Batman: The Enemy Within – Episode 2: The Pact Review

In Episode One of Batman: The Enemy Within, the tragic loss of a friend and stalwart ally threatened to undermine Batman’s crusade for justice, while also throwing Bruce Wayne’s personal life into disarray. As someone that loves to see the duality of DC’s Dark Knight used to unravel him I was eager for Telltale Games to pull at this narrative thread, but Episode Two allows it to slip away. While this is certainly a missed opportunity, Telltale makes up for it by thrusting Bruce Wayne into situations that begin to blur the line between right and wrong, and it proves to be just as compelling.

Episode Two is perhaps the strongest indication that Telltale is done drudging up Bruce Wayne’s past trauma to torment him, and more interested in giving him new demons to face. Though perhaps “new” is a bit of stretch, since the villains Bats goes up against are familiar faces from his rogues gallery, mostly unchanged from the way they’ve been depicted in the past, albeit with one major exception. Harley Quinn, who is the standout character in the episode, exhibits a drastic shift in her power dynamic with Joker.

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Traditionally, Harley has been depicted as Joker’s long-suffering right-hand woman, doing all the hard work and receiving very little respect for it. She’s always been infatuated with the mentally deranged Clown Prince of Crime, even though he treats her like a disposable tool, reciprocating her love only when it suits him. Telltale has turned this dynamic on its head, placing Harley in the position of power instead. John Doe, the man that the series is setting up to become Joker, is still very much on the edge of his madness, yet to leap into the insanity that transforms him. As such, he’s still unsure of himself and finding his way, which Harley takes full advantage of. This time around, he’s the one fawning after her, and she relishes in toying with his emotions. This subversion, for longtime fans of the Batman mythos, is fascinating to watch and an interesting new take on the character.

But it’s not just Joker that Harley has at her beck and call. With The Riddler taken care of, she assumes control of Gotham City’s cabal of new villains. In Episode One John Doe offered Bruce an opportunity to meet his “friends” and, under direction from Amanda Waller to infiltrate their ranks, Wayne finds himself having to win their trust.

This setup paves the way for Episode Two’s most tense and defining moments. As Bruce Wayne, you must weigh up the need to curry favour from dangerous criminals against the inherent risk of dealing with devils. While the decisions you make therein generally resolve themselves in a way that keeps the narrative on script, in the moment there’s plenty of drama in directing Bruce to toe the line and attack an innocent so that the nogoodniks trust him. Telltale asks fans to violate the principles they know Bruce holds dear, effectively twisting their own image of the character. The various decision-making moments in Episode Two are very effective realisations of that classic “doing something bad for the greater good” trope.

This sense of being between a rock and a hard place extends to Batman’s new working relationship with Amanda Waller, and the strain it puts on his friendship with Jim Gordon. The cliffhanger in Episode One revealed that Waller, true to form, knows much more about Batman than most, giving her leverage over him. Since her investigation is undermining Gordon’s, Batman finds himself stuck between two people on the same side of the law but with different objectives. Again, this is another instance where Telltale has set you up to either make life harder for Bruce by siding with Waller, or betraying someone you know is an ally to Batman. This early in the series, it’s difficult to say whether these decisions will pay off in a way that’s gratifying, but in the moment, it really sucks to have disappointed Gordon.

While Episode Two is filled with strong characterization and writing, one person stands out as a weak link. Alfred’s involvement in the story thus far has been entirely forgettable, serving mostly to parrot back the events that happened in the scene preceding his appearance, or doing the worried father-figure routine. Alfred is a tricky character to make valuable, especially when Bruce is out of his moping, woe-is-me phase, when he can serve as the emotional anchor for Batman. As of yet, his inclusion in The Enemy Within doesn’t feel justified; he feels like dead weight against the rest of the cast.

Episode Two also continues to push further away from the slower paced, investigation sequences from the first season. One bomb defusal section aside, the majority of gameplay is made up of action driven set-pieces controlled through quick-time button presses. It’s a shame that Telltale seems to be playing down the clue-hunting and puzzle-solving elements featured in the first season. Although this keeps the story moving at a brisk pace, those moments were key in delivering a well-rounded Batman experience. Fans that like to see the cerebral side of Batman are going to be left wanting by Episode Two.

Nevertheless, Batman: The Enemy Within Episode Two builds on a strong opening to the season. It raises the stakes for Bruce Wayne by throwing him into a shark tank and asking him to turn bloodthirsty enemies into friends. Along with an empowered Harley Quinn and the unnerving powder-keg that is John Doe, the second episode provides drama and excitement in equal measure.

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Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice Review

In Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, the struggle of coming to terms with past trauma and guilt comes out in a number of surprising ways. Developer Ninja Theory channels its talents for narrative and presentation to tell a personal story that has more to say than it initially lets on, and will likely leave you wondering what’s real, and what is a part of an elaborate hallucination.

In a far-off land covered in mist and fog, a traumatized celtic warrior named Senua embarks on a spiritual vision quest to suppress her inner demons, and come to grips with the death of her family. Plagued with severe psychosis, Senua’s past trauma manifests itself through duelling inner voices and visual hallucinations that compromise her emotional and mental state. On this journey, she’ll face abstract and reality-defying puzzles, and battle a seemingly endless horde of adversaries that aim to put a stop to her quest.

Pulling from Nordic and Celtic lore, the fiction of Hellblade evokes a dire and somewhat bleak atmosphere, making it seem like the world had already ended, leaving Senua with only the company of her memories. Hellblade is an introspective experience, albeit with several combat and interactive story beats scattered throughout. While the story and world are presented through cutscenes and stone glyphs depicting the history of the land, Hellblade also makes clever use of live-action cutscenes. These cinematic moments are blended into in-game graphics, giving each occurrence a somewhat surreal feeling, as if you’re watching a live playback of an altered memory.

On her journey through the cursed lands, Senua will come into conflict with the Northmen, an army of berserkers that appear out of thin air. These moments are when the combat comes into play, and it offers some of the most intense and thrilling moments of the game. Despite her illness weighing on her, Senua is still quite adept at fighting and is able to take on a number of foes at once. With fast, heavy sword swings, as well as up-close hand-to-hand strikes, you can use some light combos to hack away at the Northmen, while using dodges and parrying their strikes to get the upper hand.

Though combat is one of the core pillars in Hellblade, the game doesn’t concern itself with offering numerous weapons or complex skill-trees to work through. Aside from some new combat abilities unlocked at key story milestones, Senua’s arsenal of skills and weapons is kept light till the end. The true challenge and satisfaction comes from mastering the base combat mechanics, which is responsive, and fluid–allowing you to bounce between multiple foes easily, with her inner voices warning you of incoming strikes based on the position they’re coming from.

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When it comes to portraying mental illness, Hellblade takes a sympathetic approach and isn’t at all interested in showing the differences between reality and imagination. It’s all about Senua’s perspective; with her visions and what’s truly real being presented as one in the same. One of the more oppressive aspects of her psychosis are the inner-voices, who quarrel with one another while commenting on the wandering warrior’s present state. Using binaural audio–which makes wearing headphones a must for the full effect–you’ll get to experience a taste of what it’s like to have several voices in your head.

In many ways, it feels like a subversive take on the common video game trope of the bodiless companion offering help via radio, making them a somewhat distressing presence you desperately wanted to keep at arm’s length. The effectiveness of the inner voices in making you uncomfortable is a testament to the stellar presentation of the game, which uses some rather inventive tricks to play with perspective and audio-sensory manipulation. It does well to make you feel on edge and in a state of confusion, while simultaneously getting you to focus on the more tangible and true elements of her surroundings–even if they are still hallucinations.

There are times where the voices become a boon to your survival–such as the rather tricky boss battles that force you change up your usual strategies–but the most useful instances come deeper in the game, when you’re able to clear through more than 20 foes consecutively, a far cry from the struggles of fighting only two to three foes. Many of these battles serve as the capper for narrative arcs in the story, making it feel like a cathartic emotional purge where you vanquish a construct of Senua’s past.

“It’s all about Senua’s perspective; with her visions and what’s truly real being presented as one in the same.”

While some characters from Senua’s past treated her mental state as a danger, she’s able to use it to her advantage to see the order in the chaos of her surroundings–finding patterns and solutions in ways that others wouldn’t have the presence of mind to see. Despite how terrifying and draining her psychosis can be, Senua is able navigate the various trials thanks to her unusually heightened perception, which comes out in a number of unique puzzle solving moments.

For the most part, puzzles revolve around unlocking doors by finding glyphs hidden in plain sight or in alternate perspectives that require manipulating Senua’s focus, illustrating her abstract attention to detail. While these puzzles can be clever, the same style occurs far too often, making some of the more drawn out sequences a chore. On the inverse, the moments where Senua is stripped of her senses and gear, forcing her to take a more subdued approach to avoid her enemies, felt far more engaging and interesting.

In one of the game’s best moments, the shadows themselves serve to be a real danger as Senua rushes from one light source to another in a dark cavern, all the while memories of her torment and anguish come flooding in–obscuring your vision while she’s making a dash to safety. These moments are a real highlight, channeling the same pulse-pounding sense of urgency found from set-piece moments in Resident Evil 4, making a seemingly simple objective into an unnerving experience–which in a way truly sums up what Hellblade is about. While these moments serve to be some of Hellblade’s most profound and affecting moments, it uses them sparingly to help break-up general puzzle solving and obstacles, which feel somewhat bland by comparison.

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While Senua experiences many dangers, such as the horrific hallucinations of the dead, immolation by a mad fire god, and ravenous beasts that hide in the shadows–there is one threat that constantly looms over her that can result in dire consequences. Early on, Senua is infected with a corruption known as The Dark Rot, which continues to spread after she ‘dies’ or fails a set-piece event. She passes failure and death off as another hallucination, but with every failure the infection spreads, and after multiple deaths it reaches her head. The result of this is Senua succumbing to her illness, forcing you to restart from the beginning of her journey.

Despite the inclusion of a permadeath mechanic, Hellblade is still a largely fair game. Taking around eight hours to clear on the hardest difficulty, and experiencing only a handful of deaths–mostly on account of some overly vague and awkward objectives coming off as obtuse, breaking the flow of traversal–the game is largely balanced with its pacing and difficulty. It even goes as far as to offer an auto-scaling difficulty system that adjusts based on how you’re playing. Interestingly, there’s no tutorial whatsoever in Hellblade, prompting you to learn the system by doing and listening to prompts from your inner voices.

Over the course of its journey, Hellblade keeps its gameplay lean in order to not overstay its welcome. Despite the complexity of the narrative and its presentation, combat only happens when it needs to, and puzzle solving and set-piece moments often drive the story forward to reveal more about Senua’s motivations. Which in turn reveals the struggles that torment her, preventing her from moving on.

Hellblade’s most notable achievement is the handling of an incredibly sensitive subject matter within an engaging and well-crafted action/adventure game. At its heart, the story is about Senua’s struggle to come to terms with her illness. In the process, she learns to find the strength within herself to endure, and to make peace with her past. And in a profound and physical way, we go through those same struggles with her, and come away with a better understanding of a piece of something that many people in the world struggle with.

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Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia Review

Fire Emblem is a series with a storied history and has transformed dramatically over its nearly 25-year existence. Fire Emblem Echoes, a remake of a very early game in the series–Fire Emblem Gaiden–remains a departure of sorts from what most veteran players might expect. Rather than emphasizing character relationships and story dialogue, Fire Emblem Echoes puts its focus on long- and short-term strategy and strength-building. The end result is a fresh take on Fire Emblem’s strategy-RPG formula, and one that ranks among the best of the 3DS library.

Echoes follows the dual leads of Alm and Celica, a pair of youths that bear a strange crest upon their hands. They bond together as children in a tiny farming village, only to be torn apart by a sudden dramatic event. Many years after the fact, you’re in control of both characters–and their respective armies–in search of a reunion amongst a conflict-ridden yarn spun of large-scale wars, hidden pasts, and shocking truths.

While the story is classic Fire Emblem fare, the emphasis here is centered firmly on the saga of Alm and Celica, with only a few brief interludes that shift focus to other army members. The characters you welcome into your ranks and interact with are a charming and likable bunch with fun, well-written dialogue. Almost all in-game character text is voiced as well, which adds appreciable personality. Players more accustomed to recent Fire Emblem games like Awakening and Fates, however, may feel a bit disappointed in the lack of side character interactions. You don’t “pair off” characters in Echoes as you would in those games–while character-to-character support conversations do still exist here, they’re much shorter and happen strictly during combat. While this may be a disappointment to some, overall, it helps cement the story focus on the two leads and the various warring factions of FE Echoes’ world.

While most of Echoes takes place on grid-based, turn-driven battlefields, you’ll also spend a lot of time navigating an overworld map with two armies: one led by Alm and the other by Celica, each with a different group of soldiers under their lead. Interactions between the two sets of troops are limited, meaning you’ll have to manage resources, weaponry, and stat-building across two teams. The two take mostly separate paths in their respective campaigns, stopping at towns and dungeons to gather intel, find new recruits, take on side-quests, and discover hidden treasure. Explorable towns, castles, shrines, forts, and dungeons are unique to Echoes, and while interactions with most of areas are somewhat limited–basically restricted to examining environments with a cursor as you would in a point-and-click adventure game–dungeons offer a far more interesting twist for the series.

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Dungeons are explored on foot from a third-person perspective. You scout for secret passages and smash pots and crates for loot while avoiding (or seeking out) battles against roaming enemies. Touching a foe takes you to a traditional FE battle, but once you’ve felled your opponents, it’s back to exploring. These areas serve as a great addition that offer variety beyond simply stringing a series of battles together while still keeping the narrative focus on the core story.

Echoes has some crucial differences from other Fire Emblem games that add interesting layers to army management and combat as well. Characters can only carry one item at a time, forcing you to carefully consider if a special weapon, a restorative item, or armaments like a shield or ring would be ideal. Weapon degradation isn’t an issue (similar to Fates), and magic is learned through leveling rather than buying tomes–and uses character HP to cast, making high-powered spells a potentially risky proposition.

These are all serious deviations from other Fire Emblem installments, and they might take a bit of time to get used to, but they result in a Fire Emblem game that’s both distinct and refreshing.

Combat skills are learned by keeping specific items equipped in battle for long periods of time and are tied to individual pieces of gear, meaning you can’t just learn a skill from a specific shield, then equip a sword and keep using the skill. Stamina wears down as characters fight and take damage, degrading their stats and combat capabilities unless they replenish them with food, medicine, or offerings to the goddess Mila. Finally, the rock-paper-scissors style weapon triangle of modern FE games is gone entirely–swords can now clash with spears on equal footing.

These are all serious deviations from other Fire Emblem installments, and they might take a bit of time to get used to, but they result in a Fire Emblem game that’s both distinct and refreshing. You can’t simply go in with strategies you may have devised in other Fire Emblem titles and expect them to work here; you’ll need to really stop and think about weapon distribution and upgrades, consider how to effectively use certain classes, when to take time with optional fights to build additional character levels, and so on.

The game’s difficulty is high overall, which makes conquering the toughest battles relatively unscathed feel like a real accomplishment. While the difficulty level makes formulating a sound strategy highly rewarding, it can also lead to some cases where you might feel stuck unless you grind out a few more levels or backtrack to the shrine to change classes, especially if you’re playing with permadeath on. But it always feels worth it; when you face a huge armada on a molten lava-covered battlefield, enduring assaults from constantly respawning foes while trying to keep your army’s stamina and health above critical levels, and you somehow manage to pull off a victory with a lucky arrow planted in a wizard’s cranium, pride and elation come in equal measure.

Helping you to secure those feelings is a brilliant new addition to gameplay called Mila’s Turnwheel. Each battle grants you a limited number of uses of the Turnwheel, which effectively acts as a rewind button. Missed several attacks in a row? You can opt to spin back time to a few attacks earlier and attempt them all again, hopefully with better luck. Realize that your brilliant “divide and conquer” strategy is actually going to leave your best soldiers dead? Go back several turns and take a totally new approach–you can rewind time as much or as little as you’d like, provided you still have enough cogs in reserve for that battle. This wonderful system allows players to take back critical combat mistakes without having to reset a long and arduous battle and is a tremendous boon whether you are playing with or without permadeath enabled. Once you run out of cogs, though, you’ll have to restart the level to take back mistakes, adding yet another nice layer of strategy–is it really worth a cog to reroll for a critical hit, or should you save it for when you plan your final assault on the tough-as-nails enemy commander? Only you can make the call.

Fire Emblem Echoes is a fantastic remake and a striking departure from modern Fire Emblem staples. What it lacks in interpersonal character relationships and user-controlled “shipping,” it makes up for in meaty, challenging strategy gameplay, engaging exploration sequences, and a tighter overall narrative. Taken both on its own and as part of the larger Fire Emblem franchise, Echoes’s unique elements help it stand out from its contemporaries. If you feel like you’re up to a lengthy, engaging challenge, then Echoes will satisfy in spades.

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Strafe Review

At first glance, Strafe looks as if it’s resting on the laurels of the old-school, hyper-fast, and gory first-person shooters from the ’90s. Oftentimes, it actually does lean heavily on the likes of Doom and Quake, but working within those confines and introducing a roguelike structure, Strafe emerges as a uniquely thrilling shooter with plenty of charm in its own right. It teeters between being mindlessly fun and cautiously strategic to the backdrop of a perfectly executed electronic soundtrack, teaching you something new with each run.

You play as a space scrapper whose job is to go to the derelict ship Icarus and, well, collect scrap, as told through the game’s purposely cheesy FMV tutorial. Nothing else is said as you jump into the main quest; you’re simply sent off only to find out things went awfully wrong and hordes of deformed humanoids are now out for blood. But as you drop into the first level, it’s clear that you’re the one spilling blood, carefully measured in gallons by the game itself, as you shred enemies with your shotgun, railgun, or machine gun.

The game nails its core gameplay loop: blast foes and scavenge to survive the next fight. The pace at which you dash, jump, and strafe makes you nimble, and each fight is a violent dance that ends once the last enemy is downed. It’s also possible to sprint past enemies to reach a level’s end or hop over a mob to avoid getting cornered and create space to fire back.

You’re given the choice of a primary weapon at the start of a run, and kiosks are scattered through the game which provide free randomized upgrades, some more effective than others. Depending on your play-style, the changes to your main weapon’s primary and secondary fire can either be advantageous or a burden. The powerful grenade launcher upgrade for the shotgun, could be replaced by an inaccurate flak cannon. Barrels and explosive bugs can be used to your benefit, and additional weapons scatter the world, which are single-use and vary in effectiveness. While a rocket launcher or plasma rifle work well for hardened foes, a short range needle gun and sonic blaster aren’t particularly useful in most situations. It’s also disappointing that for a game that revolves around shooting, most of the guns lack impact; the machine gun and railgun feel downright piddly.

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Mutated humans, turrets, spiders, and acid-tossing foes populate the world and require you to think fast and adapt to their respective, unique threats. The game isn’t just about withstanding sheer numbers or fending off waves of enemies. In Strafe, one misstep could spell disaster for your run, since damage comes swiftly and in large chunks. Forgetting to check your flanks and watch your back, or being too close to explosive projectiles can be your undoing. This makes critical mistakes deep into a run incredibly dejecting, but by the same token, it’s what creates the ever-increasing tension as you go further along. Like all rogue-style games, the threat of punishment is part of the enjoyment, but it induces a level of repetition that isn’t always inviting.

The scarcity of the game’s two currencies compels you to scan your environment closely, where you’ll find scrap for armor and ammo, and money for items at shops. You’re never given too much of either, so part of the tension in survival is spending these two currencies wisely. While the onus is on you to figure out the best use-case for items and upgrades, as it isn’t immediately clear what things do, such as the four primary weapon attribute pick-ups. However, experimentation and working with what you have is part of the fun.

As you mow down new enemies, a sense of wonder, excitement, and desperation is instilled by the infectious electronic rock track that you can’t stop humming or get out of your head.

The more you experiment with Strafe, the more Easter eggs and secrets begin to reveal themselves. Jump into the first level without choosing a gun, and a wrench will be your primary weapon. Play the Wolfenstein 3D clone arcade machine or the imitation Game Boy and upgrades are spit out. One particular highlight was finding the Superhot shotgun; the game itself turns into Superhot where time only advances when you move, up until the weapon runs out of ammo. Easter eggs like this instill the desire to find more secrets and go beyond simply finishing the final level. Even after 12 hours, there’s still more to discover.

Though the start and tail end of each level remains the same, large portions are procedurally generated, drawing from a handful of preset rooms rearranged in sequence and orientation. While this keeps you guessing to an extent with each run, familiarity eventually creeps in. A few later levels feature branching rooms as you search for power cells to open a door to advance, but you’re more or less funneled in a certain direction through familiar layouts. If there’s a fault here, it’s that Strafe fails to introduce truly unexpected challenges. Thankfully, the game’s redeeming qualities are enough to keep you hooked.

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And one of the strongest hooks is the soundtrack. Sometimes, the urge to hop into the game just to listen to these songs hits, as if you ordered music with a side of gameplay. Level 3-2 is a dark and haunting place with music to match. The blaring synth melody over a catchy bassline coalesce with the up-tempo beat and industrial percussion that makes for a song that’s grimy, horrifying, and inspiring all at the same time. Level 2-1 is your first encounter with open air to relieve the claustrophobia of the first levels. As you mow down new enemies, a sense of wonder, excitement, and desperation is instilled by the infectious electronic rock track that you can’t stop humming or get out of your head. Moments of chaos are bookended with the tranquil, ethereal tracks in each exit room and shop. The music never loses its grip and never disappoints, and it becomes part of Strafe’s personality, adding a significant layer of enjoyment.

While the first levels of Icarus feel pulled straight from the original Doom with its tight corridors and dim lighting, you begin to see subsequent levels open up and tie together. The lo-fi retro aesthetic is colorful and clean, which makes for both silly and terrifying enemies that splatter excessive gore and literally paint the town red. Any semblance of story is told from environment alone, and it’s one of the aspects that make the game alluring. From the shop owners and scientists to the posters and laboratory vats, a typical story of experimentation gone wrong emerges, but only if you pay close attention to your surroundings. It results in quirky and varied set pieces for frantic shooting, and it’s enough to lead you along to the satisfying conclusion.

The lo-fi retro aesthetic is colorful and clean, which makes for both silly and terrifying enemies that splatter excessive gore and literally paint the town red.

However, the game isn’t without its technical issues. Enemies occasionally shoot at you through walls, most apparent in level 3-1, where those with projectile weapons gathered behind a locked door. Occasionally, an actual enemy character model would glitch out and zip across a room and disappear entirely or sneak up behind you to cause unfair damage. Later levels had a few inexplicable frame drops, given the modest system requirements. Thankfully, these issues are rare enough as to not entirely ruin an otherwise refined experience.

As unforgiving, repetitive, and frustrating as it can be, the urge to jump back into the game and take out that frustration on hordes of enemies to the tune of the most-proper soundtrack with a toy box of guns is hard to resist. Strafe wears its influences on its sleeve but stands on its own as a fun, intense, and fast-paced shooter with distinguishable charm.

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Tumbleseed Review

When you first jump into Tumbleseed’s procedurally generated world, even the simplest movements are a struggle. Mastery over its physics comes relatively quickly, but that’s only one of many learning curves you have to overcome to make it up the roguelike’s mountain. It’s a punishingly hard climb. When the game’s difficulty, your skill, and a little bit of luck line up, it’s incredibly rewarding–but they frequently fall out of balance, resulting only in frustration.

Tumbleseed’s unique take on 2D platforming puts you, a small seed, on a movable balance beam as you ascend an obstacle-filled hellscape, moving each side with the analog sticks to climb bit by bit. As you move the beam from side to side, the seed rolls back and forth, so learning to control its momentum is key. The goal is to reach the top, avoiding deadly pitfalls and an army of bug monsters while collecting currency-like crystals so you can use various seed powers. Learning how to use momentum to your advantage without falling into a hole is the easy part–doing all of that while managing your powers and killing or avoiding enemies is where things get tricky.

In addition to holes, traps, and monsters, the mountain is also peppered with plots of soil where you can use crystals to plant your various powers. You can switch between your powers at any time, and they transform you: Plant a crystal as Thornvine and you gain a sharp new thorn to pierce enemies with, while Heartseed grants you a quarter of a heart. In addition to the default powers, you can pick up a few of the 30 or so total on your way up the mountain, ranging from a seed that shoots projectiles to one that grants invisibility. You have to make split-second decisions about what you need in any given moment, whether it’s attack power, defense, or more crystals, and a miscalculation can prove deadly.

Just like the levels, your strategy has to be ever-changing. The available powers are entirely up to chance; you get to choose between two random powers once every level, and some runs have more useful options than others. Learning to perfect the first level isn’t an exercise in memorizing enemies or laying out a specific plan of action; instead, it’s about learning from past mistakes and staying as flexible as possible.

The challenge is in using what you have to the best of your ability, and it’s genuinely satisfying to kill an enemy with projectiles one run and slip by them undetected the next. Just when I thought I’d figured out the best way to survive the mountain, the mountain met me with a new enemy or a power-up I’d never seen before, and like with each movement on the balance beam, I was always shifting slightly to try to adjust.

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Tumbleseed’s biggest problem, though, is that it doesn’t do anything to ease you into new challenges. The difficulty from one level to the next–and from one run to the next–is inconsistent, even when taking into account that everything is procedurally generated. Going from the first area to the second is a huge difficulty spike thanks to unforgiving enemies, and I had long since mastered the first (and replayed it dozens of times) before I successfully traversed the second. No matter how good I got at deftly rolling in the narrow space between two pitfalls or how perfectly I allocated my crystals and powers, I’d still get sent tumbling down to the start by a hole that suddenly appeared underneath me or a gang of four spiders that each take three hits to kill. At a certain point, that difficulty stops being an enjoyable challenge and instead feels unfair.

Though you can set up teleporters that you earn at certain points on the mountain to skip earlier sections, it’s in your best interest to run through them anyway and stock up on powers and supplies; but after doing that, it’s much more frustrating to die for a stupid reason halfway up the mountain when you finally lucked out and got the two powers you like the most. It’s rare to get both the best powers and the easier enemies in the same playthrough, and after a while it feels like a cruel joke.

That said, each time I finally reached a new level, I was ecstatic. However you manage it, it’s as rewarding to survive as it is frustrating to fail. But when those rewards start to feel further and further apart, it can be difficult to keep coming back for another climb.

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