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.

  • 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.

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.

  • 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.

  • 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!