Fans of old-school platformers have had plenty of choices lately, and WayForward’s Shantae: Half-Genie Hero–the latest in the series that debuted on the Game Boy Color–is yet another great addition to the list. The franchise has received two excellent, intentionally retro-styled adventures on modern platforms, but Half-Genie Hero mixes in modern 3D graphics with its traditional 2D gameplay, which makes for a game that straddles the line between new and old.
The Shantae series always had a distinct, engaging tongue-in-cheek quality to them, and that’s on full display here. Shantae herself is a self-aware caricature of 16-bit icons–she’s moody and snarky and giddy in equal measure and the side characters are all fun in their own way. The plot feels a little thrown together at times, quickly establishing characters and story elements with little explanation. Admittedly, depth of story usually isn’t the main element we look for in a classic side-scroller, but the overall story feels a bit weaker here than it did in Shantae’s previous outings.
In her latest adventure, Shantae is still the Guardian Genie of Scuttle Town, a place that’s constantly overrun with comically inept pirates, and regularly falls victim to crazy magical schemes. The town is once more attacked by the self-proclaimed Queen of the Seven Seas, Risky Boots. It seems Ms. Boots is after a set of Shantae’s uncle’s blueprints for a machine that has the power to protect the entire town–or cause immense destruction.
The reason this otherwise straightforward story feels disjointed is the relatively non-linear structure of the game. Shantae picks up new abilities by completing numerous mini-missions that pop up around Scuttle Town, and these abilities–usually in the form of transformation dances–enable Shantae to reach new areas within various levels.
It quickly becomes clear that these side-quest-like missions are integral to finishing the main story objectives, creating occasional confusion about what you should focus on at any given moment. There’s no map or real way to keep track of multiple ongoing quests, only an NPC who provides general guidance. But even that doesn’t always help. Some active goals simply can’t be completed until you acquire a specific power by completing one of the aforementioned mini-missions, though it’s a guessing game to determine which one will give you the specific skill you need.
Levels expand beyond the town and into locations like deserts, factories, lush forests, waterfalls, and temples. Each world is chock-full of secrets to find, requiring multiple return trips to discover every last one. This process can get a bit repetitive, especially during the opening hour or two when you’re mostly going back and forth between the same few map areas, but the influx of new abilities helps build momentum over time. Thankfully, a couple quality-of-life options open up later that help expedite the process: you can buy a dance move that allows you to jump straight to the next part of a world, skipping superfluous sections altogether. Once you’ve acquired the target item or ability, you can then instantly warp back to town.
Generally, Half-Genie Hero is an accessible game, although you will stumble across a few challenging platforming sections. A big part of the gameplay’s appeal comes from Shantae’s eight transformation dances. Turning into a monkey lets her jump much farther and climb walls, while a spider transformation gives her the ability to scurry across ceilings. As an elephant, Shantae can bash breakable blocks, and no item or enemy is safe underwater when she activates her mermaid or crab forms. Of course, Shantae still has her familiar hair-whip attack, and she can use magic to throw fireballs, create lightning, and form special shields.
The variety of powers at your disposal is one of Half-Genie Hero’s strong suits, allowing for a lot of fun experimentation during combat. Like many classic action-platformers, enemies mindlessly move back and forth and attack on sight, with little apparent AI. Similarly, boss battles are entirely pattern-based, but fighting cartoonishly massive enemies is riotously fun–a giant worm, huge mermaid, airships, and other absurd, screen-filling battles await.
So, while some minor structural squabbles hamper Half-Genie Hero’s pace, the overall game remains a delightful experience. The move to sharp graphics makes the game feel modern, yet the series’ old-school charm lives on in the vibrant colors and expressive character animations. And the soundtrack is surprisingly catchy–with hilariously passionate (if minimal) voice work and a great score. It’s easy to get wrapped up in fighting and platforming through Half-Genie Hero, which speaks to the pedigree of the series, and how well it translates to Shantae’s latest adventure.
On the surface, Stardew Valley is a game about farming, but there are more adventures awaiting curious players beyond cultivating a rich and bountiful garden. From mining and fishing to making friends and falling in love, Stardew Valley’s Pelican Town is stuffed with rewarding opportunities. As modern day woes give way to pressing matters on the farm and within your newfound community, Stardew Valley’s meditative activities often lead to personal reflection in the real world. It’s a game that tugs at your curiousity as often as it does your heart.
Your journey begins in the field, cleaning up a neglected and rundown farm. Plotting and planning your garden requires care and attention to detail. What fruits and vegetables do you grow? How much room does each plant need? How do you protect your crops from nature’s troublemakers? You learn through practice, and while the basics are easy to grasp, you quickly need to figure out the best way to outfit your budding farm with new tools and equipment.
Upgrades help speed up essential tasks like tilling the earth and watering your plants, but advanced equipment becomes a necessity when the time comes to break down large rocks and stumps that stick out in your garden. The crafting menu also entices you with optional time-saving tools; automated sprinklers that water the crops every morning, artisan equipment to make preserves or beer out of your harvest, and refineries, such as a furnace for turning ore into metal bars. If you want something, you can make it, you just have to scour your environment for the necessary components.
As your farm improves, you gain the ability to raise livestock. Animals are expensive to buy and maintain, and the barn they live in isn’t cheap either. You start small, with a barn just big enough for a few chickens and ducks. But if you run an efficient and bountiful garden, you can eventually afford to upgrade to a bigger barn and keep hearty livestock like pigs, cows and sheep.
You have to feed your stock every day, which can get expensive, but they will eventually begin to produce eggs, milk and other rewards for all your hard work. Beyond their monetary value, animals are simply endearing to be around. Give them a name and work a little petting time into your routine; before you know it, your commodities have become your friends. Like your crops, the goodies livestock produce give you a sense of accomplishment, but their companionship is a different yet equally valuable reward.
The goodies livestock produce give you a sense of accomplishment, but their companionship is a different yet equally valuable reward.
When your farm is healthy and your equipment set, Stardew Valley opens up and your routine expands: after you water your plants, feed your animals and tidy up in the morning, you get to head out in search of adventure and friendship. There’s a mine north of Pelican Town with a seemingly endless bounty of buried treasure, but also danger. Combat is simple–a plain swipe of a sword will brush back most common monsters–but the dangers you face grow as you delve deeper into the mine, pushing your basic tactics to the limit.
There’s a risk/reward relationship to seeking out valuable treasure, as it becomes increasingly more difficult to defend yourself from procedurally generated creatures the deeper you go. You hit checkpoints–in the form of elevator stops–every few floors, which both encourages you to keep going and to return in the future in search of grander rewards as checkpoints allow you to skip past the mine’s early levels. The precious gems you find can be sold for profit, donated to a museum that will conduct and share research, or simply hoarded in a chest to be fawned over down the road.
When you grow weary of toiling underground, you can also spend time fishing on lakes, streams and coastal beaches. Fishing in Stardew Valley is straightforward–you use one button to reel in a fish and let go when the line is tense–but it gives you a chance to soak in your surroundings and experience the joys of catching a wide array of fish unique to specific seasons and locations. It’s a calming experience at sunset after a long day that gives you a chance to reflect on your progress and daydream about adventures to come.
Stardew Valley constantly encourages you to explore, be it mining, foraging for fruit in the woods, or collecting seashells, and your curiosity is amply rewarded. Every hidden area you find, every train track you follow, leads to new sights and discoveries that add detail and color to the world around you. Yet as fulfilling as farming and exploring are, visiting Pelican Town’s community center pulls you ever deeper into your new life. Like your farm at the beginning of the game, the community center needs a little attention at first: you’re sent out on fetch quests to gather the necessary materials to fuel its reconstruction.
Outside of the community center, the rest of Pelican Town’s inhabitants also need your help. In working together to achieve small goals, you grow to understand your neighbors’ personalities and identify what makes them tick. Some are pursuing their hopes and dreams, while others fight day to day to overcome personal obstacles; others are quirky creatures of habit that round out the community’s overall identity.
Relationships are gauged by a heart meter, and getting to a certain number of hearts results in a cutscene that offer a closer look into your new friends’ lives. Offering gifts and completing tasks from a board in the center of town are easy ways to increase your connections, and slowly but surely you’re allowed in the inner circle of people’s otherwise private lives. You may befriend a father named Kent who’s dealing trauma after years at war. He’s working on his temper and trying to bond with his child after being away from home. The child, whom you meet in hiding in his parent’s basement, is quiet and introverted. But when you put the time in to get to know him, he reveals that he actually doesn’t mind being alone, even though he believes that he’s at odds with his parents. These personal moments are touching, and encourage you to spend more time getting to know the people around you.
And if you decide to enter Pelican Town’s dating scene, don’t be surprised if you end up with butterflies in your stomach. Giving your crush the right gift and seeing the joy on their face makes you genuinely happy, but you have to put yourself out there first. Sure, working with townsfolk in general is a good way to understand the ins and outs of potential suitors, but no amount of preparation diminishes the impact of anxiously delivering a heartfelt gesture. Because you’ve invested so much time and energy into forging relationships, you get nervous when you expose your feelings, regardless of the fact that you’re courting a pixelated crush. Through strong writing and characterization, Stardew Valley stirs up surprising feelings: when your date shares his umbrella in the rain, you know he’s the one.
Through strong writing and characterization, Stardew Valley stirs up surprising feelings
Romance often buds during community events that take place each season. In spring you’ll attend a dance and try to get someone to be your partner. At the summer luau you’ll have to bring something delicious from your harvest for the community potluck. At each of these events you’ll have time to get to know the people within the community and see them in a different light than usual. Although it’s lovely to see them outside of their usual activities, it’s a shame year after year the comments and actions of the villagers remain the same. Still, you can learn from previous years, adding better food to the potluck and finally earning the affection of your favorite dance partner.
Mastering farming and earning the affection of your special someone in Stardew Valley are fulfilling journeys filled with surprising and rewarding challenges. But when you have those accomplishments under your belt, it’s hard to know where you go from there. Divorce is an option, but if you put a lot of yourself into finding a spouse, dumping them merely to extend your game doesn’t seem like an attractive path. Besides, with your money-making farm, cash isn’t a concern either.
Ultimately, Stardew Valley’s eventful world is so inviting that you may opt to simply start from scratch and forge a new life. For anyone who played Stardew Valley earlier this year when it launched on PC, the new console ports capture the same magic that made the game special all those months ago, and allows you to play from the comfort of your couch. Controls on console are essentially identical to what you get from the PC version’s controller support. Console versions also get the fully updated version of Stardew Valley, which includes the aforementioned divorce option, new farm maps that focus on different skills, and a handful of new mechanics that add appreciable wrinkles to life on the farm and about town.
The sheer number of things to accomplish in Stardew Valley can keep you interested beyond the original three in-game years you need to reach the end of your story–you may just want to start over rather than continue on. You’ll work quite hard to gather enough money for your first horse, so that you can quickly move to the mines to get a mineral to complete a bundle at the community center. It’s all centered around whatever it is you want to accomplish that day. And that’s truly what makes Stardew Valley such a lovely experience, it encourages you to go out and be the best you can be, in whichever task that brings you the most joy. Stardew Valley motivates naturally, with blissful optimism.
Games based on licensed properties can sometimes cover up a multitude of sins by remaining close to their source material. Space Hulk: Deathwing is not one of those games. Although this shooter from French developer Streum On Studio boasts the grim atmosphere and brutal combat that the Warhammer 40,000 universe is known for, there are too many problems here for even the most hardcore fan to endure for long. For every impressive set piece and “wow” moment in combat, there are a dozen befuddling rules or mechanics that make you scratch your head in disbelief.
Of all the issues, tedium is the biggest offender. All nine levels of the campaign are slogs where you trudge down one corridor after another, pausing only to incinerate predictable waves of enemies. Beyond a few minor variations, enemy Genestealers come in two forms: ones that rush at you gnashing teeth and slashing claws, and hybrids that shoot at you from a distance with guns, rocket launchers, and psychic blasts. Bigger and tougher baddies are introduced during the campaign–including some bosses capable of shredding squads with ease–but by and large, the tactics you employ at the start of the game will carry you to the end.
On a positive note, battles are often as brutal as you’d expect from a Space Hulk game. There’s real weight to the thud of your weaponry and power armor as you stomp through dark corridors and chambers. Even the thump-thump-thump of the (relatively) lightweight storm bolter, the whir of an assault cannon, and the whoosh of a flamer are exhilarating because you feel like you’re doing real physical damage. Pounding on enemies with melee weapons is even more ferocious, if a bit chaotic and hard to follow, with the medieval-styled swords and hammers that send flurries of blood and flesh into the air.
Deathwing thankfully nails the look and atmosphere of the Warhammer 40,000 universe. It’s loaded with visual fan service like massive cathedrals, dissected bodies in laboratories, and humans wired into power systems. Everything is just as baroque and bloody as it ought to be, making for one of the most authentic video game interpretations of Warhammer 40,000’s striking aesthetic.
While everything does look great, there’s little room for interactivity. Aside from shooting gas lines into flaming geysers and opening, closing, sealing, and smashing doors, you can’t do much to your surroundings. There are no weapons, no ammo, no health packs, or any other goodies to collect. Objectives never involve anything more than killing lots of Genestealers, taking out a boss alien, blowing something up, or turning something off or on. You just follow the orders leading from one corner of each map to another until you wrap up the final battle.
Unfortunately, squad AI is a major problem. Your allies aren’t exactly dumb, but they’re limited in their abilities when it comes to choosing targets and taking cover.
Both the personality and texture of combat are vaguely reminiscent of the original Space Hulk PC games. You take the fight to the Genestealers in squads of three when playing with others online, or solo with bots filling out the ranks. Unfortunately, squad AI is a major problem. Your allies aren’t exactly dumb, but they’re limited in their abilities when it comes to choosing targets and taking cover. Trying to take out gun turrets is a huge exercise in frustration, as your pals tend to just stand in the open and get blasted until they die.
AI Space Marines are prone to shuffling in place, turning their backs on attacking enemies right in their faces, and standing in the middle of doorways when you’re trying to seal off a room full of aliens. Enemy mobs can easily overwhelm them, and they tend to stand their ground and shoot mindlessly in the face of bosses that destroy them in a matter of seconds. They don’t do anything on their own, either. You have to tell your apothecary marine to patch himself up when his health is low–otherwise he just lets himself die. A radial order menu allows you to give rudimentary commands like Follow, Defend, and Heal, but it’s impossibly clunky to use during combat unless your Deathwing trooper has a deathwish.
Playing co-op is better by far, but it’s currently tough to find a suitable squad. Either hosts are kicking people or there’s something wrong with the online code; it’s far more common to receive a server error message than it is to successfully enter a match.
Some core mechanics are also needlessly quirky. You can’t swap your loadouts on the fly, for example. To swap weapons, revive dead characters, and heal everyone up, you have to activate a Psygate that takes you back to your ship for some TLC. Unfortunately, you only have three of these per level, so it’s easy to exhaust them and find yourself at the end of a scenario with the wrong weapon for the battle at hand. This adds to the intensity of the game by ramping up the consequences every time you trigger a return for some new gear and healing, but it also forces you to start levels from the very beginning at times, which isn’t quite as welcome.
While it captures the look and feel of a bleak sci-fi world, numerous quirks and bugs make Space Hulk: Deathwing a guilty pleasure at best.
The game also crashes to the desktop fairly frequently. One of these crashes actually corrupted a save so that every time it reloaded, the mouse buttons and keyboard wouldn’t work. And when you aren’t forced to replay significant chunks of time, you may end up loading an autosave and begin in the middle of a firefight–an impossible situation and a demotivating outcome.
While it captures the look and feel of a bleak sci-fi world, numerous quirks and bugs make Space Hulk: Deathwing a guilty pleasure at best. Playing cooperatively with a couple of buddies helps smooth over some of these problems, but regardless, combat remains incessantly tedious. The one hope is that the fanatical Games Workshop community grabs hold of the game and starts modding, because the visuals, atmosphere, and ferocity of the combat could be harnessed and turned into something impressive. As is, even the most crazed Warhammer 40,000 or Space Hulk fan will have a tough time appreciating Space Hulk: Deathwing.
Shocks just keep coming in the second episode of Season Three of The Walking Dead. Telltale continues with the brutal moments and surprise tragedies that kicked off this season, showing that nobody’s safe in the New Frontier. This fast-paced conclusion to The Ties That Bind two-parter sees the new group of main protagonists fronted by the remains of the Garcia family and Clementine facing internal revolt, external challenges, and the looming question of who you can trust in this brutal new world–even if they’re family.
Episode Two picks up immediately where Episode One left off. It begins in sort of a slo-mo style that really sinks the knife in when we witness grief-ridden scenes play out before our eyes. Although the victim and source of everyone’s sadness was only around for one episode, they already felt endearing, thanks to a handful of small but meaningful moments. As a result, Episode Two gets off to a touching and somber start.
This sad interlude is soon replaced by a plot that hastily moves to tear down some of what was established in Episode One and build up what’s likely going to carry the protagonists right through to the season finale. One thing that you can bet on in any Walking Dead story–whether its told in a game, comic, or TV show–is that safe spots tend to get overrun by walkers or bad guys in short order. So, before you can even settle down in Prescott, with its windmill and corrugated dive bar (the place looks like something out of Fallout), it’s not a total surprise when you find yourself on the road again.
Most of this episode takes place on the run. The gang is trying to get to Richmond, both to escape an incoming threat, and to seek help for a wounded character. So while there are a number of big decisions to make–including a horrible life-or-death choice–there’s a ton of action here courtesy of the usual QTE zombie combat. You’re called upon to shoot, bash, and knife a lot of walkers in pretty graphic ways.
All this killing happens mainly during the episode’s big set-piece moment, which takes place alongside a gas station where the road has been intentionally barricaded by cars strewn across the mouth of a tunnel. As with the action scenes in the first episode, these moments seem a little more challenging to get through than any from the first two seasons. Hesitate even for a second, and you may end up hurt–or worse, bitten. Still, don’t expect to die very often; this is still a game geared for a casual audience.
Even though Season Three of The Walking Dead has just started, you can already notice a number of key themes emerging. The notion of family is paramount, and its likely Javy will have to second guess the trust he’s placed in his family…or if he ever should have relied on them in the first place.
This chapter–The Ties That Bind–comes to an end in the second episode. It moves quickly–and in some pretty familiar directions, given how we’ve seen events like the attack on Prescott and the desperate search for a new refuge many times before. But not everything is as expected here, and the dramatic weight tied to unpredictable moments–as well as the amount of action–provides more of the franchise alluring edge-of-your-seat storytelling.