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Review: Mass Effect Legendary Edition

Edmonton’s BioWare has created some great series and characters, but none became so close to my heart as the Mass Effect line of games with its roster of heroes and villains. The newly released Mass Effect Legendary Edition brings the original trilogy to a new generation of gamers in a remastered package that lets the games shine far brighter than they ever have before.

Though this is a remaster, not a full-on remake, of the three games, there are are number of quality of life changes – most sizable in the series’ first game. Mass Effect sees an overhaul of the leveling system that makes the game much more enjoyable thanks to the revamped power curve.

Prior to this remaster’s release I was playing through the original game – available on the Xbox consoles via backwards compatibility – on Insanity difficulty and the game-stopping difficulty spikes have been leveled out. The games also run better, even while outputting at 4K, which helps with the action-oriented combat. The result is a game that feels both easier and yet also far more rewarding.

This release also includes almost all the downloadable content (DLC) available for the games, over 40 bits of content in all, except for the Pinnacle Station DLC, due to the source code having been lost over the years. The game also takes a pass on the multiplayer from Mass Effect 3, though if there’s enough demand for it that may yet be added back in.

Wrex. Shepard.

The trilogy lets gamers, who can take the ‘stock’ Shepard in male or female variants or create their own, through an epic space-faring tale of betrayal with some revenge and a dash of ‘saving the universe’ thrown in for good measure. As the Shepard of their choice, players will make decisions with long-lasting consequences – to an extent not often found in games, including character deaths that leave you wish you’d done things differently.

The ability to go Paragon or Renegade – which often don’t really translate to good vs evil, but more doing the right thing vs doing the righteous thing – extends the replay value here. With three games in the package, clocking in at around 55 hours combined for just the main storylines, plus all that DLC, you’ve got a whole lot of gaming ahead of you.

The console experience offers two settings: Performance and Quality. The PS4 is 1080p/60fps in Performance, 1080p/30fps in Quality. PS4 Pro and PS5 both offer up to 1440p/60fps in Performance and up to 4K/30fps (PS4 Pro) and 60fps (PS5) on Quality.

Xbox One consoles offer up to 1080p/60fps in Performance or Quality, while Xbox One X and Series S both offer up to 1440p/60fps in Performance and 4K/30fps in Quality. The Series X is up to 4K/120fps in Performance and 4K/60fps on Quality.

The game also includes an all-new photo mode that allows you to rotate the camera, hide player/non-player characters, and other goodies. It’s a great addition to a franchise that has some gorgeous environments and character models.

What I Loved:

  • Great work on bringing the visuals up to modern standards
  • Top-notch performance transforms the feel of the earlier games
  • Quality of life changes to the first game
  • The “Wrex.” “Shepard.” exchanges are still great
  • Voice acting is still top-tier after all these years
  • The new photo mode!

What I Liked:

  • Character creator changes allow you to carry ‘your’ Shepard over all three games
  • Load time improvements allow for skipping elevator sequences
  • Forgot how much I loved the music
  • Three games + almost all DLC means at least a hundred hours of gaming
  • Better Mako controls

What I Disliked:

  • Mako still a bit frustrating to handle
  • DLC integration feels haphazard

What I Hated:

  • Reminds me there’s no Mass Effect movie…

The Final Word: Mass Effect Legendary Edition is a must-buy for sci-fi lovers who missed out on the original games, but also offers a lot for fans who were around the first time through as well. Incredible value for your dollar.

Available now on PC, PS4, and Xbox One. Playable via backwards compatibility on PS5 and Xbox Series S|X. Series X version reviewed using code provided by the publisher.

Observer: System Redux Review

The decrepit setting of Observer’s futuristic cyberpunk ghetto was already strong, but
better textures and lighting in Observer: System Redux really take it to a new level.

Bloober Team, a Polish game developer, has been around for 12 years and put out several games in a variety of genres, but it wasn’t until they switched to horror that they really found their groove. Layers of Fear was a creepy delight, followed up by strong releases in Observer – read that review here – then Layers of Fear 2, and finally their interpretation of Blair Witch.

The team is currently working on The Medium, planned to launch with the Xbox Series line of consoles but now delayed into early 2021, so they tapped Anshar Studios to remaster Observer for next-gen consoles as Observer: System Redux. Anshar provided art remastering and gameplay improvements, along with some new content for the port to PS5 and Xbox Series consoles, along with a PC version.

The timing on this release seems almost too on point, as the plot features a KPD detective – voiced by the late Rutger Hauer – who is in the opening stages of investigating his son’s call for help when the building is locked down by a plague called Nanophage. The remaster offers up new side cases that flesh out the plot a bit, helping show a bit more of the backstory of the world and what it’s like to be one of Poland’s ‘Class C’ citizens.

While the original nailed the aesthetic of a cyberpunk future’s ghetto, the next-gen version also offers raytracing, animation improvements, and some tweaks to the somewhat underwhelming stealth sections that really help make them more playable and fun.

What I Loved:

  • A strong visual upgrade on an already great looking game
  • Top-notch voice acting
  • Great audio overall
  • Great world building and lore background

What I Liked:

  • Some great tension builds towards the ‘scare’ moments
  • New animations and side story content!

What I Disliked:

  • A little too reliant on jump scares for my taste

What I Hated:

  • Nothing

Observer: System Redux is available now on PS5, Xbox Series consoles, and PC. Reviewed on Xbox Series X using code provided by the publisher.

Review – The Falconeer

The Falconeer continually reminds me of Sea Of Thieves, and it’s not just the stylized graphics or environments dominated by water – it’s something about the pace of the game.

This is a game I can fire up when I’m stressed after a bad day and just soar around the skies taking it all in. The game’s art style, like Sea of Thieves, just has something in it that works for me. The bright colours, the rolling waves, the gorgeous skies – it’s soothing to turn the HUD off and just take a low flight over the ocean, seeing whales jump out of the water and other random events, and not worry about anything for a bit.

When you’re decompressed and ready for more, the game offers up a combat system that’s reminiscent of Crimson Skies – only on the back of a giant falcon. Whatever bird you’re riding – the game offers up a few with different stats – has an energy bar that can be used to gain altitude, fly faster, do tight turns, or pull off evasive barrel rolls. When depleted that bar can be refilled by diving, which creates a balancing act between using it for gaining height and having enough left to use for your defensive moves.

There are also some environmental objects to keep an eye out for, including waterspouts that will give your bird a free ride to the upper atmosphere, lightning storms to recharge your guns, and jet streams that help you transit the long distances between settlements faster.

The story – a sprawling tale that will have you questioning what’s really going on in this world – is told over several chapters, and there are some difficulty spikes that will necessitate grinding out some side missions for money to upgrade both your bird, using potions that add abilities like more health or faster regeneration, or your weaponry. Early on there’s some skill check battles that will make sure you know how to dodge incoming fire or keep a lock on your enemy as you battle in a WWII style furball of tightly-circling combatants, but for the most part it’s simply a matter of ‘my guns are doing enough damage, I need new guns’ damage checks.

Falconeer’s story throws you through several factions as you switch falconeers at key points to give you some perspective on the other cultures at play in the world. It’s an interesting approach that allows for some of the twists and betrayals to really hit home for those who are paying attention and not simply waiting until they can go fly again.

For as fun as combat is, and I didn’t namecheck the legendary Crimson Skies without good reason, I had just as much fun in The Falconeer simply roaming the skies taking it all in. This is a world with personality, and I still want to see what else it has to offer.

I played on both the Xbox One X and Xbox Series X, and while the new console has a decided edge in load times it was a great experience on both. The game offers up 4K resolution at 60 fps on the Series X, and upscaled 4K at 60 fps on the One X. The Series X also offers up an upscaled 4K at 120 fps mode that is incredibly smooth if you have the monitor or TV to take advantage of it.

What I Loved:

  • Great dogfights
  • Gorgeous environments
  • Super relaxing feel to the non-combat moments
  • Rock-solid performance
  • Great photo mode

What I liked:

  • ‘play at your own pace’ style allows players to explore when they want, for as long as they want
  • Bird/weapon upgrades are kept simple – no need to read pages of stats to figure things out
  • A game you can jump back into just to explore
  • Story beats that really work thanks to seeing every side of the conflict

What I Disliked:

  • Difficulty spikes that force you to grind out cash
  • Could have used more mission variety

What I Hated:

  • Nothing

The Falconeer is available now on Xbox consoles and PC for $38.99 Canadian. Reviewed on Xbox One X and Xbox Series X using code provided for review.

Review – Watch Dogs: Legion

I didn’t really understand the full impact of Ubisoft Toronto’s ‘Play As Anyone’ tagline for Watch Dogs: Legion until I was an hour or so into the London-based open-world stealth-heavy action title, playing on hard difficulty with permadeath turned on.

Permadeath is an option in Legion, but unlike other games it’s not the end of the world if you make some poor choices and lose your character in a hail of gunfire. Instead losing an operative means picking up where you left off with another of DedSec’s recruits – if you have any left. Lose all your recruits and it’s game over, so pick them smartly but don’t be too selective…

This ‘Play As Anyone’ approach serves a couple of purposes in Legion. First off, you’re going to be playing a bunch of characters that you’d likely never have created yourself. I spent much of the first few hours as Klaudia Kowalczyk, for example, a middle-aged woman with a red spiked mohawk who made up for her lack of mobility with a silenced pistol, the ability to hack access keys from unlimited distance, and a bit of cloaking tech I invested in that made her functionally invisible for short stretches.

Each operative you recruit has a selection of random traits from an extensive list of possibilities, but not all of them are positives. Maybe you find an MMA fighter who does double damage with melee attacks, but he’s a celebrity so he’s randomly recognized. Or maybe he’s not great at stealth thanks to the ‘flatulence’ trait, or got unlucky and wound up tagged with the ‘randomly dies’ trait… Some of these combinations don’t make a lot of sense, like why does an office worker have an AK-47 and the ability to automatically steal money from people he takes down, but if you want to make up your own backstory to fill that in I’m sure there’s room to explain it.

Secondly, you’re going to see emergent gameplay from this – like when Klaudia wound up in arrested and I had to send in Elia Healy to rescue her. I had recruited Elia solely for the comedy value of her ability to summon flying cargo drones, which can be ridden to avoid ground traffic and shortcut your way to some objectives. After all, why sneak, hack, and shoot my way through multiple floors of a building to rescue Klaudia when I can – and did – just land the drone on the roof and go down one floor to free her.

This also works against you, however. Infiltrating a building I was using an agent who was gifted with speed hacking skills – only they didn’t do him much good against a riot drone that spotted him. The replacement I sent to do the job didn’t have the skills to take the same path, so I had to plan out a new attack – not every mission can be ‘solved’ with the cargo drone approach.

Check out the first 15 minutes of the game on Xbox One X.

Aside from the drones, the gameplay is familiar to those who’ve played past Watch Dogs games and if you enjoyed those, you’ll have a good time with Legion. The stealth elements are great, having been refined over the past titles, and the combat is equally satisfying.

The story is better than those past games, with characters that are more fleshed-out and a plot that seems pulled out of current headlines. A political crisis, a pandemic, anti-government and anti-police protests – there are a lot of references that, though this is set in London, could be straight out of the US.

This is a version of London that, though I’ve never been there, seems close to reality, but condensed. Some areas I recognized from movies or TV shows, and the game offers you the chance to check it all out at your leisure thanks to an ‘autodrive’ mechanic in all the cars that lets you set a destination and have the vehicle drive you there. While this impressively obeys all the rules of the road along the way I did find myself wishing someone had the ability to hack the autodrive into a ‘drive it like you stole it’ mode, however…

What I Loved:

  • Stealth-based action is a ton of fun
  • Prepping for a building infiltration using hacked cameras to find enemies
  • ‘Play As Anyone’ far more than just a marketing tagline
  • Great recreation of London

What I Liked:

  • Solid shooting controls
  • Impressive recreation of London
  • Good story that doesn’t drag on
  • A ton of tech gadgets to unlock and play with

What I Disliked:

  • Driving controls need work
  • Hard to find drone assailants during firefights

What I Hated:

  • Autodrive is such a granny driver

The Final Word: Congrats to Ubisoft Toronto for proving ‘Play As Anyone’ is more than just a tagline. Watch Dogs: Legion sticks you in the shoes of characters you’d never have chosen otherwise, and it works more often than it doesn’t.


Watch Dogs: Legion is available now for PS4, Xbox One, and PC. Available at launch for PS5 and Xbox Series consoles. Reviewed on Xbox One X using code provided by the publisher.

Review – EA Sports NHL 21

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins heads up ice against the Calgary Flames.

I’m not sure if EA is finally getting the message or if this is just some kind of trap 2020 is laying for fans of the EA Sports NHL franchise, but NHL 21 finally gets the kind of improvements players have wanted for years.

The skating, revamped last year with RPM Tech 2.0 to allow ‘on the fly’ puck pickups, gets subtler tweaks this year with the addition of chip and slip dekes to avoid contact either in open ice or along the boards. There must be a Crosby fan of the development team, as they’ve added the back-of-the-net bank self-pass that he uses so effectively to create room, as well as the Mohawk turn he’s been known to use to open up for cross-ice passing. In addition, Svechnikov’s lacrosse-style goal is in the game and technically possible to pull off, though I haven’t managed it yet, as is Kucherov’s ‘no move’ shootout deke.

Changes are also found on the defensive side of the puck, with AI that makes much smarter decisions about gap control, do more to challenge and limit zone entries, and there’s more dogged pursuit of the puck by opposing forwards. Goaltenders are also improved, even after the overhaul last year that saw them get over 400 new animations, with better reads on developing plays allowing them to get in position and give up less cheap goals.

There were two key things listed in my NHL 20 review that I wanted to see in NHL 21: distinctive skating strides and an overhaul of the Be A Pro mode to make it more of an RPG.

Let’s see how they did.

Distinctive skating strides? Not only did that make it in, but your created players can have their own custom-made stride thanks to a toolset that includes the ability to change your body angle, your stride style, your arm movement – the whole nine years. Expect to see some truly horrific skating styles come out of that tool.

What about overhauling Be A Pro into a ‘live the life of an NHL player’ mode with RPG-like choices and repercussions? It’s all that and more. Not only does Be A Pro now feature conversational dialogue choices with your ownership, coaches, teammates, and media, but there are also luxury items you can buy using your salary to give yourself permanent or temporary stat boosts.

Connor McDavid versus three Calgary Flames defenders doesn’t seem like a fair fight thanks to improvements to the RPM Tech 2.0 animations that allows for chip and slip dekes this year.

After years of the mode largely being ignored, it feels like Be A Pro finally got the overhaul players wanted for EA Sports NHL 21. From the menus to the content, everything feels new and exciting at long last. I’m loving the off-ice conversations I have with my agent and teammates, and getting called over to the bench by my coach during a game ramps up the tension and pressure. Do I promise to keep the opposing team from scoring, or do I want to call my shot and promise I’ll get a goal instead?

While Be A Pro was clearly the center of attention this time around, Franchise mode also got some great upgrades. The trade deadline is now a race against the clock, simulating the real world’s tension for GM’s who must either find a deal or risk being left out in the cold. Trade AI is improved, and behind the scenes there’s a new system of valuing players and draft picks in trades that feels a lot closer to reality than in past years.

For all the improvements, there are still some things that need to be addressed though. Legacy AI issues, for example, continue to haunt the game – particularly in the offensive zone, where teammates can’t seem to figure out how to run the systems I’ve called. They do a better job of filling open space on the rush than in past years, but if you settle down into a puck cycle it quickly goes all to hell and looks like a bunch of 8-year-old players chasing the puck. I’d love to see that fixed for next year’s release.

Another thing for next year, and the game’s first appearance on next-gen systems, would be revamps to player faces. The body types are generally good, but the faces could use some work. Understandable, given the restrictions COVID-19 placed people under, but it seems like there were no new player faces scanned for this year’s outing. I’m one of the biggest Oilers fans out there, for example, but I couldn’t pick fully half of the team’s NHL 21 player faces out of a lineup and that probably includes Leon Draisaitl…who won the Hart, Ted Lindsay, and Art Ross this year.

EA Sports NHL 21 is one of the best NHL games EA has ever put out. The focus on Be A Pro really stands out, and the upgrade to RPM 2.0 Tech last season continues to pay dividends as well. I can’t wait to see what the team can do next year with all the power of next-gen systems to play with.

EA Sports NHL 21 is available now on PS4 and Xbox One. Xbox One version reviewed using code provided by the publisher.

Review – Marvel’s Avengers

Marvel’s Avengers was pegged as a Destiny-like loot game ahead of its release, a notion supported by all the pre-release marketing, but that sells the game criminally short.

Don’t get me wrong, there is that whole Games As A Service aspect to Avengers and when you hit the ‘endgame’ here, you’ll jump into the many missions available to you to grind out levels and loot to improve your character. Before that though, there’s a great campaign that deserved a lot more focus than their marketing gave it.

As Kamala Khan – Ms. Marvel if we’re using our made-up names, a character I was aware of but not familiar with going into the game, players will help pull the Avengers back together and you’ll play as Black Widow, Captain America, Hulk, Thor, and Iron Man during the game’s 15-ish hour story mode as she tracks them down and recruits them back into the team.

Khan, played perfectly by Sandra Saad, is a delight as she transforms from squealing fangirl who is awestruck by the Avengers into a hero in her own right. The transformation is handled better than other ‘ordinary person to hero’ evolutions, if only because there’s no ‘flip the switch’ moment where she goes from normal to perfection.

Khan doubts herself through most of the game. She makes mistakes, and she gains experience and understanding. She never totally loses her fangirl adoration of the Avengers roster, but it becomes tempered by understanding they’re regular people who make mistakes, disagree, and even fight. I won’t spoil the ups and downs of the plot, but for comic fans it’s worth playing and probably justifies the price of admission on its own.

Get done with the story, though – or jump in early if you don’t mind some late-game spoilers, and the rest of the game expands into the endgame form via the Avengers Initiative. Jump into any of the dozen-plus missions available – with more added regularly and changes made to the modifiers on existing missions to keep them fresh – and take on enemies to gather loot and accessories to increase your character’s power.

Playing with up to three friends or allowing the AI to fill those roles, gamers can choose to be Black Widow, Captain America, Hulk, Thor, Iron Man, or Ms. Marvel with the caveat that there can be only one of each hero in the game. The combat is quick and frantic, with a mix of melee and ranged combat that’s a ton of fun for both button mashers and combo artists. There’s a full selection of stuns, knockbacks, shield breakers, launchers, air juggles, and other beat-em-up staples that players can take advantage of but mashing on the buttons can work for the lower challenge levels.

Each character comes with a ‘battle pass’ to fill by completing daily and weekly challenges, unlocking new emotes, takedowns, outfits, and the game’s currency. All six of the starter characters receive their battle pass for free, allowing gamers to pile up currency in advance of the addition of new characters as downloadable content (DLC).

All DLC for the game will be free – new regions, new adventures, new enemies, and even new characters. The new characters will have a battle pass associated with them, costing 1,000 of the game’s currency to unlock. Completing the battle pass returns that 1,000 plus another 400 more, so there should be no need to spend money on future battle pass additions. The game also has skins to purchase, but I haven’t seen one that tempted me to spend any of the currency I’ve gathered – if they hope to finance future development with outfit sales, they need to do a better job on that front.

Marvel’s Avengers is a must-buy for comic fans, and has a real shot at being one of the most complete beat-em-ups released this year – even if nobody thought that’s what kind of game it was going to be. The endgame needs some fleshing out, but it’s more than enough to keep you busy until it’s been rounded into shape. The game is available now on PC, PS4, and Xbox One. PS4 and Xbox One versions offer free upgrades to the next-gen, though it’s not yet known if game progress will carry over.

Review – Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning

Way back in 2012, Kingdoms of Amalur was exactly the kind of game you’d expect a guy like Curt Schilling to back. It was a little bit fresh take, and a little bit generic at the same time – a melding of the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online roleplaying games) titles that Schilling was so into with a single player RPG.

At the time, and as a fellow MMORPG devotee, I felt the game was maybe a bit underappreciated both critically, though it got overall positive reviews, and at retail, though it sold fairly well. Amalur offers a world where gamers can play more or less the way they’d like, able to mix and match between three main class types: Might, Finesse, and Sorceror that dovetail with the classic D&D style Warrior, Thief, Mage archetypes.

The system wasn’t quite as freewheeling as Asheron’s Call, the first MMORPG I ever really sank substantial time into, but it was a lot more open than RPG fans were really used to. Additionally, there were all the crafting abilities from MMORPGs like alchemy, blacksmithing, and sagecraft to help round out your character build.

Even the world design felt like an MMORPG, with large zones to explore. Different biomes held different enemies as well as new discoveries to be made, and it all felt like this was a legitimately real fantasy world – and there’s no wonder, with novelist R.A. Salvatore providing the underlying universe and lore that tied it all together.

What changed between then and now, the launch of Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning? Well 38 Studios, the company founded by Schilling, declared bankruptcy, and laid off its entire staff a little over a month after releasing the game. FBI investigations started, then the SEC got involved, and it was a huge mess. Ownership of the IP was contested for a while, but ultimately bought by THQ Nordic along with the remnants of Project Copernicus – Schilling’s hoped-for MMORPG set in the same universe.

THQ Nordic saw some spark in that IP that they’re trying to fan into a flame again, and the first step of that is this remaster. Keep in mind that this is a remaster, not a remake or a re-imagining, it’s the same basic gameplay with a new coat of paint on an eight-year-old framework. Don’t go in expecting miracles, it’s not going to look like an all-new game, but it’s still a game that offers something unique even after eight years of game development advancements across the industry.

I still love my stealth build, for example. At times, though I haven’t played an MMORPG in years, it still reminds me of the ‘good old days’ of stealthing into combat and wreaking havoc on opposing players and enemy AI. Nostalgia with a fresh coat of paint? That’s all I wanted out of this remaster and it delivers.

What I Loved:

  • Great MMORPG-reminiscent gameplay, still solid eight years later
  • Top-notch lore and writing

What I Liked:

  • Some nice visual upgrades to texture and overall image clarity
  • Good voice work, with a varied cast
  • Technical issues from old hardware are gone

What I Disliked:

  • Quests can get repetitive
  • Not much of an overall visual upgrade

What I Hated:

  • Makes me want to play an MMO again…

Kingdoms of Amalur: Re-Reckoning is available now on PC, PS4, and Xbox One. Reviewed on Xbox One X, using code provided by the publisher.

Review – PGA Tour 2K21

Golf is a tough game at the best of times, and that’s a lesson that PGA Tour 2K21 carries with it.

On one hand you can feel like a golfing god after nailing a difficult iron shot out of the rough, leaving yourself on the dancefloor with a solid shot at birdie. On the other, you’ll want to throw your clubs in the nearest water hazard after five-putting for a triple bogey.

None of this is new to anyone that either golfs or has played past golf sims by HB Studios, but it’s easily the best thing they bring to the genre.

I mean don’t get me wrong, the Tiger Woods games were fun – but they weren’t rewarding the way HB’s games are. Pounding the ball 400+ yards, adding spin after you shoot, then changing it in midair when you realize you misjudged the wind might get you -25 or better on a round, but what’s the point when it feels better to get that hard-fought even par?

I finished this round at -1… That shows just how quickly
the wheels can fall off a great round in PGA Tour 2K21.

PGA Tour 2K21 wouldn’t be nearly as fun and rewarding if it didn’t feel like your results were in your hands the entire time, and it delivers on that front. The swing mechanics are top-tier in the genre, with the ability to shape your shots allowing you to attack the greens or – more likely – recover with some style after a poor shot.

Just like real life, there are multiple ways to approach every shot and none are the ‘right’ way for everyone. Learning the courses will take time, and your approach will change as your skills improve. Keep learning and your scores will go down, at least for the most part – you can expect to still see some ‘well, let’s forget that one and move on’ holes as you experiment with new approaches.

But if you think you’re going to learn every course, you can forget that right now. With a ridiculously powerful course creator in the hands of players, there’s a virtually endless supply of new courses to play. Like any user-generated-content there’s a fairly wide variance in the quality level, but believe me when I say there’s enough quality courses to keep you playing forever.

The game sports a powerful course creator that will keep new courses coming in.

What I Loved:

  • It’s golf in digital form. It’s unforgiving, it’s challenging, and it’s so, so rewarding
  • Great swing mechanics
  • Ridiculously powerful course creator
  • A career mode at last!

What I Liked:

  • Online play was stable and problem-free
  • Online societies give me someone to play with constantly
  • Graphics are improved from past games

What I Disliked:

  • Graphics still need work, particularly the player models
  • No replay/photo mode

What I Hated:

  • Golfing in heavy wind is SO DAMN HARD

The Final Word: PGA Tour 2K21 is a stellar game of golf, unforgiving as hell but also the most rewarding experience you’ll have when you finally ‘get good’ at it.

Mastering it?

Yeah, good luck with that.

Review – Mortal Shell

I have a lot of questions about how Cold Symmetry was founded three years ago by a team of four and has already – during a world-wide pandemic – somehow cranked out Mortal Shell, one of my favourite games in the ever-growing ‘Soulslike’ genre.

At the game’s outset players are introduced to the Foundling, a pale nightmarish figure that reminds me of the Engineer from the movie ‘Prometheus’ but with even less of a tan if that’s possible. In the first dozen or so minutes players will get every scrap of the game’s ‘how this works’ handholding and then get dumped into a boss fight with only light and heavy attacks to carry the offensive workload, a dodge and dodge roll to handle the bulk of the defensive chores, and Harden – the ability to freeze in place and harden your skin to ward off a single blow, a key tool for when you’re facing imminent death.

By itself, the Harden ability would be enough for Cold Symmetry’s debut title to show they have some ideas of their own to inject into the genre but wait – there’s more! As you explore the world, you’ll encounter Shells – the fallen remains of four heroes that you can inhabit and animate, each possessing unique abilities to unlock.

Harros the Vassal is the first you’ll run into as part of the tutorial. This is the solidly ‘average’ shell, with good durability (health), stamina (used for attacking and dodging), and resolve (which powers your weapon abilities) – but not excelling in any area. A good starter Shell, Harros has abilities that center around the Harden ability to reduce or reset its cooldown, and to make it last longer.

Tiel the Acolyte sports low durability and resolve, but sky-high stamina makes this a great Shell for those who want to use hit and run tactics or just spam attacks like mad. Tiel also picks up some amazing abilities centered around poison, which helps offset the low health and resolve.

Solomon the Scholar has so-so stamina, but high durability and off-the-charts resolve help make up for that. Solomon’s abilities focus largely on refilling his already ridiculous resolve pool, making this Shell perfect for those who want to use weapon abilities over and over in a battle.

Eredrim the Venerable has maxed out durability thanks to a massive suit of armour but pays for that battleship-like defensive strength with low stamina and resolve. With abilities that center around doing increased damage to enemies, Eredrim can be a fearsome machine in combat but it’s not the easiest Shell to master.

Mortal Shell is a breath of fetid swamp air into the Soulslike genre, but that’s more of a positive than it sounds…

Roaming the world of Mortal Shell it’s easy to see how those four adventurers came to meet their fate, with a non-stop barrage of enemies waiting to ambush you from behind a tree or corner, or to materialize in front of you with little in the way of warning. Fortunately, after a bit of exploration you’ll learn how to parry attacks and, if you have a bar of resolve stored up, can then fire off a riposte that heals you while doing enough damage to kill most enemies. Between the parry/riposte and Harden mechanics, I found I didn’t miss having a block button at all. The parry system is on a tight timing window and several enemy attacks have odd windups that seem designed to draw out and waste an early parry, but when it works it’s incredibly satisfying.

Should all your defensive tricks fail you and your Shell’s health drop to zero for the first time, the Foundling is ejected in an explosion that momentarily Hardens enemies around you, freezing them solid. That provides just enough of a grace period for you to regain your feet, at which point it’s vital to quickly re-inhabit the abandoned Shell, as a single hit will kill the Foundling. Regain the Shell and you’ll have full health and stamina, but be more careful as being reduced to zero again means death.

Surviving in Fallgrim is a long way from thriving however, so you’ll need to gather Tar and Glimpses to unlock the abilities your Shell can bring to the battlefield. Both can be gathered from fallen enemies or from the environment, but the balance – at least in my experience – was a little out of whack at the start with not enough Glimpses dropping to allow me to spend my abundance of Tar. Gather up enough and seek out Sester Genessa, a mysterious figure who appears virtually everywhere you go and can grant you deeper access to your Shells.

Other vendors are willing to take your Tar in exchange for consumables, but it felt like I would be wasting a precious resource to use it that way. Enemy mobs will drop bits of rat and rotten food for you to eat to heal up and healing mushrooms spawn in the environment, making it hard to justify spending Tar outside of my Shell improvement plan.

What I Loved:

  • Great combat that kept expanding in strategy as I played
  • Stellar progression system
  • I felt wholeheartedly rooted in this creepy world, great atmosphere
  • Harden might be my new favourite skill
  • Wait, no – it’s the Parry/Riposte instakill and heal
  • Oh no, I know – it’s using the Lute to lure enemies away from their camp
  • Some great boss fights

What I Liked:

  • Some so-so boss fights, including that last one…
  • Good assortment of enemies, but could have had more variety
  • Every Shell has a unique set of abilities and suits a different playstyle
  • World layout was easy to pick up and navigate
  • Item ‘familiarity’ unlocks knowledge of items by using them
  • New Game + mode

What I Disliked:

  • Some cheap hits, like being attacked at the end of a cutscene
  • I’d kill for a ranged class
  • Some technical issues, but nothing major
  • Going to be super short if you’re super skilled (I’m not)

What I Hated:

  • Nothing

The Final Word:
An incredibly impressive first effort from Cold Symmetry and leaves me wondering what they’ll turn out next. One of my favourite games this year.

Mortal Shell is available now on PC (via the Epic Games Store), PS4, and Xbox One. Reviewed on Xbox One X using review code provided by the publisher.

Review – Terrorarium

Terrorarium, available now on Steam from indie studio Stitch Media, is heavily inspired by Pikmin but adds a heavy amount of user-generated creation to help keep things fresh.

As The Gardener, players take the reins over an army of Moogu – small mushroom creatures that she can command, lead, and sacrifice as necessary to make her way through the game’s levels. Throw Moogu into the hungry maw of a beast to get a prized fruit, or fire them at rocks to smash them apart – just don’t get them wet… It’s not a Gremlins thing, they just can’t swim. Lava’s also a problem, so keep them on the straight and narrow, at least until it’s time to sacrifice them in your own best interest.

While your first Moogu are a basic ‘throw them to feed creatures or break things’ type, they pick up some different abilities along the way. You’ll find red fire ones to burn down barricades, for example, but most of the time your key ability is your ability to control the little devils. Throw them over a barricade of spikes you can’t walk through, then wade through water they can’t go through, and then reunite on the other side – that kind of ‘how do I do this without everyone dying’ puzzle is a large part of the gameplay.

One downside is that the Moogu can be difficult to control. Walking along a raised pathway above lava, for example, is a whole lot more dangerous than it should be. I started holding down the spacebar – used to gather the Moogu close by – to keep the little troublemakers from throwing themselves into the lava. I don’t know if they’re suicidal or just stupid, but either way it was incredibly frustrating to lose enough that I couldn’t pass a level because too many had pitched themselves into the lava.

There’s a full-on level editor that’s included, and it’s powerful enough to do some inventive things but requires a level of spatial awareness to create great levels that’s just beyond me. Fortunately, you can hit up a menu to access content others have created, and there’s already a decent selection available.

Terrorarium is a fun little puzzle game that’s easy to pick up and play but expands quickly enough to keep your interest over a longer timeline. If the level editor proves popular with the creative types, gamers should get a lot of playtime out of it.