Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Nier Automata Review


2017 was a huge year for games. With the release of the Switch and behemoths like Breath of the Wild and Mario Odyssey taking up so much of my time, there were a lot of other great games that piqued my interest but ended up never making it into my queue. In fact, I even made a Missed 2017 Games list to help me keep track of all the games I wanted to circle back to in later years. Among these was Square Enix and Platinum Games' award-winning sci-fi action RPG Nier Automata. Finding myself with extra time to stay home and play games lately, this year turned out to be the perfect time to finally experience this open-world post-apocalyptic epic.

Background
Nier Automata set in the distant future thousands of years after a successful alien invasion has forced humankind into exile in space. The story follows two android soldiers, 2B and 9S, who are dispatched to Earth on a mission to reclaim the planet from machine lifeforms that have been maintaining control of the planet on behalf of the aliens. By playing through the campaign three times, players can experience this proxy war between the human and alien's respective robotic armies from the perspectives of 2B, 9S, and a third character that is encountered later.

Aesthetics
When you think about it, Nier Automata's setting is rather bleak, but I'm ok with that. There's something about exploring a crumbling post-human world, a world torn apart by a pointless war, that's deeply compelling: it's as beautiful as it is sad. It's an experience I wasn't entirely sure I would be comfortable with given current world events, but I'm glad I did it.

Nier Automata feels "directed" in a film-like sense during gameplay in a way that 3D open-world games rarely do. In many cases, this is accomplished by taking control of the camera away from the player to force a cinematic camera perspective.  The game's ability to adapt its mechanics for behind the back, side-scrolling, and overhead perspectives on the fly makes the whole thing feel remarkably smooth while still showing off major setpiece moments from the best possible perspective. Older pre-rendered 3D games like the Resident Evil attempted to have dramatic camera angles like this, but it would often have an awkward or jarring effect on the feel of the game.

The incredible musical score sets the tone perfectly: haunting, mysterious, sad, with just a little bit of wonder mixed in. The fact that the lyrics of the music are in a made-up language gives the world a mysterious alien quality even though it takes place on our planet. This dovetails nicely with the game's themes of returning to decimated occupied earth thousands of years after humans have left it behind. The strange multicultural mishmash language gives the sense that though this world was once the domain of humans like us, the humans of Nier's world were far removed from us by the passage of time.

Every movement the characters make has a distinct style. While I expected this to be the case during battles, it's kind of the norm for games with action combat, it was the personality injected into the more minor animations that really struck me; 2B and 9S have a way of turning simple actions like climbing a ladder or sliding down a sand dune into cool and flashy maneuvers. Each type of enemy also has a unique and vividly animated form of locomotion based on the configuration of their bodies; I particularly liked the bouncy and jerky movements of the stubby robots and the skittering of the insect-like machines.

Nier Automata's character and costume designs may feature very limited color pallets, but this ties them together in a cohesive yet very stylish way. The figures of 2B and 9S clad in black and with their eyes covered by blindfolds is bold and iconic. The one downside of this is that cut of 2B's outfit combined with the game's fabric physics and camera angles can lead to some "fan service" imagery in places where it feels inappropriate (anime fans will know what I'm talking about). Having a character's underwear being prominently featured in an otherwise serious scene detracted from the dramatic weight for me. I think this could have been avoided with a few minor tweaks that wouldn't have sacrificed much from the character's style.

Mechanics
Combat in Nier Automata takes the form of fast-paced real-time battles that play similar to a character action game with some RPG systems layered on top to make the action a little more forgiving. The mechanics work a little differently depending on which character you're playing. As a combat specialist, 2B wields two swords, gracefully flips through the air for aerial combos, and polishes enemies off with flashy finishing moves (imagine a simplified version of Devil May Cry and you get the picture). On the other hand, 9S, as a scout, only has access to a limited set of these combat capabilities but can make up for it by being able to hack into his foes to take them down from a distance. Hacking success is contingent on winning a shoot 'em up minigame similar to Geometry Wars. As someone who enjoys both character action games and shoot 'em ups, both of these mechanics worked for me and helped keep combat feeling fresh when playing through each character's routes.

Nier Automata uses 3D action combat, top-down hack-n-slash, side-scrolling, and shoot 'em gameplay in concert with each other to keep the action as fast-paced and stylish as possible. Amazingly, it juggles all of these and makes them feel natural. As someone who plays a fair amount of shmups, I thought some of these segments were a little too easy; I could often spot ways to cheese my way to victory. However, I'm thinking it was a deliberate design decision to lower the friction when switching back and forth between gameplay styles and to ensure no one mechanic creates a stumbling block for players. On the whole, it's very impressive the way this game manages to implement so many types of mechanics so effectively. 

To truly complete Nier Automata, you have to play through the campaign three times. Each time you experience a different character's route and gain new information and perspectives that make the whole story come together. While this is an interesting concept, I had mixed feelings about the execution. The first route, in which you play as 2B, is by far the freshest and most exciting from a gameplay standpoint because every enemy you encounter and area you gain access to is a new discovery; however, her story is somewhat unsatisfying. In the second route, you play as 2B's companion, 9S. Since these two characters spend the majority of the campaign together, 9S's route is largely a retread of 2B's route, but with a few new scenes interspersed throughout that provide more context to the story. The fact that 9S's mechanics differ from 2B's helps keep things from getting stale but I still couldn't help but feel like I was repeating a lot of scenarios I had already done in order to get a small amount of new content. The third route covers entirely new ground from the first two routes and provides the story with a conclusion that brings everything together, it's just a shame that it takes so long to get to it. I think it would have benefitted this game to abridge 9S's route so that more players would have made it the far more interesting third route. Based on Steam statistics, only about half the players that finish 2B's route end up playing through the third route. (My feelings about Nier Automata's three-route structure mirror my though's in my review of the similarly-structured Ys Origin.)

Nier Automata's save system is inconsistent. In the opening mission, which takes about 45 minutes to complete, you can't save your game at all. In other parts of the campaign, you must manually save your game at marked save points on the map. In other circumstances, getting killed doesn't result in a game over but revives you in a new body; you must then go find your previous body to collect any of the stat-buffing items you had equipped when you died. There's an in-universe justification for the save system's inconsistency that works from a narrative perspective, but it still led to some frustration on my part when I would wander into a high-level area by mistake and end up losing progress. I recommend that most players temporarily drop the difficulty to Easy in the game's opening mission to get the best experience.

Like any open-world game, Nier Automat provides plenty of opportunites to engage in sidequests. Most of these were pretty bland fetch quests, though the fact that they added to the lore, supplied considerable XP and crafting supplies, and provided an excuse to explore the world more made them worthwhile. It also helped that your side quest completion carries over each time you play through the campaign, meaning you can spread the sidequests out between routes to keep them from feeling too repetitive.

Conclusion
By combining a rich world, a strong sense of style, and a variety of gameplay styles that feel good individually and work even better in concert, Nier Automata's strengths far outweigh any of the game's minor negative attributes. The game is both aesthetically and mechanically an artistic achievement that deserves to be experienced by anyone that enjoys action RPGs and science fiction.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 48 hours (all three routes, medium difficulty, 82% sidequests completed)

Nature taking over urban areas is a common theme
Nature taking over urban areas is a common theme.

The creepy old amusement park was one of my favorite areas

Scrolling shmup gameplay

Geometry Wars-like hacking sequence

3D flying shmup battle


Monday, July 27, 2020

Chantelise Review


It's been pretty well-established on my Twitch channel that I'm a big fan of the Ys games. Last year when I was streaming Ys 4 Memories of Celceta, a viewer said "Wow, this reminds me of Chantelise!"; of course, I was immediately intrigued. Since then, the game has sat in my Steam wishlist waiting until a Steam sale and an opportunity to fit it into my queue aligned. This #JRPGJuly ended up being just the right time.

Background:

Chantelise is an indie action RPG by EasyGameStation (best know for Recettear An Item Shop's Tale). The game tells the story of two sisters, Chante and Elise, who have been whisked off to a fantasy world. Upon their arrival, Chante is turned into a tiny fairy and Elise finds out that she has been chosen to be this land's next sword-wielding hero. The structure of the game is very simple: with the exception of a small hub town used for buying supplies, gameplay consists almost entirely of tackling several dungeons that are selected from a map screen. Each dungeon is comprised of about five monster-infested rooms followed by a boss room. To beat a dungeon, players must be able to clear all the rooms and beat the boss in a single attempt. The game makes this a little easier by allowing players to practice each room and boss battle individually to prepare for their run through the whole dungeon. 

Pros:
  • The game's graphics combine large detailed 2D sprites and simple 3D environments. Imagine Street Fighter 2 sprites wandering around landscapes of Ocarina of Time's level of detail. I liked this combination of styles, but it's bound to be polarizing.
  • I really liked this game's unique magic system. Damaging or defeating enemies drops gems of various colors. Picking these up allows Chante to cast various magic spells. You can only hold six gems at a time and the quantity and combinations of colors you have completely changes the effect of the spells. This means the player must put some thought into which gems they collect and when to use them, thus providing much of the game's strategic depth. 
  • Chantelise's regular combat requires the player to stay on their toes and the boss battles present a very high level of challenge. When researching this game, I remember someone describing it as "anime Dark Souls" and thinking that they were making a joke. They weren't. Getting the hang of the combat took some practice but I found my eventual victories to be quite rewarding.
  • Considering how tough this game is, the inclusion of a practice mode was very wise on the part of the game designers. Getting to learn each room of the dungeon, and more critically, having a low-stakes way to master the boss battles, was very helpful for getting used to the combat system and being able to make progress through the story with reduced frustration.
  • While generally being combat-focused, the rooms of the dungeon contain puzzles and secret items that are mostly optional. Looking for these secrets was fun, though some of them were so obscure that I had to resort to using a guide to find them.
  • Chantelise's dialog features some great comedic writing. I laughed out loud on several occasions when reading it during my Twitch streams of this game.
Cons:
  • Music in video games is very important to me. Chantelise features some good individual pieces but there is little consistency in how they are used. One issue that stuck out to me like a sore thumb was that the boss battle music continues playing after the fight is over. It's very jarring to be reading "Yay! We won!" dialog while still hearing intense battle music.
  • Between the game's simple structure and the need to practice each dungeon prior to making a final run, the game can feel repetitive after a while.
  • Moving a 2D sprite character through 3D polygonal environments can create some depth perception issues when landing jumps or trying to evade enemy attacks. After a little while, I managed to get used to it but it still felt somewhat imprecise.
Being a pretty popular game genre, I can often give blanket recommendations when I find an action RPG that I enjoy. In the case of Chantelise, it's not quite that simple. This game's narrow scope, considerable difficulty, unique mechanics, and cutesy graphics make for a highly unusual combination of characteristics that won't appeal to everyone. However, as someone that plays a lot of RPGs, I found what Chantelise had to offer was a refreshing break from the type of experiences the genre usually provides.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 17 hours, 32 minutes

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



Monday, July 20, 2020

Final Fantasy 15 Review


As I mentioned in my Final Fantasy 1 review, I've been slowly working my way through Square Enix's Final Fantasy franchise over the past 15 years. Now that I'm mostly caught up, I was pretty excited to see what Final Fantasy 15 would do with cutting edge technology and all the lessons learned over the past 14+ entires. I had initially planned on picking the game up as soon as it became available on PC. However, the more I heard about its convoluted release schedule, which included multiple expansions that were still in development at the time, I found myself repeatedly kicking the can down the road. Eventually, the complete Windows version ended up being released via Xbox Game Pass.

Overview
Final Fantasy 15 represents a considerable departure from the previous entries in the series, both in terms of gameplay and aesthetics. With real-time action combat and a setting that more closely resembles the real world than the fantasy and sci-fi locations of its predecessors, FF15 goes to considerable lengths to redefine what a Final Fantasy game can be. The story focuses on Prince Noctis and his three bodyguards who are on a road trip to retrieve a set of ancient sealed weapons that they need to liberate their kingdom from an invading empire. This review is based on the PC version of the game that was released via Xbox Game Pass. 

Pros
  • As you would expect from a game that spent 10 years in development and had a seemingly limitless budget, FF15 is a beautiful looking game. The downside of this is that it's pretty demanding on your hardware. My PC handles most games without issue on the higher graphics pre-sets, but for this one, I had to tweak the individual settings to get an ideal balance of visual quality and performance.
  • FF15's action combat is really cool. I found it was both fun to execute and looked stunning. I especially liked using Noctis's warp strike move, which reminded me of Night Crawler from X-Men. Sometimes the input response time and hit detection felt a little off, this is certainly no Devil May Cry, but I generally had a smooth experience pulling off fancy acrobatic moves.
  • Dungeons in FF15 have a nice sense of atmosphere to them; they legitimately feel like dangerous monster-infested environments rather than just mazes to get in between the player and some treasure.
  • I initially didn't like Square Enix's decision to go with an all-male party for FF15. However, the themes of brotherhood, the nature of male friendship, and family were covered on a level that proved to be far more engaging than I expected. There are also a few interesting supporting female characters as well, but I wish that they had gotten more screentime (more on this later).
  • The game's dialog features strong vocal performances in both English and Japanese.
  • Being a game about a road trip, upgrading and customizing your car is something your characters can work on between larger story beats. I'm not a car guy but still had fun playing around with different paint jobs and upholstery colors.
  • While the overall plot can be uneven, I found the lore and world-building that was woven into it to be pretty interesting.
  • When I heard that Yoko Shimomura was composing FF15, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. She is one of the all-time great composers for her work in games like Street Fighter 2, but how would she approach composing an RPG? I'll say right now that any of the doubts I had were completely unfounded. She knocked it out of the park with FF15's score which is full of varying styles and sounds that were always effective at setting the mood of each scene and locale.
  • FF15 makes a pretty bold design decision that was bound to split the fan base. The game begins with an emphasis on open-world exploration but a little more than halfway through, the structure becomes almost completely linear as the story ramps up toward the climax. For me, this design decision worked out very well. Once I had gotten my fill of exploring and sidequests, I was ready to see how the story would end and was thankful that the game provided me with a direct route to do so without inserting any unnecessary filler just to pad the game's running time (something that many RPGs seem to love to do). Considering this structure is pretty much the exact opposite of Final Fantasy 13's, I'm thinking FF15's design was the product of lessons learned from that game. 
  • The game's story, world, and music come together to create something that has a sad, yet hopeful tone. I found this very compelling.

Cons
  • It may be a road trip game, but driving the car is not very enjoyable. Instead of driving it myself, I just made one of Notis's AI-controlled companions, Ignis, do it. While Ignis drove my characters to the next waypoint on the map, I would usually divide my attention between admiring the scenery in the game and checking my email on my phone in the real world.
  • Being a mostly open-world RPG, there is no shortage of side quests to complete. However, these tasks don't feel meaningful; they're mostly just busywork. I would have preferred to see side quests categorized as major and minor, with the major ones having their own stories (similar to how side quests are handled in The Witcher or Xenoblade).
  • Final Fantasy 15 features product placement with several real-world brands (e.g Coleman, American Express, and Cup Noodle). In some cases this was supposedly done to make the game world feel "more realistic" and in other cases, it's used for humor. To me, it mostly just felt tacky. I'm hoping it's not a trend that continues into Final Fantasy 16.
  • While most of the game's female characters are unfortunately sidelined, I found the most prominently featured female character to be kind of troubling. The road trip boys' on-call mechanic, Cindy, has a design that is so blatantly pandering to teenage boys that it comes across as silly. Her mechanic's uniform looks more like something from a sexy Halloween costume catalog than anything even remotely resembling something someone would wear while fixing a car. In a game that generally strove for more grounded character designs than previous Final Fantasy entries (Notis and pals all wear simple black shirts and pants), Cindy looks completely out of place.
  • The biggest issue with FF15 is the one that made put off playing it to begin with, its disjointed delivery. In order to make a sensible story out of Final Fantasy 15, I had to watch a feature film, a series of anime shorts, and play through several DLC packs on top of the 40+ hour main game. Exacerbating this issue is the fact that events of the DLC take place during the main campaign but are not at all integrated into the game; DLC can only be accessed from a separate menu on the title screen. To get a complete experience, I had to research when in the story each DLC chapter took place so that I knew when I should pause my main campaign progress and switch over to the DLC menu. All of this content really should have been in the game from the start. The fact that it takes so much effort on the player's part to assemble all these components makes it seem like the whole FF15 project was mismanaged.

As an avid Final Fantasy fan, I was able to get a very enjoyable experience out of FF15 but it took a considerable amount of work on my part, synthesizing its disparate content and overlooking a few unfavorable parts. There is an interesting story to unravel, expansive world to explore, and fun gameplay to be had here, but you, as the player, have to be committed and receptive to it in a way that few other modern games require. For me, jumping into Final Fantasy 15 with both feet ultimately proved to be worth my time and satisfying but I couldn't help but feel like it could have been so much better with a more focused vision.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 42 hours for the main campaign + 7 hours of DLC

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


Road trip boys in the car
You take a lot of scenic car rides in this game.

Gondola rides
It's like every city in Italy all mashed together.

Cup Noodle shop
Final Fantasy 15, presented by Cup Noodle

Gladio loves Cup Noodle
Before you get uncomfortable, he's talking about his first time with Cup Noodle.

mid-battle screenshot
This is what it looks like when you get wrecked by a boss.

Campfire scene
Camping provides quality bro bonding time. (Brought to you by Coleman)

Chocobo riding
Since they all wear black outfits, I thought they should at least have colorful chocobos.

Ironically, I think the sexy Halloween costume is more practical clothing for auto repair than Cindy's outfit.

Monday, July 6, 2020

Final Fantasy 1 Review



Back in the late 90s, my lifelong love of Square Enix's iconic Final Fantasy series began when I got hooked on Final Fantasy 7. It quickly became a long term goal of mine to play every mainline entry in the franchise and I've been working my way outward through the series ever since. Having nearly completed that goal now, I find myself at the extreme ends of the franchise: FF1 and FF15. This week I'll be reviewing Final Fantasy's origin point; my next post will cover its most recent entry.

Overview:
Final Fantasy is a turn-based fantasy RPG that was originally released on the NES. It tells the story of four warriors on a quest to restore balance to their world by reactivating four magic elemental crystals. Final Fantasy has been ported and remade on a variety of platforms over the past several decades.  This review is specifically based on the Android version of the game, which I received for free by using Google Play promotional credits.

Pros:
  • All the core elements of Final Fantasy gameplay and themes are here. It was an interesting experience to see the genesis of concepts that Square Enix has iterated upon over 15 times now.
  • Considering this was originally an 8-bit game, it features surprisingly rich music with nice arrangements on mobile.
  • The remastered graphics look pretty good and display nicely on a cellphone or tablet screen. The style is a little different from the original 8-bit game, but the designs are still all easily recognizable. 
  • With the exception of landing the airship on small pieces of land, I found that I had no difficulties with FF1's touchscreen controls.
  • Some of the NPCs say bizarre or amusing things. This injected some humor into an otherwise pretty dry fantasy story.
  • Without spoiling anything, I'll just say that the conclusion of the story was far more interesting than I expected it to be. 

Cons:
  • While there is some interesting lore at the very beginning and ending of the game, FF1's story is pretty sparse.
  • The dungeons in this game are quite long and feature very high encounter rates; at times your character can only walk about 5 steps between battles. This can make completing dungeons a test of patience.
  • FF1 could have benefitted from an auto-attack feature like the mobile version of FF4 had. A feature like this makes playing a mobile turn-based game more comfortable and convenient.
  • There is little depth to the strategy of FF1 combat; I mostly breezed through it mindlessly with the exception of the final boss difficulty spike.
  • On Android, FF1 requires a DRM check (anti-piracy measure) every single time you launch the game. This makes this version poorly suited to playing while traveling since you can't get past the DRM check if you don't have a signal (such as when on a plane). Measures like this make a worse experience for paying customers just to potentially prevent a few people from stealing an $8 game.
  • At the time I began my playthrough of this game earlier this year, the FF1 app wasn't capable of multi-tasking, meaning there was no ability to open a guide or anything else on your phone without resetting the game (and thus initiating the DRM check again). Apparently, this was fixed in a patch very recently, but the fact that this issue went unaddressed for many years doesn't reflect well on Square Enix's mobile support. In fact, even now the listing for the game in the Google Play Store includes a warning that there may be compatibility issues with the more recent versions of Android.
FF1 on Android suffers from some limitations that can make playing the game inconvenient. However, once you're actually in the game, the gameplay has been adapted well to the mobile format. As to FF1's content more generally, I think this game is worth playing for people interested in Final Fantasy or JRPG history but the gameplay and story are so basic that I would primarily only recommend it to players who are already invested in the FF series or are avid retro gamers.

Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 16 hours and 30 minutes

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

In context, this dialog eventually makes sense.

The battle artwork looks pretty cool and the menus work well with a touch screen.

Based on how often you're greeted by this screen, you would think the financial stability of the entire Square Enix corporation rests on the sales of this one cheap app.


Monday, June 29, 2020

Racing Game Round-up

While it's never been my number one favorite genre, I've always had a soft spot for racing games. They make great side games when playing something more involved like an RPG (in fact, one of my favorite games last year was Forza Horizon 4). Since this year's community game-along calendar happened to feature a month devoted to racing games, I decided to prepare a little sampler platter for myself and tried out 7 different titles on my Twitch channel!

Here's a quick round-up of mini-reviews:


Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing
This Mario Kart competitor from 2006 features characters and race tracks based on Sonic the Hedgehog and many other Sega franchises (e.g. Shenmue, House of the Dead, Jet Set Radio, etc).
Pros:
  • The courses make good use of the themes from their respective Sega franchises (especially for a game of this age).
  • The game features an announcer that gives dynamic commentary on your race performance during each event. Some of his lines are pretty funny.
  • The game's controls feel very smooth. The very drift-focused mechanics remind me of Mario Kart Double Dash.
Cons:
  • While the game offers six cups of races, many of the courses are just minor variations of the same thing.
  • The game only features local multiplayer, which is kind of a bummer.
  • Despite being over a decade old, this game did not run smoothly on my PC. The options to adjust resolutions, graphics, etc are extremely limited as well for a PC game.
Verdict: Sonic & Sega All-Stars Racing is a solid Mario Kart-like but has been more than surpassed by more recent games in the genre, including its own sequel.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐


Garfield Kart
Thanks to a "generous and wholesome" donation from one of my Twitch viewers, I ended up with this racer based on the Garfield comic strip.
Pros:
  • While not as good as a Mario or Sonic racing game, the controls felt surprisingly good for a cheap licensed game.
  • There are few interesting items that stray from the typical kart racer mechanics. For example, there's a magic missile that changes your position with whoever you hit. Several items can also have different effects depending on whether they're deployed forwards or backward.
  • Despite being labeled a "beta", Garfield Kart's online multiplayer works well. The downside is that you'd somehow have to convince multiple people to play Garfield Kart in order to use it.
Cons:
  • The course designs are very boring and don't make much use of the Garfield license.
  • The game's content is very minimal: 4 cups comprised of very similar racecourses
  • Unlocks of new courses and characters are handled via collecting coins rather than progressing through Grand Prix. I would have had to play through each cup many times just to unlock the next one. I ended up just using cheats to spare myself from having to grind.
  • The implementation of items is very unbalanced. All it takes is to get hit by a single item to be dropped back to last place with little chance to recover before the end of the race.
  • Collision physics feel a little off. Sometimes slightly grazing an obstacle can bring your cart to a sudden dead stop.
Verdict: Garfield Kart checks off the absolute bare minimum requirements of a kart racer. There's no reason to play it with so many other better options available.
Score: ⭐⭐


Desert Child
This indie racing RPG caught my eye during an E3 presentation several years ago. In Desert Child, a hoverbike racer tries to race his way to wealth and stardom in a dystopian sci-fi world.
Pros:
  • Desert Child has a very striking visual design. Both the town and racing scenes look really cool.
  • Similar to the graphics, the music in both towns and races stands out for its great style.
  • The use of RPG elements introduces some interesting mechanics, like changing out parts of your bike to modify its performance or help you earn more money.
  • The game's racing is fun, at least initially. Races take place in a side-scrolling perspective and have players using weapons and dodging obstacles while trying to stay ahead of the opponent.
Cons:
  • This game is very grindy and features a very unfavorable economy. Bike repairs and food for your driver eat heavily into your race winnings and all progress in the campaign is gated by money. Similar to Garfield Kart, I used to cheats to bypass the excessive grinding.
  • The player character walks very slowly through town, which makes navigation a pain after a while.
  • Desert Child's gameplay is very repetitive; it sports minigames and jobs for your character to do between races, however, all of these are basically just races with a slightly different coat of paint.
  • The late-game races often seem to involve just as much luck as skill thanks to the procedurally generated courses.
Verdict: Desert Child's strong sense of style make it worth taking a look at either via a quick play session or checking out some YouTube videos. However, playing through the whole campaign was not a satisfying experience.
Score: ⭐⭐


What The Golf
Not quite an actual golf game, What The Golf ended up being deemed a racing game by an esteemed panel of judges from the Chic-Pixel community, so here it is. This game starts out as simple putt-putt and then rapidly heads toward a series of surreal challenges that are only loosely tied to anything resembling a real sport.
Pros:
  • This game is funny. Whacking golf balls into explosive barrels, ricocheting balls off planets, and hitting random household objects with golf clubs can be pretty amusing.
  • There is a lot of creativity and variety here. Each golf course introduces a unique mechanic or idea.
Cons:
  • With each course offering something different, the overall package is a bit of a mixed bag. There were some mechanics I wished the game would expand further upon and others that I felt were funny as a one-off joke but not particularly engaging from a gameplay standpoint.
Verdict: "Amusing" is definitely the best word I can think of to describe What The Golf. It's a fun game to play in short bursts, but don't come to it expecting much depth.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐


Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed
This game takes the strong foundation established in Sonic All-Stars Racing and expands upon it with the introduction of boats and aircraft. The "Transformed" in the title references the dynamic nature of the races, each lap on a course involves some sort of change in the environment that creates new routes and obstacles. 
Pros:
  • Transformed doubles down on the Sega references. I was excited to see courses based on Dreamcast and Saturn games like Skies of Arcadia and Panzer Dragoon. Each course looks great and is clearly crafted with admiration for Sega's history.
  • Unlike most other kart racers, this game features a structured single-player campaign that offers various types of races.  Progressing through this mode unlocks new characters and tracks.
  • The cars, boats, and aircraft all handle differently from each other but each feels good to control.
  • The transforming racecourses provide a great visual spectacle but also make for more engaging gameplay. They serve as a good way to have a single course accommodate multiple vehicle types (for example, a section of the course may flood mid-race causing your car to transform into a boat during the next lap).
Cons:
  • The online mode works well but is very limited in terms of features. You can only do one race at a time (i.e. no online multiplayer grand prix) and some modes feel half-baked (e.g. battle mode doesn't allow you to add bots, making the arenas feel very empty).
  • During single-player races, the AI racers have a knack for hitting you with weapons on the last leg of the final lap, causing you to finish in 8th place in a race that you had been leading for 90% of the time. This is true of a lot of kart racers, however.
Verdict: Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed is a great kart racer that gives Mario Kart a run for its money. If you enjoy this genre of racing games or are a big Sega fan, this game comes as an easy recommendation.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Earlier this month, Itch.io released the massive Racial Justice and Equality bundle; a massive bundle of over 1000 indie games with the proceeds going toward civil rights charities. From this huge collection, I picked out a couple of racing games to include in this round-up.


Daemon Detective Zero Racing
Daemon Detective Zero Racing is a low-poly sci-fi racer featuring characters from various indie games. It is very clearly heavily inspired by the F-Zero and Wipeout games on N64 and PS1. I can't really split this one into "pros and cons"; it's a very fast, barebones, and somewhat janky 3D racer that was a fun little nostalgic diversion for me.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐


Rock n Rush Battle Racing
This game plays somewhat like a hybrid of Mario Kart and Twisted Metal. It also features a great rock-n-roll soundtrack. I found the gameplay of this one to be much more polished than Daemon Detective Zero Racing; however, the game only features 4 tracks. While each of these tracks has a day and night and mirror mode version, there's still not much content here. That being said, I enjoyed my short time with it and it's definitely worth the download if you bought the bundle.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐

While the games I played for this round-up varied considerably in quality, I had a lot of fun digging into a genre that I enjoy but often tend to neglect!

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

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.