USB-C docks are fairly common and can be used with the Deck. However, the unique handheld console form factor of the Deck makes it awkward to prop it up on something. If you use an external monitor this isn’t a problem, but I want to tinker around in desktop mode on the Deck’s screen itself which is just fine. The dock also keeps the Deck up off the table and just makes it look nicer in your setup.
The dock itself is built with high-quality aluminum. It’s solid and has a bit of weight. My biggest fear was the cable that goes into the Deck itself. Thankfully is fairly thick and the point where it goes into the dock itself feels solid. It would take a massive tug to pull it out. I would have preferred a braided cable here. The end that goes into the Deck is bent at a 90-degree angle and is very solid and won’t go anywhere.
The ports themselves are tight as well and not loose. The three USB-A 3.0 ports are a nice touch. You can have a keyboard, mouse, and external drive. Any combo of USB accessories will not be limited with this dock. The HDMI port is a nice touch since it’s full size. I also like the addition of an ethernet port. It works well and has access and status lights. I would have preferred the ethernet port on the rear as well, but you can only fit so much back there. I also would have liked an additional USB-C port that may be on the opposite side of the ethernet port. Missed opportunities, but what’s here is fine.
The docking part itself has rubber pads to keep the Deck from moving around and is molded perfectly the to bottom. The actual dock itself has rubber pads on the bottom so a simple bump or shake won’t knock your Deck over. I was even able to hold the Deck while it was docked to use the controls for testing things and it wasn’t an issue. The dock is also light enough and small enough to fit into a bag. It’s a high-quality product and I also didn’t have issues displaying 60hz at 4K, but why you would want to do this with the Deck is beyond me. It can’t game in 4K. Maybe in desktop mode with YouTube videos? The option is there at least.
I haven’t been this excited about a handheld console since the Sony PSP, nor have I been as impressed. There have been many excellent handhelds by Nintendo and various Chinese third-party manufacturers, but nothing quite like the Steam Deck. If you have been living under a rock for the last year the Deck is the most powerful handheld ever made to date. Sporting custom AMD APU hardware and many fantastic and exciting features that make the Deck the next handheld that makes gamers envious.
The Deck was announced at a bad time. With the global COVID-19 pandemic driving sales of popular consumer electronics sky-high thanks to chip shortages and shipment delays, the Deck was a hot-ticket item for scalpers and general gamers alike. I set my alarm and smashed the refresh button on Steam when the pre-order went live. The server crashed and was down for 2 hours after this and I thought all hope was lost. I finally got through and placed my $5 deposit only to realize it was going to be a year or more before I got my unit. When the Deck finally started shipping in late February everyone started pre-ordering more and gamers got greener.
If you want you can check to see when your pre-order will ship thanks to a bunch of community members’ calculator. It’s not 100% accurate but gets more accurate as people input when their Deck shipped. Mine originally said the end of July, but it shipped at the beginning. Check it out here.
I got my pre-order purchase email on July 4th. Right as I hit the bed to go to sleep the email arrived. It took about 9 days to arrive after the purchase. As of my purchase, there are less than 100,000 Steam Decks in the wild (probably not including review units) and I feel incredibly privileged to get my unit so early. I feel the 4.5-month waiting period allowed the Deck to receive a lot of updates and improve some over time.
There are 3,000 “verified” games as of this review with a third of my library being verified. Being Deck verified means the game boots up and launches without any tinkering and has readable text, supports the Deck’s resolution, and can run at default graphics settings. Similar to how you would experience a game on a console. There is a “playable” flag that means it runs fine, but there’s some weirdness like default controls don’t work or the text is hard to read. Another third of my library is playable. The third flag is “unsupported” which means Valve tested the game and the developer needs to work on it more. Anti-cheat systems usually prevent launching or some sort of weird third-party stuff. Or the game doesn’t work with the current Media Runtime files (Valve’s end) or the latest versions of Proton or Glorious Eggroll Proton…yeah, more on that stuff later.
The unboxing experience was odd with the Deck. It almost feels cheap. There isn’t any type of fancy retail box. The Deck comes packed inside a blank shipping box with a paper insert instructing you to plug the Deck in and turn it on in multiple languages. The charger is in a separate box next to the Deck and the Deck itself is just wrapped up in plastic with a cardboard sleeve and inside its case. Yes, every Deck comes with a carrying case which is freaking revolutionary. This needs to be a standard. I’m assuming there will be final retail packaging once these things can be shipped and stay on store shelves after pre-orders are fulfilled.
The upgraded case is well worth it compared to the other two models. The interior cloth is more premium feeling and doesn’t attract as much dust. The strap inside is also black with higher quality material. The outside has a colored Deck logo and white zipper pulls. What really got me jazzed was the underside has a scoop punched into it with an elastic strap over it. This is for the charger! It’s freaking incredible and this should be a new standard for cases. The 512GB model comes with a sinch pouch for it with a Deck tag logo. I actually love this as it’s extra protection to keep the charger from falling out. You also get a cleaning microfiber cloth that says Steam Deck. It’s pretty cheap and you can get better cloths that will fit in the case, but it’s great for starters.
The other hardware bit that the other two models don’t get is the anti-glare etched glass. This has benefits and caveats such as slightly softer edges on everything and text being slightly soft. However, the colors are more saturated and look more vibrant while the screen itself isn’t quite as bright, but it does get darker at the lowest levels. There’s an excellent comparison video here. It’s not a deal breaker for the price difference, but it’s nice to have that premium option. The main difference is the internal storage space which is a continuing problem with consumer electronics and has been for the last 20 years.
Holding the Deck itself feels solid and of the quality, you would expect from Sony or Nintendo. It sounds silly, but it feels like a “real” handheld. While the Chinese ones have gotten better over the years in terms of higher quality plastics and tighter molds, the Deck is leagues above any of them. There’s no creaking, no sharp edges, no corners cut here. However, it’s insanely massive especially compared to the Nintendo Switch Lite. The upside is that the system is well balanced in the hand. It feels super solid and you can get a nice firm grip on it and it won’t cramp your hands. The layout of the buttons is similar to the Wii U gamepad, but with better ergonimics (the gamepad was dog crap let’s just all admit it). Everything is up top and at the far edges for minimum reach even on tiny hands. My 6-year-old was able to play this thing with no issues.
There are four rear buttons that sit right where your fingers wrap around the back but are tight enough buttons to not cause actuation by just holding the thing. You can easily squeeze your fingers to press these buttons and it freaking works. It doesn’t feel awkward or hard. I actually wanted to use these buttons in shooters because most of the weight of the console is already on those fingers. A firm, but not hard squeeze, will let you easily manipulate these buttons. A lot of R&D had to have gone into just this one feature.
There are also two trackpads below the analog sticks that also aren’t hard to reach. They are just large enough to move your thumb around on without struggling with the weight of the Deck. That’s the beauty of the ergonomic engineering that went into this thing. You can’t appreciate just photos alone. Holding this thing is a miracle and sets new standards for how larger handhelds should be made. These trackpads also have haptic feedback in them that can be adjusted in the settings. They also click which is great for using in desktop mode (more on that later) or games that need mouse control. The bumpers and triggers feel great and natural with the triggers having a good height to them similar to an Xbox controller and less like a PlayStation controller. The D-Pad needs credit as it’s great for fighters and allows rolling similar to the Xbox controller as well. The controls on this thing are absolutely perfect and I have zero complaints about them.
When it comes to I/O and various holes in the Deck it won’t let you down there. Similar to the Switch there’s a large vent up top but also one in the back with the speakers located at the bottom front below the Steam and Quick Access buttons. There’s an open SD card slot at the bottom right and the fact that it doesn’t have a door means fewer parts to break. It’s recessed just right and won’t get the way at all. Valve needs a lot of credit for putting the USB-C charging port at the top of the unit. While this means it’s not super easy to dock it means no cable is in the way when you play which I can’t stand about handhelds. The PSP had the port right where you hold it, and only the DS had the port in the rear. Sony never caught onto this. The charger port is also slightly loose by design to give it some play so it doesn’t short out and start breaking. Good on Valve for also thinking about this ahead of time. If you notice your port is loose, this is normal.
The volume buttons have a nice click to them and the power button has a white LED next to it when it’s charging. It turns off when it’s done. There is also a 3.5mm headphone jack located up top as well which makes sense. It’s already pretty thick and excluding this would be a pretty bad move. The screen itself looks fantastic thanks to the higher than usual resolution for a handheld. However, the aspect ratio being 16:10 poses issues for a lot of games as most don’t support that resolution so you get black bars on the top and bottom. While the Switch OLED has the best handheld screen ever made, the Deck is probably a good second. It’s crisp, vibrant, and has great contrast as it’s the first major handheld with an IPS display that’s normally used in gaming monitors.
It’s no secret that Valve’s SteamOS home consoles were a flop a decade ago. SteamOS was mostly used for Linux players who were a small percent of Steam users. Thanks to the Deck and its popularity not only will Linux gaming boom, but SteamOS is seeing major improvements now and has finally found a home. Steam on the Deck is a tailored handheld experience. There is a special storefront for Deck verified games only, but you can also browse the rest of the store, access your profile, friends, inventory, and everything else you could do on Steam on desktops.
There are some issues with it. There’s a persistence bug that constantly reminds you to claim your Steam Deck awards even though I already did. You can’t remove notifications or clear them without clicking on every single one. Certain Steam pages require you to use the touch screen and scrolling through the long pages on games is a bit cluttered. It all works fine, but I hope there are many improvements made to make Steam more tailored for Deck in the future.
The settings are fairly typical for both a handheld and Steam itself. Most of your settings on Desktop are here such as family sharing, download speeds, uploading screenshots, cloud saving, and various adjustments to calibrate the thumbsticks and trackpads as well as adjusting haptic feedback. The Quick Access menu is where this makes it a portable PC. You have access to performance overlays, underclocking and under volting the GPU and AMD FSR 2.0 is available at the hardware level for every game. All you have to do is lower the game’s resolution and turn FSR on to increase your frames in power-hungry titles like Elden Ring and God of War. You can turn V-Sync on at the hardware level and turn it off and set the FPS level you desire. There’s a new 40FPS mode that helps games find a sweet spot without pushing the Deck to get higher frames to save battery life. You can also turn on VRS for pixelated games to reduce battery life. There’s a lot of tinkering involved with the Deck which we will get into more and this can both be fun for an enthusiast like myself or a nightmare for a casual gamer.
In the end, we all want to game on this thing. I will get to emulation later as that seems to be one of the main reasons that are making the Deck so popular. As for “verified” Deck games they work just fine. These are games that launch with no issues, the default control scheme works, and it can hit 30-40FPS at default settings at the minimum. You can tinker to eke out every frame by looking up guides and changing settings around paired with FSR. High-end games like Days Gone needed this. FSR is probably a boon for the Deck as it needs it. Yes, the fact that you can run these next-generation/current generation games on a handheld is a miracle itself. Even at 30FPS. A lot of gamers, however, are going to get into this expecting max settings for every game and get upset or disappointed. While my 3080ti rig can run everything at 2K with ray-tracing enabled and hit 60+FPS in every single game, that’s not the case here. This is a handheld that lets you pick up where you left off on the go. Sony tried doing this with their handhelds and it failed as it relied on the developers to implement this type of feature and release their game on both platforms. The Deck takes them out of the equation.
The caveat here is that this is Linux gaming. It’s not perfect and requires a wrapper for Windows-based games developed by Valve. Proton is needed to run every single game, but it’s still not perfect. While Valve’s current stable version works for most games some require Glorious Eggroll, or GE Proton, which is acquired through the Discover store. This is a faster-developed version of Valve’s main branch. It includes patches, fixes, and features that aren’t available yet. It’s as simple as going into the game’s properties in Steam and enabling GE Proton once it’s been downloaded and installed from the Discover store. It’s still not always that simple.
Some rare occasions need an older version, and some need Media Runtime files that are considered advanced Linux user stuff. I spent dozens of hours already tinkering and trying to get certain games to work and I can report that so far only one hasn’t worked for me. There is also a way to add other launchers such as Ubisoft Connect, EA Origin, Battle.net, and Epic Games Launcher, but it’s a bit complicated and those games aren’t always compatible with Steam Deck at all. For example, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 will not work on Steam Deck no matter what version of Proton you use. Maybe when and if it comes to Steam this can change, but then there’s the issue with older games. GOG Galaxy is available through the Hero Game Launcher and most of these games can work just fine. You can even install mods like on PC, but the paths and structure of Linux are so much different than Windows. Everything is buried under tons of folders and it can be confusing and quite daunting. Even Windows’ file structure is emulated in each and every game install. I was even able to get pirated games to work through Bottles in the Discover store to allow regular game installs to run. I will cover how to do all of this in another post as most Steam Deck deep-dive stuff is pretty fragmented right now.
Most of the time even untested or unsupported games worked out of the box in my own experience. Fallout76 is technically unsupported but works fine and runs surprisingly well on the deck gettings 30-45FPS with the graphics settings at medium-high. Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Ultimate Edition is another unsupported game but works great with no tinkering needed. However, a game like Bulletstorm: Full Clip Edition needed an older version of Proton and specific Media Runtime files installed through the terminal to work right. Grim Dawn had save issues where I had to copy the save manually from my other PC, create a character with the same name, and then overwrite the save files for it to recognize them. On top of that Grim Dawn didn’t recognize the standard controller layout or community profiles. I had to use a specific template and painstakingly remap the controller buttons correctly. This type of tinkering may keep a lot of gamers away especially if they just focus on the negative things like this.
When it comes to battery life it wildly varies. Desktop surfing can last 6 hours while a high-end game may drain it in 2. The battery life is comparable to the Switch. When it comes to things like heat and fan noise my unit is fairly quiet even when the fan is going full bore. The air coming out is incredibly hot but surprisingly doesn’t heat the Deck up like a phone would. The Deck has a fairly accurate battery counter based on your current usage including charge time. A full charge takes around 2 hours similar to the Switch.
The Steam Deck also breaks new ground by making this a handheld portable desktop. With the official dock coming soon and unofficial ones already available you can plug a keyboard, mouse, and USB-C monitor in this thing or any other type of output that your dock supports. You can simply long press the power button and go straight into desktop mode. This brings up a Windows-like UI with a desktop, start menu, and various customizable settings like the splash screen, wallpaper, font, theme, cursor, and various other things. It’s a full desktop experience that also allows you to use a web browser like Chrome or Firefox and watch YouTube videos or type documents. This is unprecedented as even the Switch doesn’t allow this with its anti-consumer locked down system. With Valve doing this it might pressure the other parties to participate in open-source fully open firmware and UIs. This is good for the consumer.
The desktop mode is smooth and works great. You can easily switch back to Game Mode, which has another little issue. Games don’t run as well in desktop mode as the APU is underclocked here. The Deck is meant to fully run and be optimized in Game Mode only. You can’t access the Quick Menu settings for GPU control or FSR which is fine. When docked the Deck now lets you override the resolution to match your display. If you want to game with an external monitor this is when FSR will really come in handy, but I don’t see the appeal of this outside of lower-end less graphically demanding games. I use my dock for tinkering in Linux to add custom images to my Steam games, mod games, etc. I don’t think I’d game much on an external display. That’s what a desktop PC or laptop is for. For emulation, this might come in handy.
Another huge plus for the Steam Deck is that the open software means no waiting for firmware hacks or downgrades. You can just install emulators and go. There’s already a whole suite available called EmuDeck that installs the emulators of your choice and you just need to provide BIOS and ROMs. Many emulators are already configured for the Deck control and graphics wise. There’s even a specific Dolphin branch just for Metroid Prime Trilogy that allows for dual-analog control called Prime Hack. This is a whole new rabbit hole that I think more gamers will be willing to invest in over getting Steam games to work right. EmulationStation works great and so does Retroarch.
I have put hundreds of games on my SD card and thanks to EmuDeck everything mostly works out of the box including systems that couldn’t be emulated in handheld fashion before like the GameCube, Dreamcast, and PS2. The Deck is also capable of emulating PS3, Xbox 360, Wii U, and Switch games, but don’t get your hopes up. Even on PC the emulators are still maturing and don’t run well. Don’t expect the Deck to replace your Switch just yet. It can’t even run Breath of the Wild at a decent framerate, but the Yuzu emulator is still in its infancy. Same with RPCS3. These are also not as simple as dragging and dropping an ISO file into a folder. There are keys, encryption, emulated installation, patching, and a lot of work to get these newest systems up and running. For now, just enjoy the Wii and back.
The Steam Deck is a revolutionary device in more than just its graphical power. The openness of its software is what we need to break the shackles of locked-out proprietary video game console OS. Without needing to wait years for a hacked firmware, the Deck is ready to tinker with right out of the box. While emulators will never be officially supported, we can make anything run on here. It’s essentially a Linux or Windows computer. Yeah, I didn’t mention that yet. You can have a micro SD of Windows 11 on here to play Xbox Game Pass games or others that won’t run well on Linux. While this isn’t officially supported, Valve does provide drivers. This is crazy to think about in the current ecosystem of locked-out consoles.
This is a great system if you just want to play Steam games or just do emulation. Out of the box, the verified games work great and with 3,000 titles available already that’s usually more than a console’s entire life cycle. The Steam deck really teeters on the edge of a great casual gamer’s first PC and the more hardcore hacking/downgrading/emulation market. It serves both well, but each side needs to be patient and wait for better compatibility on the software side of everything from emulators to SteamOS. For such a vast and all-encompassing system that can do so much, it does it so well and so early on in its life. This could easily have been a huge disaster with constant crashes, overheating and melting units, and other issues, but clearly, Valve tested this thing like crazy.
My biggest complaint is the internal storage and that’s Valve’s fault. I mentioned at the beginning we have had 20 years of awful internal storage options from the iPod to the PS5. The base model at 64GB is unacceptable today. You can’t even fit a full install of most higher-end games like Call of Duty or Red Dead Redemption. Even the 256GB isn’t acceptable. The base model should have been 512GB with 1TB and 2TB options. $250 extra dollars for a 512GB NVMe SSD is crazy. This isn’t like the PS5 with brand new SSD tech. This is PC hardware that we can buy and install ourselves.
Thankfully you can and that’s another revolutionary thing Valve is doing which is the right to repair. iFixIt has all of the Steam Deck parts available for purchase to repair the system yourself. This includes being able to upgrade the SSD if needed, however, game load times are fine off of the SD card. I recommend a 1TB card or at least a 512GB to start. You can also use external drives, but then you’re tethered to another device. At least there are more options available, but internal storage is key. These devices are expensive and most people can’t upgrade their storage right away.
Whenever Valve releases a new in-house first-party game people pay attention. They are masters at storytelling and world-building. Aperture Desk Job is set in the world of Portal. You’d think this is a Steam Deck exclusive Portal game, but it’s not. This short 30-45 minute tech demo shows you the Steam Deck’s unique features.
Desk Job opens up with Cave Johnson giving a riveting motivational speech to his employees (J.K. Simmons retains his role) and the game pans down a factory level by level. You arrive at your desk with a new Wheatley-type character. He’s funny and got some laughs from me, but he isn’t as energetic. He’s a bit masochistic and Valve did a great job with his writing for the short time he’s on screen. Your desk has the exact layout as your Steam Deck and the short story unfolds with you as a toilet tester. Valve’s on-point humor hits here with the subtly they’re known for. You test a few toilets and then time goes by and you see some ridiculous number on the counter board.
You eventually turn the toilets into turrets which is pretty funny. Here you learn about the right stick’s touch sensor inside the Steam Deck for gyro controls. It’s calibrated pretty well, and I haven’t used good gyro controls before. It’s done right here. Without telling too much more of the story you take a ride back through the factory and you get a fun turret song at the end. The humor punches throughout and I had a good time. There are a lot of missed opportunities here like just a longer game or even some mini-games. It almost seems pointless for Valve to go through all this effort to create such a well-produced tech demo. I’m hoping this means more is coming along, but knowing Valve, it’s not.
The visuals are great and run well on the Steam Deck. 60FPS throughout with great textures and lighting effects. I don’t see the point of playing this on PC unless you just want to enjoy the writing and characters. In Valve’s defense, handhelds are subject to tech demos. Sony did it with the PSP and Vita, and Nintendo loved doing this with the DS and 3DS. Anyone who has played handhelds their whole life won’t feel so shocked or hate Valve for this. They just used such a beloved IP and didn’t go anywhere with it. It’s a painful tease as we all know there’s nothing else coming from it.
If you have a Steam Deck this is a no-brainer. It’s a fun 30-minute demo to play while you wait for other downloads or something. While the main character didn’t get enough time to fully mature like in other Valve IPs just the fact that they got laughs out of me in 30-minutes says a lot. Most games can’t get a smile over the course of hours.
I love adventure games, especially ones that do something interesting or unique for the genre. Mostly I love adventure games with fantastical stories and great characters. Graphics usually comes last with these kinds of games. Kentucky Route Zero does have an interesting art style and is signature for Annapurna, but it doesn’t really add anything to the game either. The first couple of acts of the game start out well enough and are easy to follow, but the game’s story quickly devolves into visual novel-level walls of text and pointless stories that lead to nowhere.
You play as an antique shop delivery driver who needs to make one last delivery before the shop closes to 5 Dogwood Drive. You start out at a gas station on a highway and a strange man tells you about taking “the Zero” out to the address. You soon meet an electronics repair woman and end up seeing strange stuff on a TV. You follow clues to get the Zero and this is where act two leads you. Once in act two, the game’s pace stays sharp and breezy. There’s nothing to really play here as you mostly just click around leading the characters to icons to read more dialogue and text. There are no puzzles, combat, scripted events, etc. This is a straight-up borderline text adventure. Once you hit act three things slow way down and then there are the pointless interval chapters in between each act. One chapter was 30 minutes of nearly endless boring dialogue that didn’t add to the main story at all. It was painful to read it all and I actually read novels in real life regularly. It’s dry and dull and not interesting in the slightest.
Each act has several scenes and they are usually rather short. Once you click on each icon and read all the dialogue you will advance to the next scene. There are at least a lot of locales and the visuals are striking in some scenes. There’s little spoken dialogue, but I actually quite liked the songs here. They were very sad and helped set the tone of the entire game. This also isn’t a horror adventure either. It’s just super weird and I wish I could have followed the story or cared about any of the characters. If the dialogue wasn’t so damn boring I would care more. In some areas, I straight up just skipped through the dialogue because it was either really abstract and poetic that didn’t add anything to what was going on or just super uninteresting. Many people will probably shut the game off after act two as that’s when things really slow down and drag.
I want to say that the ending was worth all the hours of reading, but it wasn’t. It made no sense to me and the entire trip to the address almost felt like it was an afterthought. I would say I don’t want to spoil anything, but there’s not much here to spoil. There’s so much character and world-building that the actual adventure is eventually forgotten about and said world-building is dull. There are a lot of slice-of-life moments talking about real-life personal situations from the past and then there will be some sort of narrative poetic thing for a while and back to two random characters talking about how much they like a certain food. Normally this is great, but in this game, it doesn’t add anything as I have to already care about the characters to want to read this stuff.
Overall, Route Zero starts out great and quickly drags on into a dull and uninteresting visual novel with interesting visuals. There isn’t a satisfying ending and the intervals between acts are pointless and dull. There is zero gameplay involved and mountains of text to click through. This would normally be fine if the actual characters and scenes were interesting. Some may like the abstractness of some of the writing while most others will fall asleep.
Undertale took the gaming industry by storm. Its Earthbound-inspired humor, innovative combat system, and fun characters drew huge crowds and garnered great sales. The 16-bit RPG was short in length but large in spirit. It’s hard to make you really like a game and remember it in less than five hours, but Toby Fox managed to do it.
You play as a human who wakes up in an underground world run by demons. These demons need one more human soul to break the barrier between our world and theirs. It’s a simple story, but it’s the characters you meet along the way that make up for the overall lacking scope of the game. Sadly. there’s no deep lore, no real backstories to any characters, but the here and now is well done and the dialog is sharp, witty, and fun. The game mocks standard JRPGs and Zelda games all the way through. The beginning tutorial dungeon doesn’t wait to get around to it. Pushing boulders onto blocks just to have one that’s sentient and makes the task harder for you. A lot of different puzzle-solving elements are found anywhere else in the game, but puzzles do exist and they can be quite challenging.
The combat system is the most unique aspect of Undertale. You can attack, but the entire system is mini-game-focused. There is a meter on-screen and you need to press the attack button when it’s in the center. Different weapons move this bar faster or have multiple hits. The enemy attacks are all skill-based. It’s essentially your own fault if you die. The center of the screen shows a white box and your heart is the object that you need to move around to essentially dodge various bullet-hell style mini-games. Spirling projectiles, daggers, flames, you name it. There are several dozen various attacks and each enemy and boss is unique with their own. The game’s other system is its moral system and you can be a pacifist and not kill a single enemy thanks to the Act command. You can try and figure out how to weaken the enemy through charm or talking and spare it via the Mercy command. If the enemy’s name is yellow you can automatically spare it. This is an interesting concept and leads to two different endings based on whether you’re a pacifist or not. If you choose that route you don’t get any XP to level and just get gold which can be used to buy better armor and weapons.
There are a few towns you can visit to shop, but a funny tidbit is you can’t sell anything in the game and the shop owners comment they don’t want your junk. There is one town you can sell at, however, so make sure you save all your old items to score big towards the end of the game. There are also a few side quests you can complete, but these are cryptic and require holding on to certain items throughout the game. The tip here is to save everything in your box near the save points. Don’t drop anything. When you’re not fighting you can solve puzzles, as stated earlier, and these range from mini-games to various switch-based puzzles. Backtracking is thankfully minimal unless you want a certain item at a shop that you couldn’t afford previously.
The sheer variety of the gameplay is astounding. Not a single battle is the same and not any boss battle plays out the same. Sometimes you have to fight, sometimes having a specific item makes the fight easier or ends it instantly. Levels aren’t labyrinthine and difficult to navigate and random battles are minimal as leveling up isn’t quite necessary. At the end of the game, I was level 12 and had the most powerful armor and weapon. Due to the variety and constant changing in the way the game is played it never gets dull or boring. I played through the entire game in one sitting because I wanted to see the ending and the game was just so fun and interesting. I can’t remember the last time I sat through an RPG like this and was this hooked.
The visuals are incredibly charming. They are clearly inspired by Earthbound and each character has a whacky 90s 16-bit era style to them that I adore. The soundtrack is also amazing and I listen to it often outside of the game. Toby Fox did an amazing job with this game and it’s something you only get once in a lifetime. There hasn’t been this unique Western JRPG 16-bit clone that I can remember. Undertale is the perfect RPG. No grinding, fun characters, great writing, charming visuals, fantastic music, and constantly changing gameplay with a unique battle system that has never been done before. If I were to pick something to gripe about it would be the cryptic nature of the items you need to find or hold on to as there are no hints as to needing said item at all. You just end up with a character asking for something or maybe accidentally using an item during a boss fight and having it do something.
The title is very intriguing and unlike most game titles. Another game title based on a crime, Grand Theft Auto, is the single biggest video game franchise in history, so how does a white-collar crime-based game compare? Well, there are no data sheets or graphing in this game, but this is a 2D isometric Zelda clone where you are trying to stop a corrupt onion mayor from pushing his greed onto the vegetable people.
The game starts out with a short opening of you, Turnip Boy, who hasn’t paid the property tax of his greenhouse and owes a lot of money to the money. He is wanted for tax evasion and must work off the debt by helping the mayor collect four items for an unknown reason. These four items make up the entirety of the game as well as four small dungeons. There is a small world to explore with collectible hats that can be obtained by helping veggies around the area. Each dungeon contains a final boss and an item the mayor needs.
Wandering around the village is easy enough and memorable thanks to landmarks and great level design. There are signposts that guide you to the general areas and the mayor will tell you what area you need to be in. There are plenty of NPCs to talk to that provide fairly funny dialog. Nothing that will make you cry, but some funny tidbits and real-world references from the last 5 years. You start the game out with nothing and eventually acquire a sword and a watering can. The can is used more than the sword, but mostly for puzzle solving. You can make green lilies grow and this activates bombs, melons, and various other items. You also get a portal pot that plants portals (a call back to Portal with the orange and blue colors) and an upgraded shovel sword (maybe a nod to Shovel Knight?) There are a few passive things you acquire like a hazmat suit, boots to kick blocks, and a few others. These are all recovered relatively quickly. Each dungeon takes maybe 30 minutes to complete and that includes getting to the dungeon itself. Boss fights are the hardest thing in the game and that’s not saying much. The combat is really easy and similar to older Zelda games, but there aren’t as many enemy types and their movements don’t vary much. There’s very little challenge in this game.
Bosses usually require you to use the last acquired item to beat it, just like in Zelda games, and then you get a heart and move on. Once you give the mayor his item he sends you onto your next quest. Inside these dungeons, you can help other NPCs and acquire hats or smaller passive items like keys to get further inside. I never really got lost anywhere and I thought exploring the game was rather fun. Sadly, due to the combat being so easy and the game so short, about 2-3 hours run time even if you do side quests, it’s no more than a short afternoon gaming affair. There’s nothing quite memorable about this game either other than the title itself and the art style which is beautiful and well done. It’s a mix of 16-bit visuals and modern cartoon art. The music is fantastic as well, but there’s just not enough of all of this. Turnip Boy’s dungeons are fun and well laid out, but they’re very short and I feel there’s so much more potential here, but it’s all cut short right when you feel the game is getting deeper.
There is a free DLC update that adds a rogue-lite train dungeon with a final boss, but if you aren’t fond of the combat you won’t care here. Unless you really want to spend several hours swinging your sword at stiff baddies then the final game will be enough. There are a few more objectives to complete and more hats to collect, but the main game isn’t long enough to make you love this game enough to want to spend more time in its world. What’s here is a ton of fun and it’s a visual and comical treat, but it feels more like a sample of what a longer game could be. The puzzles are solid, the gameplay mechanics are great, the combat is simple, but works, and there’s tons of humor here. It’s a fun time and worth a purchase, but don’t expect anything groundbreaking.
I love games like these. Short little indie games that do something AAA games don’t care to notice or even glance at. Unpacking is what you get on the tin. There’s no story here at all, no characters, you just get put into various years from the late ’90s to 2018 unpacking a person’s belongings in various homes. It seems dull on paper, but it’s actually quite satisfying, but the enjoyment solely comes from you wanting to decorate everything correctly and not just put things where they go.
Bedrooms consist of era-appropriate computers, lots of clothing, knick-knacks, plants, posters, frames, shoes, workout equipment, you name it. Bathrooms will have bathroom items, and kitchens will have things like food and utensils. There are also living rooms that have video game consoles, knick-knacks, frames, pillows, blankets, plants, and other items. There are a lot of items in this game, but here lies my biggest complaint about this game. It’s incredibly repetitive. After the second “album” that I completed, I pretty much saw every single item. Sure, unpacking boxes and putting things away satisfies an OCD in most people, but out of the six levels how many dozens of underwear, bras, and clothes do I need to hang? Things only got interesting later on when new objects did pop up or large items. Laundry baskets, trash cans, umbrella stands, and dish racks were far and few between, and it wasn’t until the last level where you get every room and pretty much unpack every item in the game.
As you start off in 1997, you may get a bit of a nostalgia hit, there are a lot of 8-bit style items laying around from the era. CD players, cartridge game systems, old stereos, crazy teen angst posters, and anything else you can think of from your childhood. The game is set in an isometric perspective so you can zoom around and that’s about it. There are numerous boxes in various rooms and when you click on a box it opens and inside you just see packing paper. Clicking the box has an item pop out and most are regular everyday household items, and most of the boxes are to be unpacked in that room with the occasional item being misplaced. You can rotate items and even activate some items for achievements, and the snapping feature works rather well. A book can lay flat or if you push it up against a shelf it will stand up and stack.
There are a few challenges when it comes to space. Some rooms will be very minimal with a lot of items and you have to be clever and organized to get everything to fit. Once you unpack every box items that are in the wrong place will flash red and most of this made sense, but some didn’t. Why do I have to put a backpack on a shelf when on the bed makes sense? There were a few cases in which I couldn’t make out what the items were at all and had me clicking and placing it on everything until I found the right spot. I also wish I could unpack the furniture and literally unpack an entirely empty home. Maybe some outdoor areas would have been nice like backyards, sheds, garages, or other settings like offices would have added variety.
What’s here is still rather charming with some nice music, that seems to stop for long periods of time which I hated, and there’s a seemingly pointless photo mode in which you can add borders and stickers. This feature just felt like filler content to me, but this is a very unique game and there’s nothing else out there like it. The game is so short that you can finish it in less than two hours, so it won’t offend anyone despite the repetition. What’s here is fun, charming, and satisfying.
If you were really into gaming back in the mid-2000s then Psychonauts is a game you either played or heard of and that’s thanks to Tim Schafer’s voice being heard. The game was critically well-received but sold poorly due to a lack of advertising and support from the Publisher. The game was great on PC and Xbox, but didn’t do so well on PS2 due to the system’s lack of power and had framerate issues and downgraded visuals. A few years later a petition was released to put the game on Xbox Live Arcade for the Xbox 360. I remember signing that petition and that’s how I finally played the game. It was visually brilliant, but did have issues with the camera and felt a bit repetitive.
Here we are 15 years later and that same brilliance has happened again. You play as Razputin, a large-headed boy whose dream is to be a Psychonaut. This team of mind-bending heroes is trained to enter people’s minds and rid them of anything dangerous and help people get back to being mentally more stable. I won’t spoil the story and tell if Raz gets in the Psychonauts or not, but the game’s main hub is the Psychonaut headquarters. The story itself is entertaining with the main villain, Maligula, who needs to be stopped before she…does something. It’s never really told what danger Maligula can do to the world as Psychonauts‘ story solely focuses on just the team and never anything outside of it or how they affect the world around them. It feels like a very claustrophobic world and seems a bit strange to be like this, but the voice-acting is wonderful and the dialog is clever and witty at every turn and it never misses a beat. While the story feels a bit rushed towards the end and feels a little too convoluted for what it is, it’s entertaining and all of the characters are a joy to see on screen.
Psychonauts’combat has always been something to be desired and kind of takes a back seat to platform and that’s the same for this game. You get one melee button and have to use other Psi-Powers in tandem with this and it feels too easy and a bit lazy. Most of the Psi-Powers aren’t useful in combat so I just stuck with Psi-Blast, Telekinesis, and Pyrokenisis which sets things on fire. Enemies are either too easy or are just damage sponges and towards the end of the game, it really feels unbalanced and just an annoyance. While the combat plays well and there are no control issues, it just feels like it needs more work if there is going to be a sequel. Bosses also just felt like damage sponges and aren’t really challenging. Even the final boss is a push-over. Thankfully the game mostly focuses on platforming.
With that said, platforming and collecting are where Psychonauts shines the most. Each level oozes personality and style. The art in Psychonauts 2 is absolutely gorgeous with some of the most creative levels you will ever see gaming. This is art in raw video game form and they just don’t make them like this, especially in the AAA form. Most of the Psi-Powers are used for platforming and this is another issue with those powers. They are either really useful for a few things or useless for everything but one thing. Projection is gained last and towards the end of the game, it’s mostly used for that level and collecting a few items in others. Mental Connection is used to swing between nodes, Time Bubble is used to slow down spinning fans and platforms, and Clairvoyance is mostly used to read people’s minds for fun and use their eyes to find treasure in hub worlds. Despite this, you can collect 2D Figments which are colorful sprites scattered around, Emotional Baggage and their associated tags which are needed to collect the bags, Memory Vaults, Relics, and others. You can skip all of this as it’s mostly for completionists and achievement hunters, but you’re missing out on most of the more difficult and fun platforming if you do. The hub areas, of which there are four, have Psi Cards, Half-A-Minds, and Psi Ranks to collect. There are vending machines to spend the cards on and you can use Psitanium to buy pins which passively enhance some Psi-Powers, but I felt this was a last-minute tacked-on feature since the combat is already easy.
With that said, the game’s art style is bananas. It feels alive and there’s so much detail in every single level and neither level is the same. There’s a 60’s style acid-induced mind-trip level, an amusement ride level, a library, a hospital, and others. They all feel unique and I couldn’t wait to see what the game brought next. While the story does feel convoluted it’s still entertaining and seeing the characters on screen was never dull. While most people will skip all the collecting, you miss out on a lot as won’t see what all the levels have to offer. This is an interactive art and there’s no denying this is just one of the most artistically impressive games to be released in the last decade. While it’s not technically impressive since it uses Unreal Engine 4, it still looks good with great textures, and good lighting effects, and there were no bugs in my playthrough.
Overall, Psychonauts 2 is a mascot platformer dream and you only get these games once a decade these days. While indie games have taken over this hole in the gaming space it’s nice to see larger budget AAA games do this too once again. The story is entertaining albeit a little too claustrophobic in its world-building and convoluted for what it is, but the character writing is clever and the voice acting is well done. There are lots to collect and the platforming is top-notch, but the combat is a miss here due to being too easy and unbalanced life bars and bosses being damage sponges and nothing more.
I’m not much of a visual novel fan. I love reading books and grew up reading a lot, but visual novels are basically just digital manga, and I prefer traditional manga. I bought VA-11 Hall-A years ago and never got around to it because there’s so much reading. What got me interested was the bartending aspect. It seemed like a fun time-management mini-game mixed in and I was completely wrong. However, the strongest point with this game is the fun characters and how invested in their stories I became.
You play Julianne Stingray, a bartender in a cyberpunk world setting nearly 100 years in the future. The bar is close to getting shut down and you’re just living life day-to-day until that time comes. The game is pretty slow-paced and takes quite a while to pick up and get interesting. There’s a lot of character setup and it takes such a long time so it feels natural and organic rather than rushed. There isn’t really any gameplay. I spent more time clicking through dialog than anything else, but I did like all the characters. They were fun, unique, and had great personalities that I got attached to. If I were to say there was an ultimate goal it would be to make amends with your ex-girlfriend who you got into a fight with years ago and need to apologize to, but honestly, this is a slice-of-life type of game. You really only need to just read through everything.
You do earn money at the end of every day and this can be spent on items to keep Jill focused at her job. There will be a hint when you get to your apartment as to what she might want. If you don’t buy this item she won’t remember what customers order and you have to remember yourself. There are also major bills that have to be paid so you need to spend wisely. There is also an optional phone you can view various news apps. Just some insight into the world really and nothing that matters towards the main story. There is an option to customize your apartment a bit, but it seemed superfluous in the end and pointless.
As you talk to patrons you have to make their drinks. This seemed fun at first, but it quickly becomes dull and stale by day three of the game. There is a recipe book full of 24 different drinks you can make and you can filter them by flavor and type. Patrons will give hints as to what they want and you sometimes even have to read the descriptions to get cryptic ones correct. Drinks are made with artificial chemicals in this world and you have five. There are squares that fill up with each measurement and you can mix or blend the drink and age it or add ice. That’s literally it. I thought you could upgrade the bar and add new flavors and devices, but this is it. You end up cycling through all 24 drinks early on and maybe 10 repeats constantly. It ends up no longer being fun to make these drinks and just interrupts the story. There are also no instructions on the difference between mixing and blending. You need to count how many times the shaker wiggles and if it starts going fast…that’s blended. If you mess up a drink you lose a bonus at the end of the day. However, you can’t serve messed-up drinks as the game won’t let you. Some drinks allow you to add synthetic alcohol as much or as little as you want and this is supposed to change the story somehow…by making characters spill things when they’re drunker, but I never saw this happen.
The one game mechanic in an otherwise interactive visual novel is boring and somewhat pointless. If there was a much larger selection of drinks, or if I could add some later, or upgrade equipment, that would be fun, but what’s here feels half-assed and tacked on. I also don’t like how we never get to know what’s going on in the world. The game hints at things happening politically and with various corporations, and even a hacking group, but we get nothing in that regard. It’s mostly just what’s going on inside the bar and the characters you meet; it stays very local and centralized. I also felt the visuals while artistically beautiful were boring to look at. There isn’t any change in scenery and the static anime-style characters just change facial expressions. It’s very hard to stare at the same background for nearly a dozen hours and make dozens upon dozens of repeated drinks just to stay invested in a character’s story. If it weren’t for the great characters this game would be utterly boring nonsense.
With that said, VA-11 Hall-A is only worth getting into if you love anime, visual novels, or just like reading books. The bartending aspect is a poorly throughout afterthought that hinders the progress of the story rather than helps it due to the small recipe size and laughable mechanics. I really liked the characters here, and the story ended on a nice note. I expected some sort of twist ending where the bar would close early, or the hackers would take over all the androids and something interesting would happen, but we just get a slice-of-life anime-style bartending experience.
Strangeland starts out with you playing like a man in a straight jacket inside a carnival of sorts. The art style is dark, dreary, depressing, and looks great. The point-and-click adventure pixel art of yesteryear looks great and I love this style of visuals. As you talk to the talking entranceway you gain entry to the main area of the game and like every adventure game ever made you progress by exploring, talking to people, and picking up objects.
The main goal of Strangeland is to fight something called The Dark Thing and you are trying to find a golden-haired woman who you think is your lover, but you aren’t sure. You can acquire hints for the game at any time by using the payphone in the main area and this is a really big help. There isn’t much to the controls as you just walk around picking up items, some might need to be combined, and figure out where to use them.
The largest downside to Strangeland is its complete lack of world or character building. Each character speaks in pointless riddles that have no meaning and I don’t understand why. This world looks interesting and I want to learn about it, but it’s so short, about three hours long, and there are so few characters that I feel I have rushed along to the end. Even the ending didn’t really make much sense after all of what you go through feels pointless. It’s not really hard to figure out what items go where you don’t get that many, but there are a few puzzles in the game and they don’t feel like puzzles. I just randomly clicked around and solved them, so there’s that.
This is also a very small world. There are many 8 main screens you visit, and the second half of the game reuses these screens when you are in Deadland. And again, I can’t stress how awesome the art is. There’s gore, gross fluids, and strange pits that lead to nowhere, and sadly it’s all smushed into this tiny play area with not much to do. It’s not possible to get lost, and once you exhaust all the dialog options with a character you can no longer talk to them. Your ultimate goal is to kill The Dark Thing, and I believe the ending had a choice, but I wasn’t sure. It ended so abruptly and unsatisfactorily that I just shrugged in the end. I really enjoyed the art and the voice acting, but that’s all there really is to the game.
In the end, Strangeland is so short that I don’t have a lot to say about it. It looks good, it’s not super cryptic like most adventure games are, and the voice acting is good, but the story just doesn’t make sense and we never get to know more about the characters. What is Strangeland? Why am I here? How did I get here? Why am I in a straight jacket? Nothing is answered or explored which is the main reason adventure games exist. To explore a world and story and characters. This feels like mostly an art exhibit and nothing more.