Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Wandersong Review


While I've always enjoyed short sessions of traditional rhythm games like Dance Dance Revolution, especially in arcades, it's not a genre that I tend to engage with at home. However, games of other genres that incorporate music into their gameplay are something that I can get into in any context. That's where Wandersong comes in. This adorable-looking game came strongly recommended from IGN's Tom Marks and my streamer pal, BogusMeatFactory; with two ringing endorsements from people with such unique tastes in games, I had to give Wandersong a shot.

Overview:
Wandersong is a music-themed adventure game. It tells the story of a bard on a quest to learn the scattered pieces of the Earth Song; a magical piece of music believed to be capable of staving off the apocalypse. The bard's primary ability is to sing 8 different notes based on the direction the player tilts the right thumbstick (the number pad or mouse is used if playing without a controller). This review is based on the PC version of the game, which I played via Xbox Game Pass.

Observations:
  • While music is a central theme throughout the game, rhythm gameplay makes up only a minimal part of the gameplay. Instead, the gameplay takes two forms:
    • In towns, the game plays like an adventure game in which player talks to NPCs and explores the area to gather information about the location of the next part of the Earth Song. As far as adventure gaming goes, these sections are fairly rudimentary, but the game's presentation is so strong that it was enjoyable just to see the sights and meet the quirky inhabitants of the world. 
    • In Spirit Realms (i.e. dungeons), where each Earth Song piece can be found, the focus is on puzzle-platforming gameplay in which the notes that the bard single manipulates various features of the environment. I really liked the way each dungeon presented a unique puzzle platforming mechanic; this helped keep the gameplay feeling fresh.
  • Graphically, there are two especially distinct things about Wandersong:
    • Wandersong's character designs are very simple; the player character is made up of just a handful of flat geometric shapes. However, the game manages to get a lot of expression out of these designs through some very cute animations. It didn't take long for them to grow on me.
    • Something that had more immediate appeal was the game's color pallet. The use of bright contrasting colors, including lots of neons and purples, really gave the scenery a distinct and vibrant look.
  • Despite its simplistic and cute appearance, Wandersong features in-depth character development and touches upon some fairly heavy themes. Some indie games try to shoe-horn darker subject matter into otherwise cute-looking games for shock value or to give the appearance of extra depth. However, in the case of Wandesrsong, the more and less serious elements of the story play off each other very well and I found that I was invested in each of the major characters' plot arcs.
  • One of the buttons makes the bard dance at any time (including during dialog). It serves absolutely no gameplay purpose and it is highly entertaining. By finding a certain character in hidden locations in each chapter of the game, you can learn more dance moves to expand the bard's repertoire.
  • Even though this is a game about music rather than a music game, I still came into it with high expectations for the soundtrack. I'm happy to say the soundtrack is just as charming as the characters, writing, and graphics.
I often divide my observations in reviews into pros and cons, but when it comes to Wandersong, there is really nothing bad I can say about it. This game's graphics, music, writing, and gameplay all come together in a delightful package that I can comfortably recommend to just about anyone.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: About 14 hours

Note: This post is part of the Chic-Pixel community's #MusicGameMay event. For more info and their full list of events, check out this page: Community Game-Along Master List 2020






Sunday, May 3, 2020

Shenmue 3 Review


Considering the unusual circumstances behind Shenmue 3, a surprise modern sequel to a pair of cult Dreamcast games from nearly 20 years ago, and all nostalgia and baggage that comes with it, this "review" is going to be a bit different than my usual write-ups... more like a spoiler-free review, analysis, and retrospective all rolled into one. That being said, I hope you're along for the ride.

Background
When I was a teenager, I got absolutely absorbed into the Shenmue games. In fact, I got Shenmue 2 right before spring break and I'm pretty sure that I spent the subsequent week off from school doing nothing but exploring virtual 1980s Hong Kong with Ryo, Joy, Ren, and the rest of the crew. It probably wasn't the healthiest way for a young man to be spending his vacation, but it was a magical experience that I don't think I'll ever forget. However, having the second game end on a cliffhanger that would seemingly never be resolved, was quite painful. Thus, when the Kickstarter campaign for Shenmue 3 was announced at E3 2015, I signed up to back it immediately; in fact, I'm pretty sure I created a Kickstarter account specifically so I could secure a copy of Shenmue 3 for myself.

Now that the game has finally come out and I've played through it, my feelings on it are incredibly mixed.

Game Overview
Shenmue 3 continues directly from the events of Shenmue 2. The Shenmue games follow Ryo, a Japanese teen martial arts student, who is on a quest to find the man that murdered his father and exact revenge. In Shenmue 3, Ryo visits two different cities in China where he gathers clues to pick up the trail of his father's killer, Lan-Di. There is also a third smaller area that serves primarily as a location for the game's conclusion. Essentially, each of these areas is used to divide the game into three acts. In addition, to gathering clues, the game features occasional combat in the style of a 3D fighting game (similar to Virtua Fighter) and a variety of minigames. Shenmue 3 was released on PS4 and PC; this blog post is based on the PC version.

Observations - Shenmue's Disparate Genre Influences
Coming back to the Shenmue franchise caused me to realize many things about these games that I was never quite able to articulate when I was younger. Shenmue is often miscategorized as an "action RPG," and this third game really cemented in my mind what a miscategorization that is. Shenmue's combination of gameplay elements and themes make it much more complicated to pin down... so here it is in Venn diagram form:
  • Adventure game: While the combat of Shenmue is prominently featured in media surrounding the game, fighting makes up an extremely little of the gameplay. Ryo spends the majority of his time talking to NPCs, looking for clues, and bartering items; all of which are much more consistent with a traditional adventure game (think a point-and-click adventure) than any other genre.
  • Slice-of-life: Ryo may be on a quest for revenge, but the game encourages him to slow down and make progressing the investigation part of his daily routine rather than the sole focus of his time. In addition to investigating, Ryo must eat several times per day to keep his stamina up, exercise to improve his strength in preparation for the occasional combat, earn an income via part-time jobs, and even go home at the end of the day to get enough sleep. This cycle feels a lot like slice-of-life games like Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing. Something that adds to this slice-of-life feeling is that the game world is constructed to be a place that Ryo inhabits along with the NPCs, rather than just serve as a venue that provides Ryo with a set of objectives (as would be the case in most other game genres).
  • Kung-fu film: Thematically and aesthetically, Shenmue 3 has a lot of elements in common with classic kung-fu films. Much of Ryo's quest revolves around seeking out eccentric old martial arts masters and finding some way of convincing them to teach Ryo one of their signature techniques that he needs to beat one of Lan-Di's henchmen. If you've ever watched old martial arts movies, this formula will sound very familiar. Further adding to the kung-fu film vibe, Shenmue 3 retains the series' now-infamous deliberately stilted voice acting, which reminds me of the dubs of 1970s kung-fu films that I used to watch on TV as a kid.

Now that I've gotten all that explanation out of the way, let's get into how I, as a fan of the series, felt that Shenmue 3 managed to package all these elements together.

Observations - Shenmue 3 as Compared with its Predecessors
Being a Kickstarter-backed revival of a cult video game series, Shenmue 3 was inevitably going to be a nostalgia-focused work. The rigidity with which it adheres to what was established by the previous games works both for and against it.

    • Shenmue 3's characters are simple and move stiffly by modern game standards, but look very clean on hi-definition displays; a successful attempt at being consistent with the art style of the original games while still making enough updates for it to work in 2020.
    • Similarly, the game's environments are reminiscent of those from the Dreamcast days, but at a much higher level of detail. Guilin, the area at the end of Shenmue 2 and beginning of Shenmue 3, is particularly beautiful; it looks the way I envisioned it in my mind's eye when I played the previous game, rather than how it actually looked as rendered by the Dreamcast.
    • In the past, I had wondered if Shenmue's awkward-sounding English voice work was an intentional directorial decision or just the product of an inexperienced cast. Seeing as Shenmue 3 recast several characters with well-established actors but the delivery of the lines retains the feel of the first two games, I've concluded that this is an intentional style choice. Seeing as this game leans heavily into kung-fu movie tropes, I think this retro-sounding delivery works in the context of the game, but I can see how it wouldn't appeal to someone who didn't grow up with this unusual cultural connection. Thankfully, the game gives the option of switching to Japanese audio for those who don't like the direction of the English voice acting.
    • Quick-time events (QTEs) return in Shenmue 3. I was initially concerned about this as these were a source of frustration for me in the previous games in the series. In the past, QTEs would occur suddenly during battles, and executing them incorrectly could mean abruptly losing a fight that you were previously winning. While this is still the case in Shenmue 3, the QTEs are foreshadowed during the story leading up to the battle so that the player can be prepared to execute them in advance. Most of the time this takes place in the form of Ryo learning a new martial arts technique before the battle; this training sequence gives the player a low-stakes way to learn the QTE's inputs before the critical moment that they come up during combat. I thought this was a smart tweak on the part of this installment's developers.
    • When it comes to the game's UI and controls, these are areas where I think nostalgia and faithfulness should have been discarded in favor of a complete overhaul. Digging around in the game's menus felt cumbersome and I frequently had to check the context-sensitive button mapping indicator on the HUD to know which button did what in a given situation. The game's controls and UI are not even consistent between similar types of menus (e.g. the select, confirm, and cancel buttons are not mapped the same on the inventory screen and item shop screen).
Observations - Shenmue 3's Unique Content
While in many ways, it's impossible to separate Shenmue 3 from the nostalgic background of the franchise, it's still its own game. Like everything else in Shenmue 3, the new content is also a mixed bag.

  • Shenmue has always included some sort of slice-of-life elements, but the third entry in the series drastically increases how prevalent they are. 
    • The most notable example is the new stamina system. Ryo must eat regularly to keep up his stamina, a stat that serves two functions. As Ryo goes about his business, his stamina slowly depletes; if it gets low enough, he becomes tired and can only walk slowly until he eats to replenish the stamina meter. In combat, Ryo's stamina meter becomes his health meter. This means that if he gets into a fight when he's hungry, he could potentially get taken out by a single punch. As a result, making sure Ryo is well-fed not only keeps exploration moving at a reasonable pace, it can also be a matter of life or death. It's a case where the game's mechanics are very deliberately telling you to slow down and take care of the little things, rather than charge ahead single-mindedly.
    • Practicing techniques and working out are important parts of the daily life of a martial artist. Shenmue 3 tasks the player with making this process a part of Ryo's regular routine by stopping at dojos regularly to work on his punches, horse stance ("karate squats" as I like to call them) and having sparring matches. These are very simple and repetitive tasks, much as they would be in real life, but they are essential to getting Ryo strong enough to win the handful of battles that serve as gates to progressing the story. Initially, I really tried to get myself in the mindset of a martial artist and focus on the training. However, it eventually became clear to me that I would have to spend a large chunk of my playtime repeating these routines and I inevitably found myself checking out and listening to a podcast while tapping the A button for the thousandth time to keep Ryo in his horse stance.
    • The slice-of-life elements of the game all serve to reinforce the story's central theme of the value of patience. While this works well from a purely artistic standpoint, it isn't necessarily fun to play. I think it's ok for a game to include some amount of drudgery for the purpose making the player relate more to the character or make the game world feel more real, but Shenmue 3 took this a little too far for my tastes.
  • While the two main areas Ryo visits during his journey, Guilin and Niaowu, each have their own unique flare in terms of settings, the events in each place follow the exact same formula:
    1. Talk to NPCs to learn about criminal activity in the area
    2. Find and confront the criminals, only to lose to their leader (who turns out to be one of Lan-Di's henchmen)
    3. Seek out an eccentric old kung-fu master who knows the technique you need to beat the henchman
    4.  Undergo some trials to prove to the kung-fu master that you're worthy to learn the technique. In both cases, this includes winning a match against every student in the local dojo and saving up a large quantity of money to buy an expensive item of some sort.
    5. Learn the kung-fu technique (a QTE sequence) and then use it in a rematch against the henchman to win the fight
    6. Winning the fight leads to a scene that advances the plot
    • Going through this sequence in Guilin was very satisfying, but having to repeat it, almost to the letter, in Niaowu right afterward sort of cheapened the experience for me and made the game feel padded.
  • The third area of the game is comparatively very small and dense with plot developments and combat. Compared to the rest of the game it feels disjointed and rushed. I think it would have served the game well to have cut this third area and instead just spread its combat and story events throughout Guilin and Niaowu instead. This would have broken up the formula of each of those areas and made the plot developments easier to digest. 
  • Ultimately, Shenmue 3 moves the overall story of Shenmue forward only a very small amount. In fact, most of the important new information Ryo gathers during this installment of his quest is found in the first area, Guilin. The next act of the game in Naiowu is essentially a rinse and repeat (albeit in a cool new setting) that just serves to keep Ryo busy until the game's hasty conclusion. At the end of the game, Ryo is only incrementally further along on his quest for revenge than he was for the start; after waiting for 20 years for this game, I was hoping for more than that.
As a long time fan of the series who has been waiting for the next installment of the Shenmue series for the majority of his life, playing Shenmue 3 was paradoxically a joyous and disappointing experience. I was delighted to see that much of what made me love Shenmue is still here; for a big fan like me, that alone was enough to make the money and time I spent on this game feel worthwhile. However, there's a difference between something being worthwhile and being satisfying. Shenmue 3 doesn't do very much to bring the series forward in terms of game design or narrative, it is simply content to just stoke the fires in fans' hearts and serve as a demonstration that a new Shenmue game can still be made. As one of those fans, this is something I can accept this time, but it's a card the developer can only play once.

I typically like to end a review with a recommendation; in this case, the recommendation is contingent on your background with the series:
  • If you loved Shenmue 1 and 2, by all means, go ahead and play this, just be sure to set your expectations accordingly.
  • If you played the earlier Shenmue games and they didn't do anything for you, Shenmue 3 is certainly not going to change your mind.
  • If you have no prior experience with Shenmue but think you fit somewhere near the center of the Venn diagram depicted earlier in this review, I'd recommend adding the first two Shenmue games to your Steam wishlist and picking them up the next time they go on sale. (Also, kudos to you for managing to read through this mess of a blog post!)
Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: About 42 hours

Thoughts on the Shenmue Series Going Forward
 A little bit after I started writing this post, I read a news article about how the investors that made Shenmue 3's development possible were surprised that Shenmue hasn't turned out to be a mass-market AAA franchise (i.e. this installment primarily only sold well to existing fans and wasn't especially profitable). To be honest, I don't really know what investors were expecting.

I love Shenmue, warts and all, but I'm not sure there's a future for it. In its current form, it's too expensive and ambitious for the limited audience it has. The only paths forward I can see would involve making drastic changes to pull in more players and investors, or it would have to scope down massively to fit a more traditional indie budget in an attempt to deliver a satisfying resolution to the diehard fans as efficiently as possible. The risk with either route is that it could lead to a result that just wouldn't feel like Shenmue any more. If a fourth entry ever gets made, there is going to be a tremendous amount of pressure on it; based on Shenmue 3, it's unclear if the series director, Yu Suzuki, and company are up to the task.

Guilin looks beautiful
Ryo's gotta make money somehow
"C'mon, Ryo! You can't seek karate justice unless you build strong glutes and quads!"

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Strider (2014) Review


Strider is one of Capcom's series that I've often admired from afar; I've watched Twitch streams of the 8-bit and 16-bit games, and I've looked longingly at the box art of the PS1 game as a broke kid in Walmart, but I've never really dug into any of the games myself. So to close out my celebration of #CapcoMonth, I decided to finally jump in with the most recent entry in the series, Strider (2014), which I was able to pick up as part of a Humble Bundle.

Overview
Strider (2014) is a 2D "Metroidvania"-style platform game that serves as a revival of Capcoms's classic ninja action series. In the game, an elite ninja operative, Strider Hiryu, must infiltrate a heavily fortified cyberpunk dystopian city to assassinate an evil dictator. As he explores the city to gain access to the dictator's stronghold, he acquires a variety of new abilities and faces off against the dictator's generals. This review is based on the PC version of the game.

Pros

  • Being a ninja is awesome! From the get-go, Strider can climb almost any surface (including ceilings), slide, dash, and flip through the air. Even with his most basic starting sword, he can pull off rapid slashing attacks in multiple directions that have both ground-based and aerial variations. There area lot of games about ninjas out there, but this one really stands out for absolutely nailing the lightness, speed, and agility that you would expect of a classic anime ninja.
  • The game features a couple of cool set pieces, like fighting a dragon flying through the sky that breaks up the regular gameplay and solidifies this as a Strider game and not just a generic ninja Metroidvania.
  • While much of the music is fairly indistinct, the electronic remixes of classic Strider tracks are very catchy and kick in at just the right time to enhance the action.

Cons

  • With a few exceptions, the game's environments are primarily drab industrial areas that don't make for a particularly memorable setting.
  • Strider's difficulty was often inconsistent. In some cases, I would breeze through several areas and boss battles, only to be hit with an abrupt difficulty spike. However, on the normal difficulty level, even the spikes were approachable as long as you have a good grasp of the mechanics.
While Strider (2014) lacks some of the bells and whistles that many newer Metroidvania games might have, this game nails the most important facet of the genre: character locomotion. Ninja-ing my way through the dystopian future landscape and cleaving through waves of enemies always felt satisfying. For that alone, I can comfortably recommend Strider (2014) to any Metroidvania fans. This experience also has me interested to go back and try the older Striders that I missed; maybe I'll finally pick up that PS1 game that my younger poorer self missed out on.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 6 hours, 17 minutes (Normal difficulty, 68% map completion)

Note: This post is part of the Chic-Pixel community's #CapcoMonth event. For more info and their full list of events, check out this page: Community Game-Along Master List 2020

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Duck Tales Review


While I generally consider myself to know my classic games pretty well, I have to admit that I tend to dismiss licensed games offhand. Thus, Duck Tales wasn't on my radar until rather recently. In fact, I wasn't aware of this game's classic status until I started noticing how frequently its music was featured on video game music podcasts and name-that-tune events.

Overview
Duck Tales is a 2D platformer based on the animated series of the same name. In the game, Scrooge McDuck must explore six sprawling levels to recover his stolen valuables. Scrooge's unique ability is to use his cane as a pogo stick to traverse the environment. He can also use his cane like a golf club to whack small objects across the screen. This game was originally released for the NES. I streamed the PC version via the Disney Afternoon Collection on my Twitch channel.

Pros
  • While this game only has six levels, it gets a lot of mileage out of them due to their massive size and intricate designs. Exploring the various pathways of each level looking for secrets is easily this game's standout feature.
  • Scrooge's cane mechanics are pretty novel for a game of this age. Bouncing on enemies and across spikes using the pogo cane is a fun form of traversal once you get the hang of it. I also appreciated the way you could use the cane to dispatch enemies from a distance by hitting rocks at them like golf balls.
  • Duck Tales features some very cute sprite work the manages to exude personality despite the limited rendering capabilities of the NES. For example, when Scrooge is about to whack something with his cane, you can see his tail wagging back and forth. This animation is only a single pixel moving back and forth but it still manages to make a big difference in terms of making the character feel alive.
  • The music in this game is a real treat. Thanks to video game music podcasts, I already knew this game had some catchy tunes and I can now say from experience that it features catchy chiptune bops from start to finish.

Cons
  • Duck Tales does not offer any way to save your progress in the game; there are no save points or passwords. In fact, there are not even continues. Thus, if playing this on the original hardware, losing all three lives completely resets the game to the beginning. This sounds like a very frustrating way to experience this game. Thankfully, the Disney Afternoon Collection version adds the ability to use save states. Using save a state at the start of each level made it much more enjoyable.
  • To initiate a pogo jump, you must first hit the A-button to jump and then while in midair hit the B-button while pressing down on the D-pad. I found this to be a little cumbersome for an action you have to execute so frequently and quickly. Messing up the coordination on this set of inputs lead to many accidental deaths before I got used to it. Since the B-button serves no other purpose while airborne, I think it would have made far more sense to have the B-button alone initiate a pogo jump whenever Scrooge's feet are off the ground. 

Playing through the original version of Duck Tales was a pretty cool experience; I can definitely see why it's considered a classic. Given that the few minor issues I had were mostly the product of NES-era game design, I'm very curious to try Wayforward's remastered version of Duck Tales to see what kind of tweaks they may have made. Either way, I definitely recommend trying out Duck Tales via the Disney Afternoon Collection to anyone interested in 8-bit classics or Disney cartoons.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: About 2 hours and 30 minutes

Note: This post is part of the Chic-Pixel community's #CapcoMonth event. For more info and their full list of events, check out this page: Community Game-Along Master List 2020

Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Resident Evil Zero Review


I have tried to get into the Resident Evil series many times in the past: in-store kiosks of the original PS1 games, playing through the Gamecube version of RE1 due to the instance of a friend, and being coached through the opening section of RE4 at a party. In each case, there was some sticking point (often the control scheme) that kept the series from really clicking with me. That all changed last year when my wife and I had a fantastic time playing through Resident Evil 2 Remake. Now that I've come to appreciate what this series is all about, I thought it might be interesting to go back to an older game in the series for my next #CapcoMonth game.

Overview
Resident Evil Zero is a survival horror game that serves as a prequel to the original Resident Evil. It is the fifth game in the series and the last to be made in the classic pre-rendered adventure game style of RE1 before the series transitioned to the full-3D action game format of RE4 and its successors. Resident Evil Zero's unique feature is that it features two protagonists, Rebecca and Billy, who must work in tandem to navigate zombie-infested environments to discover the origin of the T-virus. This review is based on the PC version of the game, Resident Evil Zero HD, which I streamed in its entirety on my Twitch channel.

Pros
  • It's been a long time since I've played a game that uses pre-rendered backgrounds and fixed camera angles. While it can be an impediment to action and navigation at times, the aesthetic appeal of this style is hard to deny.
  • While most of the Resident Evil games feature underground scientific facilities at some point, and this game is by no means an exception, I appreciated that RE Zero offered some new types of environments to explore as well. Starting off on a luxury train in motion was a nice change of scenery. I also liked the abandoned church in a later section of the game.
  • Alternating between controlling Billy and Rebecca added an interesting wrinkle to exploration and puzzle-solving. Since Billy and Rebecca each have their own distinct abilities, this character swapping mechanic reminded me a bit of the classic puzzle game, Lost Vikings.
  • The puzzles in the game make for some surprisingly good brain teasers. However, I have to admit that the contexts in which they appear in the game often make very little sense. Why would it be necessary to solve a number puzzle to activate the emergency brake on a train, or map out a logic puzzle to reset a power breaker?
  • The PC version's mouse and keyboard controls were easy to pick up compared to how I remember the gamepad controls of the original RE games feeling. Using WASD to move the character and the mouse buttons to use weapons and interact with objects felt pretty natural. A few exceptions existed in areas where the camera perspective would abruptly change, leading to momentarily disorientation. 

Cons
  • The inventory management in this game is extremely cumbersome. Each character only has six item slots with many items and weapons consuming two of these slots. The game does not offer any opportunities to expand the size of your inventory or store items externally. As a result, a disproportional amount of my gameplay time was spent shuffling items around between my characters or dumping items on the floor to free up space. I would then have to backtrack across the map any time I needed to retrieve an item I had dropped. The other games in the series solve this problem with item storage boxes located at each save point. It baffles me why the designers of this game decided to omit this feature.
  • Resident Evil Zero retains the slow door opening animations present in earlier RE games every time you move between rooms or floors in a building. While these screens may have been necessary to accommodate loading times on the PS1, I don't see why the PC version of RE Zero elected to keep them. This slowdown coupled with the large size of Zero's map exacerbates the issues with backtracking that result from poor inventory management.
  • While the controls of this game are generally improved over earlier RE games, I found that they were very fiddly when it came to trying to pick up specific items on the floor and interacting with certain objects in the environment. The frequency with which you have to shuffle your inventory by picking up and dropping items really highlights this particular issue. 
  • Due to the issues above, the game feels tedious after a while and outstays its welcome. In order to spare myself some time and frustration going into the game's final area, I elected to use a cheat to replenish my ammo supply rather than trudging back and forth across the map to collect all the extra ammo I had dropped in various places throughout the campaign.

In summary, I was initially really enjoying this journey back to the classic Resident Evil style but over time, quality of life issues made the game feel like a slog. I think similar to my experience with Final Fantasy 13, using cheats to spare myself some late-game tedium was the right decision and keep me from being soured on the overall experience. There's enough interesting ideas here to make RE Zero worth a look for RE fans or those nostalgic for the pre-rendered style that was popular 20 years ago. For everyone else, however, I'd say this is an entry in the Resident Evil franchise that can comfortably be skipped.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: About 20 hours

Note: This post is part of the Chic-Pixel community's #CapcoMonth event. For more info and their full list of events, check out this page: Community Game-Along Master List 2020


Many years removed from its original release, this is still a very pretty game.


My scorecard at the end of the game reports an artificially low playtime since the game requires reloading your last save after every game over.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

Azure Striker Gunvolt Review


Long time readers know that I am a regular participant in Chic-Pixel's Community Game-Along events. With April's theme being Capcom games, I had a lot of options. For my first #CapcoMonth game, I selected Azure Striker Gunvolt. This game wasn't developed by Capcom itself, but by ex-Capcom employees at Inti Creates. Gunvolt is heavily inspired by Mega Man, which isn't among my favorite retro series, so I had previously looked the other way when Inti Creates decided to take their own spin on this style of game. However, after getting some hands-on time with one of the Gunvolt games on the show floor at MomoCon last year (impressions), I could immediately tell this was more than a simple Mega Man clone and the first game ended up on my Steam wishlist as soon as I got home.

Overview
Azure Striker Gunvolt is a 2D action game in the style of Mega Man. The game is comprised of action-platforming stages that culminate in a boss battle; the order that these stages are played is up to the player. However, unlike Mega Man, Gunvolt does not defeat his enemies purely by firing projectiles at them. Instead, he tags enemies with a needle gun that does minimal damage but increase's the target's electrical conductivity. He then emits an electric field that strikes down each tagged enemy with lightning. (You've probably figured out by now, why the main character is named "Gunvolt".) Azure Striker Gunvolt takes place in a dystopian cyberpunk setting with heavy anime influences. This review is based on the PC version of the game, which is available via Steam.

Pros
  • I really enjoyed the game's core mechanic. Loading up as many enemies as possible with conductive needles and then unleashing the electric field to zap them all at once was very satisfying.
  • For an otherwise pretty straightforward action game, it has a surprisingly involved story. While this story leans heavily into anime and comic book themes and tropes, I found it to be entertaining and a good way to break up the action. I would absolutely watch an anime series or movie with this cast of characters and setting.
  • This game has a kicking soundtrack that features synthy instrumental tracks for the general action as well as vocal electro-pop songs that play during certain story events or when certain criteria are met during gameplay. The vocal tracks are very catchy and would always get me hyped whenever they would come on.
  • Gunvolt has great 16-bit-like pixel art that is embellished with higher quality effects for certain elements like the electric field. This can make for a pretty chaotic display during the heat of battle, but I found that I really liked the way it looked once I learned to be able to keep track of the action. During dialog and cutscenes, characters are represented with nice-looking anime portraits in a visual novel-style presentation. 
  • As someone who struggled with some of the Mega Man games, I appreciated that Gunvolt adds several features that make getting through it a little more manageable:
    • Each level features multiple checkpoints including one right before the boss room. You can continue from these checkpoints as many times as you would like until you beat the level.
    • The game includes some light RPG mechanics that allow you to level up your character and upgrade his gear. I only made minimal use of this feature because I felt like the game's difficulty level wasn't high enough to necessitate replaying each level multiple times to grind for XP and crafting materials, but it's nice that it's an option for players who get stuck and want to increase their chances of success.
    • Every once in a while, an angel-like character will appear and resurrect you when you are about to die via a mechanic called "Anthem" (there's a justification in the game's story for why this occurs). In addition to resurrecting you, Anthem temporarily powers you up and changes the music to an especially catchy song. Sice Anthem occurs by random chance, it only triggered a few times for me during my playthrough, but it often saved my bacon during multiple-stage boss fights and the song that played added to the excitement of the battle.
Cons
  • Gunvolt has some dialog that takes place during gameplay. This dialog is voiced in Japanese and displays in textboxes with English subtitles. With how busy the screen can be in the midst of the action, I found this dialog to be very distracting and ultimately had to disable it. For example, in one case I had a character exclaim "Watch out for those spikes!" while I was platforming; the problem was that the dialog box displayed over the spikes, causing me not to see them and skewer my character as a result. Thankfully, the mid-action dialog didn't seem to be essential to the story, so I don't feel like I missed out on much by disabling it.
After loving the last Inti Creates game I played, Bloodstained (review), I was pleased to find that this studio had knocked in out of the park with another excellent 2D action platformer. I'm already looking forward to playing the next two games in this series! I highly recommend Azure Striker Gunvolt to anyone who enjoys retro-style action, even those who aren't fans of Mega Man, Gunvolt's source of inspiration.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 9 hours, 52 minutes (includes reaching both the "normal" and "true" ending)




Note: This post is part of the Chic-Pixel community's #CapcoMonth event. For more info and their full list of events, check out this page: Community Game-Along Master List 2020

Monday, March 30, 2020

Bravely Default 2 Impressions


As someone who is a massive fan of Final Fantasy 5, its successor series, Bravely Default, has been recommended to me countless times. However, every time a game in this series is brought up, there's always some kind of caveat like "This game is great, but that second act is a doozy!" or "That game improves on some aspects of the original, but downgrades in other areas." As a result, I've been waiting for an ideal jumping-on point for this franchise for a while. When I saw in the recent Nintendo Direct that a demo for the newest game in the series, Bravely Default 2, was available, I figured that the time had finally come to get on board.

Background
Bravely Default 2 is a turn-based RPG in the style of classic Final Fantasy and Dragon Quest games. One of the game's defining features is a job system that lets each character mix and match skills from a variety of classes. The demo features four classes: White Mage, Black Mage, Vanguard (knight), and Monk. The other major feature is the "Brave" and "Default" system that allows you to take extra actions in one turn at the expense of subsequent turns; which creates a risk-reward dynamic to the battle strategy. Despite its somewhat misleading name, Bravely Default 2 is actually the third game in the series and begins a new story with different characters than the previous games.

Pros
  • I found the game's graphics appealing, both in terms of art style and use of textures. The very detailed textures on somewhat simple-looking stylized character models made the gameplay and cutscenes look they were being enacted by dolls being posed in a playset. I thought it was kind of a neat look.
  • The game has nice battle animations that are distinct for each character and enemy. It's impressive considering how many types of monsters you're likely to encounter.  For example, I like the way defeated enemies slump over and collapse; in most games of this type, they would just fade away.
  • On the topic of the doll-like quality of the game's graphics, I had a lot of fun playing dress-up with my characters; each character has a special costume for each class. I spent several minutes in the Job menu cycling through the classes for each character just to admire the costume designs.
  • No two characters in the main party speak with the same type of accent. I like this voice casting decision because it conveys that the characters come from a multicultural world.
  • The FF5-like job system has the potential to be a lot of fun, especially later on once more than four classes are available. 
  • The music in the demo features pieces influenced by classical music, traditional Middle Eastern music, and rock. It was effective in giving the impression that the final game will have a great score.

Cons
  • The game's user interface can be a little unclear or inconsistent in layout. I sometimes felt like it was hard to display the info I needed both in menus and during battles.
  • Bravely Default 2 eschews traditional random battles for having enemies visible on-screen. The problem is that the enemies respawn too quickly; after defeating an enemy, all I would have to do is walk a short distance and then turn back to find that same enemy was alive and well again. Usually, the nice thing about having on-screen enemies is the ability to clear a room and explore freely; this demo did not allow me to do that, which I found frustrating. 
  • After coming out of a battle, other enemies in the area can engage you immediately. I had many situations where I had to fight multiple groups of enemies consecutively without a break, making the effective frequency of combat higher than what it would have been with random encounters.
  • By far the biggest issue with this demo was its extremely imbalanced difficulty level. Just to make a modicum of progress into the dungeon in the demo's quest, I had to grind for a considerable amount of time. After playing for several hours, I managed to make it to the dungeon boss only to find that I could barely deal any damage to him; I would likely have to grind for several more hours just to be able to finish this demo, which just didn't seem worth it to me.
Ultimately, this demo had the opposite effect than what was intended; it made me feel less inclined to pick up the full version. Why would I pre-order the full game when the demo was so discouraging to play? Since there seemed to be potential in the game from an artistic and mechanical standpoint, I'll probably give it a second look if reviews indicate that the final game has been drastically rebalanced to offer a less grinding-focused experience.

The demo warns you that the difficulty has been turned up "a little higher", but to me this seemed extreme.


I found the dialog in the demo to be fairly entertaining.


Be prepared to spend a lot of time staring at the battle screen if you decide to play this demo.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams Review


For my third game during #PlatforMonth, I decided to pick up a platformer starring the gaming world's second favorite pair of super-powered Italian siblings, the Giana Sisters. While this series may have started off as a very blatant ripoff of Super Mario Bros, it has since grown into a distinct franchise with its own unique personality and mechanics. The fourth game in the series, Twisted Dreams, was the result of a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2012.

Overview
Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams is a 2.5D platformer with a linear level structure. The game's signature mechanic is that you can switch your character between two forms, "Punk" and "Cute". Changing between these forms changes your character's abilities and also the behavior of objects in the environment.

Pros
  • This game gets a lot of mileage out of its central switching mechanic. Switching between the two forms occurs instantaneously, seamlessly, and changes your move set, the visual aesthetic of the level, the background music, and the behavior of platforms and enemies. It somehow all feels very natural quickly and I found that it remained an enjoyable mechanic throughout the entire campaign.
  •  Twisted Dreams has a kickin' soundtrack. In Punk form, the music has rock instrumentation with electric guitars and in Cute form, the music takes on a more electronic synthy sound. Both sounded pretty good, but I found that when the situation didn't require a specific form, I would stay in the Punk form to listen to the shredding guitar.
  • With how much the switching mechanic changes things, I thought navigating the levels and picking the right form could get confusing. Thankfully the game signals to you when it's time to change forms via color-coded gems that you collect throughout each level. This comes in handy with some of the very technical jumps that could require several mid-air transformations!
  • Punk form's special move is an air dash and Cute form can twirl to glide through the air. Using both of these moves in tandem with each other works very smoothly once you get used to it.
  • Being a challenging 2D platformer, I was very thankful that Twisted Dreams is very generous with checkpoints.
  • This game is tough, but not in a way that ever feels discouraging (with the possible exception of the final boss). The game often asks you to pull off some very tricky maneuvers but the game gives you tools you need to succeed and doing so feels very satisfying.

Cons
  • Twisted Dreams gives you a rating of 1 to 3 stars at the end of each level. Earning a certain number of stars is needed to unlock the later levels of the game. However, the scoring system that determines your star rating is very opaque. I had to look up how it worked in order to earn the last few stars I needed to unlock the final level.
  • Like many modern 2D platformers, the game can be quite busy visually. I lost several lives due by missing a platform or crashing into spikes in areas where it was difficult to discern whether an object was in the foreground or background.
  • The campaign is split into three "worlds" but there is no cohesive visual theme to separate one from the other. Levels tended to switch randomly from a forest, castle, cave, or beach settings regardless of which "world" they were in.
Other than a few minor issues that occasionally slowed me down, I blasted through Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams and had a great time doing it. I give this game a strong recommendation to fans of platformers like Rayman, Donkey Kong Country, or Mighty Switch Force.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 10 hours

Notes:
  • This review was written as part of the Chic Pixel community's #PlatforMonth event. For more info about their events, check out this page: Community Game-Along
  • For the majority of my time playing through Giana Sisters Twisted Dreams, I was convinced that I was alternating between a "punk" sister and a "cute" sister (i.e. two different characters). It turns out that you're only playing as one sister who changes her appearance; the other titular Giana sister is the character you are trying to rescue from the villain.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Control Review


While I play a lot of indie and retro games, I've been trying to make it a point over the past year or so to keep up with some of the critically acclaimed major releases as well. Of 2019's critical darlings, one in particular that caught my eye was Control. This game was awarded Game of the Year at various media outlets including IGN, Ars Technica, and EGM.
Overview

Control is a third-person action game by Remedy Studios. The player character, Jesse, is on a search for her long lost brother which leads to her finding out about the existence of a secret organization within the US government, the Federal Bureau of Control, which investigates paranormal phenomena. Through a set of initially unclear circumstances, she becomes the leader of the Bureau, gains supernatural powers, and ends up being tasked with thwarting an invasion by an alien force called The Hiss (it's kind of a lot to take in at once). The bulk of Control's gameplay consists of exploring the massive labyrinthine headquarters of the Bureau and clearing out Hiss invaders, which usually take the form of possessed Control agents.
Combat

The key to combat in Control is successfully juggling gunplay and Jesse's psychic abilities. She has a single gun that transforms into different modes that allow it to function as a handgun, shotgun, etc, all of which have infinite ammo but share a single cooldown meter. Similarly, Jesse's powers (telekinesis, a force shield, air dashing, and levitation) all share a second cooldown meter. Managing these two cooldown meters is tough at first, but once you've sufficiently leveled up Jesse's weapons and abilities, combat feels looks and feels pretty slick. The combat is enhanced by very detailed physics modeling that affects the use of the psychic powers (especially telekinesis) and the destructibility of objects in the environment.

Unfortunately, as novel as using a mix of gunplay and superpowers is at first, Control wears the player down by frequently throwing one similar encounter at you after another. For how combat-focused this game is, there isn't much variety in the enemies or the combat situations presented; often the game just spams you with wave after wave of the same few enemies. While there seems to be a lot of options for how to dispatch these enemies, I ultimately found that a pretty simple tactic was the idea strategy in almost every situation: stick to two of the six weapon forms and then just alternate between shooting and launching debris with telekinesis.

On the bright side regarding combat, I appreciated that the game maintained a consistent level of challenge; many games that involve using superpowers tend to let the player become some overpowered that battles become trivial. Control kept the difficulty of battle pretty high. I think having to stay on my toes helped make the combat feel meaningful despite its repetitiveness. The only downside is that some enemies have attacks that can instantly reduce Jesse to a sliver of health, regardless of her stats and upgrades; this meant for some cheap deaths if I got caught by surprise.

Exploration

Control takes place almost entirely inside the Bureau's headquarters. However, due to various paranormal phenomena that bend the fabric of time and space, this building is essentially a giant Metroid-like maze. Throughout the story, events take place that change and distort the building's layout, making it even more of a labyrinth. Also in Metroid-like fashion, many areas of the building are initially off-limits until you gain the necessary keycard or traversal ability to gain access.

The idea behind Contol's setting is to feature stark contrasts between the mundane (office spaces) and the surreal (paranormal objects and events). However, I found that the mundane areas outnumbered the surreal areas to a point where I did not feel especially motivated to explore; wandering through room after room of cubicles is not terribly interesting. It also doesn't help that rewards for exploration are fairly minimal.

To the game's credit, when you manage to venture out of the office areas and into pockets of otherworldly space, they are pretty cool. These areas often feature bizarre distorted landscapes, great lighting, and a creepy atmosphere; it's just a shame there aren't more of them. There is one area in particular that shifts around you in time with the background music as you wander through (I'm being vague about this in order not to spoil it for others); this segment was the highlight of the game for me.

Another aspect of the game design that impacted exploration, was the game's save system. Throughout the Bureau building are fixed checkpoints called, of course, "Control Points". While the game autosaves the world state regularly, getting killed results in respawning Jesse at the last Control Point she passed. Unfortunately, in some areas of the map, the Control Points can be pretty far apart or in impractical locations, which results in having to retraverse sections of the map over and over if you find yourself stuck on a particularly tough fight. It also doesn't help matters that enemies in areas you've been before will respawn over time, making retraversal after a death extra punishing. While this system was manageable on the game's main story path (with a few glaring exceptions toward the end), I found that it discouraged me from exploring the map and engaging with the side missions as much as I typically would in this kind of game. For example, there's a difficult boss battle in one of the side missions that's located quite far from a Control Point in an area where enemies respawn especially frequently. I would've liked to keep making attempts at this boss but having to trek back to the boss room each time eventually lead me to abandon this questline.

Storytelling/Presentation

The story of Control is initially very cryptic; the Bureau of Control, its mission, and the forces it's facing don't initially make much sense. However, I found that by piecing info together from in-engine cutscenes, collectible documents, and full-motion video files, I was able to make sense of it without much trouble. That being said, my level of interest in the story and world of Control waxed and waned significantly over the course of the game. The theme of government agents covering up paranormal events is one that doesn't always land with me. In the case of Control, the strong voice acting and atmosphere generally helped sell the plot, but at times scenarios it presented as dark and serious came across to me as kind of ridiculous, which caused me to disengage. It doesn't help matters that several of the scenarios in the game are coincidentally similar to a very silly children's show called Odd Squad. When a scene in an M-rated triple-A game immediately evokes images of a TV series designed to teach small children math, I couldn't help but feel pulled out of the story... however, I realize that my mental association between these unrelated things is more of a me-problem rather than a real issue with the game. (Here's a clip of Odd Squad for reference: Odd Squad)

Like many recent third-person games, collecting case files, letters, and other documents is a way that the game expands its lore. When this is done well it can be an engaging way to enrich the game world for players who are interested in it without bloating the game's story for those who just want to follow the main plot. I found that the documents in Control were interesting to collect and read, but the game makes doing so more cumbersome than it should be. For one, the inventory screen doesn't offer a way to sort read and unread documents, so each time I found a new one would then be followed by scrolling through my entire inventory trying to find where this new item ended up. The other issue I had was that each document has seemingly random segments redacted. I realize this is supposed to provide the aesthetic of the document being a "secret file" but it makes no sense in-game; why are documents kept inside the Bureau redacted? The whole point of redaction is that it's something done to a file when it gets released outside of the agency that produced it. I acknowledge this is an extremely small nitpick, but for me, it made me take these documents a little less seriously and made them harder to read.

Much to my surprise, the area where this game's storytelling worked best on me, was the full-motion video. Throughout your journey through the Bureau, you occasionally find video recordings of live actors giving agency announcements and briefings. Matthew Porretta, the actor that plays the Bureau's chief scientist, does a fantastic job of giving an initially grounded performance that slowly becomes unhinged as the game scenario gets more and more surreal. His scenes are incredibly effective at setting the tone of each phase of the game's story and I was always excited to find another videotape while rummaging through the Bureau's offices. If you would have told me years ago that one of my favorite features of a game in 2020 would be full-motion video, I never would have believed you, but here we are.
Conclusion

In all likelihood, this review probably reads as being quite negative. The thing is, Control is actually a very well-made game, and at key moments it really gets things right, making for an evocative experience. The problem is that the highlights are separated by large sections of mediocrity that give the game's various minor issues extra time to rise to the surface. As a result, my sentiment toward this game went back and forth many times throughout it's run time. Ultimately, I appreciate Control's level of quality and ambition but I am surprised that it took so many Game of the Year awards. I think players who are really into TV shows like The X-Files would be enthralled by this game. However, general action game fans will likely find that Control is good but certainly not Game of the Year material.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 23 hours (main campaign plus several side quests)

Monday, January 27, 2020

Ori and the Blind Forest Review



Keeping the #PlatforMonth train rolling, I decided to play a game that I've had recommended to me by quite a few people, Ori and the Blind Forest. This Metroidvania from Moon Studios and Microsoft was originally released on Xbox One and PC in 2015. This review is based on the "Definitive Edition" of the game on PC. I live-streamed my entire playthrough of the game on my Twitch channel.

Observations:
  • This game features gorgeous painterly visuals. The aesthetic reminds me of Ubi-Art games like Rayman Origins and Child of Light. In general, I really liked the look of the game but in some cases, it was hard to discern what was an interactive object/platform and what was just part of the background art. A lot of stylized platformers have this issue, however. 
  • For a game that initially looks very cute, it goes to some very dark places thematically, both in terms of atmosphere and storytelling. The mysterious and forlorn tone of the game reminded me of classic European fairytales (i.e. the pre-Disney versions). I found this to be intriguing but could see it being offputting for children or players expecting something lighter from a platformer.
  • Unlike most other games in this genre, Ori features very few fixed checkpoints on the map but instead allows you save almost anywhere at the cost of a small amount of MP. Since it deviates from the norm, I initially found myself having to do a lot retraversal any time I lost a life because I kept forgetting to save. Once I got used to it, however, I came to really appreciate the flexibility of the system. In some of the tougher areas, it was nice to be able to save every few minutes.
  • Similar to a game like Monster Boy (review), Ori's world is comprised of a large main map with a few separated dungeon-like areas. I like this structure since it provides your exploration with defined destinations rather than just having the whole game be comprised of aimless wandering. Also, segregating these dungeons from the rest of the map allows them to introduce unique mechanics that help break up the gameplay. For example, there is one dungeon that focuses on manipulating the effect of gravity; this mechanic wouldn't make sense in the overworld but is a lot of fun within its own dungeon.
  • The gameplay of Ori focuses heavily on movement over combat. In fact, many of the boss encounters playout more like escape sequences rather than battles. Not only does this work well from a thematic standpoint, it also plays to this game's strengths. Ori is a nimble character with a robust move set of aerial maneuvers such as wall jumps and air dashes. After receiving a few powerups, Ori can traverse many environments without ever touching the ground. This approach to platforming reminded me of one of my recent favorites in the genre, Celeste (review).
  • The game features an RPG-like skill tree and experience points. While this gives you some flexibility in how you set up your character, I found this to largely be a superfluous feature. In a game so heavily focused on locomotion, I didn't see much point in putting points into anything other than the movement skill branch of the skill tree.
  • In order to be more atmospheric, most areas of Ori feature pretty minimalistic music. The moody soundscape is occasionally broken up by grand orchestral swells for dramatic effect. While I appreciated what this approach accomplished artistically, my preference tends to lean toward persistent melodic pieces that I can enjoy humming along to or listening to on their own.
If I had played Ori and the Blind Forest when it had come out back in 2015, I think it would have been a mind-blowing experience and an easy 5/5. However, in the Metroidvania-rich gaming landscape of 2020, it's hard not to compare this game to subsequent games in the genre that I liked a little more. All that being said, Ori is still a fantastic game and accomplishes everything it sets off to do masterfully; I highly recommend it to fans of Metroidvania games.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 9 hours

Acknowledgment: #PlatforMonth is part of the Chic-Pixel monthly game-along calendar. Check out this page for the full line-up: 2020 Master Game-Along List



Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Sonic Mania Review


Though Sega games are admittedly a blind spot for me (see my Sega Gap post for more info), the Sonic series has been an exception; over the years I've played through all of the Sonic platformers on the Sega Genesis, Sega Dreamcast, Gameboy Advance, and Nintendo DS. So naturally, Sonic Mania, which has been lauded by some as the best 2D Sonic yet, has been on my radar for some time.

Overview:
Sonic Mania is a 2D platformer in the style of the classic Sega Genesis games that was developed as a collaboration between Sega and indie developers. As in classic Sonic, each level of the game is a zone divided into two acts. To unlock the "true ending" of the game players must collect a full set of Chaos Emeralds by finding and completing hidden challenge areas in the zones.

Pros
  • This game uses a custom engine that replicates the look of 16-bit Sonic but incorporates effects and a level a detail beyond the capabilities of the Genesis's famous "Blast Processing".
  • Coming to Mania with the mindset of classic Sonic, I was hoping to hear some bops and this game did not disappoint. Sonic Mania includes some cool remixes of retro Sonic tunes as well as some very catchy original tracks.
  • Similar to the music, some of the level designs are remixes of Genesis Sonic zones while others are brand new. For me, this game struck the right balance of nostalgic retro-based stages and creative original levels.
  • Sonic's full move set from the Genesis games is replicated in Mania and still feels just right despite the new engine. The game does a good job of retaining the classic feel while also introducing new mechanics.
  • The game includes some cool surprise references to Sonic series history. (I won't spoil them)
  • Sonic boss battles typically aren't anything special, they're generally just a matter of avoiding a few enemy attacks and then bouncing off them to score a few hits. This game's bosses are much more dynamic and often work in the environment of the stage in interesting ways.

Cons
  • In its desire to remain true to the retro format, Sonic Mania keeps certain 16-bit design elements that can add frustration to the experience, especially for players not accustomed to old-school pitfalls:
    • Sonic has a limited number of lives - Getting sent back to the beginning of a zone after losing to a second act boss is pretty lame. At least there are infinite continues.
    • Stages have a 10-minute time limit, running out of time kills Sonic instantly. Since the later levels can be quite long and confusingly laid out, running out of time can be a serious issue on one's first playthrough. Thankfully, the time limit can be disabled in the options menu, but I didn't realize this until I was already nearly at the end of the game.
    • Sonic can be killed by getting crushed extremely easily. If any part of his sprite gets pinched at all, it's an instant loss of a life. It's very easy to think you've cleared an obstacle only to find out that you've positioned Sonic in a space where he's slightly squeezed and thus spontaneously turned into a hedgehog pancake.
    • Every once in a while a seemingly innocuous-looking floor tile will have spikes pop out of it just to spite you.
  • The stages in Sonic Mania are unusually labyrinthine for an otherwise straightforward linear 2D platformer. There where many occasions during my stream of this game where I said out loud "Well, hopefully, I'm going the right way." Once I realized that I could disable the time limit, this wasn't that big of a deal but it still seemed like an unusual design choice.
In short, Sonic Mania is an awesome package for fans of classic Sonic that aren't prone to getting tripped up by a few potentially divisive old-school design choices. I would also recommend this game as a strong starting point for retro-curious players who want a good sampler platter of 16-bit blue hedgehog platforming.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 5 hours (regular ending)

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Game of the Year 2019

Serving as my third year as a gaming blogger and second year as a Twitch streamer, 2019 presented the opportunity to play a wide variety of excellent video games. Having finished at least 32 games in 2019 with release dates ranging from 1990 to present, narrowing down my Top 10 has proved to be a difficult task. However, part of the fun of compiling these lists is making difficult decisions and absurd apples-to-oranges comparisons. With that said, I present my ten favorite games that I beat in 2019:

#10: Bomb Chicken
Anybody that's been following me for a long time could probably guess that the odd combination of Bomberman-esque mechanics and themes of animal liberation, makes Bomb Chicken a game that is uniquely qualified to appeal to my particular sensibilities. I had a blast (pun very much intended) with this cute and challenging puzzle platformer. (review)

#9: Devil May Cry 5
I was a little unsure about taking my first step into character action games by jumping right into the fifth entry in the genre's most iconic series. Much to my surprise, I fell into the gameplay fairly naturally and after watching a few YouTube videos about DMC lore, I was able to enjoy the story and characters of Devil May Cry 5 quite a bit. My experience with this game has me keeping an eye out for other character action games I might enjoy and also has me rooting for Dante to be included in Super Smash Bros. (review)

#8: Gris
This artsy puzzle platformer delivered powerful emotional themes coupled with solid gameplay and gorgeous graphics. It's no surprise that this game won the Games for Impact category at The Game Awards. Experiencing this game live on Twitch with my audience was one of my highlights of the year as a streamer. (review)

#7: The Gardens Between
The Gardens Between really impressed me with its clever time-bending puzzle mechanics and creative level designs. When people ask me to recommend a recent puzzle game, this is my go-to pick. (review)

#6: Gears 5
Except for a few drunken multiplayer sessions of the original game when I was in college, I came to Gears 5 with nearly zero experience with Microsoft's long-running shooter series. What I was expecting from this game was Michael Bay-like action, buff people with guns blowing stuff up real good, and I certainly got plenty of that (which is a good thing in a video game). On top of that, there was a surprisingly compelling drama unfolding involving the aforementioned buff individuals! I may have come to the series blind but after playing this game, I consider myself a Gears fan now! (review)

#5: The Messenger
Indie retro-inspired 2D platformers may be a dime a dozen nowadays, but The Messenger stood out with especially tight action and some of the most humorous writing I've seen in a game in quite some time. This game also sported some excellent chiptunes, in fact, I found myself humming The Messenger's item shop theme as I was typing this. (review)

#4: Prey
Featuring the intricate level design of Dishonored and the haunting atmosphere of Half-Life, Prey got its hooks into me deep. I lost a lot of sleep while I was playing Prey, not only from late-night game sessions but also just from thinking about the game's themes and the choices they present. It's a real shame this game got overlooked by so many when it was initially released. (review)

#3: Forza Horizon 4
As a guy who's about as far away from being a gearhead as one could get, I never would have guessed that a realistic-looking racing game like Forza Horizon 4 would ever sit so high in one of my game of the year posts. This game's combination of fantastic graphics, varied race types, open-world exploration, and a plethora of difficulty adjustment options made this an exhilarating and accessible auto racing experience, even for a lousy driver like me. If you have Xbox Game Pass, take a quick break from reading this post to go queue up the download for this game now! (review)

#2: Monster Boy
If it wasn't already apparent from the rest of this post or the mini-review roundup I recently released, I have played a lot of 2D platformers this year. Monster Boy stands head and shoulders over the rest with its delightful character animations, clever character transformation mechanic, top-notch map, and wonderful music. (review)

#1: Fire Emblem Three Houses
While I could describe many of the games on this list as "engrossing", none of the others consumed me to a level quite like Fire Emblem Three Houses. It's tactical gameplay, a memorable and engaging cast of characters, and intriguing branching story make Three Houses not only a standout game in the 2019 release calendar but in the Nintendo Switch lineup overall; what Breath of the Wild was for Zelda and Odyssey was to Mario, Three Houses is to Fire Emblem. (review)

Honorable Mentions:
This year's list was so contentious that I wrote several drafts of this post with the top few slots in entirely different, but still completely justifiable, orders. With a lineup this strong, it was only natural that many great games that I played this year just barely missed the cut. Here's a sampling of the best of the rest:
  • Shadow of the Tomb Raider - The past few entries in this series easily took numbered spots in prior years, and in a less packed year, this one would have landed a spot as well. Square Enix's reboot trilogy of Lara Croft's tale is still a gold standard for action-adventure games. (review)
  • Tales of Symphonia - Streaming this bizarre and very length Gamecube-era JRPG was a wild experience. I'm very grateful to my Twitch audience for joining me on the twists and turns of Lloyd and Collette's quest! (review)
  • Ys Memories of Celceta - The Ys series continues to be a source of fun action RPGs with great music, and this entry was no exception. I'm looking forward to exploring more of this series in 2020. (review)
  • Resident Evil 2 Remake - I've never been a fan of Resident Evil or zombie horror, but this remake of the Playstation classic managed to finally win me over. Playing through this game with my wife was a real thrill! (review)
  • Cadence of Hyrule - Cadence's fusion of Zelda and Crypt of the Necrodancer gameplay was the crossover I had no idea I needed. It also blessed us with awesome arrangements of iconic Zelda tunes. This game makes me excited to think about what other Nintendo/indie collaborations we could see in the future. (review)
  • Astral Chain - While not quite as polished as DMC5, Astral Chain delivered an exciting and stylish anime-inspired character action experience that showcased the versatility of the genre. (review)
  • Bloodstained Ritual of the Night - In the crowded field of Metroidvania games, this one from veteran director Koji Igarashi, stood out from the rest with refined gameplay and a unique sense of style and humor. (review)
It's been yet another fantastic year of games and I'm really glad to have been able to share it with all the great gaming folks I've had the pleasure of getting to know via this blog, Twitch, and social media! Here's to a happy, healthy, and productive 2020!

Happy New Year!