Puzzle platformers and investigative mystery games have little in common. Platformers bounce the player from screen to screen with little care for the details, whereas investigative games have the player analysing every little detail with reams of text. While seemingly incompatible concepts, Canadian studio 13AM Games has ambitiously combined the two genres in Double Cross—its third game after party hit Runbow and arcade throwback Pirate Pop Plus. OnlySP’s Chris Hepburn was impressed by the preview build when he interviewed 13AM Games last year, and the final result is a colourful romp through space that provides platforming and intrigue in equal measure.
Double Cross‘s protagonist, Zahra Sinclair, is an agent of Regulators of Interdimensional Frontiers and Technology (RIFT), an elite police squad in charge of protecting the multiverse. During a typical day of training, a break-in occurs and a powerful energy weapon is stolen. From the evidence left behind, the ‘Suspect X’ who stole this weapon must be one of Zahra’s fellow agents. Zahra vows to find the traitor and begins her journey travelling between different dimensions to gather evidence on the culprit.
While the game’s bright cartoony aesthetic might bring titles including Mega Man to mind, Double Cross draws inspiration from a wide array of platforming history’s greatest titles; hints of Sonic, Super Meat Boy, and Rayman Legends are all present in the mix. The three worlds all present a different style of puzzle platforming. Gootopia features rising and falling poisonous slime, blobs of goo to swim through, bouncy surface puzzles a la Portal 2, and an epic chase sequence away from a wave of slime. The Funderdome focuses on precision platforming, with flickering neon platforms, an arcade section, and lasers to avoid while sneaking through a mafia boss’s base. Reptarria has a higher concentration of enemies, with waves of dinosaur creatures, conveyor belts, magnetised platforms, spike traps, and leaps across a moving convoy. Some areas of the game can be intimidating thanks to masses of instant-killing spikes or lasers, but generous checkpoints and the lack of a timer allow the player to approach each section at their own pace, leaving the difficulty tough but fair. The three levels that comprise each world can be tackled in any order, and a fourth is unlocked when the former three have been completed. These unlocked levels are where the game shines brightest, combining all the puzzles of the previous three levels in the lead-up to a formidable boss fight.
The worlds of Double Cross have ‘Upgradium’ crystals hidden throughout, which can be used to upgrade Zahra’s abilities. Along with permanent upgrades that give Zahra new combat moves and more health, the game has equippable upgrades that can be changed in and out at any checkpoint. These buffs modify stats such as combat strength, damage taken from spike pits, the reach of certain moves, and the speed of healing abilities. The right combination of upgrades can make all the difference in a tricky section, and players will want to revisit completed levels to find any Upgradium they may have missed.
Zahra’s movement through the worlds feels fast and fluid, with all the expected abilities of a platformer such as wall jumping, grabbing ledges, light and heavy attacks, and dodging. Unique to Double Cross is Zahra’s Proton Slinger, a device that shoots out a laser arm to grab things. The slinger is used in myriad ways throughout the game: flinging Zahra through the air, grabbing and returning enemy projectiles, placing slime coats onto different surfaces, and holding onto a balloon while floating through a spike maze, to name but a few. The mechanic takes a little getting used to, but a robust tutorial and plenty of time to practise ensures players will soon be naturally slinging across the world.
Combat is simple but competent, with most enemies easily dispatched with a few punches. Zahra gains a variety of fighting moves as she levels up, but, outside the boss fights, the more complicated moves feel underutilised. An energy meter allows Zahra to collect energy from enemies and well-timed dodges, which can be used for a burst attack, a laser, or healing. Given the ease of combat and the plethora of spike pits, the energy is primarily used for healing.
Between levels, Zahra returns to RIFT Headquarters, where she can chat to fellow RIFT staff and piece together clues on who Suspect X could be. The characters are all well written and likeable, which adds an interesting tension when any one of them could be the traitor. Case notes are saved on the pause menu, and evidence gathered can be shown to any of the crew members. The right crew member will be able to analyse the item to help with the case, but showing evidence to the wrong person can be worthwhile in its own right.
The graphics of Double Cross could be ripped straight from a Saturday morning cartoon. The characters are bright and colourful, with distinct styles and personalities. RIFT’s agents come from all different parts of the multiverse. Some examples of the diversity on offer are the enormous flower man who is Zahra’s trainer, the merwoman Commissioner Wiseheart in charge of investigations, a cat girl with access to cat videos from all versions of the internet, a scientific Sasquatch, and a tall man with Popeye-style forearms. A lost alien with the unpronounceable name V”!!k}~X is the cutest tentacle monster to ever exist. Environmental details are similarly varied, from the green goopey swamps of Gootopia to Reptarria’s desert factories and The Funderdome’s futuristic neon Japanese city.
Music is similarly energetic, taking cues from the environments, including bubbly noises in the Gootopia soundtrack and metal clanging for Reptarria’s factories. A beautiful piano medley of the different tracks plays over the end credits, and the music player unlocked after finishing the game is worth a look-in.
The sound effects, on the other hand, are a bit muted. Zahra’s fighting yelps are louder than the sound of a hit connecting, which is partially responsible for the combat lacking impact. Certain aspects of puzzle design would have been aided with more pronounced sound effects, such as a crackling sound on electrified boxes to aid in identifying hazards. The sound mix can be altered in the options menu and dropping the background music back a few degrees can help.
A splash screen at the start of the game recommends using a gamepad, which is clearly the intended way to play. Keyboard and mouse controls function well enough, but the mouse, oddly, cannot be used in menus. Controller support is plug and play, and all buttons can be remapped if desired. Remapping the dodge ability to a face button is recommended over the default shoulder button allocation, which, considering the analogue triggers of modern controllers, feels sluggish.
Double Cross is a short game, with a run time of five to seven hours depending on the collection of optional Upgradium. The focus is definitely on quality over quantity, with each level having unique puzzle elements and style, but some players may be left wanting more. The arcade level in the Funderdome also does not really fit, with a Flappy Bird clone and other mundane minigames taking up a frustrating chunk of the short run time. With how well the rest of the levels are designed, these arcade games grind the pace to a halt and would better serve as optional extras.
Some parts of Double Cross‘s interface feel unfinished or could use extra polish. At the time of review, quitting the game to desktop is impossible; Ctrl-Alt-Delete has to be used every time. Skipping through text is also not possible, the ‘Fun’ section on the options screen does not appear to be implemented, and multiple save slots would be appreciated.
In the end, though, these gripes are small issues in an otherwise excellent game. Double Cross mixes puzzle platforming with a mysterious story beautifully. Zahra’s journey may be brief, but it is loaded with personality, charm, and a whole lot of brilliant platforming.
RAGE 2 Review – Glorious Guns but a Shoddy Structure
A Conflicted Beginning
The opening moments of RAGE 2 are reminiscent of little so much as Killzone. A gravelly voice gives a stirring speech about superiority and the need to quash the rampant spread of lesser humans. The speaker is General Cross, a bald, deformed head—Scolar Visari transplanted across the years and franchises—atop a robotic body. Furthermore, like Killzone, such charisma and character are reserved for the enemy faction, here known as The Authority.
Players quickly get the choice of either a male or female Walker before being tossed into a high-octane battlefield overrun by cyborgs and mutants alike. Armed with only a few basic weapons, Walker is an effective killing machine in this first conflict, and the gameplay experience is as satisfying as they come. The guns are responsive and feel powerful, while the level design invites the kind of non-stop strafing and perpetual motion popularised by classics such as Quake and DOOM.
As veteran gamers might expect from past experiences, the battle goes badly. The heroes are killed, and Walker’s hometown is razed. In using this premise RAGE 2 attempts tired pity-me story beats to invest the player (at this point, unsuccessfully). The hometown hero (and Walker’s mother figure) is slain in the battle, which begins a quest that combines personal vengeance with the global desire to do what is best for the world: stop the monsters.
Before that, players must first expand their skill set, and so the sublime first-person shooter gameplay is joined with RPG mechanics that promise immense depth to the gunplay out in the Wasteland, though the first of these so-termed superpowers is underwhelming, providing the ability to dash out of harm’s way.
With the story set up, the game shifts gears, putting players into an armoured vehicle, and the grippy handling feels as good as the gunplay. The vehicle physics are decidedly arcade-infused, caring little for such nuances as terrain. Instead, all that matters is putting the pedal to the metal and tearing off towards the first objective (and trying to not get too sidetracked in the process).
Despite all of this—the satisfying gunplay, the competent (if so far unspectacular) story, the pleasurable vehicle controls—something feels missing in RAGE 2, a certain spark that will make everything just click.
Gunplay To Die For
Shaking the dust of the ruined Vineland from Walker’s boots for the first time is a bit like bungee jumping. Although the player’s time in the village has been short, they have become acclimatised to a certain po-faced tone and blazingly fast gameplay. Suddenly, though, the security of familiarity drops away as Walker freefalls into the wasteland.
Three story-focused questlines are provided as immediate options, but every path is peppered with distractions and side missions that beg to be roughhoused. After only an hour’s random exploration, the overworld map is littered with icons denoting all sorts of miscellaneous activities.
The Arks, in particular, call for attention. In the fiction, they are similar to Fallout’s Vaults in their stated purpose of repopulating the world post-apocalypse, but they serve primarily as a means of increasing Walker’s abilities. As enticing and—importantly—useful as the Arks are, they highlight a problem about the open world that manifests quite quickly: almost every Ark is blocked by a cohort of enemies, with another set arriving once Walker has acquired her newest skill.
Indeed, most of the activities scattered about the world amount to combat challenges against ever more dangerous foes. Occasionally, random NPCs will offer races, but these are not frequent enough to offset the sheer number of bullets that players will fire both on foot and in their vehicles. Thankfully, many of the enemy outposts, bandit dens, and bounty hideouts feature bespoke, open designs, meaning that players are never at liberty to settle into a single pattern of clearing these challenges.
Further adding diversity (though not nearly enough) are the different combat proclivities of each faction. The Goons and The Shrouded will be the most familiar to gamers, each showcasing a combination of pop-n-shoot gunplay, explosives, and close-range attackers. The mutants are more animalistic, preferring melee. Meanwhile, The Authority uses brute force and high firepower to wipe out any opposition. Although players need to be aware of the unique tactics and skills of each faction, none force the player to change their strategy; the best approach is always to move fast and keep pulling the trigger and, eventually, every enemy breaks down into scattered giblets.
The ever-expanding suite of options, compelling gunplay, varied level design, and satisfying difficulty all ensure that these encounters are never boring, but these traits are not enough to prevent a growing sense of tedium. In many ways, venturing unstructured through the wasteland feels as though the developers had a hammer of a gameplay loop, so every problem had to be a nail.
The bungee jumping analogy, then, comes full circle. After the thrill of freefall, the cord snaps back and the jumper, before too long, arrives back on terra firma. RAGE 2 follows this pattern, as the freedom of tearing across a vast environment always reins itself in to fighting.
However, novelty is not that not-quite-identifiable thing that lurks just beyond reach. Even moving from vehicle to foot changes things up, and the ridiculous amount of options in combat keeps things perpetually fresh.
A Story Lost Amidst the Bombast
The claims about story being a focal point of RAGE 2’s development ring hollow. A forgiving estimate of total narrative-led play time would clock about six hours—a realistic estimate, four. The disappointment spans more than just the brevity, however.
Walker is exactly the kind of faceless, figureless protagonist that has plagued the shooter genre for years. Her bland, no-nonsense demeanour is a dampening lens through which to view this madcap apocalypse, and it undercuts the otherwise energetic tone. Whether interacting with the dour John Marshall or the despicable Doctor Kvasir, Walker remains unflappable, the consummate professional, and that is to the detriment of the whole game. Indeed, her personality—or, rather, the lack thereof—is a clear demonstration of that missing something that has proven so elusive. More on that later, though.
With the story being so short, the lack of impact should come as little surprise. The invasion of Vineland in the opening moments is, by far, the most interesting plot point of the entire game. Such narrative necessities as momentum, surprise, and emotion are jettisoned in favour of a straightforward quest for revenge. Unfortunately, the story is so comprehensively forgettable that nothing else is worth saying about it.
To return now to that something; Walker may want for a personality, but the game does not, and this juxtaposition highlights a central shortcoming: a lack of cohesion. RAGE 2 feels like a Frankenstein’s monster of conflicting visions. The remarkably tight combat and hand-crafted locations are designed for the most frenetic of shooters. However, the wider world makes the gunplay feel like just one part of a design that incorporates meaningless RPG progression and purchase mechanics and a considerable amount of driving from one location to another, with regular pit stops to clear enemy hubs (until that process becomes more tiresome than it has any right to be).
Even the world feels disparate, the map stitched together out of box-ticking biomes. To be fair, the deserts, jungles, waterfalls, and canyons all bear the same breathtaking beauty, but they all blend together into a meaningless mish-mash, with the gameplay locations instead being primarily industrial warehouses. The natural environment is wasted, which makes the open world seem like nothing more than padding—another area where mismatched design principles lead to a game that wants to be everything and suffers because of that ambition.
A Slipshod Structure
Bethesda has already laid out a roadmap of post-launch support for RAGE 2, and that has raised fears among the community that the game adheres to a service model. Such concerns can safely be laid to rest. Although the storyline leaves much to be desired, RAGE 2 is plump with content, as evidenced by the dozens—maybe even hundreds—of markers sprinkled across the map.
Unfortunately, the game suffers too much from its freeform design. Players are immediately free to hunt down the Arks that unlock new abilities. As such, every skill and weapon can be unlocked within a handful of hours, which is disastrous for pacing. Even more troublesome, the RPG mechanics serve no real purpose. Players need never purchase a single upgrade to succeed, and the sheer number of different currencies make doing so a chore anyway.
Because of this lack of structure, a game that could still be interesting 30 hours in can also feel worn our within a dozen, and that suggests the post-launch support will likely only appeal to a dedicated fanbase. The challenges, vehicles, and events scheduled to arrive in the coming months will likely not change up the core gameplay structure all that much. Instead, judging by the little information already available, they may simply give dedicated fans more of what they desire.
On a completely different note, but equally as concerning as the game structure is the enemy design. Beginning with General Cross and extending across the Goons, mutants, and other factions, RAGE 2 seems to take a perverse pleasure in vilifying the Other, the outsider, the disabled, the religious. Even Doctor Kvasir, as a former Authority scientist with questionable morals, is a deformed being. By contrast, the undisputed heroes are all healthy and whole. While problematic in some respects, this subtle and most likely unintentional subtext is easily overlooked and unlikely to affect the enjoyment of most gamers.
Simply put, RAGE 2 is a strange beast. Perhaps that was inevitable as the follow-up to a middling first effort developed across two very different studios. Perhaps that shared production is also the reason for the lack of unity. Whatever the reason, RAGE 2 is clearly best suited to a particular kind of player. The game offers an often-beautiful environment combined with easy, enjoyable traversal mechanics. Comprising the bulk of the experience is some of the finest and most diverse gunplay combat to be found gaming today. However, these charms are let down somewhat by the lacking story and structure and a general feeling of a tonal mismatch between the bland protagonist and the madcap world.
Reviewed on Xbox One X.
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