efficiently fought battle shows yet again how Triangle Strategy always follows through on consequences—even good ones. In the world of this game, even something as casual as a thank you becomes a test of your character, and in the player’s hands, the fruits of such gratitude can become yet another weapon with which to win an exceedingly bloody war by any means.
In the end, this is a fundamentally a grind-heavy game, as players rerun the same 12 mission types over and over again in various locations, slowly unlocking new lore about the alien forces. But by introducing difficulty “mutation” modifiers and offering a wide variety of team compositions, Rainbow Six Extraction is able to mask its most routine elements and continue, even at lower difficulties, to keep players excitedly on their toes.
Vanguard, then, feels more like a tasting menu than a balanced meal. You get to sneak through ducts, scramble up walls in a decrepit department store, commandeer a dive bomber, and wield a flamethrower in order to clear out some anti-aircraft bunkers. It’s high-quality stuff, but it’s unlikely that it’ll all be to any one player’s satisfaction, and there’s no option to skip through chapters of the campaign or to get more time as Lady Nightingale. But in fairness, that’s what the very customizable multiplayer modes and offerings are for.
A sports bike has two wheels, and wisely, instead of trying to reinvent those, Riders Republic provides players with iconic courses on which to ride its perfectly tuned bikes—and skis and jetpacks to boot. If anything, the developers at Ubisoft Annecy have gone to admirable lengths to make sure that nothing mechanically gets in the way of that fun. How odd, then, that so much of Riders Republic’s gameplay ends up bogged down under onerous checklists and thankless grinds that are the very antithesis of the game’s YOLO mentality.
It’s true that the game’s card-based randomness may allow some players to stumble through boss encounters without properly solving them. But what is the proper way to come at most things is a social construct. Allowing players to find their own, occasionally lucky, way through the game is a brilliant way to demonstrate Inscryption’s cards-as-life theme. There’s no one right way to live, and despite all your preparation, sometimes you may draw an unlucky hand.
The randomness of WarioWare: Get It Together! is a clear demonstration of the old adage that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. You never know what game or character you’ll see next, only that whether you’re temporarily playing as a hover-cab driver who can only shoot to the left or an overgrown kid who can only move by grappling between objects, you can make it something sweet, either in against-the-odds triumph or comic failure. Managing such chaos has always been a core tenet of the WarioWare experience, and in doubling down on the randomness of its microgames, the series has at last gotten its shtick together.
Bridge of Spirits is an old-fashioned adventure game, one that sets you on a very curated, puzzle-marked path. Which is to say that it lacks for the trailblazing go-anywhere spirit of Breath of the Wild. But Kena is, after all, a spirit guide, so you can trust that you’re not missing out on much by sticking to the missions that she calls out on the map. What you’ll get by following that path that she puts you on are the tightest, most compelling pieces of gameplay, those rooted in plot. In fact, seeing as what happens to those spirits who lose themselves along the way, the purest form of Bridge of Spirits is the one that doesn’t wander off.
Thanks to the game’s rich writing, rarely does it feel that you’re just wandering through one luscious environment after another—like the canopy-level walkways of the Gianne Woodland or steep ivied cliffs of the Aureum Falls—so much as you’re being given glimpses of a land well worth fighting for. Even the variety of your party serves a deeper function, suggesting that one person alone, however strong, cannot break down every obstacle.
“Every roll of the dice matters, but not every roll counts,” claims Seemore, the die-restoring pipnician who Even befriends. But this isn’t true of Lost in Random’s gameplay, as the worst penalty for a bad roll is around 10 seconds of the player’s time. Indeed, if you don’t earn enough pips to summon a card, all you have to do is wait to draw a fresh card and re-roll Dicey until you’ve achieved the desired effect. Lost in Random’s narrative about a world where self-determination is suppressed is compelling, but the randomness that characterizes the game’s combat risks pushing those of us who actually have free will to play something else instead.
True Colors already feels closer to an interactive movie than a game, especially in the final chapter. Here, we’re plunged into a series of overly expository flashbacks in which our decisions have already been made for us. There are fewer choices to make and interactions to discover as we’re led toward a narrative twist that’s as convenient as it is messy. You can see the seams in the editing as the game’s engine chooses which of two responses you’re going to get from each member of the town council, depending on how you interacted with them in earlier chapters. Were you ever actually empathetic toward these people, or simply tallying up points to get them on your side? A stronger game might have better concealed this behind-the-scenes scorekeeping, but Alex’s power makes the game’s true colors all too visible.
As for the game’s bosses, they’re most efficiently fought one on one, keeping the other characters out of harm’s way. It’s telling, then, that the game’s final area, the labyrinthine Aldalar Tomb, pointedly separates the three heroes. All that build-up to unite the family, and in the end, Greak: Memories of Azur finds it best to keep them apart.
The Ascent’s savviest move is making the arcology its main character. Trains run on their own schedules, NPCs carry on conversations whether you stop to listen to them or not, and there’s no exposition for concepts like “Escher loops” and “the First Law.” You’re not a hero, only a replaceable employee. The commune of off-the-grid coders aren’t relying on you, and there’s nothing you can do to help a traumatized recent arrival who woke to find that his family of 70 years was merely a cryosleep-induced dream. And so you look, listen, and empathize with the concerns of this vibrant, lived-in arcology. It’s a terrible place to live, and a terrifyingly believable premonition of where we might end up, but a wonderful one to get lost in.
That charming, throwaway exchange is just one of the many ways in which the game’s strong writing and character development help to mitigate the campaign’s tedious final hours. It feels like the video game equivalent of a shaggy-dog joke, and while its narrative is fascinating enough to compel you to backtrack not once, but twice, through areas and boss fights that you’ve long since mastered, it’s hard not to wish that Cris Tales had used a little time magic on itself and sped things along so we could have gotten to the good stuff sooner.
Despite its title’s declaration of intent, though, Rift Apart isn’t willing to stand on its own. That’s most evident in the game’s Anomaly puzzles, where you must interact with physical representations of all of Clank’s and Kit’s dimensional possibilities. This is predetermination in action. There’s only one acceptable route for you to guide these representations, like lemmings, down, and that’s the one that has them marching in lockstep along the same path that has defined every Ratchet & Clank to date. In the end, Rift Apart is a superficially entertaining but deeply unfulfilling adventure—one that, like the latest Star Wars trilogy, mistakes a shiny new coat of paint as reason enough to exist.
The more you learn about Selene across the game’s gripping campaign, the easier it is to relate to or, at least, agree with her observation that “I deserve to be here.” That line is also more than a little apt, as it perfectly sums up just how simultaneously rewarding and punishing it is to live in the world of Returnal. Each time you make a perfect jump and air-dash to avoid a cluster of bullets, you earn your way forward, and each time you awkwardly fall off a cliff or gawk as an explosive squid flies at you, you earn the right to try it all over again. The terse thrill of all that fragility makes this a timeless adventure well worth returning to.