Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth Review - Destiny's Child

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In the final moments of Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Cloud finds himself at Destiny's Crossroads. Sephiroth has torn a hole in the fabric of reality, and a thrashing gateway into an unknown future beckons. It's a daunting prospect that is made even more so when Aerith says the next step in their journey will involve "changing more than fate itself." This was a statement of intent from developer Square Enix that suggested its retelling of one of the most beloved stories in video game history may not play out how fans expect, or perhaps want. It's a moment in which characters and players alike share in the unsettling nature of uncertainty. Before they step through the gateway, Tifa asks Aerith, "What will we find on the other side?" to which she replies, "Freedom. Boundless, terrifying freedom." And she was right.

Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth is a game about a struggle between fate and freedom, but also the delicate balance between authorship and agency. Through gameplay systems that encourage exploration, Rebirth empowers players to discover the world around them and chart their path through it. And through its story, it presents a compelling narrative about the destructive impact of exploiting natural resources, as well as the human causes and consequences of radical environmentalism. But it's a story that, ultimately, is defined and destined to end in very specific ways, for better or for worse. The equilibrium between contrasting ideologies is rarely perfect, and that's evident in Final Fantasy 7 Rebirth, a game that is rewarding for the dozens of hours it enables agency, but is frustrating in the few hours that author the series' future.

While the events of Remake were confined to Midgar and largely linear, Rebirth pushes back the borders to let players explore new horizons on their terms. Across 60-plus hours, Cloud, Aerith, Tifa, Barrett, and a few other party members follow in the footsteps of the mysterious pale-skinned and dark-robed individuals briefly encountered in Remake. Although they are largely incapable of communicating beyond pained groans, they are nonetheless key to tracking down Sephiroth and stopping him from destroying the world. Their slow onward march is what plots the group's course through the game's various locales.

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Skull And Bones Review - Dead In The Water

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Skull and Bones doesn't make a good first impression. Given its troubled development, this isn't the least bit surprising; it's tough to approach Ubisoft's latest without a heavy dose of trepidation. Nonetheless, after six separate delays, several scrapped concepts, and 11 years in development hell, the game's opening hours fail to put Skull and Bones' best foot forward, instead indulging in its very worst aspects. The gradual prevalence of combat does marginally improve things, particularly once your options open up and you're able to tinker with your ship and its various weaponry, but this isn't enough to save it from the dregs of mediocrity. Forget about scurvy; this swashbuckling adventure is beset with a severe case of live-service insipidity.

Skull and Bones' tutorial preamble kicks things off by making sure you know how to talk to NPCs and cut down trees. If your idea of pirating on the high seas revolves around the kind of resource-gathering found in most survival games, then you're in luck. In truth, this aspect isn't quite as egregious as it sounds, even if mining rocks and chopping down trees makes little sense when you're confined to the deck of a pirate ship. The main issue is that this is the first example of the game's insistence on making you perform menial busywork. There is some on-foot stuff, but landlubbers be damned, this simply amounts to chatting to vendors and quest-givers, with the occasional buried treasure thrown in for good measure. Skull and Bones might exist because of Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, but the only similarities between the two pirating games occur in their naval combat.

It's difficult to discuss this aspect of the game without delving into comparisons with Black Flag, despite the 11-year gap between the two titles. Unleashing a volley of cannonballs into the starboard of an enemy ship is the strongest part of Skull and Bones' seafaring ventures, but it still strips away much of what made Black Flag such a fantastic experience. That game was a power fantasy with a kinetic rhythm to its combat. There was never a moment of downtime as you utilized your ship's broadside cannons, mortar, flaming barrels, and swivel cannons to pepper the enemy with a constant barrage of naval fireworks, outmaneuvering towering Man O' Wars by dropping and raising the sails on a dime to produce some exhilarating moments. Skull and Bones contains more depth than Black Flag, with multiple ships to sail and a bevy of customization options letting you outfit your vessel with rockets, ballistas, fire-spewing contraptions, and more, but it's nowhere near as fun.

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Pacific Drive Review - Road Trippy

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In my personal life, I loathe driving, but video games have a way of making it more fun. Rarely does a video game make driving as engaging and enjoyable as Pacific Drive does, even though it can be much more challenging than any real-life drive I've ever taken. With a ton of gameplay depth, an intoxicating atmosphere, and a New Weird story I obsessed over, the debut game from Ironwood Studios dazzled me even though it occasionally left me stranded in the breakdown lane.

In both story and gameplay terms, I've not played a game much like Pacific Drive before. Stuck in a mysterious section of the Pacific Northwest called the Olympic Exclusion Zone (OEZ) that's been closed off for years due to science-defying activity, you're meant to find a way out of a region known to swallow almost anyone who enters it. You'll do this in roguelite runs in which you drive a station wagon through a semi-randomly generated level or series of levels, collect crafting gear and other vital resources, and then race against a storm to get to a spacetime-disrupting "gateway" that propels you back to the safety of an abandoned auto shop, where you'll deposit your resources and use them to improve your vehicle and character for subsequent runs.

For more than 20 hours, this formula never wore out its welcome with me, despite some truly grueling situations that sometimes felt insurmountable. By way of great attention to detail and depth, Pacific Drive becomes a challenge early on and consistently raises the bar even as you markedly improve your car. It feels like it unfolds--as do many roguelites--to the cadence of two steps forward, one step back.

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Helldivers 2 Review - Starship Bloopers

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It's a bold swing to dramatically change a formula that you know is working, but the gamble has paid off for Arrowhead Game Studios. Helldivers 2 opts for an over-the-shoulder third-person perspective as opposed to the original game's top-down view, making for a shooter that pulls you closer into the thick of its frenetic combat. This shift brings Helldivers 2's gameplay better in line with its ludicrous narrative tone, managing to create memorably explosive firefights despite the repetitive enemy types and map designs. Helldivers 2 is an incredible game--it sets out to be a rambunctious and entertaining shooter and hits that target with military precision.

Helldivers 2 sees you step into the patriotic boots of the titular fighting force, lowly grunts on the frontlines of an intergalactic war in defense of Super Earth. Missions take place on randomly generated planets, ranging from ice-covered tundras to lush jungles. You and your squad have a set amount of time to complete your main objective and any optional assignments, needing to successfully extract to bring any collected goodies back with you. Though you're armed with the usual weapons of war found in shooters (primary and secondary weapons, grenades, and healing syringes), your main means of dealing big damage and supporting your squad are the stratagems you can call in, such as powerful machine guns or explosive air strikes.

Stratagems make you a juggernaut of destruction, allowing you to call in absurdly powerful weapons to devastate anything in your path. Having the right one on hand can save a mission, but Helldivers 2 never punishes you for what you choose to bring into a fight--if you have a favorite, chances are it will always be useful in some capacity. They never make the game too easy, either--limited uses and timers restrict just how often you can call in the big guns, encouraging you to rely on your allies while you wait for your stratagems to recharge. Plus, there are a lot of enemies to fight in each mission, swarming you at a moment's notice. Calling in an airstrike and getting a 15-enemy kill streak feels amazing, but it doesn't change that once it's over there could still be another 20 enemies to clean up. The stratagems only get you so far--at some point, you have to get good at shooting with the normal weapons too, incentivizing you to improve and not just rely on a series of explosive hardware.

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Mario Vs. Donkey Kong Review - Silly Gorilla, Mini-Marios Are For Kids

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The original Mario Vs. Donkey Kong on Game Boy Advance was a victim of its own success. A successor to the stellar and underrated Game Boy version of Donkey Kong, it brought back many of the same puzzle-platforming mechanics with adorable mini-Mario toys serving as stage collectibles and story MacGuffins. But the minis ultimately became the stars of the sub-series and took over its identity. We've received a steady stream of Lemmings-like spin-offs since then, centered mostly around guiding minis through trap-filled stages. While those games were charming enough, they never quite recaptured the magic of Donkey Kong on Game Boy or Mario Vs. Donkey Kong on GBA. Thanks to a combination of quality-of-life improvements and visual flair that showcase what made those older games special, this Switch remake gives that original design ethos a new lease on life.

The minis are the impetus for the story, though, which begins when Donkey Kong spots the little clockwork toys and gets an insatiable appetite for them. He invades the Mario toy factory and steals all he can get his mitts on, and Mario--apparently concerned about his licensed merch--chases after the ape to recover them. Donkey Kong isn't the villain, per se, but more like a childlike, not-too-bright antagonist in an old cereal commercial.

The puzzle-platforming stages have Mario traversing through a series of traps and enemies to reach a mini-Mario in a vending capsule. You can collect a series of colored packages, carefully tucked away in hard-to-reach places, as a bonus in each stage. Once you've completed a series of six themed stages recovering the minis, there's a follow-the-leader stage where you guide them to the exit, attempting not to lose any along the way, and having them collect alphabet blocks (spelling "TOY," naturally). Then there's a boss stage against Donkey Kong, and the more minis you successfully guided in the previous stage, the more pips of health you have for the battle. Rinse, repeat. It's a nice little loop that allows each stage's goals to feed into the others.

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