Sand Land Review - Tanks A Lot

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The main character in this open-world action-RPG adaptation of the late Akira Toriyama's Sand Land is arguably its egg-shaped tank. Developer ILCA has crafted a game with a heavy emphasis on vehicular combat and traversal, which is a fitting design choice considering Toriyama's love and passion for anything with a motor. You only have to glance at the number of vehicles featured in the Dragon Ball series to appreciate the legendary artist's vehicular love affair. As iconic and instantly recognizable as Toriyama's character designs are, his unique vehicle designs are just as evocative and essential to his signature world-building. Whether it's a car, scooter, hovercraft, or airship, Toriyama's anomalous designs are a delight, and Sand Land's bulbous tank is one of his best, mixing his characteristics with historical influences to create a memorable piece of machinery. ILCA's Sand Land might lack substance beneath its oozing style, but sitting behind the cockpit of some of Toriyama's intricately designed vehicles is a near-constant treat, even if it falters elsewhere.

The first half of the game's story is a faithful retelling of the original 14-chapter one-shot manga released in 2000. Set in the titular wasteland, Sand Land centers on a desert world suffering from an extreme water shortage, where sci-fi, fantasy, action, and comedy intertwine. You play as the rambunctious pink-skinned demon prince, Beelzebub, a video game-obsessed fiend who's as good as gold despite his protestations otherwise. Alongside the stern-faced Sheriff Rao and your wise old pal, Thief, you embark on a quest to uncover a rumored water source that will hopefully restore Sand Land to life. The second half of the game's narrative covers the brand-new events featured in the recently released anime adaptation. While the first six episodes of the show rehash the familiar ground of the manga, the last seven episodes function as a sequel to the original story, with Toriyama conceptualizing a fresh tale that sees Beelzebub, Rao, and Thief embroiled in a lopsided war after venturing into the neighboring Forest Land.

Sand Land might not be as popular as Toriyama's other works, such as Dragon Ball and Dr. Slump, but despite its niche nature, its recent resurgence isn't without merit. The characters and world-building found in Sand Land are its greatest strength, and these elements are seamlessly translated into the game. The relationship between Beelzebub, Rao, and Thief is just as charming as it was on the page, while the game's open world gives their conversations and banter space to breathe as you travel between locations. These moments excel when pulling lines straight from the manga, but pockets of incidental dialogue have a habit of repeating over and over again, which quickly becomes grating to the point where I wish I could've muted it completely.

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Stellar Blade Review - Nier As It Can Get

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What we let inspire us and what we pay homage to says a lot about the creations we make. Stellar Blade's influences come from the last two generations of character action games and it wields them proudly, channeling not just ideas but themes, designs, and even stylistic flourishes from games like Bayonetta and Nier Automata. It is only through understanding where Stellar Blade comes from that one can begin to discern what it improves upon and where it falls short of the giants that developer Shift Up's title wishes to stand on the shoulders of.

Stellar Blade puts you in control of Eve, a human arriving at a far-flung future Earth riddled with monsters known as Naytibas. EVE possesses superhuman powers, having been raised on a space colony and trained specifically to free what few survivors remain on the planet from the oppression of this omnipresent and existential threat. Along the way, the story takes a few twists and turns but largely stays in the realm of pulp science-fiction that is sometimes undermined by its own need to one-up itself. Characters change motives in service of plot twists at the drop of a hat and then resume their previous mindset without acknowledgement or comment. There are times that I wished the writing showed a bit more self-restraint rather than feel like the first season of a TV show throwing a hail-mary for a second.

The weight of the inconsistent quality of the writing tilts heavier towards Stellar Blade's disadvantage, as occasional head-scratching side quests are followed up by decidedly compelling ones, though not as often as it should. Just when you feel fatigued with following waypoints, the game serves a side quest with unique content and boss fights or a narrative beyond looking for someone who it turned out already died. The main story grazes the surface of subject matter like transhumanism and moral relativity, but it does little with them. Stilted and stiff voice acting also does little to help you take the story seriously and often brings you out of it. Historically, the quality of a character action game's story has scarcely mattered to the overall package, but those expecting something above the genre average should readjust expectations.

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Tales of Kenzera: Zau Review - Bladedancing

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Grief is a messy, convoluted emotion to navigate. There's rarely a straightforward path to get through it; oftentimes it can feel like you're walking in circles around what you're looking for, or banging your head against the same mental roadblock again and again. In many ways, the experience of playing through a metroidvania mimics the feeling of working through grief--the genre is built on a similar path of progression, where the necessary tools to move forward are earned step-by-step, and a protagonist's evolving moveset makes it easier to overcome its challenges and navigate a seemingly inescapable world. Tales of Kenzera: Zau leans into that parallel, creating a powerful and moving message within the context of a stellar action-adventure game.

Tales of Kenzera sees you play as Zau, the fictional hero of a story that a father wrote for his son just prior to the father's death. Zau, similarly, is working through the grief of a lost father. Unable to get past the pain, he calls upon the god of death, Kalunga, and offers him a deal: If Zau successfully brings the three great spirits that have resisted Kalunga to the land of the dead, then Kalunga will bring Zau's father back to life. The god agrees and the duo set out, Zau relying on the shaman masks and training he inherited from his father to overcome the dangers of nearby lands. As a metroidvania, the game features moments where Zau must backtrack and use newly unlocked abilities (freezing water, for example, or a grappling hook used to swing over large pits), which Kalunga helps Zau master to navigate the distinct biomes of the map.

Inspired by Bantu mythology, Tales of Kenzera's map is a beautiful maze that pulls from African culture to characterize and flavor the interconnected areas. The myths of the Bantu color the undertones to the story, equating Zau's battle against larger-than-life monsters with a spiritual journey--you don't question how or why Zau's efforts to beat up a mother helps convince her to come to terms with leaving her daughter behind. Within Tales of Kenzera's lore, these actions make sense, reframing the physical space of the world into something more akin to a mental palace. That reframing contributes to the explosive battles, too, with the sound design and orchestral score of the soundtrack transforming each fight into a frenetic dance of emotion and spiritual energy where flame-infused shockwaves are stand-ins for violent outbursts and well-timed dodges equate to a carefully considered counterargument.

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Harold Halibut Review - Lost In Its Own Deep Sea

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Harold Halibut puts you in the shoes of a lowly maintenance worker aboard a spaceship submerged underwater. To the residents aboard the ship, Harold is a rather charming, lovable, even dopey fellow who is endearing for his simplicity and his complacency in doing his job. Harold is tasked with removing graffiti, cleaning, and fixing machines, and when the work is done, his day ends, he goes to sleep, he wakes up--rinse, repeat. That's the surface of Harold, but tucked out of sight from people's view, is a character who is deceivingly introspective, often documenting his life through scribbled images in a notepad, or expressing himself through playful theatrics when he's alone, like singing and performing operatically while mopping up a filter system. This is a side of the character only we, the player, get to see. As a character, Harold is complex, even if he doesn't entirely understand how. He attempts to question and explore his curiosity and his own existence within the confines of a spaceship he was born and raised on, but he's not always capable of understanding exactly what he's looking for.

Harold Halibut
Harold Halibut

Harold Halibut, the game, is much like its titular character: It's charming and lovable on the surface for its unique handmade aesthetic and charmingly simple gameplay. But just beneath that uncomplicated layer is a story that attempts to ask questions about introspection and self-worth, even if the game doesn't always feel equipped to answer them or understand its strongest suits.

Harold Halibut does an incredible job in exploring its many themes and concepts by putting a magnifying glass on its setting. The FEDORA is a spaceship that was designed to leave Earth during the Cold War and set forth on a 200-year journey to seek a new planet to live on, but the new world it found was devoid of any landmass. With nowhere to go, the FEDORA crashes onto the planet, plunging its occupants into the watery depths, which they've learned to colonize. Meanwhile, Harold's mentor and resident scientist, Mareaux, attempts to find a power source to launch the ship back into space to find a more suitable planet to live on.

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Children Of The Sun Review - One Shot

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It only takes a single bullet to burn down an empire. That's the ethos behind Children of the Sun, an excellent supernatural puzzle-shooter from solo developer René Rother and publisher Devolver Digital. Like many of the games in Devolver's vast library, Children of the Sun is wonderfully stylish, violent, and built on a unique gameplay hook; think Sniper Elite mixed with Superhot and you're on the right track without quite telling the whole story.

You play as a protagonist known simply as The Girl, a one-woman wrecking crew waging a vengeful war against the eponymous cult that ruined her life. As one cultist after another is turned to mincemeat behind the vindictive crosshairs of your sniper rifle, you gradually make your way up the food chain until coming face-to-scope with your true target: The Leader. While embarking on this blood-soaked killing spree, hand-drawn flashbacks reveal tidbits about the atrocities committed by this mysterious cult and The Girl's reasons for seeking revenge.

There's no dialogue during these cutscenes; instead, the narrative is intentionally minimalist, bombarding you with unnerving memories that are both terse and chaotic. This scattershot approach makes it difficult to glean all of the available information--perhaps deliberately so--which means you might feel lost and slightly detached from the story at times. It's all complemented by a discordant soundscape of ambient white noise that matches the game's striking art style--composed of deep purples and vivid yellows--and gritty, surreal tone. The game's arresting aesthetic paints a picture of a brutal world of saturated filth, where cultists defile seedy motels, gloomy forests, and derelict apartment buildings, spreading their deceitful disease like plague-infested rats.

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