Sunday, April 3, 2016

FEATURE - The Games of April 2016.


April is a lion of a month, and a particularly welcome one if you've got a PlayStation Vita.  On the console side, we have some very heavy-hitting triple-As, between Quantum Break and Dark Souls III, and the entire month has been liberally frosted with awesome indies here, awesome indies there, awesome indies everywhere!

But it starts off with something I find just as exciting - the band I like has released their fourth studio album!  (!!!)  So I'm not even going to talk about video games until like five hundred words from now!  Seeya, come back later unless you want to get turned on to some righteous grooves!

April 1st
The Heavy ~ Hurt & The Merciless - blindingly cool tunes for excessively cool people.  Who said that?  I know you're there, but I can't see you because I've been listening to The Heavy.
iTunes, Amazon, The Heavy's site
Hype-O-Meter: Day One!

The Heavy are the only band I actually care about.  There's a lot of great modern artists - tons, in fact - but The Heavy are the band that I will follow on Twitter and instantly order Whatever Their Next Thing Is because their previous albums - Great Vengeance and Furious Fire, The House That Dirt Built and The Glorious Dead each contain at least one of my all-time favorite songs.  In fact... may I?

...would you mind?  No?  Good.



Dignity, off 2007's Great Vengeance probably gets the most plays from me lately - but it's also one of those albums where almost every track has been my favorite at one point or another.  I almost wish Kayla and I got in more fights so I could passive-aggressively bust it out more often, but usually we're driving around and I put it on and she's like "are you trying to tell me something?" and I have to say "no, I just love this song."

We've gotten to the point lately where she knows I just love the song, though, so the conversation rarely happens any more...

2009's The House That Dirt Built is the album that gets called up for international commercial duty.  You've heard songs from this album in so man trailers and commercials it kinda' boggles the mind - in fact, my ringtone to this day (except when Kayla calls - then it's Perfect by Exceeder) is Short Change Hero, which was used for a Batman: Arkham City trailer, which is how I discovered the band!

Again, this is an album where my favorite track is a liquid thing - as a standard, I think I will have to say Short Change Hero - in the same way that My Favorite Song will be When The Levee Breaks forever, despite maybe going six months between listening to it on occasion.  Recently, I've been listening to Sixteen every change I get.  Great song.  Amazing lyrics.  There is some sultry shit going on, here.



I saw her dancin' with the devil
And he was wearin' my suit...

For 2012's The Glorious Dead, I really want you to listen to Don't Play Dead and The Big Bad Wolf and Be Mine and Blood Dirt Don't Stop, but if we're being honest, the single one everyone needs to hear is Same Ol'.  Listen to Same Ol'. It is, once again, one of their tracks that you'll find in trailers and commercials, but man it's some good shit.



I belieeeeeve
If a man could flyyyy
I'd be just like a bird
Tryin' to 'scape from your lies

And now - finally - four years after their last studio album, The Heavy are back with Hurt & The Merciless.   It came out yesterday, so obviously I haven't spent anywhere near as much time with it as I have their earlier offerings.  It has a somewhat lighter flavor, generally, and I feel like the sound isn't as deep and dark, but there's still greatness, here.  It's been out for a little more than 24 hours, at this point, so the whole thing isn't available to embed off YouTube at the moment - just Since You've Been Gone, What Happened To The Love and Turn Up, which are available on Vimeo...

Ooop look at that - The Apology was put up by (publisher) Ninja Tune!  That is definitely my first favorite off the album.



Hurt & The Merciless - fourth studio album by The Heavy!  Available Now!!!

Alrighty, back to video games.  First up... let's go triple A.


A third-person shooter featuring dimensional rifts!
March 5th - Xbox One, PC - Hype-O-Meter: Day One, if I had an Xbox. 

Quantum Break is amazeballs or pretty cruddy, depending on who you ask.  I would suggest you not ask and just check it out, because it's the next thing from Remedy - who gave us Max Payne, Max Payne 2 and Alan Wake.  Keeping that heritage in mind, you'll know exactly what you're in for, here.  You're going to get best-in-class third-person shooting, gorgeous presentation and effects work, and a story that doesn't really know what the fuck it's trying to accomplish but manages to engage you anyway.

If I had an Xbox One, I would be day-oneing this, no question.


March 5th
Assassin's Creed Chronicles - a 2D stealth platformer.
Vita (already out on PS4 and One)
Hype-O-Meter: I'm waitin' for a sale.

The Assassin's Creed Chronicles are a series of three smaller, progressively harder 2D stealth platformers that Ubisoft put out on consoles in the past year.  They've received tepid critical response, but Chamberlain really liked the first one (China) - and he explained it to me as Mark of the Ninja, but easier.  Which obviously made my heart explode.

He went on to enjoy the India adventure, even as it became far more challenging, but felt things really went off the rails with the manufactured difficulty of Russia, the final chapter.  If you listen to the podcast, you know that he rescinded his recommendation that I pick it up - but I still gaze longingly at the very thought of a high-profile 2D stealth platforming exercise.  Even if I don't trust Ubisoft for shit.

Maybe it'll be $7.50 on a PSN sale one day, and I'll snap it up.


Probably the most successful and accomplished indie fighting game ever.
April 5th - Vita (already available on PS4, Ps3, 360 and PC)
Hype-O-Meter: Day One.

A bit of trivia - Skullgirls has more frames of animation than any 2D fighting game ever.

It was announced for PS4 and Vita all the way back in 2014, and it's been a long time coming to the smaller platform, as developer Lab Zero have split their time between tinkering on the Vita port, adding a ton of content to Skullgirls proper (all of which is included here), doing contract work for legendary Japanese studio Arc System Works on the side, and putting together the Indivisible venture.

Work on Skullgirls began in 2008, and the first version got its release on PC in 2012.  It's a wicked-fast, snappy, gorgeous little fighter - tight enough to hold its own on the tournament circuit - and it lets me play as a an adorable opera-singing zombie with an ancient dragon snaking through her skull.
Lab Zero have also been beautifully transparent about the limitations and challenges of the Vita platform, but when all is said and done, 2nd Encore's Vita version will be a very complete package.  It includes...

  • All 5 DLC characters (my beloved Squigly!)
  • Fully voiced story mode
  • New Challenges — including playing as the Skullgirl herself, Marie!
  • New Trials
  • New Survival Mode
  • Full Platinum Trophy set
  • Cross play with the PS4 and PS3 versions
  • Local multiplayer support via PSTV
  • Cross-buy with the PS4 version!

So.  Yeah.  That's gotta' happen.


April 5th
Dead Star - a multiplayer shooter.
PS4
Hype-O-Meter - myeh.

Developer Armature made the absolutely awful Batman: Arkham Origins Blackgate for Vita, so they have no love from me.  Sony has, for some reason, been hyping Dead Star for a long time in the same way they were pushing Rocket League last year, so maybe it's actually good?

I don't know.  Either way, it's the most interesting thing in April's PS+ free games lineup, if you don't count Ubisoft's Zombi, which I don't because Dying Light exists.  Dead Star is essentially a 2D top-down multiplayer shooter with RPG, strategy and MOBA elements.

Myeh. We'll see...


A pixel art op-down twin-stick-shooting dodgerolling dungeon-crawling Roguelike. 
April 5th - PS4, PC, Linux, OSX - Hype-O-Meter: Day One.

Enter the Gungeon is a game in which you enter the Gungeon to get guns to shoot the guns that are shooting at you, in the hopes of delving so deep into the Gungeon's gun-depths that you will discover and liberate the ultimate firearm - a gun that can kill the past.

These shotgun shells, bullets and grenades are askin' for it, man!

You weave your way through a procedurally-generated dungeon - like Galak-Z, hand-crafted rooms are stitched together by an algorithm to produce a unique dungeon every time you play - picking up ever-crazier loot (a unicorn's horn!  a proton pack!).  That's... pretty much all I know, but the little trailers I've seen for Gungeon have pretty much sold me - just based on animations, the dodgeroll mechanic (which sees the player slip through bullet-hell showers), and the ability to flip tables into cover positions.  Here, here's a vid of Northernlion playing it.

Looks cool!  I'm hyped for it.


A planet-hopping platforming and gorrrgeous third-person shooter. 
April 12th - PS4 - Hype-O-Meter: Day One.

And yeah, okay, Insomniac's return to Ratchet & Clank is unlikely to be a big, proper Ratchet & Clank in the vein of the original trilogy, or Future/A Crack In Time.  The simple fact that it's coming in at the budget-title forty-dollar price point is indicative of a smaller game that perhaps only exists to function as a tie-in to the CGI movie that's getting a wide release this month.

But I want to believe.  But I want to return to the zany sci-fi worlds Ratchet & Clank funnel me through, and I want to see it in mind-boggling graphical fidelity on my hot new(ish) PS4.  So - length aside - we can be assured of some very nice presentation, we can be assured of a groovy space-bop soundtrack, and we can expect an ever-expanding arsenal of ridiculous ultra-weapons.

Short or long, it'll be a good time.  Probably.  Insomniac hasn't exactly been on a roll, lately.


A 2D sidescrolling pixel-art action-RPG Roguelike that gets harder the longer you stay in a level.
April 12th  - PS4, Vita (already on PC) - Hype-O-Meter: Day One.

Risk of Rain is a little game full of tiny sprites, cobbled together by two students that actually got a lot of very positive reaction from the gaming press when it launched on PCs in 2013.  Sony locked it down for console exclusivity, and we're gettin' it on the 12th!

McCracken has put more than a few hours into it, and he assures us that it is a fun, hard-as-balls little actioner - but be warned!  Like Gungeon, this is a Roguelike that will boot you back to the start of the game when you die.  And you will die, because the longer you stay in any given level before leaving, the harder that level becomes.  You'll note in the top-right of the screen above - the difficulty has matured to "HAHAHAHA," which I can only presume is a colloquialism for "you're about to die."

Tons of weapons and items to find, a bevy of unique heroes to unlock and randomly-generated levels to brawl, shoot and leap across.

Sounds like a good time!

Up next - easily the most important game of the month.  If I could only pick up one thing in April, it would be...


Open-world gothic hardcore action RPG.
April 12 - PS4, One, PC - Hype-O-Meter:  Day One.

From Software have cornered the market in the process of essentially creating their own genre of rock-hard, dark fantasy action-RPGs.  Try as some might, no other studio can match what From accomplishes in terms of art direction, combat and overall game design.

They're very challenging - too challenging to be enjoyed by some - but that challenge... reminds me of a lyric from a song by The Heavy, actually.  There's a rasta-riffic track on 2009's The House That Dirt Built called Cause For Alarm: 

You must listen to this story
Pay attention to this tale
For you to bathe in glory
You must be doomed to fail

And you are.  You are doomed.  The world is doomed.  You are, in fact, double-extra-super-doomed, because you're technically undead, but you might just be the undead of prophecy who will plumb the legends of the ancient world to their very core, and set right the imbalance that threatens to consume the universe.

(Series director) Hidetaka Miyazaki took a vacation from the Dark Souls franchise for 2014's Dark Souls II as he worked on the mind-blowingly awesome Bloodborne. but he's back at the helm now and it's safe to expect great things.

It's very safe to expect the most beautiful art direction of the year, the most rewarding, rock-hard, teeth-gritting breath-catching combat, the most soaringly dark-romantic adventure, and pretty darned safe to anticipate that Dark Souls III has an excellent shot ending up recognized as the single best video game of 2016, I shit you not.


April 19th
Axiom Verge - a classic Metroidvania.
Vita (PS4, PC already available)
Hype-O-Meter: Day One. 

And honestly, Axiom Verge deserves a nice big picture too, but let's not go nuts, April.  In any other month it might have the premier spot, but this month it's just another critically-acclaimed indie landing on the Vita - albeit one made by one dude who ended up getting pretty universal acclaim.  The notoriously tough-to-please Jeff Gerstmann actually gave it 5/5, so make of that what you will.

I absolutely adore Metroidvanias - games in which your access to and understanding of the game world expand with each new combat/traversal item you acquire  (Darksiders, Okami, Guacamelee, Salt and Sanctuary) - and another one to play on my Vita will be a very welcome proposition.

Axiom Verge will be 10% off on its launch week on Vita, and it's cross-buy with the PS4 version - so if you already own it, you can own it on the go for free!


Turn-based procedurally-generated stealth Roguelike RPG.  From Klei.
April 19th - PS4 (already on PC) - Hype-O-Meter: Day One.

Vancouver's Klei Entertainment make the best videogames.  Not in the way that my Mom makes the best turkey stuffing or your barista makes the best con pannas.  This little tiny studio has been repeatedly establishing new high water marks for any given genre for the past half-decade.

With 2012's Mark of the Ninja, Klei set the bar for design in stealth games, period.  It became the new yardstick for an entire industry to measure their stealth mechanics against, and 2013's Don't Starve - beyond being a poster model for how you build a community and awareness through Steam's Early Access program - led the charge for the modern resurgence of Roguelikes as perhaps the deepest and most complicated variation on the form.

Invisible, Inc. has seen a similarly long and loving Early Access gestation, and what will land on your PS4 on April 19th (at a nice discount, if you preorder it!) is The Next Thing From Klei.

Those five words are all I need to fire money at a game - Klei are supernaturally good - but if you want a features list...
  • Procedurally generated levels. 
  • Time is always against you.
  • Turn-based, team-based.  Like XCOM, kinda'.  
  • But it's stealth. 
  • RPG-lite, with power-ups, weapons and skills to unlock for your heroes and deep customization. 
  • Five different game modes.
  • Myriad interlocking game systems make this something you'll need to spend a ton of time getting to know. 
Max hype!  Day one!


April 21st
Star Fox Zero - a space shooter.
Wii U
Hype-O-Meter: Hahah no.

They're still making games for the Wii U?

I guess so.  I guess they are.

Is that weird to anyone else?


April 22nd
Lumo - a retro isomretic adventure game.
PS4, Vita
Hype-O-Meter: Oh coool...

Lumo is a gleefully old-school adventure/puzzle-platformer game, riffing on those old not-quite-3D titles you saw in the 16 and 32-bit eras.  It wears its inspiration clearly on its sleeve, and boasts "nearly 450 rooms split across four different zones, including secret paths, tons of hidden rooms, ducks to rescue, coins to collect and spend, and 6 mini-games to find and unlock!"

Hm!  Worth keeping an eye on.


A co-op twin-stick shooter with RPG/Diablo elements.  From Housemarque!
April 26th - PS4 - Hype-O-Meter: Day One.

Alienation is, simply, the next thing from Housemarque.  Housemarque of Super Stardust.  Housemarque of Dead Nation.  Housemarque of Resogun.  If there's more you need to know, you haven't played any of the above.  They are the undisputed masters of the twin-stick shooter, and with Alienation they set their sights on combining their industry-best shooting with the co-op RPG lootfest trappings of Diablo.  

God.  Yes.

April 26th
Rocketbirds 2: Evolution - a 2D platforming + co-op shooter.
PS4, Vita
Hype-O-Meter:  Oh my God April how many games do you want me to buy?!

Rocketbirds 2: Evolution would be a day-one purchase in literally any other month, but April is clearly the part of the calendar that calls to all notable indies, everywhere, with news that here is rich fertile soil, promising a full harvest, with great mountains all around, offering safety from attackers.  April is the chosen land, indies!  Settle here, and know you have found your place of life and rest! And I can't fucking play them all! 

But I will return to Rocketbirds 2: Evolution when time permits, because despite its flaws I really enjoyed the simple gameplay and charming presentation of Rocketbirds: Hardboiled Chicken when I finally gave it a shot on my Vita, and Rocketbirds 2 really seems to have upped the ante in the gameplay department.  I've actually been looking forward to this one for a long time, but it'll have to wait because

A gorrrgeous dungeon-crawling touchscreen-centric action-RPG from DrinkBox. 
April 26th - Vita - Hype-O-Meter: Day One. 

Toronto's DrinkBox Studios put themselves on the map with About A Blob: Mutant Blobs Attack!!! in 2012.  It was a simple but uniformly pleasant little platformer with charming presentation.  They followed that up in 2013 with Guacamelee - an oustanding brawling Metroidvania that was just excellent, across the board, and one of my favorite games in recent memory.

In a pivot, the now definitely-worth-following studio turned to classic RPGs for inspiration, and the gorgeous technicolored Severed is the result.  You play as a young woman who suffered an attack on her idyllic family, and lost her arm in the process.  Gifted with a living sword from a mysterious benefactor, she sets out to find her family and begins slashing through the (amazing-looking) monsters that now plague the land.

It's a weird mix of styles, with monsters engaging you via turn-based combat that you can anticipate, while you engage them with complete freedom via strategic or frenetic swipes across the screen - so you zip your view back and forth between enemies, stopping this one from attacking with a well-timed parry before turning your attention to another, who is now ripe to have its limbs cleaved off with your sword.


You collect the pieces of your fallen foes to flesh out your skill trees (one for each boss you defeat - in addition to a special move tied to the part of that boss you'll wear for the rest of the game), and explore a big first-person world that sprawls out and folds in on itself in classic Metroidvania fashion.

All that's interesting - the soundtrack seems amazing, the presentation is stunning, the mechanics look super well-fleshed-out, but I didn't need to know any of that to know I'm buying Severed day one.

Here's all I need to know: This is the next thing from DrinkBox.

Fuckyeah.


April 26th
Strange of Sword City - a dungeon crawler.
Vita
Hype-O-Meter: Not my cup of tea, but genre fans are hyped.

I never got into the whole dungeon crawler thing, but if there's one thing the Vita excels at (aside from indies!) it's being the modern playground of choice for JRPG lovers.  A classic dungeon-crawler, Stranger sees you navigating first-person labyrinths and getting in to turn-based combat with enemy portraits - it's very, very old-school - but also popular enough that you can find a half-dozen of these, localized, on the Vita.

I actually kinda' wish I did like the dungeon crawler genre, because this game's art is lovely.


And that's April!  Quite a month for indies - and the Vita in particular.

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