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Best Underrated $5 or Less Deals from the Steam Summer Sale: 2016 Edition!

Once again, the Steam summer sale is upon us.  One of the big reasons I look forward to the summer sale is that it gives me the opportunity to check out games I’m curious about but not confident in paying full price for.  Over the past few years of this blog, I’ve made a tradition of doing a write-up during each summer sale about ten deals that I think are underrated “steals”.  These are games that are discounted below $5(USD), and are games that I think probably haven’t gotten the attention they deserve.  The past years’ posts can be found at these links:  2014 Edition2015 Edition Part 12015 Edition Part 2

The Summer Sale this year is much different than the years before.  Since the institution of Valve‘s new refund policy, which occurred before the last Winter Sale, the prices on games are constant throughout the length of the sale.  Previously, games would get a base discount for the entire sale period, but certain games would go on even deeper discounts as limited time daily and flash deals.  This created a reason to check back on the store each day to see the new daily deals, but now that’s all gone.

Valve has never explained why these changes to the summer and winter sales have happened, but most believe the culprit to be Steam’s new refund policy.  Since this new policy allows for no-questions-asked refunds within a 2 week period of purchase, those limited time sales would be rendered pointless, since if a game you bought went on a daily deal, you could just refund it and buy it again for the cheaper daily deal price.  Honestly, I feel like the lack of the daily and flash deals has removed a lot of the eventfulness and fun of these big Steam sales.  It was always exciting to check back each day for the new deals.  Now, despite the fact that the sale runs for 12 days, you only really need to visit the store once during the whole sale since nothing changes from day to day.  On the other hand, I find the new refund policy to be an important pro-customer move on Valve’s part, so I’m stuck having to accept that these changes to the summer sale are a necessary sacrifice.

The current Steam Summer Sale started on June 23rd and will run through July 4th.  Now here are the games I recommend this year.  All prices are listed in USD:

Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons – $1.49

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A touching and immersive puzzle adventure game with a rich story to tell.  I played Brothers last summer and wrote a very positive post about it.  Brothers tells the story of two brothers who set out on an epic journey through a fairy tale world to save their dying father.  A controller is basically required for this game, as the player controls both Brother’s simultaneously, one with the left stick and the other with the right stick.  This game is for those who are looking for something with a lot of heart.

The Last Door Season 1 – $1.99

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Another game I’ve wrote about before.  The Last Door is a moody and atmospheric point-and-click adventure game with pixelated graphics and an amazing orchestral score.  Set in the Edwardian-era, fans of Lovecraftian horror should not miss this game.  Puzzles are similar to the point-and-click adventure games of the 90’s with a focus on creative uses of items and inter-character dialogue, but I found the difficulty to be very fair, not too hard but not too easy.  The game has been released in two seasons of five episodes each, and both are on sale for less than $5.

Antichamber – $4.99

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Antichamber is an oddball first person puzzle game with some similarities to Portal.  The story behind the game is intentionally vague, but the players find themselves in a position where they must escape a large facility that is governed by non-Euclidean geometry.  Non-Euclidean geometry is kind of one of those Matrix-style Neo moments of “you have to see it to understand it.”  This game is a great puzzler that is full of mind-bending spectacles.

The Swapper – $2.99

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The Swapper is another puzzle game, but this one is played from a side-scrolling perspective.  The main mechanic is that the player can materialize clones of themself across the environment that move synchronously with each other.  Set aboard a derelict space vessel, the game’s story has a highly philosophical bend to it.  This is a great game for gamers seeking out something a little more cerebral and thought-provoking than the average title.

D4: Dark Dreams Don’t Die – $4.94

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D4 is a modern narrative-focused adventure game, similar in vein to Life is Strange or Telltale’s work.  D4 tells the story of David Young, a former detective of the Boston police who has gained the ability to travel through time to the scene of murders after witnessing the bizarre death of his wife.  From the creator of Deadly Premonition, D4 is heavily inspired by the works of David Lynch and his own iconic brand of weirdness.  This is a great game for those that enjoy bizarre tales of mystery, but I will warn you that the game ends on a cliffhanger, as it was meant to be the first “season” of an ongoing series.  Unfortunately, the director has recently taken a break from game development due to medical issues, and I fear that the story of D4 may never be finished.  Nonetheless, the game is a wild and bizarre ride while it lasts.

 
Organ Trail – $2.99

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A lot of you probably fondly remember Oregon Trail, an old educational game that was widely available in elementary schools all across America in the 90’s.  (I’m not sure how popular it was outside of the US.)  Oregon Trail was about the planning and management of an expedition of American colonial settlers that sought to settle in the Oregon frontier.  Proper decision making with regards to the expedition’s limited resources was key to the survival of the group to the end of their arduous journey.  Fast forward to the modern day and here we have Organ Trail, a mixing of Oregon Trail nostalgia and zombies.  Very similar in design to its inspiration, Organ Trail instead features a group of survivors in a zombie apocalypse setting out across America in search of a safe haven on the west coast.  Yeah, I know it sound a bit contrived, but I thought it was an amusing game for only a few bucks.

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet – $2.99

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Games based off of the “Metroid-vania” structure are getting to be a dime-a-dozen these days, but Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet came out before the craze took over, and I think it was a bit overlooked at its release.  Featuring art similiar in style to the works of Genndy Tartakovsky, ITSP is a dual-stick shooter with a heavy focus on exploring a vast interconnected map, ala Metroid.  Players take on the role of a tiny UFO who must venture inside the titular Shadow Planet to save his homeworld.  A good title for those looking for a light-hearted, visually-striking action adventure game.

VVVVVV – $1.24

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VVVVVV features an aesthetic and design that is reminiscent of old Commodore 64 games.  It’s one of those retro-inspired platformers that is hard as nails.  You guide the captain of a starship that has crash landed in an alternate dimension and must explore a large interconnected map to find his missing crew members.  The game has no jumping, but instead the player hits a button to reverse the flow of gravity from either up to down or down to up.  VVVVVV is not a particularly long game, but I think most players looking for something with a tough but fair challenge will be satisfied with it.  The soundtrack is also an incredible collection of catchy chiptunes and electronic beats.  Veni, vidi, vici.

Nova-111 – $3.74

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Nova-111 is a highly unique and experimental action adventure game that came out late last year.  The game centers around a tiny spaceship exploring alien worlds filled with hostile creatures and dangerous obstacles.  What makes Nova-111 unique is that it has a turn-based and grid-based structure akin to old roguelike RPGs.  That is to say that the ship and enemies move around on a grid, and each time the player moves the ship (which counts as one turn), the enemies take a turn to move.  It’s not really an RPG like the old roguelikes, more of an action adventure game, but I think it blended the elements of these two genres very well.  The game was a great surprise to me earlier this year when I played it on the Vita.

Outland – $0.99

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Outland was a game that recently released on PC, but was released on Xbox Live Arcade ages ago.  It’s a melee-focused sidescrolling action-platforming game that takes place in a beautifully silhouetted world.  The main gimmick behind the action is probably familiar to the Ikaruga fans out there.  Enemies and projectiles are colored either blue or red.  The player has a barrier that can be shifted between blue or red, and the color of the barrier dictates the enemies and projectiles that the player is immune to.  At its core, Outland is just a well-designed action-adventure game that I think fans of these sorts of things will love.  I cannot emphasize enough that at 99 cents, this game is easily the best deal on this list.

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Underrated Gems from the Steam Summer Sale: 2015 Edition! Part 2

This is the second part of my recommendations list of lesser known titles for the 2015 Steam Summer Sale.  You can find the first part and a more complete introduction to the list here.

All games on this list meet the following criteria: 1) They must be under $10 (USD), 2) they must be at least 50% off, and 3) they are lesser known titles (or at least I perceives them as such).  I’ve played through all of these, so they are based on my personal recommendations, and, consequently, they all favor my own idiosyncrasies a little bit.  I’ve tried to keep the prices for the list as low as possible to inspire people to maybe take a chance on games that are out of their comfort zone and try something new.  For the same reason, I’ve tried to keep it to titles that are lesser known, so you won’t see anything like FTL or Rogue Legacy on here.  (Not that those aren’t great games that you should check out if you haven’t already.)  The pricing criteria apply to the games’ regular sale price.  Many of them may go lower during a flash or daily deal.  As always, follow the Steam Sale flow chart to maximize savings.


Gemini Rue

Regular Sale Price: $2.99 (-70%)

Gemini Rue is a noir+cyberpunk indie point-and-click adventure game published by Wadjet Eye, whose prodigious Blackwell Series made last year’s list.  While most modern point-and-click adventure games have started to dispose of the heady puzzles that were the genre’s anathema in the ‘90s, Gemini Rue (as well as most Wadjet Eye) games still features a fair bit of cogitating over the erudite uses of your inventory dispersed within its multi-faceted story.  These puzzles are on the harder side of modern adventure games, I feel, but they’re still not nearly within the realm of perplexity that caused the original wave of adventure games to go extinct.  With enough patience and experimentation, I found myself able to progress without an inordinate amount of frustration.  That said, even if you do find yourself having to run to GameFAQs once in a while, the story that unfolds still makes playing the game worth it.

The story features Azrael Odin (….yes, I know what you’re thinking) an elite, interstellar assassin on a mission to the urban decaying, crime-ridden planet of Barracus searching for his missing brother.  As he navigates the underworld crime rings of Barracus, the story of his brother’s captivity in a mysterious government-controlled research facility plays out.  Beyond that, I don’t want to go into more detail.  Needless to say, I thought this was one of the more interesting story-driven games I’ve played in the last 5 years.  I recommend this to those who might be looking for something more elaborate than the soap opera-style Telltale games that have become fashionable since The Walking Dead arrived.  Not that I don’t like Telltale games, it’s just that sometimes their stories have a very “made for TV” quality to them (I wonder why?) that I think sometimes stunts what they’re capable of achieving.


Half-Life

Regular Sale Price: $2.49 (-75%)

Half-Life is a mostly forgotten FPS from the late ‘90s that was unfortunately overshadowed by contemporary releases like Unreal 1 and Sin.  It had one sequel which was accompanied by two downloadable “episodes,” but apparently the series didn’t sell all that well because there was never a Half-Life 3, and the story remains unfinished.  You may be surprised to find out that the developer behind Half-Life is none other than Valve, the proprietors of Steam.  That’s right, this was the first game developed by the company that made Dota 2!

The story features Gordon Freeman, a scientist who becomes involved in a teleportation experiment that goes awry and cracks open the barriers between dimensions.  Aliens start invading his super secret lab, and I know what you’re thinking, the story is a total ripoff of Doom!  And you’re right.  But it’s still a good game.  Also, the Opposing Force expansion pack is pretty good too (or at least I thought so 15 years ago).  Blue Shift, on the other hand, is not so good.  I wouldn’t waste my time with that one.  Anyway, if you’re looking to take a break from something like Counter-Strike: GO, then Half-Life is definitely a good palette cleanser until you’re ready to get back into online socially-connected multiplayer games.


Full Bore

Regular Sale Price: $5.09 (-66%)

Full Bore

Oh look, an indie puzzle platformer with big pixel graphics.  You don’t see many of those!  I’m being sarcastic, but I actually do really like this game.  You play a boar (as in the wild pig) who lives in a world of sentient boars and a few other animals.  One day while frollicking through the forest, the ground falls out from underneath our protagonist and he finds himself trapped inside a large, empty vault.  When he emerge, he’s accused of being the one who emptied the vault and is sentenced to hard labor, digging in the mines to pay back what has been stolen.  As you can probably begin to tell, the story here is very off-beat, but in a sincere way, not in a cloying “look, how crazy we can be!” kind of way.  And while it seems very simple at the onset, the events that begin to transpire afterwards are actually really quite amazing.  Honestly, I really didn’t expect the story to take off like it did.

Proving that indie developers can (and will) take any popular concept and mesh it into any imaginable genre (see roguelikes), Full Bore is actually what might be best described as Metroidvania block pushing puzzle game.  You travel across this open 2D world in a fairly non-linear fashion and must basically figure out ways to reach treasures within the mines that are not easily accessible.  The environments are composed of big pixel art with a ton of creativity and detail put into them.  There’s a wonderful amount of variety here.  And the music is also quite good as well.

The indie puzzle platformer genre is incredibly saturated, no doubt.  But I think Full Bore actually does stand out amongst the crowd.  And aside from the well-designed block puzzles, the bizarrely unexpected story, the splendorous images and music, there’s actually a whole lot of content in the game.  I don’t think you’ll be left wanting more, and I mean that in a good way.


The Longest Journey

Regular Sale Price: $4.99 (-50%)

This is an oldie, but a goodie.  The Longest Journey is a point-and-click adventure game that arrived well after the first wave of the point-and-click adventure genre had come and gone.  This game was the first game that I ever saw that had a 1 GB install (and to my knowledge it was the first game to actually have one).  That was a big deal in the year 2000.  When you combine that fact with a title like The Longest Journey, I was expecting this game to be huge.

…It is a reasonable length.  I mean, it’s not a short game.  Howlongtobeat.com says it averages between 17-20 hours in length.  But that also means it’s quite a bit shorter than some of the RPGs that were coming out around that time which could often require >50 hours to beat.  Back in the day, on completion, I remember being a tad bit disappointed by the game’s “brevity.”

But really there’s nothing to be disappointed about here.  It tells an amazing story that manages to successfully combine both elements of scifi and fantasy.  April Ryan is a young artist living in a technologically-advanced world that is culturally not too different from our own, known as Stark.  Events lead her to discover that she is a rare being that is capable of travelling to the fantastical realm of Arcadia, a parallel world that is governed by magic rather than technology.  These two universes exist in a delicate balance and once formed a single plane of existence.  But after arriving in Arcadia, April and those around her soon come to believe that she is destined to play a pivotal role in protecting the fate and stability of the two diametrically-opposed dimensions.

The story here gets huge props.  April is one of those characters that just doesn’t conform to the standard lone warrior trope that overshadows vast portions of gaming.  And instead of violence, she’s forced to use her wits, determination, and luck to advance toward her goals.  I always liked her for being such a relatably human character.  And the characters around her, whether human or fantastical, come together in a way that compliments the heartfelt story in a very naturally.

As for the gameplay, it’s standard point-and-click fair.  You have to find the right combination of items or figure out the right thing to say to the right NPC to progress.  I think most people have a long lingering fear of the genre’s potential for impenetrability, but really for these types of games, I’ve resigned myself that if I have to go to GameFAQs, I will.  The story is really the main draw here.  And like Gemini Rue, while the puzzles in this game can get hard in the context of modern adventure games, neither are really as baffling as what the genre offered in its darkest days.


Pid

Regular Sale Price: $4.99 (-50%)

Indie platformers by and large tend to be puzzle-focused, but there are a few that are more technique-based challenges like Super Meat Boy and BattleBlock Theater.  Pid falls into the latter category, although at first you might think it falls into the former.  The game follows Kurt, a school-aged youngster who falls asleep while taking the space bus home from school.  Waking up at the last stop, he then finds himself trapped on a planet caught in a bizarre centuries-long holding pattern where the residents go about their tasks as if they have no end.  This includes waiting for the bus off the planet, which means Kurt is effectively trapped.  While exploring for an escape, he stumbles upon a treasure which gives him the power to create repulsor beams on the ground that allows him to cross difficult to traverse areas, and he sets off to find a solution to the world-engulfing malaise that bars him from going home.

What precipitates is a charmingly off-beat story where the oblivious Kurt seeks escape but is actually threatening the shadowy power that has inflicted the purgatory on the planet.  As I mentioned, it’s a technique-driven platformer, where progression is more based on how skillfully you can maneuver with the repulsor beams rather than trying to test out your spatial reasoning skills.  I think the game was received poorly on it’s XBLA launch, mostly for what was considered it’s exceptionally high difficulty.  While I think this game can be challenging, I don’t think it’s unreasonably difficult like some claim.  It’s not in the same league as something like Volgarr the Viking or 1001 Spikes.  I think the problem most reviewers had lied with the 360 controller not being appropriate for it.  Analog sticks are simply too sluggish for the quick reflexes required by this game, and the 360 d-pad is just too poor  to be an option.  I hated playing this game with the 360 pad, but found it to be a lot of fun when using the keyboard or a dual shock controller.  I recommend those as the way to go for this game.

Underrated Gems from the Steam Summer Sale: 2015 Edition! Part 1

The Steam Summer Sale is here at last!  This time it appears to be running until the 1:00 EST on the 22nd.  (That will be when all the deals will be taken down.)  I always find this a great time to take advantage of the low prices to try games that I might not usually be inclined toward.  It’s a great way to expand and develop your tastes!  Last year, I wrote up 10 games that I thought were underappreciated gems and were also steals during the sale, and here I am again with another list of recommendations.  Of course, the 2014 list is still just as valid during this year’s sale.  This is going to be a long post, so I’m splitting it in half.  The second half will be available very soon.

All games on this list meet the following criteria: 1) They must be under $10 (USD), 2) they must be at least 50% off, and 3) they are lesser known titles (or at least I perceives them as such).  I’ve played through all of these, so they are based on my personal recommendations, and, consequently, they all favor my own idiosyncrasies a little bit.  I’ve tried to keep the prices for the list as low as possible to inspire people to maybe take a chance on games that are out of their comfort zone and try something new.  For the same reason, I’ve tried to keep it to titles that are lesser known, so you won’t see anything like FTL or Rogue Legacy on here.  (Not that those aren’t great games that you should check out if you haven’t already.)  The pricing criteria apply to the games’ regular sale price.  Many of them may go lower during a flash or daily deal.  As always, follow the Steam Sale flow chart to maximize savings.


Rise of the Triad (2013 Reboot)

Regular Sale Price: $3.74 (-75%)

Rise of the Triad is a rebooting of Rise of the Triad: Dark War which was a somewhat forgotten FPS in the era immediately post-Doom.  You really don’t need to have played that game to enjoy this one, but you do need to have an appreciation of the early styling of PC FPS.  The story is that you are an agent of HUNT, an elite, multinational anti-terrorist organization that is launching an assault against the fortified hidden headquarters of a Nazi secret society.  And that’s basically all there is to that.  It is a game that is intensely action-driven.  And this game is fast.  Like really fast.  While the game has controller support, I think most prefer the precision of KB+M for a game this quick-natured.  I almost always play action games with a controller nowadays, but KB+M just felt way more natural for this game.

There are a lot of games that claim to capture the feel of old-school FPS, but this is probably the one that actually lives up to that ideal the most.  I think anyone who might have fond memories of adrenaline-charged, run-and-gun action games should not pass this one up.


Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed

Regular Sale Price: $9.99 (-50%) (will go lower on daily or flash)

I’ll say this upfront, I’m pretty sure this game will go down to $5 during a flash or daily deal at some point.  It’s been that low before, so I would wait for that price.  This is actually the second Sega-themed racer put out by Sumo Digital.  The first game, Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing was actually a fairly decent kart racer, but Racing Transformed really just completely stomps all over it in quality, design, content, and ambition.  While its predecessor was a kart racer, Racing Transformed is really more an arcade racer with a fantastical and whimsical bent.  The track are far more creative and grandiose than what had been seen in the first game.  Racing Transformed borrows the Mario Kart 7 idea of having transforming vehicles (as the name implies), so you’ll be racing on wheels, water, and through the air.  In addition, it’s not just the vehicles that transform, but most of the tracks will transform in some way between laps.

Really this game leans heavily on Sega nostalgia with characters and tracks built around themes from not just popular Sega series like Sonic and Jet Set Radio, but also deep cuts like Skies of Arcadia, Golden Axe, and Space Channel 5.  I think one of the strengths of the sequel is that it avoids relying so heavily on Sonic themes and more evenly uses Sega’s massive catalog of brands and characters.

I think any Sega fan will probably get a kick out of it for just for how well it makes use of the many Sega worlds it dives into.  And even if you’re not a long time Sega-fan, it’s still a fundamentally good racer that focuses more on “arcadey-ness,” which makes it pretty unique considering how serious racers have become over recent years.


Ys: The Oath in Felghana

Regular Sale Price: $7.49 (-50%) (will probably go lower on daily or flash*)

Do you like to hack?  Do you like to slash (preferably while hacking)?  If either of these things sound appealing to you, then Ys: The Oath in Felghana might be up your alley.  For those who don’t know, Ys is a long running action RPG series from Japanese developer Nihon Falcom, and Oath in Felghana is widely regarded as one of the series’ finest chapters.  Ys follows the travels of Adol Christin and his bro Dogi as they perpetually stumble into conflict with long-dormant ancient evil entities  It’s not so much an action RPG in the vein of Diablo, which focuses on loot, grinding levels, and randomized dungeons, rather its more like if Zelda became entirely combat-focused and got rid of all its puzzles to have something that’s focused just on tearing through hordes of enemies.  Like I said, it’s for those seeking a fast-paced, hack+slash experience.

I will admit that I haven’t played through the Steam version, but I’ve beaten the game on PSP, and the Steam user reviews are “Overwhelmingly Positive,” so I’m confident it’s a good PC port.  I will say, though, that if you’re looking for a  traditional JRPG, Ys might not be it (which might be a relief to many of you).  It’s not a very story heavy game, but concision works to its advantage.  Falcom works with an anime artstyle, but it’s a rather tame anime artstyle that avoids becoming the over-embellished mess that most anime artists lose control to.  In addition, the story and characters are rather heartfelt and mature.  The writers of the game expertly avoided the anime tropes that most people find obnoxious.  But then again, there story is not really all that elaborate.

*Often Ys has a series sales as part of a daily/flash deal, so I would keep a look out for that.


Gateways

Regular Sale Price: $1.49 (-70%)

Gateways is a small, but fun little 2D puzzle platformer that I think went entirely unnoticed when it was released.  It’s basically Portal in 2D.  Here, you play as a mad scientist who has lost control of his lab and must use his inventions to regain power.  That’s really all there is to it.  Your primary ability to tackle the obstacles you face is your portal gun, but it goes a step beyond what Portal does with its mechanic and allows the portal gun to be upgraded with a number of offbeat functionalities that cause the puzzles to reach far more mind-bending states than what you see in Valve’s series.  In addition to just point to point teleportation, there are portals that shrink or gigantify the protagonist, portals that shift gravity, and, by far the most impressive, portals that allow for time travel.

The time travel in this game is by far its most mind-blowing aspect.  Many video games, like P.B. Winterbottom, make use of “time travel” by allowing you to “record” a time clone of yourself that will repeat your actions, but Gateways actually has portals that connect two points in recorded time.  That is, the portals connect both a recorded “past” and the (constantly moving forward) “present” state.  I have a hard time fully articulating how it works in words, but it is a mechanic that is utterly unique in a world of puzzle platformers who often derive their mechanics from a handful of commonly recurring archetypes.


Binary Domain

Regular Sale Price: $7.49 (-50%) (will probably go lower on daily or flash*)

Binary Domain is a bit of a peculiar title from the 360 generation.  From an era during which action shooter games pave-rolled over the Japanese domination over consoles, Binary Domain is a fairly earnest attempt by Sega’s Yakuza team to not only try to crack into the genre but also inject some new ideas into the saturated field.  I think it’s a fairly good action game.  It doesn’t reach the same peak as Vanquish, but it doesn’t fall into an abyss like other Japanese shooters of the time like Quantum Theory and MindJack.

The game features an international team of peacekeepers who have been sent into Japan to arrest the leader of the Amada Corporation who has been creating illegal human-like robots.  Of course, the mission doesn’t go that easy, and you end up fighting his vast army of robots through the streets of cyberpunk Japan.  The game’s main gimmick beyond the gunplay is that the team members have a dynamic interaction system, and you can respond in various ways to their conversations using the d-pad (I strongly recommend a controller for this game).  Depending on your responses, each team member will either grow to like or hate you, which will influence their actions in the heat of battle.

The story gets a bit…ummm… anime weird, for lack of a better word.  It’s an okay story I think, but I have a hard time following the characters’ motivations sometimes.  When the villain finally revealed his ultimate evil plan to the protagonist, I really didn’t understand why it was such a bad thing.  It seemed really innocuous, maybe actually good for the world.  Still, I enjoyed my time with the game.  The gunplay is merely competent, but still fun.  And even though the story turns into a poor imitation of a Philip K. Dick novel, I really enjoyed fighting alongside the cool characters that made up my team.  After all, one of your partners is a  French karate robot who might as well be voiced by Lumiere from Beauty and the Beast.

*Since this game comes from a major publisher, I fully expect it to go lower on a featured deal at some point.


Well that’s all for Part 1, make sure to keep an eye out for Part 2 coming soon!

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