Tropico 6 Review – Narcissistic Indulgence

Tropico 6 is not a fair game. It positions you as not only the head of a small island nation, but also on a political stage with far greater powers than yours. Be those forces colonial, imperialist, or capitalist, your job is to keep your nation stable against both the tides of external forces and the demands of the citizens in your charge. That’s a heavy premise that gets diluted a bit with tongue-in-cheek humor, but the parallels between your fictional country and many real-world iterations throughout history are extensive. Those frictions, in many ways, are what makes Tropico an interesting and vivacious playground for those who want some nation-building with their city simulators.

Your path through Tropico is a relatively simple one, given context and complexity by new systems that progressively stack on top of one another. In much the same way that our real-world economies are heavily influenced by trade, treaties, and demand, so too will your fledgling nation-state.

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At the outset, you’ll have little more than a few shacks, shops, farms, and a lump sum to kickstart your nascent economy with infrastructure and business investment. Economic growth and innovation don’t simply happen, though. There are a few necessary components you’ll have to stitch together before you have even a rudimentary economy. Agriculture, roads, and teamsters are the absolute basics–grow the food and move it to the people. Creating and moving goods largely works the same regardless of what it is, but the complexity comes from layering the skeleton of metal or oil transport on top of the systems that keep people fed and healthy. Ports and supply depots, roads and laborers can only handle so much.

On their own, these mechanisms would work well enough. The basics of the genre have been honed for almost three decades now, and little has changed in the sense that most city builders use stocks and flows–moving some resource to its consumer in progressive stages. Tropico is distinct, though, in many respects beyond even its central premise because of its detail-oriented approach. It contrasts with its contemporaries by following not only each individual, but for simulating even small changes in living conditions.

Because this nation is dictatorial from the outset, you’re also given control over just about everything. How well are the teamsters paid? The houses furnished? Are you letting your people live in shacks? This moves down another level, too, because as time goes on, the populace evolves quite organically. Different factions come together on their own. Most of the time, they’ll support political moves that match their own self-interest, but not always. Propaganda, trade, international political movements, and even disasters will have marked effects on the social fabric, too.

Such detail isn’t for its own sake; how you play is critically dependent on the political forces at work. Corruption is useful, as it can be a cheap, quick way to consolidate power. But that risks exacerbating the underlying social issues. Still, because there’s an element of roleplaying–you create your own avatar, decorate your palace, and even have a private bank account to squirrel away cash–the mechanics are built out to support a variety of choices.

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You can, hypothetically, push people to their limit and bail on the country, but it’s a lot more satisfying to tackle the challenge of managing dynamic international political relations–avoid invasion, keep your people healthy and happy and lead the world in research. That’s not the only viable path, but the rewards are largely self-evident and act as a scalable difficulty curve that you are encouraged to approach. Many paths are intrinsically rewarding for those that like to see the productivity of their people or their nation climb, but transitioning into a vibrant, prismatic tourist hotspot can bear aesthetic marvels all its own. The island can feel a bit like caretaking dozens of Tamagotchi, and the satisfaction just as palpable.

While still couched in stylized humor endemic to the series, Tropico 6 is a bit less flippant with its political parallels. The vestiges of colonialism have always been present, but they weren’t treated too seriously in past entries. An emissary for some far-flung king would occasionally demand something ridiculous to suit his whims, and the joke was always that he was detached from reality and had no idea how people–especially his colonial subjects–earnestly lived. Those threads are still here, but the colonialism hasn’t been defanged quite as much. Instead, the Crown’s messengers are direct, stating that their exploitation is unfair and pretty cruel. But what are you going to do, fight off a superpower? At the same time, the revolutionaries, once treated as simply different brand of silly, are more grounded–offering a sympathetic lens to the fictionalized rendition of groups that often have little voice of their own.

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Beyond the increased fidelity of simulation, Tropico 6’s biggest change is the increased map complexity. You now essentially have access to whole archipelagos to settle. These are not only fascinating to explore in their own right often holding archaeological ruins or rare minerals, but offer brilliant mechanical challenges. Building out a whole new parallel infrastructure is no easy feat, and requires foresight, planning, and investment–but again, is rewarding to execute. Integration of the new systems, or even crafting self-sufficient settlements are challenges, made rewarding by the nuanced logistical challenges. While the underlying simulation is indeed, predictable, the island does evolve a bit on its own: economies and politics shift with time, providing a constant, low-level nudge to your work.

Even without that new addition–citizens are born, live, and eventually die and your islands’ culture changes accordingly. How you have and continue to balance policy and labor, exports and research will leave indelible marks on the psyche of the populace. The complexity of those petri dish layers can max out the user interface at times, particularly if you have a rather large or dense city and doubly so if you’re new to the series. As the city expands, and as public opinion and needs shift, tracking down influential individuals or logistical breaking points requires flipping through a dozen or so different pages of stats and maps.

Even so, you have more than enough tools to control just about everything that happens in Tropico. Failure and success, then, can feel quite a bit like a referendum not just on your policies, but on your rendition of El Presidente. The notion of dictatorship as a role that you play for yucks is still there, if that’s a hat you want to wear–though it’s harder to indulge your own selfish impulses when you can see how your actions are condemning Lydia the lumberjack to a lifetime of poverty.

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MLB The Show 19 Review – Play Ball!

MLB The Show 19 begins with an ode to spring: the opening cutscene waxes lyrical about the world blooming into color with bright blue skies and beaming sun rays amid the chirping of birds, before moving onto the hope, optimism, and excitement that accompanies a new season of Major League Baseball. America’s favorite pastime is synonymous with the transition from winter’s gloomy doldrums to the warmer weather of spring, and Sony San Diego’s long-running baseball series has become a complementary part of that equation. This is due in no small part to the high level of quality The Show has maintained throughout its lifespan, and MLB 19 is no different, implementing smart new tweaks and significant refinements to its on-field action, while introducing entertaining new modes to its authentic flavor of baseball excellence.

Fielding has received the most substantial improvements out on the diamond, with the Defensive Runs Saved metric coming to the forefront. Now any player wearing a leather-clad glove is more responsive than before, hustling to field weakly hit balls, recovering quickly from botched catches, and utilizing a plethora of new animations to give you added control over the defensive side of the game. There’s also a clear distinction between each fielder’s individual stats, so if you’ve got a Gold Glove player like Matt Chapman manning the hot corner, you’ll notice how adept he is at reaching balls lesser fielders will have trouble getting to. An outfielder’s reaction to the ball jumping off the bat varies depending on their attributes, too, while a new interface makes it easier or harder to read balls that careen off the outfield wall depending on the defending player’s skill set. There’s an intuitive fielding ability indicator under the feet of each player to give you a quick reference point for how likely they are to pull off a spectacular play versus an embarrassing one, and that means substituting that beefy power hitter you’ve lodged into left field is now a tactical switch worth considering in the later innings. Each of these changes contributes to a greater sense of control over how your team prevents runs, removing a lot of the frustration that plagued previous games when fielders were often too lackadaisical.

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At the plate, batting feels slightly more forgiving this year. There’s now a greater distinction between the types of contact you can make with the ball, and a larger variety of hits makes batting more enjoyable. Not to mention pitchers are now actually concerned with self-preservation, so you won’t encounter quite as many stolen hits because the pitcher’s face was in the way. These changes coalesce to make a strong aspect of the game even stronger, and few feelings can match the elation that arises when you square up a ball and hear the crack of the bat as it flies into a gap in center field.

In terms of modes, the most notable new addition is March to October, which essentially acts as a truncated and more streamlined version of the time-consuming Franchise Mode. In the past, Sony San Diego has made strides in contriving various ways to make Franchise less of a time sink. Being able to expedite a 162-game baseball season by alternating between playing full games or using quick manage and player lock was a welcome change, but it’s still a lengthy endeavor that most will still want to simulate through at times. However, there’s always an inherent degree of detachment that comes from simming your way through blocks of the season. March to October alleviates this issue by making your performances impact your team’s form, even if you’re only playing for two or three innings at a time.

At the outset, March to October asks you to pick a team, categorizing all 30 MLB teams based on their expectations as either favorites, contenders, underdogs, or longshots. It doesn’t matter whether you pick a team like the Yankees or the Orioles, your ultimate goal is to reach the postseason and win the World Series. The majority of the season is automatically simulated, but during critical moments you’ll be dropped into games in a variety of situations to try and earn a positive outcome. These can range from taking over a game in the eighth inning of a blowout with the simple aim of maintaining a shutout, joining in the sixth to break open a tied game, or stepping into the batter’s box with two outs in the ninth and a man on second when your team is down by a single run. Your performance in these situations earns you either positive or negative momentum, and this affects your team’s results during those simulated games. Obviously, there’s a little more leeway here if you’re using one of the powerhouse teams as opposed to a relative minnow, but momentum ensures your performance has a palpable effect on how well your team does even when you’re not directly involved. Maintain positive momentum and you’ll see your team go on a winning run, while the opposite is true if you fail to meet your objectives. You’ll also occasionally have the opportunity to use player lock in certain games, with that player earning a season-long bonus if you, say, drive in three runs or crush a game-winning homer.

Completing a full season takes roughly 10 to 15 hours, and winning the World Series at the conclusion of March to October nets you rewards for MLB 19’s card-collecting mode, Diamond Dynasty. This won’t be a mouth-watering incentive for everyone, and March to October still consumes enough time that there’s little replay value involved. Nevertheless, it’s an engaging new mode that consistently puts you in situations tailor-made for some thrilling topsy-turvy baseball. It may lack depth due to an absence of roster moves, with a single deadline day trade the only chance to augment your team, but for those who don’t have time to commit to Franchise Mode, it’s a fantastic alternative.

Moments is another new addition that also drops you into crucial situations, with the key difference here being their historical significance. Playing as the likes of Babe Ruth, Nolan Ryan, Willie Mays, and other icons of the sport, Moments lets you relive the classic plays, at-bats, pitching performances, and playoff series of these legendary players’ Hall of Fame careers–complete with authentic stadiums and a black and white filter. It’s not a perfect recreation of baseball’s past, with plenty of default players on top of contemporary commentary and graphic overlays. There’s also little fanfare when you pull off a historic feat, with not even so much as a single line of dialogue. Yet despite these missteps, it’s still exciting to call your homerun with The Bambino, mash your way to a .400 average with Tony Gywnn, or win the Chicago Cubs’ first World Series in 108 years. Moments also provides another avenue to earn rewards for Diamond Dynasty, beyond giving you the opportunity to play as historic players before unlocking their playing cards.

This is a common through line in MLB 19: Almost everything you do contributes to Diamond Dynasty in some way. This makes it relatively easy to assemble a competitive team without having to spend a dime of real-world money, and there are still multiple ways to engage with Diamond Dynasty in both single and multiplayer capacities, depending on your preference, from playing against others online to conquering maps in Conquest Mode, drafting a team in Battle Royale to ascend a ladder, and completing various challenges. The variety of options mixed with the frequent stream of rewards makes Diamond Dynasty one of the most enjoyable card-collecting modes in the genre.

Elsewhere, Road to the Show introduces a few more RPG elements this year to give dialogue options some much-needed impact. During the creation of your player, you have to choose between reworked archetypes, with each one acting as a physical blueprint for the type of player you want to be. There isn’t a level cap anymore, so you can feasibly increase each of your player’s stats to 99 overall, but your chosen archetype governs how easy or difficult it is to improve specific attributes. For instance, pick a Small Ball hitter and you’ll find it easier to train your speed, fielding, and stealing, while it will be much harder to improve power and plate discipline, with contact and arm strength falling somewhere in the middle. Enhancing these stats still relates to your on-field performance, with a base hit correlating to an increase in contact, and so on. There are new minigames based around weightlifting and other exercise drills, too, allowing you to progress certain attributes if you want to put in the extra work off the field.

During the character creation process you’re also asked to choose between four personality types: lightning rod, captain, heart and soul, and maverick. Each dialogue option in Road to the Show relates to one of these personalities, so picking the captain option to give a teammate some encouragement when he’s in the midst of a slump will upgrade your captain attributes, which in turn allows you to unlock various perks within a modest skill tree. Reach tier two in heart and soul, for example, and you can activate a perk that improves your hitting ability when in 2-0, 2-1, 3-0, and 3-1 counts, ensuring your dialogue choices manifest in meaningful bonuses when at the plate. Forming a relationship with teammates or an antagonistic rivalry with another team’s players will make these perks more powerful as well. Occasionally you’ll also be asked to pick between three challenges during particular moments in games, whether it’s simply getting on base or striking out the next batter. Each challenge has a boost to stats related to it, with harder challenges providing a more substantial boost if you’re successful. This is only a small touch, but it gives you an extra opportunity to improve your player by balancing the risk and reward of picking a harder challenge over a simpler one. There’s no doubt smashing a home run over the left field wall is more exhilarating than usual when a 175% boost is active.

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As for Franchise Mode, there’s not really a lot to say. Contracts now more closely mirror their real-life counterparts, both in terms of years and money, and you can finally re-sign players before they reach the end of their current deal. This adds authenticity to the business side of Franchise Mode, but otherwise it’s the same as it has been for a few years now. There’s still no team relocation, stadium building, or online Franchise Mode, which is disappointing considering these are staples in other sports games. On the plus side, at least you can now use two-way sensation Shohei Ohtani as a designated hitter on days he’s not pitching without having to waste a substitution.

Despite the lack of innovation in Franchise Mode, MLB 19: The Show excels when it comes to the sheer variety of single-player content on offer, while significant improvements to fielding round out the on-field package, making this one of the best baseball games ever. That’s not a particularly bold statement considering the series’ consistent quality throughout the years, but MLB 19 continues that upward trajectory with its most robust offering yet, guaranteeing another year’s worth of excellent baseball.

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The World Next Door Review – Anime Angst

The World Next Door feels like it’s a video game adaption of some manga or anime, which isn’t too surprising. Rose City Games’ visual-novel-meets-puzzle-battle game is published by anime and manga distributor Viz Media and features anime-inspired characters designed by artist Lord Gris. The game wears its inspirations on its sleeve, incorporating popular manga and anime tropes into its story. While the cast is fun to interact with and the game’s combat a blast to play, there are certain aspects of The World Next Door’s narrative that feels a little too stereotypical–especially in regards to most characters’ portrayal.

In The World Next Door, you play as Jun, a human teenager who’s lucky enough to win a ticket that allows her to visit the land of Emrys–a parallel world connected to Earth via both the internet and a magical portal that opens up for a few days every 20 years. Her trip in Emrys suddenly takes a dark turn when she fails to return to the portal before it closes, as humans can only last a few days in Emrys before they die. Jun teams up with her friend Liza, an Emrys native who’s been communicating with Jun for months as a pen pal, to figure out a means of reopening the portal and getting home. The two enlist the help of a few of Liza’s acquaintances as well, culminating in a party of seven when all is said and done.

The World Next Door is divided into two portions, with visual novel gameplay framing Jun’s journey into four puzzle-battle game dungeons. The bulk of the game takes place in the visual novel portion, seeing you choose dialogue options and actions during conversations, complete fetch quests for Liza’s friends, and figure out which three people you want to text in your precious allotment of limited free time each day. You do get some control in how Jun behaves, allowing you to make her nice, vengeful, flirty, sheepish, or bored. However, your choices don’t influence the outcome of the overall story, instead shaping the direction of the conversations along the way.

Most of the game’s anime inspirations come through in the visual novel gameplay, with many of the characters’ personalities and designs fitting the implied archetypes of their appearance. The demonic-looking Horace, for example, acts like a sarcastic badass who’s always ready for a fight. The blond-haired, pretty, always-has-a-cellphone-in-her-hand Lux, meanwhile, is a gossip with a vain need to always be the center of attention.

It works at first, especially as a means of quickly establishing the personalities of Jun’s new friends. Even if you’ve never read a manga or watched an anime in your life, you’ll probably be able to pick up each character’s habits and temperament at a glance. However, none of the characters truly grow outside of their respective archetypes over the course of The World Next Door’s campaign. Some grow as people, for sure, but they’re minor, stereotypical transformations–like an increase in confidence or a newfound willingness to share their feelings. None of it really feels earned, either. Jun’s friends just suddenly open up to her and accept each other without much prodding, despite which conversation options you choose. The one exception is Liza, who reveals a surprisingly intriguing detail in the final arc of The World Next Door’s story. Trading quips with Horace or admonishing Vesper for the crime of putting pineapple on pizza may spark a chuckle or two, but Liza is the only one with any worthwhile growth.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t get to know the other characters. There are plenty of hilarious conversations to be had in The World Next Door, and it’s absolutely worth your time talking to someone whenever you have a chance. If you do, you’ll also learn more about the culture and history of the world of Emrys. Side conversations between story missions flesh out the fantastical land Jun finds herself trapped in. Even if it isn’t necessary to get to know every character in order to complete the game, the promise of learning another fascinating fact about Emrys pushes you to chase down your companions between missions. It’s an excellent reward for taking the time to explore.

The World Next Door plays like the first arc of something more, ending right when it seems like it’s about to deliver the experience you want.

In the process of getting to know every character, however, I did encounter an unfortunate bug. In order to complete a favor for angelic straight-A student Cerisse, you are tasked with completing a riddle that involves using the runes on the floor of a room. However, when I entered the room, the runes never showed up. Even after resetting the puzzle, restarting the entire mission, and exiting the game and loading an old save, the runes still refused to appear. Thankfully, completing Cerisse’s quest isn’t mandatory for moving on in the main story, but missing out on the possible conversations that mission could have sparked is disappointing.

It’s also disappointing that your conversation choices seemingly always lead to the same final large decision at The World Next Door’s end. Also, unless I’m missing something, there’s a pretty huge plot thread that remains unresolved regardless of which path you go with. Perhaps The World Next Door is being set up as the opening chapter of a larger story, but, as is, its narrative feels incomplete.

The World Next Door spends too little time in the other portion of its gameplay, the puzzle battles, as well, which is a shame as they’re all pretty fun despite their simplicity. Throughout The World Next Door, you explore four different dungeons, each of which is inhabited by its own unique enemies. Upon entering a new room, you are thrown into battle and the floor is painted with an assortment of differently colored runes. Stepping on any spot of the map where at least three runes of the same color are touching allows you to perform a magical action. Three red runes, for example, let you send a fireball towards the nearest enemy, while purple runes summon a black hole to slow others down. You can drag runes from one spot of the room to another in order to get three of one color together, and dragging together more than three runes of the same color allows you to cast a more powerful version of the spell. All the while, the enemies in the room scurry after you, attempting to deliver a fatal blow.

Combat in The World Next Door is very simple to pick up, so by halfway through the main campaign–when the game starts throwing new types of enemies at you that do more than swipe at Jun’s ankles–you’re ready. These new enemies inject some welcome strategy into each battle, creating frantic matches of cat and mouse where you’re trying to navigate around the room, dodge enemy attacks, and scan for the next rune you need to launch your counteroffensive. One of the best enemies in The World Next Door are these terrifying wraith-like creatures that attack by using the same runes that Jun does, so you have to constantly be aware of their position and try to lead them away from the runes that you’re grouping together because your own attack might be used against you if you’re not careful.

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Battles can get challenging at times, but they’re always finished in a matter of minutes, if not seconds, so they’re rarely stressful. But The World Next Door never sets up clever encounters that test your reflexes and strategic ability until the latter half of its campaign, resulting in a first half that–though fun–is both a smidge too easy and feels uninspired.

The World Next Door plays like the first arc of something more, ending right when it seems like it’s about to deliver the experience you want. The cast of characters are genuinely funny at times, and getting to know them has its benefits, but the story ends before most have a chance to really grow and mature. Worse, an interesting plot point that Liza introduces into the story near the game’s end is never satisfyingly resolved. The combat portion has similar shortcomings. Though the puzzle battles are frantic bouts of fast-paced fun, the most interesting enemies and bosses are introduced in the latter half of the game, leaving combat in the first two dungeons too simple. Ultimately, there’s enjoyment to be had with The World Next Door, but the game takes too long to start leaning into its strengths.

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The World Next Door Review – Adorable Anime Angst

The World Next Door feels like it’s a video game adaption of some manga or anime, which isn’t too surprising. Rose City Games’ visual-novel-meets-puzzle-battle game is published by anime and manga distributor Viz Media and features anime-inspired characters designed by artist Lord Gris. The game wears its inspirations on its sleeve, incorporating popular manga and anime tropes into its story. While the cast is fun to interact with and the game’s combat a blast to play, there are certain aspects of The World Next Door’s narrative that feels a little too stereotypical–especially in regards to most characters’ portrayal.

In The World Next Door, you play as Jun, a human teenager who’s lucky enough to win a ticket that allows her to visit the land of Emrys–a parallel world connected to Earth via both the internet and a magical portal that opens up for a few days every 20 years. Her trip in Emrys suddenly takes a dark turn when she fails to return to the portal before it closes, as humans can only last a few days in Emrys before they die. Jun teams up with her friend Liza, an Emrys native who’s been communicating with Jun for months as a pen pal, to figure out a means of reopening the portal and getting home. The two enlist the help of a few of Liza’s acquaintances as well, culminating in a party of seven when all is said and done.

The World Next Door is divided into two portions, with visual novel gameplay framing Jun’s journey into four puzzle-battle game dungeons. The bulk of the game takes place in the visual novel portion, seeing you choose dialogue options and actions during conversations, complete fetch quests for Liza’s friends, and figure out which three people you want to text in your precious allotment of limited free time each day. You do get some control in how Jun behaves, allowing you to make her nice, vengeful, flirty, sheepish, or bored. However, your choices don’t influence the outcome of the overall story, instead shaping the direction of the conversations along the way.

Most of the game’s anime inspirations come through in the visual novel gameplay, with many of the characters’ personalities and designs fitting the implied archetypes of their appearance. The demonic-looking Horace, for example, acts like a sarcastic badass who’s always ready for a fight. The blond-haired, pretty, always-has-a-cellphone-in-her-hand Lux, meanwhile, is a gossip with a vain need to always be the center of attention.

It works at first, especially as a means of quickly establishing the personalities of Jun’s new friends. Even if you’ve never read a manga or watched an anime in your life, you’ll probably be able to pick up each character’s habits and temperament at a glance. However, none of the characters truly grow outside of their respective archetypes over the course of The World Next Door’s campaign. Some grow as people, for sure, but they’re minor, stereotypical transformations–like an increase in confidence or a newfound willingness to share their feelings. None of it really feels earned, either. Jun’s friends just suddenly open up to her and accept each other without much prodding, despite which conversation options you choose. The one exception is Liza, who reveals a surprisingly intriguing detail in the final arc of The World Next Door’s story. Trading quips with Horace or admonishing Vesper for the crime of putting pineapple on pizza may spark a chuckle or two, but Liza is the only one with any worthwhile growth.

This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t get to know the other characters. There are plenty of hilarious conversations to be had in The World Next Door, and it’s absolutely worth your time talking to someone whenever you have a chance. If you do, you’ll also learn more about the culture and history of the world of Emrys. Side conversations between story missions flesh out the fantastical land Jun finds herself trapped in. Even if it isn’t necessary to get to know every character in order to complete the game, the promise of learning another fascinating fact about Emrys pushes you to chase down your companions between missions. It’s an excellent reward for taking the time to explore.

The World Next Door plays like the first arc of something more, ending right when it seems like it’s about to deliver the experience you want.

In the process of getting to know every character, however, I did encounter an unfortunate bug. In order to complete a favor for angelic straight-A student Cerisse, you are tasked with completing a riddle that involves using the runes on the floor of a room. However, when I entered the room, the runes never showed up. Even after resetting the puzzle, restarting the entire mission, and exiting the game and loading an old save, the runes still refused to appear. Thankfully, completing Cerisse’s quest isn’t mandatory for moving on in the main story, but missing out on the possible conversations that mission could have sparked is disappointing.

It’s also disappointing that your conversation choices seemingly always lead to the same final large decision at The World Next Door’s end. Also, unless I’m missing something, there’s a pretty huge plot thread that remains unresolved regardless of which path you go with. Perhaps The World Next Door is being set up as the opening chapter of a larger story, but, as is, its narrative feels incomplete.

The World Next Door spends too little time in the other portion of its gameplay, the puzzle battles, as well, which is a shame as they’re all pretty fun despite their simplicity. Throughout The World Next Door, you explore four different dungeons, each of which is inhabited by its own unique enemies. Upon entering a new room, you are thrown into battle and the floor is painted with an assortment of differently colored runes. Stepping on any spot of the map where at least three runes of the same color are touching allows you to perform a magical action. Three red runes, for example, let you send a fireball towards the nearest enemy, while purple runes summon a black hole to slow others down. You can drag runes from one spot of the room to another in order to get three of one color together, and dragging together more than three runes of the same color allows you to cast a more powerful version of the spell. All the while, the enemies in the room scurry after you, attempting to deliver a fatal blow.

Combat in The World Next Door is very simple to pick up, so by halfway through the main campaign–when the game starts throwing new types of enemies at you that do more than swipe at Jun’s ankles–you’re ready. These new enemies inject some welcome strategy into each battle, creating frantic matches of cat and mouse where you’re trying to navigate around the room, dodge enemy attacks, and scan for the next rune you need to launch your counteroffensive. One of the best enemies in The World Next Door are these terrifying wraith-like creatures that attack by using the same runes that Jun does, so you have to constantly be aware of their position and try to lead them away from the runes that you’re grouping together because your own attack might be used against you if you’re not careful.

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Battles can get challenging at times, but they’re always finished in a matter of minutes, if not seconds, so they’re rarely stressful. But The World Next Door never sets up clever encounters that test your reflexes and strategic ability until the latter half of its campaign, resulting in a first half that–though fun–is both a smidge too easy and feels uninspired.

The World Next Door plays like the first arc of something more, ending right when it seems like it’s about to deliver the experience you want. The cast of characters are genuinely funny at times, and getting to know them has its benefits, but the story ends before most have a chance to really grow and mature. Worse, an interesting plot point that Liza introduces into the story near the game’s end is never satisfyingly resolved. The combat portion has similar shortcomings. Though the puzzle battles are frantic bouts of fast-paced fun, the most interesting enemies and bosses are introduced in the latter half of the game, leaving combat in the first two dungeons too simple. Ultimately, there’s enjoyment to be had with The World Next Door, but the game takes too long to start leaning into its strengths.

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Operencia: The Stolen Sun Review – A Journey Far, Far Away

In English, most fairy tales lead with the phrase “once upon a time.” In Hungarian, they begin with the word “Operencia,” which roughly translates to “far, far away.” And that’s exactly where Operencia: The Stolen Sun transports you–to a realm steeped in magic and mystery, wonderfully detached from all things real.

Operencia is a dungeon-crawler RPG set in a fantasy world. It begins by plunging you into the salivating jaws of a three-headed dragon. However, as soon as you slay the colossal serpent, the prologue ends. Before you know it you’re no longer a dragonslayer, but a runaway farmhand determined to follow their dreams. Those mad powers you had ten seconds ago? Gone. You’ll have to make your own destiny if you’re to retrieve the mythical land’s stolen sun.

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Composed of 13 different levels, the world of Operencia boasts some breathtaking vistas. You explore a variety of locations, from the murky depths of a castle cursed by tears to the metal wilds of The Copper Forest–which is infested with copper soldiers sporting chainsaw-like utensils for hands. The diversity of the game’s art makes for a journey that is at all times fresh, awe-inspiring, and wonder-inducing. Its bright colors and intricate art style create an aesthetic that complements the mystique imbued in its magic, and it boasts a score that screams tales of monsters and creepy crawlies told around the warm hearth of a dirty tavern. This envelops you in a world of imagination and fantasy, more concerned with evoking a sense of wonder than any sort of fantasy realism.

After you embark on your journey across this fantastical realm, you slowly begin to come across a whole host of intriguing companions. These characters all speak in pre-written conversations, leaving you no option to intervene with your own dialogue. However, conversations between characters are so well-written that it doesn’t really matter. The banter between companions while resting at bonfires–which replenishes your health and energy–is no less arresting. Every companion you come across is their own person and has their own sense of humor–the witty Joska hurls jests at everyone in the party, whereas the strong-willed Kela ensures that you don’t falter on your quest. I enjoyed sitting back and drinking in the conversation more so than I experienced a longing to interject with my own thoughts. This world is so wonderfully weird that it’s better for telling you its stories, rather than affording you the chance to write your own one within it.

Combat in Operencia is fast-paced, fluid, and engaging. It revolves around turn-based mechanics, involving a mix of physical, ranged, and magic attacks. The magic attacks utilize a strength/weakness system based on elemental typing such as frost, lightning, and fire. Your build can either lean heavily into one fighting style, or encompass all of them in order to gain versatility at the expense of specialization. While maxing out a single stat allows you to deal devastating damage in some cases, immunities can render you completely ineffective if you’ve overcommitted to one particular attribute. I played as a mage, as I usually do in fantasy RPGs, but without my Strength-based companions I would have been Ancient Elemental bait before I could say abracadabra. After battles, you’ll gain experience and loot. For every level you gain, you’ll get three ability points to pump into attributes. Leveling up feels well-rewarded, and the game allows you to carve out a combat niche for yourself with its myriad permutations of attribute/ability point combos.

Managing the ability cooldowns and energy point costs of each individual character in your four-person team can be tough, especially in the late-game when a mistake can mean death, or game over if you’re playing with permadeath enabled. As a result, it’s important to play smart. Even the strongest of enemies can be quickly incapacitated if you’re willing to exploit their weaknesses and be savvy with your potions.

Operencia’s combat takes customary turn-based RPG mechanics and makes them feel fresh with its own pacing and style. The only thing it could use is a little bit more versatility, as at times it feels as if your own character is a bit vanilla compared to the more advanced predetermined builds boasted by late-game companions. At the same time, you have seven characters to build a team of four from, so you can always change things up if frost spam is starting to get a little watery. As for enemies, there is a whole range of different beasties of all shapes and sizes who would love to eat you for dinner. Some of their niches can be very annoying, but not in a way that seems unfair.

Traversal in Operencia is tile-based, creating opportunities for intriguing environmental puzzles. However, at times this system complicates attempts to look at the finer details of the world’s beauty. There were moments where I wanted to look at objects caught between tiles or move an inch closer to the horizon in order to take the perfect screenshot, but I couldn’t because the traversal system got in the way.

Operencia: The Stolen Sun transports you to a realm steeped in magic and mystery, wonderfully detached from all things real

Most of Operencia’s puzzles are excellently designed. In one case, you have to defeat four powerful enemies, all of whom drop a token. These tokens are then placed in slots around a magic circle; you need to place each one in the right position, and then spin the circle’s three tiers to match animals with the tokens’ likeness. This might seem like the kind of puzzle you’d come across in similar RPGs, but Operencia’s aesthetic really makes the solution feel special. Before you know it, a surge of color and light encapsulates the circle and magical powers begin to work in wonderful and mysterious ways.

The puzzles that aren’t solved by environmental manipulation or visual prompts usually require you to use creative key items, which range from magic shovels to griffin feathers. These feathers can be attached to any object with a feather marked on it, and cause that object to become drastically lighter. This allows you to uproot trees and move heavy weights with the flick of a wrist. You even get magic beans to grow beanstalks with! The puzzles get progressively harder as you make your way through the game, but are almost always intuitive and fair.

Some don’t fit this formula, though. While optional puzzles used to unlock secrets and legendary items are understandably best fitted with esoteric solutions, ones that are tied to story progression shouldn’t be as niche as they are. On one occasion, I spent almost an hour and a half looking for one of four keys, all of which were used to unlock a series of doors that led to the mould for yet another key. While the first of these was an easy find, the second one was randomly hidden far away from the cave and could only be found by using the magic shovel in a certain area. This made me decide to scour the whole map looking for hidden doors and buried treasure, of which I found neither.

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As it turns out, the third key is actually obtained by returning to a melting pot I used to acquire a different key. There are so many keys. When I solved the puzzle I felt annoyed, not relieved. And I still had one more to get. Lo and behold, the fourth key was right in front of the last door, requiring no puzzles or exploration. After such arbitrary solutions to the previous puzzles, this was subversive. It was also incredibly irritating. I couldn’t stay annoyed for long though, as the joyous booming of your relieved companions is infectious, and the game picks up so quickly that you’re bounding onward into the next dungeon before you can get sufficiently annoyed to stop playing.

Operencia tells a wonderful story derived from Central European folklore, mythology, and history, and it does so with unwavering confidence in its makeup. Companion characters are funny, and the banter between them makes for a fun experience that’s not without its heartfelt moments. In terms of combat, the strategizing is so engaging that you’ll likely end up charging rat warriors headfirst instead of hopelessly attempting to avoid bumping into them. Best of all, though, this world is so stunning that you’ll just look at the trees, the water, the rocks–everything. It’s a shame that some of the puzzle solutions are needlessly frustrating and present significant obstacles in getting through the story, but aside from that Operencia provides a truly special experience.

Operencia transports you somewhere far, far away, and once you get there, you’ll probably want to stay a while.

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