Sunday, December 23, 2018

Helen's Mysterious Castle Review

The community game-along events held by the Chic-Pixel blog provide a great opportunity to diversify my gaming queue and #DoujinDecember was no exception. While the Western indie scene has been getting a lot of coverage lately, Japanese indies (aka "doujin games") tend to be a bit more obscure. For my selection for this month's theme, I picked out Helen's Mysterious Castle which was available from Playism for only $2 (US)!

Helen's Mysterious Castle is a turn-based RPG made in the RPG Maker engine. With only one playable character, the combat focuses on the strategic use of Helen's assortment of weapons. In addition to the typical attack and defense stats, each weapon has a "Wait" value that represents how long it takes for Helen to use that weapon. Since enemy attacks have their own Wait values that are displayed on-screen, managing turn time is the key part of combat strategy. From a story standpoint, Helen's Mysterious Castle drops the player right into quest immediately, letting the player uncover the context for the action later.

  • The combat's mechanics are simple but still add an extra layer of strategy when compared to many other turn-based RPGs. Playing this game has really impressed me with the flexibility of the RPG Maker engine. 
  • Unlike many other RPGs, with only one type of gear to equip (weapons) and only one character, very little game time is spent in menus managing equipment and items. I found the briskness of this game's systems refreshing.
  • While some of the game's assets are the default ones included with RPG Maker, the original sprites on the battle screens look really nice. There are also some lush environments with great use of lighting and color.
  • Helen herself is an old-school silent protagonist, but some of the supporting characters have really amusing dialog. I especially got a kick out of the quirky and sassy villains!
  • The game features some pretty solid music.

  • Helen's Mysterious Castle features a few very obtuse puzzles and hidden doors on the critical path. On several occasions, I had to resort to using a guide to figure out where to go next rather than sink a bunch of time into wandering around aimlessly.
  • The game takes a minimalist approach to story-telling until the third act when it decides to dump most of the exposition and lore on the player all at once.  I found it hard to get in invested in this knowing I was already nearly at the end of the game.
  • The unique twist on combat manages to keep this simple game entertaining for most its duration, but I it began to feel like it was outstaying its welcome a few hours short of the finale. (However, some of this might be my fault for playing this game when I was short on time. I was also given the impression that this game would be a six-hour experience when it was actually closer to ten)
Despite some rough edges, Helen's Mysterious Castle was a satisfying little RPG. I'd recommend it to anyone looking for something a little different in the JRPG genre, or to anyone interested to check in on the modern RPG Maker scene.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 9.5 hours, good ending path

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Super Smash Bros Ultimate Impressions

 The arrival of a new Smash is always a major event in a console generation, and the latest edition, Smash Ultimate for Nintendo Switch is no exception. With the massive scope of this game and the constraints holiday time puts on my gaming sessions, I’ve only just scratched the surface of this cross-over fighting behemoth. Since this time of year makes it tough to coordinate multiplayer sessions with friends, my time with Smash has been devoted to the game’s new single-player campaign: World of Light.

Regardless of which mode you pick, the player is limited to only a tiny selection of the game’s 70+ character roster. In Classic mode (i.e. the arcade-style single-player mode) and multi-player, only the original eight characters from the N64 game are available the first time you load the game. In World of Light, the only starting character is Kirby. As a result, the main incentive for progressing through the Classic and World of Light campaigns is to unlock the rest of the characters.

Some thoughts on World of Light:
  • This mode features a world map screen with each node on the map representing a battle. This map is absolutely huge, offering a variety of branching paths, and new areas to uncover. Some paths are opened simply by winning battles, others involve light puzzle-solving. This help gives this campaign more of an adventure game feel.
  • The majority of these battles are Spirit fights which use modified versions of the playable characters to represent characters from other games. Winning these battles allows you to progress through the map and unlock Spirit stickers which can be equipped to enhance your characters stats and also serve as the game’s main collectible (replacing trophies). Other than Spirit battles, there are a few special nodes peppered throughout the map that are battles that unlock new playable characters. Since getting to each character battles involves completing many Spirit battles first, playing World of Light seems to be a slower route to unlocking the full roster compared to other modes.
  • With how staggeringly large the roster of Smash Ultimate is, it’s nice to have a mode that eases you into it and gives you an excuse to spend time with each character individually. I think the game wisely chose Kirby to be the first playable character as his move set is very accessible to new players.
  • While the gameplay of World of Light is still primarily a succession of fights, like any other fighting game, the ability to equip Spirits with different attributes adds a layer of RPG mechanics. Certain Spirits have abilities on the map screen as well. For example, one path of the map is obstructed by a collapsed bridge that requires a Spirit with a repair skill to make passable.
  • Having the right combination of Spirits equipped for a given battle can help tip the scales in the player’s favor. For less-practiced fighting game players like my wife and I, this ability to use a loadout to compensate for a lack of pure fighting game skill makes it far more feasible for us to make it all the way through the campaign.
  • This is an exclusively single-player campaign; however, my wife and I have been playing through it cooperatively in alternating fashion. Since the Spirit battles are marked with difficulty ratings (1 to 4 stars), and these difficulties are evenly distributed around the map, it’s easy for my wife and me to divide the battles between us based on our respective skill levels.
So far, we’ve been pleasantly surprised with how robust this single-player campaign is in this primarily multiplayer-focused fighting game! After having the game for only one weekend, my wife and I have already put 9 hours into Smash Ultimate, nearly all of which has been in World of Light mode. In the coming weeks I’m looking forward to exploring the other features this massive game has to offer, so be sure to check back in the future for updated impressions or a review!

Monday, December 10, 2018

A Hat In Time Review

 Spend any amount of time on Kickstarter, and you will encounter countless projects that claim to be revivals of classic game series or genres. One of the most high-profile of these was A Hat in Time, a game whose goal was to bring back 3D “collectathon” platforming in the style of Mario 64 and Banjo Kazooie. After raising almost $300,000 and spending 4 years in development, developer Gears For Breakfast ended up delivering a product that I found to be a remarkable contribution to the 3D platforming genre. I played through this entire game on my Twitch channel and it really hooked me. Now that I’ve collected all the magical McGuffins, here’s a breakdown of my thoughts on the game:

In A Hat In Time, a young time traveler, Hat Kid, lands on a strange planet to collect her missing Time Pieces that she needs to power her ship. The game is structured similarly to Mario 64, with the ship serving as hub world that grants players access to Chapters that represent different locations on the planet. Each Chapter is composed of several Acts that advance the story and provide the opportunity to pick up another Time Piece. There are also bonus Time Warp stages that offer short platforming challenges with additional Time Pieces as a reward. There are a total of 40 Time Pieces in the game, however, it’s possible to reach the final boss after collecting 25. The “Seal the Deal” DLC campaign adds a new chapter with an additional six Time Pieces to collect.

  • The website for A Hat In Time describes it as a “Cute-As-Heck 3D Platformer” and it delivers on all three of those fronts (i.e., the cuteness, the heck, and the platforming).
  • The Cute: The world of A Hat in Time is full of colorful cartoon characters. Exploring the game’s vibrant world and meeting the zany cast of characters is a big part of the appeal of a cutesy 3D platformer, and A Hat In Time pulls it off exceptionally well. I was always excited to unlock a new chapter to see where the game would go next.
  • The Heck: While A Hat In Time might look like a Saturday morning cartoon, it goes to some fairly dark and mature places. For example, in one chapter, Hat Kid’s soul is stolen by a monster and she is forced to complete a series of quests through a spooky nightmare world to get it back. The monster’s taunts about the torture that awaits Hat Kid get pretty grim. Other levels don’t get as dark but feature subject matter and humor that would likely only appeal to adults (e.g. there’s a level full of commentary about cybersecurity). I got a kick out of this content, but some of it may be too scary or confusing to young children.
  • The Platforming: Most importantly, A Hat In Time gets 3D platforming right. Hat Kid is an especially agile 3D platforming character and moving her around the stages just feels good. She starts off with a double jump, diving leaps, and wall kicks that allow her to cover a lot of ground right off the bat. Throughout the game, the player can collect yarn and pons (money) that allow her to craft or buy new hats and badges that expand her arsenal of abilities. Two of my favorites were the grappling hook badge, which features great swinging mechanics, and the scooter badge which allows Hat Kid to summon a moped out of thin air. The level design features a balanced mix of items and secrets to find as well as challenging, but approachable, platforming sections.
  • Considering that this is a Kickstarted indie game, it’s quite polished, however, there are a couple of times when the game’s tech struggles to keep up with the action. I had a few occasions where the camera would get stuck at awkward angles that would throw off my jumps. I also had a case or two where a glitch would cause my character to fall through the floor. In general, these issues were rare enough to have minimal impact on my enjoyment of the main game but were quite prevalent in the DLC.
  • Some of this game's boss battles seemed overly long to me. Late game boss enemies had far more forms and took far more hits than I've typically seen in 3D platformers.
I had an absolute blast playing A Hat In Time! Its tight controls, fun mechanics, and bizarre sense of humor comfortably place it in the upper echelon of 3D platformers.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 19 hours (All 40 Time Pieces in the main campaign)

Friday, December 7, 2018

The Game Awards


I'm generally not a big award show person, but there's something about a big budget live show that honors the developers, artists, actors, and composers behind the year's biggest games that really draws me in. This years show was a nonstop barrage of award presentations and new game trailers. Instead of recapping the whole thing, here are some of my personal highlights and takeaways from the game industry's big night:
  • Unsurprisingly, Red Dead Redemption 2 and God of War cleaned up most of the major awards. RDR2 took Best Music, Best Narrative, and Best Performance. GoW received Best Action Adventure, Best Direction, and Game of the Year. Between these two, I was glad to see God of War take the Game of the Year title since it had a better focus on gameplay mechanics.
  • With RDR2 taking so many other awards, I was disappointed that Best Music didn't go to one of the other nominees, I was really pulling for Octopath Traveler or Celeste on this one. That being said, I loved seeing that the composer of Celeste, Lena Raine, got to present an award and perform in the show's orchestra!
  • Even though a few AAA games took most of the major awards, it was still a big night for indies. I haven't played Dead Cells yet, but I was happy to see its surprise win of Best Action Game. I was also delighted to see one of my favorite games of the year, Celeste, win Best Indie and Game For Impact!
  • While I think nobody was shocked to see Fornite win Best Multiplayer and Best Ongoing Game, I don't think these awards were the biggest wins for Epic Software. The Game Awards marked the launch of Epic's new game store. A surprisingly large number of games shown at The Game Awards had their trailers end with the Epic store logo displayed where the Steam logo would normally be. With how popular Fornite is, I could see the potential for Epic's store to gain ground on Steam where so many other company's launchers have failed to gain traction. Even though I don't play Fortnite, these game announcements go me to open and update Epic's game launcher for the first time in months.
  • Unlike previous years, this Game Award's musical performances were entirely focused on playing music directly relevant to the games being honored. This was a welcome change as previous year's performances from pop stars always felt out of place and try-hard in my opinion. I thought the Game Awards Orchestra did a great time playing arrangements of music from the nominated games; the medley of music from all the 2018 Game of the Year nominees sounded fantastic!
  •  I primarily watch The Game Awards to see the winners get honored and to just witness the spectacle of the whole ceremony, however, the "World Premier" trailers are also a big part of the show. This year, I'm fairly certain there were more trailers shown than awards given. In general, there was an assortment of indie and AAA games shown that kind of all blur together for me. My main takeaway was that tonight was a big night for Fallout-like games. Ubisoft showed Far Cry New Dawn, essentially Far Cry meets Fallout, and Obsidian, the developers of the original Fallout games, showed Outer Worlds, a first-person RPG that looked like a more colorful Fallout 4.
  • The big surprise announcement of the show was that Joker, the protagonist of Persona 5 will be a downloadable character in Super Smash Bros Ultimate! This is an announcement I never could have predicted! Of course, this has now lead to speculation that Persona 5 itself will be coming to Nintendo Switch, which I'm hoping will end up being the case Currently, Joker's only Nintendo appearance is in Persona Q2 on Nintendo 3DS. Even though I was only introduced to the Persona series earlier this year (see my Persona 4 review), a new character reveal of this significance has pretty much sold me on purchasing the Smash Ultimate DLC pass.
Overall, I feel comfortable saying that this was the best show The Game Awards has put on yet. A big congratulations to all the winners and nominees as well as to Geoff Keighly and the rest of the staff that made this event possible!

Monster Hunter World winning Best RPG

The Last Campfire announcement (my favorite indie preview shown)

Persona 5's Joker receives an invitation to Smash!!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Battle Chef Brigade

I was craving something a little different right around the time Battle Chef Brigade was offered as a free game via Twitch Prime. I streamed my entire playthrough and found that this game’s bizarre combination of RPG, brawler, and puzzle gameplay was a delight.

Battle Chef Brigade takes place in a fantasy world overrun with monsters. The people of this world decide that the only solution to this monster infestation is to amass a legion of Battle Chefs to slay these monsters and then cook them into fine cuisine in Iron Chef-like tournaments. Mina, the game’s protagonist, is an aspiring Battle Chef who must complete a series of challenges and competitions in order to be inducted into the Brigade. The main focus of the gameplay is the culinary tournaments in which players must juggle their time between gather ingredients by slaying monsters and cooking these ingredients into dishes to submit to the judges. Combat with monsters is in the style of a 2D side-scrolling brawler, while cooking takes the form of a match-3 puzzle game in which each color of blocks represents a different flavor.

  • My description may have not done it justice, but Battle Chef Brigade has one of the most original premises and gameplay loops I’ve seen in a game in many years. This game’s fantasy-meets-Food-Network world and brawler/RPG/puzzle mechanics all work really well together.
  • The gameplay is complemented by a story with quirky characters and strong writing. I found myself far more invested in the characters and story of this game than I expected.
  • I really like the voice acting in this game. Each character has a unique voice that conveys their personality even though the animation during dialog is often minimal. The standout performance for me was tournament chairman. His actor absolutely nails the corny and self-serious tone of an Iron Chef host. It brought a smile to my face during every bout.
  • The character designs are quite striking. Even minor NPCs have a distinct look. In crowd shots during story sequences, I’d often pick out a few individuals and find myself saying “I wanna know more about that person!”
  • Being a hybrid game, Battle Chef Brigade keeps each of its mechanics relatively simple. The combat only offers a handful of techniques, but they’re fun to pull off. Similarly, the puzzles build in their level of challenge throughout the game but the core is not complex.
  • I didn’t go into this game knowing what music would best go along with baking a dragon heart, but somehow Battle Chef Brigade figured it out.

  • Once you’ve gotten far enough to get the hang of all the mechanics, meet all the characters and figure out where the story is ultimately going to go, the gameplay begins to feel a little repetitive toward the end. Thankfully, this isn’t a game that outstays its welcome.
  • In one chapter you play as one of the side characters instead of the protagonist, Mina. This chapter offers some somewhat interesting one-time mechanics but otherwise feels like filler. I would’ve rather kept the main story moving.
  • The judges of the Battle Chef tournament judges use an inconsistent scoring system that takes getting used to. For example, dishes containing poison are penalized less than foods that contain the wrong balance of flavors.
Battle Chef’s interesting combination of mechanics and fun cast of characters make it a joy to play. While so many indie games are content to stick to formulas established in classic games, Battle Chef Brigade offers something new. I highly recommend it to any open-minded gamer looking for a truly original indie game.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 13 hours, 30 minutes

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Octopath Traveler Preliminary Review

 After writing two different sets of impressions (1, 2) and racking up over 60 hours of playtime, I’ve put a lot of time into SquareEnix’s Switch-exclusive RPG, Octopath Traveler. After all that, there’s still a lot left to do in the game, but having finished the campaign for my main character, Cyrus, I’ve seen the credits roll and feel comfortable writing a preliminary review. Similarly, to what I did with Ys Origin, if I return to Octopath and find the additional content changes my opinion of the game, I’ll be sure to update the review or write a follow-up.

Octopath’s art style and music continued to delight for the entire game. While the combat and story maintained their level of quality, it became clear to me as the adventure went on that what worked for the classic RPGs that inspired this game, doesn’t necessarily work for a modern game, especially considering that modern RPGs tend to have nearly twice the running time of their 16 and 32-bit forefathers.

The battle system of Octopath Traveler is built upon a strong foundation. Exploiting enemy weaknesses and figuring out the ideal combination of characters/classes to have in your party is a mechanic that I always find enjoyable. Octopath pulls this off well and builds upon its systems for the first half of the game. Characters gain the ability to equip secondary jobs and bosses pick up new mechanics such as increasing their shield point through the battle and changing weaknesses dynamically. Unfortunately, at about the 30-hour mark, I had seen every theme and variation that the game had to offer and had developed a playbook to handle any situation the game would throw at me. Thus, the second half of the game consisted of executing on the same handful of strategies as the game increased in scale with longer dungeons and bosses with even higher HP and shield points. All the classic RPGs (including my favorite, Final Fantasy 5) eventually get to this point, but usually that point is when 10 hours of gameplay remain rather than 30. That places a lot of extra burden on Octopath’s story to carry the player through the rest of the game. In my case, I finished Cryus’s fourth and final chapter, but set the game aside when I had the discouraging realization that I had seven more 30-45 minute long “final” boss battles ahead of me if I wanted to finish the remaining character’s quests.

Much like one of its predecessors, Saga Frontier, each of Octopath’s character’s stories vary in their tone and scope. Generally, the stakes are far lower in these tales than the world-ending crises that Final Fantasy heroes face. I think that smaller-scale stories can work well with the right characters and writing. However, halfway through the game, I knew which character’s stories I cared about and which ones I didn’t. Unfortunately, unlike a Saga game, it wouldn’t make sense to only play the Octopath characters that I was interested in because of the big jumps in recommended levels between chapters in each characters’ campaign. This made it such that playing all 8 chapter 3 stories was necessary to gain enough XP to be able to handle the chapter 4 enemies. Having to play through a few mediocre stories in order to continue playing the ones I was interested in robbed the best campaigns of their momentum. If I were to put on my armchair game designer’s hat, I would have made this game Quadpath Traveler or Hexapath Traveler and given each of the cream-of-the-crop stories an extra chapter to develop their characters.

This is probably sounding like a pretty negative review. The thing is, every positive thing I had to say about the game in my impressions (1, 2) is still absolutely true. Octopath Traveler is a great RPG at its core that, for me, began to feel like it was overstaying its welcome. If I were in a different stage of life, this game would probably be a strong Game of the Year contender for me, but in a time when I have to be so judicious with how I spend my free time and the shear volume of other games I want to play, Octopath needed to do more to justify spending the time that finishing all eight quests (and the option bonus dungeons) would require. All that being said, I’m glad that I played this game, enjoyed most of the time I spent with it, and am hoping that it gets a sequel with a little more focus.

Completion Time: About 61 Hours (Chapters 1-3 for 7 characters, and through Chapter 4 for Cyrus)

Note: There is a strong chance I’ll return to this game at some point in the future to finish off the chapter 4 quests for the other few characters that I liked. If that experience changes my perspective on this game, I’ll be sure to add an update to this review for write a follow-up post.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Rise of the Tomb Raider Review

 After crowning Tomb Raider my Game of the Year when I played it in 2016, I’ve been meaning to return to the series for a while. Playing through the sequel, Rise of the Tomb Raider, recently, I found that this installment was iterative of its predecessor, with a few tweaks that made the gameplay experience smoother and addressed the gripes I had (the main one being the heavily scripted events). Some thoughts from my time with the second installment of the Tomb Raider reboot trilogy:
  • The structure is nearly identical to the previous game. That’s not a bad thing when the core design is good! It took me no time at all to get hooked by the combination of exploration, puzzle-solving, and third-person shooting that the Tomb Raider series is known for.
  • Crafting is a much bigger component of Rise of the Tomb Raider than it is in Tomb Raider. I was initially concerned that I would have to devote a lot of time to farming for wood, feathers, animal pelts, and other crafting supplies but found that the game provided very frequent opportunities to gather these items while accomplishing other tasks, so I pretty much always had all the necessary ingredients for healing items and special ammo whenever I needed them. My favorite part of the expanded crafting system was the ability to create improvised explosives and Molotov cocktails in the heat of battle by picking up bottles and other debris on the battle field.
  • The game’s story was entertaining but not particularly deep. It was about on par with what you’d see in an Indiana Jones movie which is perfectly appropriate for this kind of game. Just don’t go into this one expecting to be hanging off every word in the cutscenes.
  • I was happy to see that Rise of the Tomb Raider largely cuts back on the quick-time events (QTEs) that were used in the previous game to make scripted scenes feel more interactive. This style of “immersive gameplay” may have been a novel concept in 1999’s Shenmue (a game I love, by the way), but now it feels dated and incongruent with a game like Tomb Raider. Fewer QTEs make Rise a smoother Tomb Raider experience.
  • Since Rise of the Tomb Raider takes place in Siberia, most of the environments are snow-covered mountains, glaciers, and tundras. The first few areas of the game had me concerned that each area would just be a frozen wasteland, but as the game went on, there were some truly beautiful vistas (even as rendered on the Low settings by my aging graphics card).
  • As you would expect, there are tombs to be raised in this game (I found 9, not sure if that are more). Some of the puzzles were pretty challenging. I enjoyed these and wish there was a few more on the game.
  • Each area of the game seemed to feature even more types of collectibles than the previous game. I found that this lessened my desire to get 100% completion on any given map, but I was still easily able to acquire enough stuff to upgrade my character and weapons to make the endgame combat manageable.
Overall, Rise of the Tomb Raider took the core game that I loved a few years ago and removed most of the sticking points. This makes it a comfortable 5-star game in my book. I thought I would be done with the Tomb Raider formula after this game but instead ended up putting the next game in my Steam wishlist as soon as the credits were rolling on this one.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 27 hours, 89% map completion

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Little Nightmares Review

 The third and final game in my #HorrorGameOct lineup is one that I played through with my wife rather than on Twitch. Little Nightmares is a horror puzzle platformer that was originally released on PC, Xbox One, and PlayStation 4 in April 2017. The 2018 Switch version that my wife and I played featured the main campaign, "Six's Story", as well as the DLC campaign, "The Kid's Story".

Each of the two campaigns follows a different child's path through The Maw, a giant cruise ship full of grotesque semi-human cannibalistic creatures, as the kids attempt to escape before they wind up as entrees in the buffet. This unique premise and the twisted and unsettling imagery that come with it are the game's biggest strength. The creatures pursuing the young heroes are creatively designed and also deeply disturbing to look at. The Maw features dark industrial areas in the underbelly of the ship as well the passenger accommodations with banquet halls and giant furnishings. It all comes together in an appropriately nightmarish visual package that feels like a fusion of the darkest parts of Nightmare Before Christmas and Spirited Away.

While the premise and sense of style are very distinct, the story that Little Nightmares tells is minimalist. Outside of the game's conclusion, there are no cut scenes, dialog, or text within the game. I was initially disappointed by this since the game's trailer make it look like a narrative-driven game, but after a while I adjusted to the subtle and purely visual form of story telling the game was using. What's there is mysterious but very bare bones.

The gameplay of Little Nightmares is very simple. There's no combat; all enemy encounters are resolved by either speed or stealth. In the quiet moments, there are basic environmental puzzles to solve and light platforming. Most of this works out reasonably well, but there were a couple of persistent sources of frustration throughout. Despite the character's limited capabilities, the controls were cumbersome. The main issue was that the right trigger needs to be held any time the character is carrying an object, climbing ladders, or pulling themself up a ledge. After an hour or so of play, my right index finger would get sore since I had to be holding down the trigger most of the time. The other issue is that the camera has very limited movement, which meant that I had several occasions where I would miss a jump and fall to my death due to bad camera angles throwing off my depth perception.

Control and camera hangups aside, we encountered a couple of technical issues while playing Little Nightmares on Nintendo Switch. The most glaring of which is likely a Switch-specific problem: painfully long load times. The stealth and platforming sections of the game often involved some trial and error, with mistakes leading to instant death. These deaths were punished by having to wait up to a full minute for the game to reload the last checkpoint. This was very discouraging during the tougher parts of the campaign. The other technical issue was more general; glitches in the game's physics and collision would sometimes cause the player character or enemies to get snagged on corners or doorways. On a few occasions this would happen at an inopportune moment, and then we were staring at a loading screen once again.

For my wife and I, we had enough fun and spooky moments with Little Nightmares that we willing to tolerate the technical and design issues that occasionally got in the way. Little Nightmares is unique enough from an artistic standpoint to be worthwhile for fans of the weird and creepy but is probably not mechanically sound enough to please those who come to it purely for platforming or stealth gameplay.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐

Completion Time: About 8 hours (both campaigns combined)

Note: This review is specific to the Nintendo Switch version of the game. It’s possible that the PC game addresses some of the issues I had with this game by having faster load times and reconfigurable controls.

If you're curious about the #HorrorGameOct event, be sure to check out this blog post on Chic Pixel.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Bloodstained Curse of the Moon Review

After finishing off Momodora last week, I decided to keep the #HorrorGameOct train rolling and jump straight into another Castlevania-inspired 2D platformer, Bloodstained Curse of the Moon. Since this is short game, I finished it off in a single streaming session. Both the stream and the game itself were a total blast! Now that I've laid the demon king to rest, here's my review:

Bloodstained Curse of the Moon is an NES-style 2D platformer from developer Inti Creates. This game was released earlier this year as a prequel to the upcoming Bloodstained Ritual of the Night. Both of these titles come from former Castlevania director, Koji Igarashi, with Curse of the Moon being based on the NES Castlevania titles, and Ritual of the Night being based on the PS1 and Gameboy Advance entries of the series. Wearing its inspiration on its sleeve, Curse of the Moon, features monster-slaying heroes progressing through spooky linear environments such as haunted forests and vampires’ castles.

  • At first glance, Curse of the Moon looks like an NES game, but it features graphical effects than an 8-bit system could never pull off. The color pallet is much broader and backgrounds feature multiple layers of parallax scrolling to give the 2D stages the appearance of depth. Enemy sprites are larger, more detailed, and far more plentiful, than the NES would have been able to render. It makes for a beautiful retro-inspired presentation.
  • Unlike the original Castlevania games, Curse of the Moon features a set of four playable characters than can be swapped in and out on the fly. Each character has unique abilities that can be used for both traversal and combat. Switching to the appropriate character at the right time can provide access to shortcuts through levels and have a substantial effect on the difficulty of boss battles.
  • Curse of the Moon’s difficulty is much more forgiving than the NES Castlevania titles. There are options for Casual and Normal difficulty, with the former choice granting infinite continues and eliminating knock-back (i.e. your character won’t get pushed off a platform if he gets grazed by an enemy). Also, since each of the four player characters has their own HP bar, cycling through them allows you to take a lot more damage before seeing the Game Over screen.
  • This game has some really cool boss designs. The large detailed sprite make them visually distinct and most of them employ a unique mechanic during their battles. Rather than just memorizing patterns, dodging, and attacking, these fights often involve making use of platforming skills and knowing when to switch to the right character.
  • The level designs have some features that stand out from this game's 8-bit inspirations. I appreciated the way that utilizing each characters' special skills could significantly change the route the player takes through a level. I was also impressed with some of the visual set pieces in this game's levels such as the train barreling through the forest in the first stage.
  • While it might not have the iconic tracks like "Vampire Killer" or "Bloody Tears", Curse of the Moon's soundtrack manages to come pretty close to reaching the high bar set by its source of inspiration. Veteran Castlevania composer, Michiru Yamane, hasn't lost her touch! I'm looking forward to listening to her pieces for this game again as well as any orchestral or heavy metal covers that fans arrange.

  • Curse of the Moon is generally less difficult and frustrating than NES platformers, a plus in my book. However, the last stage or two represent a pretty big difficulty spike. Several areas feature instant-kill traps that require some trial and error to traverse. I ended up losing several lives in the last stage due to entering a room with a trap that would activate much faster than I could react if I wasn't already prepared for it. This felt a little cheap.
  • Like the original Castlevania, Curse of the Moon can easily be beaten in a single sitting. While I personally don't consider this to be a negative, as I felt the length was appropriate to the type of game it is, I'm listing this as a con since some players might not feel that a 2-hour game is worth $10.
As someone who has been a fan of the Castlevania series for a long time, I came to this game with a discerning eye and sense of cautious optimism. I was thrilled by the result! Bloodstained Curse of the Moon is an incredibly effective spiritual successor to Konami's horror platformer series that delighted an old-school fan like me and will probably also offer a fun, but manageable, challenge to newcomers as well.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 1 hour, 58 minutes (Regular ending, Casual difficulty)

If you're curious about the #HorrorGameOct event, be sure to check out this blog post on Chic Pixel.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Momodora Reverie Under the Moonlight Review

 As I had announced last week, I played through Momodora Reverie Under the Moonlight on Twitch as part of my #HorrorGameOct streaming series. Since it was a relatively short game, I ended up finishing it in two streaming sessions! Here’s my review of the game, now that I can put ot in the “completed” page of my backlog.

Momodora Reverie Under the Moonlight is an indie Metroidvania game that was originally released on PC in 2016. The game follows a priestess tasked with snuffing out the source of a curse that has caused the kingdom to be plagued by witches, skeletons, ghosts, and other Halloween-appropriate baddies. Though Reverie Under the Moonlight is the fourth installment of the Momodora series, it represents the point at which the series gained mainstream recognition and is thus my first exposure to the series.

  • Momodora features gorgeous pixel art and animations. The player character in particular has detailed animations while in action as well as a variety of charming idle animations.
  • For a colorful retro-style game, it pulls off a creepy atmosphere quite well. The spooky environment is enhanced by NPCs that express fear, anxiety, or malice even with relatively limited dialog.
  • The music is fairly low key but tends to kick in at the right times to give a sense of dread.
  • The protagonist’s mix of close and ranged attacks is fun to use. The game script describes the heroine’s weapon as a “magic maple leaf” but wielding it feels more like pillow case with a brick in it, giving landing a combo strike a satisfying sense of weight. I also enjoyed using the bow to juggle enemies and shoot down their projectiles.
  • Level designs in Momodora are not revolutionary for a Metroidvania, but offer enough variety and secrets to uncover to make filling in the map feel worthwhile.
  • Most games of this type offer some sort of traversal enhancement partway though (traditionally something like a grappling hook or jet pack). In this game you can transform into a cat!

  • The game’s difficulty didn’t scale consistently, especially when it came to boss battles. Some of these battles required full use of my action platforming skills, but there were also bosses where I could get away with just crouching in the corner and spamming arrows.  
  • Since the heroine’s strikes carry a lot of weight, positioning her during attacks felt a little imprecise, leading to a handful of accidental deaths during the first half of the game (I eventually learned to compensate).
  • The game has two endings. The bad ending is very unsatisfying. Getting the good ending requires following an obtuse process that I wouldn’t have been to figure out without consulting a guide. While the good ending is an improvement, it still felt anticlimactic compared to the buildup from the game’s atmosphere and NPC dialog.

While Momodora Reverie Under the Moonlight doesn't do much to deviate from the formula established by similar games that came before it, I enjoyed my time with it quite a bit thanks to its strong mechanics and presentation. It’s generally a solid-by-the-numbers Metroidvania that'll please fans of the genre but won’t win over holdouts.

Score: 🎃🎃🎃🎃
Completion Time: 6 hours (98% map completion)

Disclaimer: As of this week, Tales from the Backlog is no longer participating in the Amazon Affiliates program. I'll be sure to include a new disclaimer if I enter into a new advertising/sponsorship arrangement in the future. Any Amazon links in older posts will still work for shopping purposes but no longer serve as a revenue source for this blog.



Thursday, October 11, 2018

Dragalia Lost Impressions


While I’m not the biggest mobile gamer, whenever there’s the opportunity to play something published by Nintendo (legally) on my phone, I’m sure to give it a shot. Their newest mobile title, Dragalia Lost, is an interesting one in that it’s not adapted from an existing Nintendo franchise, but is a new IP they created in collaboration with CyGames Studios (of GranBlue Fantasy and Rage of Bahamut fame). So far, I’ve been able to put a few hours into the game, which feels like just scratching the surface, but that's been enough for me to put together some early impressions.

Dragalia Lost is a free-to-play fantasy action RPG. The campaign consists of alternating visual novel-style story scenes and short overhead dungeon sequences in which the player fights a few enemies, gathers some treasure, and then fights a boss (like a very simplified version of Zelda or Ys). The player controls a party of four characters, most of which have the ability to transform into powerful dragons for a brief period of time. Dragalia Lost makes its money via microtransactions, primarily in the form of randomly drawn items, characters, and dragons (i.e. a “gachapon” or “loot crate” mechanic).

  • This game has very high production values for a mobile game. The graphics and character designs look very nice, many of the cut scenes are fully-voiced, the musical score includes several vocal tracks, and there are some TV-quality animated scenes sprinkled throughout.  The overall presentation is about on part with a late 3DS game.
  • In other mobile games I’ve played, including Nintendo’s own Fire Emblem Heroes, the story has felt like something cobbled together to justify the action and spur the player to put money into the gacha system. Draglia Lost’s story and characters feel richer, more like what I would expect from a more traditional video game. The depth of the lore, from what I’ve seen so far, almost feels wasted on a free mobile title.
  • I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the writing in the dialog sequences. I particularly like Notte, the protagonist’s fairly companion. Her humorous lines put her way ahead of previous similar characters like Navi in Ocarina of Time.
  • The voice acting for the main characters is solid, though some of the supporting characters sound a little off. Overall, it’s about on par with dubbed anime.
  • Dragalia Lost has systems on top of systems and I’m still discovering more after several hours of gameplay. Every character can be modified in several ways, each piece of equipment can be upgraded, the party’s composition can be changed around, and you can feed the dragons to raise their stats! I find myself too impatient to tinker with all this and instead just trust the “Optimize” button to do its job.
  • Touch screen controls aren’t ideal for an action RPG, but the implementation in this game gets the job done. I’m generally able to move, attack, and dodge with a reliable degree of accuracy. Some of the special moves that require specific holding and swiping gestures feel a little clumsy,  however.
  • In what I’ve played up until this point, using the gacha system or other microtransactions haven’t been essential. With the free stuff I collect by playing the game, I’ve been able to get the characters and items I’ve need and avoid running out of stamina. The impetus for microtransations may ramp up a bit in the future, but I’m thinking it will be quite some time before I’ll feel like the game is truly pushing me to spend money.
  • Dragalia Lost features some really catchy music. There’s a couple of Japanese vocal tracks that I would love to listen to outside of the game.
  • The dungeon level designs are pretty bland. Each one is essentially comprised of the same thing: about three kill rooms with weaker enemies, a treasure chest that is slightly off the main path, and then a boss battle. Since these sections are pretty short (less than five minutes), I can understand why they keep it simple.
  • The story-to-gameplay ratio seems pretty high for a mobile game. I would think that for a mobile game the idea is to get in, bash some enemies, and get out. Instead I've had many sessions with this game that are primarily watching cut scenes. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, since the cut scenes are enjoyable, it's just not what I would expect from a game on my phone.
  • Dragalia Lost does something that a lot of mobile games do that drives me crazy. The game requires installation of large mandatory patches on a regular basis. The game doesn't auto update, so if it's been a few days since you've played, be prepared to spend a large chunk of your gaming session staring at a download progress bar. This can be especially problematic for those on a limited data plan. (I had this same issue with Fire Emblem Heroes and UtaPri)
Despite some issues that are prevalent in free-to-play mobile games in general, Dragalia Lost has really impressed me. Its combination of fun characters, bopping sound track, and decent gameplay will mean that it'll probably be my go-to phone time waster (other than Twitter) for at least the next few weeks. Also, knowing that many other Cygames properties have been adapted into other media, primarily anime, I'm curious to see what fruit their partnership with Nintendo may bare in the future.

Since this post is about a free game, there's nothing to topical to advertise. However, if you'd like to pick up a new game while also supporting this blog, you can do so via this affiliate link: Amazon Video Games

Sunday, October 7, 2018

#HorrorGameOct Streaming Series

Final Fantasy 5, Ys, Beyond Oasis, and Battle Chef Brigade... I've been on a long streak of RPGs on my Twitch stream and it's time to change things up. Thus, for the rest of the month of October, I'll be switching to one of my other favorite genres: 2D platformers! On top of that, this month is #HorrorGameOct, so I'll be focusing on platformers with a spooky Halloween theme. (If you'd like to know more about #HorrorGameOct, check out this post on the Chic Pixel blog).

The first game in the line-up will be Momodora: Reverie Under the Moonlight, a Metroidvania game set in a world of monsters, witches, and curses. This game has been on my radar for a while for its great pixel art, so I'm really looking forward to digging into it. If I manage to finish Momodora before the month is over, the next game in the lineup will likely be Bloodstained Curse of the Moon, a spiritual successor to the 8-bit Castlevania games.

Streams will be on my Twitch channel on Tuesday nights from 8 - 11 PM ET. I hope you'll look forward to joining me for some spooky platforming fun!

 If you'd like to pick up a spooky game of your own while also supporting this blog, you can do so via this affiliate link: Amazon Video Games

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Adventure Pals Review

Browsing the recent release lineup for a co-op game to play together, my wife and I happened upon The Adventure Pals. The promotional art and trailer featured a boy riding on a cute cartoon giraffe (my wife’s favorite animal), so of course we had to check it out. Did we make the right call by picking out a game based on aesthetics alone? Some thoughts:

Adventure Pals is a 2D platformer with RPG elements about a boy and his pet giraffe set in a wacky cartoon world. While the boy has fairly standard moves (jumping, wall kicking, and sword swiping), the giraffe gives him the ability to swing from grapple points, fly by spinning the giraffe’s tongue like a helicopter rotor (yes, you read that right), and quickly swim underwater (I had no idea giraffes are amphibious). When playing in co-op mode, the second player controls a set of characters equivalent to the first player’s (i.e. a girl with a very giraffe-like unicorn pal). Each player also has a pet rock that gathers items for them and protects them from spikes).

  • When it comes to visuals, The Adventure Pals has charm and personality in spades. The goofy but cute look may be reminiscent of Adventure Time, but each of this game’s characters and enemies have a fun and unique design all of their own. The world design also looks fresh off a Saturday morning cartoon.
  • To complement the wacky visuals, there is equally bizarre and humorous writing and scenarios. Throughout the adventure, the titular pals reunite a farmer with his pig (that is also his wife), rescue elderly people that have been turned into hotdogs, and intervene in a conflict between dinosaurs and sentient pieces of toast. Seeing what weird thing would happen next was definitely part of the fun.
  • The Adventure Pals controls very well. It doesn’t take long to get the hang of the characters movesets. After a level or two, my wife and I were comboing up jumps, wall kicks, grappling, and ziplining to fling our characters around the map with ease. In general, platforming just felt good. Most combat can be gotten through just by mashing the sword swipe button, which is totally fine for this type of game.
  • Everything explodes. You may have noticed in some of my previous reviews (e.g. Just Cause 2), I like a game that lets you blow things up. The Adventure Pals delivers with exploding enemies and explosive barrels that can be launched into groups of enemies. Setting up chain reactions to take out enemy mobs instead of fighting them head on was very satisfying.
  • While getting from point A to point B in a given level is often straightforward, finding the optional collectables (i.e. cupcakes and stickers) provides an opportunity to really explore every little nook and cranny. Many of the levels seem simple at first but their intricacies become apparent if you take the time to find everything.
  • Collecting the cupcakes unlocks new hats for your human character and costumes for the pet rock. These ran the gamut of cute, funny, and weird. This was more than enough justification to scour each level thoroughly.

  • During our adventure, we ran into a few glitches that caused us to have to restart a level or deliberately kill our characters to reset a stage. For example, in one instance we locked our characters inside a room and in another case, clearing an area of enemies was supposed to trigger an event but nothing happened. These issues were infrequent enough to have minimal impact on our experience but were still a little jarring.
  • With all the chaos and explosions on screen, it can sometimes be hard to keep track your character’s location, especially with two players. Many of our combat deaths could be attributed to losing our characters on screen, or confusing one player’s character for the other.
  • Even though this is a 2D game, it seemed to put strain on the Nintendo Switch in some of the later stages resulting in frame rate drops and lag. There were only a few areas in the whole campaign where this came up, but it’s a shame that it was an issue at all. I’m not sure if this issue is Switch-specific or comes up on other versions of the game as well.

Overall, The Adventure Pals is a satisfying co-op 2D platforming experience that sets itself apart with quirky appeal. While I didn’t try it single-player, it may be a little too simplistic to play solo, but for those who have a partner and love cute cartoon creatures, The Adventure Pals comes highly recommended.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: About 10 hours (100% completion)

Adventure Pals is available on Nintendo Switch, PC, Xbox One, and PS4. If you’d like to listen to the game’s sound track while also supporting this blog, check it out on Amazon Music using the following affiliate link: Adventure Pals Soundtrack

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Beyond Oasis Review

 In an effort to fulfill the promise I made in my “Sega Gap” post, I decided to make my last game of #ARPGAugust something from the Sega Genesis library. After playing several other great games in the action RPG genre this year such as Blossom Tales and Ys, the bar was set quite high. Here’s how it faired:


Beyond Oasis is an action RPG that was originally released in 1994 for the Sega Genesis. In the game, the protagonist, Prince Ali, finds a golden armlet that gives him the ability to summon magical creatures. He travels around the kingdom to find new creatures to summon and hunt down his nemesis who wields the power of the silver armlet. The game has been a part of many Sega classic collections; I played it as part of the Sega Mega Drive & Genesis Classics package on PC.

  • This game’s graphics look very sharp. The world features a bright color pallet and the large sprites feature a nice level of detail and distinct animations.
  • Rather than just slashing a sword like most ARPG characters, Ali has diverse arsenal of moves. In addition to sword swipes, he can punch, kick, perform areal strikes, and equip several types of swords, bows, and bombs. In combat, the way he moves reminds me of an arcade beat’em up game.
  • The summon creatures are Beyond Oasis’s defining feature. I liked that summoning requires using a feature of the environment that corresponds with the creature’s element. For example, summoning the water sprite requires aiming the golden armlet’s beam at a water feature. However, this isn’t just limited to the obvious lakes and streams, any source of water will work, even tiny drops of water coming from a cave ceiling. Similarly, the shade spirit, that’s summoned from mirrors, can be summoned off of other reflective surfaces, such as enemies wearing shiny metallic armor. Figuring out how and when to summon each creature and using their abilities to solve puzzles, is easily the most interesting part of the game.

  • Boss battles at the end of dungeons tend to be pretty dull. Most of them just consist of running around to avoid the enemies special attack, and then running in and spamming the attack button while they recharge. In some battles, I just abused healing items so that I could play sloppily and not worry if I got hit.
  • This game is viewed from a 3/4 top-down perspective but has segments that require precision platforming on tiny moving platforms. Also, Ali’s movements are very slippery. Thus, neither the game’s camera nor controls are set up for platforming, making these segments incredibly frustrating. I save-scummed my way through them.
  • While the summon creatures are fun to use for puzzle solving, they don’t control very well. Once summoned, they wander around on their own and the player has to wait for them to get into the right position before triggering one of their special moves. This was workable for puzzle solving, but made the creatures of little value in combat.
  • The story of this game is extremely bare bones, more comparable to an NES game than Beyond Oasis’s 16-bit contemporaries. Basically, because Ali found the Gold Armlet, it’s his destiny to gather the summon creatures and defeat the wielder of the Silver Armlet. Dialog in the game consists of short choppy sentences that don’t give the characters much personality. There is one noteworthy plot twist toward the end, but that lack of character personality or progression caused it to have little impact.
  • One of the reasons I was excited to play Beyond Oasis is that the soundtrack was composed by Yuzo Koshiro, who also composed the music in Ys series (which I absolutely love). I’m not sure what went wrong here, but I found that the music in Beyond Oasis sounded very out of place, at times to the point of being irritating.
Ultimately, the problem with Beyond Oasis is that it’s not deep enough for an RPG or adventure game, but not tight enough for an action game. With the exceptions of its summoning mechanics and graphics, the game feels more primitive than competing games in its genre that had come out before it such as Ys, A Link to the Past, and Illusion of Gaia. Despite, the game’s short length (< 7 hours), there were several points where I strongly considered dropping the game, putting Beyond Oasis firmly into sub 3-star territory.

Completion Time: 5 hours, 51 minutes

In stead of picking up Beyond Oasis, I would recomend picking up the similary named action RPG, Ever Oasis, for the 3DS. If you'd like to get this overlooked late-3DS gem while also supporting this blog, you can use this affliate link: Ever Oasis - 3DS 



Saturday, September 8, 2018

Dragon Con 2018

After having such a great time at last year's Dragon Con (highlights), we returned this year along with over 80,000 other geeks. I didn't do as much video game related activities at the Con this year as I did last year, but there were still a few interesting things to note:

Japanese Arcade

This year's Japanese Arcade featured some new additions. While gamers like to joke about Konami not making games anymore, they are still alive and well in the arcade scene; there was a wide variety of arcade games on display here, with many of them being by Konami.  Here's a rundown of some of the games I got to play:

Dance Evolution - Older dancing games like Dance Dance Revolution used buttons on the floor to track dancing moves. New ones like Dance Evolution use Xbox Kinect technology to track a player's whole body allowing for a wider variety of moves. I was terrible at this game, much like I am at actual dancing, so perhaps the simulation is too accurate?

Bishibashi Channel - Last year I got to play an older version of Bishibashi. This new version adds a rotating pad to the controls in addition to the buttons. Thus, the spastic collection of mini-games can get even weirder, like this foot-tickling one, for instance.

Scotto - This one felt like some kind of high tech fusion of beer pong and skeeball. The player bounces ping pong balls off of the white panel at the front of the cabinet into the goal basket. Depending on the game mode being played, you either have to rapidly bounce balls directly into the basket or accurately bank the ball off the glowing pads and then into the basket as directed on the screen. I did pretty well when I played this one; turns out those seemingly useless skills I developed playing drinking games in college came in handy!

Gunslinger Stratos 3 - In the West, people don't often think of Square Enix when they think about arcade games, but in Japan, it's another story. I had seen older versions of Square Enix's Gunslinger Stratos when I was in Japan several years ago, but this was my first opportunity to play it myself. It's a 3rd person arena shooter in which the player holds a lightgun in each hand while moving the character around using the analog sticks and buttons on the back of each gun. I only had the time to play it once, so I spent most of my time just trying to get the hang of the controls. Characters can jump and flip through the air and stages have a lot of verticality to them, so it seemed like some really fun arial battles would be possible if I had more time to get down the fundamentals.


I didn't see quite as much video game-related cosplay on the convention floor this year as I did last year. However, I did get to attend a gaming cosplay competition and visit a costume exhibit. For some of these events I didn't have the best vantage point and was reliant on my cell phone camera, so I apologize for some of the images that came out blurry or grainy. Anyway, here are some of the gaming costumes that stood out to me:

Silver Knight from Dark Souls
Ahri from League of Legends
Bastion from Overwatch
Skull Kid from The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
Junkrat from Overwatch
Monster Hunter
Gengar from Pokemon (kid's level of the contest)

Fallout Power Armor
Purple Wizard from Diablo 3

Blood Elf Paladin from World of Warcraft
Bunny Hutch Party: Shy Guy Bunny
Bunny Hutch Party: Bomberman Bunny
Overall, we had another great year at Dragon Con and are already looking forward to returning next year! I'm planning to attend some more gaming-focused cons in the future, so look forward to posts about those as well!

If reading this post has caused you to want to step up your cosplay game in time for Halloween, you can pick up costume supplies while also supporting this blog by using this affiliate link: 
Amazon Costume Department