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Ethereal Review – Stay In Your Lane

By restricting traditional movement and thrusting you into carefully constructed 2D mazes, simply getting around Ethereal‘s levels presents challenging conundrums that are deeply satisfying to overcome. Despite some uneven pacing and technical issues marring the overall experience, Ethereal is a delightful game that contrasts a soothing ambiance with intricate and challenging puzzle designs.

Ethereal’s opening is mysterious, but not in the best way. Starting in a monochrome world with harsh black and white streaks across the screen, it’s difficult to make sense of your surroundings and options. It’s an unnecessarily confusing introduction to Ethereal, which otherwise takes care to slowly introduce new mechanics before nudging you towards increasingly complex puzzles.

Outside of its central hub, Ethereal is wonderfully colorful. Your avatar leaves inky streaks of color behind them as they move, corresponding to a limited but carefully chosen palette that paints the walls around you with bright hues. A fish-eye style lens warps each world near the edges, making it feel like you’re traversing a wrapped around globe rather than an endless 2D plane set on top of a harsh white background. Ethereal’s stylings are subtle but work well together, producing a distinctive look that never wears thin.

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Movement in Ethereal is central to its puzzles. You’re restricted to sliding across 2D planes, with carefully placed walls blocking your progress. You overcome them by hopping through the closest wall either above or below you, shifting you into an entirely new row to move across. It’s slightly confusing to wrap your head around at first, but getting the hang of seamlessly moving around each stage is satisfying to learn. Identifying patterns in level layouts lets you quickly zip around each of them, allowing you to reach your objectives with ease and comfortably map a route to your exit once you’re done.

Each stage tasks you with obtaining a series of color-coded shapes in sequential order. It’s easy to see where most are placed as soon as you enter a level, but reaching them in the order required is rarely straightforward. Although levels are small, they are labyrinthine. They are sometimes made overly complicated, with unnecessary routes and obstacles littering the peripheral of the main stage and baiting you into considering red-herring routes. Misdirection is a core principle of well-designed puzzles, but Ethereal doesn’t make it easy enough to rectify a foolish misstep. You’ll typically have to redo all your previous moves in reverse to get back on track, which is more confusing than it should be. It quickly becomes frustrating, making each error feel more like a waste of time than a constructive learning experience.

Thankfully, Ethereal’s 24 unique puzzles don’t struggle with variety. Early ones simply rely on the freshness of the game’s movement to generate complexity, but it’s not long before new interactions change how you think about moving through each level. One will rotate the level by 90-degrees, for example, turning previously insurmountable walls into new points for you to hop between. Another creates a black, negative space that offers a larger range of movement, which gives you the ability to move walls and alter a level’s layout.

These mechanisms are introduced intelligently too, by first appearing in the hub world that precede levels designed around them. Their simple introduction whets your appetite while the larger puzzles they’re used in build upon their numerous possibilities in inventive ways. At first, each stage is centered around only one of these mechanics at a time, but puzzles get increasingly challenging as Ethereal starts combining them. The difficulty curve can feel a little steep around the half-way point, and remains a little uneven up until the end, but Ethereal rarely feels unfair, only dipping into frustration when technical issues get in the way.

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There were numerous instances where, after interacting with one of the aforementioned mechanisms, a bug inexplicably transported me to another end of the level–often in a position that made movement impossible. In these instances, the only solution is to restart the level entirely, which is frustrating given how long some stages can be. Having to tediously repeat numerous movements in order to return to the same spot you were before is frustrating enough, but occasionally encountering the same bug numerous times in the same level is infuriating.

Ethereal’s soothing ambient soundtrack and delightfully catchy sound effects do alleviate the frustrations to a degree, while its ever-changing aesthetic is suitably elegant and effective at keeping you engaged with its puzzles and not distracted by unnecessary visual information. The soft water colors of each stage shift with each objective you reach, eventually being diluted into a simple monochromatic theme once you’ve finished. It’s an effective way to measure your progress through a stage and help inform you of what color shape you’ve just cleared from the stage without the need for a HUD. Ethereal’s visual simplicity echoes its ease of control but doesn’t compromise its beauty in the process.

Ethereal’s 24 puzzles shouldn’t take that long to complete, only overstaying their welcome when technical issues force you to repeatedly restart them. Although there are also a few uneven spikes in difficulty, the game’s inviting visuals and soothing sound effects dress puzzles that are intelligently designed around your limited mobility. Ethereal is a satisfyingly challenging and unique puzzle game that serves as a delightful way to spend an afternoon.

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Tom Clancy's The Division 2 Review – Capitol Gains

I don’t know why I’m in Washington DC; some lady just told me to be here. But there are civilians in distress, armed gangs roaming the streets, and me, my pals, and the second amendment are apparently the only ones who can actually do anything about it. I have no idea what, if anything, is going on with the seemingly important people I meet. But so long as I’m helping folks, sending (presumably) bad people to bed, walking the pretty streets, and picking up a new pair of gloves every so often, I’m very happy to hang around.

In the world of Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, the USA has been ravaged by a virus and society has crumbled. While those who remain try to survive by banding together in groups of various dispositions, the Strategic Homeland Division activates highly specialized sleeper agents to try and restore order. It’s a setting ripe in potential, perhaps to tell a ripping techno-thriller story that scrutinizes the structures of our modern society and government, or perhaps to make a video game that leverages the chaos that occurs when multiple idealistic groups clash in a vie for power in a lawless city. The Division 2 only does one of these things.

It’s not the story. Throughout the entirety of The Division 2’s main campaign, never did the game spend a satisfactory amount of time on any semblance of an overarching plot, or the predicaments of its supposedly important figures. There are no character arcs, only abrupt setups and consequences. Narrative devices, like audio logs found in the world, add little of consequence. Even the game’s biggest macguffins–the President of the United States and his briefcase containing a cure for the virus–have a minimal amount of absolutely forgettable screen time. The opportunity to use The Division 2 to create meaningful fiction is wasted.

Instead, The Division 2 focuses its narrative chops into worldbuilding. The city, a ravaged Washington DC, initially feels a little homogenous in the way most Western cities do. But after some time, the personality of the different districts–the buildings, the landmarks, the natural spaces, and the ways they’ve been repurposed or affected by the cataclysm–begins to shine through. It’s this strength of environment which lays a very strong foundation for The Division 2 as a video game, creating an engrossing, believable, and contiguous open world.

Moving from your safehouse to the open world and your next mission area is almost entirely seamless. It’s something that was also true of the original Division, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the simple act of going from place to place in The Division 2 is one of the game’s more rewarding aspects. One road may lead to a skirmish with a rival patrol or an optional activity, another might simply give you another stirring scene of urban decay in the morning sun. An obscured shortcut through an apartment block might turn up some useful items in an abandoned home, which you might decide to donate to the makeshift settlements where civilians have attempted to rebuild their lives.

No Caption Provided
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Visiting those settlements–initially as hovels, before they gradually grow and become more charming, vibrant places thanks to your efforts in the world–becomes a strong motivator early on in the absence of a plot to chase. Outside main missions, which are dedicated to the weakening of rival factions and achieving indiscriminate objectives, the game’s “Projects” are one of the most lucrative means of earning experience to better your character. Projects ask you to donate resources you find out in the world and participate in side activities, encouraging you to spend more time in the world, see new areas, fight new battles, search for new equipment to use, and find enjoyment in that. The Division 2 is, after all, a game devoted to providing you with a continuous stream of gripping conflicts, valuable rewards, and a perpetual sense of progress and satisfaction from doing these things. It does those things very well.

You spend a lot of time hunkered behind cover, popping out to fire at any enemy dumb enough to expose themselves. With the large amount of weapon variety available, this familiar facet of combat is solid in itself. Add to that the ability to equip two special skills from a possible eight–which include tools such as riot shields, drones, and from what I can gather, robot bees of some sort–and combat gets pretty interesting. But the vector that really keeps The Division 2’s combat lively for upwards of 60 hours is the behaviour and diversity of its enemy types.

No Caption Provided

That time you spend in cover? The Division 2 doesn’t want you to just stay there. You can go down very quickly if you’re out in the open, but the game has a dozen ways to always keep you taking those risks and finding better firing positions–aggressive melee units, remote control cars equipped with sawblades, even the regular assault units frequently attempt to outflank you. Those special abilities? You absolutely need to use them to their full potential to survive some encounters, whether by throwing out the seeker mines or the automated turret to keep enemies at bay while you focus on a priority target, or perhaps utilizing the chemical launcher to start a fire and create a zone of denial.

The effort needed to take out an adversary is relatively reasonable for a shooter that prioritizes the RPG nature of its combat model, but some of the tougher enemies have additional, visible layers of protection which you need to focus on breaking if you want to land critical hits. On the flip side, some enemies have additional, obtuse weak points which can work to your advantage, but only if you can hit them. The fuel tank on the back of a flamethrower unit might be feasible, but when you start running into the terrifying robotic quadruped in post-campaign activities, whose tiny weak point only reveals itself seconds before it fires its devastating railgun, you have to assess whether you can afford to take on that challenge among all the other things pressuring you. The Division 2 throws a lot of hurdles at you, but also gives you the means to quickly counter and resolve them. Whether you can juggle that many balls at once is what keeps combat continually tense and exciting.

What’s also exciting is the treasure at the end of these gauntlets. The Washington locations, refashioned into memorable combat arenas, are often rewarding in their own right (a fight in a planetarium is an early standout). But improving your equipment is the vital, tangible part that keeps you feeling like you’re making progress. You receive new gear in generous amounts, some dropped by an enemy or looted from a container found in the world, others rewarded for completing a mission, and the next dose always feels in reach. The weapon variety forces you to consider something completely different to take advantage of a power boost, and the armor variety provides an impressive number of different cosmetic looks. The Division 2 incorporates a microtransaction and loot box system for its inconsequential clothing options, though these can be found in the world and earned of your own accord, too.

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Like combat, gear remains intriguing throughout The Division 2 not just because of the abstract desire to have bigger numbers attached to your person and progress further through the game’s challenges, but also through a raft of “talents.” These add unique perks that complement particular skills or styles of play, like providing bonuses within a certain range or when enemies are burning or your armor is depleted. The brands of armor also have a part to play, whereby equipping a number of pieces from a single manufacturer provide additional advantages. These bonuses become particularly attractive to obsess over in the endgame, when the world is retaken by a tougher, more merciless enemy faction called Black Tusk, and you need to ensure your ability to fight them is the best it can be.

For the hundreds of pieces you will inevitably want to discard, the ability to sell or dismantle them for parts to either purchase or craft pieces you want gives value to everything you pick up. Or you might retain them in order to move their talents to better gear of the same type, And, as a wonderful convenience, The Division 2 implements numerous features to inspect, mark, dismantle, or equip things you find so quickly and elegantly–sometimes without ever having to enter a menu–that it improves the whole experience of being in its world.

The same can be said of the game’s multiplayer integration, which allows you to easily group up and progress with friends (the game will scale any underpowered players to match the most powerful). You can also start or join a clan, which opens up a variety of weekly challenges, granting valuable rewards, and features integrated game-wide group communication options. Even if you’re only interested in playing alone (which is more challenging, but entirely feasible for everything but the most demanding of endgame activities), the ability to matchmake with other players at any time, whether that be in the open world, before you start a mission, or when you’re at a final boss, is a very welcome and useful feature.

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And when you beat that final boss of the game’s final mission (though, such is The Division 2’s lack of plot framing, I honestly couldn’t tell you his name to save my life) and you think you’ve finally run out of treasure to keep luring you through more fights, the metaphorical table gets flipped. Flipped hard. The Washington DC you spent so long liberating from rival factions becomes completely retaken by the aforementioned Black Tusk. You unlock three unique class specializations, each with their own skill trees to build out. Your focus on growing two-digit numbers on your character (your level) moves to three-digit numbers (the quality of your gear). The wealth of activities available to you once you complete the campaign is enormous, and it capitalizes on your momentum. It motivates you to continue seeing more, doing more, and growing more.

More challenging, remixed versions of campaign missions and lengthier stronghold missions featuring Black Tusk become available. These “Invaded” missions often leverage the new enemy types to create terrifying new combat scenarios that maintain the steady ramp-up of challenge, and they give you a fantastic reason to revisit the memorable combat arenas with purpose. Open-world events become more dynamic and riskier–factions clash more frequently for control of territory, and your involvement in certain activities can dramatically increase the danger and rewards in others. Limited-time challenges, which take the form of new Projects, higher difficulty missions, and additional bounty targets found in the world, offer avenues for more lucrative bonuses. There are even more activities beyond that, and the strength of The Division 2’s endgame is not just in the wealth of content available, but how viable it all is in improving your standing in the world.

No Caption ProvidedNo Caption Provided
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The journey to bolstering your Gear Score to qualify for higher tiers of challenges and content is always clear. The game continues to make sure you’re always meaningfully rewarded no matter what you do, and that feeling of bettering your character persists throughout.It’s remarkable how straightforward the game makes it for you to see the full breadth of its content and maintains that feeling of continual advancement all the way to the bitter end, especially in spite of its unsubstantial plots, characters, and narrative themes. Once I finally hit the game’s current soft cap for progression, I was impressed by how much there still was to pursue.

The world of The Division 2 also features three separate Dark Zone areas, systematically accessible throughout the campaign, which promise the possibility of high-quality equipment but pose more risks beyond the regular open-world. The power dynamic between you and enemies are normalized, and there’s the uncertain element of having other players to interact with. In the Dark Zone, players can choose to cooperate with others in the world to clear out enemy outposts and explore the regions for equipment, but the option to go ‘Rogue’ and undermine the work of other players provides the opportunity for greater rewards at the risk of greater losses if you fail to get away with it. Exploring the Dark Zone is a fascinating aspect of The Division 2 that adds additional facets of tension, distrust, and dishonesty to a game that already features high-stakes combat. Moreover, it is a completely optional pathway to reaching the game’s highest tiers of achievement. The game’s similarly optional Conflict activities offer gear incentives for participating in traditional team-based multiplayer modes, which felt serviceable in the few matches I played, but were comparatively underpopulated compared to other avenues of matchmaking at the time of writing.

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The setting of The Division 2 is ripe for potential, and it’s a shame the game doesn’t use it to say anything. I have absolutely no clue why I’m here, what anyone’s motivations are, and I wish I had a strong narrative driver to fuel a purpose behind my endless hunger for progression. This letdown is hard to ignore for the game’s initial hours, but the strength of the systems and design that fuel The Division 2 as a game are compelling enough to keep you captivated for dozens more. The range of enemy types continues to keep combat encounters challenging, the equipment I earn and pick up continues to feel different, valuable, and asks me to consider new ways of play. The ravaged environments continue to intrigue, and sometimes they’re so stunning I find myself needing to take screenshots before I move on. It might not have much to say, but The Division 2 is a perpetual cycle of tension, relief, and reward that’s difficult to stay away from.

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Tom Clancy's The Division 2 – Capitol Gains

I don’t know why I’m in Washington DC; some lady just told me to be here. But there are civilians in distress, armed gangs roaming the streets, and me, my pals, and the second amendment are apparently the only ones who can actually do anything about it. I have no idea what, if anything, is going on with the seemingly important people I meet. But so long as I’m helping folks, sending (presumably) bad people to bed, walking the pretty streets, and picking up a new pair of gloves every so often, I’m very happy to hang around.

In the world of Tom Clancy’s The Division 2, the USA has been ravaged by a virus and society has crumbled. While those who remain try to survive by banding together in groups of various dispositions, the Strategic Homeland Division activates highly specialized sleeper agents to try and restore order. It’s a setting ripe in potential, perhaps to tell a ripping techno-thriller story that scrutinizes the structures of our modern society and government, or perhaps to make a video game that leverages the chaos that occurs when multiple idealistic groups clash in a vie for power in a lawless city. The Division 2 only does one of these things.

It’s not the story. Throughout the entirety of The Division 2’s main campaign, never did the game spend a satisfactory amount of time on any semblance of an overarching plot, or the predicaments of its supposedly important figures. There are no character arcs, only abrupt setups and consequences. Narrative devices, like audio logs found in the world, add little of consequence. Even the game’s biggest macguffins–the President of the United States and his briefcase containing a cure for the virus–have a minimal amount of absolutely forgettable screen time. The opportunity to use The Division 2 to create meaningful fiction is wasted.

Instead, The Division 2 focuses its narrative chops into worldbuilding. The city, a ravaged Washington DC, initially feels a little homogenous in the way most Western cities do. But after some time, the personality of the different districts–the buildings, the landmarks, the natural spaces, and the ways they’ve been repurposed or affected by the cataclysm–begins to shine through. It’s this strength of environment which lays a very strong foundation for The Division 2 as a video game, creating an engrossing, believable, and contiguous open world.

Moving from your safehouse to the open world and your next mission area is almost entirely seamless. It’s something that was also true of the original Division, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that the simple act of going from place to place in The Division 2 is one of the game’s more rewarding aspects. One road may lead to a skirmish with a rival patrol or an optional activity, another might simply give you another stirring scene of urban decay in the morning sun. An obscured shortcut through an apartment block might turn up some useful items in an abandoned home, which you might decide to donate to the makeshift settlements where civilians have attempted to rebuild their lives.

No Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

Visiting those settlements–initially as hovels, before they gradually grow and become more charming, vibrant places thanks to your efforts in the world–becomes a strong motivator early on in the absence of a plot to chase. Outside main missions, which are dedicated to the weakening of rival factions and achieving indiscriminate objectives, the game’s “Projects” are one of the most lucrative means of earning experience to better your character. Projects ask you to donate resources you find out in the world and participate in side activities, encouraging you to spend more time in the world, see new areas, fight new battles, search for new equipment to use, and find enjoyment in that. The Division 2 is, after all, a game devoted to providing you with a continuous stream of gripping conflicts, valuable rewards, and a perpetual sense of progress and satisfaction from doing these things. It does those things very well.

You spend a lot of time hunkered behind cover, popping out to fire at any enemy dumb enough to expose themselves. With the large amount of weapon variety available, this familiar facet of combat is solid in itself. Add to that the ability to equip two special skills from a possible eight–which include tools such as riot shields, drones, and from what I can gather, robot bees of some sort–and combat gets pretty interesting. But the vector that really keeps The Division 2’s combat lively for upwards of 60 hours is the behaviour and diversity of its enemy types.

No Caption Provided

That time you spend in cover? The Division 2 doesn’t want you to just stay there. You can go down very quickly if you’re out in the open, but the game has a dozen ways to always keep you taking those risks and finding better firing positions–aggressive melee units, remote control cars equipped with sawblades, even the regular assault units frequently attempt to outflank you. Those special abilities? You absolutely need to use them to their full potential to survive some encounters, whether by throwing out the seeker mines or the automated turret to keep enemies at bay while you focus on a priority target, or perhaps utilizing the chemical launcher to start a fire and create a zone of denial.

The effort needed to take out an adversary is relatively reasonable for a shooter that prioritizes the RPG nature of its combat model, but some of the tougher enemies have additional, visible layers of protection which you need to focus on breaking if you want to land critical hits. On the flip side, some enemies have additional, obtuse weak points which can work to your advantage, but only if you can hit them. The fuel tank on the back of a flamethrower unit might be feasible, but when you start running into the terrifying robotic quadruped in post-campaign activities, whose tiny weak point only reveals itself seconds before it fires its devastating railgun, you have to assess whether you can afford to take on that challenge among all the other things pressuring you. The Division 2 throws a lot of hurdles at you, but also gives you the means to quickly counter and resolve them. Whether you can juggle that many balls at once is what keeps combat continually tense and exciting.

What’s also exciting is the treasure at the end of these gauntlets. The Washington locations, refashioned into memorable combat arenas, are often rewarding in their own right (a fight in a planetarium is an early standout). But improving your equipment is the vital, tangible part that keeps you feeling like you’re making progress. You receive new gear in generous amounts, some dropped by an enemy or looted from a container found in the world, others rewarded for completing a mission, and the next dose always feels in reach. The weapon variety forces you to consider something completely different to take advantage of a power boost, and the armor variety provides an impressive number of different cosmetic looks. The Division 2 incorporates a microtransaction and loot box system for its inconsequential clothing options, though these can be found in the world and earned of your own accord, too.

No Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

Like combat, gear remains intriguing throughout The Division 2 not just because of the abstract desire to have bigger numbers attached to your person and progress further through the game’s challenges, but also through a raft of “talents.” These add unique perks that complement particular skills or styles of play, like providing bonuses within a certain range or when enemies are burning or your armor is depleted. The brands of armor also have a part to play, whereby equipping a number of pieces from a single manufacturer provide additional advantages. These bonuses become particularly attractive to obsess over in the endgame, when the world is retaken by a tougher, more merciless enemy faction called Black Tusk, and you need to ensure your ability to fight them is the best it can be.

For the hundreds of pieces you will inevitably want to discard, the ability to sell or dismantle them for parts to either purchase or craft pieces you want gives value to everything you pick up. Or you might retain them in order to move their talents to better gear of the same type, And, as a wonderful convenience, The Division 2 implements numerous features to inspect, mark, dismantle, or equip things you find so quickly and elegantly–sometimes without ever having to enter a menu–that it improves the whole experience of being in its world.

The same can be said of the game’s multiplayer integration, which allows you to easily group up and progress with friends (the game will scale any underpowered players to match the most powerful). You can also start or join a clan, which opens up a variety of weekly challenges, granting valuable rewards, and features integrated game-wide group communication options. Even if you’re only interested in playing alone (which is more challenging, but entirely feasible for everything but the most demanding of endgame activities), the ability to matchmake with other players at any time, whether that be in the open world, before you start a mission, or when you’re at a final boss, is a very welcome and useful feature.

No Caption Provided

And when you beat that final boss of the game’s final mission (though, such is The Division 2’s lack of plot framing, I honestly couldn’t tell you his name to save my life) and you think you’ve finally run out of treasure to keep luring you through more fights, the metaphorical table gets flipped. Flipped hard. The Washington DC you spent so long liberating from rival factions becomes completely retaken by the aforementioned Black Tusk. You unlock three unique class specializations, each with their own skill trees to build out. Your focus on growing two-digit numbers on your character (your level) moves to three-digit numbers (the quality of your gear). The wealth of activities available to you once you complete the campaign is enormous, and it capitalizes on your momentum. It motivates you to continue seeing more, doing more, and growing more.

More challenging, remixed versions of campaign missions and lengthier stronghold missions featuring Black Tusk become available. These “Invaded” missions often leverage the new enemy types to create terrifying new combat scenarios that maintain the steady ramp-up of challenge, and they give you a fantastic reason to revisit the memorable combat arenas with purpose. Open-world events become more dynamic and riskier–factions clash more frequently for control of territory, and your involvement in certain activities can dramatically increase the danger and rewards in others. Limited-time challenges, which take the form of new Projects, higher difficulty missions, and additional bounty targets found in the world, offer avenues for more lucrative bonuses. There are even more activities beyond that, and the strength of The Division 2’s endgame is not just in the wealth of content available, but how viable it all is in improving your standing in the world.

No Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

The journey to bolstering your Gear Score to qualify for higher tiers of challenges and content is always clear. The game continues to make sure you’re always meaningfully rewarded no matter what you do, and that feeling of bettering your character persists throughout.It’s remarkable how straightforward the game makes it for you to see the full breadth of its content and maintains that feeling of continual advancement all the way to the bitter end, especially in spite of its unsubstantial plots, characters, and narrative themes. Once I finally hit the game’s current soft cap for progression, I was impressed by how much there still was to pursue.

The world of The Division 2 also features three separate Dark Zone areas, systematically accessible throughout the campaign, which promise the possibility of high-quality equipment but pose more risks beyond the regular open-world. The power dynamic between you and enemies are normalized, and there’s the uncertain element of having other players to interact with. In the Dark Zone, players can choose to cooperate with others in the world to clear out enemy outposts and explore the regions for equipment, but the option to go ‘Rogue’ and undermine the work of other players provides the opportunity for greater rewards at the risk of greater losses if you fail to get away with it. Exploring the Dark Zone is a fascinating aspect of The Division 2 that adds additional facets of tension, distrust, and dishonesty to a game that already features high-stakes combat. Moreover, it is a completely optional pathway to reaching the game’s highest tiers of achievement. The game’s similarly optional Conflict activities offer gear incentives for participating in traditional team-based multiplayer modes, which felt serviceable in the few matches I played, but were comparatively underpopulated compared to other avenues of matchmaking at the time of writing.

No Caption Provided
Gallery image 1Gallery image 2Gallery image 3Gallery image 4Gallery image 5Gallery image 6Gallery image 7Gallery image 8Gallery image 9Gallery image 10

The setting of The Division 2 is ripe for potential, and it’s a shame the game doesn’t use it to say anything. I have absolutely no clue why I’m here, what anyone’s motivations are, and I wish I had a strong narrative driver to fuel a purpose behind my endless hunger for progression. This letdown is hard to ignore for the game’s initial hours, but the strength of the systems and design that fuel The Division 2 as a game are compelling enough to keep you captivated for dozens more. The range of enemy types continues to keep combat encounters challenging, the equipment I earn and pick up continues to feel different, valuable, and asks me to consider new ways of play. The ravaged environments continue to intrigue, and sometimes they’re so stunning I find myself needing to take screenshots before I move on. It might not have much to say, but The Division 2 is a perpetual cycle of tension, relief, and reward that’s difficult to stay away from.

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Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice Review In Progress

While Bloodborne tweaked the combat dynamics of Dark Souls to encourage aggression, Sekiro rewrites the rules of engagement. The building blocks of its combat are recognisable, but this only serves to lure Soulsborne veterans into a false sense of security. Sekiro’s combat is incredibly demanding, asking you to study your opponent, find the perfect moment to engage, and execute a split-second follow-up that, if done right, will end the battle in a matter of moments–or if done wrong will end you just as fast.

This might sound akin to what every other From Software game asks of you, but Sekiro pushes these demands further than Dark Souls and Bloodborne ever did. Over the years, From Software fans have become accustomed to the language of Soulsborne games; we recognise scenarios and are wise to the tricks, we can identify viable strategies more quickly, and since the skills are transferable, we can execute these strategies with a measure of confidence. But Sekiro challenges this expertise. It invites you to try and then shows you how little you’re actually capable of. Sekiro is affirmation that From Software hasn’t lost its bite; that its games can make you feel vulnerable and strike fear in a way few others can. It’s a heart-pounding, palm-sweating, and nerve-wracking gameplay experience that instills tension the likes of which I haven’t felt since first playing Demon’s Souls.

Souls players predominantly hide behind shields and adopt a hit and run approach to combat, and Bloodborne’s attack-focused dynamic was a response to this. Similarly, the crux of Sekiro’s combat has its origins in Dark Souls. The Poise stat was used to govern how resistant a player was to being staggered or stun-locked by an attack. Sekiro reworks this into a defensive attribute called Posture and uses it to underpin its engagements. Attacks chip away at Posture and will eventually break through the defense, leaving an enemy open to a Deathblow or to having their health attacked directly, which in turn makes their Posture slower to recover. However, this is a very laborious way to wear enemies down, and they will often defiantly counterattack to deal big damage to you. Instead the goal is to deflect an attack the moment before it hits you, which wears down Posture considerably faster.

For low-level enemies it takes just a few encounters to get into the rhythm of it, but as more foes are introduced, it becomes much trickier. Each one has a variety of attacks that have specific tells and counter timings, so spending the time to learn how they all behave and how you should react is vital. Thematically, this style of combat is also coherent with the subject matter of the game in a way that I really appreciate. Battles are measured–a ballet of back and forth movements, the outcome decided by a deadly flourish–swift and precise, as any contest between swordsmen should be.

However, the true test is when you’re faced with Sekiro’s boss enemies. Calling these encounters “challenging” would be a severe understatement. The attacks these enemies unleash are deadly, to the point where just a single blow can often be enough to kill you. Their moves can be as erratic as they are diverse, and for some of them parrying is simply not an option. Occasionally a red kanji symbol will briefly appear to signal that an unblockable attack is on its way, and in this situation the options are to either jump, dodge to the side, or hope you can sprint away fast enough. In a single second you’ll need to identify the attack and execute the appropriate action to save yourself. Bosses have the most Posture and usually require you to land multiple Deathblows on them before they fall, so attempting to simply chip away only draws the battle out. The longer you spend in the battle, the more mentally taxing it becomes. The stress of repeatedly nailing split-second counters begins to mount and just a single slip-up is all it takes to lose everything. As a consequence, these boss battles feel designed to force you to engage with the enemy, to take the fight to them and hope that you’ve got what it takes. In the moment it can feel unbearably frustrating to keep banging your head up against the challenge, but that frustration pales in comparison to the sheer exhilaration of finally breaking through. After almost every boss battle I completed, I was so overwhelmed by the adrenaline that I had to put the controller down and give myself the time to settle.

Death isn’t necessarily the end, however, as Sekiro gives you the option to either submit and die to respawn at a checkpoint, or revive on the spot and continue fighting. This mechanic makes the game just a touch more forgiving by allowing you to recompose yourself and get back in the fight, but it comes at a cost. Each death and each revival has an impact on the world around you. More specifically, it has an impact on the characters you’ve met on your journey. To explain exactly what that is would be to spoil one of the most interesting parts of Sekiro, so I won’t do that–and also, at this point I’m not completely sure what the ramifications and consequences are, such is the mysterious nature of it all. However, the fact that death has a consequence beyond making you lose experience and money is fascinating.

In battle, your character, Wolf, has his fair share of tricks. He’s equipped with a prosthetic arm that is capable of having different sub-weapons grafted to it, and they’re essential in giving yourself an edge in combat. There’s an axe that, while slow to swing, can break through shields; a spear that allows you attack from further away, and can be used to pull weaker enemies towards you or strip armor; firecrackers which can stun enemies; or a flamethrower that can inflict burn damage.

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Using these prosthetics comes at a cost, however, as they consume Spirit Tokens. These are scattered around the world and can be purchased using Sen, the in-game currency awarded for killing enemies, but you can only hold a limited quantity of them while in the field. This limitation reinforces the idea that they are to be used as part of a strategy instead of relied on as the primary way to defeat enemies. Using them unnecessarily could mean that they’re not available when you need them most. Resources such as scrap, gunpowder, and wax can be found to upgrade your prosthetic arsenal and open up new ways to use them.

Wolf’s own shinobi abilities can also be developed by spending experience points gained from killing enemies. Unlike previous From Software titles, there isn’t a steady stream of new weaponry; the katana is your mainstay throughout, but new Combat Arts flesh out how the sword can be used, and they have a more active role in skirmishes. Whirlwind Slash, for example, lets you control space, while Ichimonji is a heavy overhead strike that has a long windup but dishes out big posture damage. Again, they’re designed as an additional strategic consideration. Only one of these can be equipped at a time, so this forces you to think about what you’re taking into battle and be methodical in utilizing it. Shinobi Arts, meanwhile, allow you to access skills such as mid-air deflections, vaulting over enemies to deliver backstabs, and specific counters for deadly special moves that enemies will occasionally execute. These various upgrades aren’t diverse enough to support dramatically different playstyles, but they do offer just enough room to find a favourable loadout and then develop its effectiveness.

Wolf also has a suite of Innate Abilities, some of which come into play outside of combat. It’s here that Sekiro really distinguishes itself from previous From Software titles by revealing itself to be a stealth action game–one that proudly wears its origins as a spiritual successor to the Tenchu series. Most areas have a heavy enemy presence so the odds are stacked against you. Engaging in open combat will draw attention to your presence, so the smarter strategy is to thin out the opposition by systematically picking them off. In previous From Software games, this would involve an awkward kiting process where you edge closer to a single enemy and use items or ranged attacks to lure it into a safer zone to do battle. However, Sekiro has mechanics to support stealth play more directly. You can use your grappling hook to take to the rooftops and scout out a location, taking a note of enemy placements and watching their patrol patterns. You can skulk around buildings, pressing yourself against surfaces to peek around corners. You can shimmy up walls and hang of ledges to reposition, leap off elevated points to plunge your katana into enemies below, or slither under raised buildings and into grass, creeping towards unsuspecting victims. Innate Abilities such as Suppress Presence will make your footsteps quieter, while the ceramic shard item can be thrown to make noise and manipulate movements to your advantage. Being effective with stealth can allow you to circumvent standard combat encounters entirely, so it’s in your best interest to take it slow and steady. Enemy behaviour can be inconsistent, however. Sometimes they’ll stare through you as if you’re not there, and other times they become hyper aware and capable of perfectly tracking your movements during an alert phase, even when you’re behind walls or hiding on roofs. They’re not particularly sophisticated, but their lethality means they’re not to be taken lightly.

The absence of modern stealth conveniences means you place greater scrutiny on your surroundings, and you’ll notice just how thoughtfully they’ve been constructed

There’s a simplicity to Sekiro’s stealth mechanics that is refreshing. There’s no Detective Mode or on-screen indicators to signify how much noise you’re making, and instead you’re entirely reliant on your basic senses. The absence of these modern stealth genre conveniences means you place greater scrutiny on your surroundings, and you’ll notice just how thoughtfully they’ve been constructed.

The geography of From Software’s game worlds are much lauded, with praise heaped upon the way seemingly disparate locations slowly reveal themselves to be interconnected and part of a cohesive whole. That strength of world design is present in Sekrio, and the fact that it’s more immediately visible within these contained locations makes taking the stealth approach even more satisfying. Buildings are placed together to encourage exploration and reconnaissance, with roofs almost touching so that you can leap between them and scope out all angles. They overhang just enough that you can take a running jump and use your grappling hook to swing up and across for better vantage points. Pathways diverge and reconnect, creating that satisfying feeling of venturing into the unknown and then emerging into the familiar. Thick tree branches protruding out from the side of mountains can be grappled to and used to sneak into the heart of an area undetected, or around it entirely. There were more than a few occasions where I spotted a temple in the distance, traced the pathway there back to where I was standing, and followed it to discover a hidden area.

Sekiro takes place in Japan, in a land known as Ashina. As a consequence, it is by and large more grounded in reality than the likes of Lordran or Yarhnam. The location remains both striking and memorable, however. Encircled by an ever-visible snowy mountain range, Ashina is built up of dilapidated temples scattered around, housing mercenary warriors and corrupted monks, among other dangerous foes. Man-made pathways dissolve into perilous valleys, where mountainsides must be scaled to reach remote forests patrolled by club-wielding ogres. Fortified castles tower above abandoned towns seized by an army. Ornate statues fill the homes of royalty, while questionable characters linger in the dungeons below. Without spoiling it, Sekiro also takes the opportunity to delve into the supernatural and pull from Japanese mythology.

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That juxtaposition of the real and the fantastical is echoed in the story Sekiro tells. It begins simply, with a shinobi that is called into action to save his kidnapped master and uphold his iron oath. But beneath the surface there’s more at play–Ashina is a nation on the brink of collapse, its people beset by a mysterious stagnation, and you have the power to decide its fate–familiar themes for From Software. However, the story quickly moves from the realm of warlords driven by ambition to one of mythical bloodlines, demonic monsters, and otherworldly spirits. While the story is undoubtedly told in a more direct fashion than Dark Souls and Bloodborne, there are still numerous nuances to explore, and mysteries to solve, perfect fodder for a rampant community that has built up around From Software’s games to mine. Softly muttered lines from Ashina’s denizens hint at turmoil from days gone, while item descriptions speak to arcane practices. Talk of far off lands colours in the world around Ashina, while vague mentions of enigmatic figures leaves you questioning what unseen forces are involved in the events that are transpiring.

The unflinching way Sekiro punishes you for missteps and the repetition of trial and error are clearly suited for people of a certain temperament and with a very specific, slightly masochistic taste in games. These are the people that are willing to endure devastating defeats for hours on end and watch as their progress is undone time and time again, just so they can have the intoxicating thrill of overcome a seemingly insurmountable challenge that awaits at the end. In that respect, Sekiro is unmistakably a From Software game–but one unlike any we’ve had so far. When all is said and done, though, it’s the combat that has left the deepest marks on me, for better and for worse.

Atop Ashina Castle I stood before a swordsman. It wasn’t my first attempt at the duel; we’d been trading steel for close to six hours, and each time the swordsman ruthlessly cut me down. I became desperate. I started making bad decisions. The losses were really getting to me. But I persevered.

My plan was a familiar one, honed through years of repeated Dark Souls and Bloodborne play: observe, dodge, wait for a slow attack, and use the opening to strike–it never fails. He swung his sword and I was out of range. The recovery on the attack was slow so it was the perfect opportunity to land a blow–I’d done it hundreds of times by that point. Except, this time it was different. As I charged in, he quickly corrected himself and fired an arrow, then chased behind it to close the distance and delivered a crushing blow. I lost my composure and finally snapped.

I picked myself up off the ground and rushed at him. He began an onslaught of attacks and, after six hours of learning his style and developing the muscle memory, I just started parrying on instinct. Each one of his swings and each arrow he fired was met with a perfectly timed raise of my sword. Every unblockable attack he lunged at me with was sidestepped or hopped immaculately. I watched as his Posture deplete, edging closer to the breaking point, and at the same time I could feel my breathing become more rapid, my thumbs beginning to tremble. I wore him down and delivered a Deathblow, backed away, and did it all over again, and a third time. In that final moment when I pierced through him with my katana, I was completely overcome with emotion. After six gruelling hours of failure, the winning battle lasted just six minutes. I’m not too proud to admit that I cried, and I’d do it all over again.

Sekiro marries From Software’s unique brand of gameplay with stealth action to deliver an experience that is as challenging as it is gratifying. At the time of publish I haven’t completed Sekiro. While I have invested upwards of 30 hours into it, there are still a few more locations I need to explore and bosses I need to beat before the credits roll, and I’m excited to do it. This review will be finalized in the coming days.

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