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Super Mario Maker Review: Make Mine Mario

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Super Mario Maker Review: Make Mine Mario

When you place a block down in Mario Maker, the music sings "block" to the tune of the level music. When you use an Amiibo costume, the death noises change to match the game the character is from. Sometimes, when you hit a mushroom, Mario turns into a terrifying, lanky monstrosity officially named "Weird Mario". Mario Maker is, at its heart, a tool for making Mario levels. But beyond that, it's a wonderful tribute to the weirdness and creativity that's always been inherent to the series. Maybe it doesn't feel big enough to be the 30th anniversary celebration game, but in a way, that in itself feels oddly appropriate.  

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Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker Review- The Anime Connection

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Devil Survivor 2 Record Breaker Review- The Anime Connection

Devil Survivor 2: Season 2 is probably the best way to think of Record Breaker, in fact. The second campaign has more taxing, complex battles, but also more of the cast hanging out between fights, chatting and slowly learning to trust each other as the world falls apart all around them. No one character is particularly exciting or spectacularly written, but they're solid executions on the traditional anime cliches that the SMT series trades in, and the added wrinkle of only having a limited amount of time per in-game day to spend with them means you start thinking about budgeting your friendships. 

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Majora's Mask 3D: Memory Games

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Majora's Mask 3D: Memory Games

Sometimes, Majora’s Mask 3D feels like someone rearranged all the furniture in my house without telling me.

At one point, I was looking for the Stone Mask, which makes you invisible during stealth segments. It used to be in the game’s fourth area, about as far a humanly possible from the place where you actually need it most, a pirate fortress in the third. Once I had the appropriate tools, I started my hunt, knowing I’d memorized the mask’s original location from when I was ten.  After an hour of searching and doubting myself, I gave up and finished the stealth section without it. Of course, at that very moment I realized I’d been ignoring in-game tips and the mask was just sitting in front of my face, right at the beginning of the very stealth section it helps you circumvent. It’s a better choice, and one of the many fixes Majora’s Mask 3D makes that improve the overall game.

So whoever rearranged the furniture did a great job with the feng shui.

 Admittedly, that's a pretty small moon, all things considered.

Admittedly, that's a pretty small moon, all things considered.

Majora’s Mask 3D is pretty much what it says on the box. It’s a remake of the 2001 Nintendo 64 game, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask. Like a lot of Nintendo’s remakes though, it focuses less on presenting the game as it was, and more about how you remember it. Which is particularly interesting, because it was already a game focused on memory.

 That moon's got great teeth though. A real brusher, that one.

That moon's got great teeth though. A real brusher, that one.

There’s this moment in Majora’s Mask, towards the end of the game’s signature three-day cycle, where the music in the hub town speeds up to an almost menacing degree. It’s this weird level of intertextuality that plays on your memories, like almost everything else in the game. The sped up music creates a sense of urgency on its own, considering there’s a massive, grinning moon hovering ominously overhead, but it’s also a pretty direct reference to the way the music in Mario speeds up when the timer is under 100 seconds. It’s not something a seasoned Zelda player would have encountered within that series, but anyone familiar with the medium has a pretty good understanding of what sped up music means, even if they aren’t looking at the clock.

Majora’s Mask is full of moments like that. Well, not exactly like that. There’s a lot more referencing other Zeldas (specifically 1998’s Ocarina of Time) than other series, but Majora’s Mask likes to wear its influences on its sleeve. Part of it is simple pragmatism, the game was made in just over a year and reuses dozens of assets from Ocarina, but part of it seems to come from the games’ obsession with memory, and the way we encounter it.

 Majora's Mask 3D has a fixation on those terrifying, soul-piercing yellow eyes. It's pretty terrifying.

Majora's Mask 3D has a fixation on those terrifying, soul-piercing yellow eyes. It's pretty terrifying.

You don’t need to dig too deep to notice the obsession either. For one, the game revolves around a Groundhog Day-esque three day loop. At the end of the three days, the moon crashes into Termina, the strange mirror-darkly version of Hyrule, and our hero is forced to start from scratch. But he remembers things, or more specifically, you remember things. You remember how to beat bosses (which you don’t have to repeat, but it helps), how to finish sidequests, even the schedules of the folks around town. The game doesn’t make you remember that last thing, it notes schedules and sidequests on the bottom screen, but that information persists, even when you reset the clock. The player is always reminded of the nature of the world.

 This guy's back story is that he stole a mask from his boss once, but his boss was a dog. Majora's Mask is GREAT.

This guy's back story is that he stole a mask from his boss once, but his boss was a dog. Majora's Mask is GREAT.

Meanwhile, the game is designed around three key masks that can change Link into some of Zelda’s famous species. He can be a miniature, forest-dwelling Deku Scrub, a massive, rock-eating Goron, or a Zora, a kind of fish-man with a sweet guitar. Each mask is obtained by finding a dying or dead member of the species, putting their soul to rest, and preserving their memory. The Goron is the spirit of a fallen warrior who everyone is surprised has come back to life to save his tribe, and the Zora is a new father out to save his eggs when he is killed by their captors. The Deku Scrub’s relationships are mostly the realm of fan theory, but the prevailing opinion is that he was killed suddenly by the game’s villain, the Skull Kid, and his father, a Deku Scrub you can race, is finally at peace with his son’s passing when he meets your Deku form.

All three have these distinct connections to preserving memory, even legacy in some cases. But they’re all forgotten. When the cycle ends, Link and the player are the only ones who remember. The game is fundamentally about preserving memories, and also throwing them away. If I had to hazard a guess, it’d be because it was the first game directed by current Zelda producer Eiji Aonuma, who was then a design assistant to series creator Shigeru Miyamoto. While I have my theories on how for him, Majora’s Mask was about deconstructing Zelda so he could better understand it, I think it’s a much safer bet that the whole obsession with memory and legacy stems from his concern at not making a game that lived up to the series’ standard.

So Aonuma draws upon these memorials to craft a game that simultaneously tells you to cherish and respect memory, while also focusing on the concept that it’s okay if everyone forgets. It’s this paradoxical game, and it’s never quite at ease with itself. Or at least, it didn’t used to be.

 One of the changes is that the game's camera no longer makes this jerk a nightmare to fight. Still took me five tries though.

One of the changes is that the game's camera no longer makes this jerk a nightmare to fight. Still took me five tries though.

Time has been kind to Majora’s Mask. Returning to it after a decade, I found that it’s a surprisingly forward thinking game. In fact, it reminds me a lot more of open world RPGs like Skyrim than it does its immediate predecessor, Ocarina of Time. The world is centralized with a busy hub town you have to return to constantly. Each part of the world is a spoke off of that hub, leading to a full quest on the critical path and sidequests the mess around with in your off-time. The three day cycle lends itself to prioritizing individual side quests whenever you pick up the game, making it really easy to just do a five minute sidequest for some cash, 30 minutes for a mask, or even an hour or two for a full dungeon.

 You've met with a terrible fate, haven't you?

You've met with a terrible fate, haven't you?

The quest structure is linear, but modular enough that players can tackle sidequests at any point, and approach the game at their own pace. In fact, Majora’s Mask’s legacy as the “weird Zelda” is probably what makes it feel so fresh. Instead of looking back to Link to the Past, like every Zelda ever has, it looked forward, and cribbed from early open world games like Mario 64 to design something that’s more modern than pretty much any Zelda game aside from 2013’s A Link Between Worlds. Majora’s Mask 3D is a game that felt strange and out of place in 2001, but in 2015, it just feels right.

And yet, there are still problems. The sidequests that require standing around and waiting for something to happen are still nightmares, albeit shorter ones. Buying maps for every area you enter gets really annoying every time you forget to pick up rupees at the bank, and any puzzle that requires deft swimming was designed by a madman with a four dimensional brain and split second reaction times. But otherwise, the game is as you remember it, just not necessarily how I remember it.

 Remember not to look directly at the apocalypse.

Remember not to look directly at the apocalypse.

Majora’s Mask was my first console Zelda. I didn’t own an N64, but I played at a friend’s house, and I occasionally rented one. The game terrified me, not only because of the deeply upsetting moon and strange, otherworldly aesthetic, but because I was afraid of the concept that I couldn’t save everyone in its world. Every time I reset the clock, that was another hundred Terminians wiped from the face of history. The game is dark, and part of it comes from that same obsession with memory. It wants you to remember. It asks you not to forget, from both a mechanical and a narrative standpoint. And thus, you remember failure. You remember each reset, and the people you couldn’t help on that cycle.

 The game also never gets into how Link's final transformation into the Fierce Deity can look like something straight out of deviantart and still be unironically cool.

The game also never gets into how Link's final transformation into the Fierce Deity can look like something straight out of deviantart and still be unironically cool.

My memories of what Zelda was like to me then are hazy, but playing Majora’s Mask 3D crystallized them. It made me confront them in ways that rattled my brain and forced me to rethink the game, and my relationship with my own memories. If Majora’s Mask is a game about memory, then Majora’s Mask 3D is a game about legacy. It’s about what you do with those memories once they’re all jumbled up and rearranged the way we want to remember them. It turns out, what you do is fix your old mistakes, as if they never happened.

There’s a part of Majora’s Mask 3D where you impersonate a fish-woman’s boyfriend and play her a song she remembers from her childhood. She sings the song, and never question the fact that her boyfriend suddenly wears a green skirt and occasionally turns into a little elf boy.

The game never really settles the fact that you’re deceiving her, and how wrong that is, but that scene really taps into what’s so great and just a little uncomfortable about Majora’s Mask 3D. Our memory is deceitful sometimes. We remember things better than they are, and we rewrite history to make that so. But sometimes, it’s good to hold on to that nice memory, no matter how dark it seems in the moment. Majora’s Mask 3D rewrites history by recasting the obtuse original into a modern classic forgotten by time, and you know what?

That’s exactly how it should be remembered.



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Super Smash Bros. for 3DS Review- The Waiting Game

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Super Smash Bros. for 3DS Review- The Waiting Game

Smash Bros for 3DS is an appetizer, and it's a damn good one, but that's all it's ever going to be. It's an amuse-bouche, a way to tide yourself over for the entree. There's about two months until its big brother comes out, and for those two months, if you need your Smash Bros. fix, there's very little to complain about with the 3DS version. But, know that if you're that kind of person, you're almost certainly going to be buying a better version of it when it comes out. 

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Super Smash Bros. for Wii U Review- Punch Pals

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Super Smash Bros. for Wii U Review- Punch Pals

Smash Bros. for Wii U is easily my favourite game in the series, hands down. There was a moment when I was playing with friends, after six players were whittled down to two fighters with one life each We were an entire minute away from each other on Palutena’s Temple, this massive, almost over designed beast of a stage, so big it’s often hard to see yourself on it. We drew closer to each other, me flinging arrows from Pit’s bow, him dashing between floating platforms with Ike’s quick draw attack, until we met up on opposite ends of the bridge that connects the stage’s two halves. Our two anime champions stood off, both of us waiting for the other to make his move. My palms were sweating. I don’t know what he was planning, but I was expecting another quick draw, which I would counter with a deadly dashing uppercut, then follow him up into the air for an easy kill. Unless he countered, in which case I’d get flung a short distance and use my guardian orbitars to block a follow up hit. Then we’d be back to the anime Mexican standoff.

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Persona 4 Arena Ultimax Review- Mass Destruction

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Persona 4 Arena Ultimax Review- Mass Destruction

Ultimax is a great arena to cut your teeth in, but there’s no master here to show you the ropes. That’s not really a complain about Ultimax specifically, it’s something all fighting games need to work on, but it feels like this game, with its cross-genre appeal and a story mode that’s ripe for teaching and guaranteed to be played by beginners, would be the perfect place for a real tutorial. Ultimax is a great game for fighting game fans and people who want to put in the effort to learn the game. It’s not a compromise, and anyone who’s only in it for the Persona elements is in for a nasty ultra suplex.

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Destiny Review- No Escape

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Destiny Review- No Escape

Ten hours into playing Destiny I knew it wasn't a great game. The world exuded blandness. The story was nonsensical, told to me by half-asleep robot. And I kept having this feeling that I was repeating myself. The same levels. The same enemies. The same environments. I'm now twenty hours in and I have to say, the constant sense of deja vu has yet to stop me from playing. Destiny is a fundamentally mean game.  You grind missions after mission because you're compelled to, not because you have any desire to explore the game's world.

Destiny is an always online shooter made by Bungie, published by Activision, and is a terrible game I can't stop playing. This surprises even me because I don't play many shooters and I don't like this one. The game is structured like a multiplayer online game. It has long battles that require multiple people to join in, like in Activision's other cash-cow franchise, World of Warcraft. Enemies drop weapons and armor, and you gain new abilities the more you play, again like in WoW. But none of it matters.

Those long fights or "Strikes" are a means to dump loads of ammo into a giant rotating eye that won't die, even after a five minute hailstorm of bullets. Each new piece of armor is at best a marginal improvement over the last, a simple numbers game of deducing whether 99 defense + 34 strength is better than 100 defense + 21 discipline. And yet, let me tell you, within six hours of you reading this review, I will be playing Destiny.

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Mario Kart 8- Back on Track

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Mario Kart 8- Back on Track

Everyone's favourite Mario Kart is the one they spent the most time with. Among my peers (ie. jaded 20-somethings) that's usually Mario Kart 64. That actually probably holds to people about a decade older than me as well, considering they would have played it in college, but you're probably going to find some Super Mario Kart fans in those numbers, especially when you skew older. Younger fans might love Double Dash, DS or Wii. Nobody loves Super Circuit, because Super Circuit was a crime. The point is, the difference between Mario Karts is often so minute that it all comes down to personal preference. But, that also means when a game personally drives you crazy, it becomes a serious object of ire. All this comes down to an anecdote: the last time I played a Mario Kart game was 2008, when I fell asleep playing Mario Kart Wii.

 There are a lot of babies in this game. That isn't the disappointing bit, it just really bears mentioning. If you hate babies. You monster.

There are a lot of babies in this game. That isn't the disappointing bit, it just really bears mentioning. If you hate babies. You monster.

That's not even a joke. My friend and I dozed off during an online race. The tracks were wide enough to drive five trucks though, side by side, and still leave legroom, while the karts moved so slow the finish line seemed an interminable distance away. You never actually saw other racers on the course, everyone had enough room to breathe that no turn was ever too tricky, no one was ever having too much fun. It went too far in the classic Mario Kart balance of fairness vs fun. In the interest of fairness, the racers in the back have a higher chance of getting items that could turn the tide of a race. In the interest of fun, good, disciplined racing should still be able to win the day. Of course, it wasn't, and combined with the series' traditional rubber banding AI, Mario Kart Wii was an unfun, boring mess of a racer. I swore of Mario Kart, and stayed away for six years, until it was time to do this review. Instead, I played other arcade-style racers, like Split/Second, and Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed.

So take it to heart when I say that Mario Kart 8 is a spectacular racer, it's just inside of a disappointing package.

 Planes, trains and auto-mobiles and just kidding about the trains part.

Planes, trains and auto-mobiles and just kidding about the trains part.

 In case you've missed it over the last 22 years, Mario Kart is a series of games that puts Mario and his pals (along with some of his more amicable enemies) in go-karts and motorcycles to race each other across cartoon environments lifted from their adventures. But, in a Hanna-Barbera's Wacky Races style twist, they can pick up items and weapons along the track to use against other racers. This time around, the karts have been upgraded to have anti-gravity features, which gives them a sort of F-Zero-in-slow-motion twist on certain stretches of the tracks. 

 Anti-Grav adds a sweet "Anime Future Blue" glow to your tires.

Anti-Grav adds a sweet "Anime Future Blue" glow to your tires.

It sounds like a cheap trick on paper, but it really works in practice. In anti-grav mode, bumping into other vehicles gives you a speed boost, which is great on straightaways, but can kill you on a turn. In what has to be a response to MK Wii, 8 features significantly narrower courses, meaning bumping into other racers (the whole point of a go-kart) becomes a significant part of the strategy. On the ground, it mostly just punts them off the road and on to the acceleration-killing grass. But in anti-grav mode, racers can take the calculated risk to slam into opponents on turns, and send them flying off of the track entirely. Of course, this means they themselves then have to survive the turn with the speed boost, a mechanic largely borrowed from Mario Kart's faster but forgotten older brother, F-Zero. In that game, hitting other cars can slam them off course, but drains your energy bar, which acts as both your health as well as fuel for your boosts. It's the biggest change from previous games, and it's a welcome change of pace from the regular racing mechanics, but it's not exactly earth shattering innovation.

The other major change 8 brings to the table is HD graphics, which, while not a gameplay shift, are undoubtedly impressive. Nintendo continues to be one of the few companies to use HD to its fullest potential, with bright colours and eye-popping designs. I found myself wishing for a way to just view the tracks without a race going on, so I could appreciate how much design effort went into things that usually whiz by during a race. But, at the same time, it's hard to claim like it's a genuine step up for the series. It doesn't impact gameplay, other than making split-screen a teensy-tiny bit easier to read on smaller screens, and the general crowd for HD graphics is looking for photo realism, not a perfect cartoon. But that's neither here nor there, it's undeniable that the game looks incredible.

 I'mma gonna ween.

I'mma gonna ween.

Similarly, the music is great. Nintendo keeps wheeling out the same live jazz band they seem to be using for every Mario branded game lately, but I'm not complaining. Just like Paper Mario: Sticker Star and Super Mario 3D World, this return to Mario's ragtime/big band musical roots sounds spectacular. A few of the retro tracks from previous games have a slightly more rocking take on the source music, but overall there's a lot of brass next to those electric guitars. The Electrodrome course music specifically is a standout no-brass track, with a really rad techno beat that fits the Shy Guy rave going on in the background.

But while those parts of the presentation seem fantastically high budget, everything else feels like corner cutting. After two weeks of playing the game, I can't find an options menu anywhere. Not that there's anything I necessarily want to change, but it's odd that there's no option to tweak volume or display settings. Similarly, it's odd that the traditional post-grand prix ceremony animation is gone. Instead, it's been replaced by a rotating graphic of the trophy you won, and a list of who placed where. It's not a big deal, especially considering most people tend to skip those, but again, it's a weird tiny corner to cut that leave the game feeling a little cheap at times. Compared to other kart racers, like the criminally underappreciated Sonic and Sega All-Stars Racing Transformed, the single player portions of the game are lacking. Mario Kart has never really had a robust single player mode, but even a small mission mode would have been something. It looks strange that Mario Kart, the premiere kart racing series, and Nintendo's current great hope for the WiiU has a totally bare bones single player when compared to Sega All-Stars, a game that is by no accounts a top budget title, but has an hours long career mode. Admittedly, that career mode gets bogged down with boring missions that get far too difficult on higher levels, but it's something.

 Rejoice, for Toad Turnpike is back, and that means you're going to get flattened by a Wario-branded truck.

Rejoice, for Toad Turnpike is back, and that means you're going to get flattened by a Wario-branded truck.

Having not played Mario Kart 7, the kart customization features are new to me, and they're a welcome level of complexity, but again, it's nothing that hasn't been done before. Similarly, the return of coins from Super Mario Kart is a nice strategic addition, but mostly just highlights how the series is just borrowing from its past to keep itself moving now. In that vein, pretty much every retro course brought back from the earlier games is spectacular, including the three best Mario Kart 64 tracks (Yoshi Valley, Toad Turnpike, and Rainbow Road). In fact, the only standout dud is Moo Moo Meadows, a course lifted almost directly from MK Wii, and less said about that the better. New tracks are similarly great, aside from super simple ones like the basic Mario Kart Stadium. One of my favourites is Mount Wario, which has no laps, instead featuring a three part race to the bottom of the mountain, with completely different challenges in each leg of the race. Nothing really stands out as bad when you're in the races.

It's all the stuff that happens outside the races that irks me. The main menu is as barebones as it gets, with options for single player, multiplayer, online, and Youtube uploads. When I was looking for players online and I couldn't find any, the game wouldn't let me quit searching without shutting off the console. Battle mode has been killed without remorse, changed from fast-paced arena battles to slow plodding circuits around massive tracks, desperately looking for another racer to fight. it all comes together to feel like a game that had a limited budget, and poured it all into what the designers felt mattered. I don't think they were wrong, but it certainly leaves the game as a whole feeling a little lacking when compared to its predecessors and contemporaries.

 There is an art department at Nintendo dedicated exclusively to making Mario's denim overalls look juuuuust right.

There is an art department at Nintendo dedicated exclusively to making Mario's denim overalls look juuuuust right.

But again, there's no denying that  Mario Kart 8 is a spectacular game, it's just a worrying package. It's the best console Mario Kart game in more than a decade, but it still feels lacking when compared to the previous games. It's bare-bones outside of races, where it's lavish and fun and Mario Kart at its very best. Mario Kart 8 is gorgeous, with tightly designed courses, frantic gameplay, and a spectacular soundtrack you'll never hear over people shouting at Baby Daisy for lapping you AGAIN. But the death of battle mode and the low-budget presentation set a bad precedent. Mario Kart DS was the spectacular return to form before the dreadful Mario Kart Wii. Mario Kart is totally worth it again, but how long will it last this time?

Then again, I’m doing time trials while I edit this review, so maybe we don’t have to worry about that just yet.

 It's called a road, it's called the Rainbow Road....

It's called a road, it's called the Rainbow Road....

Verdict: Thumbs Up!

(Built to Play uses a simple, binary rating system. These aren't product reviews, but we do want to tell you where to best spend your time and money in this medium we cherish. So, if something is worth your time, it gets a thumbs up, if not, thumbs down.)

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Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy- This is the End, Top-Hatted Friend

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Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy- This is the End, Top-Hatted Friend

It's not often game franchises get to die with dignity. Guitar Hero didn't get to die until Activision bled it dry and killed the entire plastic- instrument genre with it. Final Fantasy, once a bastion of quality in a sea of ho-hum RPGs, is something like fourteen-and-a-half tortured installments deep into a series whose glory days are long past. It took the combined threat of three mostly-lame games to kill the Mana series, only for it to rise again as a free-to-play mobile game. So when Professor Layton and the Azran Legacy was announced as the last Professor Layton game, I took notice. A series I love was about to end on its own terms, and I was ready to hate. There was no way this wasn’t a last ditch attempt by Level 5 to avoid driving Layton into the ground.

Turns out they were just proving that he could still soar, one last time.

 They're just as happy to hear that as you are, trust me.

They're just as happy to hear that as you are, trust me.

 Layton 7, or: How I learned to Start Worrying about Mobile Spinoffs

Layton 7, or: How I learned to Start Worrying about Mobile Spinoffs

For those new to the Layton series, there have been six games, as well as a mobile spin-off over the last seven years, starting with Professor Layton and the Mysterious Village in 2007. They’re pretty simple affairs, point-and-click adventure games in the classic Lucasarts style, but stuffed to bursting with logic puzzles. Every character in the world is ready to drop some creative math problems on you, just you wait. Azran Legacy is the sixth Layton game, the end to a trilogy of prequels that take place before the first game, and purportedly the end of the series. To be fair, this isn’t actually the last game, technically speaking. Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney is miraculously coming to western shores next month, but that came out before Azran Legacy in its native Japan. Also, there’s Layton 7, but that looks like some sort of mobile-based farmville knockoff for now, not the top-hatted puzzler I know and love. Azran Legacy is the end of the Professor Layton  series as we know it though.

As you’d expect, when you make six games in seven years, there’s not a lot of room for innovation. The formula hasn’t really changed much since 2007. In fact, longtime fans might start the story thinking they’re suffering from a bout of deja-vu. Professor Layton and his entourage (earnest apprentice Luke and butt-kicking assistant Emmy) receive a letter from a fellow archaeology professor who’s uncovered a “living mummy”. From there, they go on an adventure wherein they save the world, mostly through solving ludicrous mysteries and finding out exactly how many sheep an absent minded farmer has.

 Hint: D doesn't have any tokens, so he'd really appreciate if he could bum one off you. He's good for it though.

Hint: D doesn't have any tokens, so he'd really appreciate if he could bum one off you. He's good for it though.

Speaking of mysteries, Layton is renowned for its insane eleventh hour plot twists and Azran Legacy does not disappoint. The writers are in top form on this one, with not one, not two, but six bonkers Layton-signature plot twists for each of their main mysteries. For those keeping track at home, Professor Layton once resolved a plot by explaining everyone was high on mine gas the whole time.

So why six mysteries? Well, in what sounds like a design choice made while desperately trying to understand what appeals to westerners,  Azran Legacy is an open world game. After a few hours, Layton and company have their choice of five areas to explore, each hiding an Azran Egg, the magical macguffins you’ve been sent to find. You can tackle these areas in any order you like, or hop between them at your leisure with the fast travel provided by your airship. It sounds sort of pointless, but it manages to solve two of the series’ biggest issues in one fell swoop. First, it takes away the one massive area you navigate throughout the game. One of my biggest complaints with the last game, Miracle Mask, was that by the end of the game you were spending 5 minutes just trying to get around its enormous city. Having a handful of smaller areas lets each be tighter, more navigable, and cuts backtracking almost entirely out of the equation.

 San Grio, a gorgeous crossbreed of Venice and the Spanish riviera, is obsessed with eggs. Eggs as far the eye can see. Eggs.

San Grio, a gorgeous crossbreed of Venice and the Spanish riviera, is obsessed with eggs. Eggs as far the eye can see. Eggs.

 I can't imagine there are many master thieves who also happen to be obsessed with math, Maybe in Gotham city?

I can't imagine there are many master thieves who also happen to be obsessed with math, Maybe in Gotham city?

The other bonus is more themed puzzles. Part of Layton’s charm has always been theming its puzzles around the areas you play them in. Card and gambling puzzles in the casino, boat puzzles by the lake, that sort of thing. Each area is a different part of the world, so Spanish riviera-style San Grio is going have significantly different puzzles than Torrido’s take on Texas. It’s cute and fixes the issue that it was often hard to tell if you were getting any better at certain puzzle types in previous games. Segmenting puzzles like that gives a real sense of progression, where you’ll find three puzzles of the same type in one area, not scattered around the world so far from each other you forget how to solve them. Of course, you'd be hard pressed to solve them all, since Azran Legacy keeps up the series tradition of stuffing the game with something like 200 puzzles, plus free daily downloadable puzzles for the next year. This one's going to last you a while.

Those puzzles, by the way, are pretty much spectacular. The puzzlemasters at Level 5 have really outdone themselves here, with clever, challenging puzzles that rarely overstay their welcome. Also, there seem to be less math-focused puzzles, which is a welcome boon to my number-numb brain. If brain teasers and logic puzzles don’t set your heart afire, Azran Legacy isn’t going to win you over, there’s nothing new here. After six of these games though, you’d expect them to really nail puzzle design, and Azran Legacy  doesn't live down expectations. There’s not one gimmick puzzle focused on closing the 3DS lid, or blowing into the microphone, or viewing something in 3D in the whole game. They’ve cut out the more irrelevant minigames from Miracle Mask, like horse racing, and top-down dungeon crawling. No puzzle type gets more than three or four uses, and even those permutations get real clever. There’s a puzzle about seals balancing balls that can really throw you for a loop the last time it pops up. The game isn’t necessarily innovating, but it is refining. It’s polishing bone.

 Why doesn't every game look like Professor Layton? Right, we can't have nice things.

Why doesn't every game look like Professor Layton? Right, we can't have nice things.

As usual, the art is beautiful, with that unique Triplets of Belleville meets ligne claire style that no one seems to be able to replicate. They also managed to knock 3D effects out of the park on this one, if that’s your bag. Some of the areas, like the waterfall in Phong Gi, the jungle area, look absolutely incredible with the 3D slider on. I often found myself poking around environments, then turning on 3D just to see how they looked. Also up to par is the dialogue, which remains charming and well written, if occasionally poorly voice acted. Characters from pretty much every game in the series pop their heads in to say goodbye here, so long time fans will get a nostalgic kick out of seeing old Inspector Chelmey bumbling around the world again, though some cameos don’t really serve any purpose.

 "Quack."

"Quack."

There are moments when Azran Legacy shines even brighter though. Moments when you realize how special it all is. At one point, Layton and Luke take it upon themselves to make a tribal chieftain laugh, so the professor puts on a duck bill, and in a lavishly animated cutscene, belts out a deadpan “quack”. Then, for the next few minutes of game time, Layton is still wearing the duck bill on his model. They not only prioritized a full anime cutscene for a one-off gag, they also made sure to model the prop for the game proper. It’s ridiculous and silly, but altogether charming in a refreshing way. Layton cares so little about being a “mass market appeal” game. You solve all your problems with puzzles, you talk to squirrels about their day, you never even harm a fly. The graphics are a PlayStation 1-style mix of 2D and 3D that work because of how gorgeous the cel-shaded art style is. Layton makes no overtures to capture the Call of Duty aesthetic everyone is going for these days, nor does it care about courting the Candy Crush players who everyone’s after. It knows that it’s all coming to an end, but since it gets to end on its own terms, it isn’t changing a thing about itself for anyone.

 Remember kids, never except candy from strangers. Unless they offer you a puzzle first, then you know they're okay.

Remember kids, never except candy from strangers. Unless they offer you a puzzle first, then you know they're okay.

Other than the parade of cast members from games gone by though, it was often easy to forget that its the last Layton game, because it never really made a big deal of it. While it wraps up the lingering plot threads of the previous two games (as well as brings the movie into canon), and ties it all together with a suitably epic finale, it doesn’t really require you to know any of that. It could be a standalone game if it really wanted to. Maybe because it has to directly lead into the first game in the series, it never lingers too long on a melancholy note. Azran Legacy doesn’t really seem to mind dying very much. It doesn’t relish it by any means, but it feels like the designers took a special sort of dignity in getting to go out on a high note, and they don’t waste it on pointless call backs.

After six games, there’s not much left to do, and Azran Legacy refines the Layton formula down to the bone. There’s no fat left here anymore. There are no flaws left to fix. It’s unapologetic in its finality, almost as if to say “this is it, this is perfect Layton, and if you don’t like it now, then you never will.” And, it basically is the perfect Professor Layton game. It’s not quite my favourite, Unwound Future’s plot twist is hard to beat, and I could listen to its puzzle duel music all day, but Azran Legacy is better than any of its predecessors in almost every conceivable way. The puzzles are spectacular, the world is finally manageable, the script is wonderfully charming, and even though the art style already made the polygonal jump perfectly in Miracle Mask, Azran Legacy ups the ante with incredible 3D effects and beautiful backdrops. It’s not going to convert any haters, but Azran Legacy is perfect, pure, Professor Layton. No frills, no gimmicks. I can’t think of a more fitting send off for a true gentleman.

 This is the end, top-hatted friend. This is the end, my gentleman friend, this is the end.

This is the end, top-hatted friend. This is the end, my gentleman friend, this is the end.

VERDICT: Thumbs up!

(Built to Play uses a simple, binary rating system. These aren't product reviews, but we do want to tell you where to best spend your time and money. So, if something is worth your time, it gets a thumbs up, if not, thumbs down.)

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds- R-R-R-REMIX

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The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds- R-R-R-REMIX

For years, most conversations about Zelda games have been dominated by talk about the Zelda formula: a set of structural rules that the games have slavishly stuck to since 1991’s A Link to the Past. A Link Between Worlds promised early on that it was going to change all that. In Japan, it’s called A Link to the Past 2. It’s making a pretty clear statement that this is the next step for Zelda.

Well, two steps forward and one step back, but you know- a step nonetheless.

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Let’s start with the steps forward, since the rest doesn’t quite make sense without them. Pre-release info has made a big deal of the game’s item rental system. Instead of getting each item in its own dungeon, Link instead has access to almost every major item after the first dungeon. A shopkeeper sets up in Link’s bedroom and lets him rent bombs, the bow, a boomerang, a whole stable of Zelda staples. You keep these items until you die, unless you buy them for a high price, but purchased items can also be upgraded though a surprisingly deep and enjoyable side quest. If you play smart though, you could probably get through the entire game on just one rental. The loss of items and rupee requirement to getting them back adds some actual tension to boss fights, since death leads to more than just losing your last five minutes.

 Seriously, this is breaking and entering, and also extortion. I should be beating up THIS guy.

Seriously, this is breaking and entering, and also extortion. I should be beating up THIS guy.

Unfortunately, the game’s bosses aren’t quite up to snuff for the most part, but 2D Zelda games aren’t really combat-focused games, they’re about the puzzles. LBW adds two tools to Link’s repertoire in that regard. The first is his newfound ability to merge into walls. It basically amounts to being able to sidle along any wall, but it does make a bigger deal than you’d expect it to. Finding secrets hidden around walls you didn't expect to be able to traverse is very satisfying. Like how Portal managed to teach me to “think with portals”, I eventually started looking at every wall and trying to figure out if something was hidden around the other side.

The other new trick is the addition of height to dungeon layouts. Rendering the game in polygons let the designers go hog wild with multi-layer dungeons, height puzzles and just overall deeper, more interesting puzzle design. A third axis really does help for making puzzles more than “light two torches, chest appears.” Of course, that puzzle still shows up, but it disappears early on to make way for sand manipulation, ice-seesaws and other more interesting mechanics.

 Those springs are awfully happy for things that stepped on a lot.

Those springs are awfully happy for things that stepped on a lot.

The trade-off for height, however, is the fact that everything looks sort of ugly. LttP has a very unique look, with muted colours and simple shading used to create the illusion of detail where there was none. It’s not a mind-blowing effect, but when you look at a random screenshot of LttP, you instantly know what game it’s from. LBW tries to replicate that effect, but it comes off looking cheap. Characters don’t quite have the same pop, even if they do look ostensibly identical, and in some areas, everything just comes out looking like RPG Maker clip art. It’s not good.

And unfortunately, it invites comparison, because both Hyrule and its mirror counterpart Lowrule (this game’s version of the traditional Zelda Dark World) are ripped straight out of LttP. It’s an almost pixel for pixel recreation, with some slight changes here and there. If you’ve played LttP, you’ve been to this Hyrule before. From the field of pillars near Link’s house to Thieves’ Town, everything is more or less how you remember it, but rendered in plasticky polygons. Like the graphics, it feels cheap, especially from a team that’s proven they can do better many times before.

 They chopped down that tree in the last 22 years. Pogress!

They chopped down that tree in the last 22 years. Pogress!

 Lowrule's Princess Hilda is rocking that gothic-upside-down-zelda-without-a-hint-of-irony look that's so chic in her kingdom these days.

Lowrule's Princess Hilda is rocking that gothic-upside-down-zelda-without-a-hint-of-irony look that's so chic in her kingdom these days.

But, in another step forward, the world is totally open. Since every item is accessible to you from close to the start, the world is completely traversable, save for a few areas that need optional items you’ll get from exploring to open up. All this means you can tackle most of the dungeons in whatever order you please. After the first dungeon, you tackle one of two dungeons before the other, and after those, seven more dungeons open up to be explored in any order. I even found myself getting halfway through one dungeon, finding myself stuck, and then warping out to check out another one. The game’s pace is totally up to you. You can explore for hours before setting foot in a dungeon, or you can take them on one after another in rapid succession, ignoring side quests. It’s perfectly suited for a handheld game and a welcome relief from Twilight Princess’ slow build up between dungeons, and Skyward’s Sword’s movie-length tutorial sequence.

All the non-linearity, clever puzzles and occasional multiple solutions led me to feel something I haven’t felt from a Zelda game in a while: accomplished. It’s satisfying to get somewhere you feel like you shouldn’t be yet, and still triumphing through smart play. Dungeons don’t ramp up in difficulty but focus on more and more devious puzzles for the item they focus on.  It’s just unfortunate that such a huge step forward had to be coupled alongside such a massive step back.  Reusing the overworld really hurts the game more than I expected it to. Every dungeon occupies the same spot on the map; the insides are just different, same with every house, cave and lake. Exploration is promoted, and while there are new secrets to discover, I can’t help but feel I’ve done all this before.

 For all my hatred for the polygonal graphics, the 2D wall paintings look fantastic. A+ to that part of the art team.

For all my hatred for the polygonal graphics, the 2D wall paintings look fantastic. A+ to that part of the art team.

It’s funny, “I’ve done this all before” is probably the number one complaint about Zelda games since 1998’s Ocarina of Time. Every game since LttP has just recreated its structure with slight modifications. Finally, there’s a game that actually shakes up the formula, but it feels same-y for a completely different reason, and it still holds it back.

There were moments when LBW reminded me of expertly game mods. Like Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s Project M, or Half Life’s Counter Strike, LBW radically changes certain things about the game it originated from and freshens up that experience, but it’s still being built on that foundation, and you can’t change the underpinnings.

The changes it does make are great. The game is fantastically fun, doesn’t hold your hand and is clever throughout. But all of that is at odds with the reused overworld and cheap-looking graphics. It’s one of those odd games that does so much right, but fails to seal the deal the way it should. If only the game sprung for a new overworld, to really reward the exploration it encourages with something new and exciting, it would be the best Zelda game in years. And if you've never played or aren't super familiar with LttP, it might be. But for the Zelda diehard, it seems to be comfortable simply being good, never quite escaping the shadow of its predecessor.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Platform: 3DS

Developer: Nintendo EAD & Monolith Soft

Publisher: Nintendo

 You know, I've never actually seen Link and Wall painting Link in the same place at the same time....

You know, I've never actually seen Link and Wall painting Link in the same place at the same time....

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Card Hunter- Free to Yay

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Card Hunter- Free to Yay

Card Hunter puts free to play gaming to shame.

 Card Hunter is available for free, in your PC/Mac browser, right  here .

Card Hunter is available for free, in your PC/Mac browser, right here.

Card Hunter is a lot of things. It’s a turn-based RPG for one. It’s also a card game, and a tabletop game. But the tabletop is virtual, and there’s also fake cheetos and soda on it. Also it’s a Dungeons and Dragons style role playing game, but the dungeon master is a pre-scripted character who talks you through quests. As you might have gathered from that opening statement, it’s also a free to play game, but one of the few that isn’t a soulless cash-grab money-pit.

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Card Hunter has a very meta presentation, with you and your virtual friend playing the two player game, Card Hunter, as player and DM respectively. You roll characters D&D style, from a pool of three races (human, elf and dwarf) and three classes (warrior, mage, and priest), and then equip them with different items that affect their decks. The way it works is actually pretty elegantly designed deck building system that essentially takes away any real world value to individual cards. Everything you equip to your characters has a 3-6 cards associated with it, usually ones that have something to do with what the item is. For example, a sword might have a few stab cards and a couple chop cards. Each race and class has a few “natural” cards associated with it that get shuffled into the deck Humans might have a walk card or two, but a quicker elf will have a few run cards instead. Each card acts as an option you would have in a regular RPG, and plays out pretty similarly. Walk lets you move two spaces in any direction, bludgeon does four points of damage, and armour protects you from damage depending on a (again, virtual) dice roll. It’s all very easy to understand, and makes deck building a pretty simple thing for the less card savvy among us, but also creates some very cool complexities as the system starts to show more of its hand, if you’ll excuse the pun.

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Later on in the game, you’re introduced to traits, black and orange cards that are automatically played if you draw them into your hand. Black traits are negative, and include effects like the loner card, which causes a character using it to take damage at the end of the turn for every other character adjacent to them. Orange traits are positive, and often boost certain types of attacks or spells. The trick is that a powerful piece of equipment, one with plenty of useful cards associated with it, will usually carry a negative trait. So it’s hard to create a truly overpowered character, since luck of the draw will usually ensure you end up with a negative trait on one of your characters at some point. Most of these traits are neat little role playing touches for your characters too, which helps the game in its presentation of a classic tabletop RPG. The gameplay side effect is the point, but the cute touch of turning these virtual cardboard standees into characters with character flaws is one of the things that Card Hunter does that puts it head and shoulders above the competition.

Another is its ridiculously generous approach to the free to play business model. For starters, the entirety of Card Hunter, single player campaign, multiplayer, every piece of equipment and card is free. Of course, that means there are microtransactions and an in-game currency to buy with your real money. You can exchange real human dollars for pizza, which can then be exchanged for various things, like a shop that sells chests of random loot, different (purely cosmetic) character models, and membership to a club that gives you one piece of bonus loot after every battle.

 

 "What’s really interesting though is that when you take a step back, you realize that the developer Blue Manchu have given you three ways to treat the game"

 

You can also choose to buy a starter pack that includes some pizza, a one month membership to the extra loot club, some bonus character models, and 11 “treasure hunts” that get you a fixed piece of high level loot which you can just find as a random drop in other missions.

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The starter pack will basically make you instantly competitive in multiplayer, with only minimal loot grinding in the campaign, but it isn’t necessary. The game also gives you some free pizza anytime one of the paid mechanics is introduced, so you can try them out before you buy in.

What’s really interesting though is that when you take a step back, you realize that the developer Blue Manchu have given you three ways to treat the game, financially speaking. It can be a completely free game, where you have to grind through the (very, very fun and charming) campaign mode to get competitive in multiplayer, a one time $20 purchase that lets you speed through the campaign and have a better chance in multiplayer early on, or a microtransaction-based game where you can pay for some bonus loot, but never enough to really turn the tides unfairly in your favour. Unlike most microtransaction games, paying in isn’t necessary for staying competitive. Even the Card Hunter’s Club, which nets you a piece of bonus loot after every battle, isn’t “pay for the best loot” it’s “pay for some extra loot that has a chance of being great.” Paying in doesn’t let you conquer the game, it just increases your odds, but never too much.

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It’s a delicate balance there, but it’s one that  Blue Manchu is pulling off flawlessly for now. And even if you avoid multiplayer altogether, the totally free single player campaign has 155 battles, more than enough to keep you busy for a while.

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That’s not to say the game is perfect, of course. Since it relies so much on random drops, dice rolls and draws, you can sometimes end up losing battles because you drew a bad hand on your first turn and couldn’t make up the lost momentum. The randomness is part of both the D&D and card game DNA in Card Hunter, but that same randomness is what caused a lot of people to leave tabletop RPGs behind and take up their console cousins. It’s a source of frustration, but there’s no changing it, since it’s so intrinsically tied to the games very concept. The 155 battles are also split across 50 or so missions, making individual battles feel less important than the final battle of the mission they’re in. It’s hard to complain about a totally free game, but I do hope for some paid mission expansions in the future.

But for people who can handle a little randomness, and anyone who has some fond memories of playing D&D in a dimly lit basement, drinking warm soda and eating cold pizza, Card Hunter is something you should be playing right now. Hell, even if that doesn’t describe you, you might as well give it a shot. It’s the best card game I’ve played in years, and the fact that it’s free just means I’m actively looking for ways to give these guys my money.

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Mark of the Ninja Special Edition- What You Are in the Dark

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Mark of the Ninja Special Edition- What You Are in the Dark

It’s interesting how another trip back to a game you love can really change your mind about it. Mark of the Ninja was one of my favourite games of 2012, and, in my opinion, one of the best stealth games ever made. Mark of the Ninja: Sepcial Edition is its $5 expansion DLC, which adds a bonus level set before the events of the game, a new play style, two new weapons, and developer commentary. Going through the game again for the commentary reminded me that its still one of the best designed games ever made, but when it came to the new level, something clicked in my head. The new level that Special Edition offers somehow manages to show off why Mark of the Ninja is so great, and also why it could have so easily sucked.

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The new level stars Dosan, a ninja without the titular mark. For those of you who haven’t played the original game, or forgotten about the lore, the mark is what lets you freeze time to aim your throwing weapons, and use farsight to see through walls in a very clear take on the Arkham game’s detective vision. Dosan, being a technical pacifist, also doesn’t carry a sword, instead having access to an instant non-lethal takedown.

For me, that last one sounded like a breath of fresh air. I love playing through stealth games as non-lethally as possible, slowly and methodically making my way through a level without being seen, and without touching a hair on my enemies’ heads. Unfortunately, that often slows down the game significantly. In games like Metal Gear Solid and Dishonored, this is par for the course, the game is meant to be taken slowly. But Mark of the Ninja is different. It’s fast paced and fluid and slowing down the game to play non-lethally really messes with the flow of the level sometimes. I figured that a non-lethal takedown would bring speed back to my pacifistic play style.

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Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work. Dosan’s inability to slow down time while aiming, an almost essential feature when playing stealthily, essentially means that his throwing items (a dust cloud that confuses enemies briefly for an easy takedown, and poisonous spores that kill anyone who comes in contact with them) are completely out of play when you’re on the move. His takedown also leaves something to be desired, as it instantly knocks out any enemy it hits, unlike regular takedowns, which require a directional input and an extra button press. It’s a small thing, sure, but it’s what made lethal takedowns so visceral and exciting, and also offered the ability to mess up with them, granting you a kill, but creating noise that drew enemies to your location.

Dosan is just as quick on his feet as the ninja of the original, and in fact, the new level almost requires speedy play, with enemies that have short patrol loops and a segment that has your usual methods of sneaking my enemies slowly taken away from you, one by one. That segment is actually when the DLC begins to come into its own, only to fall and frustrate you once again. Each time you activate one of the “traps” in this area, you lose one of your usual hiding spots. In the order of your choosing, you booby trap the scaffoldings and climbing spots, the vents, and the hiding places. Taking these three things out of play, three of your most important stealthy resources, makes for a very interesting level, but also highlights the flaws of Dosan’s play style. With no way to slow things down, directly kill enemies to get rid of their bodies, or hide and plan, an interesting level mechanic turns into an exercise in frustration, reloading from the last checkpoint for the fifth time because you spent one second too long in the vents and got impaled by the spikes that now line it.

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However, the level does come around to a much more satisfying conclusion, one that’s better tailored to Dosan’s strengths. The end of the level tasks you with either knocking out every guard in the area, or terrifying five of them. Of course, without the ability to kill or the game’s terror dart weapon,  Dosan has a hard time of managing to terrify enemies. Also, the area this challenge is given to you in is sprawling, intricately connected, and has dozens of guards with variable patrols. Terrifying one guard in the corner of the map can completely alter how the rest of the guards move around the level. Not to mention the fact that terrorized guards shoot wildly into the air and can hit you, or worse, mess up your plans by hitting other guards.

This challenge, clearly designed around Dosan’s ability to play fast and loose, without too much planning, is one of the most sublime setpieces in the entire game. Dashing and swinging around this massive complex, with an unconscious guard in tow and three at your back creates a sort of tension the game didn’t have until now. Special Edition forces you out in the open and into direct, non-violent confrontation with the guards, in a level perfectly designed around the play style they invented for it. It’s perfect, and almost makes you forget how the rest of the level is sort of lacklustre.

Almost.

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As for the commentary, I was expecting it to be audio-based, like in Portal. I was surprised to find text commentary strewn across the level instead, stopping me every time I wanted to read up on the game. Of course, any look into how Klei made a game I love so much is appreciated, but I have to wonder if audio commentary wouldn’t have broken up the flow of the game as much, especially in a game so focused on fluid play. 

Klei has the chops to make incredibly designed stealth levels. They put out an entire game full of them. It’s slightly off-putting that they didn’t seem to get their game together until the very end of this DLC. It unfortunate too, because they made the rookie mistakes that would have turned Mark of the Ninja into a bad game. Easy takedowns, weird pacing, boring, straight hallways lined with unpredictable traps, all these things and more populate the first three quarters of Dosan’s tale, but brave them all, and you’ll find the crown jewel of Special Edition: proof that Mark of the Ninja can still be a spectacular game when it wants to be.

 

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Mario and Luigi: Dream Team- Put the Kids to Bed

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Mario and Luigi: Dream Team- Put the Kids to Bed

About 20 hours into Mario and Luigi: Dream Team, the game stopped me to teach me how to use a skill I’ve been using since the beginning of the game. Then, it added a minor wrinkle to this ability, and stopped to teach me how to use that. Then, in the next room, it stopped me to talk about it one more time. This was 20 hours in, very close to the end of the game. I almost threw my 3DS across the room when in the very next room, the game stopped to teach me how to use this ability AGAIN.

Mario and Luigi: Dream Team is not a bad game In fact, half of it is an excellent game. The other half of it is one of the most infuriating RPGs I’ve ever had the displeasure of sitting back and reading. Dream Team is not a half bad game; it’s a half good one.

 Even in Luigi's dreams, Mario is the one in charge.

Even in Luigi's dreams, Mario is the one in charge.

Dream Team is the fourth Mario game in the Mario and Luigi series of RPGs, one of two series spun out of Squaresoft’s Super Mario RPG: The Legend of the Seven Stars. The Paper Mario series plays a little more like a Mario game, with a sidescrolling perspective in the overworld, and a very minor use of stats. The Mario and Luigi games are slightly more traditional in their RPG-ness, other than the fact that, like Mario RPG and Paper Mario, the game uses properly timed button presses during attacks to make them stronger. It’s a fantastic marriage of Mario’s action game roots to an RPG battle system, and turns the usual slog through turn-based battles into an exciting game of reading enemy tells, finding the timing to counterattack, and then perfecting the timing on your own attacks.

This part of Dream Team, the combat half of the game, is spectacular. The game is loaded with plenty of interesting, challenging enemy attack patterns to learn, and boss fights start becoming a serious challenge pretty quickly. I found myself dying on bosses multiple times, just because they get so tricky. Fortunately, dying lets you just restart the current battle instead of having to go back to the title screen, which makes the challenge fun rather than brutally frustrating.

 Mario's helmet must me made of steel if it protects him from a dozen Luigis falling on him ever time he jumps.

Mario's helmet must me made of steel if it protects him from a dozen Luigis falling on him ever time he jumps.

The frustrating part of the game is everything else. From the presentation to the dialog to the puzzles to the overworld, nothing else about this game works the way you’d hope it should. While the game has gorgeous spritework (I found myself obsessing over the tiny animation details, like Mario adjusting his cap after landing from a particularly high jump in battle), that level of detail isn’t matched by the music. There’s only one battle theme, one boss theme, and one tune for each area, and you hear them a lot. It gets incredibly grating very quickly.

You can’t turn to the dialog to keep you entertained though, because while the localization staff tried their hardest to pump the exposition-laden script full of jokes, they just couldn’t keep up with amount of chattiness in this game. Characters rarely talk for a long period of time, but they do take a page out of Final Fantasy 13’s book and give you some exposition before making you walk across the room for another five minutes of their lecture on the history of this island you don’t care about.

 Those characters are sprites! Incredibly detailed sprites that look 3D! It's crazy!

Those characters are sprites! Incredibly detailed sprites that look 3D! It's crazy!

I don’t think there’s a single room where the game doesn’t wrest control of the camera away from you to highlight the solution to that room’s puzzle, and then has one of your two Navi-like companions pop out to wonder if what the camera just focused in on is the solution to a puzzle. And then when you solve this puzzle in 30 seconds because the answer was spelled out for you, they will fly out of Mario’s back pocket again to comment on how that WAS the solution and boy they’re sure proud you figured out that brain-buster.

It’s a toothless exercise in going through the motions, exacerbated by the fact that it never just shuts the hell up and lets you enjoy the combat. Other than backtracking, there are no 10 minutes of playtime in this game that go uninterrupted by some NPC who will heavy-handedly reveal the solution to a puzzle, give you some exposition, then maybe manage to crack one cute joke.

 Maybe the constant exposition is why Luigi's able to fall asleep so easily?

Maybe the constant exposition is why Luigi's able to fall asleep so easily?

The localization staff deserves some real recognition for managing to punch up this script as much as they did. They tried to make as many jokes as they possibly could, but the sheer amount of text in this game must have overwhelmed them. It’s a real shame, because the game’s predecessor, 2010’s Bowser’s Inside Story, managed to have a consistently punchy script all the way through. Mario and Luigi only had one tagalong “helper” to chat up tutorials, Bowser rampaged through exposition because he just wanted to break stuff, and the game’s villain, Fawful, spouted incomprehensible gibberish most of the time. It was great.

Boswer’s Inside Story had the same structure as Dream Team too, with half the game taking place in a sidescrolling, platformer-lite world, and the other taking place in a more traditional, top down overworld. In this game however, instead of Mario and Luigi spelunking inside Bowser’s internal organs for the sidescrolling portions, Mario delves into the dreams of his ever-forgotten younger brother. In these dream worlds, Mario fights alone, with Luigi’s many dream selves acting as afterimages that power up his attacks. The battles also let you move up and down or face left and right with the circle pad when dodging certain attacks, which adds an appreciated level of extra depth to the combat.

 Ugh, gross Luigi, use a giant dream tornado tissue.

Ugh, gross Luigi, use a giant dream tornado tissue.

But again, the combat is great. If it weren’t for the fact that playing as Bowser in the previous game was so fun, Dream Team would have the best combat in the series. It’s the constant hand holding and exposition that drives me up a wall. It almost feels like a reaction to last year’s Paper Mario: Sticker Star, which refused to hold your hand so much that it never even hinted at the solutions to the increasingly obtuse puzzles. Sticker Star hated holding your hand; it wanted nothing to do with it. Dream Team loves your hand, and wants to hold it so tight and never let go. It wants to take your hand and lead it to this item box, which it will make you stand under and show you how the A button makes you jump, 25 hours into the game.

I can understand tutorials in games, they aren’t a big deal most of the time. Ten hours into Dream Team, I thought I was finally seeing the end of them. That’s a long time for a game, but the combat was so good that I was willing to accept it. And then they didn’t stop. They never stopped. Ever. Mario and Luigi: Dream Team is a half good game. The combat is the good half, everything else is the bad half. It’s a testament to how great the combat is that I want to recommend the game at all, but unless you’re jonesing for a new Mario and Luigi fix, I don’t know if anyone can make it past the constant hand-holding, exposition and tutorials. If you need to play it though, do yourself a favour and maybe do something else when everyone’s talking, you won’t miss much.

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Shin Megami Tensei IV- Mikado is About to E-X-P-L-O-D-E

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Shin Megami Tensei IV- Mikado is About to E-X-P-L-O-D-E

Between Akira, Godzilla, Neon Genesis Evangelion, and the Shin Megami Tensei games, Tokyo can’t quite seem to catch a break in Japanese media. Like seeing the broken Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes, the ruins of post-apocalypse Tokyo are a symbol that the world can never be the same. It’s also inevitable. If it’s Japanese and the world is being destroyed, Tokyo is going to be destroyed; gruesomely, and often with a strong message about nuclear weapons.

Shin Megami Tensei IV is the fouth (or fifth, depending who you ask) in a series of games that delight in destroying Tokyo, only to rebuild it and destroy it again for the next instalment in the franchise. But this time, the game doesn’t being in Tokyo pre or post-apocalypse. Instead it begins in the pastoral Eastern Kingdom of Mikado, a feudal nation divided into castes that has no ties to Tokyo, Japan, or any nation on earth, really. People speak in a dialect that can only be described as Shakespearean, the knights are called Samurai (pronounced SAW-moo-rai, which only gets more infuriating as the game goes on), and demons spill out of a hole in the ground known as Naraku.

Okay, so maybe there’s a bit of Japan in there.

 Come on, it's not  that   surprising.

Come on, it's not that  surprising.

Your character is made a Samurai at the beginning of the game, and given a gauntlet they can use to negotiate with the demons in Naraku and summon them in battle. It’s almost like Pokémon, except the demons are far more disposable. Once they’ve learned all their skills, the game recommends you fuse two or more together into a stronger demon, which inherits its “parents” attacks. The more varied a demon’s skills, the more useful they are in combat, which focuses around the series trademark Press Turn system.

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Every character in the party is given one turn, hitting an enemy’s elemental weakness or landing a critical hit grants them an extra turn. However, hitting an enemy with an element that they nullify, reflect or drain costs you extra turns. This is true for enemies too, which means having a party with plenty of resistances keeps enemies from overwhelming you with their bonus turns. A new feature added to the system for SMT4 is smirking. When a character gains a bonus turn or nullifies an opponent’s, they have a chance to smirk, which gives them incredible stat boosts, and makes all attacks miss them until they get their next turn. It can totally turn the tide of a battle, but of course, enemies can smirk too, and they never waste it on a useless attack.

In true SMT and Atlus tradition, this makes the game very, very hard. You will be dying a lot. However, unlike most SMT games, you’re given to option to save anywhere, as well as difficulty settings, and the opportunity to pay your way back from death. Whenever you die, you’re sent to Charon, the ferryman of the river Styx, who offers to let you revive for a fee, payable in either Macca, the in-game currency, or Play Coins, the 3DS’s system level pedometer reward.

 Burroughs, the AI that inhabits your demon summong gauntlet, never fails to warn you about upcoming boss fights.

Burroughs, the AI that inhabits your demon summong gauntlet, never fails to warn you about upcoming boss fights.

Unfortunately, this happens EVERY time you die, with no way to opt out, meaning whenever you die, you have to go through a few dialog choices telling Charon you don’t want to pay, then confirm that you don’t want to pay, and then finally you get a game over screen that sends you back to the main menu. The game warns you when a boss is coming; you’re never thrown into the fray without a chance to save. It feels like the game was designed with save points, and then hastily retrofitted to let you save anywhere, without anyone realizing that it made the whole revival system moot and frustrating.

But back to the Tokyo thing. 

 Explore Shibuya in style, a hoodie, toque and backpack make for great defense against demons!

Explore Shibuya in style, a hoodie, toque and backpack make for great defense against demons!

As the game progreses, you eventually find yourself in Tokyo, but only after a few hours of digging deeper and deeper into Naraku. About six hours of the game take place exclusively in the menu-driven Mikado. Dungeons like Naraku and a nearby forest are explored in a third person perspective, much like Shin Megami Tensei 3, or the more popular Persona spin-off games, but in Mikado, getting to those places is as simple as selecting them from a menu. No world map, no exploration, no getting lost.

In Tokyo however, you explore a top down world map with buildings you can enter to explore in third person. The map is massive, complicated, and is sometimes best navigated with an actual map of Tokyo in hand, but it’s also littered with treasures and demons to negotiate onto your side. The stark dichotomy isn’t lost on anyone who’s played an SMT game before, it’s a reference to the game’s other constant, the alignment system.

 Chaos...

Chaos...

In a page torn straight out of a Dungeons and Dragons instruction manual, players in SMT make choices that determine their alignment with either Chaos or Law. Law traditionally represents angels, dogma, peace and the status quo. Chaos is associated with demons, and revolves around individuality, revolution and the tenet that might makes right. The rigid structure of Mikado is law. The player can never get lost and can only be hurt if they put themselves in harm’s way, but can also never explore, never see anything that Mikado doesn’t explicitly want you to see. Tokyo is chaos. The apocalypse has left factions warring for control of the destroyed city, with the weak having no place in the ensuing ruins, but the player is free to go wherever they please, even if it means they’ll get horribly lost.

Some players might find that they enjoy Mikado’s structure and simplicity. Some players might want that status quo to be shaken up and prefer the constant danger of Tokyo to the ignorance of Mikado. But for players who find both to be too extreme, there’s a middle ground to the two alignments, one that often represents the “good” endings of the SMT games; neutral. Neutral is associated with humans, balance, rationality, and the ability to make a change. Of course, there’s no good or evil, but historically speaking, the canon endings of SMT games are usually the neutral ones. SMT4 ingeniously ties the games very structure into this message Extremism on either side isn't right, but both sides have a point, there can be a balance, there should be a balance, and you, the player, should strive to find it.

 and Law

and Law

It’s incredibly clever game design and would make the game absolutely perfect, if not for one minor problem: it leads to a game with two problematic halves making an even more problematic whole. Mikado is too linear, too rigid, but Tokyo is too open, too chaotic. Of course, neither is “bad”, just like the alignments, but neither works if you ignore the other half. And while that dovetails with the game’s message perfectly, it also means you have to warp between Mikado and Tokyo a lot, which is less than ideal. Like the revival system, it feels like an excellent idea that’s just executed incorrectly, if not poorly.

The connections between Mikado and Tokyo run deeper than just gameplay and story integration. There’s a story that underlies the whole thing, but it never overstays its welcome, characters are never terribly chatty, and cutscenes rarely interrupt the flow of battles and exploration. It’s an interesting supernatural/sci-fi mystery that stays intriguing the whole way through. But, there’s no way to skip cutscenes or dialog. You can fast forward through it, which works well enough, but when you’ve died on one boss five times, and you’ve just spent all the extra time either going through Charon’s dialog or just exiting to the home menus and restarting the software, those extra minutes of fast-forwarded dialog really add up. 

In terms of pure gameplay, battles are addictive, and it never stops being fun to suss out enemy weaknesses and exploit them. But Tokyo can occasionally be a pain to explore, and Mikado often feels too boring and pointless. Tying those gameplay elements into the narrative and themes of the game is brilliant and deserves to be commended, I just can’t help but feel it could have been done with some more elegance. 

Shin Megami Tensei IV is, fittingly, a game of dualities. It wants to be hard in an old school way, and forces you to strategize carefully and thoughtfully in battle. But it also wants to be friendly and modern, offering you the ability to save anywhere and revive upon death. It wants to be chaotic and unpredictable, but also wants to get you right to the action when necessary. It wants to be a linear, story-driven game, but it also wants to give you plenty of choices, both in dialog and in gameplay. It wants to be both Chaos and Law at once, and asks you to find your own balance between the two extremes. Unfortunately, sometimes it just can’t find the balance necessary to make itself a flawless game.

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Layton Brothers: Mystery Room - The Other Sons

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Layton Brothers: Mystery Room - The Other Sons

So Professor Layton has a son. Or two.

One of those sons was just given his own game.

That game is Layton Brothers: Mystery Room, the latest instalment in Level-5’s incredibly popular Professor Layton franchise. The game didn’t start out this way, however, and was originally planned as an\ game in Level-5’s series of puzzle games, Atamania. The game was eventually reworked, and given the Layton name, while maintaining its core focus on the investigation of crimes.

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The game follows the adventures of investigators Lucy Baker and Alfendi Layton, son of the great Professor Hershel Layton, though a series of homicide cases at “New Scotland Yard Serious Crime Division Classified Investigation Agency”, which, for obvious reasons, the characters prefer to refer to as the “Mystery Room”. Alfendi was the sole member of the Mystery Room until he was given an assistant, Lucy Baker, a young detective eager to help out. His role as her teacher and mentor leads her to give him the nickname “Prof”, of which he is not a fan, given his fathers reputation. Alfendi is a genius investigator, although somewhat passive and reclusive, who begins every case by predicting the outcome with varying degrees of confidence, usually hovering somewhere above 90%.

Pretty early on Lucy discovers the “Prof” has an alternate personality, a coarse, aggressive version of himself that comes out during moments of stress or extreme emotion. This “Potty-Prof”, as Lucy calls him, seems to have something to do with a mysterious murder case that Alfendi was involved in several years prior. Alfendi’s mysterious alter ego, and the case surrounding it, eventually become the central theme of the game which culminates in the final chapters, in which you are tasked with re-solving the case from Alfendi’s past.

 A crime scene durning investigation

A crime scene durning investigation

The gameplay is fairly straightforward; Alfendi presents a theory, and Lucy is tasked with finding the evidence to support his claims. This is spilt into two sections: investigation and interrogation. During the investigation phase, you investigate a re-creation of the crime scene by clicking on the difference pieces of evidence, all of which are highlighted for you, in order to gain the information necessary for the interrogation. During interrogation, you interview suspects in the crime, getting their version of the events while also taking statements that can later be presented as evidence. Once you have collected enough evidence that Alfendi is 100% confident of the culprit, that person is called in, and formally accused them of the crime. At this point it is simply a matter of presenting evidence to support the proposed chain of events that culminate with the accused committing the murder.

 

 The cases themselves are fairly interesting, and while they are all murders, they all manage to feel very different. The circumstances of the murder, and the locations at which they take place vary quite widely and this, coupled with the large variety of suspects from case to case (maids and waiters, jungle-dwelling natives and even cross-dressing radio show sound men) ensure each case has its own unique feel.

 Statements are given weight by the words in the arrows that impact the opposing character 

Statements are given weight by the words in the arrows that impact the opposing character 

Conversations, and in particular accusations, are given weight by the words that fly across the screen, impacting the characters and breaking down their resolve, symbolized by a shield around their heart. Dialogue can be funny, and, much like in the Phoenix Wright games, most of the characters names are puns (i.e Destiny Knox the actress, or Archie O’Logie, the professor of archaeology), some of which managed to get a chuckle out of me more times than I’m willing to admit.

 

 The game does have its flaws though. First off it’s rather short; I was able to finish all nine cases inside of seven hours and that’s probably bordering on the longer side. It is also fairly easy. There are a few difficult spots, but nothing too challenging, and there is no penalty for getting anything wrong. During the investigations, all the potential evidence is highlighted for you, so it is rather difficult to miss anything important.

 A not unrepresentative sample of the games use of accents 

A not unrepresentative sample of the games use of accents 

Worst of all though is the accents, the horrible, horrible accents. Some of the characters in the game, mostly notably Lucy, have very heavy accents, and since the game isn’t voiced, these are represented in the text. While sometimes the accents come across as a quirky character trait, often it renders sentences almost unreadable. I, as well as many others, initially thought the game was simply full of pervasive grammar errors and poor translation, but as you progress, it becomes obvious that these are intentional. The accents are often jarring, and have the effect of distancing the player from the games characters, which, I assume, is the opposite of the intended effect. They simply serve as an unnecessary complication to otherwise well written dialogue.

 

 Layton Brothers: Mystery Room offers a short, but entertaining ride though a series of unique murder cases. It doesn’t manage to be as gripping as either the Phoenix Wright or Professor Layton games, but proves to be a solid experience in its own right. The game is also accompanied by one of the greatest videogame sound tracks I have ever heard, composed by the legendary Yuzo Koshiro, which in itself would be worth the $5 price of admission. Alfendi has big shoes to fill, and while the Layton association does come across as sort of slapped on for the purposes of brand recognition, the game still provides an entertaining experience and a cast of memorable characters.  

You can pick up Layton Brothers: Mystery Room on any iOS device for $5, however the first two cases are free, so go try it out!

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The Walking Dead: 400 Days - Black Clouds

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The Walking Dead: 400 Days - Black Clouds

A few minutes before I started playing The Walking Dead: 400 Days, a thunderstorm started up. It was the kind of storm that moves slowly, the kind you know is coming for the half an hour or so before it hits, approaching you from the north. You don’t hear the thunder, or the see the lightning, but you see black clouds rolling in, thick shadows that block out the sun, erasing any doubts that this is going to be any other storm. You know, long before it hits, that this storm is going to make headlines. 400 Days is that storm. It’s the culmination of months of waiting, of dozens of awards and accolades, of black clouds rolling in, telling players to anticipate something big from this series.

400 Days is one hell of a storm.

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400 Days is the newest episode of Telltale’s The Walking Dead, and the first episode since November’s season finale. It’s meant to bridge the gap between the award-winning first season, and the yet-to-be-dated second season. The episode focuses on five stories, all of which happen in the first 400 days of the outbreak, and all of which are vaguely connected to a gas station you see in the episode’s opening moments. The stories are never limited by this setting, and could probably be told without that connection, but it serves as a neat anchor for the separate characters, and ties them all together at the end quite nicely.

Each chapter has at least one of the tough choices that tended to cap off every episode of the first season. And while they’re still tough, they’re lacking a bit of their meaning. Choices in the first episode of season one had to have an impact on episode two, simply because we knew that episode two was coming. Season two is almost certainly happening, but without that tangible certainty, it’s hard to really say whether these “meaningful” choices are meaningful or not. Of course, 400 Days is intended as a bridge, and it’s unfair to judge a bridge by where it leads to, so let’s talk about the game itself.

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In gameplay terms, 400 Days feels like a distillation of the entire first season, concentrated on action set pieces juxtaposed with quiet drama scenes. Two episodes featured the series’ signature firefights in a world where finding ammo is always a concern, but guns never need to reload in battle. Another episode was set around a hedge maze chase, where the character had to avoid flashlight beams from hunters trying to catch her. One chapter was all about the rapid problem solving and tough choices that made the first season so exciting at times, and the last chapter I played was a calmer exploration sequence, that was about nothing but the hard choices that made the series so famous.

And Telltale is still just as good at character development as ever. It almost feels like 400 Days was a grand experiment. A test to see if they could do more character development for five characters in 15 minutes each than most games manage to do for one in 10 hours. Of course, there’s a bit of cheating involved, most games don’t force your characters to make dozens of impossible choices in such a short span of time, but the setting makes it work. When every choice could mean life or death, it turns every decision into an important one, and one that tends to show how you really feel about other people.

There are moments of levity, moments of calm, and even a joke or two thrown in for good measure, tools that good writers use to make those serious moments, when you’re forced to choose between killing someone or letting them run back to their friends and come back for revenge, all the more dramatic.

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Telltale really could just have just pumped out more of the same. They could have given us an epilogue to the first season, and fans would have eaten it up. Instead, they tried something new for games, an anthology that, while relying on unreleased content to give it meaning, manages to stand on its own. In fact, choices you make within the episode change the ending in such a way that it needs to impact season two in a meaningful way. The telltale (no pun intended) messages in the corner of the screen telling me which character noted my choices definitely get my hopes up for some real consequences in season two. It also makes me wonder if Telltale will try more of this anthology format. With the promise of consequences and meaningful choices, these anthologies could make a welcome change of pace from the usual endless stress of the series standard episodes.

400 Days is a fast paced, but very brief, ride through some of the best writing in videogames, and is worth your time. It’s hard to truly judge the bonus episode on its own merit, considering it ties itself so closely to season two, but it’s also hard to judge a storm until the day after. For now, I can see black clouds rolling south, away from me, but I’m hearing reports of flooding down there. Only time will tell if Telltale can make lightning strike twice, but if 400 Days is any indication, it’s gonna be one hell of a flood.

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