Monday, February 19, 2018

Review: TorqueL - Physics Modified Edition [Nintendo Switch eShop]

I can always appreciate a game with a nice and novel hook that manages to shake up my expectations and deliver a new experience. That’s no doubt what the people behind TorqueL had in mind, putting together an action puzzle game that has relatively simple control mechanics but that uses physics to liven things up a bit. Whether or not you’ll be inclined to take the plunge will depend heavily on whether this concept sounds like fun but then also whether it sounds like something that can sustain your interest on its novelty alone.

In TorqueL you’ll take control of a little guy in a box, trying to move him over obstacles, around traps, and though areas that pose different control challenges. You see, using the 4 buttons on your controller you’ll also be able to extend colored bars (the colors help greatly as you try to figure out which one to disable in particular) from your box that you can use in a variety of ways to help you, Whether this is to propel you up, help brace yourself from falling into a pit, or to simply hold yourself in place while you get your bearings these bars are crucial to your survival and success. What you’ll find is that as you add rotation to the mix when these bars are extended it will affect your movement, and this is usually in a way that makes sense in terms of physics… thus the game establishes its hook.

That said, while it does add elements, some branching path options (which I suppose lend themselves to replayability but I think this is overplaying the strength of the hook), and layouts once you’ve hit the first quarter of the game’s 50 total levels (accounting for all potential paths) it doesn’t feel like it rewards sustained efforts with much more than simply more levels. Granted, in its own way every level is unique and will require a different combination of skills and planning to complete but it starts to feel a bit “one note” after a while. Throw in that the physics implementation, at times, takes on a “wacky physics game” feel with unpredictable behaviors and it can diminish the appeal.

Perhaps if you’re a big fan of action puzzles and don’t mind its minimalistic looks you’ll find enough fun in TorqueL to fully explore its branches, discover the key to its secret path, and exhaust everything it has to offer. For everyone else I would imagine it will serve as a nice temporary distraction and then results will vary in terms of how quickly the novelty and interest wears thin. TorqueL takes a good stab at providing variety but different isn’t always exciting in and of itself.

Score: 5.5

  • A novel control scheme
  • The use of physics can make for some unique gameplay
  • Multiple paths to explore

  • A sense of sameness begins to set in after a while, despite levels being unique
  • Some strange and quirky behaviors can occur and lead to frustrations
  • The branching paths are a nice effort but presume much of the game’s level of replayability

Review: WanderjahR [Nintendo Switch eShop]

On a system already crowded with quite a number of quality titles it has already proven difficult to differentiate yourself on the Switch. There are certainly some genres with less representation than others but sometimes to stand out the answer is to do things a bit differently. Falling into that space the game with a mouthful of a name, WanderjahR, has come to the system with a mix of real-time strategy and RPG mechanics, though the result probably won’t suit everyone.

As you move through the levels in the game, fighting all manner of strange enemies and bosses, you’ll be working to manage your growing roster of characters. Each has its own class and since you can only have 4 active in battle at one time you’ll need to learn to quickly adapt to any situation you face, being sure to have out your best units to counter and survive against distinct foes. Whether that means going attack-heavy, defensive, or even buff-heavy you’ll need to learn each unit’s benefits, each enemy’s weaknesses, and then keep an eye on your lineup as the situation evolves to keep your best team in play. The ability to specify which enemy should be focused on is also essential as not all enemies are created equal and as you remove certain types from the field you can and should then typically adjust your lineup accordingly.

The other crucial component to your success will come with preparation between rounds, whether upgrading your units with acquired experience, restocking on supplies to ensure you can provide aid in a pinch, or doing things like managing your team’s active buff. As play wore on I tended to lock into a more core group I was likely to use and then more peripheral characters who could be useful but I generally didn’t bother with. Switching out units works well enough but at the same time it is a tad cumbersome, shortcuts to switch between favorite line-ups or something else expedited would have been nice as combat continues to occur as you’re managing things. I have no doubt this is intention but in particular in the boss fights I found it to be a bit annoying.

Aside from my qualms with the interface I’d say the primary concern I have is that in some ways it isn’t very engaging. You will undoubtedly have to stay on top of what’s happening on-screen to survive, whether changing out heroes, using items, or collecting jewels, but having no more direct ability to engage in the action can feel limiting. To some degree the lack of an ability to act more directly makes it all feel more turn-based in practice and what’s on screen is just more elaborate and continuous animation. Throw in the fact that as you gain access to more characters the interface becomes more burdened and cumbersome as you try to manage your live roster and some occasional difficulty spikes and while I see an audience for this style of play it can also be a bit tough to love.

Appreciating the fact that variety is the spice of life WanderjahR has a place on the system and may even find an audience with its novelty. That said, after a while the repetition of it all can begin to set in and your limits of control can become aggravating. If you’re eager to find a new take on strategy RPG gaming it may well be worth a shot, but for most gamers I’d anticipate this will be a pass.

Score: 6

  • A style of play unique on the Switch
  • What eventually becomes a significant number of hero classes you will need to manage and combine to deal with a variety of circumstances

  • Unit management, especially as your roster grows, can be cumbersome
  • A lack of active control can make the gameplay harder to be engaged in
  • Gameplay can feel repetitive 

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Review: Aqua Kitty UDX [Nintendo Switch eShop]

As a kid of the 80s I pretty well grew up in the arcades. The sights and sounds (we won’t get into the smells) that defined the experience of entering the arcade are still burned into my mind. Having wasted so much of my life, and quarters, playing arcade classics it fills me with joy to see indie developers embracing some of the greats from that era, giving them a bit of polish, and sharing them with a new generation. Aqua Kitty UDX may have a furry and cute aesthetic but its gameplay quickly shows that it has legit old school claws.

The game will allow you to toggle between 4 distinct modes, each with a different inspiration, across 3 skill levels. The first mode, Classic, is based around the arcade classic Defender and its variants. Your focus is on destroying all of the enemy waves but you’ll have milk miners that you’ll also want to specifically keep an eye on as they can be captured by specific enemy craft. You have a window of time to save them as they’re moved up the screen (and the game helps alert you to this by turning your map red and having the miner let out a distinct cry) before they’re lost but that covers most of what there is to know. The next mode, Arcade, is more of a variant on the classic Gradius and its contemporaries layered on top of the Classic mode. As you destroy waves of enemies you’ll be able to collect crystals that you can use to repair or upgrade your ship, and this mode is for keeps as when you die you’ll have to start from the beginning again. Dreadnought changes things up pretty significantly with you attacking a mothership of sorts. You’ll need to chip away at its defenses before taking on its core, all the while avoiding a consistent stream of enemies and waves of depth charges. Finally there’s Infinite mode that dispenses with nuance and simply challenges you to survive a constant progression of enemies.

Honoring the mechanics of the classics your control style allows you to move around freely to shoot, and bumping the shoulder buttons will make you turn to face the opposite direction. You’ll need to be careful to note that movement in the opposite direction you’re facing will be a bit slower, so you’ll need to carefully manage which side you’re facing if you need to evade anything. Providing some modern flair the burst fire you’re able to make use of is a convenient feature to help you take out tough enemies quicker. In addition, what amounts to a combo meter you’ll want to keep up by consistently killing enemies provides some motivation to remain on the attack to maximize your score. Throw in some challenging boss fights, support to play cooperatively with a friend, and online leaderboards and you have a fine intersection of the classic and contemporary.

Overall I only have positive things to say about Aqua Kitty UDX. It has a focus on a specific experience, delivers it effectively, and provides a reasonable progression of challenge across its diverse modes. While it won’t likely have much appeal outside of people who are arcade-style shooting fans it is also probably more friendly for acting as an introduction to the genre than other more hardcore choices on the Switch. Well worth checking out and it has a very reasonable price to boot!

Score: 8

  • 4 distinct modes, each with their own challenges
  • An intersection of classic play with some modern enhancements
  • Friendly even to less hard core shooter fans

  • The theming may not appeal to everyone
  • If chasing high scores isn’t your thing it may not have much staying power

Friday, February 16, 2018

Review: Joe Dever's Lone Wolf [Nintendo Switch eShop]

While the system hasn’t even been out for an entire year yet the depth and diversity of the Switch lineup is truly something to behold. While not every type of game is represented, or at least not necessarily well, it has quickly become a system with games that can suit any taste from the most hardcore to highly casual. Since there’s such strong indie representation on the system what excites me most is the quantity of the unexpected titles, ones that do things a bit different and take risks in order to deliver a new experience. Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf can be challenging to describe well on paper, marrying a strong text-based narrative with a solid dose of player agency with consequences, and then topping it off with strategic and engaging combat.

Starting with the text-based narrative, since that may be the game’s most unusual quality, I’ll quickly admit that I dig it but it also checks personal boxes of mine. First, the basis for the title comes from gamebooks by the author Joe Dever, and though I never read them their nature reminds me of the Choose Your Own Adventure books I enjoyed as a kid. These had a central story but would give you choices to make along the way, letting you participate in the story and explore alternative outcomes (though most of them involved death). That concept is very present throughout, with you choosing specific skills and attributes up-front that will shape some of your core combat abilities and options you’ll then have through the course of the adventure. As the story unfolds you’ll then have decisions to make, some carrying consequences at a more granular battle level and some with further-reaching effects. On occasion I’d play around and go back to change a decision and it can be the difference in having to fight additional battles in some cases, though with loot you gain from battle sometimes that can be more helpful than a chore. Overall, having enjoyed this style of narrative as a kid, but then also having been a fan of classic text-based games like Zork and even online MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons, text-based forebears of modern MMORPGs), the style and quality of the narrative I found very engaging.

If the game was merely an interactive novel of sorts, where you’re simply making decisions that branch the storyline, it would be nice but probably not very exciting… and that’s where the crucial component of the game’s combat comes into play. Playing out with a heavy mix of strategy, quicktime-event-like action, and some flair this is probably the crucial element that will either make you a believer or leave you feeling cold. The best I can describe it would be to call it “active turn-based” in nature, which took some getting used to at first. However, as the game progressed and the challenge increased it completely hooked me even as it had a tendency to kick my ass. I’ll be very clear, without dropping to the Easy difficulty there are some battles in the game that are going to make you want to rip your hair out… but in a good way. If you fail to make smart use of your special Kai powers, don’t maximize the benefit of your attacks and dodge opportunities, or don’t use your items wisely to keep yourself alive and pile on the enemy damage you’re going to struggle in key spots. There are times when the RNG gods aren’t being kind to you but in the majority of fights I lost it wasn’t hard to pick out the points where I could have been smarter, more efficient, or executed better. The game’s combat demands that you rise to its challenge but I wouldn’t say it is cruel. You just need to use the early battles to explore different combinations of weapons (I preferred to dual wield over using a shield), understand the effects and best use of your various Kai skills, and then make efficient use of your supplemental items like throwing knives (or crossbow bolts), potions, and various consumables. Though they play a lesser role there’s a rudimentary lockpicking interface that fails to be as well-executed as it’s obvious target of Skyrim and further into the game there are some fun 3D puzzle cubes you’ll need to configure as well for some variety.

Not to slow your interest if this all sounds like fun but to ignore the problems the game has, in particular with regards to its interface, would be a disservice. It’s a bit of an odd bird honestly, although having come from the touch-screen tablet space the game only seems to work with the physical controls. To be clear, in combat I think this is for the best as the button presses, swipes, and slashes feel good with the controller (once you’re used to them) and I’ve always found such controls wonky on-screen when playing mobile games. The issue comes into play with the way the visual interface was designed and the fact that the physical controls here are very cumbersome and at times can even be aggravating. You’ll end up fiddling around at times just trying to move to your next goal and it isn’t too burdensome but it does show a lack of refinement. Similarly, the merchant interface is very slow to navigate and use with oddities like you typically being moved to the bottom of the list of everything you’ve ever sold before when you sell an item, forcing you to move back to where you were. Outside of the interface sometimes the controls can feel a little picky, with you missing a slash you executed but perhaps not perfectly right, but the majority of the time when you’re in action the game shines, it just gets bogged down with maintenance tasks.

While Lone Wolf isn’t without its flaws it is also one of the most maddeningly addictive games I’ve played on the system to date. At almost 20 hours in I’m still sensing there’s a way to go and aside from it putting a cramp in getting things done I can’t say I’m complaining. Throughout the game there’s a slow and steady escalation of difficulty, new items to experiment with and upgrade, and always challenges that will demand that your tactics evolve and adapt. In particular if you love a good story and thrilling combat action I’d say that Joe Dever’s Lone Wolf is well worth your time at its very reasonable price, and I’m very hopeful that we can see a sequel that starts over with consoles in mind from the ground up to see its weaknesses addressed.

Score: 8.5

  • A fantastic and engagingly-written story, complete with branching paths that carry consequences
  • Fabulous strategic combat that will challenge your tactics as well as your reflexes
  • A tremendous amount of content for a very reasonable price

  • The interface is a bit of a hot mess at times and can be aggravating
  • Though there is in-game help for many aspects of the game you won’t discover all of its nuance without some experimentation and analysis
  • Some choke point battles will challenge your patience and sanity

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Review: Owlboy [Nintendo Switch eShop]

Throughout history there have been two very different traditional types of hero: Those that are born and those that are made. In the case of Otus, the mute protagonist you’ll control in the charming puzzle platformer Owlboy, the road towards merely being given a shred of respect by his peers is a long one. Though his journey, and by pairing with some companions who have identity issues of their own, he’ll save his people and help them understand his hidden strength.

The main stand-outs about the game, without a doubt, are the gorgeous 16-bit style pixel art and the varied action. The characters and environments are all colorful, lush, and distinctive, helping make Owlboy look terrific even among its many indie peers. The story will move you through multiple locales that help to keep things fresh both in terms of the look and the gameplay. While you’ll begin with only one companion, Geddy, over the course your adventure you’ll take on two more characters that will aid you in solving puzzles and getting yourself out of trouble. You’re able to carry one companion at a time with you, allowing you to use their signature ability. In some sections this can require you to change out which one you’re using quickly and to that end the game equips you with a teleporter early on to explain how this can happen so rapidly. It’s a bit silly but I suppose offering an explanation where most games would just have you accept that it can happen blindly is a nice touch.

The other noteworthy element of the game from start to finish is its design. Making clever use of your companions’ abilities, Otus’s ability to fly, and on occasion mixing in some platforming elements Owlboy does a superb job of changing things up regularly. You’ll move from an extended passage of more organic puzzles to a mini-boss fight to a quick action sequence in the span of a few minutes and in that regard the game never begins to feel too stale over its surprisingly lengthy running time. Right at a point where you could almost believe the game could be wrapping up it turns out things are just getting started, bringing new revelations to the story, a new companion, and even more variety to the action. Whether making use of platforming, stealth, running and gunning, or working your skills to solve an action puzzle Owlboy doesn’t let you get comfortable very often and, for the most part, handles these varied styles of play well.

That’s not to say that the variety doesn’t have some casualties. There are certainly sections of the game that work better than others, and particularly some fast action sequences that can be frustrating for exposing the somewhat clumsy nature of the control scheme. Frequent auto-saves are truly a blessing to help compensate for this though, so at least when you have problems you won’t have to lose too much progress. The regularity of saves also helps make up for the overall lack of opportunity to get healing. Places where you can heal up are scattered and I’d even say a bit haphazard in their placement. You don’t tend to be penalized by it too much because of the save system but it is oddly inconsistent. Coins that you collect to buy upgrades fall into the same category, present almost everywhere early on but then almost completely disappearing for entire phases of the game. It all works out in the end but at times the lack of continuity in the design is puzzling. Considering that, if you want to find everything the game has to offer, you’ll need to return to previous areas to get at some particular collectibles a map would have been appreciated as well. Returning to areas that you changed in order to progress can feel unfamiliar, adding to some confusion when returning to them.

Overall I had a fabulous time playing through Owlboy, and the fact that it surprised me with some regularity was a huge bonus. While most indie titles tend to move in the direction of a very specific style of play it manages to be a little more diverse, helping it stand out among its peers beyond its good looks. Throw on a non-traditional story and hero and you have a game that doesn’t get everything right but that, without question, invested a great deal of effort in being notable.

Score: 8

  • It looks fabulous
  • Varied gameplay helps keep it fresh throughout
  • Frequent auto-saves help keep the frustration level low

  • Some quick action sequences expose the limits of the control scheme
  • Not all styles of play are equally well-implemented
  • Collectibles and coins feel like an afterthought and trying to find them without a map can be needlessly time-consuming

Monday, February 12, 2018

Review: The Darkside Detective [Nintendo Switch eShop]

Thus far in the Switch’s short life I’ve been surprised by the number of titles from the resurgent classic Adventure genre, and by their quality. The fact that the Switch is both portable and has a touchscreen may have a lot to do with this, in many regards it may be the perfect console system for enjoying them. Adding to the list we now have The Darkside Detective, bringing with it a host of quirky characters, pop culture references to spare, and a very stylistic pixel art look that suits it well.

As is the case with any game in this genre the majority of your time will be spent exploring rooms, poring over anything you can click on, and then figuring out how to solve a variety of puzzles that will require the use of objects and your wits to solve. Humor will commonly be derived from the dialogue options and the descriptions of the items you’ll run across. Specifically in the case of Detective there’s an abundance of jokes involving movies and television and while it all worked for me I’ll acknowledge my age may have helped some of these connect. Younger gamers, in particular, may find some of it a bit more hit and miss.

Over the course of the 6 cases you’ll work through, the first one being a bit shorter and serving more as a tutorial, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that, for the most part, you’ll probably make your way through each case within an hour or two depending on how quickly you read and can figure out what you’ll need to do to progress. The good news is that in general I’d consider the actions you’ll need to take, and the solutions to the puzzles in your way, to be pretty sensible so there’s a good chance you’ll be able to get through the game without heavy use of a guide. In a few cases I was thrown off only by the sequence I had to complete things in, not so much by not having the right idea, but in general I had a good time.

What it comes down to for a game like this is whether you’re a fan of the genre and what your expectations are for the length of the experience. I’d say that Darkside Detective isn’t the best adventure game on the system but it holds up well in the middle of the pack. The greater the breadth of your pop culture appreciation the more likely I’d say the jokes and references are to connect for you, and in general the game is riding on that understanding. It’s a worthwhile romp for genre fans who’d like a chance to enjoy 5 chapters with a reasonable length, have a few laughs, and not being quite as frustrated as with other games in the genre on the Switch.

Score: 7.5

  • Some great pop culture references add to the fun if you understand them
  • Creative solutions to puzzles that manage not to be too obscure or bizarre
  • Each of the 5 longer chapters are a satisfying stand-alone bite of fun

  • There are more elaborate and impressive adventure titles on the system
  • Younger or less pop culture savvy gamers will likely find many jokes fail to hit for them

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Review: Dandara [Nintendo Switch eShop]

A central element of the indie spirit is a willingness to take things that are familiar and then make a fundamental change to them, creating a new type of experience in the process. Dandara is a game that fully embraces this, taking the classic Metroidvania genre style and giving it a style of control unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. The result is most definitely distinctive, and provides for quite a challenge, but I would anticipate that people’s reactions to it may vary wildly.

The world of Dandara is visually distinct and gorgeous, sporting an art style that is almost as unique as its controls. Rather than use a traditional scheme where you use the left for movement and then a variety of buttons to jump and fire you’ll instead use one of two supported schemes. You can try out the touchscreen controls in handheld mode, though I wouldn’t generally recommend them given the choice, but the likely scheme you’ll choose is more about aiming where you want to go and then jumping around between surfaces. You see, Dandara, for whatever reason, can’t run or walk... she can only vault between certain types of surfaces. This change completely alters how the game works, and its impacts are felt in pretty well every aspect of the game.

The first tricky thing you’ll notice is that it can be a bit disorienting, particularly when you’re getting into big fights or even when trying to make sense of navigating the somewhat labyrinthian map. In particular trying to move too quickly can leave you cursing everything in sight as the quicker you try to move the higher the risk becomes that you’ll end up not exactly ending up where you wanted to. Add on another crucial decision, that in order to fire you need to hold the button down briefly to charge, and the degree of planning and precision required for success gets to be quite a bit higher. You won’t be able to fly in and gun down everything in sight, your moves will need to be precise and surgical. It takes some getting used to, and will likely cause a few deaths, but it does enforce what I assume is a very intended gameplay style.

Possibly the most aggravating aspect of the game, especially when you pair it with the relative difficulty of dealing with the controls, is the way the save system works out. Over time you’ll be able to power Dandara up with new abilities, much like in any Metroidvania. On top of that you’ll be able to choose your upgrades that will boost health, your energy reserves for specials, or the potency of the effects of consuming the orbs you’ll find along the way. The problem is that the camps where you can save don’t come along often and it isn’t unusual to find yourself running low on health. This is where the challenge of combat, the disorienting nature of the movement and screen rotation, and the one-way sections in portions of the map converge to make your life a bit difficult. Unlocking new areas and making progress can be tricky enough at key points without throwing in sparse save points, the presence of that added dimension moves the needle of frustration a bit higher and it may be too much for more casual gamers.

The hook of Dandara is most certainly its unique control style and whether or not you can master and enjoy playing that way. For people craving something different and who want to be challenged it throws quite a lot at you that you’ve never seen before and it can be thrilling. For anyone expecting things to be more traditional and perhaps a bit casual-friendly unfortunately it likely won’t be a great match unless you’re willing to push yourself. I’d be very curious to see what would come out of a sequel and how its style could be refined further. The bones of greatness are very much there, but to enjoy it you’ll need to be willing to put up with some rough edges.

Score: 7.5

  • A distinct visual style
  • Movement and combat unlike anything you’ve played before
  • Unusual and challenging boss fights

  • If you lack patience you’re likely going to die… a lot
  • The save system pushes into aggravating territory in places
  • Navigation and map use can be challenging and disorienting, making it easy to lose track of where you need to go

Review: Mercenary Saga Chronicles [Nintendo Switch eShop]

While the Switch has quite a variety in its current software lineup the classic tactical RPG genre, popularized by the likes of Final Fantasy Tactics and some others, hasn’t yet made an appearance. Thankfully for fans of the genre Mercenary Saga Chronicles, a compilation of 3 games very much made in that vein for handhelds, has now come to Switch. While they’re all fairly similar to one another, thanks in part to updates made to the two original titles to make their systems in line with the third, for genre fans who need to scratch that tactical itch they’ll provide many hours of content to work with.

Seeing the field of battle in a grid you’ll work to move your units into place to make effective use of your attacks and skills to take out your enemies. Taking into account factors like your character’s elevation, distance, and buffs you’ll need to have a strategy as the campaigns progress to ensure your success. Leveling up will afford you opportunities to customize your characters’ skills and past Level 10 you’ll even be able change their class to help vary things further. In general terms this is true for all three games, though thankfully some of the options do vary to keep them from being completely redundant.

While all 3 have a certain degree of polish keep in mind that you’ll be playing each game in quick succession while on their original releases there would have been a degree of distance between them. Played together they’re pretty difficult to differentiate from one another visually, in terms of gameplay, and even for the most part in terms of the story. This reinforces a feeling that they’re all a bit generic but again this is also the first time they’ve all been in a collection and played in quick succession so this can somewhat be forgiven.

Especially if you’ve dabbled in the likes of Kingdom Battle or other mode modern tactical games it is worth noting this is a bit more old school and lacking some conveniences. The pace is far more plodding and deliberate, with turns and options being driven far more by menus and use of the interface. In particular features like being able to see your attack range as you plot your movement or even assists showing what attacks you’ll be able to make as you consider your position very much aren’t present. The play is more reminiscent of a previous time so just keep that in mind as you consider a purchase.

While I wouldn’t say there’s anything truly remarkable about this collection for genre fans I’d also say it is also not a bad collective investment. If you’re unfamiliar with the series and have been wanting to recapture some of that classic genre feel it is sure to give you hours of content to help satiate yourself. If you’re not a genre fan, or have only been a recent fan of modern tactical games, it would seem to be a bit of a risk as it could deliver a substantial amount of content you could find tedious. Mercenary Saga Chronicles is a throwback to tactical RPGs of the previous era, for good and bad, and for its price it does a fair job of delivering, even if it is a tad generic.

Score: 6.5

  • In terms of classic tactical RPG action it’s the only game in town
  • Loads of content spanning what originally were 3 distinct handheld titles
  • A budget price

  • All 3 titles end up feeling very much the same
  • Lacking in more modern conveniences in tactical games
  • Nothing here likely to appeal to anyone who isn’t already a genre fan

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Review: Aegis Defenders [Nintendo Switch eShop]

One of the greatest things about the indie game movement is that it results in new experiments, combinations of game genres you’ve never seen before. Puzzle platforming is a well-know style dating back to classics like The Lost Vikings and Trine (and further if you’re old like me), demanding that people make smart use of multiple characters and their varied skills to help one another advance through the journey. In a very different space there’s the tower defense genre, requiring you to apply strategy and intelligent use of resources to keep advancing forces from making it through to whatever it is you’re charged to protect. Aegis Defenders is a title that has taken on the task of melding these two genres together, and it does so effectively by matching it with a reasonably good story including some entertaining characters and dialogue.

The first component of the game is the puzzle platforming, and I’d say this is probably the part of the game I enjoyed the most. While you only begin with two characters, as the game progresses you’ll eventually be managing four. Each member of your team has their own attack style, ability, and items they’re able to construct when they have the proper materials. In the platforming segments you’ll most commonly be using your attacks and abilities to fight a menagerie of beasts and activate switches, but there are also elements you’ll need to contend with like doorways only a specific character can go through. As you go you’ll want to be on the lookout for the 4 relics that are hidden on every level, the bonus you’ll be awarded as you complete each stage is typically worth your while on top of it satisfying the completionist in you.

The second element of every stage is the tower defense portion. While I did enjoy these phases and they were sometimes challenging I also found that since I was always sure to try to find everything, get all bonuses, and then make my upgrades to my equipment strategically as the game went on I typically was able to breeze through them. Nonetheless, dominating this portion of the level does take effective planning and as the levels wear on they try to consistently throw in elements to make you work for it. My recommendation wouldn’t be to spread your upgrades out and to instead focus on a few very specific elements you can exploit together to cover your bases since you only have so many resources you can build with anyway.

Aside from a few quibbles with the varying difficulty from stage to stage I can’t say that I have many criticisms. The amount of work invested in trying to make the characters and story feel relevant is evident but for the most part it is a bit boilerplate. That said, I did like some of the dialogue choices you’re presented with over the course of the game… but I found it unusual that you were given points for which response you chose. At the end of the day I’m not sure a few points here and there made much difference but by making the choice to give your responses values it does prompt a small question of why?

All things considered I found Aegis Defenders to be a refreshing combination of a genre I typically enjoy and one that I’m normally not a fan of. Putting them together, doing a fairly good job with both, and then blending them in a way that matches up with the story really makes the game unique and special. The highlight is absolutely some of the clever and inventive puzzle platforming sections that will make you fully exploit every ability your characters have to complete them. It all comes together to make for an engaging and entertaining title that works brilliantly on the Switch.

Score: 8.5

  • Some outstanding puzzle platforming sections
  • Choosing your own upgrades lets you define your style
  • There’s a fair amount of humor that keeps things fun
  • Works well as single-player, even more fun and effective with a friend!

  • Until you get your third character, roughly half way through the game, it doesn’t fully hit its stride
  • Once you get on top of the tower defense elements you can generally dominate
  • Despite the investment in the story it is still pretty generic

Review: Aperion Cyberstorm [Nintendo Switch eShop]

Let’s face it, among the genres on the Switch that are the most and best represented, the shooter genre is at or near the top of the list. Even specifying twin-stick shooters there are some excellent and varied games for you to choose from. Adding to this checklist is Aperion Cyberstorm, a pretty straight-forward shooter where you’ll face scores of enemies in a ship of your choosing. How does it stack up?

Most likely you’ll begin your journey in the game in the Campaign mode, where over the course of your travels through hosts of levels and enemies you’ll slowly find new ships and power-ups that you can work with. There’s a story going along with this, though honestly once it started to lose me early on I never paid it much attention from that point on. Essentially in this mode you’ll make your way through a variety of pretty claustrophobic levels to face waves of enemy ships that will progressively get more challenging. As you go you’ll run into new ships, collect crystals that serve as currency, unlock various upgrades you can choose for your ship, and then select which ones you want to invest in to suit your style of play. While this mode may be fair for less experienced shooter fans veterans are likely to find it quite bland.

Where things get a bit more fun and interesting are in the multiplayer versus modes and the more traditional Onslaught mode. If you’ve got some friends to play with (up to 4, yes, it supports 5-players) the multiple mode variants in Versus can likely add to longevity, with 9 options to choose from you can probably lock in on a few that work for you. If you’re more of a classic arcade fan the Onslaught mode is where you’ll likely want to spend your time, loading up one of 16 maps and then having your pick of any of the game’s ships and power-ups to play with. Most of these stages need to be unlocked by showing your skills, you earn a star for every 5 levels you complete, and some stages even add environmental hazards to the mix to up the challenge. This mode provides a nice skill test that scales up pretty quickly with a lot of enemies and power-ups to cycle through, helping to scratch the itch veterans may get from the slower pace of the Campaign.

The primary flaw with Cyberstorm is that for the most part everything feels a bit generic. There’s a fair variety of enemy types you’ll need to keep track of, including shielding drones, ships that will repair others, and multi-stage variations, but I wouldn’t say any of it was a surprise or a revolution. The ship variations are nice, and the options for power-ups provide room for variety, but again put up against many of the shooters already available on the console it doesn’t do much to help it stand out from the pack. One thing worth noting, depending on how you prefer to play, is that due to the scaling and pretty dark look of the game handheld mode can be problematic for pulling out details when there’s even moderate ambient light. It can be done but there can be struggles seeing enemy fire and crystals that you want to collect in particular.

Overall there’s nothing outright wrong with Aperion Cyberstorm but it also isn’t terribly inspiring, despite the obvious effort put into the game’s multiple modes. It is a serviceable shooter and can provide a fair test of your ability, but for veterans looking to be challenged there are better options available on the console. If you have friends you’d like to play with and against the game’s value rises a bit, though again depending on your collective tastes and experience it may not provide much longevity. However, if you’re a bit more of a novice when it comes to twin-stick shooters and are looking for an opportunity to progressively learn the ropes of the genre it may be a great fit.

Score: 6.5

  • The Campaign mode is a very friendly introduction to the twin-stick shooter genre, slowly ramping up in complexity and options
  • If you’re looking to play with friends all modes can be played cooperatively and the added 9 variants in Versus mode provide many options
  • Veterans will find a fair challenge by hitting Onslaught mode, especially with some of the unlocked stages

  • The Switch is deep with excellent challenging twin-stick shooters that leave Cyberstorm behind for genre veterans
  • Handheld mode can have scaling and general visibility issues due to the dark art and color scheme
  • Despite its customization options and attempts at variety it mostly feels generic

Review: Atomik - Run-Gun-Jump-Gun

There is something to be said for games that aren’t terribly expensive, take a relatively simple idea, and run with it. That’s very much the case for the very literally-named Atomik: RunGunJumpGun, that involves little more than the things described in its name. That it isn’t terribly complex hardly means that it isn’t worth checking out though, for people looking for a new tough-as-nails fix it may be just what you’re looking for.

In Atomik the name of the game is survival, and your only tool in your quest to do so is your pretty impressively big and powerful gun. It’s so big, in fact, that when you fire it at the ground it propels you into the air. That mechanic sets the stage for all of the game’s action, which amounts to a delicate balance of shooting obstacles and traps that would kill you and keeping yourself aloft to avoid even more obstacles and traps. The end result is perhaps a little reminiscent of Flappy Bird at a basic level, demanding that you carefully feather your propulsion to avoid things below you without knocking yourself into the ones that are above, but adding a huge gun to the mix.

In order to tease and tempt you there are also spheres of Atomik energy that you’ll want to collect in order to unlock additional worlds to challenge yourself further. I wouldn’t recommend trying to get them all since they aren’t necessary, but it is satisfying to at least pick up a number of them as you blow through. In addition on many of the more complicated levels the spheres tend to help point out what your optimum route would be to stay alive. Between the many deaths that tend to accompany each stage, especially as you get rolling, the game throws in some levity in the form of various talking heads that will have something to say to you or about you and your exploits. Some of these actually made me laugh as they are just so unusual but when mixed in with the game’s action I suppose that adds to its quirky charm.

All said Atomik isn’t a very complicated game, it simply sets the stage for its mechanics and then explores them to their fullest. For it being so simple an idea on paper it is actually remarkable how much is done with it, and in general on each world new wrinkles and variations are added to the mix to differentiate them. Depending on how many spheres you’re determined to collect you can essentially control the difficulty yourself and if you find you’re in need of more spheres you can always choose to go back for more later. Set up very well for quick pick up and play game sessions it’s a great fit for the Switch.

Score: 7.5

  • Well suited to quick and bite-sized play on the go
  • Difficulty is somewhat optional and tied to how many spheres you’re determined to collect
  • Even though the concept is simple it gets a surprising amount of longevity and variety out of it through creative level design
  • Budget price

  • The controls can be a bit touchy as you try to feather your thrust
  • If you don’t enjoy or buy into the core mechanic there’s no hope
  • It’s designed to be inherently challenging so a poor match for more casual gamers

Review: Earth Wars [Nintendo Switch eShop]

Sometimes there are games that aren’t terribly complex but due to their price and the basic quality of their gameplay hook manage to make a positive impression. Essentially benefitting from the low expectations tied to the budget price, impressive graphics and some reasonably good gameplay can carry the day. A great example of this effect is the action brawler Earth Wars, a budget title that can be a little tough to understand at times but nonetheless delivers some good fun and looks great.

While there’s a story involving an alien attack that has decimated the world’s population it’s really just trappings for the action. The basics you need to know begin with the fact that you’ll have a melee weapon, typically a variant of a sword, which serves as your primary weapon. This has you slashing through enemies, juggling them in the air, and completing various combos. Your secondary weapon will be a gun of some sort and typically you’ll use it for wearing down enemy health or sometimes keeping them in the air if you get the timing right. While it can get a bit repetitive for the generic enemy types you’ll run into if you’re not careful you can still get overwhelmed. Where the mastery of the controls will be more essential is when you face the pretty nasty bosses every once in a while.

As you progress through your missions, or even if you can’t manage to complete them, you’ll accumulate experience and materials. These will allow you to craft or enhance your weapons as well as supplement your skills. In terms of the weapon and equipment upgrade system it’s not too hard to figure out how things work and with a little experimentation in the menus you’ll be able to make some more formidable weapons once you get the right parts. Of particular interest will be special parts that will allow you to add elemental attributes for some extra oomph. As for the skill system, while you’ll eventually be able to make some use of it I’m still not 100% sure what all of it is doing. You can link your skills to enhance them but precisely what you’re doing and how things work with the links is still a bit up in the air for me. I think I’ve set myself up for success but it’s difficult to confirm that and in general I have more skill points available to me than I can use so it’s an odd system.

As I mentioned up front the game can absolutely be a bit repetitive from the enemies to the level layouts but for the most part I’ve also found the action pretty compelling. Some tactics are absolutely more effective than others and if you’re not careful you’ll still get taken down, especially by the formidable bosses. Well beyond even the challenge of the bosses are elite enemies you’ll encounter that, as far as I can tell, I’m still unable to take down even though I’ve completed numerous levels beyond them. There’s simply not a great deal of explanation around some elements of the game so when in doubt you learn to simply keep rolling and hope you can complete the objectives anyway. In truth that normally does work so I assume you’ll just get back to them later. In general that rule applies as you run into problems, just keep grinding and it will all work out.

While Earth Wars isn’t a high concept title the level of quality it manages at its price point still makes it well worth checking out. If you don’t mind grinding away a bit to improve your gear to then take on some slightly tougher enemies and slowly make your way through missions and bosses it can be pretty satisfying. As long as you keep your expectation in check and fair it’s a pretty decent game to kill some time with in handheld mode while doing something else, and I can generally get behind that.

Score: 7.5

  • While a bit repetitive and grindy at times it does slowly introduce new enemies and locations
  • It has some challenging boss fights for you to work through
  • The weapon and gear upgrades you can get are pretty cool and can be fun
  • A budget price

  • The skill upgrades are a bit baffling
  • Elite enemies aren’t well explained
  • When in doubt: grind does work but can also wear thin after a while

Review: Black Hole [Nintendo Switch eShop]

In terms of nostalgia the iconic Asteroids stands out as one of the more memorable early arcade titles, mixing shooter action with an essential element of strategy. Surprisingly, while there have been some titles that over time that have worked to include the essence of this classic in their design they’ve been few and far between. Black Hole comes to the Switch with elements of that classic serving as a base, but then layers on 4 distinctive worlds (each with a challenging boss), a variety of tough enemies, and a choice of 3 ships that play quite differently and that you get to choose your customization path for as you go.

While things tend to start out pretty easily on each run don’t let the game fool you, in order to get through all 40 of its levels you’ll end up needing to play with smarts and efficiency. Shooting chunks of asteroids should be done systematically, just as always, being sure to try to manage the amount of debris on your screen. Waves of enemies always arrive after a quick on-screen warning and though you’ll often be tempted to stay to the screen’s periphery (less traffic) incoming enemy waves can make these areas more dangerous so you’ll want to stay alert. Even if you can manage to stay alive through the many waves of enemies and obstacles you should always be focused on avoiding being hit in order to maintain your multiplier. Aside from the fact that this will obviously improve your score on the global leaderboards you’ll also earn extra ships as you increase your score and if you want to get deep into the game you’re probably going to want as many in reserve as you can manage.

To assist you in staying alive you’ll want to gather crystals that will appear as you destroy things on screen. White and yellow are used as currency, green will restore health, blue will give you a temporary shield, and purple will put you into overdrive mode for a short burst, helping you put a serious hurt on anything in your vicinity. A small but significantly helpful feature is that crystals will have a mild attraction to your ship. This is pretty vital as beyond the first world you won’t want to fly right into the space of asteroids you’ve destroyed. Between levels you’ll then be able to manage your upgrade path, choosing between boosting your primary and secondary weapons, or opting for increasing your ship’s health or speed. Your final option, Hypercharge, is certainly powerful and effective but you need to use it wisely and I tended to save it more for the late game due to its high cost.

In terms of issues I don’t have many concerns or complaints but it would be fair to say that, overall, it’s not as flashy visually as some of the top-tier indie shooters on the system. In handheld mode I didn’t notice it as much but in docked mode there are just some oddities visually with how things will move and change at times. Getting through to the end of the game is a pretty significant feat on Normal, and it will require your full concentration, but the jump to Hard just feels a bit extreme by my impression. I would imagine beating the game on Hard would be reserved only for very dedicated and patient shooter fans.

Sporting an extremely reasonable price in the eShop arcade shooting fans of all skill levels can likely get some solid hours of enjoyment out of Black Hole. It doesn’t aspire to change the world or be a revelation, but it delivers a varied challenge that I enjoyed. Playing through with all 3 available ships proved to be worthwhile as they each had their own feel and I enjoyed trying out different upgrade paths to find what worked best for me. It’s a great riff and improvement on a classic formula at a fair price point.

Score: 8

  • 4 varied worlds, each including a challenging boss
  • 3 ships to choose from, each with their own feel
  • User-selected upgrade paths allow for further variety
  • Global leaderboards to encourage people to make their way through the 40 level gauntlet repeatedly

  • Not as flashy as some other titles already on the system
  • Hard mode may be a bit too tough a jump from Normal

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Interview with Josef Wiesner on Old Man's Journey

Recently announced for the Nintendo Switch, Old Man’s Journey is a critically-acclaimed puzzle adventure that aims to tell an emotionally-powerful story through gorgeous hand-drawn art style. I was able to get some time with the producer in charge of the port of the game for Switch, Josef Wiesner to discuss the upcoming release.

As always we'll start with the basics, what would you say is the "elevator pitch" for Old Man's Journey?

JW: Old Man’s Journey is a soul-searching puzzle adventure which takes place in gorgeously whimsical landscapes, all of them in hand-drawn art. It is a deeply emotional game where you play an old man who recaps his decisions, losses and hopes in life. Old Man’s Journey is a visual narrative about life’s precious moments, broken dreams, and changed plans.

Any harm in sharing what it is in the letter that appears to set the main character's journey?

JW: The letter has a very important message for the old man. A rather consequential one that let’s him give up his reclusiveness. The more you play the game the more you will get to know what the content of the letter might be.

Looking over the trailer it seems to be pointing to there being many memories, some looking quite powerful, that are hit upon along the way. What range of emotions do these memories prompt? I'm assuming it is a mix of both good and bad?

JW: You are assuming right. Our game and the journey in it tries to capture the whole range of human emotions. Happiness, joy, hope but also sadness, loneliness and regret. We think that in games some feelings are often neglected or left out. But they are part of the human emotional landscape and are important too. We wanted to emphasise on them as much as on the positive ones.

Moving away from the exceptional art style and the aspects of the story how would you characterize the general gameplay itself?

JW: Old Man’s Journey is a light-hearted puzzle adventure game. There is this core mechanic of shaping the environment which feels somehow like playing around in a sandbox. It is very playful and satisfactory in itself.

It's pretty impressive how many awards the game has been given. Which aspects of the game would you say are most commonly cited?

JW: Definitely the art-style is the part of the game it is most credited for. Everything in-game is hand-drawn. That approach shines through and gives the game its distinct visual flavour that people seem to appreciate.

Looking over your back catalog a strong artistic style seems to be a common thread. Is that part of your studio's central philosophy?

JW: A strong artistic style is definitely important to us. But I think there are more important things in our games and the art-style just builds on that and tries to amplify what we want to achieve. Like originality, simplicity, refined game mechanics and rich interactivity.

If Old Man's Journey finds success on Switch what are the odds of your other critically-acclaimed title, Secrets of Raetikon, coming over?

JW: That is a topic that comes up in regular intervals at the studio. We are really proud of our back catalogue and it would be great to bring some of them over on current-gen systems. But there are factors that make it quite difficult to to so. First and foremost there are technical issues because the engines we used for And Yet It Moves, Chasing Aurora and Secrets of Rætikon don’t support current platforms, which makes it very costly to port them over. But there are also other factors that make it a questionable endeavour and we always came to the decision to rather focus on the task at hand.

But we often think about our old game and who knows? Maybe it will happen sometime. We would love to.

I'm a bit intrigued by what I assume is your dabbling in the VR realm with CHESTO. What was your takeaway on that style? Given the motion controls of the Switch is this something that could potentially get ported?

JW: Actually CHESTO - At the Checkout is not a VR experience. We thought about bringing it to VR but then we’ve sticked to traditional gaming systems. It is available on MAC, Linux and Windows. Chesto is one of our more experimental stuff, our first #altgame. Felix developed it together with Josef Who?, one of our studio alumni who has been accompanying Broken Rules since the studio's founding times. He is also working as the producer for Old Man’s Journey  on the Nintendo Switch. But the Switch is still lacking #altgames so maybe we should try and start a trend? :)

Having worked with a Nintendo system before with the Wii U what would you say has changed from that platform to the Switch in terms of both Nintendo's general and software support?

JW: Generally I’d wager that it has never been easier to develop for a Nintendo platform. Their current hybrid console is a joy to work with, the tools are better than they have ever been and Nintendo has shown themselves as supportive and responsive. We are long standing fans of their consoles and had an overall good working experience with them ever since our debut game And Yet It Moves came to WiiWare in 2010. Right now Nintendo Switch is becoming the platform for indie games and we hope this trend will continue. It seems to be the perfect home for our old man and maybe even for our future games - who knows?

Now that you're a few successful titles in what is your overall view of the indie developer ecosystem across the board? Do you think among the platforms Nintendo is making a greater effort to appeal to indies?

JW: Nintendo is offering an ecosystem that is quite sustainable for indies right now. But it is hard to compare the various ecosystems because each of them has different audiences, user experiences and expectations. The difficulty they all share is to get visibility with a good store placement. Curation, featuring and visibility is more key than ever.

Just because it seems like a cool idea and I've love to see it become "a thing" elsewhere what is zamSpielen?

JW: zamSpielen is an event series we’ve established in 2010 in Vienna together with Josef Who? and Matthias Menrath. It is hard to sum in just a few words because over the years it has transformed into quite a few things. The core idea of zamSpielen is to bring people together and use the medium “games” to establish social interactions in different forms among its guests. There are local multiplayer parties, club nights, gaming cafès, game cinema evenings and things like that. There is even a live gaming VJ-team called The Game Boys that has performed in clubs in Vienna and Copenhagen. The events are always free of charge and donation based and we cater to people from all ages and types - often they aren’t normally into games that much. And so far, it has been really great! The visitors generally enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and the low access barrier. And we’re happy to see our point proven every time: games really do have the power to bring people together!

What's next on the agenda for Broken Rules?

JW: Oh, it will be an interesting year. Right now, most of our energy is focused on bringing the best version of Old Man’s Journey to Nintendo Switch and updating it on the other platforms. We will be traveling a bit more this year and also relocating to another office space, which both eats up some of or otherwise working time.

But we are always experimenting with new ideas for possible future titles. We’re sure one of them will come to fruition at some point, but right now we’re just as expectant as anyone else. :)

I want to thank Josef for taking the time to answer my questions. Old Man’s Journey will arrive on the Nintendo Switch eShop February 20th in most regions!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Review: Mercenary Kings [Nintendo Switch eShop]

While side-scrolling shooters were long an arcade and console staple, and for the most part the Switch is already generally a shooter fan’s delight, to this point there haven’t been a large number of them on the system. While at first blush Mercenary Kings looks like it will merely scratch that itch, though, it actually aspires to do quite a lot more. What gets tricky is you’ll want to thoroughly understand what you’re getting into, because it’s a game that has some surprises up its sleeve but somewhat at the expense of peoples’ potential expectations.

Starting with the core gameplay it is important to understand that the game is less a fast and free Contra style and much more akin to something like Metal Slug in terms of the shooting, just without the power-ups on the fly. Kings is equal parts platfomer and shooter, and there’s no shooting diagonally. This results in a more stilted sort of play, where you’ll need to carefully position yourself and maneuver in order to make your shots. The reason I’m trying to explain this isn’t so much to be critical of it as to help provide clarity so there’s no misunderstanding. Rather than having a seat-of-your-pants arcade feel Kings’ style is far more deliberate, with you fulfilling your objectives in levels that are often a bit maze-like. In place of the power-ups you’ll be collecting materials that you can then use to upgrade your weapons piece by piece.

That leads into the big picture discussion of what’s going on with the game structurally outside of the missions, and where it has aspirations to being much more than just an arcade shooter. After you complete each level you’ll be going back to your base camp to regroup, upgrade your gear, and then choose your next assignment. Rather than dive into a set progression of levels you’ll have the opportunity to pick your battles, though truthfully you’ll likely want to consider pursuing them all in order to maximize your chances of getting access to the game’s more outlandish gear… which is where a lot of the game’s fun and charm show themselves. This provides your opportunity to try to tune the style of play to better suit you, though it does take some time to get to the point where you’ll really unlock the game’s possibilities. If we’re talking big picture you may also enjoy playing it with a friend, especially if you gear up in a way that lets you compliment each other. While matching up online is possible it is implemented in a pretty haphazard manner, where instead of looking for lobbies, letting you understand your choices of who you can play with, you’re just effectively making yourself available and crossing your fingers that you’re paired up well.

Where the warning signs begin to crop up is that Mercenary Kings demands that you make an investment of time and effort, with a fair amount of grinding, before it will really get rolling. What inevitably comes with the grinding is a fair amount of repetition of general chunks of levels and enemies, and I won’t lie it can wear on you at times. A little more frustrating, though, is how quickly and commonly enemies will respawn. With the degree of backtracking you’ll often need to do to meet your objectives, as you wind through the map, the respawns can already be aggravating. Worse, you’ll find that if you have to backtrack a little in order to take something out there’s a fair chance another will be waiting for you again when you get back to where you were going. Finally, managing your items and healing just works out a bit clunky and can lead to seemingly unnecessary deaths.

While Mercenary Kings admirably takes some risks to try and create a different kind of experience, and blend together the traditional with the more contemporary, unfortunately the result is a bit muddled. The good news is that for people searching for something different in their shooters, and who are willing to invest the time to get things going, the further you get into the game the more fun it gets to be. If, however, you’re looking for a quick fix of any kind or thirst for an arcade-like experience you’ll be sorely disappointed. If you’re interested in it be sure to read up and look around to be sure it will suit you.

Score: 7

  • If you’re looking for something to play over the long haul, Mercenary Kings is more likely to suit you
  • Weapon customization can be a lot of fun and is central to what makes the game special
  • The game is visually brilliant

  • In particular in the early game the grind is very real
  • Enemy respawns can be an annoyance in places
  • A poor match for people seeking an arcade-like shooter experience

Monday, February 5, 2018

Review: Night in the Woods [Nintendo Switch eShop]

There’s something both scary and fascinating about games that break away from the norm to deliver something you can more directly relate to. To some games should just be entertainment and having them get “too real” can be a red flag, but the reward of sticking with these sorts of experiences is that they can be instructive about the struggles real people face or can even reveal insight for people who are living with similar challenges. While its gameplay that is a bit all over the map, including elements of adventure, a variety of mini-games, and some light platforming, the real meat of Night in the Woods is its spot-on portrayal of the struggles of a young adult, depression, and life in a small town.

In the game you’ll play as Mae, who has returned home to her small town of Possum Springs after deciding to drop out of college. In the early game as you walk the town and talk to the various people you run into the mystery of why she dropped out of college is joined by questions about Mae’s past and some serious incidents as well. As you interact with your parents and friends it is clear Mae has some issues with how she sees herself and a tendency towards self-destructive behavior but at the same time I found it hard not to be rooting for her and wanting to understand her better.

For the most part the times that are the most revealing in terms of understanding Mae are in her interactions with her best friends Bea and Gregg. Once the game gets rolling you’ll need to choose who to hang out with, the hyper-responsible Bea or the walking manifestation of the id, Gregg. The time that you spend with them, whether “fixing” an old lady’s furnace or getting into a knife fight mini game, tends to be very revealing about both Mae’s friends and herself. Bea, with a bit of a chip on her shoulder, who Mae aggravates with her immaturity but who also could use some of that wonder in her life; Gregg, who seems to understand his own self-destructive nature but who also can’t seem to help himself. The mix of these key flawed characters, their very authentic interactions with one another, and the whole tone of the somewhat depressed and changing landscape of the town Mae grew up in all served to suck me in to see where it all goes and where things end up.

In terms of raw gameplay Night in the Woods is a bit of a mixed bag but truthfully isn’t the focus. There are some strange and fun distractions along the way, often with mini games to play, my favorites being Mae’s copy of Demontower on her laptop (Level 5 is freaking HARD) and stealing pretzels to feed my rat babies. I would guess that the story would likely progress without seeking out what’s happening in every corner and with every person but I was afraid of what I might miss and taking the time to find new areas and talk to the same people every day is often what made the game so rich. Even the limited things the two guys who are perpetually outside the bar, over time, told their own sort of inferred story and, for me living around a small town, there is a degree of reality to it all I really appreciated.

I think the decision point with a game like Night in the Woods revolves around how much reality you want in your games. If you’re looking purely for an escape, to turn your mind off and simply enjoy yourself, Night in the Woods very much won’t be for you… at all. If, instead, you view games through the lens of entertainment that can also have something to say or to reveal to you about people who may be living very different lives than you I would absolutely say you should check it out. I don’t know that I’ve ever played a game with characters that remind me so much of my own children, some of their struggles, and how sometimes people’s traits being positives or negatives can be very heavily driven by perspective and context. I can’t think of any game I’ve played in quite some time that made me reflect on as many things as Night in the Woods has, and if you’re open to the experience I’d highly recommend it.

Score: 8.5

  • Fascinatingly flawed characters
  • An all-too-real reflection of life with depression
  • Character interactions feel very authentic in a way I’ve rarely seen in a game

  • If you’re looking to escape reality it is very much not that sort of experience
  • Some of the platforming elements, at times, can be aggravating