Monday, October 30, 2017

Mario Odyssey Impressions

After over six months of hype, Mario Odyssey is finally out, and I am once again absorbed into another massive world built by Nintendo’s crew of mad scientists. Over the course of the game’s release weekend, I have put about 15 hours into the game and have already collected 222 moons (out of 800). Here are my impressions of Mario Odyssey so far:
  • The game’s structure is an interesting amalgam of Galaxy, 3D World, and Sunshine. While there’s no central hub world, each kingdom in Mario Odyssey is a large and fully open playground to roam around (similar to Sunshine or 64). Just wandering around the kingdoms, the player will happen upon dozens of opportunities to collect Power Moons (equivalent to Stars or Shines in other Mario games). Within each kingdom, there are doorways that lead to areas with linear platforming challenges that reward the player with even more moons. I’m not sure if these areas have proper names, so I've started referring to them as dungeons. From what I’ve seen so far, the regular kingdom moons and the story-essential moons have been relatively easy to get, while a few of the dungeon moons have been quite tough.
  • Unlike previous Mario games, where there would be no more than 10 stars in a stage and finding each one involves a significant trek, the moons are extremely plentiful and vary widely in terms of difficulty to acquire. Some moons are obtained simply by breaking a glowing box or talking to a right NPC, while others are more involved and could require climbing a massive tower or beating a boss. So far, the kingdoms I’ve played through have had anywhere from 17 to 100 moons to collect.
  • After collecting the story-essential moons and a handful of the more obvious moons in each kingdom, I find myself making pretty liberal use of the in-game hint systems. There are two ways to get hints in Mario Odyssey: In one case, talking to an NPC will provide you with the title of a moon (e.g. "Atop a Tall Tower"), but not provide a location. In the other case, an NPC will mark the map with a location of a moon, but not tell you what you need to do to actually make the moon appear. The second of these two options requires paying 50 gold coins, which is pretty easy to accumulate, or to scan an amiibo. 
  • The capture mechanic, in which Mario can take control of an NPC or enemy allows for some interesting breaks in the typical 3D Mario action. Capturable characters range from giant dinosaurs, to classic Mario enemies, to benign objects like plants. For the most part, the time spent as a captured character is brief, but each character has a unique feel and adds more variety to the gameplay.
  • While it didn’t initially grab me when I heard it during E3, Mario Odyssey’s theme song, “Jump Up, Super Star” has really grown on me. I couldn’t help but put it on in the car on my way to work this morning.
While Zelda: Breath of the Wild represented a drastic departure from the series' traditional formula, Mario Odyssey feels more like a new blend of mostly familiar elements. However, as one would expect from a Mario game, the execution is top-notch and every part of the game that I've seen so far is simply imbued with the spirit of fun.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Shin Megami Tensei Synchronicity Prologue Review

Surprising pretty much everyone, last week Atlus of Japan released a new freeware spin-off Shin Megami Tensei game for PC. Unlike most SMT games, which are usually turn-based RPGs, Synchronicity Prologue is a non-linear action platformer in the style of Metroid and Castlevania (i.e. a “Metroidvania”). While my exposure to the Megami Tensei franchise is minimal, I’ve been interested in it for a while and could not pass up the opportunity to grab a free game, especially from a series that is rarely seen on PC. Here’s a rundown of my thoughts on the game:
  • While it’s my understanding that regular Shin Megami Tensei games have a pretty dark and serious tone, Synchronicity Prologue stars cute-looking cartoon mascots Jack Frost and Pyro Jack. Despite the kid-friendly appearance, when your character takes damage there’s a pretty distinct blood splatter animation which struck me as a kind of out of place.
  • If you’ve ever played any of the Castlevania games on the Gameboy Advance or Nintendo DS, the gameplay of Synchronicity Prologue will immediately feel familiar to you. The playable characters have standard and special attacks and collect upgrades that strengthen them and allow them access to new areas of the map. The level design and placement of hidden rooms are also very similar to Metroid and Castlevania games.
  • The game’s mark of differentiation from other Metroidvanias comes from its character switching mechanic and use of elemental strengths and weaknesses. As you can probably guess, Jack Frost is immune to ice but weak against fire and the reverse is true for Pyro Jack. Each enemy also has its own set of elemental strengths and weaknesses. Later on, special moves introduce wind, lightning, and non-elemental attacks as well.
  • During boss battles, enemies will often launch a massive barrage of ice and fire projectiles in bullet-hell fashion. Studying the bullet pattern and quickly switching between Frost and Pyro to avoid taking damage is the key to survival. This mechanic, reminiscent of Ikaruga, makes for an interesting addition to the otherwise standard Metroidvania format.
  • Much like other aspects of this game, the music sounds like something straight out of Castlevania. It’s well-composed Castlevania-esque music, though, so it fits nicely.
  • Even though I know very little about Shin Megami Tensei, with the help of the English translation patch (see notes below), the game’s simple plot was easy to follow. It wasn’t anything special, but it got the job done.
As you’ve probably gathered, SMT Synchronicity Prologue is essentially a Castlevania clone with some bullet-hell elements mixed in. In this case, however, that isn’t a criticism since Synchronicity Prologue is an exceptionally well-made clone. The game is quite short (~ 3 hours) but this keeps its simple mechanics from getting stale. There’s also the fact that this game was completely free, so you’ll hear no complaints from me. I’d highly recommend checking out Shin Megami Tensei Synchronicity Prologue, especially if you're a fan of the Metroidvania genre.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: About 3 hours (92% map completion)

  • If you’re interested in playing this game, it can be downloaded for free directly from Atlus of Japan. Click either of the blue rounded buttons midway down the page to download the game. It will be available until December 24th.
  • The game was originally in Japanese, but a translation patch was created by @Brento_Bento on Twitter. The patch and installation instructions can be found in an article from Destructoid. Small amounts of text remain untranslated, such as some character names and item descriptions, but the patch still provides more than enough English text for a Japanese illiterate player to be able to understand what's going on.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Demo Hotness: Spelunker Party

A great thing about Nintendo’s eShop is the proliferation of demos. On many occasions, demos have turned me to new franchises and genres that I would have never discovered otherwise. In other cases, they’ve shown me that a game that sounds like a good fit for me on paper just doesn’t work for me in practice. Square Enix’s new co-op 2D platformer, Spelunker Party, unfortunately fell into the latter of those two groups. Some thoughts on the experience my wife and I had with the demo:
  • The game has a simple and cute visual style. However, the male spelunker, female spelunker, and their animal companions all look like they were drawn by different artists, giving the game a somewhat uneven look.
  • In local co-op mode when playing with the Switch docked, the screen splits into small windows even though additional screen space is available when playing with two characters. This can be problematic as it makes many of the game’s already tiny obstacles, traps, and items even harder to see. For visibility’s sake, it would probably be best to play this game on two Switches.
  • Spelunker Party is extremely unforgiving for a game with the word “Party” in its title. Touching any of the cave’s tiny obstacles is instant death as is missing a jump or even falling from minimal heights. These deaths are in fact so instantaneous that the game strangely doesn’t bother to animate your character falling, but instead just displays the death animation the moment his/her feet leaves the ground if your jump or fall trajectory would result in death. It also doesn’t help that two characters can’t grab the same rope at the same time,
  • Spelunkers also have a finite amount of air in the cave (yet another way to die), but thankfully checkpoints with air refills are easy to find. However, once you’ve lost five lives, the whole level must be restarted. If there’s a disparity between skill levels of the players, it’s quite likely that one will be left staring at the game over screen while the other one continues with their remaining lives. Having to sit out the rest of the level like this significantly detracts from the party potential of Spelunker Party.
  • The game’s music is simple, repetitive, and catchy. It reminds me a lot of the upbeat tunes you’d hear in Bomberman.
Based on my experience with this demo, Spelunker Party could potentially make for a decent 2D cave exploration game for those with the patience for its finicky nature. However, as a casual co-op or party game (which is what I would expect from a game with “Party” in its title), I think Spelunker Party would introduce more frustration than fun.

Note: At some point after playing the demo, it was brought to my attention that this game is a remake of an Atari game which helps to explain some of its quirks. Thus, it may have some additional appeal to retro gamers, but as somebody that lacks that nostalgia, I still can’t recommend Spelunker Party.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Broken Age Review

My wife and I recently finished playing through Doubefine’s crowdfunded point-and-click adventure game, Broken Age. If you’ve ever played other adventure games directed by Tim Schafer (Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, etc), you probably already know what to expect from Broken Age. For those unfamiliar, the game consists exploring the environment as one of two different playable characters, collecting miscellaneous junk used to solve puzzles, and having snarky dialog with NPCs.

The game starts out strong by introducing you to its protagonists, Vela and Shay: two reasonable people trapped in two very different, but equally, absurd worlds. The game’s visual style, which looks like moving children’s book illustrations, gives the world and characters plenty of personality while still making items and objectives easy to discern. Snappy dialog, featuring the signature LucasArts/Doublefine sense of humor, further adds to the charm of the game world.

Pretty pictures and quirky characters aside, Broken Age is a game that’s all about puzzles. The puzzles are all initially of the pretty straight-forward “use item X on environmental object Y” variety and gradually increase in difficulty and obscurity throughout the game. This is all part of the standard point-and-click progression that one would expect from a throwback adventure from Tim Schafer. In the second half of the game, a different type of puzzle is introduced in which long sequences of actions must be completed in a very specific order for the game to progress. This is where the game makes the transition from clever, but occasionally arcane, to tedious and frustrating. Many of sequential puzzles require traversing the map in-between steps and switching between characters, with a single incorrect step resetting the entire puzzle. Compounding this issue, the game often isn’t particularly good at conveying what you did wrong. As a result, for the last handful of puzzles, my wife and I resorted to using a guide to spare ourselves the aggravation of using trial and error to finish the game.

Overall, Broken Age is an adventure game with a strong sense of style and personality but suffers from gameplay mechanics that fall apart in the second half of the game and make the game feel like it’s dragging on. I expect that players that are already fans of Tim Schafer’s work will find enough to like here to make the game worth playing, but newcomers will probably find it too discouraging.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: 11 hours