Author - Michael Lisenberry

The Evil Within 2 (Xbox One) Review

It was October 13th, 2014. Midnight was drawing near and I found myself wandering the electronics section of my local Wal-Mart. The Xbox One was about to celebrate its first birthday and I was looking for something new to play after a somewhat sparse first twelve months. I found myself waiting alongside a handful of other insomniacs for a box full of Shinji Mikami’s new horror franchise, The Evil Within, to come out to the floor.

The Evil Within was an interesting experiment for Bethesda. Team up with the godfather of the modern survival horror genre to create a spiritual successor to one of the biggest franchises of all time, Resident Evil. I paid for my copy that night at Walmart (call me old-fashioned, I had yet to adopt a digital only policy) and rushed home to play. I had always been a fan of the Resident Evil franchise and I was excited to give The Evil Within a shot.

I found myself thoroughly underwhelmed.

Imagine my intrigue when Bethesda announced a follow-up! The first game had its high points, an interesting premise, and creative monsters come immediately to mind – but sloppy dialogue, frustrating controls, and an uneven difficulty curve colored the experience negatively for me whenever I look back on it. So how do you create a follow-up to an interesting but ultimately flawed first game?

You kick the freakin’ doors down and give your ideas room to breathe is how.

Released almost three years to the day from the first game, The Evil Within 2 picks up fairly soon after the events of its predecessor. Sebastian Castellanos is a broken man, drinking his cares away in the wake of the horrors experienced at the hands Mobius and the STEM project in the first game. If you never played the first game, here’s what you need to know: Sebastian Castellanos is your stereotypical drunk cop with a broken family, Mobius is your stereotypical evil corporation, and STEM is basically the Matrix. Mobius is up to their old tricks again, but surprise! Stebastian’s presumed dead daughter is in fact alive and powering the new and improved STEM project. Things have gone wrong, as they do, and Sebastian is approached to mount a one-man rescue mission into the STEM to rescue a team of Mobius engineers and perhaps find his daughter along the way.

Things immediately do not go well for Sebastian, as they are wont to do in horror stories like this. Sebastian finds himself in a tense opening chapter playing a cat-and-mouse game with a serial killer from the moment he steps mental foot inside the world of the STEM device. The game wastes no time in impressing players with its design. Checkerboard floors and endless red curtains draw you into an endless mansion that is slowly crumbling from the inside. This first chapter plays like an enhanced and perfected iteration of the first game, drawing you in with a linear progression to a chase sequence with the first of many monsters to be found in the game. And where this first chapter executes a similar structure to almost every chapter in the first game, its merely an appetizer for the main course.

Once free of the first encounter, you immediately find yourself in the most welcome change to the survival horror format; The Evil Within 2 becomes an open world game. Sebastian finds himself trapped in a slice of small town Americana within the STEM, the city of Union. The design of Union is impressive. As things go wrong in the STEM and its inhabitants twist into monsters, Union itself begins to crack apart and it’s here that you find yourself moving between floating islands of broken apart middle America. You’ll explore Union to find missing Mobius agents, search for your daughter, and chase well designed side quests that draw direct inspiration from horror movies like The Ring.

Survival horror as a genre relies heavily on pacing. Resident Evil stands head and shoulders above so many other games in the genre due to the careful expertise applied to every room and enemy encounter. The infamous dog scene works so well because of the control the game has over you as a player. So how does transposing the genre into an open world work out this well? It seems counter productive to the idea of pacing when you give the player control of where they go and how quickly they get there. For me, the open world meant that I couldn’t rely on my knowledge of survival horror as a genre. I couldn’t count on knowing what was being telegraphed when but instead I had to pay more attention to sounds and environmental clues as I progressed through the game. I had to be more alert as I explored Union and more careful about how I used my limited resources since I was no longer in a situation where the game designers could anticipate what I was going to be doing or what supplies I would need. Boss encounters also vary now from the typical one room encounter of other survival horror games to having a multi-faced-saws-for-arms monstrosity chase me across half of the city.

Taking the game off of its rails is the best thing that could have been done for a sequel. Instead of moving from level to level, you are free to experience the game in a more organic fashion. You can experiment more with which weapons to use in encounters. You can return to safe houses at any time to craft gear or buff your abilities. You can even take a break from all the action to visit a mini game shooting gallery where you can earn bonus materials for upgrades before returning to Union.

This isn’t all to say the The Evil Within 2 is perfect, however. Dialogue can still be laughably bad with Sebastian’s reactions ranging from, “What?” to the more expressive, “What the hell?” The controls do feel tighter this time around but aiming can still be a chore until you unlock late game upgrades for a steadier hand. Those are minor complaints though and where the game dips in quality it more than makes up for it in charm and imagination.

The Evil Within 2 is a surprisingly great follow-up to a mostly okay game. It adds new challenge to an aging genre and fulfills the craving I had when I waited until midnight at Wax-Mart three years ago. It’s a solid recommendation for anyone looking for a horror fix and is another welcome addition to Bethesda’s ever growing line-up of outstanding single player experiences.


The Evil Within 2 Review Score

(4 out of 5 Stars)


 

Cuphead (Xbox One) Review

I was a Silly Symphonies kid. My entire childhood was spent going to my grandmother’s house on Saturday mornings for breakfast. I remember the smell of bacon and eggs wafting out of her kitchen, the crinkle of the the plastic covering her couch, and the wood grain of the television set used more as decorative furniture than entertainment. It was on this TV that my cousins and I would watch well-worn VHS copies of Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies while the adults were in the other room.

Cuphead is kind of like revisiting those memories, only to have those memories take you out back into an alley, beat you up, and steal your lunch money. Not only is Cuphead a bully, however, it is also one of the most beautiful and rewarding games to grace the Xbox One.

Much has been made of Cuphead’s production since its jaw dropping debut at E3 2014. The game has captivated audiences since long before it was in a playable form. Cuphead has been in development for the better part of seven years and the work definitely shows. The game boasts a retro 1930s style courtesy of an absolute labor of love by StudioMDHR who, in fact, devoted themselves to hand animating everything you see on your screen. After a seemingly never-ending albeit understandable wait, the game is finally in our hands and available to play.

Cuphead is a side scrolling boss-rush platformer. Think Contra but cuter and a hell of a lot more grueling. The game tells the story of brothers, Cuphead and Mugman, hopelessly addicted to gambling and wagering their souls. Losing to the Devil himself, the duo offers to work off their debt and are christened as Hell’s bounty hunters. This is the game’s license to send you after boss after boss, each one more creative than the last. From a living, breathing candy castle to a pair of boxing frogs who combine into a slot machine, the thing that kept me going more than anything else was a desire to see who I would fight next.

Cuphead has a clean gameplay loop at its core. There is a simple hub world that functions as little more than a map to move around and choose levels. Most levels are a boss fight, a single room affair where you do battle with a creature that usually will occupy the better part of the screen in fights that typically last around two minutes. Between boss fights there are short platforming levels (called “Run n’ Gun”) where you can hunt down tokens that can be traded in for new weapons and power-ups. Clear all the bosses on the map and you’re free to move to the next.

Fighting bosses is a simple yet challenging affair. Bosses attack and you shoot back in ever growing bullet hell scenarios. Mixed in with the bosses’ attacks are pink projectiles that you can parry away and fill a super meter. You’ll most likely die (a lot) as you learn to recognize attack patterns and tells, made crystal clear by the quality of the animation, and after time you’ll begin to recognize these fights as rhythm based puzzles. It’s a tough yet fair setup and I never blamed the game if I died because I could usually look back and see where I took a misstep or wasn’t paying attention to the way the boss was behaving. If there is any complaint to levy against the game, however, its that mid-fight there is no way to tell how close you are to beating any given boss. There are no health bars, only a timeline after you die showing how close you got.

With clean animation and a thrilling jazz soundtrack, Cuphead is an easy recommendation for anybody in love with the Silly Symphonies/Max Fleischer era of cartoons. Challenging and rewarding gameplay is the icing on the cake. Cuphead took a long time to release and the work clearly shows. There was more than once where I had to remind myself that I was playing a video game, not simply watching one of my grandmother’s old VHS tapes. I’ve loved and hated my time with Cuphead in all the best ways and I’m excited to go back and revisit its bosses, if only to admire the animation StudioMDHR obviously poured their hearts, souls, and love into.


Cuphead Review Score

(5 out of 5 Stars)


 

Last Day of June (PS4) Review

It’s a late summer evening. Carl and June sit intertwined on a lakeside dock. The air begins to chill and Carl goes to the car to fetch a blanket. Upon his return he is surprised to see that June as sketched a portrait of him as a superhero. They share sweet nothings in a sing-song tone of gibberish.

This is the small slice-of-life moment that Last Day of June builds off of. Last Day of June is a narrative puzzle and, to be frank, a labor of love. Director Massimo Guarini (Murasaki Baby, Shadows of the Damned) has crafted a sorrowful tale that touches on base human experiences of love and loss to immerse his audience in the kind of story that video games as a medium have begun to catch up to in the past few years.

Last Day of June presents Carl as a broken man. After we spend a peaceful evening with the couple, we are thrust forward to present day where Carl lives alone, having lost June in a terrible accident. To say Last Day of June carries echoes of the opening of “Up!” would be an understatement. Here, however, instead of taking to the skies in a floating house our Carl finds himself able to step through June’s artwork to relive the past and attempt to change it for the better. Through his grief and memory, he is given an opportunity to set things right.

Carl steps into the shoes of various characters present for the last moments of June’s life and thus we have a gameplay loop. As Carl, you relive that tragic moment over and over again as you try and tweak June’s last day and unravel the wobbly mess of time itself. This is largely a trial and error affair, similar to the Telltale Games and the modern slate of walking simulators. Explore the environment, find the thing you can interact with, rinse and repeat. You’ll revisit June’s last day and find new pieces to the puzzle as you progress through the game, witnessing the game’s events from multiple different perspectives. While interesting, this does begin to feel a bit repetitive as the game progresses.

While Last Day of June may stumble here and there in its repetition it succeeds in its creative vision due to its strong aesthetic. The game has a painted feel that calls attention to June’s pursuits as an artist. The characters themselves have a handcrafted quality about them, like lumps of clay with thumb-pressed divots where their eyes should be. Instead of recognizable language, Carl and June communicate with simple coos and sighs, giving a universal understanding to the words we don’t ever need to hear them say.

Last Day of June is a haunting and melancholy picture of grief. It is not technically perfect; it doesn’t feature the best voice acting or visuals, the cleanest mechanics or tightest controls. Although the simple, nearly one-button controls heighten the repetitive nature of the gameplay, it is a short experience that never once overstays its welcome. Most importantly, Last Day of June has an abundance of heart and a clear goal of presenting games as art, and it succeeds in telling a touching story that will stick with you long after it’s gone.


Last Day of June Review Score

(4 out of 5 Stars)


 

Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor 2017 Review

Queen Mary’s Dark Harbor has pulled into port for yet another Halloween. With six returning mazes alongside the all-new “Feast” haunted house, does Dark Harbor 2017 sink or swim? Read ahead for our thoughts.

Entering Dark Harbor we headed straight towards the dome, excited to experience Circus, a favorite from past years. This brought us to the first notable change to this year’s event- The dome is closed off. Last year you could find Circus and Intrepid housed inside; This year they are out in the open. This is a welcome change as it condenses the event and kills off some of the more desolate open areas they’ve had in the past, making it feel a little less like you’re hanging out in the Queen Mary’s parking lot.

Wanting to give the sun a chance to go down before experiencing the more exposed attractions, we first headed into the ship itself. The design team at Dark Harbor has made wise use of the Queen Mary’s reputation as a haunted landmark, and uses its more notably reported spirits as the basis for attractions. First up was the returning story of Scary Mary in the maze Lullaby.

Lullaby is just as strong as ever this year. Telling the story of a young girl who drowned in the ship’s pool long ago, Lullaby’s talent delivered on all fronts. From priests in the opening moments of the maze sharing prayers at the girl’s funeral to the nannies watching over her in the afterlife and Mary herself, we were taunted nonstop by talent using creative dialogue and excellent teamwork in their scares. Lullaby also benefits from a redesigned layout this year, bringing guests down to ground level with the infamous swimming pool instead of keeping them above on the balcony as in previous years.

Following Lullaby we ventured into the all new maze Feast. Telling the story of the ship’s cook who was brutally murdered, locked in his own oven, Feast will ring familiar to fans of mazes like Slaughterhouse or Red Barn at Knott’s and Texas Chainsaw Massacre at Universal as guests are captured and prepared as the night’s meal. That’s about all it does, however. Our time in Feast was spent walking through rooms that were lit a little too well to experience a maze that was ultimately derivative of attractions we’ve seen elsewhere. Notable, though, was our first experience of the night with a bar inside a maze. After being treated to the first few rooms of the maze, guests have the opportunity to stop and order a drink before moving along. The room itself looked like it may hold no more than ~20 people, and that’s not counting the line snaking through to continue into the maze. I’m not sure how this will play out on a busy night but it was already a bit troubling even considering we were there for a media event with much lighter crowds.

Once the sun was down we headed outside for the cooler air of the mazes on dry land: Circus, Intrepid, and Deadrise.

Circus is deceptively long this year. From above it seems to have a very small footprint but make no mistake, this maze snakes back and forth for maximum effort, tightly winding in and around itself. Circus features largely the same gimmicks as last year save for a much more hidden bar than Feast. Keep your eyes peeled for a hidden door and ask nicely when you find it, you may be treated to an exclusive speakeasy where you can see stage acts perform and scare guests remotely from an arcade cabinet (that didn’t seem to be working on our trip through.) Circus is also home to a mirror maze that I got lost in for quite a while, making for a nauseating limbo. Kudos, Circus.

Deadrise is largely the same as it ever has been, you’ll either love or hate its aggressive sounds and water cannons.

Intrepid is a marked improvement over last year. Last year Intrepid felt half finished. It was a dark maze full of bare walls and confused talent. This year its moved to the previous location of mazes like Village of the Damned and Voodoo, even reusing some of their sets to great effect. Whereas last year you found yourself aboard a haunted train and little else, this year the train takes you to various foreign lands (including Castle Greyskull, apparently.) The variety really helps to mix up the flat tone of last year’s maze and Intrepid found itself home to one of our favorite scares this year. There is a room in the latter half full of fog and lasers and the monsters on opening night used it to great effect to seemingly appear and disappear in front of our eyes. Hopefully they can keep up this energy throughout the rest of the season as it was one of the few times a more stoic member of our group ended up shaken by a scare.

Rounding out the night were U340 and Soulmate back on board the ship. The only change between either of them this year is a flipping of Soulmate’s layout. Soulmate sends you through in the opposite direction from past incarnations of the maze and it suffers for it. It may not seem like all that big of an issue until you realize that Soulmate used to end in a larger room simulating a ballroom dance floor. This was a great finale using multiple mannequins and talent and this year you are simply dumped out into a hallway. Other than that disappointment, Soulmate and U340 are the same strong mazes they’ve been in the past.

Overall, Dark Harbor was a fun experience. There are some nitpicks I have logistically, such as overpriced flat soda and poor line control practices, but we were there for a preview event. I’m sure things will smooth out as the year goes on. Is it worth your money? If you’ve been in the last year or two I doubt you’ll see anything all that new. If you’re looking at a busy Haunt season and money is tight, maybe wait a year and let it refresh a little more for yourself. I’ve gone every year for quite a while and it can get a bit monotonous without things changing in a more exciting way year to year. But, if you’ve never been or you’re a true Dark Harbor fan, I have no doubt that you’ll love your time at the Queen Mary this October.

Quick takes:

  • Lullaby: Stronger than ever in its third year. A+
  • Feast: Weakest of the bunch. Bland and derivative. D
  • Circus: A mirror maze from hell and great use of the “secret bar.” A
  • Intrepid: A much needed facelift over last year. B
  • Soulmate: Backwards layout ruined a fantastic finale room from previous years. B
  • Deadrise: Loud and wet. C
  • U340: Still an entertainingly claustrophobic experience. B