Gaming

Pyre review: A slam dunk in story and splendor

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Sports ignite people. We map stories to players’ careers. We label rival athletes facing off as heroes and villains. We cry when the home team loses a deciding playoff match. We rejoice when they finally win championship gold.

Pyre sets out to spark that real human passion in its fantastical basketball/visual novel combo.

Entrancing aesthetics

Supergiant Games, the creative studio behind Pyre, is known for its sensuous, painterly art direction. The developers do not disappoint, as one look at the screenshots should make clear. Vibrant blues and reds blend in soft brush strokes and end in thick lines in the lovingly detailed player portraits. Neon greens, yellows, and purples contrast strikingly to form surreal panoramic landscapes littered with titanic alien skeletal remains.

The character designs feel familiar yet fresh; towering horned demons and alluring harpies get mixed in with armored worm-knights and small, scrappy dog men. These creatures spring to life like in classic hand-drawn Western animation, their frames moving with the conviction of the weight they carry. Tiny imps dart about manically, savages soar with wild grace, and the sentient trees lumber as if they own the earth.

These animations playing out in the Rites, which is what Pyre formally calls its magical 3v3 sport, is a dazzling display of balletic athletics.

Darren Korb’s zydeco-electronica fusion soundtrack ramps up the tension in every contest, brings things down to a wistful melancholic chill on the road in between matches, and rouses the spirits with folksy ballads alongside soulful vocal talent Ashley Barrett.

Fantasy basketball for freedom

In-universe, you are the Reader. You have been exiled to the Downside, a desolate no man’s land, for the crime of literacy. Reading is strictly forbidden in the Commonwealth, the nation where you came from. The only way back to civilization is through winning the Rites, as the purity of performance in this divine tradition pardons victors of all their sins.

In the Rites, two teams of three players fight over control of a celestial orb, with the goal of dousing the opposing force’s pyre. This is accomplished by plunging the orb into the pyre repeatedly until its flames are snuffed. Points signify the strength of the pyre, dwindling every time the orb is thrown into it. Once the points are reduced to zero, the match ends.

As the Reader, you act as coach to the Nightwings, once hailed as the ultimate test for other teams to prove their worth, but have now just returned as a ragtag band of misfits, eager as any of the exiles to earn freedom.

Increasing complexity in competition

In-game, you take direct control of the Nightwings, maneuvering one player at a time. The mechanics are easy to understand upfront for a somewhat novel take on basketball, and the control scheme feels natural given the one-player limitation. However, the variations in character abilities, statistics, and equippable items make matches more intricate and even overwhelming when the difficulty spikes.

You might find yourself cruising through the early battles, as the AI players are content to watch you zip across the field, sail over their heads, and slam dunk that orb into their pyre. I certainly did, especially with immediate access to the speedier characters that can run past enemies with ease. It didn’t take too long for me to start experiencing more intense competition, though, eventually resulting in losses where my opponents choked my offense and danced all over my defense.

And this is where the unique beauty of Pyre shines through.

There is no game over

Win or lose in the Rites, the plot keeps moving. Remember that everyone in the Downside is an exile and yearns for liberty, too. So when your adversaries triumph, their own personal narratives advance in step with the Nightwings’ journey. And while a majority of the teams you face are headed by unrepentant evildoers, there are a couple of genuinely good people also vying for liberation.

When you learn how the aged cur Dalbert Oldheart was unfairly banished from the Commonwealth, losing doesn’t sound so bad if this kind old critter goes free. You can be victorious next time, and without a guilty conscience, dunk on Witch Udmildhe and her bog crones who wish to unleash the malevolent Yslach Astral-Born on the world.

Not that winning doesn’t come with its own price either. When you win and let a team member go back to the Commonwealth, you let that team member go for good. In addition, you can only choose from the three characters you’ve used in matches the most. This means you’re constantly losing the players you’re most accustomed to when you keep winning.

MVPs, one and all

Thankfully, every individual you recruit into the Nightwings is a standout, both in how they play in the Rites and how their own story arcs develop and overlap with the rest of the colorful cast. Pamitha, the sassy harpy, cuts across the field with winged fury, but relents at the immediate sight of her sister out of guilt. The pale white, blue-eyed blonde demon Jodariel cuts an imposing figure with her steely stare and twisted horns, and she commands the court with her presence. Yet, past her stoicism lies warm, motherly instincts.

Pyre introduces such outcasts with complicated backgrounds at a reasonably rapid clip, and when you’ve assembled the entire crew, revelations are dropped at an even pace to keep you driving forward to see where the plot goes.

And before I forget, most of the interactions with the characters and the world at large is through the visual novel format of still portraits and lots of text interspersed with choices. Voice acting (save for one particular role which has to be heard to be believed) is limited to mumblings in a made-up language. It’s charming in how distinct the delivery is, and I never noticed a single canned soundbite.

Consuming, fiery storytelling

Yet this static presentation never left me bored or buttoning through dialogue. I basically marathoned 10 hours on my first session, and reached the very end on my second five-hour sitdown with the game. Despite the archetypes that make up the cast, the authenticity in characterization made me love each of the Nightwings.

I laughed at Rukey Greentail’s boasts landing his furry tail in hot water. I was in awe of Sir Gilman’s boisterous determination. I pondered on Volfred Sandalwood’s notions of true independence. I was gutted over Hedwyn’s broken promise. I agonized over every choice as to which of them I would anoint for freedom.

I will be replaying Pyre. I want to learn more about those I let go early, fight even harder, and just make better decisions to see how all the Nightwings deal with the burden of losing comrades and gaining liberty in a land of oppression. I will cast myself once more into the fires of competition for their sake, because Pyre made me believe their bonds are worth burning for.

SEE ALSO: 7 must-play re-released video games in HD

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Gaming

ASUS ROG Phone review: A true gaming phone done right?

Undeniably a phone built for mobile gamers

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Finally, the ROG Phone from ASUS is out in the market! We first saw the gaming smartphone back in Computex 2018 last June, and we waited a long time (four months to be exact) to take one home.

We received a lot of questions about this phone. Is it the best gaming smartphone today? How is it different from other flagship phones with similar specs? And, how much value are you getting out of it?

To answer all those, here’s my review of the ROG Phone. You know the drill, let’s start with the phone’s physique.

Its AMOLED display measures 6 inches diagonally

With a Full HD+ resolution and 18:9 aspect ratio

It features stereo front-facing speakers

It’s not exactly borderless, but you get great loudspeakers

The physical buttons are on the right side

They are made of metal

The left has the card tray and side-mounted USB-C port

The phone doesn’t support expandable storage via microSD

Another USB-C at the bottom along with a 3.5mm jack

This phone doesn’t sacrifice wired connectivity

The back looks aggressive with the ROG logo

The logo lights up!

The phone is pretty angular with lots of unusual shapes

The ROG persona goes mobile

In case you’re wondering what ROG means…

It’s definitely for gamers

There are two rear cameras and a fingerprint reader

Almost forgot about those!

Obviously designed with gaming in mind

One look at the ROG Phone and it already screams that it’s a gaming smartphone. Unlike other game-centric phones from Honor and Razer which have subtle gaming looks, the ROG Phone belongs with the rest of the ROG laptops and peripherals that are made by ASUS.

When there are a number of phones on the table like in our office, it’s not difficult to differentiate the ROG Phone from the rest. The front of the phone has a distinct copper accent on its front stereo speakers, and the back is uniquely ROG. If you own an ROG laptop or desktop and use ROG-branded peripherals, the ROG Phone should be part of your collection.

Like with other 2018 phones, the ROG Phone has a glass back using Corning’s tough Gorilla Glass. Don’t expect things to be symmetrical here because the dual rear cameras and the LED flash are housed in an unusual shape. Even the fingerprint reader is slightly positioned to the right of the phone, but don’t worry, it’s still reachable using either index fingers.

The ROG Phone’s bold design doesn’t end there. The back also has a futuristic styling using lines and an ROG logo that lights up in virtually any color you want. To top things off, the phone even has an exterior for its cooling system.

Encased in a metal frame, the ROG Phone is premium all around. It certainly feels more well-built than its ZenFone cousins. But of course, the loud design is not everyone’s cup of tea. Some gamers might even find it too much, but ASUS is not following Razer’s design choices.

Apart from the phone’s body, there is also a lot to talk about the phone’s display. The 6-inch display is not just your ordinary AMOLED panel. Apart from producing deep blacks and vibrant colors, the display is capable of a 90Hz refresh rate with 1ms pixel response time. Basically, you can play with the phone in uber-smooth motion. On top of that, it supports HDR and has a wide color gamut that’ll please professionals.

The fastest Android gaming phone today

The ROG Phone is powered by a Snapdragon 845, which is practically found on all high-end Android phones that came out this year. To place this gaming smartphone ahead of them, ASUS threw in an overclocked variant of the already-powerful chip and paired it with lots of memory and speedy flash storage. The result is one of the fastest Android phones available today.

Android Oreo runs the show, but it’s customized by ASUS to make it one of their own. Being an ROG device, it comes with a combative theme. Turning on the “X Mode” will even make everything red, which means that the ROG Phone is performing at its peak.

Like with ROG notebooks and desktops, the phone has a command center where you can closely monitor the phone’s condition. The Game Center is as aggressive-looking as the phone’s body. Here you can check the CPU and GPU speeds, the battery’s temperature and remaining power, the setting for the RGB light customization, and the fan speed control for the external cooler.

The configuration I have for review has 8GB of memory and 128GB of storage. If you find 128GB not enough for all your games and personal files, there’s also a 512GB model. Without a doubt, the ROG Phone is insanely fast. Coupled with a 90Hz display, this will be your smoothest Android experience. The 120Hz display of the Razer Phone 2 is more fluid, but the eyes can already appreciate what the ROG Phone has.

Keep in mind that not all games take advantage of the high refresh rate, but popular titles already do. My all-time favorite, Asphalt 9: Legends, is more enjoyable when it’s rendered in 90fps. Other graphics-intensive titles like Free Fire (which comes pre-installed) is fully supported and PUBG: Mobile is playable in the highest settings without lag, as well.

Also, the AirTriggers, which are ROG’s virtual shoulder buttons, aid in mobile gaming. Basically, the sides of the phone are touch-sensitive. They are kind of gimmicky in a way because they are pretty difficult to reach during gameplay. When you get used to it, you’ll have an edge against other players using regular phones.

It even comes with fun cameras

The ROG Phone is not just fun in gaming, but it’s also a good picture taker. It won’t match the likes of the Pixel 3 and Mate 20 Pro, yet I am impressed with the phone’s cameras. Maybe because I wasn’t expecting it to be this good?

It’s got dual rear shooters. The main one is a 12-megapixel sensor with f/1.8 lens, optical image stabilization, and Dual Pixel autofocus. Of course, the phone’s camera is powered by AI that detects the scenes and adjusts the settings accordingly. Thankfully, there’s no over processing going on like with other AI-enabled shooters.

Here are some photos taken using the main sensor in Auto mode:

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They aren’t bad, right? Although, ASUS didn’t put much attention on the 8-megapixel secondary shooter with an ultra wide-angle lens. I’m a fan of wide-angle secondary cameras, so I enjoyed shooting GoPro-like shots. Too bad it’s got no autofocus and the quality isn’t at the level of the main sensor.

Here are some samples taken using the main sensor and the wide-angle camera for comparison:

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Moving to the front, we have another 8-megapixel shooter but it’s just wide enough to take spacious selfies. It comes with an f/2.0 aperture, so low-light shots shouldn’t be a problem — at least on paper. You can also apply bokeh effects to your selfies for added depth.

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No one is buying the ROG Phone for photography purposes, but those who are interested in it will be able to take great photos. The use of an ultra wide-angle secondary lens is also a good choice by ASUS. Why? Because it’s more fun to take wide shots.

Incredible power takes a toll on battery

With all the features the ROG Phone has, a trusty 4000mAh battery keeps the lights on. But, it is enough? Based on my usage, no. If you wish to enable the phone’s highlighted features such as the 90Hz refresh rate, you should make sure to have a power bank around.

The phone didn’t last a full day as my daily driver. I usually get fewer than three hours of screen-on time. My usage includes typical work duties with the phone constantly connected to either Wi-Fi or LTE, and lots of gaming in X Mode.

When I set the refresh rate back to default (60Hz), I was able to get better battery life. The ROG Phone was my secondary device during my four-day business trip to Singapore and I only had to charge it twice. I mainly used the phone for taking photos, checking out web pages, uploading IG stories, and, of course, for playing mobile games once in a while.

Speaking of charging, the ROG Phone comes with a super-fast charger in the box. In just 15 minutes, I was able to charge the phone from zero to 26 percent. The charging rate slows down when you’re nearing 100 percent, so a full charge takes about an hour and 40 minutes. That is still very impressive, though.

Is this your GadgetMatch?

The ROG Phone is a premium device from ASUS with all the bells and whistles of a gaming smartphone. Some might argue that regular flagship phones are already good at gaming. Yes, that’s true but they are not meant for it. That’s where gaming smartphones, such as the ROG Phone, come in.

It has the fastest available processor, super-smooth refresh rate, loud front speakers, optimized software, and extra hardware features such as shoulder triggers and both passive and active cooling systems.

But, everything comes at a price. When the ZenFone 5Z came out earlier this year, we were in awe at how ASUS is offering a flagship-specced phone at an affordable price. It’s even cheaper than OnePlus in some regions, but not as affordable as a Xiaomi flagship. Things are different with the ROG Phone and ASUS is asking quite a lot of money for it, but at least it’s not your usual Android phone.

The ROG Phone has an official starting price of US$ 899 for the 128GB model. In the Philippines, it goes for PhP 49,995, which is not far from the international pricing. If you want more storage, you can get the 512GB model for US$ 1,099. You can also get the top-tier model for PhP 61,995 in the Philippines, SG$ 1,598 in Singapore, and NT$ 31,990 in Taiwan where it’s the cheapest.

If you wish to complete the set, the ROG Phone is being sold along with all of its accessories but the asking price puts it in the league of gaming laptops, so you might want to think carefully before purchasing any of them.

SEE ALSO: ASUS ROG Phone tops AnTuTu benchmark for Android

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Gaming

Razer Game Store hits Malaysia and the Philippines this weekend

In time for Singles’ Day

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Remember that partnership between Lazada and Razer to bring a new region-centric digital game store to Southeast Asia? Well, it’s finally making its way to Malaysia and the Philippines.

We first reported about this back in April when the Razer Game Store arrived in Singapore. An expansion for the rest of the region was promised then, but we’re only seeing it come to fruition now.

Beginning November 11, which happens to be Singles’ Day and the start of Lazada’s major 11.11 sale, anyone with access to the online store in Malaysia and the Philippines can purchase from a wide selection of PC games.

This adds to the aforementioned Singapore store, as well as the one offered for Thailand, bringing the total in the region to four. Teaming up with Lazada means there are multiple ways to purchase the titles, minus the hassle of exchange rates and uncertainty with authenticity.

To celebrate, numerous games will be discounted up to 90 percent off. You can find the Malaysian and Philippine Razer Game Stores here and here, respectively.

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Features

Razer Phone 2 review: Gaming and nothing else

Needs to be more than that

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It should go without saying that the Razer Phone 2 is designed for mobile gaming and nothing else. Ever since we first laid our hands on it, there’s nothing else worth doing on this device aside from playing games — and a little media consumption on the side.

For one, this thing is big and blocky. Never have I used a phone as daunting as this. While it feels fine during landscape mode with two hands, going single-handed can be a literal pain to one’s hand.

You can get a better feel of it in our initial hands-on video:

It’s essentially the same brick as the original Razer Phone. The gaming company definitely applied the don’t-fix-it-if-it-ain’t-broke mentally here. I’m honestly fine with it since it delivers an unmatched screen-speaker combo, but I imagine small-handed users having a problem with this.

That’s mainly because it owns a 5.7-inch screen with a traditional ratio of 16:9, which means it isn’t as slim as those with the newer 18:9 panels. However, the dreaded notch is still nowhere in sight, and there’s more vertical space when playing in landscape orientation.

And since the stereo speakers are placed in front (where they should be), there’s no way of blocking them while gaming. That’s important, because you wouldn’t want to cover these grilles. They’re the absolute loudest, clearest speakers I’ve ever experienced on a smartphone, and could even beat some of the laptops I’ve reviewed in the past.

But from start to finish, it’s the display you really want. It’s an unmatched 120Hz LCD with a 1440p resolution. There’s really nothing like it in the market; it’s unbelievably smooth when scrolling and incredibly sharp when pixel peeping. Only the ROG Phone’s 6-inch 1080p AMOLED with its 90Hz refresh rate comes close, but I could definitely feel Razer’s extra pixels and hertz.

Bezels for days

So, how does all that translate to actual gaming? Mostly hits for sure, but I must point out some misses to make this a complete review.

First, the good. Even though Razer doesn’t advertise it, the faster 120Hz refresh rate applies to practically all games that involve scrolling or movement. That means you get on-screen motion that’s twice as smooth as the usual 60Hz on 99.9 percent of all other phones ever made. It’s tough to describe in pictures or words, but you can take my word that it’s tough to go back to anything less than this.

A useful pre-installed app for a change

Combined with the Snapdragon 845 chipset and 8GB of RAM, this is the best mix of hardware you can find until the next flagship Snapdragon gets announced, which may be as soon as next month. It’s a shame really, although this chip is more than enough to power the demanding screen. You can even boost performance further with the Game Booster app, which allows you to customize individual settings per game. I just keep mine on Performance mode to be safe.

My only concern is the heat management. Even though it’s been proven that the internals are cooled by a vapor chamber, I can’t say it’s effective in keeping heat away from my hands during intense gameplay. For comparison, it gets as warm as the vapor cooling-less Pixel 3, and doesn’t maintain temperature as well as the Mate 20 Pro, which isn’t even a gamer-centric phone but does own a more advanced 7nm Kirin processor.

Ragnarok M: Eternal Love pushes the Razer Phone 2 to peak hotness

Asphalt 9 is an example of a fast-paced game that pushes the phone to its limits

Alto’s Odyssey benefits greatly from the 120Hz refresh rate

A gamepad accessory would be a godsend for games like Fortnite

Playing in vertical orientation is less comfy yet manageable

Going outdoors introduces a new issue

The display’s biggest drawback has to be its poor brightness even at the highest setting. This poses a problem for games like Pokémon Go wherein you gotta go out in daylight to play. It was close to unplayable for me when the sun was high — something that never bothered me whenever I stayed inside my cave.

Speaking of going outside, I also can’t say that the 4000mAh battery capacity is enough. While it may seem ample on paper, I noticed the Razer Phone 2 easily burns through it in a few short hours. I would peg average use on a single charge at five hours of screen-on time tops; about an hour less if you use it purely for gaming. I could probably improve battery life by adjusting the refresh rate to 60Hz, but why would I hinder the phone’s best feature?

More is always better

And yet, despite these minor complaints, I can’t take anything away from the audio-visual experience the Razer Phone 2 offers. Having powerful stereo speakers and a desktop-grade 120Hz 1440p LCD is unreal, and I don’t understand why more brands aren’t copying this. The era of 60Hz needs to end already, and it should start with smartphones.

With the gaming aspect out of the way, what else can this smartphone do?

Razer’s new…

… wireless charging pad

For one, the Razer Phone 2 has wireless charging unlike its predecessor. Razer offers an RGB-lighted fast charging pad of its own, and it matches well with the customizable illumination of the phone’s rear logo.

Take your pick!

Yeah, that RGB logo really puts the game in gamer! The built-in Chroma app is where the magic happens; there are lots of options to adjust colors and how they radiate. Of course, leaving it on too long drains the battery immensely. My preferred setting is a glowing logo while the phone is on, and totally off when the unit’s asleep.

In case you’re wondering: No, turning on the lights doesn’t make it run faster

What else is there to know? Aside from all the upgrades over the predecessor I’ve mentioned, the Razer Phone 2 also comes with IP67 water and dust resistance, meaning it can handle unfortunate situations (like dunks in a toilet) more easily. Unfortunately, the 3.5mm audio port has once again been excluded, which is a head-scratcher on any sort of gaming device.

Oh, and the camera performance isn’t that good. As expected of a gaming phone, image quality isn’t a priority, but it gets the job done when daylight is plenty and you have nothing serious to shoot. I also appreciated the 2x optical zoom of the secondary lens. Take a look at some samples:

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Is this your GadgetMatch?

If it isn’t clear by now, the Razer Phone 2 is fantastic for gaming, and not much more. Its blockiness and general lack of focus for anything other than raw performance makes it a rather niche product in a sea of versatile smartphones. You could easily buy a different Snapdragon 845-equipped handset for a fraction of this phone’s US$ 799 price, and you’d likely gain other features like better cameras and a modern look, while still getting gaming-level speeds.

However, those would lack the amazing 120Hz display, extra-loud speakers, and all-around customization. At the same time, last year’s discounted Razer Phone has become a little more lucrative, especially since it looks nearly identical to its successor and offers mostly the same signature features.

When all’s said and done, the Razer Phone 2 is a fun little machine. I wouldn’t use it as a daily driver, but whenever a hot new mobile game comes out, this would be my go-to match.

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