Friday, February 12, 2021

Adventure & Puzzle Game Round-up

Over the past few months, I've really been going all-in on Community Game-Along events on my Twitch channel. I've found they're a fun way to keep my queue varied and interesting. The previous two month's themes, #AdventureGameMonth and #PuzzleGameMonth, smoothly flowed into each other to provide 60+ solid days of putting my brain through its paces!

Here's a roundup of mini-reviews for all 7 games I streamed for these events:

Day of the Tentacle


As someone who really enjoyed other Lucas Arts adventure games such as Grim Fandango and the Monkey Island series, I've been meaning to play this classic title for quite some time. Once I started playing, I was immediately struck by the distinctly 90s cartoon aesthetic and sense of humor that reminded me of shows such as Animaniacs and Hysteria. The gameplay, however, took a while for me to get my head around. Switching between controlling 3 protagonists exploring the same environment in 3 different time periods made for some novel puzzle designs but also made it much easier to get stuck than in a more conventional point-and-click adventure game. As a result, I found myself alternating between having fun engaging in cartoon antics and being frustrated when I kept having to wander around the same locations over and over to figure out what the game wanted me to do next. That being said, I'm really glad I played this but it hasn't displaced Monkey Island and Grimfango among my favorite Lucas Arts games.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐



Nina Aquila Legal Eagle (Chapter 1)


This one was a real curiosity for me. Essentially, Nina Aquila is an indie developer's recreation of the gameplay of Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney using the RPG Maker engine. While Nina Aquila still looks and feels like an RPG Maker game, I was quite impressed with how well Tanuki-sama Studios managed to work the engine to create a game with the same general structure and mechanics as Ace Attorney. As for the content of the game, the court case itself is entertaining but much more straight forward than Phoenix Wright. Nina Aquila was released episodically on itch.io and the first chapter that I played during #AdventureGameMonth was an effective proof-of-concept that has me looking forward to trying out the subsequent chapters in the future.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Note: The first two chapters of this game were included in the itch.io Racial Justice Bundle 

Call of the Sea


Taking a break from my usual indie and retro games, I decided to check out this highly regarded Xbox Series X launch title via Xbox Game Pass for PC. As you would expect from a brand new game first-person adventure game, it featured beautiful and lush environments that were really cool to explore. I also found the 1920s Lovecraft-inspired story to be quite interesting. The game's puzzles featured a good range of difficulties, however, there were one or two that just didn't make sense to me at all and I ended up having to look up the solutions. Unfortunately, the overall very positive experience I had with Call of the Sea was marred by some pretty serious performance issues despite my PC comfortably meeting the system requirements. This is a game I'd definitely recommend playing, but on Xbox Series X, since supposedly that version runs much more smoothly, or waiting until the PC version has been out longer and gets patched.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Note: This would have been an easy 4-star game if not for the technical issues. 

Carto


Another recent Game Pass release, this indie puzzle adventure game stars a character who can edit the game map, thereby changing the layout of the world around her. Throughout the game, you collect new map pieces that you can fit together in different ways to create new environments, solve puzzles, and help various NPCs. It's a short and sweet game with a unique hook, cute graphics, and a quirky sense of humor. I definitely recommend checking this one out.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Manifold Garden


When I first saw previews of this game, I immediately knew it would be a must-play. Manifold Garden is a first-person puzzle platformer that, at first look, might seem similar to Portal. However, only a few minutes of playing it reveals that it's a completely unique experience. For starters, your character cannot jump but can instead instantly change the direction that gravity pulls, suddenly making walls, ceilings, and the surfaces of any object in the environment traversable. On top of that, each level is a maze of surreal Escher-inspired environments that loop back upon themselves This means that if you fall into a pit, you'll soon find yourself falling through the sky rather than hitting the bottom of the level. Manipulating the gravity and exploiting the looping level design leads to some really interesting puzzle scenarios. In addition to the mechanics, I really loved this game's visual design which increased in intricacy along with the puzzles. Overall, this was easily my favorite game that I streamed during both #AdventureGameMonth and #PuzzleGameMonth and in general, is one of the best puzzle games I've played in a long time.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Caution: If you are at all prone to motion sickness, there is a strong chance that this game could trigger it.

Witchway


Compared to most of the other puzzle and adventure games I played, Witchway was pretty simple and straight forward. As a witch with telekinesis, you navigate a Metroidvania-style world by moving blocks around to create platforms and activate switches. While not anything particularly revolutionary, it sported great music, adorable pixel art, and just enough puzzle complexity to fit its 3-hour run time. This game did what it set out to do and was a nice break from the meatier games I tackled during #PuzzleGameMonth.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Note: This game was included in the itch.io Racial Justice Bundle 

Hue


My last game for these events was another 2D puzzle platformer, but with a bit of a twist. Hue takes place in a mostly black and white world with few key interactive objects rendered in bright colors. The protagonist has the power to change the background color of the levels which makes any object in the environment of the same color disappear as it blends into the background. By carefully switching colors in the right sequence, the player can navigate obstacles and avoid deadly traps such as spikes and lasers. I found that the way this game brought a unique mechanic to otherwise traditional puzzle platforming gameplay was enough to set it apart from other games in the genre. I also really liked the game's crisp high-contrast aesthetic and very well-balanced puzzle difficultly. 
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Putting my puzzling skills to the test for two consecutive months was a real challenge and a lot of fun! That being said, I feel like my brain earned some much-deserved rest. Time to go watch some anime!

Friday, January 1, 2021

Game of the Year 2020

The year 2020 was rough for me, both due to the pandemic and for some personal reasons as well. As a result, I felt much less motivation to write than in years past. However, that certainly doesn't mean that I didn't have the energy to play games; quite the opposite in fact! This year I tackled over 75 games! With release dates ranging from 1982 to 2020, there were some real gems in there that I'd like to highlight in a quick little Top 10 list:

#10: Ys Oath in Felghana

The Ys series has pretty consistently had a spot in my honorable mentions for the past several years, but Oath in Felghana is the one that had what it takes to break the top 10, even in a very competitive year. Felghana is the perfect encapsulation of everything that makes the Ys games great: fast-paced combat, tough bosses, an interesting story, and a rockin' soundtrack. This series doesn't deviate much from the action RPG formula, but it is so well-polished that it's quickly making its way into my favorite RPG franchises. 

#9: Paper Mario The Origami King

While its combat didn't exactly stay fresh the whole time, Origami King's creativity, charm, and humor were more than enough to make this one of my favorite games of 2020. Part of what elevated this game into my Top 10 was streaming it; experiencing this frankly absurd game with others provided some much-needed levity in a really tough year.


#8: Ace Combat 7

As somebody who loves the aerial vehicle sections in games like Battlefield, I've been meaning to get around to trying purely air combat-focused game. Ace Combat 7 fit the bill; I had a blast with it! Much like Forza Horizon, I liked that AC7 provides options to tweak the level of realism to your liking. As someone who doesn't have much flight sim experience, the ability to fly realistic-looking aircraft with more forgiving arcadey physics was just right for me. I'm looking forward to playing more games like this in the future. 


#7: Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky (First and Second Chapter)

Falcom's Legend of Heroes franchise has been recommended to me many times over the years, especially the Trails in the Sky chapters, but until now I had always felt intimidated by the length and scope of these JRPGs. (The game is script is notoriously massive, several times longer than the novel War and Peace). However, being stuck at home in a quarantine situation earlier in 2020 provided the perfect excuse to finally jump in. I loved the tactical battle system, rich world-building, and taking a long journey with some endearing characters. After completing the main arc of Trails in the Sky (e.g. First and Second Chapter), I needed to take a break but I have a feeling I'll be relishing the next games in the series when I get to them.



#6: Azure Striker Gunvolt

As somebody that tends to be lukewarm on Megaman, it turns out the trick to getting me to like it is to inject some extra anime nonsense. Gunvolt took the Megaman formula and added some unique mechanics, a flashier style, and some incredibly catchy music. Developer Inti Creates has a real knack for taking the core of classic retro games like Megaman and Castlevania and reimagining them in exciting new ways. (review)

#5: Shovel Knight

I've put off playing this for far too long! Shovel Knight has charming pixel art, excellent chiptunes, and very tight 8-bit platforming. I can definitely see why this is always ranked so highly among the top faux-retro indie games.

#4: Evan's Remains

I was initially drawn in by Evan's Remains upon seeing its gorgeous pixel art on a Twitch stream hosted by my pal, Stapecape. Once I got into it, I really enjoyed figuring out the game's tricky puzzle platforming challenges and unraveling its mysterious story. The game takes a bit of an unusual turn at the end, which may be offputting to some, but I enjoyed the journey so much that I ultimately wasn't concerned about the final destination. 

#3: Wander Song 

This music-themed adventure game was full of charm and heart. Despite an art style that didn't seem like my thing at first, the story and offbeat cast of characters sucked me right in. Even though it came out a while ago, I hadn't heard of Wandersong until this year and it immediately rocketed itself up to being one of my all-time favorite indie games. (review)

#2: The Talos Principle 

While disregarded by many as a Portal-clone, this game's combination of challenging puzzles and philosophical themes made it a game that will stick with me for quite some time. It's the perfect game to play when you're looking for something somber, slow-paced, and cerebral. (A mood that I found myself in quite a bit this year.)

#1: Nier Automata 

With a slick sense of style, a fun blend of gameplay styles, and a stellar soundtrack, this was a damn fine video game! Also, for some reason, 2020 just felt like the most appropriate possible year to play a game about exploring the ruins of human civilization. (review)


Honorable Mentions:

With how many games I played this year, it was inevitable that a lot of great games wouldn't make the Top 10. This year one of my projects was to get into new genres and franchises that I previously never explored, so many of my honorable mentions are a reflection of that. Here's a selection of some of the other great games that I'd like to highlight.

  • Sound of Drop: Fall into Poison - I decided that this year I would try to get into visual novels and this one was my favorite among the ones I finished in 2020. I enjoyed the spooky atmosphere and making tough life-or-death decisions. This game also demonstrated to me that I not only enjoy visual novels but that streaming them can be a lot of fun.
  • Mario 64 - I had somehow never played all the way through Mario 64 until this year. I played through the majority of this game during a marathon charity stream and had a great time finally completing this platforming classic. 
  • American McGee's Alice - This was a game I have been meaning to play for 20 years. I'm so glad I finally did! Once I got my head around the controls, it really clicked with me.
  • Doom Eternal - There was no need to break the mold when the previous Doom was so good. Eternal took what was already great and built upon it in a very effective way.
  • Streets of Rage 4 -  I played through this slick-looking beat 'em up with my pal PixelPacas and it proved to be one of the most simple yet satisfying gameplay experiences of 2020. 
  • Yakuza Kiwami - Yakuza was another series I'd been meaning to play for a while. This remake of the original game in the series really drew me in and has me convinced to try more entries in the franchise. 
  • Final Fantasy 15 - My road trip with the bros of Final Fantasy 15 was an absolutely engrossing experience. If not for how clumsily the story was handled, this game would have had a shot at landing in the Top 10. (review)
  • Phantasy Star 4 - This was my first experience with Sega's retro RPG series and it still totally holds up. This is easily one of the top games in the Sega Mega Drive collection on Steam. 
  • Chantelise - I was really impressed by this obscure indie action RPG that some have described as "anime Dark Souls". Thanks to @Simon_Ashtear for the recommendation! (review)
  • Spiritfarer - Farming or slice-of-life games aren't usually my thing but this beautifully animated and emotional game really spoke to me this year. 
To wrap up this post, I'd like to offer my heartfelt thanks to all my blog readers and Twitch viewers. Exploring games with y'all was one of the few bright spots of 2020. My blog posts will probably be pretty sporadic going forward but I still plan on keeping it going and sharing more great games both in written form and via my Twitch channel. Here's to a better 2021!

Note: In addition to this personal Top 10, I also put together a Games of the Year article with my fellow Geek to Geek Media content creators. Check that article out to find out about our picks for the best games of 2020. (Geek to Geek Media's GotY article)

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Horror Game October Round-up

When people think about "horror" games, they immediately think of survival horror and jump scares associated with games like Resident Evil. And while that is certainly a prominent segment of horror games, "horror" is more of a theme or flavor that can be applied to a variety of game genres. In celebration of #HorrorGameOct, I decided to devote my Twitch channel to streaming and exploring horror gaming in a variety of forms.

Bloodstained Curse of the Moon 2

After absolutely loving the first Bloodstained, I came to this one with unreasonably high expectations. What I found was a game that was still really good but didn't quite recapture the magic of that first experience. That being said, the new playable characters were fun, especially the corgi in a mech. If you're a Castlevania fan, all three Bloodstained games are easily must-plays.

Score: 🎃🎃🎃🎃

Resident Evil 7

My prior experiences with Resident Evil games have been pretty mixed. While I would rank several of them among my favorite spooky games, others have been an exercise in frustration. The first impression this game gave me was not a good one, the introductory areas seemed tailored for the VR experience but felt off as a regular player and the "killer rednecks" trope this game leans into has become quite tired for me. However, after pushing through that stuff and into the meat of the game, I found that the game did a great job of taking the classic Resident Evil formula and updating it with more precise first-person controls and a great sense of atmosphere. Overall, it didn't quite eclipse my favorite game in the series, Resident Evil 2 Remake, but I would still rank it very highly among survival horror games that I've played. 

Score: 🎃🎃🎃🎃

Halloween Forever

This little retro-style indie platformer was included in the Racial Justice Bundle from itch.io earlier this year. It sported cute Halloween-themed sprite work, simple but polished mechanics, and a moderate difficulty curve. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a short spooky game that can be completed in a single evening. 

Score: 🎃🎃🎃🎃

Silent Hill 4

Until this year, my only exposure to the Silent Hill franchise was watching the Silent Hill movie back when it came out in  2005. While I wasn't a big horror game fan back in those days, the movie piqued my interest enough to put trying one of these games on my very long-term to-do list. This year, when Konami made SH4 available on PC via Gog, the opportunity to check off that box finally arrived. Though I struggled with this game's jankyness and awkward controls at first, I eventually came to appreciate this game's mysterious atmosphere and surreal take on horror. Considering that series fans often consider SH4 to be the worst game in the series and I still had fun with it, I think I'd enjoy the other Silent Hill games if Konami elects to make them available on PC.

Score: 🎃🎃🎃

Castlevania 3

As a big Castlevania fan, it's always bugged me that I was never able to finish one of the most beloved games in the series when I originally played it. This year I finally decided to see it through! This time I ended up playing the Japanese version of CV3 (via the Castlevania Anniversary Collection) in order to enjoy its enhanced soundtrack and more balanced difficulty compared to the Western release. With this game's multiple characters, branching, paths, diverse environments, and stellar score I can absolutely see why it's a fan favorite. Some of the more punishing aspects of NES game design still lead to some frustration but I managed to complete a "pure" playthrough without the use of save states or cheats!

Score: 🎃🎃🎃🎃


Clock Tower: The First Fear

Hearing that this SNES and Windows 95 point-and-click adventure was a major source of inspiration for later survival horror games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, I was very curious to give Clock Tower a try. Early on, I was really impressed with how effectively this game conveyed the atmosphere of horror despite the limitations of its 16-bit platform. I also liked, how much detail and personality was put into the character animations, particularly for the game's primary villain, the Scissor Man. Unfortunately, the aesthetic qualities of the game were really the only thing I enjoyed. As an adventure game, I found this game to be extremely opaque, even by 1995 standards. Many times, the solution to making progress was not a function of puzzle-solving or logic, but meeting some kind of arbitrary criteria such as entering and exiting a room multiple times or repeatedly inspecting an object until your character decides that she wants to interact with it. It also didn't help matters that for a game that involves a lot of wandering around and trial-and-error, your character walks extremely slowly and running even a few yards almost immediately depletes her stamina. As a result, I found playing Clock Tower to be interesting from a historical perspective but a subpar adventure game experience.

Score: 🎃🎃

American McGee's Alice

This dark and twisted take on Alice and Wonderland is something I've been wanting to play for a really long time. At first, the controls of the game felt really off to me, but once I got my head around the fact that this was a 3rd person action game made in the Quake 3 engine, everything started clicking. While 3D graphics and game design have come a long way since this game was made, exploring the surreal worlds of Wonderland was still an experience that totally held up for me. I'm looking forward to playing the sequel next year.

Score: 🎃🎃🎃🎃

Rusty

While it might be especially trendy now, indie studios cranking out Castlevania-like games is by no means a new phenomenon. Rusty is an early 1993 PC game about a whip-wielding vampire slayer on a quest to rescue damsels in distress and defeat an evil count (sounds familiar doesn't it?). Suffice to say, I didn't go into this game expecting to see anything particularly original or high quality. Much to my surprise, the game was actually pretty good! I liked the graphics and music quite a bit and I appreciated the way it deviated from Castlevania by incorporating a more maze-like level design. Unfortunately, this game's level design can also be a source of frustration as each level has a relatively short time limit and Rusty's movements are a little too stiff to pull off some of the maneuvers the game asks of you. As a result, I found Rusty to be an interesting experience that was worth playing, but it would've needed more polish to stand side by side with its source of inspiration, Castlevania.

Score: 🎃🎃🎃

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

Monday, September 28, 2020

Sonic Team September Round-up

During the Console Wars of the 90s, my camp was firmly established on the Nintendo side of the schoolyard (see The Sega Gap for more info). Recently, the availability of Sega's library on PC has made catching up on the games I had previously skipped due to childhood biases quite easy. With this month being #SonicTeamSept, I thought this would be a find time to tackle several Sega games in my Steam backlog in one fell swoop on my Twitch channel.

Nights Into Dreams

My first and only prior experience with Yuji Naka's Sega Saturn title, Nights into Dreams, was at a department store demo kiosk. Back then, I could not make heads or tails of how to play this bizarre fever dream of a game. Two decades and a very careful readthrough of the instruction manual later, Nights is still a really difficult game to figure out; it doesn't neatly fit into any existing game genre. 
Here's a short summary of how the gameplay works in a level of Nights Into Dreams:
  • Nights flies through fixed 2D planar routes within a larger 3D environment collecting orbs
  • By collecting at least 20 orbs within the time limit, Nights can destroy the Ideya machine
  • After destroying the Ideya and returning to the starting point, the flight path changes and a new Ideya spawns
  • Destroying 4 Ideya machines warps Nights to a separate battle area to take on the level boss
It took a while, but once I got the hang of soaring through the air, collecting orbs, and the somewhat opaque boss battles, I found that I was having a pretty good time. It also helped that the gameplay was accompanied by colorful, stylized graphics and a poppin' soundtrack. After finishing it in a single sitting (it's a pretty short game), I was struck with the feeling that the game was a bit too barebones for a major console release, yet too esoteric for the arcades. I'm really glad I got to experience it as an affordable Steam release in order to better understand its place in gaming history but I don't think I would have been satisfied if I would have bought it as a full-priced Saturn game back in 1996.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 4 hours and 20 minutes
Flying through rings and collecting orbs as Nights


Sonic Generations

Since Sonic the Hedgehog is one of the few Sega series that I have considerable experience with, I was pretty excited to play this game that serves as a celebration of the franchise's history. In Sonic Generations, you alternate between playing 2D platforming stages as retro Sonic and 3D platforming stages as modern Sonic. Each stage is based on iconic locations from previous Sonic games such as Green Hill Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog 1 and City Escape from Sonic Adventure 2. It was awesome to see high-definition reimaginings of classic areas; they also sported some interesting rearrangements of the music from these stages as well. The gameplay itself, however, was a mixed bag. In many cases, the game successfully captured the smooth and snappy gameplay of classic Sonic games, but in other cases, either the level design or controls felt janky. As a long-time Sonic fan, I had fun with Sonic Generation's retro-modern nostalgic mashup but it may lack the polish to reel in people who aren't already invested in the adventures of Sega's blue hedgehog.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 6 hours and 30 minutes

Green Hill Zone as depicted in Sonic Generations


Sonic CD

Among the classic 16-bit Sonic games, this is the only one I've never played (due to it being confined to a Sega Genesis add-on system for so many years). This game's use of CD technology provides a notable boost to the graphical detail and music quality compared to the standard Genesis titles. It was quite nice. However, I found the level layouts and time travel mechanics (a concept unique to this entry in the series) to be quite confusing. Perhaps if I had spent more time with the game, I could have come to appreciate these aspects of Sonic CD but I generally come to retro Sonic games for a straightforward pick-up-and-play experience. On the other hand, this game does some cool things with boss battles, many of them added a puzzle-like element that made them much more interesting than traditional Sonic battles. Overall, this was a solid 2D Sonic but it didn't come close to touching Sonic 2 and Sonic Mania as my favorite 16-bit Sonic games.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 2 hours and 18 minutes (Bad ending because I don't understand time travel)

I loved the rich color pallet of Sonic CD

I found playing all three of these games to be interesting and worthwhile experiences, though I don't think I would put them on the same level as some of Sega's timeless classics. That being said, seeing three very different phases within the evolution of Sega's aesthetics and gameplay design in a single month was a lot of fun.

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

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Secret of Mana Review


There aren't a lot of good things you can say about the year 2020, but if I had to find a silver lining, it's been that I've had plenty of time to tackle my gaming shames and backlog. One of the glaring oversights in my background as a retro gamer and RPG buff was the Squaresoft classic Secret of Mana. Part of what has kept me from getting to this game was not having a convenient way to play it. Thankfully the Collection of Mana for Switch went on a steep sale earlier this year, providing a cheap and easy opportunity.

Background:
Secret of Mana is a fantasy action RPG that was originally released for the Super Nintendo in 1995. The game tells the story of a boy, a girl, and a forest sprite who are on a quest to stop an evil empire from activating an ancient weapon called the Mana Fortress. Combat in the game takes place in real-time but uses a cooldown meter for physical attacks and a ring menu system for casting magic. This review is based on the UK version of Secret of Mana which was included in the Collection of Mana for Nintendo Switch.

Pros:
  • This is an especially pretty game, especially considering it came out in 1993. I loved the cute sprites, bright color pallet, and rich, varied environments.
  • As you would expect from a 16-bit Squaresoft RPG, this game features a great soundtrack. It features everything from traditional fantasy pieces to some interesting experimental tracks. A few of the tracks have loops that are a little too short for my taste, but overall, it's a great listen.
  • Some of the writing is pretty amusing. While the dialog can be a bit stilted at times (more on that later), each character has a distinct personality that shows through. I also liked the way some of the characters inverted traditional RPG tropes (e.g. NPCs being prejudicated against the legendary hero and a princess on a quest to rescue a knight).

Cons:
  • For lack of a better word, the gameplay of Secret of Mana feels janky. The hit detection in combat always seems little off and the AI for your party members is wildly inconsistent. I often ran into issues with my characters getting stuck on objects in the environment or zoning out in the middle of a boss battle.
  • Combat doesn't flow smoothly due to having to wait on a cooldown meter for basic attacks and the action freezing every time you open the magic menu. This game is ambitious for attempting to do party-based action combat with a magic system in 1993, but we've come a long way in terms of action RPG battle systems since then.
  • While some parts of the dialog are entertaining, the overall story and script are very disjointed. As a result, certain lines of dialog and, even a few major plot events, feel like they are coming out of nowhere. (Upon reading about this game's development, I found out that this may be the result of some rather extreme constraints placed upon the English localization staff.)
  • The nested rings that serve as the game's menu system work ok for battle but I would have liked more organized traditional menus for use outside combat. The ring menus off so little information that it makes it necessary to use the game's manual to look up the attributes and effects of items and spells. Several of Square's RPGs that predate this one offered more informative and practical menus.
  • The world of Secret of Mana is very large and intricate, but there are no maps in the game. I'm pretty good at memorizing the layout of areas in games so I was able to work around this (I am far too stubborn to draw maps, however). I just don't understand why in-game maps were omitted when most other SNES games had them.
  • The ability to save your game is very limited in this game, which can lead to a lot of frustration and lost progress if you're not careful. Since I was playing via the Collection of Mana, I was really glad that save states were also an option.

Secret of Mana's strong presentation and personality helped a lot with this game's appeal and were just enough to balance out the gameplay issues to make it a decent experience. I can see why this game made such an impact back in the day but it doesn't hold up nearly as well as other 16-bit RPGs like Chrono Trigger, Final Fantasy 5 & 6, or Terranigma.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: About 30 hours

In classic fantasy fashion, pulling the sword from the stone signifies that you are The Chosen One.

Unfortunately, being The Chosen One doesn't make you popular in this game.

The full party: Boy, Sprite, and Girl (they don't come with default names)

Every good SNES RPG needs some Mode 7 aerial travel. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Nier Automata Review


2017 was a huge year for games. With the release of the Switch and behemoths like Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey taking up so much of my time, there were a lot of other great games that piqued my interest but ended up never making it into my queue. In fact, I even made a Missed 2017 Games list to help me keep track of all the games I wanted to circle back to in later years. Among these was Square Enix and Platinum Games' award-winning sci-fi action RPG Nier Automata. Finding myself with extra time to stay home and play games lately, this year turned out to be the perfect time to finally experience this open-world post-apocalyptic epic.

Background
Nier Automata set in the distant future thousands of years after a successful alien invasion has forced humankind into exile in space. The story follows two android soldiers, 2B and 9S, who are dispatched to Earth on a mission to reclaim the planet from machine lifeforms that have been maintaining control of the planet on behalf of the aliens. By playing through the campaign three times, players can experience this proxy war between the human and alien's respective robotic armies from the perspectives of 2B, 9S, and a third character that is encountered later.

Aesthetics
When you think about it, Nier Automata's setting is rather bleak, but I'm ok with that. There's something about exploring a crumbling post-human world, a world torn apart by a pointless war, that's deeply compelling: it's as beautiful as it is sad. It's an experience I wasn't entirely sure I would be comfortable with given current world events, but I'm glad I did it.

Nier Automata feels "directed" in a film-like sense during gameplay in a way that 3D open-world games rarely do. In many cases, this is accomplished by taking control of the camera away from the player to force a cinematic camera perspective.  The game's ability to adapt its mechanics for behind the back, side-scrolling, and overhead perspectives on the fly makes the whole thing feel remarkably smooth while still showing off major setpiece moments from the best possible perspective. Older pre-rendered 3D games like the Resident Evil attempted to have dramatic camera angles like this, but it would often have an awkward or jarring effect on the feel of the game.

The incredible musical score sets the tone perfectly: haunting, mysterious, sad, with just a little bit of wonder mixed in. The fact that the lyrics of the music are in a made-up language gives the world a mysterious alien quality even though it takes place on our planet. This dovetails nicely with the game's themes of returning to decimated occupied earth thousands of years after humans have left it behind. The strange multicultural mishmash language gives the sense that though this world was once the domain of humans like us, the humans of Nier's world were far removed from us by the passage of time.

Every movement the characters make has a distinct style. While I expected this to be the case during battles, it's kind of the norm for games with action combat, it was the personality injected into the more minor animations that really struck me; 2B and 9S have a way of turning simple actions like climbing a ladder or sliding down a sand dune into cool and flashy maneuvers. Each type of enemy also has a unique and vividly animated form of locomotion based on the configuration of their bodies; I particularly liked the bouncy and jerky movements of the stubby robots and the skittering of the insect-like machines.

Nier Automata's character and costume designs may feature very limited color pallets, but this ties them together in a cohesive yet very stylish way. The figures of 2B and 9S clad in black and with their eyes covered by blindfolds is bold and iconic. The one downside of this is that cut of 2B's outfit combined with the game's fabric physics and camera angles can lead to some "fan service" imagery in places where it feels inappropriate (anime fans will know what I'm talking about). Having a character's underwear being prominently featured in an otherwise serious scene detracted from the dramatic weight for me. I think this could have been avoided with a few minor tweaks that wouldn't have sacrificed much from the character's style.

Mechanics
Combat in Nier Automata takes the form of fast-paced real-time battles that play similar to a character action game with some RPG systems layered on top to make the action a little more forgiving. The mechanics work a little differently depending on which character you're playing. As a combat specialist, 2B wields two swords, gracefully flips through the air for aerial combos, and polishes enemies off with flashy finishing moves (imagine a simplified version of Devil May Cry and you get the picture). On the other hand, 9S, as a scout, only has access to a limited set of these combat capabilities but can make up for it by being able to hack into his foes to take them down from a distance. Hacking success is contingent on winning a shoot 'em up minigame similar to Geometry Wars. As someone who enjoys both character action games and shoot 'em ups, both of these mechanics worked for me and helped keep combat feeling fresh when playing through each character's routes.

Nier Automata uses 3D action combat, top-down hack-n-slash, side-scrolling, and shoot 'em gameplay in concert with each other to keep the action as fast-paced and stylish as possible. Amazingly, it juggles all of these and makes them feel natural. As someone who plays a fair amount of shmups, I thought some of these segments were a little too easy; I could often spot ways to cheese my way to victory. However, I'm thinking it was a deliberate design decision to lower the friction when switching back and forth between gameplay styles and to ensure no one mechanic creates a stumbling block for players. On the whole, it's very impressive the way this game manages to implement so many types of mechanics so effectively. 

To truly complete Nier Automata, you have to play through the campaign three times. Each time you experience a different character's route and gain new information and perspectives that make the whole story come together. While this is an interesting concept, I had mixed feelings about the execution. The first route, in which you play as 2B, is by far the freshest and most exciting from a gameplay standpoint because every enemy you encounter and area you gain access to is a new discovery; however, her story is somewhat unsatisfying. In the second route, you play as 2B's companion, 9S. Since these two characters spend the majority of the campaign together, 9S's route is largely a retread of 2B's route, but with a few new scenes interspersed throughout that provide more context to the story. The fact that 9S's mechanics differ from 2B's helps keep things from getting stale but I still couldn't help but feel like I was repeating a lot of scenarios I had already done in order to get a small amount of new content. The third route covers entirely new ground from the first two routes and provides the story with a conclusion that brings everything together, it's just a shame that it takes so long to get to it. I think it would have benefitted this game to abridge 9S's route so that more players would have made it the far more interesting third route. Based on Steam statistics, only about half the players that finish 2B's route end up playing through the third route. (My feelings about Nier Automata's three-route structure mirror my though's in my review of the similarly-structured Ys Origin.)

Nier Automata's save system is inconsistent. In the opening mission, which takes about 45 minutes to complete, you can't save your game at all. In other parts of the campaign, you must manually save your game at marked save points on the map. In other circumstances, getting killed doesn't result in a game over but revives you in a new body; you must then go find your previous body to collect any of the stat-buffing items you had equipped when you died. There's an in-universe justification for the save system's inconsistency that works from a narrative perspective, but it still led to some frustration on my part when I would wander into a high-level area by mistake and end up losing progress. I recommend that most players temporarily drop the difficulty to Easy in the game's opening mission to get the best experience.

Like any open-world game, Nier Automat provides plenty of opportunites to engage in sidequests. Most of these were pretty bland fetch quests, though the fact that they added to the lore, supplied considerable XP and crafting supplies, and provided an excuse to explore the world more made them worthwhile. It also helped that your side quest completion carries over each time you play through the campaign, meaning you can spread the sidequests out between routes to keep them from feeling too repetitive.

Conclusion
By combining a rich world, a strong sense of style, and a variety of gameplay styles that feel good individually and work even better in concert, Nier Automata's strengths far outweigh any of the game's minor negative attributes. The game is both aesthetically and mechanically an artistic achievement that deserves to be experienced by anyone that enjoys action RPGs and science fiction.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 48 hours (all three routes, medium difficulty, 82% sidequests completed)

Nature taking over urban areas is a common theme
Nature taking over urban areas is a common theme.

The creepy old amusement park was one of my favorite areas

Scrolling shmup gameplay

Geometry Wars-like hacking sequence

3D flying shmup battle


Monday, July 27, 2020

Chantelise Review


It's been pretty well-established on my Twitch channel that I'm a big fan of the Ys games. Last year when I was streaming Ys 4 Memories of Celceta, a viewer said "Wow, this reminds me of Chantelise!"; of course, I was immediately intrigued. Since then, the game has sat in my Steam wishlist waiting until a Steam sale and an opportunity to fit it into my queue aligned. This #JRPGJuly ended up being just the right time.

Background:

Chantelise is an indie action RPG by EasyGameStation (best know for Recettear An Item Shop's Tale). The game tells the story of two sisters, Chante and Elise, who have been whisked off to a fantasy world. Upon their arrival, Chante is turned into a tiny fairy and Elise finds out that she has been chosen to be this land's next sword-wielding hero. The structure of the game is very simple: with the exception of a small hub town used for buying supplies, gameplay consists almost entirely of tackling several dungeons that are selected from a map screen. Each dungeon is comprised of about five monster-infested rooms followed by a boss room. To beat a dungeon, players must be able to clear all the rooms and beat the boss in a single attempt. The game makes this a little easier by allowing players to practice each room and boss battle individually to prepare for their run through the whole dungeon. 

Pros:
  • The game's graphics combine large detailed 2D sprites and simple 3D environments. Imagine Street Fighter 2 sprites wandering around landscapes of Ocarina of Time's level of detail. I liked this combination of styles, but it's bound to be polarizing.
  • I really liked this game's unique magic system. Damaging or defeating enemies drops gems of various colors. Picking these up allows Chante to cast various magic spells. You can only hold six gems at a time and the quantity and combinations of colors you have completely changes the effect of the spells. This means the player must put some thought into which gems they collect and when to use them, thus providing much of the game's strategic depth. 
  • Chantelise's regular combat requires the player to stay on their toes and the boss battles present a very high level of challenge. When researching this game, I remember someone describing it as "anime Dark Souls" and thinking that they were making a joke. They weren't. Getting the hang of the combat took some practice but I found my eventual victories to be quite rewarding.
  • Considering how tough this game is, the inclusion of a practice mode was very wise on the part of the game designers. Getting to learn each room of the dungeon, and more critically, having a low-stakes way to master the boss battles, was very helpful for getting used to the combat system and being able to make progress through the story with reduced frustration.
  • While generally being combat-focused, the rooms of the dungeon contain puzzles and secret items that are mostly optional. Looking for these secrets was fun, though some of them were so obscure that I had to resort to using a guide to find them.
  • Chantelise's dialog features some great comedic writing. I laughed out loud on several occasions when reading it during my Twitch streams of this game.
Cons:
  • Music in video games is very important to me. Chantelise features some good individual pieces but there is little consistency in how they are used. One issue that stuck out to me like a sore thumb was that the boss battle music continues playing after the fight is over. It's very jarring to be reading "Yay! We won!" dialog while still hearing intense battle music.
  • Between the game's simple structure and the need to practice each dungeon prior to making a final run, the game can feel repetitive after a while.
  • Moving a 2D sprite character through 3D polygonal environments can create some depth perception issues when landing jumps or trying to evade enemy attacks. After a little while, I managed to get used to it but it still felt somewhat imprecise.
Being a pretty popular game genre, I can often give blanket recommendations when I find an action RPG that I enjoy. In the case of Chantelise, it's not quite that simple. This game's narrow scope, considerable difficulty, unique mechanics, and cutesy graphics make for a highly unusual combination of characteristics that won't appeal to everyone. However, as someone that plays a lot of RPGs, I found what Chantelise had to offer was a refreshing break from the type of experiences the genre usually provides.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 17 hours, 32 minutes

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