Disney Dreamlight Valley Review - Great Game, Grueling Grind

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I was a bit apprehensive before playing Disney Dreamlight Valley. Although I've been a huge fan of Disney's animated films since I was a kid, developer Gameloft is primarily known for developing mobile titles, some of which have egregious microtransaction systems, such as Disney Magic Kingdoms. After playing Disney Dreamlight Valley for roughly 30 hours, I realized that it wasn't microtransactions that I had to be concerned about, as there were no paywalls or progress-blocking instances that required me to pay cash. The more prevalent issues with the game were the extremely grindy progression system and restrictions coming from the real-time systems.

Disney Dreamlight Valley begins just as my character was whisked away into a magical fantasy kingdom. Approached by Merlin, it was revealed that a curse known as the Forgetting turned the once-whimsical land into a realm of despair and darkness. Merlin provides a tutorial through the basic mechanics such as removing obstacles called Night Roots and using tools like the pickaxe, shovel, and fishing pole.

At first, I was worried since regular tasks like mining ores with the pickaxe or removing clumps of roots quickly drained my character's stamina. My initial concerns were quickly assuaged, as stamina is regularly refilled whenever I leveled up, ate food, or spent just a few seconds in my character's home.

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Balatro Review - One More Blind

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Poker has endured as a popular and immensely enjoyable card game because of how malleable it is. The purest form of poker is predominantly played in your hand, with you deciding on cards to discard and redraw in the hopes of creating a better hand than your opponents. Texas Hold'Em, by far the most popular variation on poker, eschews these rules by giving all players five shared cards on the table, and two cards in their hand to try and outwit other players with. A small change like this has a dramatic impact on how the game ultimately plays out, inviting the assumption that other small tweaks might have similar effects. Balatro operates directly in this space. It creates distinct scenarios through both deck building and randomization that force you to think about poker hands differently during short, captivating runs in its roguelite structure. It injects new life into the fundamental rules of poker without requiring any previous knowledge of the game, feeling deftly balanced for both newcomers and experts of the card game alike.

Balatro is deceptively straightforward. Each round you play features a blind, which here is a total score you need to beat in order to progress. Each card has its own chip value, while different poker hands add on multipliers to the total score you hand tallies to. Play better hands with better cards, and you'll progress from the small blind to the big blind and ultimately a boss blind before the ante is raised and you're challenged to repeat the process with more challenging totals to topple. You're limited to a certain number of hands you can play during each round, as well as a limited amount of discard opportunities that let you toss away cards you don't want to use. A handy glossary makes the action approachable even if you're unfamiliar with the basics of poker, and the means to progress through each round aren't fundamentally rooted in a deep understanding of the odd differences between each hand.

Knowing the odds of different poker hands and why you might want to pursue simple straights and flushes over the combination of the two will probably help initially in earlier rounds, but as you go on, Balatro exposes its random roguelite elements to great effect. Joker cards are Balatro's big modifiers, offering a suite of effects that can quickly define a build that will ultimately influence the theme of your run. The combination of a joker that adds multipliers for playing Club cards with another that rewards the use of only face cards (Kings, Queens, and Jacks) can turn otherwise simple flushes or straights into incredibly high-scoring hands--a strategy you may need to progress through more challenging blinds. Other jokers can be delightfully chaotic, like one that randomizes its multiplier each time you play a hand or another that consumes other joker cards and adds their value to its overall multiplier. The game quickly starts encouraging you to strategize around the jokers that you're given access to (each new one you purchase gets added to the pool of potential reappearances) and adjusting the hands you play around them in order to progress, making each run feel distinct in spite of the simple mechanics underpinning them.

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WWE 2K24 Review - Long-Term Booking

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The WWE 2K series has had a multi-year arc not unlike something you'd see watching WWE's shows on TV. Its 2020 installment was so broken, poorly received, and ultimately meme-ified that the team actually took a year off to fix its jobber-esque series--a rare sight in the world of annualized video games. But since then, it's been on the rise, getting pushed like a WWE superstar to the top of the card, and though WWE 2K24 doesn't yet finish the story, it seems like it's well on the path of cementing a new legacy for itself.

WWE 2K24 adds appreciable, albeit not revolutionary, improvements to last year's solid foundation across the board. The in-ring action is paramount, and WWE 2K24 thankfully builds on the already-excellent mechanics in that regard. There's more fluidity to chaining moves together, and it feels like, at any point in which your character has the upper hand, you can reliably emulate the escalation of a real-life match, with a deep assortment of move sets depending on where you are in the ring. An intuitive control scheme lets you set up a rival sitting atop the turnbuckle, staggered on the ropes, or lying on their back in the middle of the ring for an ankle lock with similar ease. The game simply always feels great to control.

Pairing those contextual attacks with a deep move set for every wrestler in which the left stick and face buttons combine to create excellent variety, 2K24 feels like it rolls out much of what made 2K23 already fun in my hands, but with a few new touches that I enjoy. This includes top-rope maneuvers onto a group of opponents rather than just one; Super Finishers, like Rhea Ripley's belt-winning Riptide from the second rope at last year's WrestleMania; and the ability to throw weapons. These are subtler changes than the complete overhaul the series received when it emerged from its darkest days a few years ago, but they're each welcome to the game and help further emulate the real-life product.

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The Outlast Trials Review - Immersion Therapy

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One of the hardest reviews I've ever had to write was for Outlast 2. The game was so unnerving that it was hard to psych myself up enough to play it sometimes. The Outlast Trials, Red Barrels' first game since then, doesn't consistently reach those same heights, but it is memorably scary at times, and when it's not frightening, it's plenty rewarding in other ways. Taking a single-player horror series like Outlast and repurposing it as a four-player PvE game sounds like the kind of publisher-mandated live-service experiment too many teams have been tasked with lately. But as an indie team, Red Barrels seems to have steered its own course, and that may be why The Outlast Trials still feels like Outlast rather than a cynical project bearing the name.

The Outlast Trials is set in the Cold War, where you'll customize your figurative guinea pig for a lengthy series of vicious experiments within the Murkoff Facility. The game's opening moments, along with the lore, paint a scene so gruesome and wicked that'll be familiar to series veterans, but disquieting to those new to the Outlast universe.. After training to become sleeper agents who are psychologically deconstructed, tormented, and then brainwashed, you're eventually let back out into the free world awaiting your activation as a secret weapon. The context of your overarching mission is at least as dark as anything this team has done before--and it's set its bar quite high previously.

In practice, these experiments play out on various large maps like a police station, a courthouse, a carnival, and more. Each one is propped up as a facsimile of the real thing as you run through the Murkoff-made mazes like a lab rat. This involves many signature Outlast elements, none more emblematic than carefully crawling through the dark in first-person while desperately seeking salvation--or at least batteries--before your night vision runs out of juice.

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Penny's Big Breakaway Review - If It Ain't Broke

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Penny's Big Breakaway is a loving homage to a somewhat awkward period in gaming history. The early days of 3D mascot platformers were defined by garish saturated colors, exaggerated character designs, and a variety of gimmicks as the genre found its footing in this new environment. Penny's Big Breakaway fits right into that legacy, like a lost gem that just got a shiny new remaster. But while its stylized look will probably be an acquired taste, it makes good use of its gimmick to avoid some pitfalls of the era it emulates.

The story revolves around Penny, an aspiring yo-yo performer who goes to a talent show audition put on by a stodgy Emperor. Along the way, her toy prop fuses with a creature, becoming a sort of sentient and voracious pet. The creature grants her all sorts of special abilities but also causes trouble at the talent show, angering the Emperor and putting her on the run from his army of penguin goons. Her "big break" turned into a breakaway, get it?

That sets the stage, so to speak, for a few different elements. For one, it sets the expectation that stages will be propulsive with constant movement. You're a wanted fugitive! As a result, stages aren't wide open worlds to explore so much as they are courses to navigate, often with great speed, as you stunt and trick your way past traps and obstacles. You can occasionally pause to catch your breath or find a collectible, but for the most part, each stage has you running from Point A to Point B as fast as you can.

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