Sunday, March 28, 2021

Shantae and the Seven Sirens


In celebration of #WayForwardMarch, I played through the fifth game in the Shantae series, Shantae and the Seven Sirens, on my Twitch channel. Having played and enjoyed several other WayForward games in the past, including the previous two Shantae games, I had a fairly good idea of what I was getting myself into here but was still excited to check out the latest exploits of everyone's favorite half-genie.

Background:

Shantae is an indie 2D platformer series that stars the half-genie belly dancer, Shantae, and a colorful cast of supporting characters that include pirates, zombies, and mad scientists. In this entry of the series, Shantae must explore an island with a complex series of underground passageways to find her fellow half-genies that mysteriously went missing. Unlike previous entries in the series, Seven Sirens features one large continuous map rather than a series of separate smaller levels, which gives it a much more explicitly Metroid-like feel. Also in proper Metroidvania fashion, as Shantae progresses through her adventure, she gains new powers, usually in the form of animal transformations, that improve her ability to overcome obstacles.

Pros

  • Having been making 2D platformers for decades, WayForward knows how to make one of these games control well and Seven Sirens is no exception. Shantae's jumps, attacks, and special abilities all feel great. I especially liked her salamander transformation, which allows her to climb on walls and airdash.
  • Shantae's move set is complemented by cute and charming character art and animations. The attention to detail and personality imbued into not only the game's heroine, but the supporting cast, enemies, and NPCs do so much to make this game (and the rest of the Shantae series) so endearing.
  • While I missed the immediately danceable signature sound of long-time series composer, Jake Kaufman, I still found plenty of tracks to like from Seven Sirens' 4-person sound team. The overall sound is a bit more varied than the previous games with some traditional Shantae bops as well as some nice mellow pieces.
  • I'm not particularly invested in the story or "lore" of Shantae, but I definitely enjoy the humor in these games. There were quite a few scenes in Seven Sirens that gave me (and my Twitch viewers) a good chuckle.

Cons

  • Seven Sirens provides a big map to explore, but, much of the level design is fairly bland. It was not especially interesting to uncover new areas nor does it offer the platforming challenge of rgw previous games' more linear stages.
  • This game has really fun boss designs but the battles themselves aren't actually that exciting. I got through most of them just spamming attacks and using the plentiful healing items that are collected while exploring.
  • Dialog in Seven Sirens is only partially voice acted in a way that I found exceptionally jarring. Often within a given scene, characters would go back and forth between being voiced and silent seemingly without any rhyme or reason. I would have rather they had a few key scenes fully voiced and left everything else quiet.
  • At the beginning of my playthrough, the performance of this game on PC was quite rough despite it not being particularly graphically demanding. Load times were also quite long. About halfway through, a patch came out that mostly resolved this but this game was already a year old at that point.
Overall, Shantae and the Seven Sirens is a by-the-numbers Metroidvania that's elevated by an especially charming presentation. As a result, I got a lot of enjoyment out of playing it even though it's solidly in the middle of the pack gameplaywise. 

Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Completion Time: 12 hours and 30 minutes, 67% item completion






Friday, February 12, 2021

Adventure & Puzzle Game Round-up

Over the past few months, I've really been going all-in on Community Game-Along events on my Twitch channel. I've found they're a fun way to keep my queue varied and interesting. The previous two month's themes, #AdventureGameMonth and #PuzzleGameMonth, smoothly flowed into each other to provide 60+ solid days of putting my brain through its paces!

Here's a roundup of mini-reviews for all 7 games I streamed for these events:

Day of the Tentacle


As someone who really enjoyed other Lucas Arts adventure games such as Grim Fandango and the Monkey Island series, I've been meaning to play this classic title for quite some time. Once I started playing, I was immediately struck by the distinctly 90s cartoon aesthetic and sense of humor that reminded me of shows such as Animaniacs and Hysteria. The gameplay, however, took a while for me to get my head around. Switching between controlling 3 protagonists exploring the same environment in 3 different time periods made for some novel puzzle designs but also made it much easier to get stuck than in a more conventional point-and-click adventure game. As a result, I found myself alternating between having fun engaging in cartoon antics and being frustrated when I kept having to wander around the same locations over and over to figure out what the game wanted me to do next. That being said, I'm really glad I played this but it hasn't displaced Monkey Island and Grimfango among my favorite Lucas Arts games.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐



Nina Aquila Legal Eagle (Chapter 1)


This one was a real curiosity for me. Essentially, Nina Aquila is an indie developer's recreation of the gameplay of Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney using the RPG Maker engine. While Nina Aquila still looks and feels like an RPG Maker game, I was quite impressed with how well Tanuki-sama Studios managed to work the engine to create a game with the same general structure and mechanics as Ace Attorney. As for the content of the game, the court case itself is entertaining but much more straight forward than Phoenix Wright. Nina Aquila was released episodically on itch.io and the first chapter that I played during #AdventureGameMonth was an effective proof-of-concept that has me looking forward to trying out the subsequent chapters in the future.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Note: The first two chapters of this game were included in the itch.io Racial Justice Bundle 

Call of the Sea


Taking a break from my usual indie and retro games, I decided to check out this highly regarded Xbox Series X launch title via Xbox Game Pass for PC. As you would expect from a brand new game first-person adventure game, it featured beautiful and lush environments that were really cool to explore. I also found the 1920s Lovecraft-inspired story to be quite interesting. The game's puzzles featured a good range of difficulties, however, there were one or two that just didn't make sense to me at all and I ended up having to look up the solutions. Unfortunately, the overall very positive experience I had with Call of the Sea was marred by some pretty serious performance issues despite my PC comfortably meeting the system requirements. This is a game I'd definitely recommend playing, but on Xbox Series X, since supposedly that version runs much more smoothly, or waiting until the PC version has been out longer and gets patched.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Note: This would have been an easy 4-star game if not for the technical issues. 

Carto


Another recent Game Pass release, this indie puzzle adventure game stars a character who can edit the game map, thereby changing the layout of the world around her. Throughout the game, you collect new map pieces that you can fit together in different ways to create new environments, solve puzzles, and help various NPCs. It's a short and sweet game with a unique hook, cute graphics, and a quirky sense of humor. I definitely recommend checking this one out.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Manifold Garden


When I first saw previews of this game, I immediately knew it would be a must-play. Manifold Garden is a first-person puzzle platformer that, at first look, might seem similar to Portal. However, only a few minutes of playing it reveals that it's a completely unique experience. For starters, your character cannot jump but can instead instantly change the direction that gravity pulls, suddenly making walls, ceilings, and the surfaces of any object in the environment traversable. On top of that, each level is a maze of surreal Escher-inspired environments that loop back upon themselves This means that if you fall into a pit, you'll soon find yourself falling through the sky rather than hitting the bottom of the level. Manipulating the gravity and exploiting the looping level design leads to some really interesting puzzle scenarios. In addition to the mechanics, I really loved this game's visual design which increased in intricacy along with the puzzles. Overall, this was easily my favorite game that I streamed during both #AdventureGameMonth and #PuzzleGameMonth and in general, is one of the best puzzle games I've played in a long time.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐
Caution: If you are at all prone to motion sickness, there is a strong chance that this game could trigger it.

Witchway


Compared to most of the other puzzle and adventure games I played, Witchway was pretty simple and straight forward. As a witch with telekinesis, you navigate a Metroidvania-style world by moving blocks around to create platforms and activate switches. While not anything particularly revolutionary, it sported great music, adorable pixel art, and just enough puzzle complexity to fit its 3-hour run time. This game did what it set out to do and was a nice break from the meatier games I tackled during #PuzzleGameMonth.
Score: ⭐⭐⭐
Note: This game was included in the itch.io Racial Justice Bundle 

Hue


My last game for these events was another 2D puzzle platformer, but with a bit of a twist. Hue takes place in a mostly black and white world with few key interactive objects rendered in bright colors. The protagonist has the power to change the background color of the levels which makes any object in the environment of the same color disappear as it blends into the background. By carefully switching colors in the right sequence, the player can navigate obstacles and avoid deadly traps such as spikes and lasers. I found that the way this game brought a unique mechanic to otherwise traditional puzzle platforming gameplay was enough to set it apart from other games in the genre. I also really liked the game's crisp high-contrast aesthetic and very well-balanced puzzle difficultly. 
Score: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Putting my puzzling skills to the test for two consecutive months was a real challenge and a lot of fun! That being said, I feel like my brain earned some much-deserved rest. Time to go watch some anime!

Friday, January 1, 2021

Game of the Year 2020

The year 2020 was rough for me, both due to the pandemic and for some personal reasons as well. As a result, I felt much less motivation to write than in years past. However, that certainly doesn't mean that I didn't have the energy to play games; quite the opposite in fact! This year I tackled over 75 games! With release dates ranging from 1982 to 2020, there were some real gems in there that I'd like to highlight in a quick little Top 10 list:

#10: Ys Oath in Felghana

The Ys series has pretty consistently had a spot in my honorable mentions for the past several years, but Oath in Felghana is the one that had what it takes to break the top 10, even in a very competitive year. Felghana is the perfect encapsulation of everything that makes the Ys games great: fast-paced combat, tough bosses, an interesting story, and a rockin' soundtrack. This series doesn't deviate much from the action RPG formula, but it is so well-polished that it's quickly making its way into my favorite RPG franchises. 

#9: Paper Mario The Origami King

While its combat didn't exactly stay fresh the whole time, Origami King's creativity, charm, and humor were more than enough to make this one of my favorite games of 2020. Part of what elevated this game into my Top 10 was streaming it; experiencing this frankly absurd game with others provided some much-needed levity in a really tough year.


#8: Ace Combat 7

As somebody who loves the aerial vehicle sections in games like Battlefield, I've been meaning to get around to trying purely air combat-focused game. Ace Combat 7 fit the bill; I had a blast with it! Much like Forza Horizon, I liked that AC7 provides options to tweak the level of realism to your liking. As someone who doesn't have much flight sim experience, the ability to fly realistic-looking aircraft with more forgiving arcadey physics was just right for me. I'm looking forward to playing more games like this in the future. 


#7: Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky (First and Second Chapter)

Falcom's Legend of Heroes franchise has been recommended to me many times over the years, especially the Trails in the Sky chapters, but until now I had always felt intimidated by the length and scope of these JRPGs. (The game is script is notoriously massive, several times longer than the novel War and Peace). However, being stuck at home in a quarantine situation earlier in 2020 provided the perfect excuse to finally jump in. I loved the tactical battle system, rich world-building, and taking a long journey with some endearing characters. After completing the main arc of Trails in the Sky (e.g. First and Second Chapter), I needed to take a break but I have a feeling I'll be relishing the next games in the series when I get to them.



#6: Azure Striker Gunvolt

As somebody that tends to be lukewarm on Megaman, it turns out the trick to getting me to like it is to inject some extra anime nonsense. Gunvolt took the Megaman formula and added some unique mechanics, a flashier style, and some incredibly catchy music. Developer Inti Creates has a real knack for taking the core of classic retro games like Megaman and Castlevania and reimagining them in exciting new ways. (review)

#5: Shovel Knight

I've put off playing this for far too long! Shovel Knight has charming pixel art, excellent chiptunes, and very tight 8-bit platforming. I can definitely see why this is always ranked so highly among the top faux-retro indie games.

#4: Evan's Remains

I was initially drawn in by Evan's Remains upon seeing its gorgeous pixel art on a Twitch stream hosted by my pal, Stapecape. Once I got into it, I really enjoyed figuring out the game's tricky puzzle platforming challenges and unraveling its mysterious story. The game takes a bit of an unusual turn at the end, which may be offputting to some, but I enjoyed the journey so much that I ultimately wasn't concerned about the final destination. 

#3: Wander Song 

This music-themed adventure game was full of charm and heart. Despite an art style that didn't seem like my thing at first, the story and offbeat cast of characters sucked me right in. Even though it came out a while ago, I hadn't heard of Wandersong until this year and it immediately rocketed itself up to being one of my all-time favorite indie games. (review)

#2: The Talos Principle 

While disregarded by many as a Portal-clone, this game's combination of challenging puzzles and philosophical themes made it a game that will stick with me for quite some time. It's the perfect game to play when you're looking for something somber, slow-paced, and cerebral. (A mood that I found myself in quite a bit this year.)

#1: Nier Automata 

With a slick sense of style, a fun blend of gameplay styles, and a stellar soundtrack, this was a damn fine video game! Also, for some reason, 2020 just felt like the most appropriate possible year to play a game about exploring the ruins of human civilization. (review)


Honorable Mentions:

With how many games I played this year, it was inevitable that a lot of great games wouldn't make the Top 10. This year one of my projects was to get into new genres and franchises that I previously never explored, so many of my honorable mentions are a reflection of that. Here's a selection of some of the other great games that I'd like to highlight.

  • Sound of Drop: Fall into Poison - I decided that this year I would try to get into visual novels and this one was my favorite among the ones I finished in 2020. I enjoyed the spooky atmosphere and making tough life-or-death decisions. This game also demonstrated to me that I not only enjoy visual novels but that streaming them can be a lot of fun.
  • Mario 64 - I had somehow never played all the way through Mario 64 until this year. I played through the majority of this game during a marathon charity stream and had a great time finally completing this platforming classic. 
  • American McGee's Alice - This was a game I have been meaning to play for 20 years. I'm so glad I finally did! Once I got my head around the controls, it really clicked with me.
  • Doom Eternal - There was no need to break the mold when the previous Doom was so good. Eternal took what was already great and built upon it in a very effective way.
  • Streets of Rage 4 -  I played through this slick-looking beat 'em up with my pal PixelPacas and it proved to be one of the most simple yet satisfying gameplay experiences of 2020. 
  • Yakuza Kiwami - Yakuza was another series I'd been meaning to play for a while. This remake of the original game in the series really drew me in and has me convinced to try more entries in the franchise. 
  • Final Fantasy 15 - My road trip with the bros of Final Fantasy 15 was an absolutely engrossing experience. If not for how clumsily the story was handled, this game would have had a shot at landing in the Top 10. (review)
  • Phantasy Star 4 - This was my first experience with Sega's retro RPG series and it still totally holds up. This is easily one of the top games in the Sega Mega Drive collection on Steam. 
  • Chantelise - I was really impressed by this obscure indie action RPG that some have described as "anime Dark Souls". Thanks to @Simon_Ashtear for the recommendation! (review)
  • Spiritfarer - Farming or slice-of-life games aren't usually my thing but this beautifully animated and emotional game really spoke to me this year. 
To wrap up this post, I'd like to offer my heartfelt thanks to all my blog readers and Twitch viewers. Exploring games with y'all was one of the few bright spots of 2020. My blog posts will probably be pretty sporadic going forward but I still plan on keeping it going and sharing more great games both in written form and via my Twitch channel. Here's to a better 2021!

Note: In addition to this personal Top 10, I also put together a Games of the Year article with my fellow Geek to Geek Media content creators. Check that article out to find out about our picks for the best games of 2020. (Geek to Geek Media's GotY article)