Detective Pikachu Returns, Assassin's Creed Mirage and more Fall games reviewed
Assassin's Creed Mirage and Detective Pikachu Returns both come out this week. Wildly different as the two games are, they're both reviving classic designs from their respective companies, Ubisoft and Nintendo.
The early Fall has already brought a veritable cornucopia of quality games as well, from indie puzzlers like Cocoon and Chants of Sennaar, to stand-out expansions to Cyberpunk 2077 and Resident Evil 4. NPR staff and contributors reviewed the headlining games from the season so far.
Detective Pikachu Returns
As I prepared to play the review copy of Detective Pikachu Returns, I couldn't help but wonder: after the success of the 2019 Detective Pikachu movie, would this even be the same game I remembered? The answer to that mystery is, yes — decidedly so.
Just like the later movie, the 2016 3DS game starred the gumshoe duo of Tim Goodman and his Pikachu, who he can understand and who speaks in full sentences. As they solve mysterious happenings in Ryme city, they'll also try to find Tim's missing dad, Pikachu's original partner (sorry movie fans, no Ryan Reynolds this time!).
Detective Pikachu Returns begins by reintroducing you to a now college-aged Tim and catching you up on events from the previous game. From incident one, Tim and Pikachu continue to solve mysteries, with Tim handling human interviews while Pikachu interrogates the Pokémon.
The new game brings fresh tools to crack your cases. You can use the powers of other Pokémon you meet in your investigation. For example, you can use Growlithe's powerful nose to pick up a scent, or use Luxray to see through walls. The one thing these skills don't help, however, is the slow storytelling.
I'm no stranger to these kinds of games. I'm an extreme fan of the Ace Attorney series, so I'm aware of how wordy the genre can get, but the pacing felt lethargic for such simple dialogue, especially in fully voiced scenes. In addition to the verbosity, the game uses (mostly) fixed camera angles, which don't help you properly explore to find clues.
All in all, I still found that the game matched the charm of its predecessor, even if it lacks the verve of the movie. Detective Pikachu Returns' characters and interactions are fun enough to entice Pokémon fans, younger players and newcomers to the sleuthing genre.
— Tre Watson, Audio Engineer
Assassin's Creed Mirage
I haven't been the biggest fan of the last few Assassin's Creed titles. Ever since the series took on a more open-world, RPG-esque persona, I haven't made it very far into the games. Assassin's Creed Mirage, however, promises to return to the franchise's slower-paced, stealth-based gameplay. For the most part, it gets it very right.
Mirage goes right back to the basics. Call it fan-service or nostalgia but after playing the first four or five missions, Assassin's Creed Mirage feels like a proper time-machine. After the staple slightly-too-long prologue, you're parkouring through the streets of 9th century Baghdad, sneaking around guards, planning out which to kill first, and performing exquisitely-animated silent takedowns.
Combat has been simplified and treated as more of a last resort — a decision I welcomed after my frenzied, death-filled attempts at the previous installments. The balance between methodical stealth and lively sword combat (when I was inevitably bad at the stealth) felt thoughtfully adjusted. Mission locations are back to being smaller arenas that seem designed to give you a bit of an edge (the local guards never learn to use the buddy system, making it easy to pick them off!).
Assassin's Creed Mirage is not perfect. The voice acting can be stilted and the acrobatic traversal feels more sluggish than I remember (which may be due to a controls layout that didn't quite make sense to me). But if you've got rose-tinted glasses for the original Assassin's Creed games, Mirage certainly looks like a refreshing oasis.
— Graham Rebhun, software engineer, Publishing
- The Fabulous Fear Machine
- Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty
- Lies of P
- Fae Farm
- Resident Evil 4 - Separate Ways
- Mortal Kombat 1
- Mineko's Night Market
- Chants of Sennaar
- Sea of Stars
- Counter-Strike 2
- Blasphemous 2
The Fabulous Fear Machine
Contaminated water supplies. Lab-grown diseases. Modern cannibals and the Boogeyman; The Fabulous Fear Machine will have you afraid to do anything... except play more.
This strategy title published by AMC Games elicits uneasiness throughout each mission. The campaign follows morally bankrupt aspirants eager for selfish conquest. Of course, by making a deal with Kirlian, the malevolent entity who offers the Machine's power to grant wishes, the contenders you meet are woefully unaware of the atrocities to come.
Each mission starts with your character needing to spread fear across the map, with certain conditions to win, much like the board game Pandemic or mobile game Plague Inc. You'll have several tools to maximize your efficiency: "legends" that can be deployed and leveled up to generate fear and "agents" who can explore new territory, farm resources and more. You'll encounter actors fighting against your cause, and you'll need to tactfully deal with them with dialogue options that allowing for temporary peace or escalating to all out war. Although your opponents' demise is not mission critical, your saboteurs can spy on them, unveiling their secrets and ginning up plots to turn the world against them.
The game features sardonic twists of fate reminiscent of Twisted Metal, and disturbingly violent scenes that would fit right in an issue of The Walking Dead. The scariest part for me was imagining the inhumanities occurring in real life. Am I going to be kidnapped by my downstairs neighbor? Could I be hypnotized by subliminal messages in music? The Fabulous Fear Machine brings freaky thoughts to the forefront and provides a delightfully spooky spin on the strategy genre.
— Bryant Denton, contributor
Cocoon is dazzling. Where many puzzle games insist on teasing the brain with a far-off solution, Cocoon feels intent to please. The gameplay has you jump between realities using orbs that each contain their own little worlds, bursting with environmental puzzles. Each solution feels innately satisfying and naturalistic. Without uttering a word, the game seamlessly ties that intuitive sensibility to its story, moody music, and stunning polygonal universes, making it feel like you and your moth-like avatar were born in synch for the explicit purpose of solving each conundrum.
Not a minute is wasted either; instead of filling the moments between each victory with extraneous mechanics or diversions, developer Geometric Interactive opts to stack puzzles back-to-back. It feels like a better compromise than the start-stop nature that defines a lot of other puzzlers. As you progress through Cocoon, it'll really push the boundaries of what seems possible. Just when you think you've reached the edge, it'll push you right past it — the way it uses its teleportation motif is nothing short of mind-blowing.
Between its jaw-dropping environments, creative boss fights, and flow-state-inducing puzzles, Cocoon is a rare gem that's undoubtedly worth your time.
— Charlie Wacholz, contributor
Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty
I would have never thought a video game so over-the-top as Cyberpunk 2077 would make me reflect on my life choices, but Phantom Liberty is no ordinary DLC. The game tells a story of service and sacrifice for the greater good for the New United States of America. Ridiculous as its set pieces are, it made me recall two oaths I swore to the real US — once when I enlisted in the Army and another when I became a citizen.
Phantom Liberty opens with a boom, and I'm not talking about the nearly catastrophic launch of the base game almost three years ago. CD Projekt Red's storytelling shines through an astonishing opening similar to the base game's Konpeki Plaza Heist. It then leads to a James Bond-esque story of treachery and espionage, leaving you questioning who to trust as corporations and the revived government fight for control of Night City. Not only does the DLC have Keanu Reeves return for more Johnny Silverhand cameos, but it also stars Idris Elba as Solomon Reed — a cold, calculating master spy of the Federal Intelligence Agency.
Phantom Liberty's release also coincides with the 2.0 launch of Cyberpunk 2077. The game has finally achieved the ambitious scope it so spectacularly failed to deliver in 2020 (if you can keep up with its updated system requirements, that is). The new story delivers as well, and will leave you questioning if you made the right choices and if your sacrifices were worth it. As sobered as it made me feel, the one choice I'm not re-evaluating is the one that had me explore the neon-lit city again.
— Daniel Morgan, IT Systems Engineer
Lies of P
My Pinocchio wears an owl mask and hunts frenzied puppets and undead carcasses with a steampunk scythe-whip. Or at least he did until he got his hands on a sweet katana and some all-black alchemist's attire to compliment his Chalamet-esque coif. Oh, and did I mention he's also got a mechanical grappling arm that resembles an antique sewing machine? Lies of P wears its love for FromSoftware's genre-defining titles on the Fashion Souls sleeve of its Sekiro-esque prosthetic arm.
Its gorgeous Belle Époque style feels incredibly apt, not just because it sets the action in the era when The Adventures of Pinocchio was written, but also because we may be in a golden age for these "Soulslike" games. It's truly impressive how close developer Neowiz has come to capturing the quality of games like Bloodborne without feeling stale or merely derivative.
Lies of P even introduces exciting and novel mechanics, particularly in its weapon customization system that enables you to disassemble and swap the blades and handles of weapons to tailor damage types and movesets to your preferences (though you can't break down and rearrange the game's powerful boss weapons). Some other innovations feel less successful. I'd personally like to disassemble the entire gold coin fruit and wishstone system in favor of deeper NPC summon customization, a la Elden Ring's Spirit Ashes, or actual co-op with friends.
It can also be tough — borderline Sekiro-level tough — and you will likely hit some walls where you wish you had meaningful support. In the most challenging boss fights, NPC summons did little more than expedite the comparatively easy first phase, consistently dying and leaving me solo to face a wildly more difficult second phase. That said, in true Soulslike style, I did leap from my couch and shout with joy when I eked out a victory against an endgame boss I had failed to beat in my previous 50+ attempts. Encouragingly for those who have yet to finish the game, a patch has since made the hardest enemy encounters more forgiving.
Punishing difficulty aside, Lies of P warrants a spot in any Soulslike fan's library, and a certain post-ending hook has me very excited about opportunities for Neowiz to further fine-tune and expand the game's universe.
— Justin Lucas, director, Communications
Fae Farm scratches the itch. It's a farming, mining, bug-catching, and fishing simulator that transports you to Azoria, an island besieged by pesky magic. You eventually learn to use an enchanted staff to fight back against the sorcerous threats — wily thorns and "Jumbles," malevolent household objects magically brought to life.
I loved running around Azoria, springing off the tops of purple mushrooms and jumping into the sea. The fantastical elements brought me back to Wylde Flowers and Disney Dreamlight Valley. But while it nails many elements of the cozy game genre, it doesn't compare favorably to classic Stardew Valley's deep cast to court and befriend. Fae Farm's characters ring hollow, with extremely repetitive dialogue (if I hear "I'm looking forward to planting my spring crops!" one more time, I'll snap). The in-game days also fly by, and it's easy to feel like you've gotten nothing done before being transported back to your house at nightfall.
Fae Farm doesn't offer many surprises, especially if you're in the cozy gaming crowd. But I still find myself going back to Azoria. With adorable quality-of-life details (your watering can fills up as you swim!) and co-operative multiplayer, Fae Farm charms and delights, especially for life-sim newcomers.
— Arfie Ghedi, 1A producer and contributor
Resident Evil 4 - Separate Ways
Separate Ways is an ambitious single-player expansion to my favorite game this year. The campaign follows side character Ada Wong as she makes her way through many of the same locations and beats as Resident Evil 4. But unlike the original Separate Ways — which appeared as an extra mode on the PlayStation 2 version of the game — this is more than a low-effort retread of familiar ideas. There are new scenarios, scares, enemies — and most importantly, enough fan service to send die-hard Resident Evil fans into a frenzy.
Is it essential? That depends on how much you love the original, and how willing you are to part with ten of your hard-earned dollars. If you can overlook some uneven pacing across its five-ish hours, the highs are more than worth the price of admission. The real joy is seeing how Capcom continues to capitalize on nostalgia for the original in a way that doesn't feel cloying. If this is the end of new RE4 content, it's a worthwhile send off. Hasta luego.
— Vincent Acovino, assistant producer, All Things Considered
Visai Games' Venba is the textbook definition of "small but mighty." While I completed the game in one afternoon, it packs a lot of visual splendor and emotional heft into its few hours.
Venba follows the lives of the titular character and her husband, immigrants from India looking to build a family in 1980's Canada. Throughout the game, you assume the role of Venba, supporting her husband as he struggles to assimilate to a culture that's not always welcoming, while processing the emotions and fears that come with parenting a young son who is almost too eager to do so. With every new trial, Venba shows her love through her cooking, making vibrant meals using recipes from her childhood.
The spices, colors and ingredients come to life as you solve puzzles to restore forgotten parts of the recipes and make meals that you wish that you could taste through the screen. The game plays very much like Nintendo's Cooking Mama, but with so much heart that at the end of the game, I want to come back for seconds (or thirds!).
— Rakiesha Chase-Jackson, project manager, Member Partnership
Mortal Kombat 1
Winning a match in Mortal Kombat 1 can feel like cresting a mountain. Nothing beats the euphoria of victory, but you might feel a bit battered from the work it took to get there.
You'll certainly get a rush from the martial arts action that has made the series a "klassic." But a new twist on the formula has me on the fence. This latest entry aims to pump up the flow of matches with a feature called "Kameo" fighters. When you choose a character to control in battle, you'll also pick a partner for various assist attacks. It's an intriguing strategic element, but your main fighter has limited mobility whenever their Kameo is on-screen, making it hard to capitalize on the advantage they give you.
This new feature does not solve a recurring issue – a rigid combo structure that demands memorization and limits free expression. Learning to chain your character's moves together is difficult enough already, which makes calling in your Kameo fighter even more cumbersome.
Though the game's story offers an approachable entry point by rebooting the Mortal Kombat timeline, newcomers who want to stick with the franchise will need to get used to the game's rhythm. If the challenge intrigues, you may, eventually, find it rewarding. But if you already live for the spectacle of the series' violent Fatalities, and have the patience needed to sharpen your skills, Mortal Kombat 1 will slake your bloodlust.
- Lindsay Totty, Morning Edition producer
Mineko's Night Market
Recently arrived at a Japanese-inspired island at the base of "Mt. Fugu," it falls on the titular Mineko to rebuild the village through crafting, fishing, running errands, and selling items at the weekly Night Market. As Mineko, you'll quickly become besties with Bobo, a boy in town who is leading the charge to prove the reality of the mythical Sun Cat, Nikko.
To say that I am obsessed with Mineko's Night Market is an understatement. I immediately fell in love with the cartoony characters and painterly flourishes packed with nods to Japanese culture. I love the jokes, the sarcasm, the deadpan dialogue. And, of course, I love THE CATS! There are so. many. cats. First, you have to evade the secretive suit-clad agents who cat-nap them, and then sneak around freeing them in each area of the island. After that, you get to pet the cats who meow, purr, and follow you around. In the most ridiculously delightful aspect, the cats also vomit hairballs (off-screen, thankfully) that you can collect and sell at the general store or at the Night Market. New vendors and their rare inventories arrive as you make more money, and each market ends with a whimsical activity, be it a parade or racing cats around a track.
While I've relished the game, I should note that the Switch version has occasional lag and slow load times. Also be advised that it only saves when you wake up each morning; you can't save manually! But overall, if you're a cozy gamer and cat-lover, you'll definitely enjoy Mineko's Night Market!
— Nina Fill, Project Coordinator, Training
Chants of Sennaar
Chants of Sennaar had me at its radicals.
No, not political radicals, though you will be subtly restructuring the world's society as you go. Radicals, as in the building blocks of Chinese characters and the Kanji I studied so fervently when I lived in Japan. While Sennaar's languages are fictional, they hooked me by following the same root logic I internalized years ago.
You'll first catch glimpses of this pattern by noting how the glyph for "human," for example, also shows up in those for "preacher" and "warrior." You'll observe that each verb has a horizontal line at the bottom, or that a square sign denotes a building. You'll wander the game's fantastical tower of Babel, sketching out a dictionary based on symbols found in books, on statues, or spoken in speech bubbles.
As you hypothesize and confirm the meaning of each glyph, you'll piece them together to decode short sentences and conquer puzzles — like learning a passphrase to open a door, or a numeral system to unravel a simple science problem. If that sounds like a glorified Rosetta Stone course to you, think again. The game gently doles out its riddles as you converse with its mysterious residents and ascend through its marvelous cell-shaded architecture. While it fired the same neurons that absorbed Kanji years ago, Chants of Sennaar rarely felt like schoolwork to me.
The game's limited vocabulary might constrain the sophistication of its story, but by the end of its ten-hour journey, I excelled at making connections — be it between the scripts themselves or between the peoples that communicated with them. If you're enamored with linguistics, puzzles, or cerebral adventure games like Tunic and Outer Wilds, Chants of Sennaar will make you want to sing its praises.
— James Mastromarino, NPR Gaming lead and Here & Now producer
Sea of Stars
Sea of Stars is a retro RPG heavily inspired by classics like Chrono Trigger and Final Fantasy. You follow two "Solstice Warriors": Valere, who has the power of the moon, and Zale, who has the power of the sun. Together, they use their Eclipse magic to fight off otherworldly creatures called Dwellers.
While it starts as a conventional coming-of-age fantasy story, Sea of Stars paces its emotional plot masterfully. but it's the combat that really shines. It's a turn-based battle system, but like in Super Mario RPG, you can time attacks to deal more damage or partially block attacks. For example, Valere's "Moonerang" skill lets you get in as many hits as possible by pressing a button to deflect the projectile. Each successful input speeds up the bounces between Valere and her opponents — it stops when you finally mistime an input.
With an ace cast and lush pixel art — Sea of Stars shouldn't be overlooked even in 2023's excellent game release calendar.
— George Yang, contributor
Gunbrella is a revenge story. You play a man whose family was mysteriously taken from him, with only a strange Shotgun/Umbrella hybrid left at the scene of the crime. This "Gunbrella" allows you to jump, float, dash, shield and, of course, shoot your way through a gorgeously pixelated adventure that really nails the grungy, "noir-punk" environment the game touts.
However, even with its beautiful art and atmospheric soundtrack, I couldn't help but feel let down by the gameplay. I sailed easily through the combat on Normal difficulty, and the intriguing movement mechanics eventually grew stale. Gunbrella had me wanting more, well, Gunbrella.
For how unique of a weapon the Gunbrella is, I didn't feel like the game made me fully exploit it across the eight hours it took me to beat. Few areas encouraged me to do anything beyond using it as an extended jump maneuver. Alternate ammo items (buzzsaws, grenades, rifle rounds) came too infrequently. Only in the final hours did the platforming become challenging enough to give me a glimpse of what the game was shooting for.
Gunbrella ultimately squanders its great potential. The few moments where the game fully leaned into the abilities of the Gunbrella were fantastic and satisfying. But when the credits rolled, I was left wishing there had been more of those moments.
— Graham Rebhun, software engineer, Programming
It's September 27th. As you hop onto CS:GO, a theme song you've never heard blasts through your headset and a bright orange screen welcomes you with the words "Counter-Strike 2." The day has finally arrived. Counter-Strike has dominated the esport scene since 2000 and Valve hopes its latest version will deepen its hold on the first-person shooter genre.
Modernization of any game is always a scary feat; why change something that isn't broken? Counter-Strike 2 does it right by retaining the classic maps, while improving smoke mechanics, weapon drop audio cues, and the game's overall look. There is a slight learning curve, so they added a new option to visually aid beginners in how weapon recoil works. I am neither a beginner nor good at the game, and I appreciate this addition. But CS2's gameplay remains very simple, and simple is good. It's got something for everyone, whether you just want to play some quick matches, climb the rank play system, or trade hundreds or even thousands of dollars in real cash in the cutthroat weapon skin market (for the record, each skin seems to have transferred over from CS:GO without a hitch). Counter-Strike has stood its ground among other FPS giants such as Call of Duty without changing its formula, and the newest update proves the series isn't going to lapse anytime soon.
— Paul Rex Rivera, Security Engineer
Blasphemous 2 enchanted the art history nerd in me. Inspired by the gothic paintings of Francisco Goya and the Catholic Holy Week traditions of Andalusia, where the game's studio is based, you play "The Penitent" — a warrior equipped with magical prayers, paired rapiers, a sword and a huge flail-like censor. After some scanty expository dialogue, you're set on a quest to ascend to the heights of a fantastical city that rests on the shoulders of three colossal statues.
The game's glittering pixel art and church choir soundtrack kept me engaged, even as the uncompromising combat left me battered and bloodied. At first, its labyrinthine world confounded me, but as I learned its rhythms, I dashed through its stunning environments: a cathedral risen from the sea; an upside-down tower dripping candle-wax and lava; a fantastical, mirrored take on the real-world Alhambra.
Along the way, you'll encounter a bizarre cast at least as perplexing as the riddling characters of Bloodborne or Elden Ring. I can't articulate every nuance of Blasphemous 2's plot, but its disembodied giant hands, towering veiled nuns, and hulking knights left an indelible impression. The vibes are simply exquisite.
That's not to say that I didn't stumble as I skated towards the game's end. I had to uncover nearly every secret I had missed to become powerful enough to take on the game's final boss. But if you're looking for a metroidvania that'll seize your imagination until Hollow Knight: Silksong, Blasphemous 2 offers wonders more sumptuous than many games with ten times its budget.
— James Mastromarino, NPR Gaming lead and Here & Now producer
You'd be forgiven if, at first glance, you mistook new survival strategy game Homeseek for the sequel to a certain icy award-winning game from 2018. You're the leader of a colony trying to survive the barren wasteland of a post-apocalyptic world: Check. Your resources are supplied to you early in the game in the form of easily-gathered piles: Check. The needs of the colonists must be carefully met, laws and policies can be enacted with the help of a special building, and you can potentially gain new resources by sending out an expedition party to nearby points of interest: Check, check, and check.
But that's where the similarities to Frostpunk end. Homeseek takes place in a desert, with water, naturally, as the essential life-sustaining resource. Each chapter of the game takes place in a different location and the key to success more or less boils down to constructing the right buildings in the right order, usually starting with water collection. As a city-builder, Homeseek is reasonably satisfying. As a plot-driven survival sim, however, the game gets increasingly tedious. Expeditions constantly encounter obstacles that completely halt gameplay. Each time, you have to read one or more paragraphs and select between resolutions. But despite the high stakes, I never felt like the decisions I made in more than twelve hours of gametime actually mattered.
Overall, Homeseek is an intriguing, but troubled marriage of city-building and linear storytelling. While it enjoys a few moments in the sun, it otherwise lacks the spark needed to keep me coming back for more.
— Alex Curley, product manager, Distribution
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