Monday, June 29, 2020

Racing Game Round-up

While it's never been my number one favorite genre, I've always had a soft spot for racing games. They make great side games when playing something more involved like an RPG (in fact, one of my favorite games last year was Forza Horizon 4). Since this year's community game-along calendar happened to feature a month devoted to racing games, I decided to prepare a little sampler platter for myself and tried out 7 different titles on my Twitch channel!

Here's a quick round-up of mini-reviews:


Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing
This Mario Kart competitor from 2006 features characters and race tracks based on Sonic the Hedgehog and many other Sega franchises (e.g. Shenmue, House of the Dead, Jet Set Radio, etc).
Pros:
  • The courses make good use of the themes from their respective Sega franchises (especially for a game of this age).
  • The game features an announcer that gives dynamic commentary on your race performance during each event. Some of his lines are pretty funny.
  • The game's controls feel very smooth. The very drift-focused mechanics remind me of Mario Kart Double Dash.
Cons:
  • While the game offers six cups of races, many of the courses are just minor variations of the same thing.
  • The game only features local multiplayer, which is kind of a bummer.
  • Despite being over a decade old, this game did not run smoothly on my PC. The options to adjust resolutions, graphics, etc are extremely limited as well for a PC game.
Verdict: Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing is a solid Mario Kart-like but has been more than surpassed by more recent games in the genre, including its own sequel.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐


Garfield Kart
Thanks to a "generous and wholesome" donation from one of my Twitch viewers, I ended up with this racer based on the Garfield comic strip.
Pros:
  • While not as good as a Mario or Sonic racing game, the controls felt surprisingly good for a cheap licensed game.
  • There are few interesting items that stray from the typical kart racer mechanics. For example, there's a magic missile that changes your position with whoever you hit. Several items can also have different effects depending on whether they're deployed forwards or backward.
  • Despite being labeled a "beta", Garfield Kart's online multiplayer works well. The downside is that you'd somehow have to convince multiple people to play Garfield Kart in order to use it.
Cons:
  • The course designs are very boring and don't make much use of the Garfield license.
  • The game's content is very minimal: 4 cups comprised of very similar racecourses
  • Unlocks of new courses and characters are handled via collecting coins rather than progressing through Grand Prix. I would have had to play through each cup many times just to unlock the next one. I ended up just using cheats to spare myself from having to grind.
  • The implementation of items is very unbalanced. All it takes is to get hit by a single item to be dropped back to last place with little chance to recover before the end of the race.
  • Collision physics feel a little off. Sometimes slightly grazing an obstacle can bring your cart to a sudden dead stop.
Verdict: Garfield Kart checks off the absolute bare minimum requirements of a kart racer. There's no reason to play it with so many other better options available.
Score: ⭐⭐


Desert Child
This indie racing RPG caught my eye during an E3 presentation several years ago. In Desert Child, a hoverbike racer tries to race his way to wealth and stardom in a dystopian sci-fi world.
Pros:
  • Desert Child has a very striking visual design. Both the town and racing scenes look really cool.
  • Similar to the graphics, the music in both towns and races stands out for its great style.
  • The use of RPG elements introduces some interesting mechanics, like changing out parts of your bike to modify its performance or help you earn more money.
  • The game's racing is fun, at least initially. Races take place in a side-scrolling perspective and have players using weapons and dodging obstacles while trying to stay ahead of the opponent.
Cons:
  • This game is very grindy and features a very unfavorable economy. Bike repairs and food for your driver eat heavily into your race winnings and all progress in the campaign is gated by money. Similar to Garfield Kart, I used to cheats to bypass the excessive grinding.
  • The player character walks very slowly through town, which makes navigation a pain after a while.
  • Desert Child's gameplay is very repetitive; it sports minigames and jobs for your character to do between races, however, all of these are basically just races with a slightly different coat of paint.
  • The late-game races often seem to involve just as much luck as skill thanks to the procedurally generated courses.
Verdict: Desert Child's strong sense of style make it worth taking a look at either via a quick play session or checking out some YouTube videos. However, playing through the whole campaign was not a satisfying experience.
Score: ⭐⭐


What The Golf
Not quite an actual golf game, What The Golf ended up being deemed a racing game by an esteemed panel of judges from the Chic-Pixel community, so here it is. This game starts out as simple putt-putt and then rapidly heads toward a series of surreal challenges that are only loosely tied to anything resembling a real sport.
Pros:
  • This game is funny. Whacking golf balls into explosive barrels, ricocheting balls off planets, and hitting random household objects with golf clubs can be pretty amusing.
  • There is a lot of creativity and variety here. Each golf course introduces a unique mechanic or idea.
Cons:
  • With each course offering something different, the overall package is a bit of a mixed bag. There were some mechanics I wished the game would expand further upon and others that I felt were funny as a one-off joke but not particularly engaging from a gameplay standpoint.
Verdict: "Amusing" is definitely the best word I can think of to describe What The Golf. It's a fun game to play in short bursts, but don't come to it expecting much depth.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐


Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed
This game takes the strong foundation established in Sonic All-Stars Racing and expands upon it with the introduction of boats and aircraft. The "Transformed" in the title references the dynamic nature of the races, each lap on a course involves some sort of change in the environment that creates new routes and obstacles. 
Pros:
  • Transformed doubles down on the Sega references. I was excited to see courses based on Dreamcast and Saturn games like Skies of Arcadia and Panzer Dragoon. Each course looks great and is clearly crafted with admiration for Sega's history.
  • Unlike most other kart racers, this game features a structured single-player campaign that offers various types of races.  Progressing through this mode unlocks new characters and tracks.
  • The cars, boats, and aircraft all handle differently from each other but each feels good to control.
  • The transforming racecourses provide a great visual spectacle but also make for more engaging gameplay. They serve as a good way to have a single course accommodate multiple vehicle types (for example, a section of the course may flood mid-race causing your car to transform into a boat during the next lap).
Cons:
  • The online mode works well but is very limited in terms of features. You can only do one race at a time (i.e. no online multiplayer grand prix) and some modes feel half-baked (e.g. battle mode doesn't allow you to add bots, making the arenas feel very empty).
  • During single-player races, the AI racers have a knack for hitting you with weapons on the last leg of the final lap, causing you to finish in 8th place in a race that you had been leading for 90% of the time. This is true of a lot of kart racers, however.
Verdict: Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a great kart racer that gives Mario Kart a run for its money. If you enjoy this genre of racing games or are a big Sega fan, this game comes as an easy recommendation.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Earlier this month, Itch.io released the massive Racial Justice and Equality bundle; a massive bundle of over 1000 indie games with the proceeds going toward civil rights charities. From this huge collection, I picked out a couple of racing games to include in this round-up.


Daemon Detective Zero Racing
Daemon Detective Zero Racing is a low-poly sci-fi racer featuring characters from various indie games. It is very clearly heavily inspired by the F-Zero and Wipeout games on N64 and PS1. I can't really split this one into "pros and cons"; it's a very fast, barebones, and somewhat janky 3D racer that was a fun little nostalgic diversion for me.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐


Rock n Rush Battle Racing
This game plays somewhat like a hybrid of Mario Kart and Twisted Metal. It also features a great rock-n-roll soundtrack. I found the gameplay of this one to be much more polished than Daemon Detective Zero Racing; however, the game only features 4 tracks. While each of these tracks has a day and night and mirror mode version, there's still not much content here. That being said, I enjoyed my short time with it and it's definitely worth the download if you bought the bundle.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐

While the games I played for this round-up varied considerably in quality, I had a lot of fun digging into a genre that I enjoy but often tend to neglect!

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

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Wandersong Review


While I've always enjoyed short sessions of traditional rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution, especially in arcades, it's not a genre that I tend to engage with at home. However, games of other genres that incorporate music into their gameplay are something that I can get into in any context. That's where Wandersong comes in. This adorable-looking game came strongly recommended from IGN's Tom Marks and my streamer pal, BogusMeatFactory; with two ringing endorsements from people with such unique tastes in games, I had to give Wandersong a shot.

Overview:
Wandersong is a music-themed adventure game. It tells the story of a bard on a quest to learn the scattered pieces of the Earth Song; a magical piece of music believed to be capable of staving off the apocalypse. The bard's primary ability is to sing 8 different notes based on the direction the player tilts the right thumbstick (the number pad or mouse is used if playing without a controller). This review is based on the PC version of the game, which I played via Xbox Game Pass.

Observations:
  • While music is a central theme throughout the game, rhythm gameplay makes up only a minimal part of the gameplay. Instead, the gameplay takes two forms:
    • In towns, the game plays like an adventure game in which player talks to NPCs and explores the area to gather information about the location of the next part of the Earth Song. As far as adventure gaming goes, these sections are fairly rudimentary, but the game's presentation is so strong that it was enjoyable just to see the sights and meet the quirky inhabitants of the world. 
    • In Spirit Realms (i.e. dungeons), where each Earth Song piece can be found, the focus is on puzzle-platforming gameplay in which the notes that the bard single manipulates various features of the environment. I really liked the way each dungeon presented a unique puzzle platforming mechanic; this helped keep the gameplay feeling fresh.
  • Graphically, there are two especially distinct things about Wandersong:
    • Wandersong's character designs are very simple; the player character is made up of just a handful of flat geometric shapes. However, the game manages to get a lot of expression out of these designs through some very cute animations. It didn't take long for them to grow on me.
    • Something that had more immediate appeal was the game's color pallet. The use of bright contrasting colors, including lots of neons and purples, really gave the scenery a distinct and vibrant look.
  • Despite its simplistic and cute appearance, Wandersong features in-depth character development and touches upon some fairly heavy themes. Some indie games try to shoe-horn darker subject matter into otherwise cute-looking games for shock value or to give the appearance of extra depth. However, in the case of Wandesrsong, the more and less serious elements of the story play off each other very well and I found that I was invested in each of the major characters' plot arcs.
  • One of the buttons makes the bard dance at any time (including during dialog). It serves absolutely no gameplay purpose and it is highly entertaining. By finding a certain character in hidden locations in each chapter of the game, you can learn more dance moves to expand the bard's repertoire.
  • Even though this is a game about music rather than a music game, I still came into it with high expectations for the soundtrack. I'm happy to say the soundtrack is just as charming as the characters, writing, and graphics.
I often divide my observations in reviews into pros and cons, but when it comes to Wandersong, there is really nothing bad I can say about it. This game's graphics, music, writing, and gameplay all come together in a delightful package that I can comfortably recommend to just about anyone.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: About 14 hours

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






Sunday, May 3, 2020

Shenmue 3 Review


Considering the unusual circumstances behind Shenmue 3, a surprise modern sequel to a pair of cult Dreamcast games from nearly 20 years ago, and all nostalgia and baggage that comes with it, this "review" is going to be a bit different than my usual write-ups... more like a spoiler-free review, analysis, and retrospective all rolled into one. That being said, I hope you're along for the ride.

Background
When I was a teenager, I got absolutely absorbed into the Shenmue games. In fact, I got Shenmue 2 right before spring break and I'm pretty sure that I spent the subsequent week off from school doing nothing but exploring virtual 1980s Hong Kong with Ryo, Joy, Ren, and the rest of the crew. It probably wasn't the healthiest way for a young man to be spending his vacation, but it was a magical experience that I don't think I'll ever forget. However, having the second game end on a cliffhanger that would seemingly never be resolved, was quite painful. Thus, when the Kickstarter campaign for Shenmue 3 was announced at E3 2015, I signed up to back it immediately; in fact, I'm pretty sure I created a Kickstarter account specifically so I could secure a copy of Shenmue 3 for myself.

Now that the game has finally come out and I've played through it, my feelings on it are incredibly mixed.

Game Overview
Shenmue 3 continues directly from the events of Shenmue 2. The Shenmue games follow Ryo, a Japanese teen martial arts student, who is on a quest to find the man that murdered his father and exact revenge. In Shenmue 3, Ryo visits two different cities in China where he gathers clues to pick up the trail of his father's killer, Lan-Di. There is also a third smaller area that serves primarily as a location for the game's conclusion. Essentially, each of these areas is used to divide the game into three acts. In addition, to gathering clues, the game features occasional combat in the style of a 3D fighting game (similar to Virtua Fighter) and a variety of minigames. Shenmue 3 was released on PS4 and PC; this blog post is based on the PC version.

Observations - Shenmue's Disparate Genre Influences
Coming back to the Shenmue franchise caused me to realize many things about these games that I was never quite able to articulate when I was younger. Shenmue is often miscategorized as an "action RPG," and this third game really cemented in my mind what a miscategorization that is. Shenmue's combination of gameplay elements and themes make it much more complicated to pin down... so here it is in Venn diagram form:
  • Adventure game: While the combat of Shenmue is prominently featured in media surrounding the game, fighting makes up an extremely little of the gameplay. Ryo spends the majority of his time talking to NPCs, looking for clues, and bartering items; all of which are much more consistent with a traditional adventure game (think a point-and-click adventure) than any other genre.
  • Slice-of-life: Ryo may be on a quest for revenge, but the game encourages him to slow down and make progressing the investigation part of his daily routine rather than the sole focus of his time. In addition to investigating, Ryo must eat several times per day to keep his stamina up, exercise to improve his strength in preparation for the occasional combat, earn an income via part-time jobs, and even go home at the end of the day to get enough sleep. This cycle feels a lot like slice-of-life games like Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing. Something that adds to this slice-of-life feeling is that the game world is constructed to be a place that Ryo inhabits along with the NPCs, rather than just serve as a venue that provides Ryo with a set of objectives (as would be the case in most other game genres).
  • Kung-fu film: Thematically and aesthetically, Shenmue 3 has a lot of elements in common with classic kung-fu films. Much of Ryo's quest revolves around seeking out eccentric old martial arts masters and finding some way of convincing them to teach Ryo one of their signature techniques that he needs to beat one of Lan-Di's henchmen. If you've ever watched old martial arts movies, this formula will sound very familiar. Further adding to the kung-fu film vibe, Shenmue 3 retains the series' now-infamous deliberately stilted voice acting, which reminds me of the dubs of 1970s kung-fu films that I used to watch on TV as a kid.

Now that I've gotten all that explanation out of the way, let's get into how I, as a fan of the series, felt that Shenmue 3 managed to package all these elements together.

Observations - Shenmue 3 as Compared with its Predecessors
Being a Kickstarter-backed revival of a cult video game series, Shenmue 3 was inevitably going to be a nostalgia-focused work. The rigidity with which it adheres to what was established by the previous games works both for and against it.

    • Shenmue 3's characters are simple and move stiffly by modern game standards, but look very clean on hi-definition displays; a successful attempt at being consistent with the art style of the original games while still making enough updates for it to work in 2020.
    • Similarly, the game's environments are reminiscent of those from the Dreamcast days, but at a much higher level of detail. Guilin, the area at the end of Shenmue 2 and beginning of Shenmue 3, is particularly beautiful; it looks the way I envisioned it in my mind's eye when I played the previous game, rather than how it actually looked as rendered by the Dreamcast.
    • In the past, I had wondered if Shenmue's awkward-sounding English voice work was an intentional directorial decision or just the product of an inexperienced cast. Seeing as Shenmue 3 recast several characters with well-established actors but the delivery of the lines retains the feel of the first two games, I've concluded that this is an intentional style choice. Seeing as this game leans heavily into kung-fu movie tropes, I think this retro-sounding delivery works in the context of the game, but I can see how it wouldn't appeal to someone who didn't grow up with this unusual cultural connection. Thankfully, the game gives the option of switching to Japanese audio for those who don't like the direction of the English voice acting.
    • Quick-time events (QTEs) return in Shenmue 3. I was initially concerned about this as these were a source of frustration for me in the previous games in the series. In the past, QTEs would occur suddenly during battles, and executing them incorrectly could mean abruptly losing a fight that you were previously winning. While this is still the case in Shenmue 3, the QTEs are foreshadowed during the story leading up to the battle so that the player can be prepared to execute them in advance. Most of the time this takes place in the form of Ryo learning a new martial arts technique before the battle; this training sequence gives the player a low-stakes way to learn the QTE's inputs before the critical moment that they come up during combat. I thought this was a smart tweak on the part of this installment's developers.
    • When it comes to the game's UI and controls, these are areas where I think nostalgia and faithfulness should have been discarded in favor of a complete overhaul. Digging around in the game's menus felt cumbersome and I frequently had to check the context-sensitive button mapping indicator on the HUD to know which button did what in a given situation. The game's controls and UI are not even consistent between similar types of menus (e.g. the select, confirm, and cancel buttons are not mapped the same on the inventory screen and item shop screen).
Observations - Shenmue 3's Unique Content
While in many ways, it's impossible to separate Shenmue 3 from the nostalgic background of the franchise, it's still its own game. Like everything else in Shenmue 3, the new content is also a mixed bag.

  • Shenmue has always included some sort of slice-of-life elements, but the third entry in the series drastically increases how prevalent they are. 
    • The most notable example is the new stamina system. Ryo must eat regularly to keep up his stamina, a stat that serves two functions. As Ryo goes about his business, his stamina slowly depletes; if it gets low enough, he becomes tired and can only walk slowly until he eats to replenish the stamina meter. In combat, Ryo's stamina meter becomes his health meter. This means that if he gets into a fight when he's hungry, he could potentially get taken out by a single punch. As a result, making sure Ryo is well-fed not only keeps exploration moving at a reasonable pace, it can also be a matter of life or death. It's a case where the game's mechanics are very deliberately telling you to slow down and take care of the little things, rather than charge ahead single-mindedly.
    • Practicing techniques and working out are important parts of the daily life of a martial artist. Shenmue 3 tasks the player with making this process a part of Ryo's regular routine by stopping at dojos regularly to work on his punches, horse stance ("karate squats" as I like to call them) and having sparring matches. These are very simple and repetitive tasks, much as they would be in real life, but they are essential to getting Ryo strong enough to win the handful of battles that serve as gates to progressing the story. Initially, I really tried to get myself in the mindset of a martial artist and focus on the training. However, it eventually became clear to me that I would have to spend a large chunk of my playtime repeating these routines and I inevitably found myself checking out and listening to a podcast while tapping the A button for the thousandth time to keep Ryo in his horse stance.
    • The slice-of-life elements of the game all serve to reinforce the story's central theme of the value of patience. While this works well from a purely artistic standpoint, it isn't necessarily fun to play. I think it's ok for a game to include some amount of drudgery for the purpose making the player relate more to the character or make the game world feel more real, but Shenmue 3 took this a little too far for my tastes.
  • While the two main areas Ryo visits during his journey, Guilin and Niaowu, each have their own unique flare in terms of settings, the events in each place follow the exact same formula:
    1. Talk to NPCs to learn about criminal activity in the area
    2. Find and confront the criminals, only to lose to their leader (who turns out to be one of Lan-Di's henchmen)
    3. Seek out an eccentric old kung-fu master who knows the technique you need to beat the henchman
    4.  Undergo some trials to prove to the kung-fu master that you're worthy to learn the technique. In both cases, this includes winning a match against every student in the local dojo and saving up a large quantity of money to buy an expensive item of some sort.
    5. Learn the kung-fu technique (a QTE sequence) and then use it in a rematch against the henchman to win the fight
    6. Winning the fight leads to a scene that advances the plot
    • Going through this sequence in Guilin was very satisfying, but having to repeat it, almost to the letter, in Niaowu right afterward sort of cheapened the experience for me and made the game feel padded.
  • The third area of the game is comparatively very small and dense with plot developments and combat. Compared to the rest of the game it feels disjointed and rushed. I think it would have served the game well to have cut this third area and instead just spread its combat and story events throughout Guilin and Niaowu instead. This would have broken up the formula of each of those areas and made the plot developments easier to digest. 
  • Ultimately, Shenmue 3 moves the overall story of Shenmue forward only a very small amount. In fact, most of the important new information Ryo gathers during this installment of his quest is found in the first area, Guilin. The next act of the game in Naiowu is essentially a rinse and repeat (albeit in a cool new setting) that just serves to keep Ryo busy until the game's hasty conclusion. At the end of the game, Ryo is only incrementally further along on his quest for revenge than he was for the start; after waiting for 20 years for this game, I was hoping for more than that.
As a long time fan of the series who has been waiting for the next installment of the Shenmue series for the majority of his life, playing Shenmue 3 was paradoxically a joyous and disappointing experience. I was delighted to see that much of what made me love Shenmue is still here; for a big fan like me, that alone was enough to make the money and time I spent on this game feel worthwhile. However, there's a difference between something being worthwhile and being satisfying. Shenmue 3 doesn't do very much to bring the series forward in terms of game design or narrative, it is simply content to just stoke the fires in fans' hearts and serve as a demonstration that a new Shenmue game can still be made. As one of those fans, this is something I can accept this time, but it's a card the developer can only play once.

I typically like to end a review with a recommendation; in this case, the recommendation is contingent on your background with the series:
  • If you loved Shenmue 1 and 2, by all means, go ahead and play this, just be sure to set your expectations accordingly.
  • If you played the earlier Shenmue games and they didn't do anything for you, Shenmue 3 is certainly not going to change your mind.
  • If you have no prior experience with Shenmue but think you fit somewhere near the center of the Venn diagram depicted earlier in this review, I'd recommend adding the first two Shenmue games to your Steam wishlist and picking them up the next time they go on sale. (Also, kudos to you for managing to read through this mess of a blog post!)
Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: About 42 hours

Thoughts on the Shenmue Series Going Forward
 A little bit after I started writing this post, I read a news article about how the investors that made Shenmue 3's development possible were surprised that Shenmue hasn't turned out to be a mass-market AAA franchise (i.e. this installment primarily only sold well to existing fans and wasn't especially profitable). To be honest, I don't really know what investors were expecting.

I love Shenmue, warts and all, but I'm not sure there's a future for it. In its current form, it's too expensive and ambitious for the limited audience it has. The only paths forward I can see would involve making drastic changes to pull in more players and investors, or it would have to scope down massively to fit a more traditional indie budget in an attempt to deliver a satisfying resolution to the diehard fans as efficiently as possible. The risk with either route is that it could lead to a result that just wouldn't feel like Shenmue any more. If a fourth entry ever gets made, there is going to be a tremendous amount of pressure on it; based on Shenmue 3, it's unclear if the series director, Yu Suzuki, and company are up to the task.

Guilin looks beautiful
Ryo's gotta make money somehow
"C'mon, Ryo! You can't seek karate justice unless you build strong glutes and quads!"

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Strider (2014) Review


Strider is one of Capcom's series that I've often admired from afar; I've watched Twitch streams of the 8-bit and 16-bit games, and I've looked longingly at the box art of the PS1 game as a broke kid in Walmart, but I've never really dug into any of the games myself. So to close out my celebration of #CapcoMonth, I decided to finally jump in with the most recent entry in the series, Strider (2014), which I was able to pick up as part of a Humble Bundle.

Overview
Strider (2014) is a 2D "Metroidvania"-style platform game that serves as a revival of Capcoms's classic ninja action series. In the game, an elite ninja operative, Strider Hiryu, must infiltrate a heavily fortified cyberpunk dystopian city to assassinate an evil dictator. As he explores the city to gain access to the dictator's stronghold, he acquires a variety of new abilities and faces off against the dictator's generals. This review is based on the PC version of the game.

Pros

  • Being a ninja is awesome! From the get-go, Strider can climb almost any surface (including ceilings), slide, dash, and flip through the air. Even with his most basic starting sword, he can pull off rapid slashing attacks in multiple directions that have both ground-based and aerial variations. There area lot of games about ninjas out there, but this one really stands out for absolutely nailing the lightness, speed, and agility that you would expect of a classic anime ninja.
  • The game features a couple of cool set pieces, like fighting a dragon flying through the sky that breaks up the regular gameplay and solidifies this as a Strider game and not just a generic ninja Metroidvania.
  • While much of the music is fairly indistinct, the electronic remixes of classic Strider tracks are very catchy and kick in at just the right time to enhance the action.

Cons

  • With a few exceptions, the game's environments are primarily drab industrial areas that don't make for a particularly memorable setting.
  • Strider's difficulty was often inconsistent. In some cases, I would breeze through several areas and boss battles, only to be hit with an abrupt difficulty spike. However, on the normal difficulty level, even the spikes were approachable as long as you have a good grasp of the mechanics.
While Strider (2014) lacks some of the bells and whistles that many newer Metroidvania games might have, this game nails the most important facet of the genre: character locomotion. Ninja-ing my way through the dystopian future landscape and cleaving through waves of enemies always felt satisfying. For that alone, I can comfortably recommend Strider (2014) to any Metroidvania fans. This experience also has me interested to go back and try the older Striders that I missed; maybe I'll finally pick up that PS1 game that my younger poorer self missed out on.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 6 hours, 17 minutes (Normal difficulty, 68% map completion)

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

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Duck Tales Review


While I generally consider myself to know my classic games pretty well, I have to admit that I tend to dismiss licensed games offhand. Thus, Duck Tales wasn't on my radar until rather recently. In fact, I wasn't aware of this game's classic status until I started noticing how frequently its music was featured on video game music podcasts and name-that-tune events.

Overview
Duck Tales is a 2D platformer based on the animated series of the same name. In the game, Scrooge McDuck must explore six sprawling levels to recover his stolen valuables. Scrooge's unique ability is to use his cane as a pogo stick to traverse the environment. He can also use his cane like a golf club to whack small objects across the screen. This game was originally released for the NES. I streamed the PC version via the Disney Afternoon Collection on my Twitch channel.

Pros
  • While this game only has six levels, it gets a lot of mileage out of them due to their massive size and intricate designs. Exploring the various pathways of each level looking for secrets is easily this game's standout feature.
  • Scrooge's cane mechanics are pretty novel for a game of this age. Bouncing on enemies and across spikes using the pogo cane is a fun form of traversal once you get the hang of it. I also appreciated the way you could use the cane to dispatch enemies from a distance by hitting rocks at them like golf balls.
  • Duck Tales features some very cute sprite work the manages to exude personality despite the limited rendering capabilities of the NES. For example, when Scrooge is about to whack something with his cane, you can see his tail wagging back and forth. This animation is only a single pixel moving back and forth but it still manages to make a big difference in terms of making the character feel alive.
  • The music in this game is a real treat. Thanks to video game music podcasts, I already knew this game had some catchy tunes and I can now say from experience that it features catchy chiptune bops from start to finish.

Cons
  • Duck Tales does not offer any way to save your progress in the game; there are no save points or passwords. In fact, there are not even continues. Thus, if playing this on the original hardware, losing all three lives completely resets the game to the beginning. This sounds like a very frustrating way to experience this game. Thankfully, the Disney Afternoon Collection version adds the ability to use save states. Using save a state at the start of each level made it much more enjoyable.
  • To initiate a pogo jump, you must first hit the A-button to jump and then while in midair hit the B-button while pressing down on the D-pad. I found this to be a little cumbersome for an action you have to execute so frequently and quickly. Messing up the coordination on this set of inputs lead to many accidental deaths before I got used to it. Since the B-button serves no other purpose while airborne, I think it would have made far more sense to have the B-button alone initiate a pogo jump whenever Scrooge's feet are off the ground. 

Playing through the original version of Duck Tales was a pretty cool experience; I can definitely see why it's considered a classic. Given that the few minor issues I had were mostly the product of NES-era game design, I'm very curious to try Wayforward's remastered version of Duck Tales to see what kind of tweaks they may have made. Either way, I definitely recommend trying out Duck Tales via the Disney Afternoon Collection to anyone interested in 8-bit classics or Disney cartoons.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: About 2 hours and 30 minutes

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

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Resident Evil Zero Review


I have tried to get into the Resident Evil series many times in the past: in-store kiosks of the original PS1 games, playing through the Gamecube version of RE1 due to the instance of a friend, and being coached through the opening section of RE4 at a party. In each case, there was some sticking point (often the control scheme) that kept the series from really clicking with me. That all changed last year when my wife and I had a fantastic time playing through Resident Evil 2 Remake. Now that I've come to appreciate what this series is all about, I thought it might be interesting to go back to an older game in the series for my next #CapcoMonth game.

Overview
Resident Evil Zero is a survival horror game that serves as a prequel to the original Resident Evil. It is the fifth game in the series and the last to be made in the classic pre-rendered adventure game style of RE1 before the series transitioned to the full-3D action game format of RE4 and its successors. Resident Evil Zero's unique feature is that it features two protagonists, Rebecca and Billy, who must work in tandem to navigate zombie-infested environments to discover the origin of the T-virus. This review is based on the PC version of the game, Resident Evil Zero HD, which I streamed in its entirety on my Twitch channel.

Pros
  • It's been a long time since I've played a game that uses pre-rendered backgrounds and fixed camera angles. While it can be an impediment to action and navigation at times, the aesthetic appeal of this style is hard to deny.
  • While most of the Resident Evil games feature underground scientific facilities at some point, and this game is by no means an exception, I appreciated that RE Zero offered some new types of environments to explore as well. Starting off on a luxury train in motion was a nice change of scenery. I also liked the abandoned church in a later section of the game.
  • Alternating between controlling Billy and Rebecca added an interesting wrinkle to exploration and puzzle-solving. Since Billy and Rebecca each have their own distinct abilities, this character swapping mechanic reminded me a bit of the classic puzzle game, Lost Vikings.
  • The puzzles in the game make for some surprisingly good brain teasers. However, I have to admit that the contexts in which they appear in the game often make very little sense. Why would it be necessary to solve a number puzzle to activate the emergency brake on a train, or map out a logic puzzle to reset a power breaker?
  • The PC version's mouse and keyboard controls were easy to pick up compared to how I remember the gamepad controls of the original RE games feeling. Using WASD to move the character and the mouse buttons to use weapons and interact with objects felt pretty natural. A few exceptions existed in areas where the camera perspective would abruptly change, leading to momentarily disorientation. 

Cons
  • The inventory management in this game is extremely cumbersome. Each character only has six item slots with many items and weapons consuming two of these slots. The game does not offer any opportunities to expand the size of your inventory or store items externally. As a result, a disproportional amount of my gameplay time was spent shuffling items around between my characters or dumping items on the floor to free up space. I would then have to backtrack across the map any time I needed to retrieve an item I had dropped. The other games in the series solve this problem with item storage boxes located at each save point. It baffles me why the designers of this game decided to omit this feature.
  • Resident Evil Zero retains the slow door opening animations present in earlier RE games every time you move between rooms or floors in a building. While these screens may have been necessary to accommodate loading times on the PS1, I don't see why the PC version of RE Zero elected to keep them. This slowdown coupled with the large size of Zero's map exacerbates the issues with backtracking that result from poor inventory management.
  • While the controls of this game are generally improved over earlier RE games, I found that they were very fiddly when it came to trying to pick up specific items on the floor and interacting with certain objects in the environment. The frequency with which you have to shuffle your inventory by picking up and dropping items really highlights this particular issue. 
  • Due to the issues above, the game feels tedious after a while and outstays its welcome. In order to spare myself some time and frustration going into the game's final area, I elected to use a cheat to replenish my ammo supply rather than trudging back and forth across the map to collect all the extra ammo I had dropped in various places throughout the campaign.

In summary, I was initially really enjoying this journey back to the classic Resident Evil style but over time, quality of life issues made the game feel like a slog. I think similar to my experience with Final Fantasy 13, using cheats to spare myself some late-game tedium was the right decision and keep me from being soured on the overall experience. There's enough interesting ideas here to make RE Zero worth a look for RE fans or those nostalgic for the pre-rendered style that was popular 20 years ago. For everyone else, however, I'd say this is an entry in the Resident Evil franchise that can comfortably be skipped.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: About 20 hours

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


Many years removed from its original release, this is still a very pretty game.


My scorecard at the end of the game reports an artificially low playtime since the game requires reloading your last save after every game over.

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