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Red Dead Redemption 2 sets the bar high for the next generation of open world games – TechCrunch

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It’s been nearly a decade since Rockstar Games introduced Red Dead Redemption, a massive open world game with a story about as reflective of American culture as the Grand Theft Auto franchise.

Tomorrow, Red Dead Redemption II goes live after months of breathless speculation. And yes, it’s as good as you dreamed it. That’s not to say that the layers of interactivity, which are a huge step forward for the next generation of open world games, are not without their faults. But the level of attention to detail, the way that the various components of the game work in conjunction, and the intricacy of even the most mundane activities makes playing Red Dead Redemption 2 feel as authentic as being Arthur Morgan yourself.

But before we dive into the review, it’s worth noting that Devin and I each spent less than a dozen hours playing this game before sitting down to write. In fact, according to the progress bar in my game, I’m less than 20 percent of the way through the story, with even less completed of the challenges and the Compendium (index of items discovered/found). This game is so massive, it would be impossible to bring you thoughtful analysis of the story. We haven’t finished it yet.

We do, however, have some early impressions of the game below. For those looking to avoid spoilers, don’t worry — everything we talk about takes place in the first couple hours of the game and we’ve shied away from naming places, characters, and missions.

A world of details

For a game this big, it kind of makes sense to start with the details. It’s evident that this is an environment not just crafted with care, but presented with directorial intent. That’s important to say right off the bat — this isn’t just a big chunk of land for you to wander, but the stage for a story, and a stage that has been dressed with more care than perhaps any game to date.

It’s easy to talk about square mileage, about how many buildings can be entered, about the hours of dialogue you may encounter. But those are quantitative measures when what matter are the qualitative ones.

The details are what set RDR2 apart. Everywhere you look there are details, from the seams and rips on the dozens of coats you’ll see and wear, to the fact that you have to clean and oil your gun regularly, to how the items you buy are actually on the walls of the general store you visit. The dialogue too is remarkably consistent and well acted, and largely free from anachronism while retaining personality and a sense of humor.

Look at that SNOW.

Although it’s difficult to forget that you’re playing a game, these details make it very easy to fool yourself that the world in which you’re playing is a real place. Nearly everything you do, and how you do it, retains the conceit of the Old West.

I can’t even begin to wonder how much work it took to put this together. I had similar thoughts when I was playing Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey, but while the scale and visual grandeur of that game impressed me, RDR2 hits those same notes while also hitting home in the much more difficult areas of authenticity, believability, and consistent direction.

From RDR to L2

One of the loveliest characteristics of RDR2 is how reminiscent it is of the original Red Dead. Riding my horse along a beaten path, normally near a railway, takes me back to 2010. All the things players have done before — shooting, riding, walking through the world — feel similar to the last game, albeit slightly smoother. The cinematic camera (a page out of the GTA playbook) is particularly delightful, especially in autopilot alongside NPCs leading the way.

The world itself is far more alive and full of detail, and this time around, there is something deeper behind each item, NPC, and animal in the game. Red Dead Redemption taught us that our left trigger button was about aim, and aim only. In the next iteration of the game, L2 opens the door to everything else that this immersive world has to offer.

And it’s this untethering of every single object and character in the game that pushes RDR2 steps toward reality, and leaps forward for gaming.

During Story missions, Arthur can use L2 to make real-time decisions about how to ambush a camp. If he focuses on an item on a shelf in the store, the player can open up a menu through L2 to buy or inspect that item. Focus on an NPC walking around camp, and L2 opens up the options to greet or antagonize them. Approach Arthur’s horse, and L2 opens up a larger menu to feed the horse, brush the horse, or pat the horse. But these aren’t just empty actions. Feeding and cleaning the horse fill her health and stamina cores, and patting the horse increases her bond with Arthur, all of which affect the quality of the horse as a tool.

It’s important to note that, if Arthur gun is equipped, L2 defaults to aiming down sights, which sure can frighten a horse or an innocent NPC.

Like a crow bar, L2 cracked open the whole world of Red Dead Redemption. If you can inspect a letter on a nightstand, flip it over and read the back, and put it down again, what should stop you from inspecting a live animal to see if it’s worth hunting. L2 brings up information about the animal like its name, its quality, and what you can get from it.

Intuitive until it isn’t

You can look up from a treasure map (handy) but have to dig through menus to pull it out in the first place.

Not all of the game’s interfaces are so fluid and convenient. Trotting along through town in my horse, I tap L2 to see if I can sketch a bird flying by, or study a farm dog, or hail a passerby (“hey, pardner!”). But then I see my horse is tired and I want to feed it an apple.

To do this I have to hold L1 to open the radial menu, then simultaneously hit R1 twice to get to the horse menu. Then I hold the right stick down in the direction of the item category I want to use, then (while holding L1 and the stick direction) pull the right and left triggers to find the item I want, and let go of L1 (but still hold the stick!) to use it (X and other normal “OK” buttons don’t do it). Are you kidding me?

Meanwhile time continues to pass in the background, albeit slowly, so you’re doing all this under pressure. Hell, someone might even be shooting at you and you’re trying to quaff a health tonic before returning to the weapon menu to pull out the rifle from your horse storage before you get gunned down.

It seems to me that although much of the world and your interactions with it are smoothed and interpreted from context, whenever that wasn’t possible the developers crammed it into this overworked radial menu system. I’ve gotten more used to it as I’ve played, but it still feels like something that started simple and quickly lost its elegance as it turned into a catch-all bucket for “video game stuff.”

There are also systems that are inadequately explained even when there’s opportunity for it. An early mission has you traveling with one of your bandit companions to hunt a big bear he saw a day’s ride away.

I happened to succeed in killing the bear, and loaded my ‘legendary bear pelt’ on the back of my horse. What was I supposed to do with it? Make a rug? I’d heard a little about pelts but precious little. Then I saw on my map that there was a trapper nearby — surely he would provide the tutorial I needed! But although the item’s description specifically said a trapper could turn it into a talisman, the trapper seemed to be able to do no such thing

Did I need to park my horse closer and hail him with it nearby? Did I “have” the pelt, or did it need to be there? Did I need to sell it to him first? Did I have to craft something on my own? Did I need to talk to my mission guy, or the cook who handles pelts in the camp? I had no clue and the game gave me no indication either. I couldn’t just keep it, since it took up valuable space on my horse — I had to turn down giving a lady a ride home because I’d have had to leave the pelt behind.

Ultimately I brought it back to camp, but couldn’t make anything out of it there either. Carts and boxes were everywhere but I couldn’t store the pelt in any of them. I dropped it on the ground and found myself and it teleported to the edge of camp; a message told me that “items dropped in camp will appear in a convenient place” or something. Oh, so the whole camp is a storage area! Nope. As soon as I rode away I was told I’d “abandoned” the pelt and some of its parts would go to the nearest trapper. What?

I don’t envy the developers and the info dumps they have to place like mines throughout this enormous world and story, but it felt like this was just one stumble after another, with relatively core gameplay elements that were almost completely unexplained. It’s an unexpected and forgivable failure given how much goes right, but the contrast is all the more jarring when it happens.

Nothing mundane about it

Eating stew with a beautiful view

RDR2 sets the bar high in a number of ways, but the overarching achievement is how closely this game tries to mimic reality. In some ways, this opens the world up, and in others, it limits you.

Arthur can’t carry around seven guns at once, so his horse stores the guns he can’t carry. If he forgets to equip his guns before running into a shootout on foot, he’s probably in trouble. Likewise, if Arthur goes hunting and loads a bear skin on the back of his horse, there isn’t any room to bring back a bounty target.

But Arthur isn’t just hunting for sport, or even for food. Whereas the last Red Dead focused on hunting as a way to make money, eat, or simply collect animals in the index, hunting now comes with its own system similar to Dead Eye and is paired together with crafting (which I’ll get to shortly).

The hunting system is called Eagle Eye, and it’s slightly reminiscent of the Instinct mode in Hitman. This system lets Arthur track animal trails, paw prints, animal dung, etc. to find his desired prey. Clicking L3 and R3 simultaneously activates Eagle Eye, and then pressing R1 lets you follow the track without remaining in the slow-mo world of Eagle Eye.

Tracking doesn’t work so well for aquatic animals like fish and alligators, but fishing is an easy, laid-back way to gather food or turn a small profit.

Inspecting animals, via L2, ensures Arthur is targeting the right size and quality of animal, and the method by which Arthur hunts affects the quality of the skins. This seems unimportant, but in the exotic world of crafting, you might find yourself caring a lot.

Crafting allows Arthur or other NPCs (like the Trapper, or the camp cook Pearson) to create new items from stuff they’ve gathered in the wilderness. That could mean mixing up some meat with an herb to create a specific dish, which would have its own specific effect on health and stamina, or bringing back a few pelts to have more comfortable and colorful accommodations around camp.

Again, this method of hunting and crafting is more in line with how an outlaw might actually live off of the land in 1899. And in adding Eagle Eye and the ability to craft, the more mundane parts of Red Dead Redemption have come alive. In the last game, hunting was something you stumbled upon. The most interactive piece of it was buying and setting bait. In RDR2, hunting big game like bears and buffalo is nearly as enjoyable an activity as the story missions.

Stone cold or heart of gold?

The honor system from Red Dead Redemption is alive and well in RDR2, but with some added flare. Because the game tries to mimic real life, with all its opportunities and limitations, the honor system is even more consequential now.

Deeper interactivity through L2 allows you to interact with almost every NPC, even those that aren’t involved in challenges or side missions or story missions. What’s more, those NPCs remember you.

In one instance, a man had been bit by a snake and was screaming out nearby a road. I stopped to help him, sucked the poison out, and went on my way. Later, when I rode into town, he was sitting on a bench outside the gunsmith and he called out to me. He said thanks and offered to pay for any gun I’d like to buy inside the gunsmith. My decision to save him, instead of killing him and looting his body, not only gave me honor points but resulted in a reward.

In another instance, I accidentally pulled out my knife when I got in a bar fight. Instead of innocently beating a dude up, I killed him. The townspeople mentioned the murder the next time I came into town, and the only way to get rid of the bounty on my head was to pay it off at the Post Office.

These decisions and their respective results are pretty straight forward. More nuanced, however, is the effect that Arthur’s honor has on the atmosphere of the game. Honor level changes the way that the story plays out, affects the kill cams, alters the music in the game, and changes the way Arthur dreams and writes in his journal.

In the short time we’ve been able to play the game, it’s hard to tell how extremely this affects the game. I did notice, however, when my honor was at its highest level that one of the shootouts was accompanied by up-tempo (almost celebratory) banjo music, and that kill cams had a goldish tint to them. It’s unclear if that was directly related to my honor or not, but it felt like a subtle dynamic change.

This game offers no shortage of customization options, from your horse to your gun to your clothes to your camp. But there is perhaps no more influential factor that separates one player’s experience of the game from another than Honor.

Dear diary

I want to give an especial callout to the detail lavished on the catalogs and books in the game, as well as Arthur’s journal. The tongue-in-cheek period-style descriptions of equipment and clothing items sometimes run to multiple paragraphs, and as there’s no particular hurry for much of the game, why not take the time to read them?

Arthur’s journal is a treat as well. Although it is in some ways just a way to recap the story for you, it’s a pleasure to read the hand-written entries and the main character’s thoughts on events as they played out; missions will be described differently depending on how they ended or choices you made. And meanwhile every place you visit, and every critter you “study” will be sketched in the book in the order you see them.

This isn’t explained or anything, and I was tickled when I figured it out. I had made a long trek back from a mission and stopped by a few places, scoped out a squirrel, some chickens, a deer and some other things in passing. When I went to my journal a few game days later, there they all were in order, as if (as is the intent) Arthur had in fact been jotting them down while I wasn’t looking.

It’s a shame the journal and books aren’t more prominently presented — the journal is in your horse’s pack, or that’s where it ended up for me (or you can hold left on the d-pad — that’s one of the shortcuts briefly mentioned and never brought up again). Take the time to read it and anything else you come across; as much effort was put into the writing here as it was everywhere else in the game.

Not-so-final word

Needless to say RDR2 gets a hearty recommendation from us despite some nitpicks and even a couple serious cracks in the carefully-constructed facade. It’s a landmark game in the open world genre and an artistic achievement in its own right. It’s worth your money.

That said, our limited time with the game, and choice to play it as though we were regular players and not blast through to the end, means we’re unable to evaluate the entirety of the game. I find it exceedingly unlikely that the game gets worse — if anything, it likely gets better as the story and gameplay concepts progress.

Still, there are a few specifics we should mention that we plan to look at over the next few weeks.

Online isn’t live yet and won’t be for a while. This isn’t core to the main game but will surely be a huge draw as the game ages and its quality will affect whether it’s worth picking up again or recommending to a friend a year or two from now.

The honor system, though we touched on it, is pretty hard to test thoroughly even with two people playing in parallel. We haven’t been able to experience how the game changes significantly to accommodate your choice of amorality or virtue.

The story is in many ways just beginning, not to mention the side stories of your camp members and other figures you encounter. Did Rockstar frontload all the good acting and setpieces? Does it fizzle out at the end? Doubtful but we can’t say one way or the other. Once we’ve both finished the game or gotten far enough to feel confident in our opinions we’ll issue a followup review and link it here.

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New Star Wars 1313 footage reveals the (canceled) Boba Fett game we always wanted

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Enlarge / Nice splash of colors and reflection effects in this newly unearthed footage of Boba Fett as the star of canceled game Star Wars 1313.

A new YouTube video making the rounds reveals that a long-canceled Star Wars game would have been the first time that bounty hunter and fan favorite Boba Fett starred in his own game.

Long before Fett scaled the streaming mountain of Disney+, the game development teams at LucasArts began work on an action video game about bounty hunters and the planet Coruscant. As Jason Schreier reported in his games-industry book Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, that project, dubbed Star Wars 1313, wildly morphed over a four-year span. 1313 was started in 2009 but was canceled after LucasArts shut down in 2013—a casualty of Disney’s acquisition of all things Lucasfilm and Star Wars.

While we’ve seen teases of Star Wars 1313 before—especially during its splashy debut at E3 2012—public footage thus far has been limited to the game’s brand-new bounty hunter heroes. This week’s video is the first to show what Boba Fett looked like as 1313‘s playable hero, a development shift mandated by George Lucas months before the E3 2012 reveal. Coincidentally, Lucas also demanded that Fett not appear in that public 2012 reveal.

Fett is finally seen taking Uncharted steps

The new video comes from The Vault, a YouTube channel that focuses almost exclusively on details and leaks surrounding the canceled Star Wars Battlefront III project. The channel’s first-ever video about Star Wars 1313 culls primarily from the portfolio of James Zachary, who directed 1313‘s animation team and led its motion-capture department.

Since Zachary’s Boba Fett videos are marked “private” and don’t have timestamps, we can’t be certain how long they’ve been hiding in plain sight on Zachary’s portfolio site. This footage shows 1313 at the point in which its development had shifted squarely into “Star Wars does Uncharted” territory, as opposed to an earlier state that reportedly borrowed from Gears of War.

Yes, every NPC looks identical—that's what pre-pre-alpha tends to look like. But as far as an atmospheric slice of an unfinished game, Boba Fett's stroll through a bar looks and sounds full of life. It cuts off before we see whether he faceplants into a Sarlaac pit, however.
Enlarge / Yes, every NPC looks identical—that’s what pre-pre-alpha tends to look like. But as far as an atmospheric slice of an unfinished game, Boba Fett’s stroll through a bar looks and sounds full of life. It cuts off before we see whether he faceplants into a Sarlaac pit, however.

Fett is framed in a three-quarters, third-person camera perspective, and The Vault video includes two discrete sequences: an atmospheric walk through a seedy bar, where he must contend with disagreeable patrons bumping into him, and an action-filled chase sequence complete with dramatic jumps, cliffside hangs, and downhill slides. While the video’s first half has a few clearly unfinished assets, the second half is all “gray boxes” and other rudimentary content.

Boba Fett, seen here scaling and climbing in an unfinished segment of canceled game <em>Star Wars 1313</em>.
Enlarge / Boba Fett, seen here scaling and climbing in an unfinished segment of canceled game Star Wars 1313.

Zachary describes the chase sequence as something “used to sell the ‘environmental interaction’ animation pillar” of Star Wars 1313. The Boba Fett we see may very well be a reskin of the game’s original brand-new bounty hunter protagonist, as the chase doesn’t include any of Fett’s signature jetpack moves—which, as Schreier reported, had evolved and become functional during development before the project was canceled. Instead, the chase looks like a Nathan Drake sequence with a Coruscant background, what with all the floating vehicles zipping across the horizon.

Boba Fett, seen casually sliding past a WALL or two (in clear pre-pre-alpha footage of <em>Star Wars 1313</em>).
Enlarge / Boba Fett, seen casually sliding past a WALL or two (in clear pre-pre-alpha footage of Star Wars 1313).

Coincidentally, Star Wars 1313 began life as a “connected universe” project. That means it would join the same gritty universe that George Lucas had been putting together for a planned, adult-focused Star Wars TV series dubbed Underworld. The game project continued moving forward even as its associated TV series descended into development hell before vanishing entirely.

With The Mandalorian, the Star Wars powers-that-be have carried on what Underworld began, at least on the TV front. And the success of The Mandalorian and the Book of Boba Fett TV series means we shouldn’t be surprised if one of the mysterious, recently announced Star Wars game projects from EA and Respawn follows a Fett-like bounty hunter.

Star Wars 1313 Boba Fett footage.

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Valve confirms Steam Deck shipment, review dates: By the end of February

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Enlarge / Starting on February 28, Steam Deck will finally leave Valve’s hands and (possibly) land in yours.

Aurich Lawson | DC

After delaying Steam Deck’s launch to a vague “February 2022” window, Valve has returned to keep its promise. Today, the company confirmed the date its portable, gaming-centric PC will begin shipping to some preorder customers.

Valve listed two key dates in its Wednesday announcement. The first date: Steam Deck will begin shipping February 28. This applies to customers who got their $5 preorder payments in at the earliest possible time, i.e., the first few minutes after the clock struck 1 pm EST on July 16.

Customers have a chance of being part of this shipment window if their order has an official Steam shipping estimate of “Q1 2022,” which they can check by loading the Deck store page while logged into Steam.

“Launching” on February 25 (but not really)

But there’s another crucial date for Steam Deck preorder customers to keep in mind: February 25. That’s when Valve will send emails to an unconfirmed number of preorder customers requesting that they pay the rest of the console’s asking price. That figure ranges from $399 for the 64GB storage model to $649 for the largest 512GB storage model.

Valve’s announcement clarifies that these email alerts—which essentially ask preorder customers to pay the rest of their tab—will land at 1 pm EST on that Friday afternoon. The alerts, says Valve, will be sent out in the order that successful preorders were made. Customers who receive the alerts have exactly 72 hours to pay, and if they miss the window, their reserved console will move down the list to the next slew of preorders.

The announcement also mentions that Valve will operate a “weekly cadence” of Deck preorder payment requests. This suggests that the full gamut of “Q1 2022” preorders will be broken up between February 25 and the end of March. In other words, if you didn’t lodge your Deck preorder within the first 45 seconds of the floodgates opening on July 16, you might have to wait a week or four.

Valve’s post doesn’t clarify whether quicker preorder payments will change the order in which these systems are shipped. But based on the language used in the announcement, it sounds like users won’t need to hover over their inboxes on that Friday to be part of the first shipping wave on February 28. Just, you know, maybe don’t pick that weekend to unplug from the Internet.

One way to check the Deck

What’s more, preorder customers will get a reason to wait a few hours before pulling the “rest of the Deck tab” trigger. Valve has confirmed that Deck systems are being mailed to members of the press “shortly,” and the systems have a review embargo of February 25.

This review date will follow Valve’s tease of “preview coverage and impressions before that” date. If Ars’ experience reviewing the Valve Index virtual reality system is any indication, fans might expect to see a specific system feature broken out into a preview article, much like how I posted about “living with Valve Index as a work monitor for a week” before the product’s formal June 2019 launch.

Related: the comments section of this article would be a great place to request specific tests, benchmarks, use cases, touchpad scrutiny, cloud-sync confirmation, emulation front-ends, OS installations, game compatibility, and other things that Ars Technica might apply to a Steam Deck review, should Ars indeed be among the members of the press invited to Deck’s upcoming review period. (As the first reporter to confirm Steam Deck’s existence, I’ve already been dreaming up coverage plans in the case of such a review opportunity.)

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Pokémon Legends: Arceus is a breath of fresh air for a stale franchise

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Enlarge / Pokémon Legends: Arceus is as close as we’ve ever gotten to an open-world Pokémon game.

Nintendo

Last year’s by-the-numbers Pokémon Diamond and Pearl remakes did even less than most Pokémon games to spruce up and modernize the series’ decades-old formula. That’s understandable for a remake of a 2006 Nintendo DS game, but the games were still disappointing follow-ups to the more adventurous Sword and Shield.

The good news is that if you’ve been waiting for Game Freak to really shake up Pokémon‘s gameplay without totally burning it to the ground and starting from scratch, Pokémon Legends: Arceus is the game you’ve been waiting for. Part Pokémon and part Breath of the WildLegends takes the free-roaming “Wild Area” concept from Sword and Shield and updates the series’ catching and battling mechanics to match.

That’s not to say it’s a perfect fusion of those disparate elements. Its mission-based structure gets pretty fetch quest-y, it leans heavily on an over-familiar roster of existing Pokémon, and the aging Switch hardware sometimes struggles to make it look good, especially when docked. But despite those problems, the whole package works together surprisingly well, and it makes the Pokémon feel fresher than it has in quite a while.

Ancient history

<em>Legends</em> uses a pre-modern aesthetic for the Hisui region, loosely resembling Japan in the early 20th century.
Enlarge / Legends uses a pre-modern aesthetic for the Hisui region, loosely resembling Japan in the early 20th century.

Nintendo

Legends is set up as a distant prequel to Diamond and Pearl that takes place in the Hisui region, which will someday become the modern Sinnoh region. The decision to set Legends not just in the past but way in the past gives it a distinct flavor from main-series Pokémon games. You aren’t just putting together a Pokédex—you’re assembling the first Pokédex. Item shops exist, but you’ll need to craft the vast majority of Pokéballs and other items you use with found materials. And there are few cities, no gyms, and no Pokémon League, which lets the series experiment with new modes of character progression.

Hisui is split up into five different biomes—you can’t walk from one end of Hisui to the other as you can in BotW‘s Hyrule, but each of the five areas has distinct topography that keeps things from getting too samey as you progress. Each biome is inhabited by a rampaging Noble Pokémon who you must calm and befriend, which replaces gyms and badges as the main way the game marks your progress. There are also plenty of side quests to keep you distracted if you don’t want to rush right to the end.

Filling out your Pokédex helps you rank up, which gets you access to better items, additional side quests, and the later regions of the game.
Enlarge / Filling out your Pokédex helps you rank up, which gets you access to better items, additional side quests, and the later regions of the game.

Nintendo

Your character, a member of Galaxy Team, also has a rank within the organization. You rank up by filling out your Pokédex, and you won’t be allowed into the game’s later biomes if your rank isn’t high enough (your rank also affects the kinds of items you’ll be able to craft, among other things). In the main series, all you need to do to fill out a Pokédex is see and catch a single Pokémon of each species. But in Legends, filling out each entry is done by accomplishing a series of sub-tasks, involving everything from catching multiple Pokémon of a single species to seeing Pokémon use specific moves in battle.

Important items like Potions and Pokéballs can be bought pre-made, but you'll be making the vast majority of them yourself using found materials.
Enlarge / Important items like Potions and Pokéballs can be bought pre-made, but you’ll be making the vast majority of them yourself using found materials.

Nintendo

Catching and battling Pokémon in Legends is refreshingly fast and satisfying compared to the usual formula. There are no more random battles and no swirly time-consuming transitions between exploring and battling. All Pokémon are fully visible and walking around—if you want to catch one, the best way to do so is to sneak up on it and toss a Pokéball.

Some wild Pokémon will scamper away if they notice you getting near. Others will get mad and attack you directly. It’s possible to get totally knocked out by a wild Pokémon’s attacks, which will send you back to the nearest base camp with fewer items and a bruised ego. But you can defend yourself by tossing out one of your Pokémon, triggering an essentially traditional turn-based Pokémon battle.

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