Stray Review - Nine Lives

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It's rare for a game to offer a new perspective to experience a familiar setting, and rarer still for one to so confidently have all of its mechanics designed around this. Stray, an adventure puzzle game where you play as a cat, manages not only to delight in its presentation but also in the many ways it eschews common puzzle mechanics to focus on the abilities and limitations of its protagonist. It's a consistently satisfying adventure with a charming story about companionship that rarely misses a beat across its well-paced runtime.

You play as a stray cat that is quickly thrust into an entirely new world underneath your own after a mishap that occurs in the opening minutes of the story. Alone in a new, neon-soaked city underneath a giant, unmoving dome, you quickly befriend a small drone that becomes a trusted companion throughout your adventure, and vital translator for all the other sentient robots that inhabit the handful of regions you'll visit. This drone, called B-12, also gives you more options to interact with the world around you, such as being able to hack doors to open them, kill dangerous flesh-eating aliens with a beam of purple light, or illuminate dark and dreary avenues as you explore them.

Outside of the assistance from B-12, however, Stray fully embodies the abilities that being a cat would afford you in this situation. You've got a lot of mobility to get around, with contextual button presses on reachable surfaces letting you effortlessly jump up, down, and around pretty much anywhere you'd like. This approach allows each leap to look incredibly good, too, with detailed animation work making your movements look as natural and ballet-like as most cats do when navigating their environment.

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As Dusk Falls Review - Family Matters

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A dusty motel in the middle of nowhere doesn't sound like a typical video game setting, but debut studio Interior Night, composed of industry veterans, uses this peculiar place to create a game unlike anything else you'll play this year. As Dusk Falls deftly explores themes of inherited hardship through the lens of two families who cross paths on one pivotal night. By way of incredible voice acting, a compelling and expertly written script, and a bounty of pause-worthy choices along the game's elaborate branching paths, it establishes itself as an instant classic in the narrative adventure genre.

Playing As Dusk Falls reminded me of something I think about a lot: how each of us is just the end result of every moment we've experienced before today. We often like to make up reasons for why we do something--drive recklessly, win the spelling bee, get a divorce, give an unhoused person some money--but ultimately, our behavior is more determined by our pasts than what feels like our split-second choices in the moment. Rationalization comes after the act, whatever it may be, as a way to make sense of ourselves. Enough bad experiences, especially at an early age, can create fundamentally flawed people who routinely make poor choices, while a rosier upbringing can birth inspiring role models. To some extent, we're fated for success or failure before we even know we're on the playing field. As Dusk Falls swims in these complicated waters.

The game opens in 1998, when two families collide--literally--on a desert road in Arizona. The Walkers are moving cross-country to reset their lives after the patriarch of the family, Vince, was let go from his job as an airplane mechanic due to a controversy that might end in litigation. The Holts, meanwhile, are infamous locals that have been making noise in the otherwise quiet town of Two Rock for decades. Side-swiped by the Holts, who flee the scene, the Walkers seek salvation at the Desert Dream Motel, the closest sign of life on the desolate road. Before long, the Holts end up there themselves following a robbery that goes south, and in their desperation, the Holts take the Walkers and others as hostages.

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Monster Hunter Rise: Sunbreak Review - Sunrise Over The Kingdom

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Monster Hunter Rise: Sunbreak sees your intrepid hunter leave Kamura Village behind to venture across the sea to the outpost of Elgado. It functions almost like a brand new game, introducing a new HUB and cast of characters, locales to explore, monsters to fight, and weapons and armor to craft from their parts. Yet there's very little about Sunbreak that feels truly new or surprising. More Monster Hunter is never a bad thing, and Sunbreak is an excellent expansion with some smart additions that reinforce just how good Rise already is, but it's difficult not to feel a little disappointed by its formulaic nature.

For starters, the story is typically boilerplate, revolving around a brand-new threat that's making all of the monsters overly aggressive. It's as predictable and easy to ignore as any previous Monster Hunter tale, although the new cast of characters are at least more defined and interesting than those found in Rise, partly because you spend a lot more time with them.

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Escape Academy Review - I'm An A+ Student

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I love escape rooms, so the idea of a video game designed by escape room creators is right up my alley. To its credit, Escape Academy does a damn good job of capturing the feeling of completing an escape room, with the added spice of dangerous consequences that a fictional story set in a virtual space allows. Escape Academy is, however, oftentimes too accurate to the experience of an escape room for its own good. Still, there's a delightful puzzle game here that makes for a rewarding afternoon with a friend nonetheless.

Escape Academy sees you step into the shoes of the newest student to attend a school that trains would-be spies, hackers, and thieves. To prove you're the best in your class you must earn 10 badges throughout the year, which are awarded for proving your worth in a series of planned tests, pop quizzes, unforeseen traps, and faculty assignments--all of which are constructed as escape rooms.

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OlliOlli World: Void Riders Review - Extra Dimensions

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OlliOlli World is a delightful skateboarding game, an excellent culmination of what developer Roll7 established across two previous games of its super-fast, trick-infused side-scrolling platforming series. With its first DLC expansion, Void Riders, Roll7 provides what is mostly more of the same--more cleverly built tracks, more high-level challenges, and more goofy characters. Void Riders offers a few new elements to the overall formula, but it doesn't break the OlliOlli World mold. While it would have been exciting to see how Roll7 could push its own envelope, Void Riders provides more OlliOlli World to play through and master, and that's great, too.

The base OlliOlli World has players traveling the world of Radlandia, skating through cities, forests, industrial sites, and theme parks, hoping to reach a state of skateboard zen that will allow them to become a "skate wizard." Void Riders is something of a side story to that endeavor, dropped into the middle of the game and having little to do with the main characters. It builds on the desert portion of the game, Burntrock, where aliens seem to be hanging out in the background, abducting cows and teasing conspiracy theorists. In Void Riders, you meet the aliens and help them abduct the cows, along with a couple of other cryptids hiding out in Radlandia's biomes.

As with the full game, Void Riders' story isn't too dense a tale, but it does provide a cute bookend to your skating levels as you talk to an alien trio working for a spooky purple boss blob named Nebulord. You follow those aliens around the world, listening to them give their interpretations about humanity--all of which are gleaned from listening to podcasts from conspiracy theorist Mike, one of OlliOlli World's main characters--and impressing them as you skate different courses. The DLC takes you through new areas of three of OlliOlli World's biomes as the aliens try to capture native Earth life to take back to space with them, and you eventually accompany them to "the Void" to show off your skills to Nebulord as you skate some extraterrestrial locations.

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