Monday, October 15, 2018

Review: The Missing [Nintendo Switch eShop]


While I’ve played my fair share of titles on the Switch that have caught me by surprise with new ideas or unusual mechanics nothing quite prepared me for The Missing. It’s main character, J.J., goes through a surreal mix of nightmarish dreams mixed with memories as she reflects on themes of friendship, love, and sexuality as well as darker paths, making it only appropriate for an older audience. While it may not be perfect, with some control mechanics reminiscent of the likes of the original Prince of Persia (that’s not a compliment), if you’re looking for something unusual this fits that bill completely.


The story starts out in a bit of a confusing manner, leaving you a bit disoriented as to what’s happening and why, but that seems to be by design. It isn’t until you die in a manner that’s a bit out of your control and then come back through an unusual sort of ritual that it begins to more heavily sink in that you’re not really alive. In fact, very soon after that incident the real mechanics of the game begin to emerge and you’ll find that in order to progress you’ll need to burn, dismember, and decapitate yourself in order to progress. Whether you’re using your own burning body to ignite walls of thorns or throwing a cut off limb of yours to trigger a weight-sensitive trap you’ll in fact need to get quite creative with this somewhat grisly twist on things.


This would all seem far more callous and even a bit disturbing if there weren’t so many attempts to justify your character’s odd journey that you’ll slowly learn primarily through messages she gets on her phone. Whether from the object of her journey, Emily, her mother, her professor, or even her somewhat odd stuffed animal you’ll begin to understand many more mundane aspects of this character, though buried in those ordinary interactions there are insights into who your character is that tended to make getting new messages interesting and somewhat exciting. How this all will culminate will leave you guessing but it’s the character story that’s the game’s true driver.


As strong as the story and unusual puzzle aspects are it’s impossible not to mention how stilted the controls can be with regards to your movement. With a control scheme and locked in animations reminiscent of games from far too long ago you’re able to work through the game but it’s only in spite of the control, which is a shame. Some refinement and nuance would both speed things up and eliminate a lot of needless frustration. In particular, if you’re trying to capture all of the collectible donuts that are about you’ll need to show some patience and persistence.


I suppose the greatest compliment I could pay The Missing is that I’ve never quite played anything like it in terms of its story, tone, and mechanics. The use of the character’s phone as a means to convey their story and reveal their personality through interactions with others is similar to the Lost Phone titles and it’s a very modern and smart way to create sort of personal lore in a way that feels very natural. Throw in the need to kill yourself in all sort of ways as a means of progression and there’s no questioning it is following its own path. If you’re ready to deal with some pretty mature issues and can deal with both the less-than-great controls and repeated screams of agony as do your character harm in the name of progress The Missing is likely not a game you’ll forget.


Score: 8

Pros:
  • Interesting and complex characters revealed slowly through text messages and snippets of story
  • A unique puzzle mechanic that literally requires killing your character in a number of ways and using her burning or broken body to solve unique puzzles
  • Story beats and interactions that can be heavy and mature, if you’re the right audience for that

Cons:
  • The controls are very stilted, reminiscent of those you’d find in far older titles
  • You’ll need to work out some puzzles on your own through trial and error as sometimes what is possible or needs to be done isn’t quickly apparent
  • A few glitches with in-game objects required going back to the beginning of the chapter


Review: Mark of the Ninja Remastered [Nintendo Switch eShop]


There’s something about the trend towards remasters, especially with the Switch, that’s fascinating to watch. While obviously every game getting this treatment will come out the other side graphically updated and sounding as good as ever there are simply games that immediately show their age, through either tone deaf story beats and dialogue or through their gameplay or controls simply not standing up well to the test of time. In the case of Mark of the Ninja Remastered, it’s in a class that stands apart. While some improvements to the resolution were in order to ensure it would look crisp as possible its animated visuals were never much of a concern, what makes it a stand-out is that even after so many years the stealthy gameplay it offers is still among the best ever and it will absolutely go toe to toe with any current title without flinching.


While the story itself may stray a little towards silly, with its mystic tats that give you power but will slowly corrupt your body and mind, there’s never any doubt that its gameplay is all business. Against well-armed personnel your job will be to infiltrate various strongholds and get things done while relying on the shadows for protection. You may be lethal with your sword at close range but you’re not bulletproof so stealthy killing will be your key to success… and then being sure to try to hide the body somewhere to help avoid being detected. Once you’re up close on your adversary you’ll need to quickly watch for the direction to press while hitting Y, failing to execute this properly will end up allowing the guard to make some noise and potentially alert others to your presence. Fortunately their attention spans are extraordinarily short and within a short time everyone will resume their normal patterns but since only a few bullets will take you down keeping things quiet and yourself out of the light are always a priority.


As you progress you’ll accumulate new gear that will help you out, whether by taking out lights, distracting the guards with noise, or making use of some other ninja skills. Fortunately you’re very nimble and able to climb walls, grapple to new spots, and even move along the ceiling in places so you’ve got the tools to avoid detection, the trick is in using them correctly. If you’re really up to the challenge and plan your route carefully you’ll even be capable of playing things as a pacifist, sparing guards instead of dispatching them, but that would rob you of the pretty satisfying animations of you taking them down in a bloody fashion. All of this would fall apart if it weren’t for the spot-on controls, which respond well and help make you feel powerful when you use them effectively. In handheld mode some of the smaller details can be tougher to make out but performance on the go remains solid and look great, though I found I needed to adjust my gamma levels pretty significantly to see well.


If you’ve played and enjoyed Mark of the Ninja before, rest assured, it’s just as great as it was then and if anything it’s now easier to appreciate how well-made it was by the fact that nothing has really surpassed it since. If you’re new to it and enjoy either some challenging stealthy combat or even going the extra mile to elude all detection nothing really does it better. Where other titles succumb to a variety of pressures and collapse in their old age Mark of the Ninja has aged like a fine wine.


Score: 9

Pros:
  • Remains a true reference on stealth gameplay done right
  • Tight and responsive controls put the pressure on your skills rather than your patience
  • Once you get rolling you’ll have several options to consider when either avoiding or dispatching your foes, adding to the enjoyment

Cons:
  • The enemy AI isn’t anything special, and this may be the only area where expectations may have evolved since the time of its original release
  • In handheld mode some of the fine details are tougher to make out, making it a bit less ideal as an option


Sunday, October 14, 2018

Review: Shift Happens [Nintendo Switch eShop]


Ever since the terrific Portal 2 introduced me to the furthest reaches of what was possible in coop puzzle games I’ve been a fan. When presented with situations that can only be solved through some mental savvy, a degree of precision in execution, and often a heap of patience on the part of both participants there’s definitely consistent fun to be had. In the case of Shift Happens I’m pleased to report that if you have someone of comparable smarts and skill to play with it’s terrific, but if you’d have to play solo it probably will tip too heavily on the aggravating side.


In the game you play as Bismo and Plom, two lab experiments who’re trying to work their way through a gauntlet of challenges by helping one another out. Mechanically there’s not much to learn in terms of strict controls, you’ll be able to jump, move items, and pick up and throw your partner if you’re the “big one”. Where the strategy comes in is that you’re able to shift your mass between them, so one is always big and the other is small. Of course being small you’ll be more nimble, able to make longer and higher jumps, but your survivability in things like deeper water will be lacking. This means you’ll need to be clever and almost constantly shift mass between each other as the situation dictates.


Where it gets tricky is that though the game does a pretty good job of throwing you an instructional bone when it’s time to learn new concepts once you’re given the basics to work with you’ll be expected to apply them yourself. For two reasons this is why it’s best to play with a friend. First, with two of you the odds of figuring out what to do improve as you can collaborate. Perhaps more critically second some of the things you’ll need to do to progress require careful control and having your teammate catch you will be easier than trying to execute a jump with one character and then time the catch with the other on your own. That’s not to say it isn’t doable, but it can be challenging and even aggravating, especially since it gets easy to confuse who you’re controlling and what you’re trying to do. I almost think in situations like these for single-player there should be a catch assist of sorts so you could more easily pull it off rather than requiring precision, but if you’re up for a challenge it will certainly provide one.


Across the game’s 40 base levels in 4 different environments you’ll be challenged to get to the exit but the real fun and difficulty comes in with hidden areas and extra items that will pose additional tests to your brains and teamwork. If you want to unlock the 8 bonus levels you’ll need to work diligently to get everything you can, just expect to test your patience to get them all as even coordinating some sequences with 2 people will take some repetition and aggravation. While there have been a number of cooperative puzzlers to arrive on the system Switch Happens stands among the better ones.

Score: 8

Pros:
  • A smart mix of creative puzzle designs and action platforming
  • Simply completing the levels tends not to be too hard but to get everything you’ll need to put in some work
  • The single-player and co-op levels each have their own variances and exclusive bonus levels

Cons:
  • The game can be minimally instructive in places and will expect you to apply your learned skills and smarts in new ways with some regularity
  • Single-player can be a bit too cumbersome and aggravating as you try to manage both characters in some crucial exchanges
  • In general the mechanics of the grab are too picky and can make for needless aggravation when you’re well aware of what you’re trying to do and stumble with execution


Review: Armello [Nintendo Switch eShop]


Typically when I think of digital board games familiar gameplay styles and mechanics that I’ve come to associate with classic family titles come to mind. However, buoyed by the huge resurgence of new physical game ideas as well as fully embracing what’s possible in a virtual space games like Armello are changing expectations. If you’re looking for a strategic game ripe with possibilities and paths to victory, this won’t be a title you’ll want to overlook as more of the same.


Set in a kingdom in peril as its ruler descends into madness, there’s opportunity in the air for the ambitious. By choosing your anthropomorphic character you’re hypothetically buying into your likely path of victory, whether that’s by storming the castle to kill the King by force, accumulating influence to assume the crown when he succumbs by proxy, and more. A nice touch is that while each character you can choose has strengths that point to their ideal course of action if you find yourself in the right position you can choose another, perhaps leading to choosing someone in the hopes of denying a likely means to victory to someone else.


Starting out with a pretty thorough and helpful tutorial you’ll have the core understanding you’ll need to get started but this is definitely an experience that reveals itself to you in waves. The sheer number of cards and smart ways to apply tactics go far beyond what the game could hope to explain to you directly so while your first few games may be a struggle the lessons you learn for your next attempt will typically be pretty invaluable. Controlling more areas of the board and being able to influence the King’s daily decisions (usually with the intent of screwing over your enemies) is certainly a temptation but you may find your energies are better spent elsewhere depending on your intended path to victory. You may be unable to control the outcome of the somewhat fickle random nature of the combat that plays out with a roll of the dice, but you can certainly put together a strategy to strengthen your odds and use your deck to impede your enemies.


While it may be a surprise that you can only opt for solo or online play, with no option for local multiplayer, the fact that everyone would be able to see each other’s cards and positioning on the board would ruin that experience so it’s understandable. Building up your deck plays a central role in your success and will inform your choices for how best to proceed. If everyone knew what you were holding or where you were trying to hide it would seriously compromise any element of surprise you could hope for, so the options are no accident. Aside from this there are times when the pacing can drag a bit, especially playing against others online, but nothing that would be inconsistent with what you’d expect for a strategic game of this kind. It’s also worth noting that due to the information-heavy nature of the game handheld play isn’t likely optimum.


If you’re a fan of strategy gaming or the current board game renaissance Armello will likely be right up your alley. With its multiple paths to victory and deep deck it’s a great test for your ability to adapt and make what you’re given work against the odds. Since not all paths are ones that play out as dramatically for all to see the fact that you can somewhat stealthily plot your way through is fun. While you won’t be able to share it with friends locally Armello stands out in the current Switch lineup as unique and refreshing for the right crowd.

Score: 8.5

Pros:
  • Multiple paths to victory
  • Deep strategic play and possibilities
  • Online play offers even more opportunity for challenge

Cons:
  • No cross-platform online play could limit your opportunity to find competitors depending on the sustained interest in the game
  • Handheld play is a bit cramped and tougher to read with scaling
  • While understandable, no local multiplayer is a bummer

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Review: Pinball FX3 - Williams Pinball Volume 1 [Nintendo Switch eShop]


While the Pinball FX3 engine is, without a doubt, has the best overall engine on the Switch for pinball until this point appreciating that fact was a bit more apples and oranges in terms of trying to make comparisons. The fantastic and physically-impossible elements of their virtual tables were always interesting but as a classic pinball fan I was always curious what the power of that engine would bring to bear on the physical tables I’ve loved over the years. Since Zen Studios has now licensed the treasure trove of Williams tables, which are for me hands down the best ever made, we’ll get to see how well they do but with this initial offering they’re off to one hell of a start.


In order to add a personal touch each of these tables has been enhanced with side art (which I love across the board), and then new elements, many of which are somewhat interactive. For purists these can be disabled, which is very much appreciated. One of the nicest features remains the fact that the Switch allows you to play the tables in vertical mode while undocked, giving a great view of the table and unlike playing similarly on a tablet you can use a controller so your fingers aren’t obscuring anything from using a touchscreen. Performance may show an occasional brief stutter but even with the enhanced extras outside of crazier things like intense multiball action there don’t tend to be many issues.


Starting with the table anyone can get and sample for free we have a popular table that I spent some time but never resonated with me, Fish Tales. This is a well-themed table with some nice ramps spaced around the table and plenty of bells and whistles. A fisherman trying to reel in a catch is a nice touch and he isn’t typically too distracting. It’s an excellent appetizer compared to the 3 tables in the first pack which are generally a bit more complex.


Junk Yard is a table with a pretty wide open center area that has multiple targets and a wrecking ball towards the top, complemented by some ramps on either side. It tends to be a pretty satisfying table as it’s not too challenging to get multiball going and you’re generally able to rack up some decent scores quickly when you get on a run. At the high end you’ll be working to collect and combine components so there’s much deeper play as well most certainly. Most of the enhancements here are more minor than in the other tables but in general it’s a more pulled out view so that works out fine.


One of my personal favorites that’s included, The Getaway, has always been a bit of a bastard in terms of its degree of challenge to get rolling. Getting multiball can take some work, and then your Jackpot is tied to first getting a ball in the central Supercharger and then making the skill shot to bring things home. With the extended time I’ve played on this table the quality of the conversion is very apparent as quirks in the behavior of it are very well-preserved. A great example of this is the kickback’s inconsistency in where it will send you, even if you wish it would always set you up with your shot on the top right flipper. In past conversions of the table the satisfying growl of the audio from shifting gears has been a bit muted but I’m very satisfied with the audio for this version. The enhancements here are just middling as the officer with the radar gun is just sort of there and I actually don’t like how it goes overhead when you make the Supercharger shot. I’d swear the speed on the ball on the left lane coming off the ramp is just a bit on the fast side, and it throws me off, but I may be accustomed to tables with a little more wear perhaps.


Probably the most notable table for pinball enthusiasts I’ve saved for last, and that’s Medieval Madness. I enjoy the table but since I only played on it physically a few times I don’t have the connection to the physical version the way I do to the others. It has a very ramp-heavy design, there are simply tons of ways to trigger a variety of multiball scenarios and the action is extremely satisfying. Zen Studios really pulled out all of the enhancement stops with this one as well as the dragon is quite active and will fly around the table and blow fire at some points. It can be a little distracting but the theme blends together so well that it feels right. Flaming trails on the balls are also satisfying and make more sense here than on Getaway, it just all feels really good.


I must say that this pack has me very excited to see what the next collection of tables will be. Williams made some of the most iconic tables of all-time and I actually helped back the Kickstarter campaigns for “the competition” to help them get over some serious licensing hurdles to convert some of their top tables like Twilight Zone and The Addams Family. Even without those tougher nuts to crack there are simply tons of great tables I’d love to see from older classics like Haunted House or Funhouse, to the incredible Monsters of Rock or Theater of Magic, or even table I have a personal weakness for like RollerGames. Zen has gotten off to an extremely strong start, proving they can not only bring the authentic table experience to consoles but even enhance them in the process (though with varying results). It’s an exciting time to be a virtual pinball fan!

Score: 9

Pros:
  • A pack of 3 very diverse and exciting tables, with Fish Tales thrown in as a freebie!
  • Some incredible nuanced play that absolutely reminds me of the physical tables
  • While the enhancements aren’t all winners some of them absolutely elevate already great pinball experiences to another level

Cons:
  • There can be some performance hiccups as the intensity goes up, though they’re forgivable
  • The dragon enhancement on Medieval Madness, where they went all-in, was a great touch. The more superficial on-table characters are more “just there”
  • While super-specific the left lane to the flipper feels like it can be too fast at times, throwing my muscle memory from the table off