Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Horipad Review

Even though it’s less than a year old, the Switch already has a great selection of local multiplayer games. The problem this presents is that Switch controllers are expensive. Since I already have a Pro Controller and a pair of Joy-con, I decided to look at low-cost options for the seldom used 4th player’s controller. While I considered the 8bitdo controller I mentioned in my previous accessory post, I wanted to see if I could go even cheaper. That’s when I found Hori’s Switch controller, the Horipad, on sale for $20 (marked down from $30). Since I’ve had good experiences with Hori products in the past, I decided to jump on the opportunity to get a spare controller for almost a quarter the price of the official models.

Right off the bat, I should mention that this controller is cheap for a reason; it’s a wired controller and it excludes most of the special features of the Joy-con and Pro-con. The Horipad has no amiibo scanner, no motion sensors, and no rumble motor. Thus, what you end up with is a very old-school basic controller hooked up to your futuristic hybrid console. The Horipad has a similar size and button layout to the Pro Controller but feels much lighter. The buttons have a nice springy response and the distinct shapes of the plus/minus buttons compared to the home and screenshot buttons make them easier to tell apart by feel when compared to the Pro-con. The analog sticks are taller than those of the Pro Controller and have a little less resistance. For the D-pad, Hori made a strange compromise between the Joy-con and Pro-con design: the traditional-looking D-pad can be popped off of the controller to reveal four individual directional buttons underneath.

To test out the Horipad, I ran it through a gauntlet of games of different genres. Here’s how it fared in each:
  • Fast RMX (racing) – The Horipad was more than up to the task with this lightning-fast racer. My future space car driving was about the same as it was with the Pro-con.
  • Kamiko (hack-n-slash) – While the buttons felt good, I could tell the D-pad was a little off. When using Kamiko’s dash, it was easy to veer slightly diagonally when trying to go straight. Detaching the D-pad to use the underlying buttons wasn’t particularly comfortable. I probably could have gotten used to the more sensitive diagonal inputs, but I would probably just play with the analog sticks instead.
  • Mario Odyssey (3D platformer) – Much to my surprise, the Horipad worked quite well for this game. I ran through a few of the post-game platforming challenges with little issue. The lack of motion sensors and amiibo scanner are definitely felt the most in this game though.
  • Zelda: Breath of the Wild (action/adventure) - Exploring the expansive land of Hyrule was very comfortable with this controller. Despite the analog sticks feeling a little loose when compared to the Pro-con, I was able to line up shots with the bow and arrow much better I could with the Joy-con.
  • Nine Parchments (shoot-'em-up) - I could tell joysticks are not quite as accurate as the Pro Controller's but after playing with it for a few minutes, I adapted pretty well. This was the controller I was using when my wife and I beat the final boss during our first playthrough and I didn't feel like it hampered me at all.
I didn’t have any 2D platformers or fighting games on Switch to test out this controller with, so I plugged it into my PC in order to touch on these two genres. The Horipad is detected as a direct-input controller in Windows, so it works with many games but has nowhere near the plug-and-play support of an X-input (i.e. Xbox) controller. For many X-input-only games, keymapping software would be needed to use the Horipad. (This is also the case when connecting a Pro-con to a PC).
  • Shin Megami Tensei Synchronicity Prologue (2D platformer) - After my issues with Kamiko, I was concerned about how this game would control with the D-pad. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it worked out just fine. The issues with the D-pad only seem to come up in 8-directional situations and most 2D platformers are only 4-directional.
  • Skullgirls (fighting) -  Everything felt pretty good except I had a hard time reliably pulling off specials that required circular inputs with the D-pad. To be fair, I generally do better with these kinds of moves using an analog stick anyway, but I suspect the D-pad on the Horipad was partially to blame.
The one genre I wasn't able to test was first-person shooter. Based on playing around with Link's bow in Breath of the Wild, I'm thinking this controller would fair decently in an FPS but players using a Pro-controller would have an accuracy advantage.

Overall, I was pretty satisfied with this budget controller and would consider purchasing one as a spare controller to be a no-brainer. For use as a primary controller, your mileage will vary based on your situation and game preferences. The 10-foot (3 meters) USB cord will be a deal breaker for many (I used a USB extension cord to give myself enough slack when sitting on the couch). I would also say this controller is a no-go for people who primarily play games that require 8-directional D-pad input or motion controls. For everyone else, the Horipad is a very cost-effective upgrade from using the Joy-con but it doesn't quite reach the Pro Controller's level of excellence. If you want the best possible experience and can spare $70, the Pro Controller is still the way to go, but it's hard to deny the bang-for-the-buck factor of the $20-$30 Horipad.

CAUTION (maybe): When testing this controller I found that my cat could not resist attacking and biting this it. She's never shown any interest in biting my Xbox 360 controller, Wii U gamepad, or other Switch controllers. It may just be that I have a weird cat (highly probable), or perhaps Horipads are manufactured in a facility that also processes catnip... who knows? Just don't say I didn't warn you.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Skullgirls Review

Skullgirls is an indie fighting game that I’ve been hearing people talk about for years and I decided that since January is #FightingGameMonth, it was finally time to give it a shot. (It also didn’t hurt that the game was on sale for $2.99 on Steam.) While I used to dabble in fighting games periodically, I never latched on to any particular game long enough to become truly competitive and it’s been many years since I’ve played a traditional 2D fighter. Here were my takeaways from the game and my return to the genre:
  • The character art is the first thing that jumps out when you start the game. Each of the all-female cast of combatants has a unique look that blends an anime art style with a retro 1940s western cartoon aesthetic. Like many fighting games with primarily female characters, the character designs lean a little too heavily on the “fan service” for my taste but I otherwise appreciate how unique each character is: an undead catgirl who can remove her head and use it as a weapon, a tiny acrobat whose hat sprouts giant muscular arms, an amalgam of Olive Oil from Popeye and Inspector Gadget, etc. The animations for each of these characters are beautiful and do a lot to give each character her own personality.
  • While the design and animation of each character are great, this quality comes at the cost of quantity; there are very few characters to choose from in the base game. At the start, there are only six playable characters with two more that can be unlocked. There are also a few extra characters that can be purchased separately.
  • As somebody with very limited fighting game skills, I was glad to see that the game includes a pretty thorough tutorial that teaches the games various special moves and systems. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to play through all of them in order to gain a grasp of the game’s intricacies.
  • Most of the special moves in the game are based on quarter-circle movements with the joystick combined with a button press (similar to Street Fighter). I've always been terrible at pulling these off consistently.
  • The game features local and online multiplayer modes and well as two types of single-player mode: story and arcade. Story mode, the mode I spent the most time with, tries to provide some backstory for each character and justify why all these ladies are beating each other up… but I can’t say it made much sense to me. I’m guessing the intent of the story is for players play through each character’s path and piece things together, but it gets pretty repetitive, so I only played through with two of the six characters. I might return to it a later date though.
  • From a gameplay standpoint, the story mode has you fight through each of the other girls on the roster with brief visual novel style cutscenes in between. Since my fighting game skills are extremely rusty, I played through on easy mode and won each of the bouts without too much trouble until I hit a substantial difficulty spike at the final boss. Each story mode path takes about 30 minutes to complete.
  • The arcade mode is just a straightforward succession of fights. Unlike the story mode, arcade mode uses a tag team mechanic that allows you to switch between two characters mid-match. This makes for some interesting combinations and I found myself wishing that I could play this way in story mode as well.
The game features a jazzy soundtrack that goes well with the 1940s motif. The fight announcer is corny and over-the-top but that suits the game well.
Overall, Skullgirls is probably a great game for people who love completive fighters like Marvel vs Capcom. However, there might not be enough here for casual players like me unless they want to devote the time to gain mastery. I enjoyed my time with Skullgirls and appreciated it from a creative standpoint, but after a few hours, I was ready to move on.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion time: About 2 hours (Two story mode campaigns and experimenting with other modes)

Note: This review is based on the original version of the game. There is an enhanced “Second Encore” version that has more content but I haven’t had the chance to try it.


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Stick Fight Review

A poor man's Smash Bros... but that poor man probably knows how to party!

Stick Fight: The Game is probably one of the most simple and straight-forward titles I've ever reviewed. In this physics-based fighting game, each player, represented by a stick figure, is dropped into an arena and battles to the death with an assortment of random weapons that fall from the sky. The controls are exceptionally simple for a fighting game; the only moves are run, jump, and attack. Players defeat each other by either dealing enough damage to score a kill or knocking each other off the screen. The moment that there is only one stick person left, the arena reconfigures itself and everyone respawns. Repeat.

Despite the simplicity of the game, Stick Fight kept my friends and I glued to our computers for several hours. A combination of three factors makes this seemingly shallow title so entertaining: level variety, unpredictability, fluidity.
  • The level design in Stick Fight is the game's strongest feature. Each time the stage reshuffles, the players are thrown into another set of environmental hazards that can range from lava flows, to explosive barrels, to destructible ice platforms. There are probably about fifty different stage layouts and the key to victory is quickly figuring out how to use the environment to your advantage. 
  • Nothing in Stick Fight ever plays out exactly as you would expect. Sometimes just the right weapon lands at your feet to give you the upper hand. Th next thing you know, you're firing that weapon at your enemies and the absurdly strong recoil causes you to ricochet off a series of explosive barrels to your doom. Every once in awhile a brazen unarmed stick person can rush into a barrage of bullets and land a knock-out punch on a heavily armed foe. A few seconds later, a stray bullet might topple a stack of crates that crush the triumphant pugilist. Some guns fire angry snakes instead of bullets. Anything can happen in a bout of Stick Fight and it's hilarious.
  • The flow from one match to the next is seamless. Bitter about that last round where your victory was snatched from you at the last second? In a few seconds, the next round will begin and you'll forget all about it! Each battle usually lasts no more than a few seconds and after a quick flash of text acknowledges the winner, the next round begins immediately.
Stick Fight is one of those games that you and your friends will find yourself saying "just one more round"... and then you look up at the clock and realize that whole hour has gone by. Eventually, you'll see every level, weapon, and zany outcome that can happen in a match, but in the meantime, you'll have had several hours of laughs with your friends and have more than gotten your $5 out of the game. I'd highly recommend Stick Fight to those looking for a fun multiplayer game that they don't have to take too seriously.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Acknowledgement: I'm playing this game as part of #FightingGameMonth. This event is part of the Chic-Pixel blog's Community Game Along series. For more info, check out their post on this month's theme.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Nine Parchments Review

Cornelius Crownsteed and the Victim of Friendly Fire

As those of you who read my "Demo Hotness" posts know, I love a good demo and there have been many occasions when getting to play a free sample has me sold on a game that otherwise didn't catch my attention (e.g. Doom, Puyo Puyo Tetris, Mercenaries Saga, etc). Nine Parchments' demo reeled my wife and me in and the full game managed to keep my family of gamers (ages 28 to 60) entertained for much of Christmas vacation; that's no small feat.

Nine Parchments is a co-op twin-stick shoot'em-up set in the same universe as the Trine series. Players travel through the game's fantasy worlds blasting enemies with magic spells on a quest to recover the titular set of mystical documents. Each character starts with three spells of different elements and gets to add more to their arsenal each time another parchment is collected. Since the choice of spells that are unlocked with each parchment are randomly generated from over 50 possible spells, no two playthroughs of the campaign are exactly alike.  Killing enemies and finding treasure provides XP that allows characters to be further customized with special perks and buffs.

While co-op shoot'em-ups are certainly nothing new, Nine Parchments' spell system is what sets it apart. Working with your teammates to select the right spells for a given situation is the name of the game since each enemy has its own weaknesses and each spell has different side effects (freezing, shock, poison, splash damage, etc).  The spells also vary in terms of how rapidly they consume mana and how long it takes for them to recharge. Thus, rotating through the arsenal of spells efficiently is key. Making matters even more complicated is the fact that friendly fire is always on, so players have to coordinate in order to avoid setting each other on fire with heat beams or getting caught in an ice grenade blast.

My family found that Nine Parchments' combination of mechanics made for some really fun, frantic, and brutally tough co-op sessions for two or three players. Increasing the team size to four players proved to be a bit too much as the on-screen chaos made it difficult to keep track of the action and seemed to throw off the game balance since the game scales the number of enemies spawned to the number of players. Some of the game's boss fights, in particular, provided a challenging but rewarding scenario in which to coordinate and maintain situational awareness. However, in a few cases, the game's camera struggled to keep all players on the screen which made some of these battles more difficult than they needed to be. There were a few other minor technical issues in the game's later levels that we had to work around (that are supposedly going to be patched out soon) but for the most part, none of these were significant enough to sour the overall experience.

From an artistic standpoint, I didn't expect much from a co-op shoot'em-up, but it was foolish of me to underestimate the studio that brought us the Trine series. Nine Parchments looks absolutely gorgeous. Each stage is colorful and highly detailed even though it's viewed from an overhead perspective and will often be obscured by waves of enemies and explosions. The game also features a quality orchestral score that helps give the campaign an appropriate magical adventure vibe. The game's story of wizards-in-training trying to recover lost magic scrolls comes off as a sort of Harry Potter-lite but is by no means the focus of the game. Even though the story takes back seat, the voice acting for the narrator and one-liners for the player characters are pretty good.

Overall, we found that Nine Parchment's combination of chaotic action, teamwork, spell mechanics, and character customization to be fun and highly addictive. These factors coupled with the strong visual and audio presentation easily outweighed some of the game's technical issues. If you have a group of friends or family members that are up for a challenge and work well together, I highly recommend checking out Nine Parchments.

Score: ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Completion Time: About 10 hours

Monday, January 1, 2018

Game of the Year 2017

While 2017 certainly had its ups and downs in most areas, it was a stellar year for gaming throughout. As has now become a tradition here at Tales from the Backlog, any game I finished during the year 2017 is eligible for Game of the Year consideration. This year over 30 titles with release dates ranging 1995 - 2017 were in the running for Game of the Year and narrowing that pool down to just a few games to honor proved to be exceptionally tough. After much deliberation, I present my Top 10 Games of 2017:

#10: Jackbox Party Pack 3
Jackbox Party Pack 3 presents a well-rounded package of fun and humorous party games and has stayed in constant rotation in my household since the game was released on Switch in April. This game has defined many family and social gatherings throughout 2017 and therefore naturally deserves a place on this list. (review)

#9: Puyo Puyo Tetris
Much like 2016's Doom, Puyo Puyo Tetris was a game that I initially didn't think I'd be interested in that won me over with an excellent demo. The game functions as a frantic puzzle party game in multiplayer mode but also has a surprisingly robust and challenging single-player campaign as well. My wife, siblings-in-law, and I have stayed up late many nights in 2017 trying to best each other in this chaotic puzzle game mashup. (As an aside, this webpage is probably the only place where Doom and Puyo Puyo Tetris have ever been compared.)

#8: Shin Megami Tensei Synchronicity Prologue
It couldn't be one of my game highlight articles without something completely out of left field, so of course, I have to give some GotY love to a freeware Metroidvania spin-off of Shin Megami Tensei that was only playable in English thanks to an unofficial translation patch. Despite the strange circumstances around this game, it's an incredibly tightly-designed exploration platformer in the style of the GBA Castlevania games that also mixes in some Ikaruga-like bullet hell elements. (review)

#7: Hitman Season 1
Hitman has been one of my favorite game series for quite some time and Hitman Season 1 offers the most refined and accessible Hitman experience to date. Despite initial concerns about its episodic nature, the complete first season is cohesive stealth action game and is loaded with as much content as any player could want. I'm eagerly awaiting news of Season 2. (review)

#6: Witcher 3
My third adventure in the dark fantasy world of The Witcher proved to be just as engrossing, if not more so, that the previous two journies. While I slightly preferred the story of Witcher 2, the characters and setting continued to be excellent in Witcher 3 and the combat was much improved compared to the first two games. I'm very curious to see what CD Projekt Red does next now that they've concluded this epic trilogy. (impressions)

 #5: Golf Story
With the exception of a few childhood games of minigolf, I've never played a round of golf in my entire life. Thus, I'm flabbergasted that an RPG about a sport that's never held my interest was able to grip me so completely. Golf Story's quirky humor and simple but satisfying gameplay were unique, refreshing, and even had me eying the driving range that I pass on my commute to work. (review)

 #4: SnipperClips
This charming cooperative puzzle game perfectly demonstrates what the Nintendo Switch is all about. It's easy to pick up and play and a joy to see in motion. My wife and I had just as much fun watching friends hilariously struggle through the game's wacky puzzles as we did playing it ourselves. SnipperClips should be one of the first games any new Switch owner gets.

#3: Chrono Trigger
Until this year, I've never had the chance to experience this RPG classic. Even though it's over two decades old, Chrono Trigger still shines both mechanically and artistically. As a newcomer, I came to this game completely free of nostalgia and still found myself becoming very attached to the characters and emotionally invested in the story. (review)

 #2: Legend of Zelda Breath of the Wild
Exploring the massive world of Hyrule on Nintendo's new console is an experience that I won't soon forget. Solving shrine puzzles, finding secrets, and barely surviving combat with intimidating enemies proved to be so engrossing that Zelda was pretty much all that I could think about for several weeks. Breath of the Wild just barely misses the top stop for me since I didn't quite get what I wanted out of the game's story and boss battles, but it was overall an incredible game that would effortlessly take number one in any other year. (review)

#1: Super Mario Odyssey
More than any other game I've played in several years, Mario Odyssey is pure distilled fun. Every moment of bouncing around the game's colorful cartoon kingdoms is an absolute delight (there, I said it again). Mario's journey is a smooth experience from start to finish with options for added challenge throughout and an immensely gratifying conclusion. (review)

Honorable Mention
I played too many excellent games this year to not include a few honorable mentions. In any other year, these game would probably sit comfortably in my Top 10.
  • Doki Doki Literature Club -  I've never played a game that so perfectly nails saccharine sweet and deeply unsettling at the same time. (review)
  • Fast RMX - This excellent Wipeout-like reminded me how much I used to love the futuristic racing genre and how much I'd love to see it come back. F-Zero 2018, please? (review)
  • Ever Oasis - A charming action RPG that served as a fitting swan song for the Nintendo 3DS and a welcome return to the director's chair for Koichi Ishii of Secret of Mana fame. (review)
  • Nine Parchments - My wife and I loved this fun but brutally tough co-op shoot-'em-up from the creators of Trine.
  • Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze - An excellent 2.5D platformer with a great score from composer David Wise.
  • Super Mario 3D World - I didn't think I needed another isometric Mario game but playing through this one in co-op mode was a blast. 
  • Mercenaries Saga 2 -  I never would've expected a $5 mobile strategy RPG could be so good. I'm very excited about the upcoming remaster/compilation for Nintendo Switch. (review)

This has been an incredible year for games and I want to thank all my readers for being here to join me! I'm very excited to see what 2018 holds in store for Nintendo's hit new console and my hopefully soon-to-be-upgraded gaming PC!

Happy New Year!