Remember Resident Evil 4’s original GameCube case? The one that said “Only For” in the corner? It’s hard to imagine now, considering the game has been ported every which way, to the Nokia phone and back. But despite its acclaimed status, all its ports, and the modest visual facelift it has received over the years, one thing remains woefully unchanged and firmly cements Resident Evil 4 in 2005 when it was originally released: those damned tank controls. Even the Wii Edition (the best port of the game, I must say) was shackled by its rigid movement. That is, until Resident Evil 4 VR, which presents the game in its best light since its original release.
Playing through the action-horror classic on the Oculus Quest 2 has given me a feeling I’ve wanted since first finishing RE4 16 years ago on the GameCube: the sense of experiencing it for the first time all over again. And that feeling is downright awesome.
From the ground up, the game has been meticulously recreated in Unreal Engine 4 in uncanny detail to fully function in VR, and the result is so impressive; it’s nothing short of magic. From upscaled textures, to sound effects, and animations, RE4 can now be seen–quite literally–through an entirely new lens. Stepping into the shoes of protagonist and pretty boy Leon S. Kennedy on a mission to save the president’s daughter has never felt cooler, nor has the horror representation of eastern Europe ever felt more frightening.
The Dark Pictures Anthology: House of Ashes has to justify its setting in a way few horror games do. While Supermassive Games’ unsettling anthology previously tapped into teen horror tropes and Puritan-era paranoia with Man of Medan and Little Hope, House of Ashes looks further afield in terms of both influences and geography. Taking place during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, its setting is a far cry from the ghost ships and witch trials featured in the series thus far–tackling a recent conflict with ramifications that are still felt to this day. Fortunately, House of Ashes uses the Iraq War as more than a simple backdrop for jump scares, focusing on both sides of the war as allegiances fall by the wayside in the face of a more terrifying threat.
Much like its predecessors, Supermassive’s latest also uses real myths and historical events to flesh out its supernatural elements. House of Ashes begins in the ancient Mesopotamian city of Akkad in 2231 BC, with a compelling prologue that takes inspiration from the “The Curse of Akkad,” a poem detailing how the Akkadian Empire was destroyed after its king, Naram-Sin, declared himself a god and plundered the chief god Enlil’s temple. Naturally, this angered the Sumerian deity, who exacted revenge by summoning an invasion from the neighboring Gutian people. House of Ashes deviates from the Akkadian myth, however, by making this a temple to Pazuzu, the king of the demons. This sinister spin, and the appearance of frightening underground creatures, poses a much greater threat to the remaining Akkadians than the attacking Gutians.
Fast forward to 2003 and a mission to find Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction leads to a group of marines discovering the dilapidated Sumerian temple and the monsters hidden within. Throwing a group of heavily-armed jarheads into a fight with supernatural miscreations is a classic genre trope, but it’s a fresh perspective for Supermassive’s brand of cinematic horror. Switching from civilians to soldiers results in a significant change of pace when you encounter its antagonists. You’re still outmatched, and the winged monstrosities aren’t overly fussed by bullets, but that doesn’t stop the cast from expending a veritable bucket load of ammunition almost every time you meet.
Final Fantasy Friendship. Suikoden Kindness. If you want a quick description of what Rainbow Billy: The Curse of the Leviathan is all about, those are a good start. While it’s classified as a “2.5D Adventure-Puzzle-Platformer” on official marketplaces, Rainbow Billy is an RPG at its core, thanks to its team-building mechanics and a “battle” system worthy of those vaunted franchises. The exploration and platforming elements do add an air of adventure, but those moments aren’t as smooth sailing thanks to some weird technical issues. The issues won’t ruin the game though, as the entire experience is wrapped in a rainbow-colored warmth that’s hard to describe. It has a constant “glass half full” attitude, playing out through dialogue between characters that mirrors a lot of real-world situations. The message alone makes the game worth checking out.
You play as Rainbow Billy, a denizen of the World of Imagination. A massive water-faring dragon called Leviathan lays a terrible curse on the land, draining it of its color, and Billy must board his tugboat–named the Friend-Ship–and sail across multiple islands to solve puzzles, make new friends, and restore the world’s vibrant colors. Joining Billy on the journey is Rodrigo, a sentient fishing rod-looking creature that helps Billy get around the world through swinging, gliding, and more. The main focus of the game–and the idea that sets Rainbow Billy apart–is its “battle” system. You’ll see that words like “battle” and “confront” are in quotes throughout the review, and there’s a reason: there’s no “battle” to be had. Instead, Billy and the friends they recruit are attempting to restore the color in each black-and-white creature they “confront,” and they do it through dialogue and simple minigames.
Here’s how it works: You’ll choose from recruited friends and place them on the battlefield in designated lanes, assigning one of three colored shapes to each friend. Once these “battle lines” are formed, minigames begin based on the lead creature in a lane. Some involve a slot machine-esque game where rainbow stars must stop on a line, others require button presses in a certain sequence. Upon winning a minigame, the colors then travel to the “enemy,” filling in any corresponding blank shapes above their heads. Enemies will fight back, depleting Billy’s Morale meter, and an empty meter means a failed battle that must be restarted. Fill all the shapes in, however, and voila! A new friend is recruited.
Outer Wilds was an expansive, planet-trotting puzzle adventure, but its first and only expansion, Echoes of the Eye, is a more condensed and focused encapsulation of all the elements that made it great. Instead of taking place throughout a solar system, Echoes of the Eye hones in on a singular location, which itself is broken up into distinct areas of interest that keep the intrigue and sense of discovery alive and well. But it’s also not without some new stumbles that introduce infrequent but inescapable frustration to the game’s core time loop.
Echoes of the Eye doesn’t require any prior knowledge of the format of Outer Wilds to start or complete, but it’s certainly tuned for players who have accustomed themselves to the type of thinking its puzzles require. Even starting the expansion is a delightful puzzle, giving you a thin breadcrumb trail to follow that exposes a secret so deviously hidden that it’s easy to believe it was always there to begin with. This expansion is meant to sit parallel to the challenges of the main game, which means you won’t have to be familiar with its mechanics regarding quantum physics or superposition. At the same time, not having played the original adventure will make Echoes of the Eye more challenging, given how it depends on a way of thinking that is only gained through cutting your teeth on the puzzles of the main game.
The expansion takes place on The Stranger– mysterious ship that has supposedly always been orbiting the solar system in plain sight. It’s a craft from another universe entirely, drawn to your home by the same intrigue surrounding the Eye of the Universe, which drives all the stories throughout Outer Wilds. The Stranger is its own small ecosystem that wraps around itself and subscribes to the same time-based changes that all the other planets in Outer Wilds follow. As soon as you start, you’re on the same 22-minute timer as before, with crucial changes within The Stranger requiring you to become familiar with how they affect the entire area over time.
Let’s not beat around the bush: Back 4 Blood is Left 4 Dead 3 in all but name, and even then it isn’t exactly trying to be subtle. Obviously, developer Turtle Rock Studios doesn’t need to be considering it consists of many of the same developers who created Left 4 Dead. It’s also not surprising to see the studio return to the cooperative zombie slaying that initially put it on the map. The similarities between the original game and this spiritual successor are endless, even after a 12-year gap, yet it’s their overt differences that prove to be the most interesting part of Back 4 Blood. It still maintains all of the familiar hallmarks of Left 4 Dead, only now these foundations are interspersed with contemporary ideas befitting of the modern era, resulting in a game that captures what you might expect from a reanimated Left 4 Dead in the year 2021.
Back 4 Blood’s chaotic template might be the most overt similarity between the two games, as you and up to three friends are tasked with surviving the ravenous zombie hordes as you desperately fight from one safe room to the next. The campaign is split into four acts, with each one containing a variable number of chapters. The first act is the longest, for instance, coming in at 13 chapters, while the final act consists of a single boss fight. Finishing the entire campaign on the game’s regular (and easiest) difficulty will probably take you around six to seven hours, but Back 4 Blood offers plenty of replayability when you factor in the other two punishing difficulty levels and the game’s inherent variety. The AI Game Director, which makes on-the-fly decisions on where and what enemies spawn, returns from Left 4 Dead and ensures that each chapter is noticeably different on repeat visits, as hazard placement, weapon availability, and zombie frequency differ with every playthrough.
You’re also faced with the same kinds of objectives throughout the campaign, whether that means simply making it to the next safe room alive, alerting the horde in order to remove an obstacle and progress forward, or defending a location until you’re able to escape. It’s familiar territory if you’ve ever played Left 4 Dead, and this works in Back 4 Blood’s favor when it begins to veer from that exact formula. During one chapter you find the safe room almost immediately, but instead of escaping, you have to locate and rescue a group of other survivors first. There are more interesting examples, too, including a chapter that sees you stumble upon a decimated police station where the only way out is locked by a hand scanner. Not only do you have to find a dead guy’s severed arm to unlock it, but whoever picks it up is forced to wield the limb as a morbid weapon while you mash your way back to the door.