Sunday, April 5, 2020

Azure Striker Gunvolt Review


Long time readers know that I am a regular participant in Chic-Pixel's Community Game-Along events. With April's theme being Capcom games, I had a lot of options. For my first #CapcoMonth game, I selected Azure Striker Gunvolt. This game wasn't developed by Capcom itself, but by ex-Capcom employees at Inti Creates. Gunvolt is heavily inspired by Mega Man, which isn't among my favorite retro series, so I had previously looked the other way when Inti Creates decided to take their own spin on this style of game. However, after getting some hands-on time with one of the Gunvolt games on the show floor at MomoCon last year (impressions), I could immediately tell this was more than a simple Mega Man clone and the first game ended up on my Steam wishlist as soon as I got home.

Overview
Azure Striker Gunvolt is a 2D action game in the style of Mega Man. The game is comprised of action-platforming stages that culminate in a boss battle; the order that these stages are played is up to the player. However, unlike Mega Man, Gunvolt does not defeat his enemies purely by firing projectiles at them. Instead, he tags enemies with a needle gun that does minimal damage but increase's the target's electrical conductivity. He then emits an electric field that strikes down each tagged enemy with lightning. (You've probably figured out by now, why the main character is named "Gunvolt".) Azure Striker Gunvolt takes place in a dystopian cyberpunk setting with heavy anime influences. This review is based on the PC version of the game, which is available via Steam.

Pros
  • I really enjoyed the game's core mechanic. Loading up as many enemies as possible with conductive needles and then unleashing the electric field to zap them all at once was very satisfying.
  • For an otherwise pretty straightforward action game, it has a surprisingly involved story. While this story leans heavily into anime and comic book themes and tropes, I found it to be entertaining and a good way to break up the action. I would absolutely watch an anime series or movie with this cast of characters and setting.
  • This game has a kicking soundtrack that features synthy instrumental tracks for the general action as well as vocal electro-pop songs that play during certain story events or when certain criteria are met during gameplay. The vocal tracks are very catchy and would always get me hyped whenever they would come on.
  • Gunvolt has great 16-bit-like pixel art that is embellished with higher quality effects for certain elements like the electric field. This can make for a pretty chaotic display during the heat of battle, but I found that I really liked the way it looked once I learned to be able to keep track of the action. During dialog and cutscenes, characters are represented with nice-looking anime portraits in a visual novel-style presentation. 
  • As someone who struggled with some of the Mega Man games, I appreciated that Gunvolt adds several features that make getting through it a little more manageable:
    • Each level features multiple checkpoints including one right before the boss room. You can continue from these checkpoints as many times as you would like until you beat the level.
    • The game includes some light RPG mechanics that allow you to level up your character and upgrade his gear. I only made minimal use of this feature because I felt like the game's difficulty level wasn't high enough to necessitate replaying each level multiple times to grind for XP and crafting materials, but it's nice that it's an option for players who get stuck and want to increase their chances of success.
    • Every once in a while, an angel-like character will appear and resurrect you when you are about to die via a mechanic called "Anthem" (there's a justification in the game's story for why this occurs). In addition to resurrecting you, Anthem temporarily powers you up and changes the music to an especially catchy song. Sice Anthem occurs by random chance, it only triggered a few times for me during my playthrough, but it often saved my bacon during multiple-stage boss fights and the song that played added to the excitement of the battle.
Cons
  • Gunvolt has some dialog that takes place during gameplay. This dialog is voiced in Japanese and displays in textboxes with English subtitles. With how busy the screen can be in the midst of the action, I found this dialog to be very distracting and ultimately had to disable it. For example, in one case I had a character exclaim "Watch out for those spikes!" while I was platforming; the problem was that the dialog box displayed over the spikes, causing me not to see them and skewer my character as a result. Thankfully, the mid-action dialog didn't seem to be essential to the story, so I don't feel like I missed out on much by disabling it.
After loving the last Inti Creates game I played, Bloodstained (review), I was pleased to find that this studio had knocked in out of the park with another excellent 2D action platformer. I'm already looking forward to playing the next two games in this series! I highly recommend Azure Striker Gunvolt to anyone who enjoys retro-style action, even those who aren't fans of Mega Man, Gunvolt's source of inspiration.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 9 hours, 52 minutes (includes reaching both the "normal" and "true" ending)




Note: This post is part of the Chic-Pixel community's #CapcoMonth event. For more info and their full list of events, check out this page: Community Game-Along Master List 2020

Monday, March 30, 2020

Bravely Default 2 Impressions


As someone who is a massive fan of Final Fantasy 5, its successor series, Bravely Default, has been recommended to me countless times. However, every time a game in this series is brought up, there's always some kind of caveat like "This game is great, but that second act is a doozy!" or "That game improves on some aspects of the original, but downgrades in other areas." As a result, I've been waiting for an ideal jumping-on point for this franchise for a while. When I saw in the recent Nintendo Direct that a demo for the newest game in the series, Bravely Default 2, was available, I figured that the time had finally come to get on board.

Background
Bravely Default 2 is a turn-based RPG in the style of classic Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games. One of the game's defining features is a job system that lets each character mix and match skills from a variety of classes. The demo features four classes: White Mage, Black Mage, Vanguard (knight), and Monk. The other major feature is the "Brave" and "Default" system that allows you to take extra actions in one turn at the expense of subsequent turns; which creates a risk-reward dynamic to the battle strategy. Despite its somewhat misleading name, Bravely Default 2 is actually the third game in the series and begins a new story with different characters than the previous games.

Pros
  • I found the game's graphics appealing, both in terms of art style and use of textures. The very detailed textures on somewhat simple-looking stylized character models made the gameplay and cutscenes look they were being enacted by dolls being posed in a playset. I thought it was kind of a neat look.
  • The game has nice battle animations that are distinct for each character and enemy. It's impressive considering how many types of monsters you're likely to encounter.  For example, I like the way defeated enemies slump over and collapse; in most games of this type, they would just fade away.
  • On the topic of the doll-like quality of the game's graphics, I had a lot of fun playing dress-up with my characters; each character has a special costume for each class. I spent several minutes in the Job menu cycling through the classes for each character just to admire the costume designs.
  • No two characters in the main party speak with the same type of accent. I like this voice casting decision because it conveys that the characters come from a multicultural world.
  • The FF5-like job system has the potential to be a lot of fun, especially later on once more than four classes are available. 
  • The music in the demo features pieces influenced by classical music, traditional Middle Eastern music, and rock. It was effective in giving the impression that the final game will have a great score.

Cons
  • The game's user interface can be a little unclear or inconsistent in layout. I sometimes felt like it was hard to display the info I needed both in menus and during battles.
  • Bravely Default 2 eschews traditional random battles for having enemies visible on-screen. The problem is that the enemies respawn too quickly; after defeating an enemy, all I would have to do is walk a short distance and then turn back to find that same enemy was alive and well again. Usually, the nice thing about having on-screen enemies is the ability to clear a room and explore freely; this demo did not allow me to do that, which I found frustrating. 
  • After coming out of a battle, other enemies in the area can engage you immediately. I had many situations where I had to fight multiple groups of enemies consecutively without a break, making the effective frequency of combat higher than what it would have been with random encounters.
  • By far the biggest issue with this demo was its extremely imbalanced difficulty level. Just to make a modicum of progress into the dungeon in the demo's quest, I had to grind for a considerable amount of time. After playing for several hours, I managed to make it to the dungeon boss only to find that I could barely deal any damage to him; I would likely have to grind for several more hours just to be able to finish this demo, which just didn't seem worth it to me.
Ultimately, this demo had the opposite effect than what was intended; it made me feel less inclined to pick up the full version. Why would I pre-order the full game when the demo was so discouraging to play? Since there seemed to be potential in the game from an artistic and mechanical standpoint, I'll probably give it a second look if reviews indicate that the final game has been drastically rebalanced to offer a less grinding-focused experience.

The demo warns you that the difficulty has been turned up "a little higher", but to me this seemed extreme.


I found the dialog in the demo to be fairly entertaining.


Be prepared to spend a lot of time staring at the battle screen if you decide to play this demo.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams Review


For my third game during #PlatforMonth, I decided to pick up a platformer starring the gaming world's second favorite pair of super-powered Italian siblings, the Giana Sisters. While this series may have started off as a very blatant ripoff of Super Mario Bros, it has since grown into a distinct franchise with its own unique personality and mechanics. The fourth game in the series, Twisted Dreams, was the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012.

Overview
Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams is a 2.5D platformer with a linear level structure. The game's signature mechanic is that you can switch your character between two forms, "Punk" and "Cute". Changing between these forms changes your character's abilities and also the behavior of objects in the environment.

Pros
  • This game gets a lot of mileage out of its central switching mechanic. Switching between the two forms occurs instantaneously, seamlessly, and changes your move set, the visual aesthetic of the level, the background music, and the behavior of platforms and enemies. It somehow all feels very natural quickly and I found that it remained an enjoyable mechanic throughout the entire campaign.
  •  Twisted Dreams has a kickin' soundtrack. In Punk form, the music has rock instrumentation with electric guitars and in Cute form, the music takes on a more electronic synthy sound. Both sounded pretty good, but I found that when the situation didn't require a specific form, I would stay in the Punk form to listen to the shredding guitar.
  • With how much the switching mechanic changes things, I thought navigating the levels and picking the right form could get confusing. Thankfully the game signals to you when it's time to change forms via color-coded gems that you collect throughout each level. This comes in handy with some of the very technical jumps that could require several mid-air transformations!
  • Punk form's special move is an air dash and Cute form can twirl to glide through the air. Using both of these moves in tandem with each other works very smoothly once you get used to it.
  • Being a challenging 2D platformer, I was very thankful that Twisted Dreams is very generous with checkpoints.
  • This game is tough, but not in a way that ever feels discouraging (with the possible exception of the final boss). The game often asks you to pull off some very tricky maneuvers but the game gives you tools you need to succeed and doing so feels very satisfying.

Cons
  • Twisted Dreams gives you a rating of 1 to 3 stars at the end of each level. Earning a certain number of stars is needed to unlock the later levels of the game. However, the scoring system that determines your star rating is very opaque. I had to look up how it worked in order to earn the last few stars I needed to unlock the final level.
  • Like many modern 2D platformers, the game can be quite busy visually. I lost several lives due by missing a platform or crashing into spikes in areas where it was difficult to discern whether an object was in the foreground or background.
  • The campaign is split into three "worlds" but there is no cohesive visual theme to separate one from the other. Levels tended to switch randomly from a forest, castle, cave, or beach settings regardless of which "world" they were in.
Other than a few minor issues that occasionally slowed me down, I blasted through Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams and had a great time doing it. I give this game a strong recommendation to fans of platformers like Rayman, Donkey Kong Country, or Mighty Switch Force.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 10 hours

Notes:
  • This review was written as part of the Chic Pixel community's #PlatforMonth event. For more info about their events, check out this page: Community Game-Along
  • For the majority of my time playing through Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams, I was convinced that I was alternating between a "punk" sister and a "cute" sister (i.e. two different characters). It turns out that you're only playing as one sister who changes her appearance; the other titular Giana sister is the character you are trying to rescue from the villain.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Control Review


While I play a lot of indie and retro games, I've been trying to make it a point over the past year or so to keep up with some of the critically acclaimed major releases as well. Of 2019's critical darlings, one in particular that caught my eye was Control. This game was awarded Game of the Year at various media outlets including IGN, Ars Technica, and EGM.
Overview

Control is a third-person action game by Remedy Studios. The player character, Jesse, is on a search for her long lost brother which leads to her finding out about the existence of a secret organization within the US government, the Federal Bureau of Control, which investigates paranormal phenomena. Through a set of initially unclear circumstances, she becomes the leader of the Bureau, gains supernatural powers, and ends up being tasked with thwarting an invasion by an alien force called The Hiss (it's kind of a lot to take in at once). The bulk of Control's gameplay consists of exploring the massive labyrinthine headquarters of the Bureau and clearing out Hiss invaders, which usually take the form of possessed Control agents.
Combat

The key to combat in Control is successfully juggling gunplay and Jesse's psychic abilities. She has a single gun that transforms into different modes that allow it to function as a handgun, shotgun, etc, all of which have infinite ammo but share a single cooldown meter. Similarly, Jesse's powers (telekinesis, a force shield, air dashing, and levitation) all share a second cooldown meter. Managing these two cooldown meters is tough at first, but once you've sufficiently leveled up Jesse's weapons and abilities, combat feels looks and feels pretty slick. The combat is enhanced by very detailed physics modeling that affects the use of the psychic powers (especially telekinesis) and the destructibility of objects in the environment.

Unfortunately, as novel as using a mix of gunplay and superpowers is at first, Control wears the player down by frequently throwing one similar encounter at you after another. For how combat-focused this game is, there isn't much variety in the enemies or the combat situations presented; often the game just spams you with wave after wave of the same few enemies. While there seems to be a lot of options for how to dispatch these enemies, I ultimately found that a pretty simple tactic was the idea strategy in almost every situation: stick to two of the six weapon forms and then just alternate between shooting and launching debris with telekinesis.

On the bright side regarding combat, I appreciated that the game maintained a consistent level of challenge; many games that involve using superpowers tend to let the player become some overpowered that battles become trivial. Control kept the difficulty of battle pretty high. I think having to stay on my toes helped make the combat feel meaningful despite its repetitiveness. The only downside is that some enemies have attacks that can instantly reduce Jesse to a sliver of health, regardless of her stats and upgrades; this meant for some cheap deaths if I got caught by surprise.

Exploration

Control takes place almost entirely inside the Bureau's headquarters. However, due to various paranormal phenomena that bend the fabric of time and space, this building is essentially a giant Metroid-like maze. Throughout the story, events take place that change and distort the building's layout, making it even more of a labyrinth. Also in Metroid-like fashion, many areas of the building are initially off-limits until you gain the necessary keycard or traversal ability to gain access.

The idea behind Contol's setting is to feature stark contrasts between the mundane (office spaces) and the surreal (paranormal objects and events). However, I found that the mundane areas outnumbered the surreal areas to a point where I did not feel especially motivated to explore; wandering through room after room of cubicles is not terribly interesting. It also doesn't help that rewards for exploration are fairly minimal.

To the game's credit, when you manage to venture out of the office areas and into pockets of otherworldly space, they are pretty cool. These areas often feature bizarre distorted landscapes, great lighting, and a creepy atmosphere; it's just a shame there aren't more of them. There is one area in particular that shifts around you in time with the background music as you wander through (I'm being vague about this in order not to spoil it for others); this segment was the highlight of the game for me.

Another aspect of the game design that impacted exploration, was the game's save system. Throughout the Bureau building are fixed checkpoints called, of course, "Control Points". While the game autosaves the world state regularly, getting killed results in respawning Jesse at the last Control Point she passed. Unfortunately, in some areas of the map, the Control Points can be pretty far apart or in impractical locations, which results in having to retraverse sections of the map over and over if you find yourself stuck on a particularly tough fight. It also doesn't help matters that enemies in areas you've been before will respawn over time, making retraversal after a death extra punishing. While this system was manageable on the game's main story path (with a few glaring exceptions toward the end), I found that it discouraged me from exploring the map and engaging with the side missions as much as I typically would in this kind of game. For example, there's a difficult boss battle in one of the side missions that's located quite far from a Control Point in an area where enemies respawn especially frequently. I would've liked to keep making attempts at this boss but having to trek back to the boss room each time eventually lead me to abandon this questline.

Storytelling/Presentation

The story of Control is initially very cryptic; the Bureau of Control, its mission, and the forces it's facing don't initially make much sense. However, I found that by piecing info together from in-engine cutscenes, collectible documents, and full-motion video files, I was able to make sense of it without much trouble. That being said, my level of interest in the story and world of Control waxed and waned significantly over the course of the game. The theme of government agents covering up paranormal events is one that doesn't always land with me. In the case of Control, the strong voice acting and atmosphere generally helped sell the plot, but at times scenarios it presented as dark and serious came across to me as kind of ridiculous, which caused me to disengage. It doesn't help matters that several of the scenarios in the game are coincidentally similar to a very silly children's show called Odd Squad. When a scene in an M-rated triple-A game immediately evokes images of a TV series designed to teach small children math, I couldn't help but feel pulled out of the story... however, I realize that my mental association between these unrelated things is more of a me-problem rather than a real issue with the game. (Here's a clip of Odd Squad for reference: Odd Squad)

Like many recent third-person games, collecting case files, letters, and other documents is a way that the game expands its lore. When this is done well it can be an engaging way to enrich the game world for players who are interested in it without bloating the game's story for those who just want to follow the main plot. I found that the documents in Control were interesting to collect and read, but the game makes doing so more cumbersome than it should be. For one, the inventory screen doesn't offer a way to sort read and unread documents, so each time I found a new one would then be followed by scrolling through my entire inventory trying to find where this new item ended up. The other issue I had was that each document has seemingly random segments redacted. I realize this is supposed to provide the aesthetic of the document being a "secret file" but it makes no sense in-game; why are documents kept inside the Bureau redacted? The whole point of redaction is that it's something done to a file when it gets released outside of the agency that produced it. I acknowledge this is an extremely small nitpick, but for me, it made me take these documents a little less seriously and made them harder to read.

Much to my surprise, the area where this game's storytelling worked best on me, was the full-motion video. Throughout your journey through the Bureau, you occasionally find video recordings of live actors giving agency announcements and briefings. Matthew Porretta, the actor that plays the Bureau's chief scientist, does a fantastic job of giving an initially grounded performance that slowly becomes unhinged as the game scenario gets more and more surreal. His scenes are incredibly effective at setting the tone of each phase of the game's story and I was always excited to find another videotape while rummaging through the Bureau's offices. If you would have told me years ago that one of my favorite features of a game in 2020 would be full-motion video, I never would have believed you, but here we are.
Conclusion

In all likelihood, this review probably reads as being quite negative. The thing is, Control is actually a very well-made game, and at key moments it really gets things right, making for an evocative experience. The problem is that the highlights are separated by large sections of mediocrity that give the game's various minor issues extra time to rise to the surface. As a result, my sentiment toward this game went back and forth many times throughout it's run time. Ultimately, I appreciate Control's level of quality and ambition but I am surprised that it took so many Game of the Year awards. I think players who are really into TV shows like The X-Files would be enthralled by this game. However, general action game fans will likely find that Control is good but certainly not Game of the Year material.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 23 hours (main campaign plus several side quests)

Monday, January 27, 2020

Ori and the Blind Forest Review



Keeping the #PlatforMonth train rolling, I decided to play a game that I've had recommended to me by quite a few people, Ori and the Blind Forest. This Metroidvania from Moon Studios and Microsoft was originally released on Xbox One and PC in 2015. This review is based on the "Definitive Edition" of the game on PC. I live-streamed my entire playthrough of the game on my Twitch channel.

Observations:
  • This game features gorgeous painterly visuals. The aesthetic reminds me of Ubi-Art games like Rayman Origins and Child of Light. In general, I really liked the look of the game but in some cases, it was hard to discern what was an interactive object/platform and what was just part of the background art. A lot of stylized platformers have this issue, however. 
  • For a game that initially looks very cute, it goes to some very dark places thematically, both in terms of atmosphere and storytelling. The mysterious and forlorn tone of the game reminded me of classic European fairytales (i.e. the pre-Disney versions). I found this to be intriguing but could see it being offputting for children or players expecting something lighter from a platformer.
  • Unlike most other games in this genre, Ori features very few fixed checkpoints on the map but instead allows you save almost anywhere at the cost of a small amount of MP. Since it deviates from the norm, I initially found myself having to do a lot retraversal any time I lost a life because I kept forgetting to save. Once I got used to it, however, I came to really appreciate the flexibility of the system. In some of the tougher areas, it was nice to be able to save every few minutes.
  • Similar to a game like Monster Boy (review), Ori's world is comprised of a large main map with a few separated dungeon-like areas. I like this structure since it provides your exploration with defined destinations rather than just having the whole game be comprised of aimless wandering. Also, segregating these dungeons from the rest of the map allows them to introduce unique mechanics that help break up the gameplay. For example, there is one dungeon that focuses on manipulating the effect of gravity; this mechanic wouldn't make sense in the overworld but is a lot of fun within its own dungeon.
  • The gameplay of Ori focuses heavily on movement over combat. In fact, many of the boss encounters playout more like escape sequences rather than battles. Not only does this work well from a thematic standpoint, it also plays to this game's strengths. Ori is a nimble character with a robust move set of aerial maneuvers such as wall jumps and air dashes. After receiving a few powerups, Ori can traverse many environments without ever touching the ground. This approach to platforming reminded me of one of my recent favorites in the genre, Celeste (review).
  • The game features an RPG-like skill tree and experience points. While this gives you some flexibility in how you set up your character, I found this to largely be a superfluous feature. In a game so heavily focused on locomotion, I didn't see much point in putting points into anything other than the movement skill branch of the skill tree.
  • In order to be more atmospheric, most areas of Ori feature pretty minimalistic music. The moody soundscape is occasionally broken up by grand orchestral swells for dramatic effect. While I appreciated what this approach accomplished artistically, my preference tends to lean toward persistent melodic pieces that I can enjoy humming along to or listening to on their own.
If I had played Ori and the Blind Forest when it had come out back in 2015, I think it would have been a mind-blowing experience and an easy 5/5. However, in the Metroidvania-rich gaming landscape of 2020, it's hard not to compare this game to subsequent games in the genre that I liked a little more. All that being said, Ori is still a fantastic game and accomplishes everything it sets off to do masterfully; I highly recommend it to fans of Metroidvania games.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 9 hours

Acknowledgment: #PlatforMonth is part of the Chic-Pixel monthly game-along calendar. Check out this page for the full line-up: 2020 Master Game-Along List



Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Sonic Mania Review


Though Sega games are admittedly a blind spot for me (see my Sega Gap post for more info), the Sonic series has been an exception; over the years I've played through all of the Sonic platformers on the Sega Genesis, Sega Dreamcast, Gameboy Advance, and Nintendo DS. So naturally, Sonic Mania, which has been lauded by some as the best 2D Sonic yet, has been on my radar for some time.

Overview:
Sonic Mania is a 2D platformer in the style of the classic Sega Genesis games that was developed as a collaboration between Sega and indie developers. As in classic Sonic, each level of the game is a zone divided into two acts. To unlock the "true ending" of the game players must collect a full set of Chaos Emeralds by finding and completing hidden challenge areas in the zones.

Pros
  • This game uses a custom engine that replicates the look of 16-bit Sonic but incorporates effects and a level a detail beyond the capabilities of the Genesis's famous "Blast Processing".
  • Coming to Mania with the mindset of classic Sonic, I was hoping to hear some bops and this game did not disappoint. Sonic Mania includes some cool remixes of retro Sonic tunes as well as some very catchy original tracks.
  • Similar to the music, some of the level designs are remixes of Genesis Sonic zones while others are brand new. For me, this game struck the right balance of nostalgic retro-based stages and creative original levels.
  • Sonic's full move set from the Genesis games is replicated in Mania and still feels just right despite the new engine. The game does a good job of retaining the classic feel while also introducing new mechanics.
  • The game includes some cool surprise references to Sonic series history. (I won't spoil them)
  • Sonic boss battles typically aren't anything special, they're generally just a matter of avoiding a few enemy attacks and then bouncing off them to score a few hits. This game's bosses are much more dynamic and often work in the environment of the stage in interesting ways.

Cons
  • In its desire to remain true to the retro format, Sonic Mania keeps certain 16-bit design elements that can add frustration to the experience, especially for players not accustomed to old-school pitfalls:
    • Sonic has a limited number of lives - Getting sent back to the beginning of a zone after losing to a second act boss is pretty lame. At least there are infinite continues.
    • Stages have a 10-minute time limit, running out of time kills Sonic instantly. Since the later levels can be quite long and confusingly laid out, running out of time can be a serious issue on one's first playthrough. Thankfully, the time limit can be disabled in the options menu, but I didn't realize this until I was already nearly at the end of the game.
    • Sonic can be killed by getting crushed extremely easily. If any part of his sprite gets pinched at all, it's an instant loss of a life. It's very easy to think you've cleared an obstacle only to find out that you've positioned Sonic in a space where he's slightly squeezed and thus spontaneously turned into a hedgehog pancake.
    • Every once in a while a seemingly innocuous-looking floor tile will have spikes pop out of it just to spite you.
  • The stages in Sonic Mania are unusually labyrinthine for an otherwise straightforward linear 2D platformer. There where many occasions during my stream of this game where I said out loud "Well, hopefully, I'm going the right way." Once I realized that I could disable the time limit, this wasn't that big of a deal but it still seemed like an unusual design choice.
In short, Sonic Mania is an awesome package for fans of classic Sonic that aren't prone to getting tripped up by a few potentially divisive old-school design choices. I would also recommend this game as a strong starting point for retro-curious players who want a good sampler platter of 16-bit blue hedgehog platforming.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 5 hours (regular ending)

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Game of the Year 2019

Serving as my third year as a gaming blogger and second year as a Twitch streamer, 2019 presented the opportunity to play a wide variety of excellent video games. Having finished at least 32 games in 2019 with release dates ranging from 1990 to present, narrowing down my Top 10 has proved to be a difficult task. However, part of the fun of compiling these lists is making difficult decisions and absurd apples-to-oranges comparisons. With that said, I present my ten favorite games that I beat in 2019:

#10: Bomb Chicken
Anybody that's been following me for a long time could probably guess that the odd combination of Bomberman-esque mechanics and themes of animal liberation, makes Bomb Chicken a game that is uniquely qualified to appeal to my particular sensibilities. I had a blast (pun very much intended) with this cute and challenging puzzle platformer. (review)

#9: Devil May Cry 5
I was a little unsure about taking my first step into character action games by jumping right into the fifth entry in the genre's most iconic series. Much to my surprise, I fell into the gameplay fairly naturally and after watching a few YouTube videos about DMC lore, I was able to enjoy the story and characters of Devil May Cry 5 quite a bit. My experience with this game has me keeping an eye out for other character action games I might enjoy and also has me rooting for Dante to be included in Super Smash Bros. (review)

#8: Gris
This artsy puzzle platformer delivered powerful emotional themes coupled with solid gameplay and gorgeous graphics. It's no surprise that this game won the Games for Impact category at The Game Awards. Experiencing this game live on Twitch with my audience was one of my highlights of the year as a streamer. (review)

#7: The Gardens Between
The Gardens Between really impressed me with its clever time-bending puzzle mechanics and creative level designs. When people ask me to recommend a recent puzzle game, this is my go-to pick. (review)

#6: Gears 5
Except for a few drunken multiplayer sessions of the original game when I was in college, I came to Gears 5 with nearly zero experience with Microsoft's long-running shooter series. What I was expecting from this game was Michael Bay-like action, buff people with guns blowing stuff up real good, and I certainly got plenty of that (which is a good thing in a video game). On top of that, there was a surprisingly compelling drama unfolding involving the aforementioned buff individuals! I may have come to the series blind but after playing this game, I consider myself a Gears fan now! (review)

#5: The Messenger
Indie retro-inspired 2D platformers may be a dime a dozen nowadays, but The Messenger stood out with especially tight action and some of the most humorous writing I've seen in a game in quite some time. This game also sported some excellent chiptunes, in fact, I found myself humming The Messenger's item shop theme as I was typing this. (review)

#4: Prey
Featuring the intricate level design of Dishonored and the haunting atmosphere of Half-Life, Prey got its hooks into me deep. I lost a lot of sleep while I was playing Prey, not only from late-night game sessions but also just from thinking about the game's themes and the choices they present. It's a real shame this game got overlooked by so many when it was initially released. (review)

#3: Forza Horizon 4
As a guy who's about as far away from being a gearhead as one could get, I never would have guessed that a realistic-looking racing game like Forza Horizon 4 would ever sit so high in one of my game of the year posts. This game's combination of fantastic graphics, varied race types, open-world exploration, and a plethora of difficulty adjustment options made this an exhilarating and accessible auto racing experience, even for a lousy driver like me. If you have Xbox Game Pass, take a quick break from reading this post to go queue up the download for this game now! (review)

#2: Monster Boy
If it wasn't already apparent from the rest of this post or the mini-review roundup I recently released, I have played a lot of 2D platformers this year. Monster Boy stands head and shoulders over the rest with its delightful character animations, clever character transformation mechanic, top-notch map, and wonderful music. (review)

#1: Fire Emblem Three Houses
While I could describe many of the games on this list as "engrossing", none of the others consumed me to a level quite like Fire Emblem Three Houses. It's tactical gameplay, a memorable and engaging cast of characters, and intriguing branching story make Three Houses not only a standout game in the 2019 release calendar but in the Nintendo Switch lineup overall; what Breath of the Wild was for Zelda and Odyssey was to Mario, Three Houses is to Fire Emblem. (review)

Honorable Mentions:
This year's list was so contentious that I wrote several drafts of this post with the top few slots in entirely different, but still completely justifiable, orders. With a lineup this strong, it was only natural that many great games that I played this year just barely missed the cut. Here's a sampling of the best of the rest:
  • Shadow of the Tomb Raider - The past few entries in this series easily took numbered spots in prior years, and in a less packed year, this one would have landed a spot as well. Square Enix's reboot trilogy of Lara Croft's tale is still a gold standard for action-adventure games. (review)
  • Tales of Symphonia - Streaming this bizarre and very length Gamecube-era JRPG was a wild experience. I'm very grateful to my Twitch audience for joining me on the twists and turns of Lloyd and Collette's quest! (review)
  • Ys Memories of Celceta - The Ys series continues to be a source of fun action RPGs with great music, and this entry was no exception. I'm looking forward to exploring more of this series in 2020. (review)
  • Resident Evil 2 Remake - I've never been a fan of Resident Evil or zombie horror, but this remake of the Playstation classic managed to finally win me over. Playing through this game with my wife was a real thrill! (review)
  • Cadence of Hyrule - Cadence's fusion of Zelda and Crypt of the Necrodancer gameplay was the crossover I had no idea I needed. It also blessed us with awesome arrangements of iconic Zelda tunes. This game makes me excited to think about what other Nintendo/indie collaborations we could see in the future. (review)
  • Astral Chain - While not quite as polished as DMC5, Astral Chain delivered an exciting and stylish anime-inspired character action experience that showcased the versatility of the genre. (review)
  • Bloodstained Ritual of the Night - In the crowded field of Metroidvania games, this one from veteran director Koji Igarashi, stood out from the rest with refined gameplay and a unique sense of style and humor. (review)
It's been yet another fantastic year of games and I'm really glad to have been able to share it with all the great gaming folks I've had the pleasure of getting to know via this blog, Twitch, and social media! Here's to a happy, healthy, and productive 2020!

Happy New Year!