Children of Morta is a game about family. Mechanically, it’s a satisfying dungeon crawler where you grind through bad guys, level up your characters, and unlock better abilities so that you can face off against a series of increasingly difficult bosses. But really, at its heart, it’s a compelling game about what it means to be a part of a family, and how being surrounded by loved ones can make you a better, stronger person.
The Bergson family, six of whom you’re able to play as, is made up of warriors, mages, and inventors all tasked with holding back the Corruption–which has, at the game’s opening, started to spread across their homeland. Their house sits atop a shrine, and to battle against the evil forces of the demonic Ou they need to travel through portals and conquer dungeons, in order to awaken three spirits that can guard against the Corruption.
It’s a cliched fantasy setup, but Children of Morta makes the most of its tropes by making sure that you’re invested in the Bergsons and their plight. Between runs of the dungeons, you’re treated to cutscenes and vignettes of the family interacting with one another, and you get to know the beats of their lives and what they get up to when they’re not enduring dungeons. You start with two playable characters, family patriarch John and his eldest daughter Linda, but the other four are introduced within the game’s opening half. Seeing them train and grow in cutscenes, and getting a sense of their place within the family, means that you’re already attached to the characters before you get your hands on them.
Gameplay in Children of Morta involves battling your way through hordes of enemies to reach each dungeon’s boss, exploring thoroughly and nabbing as many temporary boosts as you can along the way. Each character has three main abilities they’ll unlock as they level up: a standard attack that can be used continuously, a special attack with a cooldown, and a more defensive ability (although some of these can still do damage). The combat isn’t necessarily super deep, but it’s a lot of fun thanks to some extremely satisfying animation and the strategic possibilities that become available as you level up. Dungeons consist of multiple levels and are generated anew each time you enter, so finding the entrance to the next level will always require some exploration. Occasionally I’d find myself frustrated when the path to the exit ended up being very elaborate, but this also kept the game feeling fresh when some dungeons took a long time to clear.
There’s an imbalance between the number of melee and ranged characters–four melee to two ranged–which is a shame, because playing the ranged characters changes the rhythm of the game significantly by encouraging a slower, more thoughtful playstyle, and only having two of them feels like a missed opportunity. I found that Linda (who uses a bow and arrow) was the character I most often managed to beat bosses with, since so many bosses are primed to punish you for getting too close, and I would have loved to have another option beyond her and Lucy, the family’s youngest daughter.
Each character plays differently, and you’ll no doubt have your favorites. Lucy can shoot a continuous wave of fireballs while standing still, and can be upgraded to withstand three hits without damage; Kevin, the youngest son, can dramatically increase his speed and strength by building up “rage” with continuous knife attacks, but he needs to get very up-close to do so before using his power of invisibility to get out of danger. Some characters are less interesting; for the life of me I can’t figure out how to make Joey, who swings a huge hammer, effective. But it’s still fun trying out a character you haven’t played for a few runs and getting into the groove with each of their distinct rhythms.
You need to switch characters regularly, too, as any member of the family who is used too many times in a row begins to suffer from corruption fatigue, which lowers their overall health until they’re given time to recover. Each member of the family can also unlock new abilities that benefit every other family member as they level up (like higher rates of critical attack or even assists in certain situations), and later abilities in their skill trees can be very useful–I initially dismissed John for being too slow but found his shield and wide swing arc extremely useful later in the game, and was ultimately glad that the game encouraged me to use every character and discover their strengths (in five cases out of six, at least).
The plot’s focus on the family, paired with the tremendous art and beautiful animation, makes it easy to love the Bergsons. Lucy is so full of energy that she’ll jump in the middle of her run animation (which doesn’t interrupt your pathfinding at all but adds personality to her sprite), while eldest son Mark’s Naruto-style run is a perfect complement to his martial arts fighting style. Charming touches like this are everywhere, and they give the characters more personality. You feel those unique traits come through in combat, too; there are few things more satisfying than seeing Kevin shimmer with rage and rip through a huge mob of enemies.
And as with any family gathering, Children of Morta will encourage and then test your patience. It’s a grind-heavy game; it was very rare for me to beat a dungeon on my first shot, as most required that I level up and learn the boss’ attack patterns, which requires storming through the dungeon to get to them a few times. You can get away with running right past most enemy mobs, but to stand a chance against the boss at the end, you want to be armed with powerful buffs, and growing stronger requires farming experience and gold to unlock new abilities and improve your stats.
However, it takes a long time for the grind to start wearing you down. The combat is meaty and intense, and the allure of growing stronger is so compelling that dealing with huge crowds and collecting all the gold they spill can hold your attention for hours. There’s a sharp increase in difficulty right at the end, but I could always identify what had gone right–which fights I’d avoided, which charms I’d made use of, how I’d thought about my character’s relative strengths and weaknesses to the boss–and adjust my strategies accordingly to continue to do well. The grind helped make me a better player, instead of simply acting as a level gate.
There are special buffs that are only active for that session, and you have a much better chance of beating the boss if you go in after thoroughly exploring the dungeon and powering up. There are many different kinds of buff you can unlock, some temporary, some permanent; I found that I did far better against bosses when I went in with a lot of them active. You can find the various items and objects that make you more powerful throughout each dungeon, or buy them from shopkeepers that pop up, and I found myself getting excited whenever I found a good combination. Going up against a boss that has beaten you several times, now armed with a combination that you think will give you an advantage, is a great feeling.
Your dungeon runs are also broken up by numerous subquests that can appear throughout each dungeon, which expand on the game’s lore, introduce new NPCs, and result in significant upgrades or rewards. A few even have major narrative impact–there are a series of quests early on that end with the Bergsons adopting and raising an adorable puppy, for instance. But if one dungeon is really giving you grief, eventually it can feel like the game’s ready for you to move on before you’re ready yourself–you’ll stop getting cutscenes and character vignettes after missions, and you’ll find that you’ve run out of subquests to complete. But then, the feeling of eventually taking down a boss that was troubling you is extremely satisfying, especially knowing that you’re going to get more lovely character moments as you try to beat the next one.
You also have the option of playing the whole game in co-op, and the game balance differs depending on whether you’re alone or not. However, I found myself preferring to stick to solo play–it’s annoying for a friend to talk over cutscenes and the difficulty scaling makes co-op more complicated.
Children of Morta’s fantastic art style and enjoyable storytelling take what would have been an otherwise fun roguelike dungeon-crawler and elevate it a great deal. Taking down enemies and eventually triumphing over bosses is enjoyable, but what kept bringing me back was the connection I felt to the Bergsons, and my sincere desire to help them push back against the Corruption. After all, it’s a lot easier dealing with dungeons full of monsters when you have a family to come home to.
There’s religious fanaticism, and then there’s Inquisitor Aloysius from Greedfall, a man so excessively villainous his whole schtick borders on farcical. A member of Thélème, one of the game’s six factions, he appears when you first step into the town square of the city San-Matheus. What draws your eye is the sight of a hulking woodland beast howling in pain while tied to a stake in an enormous burning pyre, as a captured native islander looks on helplessly. When asked why the creature and his people are subjected to such cruelty, the Inquisitor bellows an odious response about cleansing the corrupt souls of his tribe. Then in one swift movement, he yanks the islander’s head, stabs the poor soul with a knife, and yells obscenities about heresies into the sky.
That uncomfortable scene is emblematic of the plot in Greedfall; its tales of colonialism and political subterfuge are tackled with such little nuance that it verges on parody. The islanders wear face paint, have heavy accents, and venerate the woodland beasts as deities, while the cardinals, bishops, and alchemists refer to them as savages that need enlightenment or salvation. Greedfall relies heavily on these kinds of blunt narrative tropes for its setting, much in the same way it does on a very familiar open-world RPG structure. And while it’s very easy to lose yourself in its competent, if comfortable, formula, it means that Greedfall ultimately feels unremarkable at best.
You play as the charming diplomat De Sardet from the Congregation of Merchants, who’s in charge of brokering peace between two warring factions: the Thélème, a theocratic nation that preach their gospel heavily and want to convert as many natives as possible, even if it’s by force, and the Bridge Alliance, home to a nation of alchemists who wield their vast and incomparable knowledge of science for political ends.
Both factions want to colonize a mystical island called Teer Fradee, which is brimming with fantastical flora and fauna. They, as well as the clans of indigenous people who are resisting their incursions, seek your help for their own ends. But that’s not all; you also have something you want from the island: the cure for the Malicor, a mysterious plague devastating your home. In short, everyone wants a piece of this enchanted isle, and your task is to navigate through this political minefield for the best outcome–whatever you think that is.
Greedfall attempts to tweak certain aspects of its otherwise conventional colonialist plot (the islanders aren’t depicted as crazed natives or hungry cannibals, and the factions are somewhat multicultural), but beyond a vague sense of awareness about its oppressive legacy, Greedfall’s heavy-handed themes never make way for anything more nuanced or interesting. Sure, it highlights the exploitative behaviors of the Thélème and Bridge Alliance factions, but their actions are so moustache-twirling malicious that they become mere caricatures of evildoers.
Even your companions and other characters are cookie-cutter emblems of their group: Siora is the native princess who wishes to seek peace for her clan; Petrus is the religious Thélème advisor with tons of political savvy; and Kurt is the loyal, headstrong mercenary whose stoic demeanour can barely disguise his world-weariness. Most damning of all is your character, De Sardet, who, as the big hero, embodies the “white man’s burden” allegory that also plagues other colonial-themed narratives; it’s all on you to liberate the natives or unite the factions against them.
Greedfall’s saving grace is that its role-playing systems are adequate, and the game’s greatest strength is how well it sticks to what is tried-and-tested. It features mechanical design that’s common in the genre–exploring, looting, questing, etc–but it’s also savvy enough to incorporate the best versions of these elements–most notably it feels like it draws inspiration from CD Projekt Red’s The Witcher 3, a title I couldn’t stop making mental comparisons to.
At the beginning, you’re given the choice of playing as one of three character archetypes: the melee-focused warrior, the stealthy gunslinger, or the spell-wielding tactician. But you’re also given the flexibility to break out of these standard classes through an array of skill trees. As you progress through the game, you can freely invest hard-earned points, which opens up a variety of methods you can approach combat with and even how you resolve quests–be it bludgeoning your way through conflict with a two-handed axe or wearing a horde of rampaging beasts down with poison traps.
And, as has become common in open-world RPGs, Greedfall also comes with a crafting system. Materials are in abundance–enemies, from human foes to wild animals, drop them frequently, while crates and jugs across most cities are bursting with goodies you can loot. One constraint, however, is that you can only craft upgrades to armor and weapons you own, rather than cobble brand-new equipment altogether. This streamlines crafting, and it also encourages you to still seek out better equipment. Meanwhile, combat is more than just a frenzied blur of swords and gunplay too; you can make tactical pauses to examine your enemies closely, change your target, consider your combat options, or silently contemplate how stunning your swashbuckling buccaneer looks in the heat of action.
Greedfall suffers from some bugs, primitive systems, and even glaring spelling errors, however. Some dialogue is clearly skewed towards a male De Sardet; in my playthrough as a female De Sardet, several characters still referred to me as “he.” The stealth mechanism is also unintentionally hilarious. When on a stealth mission, enemies tend to treat companions as invisible; they will not notice two big, oafish men blundering about in front of them, but will jump out of their skins when they notice De Sardet peeking out from behind a nearby crate. Romancing your companions is also another thing you can do in the game, but the moves you need to make to get into their hearts (and under the sheets) is so perfunctory, it’s almost unmemorable. You engage in a three-part companion quest with the lover of your choice, where you’ll find conversations that give you the chance to maximize your romance meter. But the game makes it obvious when you’ve said something wrong (characters will retort back unhappily, accompanied by a numerical drop in your reputation), so it’s an easy process to save scum, and the ultimate reward is a not-very-saucy bedroom cutscene.
In spite of the game’s blundering narrative issues, it’s still easy to get hooked into the rhythm of exploring, crafting, brawling, investigating, and interacting with the host of characters and beasts, while getting lost among the beautiful lush greenery of Teer Fradee. Running into more challenging enemies or engaging in boss fights are a particular treat, since it’s an opportunity to pit your hard-earned combat abilities against formidable foes. And tucked within the story, as hackneyed as it is, are occasional glimpses of genuine humanity, such as De Sardet’s close relationship with their cousin Constantin, who’s also the new governor of Teer Fradee.
But ultimately, because Greedfall is so cavalier about its colonialist themes, and because it plays it safe by sticking so closely to the template of open-world RPGs, it doesn’t really feel revelatory in any way. Instead, it’s content to be just another digital playground–just another world filled with magic, riches, secrets, and monsters for players to shoot and loot at will. I did have fun when I got lost in its familiar RPG loop, but its lack of nuance or innovation prevents it from being truly remarkable.
AI: The Somnium Files is an adventure game that combines two classic storytelling genres: the murder mystery and the buddy-cop movie. On top of that, the “buddy” for AI’s lead character, detective Kaname Date, isn’t human. Or animal, for that matter. Rather, it’s a snarky, quirky, super-powered feminine artificial intelligence in the shape of an eyeball–named Aiba–that lives in his left eye socket and has a direct connection to his brain. Oh, and she also helps Date by transforming into a humanoid avatar form to explore the dream worlds of various characters you meet throughout the game. Talk about an odd couple, huh?
It’s an intriguing concept for sure. Thankfully, the near-future sci-fi detective story that AI: the Somnium Files tells lives up to the promise of its unique premise, delivering a great dialogue-driven adventure that sucks you in and doesn’t let up until all of its twisted mysteries have been unraveled.
Date is a detective for a secret, experimental Tokyo police division called ABIS. When the body of his best friend’s ex-wife is found displayed in an abandoned amusement park, Date soon finds himself swept up in a complex investigation to find the culprit before they strike again. Along the way, he crosses paths with a bubbly up-and-coming internet personality, her diehard fanboy (and his beleaguered mother), a Yakuza group, a corrupt politician, and the victim’s young daughter, amongst many other odd, interesting, and sinister personalities. And that’s not even mentioning the oddest personality of them all: Aiba, his quick-witted and sharp-tongued AI partner and confidant in exploring the case.
Having a smart-alecky AI constantly feeding commentary into your brain might sound nightmarish, but Aiba comes with some special skills to aid Date with his investigations: X-ray vision, heat sensing, zooming to check up on faraway places, and even the ability to help Date in quick-time event-style combat. But Aiba’s biggest role is to help Date get information from the various characters by acting as his avatar in their dream worlds. When interrogation gets tough, ABIS staff hooks a subject up to a Psync machine, which allows Date and Aiba to explore their subjects’ subconscious “somnium” dream world to uncover clues and deeply hidden (and sometimes forgotten) secrets. The excursion is under a strict time limit–otherwise their consciousnesses become forever intertwined.
Gameplay in the exploration and investigation sections of AI: The Somnium Files follows a fairly typical point-and-click adventure game style: You look at objects in the environments for clues and talk to characters by making comments and asking questions. The way AI handles these sections makes you less likely to get stuck than in other adventure games, however. You’re only given the option to move to a new area once you’ve done everything necessary to advance the story in one particular location, which ensures you won’t need to backtrack or worry that you’re missing anything important. If you can’t move to the map, you know there’s still more to do.
While exploring the various environments will yield a fair amount of clues, it’s the interactions Date has with the various characters (and Aiba’s reactions to those interactions) that really move AI’s twisting mystery along. Each character you interact with is unique and memorable in their own way. There’s Iris, the cheery aspiring internet idol whose mischievous personality causes Date much consternation; Ota, a devoted fan of Iris with numerous nerdy pursuits; So, a slimy politician with his fair share of secrets; Boss and Pewter, two eccentric personalities that work with Date at ABIS; and Mizuki, Date’s friend’s daughter with a sour attitude and strength beyond her years. There are many more interesting faces you’ll meet, too, each with an important role to play in the story and a strong personality to match. The excellent character designs by Yusuke Kozaki (Fire Emblem Awakening, No More Heroes) also give each NPC a striking visual element to match their distinct characterizations.
At certain points in the story, you encounter other modes of gameplay, like interrogation scenes where you present evidence to a character and action scenes involving quick-time event-style button presses to help Date fend off threats. However, the most important parts of the game take place when Date uses the Psync machine to explore another character’s somnium worlds. Using Aiba as an avatar, you interact directly with elements within these characters’ surreal, illogical, and often very disturbing dream worlds, with every action she performs costing precious time. If Date and Aiba can’t solve the puzzles in the somnium within the time limit, they’ll be forced out, and you will have to start the somnium exploration over from the beginning.
Solving the puzzles to progress in the somniums involves performing certain actions in a certain order on certain objects–and since these are bizarre, often illogical dreamscapes, sometimes the solution isn’t obvious or runs contrary to common sense. You can earn and use items called TIMIEs to help conserve time, but if time grows short, your best option might be to restart. This involves repeating much of the same actions and dialogue to get back to where you were, but skipping all the previous, time-wasting actions you tried before. If you don’t want to do the whole event over, you can go back to checkpoints within a somnium to try and save time by only performing necessary actions. However, you can only do this up to three times before you are forced to restart. Making this even worse is that sometimes you’re saddled with time-penalty TIMIEs from certain actions, meaning that your next action will cost significantly more time than usual and possibly even lead to unwinnable situations. As a result, the six-minute time limit winds up being a source of stress, discouraging you from exploring and appreciating the well-crafted dreamscape environments as much as you’d like and sometimes standing as a roadblock to further progressing the story.
Besides revealing important story beats, the somnium sequences serve another important purpose: Depending on your actions within the somnium, the overall story will branch down one of many different potential paths, with different events taking place on each story branch. Only by seeing all of the various story possibilities, good and bad, will the whole truth behind AI’s saga be revealed. Fortunately, you’re able to jump around to various points in the game’s saga (and replay somnium sequences) whenever you want, so you can put one story branch aside and pick up another anytime you feel like–though there will be roadblocks in some spots if certain plot points have yet to be revealed. As the various branches of the story give tantalizing tidbits of information and reveal more about each of the main characters, you feel like you’re piecing together an elaborate puzzle, which makes it all the more satisfying when big revelations happen.
Despite the occasional frustration in exploring its dream landscapes, the whole of AI: the Somnium Files winds up being a fun, thrilling, and engaging experience. The story is filled with intriguing twists and shocking surprises, and the characters and their individual arcs inspire you to care about what happens to them. The somnium dream worlds add a layer of psychological horror to the ongoing mystery, and Date and Aiba’s constant back-and-forth interactions provide levity to make every investigation all the more amusing. AI’s unconventional detective story is one you won’t soon forget.
With its new commentary team and updated presentation package, NHL 20 represents the franchise’s biggest shakeup in years–and they’re mostly positive changes. Combined with excellent controls, fluid gameplay, numerous fun and engaging different modes to play, a fine attention to detail and appreciation for hockey culture, NHL 20 is a step forward that is generally excellent.
The biggest change for NHL 20 is its broadcast package. It is almost completely different this year, and the changes–which span commentary, UI, and graphics–are mostly positive but not always for the better. Commentators Mike “Doc” Emerick and Eddie Olczyk are out, while nearly the entirety of the NBC Sports Network license package, including live-action sequences, are gone, too. It’s a jarring change, as Emerick and Olczyk have been the voice of EA’s NHL games since NHL 15.
The new commentators are Canadian sports radio personality James Cybulski and former player and current rinkside analyst Ray Ferarro. They do a mostly adept job at calling plays with style, flair, and personality, and their back-and-forth banter succeeds at capturing the essence of hockey culture with hockey IQ and knack. Some commentary lines are repeated too often, however, and Cybulski in particular sounds at times like he is hamming it up and acting like every game is Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals.
Outside of the new commentary team, NHL 20’s updated broadcast presentation includes more colorful and dynamic graphics that display important information in more eye-catching ways. In addition to brighter colors and sharper fonts, NHL 20 introduces more dramatic, slow-motion highlights of goal scores, as well as Overwatch-style “Play of the Period” and “Play of the Game” highlights. These moments do a good job at breaking down key plays, and, with their unique angles and close-ups, provide nice moments to sit back and revel in your achievements.
Part of this updated broadcast package is a new location for the score clock, which is the only major misstep. It’s now at the bottom of the screen compared to the top-left in last year’s game–and it cannot be moved in the Settings. The new score clock location opens up more space on the screen for action, but I found it positively difficult to quickly and easily see the important information like time left in the game, penalty minutes, and other datapoints while simultaneously keeping my eyes on the action. It’s a baffling choice, especially considering many of NHL 20’s various other modes keep the score clock where it was. This inconsistency worsens the experience, as you have to train your eyes in multiple ways depending on which mode you’re playing.
NHL 20 succeeds the most with excellent, tight controls that give you the freedom to execute basically any hockey move you can think of. There are also changes to animations and skating mechanics that make the game appear more lifelike. Building off what was already the franchise’s best foot forward with NHL 19, this year’s entry feels faster and more fluid with better animations that more realistically depict important transitional moments like catching a pass and getting intro stride at a quicker pace. Overall, the on-ice gameplay feels faster and more true to the real NHL experience.
There are new shot animations as well, which are contextual in nature and better represent what a shot might look like from a particular part of the ice and depending on angles, power, speed, specific player attributes, and more. In NHL 19, your player would oftentimes still complete the shot animation even if the puck never got to them, which looked very strange, but that rarely happens this year. NHL 20 also introduces “Signature Shots” for a number of the league’s best players; one of these is P.K. Subban’s booming slapshot and Alex Ovechkin’s electric one-timer. It’s a treat to see player-specific animations in NHL 20, and it’s yet another part of the way NHL 20 faithfully represents the real NHL experience. Additionally, goalie AI appears to be smarter this year, with netminders giving up fewer soft rebounds and making generally smarter decisions during important scenarios.
NHL 20’s in-game attention to detail and careful consideration of the sport is astounding. Players look and react as you’d expect them to on a TV broadcast, down to the way players subtly peek back toward their teammates during a face-off to the sharp crackle of skates gliding over outdoor pond ice. On the outdoor rinks, the crimson red glow of sunset over the pond is something to behold. On the ice, the physics system is so realistically presented that I found myself wincing after big open-ice hits.
Unfortunately, NHL 20 doesn’t do much in the area of improving player models. In fact, the character models for players, referees, and the crowd appear largely unchanged from last year. When the replay camera zooms in on fans on the glass, you might be wondering what kind of time vacuum the NHL series exists in for people to never age or look at all different from year to year.
The NHL series is known for its tight, precise controls, and this level of excellence continues with NHL 20. No matter what control setup you’re using, the controls allow for a complete command of your player with astounding simplicity and a lot of depth at the same time. Puck possession and clever play-making are paramount in NHL 20, and the controls never fail to provide you with many different options to keep the puck, get around defenders, make the extra pass, and light the lamp. You have the freedom to play with as much creativity as you want. The game also features a slick and smart on-ice trainer that reacts to how you’re playing and provides dynamic feedback that, for the most part, helps you improve your game.
There is such a level of fine precision with the controls that you can determine the specific angle of a poke-check or toe-drag the puck at just the right time to open space up to make a shot on goal. In essence, the controller’s analog sticks feel like an extension of your on-ice stick. The excellent baseline controls stand out even more once you move on to trying out more more advanced techniques. It takes time and practice to learn the dirtiest dangles the game has to offer, but it’s deeply rewarding to perform spins and dekes that together combine to give you ample opportunities to play with style and pizzazz.
In addition to the standard hockey simulation, NHL 20 has an abundance of arcade-style modes. The pond hockey mode, Ones–which sees three players on a small, outdoor rink competing against each other–introduces four new locations, including a rink set on a secluded farm and another inspired by the Rideau Canal in Canada. These new locations, in addition to weather effects like snow coming down during games, make Ones an even more authentic and holistically representative depiction of the outdoor hockey experience.
Ones is lots of fun with its stripped-down, back-to-basics recreation of outdoor hockey with fast-paced play and lots of goals. Outside of the new locations, the biggest change for Ones is the introduction of offline play for couch co-op, and this is a very welcome addition after last year’s game left it out in a head-scratching move.
The Threes mode, meanwhile, remains NHL’s flashiest and wackiest mode with completely unhinged commentary, mascots lacing it up, lots of goals, and big hits. It’s the mode I found myself coming back to the most due in part to its quick games relative to the standard simulation mode and constant progression rewards in every game played.
The social hub, World of Chel, returns with NHL 20 with some noteworthy updates. The biggest introduction is the “Eliminator” mode, which is NHL’s spin on battle royale. You can go it alone in Ones or team up with two others in Threes to try to survive four consecutive rounds in a bracket to win the tournament. It’s a thrilling, incredibly challenging, high-stakes challenge that, like the battle royale games it’s inspired by, encourage you to keep coming back and improve your skills.
There is a robust character-creator and you earn XP for everything you do across all of World of Chel’s modes. It’s rewarding to invest in your character and know that, whatever mode in World of Chel you’re playing, you’re working towards growing your character with meaningful advancements like new player traits, in addition to nice extras like cosmetic gear. New for World of Chel with NHL 20 are weekly challenges that track your performance and reward you with cosmetics around a particular theme. For example, the launch-week theme is NHL 94, so you can earn all kinds of themed cosmetics like jerseys and other gear. I anticipate coming back regularly.
Elsewhere in NHL 20, the career-minded Be A Pro remains a satisfying and rewarding ride to take as you start your character from the ground floor and build them into a superstar, though there are no noteworthy updates to speak of this year. Franchise, meanwhile, features a new system that gives you multiple team coaches who have influence on the direction of your team today and in the future. The system, which also includes a light conversation mechanic where you can gauge the morale and interest of your coaches, adds a further level of strategy to the already robust Franchise mode that helps you feel like you’re really the GM of a pro team. Franchise also introduces a trade-finder system that makes it less laborious to find and make trades.
Ultimate Team returns as well, and its noteworthy addition is the introduction of Squad Battles. These function the same way they do in Madden and FIFA where you go up against HUT squads created by other players or, after launch, sports stars and celebrities. Hockey Ultimate Team is all about grinding to collect new cards, and it remains a fun experience to build a fantasy team comprised of legends and current stars alike, and compete against others.
NHL 20 successfully captures the ice hockey experience from the ponds to big games under the bright lights, with a fine attention to detail and simple yet deep controls that are best-in-class. Once you get over the shock of Eddie and Doc being out of the game, the new commentary team do an adept job of providing informative and playful banter, while the game’s multitude of varied modes each have their own distinct feel and appeal that go a long way to make NHL 20 an excellent representation of hockey culture across the board.
Daemon X Machina is fundamentally about the satisfaction of making small adjustments to tackle a much larger problem. Faced with a quadrupedal robot the size of a city park, do you focus on defense to outlast it, or offense to bring it down as quickly as possible? Stay grounded for access to its underbelly, or fly far above the majority of its reach? Use rapid-fire weaponry to compensate for losses in accuracy, or a lumbering bazooka and line up each shot carefully? The game is at its best when you’re diagnosing a mission and outfitting your armored mech suit to match. Most of Daemon X Machina is spent in combat, but it’s the moments between missions, making these key decisions, where the game really finds its identity.
As the newest mercenary surrounded by veterans, you’re quickly labeled “the Rookie”–a name that you keep well past it being deserved, given that you rise in the ranks and even best most of your colleagues. The mercs are pilots of armored mecha suits called Arsenals, their actions governed by a centralized artificial intelligence that oversees their missions against Immortals–A.I. robots that have gone rogue against humanity. But you’re all still mercenaries. Even if you’re ostensibly on the same team against the Immortals, you’re all really in it for the money, and often your objectives will come into conflict with your peers from other merc groups.
Life as a newbie mercenary falls into a familiar pattern. You might tinker with your Arsenal’s equipment, take on a mission consisting of attacking an Immortal outpost or defending a convoy, collect your pay, and then head back to the hangar to do it all again. Despite the simple formula, Daemon X Machina manages surprising variety in its missions. Sometimes you’ll need to traverse a narrow hallway filled with the small, gun-fodder Immortal units, other times you’ll need to battle against a rival merc on their own conflicting mission, and occasionally you’ll discover a Colossus–a giant, screen-filling Immortal with a massive life bar.
The pace of the combat differs greatly between encounter types. Smaller enemies swarm the battlefield requiring harried crowd control. Rival mechs often turn into aerial slugfests, especially as melee clashes jump to a sudden button-mashing event to overpower your opponent. And the massive Colossi are each fully unique encounters with their own individual attack patterns and weaknesses. Your backup weapons equipped to the pylons provide a little flexibility, but your Arsenal is no Swiss Army knife. No single build could be prepared for every battle type, especially in the late-game as enemies are able to absorb much more damage.
The variety of these battle types call for different equipment to match, and it’s the tinkering portion of the game that’s strangely the most satisfying. Your Arsenal has tons of customization options, including two main weapons, two backup weapons stored on rear pylons, shoulder-mounted equipment, and auxiliary equipment, and that’s without even touching on the swappable head, body, arm, and leg parts and the ability to paint and decal the whole rig. It’s something akin to building a model Gundam, except you can go out and pilot it against hordes of enemy robots. Some of the most rewarding moments are when you hit a tough boss battle, step away from the game while you continue to think about how you could outfit your Arsenal for the challenge, and then return with a successful battle plan. And while this isn’t exactly a loot-shooter, you can pick over a defeated Arsenal and select one part to make your own, fulfilling your equipment envy when you see an enemy with a shiny object you’d like.
The wealth of customization options hits a stumbling block, however, when it comes to battles against the other mercenaries. Weapon options range from slow-moving bazookas to acid guns and swords, which are perfectly suited to dealing with standard enemies and Colossi alike. But as the game goes on, battles against other mercenaries become much more frequent, and most of the weapons aren’t well-suited for them. Just like your own Arsenal, enemy rigs are airborne and extremely nimble, which means the majority of your options are just too slow. The lock-on function helps signal when an enemy is in your sights, but it doesn’t really lock on to them, so you need to babysit the camera as they dash around the battlefield. I found myself defaulting to double assault rifles for the last third of the game or so, since the rapid-fire helped counteract the other mechs’ evasive maneuvers. It consistently worked, but it sapped most of the fun out of tailoring my Arsenal to the situation.
These mech-on-mech battles are delivered with a heaping helping of anime melodrama. The cheesy voice-acting and dialogue are just endearing enough not to distract from the excellent worldbuilding, as the characters and relationships reveal more about the history and nature of the conflict. The story throws you in the deep end without much explanation, but you’ll slowly grow accustomed to the various mercenary groups and their differing philosophies and goals. The Bullet Works mercenaries are run with military efficiency, for example, while Immortal Innocence throws itself into battles with reckless abandon, and the Western VII are a gang of prisoners who fight for reduced sentences instead of cash. Each mercenary comes with their own fantastically absurd call sign, like Crimson Lord, Guns Empress, and Savior.
While you build up familiarity with these mercs in the story, you also gain them as recruitable allies. That allows you to bring them along on side missions, though it is sometimes frustrating that you can’t direct your allies to focus on a specific target. Their help comes at a price–sometimes a price even higher than the actual payout, in which case you’re taking a net loss to make the mission a little easier on yourself. This is fine, though, because money has limited utility in the game’s economy. You can buy parts at a shop or fabricate them at a factory, but the ones you find scrounging around on the battlefield are generally better anyway.
Most of your cash will instead go into small, passive upgrades for your Arsenal and humanoid avatar–called an Outer because, naturally, even your actual human body is defined in the context of being outside your Arsenal. You can pay a little money at a place called the Ice Cream Parlor for a one-mission buff, or pay significantly more to develop an upgrade tree. These upgrades make you appear progressively less human, which is thematically similar to transhumanism elements in the main story. Your inhuman appearance isn’t ever remarked upon, though, so your choices don’t connect with the larger narrative and it remains superficial. Instead, your upgrades and the accompanying cosmetic changes are just a matter of weighing whether you mind if your avatar looks less like you intended when you made them.
Similarly, the story lands with less punch than it should have. You’ve been fighting other pilots so casually and with such regularity that when the stakes turn to life-and-death, it isn’t really reflected in the gameplay. You’re still shooting the enemy until their Arsenal becomes inactive, but then a cutscene shows that they die instead of retreating. It’s a disappointing fizzle considering how fond I had grown of the various factions and their merry bands of weirdos.
DXM does get a boost of longevity through its cooperative online play. Missions range from upgraded versions of the Colossus boss battles to taking on other sets of mercenaries. The lobby system and chat functions, while simplistic, perform their jobs well, and it’s cool to see your hangar bay filling up with your teammates’ mechs as they join up. Your rewards for co-op missions lean into the best part of the game by providing a constant avenue to obtain new loot like armor parts, weapons, and mod attachments. Oddly, though, there appears to be no clear way to swap your loadout or equipment when you’re in the multiplayer lobby. If you want your rig to be properly tailored to a multiplayer mission, you’ll either need to choose the loadout and then restrict your search criteria very narrowly, or deal with having a more broad-purpose build.
The missed potential of the story and minor issues with mech-vs-mech combat and multiplayer loadouts make Daemon X Machina fall just short of its potential, but the foundation is strong. As a total package, it’s on the verge of greatness; it just needed a little more time in the shop tinkering.