Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Mobile Game Roundup

While the Nintendo Switch may be the best portable game system on the market right now, sometimes when I'm on the road I want the simplicity of not having to pack a gaming-specific device, especially if I know my sessions are going to be short. That's where mobile games come in. Unfortunately, many popular mobile titles are so bloated with microtransactions, gatchpon mechanics, data-sucking content updates, and other games-as-a-service features, that they just don't make sense to pick up and play while traveling. On a few recent trips, I managed to put together a handful of fun mobile titles that were an exception to this rule. Here's some info and impressions on each:

RainBlocks (free, ad-supported)

We’ll start with the most simple of this set, Rain Blocks. This is a basic block-sliding puzzle that builds in complexity, introducing powerups and new types of blocks, as you play. This is no-frizzles puzzle game is my go-to mobile game for when I want to immediately jump into gameplay and engage my brain for a short session. However, in Tetris-like fashion, sometimes I get on a roll and end up turning these short sessions into longer ones! Rain Blocks also sports great music by former Mega Man composer, Manami Matsume.

Candies 'n' Curses ( free w/ ads, $4.99 ad-free version)

Candies and Curses
Going up in complexity level, we have Candies 'n' Curses. While I’ve heard some call it a platformer, to me it’s more reminiscent of arcade-style games like Joust, Elevator Action, or Woah Dave. Running around and bashing as many ghosts as possible is oddly satisfying and since it has some minor Rouge-like mechanics, each time I play my character is a little stronger and I can advance a little further into the haunted mansion. The game has a minimal story that reaches some sort of conclusion if you manage to make it far enough, but it will probably be quite some time before I get that far. This game also features some great sprite work and a catchy soundtrack.

Legend of the Skyfish (free demo w/ ads, $3.99 ad-free full version)

Legend of the Skyfish
 It’s pretty clear from the get-go that this game is inspired by The Legend of Zelda. However, instead of a big sprawling world, Skyfish breaks Zelda-like gameplay down into bite-sized levels that play like small dungeons. Since the gameplay is just a succession of condensed dungeons, you'll be doing a lot cycles of switch flipping, sword slashing, and block sliding, which I found works well for short sessions but can feel repetitive if you're trying to kill more than thirty minutes or so. However, I'm only about a quarter of the way through the campaign, so there a possibility that more variety will be added later in the game. Also, I have to commend this game for managing to make maneuvers that are typically associated with a controller (sword swipes, firing a hookshot, etc) feel pretty smooth with a touch screen.

Dragon Quest ($2.99)

Dragon Quest
This RPG classic likely needs no introduction. Square Enix has put together a solid mobile remake of the original Dragon Quest (aka Dragon Warrior). The touch screen controls took a little time to get used to, but once I had adjusted, it was like I was a kid again hunched over his Gameboy Color. Something that jumped out at me in this version is that Square elected to keep the "old-timey" dialect associated with the NES version of the game, which can be equally nostalgic and (possibly unintentionally) funny. This is a very grindy RPG with very minimal story, but I actually like that in a mobile game since I feel like I can quickly get into the game, make some progress, and then get back to what I was doing in the real world.

Note: All info on this page is based on the Android versions of these games, but the iOS experience should be similar. Prices are Google Play prices in US dollars.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Shadow of the Tomb Raider Review

As I had mentioned in my Game of the Year 2018 post, my enjoyment of Rise of the Tomb Raider had me strongly considering jumping into its sequel, Shadow of the Tomb Raider. And lo and behold, when the game went on sale for 50% off during the holiday sales I couldn’t resist. Not only did I immediately snatch this game up, but I ended up inhaling its content in less than two weeks! Since this game is very much iterative of its predecessor, pretty much every point I made about Rise of the Tomb Raider also applies to Shadow of the Tomb Raider. Thus, I’d suggest skimming through that review and considering this one to be a list of additions and exceptions.
  • The lush South American jungle setting of Shadow of the Tomb Raider looks fantastic. Since I was using this game to test out my new graphics card, I found myself taking a lot of screenshots.
  • Of the Square Enix Tomb Raider trilogy, I found this game’s plot to be the least engaging. I’m not saying it was bad necessarily, but I found the story, which was centered around Mayan/Incan lore to be a little harder to follow. I also thought the villains were better developed in Rise of the Tomb Raider.
  • While keeping most things the same, this game makes two major updates to the mechanics. The first is that Lara can now rappel down from climbing surfaces with a rope and swing to adjacent ledges. I thought this was nice addition to Lara’s repertoire of moves. The other update is that the swimming mechanics have been refined with better controls and the ability to take breaths from small air pockets in underwater caves. Unfortunately, the developers decided to show off this improved swimming by drastically increasing the amount of underwater traversal Lara must do in this adventure. I can appreciate underwater sections in games when they’re brief, but I felt like this game went overboard (no pun intended).
  • The skill tree in Shadow of the Tomb Raider feels more balanced than in the previous games. While this is probably a good thing overall because it asks players to make the most of Lara’s
    toolset, I kind of enjoyed that in Rise of the Tomb Raider I could transform Lara from a fledging archeologist to an indestructible killing machine by allocating my skill points the right way.
  • Shadow of the Tomb Raider is a little more RPG-like than previous Tomb Raider games. Lara can gather materials to craft new outfits for herself that modify her stats for either stealth, combat, or resource gathering. There are also now side quests that involve gathering info by talking to NPCs and solving light puzzles. These additions give players more things to do, but I didn’t really feel like they added much to the game overall.
  • Some of the tombs seemed more confusing to me than they did in previous games. I'm not sure if they were more difficult, or if the objectives just weren't as clear though.
While many of the points I made here may come across as negative, I still really enjoyed Shadow of the Tomb Raider. The quibbles I covered here and the game's aging formula were just enough to knock the review score down a star compared to Rise of the Tomb Raider. Shadow of the Tomb Raider is still a very well-made action-adventure game and I think it's a shame it got overshadowed (ok, pun intended this time) by Spiderman and Red Dead 2.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 28 hours (90% map completion)

Don't make Lara angry
One of the game's many water-based tombs
The plot device that justifies all the aquatic areas
Even though I didn't always understand them, the game uses an interesting combination of Mayan, Incan, and Christian themes

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Joys of New Hardware

For most of my time as a gamer, any PC gaming I did was either on the family computer as a child or old business-class computers that I modded as a young adult (see my zombie rig for example). However, back in 2015, I built my first ever dedicated gaming PC (specs) and it quickly became my go-to device for home gaming. While this was a budget build, it smoothly ran pretty much anything I threw at it on moderate settings until recently. Unfortunately, as 2018 was coming to a close, some of the discount parts I had put into this PC were starting to struggle with current releases, particularly the graphics card.

Thanks to Black Friday sales, I was able to make the sizable but still affordable upgrade from my original starter GPU, a Sapphire AMD Radeon R9 270x (1 GHz, 2GB VRAM), up to the superior Sapphire AMD Radeon RX 580 ( 1.4 GHz, 8 GB VRAM). This new card was massive and cramming it into my case was a challenge. Here you can see the card unboxed and then as-installed:

Radeon RX 580 kind of looks like a VHS tape
New GPU as-installed. Even though I have a large boxy case, it proved to be a fairly tight fit.
A second image to show off the LED "Sapphire" logo changes colors. I find it far more entertaining than I should watching it cycle through the whole color spectrum.
Model numbers and specs aside, what this upgrade really amounted to was that on newer releases I could jump straight from the Low settings, that I was previously stuck with, to the High or Ultra settings. As far as PC gamers go, I'm not much of a resolution or frame rate snob, but I was still stunned by the profound difference this upgrade made. So far that games I've tried out with the new graphics card are Hitman 2, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, and Just Cause 4. See below for some screenshots:

Hitman 2
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Shadow of the Tomb Raider
Just Cause 4
Just Cause 4

For a more objective comparison of the performance I ran the Final Fantasy 15 benchmark with my old GPU and my current one, here are the results:
Before Upgrade

After Upgrade

I'm pretty happy to have doubled the results! With my newly upgraded rig, I'm pretty excited about getting into a new year of PC gaming! 

Note: While I was at it, I also upgraded to 16 GB of RAM to the computer to help with streaming

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Game of the Year 2018

Over the course of 2018, I played through over 35 games and awarded more 5-star review scores than I have in any year since I started this blog. I don't think that I've become any more generous with my reviews this year, it's just that I've had the pleasure of experiencing a cavalcade of excellent games!  As is tradition, any game that I beat this year is eligible for Game of the Year honors regardless of its release date. This year's selection of titles covers over two decades of video game history with release dates ranging from 1994 - 2018. Among this vast group of diverse titles, I present my Top 10 Games of 2018:

 #10: Octopath Traveler
I started out this year expecting Octopath Traveler to sit high on this list, but it instead just managed to snag the last spot. Octopath's strong presentation, battle system, and musical score were more than enough to make my journey through this game enjoyable despite some issues I had with its storytelling and structure. Given this game's commercial success, I'm hoping Square Enix delivers us a sequel the smooths out some of the rough edges in an otherwise great RPG. (review)

#9: Persona 4
While I may have had some misgivings about Persona 4's pacing and mechanics, this game's ability to develop a cast of characters that really felt like a community of family and friends really impressed me. I'm really happy that I was able to tackle this "gaming shame" this year! (review)

 #8: The Witcher 3 Blood and Wine
I thought that I had exhausted the Witcher formula by the time I had finished the main campaign of The Witcher 3, but I'm glad that I took a break and came back for Blood and Wine. Its vibrant new setting and engaging story and characters were a great reason to take a return trip to this Polish fantasy world. 

#7: Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (including Torna expansion) 
Xenoblade Chronicles 2 and its expansion continued to refine and innovate upon the mechanics I loved so much in the previous games while giving us an awesome new world to explore. For the next game in the series, I'm hoping they'll strike a little bit better of a balance between dramatic storytelling and anime tropes. (review)

 #6: Rise of the Tomb Raider
I'm sure it's no surprise that the sequel to my 2016 Game of Year ended up earning a spot on this list. Rise of the Tomb Raider certainly doesn't stray far from the format of its predecessor, but the improvements made to an already-excellent structure made this adventure enjoyable from start to finish. As I'm writing this, I'm feeling a very strong urge to pick up the next entry in the franchise, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, while it's still on holiday discount! (review)

#5: Battle Chef Brigade 
A fusion of puzzles, brawling, and cooking isn't something I ever thought I would need, but I sure am glad that I stumbled upon this unique hybrid indie game! In addition to its interesting combination of gameplay systems, it had charm and personality in spades. (review)

 #4: A Hat In Time 
A Hat in Time isn't just an excellent return to N64-style 3D platforming, it also succeeds, strangely enough, as an entertaining dark comedy. This is a game that I played with a smile on my face pretty much the entire time. (review)

#3: Bloodstained Curse of the Moon
Having played most of the Castlevania games, I can confidently say that Bloodstained Curse of the Moon comfortably sits among the best of them (even though it isn't an official part of the franchise). Bloodstained took the best of 8-bit Castlevania and enhanced it to make pixelated vampire-slaying fun and accessible for modern audiences. I'm very excited to see what the next Bloodstained game has in store! (review)

#2: Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle
This game may have been met with a lot of skepticism when it was originally announced, but the end result was a fantastic fusion of the Mario and Rabbids franchises. This game takes the light and goofy atmospheres of each of these franchises and applies them to a balanced and satisfying tactical RPG system. It sounds insane (because it is), but it works so incredibly well!

 #1: Celeste
The Game Awards and numerous media outlets heaped praise upon Celeste, and I was right there with them singing this game's praises. Its gameplay, story, and music harmonize together in a masterpiece of indie game design. Anyone with an appreciation for 2D platformers owes themselves to give Celeste a try. (review)

Honorable Mention
Considering how many games I played this year, it was inevitable that some great games would just barely miss taking a spot on my Top 10 list. Here are some other games that I played this year that deserve some praise:
  • Ys Origin - Diving into Falcom's action RPG series has been one of my highlights of the year. Origin has been the best entry that I've played so far. I'm really looking forward to continuing my Ys franchise playthrough in 2019! (review)
  • Adventure Pals - My wife and I had a blast playing through this quirky co-op 2D platformer! (review)
  • Blossom Tales - A really solid indie Zelda-like with a unique sense of humor. I'll be watching this developer to see what they come up with next! (review)
  • Stick Fight - This is a fun and chaotic fighting game that's great for parties, liked a pared-down Smash Bros. (review)
  • Final Fantasy 4 - The mobile remake of this 16-bit classic was a very enjoyable adventure in 2018. (review)
  • Momodora Reverie Under the Moonlight - A well-made indie Metroidvania game with a spooky atmosphere that was well-suited to my Halloween stream. (review)
I'm still in awe of how many incredible games I got to experience in 2018! Looking back at what I played, this year has really cemented that RPGs, platformers, and action-adventure are my genre specialties. That being said, I still plan on putting together a diverse queue of titles for 2019.

Thanks to much to all of my readers, stream viewers, and gaming pals for another fantastic year! I can't wait to do it all over again in 2019!

Happy New Year!