Thursday, March 22, 2018

Review: Tesla Vs. Lovecraft [Nintendo Switch eShop]

I’ve made absolutely no secret of the fact that I love arcade-style twin-stick shooters. Give me intensity, variation, crazy enemies, and even crazier weapons and I’m all over it. When it comes to this specific genre on the Switch the folks at 10 Tons have pretty well owned the majority of the spectrum. In order to keep it interesting they’ve melded the shooting with other genre feels or objective-based play but with their newest title, Tesla Vs. Lovecraft they’ve gone back to purely insane shooting. The great thing is, they’ve made that core gameplay better on pretty well all counts by applying everything they’ve learned to date.

While there’s no doubt this sort of game doesn’t have a need for a story or theme whoever came up with the idea of pitting the technology of Tesla up against the nightmarish horrors of Lovecraft deserves a freaking award. In the early going of the campaign you’ll slowly begin to accumulate the pieces of your eventual arsenal, generally being introduced to each weapon, special attack, and perk along the way. Oh, and then there’s the teleport ability, the thing that takes the game from merely great to inspired. It will bail you out of trouble, let you jump gaps, and with the proper perk it can even be an effective weapon. If you want to be effective you’ll need to become familiar with it all, and know how to mix and match your perks and weapons to the greatest effect, if you want to survive through all 3 difficulty levels of the campaign. I’ve beaten the game on the Eldritch plane and come out the other side alive, but you’re going to have to work for it.

In terms of the look and quality of play the game looks plain incredible on the Switch and performs like a champ. When you really get things rolling with a multi-barrel ball lightning gun and get fire bullets you’re gonna see some serious action on-screen and it doesn’t slow down one bit. Screenshots and even watching video doesn’t really do the game justice though, playing it just feels great with smooth and responsive controls and often a blistering pace. Your choice in perks as you level up will be random (though with time you can try to influence this to your favor a bit), but you’ll have to make what you have work. It’s important to consider the layout of the level, the abundance of walls, what types of enemies you’re facing, etc so while you may have preferences there are times where you’ll need to go a different route. Oh, and did I mention that you’ll constantly want to be picking up the pieces of your mech suit of death so you can rain destruction on your enemies? The game has got it going on!

That isn’t to say everything is quite perfect. I’ve run into a random bug here and there where I’m unable to pick up weapons for an extended stretch for some reason that comes and goes. It can be a tad annoying but wasn’t a regular occurrence. Hopefully this can be found and remedied. Another area that could use a little more work would be the Survival Mode. This is where I spent a substantial amount of time playing Crimsonland and was what I was really looking forward to. As it is implemented now I think it could be one option but I’d like to see more maps, including maps with different flow and perhaps a slower difficulty ramp up as well. I lived on Crimsonland’s brutal Blitz Survival mode and thrived but even as tough as that could get there always felt like a way to break through. The way this one curves up and gets tough within a mere 5 minutes it goes from challenging to death in a hurry. Where the game feels the best is when you’re really going to town and edging out death, throwing out damage and getting juiced up. With the current implementation Survival Mode feels like it is killing you off just as you may be starting to make things interesting. Like I said, this version has its place but with so many great maps and by playing with some sliders I think there could be a few more than would really let you stretch out and do some substantial damage.

All said, Tesla Vs. Lovecraft is probably the best 10 Tons game I’ve played to date from concept to execution. It puts everything they have on the table, looks incredible, plays smoothly, and is simply a hell of a lot of fun. I’m hoping to see just a little more come to the table to make the experience even better but if you’ve got a soft spot for some intense twin-stick shooting action you (and a friend if you’d like) really need to put this at the top of your list.

Score: 9

  • Looks incredible and performs pretty well flawlessly
  • The perk and weapon combinations make for an endless variety of ways you can slaughter the nightmare hordes
  • Teleportation mixed with the mech suit power-up crank the insanity and fun up to 11

  • Some bugs with weapon pick-ups every here and there
  • The current implementation of Survival mode could use some further fleshing out and tuning to allow it to be more fun

Review: Castle of Heart [Nintendo Switch eShop]

The traditional side-scrolling action/adventure genre has been kicking around since roughly the arcade days. Classics like Ghouls and Ghosts morphed into the more sophisticated likes of Castlevania and many others over the ages, but the roots are pretty consistent: Expect to be hacking and slashing your way through foes and then trying desperately to avoid the many traps and obstacles set in your way. As a brand new title the Switch-exclusive Castle of Heart enters the fray, looking to put its own spin on things and no doubt establish some roots.

The story ties heavily into the gameplay mechanics, where you’re a knight who is trying to find and defeat an evil sorcerer who has cursed the kingdom and you as well. Turned to stone, you’re barely managing to keep alive and throughout the game you’ll have to collect orbs to stave off death. Taking damage or simply taking too long will cause your life gauge to diminish. As you approach death you’ll lose an arm, leaving you unable to use any secondary weapons, and if then if you’re unable to get to the next checkpoint quickly you’ll crumble to pieces.

Your journey will take you through 4 pretty distinct chapters, each with their own aesthetics, traps, and action sequences. Gameplay tends to alternate between combat, platforming sequences, and then more signature stretches of action that change things up quite a bit. It’s probably these moments that are the most interesting, intense, and notable but they can also be a bit unforgiving. At the conclusion of each chapter you’ll then face a major battle, requiring you to put the skills (and hopefully some secondary weapons like bombs) you’ve accumulated to the test.

What unfortunately overshadows all of the positives in the game are the muddy controls and some serious inconsistencies in behavior. There’s either a bit of control lag or at least some clumsiness in the movement animations in the game. Everything feels kind of accurate but not really tight, and given all of the sequences where you need to be precise this can be grating. While checkpoints are meant to help break things up, and they do to a degree, there are stretches that play out almost cruelly, making you slog through combat and then try to go through a sequence of jumps or traps. While the constant loss of your life force is an interesting mechanic it also actively discourages you from wanting to explore as the rewards for getting sidetracked are generally not worth the risk. Similarly the pretty clunky combat wastes time and I found I was often more successful only fighting when I needed to and avoiding it whenever possible. Possibly the thing that irritated me the most, though, was the major inconsistencies with dropped secondary weapons. A ranged weapon can be crucial and yet they were inconsistently dropped by enemies from run to run. Throw in the fact that on most deaths you wouldn’t then have the secondary weapon you’d had when you got to the checkpoint and this really makes some runs feel doomed before they start.

Put it all together and though there are a lot of ideas and interesting sequences in Castle of Heart, the execution is lacking in polish in key areas and that often makes the game more aggravating than fun unfortunately. It’s not outright broken, but it falls into the trap of getting in its own way with ideas that are actively fighting with the mechanics. Throw in control that’s not very tight and while the game does have a lot of heart, trying to do its best, it’s difficult to recommend heartily.

Score: 6

  • Some well-conceived action sequences
  • Interesting ideas, some of which work well
  • Distinctive art and elements in each Chapter

  • Controls are muddy and lack the precision a game like this needs
  • Combat is very limited and clunky, better avoided if possible
  • Secondary weapon drops are inconsistent for the same enemies on different runs and yet they’re quite crucial to success
  • There’s little incentive to do anything other than try to run the levels quickly because of the health mechanic and stingy rewards for getting sidetracked to find orbs

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Review: Slayaway Camp [Nintendo Switch eShop]

When you’ve historically played an absolutely massive number of games it, unfortunately, tends to make you a little jaded. You begin to see familiar patterns, start identifying where elements of games were borrowed or refined from… it can be interesting but also a bit depressing as it’s a challenge to be surprised. That said, when something manages to take the familiar and do something crazy with it you end up being very impressed. Slayaway Camp is such a title, managing to take what could have been a pretty solid puzzle game and elevating it to a higher level through the use of humor, a boatload of horror pop culture references, and copious amounts of voxel-based gore.

To start out in the game you’ll initially be playing the part of Skullface, a homicidal maniac determined to slaughter the innocent, or pretty well anyone else who gets in his way. Though the theming is heavily on the horror side below it all the game is actually a pretty traditional puzzler, where you’ll slide in a direction until something stops you. Whether that’s a victim, a wall, a barrier, or whatever else this rule is what creates the challenge as you’ll find to complete levels you’ll need to trigger a very specific chain of events. What elevates the puzzle play here are the various elements thrown in that make it more challenging. Once you slay your victims you need to be able to get to the exit, doing something wrong will trap you even though you’ve fulfilled your bloody mission. Getting near victims will scare them away, potentially running into a fire, perhaps getting into a better position, or maybe just forcing you to start over. In addition there are bookcases to be toppled, phones to be rung, and many more elements that get thrown in to complicate matters of force you to carefully plan out your delicious murders.

While the puzzles themselves are actually excellent and surprisingly varied, it’s really the theming that helps bring it all home. As someone who grew up in the 80s and spent far too many weekends watching horror movies that I got from the video store this game really speaks to me on a personal level. Each collection of levels is part of a movie, and as you finish one it will unlock more. In general for each new movie you unlock you’ll add a new killer to your menagerie of death, but as you accumulate in-game coins you’ll have an option to randomly unlock new ones as well. Each killer tends to have their own signature kill, but there are both general ones and those that you can unlock as well. These play out as sorts of cutscenes when you get a kill, with some that are interactive and some that aren’t. If you see a gauge pop up you’ll need to time your strike properly or you’ll fail to get your kill… just tell yourself they must have been a virgin I suppose. You may not want to spend all of your in-game currency though as if you’re in a tough spot and stuck with a puzzle you can buy a hint or even the solution itself if you just can’t figure it out.

In terms of criticism I actually don’t see much to find fault with aside from not appreciating the theme or being familiar enough with the 80s movies they’re having fun with. If you find the gore a bit too excessive (since it is all so blocky I personally find it all hysterical) there is an option to tone it down a bit, so all is not lost if you prefer things a little less bloody. Unfortunately, if you don’t know what a VCR is or have never had the joy of watching many cheesy horror classics there’s no remedy for that. You may still find the antics amusing abstractly but it probably won’t speak to you as much.

In the end I had an absolute blast with Slayaway Camp and would heartily recommend it to anyone who is either a fan of great puzzle games or 80s horror movies… if you like both you’re truly in for a treat. The violence in voxel form is utterly comical, the callbacks to horror icons and some of their great kills are wonderful, and the puzzles themselves are thoroughly challenging. Since it also includes every bit of content released for the game to date, all in one, on every level it is a killer deal.

Score: 9


  • Pure 80s horror film fun and fan service
  • Over 300 challenging puzzles with a wide variety of elements to keep things fresh
  • If you’re entertained by chunky pixel death you’re in for a treat!


  • If you’re put off by gore, you can tone it down, but it still may be too much for you
  • A lack of pop culture knowledge and appreciation for 80s horror will diminish the fun

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Review: Swim Out [Nintendo Switch eShop]

When dealing with a well-known genre and mechanics that aren’t revolutionary the key to success can be effective theming. Presentation can help to take the ordinary and elevate it, helping gloss over the familiar a bit. In the case of Swim Out the idea is to transport you to a sunny locale to take a hearty swim, trying to generally get from one side of a body of water to the other without bumping into any of your fellow aquatic adventurers and dodging an occasional obstacle. The result is a solid, though perhaps a bit generic, puzzler.

Since it’s a puzzle game, and your goal is to merely get from here to there, the challenge is created by what’s in your way through 7 chapters and over 100 levels. By using the varying patterns of a wide variety swimmers, an eventual collection of aquatic creatures, a random kayaker and more, your objective is to figure out how to weave through everything without colliding with anyone. For variety there are sometimes additional objectives to lure you out to a different area and increase difficulty or an odd beach ball, goggles, or floatie (among other objects) you can then use to your advantage (or sometimes to your forced disadvantage) to create an opportunity for yourself.

The slow and steady progression in difficulty is managed well and typically new swimmer or obstacle types are introduced in a less threatening manner at first so you understand them before the challenges involving them are dialed up. Some levels involve multiple areas, and eventually you may need to move back a few pools to collect an item you’ll need to advance. In general patience and a willingness to accept what isn’t working and trying a different path or approach is effective to resolving issues.

In most respects there’s nothing really holding things back aside from perhaps it being a bit too safe and traditional. While many variations are thrown at you in the end it all boils down to seeing the patterns in front of you and breaking down how to either conform to or disrupt them to the point that you can get through. That’s not to say some levels aren’t demanding but the whole experience plays it a bit safe. If you love a good puzzle game and the theme appeals to you while the air is frigid outside it delivers a good value just keep your expectations in check and you should have a good time with it.

Score: 7.5

  • A fair amount of variety and steadily-increasing challenge spanning over 100 levels
  • New elements every few stages helps to keep things a little more interesting
  • Well-themed and presented attractively

  • Perhaps a bit too traditional and safe for its own good
  • The majority of challenges you face will likely feel familiar on a general level

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Review: Last Day of June [Nintendo Switch eShop]

Every once in a while there are games that hit you in a way you don’t expect, even if you can perhaps see their end coming. Whether it is the unexpected or the plainly obvious when you invest time and effort into understanding and embracing your character’s world the resolution to an adventure can leave a lasting mark. The last game that hit me hard was Telltale’s The Walking Dead, Season 1. It’s been years since then and while I’ve played compelling games nothing has quite had that power. That changed playing Last Day of June.

Starting with the look and feel of the game the art style, looking like a hybrid of clay figures and an animated painting, it is amazing. The colors are fully saturated, the environments are lush, and the characters (though they lack eyes) convey a surprising amount of emotion. To add to that the music is evocative and helps reinforce the emotions of everything you see. A fair criticism is that the load times are often a bit exorbitant, and that does sometimes interfere with things, but I’d say that given the aesthetics it isn’t too hard to excuse.

In order to reveal next to nothing at all of the overall narrative, for fear of ruining pretty well anything, I’ll leave you with the fact that it does an excellent job of telling stories beyond just the main characters. Through the course of the game you’ll inhabit multiple people and understand their role to play in this world as well as the nature of their challenges. I encourage you to seek out the orbs that belong to each of them, revealing elements of their story, because they reveal the depth of the storytelling at play and how everyone has their own sorrows and regrets.

In general terms this plays out like an action adventure game, with you trying to work out the solutions to puzzles that present themselves to each character. Through a dynamic that reveals itself in the game you’ll find that there’s a sort of puzzle to be worked out, and you’ll both see the same events through different sets of eyes as well as have the opportunity to change how events unfold. While this can get a bit repetitive at times it all serves the ultimate story, helping to explain how things end up the way they do.

I’m sorry if this review is somewhat evasive but I don’t wish to do anything to ruin the outstanding story in the game concerning love, loss, and even sacrifice for the sake of others. There’s no getting around the somewhat repetitive nature of the core gameplay as you relive the same events multiple times and try to affect different outcomes. There were also a few times where I wasn’t 100% sure what I was expected to do but the thing is, if you are a sucker for a great story, Last Day of June will absolutely suck you in and help prove that games have an amazing power to connect you to a meaningful story.

Score: 8.5

  • An amazing look
  • Music that helps reinforce the power of the narrative
  • Multiple worthwhile stories to tell
  • Grab your tissues and buckle up for quite a ride

  • The load times can get a bit long
  • A fair degree of repetition as events play out multiple times through the eyes of different people
  • At certain points it isn’t necessarily clear what you need to do to progress

Review: OPUS - Rocket of Whispers [Nintendo Switch eShop]

As games have evolved as an artform, and as indie studios with more varied backgrounds and smaller budgets have emerged, the prime elements in games have been allowed to swing more out of balance. Where traditionally the story would more commonly serve the gameplay but not necessarily overtake it almost completely it now isn’t uncommon to see those same elements take a back seat to stronger narrative beats. OPUS - Rocket of Whispers is such a game, delving into a heartfelt story about survivors in a post-Apocalyptic world of sorts who have been given the heavy task of honoring those who’ve been lost.

Rather than try to explain too much about the story, first because that would serve to potentially ruin the ride and second because it involves sending ghosts of people in rockets into space, suffice it to say that the world has gone down very hard and things are bleak. As if being one of only two apparent survivors (though the world beyond the perhaps 30 - 40 square miles the games takes place in) of a terrible viral plague wasn’t bad enough the character you play as, John, is haunted by the ghosts of the people of his town. In order to help them move on past this world he must work with the world’s only remaining witch, Fei, to construct a rocket that will deliver them beyond and end both their suffering and his.

The gameplay, for the most part, consists of taking John through the surrounding areas, and eventually the outskirts of a city, to salvage the parts they’ll need to be successful. In order to progress you’ll need to find supplies that will help you craft gear like show shoes to walk through deep snow and a few other practical items. In your wandering you’ll also encounter a variety of personal keepsakes as well, typically in a roughed up condition. The stories associated with these help flesh out the entire picture of the events that took place towards the end, the chaos of it all, and the personal pain many people suffered through. You’ll start the day, explore, scavenge, try not to hurt yourself, discover parts and pieces, later, rinse, and repeat. Early on this all feels pretty linear but as the game opens up you have more options of where you can go, though ultimately you’ll end up roughly needing to go everywhere to find what you’ll need.

As I’d mentioned, in terms of raw gameplay things are a bit uneven bordering on wonky. Especially as you start out what you’re supposed to specifically be doing isn’t always clear and the cues for where to go and what to do next aren’t always as helpful as perhaps would be preferable. Nonetheless, the further in that I got the more I felt compelled to break through and see the story through to the end, to understand what happens and the full story behind the weight both John and Fei feel. While I saw more elaborate possibilities with where things could be going narratively the ending was still satisfying even if it is unclear what comes next.

Overall, if you’re down for a pretty touching story of people under stress but doing their best in an admittedly horrible situation it makes for a compelling handful of hours. Any expectations of the gameplay itself being satisfying should be checked at the door, for the most part it is just exploration with the job of helping advance the narrative. Despite that fact I still found the game’s story compelling enough to see me through to the end and appreciated everything it was trying to convey.

Score: 7.5

  • A compelling core story peppered with additional snippets of stories from others facing oblivion
  • Terrific artwork and music help convey the emotion of the narrative

  • The experience is very story-forward with the gameplay itself serving mostly to support it, not stand out in its own right significantly
  • If mushiness, emotions, and people under stress aren’t your bag you’ll very much want to stay away
  • Especially early on it’s not always clear what you’re supposed to do. When in doubt, just go to sleep...

Review: Sparkle 3 Genesis [Nintendo Switch eShop]

Not all games are meant to be about thrilling action or a meaningful story, sometimes it is satisfying just to sit down with a game that relaxes you and can simple be enjoyed at a slower pace. Throwing lush visuals and a sedated soundtrack at you on the surface Sparkle 3 Genesis is such a game. Unfortunately, even when relaxing the standards of gameplay there’s just simply not very much to it and that makes it hard to recommend.

My expectation, coming into it, was that it would be a bit like the early stage of the classic game Spore, where you’d start out as the lowest organism on the food chain and then slowly work your way up. There’s a certain eat or be eaten principle to these, with you needing to focus on avoiding anything bigger than you and feasting on anything smaller. While this concept is present to a minor degree it also implies far more action than you’ll find here. Sadly, it would also imply a far more coherent structure.

Rather than rely on simple pre-existing ideas and your instincts Sparkle 3 guides you by through a series of worlds with missions that you’ll be assigned when you run into stars that you’ll encounter. These allow you to get direction from what I assume is your creator giving you some purpose. Whether telling you to go dispose of some enemy creatures, navigate an area without running into the wrong areas on the walls, or escorting some other organisms to safety there is at least a little bit of variety to your tasks though most range from somewhat aggravating to merely dull. The glacial pacing of everything really begins to wear on you even while in the missions, but when you are sent somewhere else because you made a mistake and have to slowly swim back to the start it can really get irritating.

On top of the somewhat anemic gameplay there are just so many things in the game that same half-baked. The mini-map is often of marginal use and while there are structured parts to the environments you’re in anything beyond that is just empty and lacking in walls… it’s just a void. As you level up you’ll be able to choose whether to allocate points into either the red, blue, or green trees but while there are numbers and sliders there showing what you’ve chosen through many levels I have yet to detect what meaningful difference any of it made to gameplay. It does influence your appearance, though as far as I can tell that is mostly a matter of what color and general look you’ll have and not much more. Even as you get bigger you still seem to only eat the same colored pellets that are scattered about, and for every few you eat there’ll be a flash that doesn’t seem to mean anything but once in a while you’ll be able to level up. You constantly have indicators guiding you to the closest pellets of each color even though once you’re rolling you have no issue finding them and it would seem something quest-centric would have been far more useful since often finding your quest objectives is a tedious chore. While you’ll recoil and there’ll be a flash of red when you’re hit by an enemy creature as far as I can tell beyond that you seem immune to consequence from damage.

There’s just so much that is either unexplained or not terribly helpful it makes really enjoying the game difficult. I can appreciate its soothing qualities, combining its pretty looks with its very mellow music but beyond that I’d still like there to be a game worth playing. Unfortunately it seems to be in the midst of trying to pull of its own evolution of sorts and is being pulled in too many directions by a mishmash of incomplete ideas. I think there’s promise in this type of game being interesting, and have played games like it that are compelling, but Genesis has too many issues to recommend with any enthusiasm.

Score: 4

  • Great aesthetics
  • Mellow and soothing music

  • A seemingly-functionless upgrade system
  • Too many lapses in action and time wasted on simply getting in place
  • No apparent consequence for taking damage
  • Constant indicators showing where food is even though quickly they’re unnecessary whereas guidance for your current objective would have been far more useful

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Review: BINGO [Nintendo Switch eShop]

With all of these newfangled games coming out to Switch the thing that has been missing is something classic, something timeless… a game that has withstood the test of time! If you weren’t thinking BINGO I don’t know what’s wrong with you! Why wait to go out to the parlor when you can sit back and enjoy the thrill of the game from the comfort of your own home. Whether you have up to 3 friends over or decide to go it alone you’ll now, for a modest investment, be able to play 4 variations of this classic any time you like.

Of course there’s the classic mode, where everyone has a card and can take a reasonable amount of time to identify whether or not they have the number that has been called on their card. With some quick moves on the JoyCon you just need to select the number, hit the button, and you’re dialed in. If you’re feeling like everyone in the room is a bit more on edge and wants to liven up the game switch over to Buzzer BINGO where it’s a race to buzz in when the number is called, whoever buzzes first gets the spot. Of course if you buzz for a number you don’t have you’ll take a penalty. Slide BINGO shifts over to more of a strategic feel with each player having one turn to shift one row or column over, and each round a new spot is filled. Will you play offense and try to get your line or will you focus on keeping someone else from getting theirs first? Finally, there’s BINGO Poker where each player will draw numbers, looking to complete their line. You can each grab up to 3 of your opponent’s discards but to do so you’ll need to decide which space you’re going to give up.

Let’s be clear, folks, no matter whether this is electronic, has multiple modes, or supports 1 - 4 players either you, or someone in your family, really wants to be able to play BINGO at any time or you don’t. Put different modes against it, in the end it is still the same core game that perhaps anyone at all can play but after a few rounds can get a bit difficult to really enjoy. While I can appreciate the novelty of it all, and in theory it could be nice to have on the go, since all 4 cards are on the same screen in handheld mode it really isn’t practical to play. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with the implementation nothing is going to give the game longevity except for people who somehow can’t get enough of it.

Score: 4

  • If you truly love BINGO perhaps this will make you happy
  • Throwing 4 modes into the mix lends some variety but at its core it is still the same somewhat dull game

  • No number of alternative modes can redeem the game if you don’t already love BINGO
  • Due to the number of spaces on a BINGO card and the fact that all 4 cards need to be on-screen at once it is impractical to play in handheld mode

Review: Clustertruck [Nintendo Switch eShop]

They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a same result. To a certain degree I think that helps explain what makes Clustertruck both so compelling and aggravating. As a sort of hybrid of first-person platformer, puzzle game, and chaos simulator it delivers an absolutely unique experience that plays very well on the Switch.

The objective in each level is quite simple on paper: Get to the goal while never touching the ground, or roughly any surface that isn’t a truck. What makes the it so insane is everything the levels do to make that as challenging as possible. Between oncoming traffic, moving walls, avalanches, random beams from space, a certain degree of likely road rage, and more you’re never able to really get into a groove or comfortable. In one stage you’re going to have to aggressively push to bound ahead while in some I’ve found that holding back and letting things unfold around you is a far better bet. The beauty of it is that there’s no clear road to success and even going through many runs in a row with the same setup there’s no telling what may happen.

The main campaign takes you through a multitude of environments and each throws new sorts of challenges at you with every stage. There are times when you’ll get stuck on one in particular and then breeze through the next a bit more easily but it happens, and sometimes the issue is simply your choice in approach. As you progress you’ll gain points that can then be used to unlock an active ability and then a utility as well. The double-jump is highly recommended as, when used well, it can be a real life-saver. I will note that while the truck cannon utility, in principle, is cool very rarely did it help bail me out so something simpler like the ability to slow time may be a better recommendation. Two additional themed (and shorter) campaigns based on Halloween and Christmas further fill things out with their own quirks and challenges to layer in some additional variety as well.

While I can accept that the game is meant to be a bit odd and quirky, since it obviously has no basis in reality, that isn’t to say everything always feels ideal. Managing inertia is a big piece of the puzzle for success and correcting for moving too fast or slow while in the air can be a real issue. That wouldn’t be so bad as if, when you land, sometimes it feels like you’ve hit a greased surface and will simply skate right off. What you’ll find that you need to do is to try to get yourself into some level of motion to match the surface you’re landing on but I do with the level of friction you had on hard landings was a little more forgiving.

While there’s no doubt that Clustertruck can be an extremely aggravating experience at times the good news is that while failure often comes quickly you’ll also then be right back in the action. I think if there were a longer delay as everything reset itself the frustration would kick in much harder but since you’re pretty well immediately back in place to take another shot the game doesn’t give you much time to sulk. Then, when you finally do manage to pull off an insane series of jumps and moves, the feeling of accomplishment is quite exhilarating and not quite like anything else I’ve played on the system. If you’re down for something a bit unorthodox and fresh I easily would recommend giving it a chance.

Score: 8.5

  • Intense and chaotic gameplay like nothing else on the system
  • A wide variety of obstacles and challenges to contend with
  • Some levels play out a bit like a puzzle, requiring both planning and precision

  • Landings can be slippery and aggravating when pulling off a big landing only to slide right off
  • Power-ups and helper utilities vary wildly in practicality, though some are conceptually cool
  • Absolutely not for the easily aggravated

Review: Neonwall [Nintendo Switch eShop]

One of the greatest thing about indie games is that they try new, and often unusual, twists on genres. Different in the larger and more traditional market is risky in the world of big AAA budgets but for small and more nimble developers it is a great way to stand out. With an opening admission that I’m a sucker for the neon colors and aesthetics of the TRON universe I’ll say that Neonwall quickly caught my eye and attention. With its action puzzler focus and unique feel while it may not be for everyone credit is due for making something distinctive.

The object in the game is to get your ball to the end of a track. You’re unable to directly interact with it to help control it’s path but indirectly you can alter its color and surprisingly that somewhat limited interaction is sufficient to drive the whole game. What makes it work is that there are specific elements on the track that each have their own behaviors and variants of the colors as well. What color the ball is will determine how those sections of track then behave. If you’re on a blue segment and your ball is blue, it will move faster; if your ball is another color and it will move slower. Walls will only drop for a ball that’s the same color and floor sections will only support the same color. As things progress you’ll also need to shoot specific sections but you can only do so by firing at them with the right color. As these different elements are slowly introduced in subsequent tracks you typically have time to become accustomed to their function and use and then the challenge begins when they start to be combined in different orders and ways.

While there aren’t a tremendous number of levels in the game as a whole once things get rolling expect to be challenged and even frustrated. Keeping on top of the ball’s current color, what color it will need to be next, and what elements you may need to deal with before it gets there can get pretty intense. This is where control comes into play and I’d say neither supported scheme is necessarily perfect but both are workable. Using the analog sticks to control your two pointers probably feels a bit more precise overall but certainly the more rapid rate of movement using pointer controls is a plus. Unfortunately with pointer controls that rapid movement often comes at the cost of consistent accuracy as “center” will inevitably wander as it does with most games, sometimes making you contort a bit to keep control.

All in all Neonwall is an interesting bite of inventiveness that may be over a bit too soon but also doesn’t overstay its welcome. Its slow and consistent slope of added difficulty, with new elements being introduced consistently throughout the majority of the game, manages to keep you engaged and in a “just one more try” kind of way. More than just its cool aesthetics, it delivers a gameplay experience I’m interested to see more takes on in the future.

Score: 7.5

  • Cool aesthetics
  • A pretty steady progression in difficulty
  • Once new elements are introduced they’re quickly combined to create new challenges

  • Neither control scheme is without its flaws
  • Fighting to keep track of which color is currently mapped to which side can be aggravating at times

Review: Disc Jam [Nintendo Switch eShop]

As a big fan of all things TRON and the arcade classic Windjammers Disc Jam looked like a game right up my alley. Throw in some modern enhancements and sensibilities, online play, and a sprinkle of excitement here and there and I’d be set. In practice, though, while Disc Jam has some good ideas and executes fairly well the final product comes up a bit lacking.

Starting with the basics you’ll be walked through two tutorials that give you a rundown of the skills you’ll need to refine and perfect in the game. The starter tutorial is good for going over basic movement and mechanics, and then the advanced tutorial begins to get into more advanced moves, nuance, and ways to unleash fury on your opponent. For the most part the moves make sense and work out, timing is a big component to things as a perfect small delay in throwing from the time you catch helps put a little oomph into it and your slide is essential to getting into place to grab the disc.

Once you feel ready for a match your options are to play locally, play online, or to play ghost matches essentially against the CPU but with someone’s character (and supposedly some measure of their play style) from the online space. As you play against different people tactics and levels of skill certainly can vary, though most of the time it is a back and forth match of trying to get your opponent to make a mistake while making none yourself… at least when you start out. As you advance people will begin to do things like power themselves up with a block to catch and it can get more intense. There is both singles and doubles play, though in general doubles is tricky without the person sitting next to you as people often can’t tell who is going for which shot so it can be frustrating. As a general note even with cross-platform play enabled matchmaking is very much a mixed bag, sometimes getting a match within a minute but other times feeling a bit hopeless so just be aware that Ghost matches will often be where you’ll grind the most.

That leads into the biggest beef I have with the game, the lack of customization options for online matches… at least not without making a further financial investment or a substantial amount of time. There are ways to customize one of your relatively limited number of available base characters but you’ll need to either cough up real currency or grind quite a bit in order to unlock any of it. Worse, with few exceptions, you’ll just be pulling the lever on a prize randomizer for your troubles, often unlocking things for characters you don’t use or things that lack in interest.  The result is playing as and against a hell of a lot of the same exact people. If there weren’t customization options at all I think I’d be less annoyed than having quite a number of them but making the process of getting them so nakedly greedy. If it were a free-to-play I could see it, but even with the game’s modest price it’s pretty bad. Looking at the Rocket League model where there are many base customization options people quickly unlock and then loot crates to take it to the next level would serve the developer well.

Looking at the general state of things the key to whether you should invest in Disc Jam or not comes down to your tastes and whether you either have friends to play with or can put up with online play being hit or miss in terms of opponent availability. Playing against the CPU does have some variation but always feels quite different from a live adversary. Throw in the pretty blatant attempt to extract more money from people who’ve bought in and it isn’t a game without merit but it struggles to stand out as a game that’s suitable for everyone.

Score: 6

  • Online play, when you can find it, can be suitably intense
  • Quite a bit of room for technique and nuance

  • Even with cross-platform play there’s an availability problem when looking for online matches
  • Character customization exists but is handled in a very poor and even annoying manner
  • For all of the nuance many matches still fall into a pretty straightforward back and forth

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review: Spiral Splatter [Nintendo Switch eShop]

With indie games you find a little bit of everything. New takes on old genres, unexpected remixes of existing elements in new and exciting ways, and then things that fall into the category of something you’ve simply never experienced in video game form before. Though it is a pretty simple concept Spiral Splatter easily falls into the last category, if anything most reminding me of those “Test Your Reflexes” games where you try to move the metal ring down the moving spindle, avoiding hitting the sides. Is it a revolution? Not really. That doesn’t mean it can’t be something refreshing though.

The objective in the game is simply to get from Point A to Point B, in this case Point B being a target. There’s a sort of track between you and victory, and often a number of bends or even switches and other elements that will force you to wind through everything in a specific pattern, often overlapping itself to chalk up the difficulty. What lies between you and success isn’t some monster… it’s actually much worse. This is a game about fighting for precision, and at least for me, that can be a struggle. The space you’re travelling in is pretty narrow and hitting the walls means starting over (though some levels do have a checkpoint). While in principle this seems simple it can be confounding how easy it is to just lapse in concentration a little around the bend and then, BANG, you’re back at the beginning. In particular turns are the devil because while you’d like to keep everything crisp and in an easy straight line you’ll slowly find yourself trying to cut off the corners.

While I could attempt to write more that really does cover the essence of the game, it centers around that one gimmick and does a fairly good job with it. You’ll be on a timer and have the ability to hold down a button to speed yourself up but that should be used sparingly on straight-aways. Better times equate to more stars being awarded and if you want to progress you’ll need to get those stars so try to keep moving on easier levels to get ahead before it gets tougher. It should be noted that while touchscreen support would seem to make complete sense for a game like this it isn’t supported, you’ll have to use your analog sticks. I suppose the touchscreen would have possibly made it too much easier but it was still a bit of a surprise.

While Spiral Splatter is hardly going to take the Switch by storm that isn’t to say it’s a bad game. While I’d consider its appeal likely to be niche everything looks good, the level design is sound, and though it is humble everything works quite well. If you like testing your core skills and can deal with some aggravation it may not be a bad bet. At the low, low cost of admission it might be a good game to kick around to cleanse the palate between other meatier titles.

Score: 7

  • Knows what it is and takes its hook as far as it can
  • Clean looks and well-executed overall
  • A low price always helps

  • While there are variations make no mistake, it is a one-trick pony
  • The lack of touchscreen support is a surprise
  • If you don’t like being tense and frustrated it may not be a good match

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Review: Coffin Dodgers [Nintendo Switch eShop]

When it comes to kart racers the unfortunate reality is when releasing something new on the Switch it will inevitably be put up against Mario Kart, the reigning king of karts. Though several racers have come to the console in the hopes of knocking the king off its throne not only have none succeeded but the gap in quality between MK and its hopeful successors has been substantial. New on the scene is the comically-themed Coffin Dodgers, pitting a pack of geriatric wannabe racers against the Grim Reaper himself. How does it measure up? Unfortunately, in some key areas it has fallen and can’t get up.

While there are some mode variations that provide some temporary distraction the meat and potatoes of kart racing is the core driving experience. In the case of Dodgers this makes for a mix of good and bad. On the plus side once you get used to the pretty tight handling control at least works fairly well. Another positive is that most of the power-ups are useful and make some degree of sense, whether the AOE shock paddles, the lethal missiles, or the likes of the shield. The inclusion of the multi-hit close-up uzi I was generally less thrilled with and tended to just want to use as quickly as possible so it wouldn’t take up an item slot. It works, it just is literally hit or miss and takes a while to deplete. Similarly down the middle in “Meh”-ville is your melee attack, which absolutely can be useful, but usually only in the very early race when you’re vying for position.

Going through the balance of concerns for racing games the track design is decent but, for the most part generic. There are simply too many stretches of track lacking in detail and interest. Boost strips and ramps make an occasional appearance but mostly feel under-utilized. Some hazards are present in limited cases in specific areas but nothing screams “inspired” despite the very specific theming in the game. That extends to your choices in racers, who are at least visually eclectic but in terms of performance seem completely identical. Your opportunity to differentiate comes from collecting coins which you can then use to purchase upgrades for your scooter, whether to improve your basket (tied to your item pick-ups) or your melee weapon range on top of the normal racing suspects. Local multiplayer isn’t incredible, though mostly due to the nature of the entire racing experience and not faulting it specifically.

Where Dodgers struggles the worst is really in terms of the big picture, putting all of the various pieces together to form a compelling whole. The racing isn’t too bad or sloppy, it’s just not hard to see that, for the most part, it’s unremarkable even if the core story has the potential for amusement. Aside from the characters, the karts themselves, and one particular power-up there’s not much capitalizing on this being a bunch of geriatric racers. A used colostomy bag instead of an oil slick? Racing through the old folks home itself? It just feels like there are missed opportunities. While the final resolution to the game’s story mode has some humor at least the final showdown race with the Grim Reaper himself was completely underwhelming as well. In terms of overall race dynamics the worst elements are that when you’re hit or crash you immediately lose your power-ups and once you really get behind there’s not much that will get you back to the rest of the pack. This means that if you’re in the lead and get hit with a string of bad luck (in particular from missiles) you can easily drop to last and have little opportunity to get back into the race. Then, just as a general note, while you do accumulate experience (including bonus experience for hitting cones and objects on the track) I’m still unclear what purpose it serves as a whole. There’s just a collection of questions and issues that don’t completely add up.

While I enjoyed playing through Coffin Dodgers to a degree even against the other somewhat lackluster kart racers that have already released on the Switch it fails to differentiate itself significantly. The best hope would be that you and some friends could get some silly enjoyment out of the local multiplayer but that will come down to people’s tastes. While it is good for kicking around and having some fun with for a while aside from the multiplayer angle it won’t likely hold your attention for very long.

Score: 6

  • A unique theme… though somewhat criminally under-utilized
  • Overall, kart handling is decent

  • The single-player campaign ends with a whimper
  • Too many stretches of track that lack excitement
  • Fails to pull away from the rest of the average kart-racer pack

Review: Danmaku Unlimited 3 [Nintendo Switch eShop]

While there have been a multitude of shooters on the Switch to date, and many with bullet-hellish elements I wouldn’t say there’s been one that is purely rooted in that genre. After having a great deal of space in the mobile space the Danmaku Unlimited series making its way to the Switch has changed that. While the level of challenge obviously won’t be for the easily frustrated it has a sense of style that’s pretty hard not to at least appreciate from a distance.

Starting with how it looks Danmaku Unlimited 3 is simply gorgeous, though since it is a vertically-oriented shooter in the classic arcade style it can be tougher to appreciate. However, there are a number of options to choose from, including turning your screen on its side assuming you can fashion a stand. The colors jump off the screen and you’ll need all of that contrast and color to help you keep track of everything moving on the screen at once. Your primary weapon will often help with the various scrub ships coming your way, while also leaving your ship nimble. However, to take on the bigger enemies you’ll want to move over to your secondary and more focused beam weapon, just understand that you won’t move as quickly while its in use. Even in Easy mode there’s often not much room to maneuver in, so expect the game to always be putting up a fight and demanding your attention.

To up the ante on distracting you the key element that makes Danmaku Unlimited 3 stand out is the grazing system, a mechanic that actively encourages you to fly in close proximity to enemy bullets. While enemy fire will change over to blue so you can help charge your graze meter more safely while you’re in the midst of major battles with bullets everywhere if you want an edge it’s worth your consideration considering bullets will be all around you anyway. Once you get your graze meter high enough you’ll get boosted attack powers and will be able to rake in bonus gems to raise your score. Ideally you’ll be able to keep track of your ship, everything that is headed its way, and then manage to narrowly avoid being hit by all of if while keeping the look out for bullets that have changed over that you can grab as well. It makes for a very active experience.

While perhaps this is stating the obvious it is the intensity of play that may make anyone who isn’t a genre fan a bit hesitant. Make no mistake, while you’ll progressively learn the patterns of everything to help you better stay alive even at its simplest this is a game that understands with it is and pulls no punches. Overall the biggest boost you can get is knowing what to hit, how, and when as the enemies begin to come at you from all directions. Prioritizing the right ships to destroy first and looking for every opportunity to power up your graze meter is what experience will bring to the table and it helps greatly in making sure you’ll survive the onslaught.

Overall, as the first pure bullet-hell shooter on the platform, Danmaku Unlimited 3 hits the Switch with a firm level of difficulty and style to spare. While you’ll often end up cursing it as you get so close to getting further there’s a quality in it that I couldn’t ever put it down for long before taking another crack at it. With a gorgeous look, intense gameplay, and plenty of room for technique if you’re a genre fan you shouldn’t hesitate to pick it up!

Score: 8.5

  • Looks fabulous
  • Intense bullet-hell gameplay
  • The grazing system is well-implemented and motivates you to play very aggressively

  • Vertical mode doesn't make great use of the screen, especially if playing in docked mode
  • If you’re not a genre fan the experience may be a bit overwhelming

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Review: Kona [Nintendo Switch eShop]

One of the genres I’ve been thrilled to see coming back into classic form of late is the Adventure game. Though it had slumbered a bit in terms of relevance indies who have been more willing to take chances with it have managed to thrive. Of course, while some of these games have followed the more classic PC adventure template, lacing the gameplay with a sense of humor and unusual characters, there are others that have ventured into less familiar territory. KONA is one such title, the result of a curious blending of adventure and survival games topped with a mystery… and a bit of mysticism.

You’ll play the part of a detective who has been summoned to a remote part of Canada by a wealthy man. With the region hit by a terrible winter storm things go off the rails pretty quickly and you’ll find yourself a bit stranded, disoriented, and forced to find materials to help you stay alive. Once you get your bearings you’ll discover things in the area have gone horribly wrong, the population of this remove area pretty well all dead through means both traditional and mysterious. Using only the clues you find along the way, your own intuition, and a lot of back and forth exploring you’ll slowly put the pieces together to discover the secrets behind what has happened.

If you’re not ready to meticulously search every location you visit, opening every cabinet and scanning around the area with a fine-toothed comb I’ll warn you that you’re not likely to enjoy it much. In the tradition of most classic adventures you’ll need to be thorough and the solutions to some of your problems will require leaving an area to find the means you need to progress before returning to move on. Thankfully, for the most part, the game takes it easy on you with any object you can interact with marked on-screen as you explore. You just need to get close by and you’ll then get a prompt for a designated action, whether inspecting, picking it up, or manipulating it in some way. Overall there’s not a set course to follow and thankfully some key items you’ll need in specific situations are present in a variety of places on the map. In addition as you find clues you’re often given leads on where you need to go next, consulting your truty map to find the way and reviewing the details in your journal if need be.

Probably the most aggravating thing about the game is simply the load times, which are pretty lengthy. They also tend to be a bit jarring as when you transition between areas the game will suddenly lock up for a little while as the assets for the next area load. Considering the game’s pacing, and that these events typically happen at the edges of areas, there’s no specific penalty you take on when these happen, they’re just a bit time consuming and suck the excitement out of the game at times. While the survival aspects of the game can, on occasion, get irritating for the most part the game has an abundance of key supplies strewn about as long as you’re willing to search for them. In particular the elements to start a fire are crucial as the fire will help you warm back up (to prevent you from eventually dying) as well as provide the means to save the game.

I’ve deliberately been vague about the game’s story as some of what happens is much more interesting and mysterious the less you know about it. I appreciate the lore and the way revelations about what has happened reveal themselves to you, though at times it can also be disorienting as you try to understand what is going on. Though the ultimate finale to the game might not be as satisfying as I would have hoped KONA has a story to tell and uses a unique means to do so, making it a terrific addition to the diverse Switch indie library.

Score: 7.5

  • A mystery with elements that slowly unfold in interesting ways
  • Exploration is a key to survival
  • The overall design of the game seems to be pretty resilient and you aren’t locked into a set path for success so you’re able to explore things in any way and order you like

  • The load times can really suck the life out of things as you wait for the next area to get rolling
  • For the limited number of action sequences in the game the controls are a bit on the noodly side
  • If you’re not prepared for a somewhat slow and plodding overall pace the game will likely be aggravating

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Review: Spy Chameleon [Nintendo Switch eShop]

One of the best things about indie titles is their ability to come out of nowhere, completely unheralded, and then surprise you with something worthy of some attention. This is very much the case with Spy Chameleon, a game I don’t think I’d even heard of until it was practically already available on the eShop. Delivering a polished, creative, and surprisingly diverse set of action puzzle challenges over 75 levels spanning 5 missions it is a far better game than its budget-friendly price would imply.

It seems that you’re a lizard with a certain set of skills, in this case involving infiltrating areas that are supposed to be secure and coming away with the loot. In each mission new traps, elements, and enemies are quickly introduced to you, setting the stage for the challenges ahead. Early on you’ll mostly need to learn to be nimble and carefully watch your enemy’s patrol patterns but soon your color-changing abilities will need to be put to use and that’s where things really step up in difficulty.

As long as you’re standing on a surface, whether carpet, paint, or color-changing floor tiles, you’re able to avoid detection as long as you match its color. The floor tiles later in the game step up the difficulty as you’ll need to use transitioning tiles to cover your color switch and keep careful track of edges and corners that aren’t being scanned to figure out your path. To help there are flies in the level that will roughly point out an optimum path but you’ll need to do some problem-solving in-between. In order to unlock additional levels you’ll need to collect all flies on multiple stages, which is pretty simple for the most part, if you want to beat the target time or collect all ladybugs you’ll likely need to do so on an additional pass.

The steady progression generally keeps the game from feeling too hard or unfair, and without giving you a lot of direct feedback you’re actually taught most concepts pretty effectively through smart level design. While there’s an obvious incentive for grabbing all of the flies aside from challenging yourself or beating the leaderboards for time there’s not much to compel you to repeat to do better. While the ladybugs early on are pretty easy to get in later levels if you feel things are too easy they’ll really make you work to get them all.

All said I’m a big fan of Spy Chameleon and its fresh take on stealth action puzzling. Never settling in for too long each mission feels just about the right length before the game throws some new things at you to get the hang of. Later in the game the puzzle element really begins to kick in as you’ll need to work carefully and methodically to avoid detection in a variety of ways. If you love creative action Spy Chameleon could just sneak its way into your list of favorites.

Score: 8.5

  • A creative take on stealth action puzzle gaming
  • Smooth overall progression in difficulty
  • Level design does an excellent job of building your skills before challenging you in later stages

  • While going back for a great time or grabbing all ladybugs is nice for completionists there’s not much incentive to do so

Review: Earthlock [Nintendo Switch eShop]

While turn-based RPGs certainly reigned supreme for some time at Square’s peak in general they’ve slowed a bit. To this point I’d say the Switch’s uneven line-up reflects this, leaving opportunities for competent entries, whether AAA or indie. Earthlock’s story and characters may feel a bit underwhelming but the challenge of its battle system compensates nicely, making it a decent way to fill some time if you’re looking for your JRPG fix.

Making your way through the world of Umbra you’ll slowly accumulate a ragtag group of characters, all with their own backgrounds and motivations. The first few hours encompass this process, as you’ll move through some story beats and learn what they have to offer along the way. Whether ultimately working out as some form of support, melee fighter, ranged fighter, thief, or some combination thereof each has skills that can become vital depending on the types of foes you face. In general you’ll want to change your line-up around periodically to be sure to level each character up enough to gain their main complement of skills and hopefully figure out which pairs of characters give you the combat benefits that suit your style best.

Combat is really where the game shines, as each character has 2 different stances they can change between in battle. Managing these effectively and making the best use of each character’s skills is vital so planning not just who is in your party but even which starting stance you want them in can make the difference in tight battles. I was pleased that you’re able to wander enough in the overworld to get yourself in trouble by going to the wrong places too early, I’ve always found if you can take a few battles here and there that are tougher it makes leveling up a lot quicker so it’s appreciated. In general, though, it’s not until you hit the boss battles that you’ll typically start to feel the heat. Typically if you’re finding you’re not doing very well the problem is the composition of your team and you’ll need to adjust accordingly, looking for their weaknesses and then being sure to exploit them with the proper team.

Probably the most unusual part of the game for me is the sort of hub area where you’re able to grow plants that you can then cultivate, craft items, etc. I suppose these are in place to make the game more novel but in general for me they just felt like wasted time and more junk to carry around wondering if I really need it or not. Another area that is important but doesn’t seem to get enough focus or definition is the talent system that allows you to upgrade and somewhat specialize your character. A simpler straight-up interface without collecting cards and all would seem to be just as effective but it is what it is. Nice, but seemingly a bit over-complicated for what marginal choice it adds.

All in all Earthlock is a solid JRPG experience that should be quite welcome on the platform since it is currently a bit lacking in the genre. While it’s hardly revolutionary it does a fairly good job of delivering on what’s most important in terms of combat mechanics and fun. While it may be priced a bit high for an indie title for the most part it’s a reasonably-good investment.

Score: 7

  • Combat is strategic enough to be satisfying
  • Experimentation with pairing characters together can yield positive results
  • A clean and polished look overall

  • In general, the story and characters generally feel a bit boilerplate
  • The crafting and cultivation systems seem either under-developed or unnecessary
  • In terms of price it may be a little steep