Friday, February 8, 2019

Review: AWAY - Journey to the Unexpected [Nintendo Switch eShop]

When you play through a ton of titles, while gameplay always comes first there’s no doubt that personality counts for something. Throw in some quirk and charm and even if it can’t completely overcome its shortcomings those elements do make an impression and can at least make a game memorable. That’s about where I find myself with AWAY: Journey to the Unexpected. This roguelike first-person RPG hack and slasher isn’t quite like anything you’ve played, whether that will come out to a net positive or not really depends on what you’re looking for.

To say it’s an odd bird would be an understatement. You play the game as a young boy looking for his parents who have disappeared. On your journey you’ll travel through the forest, desert, snowy plains and more fighting an odd assortment of enemies from the relatively cute to the cold and robotic. Since you’re only armed with a pretty weak melee attack that has a limited range you’re going to need some help, and making friends seems to be one the game’s central themes.

Along your adventures you’ll acquire an item that will allow you to add to your party (you can have up to 3 of them). When you encounter one of the oddball denizens out there you’ll then have an opportunity to talk to them and if you make the right choices (or have the right money/item/etc) you’ll be able to enlist their help. Each of these potential allies is quite a bit more powerful than you but making use of their special abilities (these range from firing projectiles to setting traps and more) will drain their energy so you’ll need to be careful in how you use them. Hitting distant or more intimidating enemies will be tempting but some of the game’s bosses will have you wishing that you could do more than try to whack them into submission with a mere stick.

Being true to its roguelike nature you can definitely expect to fail, but fortunately as you continue to get further and do better you’ll accumulate experience which will unlock new traits and perks that kick in permanently to help make further runs a little easier. Experience pays off in general terms as well since you’ll begin to figure out which allies have abilities that best suit your needs and though you’ll still likely take some cheap hits you’ll continue to get a better feel for how to use that weak attack of yours more effectively. Aside from the difficulty there are simply some odd design choices that have been made. You’re given very little initial instruction and working out some of the game’s quirks can take a run or two. I’d also note that many of the areas are inexplicably big and a bit empty, which simply makes next to no sense at all and just needlessly wastes your time in some spots. None of it is crippling but it does make you scratch your head in spots why they implemented things the way they did, or perhaps they’re just a matter of a lack of polish.

I’d generally consider AWAY a bit too odd, inconsistent, and hard for more mainstream gamers but if you’re down to work for your victories it has a certain energy and charm to it. Certainly the first-person perspective and general style of play are a bit on the unique side, the randomness of the dungeons will keep you cautious and often working hard to survive, and the variety in ways that enemies will attack you can take some time to get used to. It is by no means a perfect game but there’s no denying that it has heart and is capable of representing hours of fun if you’re willing to give it a chance and deal with its rough edges.

Score: 7

  • It has a certain quirky charm and oddball characters that help it stand out from more generic fare
  • Variety in the enemies in the various zones and the game’s bosses force you to come up with different strategies depending on which allies you’ve been able to enlist the help of
  • The roguelike elements keep things changing up a bit between runs and help add some longevity

  • A lack of direction at the beginning and in certain in-game situations can be aggravating when you’re not sure what you should be doing
  • The roguelike elements can sometimes feel a bit extreme between runs, running from too easy to cruelly hard sometimes
  • Weird odds and ends like overly large and empty areas are a bit perplexing

Review: Observer [Nintendo Switch eShop]

It’s always fascinating to see games come to Switch that visually test the limits of what the system is capable of. While a side effect of this is often that at some point the fan on your Switch will sound like it’s trying to take off and some visual muddyness (especially in handheld mode), the ambition is always appreciated. In the case of The Observer, a noir cyberpunk mystery full of bizarre and almost hallucinogenic visions, there’s actually some great cover for the inconsistency though as you’ll question whether it’s the system limitations or the intended visuals. While I wish it was as easy to be as positive about the gameplay experience I’ll credit the game for thoroughly doing its own thing.

You’ll play the game as Dan Lazarski, a sort of cyber-detective operating in a dystopian future world full of augmented humans. Voiced by the spot-on choice for such a role, Rutger Hauer, Lazarski is a bit of a hot mess and once you get further into the game and have seen some of the things he sees you can feel for the guy. Drawn to an apartment building by a call from his estranged son, he finds a dead body (who he desperately is hoping isn’t his son) and embarks on a journey to find out what’s going on before it may be too late.

To help with this effort you’ll learn how to use his various abilities to find clues and get information from people. Various scanners will help him look for both organic and electronic clues, then providing additional information about objects that he focuses on. The more effective tactic, and the one that the game’s hook seems to hinge on, is when you’re able to hack into people’s minds. This certainly leads to the game’s most memorable moments as they’re full of often random and sometimes disturbing visions you see as you navigate their minds.

As interesting as the above can be at times, the game isn’t without its flaws. First, your movement is positively glacial for the most part, though I suppose that helps you take in all of the game’s pretty impressive sights. Second, the controls in general can be a bit on the pokey side and it can be difficult to hone in and identify smaller objects at times as you’re looking for information. My biggest gripe, however, is one to do with game design and it took me back to the 80s. This may be a function of a sort of PTSD but I absolutely hate it when games use mazes. I believe my typical quote when I see one randomly inserted into a game these days is “Are you f*cking kidding me?” Since they happen as you’re in someone’s mind I don’t doubt the argument will be it is a function of exploring their mind but I call it what it is, a cheap method of prolonging the game. Sorry to people who put mazes in their games randomly, but I’ve been burned too many times in my life to have any patience for them.

If you’re willing to overlook some problems there’s no question this is a title that pushes what the Switch is capable of and offers up an experience I’ve not had on the system to date. The setting, the strong voice acting of Hauer, and some of the visions (beware if you’re photo-sensitive, it could potentially be a problem for you) are absolutely things you won’t find anywhere else. Whether or not a somewhat slow-moving cyber-noir mystery with some really trippy and terrifying visuals is what you’re looking for may be another matter.

Score: 6.5

  • Visually it’s absolutely impressive on a device you can take with you, just there were compromises nonetheless
  • Rutger Hauer was perfectly cast for voicing this role and elevates the material
  • If you’re into disturbing flashes and sequences that leave you a bit uneasy you’ll more likely enjoy the ride

  • Moving through the world is sloooow
  • Getting the controls to cooperate as you search areas can sometimes be a nuisance
  • “Mazes… Why did it have to be mazes?”

Review: Access Denied [Nintendo Switch eShop]

With an abundance of puzzle games on the Switch to suit all tastes, including many notable titles from other spaces like The Room in particular, the competition to make a positive impression is getting tough. I specifically mention The Room because Access Denied, without a doubt, was designed with the goal of occupying a similar contemplating state. Given minimal direction and a container that you need to open to progress the idea is that you’ll use trials and error as well as your powers of deduction to figure out a series of puzzles.

It starts out rather easily, with you just needing to manipulate switches or dials into a proper position but relatively quickly it begins to ramp up a little. You’ll need to interpret symbols, use a somewhat hidden key, or experiment with what ends up being audio cues to find a hidden solution among an assortment of other mean. I’ll give it some credit, the variety of ways that you’ll be challenged to determine a solution is at least impressive.

One of the ways it lets you down is certainly in the form of control, and this applies to both using the controller and the touchscreen. The second puzzle, where you need to turn a dial on each side face of the box, was an absolute chore because of the pretty wonky controls in docked mode. When I went to turn the dials I had an awful time rotating them and it felt like they stopped, making me think there was some methodical means of altering each of them a bit at a time to get it to work. It turned out it was supposed to be a very straightforward and easy process but the really poor way the controls were implemented instead made it unnaturally hard. The fact that the intent is to provide minimal direction really amplified the problem as well, because without any guidance the inconsistency of turning the dial was allowed to be interpreted as intentional and part of the puzzle. Thinking that with the touchscreen all would be well was also a mistake, given the number of mobile games where you manipulate 3D objects there are some control norms you’d expect and this game generally implements them poorly. Even when you begin to understand them the pretty janky

The other glaring issue is whether or not the intent of the game was to compete with the likes of The Room and its sequels (still waiting for them on Switch) it’s going to be an inevitable comparison and that isn’t a flattering one. Not only is Access Denied far less polished and visually impressive but its puzzles would only serve as a minor subset of that title’s elaborate and multi-staged solutions. Though the individual puzzles pose their challenges the experience is a bit sterile and lacking in excitement aside from any you may choose to generate for yourself. The game is just very matter of fact when you solve something and generally just moves onto the next challenge with no fanfare. You’ll live but it would be nice to get a little more acknowledgement than that.

As a whole Access Denied isn’t too bad for a budget title but its ambitions seem to be as limited as its pricetag. It gets the job done, and will throw some smart challenges at you, but its sterile and unexciting nature brings it down a notch. Then throw the control issues on top of that and it begins to lose steam pretty quickly. In a pinch you can work your way through the game’s issues, and possibly have some fun, but there’s no denying that it’s simply not a very good or ambitious title overall.

Score: 5.5

  • A lower-budget alternative to the likes of The Room
  • Some of its puzzles are well-conceived and implemented

  • A very sterile presentation with no real excitement to act as a motivator or help liven things up a bit
  • Control issues in both docked and handheld modes are a bummer
  • The lack of direction, paired with the control inconsistencies, can lead to you getting mixed messages about what you’re trying to do in places

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Review: Solstice Chronicles - MIA [Nintendo Switch eShop]

As a huge fan of twin-stick shooters the Switch eShop has been a consistent source of joy for me, delivering a pretty wide range of options with different tastes and styles. With there being so much variety already in place when a title comes along with something new and different to offer up it then immediately draws my attention. Solstice Chronicles: MIA absolutely falls into that category, and while it has a bit of a slower pace than I’d prefer it has unique game mechanics that are quite smart and help give the game a feel unlike any other shooter on the Switch.

Starting with the more straightforward, this is a game you can enjoy solo or with a local friend, and has you playing as a marine who has been separated from his unit in the midst of a mutant outbreak and some political turmoil on Mars. As expected, this makes for some crazy-looking enemies and plenty of fodder for some twin-stick shooting fun. However, that’s not the game’s big hook. You’re quickly paired with an AI drone and the early levels attempt to walk you through the game’s unique systems which center around the use of it. However, it may take some experimentation before everything clicks for you since both it and its modes are the real game-changer.

Conceptually most of what the drone does makes sense. You can send it off to scout the level, which will have it bringing you supplies (if you do this early in the level be sure to stop them pretty quickly or you’ll have a pile of ammo and health you can’t use), make use of a shield to help you survive when things get a bit crowded, set off a powerful bomb (that you can survive if you stay in a green band that’s inside the blast zone?), but then you can also choose to taunt the enemy… and that’s where things get more interesting. As you move through the stages you’ll want to keep an eye on the enemy threat level, shown as a gauge on the screen. This represents the potential for enemies to start coming at you en masse. Scouting and setting off the bomb both raise the threat level, but taunting lowers it quickly… just be ready for the onslaught.

This gives the shooting a very strategic component and can be satisfying. When you find a powerful temporary use weapon or are in a spot where barriers can help slow enemies down it’s time to start taunting so you can pick and choose your engagements and maximize your odds of being successful. This system and managing the balance of the threat level on top of the normal shooting action really sets the game apart and is something I’m hoping we’ll see more variations of in the future as it takes the genre to another level.

Even with that as a major positive that isn’t to say there aren’t any gripes. First and foremost I’d say there’s just something in the movement and fluidity of the game that’s a bit on the slow side. Intensity is what makes these games shine and though you’ll get your crazy gunfights and moments of intensity it feels like you’re playing at only ¾ speed somehow. Another issue is that most of the enemies you face simply feel like cannon fodder and even some larger foes are lacking in impact and personality. There are some bigger things to take down, including bosses, but where a lot of games have done a good job of helping to amp up the excitement when you face certain foes Solstice fails to bring that extra flair so it can feel a bit more generic. RPG-like progression is there, and you’ll be able to unlock new perks and choose your own path to a degree but on a general level it was hard to tell much difference in the overall feel as you progressed, again perhaps just being a matter of presentation and flair to help you feel more powerful as you go.

With its very different approach and some new ideas I’m a big fan of most of what Solstice Chronicles brings to the table. Getting a feel for the most effective uses of your drone in a given situation and knowing when it’s best to bring the pain give the player an unusual degree of control over how things play out and that’s just a great idea. While it struggles a bit more in some of the fundamentals and could do with additional refinement and polish this is a game I’d absolutely love to see a sequel to, as with a bit more work it could turn into a real game-changer in the genre.

Score: 8

  • The threat system and degree of control you have over how things play out is interesting and an idea I’d like to see refined
  • Serves up some great twin-stick shooting intensity, and can be even more fun with a friend
  • While the differences in the multiple classes and upgrade choices aren’t as bold and obvious as I would have liked, they do add some variety and replayability potential

  • There’s a degree of sluggishness in the overall movement and flow of the game
  • Far too many of the engagements have an intensity to them but could be more exciting if the majority of enemies you face weren’t so generic

Review: City of Brass [Nintendo Switch eShop]

Roguelikes can tend to be one of the most divisive “genres” out there, with it not being unusual to see wide disparities of opinion on the same game. Their degree of challenge is often a stumbling block but their inherent similarities to old school arcade games, with there being an element of repetition for the sake of learning and getting further, can also be a problem for some people. With its first-person view, procedurally-generated areas, and somewhat unique play mechanics City of Brass has a very different feel to it, but I would imagine some of its qualities will also lead to the gaps in opinion I cited, since it isn’t without its flaws.

Carrying a very “Arabian Nights” theme I’d say that the setting is the first thing that that helps to establish this won’t be your typical first-person game. When you then realize your weapons are a sword (later characters will change the weapon, but not its melee nature) and a whip, and this isn’t a shooter, the initial feeling of unease isn’t unusual… this is something new, different, and a bit risky. Probably the best and smartest element of the game is the use of the whip, which proves to be quite versatile. Whether you’re using it to stun enemies, pull them towards you (more on that later), or to grab items and gold from afar it’s really the star of the show. If you keep an eye out, rings higher up are also a very handy means of quick traversal at times, and helping make the whip and its use a lot of fun.

The combat is probably one of the things that will divide people the most. Since this is sort of a first-person hack and slash the flow of things takes some getting used to, especially when the screen gets crowded and you have ranged foes firing on you. Initially this can be frustrating but as you get more used to the mechanics there are a variety of ways to deal with many situations. Throwing objects like lanterns that can catch enemies on fire is a great go-to option, though it can be very tricky to judge the range and that can be a bust. Luring enemies into traps that are often plentiful in most rooms is also a great option. Lining them up and then either shoving them back or pulling them into traps with the whip is very effective and satisfying. Traversal isn’t always possible but can be handy for pulling away from a pack and trying to whittle them down. While you can still run into trouble with the perspective and enemies being able to flank you, with some practice and understanding of the opportunities around you the combat can be quite satisfying.

The other element that will probably aggravate people, and this is in common with most roguelikes, is the degree of challenge. On default, especially in the early going, the game can feel pretty unfair. Healing opportunities are very limited, and the perks and added gear you can buy from various genie vendors peppered everywhere are very random, as are the effects of random potions you’ll find to drink. Mix this with the very trap-heavy layouts of some rooms and it’s a recipe for aggravation at times. To help with that, what you should absolutely do when you are first getting started is make use of the blessings that will tone down various aspects of the game as you get used to it. Added health, trap reduction, cheaper gear, and other options are available, and there should be no shame in using them. As you get further new and unexpected things will happen, giving you slightly better odds of surviving long enough to understand what to do the next time you face them can be vital.

I have no doubt that City of Brass won’t provide an experience everyone will love, but then again that’s not a shock when games try new things. Especially on default difficulty it’s a lot to take in as you get used to the flow of combat and how best to deal with specific enemies and traps you’ll encounter. One detail I appreciate, and worth mentioning, is that the two initial character options you have to play with are a male and female, who play roughly the same. It may seem like a small thing but it’s a great inclusive move and one I felt was noteworthy. It also helps underline the point that the developers obviously put a great deal of effort into making the experience scalable up or down depending on what you’re looking for or can handle. It shouldn’t be about ego early on, take the help as you familiarize yourself with this unique title rather than get aggravated with it. Just like there are blessings there are optional curses as well, so don’t worry, there’s more than enough challenge here for those looking for it.

Score: 8

  • Unique first-person combat mechanics and flow
  • The blessing/curse system should help people tune the game to their liking in terms of challenge, USE IT
  • The whip is simply a lot of fun and proves to be very useful in a variety of ways

  • Even for experienced gamers getting started on the default difficulty can be tough, as the game is simply not quite like anything you’ve played and takes some getting used to
  • Repetition can be a problem after a handful of runs if the unique combat and traversal don’t grab you
  • In general, even with the blessings and ways you can tune things, the lack of healing opportunities in many runs is a frustration