Friday, August 17, 2018

Review: Manual Samuel [Nintendo Switch eShop]

You may have played weird games before, you may have played physics games before, you may have played weird physics games before… but I’m not positive just about anything could prepare you for Manual Samuel. It seems that this wealthy douchebag in life has come to the afterlife with an abundance of Hell’s currency, which catches the attention of Death, who is apparently a gnarly skater dude. In order to earn a chance to go back to the land of the living Samuel makes a deal to try to survive 24 hours with an impediment of Death’s choosing, putting his precious shreds of life on the line. Of course he didn’t anticipate that Death would have a nasty one in mind, that Samuel would need to live his live quite literally in a manual fashion, and that’s where you come in.

Being clear, you’ll either be amused by the very funky control challenges this game presents you for performing the most mundane of tasks (including breathing, I kid you not) or you’ll want to curse whatever horrible people put it out on the eShop. This takes the normal physics game model and really pushes the limits a bit. Trying to coordinate a variety of button presses, taps of the joystick, and moving between shoulder buttons absolutely gets confusing… but it’s also a kind of silly fun if you’re open to the experience.

What story there is over the handful of hours you’ll play tends to be odd as well, but the strange characters and the ever-present narrator commentating on what you’re doing (complete with celebratory hashtags for mundane achievements like taking a leak) do a good job of rewarding your continued efforts. If you can see the amusement of nearly killing yourself while simply trying to drink some water or narrowly avoiding running over little old ladies while struggling to control your car (of course complete with a manual transmission) the experience has its silly rewards. Given the likely polarizing nature of the game’s controls Manual Samuel gets a highly conditional recommendation. If you’re willing to roll with the punches, there’s definitely a unique good time to be had here, just be very aware of its intent to make controlling just about anything more challenging than you’d ever imagine.

Score: 7.5

  • Even among its physics games peers this takes weird controls to the next level
  • The characters and narrator consistently make your successes and failures a bit more amusing
  • Only sticks around long enough to take you through a variety of silly situations and generally avoids the action becoming redundant

  • The controls are undeniably, and intentionally, confusing and can be frustrating
  • Not everyone will “get” this style of play or the strange sense of humor

Review: Polygod [Nintendo Switch eShop]

When it comes to roguelikes, their popularity, and their inherent replayability without the need to necessarily create a ton of traditional content, it’s easy to understand their appeal from the development side. When all of the right elements are plugged into the formula it can also make for a lot of extended fun on the player side, so when everything really clicks it can be a good time. That said, getting things right can be challenging and just because something is procedurally generated and plays differently every time doesn’t make it inherently fun. This, for me, is the trap Polygod falls into.

Starting with the positive mechanically it’s a fairly competent, if decidedly low-tech in appearance, shooter. Movement is generally fluid, aiming works well enough considering you’re using a controller, and when you get fully into your shooter groove it can feel good. For every new run you’ll start out roughly weak as a kitten, work to get some kills, and then take the souls you gain to altars that will give you random choices for how to spend those souls to become more powerful. Once you’ve exhausted each world’s opening area you’ll then take a portal to take on its boss, who will offer a more difficult challenge. Defeat the boss and you’ll move onto the next of the 7 worlds with everything getting decidedly harder the further you get.

If you dig first-person shooters and don’t mind the difficulty curve mixed with a fair amount of stock circle strafing and shooting things on the move this may be appealing. Unfortunately, after repeated play the cracks in the experience begin to show pretty easily. For all of the randomness that procedural generation can bring to the table from run to run the differences you’ll see aren’t honestly that major in terms of your experience. Yes, the layout, placement of altars, and enhancements you’ll choose from (assuming you continue to try new seeds) can vary pretty wildly and that does change the experience. That doesn’t necessarily make it feel like less of a grind and more fun though. The fact that nothing at all persists or progresses aside from your own knowledge and skills between runs contributes to this as well, so you lose that hook of knowing in the next run you’ll be more powerful in some way.

Contributing to frustrations the degree of difficulty isn’t so much of a uniform slope as it is a jagged mountain of relative inconsistency. Certainly better and worse upgrade options or combinations play into this feeling but there’s not too often a feeling of “just right” compared to too easy or too hard. Environments play into this, with some that are wide open and others that are heavily constrained to the point they feel a bit unfair, offering you insufficient room to evade fire very well. This can encourage a degree of being cheap and trying to test the limits of how far off you can be and still hit enemies. Some enemies also have a tendency to be hard to differentiate from the scenery, leading to frustrations where sometimes you’re being hit or will even be killed without being able to figure out what’s even shooting you.

If you’re willing to roll with the punches and the things it doesn’t quite get right Polygod does offer up a different take on first-person shooting, and the more familiar you become with its quirks the more successful you’ll be. As with all roguelikes it isn’t so much about the destination (beyond the goal to eventually beat it all), it’s about enjoying the repeated attempts and feeling that you’re getting wiser and better as you go. Some progression across runs would have helped to add more oomph to push you to do “just one more run” but at least with a wide variety of power-up options from the get-go you never know what you may be working with.

Score: 6

  • If you’re looking for a first-person shooting challenge it will deliver
  • Has a clean overall look and controls well
  • There is a great deal of variability per run, though not in all areas

  • There is no progression outside of the current run, something that’s become off-trend
  • Some levels feel constrained and a bit cheap, limiting your maneuverability
  • There will be cases where you can’t tell what is shooting you before you’ll die

Review: Behind the Screen [Nintendo Switch eShop]

It’s always fascinating to play games that come from foreign developers that appear to have been originally intended for their native markets. We all have cultural norms and shared appreciation for symbolism in specific things tied to where we grew up, and when you then take something from a place that’s very different that foundation is removed, by default making the experience a bit odd. Behind The Screen has elements that feel like they probably have contextual meaning but even beyond that it has an odd and sad story, yet sucked me in completely and compelled me to finish it just to see where the ride would ultimately lead.

Your main character, Yu Ming Wang, is obviously a troubled soul and what’s somewhat fascinating as you go is the disconnect between his somewhat fantastical perceptions and “reality”. I put that in quotes because through news footage and reflections of people around him you do get different versions of events, but because of elements of your experience seen through Wang’s eyes you get the sense that their versions aren’t very accurate either.

In terms of the gameplay itself story beats are broken up by a variety of minigames, some of which are puzzles or involve stealth early on but further in typically involve fights of some kind. No two mini games are quite alike, with each throwing in some variation to keep things from feeling redundant. As a warning, there are a few fights that border on feeling unfair, the one towards the middle of the game almost putting me off completely. Thankfully, persistence will generally see you through as you’ll come to see attack patterns or simply luck out with the combination of attacks it happens to throw at you.

From start to finish Behind the Screen had me had me off-balance and trying to reconcile the truth between Wang’s perceptions and the reality other characters or news reports were relaying. I’ll warn that the translations aren’t always great, so there are spelling and grammatical errors throughout, but in general it never felt like this was an impediment to understanding what’s going on. If you’re open to something odd, that’s somewhat light on gameplay but just thoroughly different, it’s worth a look.

Score: 6.5

  • A strange and pretty tragic story seen through multiple lenses
  • Had a quality that demanded I finish the game, just to see where things ended up
  • The variations between the mini games, even between genres, helped keep things more interesting

  • Some mini games are far harder than others, and random changes per attempt sometimes help but other times make them tougher
  • If you’re looking for a game that’s light and relaxing this is 100% in the opposite direction
  • Lack of cultural context and some poor translations can make understanding some moments difficult

Review: The Inner World and The Inner World - The Last Wind Monk [Nintendo Switch eShop]

There’s always a bit of a challenge when reviewing games that are distinct in their release but that are obviously related. Such is the case with both The Inner World and it’s sequel, The Last Wind Monk. While I’ll be sure to give space to the strengths and flaws of both individual titles, but since they share quite a bit in common it seemed less redundant to cover them in the same space, though ultimately this will be two scored reviews in one.

The short summary is that both of them share a charming hand drawn art style and feature colorful characters that have often witty dialogue that is fun to simply experiment with. Rather than being heavily driven by purpose, solutions here are more of a meandering sort, where you’ll start out with high-level objectives and then run into weirdness and fun along the way. Of course, finding items and then often combining them to find typically unorthodox solutions to the problems and puzzles you’re presented with comes with the territory, but for the most part the humor helps greatly in minimizing the frustrations along the way. To help you chisel your way through some of the impossibly hard to crack item puzzles the game thankfully provides an easy access hint system that attempts to dole out a clue at a time to first nudge you along but if need be it will pretty well spell out what you need to do. The shame is this is pretty well necessary, and often, but considering this is pretty well a typical issue for this genre the baked in solution is a nice way of helping to compensate.

The original title plays out more as a fish out of water story, where you’ll control the sheltered and somewhat meek Robert, who has been raised by the powerful and somewhat dickish Conroy. When things go awry with an incident involving a pigeon Robert chases him down a pipe and finds himself out in the world, a bit confused and bewildered but with a purpose. Over the course of the game he comes to understand the truth about his world, himself, and the person he’s been serving all this time. The biggest issue with the original, especially in contrast with its sequel is that it lacks touchscreen support and that makes the controls quite cumbersome. You can thankfully cycle through on-screen hot spots and then choose actions for them but this isn’t an ideal way to play and it does sometimes make what should be simple strings of actions unnecessarily hard.

The sequel, and I’ll try to remain vague so as not to ruin the story, continues three years after the conclusion of the original. While there’s still certainly humor to be found, the innocent out in the world theme of the first title is replaced with darker and more sinister threads that even risk getting a bit too close to our own reality for people who enjoy the pure escape of games. Persecution, ignorance, and hatred of “others” are a big part of the story and the less innocent but still pretty humble Robert will need to show more growth, with the help of his friends Laura and Peck (yes, the pigeon from the first game *SPOILER*). What’s most notable about this sequel, though, is that it was obviously written with touchscreens in mind and not only are touch controls supported but even the scaling of critical elements have been made a bit bigger with small screens in mind versus likely having been designed primarily for PCs. The other big change that improves the experience quite a bit is that you’re able to toggle between characters, allowing each to bring their own skills to bear. In theory this could make the puzzles more confusing but instead for me it helped make at least some of them more sensible.

Overall, if you’re a fan of the genre, appreciate clever writing with unusual characters, and have a degree of tolerance for some good old convoluted puzzle solutions both Inner World titles deliver. My apologies if you were hoping to know more about the stories, I tend to stick more to generalities in these reviews because that’s always a crucial piece of the experience, and ruined surprises simply aren’t as fun. If you’re not ready to fully dive in with both titles but want to check out what the series has to offer you’ll clearly want to opt for the sequel, especially on the Switch, given the touchscreen support and optimization even if the story is a bit more heavy.

The Inner World Score: 6.5

  • A pretty light-hearted and fun affair, full of clever dialogue and unusual characters
  • Terrific hand-drawn art style
  • A nice tiered hint system that tries to dole out only as much information you need, just you’ll unfortunately use it a lot most likely

  • No touchscreen support
  • Navigation is doable but is also quite cumbersome
  • Some truly strange solutions to puzzles that not even the hint system can always adequately spell out

The Inner World - The Last Wind Monk Score: 8

  • Touchscreen controls and optimization for a smaller screen make it far more approachable on Switch
  • The dynamic of switching between characters opens new possibilities with puzzles and added fun
  • A nice tiered hint system that tries to dole out only as much information you need, just you’ll unfortunately use it a lot most likely

  • While there’s humor the much more serious tone of some of its themes may be a bit too closely aligned with the real world for some
  • Some truly strange solutions to puzzles that not even the hint system can always adequately spell out

Thursday, August 16, 2018

Review: Tetra's Escape [Nintendo Switch eShop]

Puzzle fans have got to be among the happiest people owning a Switch, the platform has attracted a great variety of titles and many of them have been excellent. Happily, coming along for the ride have been titles that may be lacking in polish but that have managed to deliver a creative and distinct experience. That’s roughly where Tetra’s Escape comes into the picture, bringing a somewhat humble appearance and ideas to the table but delivering some nice challenges along the way.

On any given stage you’ll have a number of little blocky characters to work with. Most of these will have the ability to transform themselves into tetronimous shapes (get it, Tetra’s Escape?). Using this base ability and then new enhancements you gain with each world (rotating, mirroring, etc) you’ll then need to work with what you have to get to the portal that represents the exit, trying to pick up as many stars as you can along the way. While this starts out relatively simple, with the flow of the level pretty well dictating placements, the further in you get the more open things will be, stepping up the challenge.

Each stage has an added bonus trophy that will only appear when all stars have been collected that can throw an interesting twist into your planning as well if you’re a completionist like me. This will often require that you to replay the level to be sure you not only get to each star but then leave a way to get the trophy once it is revealed. Sometimes this will mean you need to be sure you’re in the right position not to be cut off and others you may need to put a piece in a spot that takes a bit more manipulation to secure.

For the most part that defines the game from top to bottom, and aside from the unusually-long load time when you first boot up the game there really isn’t anything that stands out as a negative aside from its pretty humble presentation. Tetra’s Escape slowly but surely manages to introduce new elements throughout that progressively remove the training wheels and result in some legitimately tough puzzles as it moves along. Especially if you’re insistent on getting each level’s trophy you’ll need to engage your brain and make a plan, making for a different and satisfying overall experience.

Score: 7

  • A relatively simple concept that’s well executed
  • Later levels open up, forcing you to really think through your approach
  • Trophy placements can be tricky and layer on an added challenge

  • The initial load time is unusually long and for what reason I’m not sure
  • Not a terribly long experience