Though the length of Ghosts of New Eden’s campaign is useful in establishing the intimate relationship between Red and Antea, it makes the rest of the game feel padded, especially if you’re doing the enjoyable, story-rich sidequests. There just aren’t enough enemy types or Manifestation skills to keep combat feeling fresh, and what you learn within the game’s first 10 hours is more or less what you’ll be doing for the subsequent 20 to 30.
It’s fascinating to see all the ways in which time flows (or doesn’t) throughout the game’s varied regions, as in the frozen Raging Seas, a series of eternally fixed waves and ships locked in battle, some mid-explosion. These places not only serve narrative purposes, but also thematic ones, in that the astral clockwork calendars of the Upper City demonstrate the terrifying effects of broken time as much as the encounters that Sargon may have with alternate versions of himself, some of whom would stop at nothing—including “self”-harm—to break the city’s curse. Put simply, time isn’t merely an effect in The Lost Crown—it’s the consequential core of the game.
It’s indicative of the game’s clear messaging that despite multiple car crashes, a delirious dream sequence, a high-stakes infiltration, and more, the moment that most stands out is a relatively quiet one: Trevor sitting at a piano, playing an original piece that he’s composed. For all the time spent controlling him up to that point, this is the first time where Angela, and by extension the player, can see him as an independent person, one capable of making his own decisions (in this case, his art). That glimpse of his humanity is a moving little flourish that attests to American Arcadia’s belief that we all deserve freedom from coercion and an unreal life.
The aha-moment click of solving a puzzle is consistently satisfying, and on that level alone, The Talos Principle 2 delivers in spades. But where it soars is in the way that the discrete parts introduced throughout the game slowly begin to come together, revealing something akin to one massive, interlocking bit of machinery. If you buy into the game’s conceit, that humans are themselves machines, then these aha moments are more than just the thrill of accomplishment and more like a celebration of our inquisitive humanity and capacity for growth.
Though Jusant gets a bit fanciful in its last level, abandoning its natural elements for an astronomical excursion, the rapturous feeling of climbing the seemingly unclimbable continues to drive the game forward. This is where Jusant’s deliberate, precise mechanics are so vital, as the more responsive the controls, the more responsible players are for each outcome. Nothing is impossible, the game suggests. You just have to take it one step at a time.
Thankfully, every inch of Wonder is bursting with personality, from Mario squeezing through a pipe after eating an Elephant Fruit to your being able to place cardboard cutouts to mark a path for others online and in co-op. That this short and relatively easy game never forces you to master (or even use) abilities like a grappling hook or gliding cap speaks to just how much it’s trying to do, but such minor flaws don’t come at the expense of joy. Wonder is a platforming playground for all ages that, at its best, redefines Mario’s world as one of unlimited potential.
Umbral is a beautiful dark twisted fantasy, and then there’s all of Axiom to explore as well. The developers have made the most of these realms, layering distinct challenges atop one another. And the result is the best of both worlds: Axiom’s dense, gothic world (and its interconnected twin in Umbral) and a second life with which to better appreciate the masocore combat.
The chaotic adaptability in the face of whatever weird mash-up of things that Moving Out 2 throws at you is what makes it more than just a delivery machine for so many puns. The silliness of being a F.A.R.T. is predicated on enjoyable, rock-solid gameplay. If you want to see everything the game has to offer, your moving techniques will have to change right along with the dimensions themselves. That is, after all, what moving’s all about: never sitting still.
Atlas Fallen only falters when it feels as if it’s slowing down its flow, as with an ill-considered sidequest that requires you to carefully follow wildlife to their buried treasures. The faster the game moves, the better it plays, whether that’s in combat or as you traverse a sunken city, occupied swamp, or desert ruin. Stick around past the sluggish first act and both the gameplay and plot get the hint, speeding ahead with the most enjoyable kind of recklessness.
It doesn’t help just how stubbornly Illusion Island’s gameplay traffics in the familiar. It’s not until the last level that it takes off the training wheels and offers much of a challenge for older audiences, but it’s disappointing that it’s game over just as the campaign is getting a head of steam up. Illusion Island, then, has enough magic to make you wish there was more of it.
The background music that plays in each of the hub worlds is jazz, and it’s just as intentional as any of the photographs. Jazz is filled with spontaneous moments of harmony, which turns out to be the main ingredient and lure of Viewfinder. This is a game that, as you retrace the steps of four disparate people who did their best to save humanity, lets you riff along the way.
In all, the game has everything you’d expect of a Meat Boy title, right down to the narrative—a playful, unobtrusive shaggy dog story that builds to a predictably but no less hilariously crass punchline. Turns out that Dr. Fetus building this entire game just to flip Meat Boy the bird is, yes, frivolous and excessive but also, like Mean Meat Machine itself, perfectly fitting.
The most delightfully surprising thing about Harmony is that using the Augural board never feels clinical, given that the choices you make throughout attest to the game’s belief that logic and empathy aren’t mutually exclusive. You almost always know what the rewards are for each of your choices, so picking an option that, say, doesn’t yield egregore, the crystalized energy that fuels each Aspiration and serves as a sort of skill check for certain nodes, demonstrates a real commitment to helping others, not for one’s own sake, but for the sake of others.
Most radio shows have a clear and compelling sense of identity—some sort of distinguishing characteristic that they commit to. That certainly applies to Killer Frequency itself, as it’s a stylishly campy ode to ’80s slashers that’s as unpredictable as it is breezily entertaining. Which isn’t to say that it’s a featherweight experience. The game, after all, touches on the almost sycophantic relationship between a killer who wouldn’t be as feared without news coverage and a show which would have far fewer listeners without relaying said coverage. In all, Killer Frequency is an accessible, relatable adventure that won’t leave you wanting to touch that dial.
The game doesn’t feel particularly focused on or interested in the mystery at hand so much as in better establishing the world of TRON for a future sequel, which may or may not come to fruition. Identity is beautiful and brilliant in spots, but more times than not, there’s no weight to the derezzing or freeing of the various suspects, no emotional connection between these digital creatures and their world. That and more leaves the game feeling too much like reading a rulebook—and one that stops just short of letting you actually take it for a hell of a ride.
Curse of the Sea Rats is ultimately a perfectly average game marred by some poor design choices, like instant-death chasms and repetitive forest and cave areas. The trap-filled final dungeon finds the game at its best and most inventive, and is a joy to fight through and navigate, but it also emphasizes what’s missing everywhere else. Rats!
Even the game’s most effectively bleak ending, in which Jüngle’s founder, Josef Jüngle, is revealed to have been dead and automated for quite some time, is undercut by him still being very much alive in the other two endings. The Last Worker’s conclusions should feel earned—that is, a consequence of the protagonist’s decisions. Instead, they’re as easy and largely frivolous as just adding something to an online shopping cart.
Have a Nice Death has been steadily cranking out content for just over a year in Early Access, and there are some nice combat-related surprises in store for players, like the rare alternative bosses that sometimes pop up in departments you’d long since thought you had mastered. But there still seems to be barely enough variety here to compel players to find the secret ending, let alone to keep replaying on increasingly harder “breakdowns” (the game’s version of difficulties). Turns out, the game’s comic perversion of R.I.P. is truer than it knows. There’s no peace to be found in this endless depiction of Death’s toil, only (paper)work.
Octopath Traveler II’s ultimate triumph may be the tightness of its design and how it wards off repetition. It presents itself with the confidence and experience of a deluxe guided tour, marking all the key spots for you to visit but also encouraging you to wander off the beaten path. It’s utterly engrossing without ever feeling overwhelming—the bite-sized narrative chunks help in that regard—and every system feels fine-tuned for maximal enjoyment. And with so many different experiences in one package, it’s a great game to get lost in eight times over.