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Holiday Game Guide 2018: Virtual experiences for the whole family

National Deseret News logo National Deseret News 11/22/2018 National Deseret News
Do you have a child or loved one who loves video games, but you don't know what to get them? We've got you covered. Deseret News writers have played through several games that we can recommend as appropriate gifts for gamers of all ages. © Smashbros: video screenshot Do you have a child or loved one who loves video games, but you don't know what to get them? We've got you covered. Deseret News writers have played through several games that we can recommend as appropriate gifts for gamers of all ages.

Do you have a child or loved one who loves video games, but you don't know what to get them? We've got you covered.

Deseret News writers have played through several games that we can recommend as appropriate gifts for gamers of all ages. Other promising upcoming titles — like "Super Smash Bros. Ultimate" — didn't quite make the cut since they weren't available for review as of publication but could be safe bets for gifts later in the season.

Each entry on this list includes our impressions of some of 2018's biggest video games, as well as pricing and ESRB rating information. Finally, if you don't see anything you like that's new, check out last year's video game guide.

'Kingdom Hearts: The Story So Far'

Price: $39.99

Platform: PlayStation 4

ESRB Rating: E10+ for fantasy violence, mild blood, mild language and use of alcohol

The “Kingdom Hearts” series has been around for about 20 years and brings with it a unique premise: Square Enix, the studio behind classic Japanese role-playing game series "Final Fantasy," joins forces with Disney for a tale of good versus evil featuring classic Disney worlds and characters.

Ahead of “Kingdom Hearts III’s” launch next January, Square Enix has released “Kingdom Hearts: The Story So Far,” a compilation of nine "Kingdom Hearts" games for PlayStation 4. The compilation also includes an animated movie — "Kingdom Hearts χ Back Cover" — detailing the series’ lore.

The games themselves cover a variety of gameplay experiences — "Kingdom Hearts," as well as "Birth By Sleep" and "Dream Drop Distance" all play like traditional action games with RPG elements — while others involve card and board game mechanics. Two games — “re:Coded” and “258/2 Days” are simply remastered as HD cutscenes.

While some games — especially “Kingdom Hearts” and “Chain of Memories” — contain difficulty spikes, each game is relatively easy. I played through each title on “Proud” difficulty — the game’s equivalent of hard mode — I never felt frustrated or overwhelmed. Some controls and menus can be a little clunky, especially in the middle of combat, but some clever controller shortcuts usually alleviated any of my issues.

The game also includes “Kingdom Hearts 0.2: A Fragmentary Passage,” which acts as both a prequel for the original “Kingdom Hearts” and a demo for the upcoming third game, and showcases refined mechanics and graphics.

PS4 Pro owners will also likely be pleased with full 4K graphics, improved effects, and a more fluid frame rate. However, base PS4 owners should still see a 1080p resolution and a smooth frame rate.

It’s also important to note that “The Story So Far” is a compilation of two previous "Kingdom Hearts" compilations on PS4: “Kingdom Hearts 1.5 + 2.5 Remix” and “Kingdom Hearts 2.8 Final Chapter Prologue.” Regardless, new or lapsed fans will likely be happy with the value “The Story So Far” provides.

— Sam Bigelow

'Marvel's Spider-Man'

Price: $59.99; $19.99 for expansion pass

Platform: PlayStation 4

ESRB Rating: T for violence, blood, drug reference and language

“Marvel’s Spider-Man” takes the best elements of the titular wall-crawler’s adventures across comics, movies and cinema and condenses them into the most heartfelt Spider-Man story in recent memory.

Developer Insomniac Games brings an energy and fluidity to Spider-Man that makes the game a joy to play. I often found myself swinging around the game’s interpretation of Manhattan simply to explore and enjoy the ramblings of J. Jonah Jameson, who has been smartly relegated to the role of a crazed podcast host.

The game’s story also takes plenty of liberties with Peter Parker’s story and breathes fresh life into his allies and enemies. Spider-Man is an experienced young adult grappling with his personal and professional lives as a scientist and a superhero. After taking down a major supervillain, Spider-Man finds himself facing off against a flurry of new and old villains seeking to fill the void in New York’s criminal world.

Each character is expertly acted — veteran voice actors Yuri Lowenthal and Laura Bailey shine as Spider-Man and Mary Jane Watson, respectively — and comes with their own unique twist. Even villains who have been featured in other recent Spider-Man media are reimagined to take advantage of the game’s fresh perspective.

The game is also appropriate for younger audiences. Physical combat akin to any other Spidey film is present, and the game includes infrequent swearing and name-calling. Accordingly, Common Sense Media says the game is appropriate for audiences 14 and older.

— Sam Bigelow

'Super Mario Party'

Price: $59.99; $99.99 for hardware bundle

Platform: Nintendo Switch

ESRB Rating: E for mild cartoon violence

Mario Party games have had a rough run as of late — “Mario Party 10” for the Wii U was met with mixed reviews, according to Metacritic — but “Super Mario Party” returns Nintendo’s classic digital board game to its roots, and is all the better for it.

The game itself features a fairly simple premise: Mario and friends gather together for a party, which is quickly interrupted by Bowser and his minions, who want to join in on the fun. This thankfully allows for a wide variety of playable characters, each with their own unique abilities, which can offer advantages within the game.

Each “Mario Party” plays out like a board game — up to four players roll a set of digital dice to move around a themed board. Players need to gather coins and stars while avoiding traps to win the game. Each round ends with a mini game, which can help players catch up with each other. Ten-turn games across each of the four boards lasted at least an hour, and players can choose to play up to 20 turns, which would take roughly two hours to complete.

Each mini game focuses on simple tasks like taking photos, climbing trees or participating in tricycle races and are played with just one Nintendo Switch Joy-Con. Most minigames are enjoyable and fun to play, while some tend to miss the mark. I found most of them to be engaging and simple to play.

The game also features mini game-only modes and a rhythm-based mode. Each one was entertaining in its own way and offered a nice change of pace from the usual modes. Unlockable characters, boards, stickers and mini games also encourage plenty of replayability.

“Super Mario Party” is available as a standalone release and in a bundle with green and yellow neon Joy-Cons for $99.99. Since a pair of Joy-Cons themselves go for $79.99, the bundle can save you about $39.99 over the holidays.

— Sam Bigelow

'Pokémon: Let's Go Pikachu!' and 'Pokémon: Let's Go Eevee!'

Price: $59.99; $99.99 for Pokéball bundle; $399.99 for hardware bundle

Platform: Nintendo Switch

ESRB Rating: E for mild cartoon violence

This year’s Pokémon release is the first console installment to hit the Nintendo Switch and is aimed at younger audiences. The game is a remake of classic Gameboy title “Pokémon Yellow” and calls back to a simpler time in Pokémon history. Players embody a young trainer from the Kanto region who embarks on their own journey to beat the Elite Four and become a champion.

Like any other Pokémon game, “Let’s Go!” is split into two units — one version features electric mouse Pikachu ("Let's Go, Pikachu!") as a constant companion, while the other features the doe-eyed Eevee ("Let's Go, Eevee!"). Both creatures fill the same role as a starter Pokémon and can learn special abilities to help traverse the world.

The game also pulls its main mechanic — catching Pokémon — from “Pokémon Go.” Instead of battling wild Pokémon, players just feed them berries and lob Pokéballs at them using motion controls. Battles with other trainers, gym leaders and Team Rocket members Jesse, James and Meowth are still present, which adds a little more variety to the simple gameplay. Players can also transfer monsters from their Pokémon Go app to help complete their collection.

The game can be played with a single Joy-Con controller on a television or in handheld mode, which offers slightly more precise analog aim when catching Pokémon. Players can also use the Pokéball Plus accessory, which can be used to navigate the world as well as catch Pokémon. The accessory is available for $49.99 separately or $99.99 bundled with a copy of the game and comes with mythical Pokémon Mew. A Nintendo Switch system bundle featuring Pokémon-themed artwork and Joy-Cons is also available for $399.99.

— Sam Bigelow

'Forza Horizon 4'

Price: $59.99; free with $9.99 a month Xbox Game Pass subscription

Platform: Xbox One, Windows PC

ESRB Rating: E

“Forza Horizon 4” is an open-world racing game set in the English countryside. Framed around the fictional Horizon Festival, the game encourages players to compete in races, stunts and exploration — including train races and an event featuring Master Chief from the Halo series. Every Forza Horizon game introduces new twists to the formula, and this year’s innovation is persistent seasons.

Every month, players complete in-game events to qualify for the next season’s events. When the season changes over, the weather changes, cycling through spring, summer, autumn and winter — each with their own driving conditions. I enjoyed learning how to handle some of my favorite vehicles in the mud during spring and on icy lakes during the winter.

The game also features hundreds of real-world vehicles ranging from the Ford Model T to new, concept supercars. Each vehicle comes with its own unique handling stats and specialties; sports and muscle cars are great on the road, while buggies and trucks perform better in the mud and snow. Players can also purchase cars inspired by classic James Bond films, complete with super spy gadgets.

“Forza Horizon 4” also takes its own spin on multiplayer racing. While you can face off against other players in real time, most opponents will simply be AI-controlled cars modeled after real players’ racing tactics. You can also compete in Blueprint events, which are custom races and stunts made by other players. Performing well in these events can net you rewards like new car parts or shirts for your in-game avatar.

The game is also available via Microsoft’s Xbox Game Pass subscription service, which gives gamers access to hundreds of games — including first-party titles like “Forza Horizon 4,” Halo, and the upcoming “Crackdown 3” — for $9.99 a month. Additionally, new subscribers can join the program for $1 for their first month, according to IGN.

— Sam Bigelow

'Ni No Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom'

Price: $59.99

Platform: PlayStation 4

ESRB Rating: T for fantasy violence, mild blood

From our review: "'Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom' follows Evan, a young prince driven from his kingdom as the result of a coup. After losing everything to sedition and war, Evan sets out with Roland, a mysterious man transported from another world, to found the kingdom of Evermore, where everyone is welcome. …

"The game features basic hack and slash gameplay in its moment-to-moment adventuring. Players have access to light and heavy attacks and a handful of special abilities that can defeat powerful monsters in the blink of an eye. …

"'Ni no Kuni II: Revenant Kingdom' isn't as deep or complicated as many other role-playing games on the market, and that's OK. Level-5 has crafted a compelling adventure packed with hours of interesting content, all wrapped up in a Studio Ghibli-inspired art style. JRPG and anime fans shouldn't miss out on this excellent adventure."

— Sam Bigelow

'Dragon Ball FighterZ'

Price: $59.99; $34.99 for season pass

Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC

ESRB Rating: T for cartoon violence, mild language and mild suggestive themes

From our review: "'Dragon Ball Fighter Z' is a love letter to the iconic 'Dragon Ball' series and an excellent 2D fighter, thanks to its dedication to beginners and experts alike. The game features a ton of excellent fan services, accessible fighting mechanics and a ton of content to keep players happy for long periods of time. Some elements of the game’s presentation and design fall short, but the game’s personality and accessibility help make it an instant fighting game classic. …

"While most fighting games pride themselves on difficult-to-master combos and strict timing, 'Dragon Ball FighterZ' swings the opposite direction, making it one of the easiest fighting games to learn. The game’s input mechanics are uniform across the game’s roster of characters, which immediately throws out the challenge of learning the basics.

"Despite weird lobby menus and choppy multiplayer, 'Dragon Ball FighterZ' is a compelling, beautiful 2D fighter with tons of content. Whether or not you’re a fan of the series, 'Dragon Ball FighterZ' is one of the best 2D fighting games available."

— Sam Bigelow

'Monster Hunter World'

Price: $59.99

Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC

ESRB Rating: T for blood, mild language, use of alcohol and violence

From our review: "For a game that you’d imagine focuses solely on violence, 'Monster Hunter World' truly celebrates the beauty and wonder of discovery and nature, making it one of the best games released this year. In the series’ first console release since 2009, 'World' features smart additions to game mechanics, graphical enhancements and a deep multiplayer system that truly makes the game and all its quirks shine. …

"'Monster Hunter World' is competent as a single-player game, but some monsters are very difficult to take down by yourself. Thankfully, up to four players can tackle each mission. While it’s certainly easier to hunt big game with friends, playing multiplayer missions never feels too easy. Regular in-game events also encourage replayability and teamwork and often reward players with unique costumes and weapons.

"Anyone looking for a deep, accessible and endearing experience won’t be disappointed with what 'Monster Hunter World' has to offer."

— Sam Bigelow

'NBA 2K19'

Price: $59.99

Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Android, iOS, Microsoft Windows

ESRB Rating: E

The “NBA 2K” series is back again. And this time it’s come with a new flare and flavor that emphasizes sleek graphics, better gameplay and, yes, constant updates to give you the most real NBA experience to date.

Let’s start with the actual gameplay. Games on the court have changed a little bit since last year’s installment. It's harder to score on the computer than before as the game's new intelligence has lockdown defense. It’s much tougher to curve around defenders and find an open spot on the floor.

That said, the game’s mechanics have evolved with the actual game of basketball. More players space the floor on their own during the game, which matches the NBA’s actual evolution toward more space and 3-point oriented offense.

Small tweaks like getting fouled on 3-point shots make the game feel so much more realistic compared to last year’s game. Once again, you feel like you’re playing an all-new game.

The MyPlayer story mode takes a tremendous step forward this year. Anthony Mackie joins this year’s story mode, which sends players to China as you try to make a comeback to the NBA.

Some problems with the game include manipulating created players and rosters. Though "NBA 2K" is not short of options for how to customize the rosters and build new custom players, it takes multiple Google searches to figure out how to put created players on teams or use those custom rosters in modes like MyLeague.

One major question about the "NBA 2K" series is whether you should upgrade. With "NBA 2K19," you’re getting constant upgrades to the roster during a turbulent time in the NBA. Not to mention, the game’s soundtrack, which was handpicked by hip-hop star Travis Scott, continues to upgrade with new music. Not too bad.

— Herb Scribner

"WWE 2K19"

Price: $59.99

Platform: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, Android, iOS, Microsoft Windows

ESRB Rating: T for alcohol reference, blood, language, suggestive themes and violence

The "WWE 2K" games have hit a bit of a holding pattern. They’re impressive with gameplay and fun for a few hours of gaming, but ultimately there are a few small issues in the game that make you think about what it could have been.

This year’s game’s biggest focus is on the MyCareer mode. The storyline takes players from an underground wrestling circuit to the big time with the WWE. It’s a challenging mode that's exciting through each progression, even though your character never really gains any new stats for strength or his wrestling ability. There are times, like in any game, where the computer puts players in truly difficult scenarios, like three-on-one wrestling matches — good luck with that one.

The fun continues with the Showcase mode, which allows players to try out the biggest moments of Daniel Bryan’s wrestling career. Of course, the mode can take some time to complete. Sometimes cut scenes will intervene into the game when you hit a specific mode, but even when you complete those moments, you don’t get a saved checkpoint. There are other times, too, that I had to restart the entire match in order to hit goals which I found a little frustrating.

There’s also a new "2K Towers" mode, where players have to complete a handful of matches that have similar themes. These update daily and weekly, giving players a fun challenge when you need something else besides the standard game.

Outside of these modes, the exhibition play is as good as ever. Players can even create a “Money in the Bank” briefcase — which, in wrestling, holds a contract that allows players to compete for a title belt — and defend them in matches. You can now reorder the entrance of your Royal Rumble (a large 30-man battle royale match) entries. And cage matches have new mini-games when you want to escape the cage, so there are some small improvements.

Overall, there aren’t any huge changes to "WWE 2K19" that’ll make this a must-buy. If you want an updated roster, then treat yourself, but if you’re expecting an overhaul to the gameplay, you might want to skip this one.

— Herb Scribner

This article was written by Herb Scribner and Sam Bigelow from National Deseret News and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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