Tuesday, December 24, 2019

2019 Mini-Review Roundup

This has been an exceptionally busy year for me, yet I've managed to squeeze in a lot of interesting games. Unfortunately, I only had the time to write reviews for a handful of these. It's time to rectify that in short order before Game of the Year time with a roundup of micro-reviews!


The Messenger
With great pixel art, snappy writing, catchy music, and rock-solid 2D platforming, I thoroughly enjoyed The Messenger. While its third act, which changes the formula from linear platformer to Metroidvania, faltered a bit for me, this game is still one I happily recommend to anyone looking for a retro-style challenge.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Hyper Light Drifter
People say that HLD plays like a combination of 2D Zelda and Dark Souls; while I've never played Dark Souls, I think I can see what they mean with this game's weighty combat and tough fights. I found some aspects of HLD to be a bit opaque for my liking, but I can't deny that this game's atmosphere, distinct visual style, and challenging combat make it something special.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Starlink Battle For Atlas
As someone who loves flying space ships and aircraft in video games, I was initially enthralled with Starlink. Unfortunately, after playing it for a while, the open-world aspects of the game (e.g. fetch quests and material farming) began to wear on me. That being said, the core mechanics are still well-executed and I would recommend it to anyone who has been craving a good aerial dogfight as much as I have.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐

Shantae Half-Genie Hero
In the world of indie 2D platformers, Shantae is still the queen. While this entry had me revisit the same stages a few too many times for my liking, it was still and fun and charming romp.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Cadence of Hyrule
This Zelda-meets-Crypt-of-the-Necrodancer struck just the right balance for me between Zelda and Rogue-like mechanics. Most importantly, it features a fantastic soundtrack; I don't think I'll ever get tired of the OST's dancy remix of Tal Tal Heights!
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Fire Emblem Three Houses
After spending over 100 hours with this game, I could probably write an entire book on it but I'll spare you as this has been one of the most thoroughly-covered SRPGs on the internet. While some of the schoolyard/classroom segments got a little old after a great many hours of gameplay, the things that this game does for character building and storytelling in the Fire Emblem series are truly remarkable. In addition to all this, it still remains a very satisfying strategy RPG.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Ape Out
While I was lukewarm on Hotline Miami, this slightly more forgiving and much jazzier variant on that style of gameplay proved to be a lot of fun. I beat this game live on Twitch in about two hours, so it was a solid pickup on Game Pass.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Gears 5
Similar to when I played DMC5 earlier this year, I thought jumping into a series at part 5 would be weird, but I ended up taking to Gears 5 almost immediately. This game not only delivered exciting third-person shooter action but also a surprisingly interesting story. I just wish the story would have offered some sort of resolution rather than ending abruptly to set up the sequel. That being said, this was still another win for Game Pass.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Cuphead
I so badly wanted to like Cuphead but just couldn't get into it. The music and animation are really amazing, but a succession of lengthy boss battles is just not something that appeals to me. This game solidified for me that I like boss battles as a climax to general platforming gameplay, but a game that is purely made of these battles will burn me out.
Score: ⭐⭐

Ys Memories of Celceta
Having beaten this game, my journey through Falcom's action RPG series is 50% complete. Adol's adventures continue to be a delight even though the dialogue in this one probably should have spent a little more time on the editor's desk.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Prey
This sci-fi/horror FPS from the makers of Dishonored really enraptured me. Prey's haunting atmosphere, mysterious plot, clever character building, and intricate level design had me staying up late every time I sat down at my PC to play this. I got a little hung up on some of the late-game backtracking and platforming, but it was by no means an impediment to loving this game overall. If you enjoy games like Half-Life, Prey is a must-play!
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

The Outer Worlds
I probably should have waited a little longer after completing Prey before diving into Obsidian's sci-fi FPS/RPG so that I could take it in on its own rather than draw immediate comparisons. While some of the fetch-questing and wonky decision trees rubbed me the wrong way at times, the world this game creates is really interesting. It also offers decent shooting as well as the option to talk your way out of combat, which is a nice touch.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Bomb Chicken
This cute puzzle platformer was a blast! With sprite work that oozed personality and Bomberman-like mechanics, it was right up my alley. I just wish it would have dispensed with having limited lives; being able to reload at a checkpoint as many times as necessary would have saved me some frustration in the later levels.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐


Gris
Sometimes moody arthouse indie adventure games don't work for me (see my review of Firewatch), but that was not at all the case here. This game was both a beautiful work of art and also a solid puzzle platformer in its own right.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

BlazBlue Cross Tag Battle
Featuring characters from Persona and RWBY, I was pretty excited to pick up this crossover fighting game from Arc System Works. What I found is that while I enjoyed the basic fighting mechanics of the game and the inclusion of visual novel-style cutscenes, I'm just not into "tag" style fighting (think of Marvel vs Capcom for a popular example). On the bright side, Cross Tag Battle got me interested in the characters and story of the BlazBlue series, which was previously completely foreign to me. I'm looking forward to playing a proper BlazBlue in the future.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐

Astral Chain
After having so much fun with DMC5 earlier this year, I had to try this stylish Nintendo Switch-exclusive character action title. Featuring sidequests, exploration, puzzle-solving, and platforming, this game is far more ambitious than most in its genre. While these additions were implemented with varying degrees of success, the core combat mechanics were fun to execute and slick to look at. This game outstayed its welcome a bit and the conclusion of its story fell a bit flat for me, but I still enjoyed the overall experience and am glad that I picked it up.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Bloodstained Ritual of the Night
Koji Igarashi, one of the icons of the "Metroidvania" genre returns with this Castlevania spiritual successor. In a genre that's flooded with entries right now, Iga still shows off that he's still one of the grandmasters. Interesting level design, stylish graphics, tight controls, and a quirky sense of humor make this game stand out from the pack. I wasn't really invested in the game's story or characters, and I found the inclusion of Kickstarter backer rewards to be glaring at times, but those are small quibbles with an otherwise excellent platform adventure game.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Acknowledgment: The mini-review roundup format used in this post was inspired by a similar post from one of my favorite gaming blogs, The Gay Gamer. I've been reading his work for years; in fact, his blog was one of the ones that motivated me to start a blog of my own. His thoughtful writing and positive outlook continue to be a source of inspiration for me; be sure to give his stuff a look!

Update Dec-29 2019: I updated this post to include a quick blurb about Astral Chain, which I finished just before the year ended.

Update Dec-31 2019: I somehow forgot to include Bloodstained! I tacked on a quick review after my section about Astral Chain.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Gardens Between Review

My experience with Xbox Game Pass this year has been pretty evenly split between AAA games and surprise little indie gems. One such gem was The Gardens Between, which I played through blind on my Twitch stream.

Overview:
The Gardens Between is a puzzle game by The Voxel Agents that tells a story of childhood friendship. Rather than controlling the game's pair of protagonists directly, players advance the characters through each stage by manipulating the flow of time around them. Certain key objects can be locked in place within the timestream to modify the sequence of events and open new paths.

Pros:

  • The game's time manipulation mechanic is used in a variety of clever ways. By shifting time forward and backward, structures can be erected and collapsed, plants can grow and wither, and the characters route through the environment can change completely.
  • In addition to the puzzle aspect of the level design, I appreciated how each level's appearance was an abstract representation of the characters' memories. This helped add depth to the game's otherwise simple story.
  • The general aesthetic of the game reminded me of Life is Strange. I guess there's something about that compromise between realistic and cartoon graphics that just works for coming of age stories.
  • The Gardens Between is just the right length. I felt like it used its mechanics to their full potential without burning me out.

Cons:

  • Some of the late game puzzles get a little fiddly for my taste. On a few occasions, I found that I had figured out how solve the puzzle but minor variations in my execution of the solution (like having two objects in the correct position but slightly misaligned) would seemingly cause the game to indicate that I'd done something wrong.
  • While the way it was presented was interesting, I felt that the game's story itself was anti-climactic. At times it seemed to be building to a major dramatic event that didn't end up happening. 
If you enjoy environmental puzzles, I highly recommend trying out The Gardens Between. While I may have found the story a little lacking, the gameplay and art direction were more than enough to cement this as one the best puzzle games I've played in quite some time.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 3 hours, 15 minutes

Acknowledgements:

  • This review was written as part of the Chic Pixel community's #PuzzleGameMonth event. You can find the Chic Pixel blog and its accompanying podcast at Chic-Pixel.com
  • I downloaded this game per the recommendation of the This Nintendo Life podcast. You can find them on Twitter @TNLpodcast.
  • Images in this post courtesy of The Voxel Agents.


Saturday, November 23, 2019

Demons Crest Review


While most gamers are probably familiar with Ghosts n Goblins on the NES (usually in the context of joking about not being able to even clear the first level), the rest of the Makaimura series remains relatively obscure. Thanks to the SNES Online app on Nintendo Switch, I was finally able to try one of the other entries in the Makaimura series that I’ve heard such great things about in retro gaming circles, Demon's Crest.

Background:
Demon's Crest is a 2D platformer that incorporates some adventure game and RPG elements. The game focuses on the winged demon, Firebrand, who was an enemy in Ghosts n Goblins. Now on his own quest to wrest control of hell from his rival, Phalanx,  Firebrand must seek out various magical items and defeat other demon lords to gain their powers in preparation for the final showdown. I played through this game from start to finish live on my Twitch channel.

Pros:
  • The dark and moody setting and themes of Demon's Crest remind me of a Castlevania game but told from the bad guy’s perspective. It certainly stands out from most other SNES games.
  • Firebrand can cling to walls and flap his wings to hover indefinitely from the very beginning of the game. I was expecting these would be powers you would unlock during the adventure, so this took me by surprise.  Have these abilities completely changes how you traverse the levels when compared to pretty much any other retro platformer I’ve played.
  • Firebrand's transformations and power-ups change his capabilities in both combat and traversal. This was a novel mechanic for the early 1990s and continues to be fun now.
  • The game's complex level designs work really nicely with the transformation mechanic. Returning to a level after gaining a new ability can open up new paths, secret areas, bosses, and access to even further character upgrades.
  • The music in this game is awesome (in fact, I'm listening to it as I write this). Composer Toshihiko Horiyama really knew how to make the SNES sound chip sound spooky.
  • If you want to see creepy or sometimes just disgusting-looking creatures, this game is for you. Good thing I wasn't expecting the generals of hell's army to be cute!
  • The game's overworld map is a great showcase of the SNES's Mode-7 effect. Flying from one zone to the next almost feels like a creepy demonic version of Pilot Wings. 
  • For a game of its age, Demon's Crest is fairly generous with checkpoints. That being said, I still made use of save states to shorten the distance between checkpoints since this game is quite difficult.
Cons:
  • Firebrand is a rather slow and stiff character. Often his movements feel slower than a situation calls for. Eventually, I got used to this and learned to plan my movements a bit ahead of time rather than just reacting to enemies and obstacles, but it still didn't seem ideal.
  • The controls and user interface for the various demon powers were counterintuitive at times. I ended up downloading a scan of the game's instruction manual since Switch Online doesn't include instructions for retro games.
  • Many of the bosses can be frustrating bullet sponges unless you have the right powers. It's often unclear whether I was underpowered for a boss or just needed to "get good". As a result, I save scummed my way through a few of the early game bosses until I was able to sufficiently upgrade my character. I was very thankful to some of the folks in my Twitch audience who pointed me toward the hidden items that I missed. Without their help, I likely would have been relying on a guide to get through this game.
  • There are a few areas in levels that I would consider to be annoying but not difficult, especially areas with flying bats or infinitely respawning ghosts. These enemies aren't much of a threat but are there just to pester you as you try to accomplish something else.
  • As a result of the game's designers really pushing the SNES to the limit, there is considerable lag and slowdown in some sequences. The Switch's emulation preserves this aspect of the Demon's Crest experience, I suppose for accuracy's sake.
Playing through Demon's Crest was very interesting from a historical perspective and definitely worth playing for me, despite some of the frustration I experienced. I can recommend this game, but only with a lot of caveats; players used to retro games will likely enjoy it, but it's certainly not a good starter retro game.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 9 hours to reach the good, but not best, ending

Advice for enjoying this game: Don't beat your head against the wall against bosses, either explore more for power-ups or check a guide.






Sunday, October 27, 2019

Resident Evil 2 Remake Review


While the Resident Evil series may be considered a classic of the horror game genre, none of the past entries have landed with me. Both times I played Resident Evil 1 (PS1 and Gamecube versions) the clunky controls and jump were just not for me. I also tried Resident Evil 4, which felt a little better from a gameplay standpoint, but its plot and tone pushed me away. So understandably, the Resident Evil 2 Remake wasn't even on my radar... but then it ended up being one of the free games included with the graphics card I bought earlier this year. Of course, I had to give it a shot!

Background:
Resident Evil 2 Remake (labeled as "Resident Evil 2/ Biohazard RE:2" on Steam) is an HD remake of the 1997 PS1 game that uses a modern third-person action game engine but retains the story and level design of the original game. At the beginning of RE2 Remake the player selects one of two characters, Leon or Claire, who play similarly but different paths through the game and a different perspective on the story. This review is based on Claire's path, which I played through collaboratively with my wife.

Observations:
  • Considering that this game came packaged with a fancy new graphics card, of course, it looked great and ran very smoothly.
  • The cut scenes and voice acting were pretty solid and gave the game a very appropriate 90s horror movie feel.
  • RE2 Remake's control scheme feels like a drastic improvement from the original PS1 RE games as well as RE4. I tried playing with both an Xbox controller and keyboard/mouse. While I ended up preferring the controller, both input methods seemed completely viable for this game.
  • Early in the game, the only enemies you face are standard zombies. The game appears to use RNG to determine how resilient the zombies are, meaning that many of these enemies are complete bullet sponges, often requiring you to empty an entire magazine of ammo into their heads to get them to stay down. While I guess this was a design choice to make zombies seem more menacing, but I found it to be more irritating than scary.
  • The game gets more interesting once more types of enemies are introduced. Among these, two enemy types were particularly effective at upping the tension level in the game:  Lickers, who are blind but very sensitive to sound, and Mr. X, a giant invincible monster that chases you in certain key scenes. I found that special enemies like these were used just enough to vary up the gameplay without getting old.
  • While the game world is very small by modern standards, a police station, an alleyway, and an underground facility, RE2 makes very effective use of them by having you traverse them via different routes or having events take place that changes the layout of the area.
  • In addition to combat and exploration, RE2 features some light point-and-click-adventure-like puzzles. Usually, they involve using a key item in the correct location or sliding around objects in the environment. I appreciated that these mixed things up a bit, but the puzzles themselves were a mixed bag.
A common theme of my reviews this year has been "pleasant surprises" and Resident Evil 2 Remake would certainly match that description. After we pushed through the first hour or two of the game, my wife and I found a very satisfying gameplay loop at the game's core that kept us engaged all the way through the campaign. If you're like me and bounced off earlier RE games, I would definitely still recommend giving Resident Evil 2 Remake a look!

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 12 hours, 41 minutes (Claire's campaign, medium difficulty)



Sunday, October 6, 2019

Hellblade Senua's Sacrifice Review


Listening to gaming podcasts back in 2017, I felt like every week marked the release of yet another must-play critically acclaimed game. Here we are in 2019, and I still feel like I'm playing catch-up with titles from this one jam-packed year. Among all these 2017 critical darlings, Hellblade caught my attention since it was lauded for having a strong story and contained scope (a big ask in that year's onslaught of open-world adventures). 

Overview:
Hellblade is a narrative-driven third-person adventure game that features action combat and puzzle-solving. The story of the game follows Senua, a Viking warrior, who is descending into hell to retrieve the soul of her slain husband. In addition to navigating the perils of the underworld, Senua struggles with her mental health and is haunted by memories of her traumatic past. The developer consulted with psychiatric professionals in creating depictions of conditions like schizophrenia and PTSD for this game.

Pros:
  • Hellblade offers a variety of equally beautiful and creepy environments; putrid swamps, desolate beaches, and of course, firey hellscapes are all depicted with a level of detail that makes them feel very real. Some of the more surreal parts of the underworld are particularly visually striking. The use of flame effects and shadows are also very well done.
  • This game has fantastic sound design. Positional audio effects really make it sound like the voices in Senua’s head are coming from all directions. The game also uses spatial audio cues are used to help the player navigate the environment; using a good headset is essential. 
  • The voice acting for Senua and all voices in her head is quite strong, even though I found the script itself to be pretty one-note.
  • Throughout the game, Senua can find and activate rune stones that play voice recordings the explain the Norse mythology associated with the situations Senua finds herself in. These recordings are in-character as one of the voices in Senua’s head. This kind of made me feel like I was in a museum as I traveled through Viking hell, but it was interesting to learn about an ancient culture as I played.

Cons:
  • Initially, I liked the deliberate and weighty feel of the combat. However, as the game repeatedly presented kill rooms with wave after wave of the same few enemies, battles quickly began to feel like a chore.
  • Hellblade has some good puzzles, but much like the combat, the variety is extremely limited. Once I had seen a few examples of each type of puzzle early in the game, it was then just a matter of the same thing being repeated many times over for the rest of the game.
  • While the environments Senua explores look great, I often had issues with navigating them. The game is inconsistent with what terrain our Viking heroine can and cannot traverse; in some cases, she can vault over tall obstacles, in others, a 1-foot tall object obstructs her path. Which doors can and can't be opened is similarly inconsistent. While there are some visual clues as to where the context-sensitive interaction points are located, I still regularly resorted to trial and error.
  • A few areas of the game involve running through burning buildings or running from monsters. I had a couple of occasions where these tense moments were disrupted by Senua getting snagged on something in the environment, resulting in an immediate game over. 
  • Every time you continue from the game over screen, an infection in Senua's hand creeps a little further up her arm. The game warns you very strongly at the start of the campaign that getting too many game overs will cause the infection to reach her head, killing her permanently and resetting the campaign back to the beginning. This is a lie. I spent the latter half of the game worrying that my frequent deaths (several of which were not my fault) would result in complete loss of progress, only to observe that it spread of the infection would slow down or even reverse when it got close to Senua's head. While I get that from an artistic standpoint, this mechanic is supposed to enhance the player's feeling of tension in tune with Senua's situation, but I really resent that this game's messaging deliberately misleads the player.
  • The tone of the game's story is largely doom and gloom the whole way through. Since it's apparent that the heroine's journey is hopeless from the very beginning, I found it hard to find something to latch on to and feel truly invested despite strong presentation and performances.
  • Hellblade's campaign takes about nine hours to complete but still managed to feel long due to its repetitive gameplay and one-note story.
I really wanted to like Hellblade, but it just didn't work for me. There segments of the game that offer compelling gameplay or interesting themes but rarely did these elements gel together in a cohesive way. While I wouldn't say I regret playing Hellblade because it tried some novel things, I was eager to be done with it partway through. Since this is a case where the artistic vision is strong but the execution didn't quite land, I'd still be interested to try another game from this developer in the future. However, for Hellblade itself, I would only recommend it to those who value artistic expression highly enough to overlook the game's other issues.

Score:
Completion Time: 9 hours






Sunday, September 22, 2019

Forza Horizon 4 Review


As I mentioned in my review of TimeSpinner, most of my time with the Xbox Game Pass catalog has been devoted to indie games rather than AAA titles. The one exception so far has been one of the games that drew me to Microsoft’s subscription platform when I saw it demoed at E3: Forza Horizon 4. While most racing games I play are completely removed from anything resembling real-life motorsports (e.g. Mario Kart, Fast RMX), there was something about this game’s ability to balance simulation and arcade racing that caught my interest.

Overview:
Forza Horizon 4 is an open-world racing game set in an environment based on Scotland and rural England. Throughout the game, seasons can change affecting the weather and terrain. Players can drive a wide variety of automobiles, ranging from exotic sports cars to delivery trucks, around the map to enter in different racing events. Races primarily come in three forms: road races, dirt track races, and cross-country (i.e. off-road) races. Forza Horizon 4 can be played as a single-player game or as an online multiplayer game. This review will focus on the singleplayer experience.

Observations:
  • It probably goes without saying that Forza Horizon 4 is absolutely gorgeous. The car models look incredible and, considering the size of the map, the environments are impressively detailed. As you would expect for a game that prominently features changing seasons, the weather effects look splendid. Part of why I wanted this game was to test my new graphics card; running the game on Ultra did not disappoint!
  • The one graphical element that does not look especially polished, is the player character (aka the Drivatar). These racecar driver characters represent the player in pre- and post-race scenes. Their appearance and movements are a little awkward but in an almost charming way. The player can customize the Drivatar's appearance with unlockable outfits, but since outfits can only be changed at one map location, I found that I didn't engage with this feature very much.
  • Of the three main types of races, I found I much preferred off-road and dirt events. These events allowed for more jumps and corner-cutting, which made them more exciting. Also, the effects of the changing weather are much more pronounced in these types of races (mud pits during rain, frozen lakes, snow, etc). Regardless of race type, I generally stuck with all-wheel drive (AWD) vehicles for better handling on all types of terrain.  
  • I appreciated that the game lets you adjust the level of realism and AI difficulty independently. I used normal realism and advanced AI settings. This made for a somewhat forgiving driving experience that allowed me to pull off drifts and get away with scraping the occasion guard rail, but still have challenging opponents to race against. If you're consistently winning (or losing) by a significant margin, the game will recommend adjustments.
  • One of my favorite features is the ability to rewind time a few seconds at any given point in a race. This keeps you from having to restart a whole race due to having a single accident. This feature prevents the game from ever getting repetitive or frustrating. (The feature can be disabled for those who want a more hardcore experience.)
  • The game breaks up regular racing with a couple of side activities. Two such activities, Wheel Spins and Barn Finds, are fun ways to get new cars rather than just buying them with race winnings. Wheel Spins are game-show like random chance opportunities that are earned throughout the game. Barn Finds are hidden locations on the map where are abandoned cars can be found; after being restored, these vehicles tend to be some of the best in the game.
  • Stunt events are another way to break up racing and get new cars. These feature some pretty cool set pieces in exotic vehicles, but unfortunately, they often involve a lengthy commute because the car is often picked up at a location fairly far from where the stunt will take place.
  • Of all the special events, my favorites were the Showcases. These involve racing matchups between highly irregular vehicle pairings (for example, in the first one you race a pickup truck against a hovercraft). While these largely exist as set pieces rather than true racing challenges, they're still a lot of fun and unlocking them serves as a satisfying goal to work towards.
  • The single-player experience is structured as a year-long event in which the seasons transition after earning the required amount of "Influence" (basically experience points) from winning races, participating in special events, and finding hidden items in the environment. Usually, a showcase event unlocks right before the season change, making it feel kind of like the racing equivalent of a boss battle. This setup makes what could have otherwise felt like an aimless sandbox still feel like a proper single-player campaign. 
  • Once you play through all four seasons in the campaign, the game switches to a live game mode, where the seasons change automatically once a week. In this mode, new sets of races and special events become available on a rotating basis. Most of these can be played as single-player or multi-player events.
I'm generally not a car guy, but I absolutely loved Forza Horizon 4. It's been my biggest pleasant surprise of the year! Since the game features so many adjustable settings to make it approachable for players regardless of skill level, I highly recommend anybody with an Xbox One or gaming PC give it a shot!

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: About 12 hours (main campaign with some side events)

Acknowledgment: This review was written as part of the #SportSeptember community event from the Chic-Pixel blog. Check out this post for their full calendar of monthly events!





Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Time Spinner Review


When I first signed up for Xbox Game Pass on PC, I had expected that I would be using the service to play through a lot of big marquee Microsoft titles (e.g. Halo, Forza, Gears). Instead, I’ve found myself primarily using the service as a way to try out indie games that I’ve heard good things about but haven’t been motivated to seek out and buy individually. One such title came out earlier this year, TimeSpinner.

Overview
TimeSpinner is an indie platformer that is heavily inspired by the Castlevania games directed by Koji Igarashi. The story follows Lunais, a time-traveler, who uses her time manipulation abilities and other magic powers to seek revenge against the Empire after they desecrated her village and wiped out her people.

Observations
  • I’ve played a lot of Metroidvania games, but this one is by far the most upfront about its source of inspiration. Everything from the UI to the controls looks and feels straight out of Symphony of the Night or Aria of Sorrow. 
  • Like the aforementioned Castlevania games, TimeSpinner has very nice pixel art. I liked the level of detail on the design and movement of the enemies. There were also some areas that used multiple layers of parallax scrolling to make for some very cool looking backgrounds. The color pallet in most environments is quite muted, which is not my preferred aesthetic, but it's fitting to the game's tone.
  • Lunais has a variety of weapons and special attacks that can be upgraded and swapped around as the situation requires. While the combat was very simple, customizing her loadout helped keep things feeling fresh.
  • The implementation of time manipulation mechanics ended up being much more minimal than I expected. At certain warp points, you can travel back in time, which brings you to an alternate version of the map. The other time power allows you to temporarily freeze time which is useful for avoiding attacks and using frozen enemies as platforms to reach high ledges. I was hoping that manipulating time would be used for puzzle solving, but that ended up not being the case. For the most part, time travel serves primarily as a plot device.
  • TimeSpinner has a surprisingly detailed story and very rich lore. While the player gets some of this via dialog in cutscenes, much of the material is delivered via letters, journal entries, and other text documents that you find by exploring the world. There are dozens of such documents to collect and each is several pages long. This might be appealing for some players, but for me, this method of world-building did not manage to grab me. The text file approach can work for me in lengthier games where it’s spread out over many hours of gameplay (for example, see my review of Final Fantasy 13), however, in a 9-hour platformer, I’m not looking to spend lots of time reading text in menus. 
  • Despite not reading the lore files, I was still able to follow and appreciate the story reasonably well. The characters felt a little bland, however.
Overall, TimeSpinner is a well-made platformer in the style of Symphony of the Night, whose main point of differentiation, it’s lore, didn’t really click with me. A few years ago, I think this game could have made a pretty big splash, but in 2019’s crowded field of Metroidvania titles, it doesn’t really stand out. For big fans of the genre, I still think playing TimeSpinner is well worth your time; for those just looking to play the crème of the Metroidvania crop, TimeSpinner can probably be skipped.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion time: 11 hours




Sunday, August 25, 2019

Four Job Fiesta 2019 Wrap-up


This past weekend marked the close of my third Four Job Fiesta campaign! Once again, I managed to finish the game in even less time and lower levels than in previous years. Here are some highlights:

  • This year's Name My Butz charity auction was our most successful yet! The top bidder donated $20 (US) to Child's Play and selected the name "Waffle" for our party leader! As a special thanks to our generous donor, I let her pick which class Waffle would be assigned next whenever she was watching the stream.
  • At the Wind Crystal, I rolled a Thief. Considering this class can only use knives, it had decent physical damage output but without the ability to equip heavy armor, their toughness left a lot to be desired and made for some very tough early boss battles. The Steal and Mug abilities proved to be very useful, however.
  • My Water Crystal job was a returning one from my 2017 campaign, Red Mage. As is typical of Red Mages, they were valuable in the earliest parts of the campaign, primarily for healing but became obsolete about halfway through. After that, I got a little more utility out of them for their rod-breaking ability (i.e. sacrificing an elemental weapon to cast a higher level offensive black magic spell) during a few key boss battles.
  • The Fire Crystal delivered a blessing in disguise: Bard. I initially thought this class would be a dud but it proved to be extremely useful. Particularly, Bard's ability to put regular enemies in a sleep/stop state made random encounters so much easier. The Bard also has some very useful full-party buffs for boss battles. I'm really glad that this year's Fiesta gave me an opportunity to learn this previously overlooked class!
  • At the Earth Crystal, we had another repeat: Chemist. Even more so than last year, the weight of the last few dungeons almost completely rested on the Chemist's slender nerdy shoulders. Since I lacked any strong physical attackers this year, the Chemist ended up being my primary damage-dealer, using various Mix! formulae to attack bosses ("Holy Water + Dragon Fang = Holy Breath" was easily the one I used the most). Thankfully, the Thief in my party was able to steal plenty of reagents for my Chemist to use.
  • The battle against Exdeath was quite difficult this year since I was almost entirely reliant on buffs and chemistry to keep me alive and deal damage. After several failed attempts at level 35, I backtracked a bit to grind up to level 40 and gather more chemical reagents. While on paper, Waffle was my Chemist, everyone else in the party was still making use of the Mix! ability nearly every turn. After using buffing mixtures like Dragon Power (temporary +20 to level), Goliath Tonic (temporary double HP), and Turtle Guard (Shell + Protect) in the first phase of the final battle, it was just a matter of mixing up as many Holy Breaths (Holy elemental damage) as possible while keeping everyone's HP up. I ended up taking down Neo Exdeath with all four party members still alive!
  • Between donations from the auction, Twitch viewers, and my own contributions, $60 went to Child's Play this year. While I didn't beat my previous record, I'm still happy with this result and very thankful to the generosity of the donors! Next time I do this, I'll try to come up with more interactive ways to encourage people to donate (like the auction) since that seemed to get the biggest response. 
While I had fun with this year's campaign, I found it a little harder to keep motivated this time around. This was due to a combination of having two returning classes, which made the campaign less varied than before, and my work schedule being a lot more hectic, making it tougher to schedule streams than years past. I was glad that I played the mobile version of Final Fantasy 5 this year, so I could still make progress even when I wasn't able to stream. Thus, I may take a break for next year's Fiesta depending on my schedule. I will also be a little quicker to reroll if I get repeat classes going forward.

All that being said, I wanted to extend a heartfelt thanks to everyone who donated or tuned into my streams!

Tales of Symphonia Review


While it didn't quite make my original list of gaming shames, getting into the Tales series has long been on my to-do list. After all, it's the number #3 JRPG series (after Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest), so it represents a pretty big hole in my gaming experience as an RPG aficionado.

I consulted with a lot of Tales fans to find out where I should start this prolific series. The responses I got varied wildly; often one fan's favorite entry would be a game another fan despised. However, almost no one seemed to object to the 2004 GameCube hit, Tales of Symphonia. It also helped that the remastered version was on sale on Steam for $5. 😁

Background:
Tales of Symphonia is a fantasy action RPG that uses a combo-based combat system, similar to a fighting game. The story follows Lloyd, a teenage boy serving as a bodyguard for his childhood friend. Collette, who has been selected to go on a cross-country religious pilgrimage. While this game is a part of the long-running Tales series, its story is completely approachable on its own.

Artistic Qualities:
  • This game went the extra mile with character design. Not only are the main characters all a distinct cast of anime people, but even the most basic enemies have detailed models and unique animations. Part of the fun of entering a new dungeon was seeing what new monsters I would encounter.
  • The characters, while fairly tropey by today's standards, are well developed and likable. The dialog is generally solid but at times can be a bit too chatty, especially considering the huge volume of dialog in the game as a whole. 
  • The story has interesting themes; it heavily focuses on discrimination and WW2 allegories while also mixing in some Norse mythology and sci-fi. The tone, however, is all over the place. At times the game jumps back and forth between grim drama and very light anime comedy. It was often jarring but did keep things from feeling stale.
  •  I tried my best to keep up with Symphonia's lore and backstory. After a while, I began to feel like the game's writers made it complicated for the sake of being complicated (there are lots of alliances and betrayals, secret organizations, conspiracies, etc).
  • There are fully voiced story-centric cutscenes as well as dozens of text-based support conversations. Sometimes after a long cutscene, it was frustrating to immediately get pushed into several additional heart-to-heart scenes in which the character reacted to the major events of the previous cutscene. Many of the support conversations were amusing but sometimes felt like too much.
Gameplay:
  • This game has a very smooth difficulty curve. While there were a few bosses I had to try more than once, I never once had to grind. As those who have read my previous RPG reviews probably know, this type of balanced difficulty is something I highly value.
  • Symphonia's battle system is fast-paced and mostly fun but has little strategic depth. Most enemy encounters, even boss battles, are just a matter of spamming your best combos and healing. I could see a lot of players liking the combat's simplicity, but for me, I would have liked something with a little more substance in a game of this length.
  • This game featured lots of systems that I barely used. For example, you can cook food and have characters get assigned special titles. Whether or not I used these seemed to be of little or no consequence.
  • Symphonia's campaign offers a few sidequests but is a mostly linear experience. That worked out well for this game; I liked feeling that I was always making progress (especially since I streamed the whole game on my Twitch channel).
  • Like many older JRPGs, you can only save on the world map or a few specific save points. In dungeons, save points have to be unlocked using an item called a Memory Gem. Each dungeon has one Memory Gem that is dropped by one random enemy somewhere in the labyrinth. The game designers probably set this up as a way of ensuring that a player thoroughly explored the dungeon and had reached the necessary character level before advancing. However, I found this frustrating if I needed to stop playing mid-dungeon and couldn't find the Memory Gem. 
  • I really liked how dungeons featured puzzles instead of just combat and treasure. Not all the puzzles were executed well, but I generally liked what they were going for.
Conclusion:
As I got into the game's later acts, I was feeling like the campaign was padded to be much longer than it needed to be. However, as Symphonia's credits rolled and I reflected on the 50+ hours I had spent with the game, it still left a positive impression; it was certainly a fun ride overall. It'll probably be a while before I play another Tales game (next year at the earliest), but I can see why this series is so popular and I will certainly return to it someday in the future.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 56 hours, 27 minutes (main campaign and a few sidequests)

Note: Streaming a full Tales game, as I did with this one, is a big commitment. It took almost four months of streaming nothing but Tales of Symphonia every week in order to finish it. I will likely stick to streaming shorter games from now on.

Acknowledgment: This post is part of the #Blaugust2019 event held by Tales of the Aggronaut. For more info about Blaugust, check out this article.






Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Monster Boy Review


Monster Boy is a game I played back in winter, but I'm just now getting around to reviewing it. Normally, I review games shortly after finishing them, but in this case, I've come to appreciate this game more the longer I've had time to reflect on it.

Background:
Monster Boy is a hand-drawn 2D Metroidvania game and is a successor to Sega's Wonder Boy series. Throughout the game, the player character increases his ability to explore the environment by learning to transform into various animals. Each animal offers new traversal abilities such as crawling through tight spaces, swimming, or flying.

Observations:
  • The animation and artwork are gorgeous and impressively detailed. Each of the animal forms of the hero feels like they could be a main character in a kid's cartoon and even background NPCs have a distinct sense of personality.
  • In addition to being cute and charming, the different animal forms are a lot of fun to use. The game provides you with ample uses for each one and switching between them is a snappy process. I had so much fun changing between the animal forms, I was actually a little bummed out when I gained the ability to turn back into a human (i.e. the lamest animal).
  • Most Metroidvania games are content to provide a mix of exploration, platforming challenges, and light combat. Monster Boy adds an extra layer of depth by incorporating environmental puzzles into each area. I thought this was a great addition to the standard genre formula even though there were some situations where it wasn't clear what I was supposed to do next.
  • Compared to any other Metroidvania I've played, the game world of Monster Boy is absolutely massive. In fact, it took me over 24 hours to finish this game's campaign; a little over twice as long as any other game I've played in this genre. While I'm glad it wasn't any longer than that, I feel like it kept things interesting for pretty much its entire running time.
  • The story of this game is nothing particularly interesting but it does a good job of introducing the player to the world of Wonder Boy (which I had no prior experience with). I also got a good chuckle out of some of the dialog.
  • I finished this game back in March and I still find myself humming some of its music. Monster Boy has a very strong soundtrack.
When I went to Best Buy to pick up a copy of Monster Boy, I initially balked at the $40 price tag, a heftier price than I've ever paid for a game of this type before. However, after seeing the level of polish in this game's presentation and gameplay, as well as the sheer amount of content on offer, I'm really glad I was able to get over the sticker shock! I think anyone who considers themselves a fan of the Metroidvania genre owes it to themselves to give Monster Boy a shot.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 24 hours, 33 minutes (78.5% completion)

Acknowledgment: This post is part of the #Blaugust2019 event held by Tales of the Aggronaut. In fact, this year's Blaugust marks the third birthday of this blog! For more info about Blaugust, check out this article.



Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Final Fantasy 13 Review


In my quest to play every Final Fantasy game, I was particularly excited to try Final Fantasy 13 because it's one of the most divisive entries in the series. Now that I've finished the game, I can see why that is: even my own feelings on 13 are very conflicted.

Structure:
Final Fantasy 13 presents a distillation of modern Final Fantasy: the game is broken into 13 chapters, each of which consists of battles, cut scenes, and short walks in between. The level design is almost completely linear with little opportunity for exploration. There are no NPCs, towns, and very limited side quests. 

The bright side of this linearity is that that for the first 10 chapters of the campaign, the game always knows exactly which items, characters, and abilities you have at any given moment. This makes for well-balanced boss battles that are challenging and strategic yet require no grinding or item farming to come out on top. This linear design also makes the pacing of the game feel fairly quick since you're always making forward progress in the campaign. The negative side of the linear structure is that once you've fought every possible permutation of a given area's enemies, the gameplay is essentially a rinse and repeat cycle until you reach the chapter boss. As a result, I found myself excited to start a new chapter to see a new area and encounter a new mix of enemies (as well as advance the plot), only to start getting bored around the chapter midpoint as the game became repetitive again.

In Chapter 11, the game attempts to change things up by introducing a few non-linear areas to explore. This initially feels very freeing and dovetails nicely with the game's themes of free will and fate (more on that later). Unfortunately, this freedom comes at a heavy cost to the game's pacing and balance. The non-linear areas introduce the opportunity to take on sidequests in the form of hunts (i.e. taking down a specific type of enemy). The problem with this is, after spending 35 hours to get to this point (much of which was spent in battle), the prospect of taking on entirely combat-based sidequests was not particularly appealing to me. Since the non-linear areas and sidequests increase opportunities for grinding, the game makes enemies, especially bosses, extra spongey going forward to compensate. This dragged battles out and slowed the game's pacing to a crawl. By the time I neared the end Chapter 11, I was so burnt out that I ended up dropping the game difficulty to Easy and activating a few cheats to shorten or skip battles so that I could speed through the rest of the game and get to the ending.

Systems:
Regarding the battle system itself, FF13 uses an interesting sped up variant of the Active Time Battle (ATB) system from previous games in the series in conjunction with a unique take on class-based strategy. The AI controls all but one character in the party, so much of the control the player has comes in the form of mid-battle character class changes (think a fusion of FF10-2 and FF12). By changing between different sets of classes called Paradigms, your party can switch between offensive and defensive tactics nearly instantaneously. Observing the enemy to time your tactical transitions and selecting the right combinations of classes for your Paradigms is the core of the battle strategy. The game initially restricts the characters and abilities you can use, which makes battles feel kind of dull, but once the combat system opens up (in about the 3rd chapter), I found this system to be one of the most engaging in the series, at least for the first 35 hours or so. 

Spending so much time with this battle system got me thinking: With a timing and speed-based ATB system, is rapidly navigating combat menus really all that different from an action-based system? I wonder if a similar line of thinking is what lead the FF series to true action combat in later entries such as 15 and 7R. The other thing that struck me is that the way this game focuses heavily on combat and gives you a star rating after each encounter, I couldn't help but be reminded of Mobius Final Fantasy, which debuted smartphones a few years after the release of this game.

Final Fantasy 13's other system is its character upgrade system. Instead of earning XP and money from battle, spoils come in the form of crystal points (CP) and crafting materials. CP is a pretty straight forward system that unlocks stat increases and abilities along a skill tree for each characters' classes (similar to Final Fantasy 10). Crafting, however, is a needlessly fiddly system that involves dumping monster claws and minerals and such into your weapons to level them up. Often this involves using hundreds of craft items or combining them via trial and error to see what yields the most upgrade points. Using crafting materials in a suboptimal manner could mean having to grind for more crafting material later on to fully upgrade a handful of your preferred weapons in preparation for the endgame. I found this to be so tedious that I largely avoided it for most of the game. When I broke down and used cheats in Chapter 11, I gave myself unlimited crafting supplies so that I could knock out all the upgrading in one shot and not have to deal with it again.

Artistic Qualities:
Final Fantasy 13 drops you straight into the story with very little in-game explanation of what's going on. The game also throws lots of jargon at you from the get-go. The game's way of bringing the player up to speed is that after every cutscene, a "datalog" in unlocked within the menu screen. These text documents explain the backstory of each character, define terminology, and provide context for the story. I can't really decide how I feel about this "watch the lecture and then do the homework" format. Would I have preferred lengthy scenes of characters standing around explaining things to each other, or an omniscient narrator offering context before each story beat? Not really, but I still have to image a more elegant solution exists.

The crux of the story is that our heroes have been tasked by a god-like being to destroy the world; if they fail to comply they will be turned into mindless zombies. From there the characters spend the rest of the adventure struggling with their fate while on the run from the authorities that are aware of their divinely-assigned task. Each of the game's six characters also has their own personal struggles that cover topics such as family discord, prejudice, and revenge. The characters are fairly one-note and the execution of both the larger and smaller stories can be pretty clumsy at times, but I still found myself generally invested in each cutscene and interested to see what would happen next.

In terms of aesthetics, Final Fantasy 13 is visually and aurally stunning. Even though this game is nearly a decade old, it offers some incredible vistas in-engine and pre-rendered cutscenes that I could only describe as resplendent. I never would have guessed I'd be mashing the F12 (screenshot) key nearly so frequently in a game of this age. The music may be less varied than some earlier Final Fantasies, but the main pieces that play throughout the game sound great and this game's battle theme stands as one of my favorites in the series.

Conclusion:
Final Fantasy 13 presents itself as a streamlined Final Fantasy experience but still takes over 50 hours to complete. The combat, graphics, and music are all high quality and could have easily sustained a 20-30 hour game, but are just not substantial enough to keep a game of 13's length engaging the whole way through (as evidenced by the shortcuts I felt compelled to take). As a Final Fantasy fan, I felt like playing this game was still a worthwhile experience and would recommend that other fans give it a shot with an open mind. However, to general RPG fans, I'm not sure Final Fantasy 13 offers what they would be looking for.

Score: 
Completion Time: 54 hours

Note: With this game completed, I now only have Final Fantasies 1, 2, 14, and 15 left. I will likely play 1 next since I like to alternate between retro and modern entries. At this point, I'm not sure if/when I'll play the direct sequels to FF13. I would be curious to hear what readers who have played the FF13 sequels think of them.






Monday, July 1, 2019

Cris Tales Impressions


 As I had mentioned in one of my E3 posts, one of the games that came out of nowhere and caught my eye was the indie RPG, Cris Tales. Since a demo became available on Steam during the expo, I made a point of downloading it and giving it a shot while it was still fresh on my mind.

Overview:

Cris Tales is a turn-based RPG in which the main character, Crisbell, works to prevent a calamity from striking her town by using her powers as a Time Mage. Cris can see the past, present, and future at once and manipulate one time period to affect the others. This ability can be used during combat as well as during interactions with NPCs and the environment.

Observations:
  • I love this game's art style. It's a nice hybrid of anime and the illustrations in a kid's storybook. The way the game visually divides the different time periods on a screen is a pretty neat effect. The game also does a good job of working its 2D designs into 3D environments.
  • The animation looked a little choppy. I'm not sure if this is a style choice or a limitation of this early build of the game. I have a fast PC and was running the game on the low settings, so I don't think it was a performance issue.
  • Combat is turn-based but also allows for timing-based button inputs to get critical hits (similar to the Paper Mario series). I think this has the potential to make battles more engaging, but I found the timing to be hard to judge. This may be due to the choppy animation.
  • Using the time manipulation powers could lead to a lot of interesting possibilities in the full game. At one point in the demo, Cris sees that two NPCs homes will collapse in the future but only has the resources to save one of them with her time powers. The game makes it clear that who you choose to help will have consequences later. I'm curious to see how this will play out in the full game and what the true scope and impacts of decisions will be.
  • In battle, the use of the time powers is usually pretty straight forward. Against standard enemies, you can increase or decrease their age to make them weaker. The boss in the demo, however, exhibits puzzle-like elements in battle. In this case, the foe is wearing impenetrable iron armor, but if you get it wet and move forwards in time, it will rust, making the enemy vulnerable. I'm interested to see what other kinds of time puzzles the full game will incorporate into boss battles.
  • I had mixed feels about the story and dialog. Some of writing was entertaining, but I kind of felt like the characters were over-explaining things or talking down to the player. However, since this game seems to be going for a kid-friendly vibe, it could just be that I'm much older than the target audience for this game. Cut scenes are fully voiced but sounded a little stilted. I suspect this is because the game requires the player to press a button after each line of dialog, which adds extra pauses (Octopath Traveler had a similar issue). An auto-play option in cutscenes would definitely be nice.
  • I played this demo on PC, but I think this game would be a good fit for Switch, so that will probably be my platform of choice if I end up getting the full game when it releases.
I came away from this hour-long demo really impressed by its art and intrigued by the possibilities its mechanics present. While I have some reservations about the story, I think it could improve as the game progresses.  Cris Tales is slated to come out sometime in 2020, so I'll be sure to check in on it again then.

If you're interested in trying the demo of Cris Tales for yourself, you can find it on the game's Steam page.