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!!